This is Ana. She is twenty years old and the mother of a cherubic and stoic three-year old son. Ana is slender and beautiful and her child makes your heart skip a beat when you glide into his liquid brown eyes and allow yourself to envision a life of promise for him.
Loving Ana in Guatemala is interesting and thought-provoking.
Here is the thing: Ana is really hard to love. This scrappy mother is as hardened as an abandoned knife found in a junkyard corner. She keeps her feelings close and her words closer. Interviewing Ana for admission into FFF was a painstaking process of finding the space between the words, and seeking the message she came to tell us. Telling her story to strange white people who hadn’t earned the right to hear it was not in her comfort zone. But she was hungry, as was her child and the two elderly grandparents under her care. And like all of our Finding Freedom participants, Ana had no resources for assistance. Social services don’t exist in the village where this young mother lives, and the man she thought would help her negotiate life has long since vaporized into the nearby Guatemalan mountains.
Ana sat in our line of potential applicants this past October and did what she disliked most: she shared her story in the hopes that she was poor and malnourished enough to qualify for food assistance from FFF. This young mother didn’t know the mathematical statistics for her country…. 47 percent of children under age of five in Guatemala have physical stunting due to malnutrition (USAID article), but she did know that she and her child were chronically hungry.
There isn’t anything extraordinary to the life history of this young mother. Abandoned by her own mother, she was left to live with her grandparents and quickly went from being cared for, to being a caretaker. Ana washes clothing and weaves traditional fabrics, which earns her twenty-five dollars a week. Food to feed her invalid grandmother and her child cost her, were she to have it, much more than she earns. A life of generational poverty left her illiterate which severely limits her income earning potential.
Steely and emotionally withdrawn women are not native to Guatemala. Samena, a participant in our Egyptian program is the middle eastern equivalent of Ana. Samena was adept at being feisty and combative. She had three young children and limited resources and learning how to fight her way out of misery was something she knew well.
I could evoke many spiritual quotes about how we are to love the unlovable; how we should challenge ourselves to stand in the shoes of those we find difficult to bear. But it is more personal than that for our FFF board members. None of us came into this organization free from what has challenged us, diminished us and made us wish for things to be other than they are. Which is exactly why we stand in this space with our FFF widows… because feeling guarded and scared is familiar. We know how to circle our wagons around feelings that threaten to extinguish us, and we recognize this tendency in the widows we serve.
How many months of food deliveries and social assistance will it take for Ana to soften her sharp edges? Finding Freedom has seen it take at least six months, if not longer. It didn’t happen on the first food donation or the second. Trust and security come slowly in the deep recesses of the Central American mountains.
Here is what we know: the widows who are hardest to warm up to are often the most successful when it comes to the requirements of being in our program. Single mothers who have had to scratch out an existence know how to create a haven for themselves when given a piece of land and a safe home to reside in. They guard their gifts from Finding Freedom with a careful and steady eye on a fragment of a potential future that looks better than it ever had before. With each of our monthly visits, more history emerges and the dark corners of a life lived in fear start to soften.
Ana may never be our poster child of a sweet Mayan mama, and that is fine. We will settle for knowing that someday she will trust us enough to realize that we cared enough to give her the tools to be the best possible mother she could be. Breaking the cycle of illiteracy and poverty is our goal for all of our participants. An occasional smile is just an added bonus.