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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Costa Rica y Guatemala

With only one week spent in Costa Rica and one in Guatemala, it went by very quickly.

In Costa Rica we discovered what may be the best public health system in America -- the words "universality" and "solidarity" took precedence over all other considerations. Visiting a community of upper-middle class and wealthy residents and visiting another in a marginalized and impoverished area meant little difference in the health services offered. There was a uniformity in the quality and quantity of services medical teams whose purpose was to reach every home, whether made out of brick, metal, or cardboard, and whether they had to travel by bus, motorcycle, or horse, and they were the best organized and most efficient teams we had yet seen. Every community, no matter the average income of the residents or the amount of crime in the area, had a school and a health center, side by side, serving the people in an equitable manner across the nation.

Whether it is because Costa Rica never had a large indigenous population and therefore few problems with slavery and widespread discrimination, or because they abolished their army after the civil war in the 1940s, or because they have catered to US policy for the last 50 years, it was generelly a more safe, more peaceful, and more stable nation than the others we have seen on our trip.

Guatemala was very different. Centuries of blatant and violent oppression and repression, decades of brutal warfare, hundreds of displaced indigenous communities, and thousands of people who have "disappeared" over the decades make Guatemala`s social services incipient, to say the least. Guatemala is yet another vastly rich country with a fertile and beautiful land that has been exclusively owned by either the Spanish, the US (home of the infamous United Fruit Company), or the national economic elites, depending on the era--the rest of the population (about 80%), until today, has largely lived in fear and hunger. And yet it was here, where we saw the greatest struggle, that we also saw people empowering themselves and their children unlike in any other nation.

There are thousands of communities in Guatemala that have no access to education. After the armed conflict ended in 1993, numerous outreach programs were created to expand access. One of these, the biggest and most successful one, asks for parents of children in marginalized rural areas to organize themselves into committees and petition the government for funds to start their own schools. They then hire a teacher, build a school with whatever materials they have available, cook daily school meals for all of the children, buy utensils, and build boards and desks for their children with the labor of their own hands. We took two buses, hitchhiked on a truck, and rode on a motorcylce for half an hour to reach one of these communities, where we were warmly welcomed. These people, whose first language was Cakchiquiel (Mayan), proudly showed us every part of their wooden, two-room school for their 70 children. We sat with the children on the ground to speak with their teachers, since they had no floor, and barely had a ceiling. The parents told us of their years of struggle to build the school, and the teachers told us of their dreams for the children. "Maybe I dream to big," said a teacher, "but I would like them to make it to the university." They invited us to a delicious lunch of native tortillas and rice, and sent us off with a humble plea for help. And we promised we would help.

And with this promise in mind we head to the state of Chiapas in Mexico, the last country of our journey. I will be in Mexico for roughly the next three weeks, searching for the Zapatistas, and for hope.

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