The streets of La Limonada are narrow, with endless twists and turns, and sensory overload is the norm.
Coming around any given corner – few of which come close to resembling ninety-degree angles – you never know what you’ll find or whom you’ll meet.
Occasionally, walking as a group with Tita at the lead these past couple of days, we’ve come across a group of young guys, one perhaps sitting on a doorstep and a few others leaning on the opposite wall a few feet away. They’re members of a neighborhood gang, and this is where they spend their days. After dark, I suspect, is when they earn their keep.
Walking past them we offer the typical friendly greetings, while being especially careful not to stare, and perhaps picking up our pace just a bit.
We pretend to be comfortable in their presence. We’re not.
This morning we sat in the home of a former gang member who asked us not to take photos or use his real name in telling his story. We didn’t ask what would happen if we did.
Like his peers, by the time he turned ten he started noticing the fashion-forward teenagers in the neighborhood whose way of life, with few good alternatives to consider, struck him as alluring. Before long he had joined their ranks, robbing others in order to eat, and doing what it took to get a fix.
Eventually, his life of violence, drug abuse, and fear caught up with him and he made the difficult and courageous decision to quit the gang. But there was no hiding the skin on his arms and his face, which bore the abiding marks of his recent past. And in Guatemala City, men with tattoos aren’t given honest jobs.
Desperate to turn his life around and to provide for his wife and young children, he took matters into his own hands. Using a razor blade, and later with fire, he started trying to remove the tattoos himself.
At 25, his face now bears the scars and his left arm is bandaged, but he has an honest job, working as a traffic attendant at a ritzy shopping center across town. His life is far from wonderful, but his life is a living testimony to other young men that there is a way out of gangs. None of it will be easy, but then again, neither is the alternative.
For the past year or so we’ve been supporting Lemonade International’s work through TEN2END, making a small monthly donation of $10. Before this trip we decided to go ahead and sponsor a child. We chose a cute five-year-old boy whose favorite color is yellow, who loves playing cards, and who is described by those who know him as calm, intelligent, and trustworthy.
Today we met Cristian in his classroom at Mandarina Academy, surrounded by clamoring classmates eager for him to meet his sponsors. Cristian himself was rather shy. We gave him a few small gifts, including three bottles of bubbles with Spiderman on them. He said he likes Spiderman, but he might have just being nice, for all we know; he had good manners one way or another.
Later we crammed into his home with his stepsisters and his elderly blind grandmother. His father hasn’t been in the picture for quite some time, and his mother was at work. I introduced us to the family, saying I’d grown up in Guatemala and that it was a real pleasure to be with them. Then we read him a translated letter Katie had written him on our behalf, telling him a bit more about us and saying we’d be praying for him. As we prepared to leave the home, we discovered much to our delight that Cristian happens to be a really good hugger.
If he’s like his peers, within five years (and maybe less) Cristian will start feeling the pull toward gang life.
The fact that he’s starting school at one of Lemonade International’s academies, paid for through our sponsorship, means he’s getting an opportunity to learn in an environment where he’ll receive love and attention from dedicated Christian teachers, in classrooms with bright colors on the walls, and nutritious meals and vitamins to strengthen his little body.
We don’t know what his future holds. And we certainly don’t know the first thing about what it feels like to be a boy growing up in La Limonada, where the odds are stacked so incredibly high against him.
There’s no silver bullet that will break the cycle of gang violence in La Limonada. There’s no silver bullet that will ensure a happy, healthy, and long life for Cristian. There’s no silver bullet for much of anything in life, here or anywhere.
But a quality primary education will go a long way, and scholarships to continue with junior high and high school will go even further. Micro-finance and vocational training programs also provide much-needed opportunities for adults intent on doing honest work.
I want to ask you to sponsor a child like Cristian through Lemonade International. Not because you’re anyone’s savior. Not because sponsorship is a silver bullet. Not because it guarantees anything. But because the children in those academies represent the future of La Limonada, and that future is up for grabs.
[Photos by Scott Bennett]