INTRODUCTION - The Barefoot College International is bringing solar light to the most remote communities of the world by selecting and empowering local women to become Solar Engineers. These one or two women will travel from their village to India, following a 6-month training, leaving everything behind to bring back light to every house of their village. The Barefoot College sent French and Canadian photographer and filmmaker Varial* to document the lives of 15 indigenous women from 5 countries in Latin America throughout the electrification process: preparing to leave for this incredible journey, a 6-month training period in India, returning to their communities and electrifying more than 100 homes. The majority of the communities are indigenous, and several have survived persecution and genocide, with the majority of survivors currently living an impoverished existence.
The deafening, never-ending sound of a motor wakes me up with a jolt. It can’t be any later than 4:30 in the morning, I think, judging by the star-filled sky. At 6 am sharp, Francisco comes to wake me up.
“Francisco, what’s that noise?”
“It’s the sound of the corn mill,” he answers. “We start at 5 am. Come, we are going to have breakfast at Catarina’s.”
Yesterday, as soon as we arrived in Pal at the end of the day, I met Catarina to introduce myself, present the project, and organize my next four days in the village.
During my stay, I will be crossing the mountain regularly to pay her visits. I explain that I’m here in Guatemala to document life without electricity, and to do this, I’ll spend many mornings and nights with them at dusk or in the evening.
It takes us twenty minutes to get to Catarina’s. The walk is laborious due to the altitude and the sharp incline of the muddy road, barely passable, with its scars deeply carved by the torrents of rainwater.
This steep, kilometer-long road to the valley below is the only one linking to the village. Approximately six hundred people live in Pal, around one hundred families. They are so remote I wonder how they make a living. I see only a few scattered Milpas6.
All of the women and children hide when they see me. The women burst out laughing, hide, look at each other, look at me and burst into laughter again, retreating even deeper into the shadows of their doorways, still looking at me. The men pass by with their mules, smile, and nod without stopping.
This morning, we find Catarina beside her hearth. The sun’s rays beam through the cracks in the wooden walls’ planks, slicing the white smoke rising from the fire into dancing ribbons. She is cooking tortillas on a thick metal slab, blackened by the flames of time, set directly on the embers. Her youngest daughter appears in the doorway that separates the room, smiles at us, and chases away the dozens of baby chicks pecking for food. She sets down a few plates and a bowl of frijoles next to Catarina.
Breakfast and lunch are identical: tortillas, frijoles. The sunlight floods the room with a sacred glow. The birds’ singing, the roosters’ crowing, the flapping wings of the hens, the crackling fire all fuse with the melodious intonations of the Ixhil language, their Mayan language; the only language Catarina, her daughter, and many villagers in Pal speak.
Everything is stark in its simplicity. The hearth is the focal point of the room. A few kitchen utensils hang from the wall above a stack of kindling wood next to the hearth. Decoration, even minimal, is absent. Several plates and plastic containers are piled on a wide shelf in the corner, made of the same wood as the structure. A few cloth bags hang from nails here and there. We sit on the packed earth floor. Francisco converses briefly with Catarina in Ixhil. I don’t understand, but she turns her gaze to me. I smile at her, aware that I’m the topic of the conversation.
“Catarina doesn’t speak any Spanish,” does she?
“No, only Ixhil. Her daughter understands a bit of Spanish, but doesn’t speak it either.”
“So, you will be the interpreter?”
“How was Catarina chosen to become a solar engineer?”
“There are many communities involved in this solar electrification project: Santa Clara, Xeputul, and Pal,” answers Francisco.
“For several years, we’ve been in contact with Mario and Anibal, the directors and founders of Semilla del Sol in Guatemala City. When Semilla del Sol spoke to us about the solar panel project, when we saw the project’s success in Xeputul7 last year, we thought that for us in Pal, it was a great opportunity. We chose Catarina, who represents Pal CPR, for the mission. Every family here has resisted repression and the civil war. After the conflict, the surviving families returned to their land here, still forgotten by the authorities.”
“But why Catarina and not another woman?”
“Other women also volunteered, but they weren’t eligible for the Barefoot program: either they were too young—a woman must be older than thirty-five to apply to Barefoot, or the women had too many children to support, with no one to take care of their children in their absence. Catarina is thirty-six years old. Separated from her husband, she lives with her brother, her sister-in-law, Cecilia, and her father, who will take care of Ana, her twelve-year-old daughter. It’s only been twenty days since Catarina has learned she will be leaving.”
Catarina, what was your initial reaction when you learned you were leaving?”
After Francisco’s translation, Catarina looks at me, smiles, and lowers her gaze. Self-conscious, she catches her breath and answers the question, her eyes turned toward Francisco.
“I could have refused up to the last minute, but I preferred to accept. My biggest worry is for my baby chicks. Who will take good care of them?”
“That’s so true!” Francisco confirms. “There is a song in Ixtan: “Lejo se quedo mis pollitos en el corral”—My chickens are in their cage far from me.”
“Sure, I’m also worried for my daughter,” continues Catarina, “but Ana is grown up and can take care of herself, unlike my chicks. Fortunately, everyone in the family will take care of them for me. So, even if I can’t stop worrying about them, it’s too late to go back on my word. Now, I can’t wait to discover another country. “I found it hard when they treated me like a foreigner in Guatemala City just because I don’t speak Spanish. Now though, I’m only worried about the trip. Who will look out for us? What will we do between flights? Where are we going to sleep at each stopover?” I explain that she will not be leaving the airports so she will not have to look for a hotel. And the Barefoot team will meet her in New Delhi. There is no reason to be so anxious before this long journey. I also reassure her that the turbulence she might experience in flight is like a bumpy car ride on a dirt road full of holes. “Catarina, how will your family reorganize itself while you’re in India?”
“When I’m away, my eldest daughter will do all she can to take care of herself and the chicks. I’m also very confident that my sister-in-law, Teresa Solano Sanchez, and my brother, who is now working on the coast to earn some money, returning in fifteen days, will help out. With this money, they will be able to take care of my family sufficiently.”
“What do you expect from this training in India and your first journey so far from home?”
“I’m not too afraid of living in India for six months. Once there, the days, the weeks, the months will go by… I’m more afraid of the time the trip will take than getting lost during the journey. Once I’m in India, everything will be fine if I have a roof over my head.”
“Everything will be just fine, I promise you. The Pal electrification project entrusts you with immense responsibility. How do you feel about this?”
“I accept this responsibility with pride. Everything I will learn, I will put to use here to benefit my community. I only hope I will adapt successfully so I will be able to remember the tiniest details of the training. My only worry is not understanding what they teach because I don’t speak the language.”
What will change here in Pal with the arrival of light and electricity?”
“No more candles! We will finally be able to see what we cook; we will go to bed later and sleep a little longer. Now, we have to get up at dawn, around four or five in the morning, to take advantage of every ray of light in order to finish our day’s work. As for the children, they will be able to do their homework in the evening.”
“Do you have any questions or doubts, Catarina?”
“My only concern is that when I return, the community will not help me. I will have to devote a lot of time to installing the solar panels. I don’t think I will be able to manage it alone. We were told that we will receive some money to help us, but I don’t know if it will be enough. I also wonder whether I wouldn’t be better off going to work than spending my time with no salary, installing all the solar panels by myself. It seems that my brother will be the only one helping me, which means even less income for the family. I haven’t yet figured out how to manage the installations with the community.”
Once again, I reassure her, informing her that in the communities, there will be a reorganization, the creation of a solar committee, and that the community must be made aware that she will be devoting a lot of time to the solar panel installations. The community must compensate her for this new responsibility she is entrusted with. Not only will she be responsible for the installation of the panels, but also their maintenance. In Pal, there has to be a meeting with the mayor and the community, so everyone understands that she will need their help as well. It’s a new collective effort for the community.
“Oh yes, I’m already aware that this represents a long-term effort; that’s why I hope the community will help me, even more so because houses are built at both ends of the village. On top of the one hundred and twenty families here, I also represent four communities! I sincerely hope this information will reach everyone in the village. Xeputul is an example of real success; they received twenty-four thousand quetzales! At least, that’s what they say. It’s up to us to organize it with Don Mario from Semilla del Sol so that we obtain similar financial aid. Personally, I’ll be investing considerable time, and we are already very poor. I’m counting on Don Mario to explain the need for the entire community to work together electrifying our village. Because if I’m called upon every time there is a problem with a solar panel, who will pay me to live? The time I’ll put in won’t be enough. The entire community must agree to support me in my work. After all, it’s the community that chose me at the meeting. It’s so hard to foresee the logistics of it all.”
“I think it’s all for our benefit and I will see if I can set up a meeting with the mayor,” adds Francisco, who gets up, takes out his cellphone and leaves the room while dialing a number.
Alone with Catarina and filled with the emotion of this long conversation, I say Xatsul — thank you — bowing my head in a gesture of respect. Yesterday, Francisco taught me a few words in Ixhil, such as how to count to ten, which I wrote down in my notebook. Catarina answers Xatsul and offers me more tortillas, which I refuse, my hand on my heart in thanks. The chicks have returned to regale themselves with the crumbs. The light in the room has changed; daylight has arrived.
“The mayor will be waiting for us at the school in thirty minutes, if you want to meet him,” Francisco says, while I kneel down beside the hearth to take a photo.
“I’ll take a few photos, and we’ll go! Where is the school?”
“It’s all the way down the road. You’ll discover the rest of the village.”
Deep in the mountains, around forty kilometers from Nebaj, I estimate we’re at an altitude of two thousand meters. The village winds along the road that hugs the mountainside. Because of the incline and the condition of the road, no vehicle dares to pass through. I’m already thinking of the climb back up the road and realize that every day, the residents of Pal take this road, several times a day. We walk on the red earth, then on gray stone, surrounded by the dense vegetation of palm trees, prickly cactus, lemon trees, and Milpas. There is no fencing, and all of the houses along the road seem connected. Here and there, new faces… many women and children. Several men, machetes in hand, go to gather firewood; others transport huge woven plastic bags on their heads, heading to the market in Cotzul. Soon, it will be eight in the morning.
The descent becomes more difficult; the road narrows for a hundred meters, then finally opens onto a small plateau where a church, community center, medical center, and school sit randomly.
José Ismael Raimondo Motom is the (mayor) of Pal, elected for a one-year term in December 2014. It’s an occupation he balances with his position of school principal and teacher. He chose Francisco to be his right-hand man. We find him putting his office in order, which is in one of the big classrooms with green walls. We’re invited to follow him to a meeting room in the community center about fifty meters from the school, and from there, we enter a dark room where daylight, shut out by wooden planks, barely penetrates.
“You wanted to speak to me?”
“Yes, thank you for meeting with me Cocode. In a few words, can you tell me what your role here is?”
“My name is José Ismael Raimundo Motom. I am the auxiliary mayor and school principal of the Pal community, very isolated from the others. Although the violence has subsided since 1996, it persists in the government’s silence and indifference. For example, the sudden interruption of the construction of a road two years ago, which would have linked us to the outside world, should have been completed in 2011. Since then, the construction is at a standstill. As for the school, its existence is due to the persistence of our community leaders, like Francisco, who never let this need be forgotten. Take a look around you and see how dilapidated everything is! Even the mayor of Chajul has somewhat abandoned us although we depend on him.
“Before, we used to go to market in Chajul: a five-hour trek on foot carrying all our goods on our backs. We set out at three in the morning to reach Chajul and left to return in the afternoon. A ten-hour walk every market day! My term as mayor began in January and ends in December. It will be my only term because we elect a new mayor every year. From one mayor to the next, there is the transmission of authority as well as the issues: mostly administrative complications between communities, families, neighbors. I have to manage one hundred and ten families, about six hundred people. Thankfully, I’m not alone; I can count on the advice of the officials like Francisco, who was mayor in 2010.”
“How will you manage Catarina’s responsibilities on her return and get the community to understand her new work in the village?”
“We learned of her departure recently. We, too, will have to pitch in and better organize ourselves to support her on her return. We are so happy she will be bringing back electricity in her suitcases. Luckily, it’s not a man who is going because he probably would leave his family to fend for themselves. There is strong solidarity within the working community. I also hope everything will work out for the best. Ojala!”
Three men, carrying shovels, enter the room.
“My next meeting is about to begin. I’m here every morning from 9 am to 11 am, listening to the concerns of the people. Here are the first ones. I would have liked to talk more with you, but, rest assured, I’m fully aware of the sacrifice Catarina is making and I give you my word that her return will be honored, recognized, and supported by all my colleagues here.”
“I’m sorry it was so brief,” says Francisco once we’re outside.
“Don’t worry,” I answer. “I have more information, and he also confirmed that he has to organize the support for Catarina.”
After the short meeting with the mayor, we return to Francisco’s house. I continue on to Catarina’s, where I spend the day. I stay there for ten hours observing her and her daughter go about their daily life, taking photographs of them doing their daily tasks. We exchange glances, laughs, gestures… we understand each other without words. The most important thing for me is to create this comfort zone where I can take my photographs in confidence without my camera being an intrusive presence leaving them shy or embarrassed.
Night falls quickly in the mountains of Pal. The first candles are lit around 6 pm. Their trembling flames mix with the glow from the hearth, rendering almost indistinguishable the immediate surroundings. If this lighting is magic for photographers, for these people, it is a symbol of the indifference to their plight. For the first time in my life, I discover life in total obscurity. The white light of Ana’s cellphone glows as a luminous reminder of the existence of a connected world. The more time I spend with Catarina and her daughter, the more I become aware of the momentous nature of what she will soon undertake. Her departure is in fifteen days. In agreement with Catarina, we decide to meet up in Nebaj where I’ll accompany her to the airport.
Teresa, her sister-in-law will arrive tomorrow morning with her two young children. Her presence is reassuring, confirming that she will live here most of the time so Ana will hardly ever be alone.
This last morning, Francisco wakes me up at 4 am. The first minibus leaves Pal for Cotzal in thirty minutes. On empty stomachs, we walk for twenty minutes under the stars along the steep road to the bus stop. The minibus is waiting for us. In the next ten minutes, a dozen people arrive with their baggage. I wonder whether I will once again travel on the roof…
DOÑA LUZ - Stories of Latin America Solar Mamas tells the story not only of forgotten people, survivors of genocide, victims of oil exploitation and marginalized communities, but also of ambassadors of faith and courage.
DOÑA LUZ is available in 3 languages, English, Spanish and French. Select your Edition in the Book Options.Category : Education, History, Arts & Photography Books
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The Barefoot College sent French and Canadian photographer and filmmaker Varial* to document the lives of 15 indigenous women from 5 countries in Latin America throughout the electrification process: preparing to leave for this incredible journey, a 6-month training period in India, returning to their communities and electrifying more than 100 homes. The majority of the communities are indigenous and several have survived persecution and genocide with the majority of survivors currently living an impoverished existence.