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Commentary: Bearing Witness to Our Central and South American Brothers & Sisters

Courtesy of Gloria Delany-Barmann
The photo from many years ago.

I have built my adult life and my career around the privilege of crossing borders to live, work, and explore.  On various travels to Central and South America, many people have opened their homes and treated me as a friend, a daughter, or sister. These experiences have shaped me in ways that I am still discovering today.

In our first few years of marriage, my husband Christopher and I joined the Peace Corps in Guatemala. The Peace Corps was placing volunteers in parts of the country that were considered safe from the ongoing civil war there. We worked as crop extensionists in Santa Clara la Laguna, a small indigenous village in the highlands surrounded by volcanoes, coffee, and corn.  The weavers in Santa Clara and its surrounding communities created some of the most beautiful and colorful textiles in the world. We lived and worked in Guatemala for over two years and grew close to many of the people there. These were people who often didn’t have enough cash to buy weekly staples at the market, but who always seemed to have enough to share with us. They looked out for us and always welcomed us into their homes.

I recall one day when our friends Pablo and Lucía invited us to their adobe home to celebrate the first harvest of corn. As we sat in their kitchen next to the wood stove, Lucía patted the blue and yellow corn into tortillas. She shaped some of them into stars and placed them in the basket in a hand woven cloth. Their four small children gobbled up the tortillas and drank atole (a drink made from corn) while the adults conversed in a mixture of 3 languages.

The families with whom we worked would regularly give us an egg, an avocado, or some other token of appreciation for our work. These were precious resources that could have gone to others.

A few years ago, Pablo and Lucia’s youngest daughter, who we had never met, contacted me through social media. She sent me a picture that was taken years ago in Guatemala and asked if that was me in the photo. She said her dad had been trying to locate us for about 20 years. She signed her message to me as “Gloria.” This was how I came to know that Pablo and Lucía named their daughter after me the year after we left Guatemala.

Two weeks ago I received a note on Messenger from Gloria’s sister, Alexandra. She told me Lucía, her mother and our dear friend, had been brutally murdered in Guatemala last November. On the threat of death, Alexandra and her family fled Guatemala. Now in the United States, with a GPS tracking device on her ankle, Alexandra and her family await a hearing regarding their status. They are uncertain about their future, but they are together and safe.

The privilege to travel, form bonds across cultures, work, and raise children seems basic, yet we know it’s not the case for hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Chicago author Luis Alberto Urrea wrote, “The concept of a literature of witness - of bearing witness - has embedded in it the need for action. One must not simply hide in the shadows and type; one must also stand in the light.”

It is in this spirit that I share this story. To bear witness to our Central and South American brothers and sisters have who opened their homes to me, my family, and to many others, and in their time of need, are asking us to do the same.

As Alexandra and many thousands of others embrace an uncertain future in an unknown country, I wish for them a profound sense of safety, the dignity to move freely, and the ability to work and raise their children in an environment where they will flourish.

Gloria Delany-Barmann is a Professor of Bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) Education at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.