From a guest blogger for the Whole Planet Foundation, Alex Crane.Maria Juracán is waiting for me outside her home. She waves as Manuel Mandoza and I walk down the steep dirt path to Peña Blanca, a farming community isolated by the mountainous topography of the Western Guatemalan Highlands. My legs are stiff and I’m walking clumsily; I’ve just ridden a motorcycle for the first time. And what a first! The road up from Panajachel to Peña Blanca is windy, narrow, and chaotic (buses tend to honk at blind corners rather than decrease in speed). I took to clenching my legs to the bike with all the strength I could muster. I smile and wave back, trying to contain my excitement; today brings another first: my first interview with a Grameen Guatemala borrower.On special assignment from my college, I’ve come to Guatemala on a mission: to hear the stories of Grameen Guatemala borrowers. In 2006, Whole Planet Foundation helped launch Grameen Guatemala, a microfinance organization that provides business loans to poor working women. Now, two years later, the organization has 9 branches and over 9,000 borrowers. These numbers are very impressive, but only say so much. What is the experience of Grameen Guatemala borrower? What impact has the organization had on borrowers’ lives? I’ve come to Guatemala to find out answers to these questions and Maria Juracán, who waits for me below, will be the first to share her story.At the bottom of the path, I reach out and grab hold of Maria’s extended hand. She wears a purple and yellow woven huipil (traditional Guatemalan shirt) and her cheeks are crinkled to make room for her beaming smile. We exchange greetings in Spanish tinged with foreign accents. Maria’s first language, like most of the Peña Blanca community, is Kakchiquel, one of 22 distinct indigenous languages spoken in the mountains surrounding the lake. I speak Spanish but not Kakchiquel, so Manuel, a Grameen Guatemala Field Assistant fluent in both languages, has agreed to be my interpreter.Maria leads me along the patio of her home to a back room and gestures for me to enter. I duck into the doorway. As my eyes adjust to the low light, I begin to make out figures in the shadows and realize, to my astonishment, that the room is filled with women. They wear identical purple and yellow huipiles (colors I later learn represent the Peña Blanca community, much as a flag represents a country), long braids hang down their backs, and many rock babies in their arms. Murmurs and giggles flutter about the room at my arrival; they have waited here to meet me.Manuel, who had been outside speaking on his cell phone, enters the room to tell me that he must go; he has urgent work to attend to and will come back to pick me up in an hour. Feeling a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of conducting my first interview with no one to mediate the Spanish/Kakchiquel language barrier, I calm myself, walk the room shaking hands, take a seat across from Maria and begin asking questions. At times we struggle to communicate and the room erupts in laughter but, in the end, we understand each other.I learn that, in Maria’s youth, Peña Blanca had no school. That she grew up in the home, weaving and cooking, and never learned to read or write. That she picked up Spanish from her brothers who ventured more frequently into neighboring communities and towns. With few skills, she was poorly prepared to cope with the reality of modern Guatemala.And yet, she persevered. Against the odds, Maria started a local store in Peña Blanca. Community-members came to rely on her for sugar, rice, oil and other products bought from the nearest town. Business was good until, in 2005, Hurricane Stan hit Lake Atitlan. Flash floods and mudslides ruined crops, destroyed homes and left thousands dead. For Maria, the hurricane meant the flooding of her store and the end of her family’s primary source of income. She desperately sought a loan to replace her damaged products, but no conventional bank would provide credit to an illiterate, non-Spanish-speaking client. Then, in 2006, Grameen Guatemala came to Peña Blanca offering loans to poor women.Now, three years and four loan cycles later, a crack in the store’s wall is the only evidence of Stan’s destruction. The shelves are brimming with goods, Maria’s monthly income has not only recovered but doubled, and she now weaves huipiles for sale as an added source of income. Elected president of her borrower group, she is responsible for bi-monthly meetings of 15 women (i.e. the women who came to meet me!).I snap some photographs of Maria and her three children in front of her store. As I look through the lens at this proud mother, I think of my own. A world apart, I know Maria and my mother share the same hopes; they both want food on the table and safe, healthy and happy children. They share the same hopes and yet, one was born into a world with many opportunities and resources and the other was not.I am struck by the influence Whole Planet Foundation and Grameen Guatemala has on this family. Rather than handouts, Grameen Guatemala provides Maria a tool with which to grow her business, serve her customers and provide for her children. Meanwhile, at the local school (only fully completed in 2000), Whole Foods Market Team Members, as part of the Team Member Volunteer Program, teach Maria’s children, helping to provide them with the education Maria was denied. With credit and education, Maria and her children have the resources to transform their own lives.Later that evening, I met a young man named David Cruz. Nineteen-years-old, like me, he sells thread-wrapped pens on the street to tourists so he can pay his way through his own education. He speaks five languages but can’t afford the tuition to attend the bi-lingual school. He told me he’s planning on heading to the U.S. soon to work construction and make some money. I let this sink in; construction-work in the U.S. is the ultimate ambition for a talented and highly motivated boy in Guatemala.I think about my own dreams and try to imagine what it would be like for me if they couldn’t be realized in my home country. I think about the cement wall that some believe is the solution to curbing Latin American immigration to the U.S and feel it wouldn’t do any good. We need to build bridges, not walls. Bridges to span the gaps in opportunity. Education bridges. Economic bridges. Community bridges. Bridges leading to the fulfillment of dreams. These bridges need not cross borders; they span cultures, communities, families, hearts and minds.Whole Planet Foundation is helping the Lake Atitlan community build bridges so David doesn’t have to cross borders to find work. As I walked away from Maria’s home, I felt I was crossing the bridge she had built for her family with hammers and nails from Grameen Guatemala.
Alex Crane supported the Whole Planet Foundation by compiling borrower profiles and contributing to the Foundation’s blog. He believes passionately in microcredit’s ability to transform lives, has a great love for Latin America and is fluent in Spanish. A native of San Francisco, Alex is a student at Bard College in New York.