Juan Pablo Morales, stands, smiling, in front of a seated group of people.
Juan Pablo Morales speaks at a meeting of an MCC-supported cooperative, which includes members from the communities of Nuevas Maravillas, Toniná and Yalú. In the background are Inocenta de Leon, left, and Leonardo Miguel.

A community leader who serves as program coordinator for MCC’s local technical team in western Guatemala talks about his life and his desire to better his community.

First person

Juan Pablo Morales

When I was young, my parents raised sheep and planted corn. They also spent time migrating to Mexico to work on the coffee farms. 

I remember walking with my father through the mountains when I was a boy. He would be carrying 70, 80 pounds of corn, and I would carry my own bit of cargo. He was carrying this weight on his back, without shoes and on rough paths. In these moments, I saw his suffering and that he accepted his way of life as it was.

Moments like this have accumulated over the years to become a fire within me. I got to a place where I just got tired of it — not like getting tired of riding in a car or eating hamburgers.

I got tired of poverty. Everybody here lived like we did. Most people said it’s just the way things are. We have to live like this. There were others, and I was one of them, that said no and questioned the situation.

It was something I felt when I was a little boy, 6 years old, and it’s something that’s grown.

My father died when I was 11. I finished fifth grade, but when I was 12, I had to migrate myself to provide for my mother. I continued migrating and working on the coffee farms, even during the civil war, while trying to grow what I could in Guatemala.

The years of war, for us, were like living in the apocalypse. People found themselves between the two powers, the military and guerrillas, and they suffered.

There was chaos, and we lived in fear. There were people being tortured, people being killed for no reason, people being persecuted. I saw it with my own eyes. That marks you. And what left me marked more than anything was the murder of my brother right before my eyes.

In this time, I was starting to focus my life on three areas — looking for how I could contribute to the community, forming myself spiritually and caring for my family.

It was an awareness that there’s more to life than you, than just your own interests. God has created us to do more than just eat and sleep. There’s something inside of you that wants to go beyond just yourself.

I grew up in the Catholic Church. My father was very committed to the church, and that was something instilled in me from when I was a young boy.

I married when I was 18. From then until I was 30, I continued to migrate to Mexico to work. Working on the coffee farms, you often get treated poorly. It’s not dignified work. You’re not free.

I would migrate and come back and eventually the money I earned would run out, and I would be in the same situation. I was pushed by my faith that there was an alternative, an alternative that allowed me to be with my wife, my family.

I decided to focus on my own land instead of leaving. I worked hard to cultivate tomatoes, potatoes, vegetables and just to take care of my land.

This made a huge difference with me spending time with our family. We would farm and we would sell together. There was much more harmony, and we worked together to survive as a family.

Then in 2003, when the Diocese of San Marcos began a new agriculture program, I was chosen to work with it. I focused on gaining the confidence of the people and encouraging them and doing the best I could.

During this time, I studied one year of theology through the Bishop Romero Center of Universidad Centroamericano, a university in El Salvador. They send out teachers and priests to different locations, and they came to this region.

We studied and thought a lot about the Bible, and we were asked to think about our own lives and the violence and poverty we see here.

I began to think more about the questions and feelings I’ve had since I was a child. I realize now the suffering I’d seen in my father, as he carried his loads, it was the suffering of God as well, because my father was made in God’s image. And as I look at my country, I ask, why do some people have everything and others have nothing?

This land we’re on right now is not the land of milk and honey. The land of milk and honey is the land our ancestors, the Mam people, had before the Spanish came and took their land. Now, there are ranchers and farmers with huge tracts of fields, while we live on the ridges of the mountains. One cow has nearly 20 acres of land to graze, where whole families have less than an acre of land that is not fertile to grow their food.

With so many resources in Guatemala, it’s a shame there are so many people living in poverty.

In 2005, when MCC first came to the community and worked through the diocese to respond to Tropical Storm Stan, I was part of that work. After that year, we continued with food security and other projects. The Mennonite church, they’ve put their foot to the ground here. They’re committed to the communities, to the places in the world that are left behind, that are suffering from war, that are suffering from natural disaster.

I want to thank MCC for their assistance and want people to know their donations are reaching the vulnerable families here. We’re working hard, and the fight continues. We have a good team. We’ve made huge strides in the diocese. Even now, the bishop is recognizing our contributions and wants to learn from us and have other people learn from us.

Our MCC project is kind of like an explosion of my personal experience. A number of people don’t migrate. They work their flowers, their trout. It’s not something that happens from night to day. It takes time for things to grow.

What happens a lot here, farmers work without really thinking. They do what they’ve always done and see what happens.

What we’re doing is about creating awareness, about changing hearts and encouraging people. It’s injecting that we can and need to think for ourselves.

It starts with us being models, getting our hands dirty, building greenhouses, trout ponds. We give hope first by saying OK, we’re going to work and we’re going to work together.

MCC and the diocese have been wonderful schools for me. Now, through the diocese, I’m in this program on self-development with all these engineers and professional people. They tell me that I have not only a spring of life that flows up, but it’s like a river and it affects people.

For me, it’s reinforcing who I am in God’s eyes. I continue to realize I have the same value they do. It’s been a process of seeing and learning that, because so many people here don’t value themselves.

Juan Pablo Morales is program coordinator for MCC’s technical team in the San Marcos department of Guatemala. As he works with communities, prayer and song are part of his efforts. Hear Morales sing a Latin American song, “El Banquete Popular” or “The Popular Banquet.” Marla Pierson Lester is managing editor of A Common Place magazine.


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