Seated around a table filled three times a day with handmade tortillas, fried plantains, pancakes, freshly-squeezed juices, salsa, cauliflower, eggs and always some types of beans, Noemi Guiterrez, our hostess for the week, kept telling us we’re changing the world: our SPDance team.
I wondered if she was right.
After speeding down twisting mountain roads for three hours, heading from Xela to the Guatemala City airport, then to Mexico City and to New York City, where I’d wait overnight to switch planes in Boston before arriving in Cleveland 30 hours later, I unpacked my suitcase. Then I packed it again, along with everything else my family owns, as we moved into our first home — a sickening amount of belongings stacked in box after box.
Inside a local drug store the weight of more stuff to acquire crushed me. There were Christmas decorations in every isle.
“Maybe I do need snow globes and Nightmare Before Christmas figurines,” I thought, as I walked away from shelves packed full, all the way up to the ceiling.
I thought about the kids we worked with in Guatemala, and how old and worn their toys looked. A toddler my son’s age happily playing with a plastic pig that looked like it had gotten stuck in a garbage disposal. Another little boy cheerfully answering his cracked play phone: “Hola!”
At Hogar Temporal, the girls’ shelter we volunteered at, there was one girl who sat next to me every day while the dancers taught simple chorography, led warm-up and confidence-building exercises, and ran around with the girls, playing. They were like kids for those moments, the abusive or difficult situations they’d been removed from visible on their faces every time their smiles faded.
This girl just wanted to be near me for whatever reason, so I did my best to put out a calm and welcoming vibe. My Spanish is terrible, so we could barely speak, but she didn’t want to talk anyway.
The last day at the shelter, after the girls performed some songs and dances they’d prepared, and the dancers performed SPD dances Suzzanne wrote, as well as their own solos, we all held each other and cried.
I leaned against a stone pillar, sitting on the ground with my new friend I can’t name for her own safety. She fiddled with my tiny diamond wedding band, barely sparkling in the light peeking through the edges of the plastic ceiling overhead. Slowly spinning it on my finger, she seemed lost in thought for a while before looking up at me. Our eyes met, and she buried her head in my chest and curled up in my lap. We were both crying a little, neither of us sobbing.
She reached for my hand again and looked at me, focused. I realized she wasn’t looking at my ring anymore; she was examining my hands, memorizing every crack and wrinkle.
I’ll never forget her, or that feeling, or the looks on the faces of every other woman in our group — like what we were doing was important. Like what little time we could spend with these kids and young women was making a difference. That we could make the world a better place. That we were.
We said our goodbyes as the girls lined up for lunch, walked through huge black doors that locked behind us, signed out and walked back home, our hearts heavy with sadness and gratitude.
“You made this happen!” Erika Langmeyer, a founding SPD dancer told Suzzanne, the two suddenly hugging and sobbing on the street before turning to laughter and quick jokes lifting some of the weight off the moment.
Almost every time I looked at Suzzy the entire trip, I thought the same thing — how proud I was not only of her as a cousin, but as a woman and artist.
“We will go back!” she told the group.
We’ve all agreed, reflecting on our experience, that our hearts are full and that we are more connected to our goals, our true selves and the world around us.
One of our last afternoons in Xela, we walked up a dirt road near Caras Alegres — the afterschool program where I watched the dancers transform a wild pit of children we pulled out from under desks and floor mats; and down from chairs and what seemed like the ceiling; into willing, joyful participants, hugging us every time we were leaving.
As we wandered their neighborhood, trying to get a clearer picture of what their lives are like, we saw some of the kids walking home.
A chicken walked by us. There were more chickens, roosters, goats, corn from nearby fields and kids’ jeans drying on roofs held in place with boulders. Mist rolled along the mountains higher up, where many in this neighborhood drag their tools each day to farm patches of land that resemble a quilt from a distance.
A little girl named Noemi, dressed in traditional garments peeked at us, smiling until we said “Hola.”
Another one of our students and his mom, dressed in typical office clothes and high heels, passed by.
Irma Oomen, who runs Caras Alegres with one other colleague, kept telling us how much the kids really do love to dance. It’s just not encouraged, or they don’t have the opportunities, she explained.
Before piling back into her van, and heading to our temporary homes, Irma pointed out a woman sitting in front of a small shop. She said a foreign philanthropist paid for her to go to college for four years.
To support a family here, it would cost about $40 per month, Irma estimated. This support would come with stipulations, like ensuring kids stay in school.
I got the feeling that any money coming in really was going toward helping people.
Irma’s passion and enthusiasm was refreshing and inspiring. I asked her endless questions as we drove past a woman walking a cow, locals relaxing before the sun set, and a food stand where a student waved at us, enthusiastically.
We waved back from the van, shouting, “Bye!” until the road straightened out and we could no longer see his smiling face.
To donate directly to Caras Alegres, please visit carasalegres.org. All donations go directly to families and kids in need.