She’s so tiny, barely reaching to my shoulder. Her clothes are worn and dirty, the colours
muted with age. Carrying a large bundle of woven textiles, she approaches every tourist that
passes. They brush her away. They look with disdain at this old woman, face worn by life. Her
feet are bare; her hands gnarly; fingernails dirty. She rests on the edge of the street, ignored,
passed over, alone.
I have seen this woman on every visit to Panajachel. She walks up and down the street trying to
sell something, anything so that she can eat that day. Painfully, she moves from block to block.
Tourists generally engage with the younger, pretty women enchanted by the bright colours of
their traditional clothing and their cheery chatter. They have no time for an elderly woman
with weariness in her eyes that speaks of struggle and loss. When I’ve witnessed anyone
buying from her, they tend to bargain hard making the most of her vulnerability. They do not
realize most of the time they are haggling over $1 or $2 dollars. Dollars that would make a
world of difference for a quota that must be met before she has money for food. They do not
The majority of indigenous families earn very little and struggle to put daily food on the table
for their children. They will help their elders if they can but too often, they have nothing to
give. There is no social safety net here. If you cannot work; you do not eat.
I too spent a couple of years passing by Manuela and not really seeing her. I too initially
recoiled from the dirty hand on my sleeve. As my association deepened with Fundación Familia
Maya and I matured from tourist to guest, I learned more about the difficult lives of many
indigenous in the highlands and especially about the destitution of the elderly. I’ve visited
homes and seen grubby, holey blankets on cement or dirt floors that constitutes the bed. If
they are fortunate, they may have a chair, perhaps a table. Cardboard boxes or plastic bins
hold what few possessions they have. There is no comfort here. I know what Manuela goes
home to - if she has a home.
One of my greatest pleasures on my first time as a volunteer was visiting an Elder Care Program
in San Jorge where sponsored elders meet 5 days a week. It provides the opportunity to
socialize, sometimes playing a game; sometimes doing a craft. Lively chatter fills the room as
they visit over a hot meal. They carefully package any leftovers to take home for this would
otherwise be their only meal for the day. They laugh; tease; and rejoice at community.
When I began to really see Manuela, I knew she would not have the advantage of such a
program unless she had a sponsor. It is, however, much easier to find someone to sponsor a
child or an animal than an elderly lady. I was already stretched sponsoring three students and
another senior. I could at best offer infrequent support and a referral to Fundamaya.
There are many elders like Manuela struggling to earn a little so that they can feed themselves.
More often than not, there is no work available or they are just not able to work. A
sponsorship of $51 per month Canadian will buy them food and let them know that someone
cares. It will also give them a connection with Fundamaya and the opportunity to seek other
forms of support to make their life much easier.
Lois B. Reimer
(Note: Manuela is an alias for privacy)