Who are the People in Your Neighbourhood?

The first neighbor we met was Moises. He looked to me like a gangster at first glance, and I believe he wants the people around here to think so as well. He usually wears pointed-toe cowboy boots and a black leather jacket with some sparkly studs in a few places. There has been a fashion going for some time where people show their prosperity by having gold caps put on their front teeth. I mistakenly thought they had had dental repairs and had elected the gold caps; I couldn’t figure out why it was their front teeth. Most people, like me, need caps on their molars long before their front teeth. Moises has all his front teeth capped in gold, and his wife Juana has two or three.

Daughters of Juana and Moises:
Alicia and Vanessa, 2013

Moises lives in the cement block house just above ours with his wife Juana and four children, plus the child of Juana’s younger sister who had no husband to support her. All were girls except the youngest boy who was five when we started building our house. His name is Fernal. The girls are Vanessa, Alicia and Miriam of Juana’s girls, and her niece Carolina who is between Alicia and Miriam in age. The Canadian who sold Bonnie our land told us that Juana is the salt of the earth. She is the one who holds her family together and makes responsible decisions. This we learned is because Moises, who is a mason, makes his money and drinks most of it in beer on payday. Little or nothing goes to the family. Moises sometimes gets jobs that require he leave home for a week or more at a time, and none of his pay comes back to the family. But he is well dressed.

Juana is fortunate to have a father who is doing very well in this village. Some years ago Efraim bought a lot of this land from the government when it was very cheap. As his family grows he gives plots to his children and helps them get started with a house. Normally a man takes a wife and feels responsible to make a home for his family, but Moises had nothing to give Juana when they started out with their first child. Both were about 15 years old. That means that Moises and Juana can be grandparents (any time now) in their mid thirties, but this is not unusual for a third world country.
Efraim grows vegetables and flowers on his many plots of land around the area. Juana and her children work the land with him and get paid for their labor, and that is how Juana has survived with little help from Moises. The lines of responsibility for tasks are clearly defined in Moises’ mind. On a few occasions we observed Moises at home without a job for a while, and we saw him standing by the road at the edge of his property. His hands were in his jeans pockets and he was surveying the neighborhood from his high vantage point, just checking on who is doing what. Behind him would be Juana or Miriam, splitting wood with an ax. He never lifted a finger during this activity, not even to stack the wood. We saw this happen several times. And sadly, Fernal, the only boy, soon took to standing in the same posture, just looking out over the land. We have discovered that Fernal isn’t too motivated to do much, either with school or working in the fields like his sisters. He tried quitting school at third grade, like Vanessa did, but he decided it was better than working in the fields.

We don't know if Moises built their home, although we expect he did, as he is a mason. Their main house is a rectangle of block walls with an area of covered porch in front. The roof, like most here, is corrugated lamina panels. Close to the street initially was a smaller structure of rusty lamina with a metal tube coming out the lamina roof as a smoke stack, and against the outside walls a sizeable amount of stacked wood. Inside was a wood stove where Juana and her girls would make tortillas. Later this tortilla shack was moved to the opposite side of the house and hidden from the street. Juana wanted to move her living space away from the busy road where people kept passing and staring at them. The family toilet is just downhill from the tortilla shack. It is the typical size of a “one-holer” outhouse, and since it is uphill of one corner of our land, I assume we are getting rich, deep fertilization of our soil in that section. Luckily it has not presented any problems over almost six years now. Leach fields are not required, nor are septic tanks, so there are no regulations about “perk testing” or placement of septic systems.

I could easily appreciate that Juana wanted her home to be more private. With all the activity of vehicles going up the single lane road past us, and people walking to and from Hobbitenango, she must have felt like they were monkeys in a zoo. A few years after we moved in, Juana came into some extra money. Her father, Efraim, had given her and her brother another piece of land further up the hill but beside the road. They got a chance to sell it to a Guatemalan from California of many years, but who plans to move back here so he and his wife can retire. Now Juana had a big enough sum of cash to build an additional room in the space beside the road and give them further privacy. The interesting thing was that she did not have her husband build it. She hired some other men, maybe relatives, and managed the project herself. She certainly couldn’t trust Moises to use the money for her project, knowing his drinking habits.

 White House is Juana's New Room, It sits right at the road 

It is likely she knows of Moises’ other habits as well. He has a bad reputation on several counts. One is that the walls and houses he had been building here in the neighborhood have not held up the way they should. He was using “cal” (just the lime) in his cement mix and telling the owners he had purchased cement, then pocketed the difference in cost. He did this with other materials also, choosing low-grade and inferior products but claiming the standard prices for things. One of our neighbors who was building here before we came, also from the United States, had used Moises for construction and learned of these things the hard way. His flat cement ceiling/roof wasn’t holding water and started leaking. Mold began forming inside his house. He also found Moises had stolen some of his materials, as they were seen on his property, probably going to be sold for beer money. One day the owner visited the construction site when Moises, who was in charge of the other hired workers, was not present. He asked the men how much Moises was paying them per day and figured out that he was under-paying them and keeping the difference. We thought, “not too smart.” Moises has trouble getting work around here now.

Moises has asked Zaqueo for work many times, but we never offered him the original construction job because we had learned about him from our neighbor. Once in a while Zaqueo has given him small jobs which he could supervise closely, and a relationship developed between them. Moises would also ask to borrow small amounts of money, and my soft-hearted husband gave in to that a few times. He ended up having to badger Moises to get it back so he quit lending. Instead he would find some job to give him here, but we knew the money was likely to cover beer and maybe some time with a prostitute. When Moises is sober he is actually a friendly, cheerful guy. It’s just his stories are all made up nonsense. We would call it lying, but he doesn’t do it with malice, most of the time.

There was one occasion when something he told Zaqueo was about another neighbor, Mario, and it didn’t add up. Mario had told Zaqueo something else that had included Moises. Zaqueo was irritated enough about not knowing the truth that he called both of them and asked to have a meeting in the empty field across the road from us. While this was going on I looked out the window and saw them standing, Moises and Mario with hands in pockets and Zaqueo gesturing his arms at them. I later learned he confronted them about what both had said and demanded to know the truth. Which story was something they both would agree on? I don’t know the circumstances, but I do know that they now show great respect for Zaqueo and use the term “Don Zaqueo.” Mario stays as far away as he can and has told his children when they pass our house to say hello to Don Zaqueo very politely.

We felt sad when Zaqueo learned more stories from Moises’ children. I had noticed that when Moises was at home and between jobs, the children were often laughing and giggling with him, happy that he was there and paying attention to them. They knew when it was a weekend and he did not come home that he was out drinking and would eventually stumble home and fall asleep for a day or two. One night we heard Juana and Miriam outside the house yelling at drunken Moises that he would have to sleep outside. They were not about to let him in, and Miriam was seen hitting her father with a stick from the wood pile.

Moises liked to play his stereo very loud whenever at home. Zaqueo claimed the kind of music he was listening to was what the prostitutes play for men who go to see them, and he was sure it made Juana angry. When Moises was away working we could heard the stereo being played by Juana and the girls, but now it was Evangelical music and pastors preaching. This went on for some months and then nobody was playing anything. The kids told Zaqueo that their father had sold the stereo (for beer money). It seemed that they had also had a television for a while, and that got sold as well. Who knows what else.
Yet another story about Moises drinking:  he had made quite a large sum of money on a job and was paid in cash. He went on a drunk for a few days, staying at a prostitute place and having a great time. He was finally so drunk that some men easily rolled him outside the bar, took not only all his remaining cash, but his clothes, fancy boots, and black leather jacket. We aren’t sure how he got home naked, but someone must have taken pity on him. His family did not. He spent the next several hours passed out naked on his porch.

We don’t know if it is true, but Vanessa once told Zaqueo that her father has another wife and one or two children in another town, about eight kilometers from here. Last Christmas season the kids asked Zaqueo if he would give them a turkey for their holiday dinner. Zaqueo blew up and told them to ask their father for it; he makes a lot of money and should be the one to give it to them. He had reached his limit of patience and later told Moises the same thing. Zaqueo is often giving advice to Moises. Some of it he actually absorbs because he respects Zaqueo. On one of the occasions that Moises was quite drunk, he told Zaqueo that he is like a father to him. Then too, on another when Zaqueo had scolded him for some stupidity he told Zaqueo he is a bad person and is going to hell. He remembered nothing of saying these things later.

Juana’s oldest daughter Miriam borrowed money from Zaqueo twice and paid it back a week later. He was proud of her for it and told her so. Then a third time she borrowed and didn’t pay it back. He noticed that she has not come around and stays out of his sight. Juana told Zaqueo it is because she no longer has a job. Now she is gaining her father’s reputation.

Life is hard for most indigenous, yet they generally persist and work hard. Our village is not very poor in comparison to many throughout Guatemala. There is an excellent video on Netflix called “Guatemala on $1 a Day.” It was made by a some college students on a holiday break who spent a few months in a village near Lake Atitlan. They wanted to see if they could survive on one dollar each per day. They chose to grow a crop of radishes because it is something that grows quickly and they could sell. Each young man put their money in a communal pot. Since farmers and most workers do not get paid on a regular basis, they put slips of paper in a basket with numbers zero to nine, and each day they randomly picked a paper to indicate how much they could spend for necessities that day. They worked their plot of land and tended their radishes. There were days that they had very little to eat, when picking zeroes and one or two, too many days in a row. Over the few months all of them lost weight. Their experience and experiment was well worth it as they made many friends among the villagers who were very kind to help them in numerous ways, and they felt enriched by the benefits.




The other most striking member of Moises’ family is Vanessa, the youngest daughter. During construction we noticed that various doll heads and other parts that looked like Barbies would appear on our property. They were being tossed over the fence. It didn’t take long to figure out that Vanessa was the “mouth” of the family. We could hear ONLY her voice coming through the fence. She was generally giving orders to others in the family. This became more evident when over time, Vanessa was sent to our gate to negotiate any business, to ask if we wanted to buy flowers or if they could borrow some item, or if we had any work for her and Fernal. Even after I sent a holiday gift of food at Christmas, Juana, never came to say thank you or return the bowls and containers. She sent Vanessa to be the spokesperson. Fernal was very shy and always blushed and looked down when I spoke to him. Vanessa was brash, at times being a bit sassy, more with Zaqueo than me. The first time she came with Fernal, begging for quetzals, we decided it wasn’t going to work to give them money and instead offered them small jobs. Vanessa always worked hard and quickly, and Fernal just puttered, mostly day-dreaming. I felt pity for his teachers, knowing he was likely to be a challenge. But Vanessa was always eager for more, always enterprising. She showed real promise.

Our first encounters with the children was during early construction. Bonnie and I asked to take their pictures. They eagerly agreed, even though Fernal looked shy and stayed silent. Later we came back with hard copies of the photographs for them to keep. They appeared delighted. Every time after that when we showed up to inspect the construction Vanessa was calling, “Fotos, fotos!” That got old in a hurry.

Over the few years since Vanessa has tried several other enterprises. With the hundreds of people going up the hill to Hobbitenango, right past their house, she had a captive audience. She sold flowers, then potted plants, then ice cream. (She borrowed an ice chest and ice from us, but it was not a success.) One day I told her that I think she is the smartest person in her family. I said I hoped she would stay in school and keep getting smarter because she has a chance to do great things in her future. She just looked at me, not knowing how to answer. A few weeks later we learned that she quit school, end of third grade. The chance to make quetzals by working with her grandfather in the fields was more appealing. Maybe she wasn’t even aware of what continued education would lead to if she kept going. Both she and her older sister, Alicia, have been seen around with boys their age, doing the flirting and courting thing.  This is what they know and what they dream about. Love and family aren’t so bad, and those of us who worked for many other things know the price that comes with it can be a boatload or more of stress. Some of us later aspire for simplicity, like me.

Fernal and Vanessa, 2013
Tortilla Shack Upper Left

Zaqueo felt sorry for Fernal. He was sure it was tough having only big sisters and being the smallest boy with a dad never around to play with him. One day in the mercado Zaqueo bought a plastic truck. I asked what he was going to do with it. He said it was for Fernal, and my heart melted to see he has such compassion. Later after he had given the truck to Fernal we could hear Vanessa’s voice, (we only ever heard Vanessa’s voice from the house next door), instructing Fernal, “No, you do it like this. Push it like this.” Then we understood why the Barbie doll heads and parts ended up in our property.
The use of babysitters in Guatemalan villages is unheard of. Certainly with infants there are occasions for the grandmothers to step in, but most mothers take their children wherever they go. You can see them carrying their children on their backs, slung over their shoulders in the beautiful woven fabrics for which Guatemala is famous. Many are carried even past the age of walking when there is a long distance to travel or hills, like where we live. But the children go to the fields or wherever mother works until they are in school. We have seen the babies in the fields, under a tree on a blanket, a sibling tending the child while mother is working nearby in the plants. Her ear is expertly tuned to the sound of problems, but the sister is already learning how to calm and quiet the baby. We have seen mothers carry heavy loads of produce or firewood on their heads, walking down the steep road in front of our house, maybe a three year old boy beside them carrying his comparable bundle of sticks in his little rubber boots. And with all this, they smile sideways at us and call out, “Adios!”
We think Fernal did not like this task of going with Juana to the fields, so sometimes we saw that he was left home alone. He wasn’t in school yet, and his sisters were all working or at school. One day he made a small fire near the road and was tossing firecrackers, one by one, into the fire. Nobody was there to supervise his fun. Another day Zaqueo observed him climb up into one of their six avocado trees that separate our house from theirs. Suddenly he slipped and fell flat on his back from the branch, five feet above him. He sat up slowly, assessing for damage, and happened to look over toward our house. He saw Zaqueo had seen what happened, and only then did he pucker up his lips and start to cry.


Guatemalan children do not cry very much. They do not lie down on the ground and kick and scream. I have never seen a child throw a tantrum for the parents’ benefit or anyone else. Unless they are the children of wealthy Guatemaltecos. Their children seem to behave similarly to many children of my culture of the United States. There are several kids living close to us who are at home in the afternoon, after school, and they play together almost every day on a swing that one father made hanging from a very tall avocado tree. I hear them laughing and joyful, day after day, and never once an argument or crying. Fernal and Vanessa made kites in the windy season out of plastic grocery bags with thread to send them up in the air. Not string, but thread. And when they found some big pieces of cardboard they used them as sleds, trying to slide down our hill, laughing and having a great time. The kids here don’t have cell phones or electronic games. They don’t have the coolest clothes to wear. They don’t listen to music with ear plugs or watch TV. They appear to be very happy. You have to wonder.

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