In 1990 I was part of a delegation to Guatemala to learn first-hand of human rights abuses and to hear the stories of the people. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
The east and north sides of the dump slope gently into a deep pit where the city’s garbage lies. Along the east side, away from the path of bulldozers, is a cluster of about thirty houses where the basueros, or dump people, live.
The houses were scrapped together with chunks of wood, tin and plastic, held together with baling wire. Cardboard or blankets served as doors. Most had a window, and some of those windows had a scrap of cloth hanging over the opening.
A few houses had potted plants, flowers, or a small yard fenced to contain chickens or a pig. One woman grew corn and had a mango tree.
To live with such hope, such grace, on the edge of the Guatemala City dump twisted my brain like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Buzzards circled overhead as bulldozers roared across the pit, pushing the garbage and sludge toward the center of the dump. Children dodged the dozers and trudged up the hill and past us, dragging flats of cardboard loaded with plastic, tin, or food they’d salvaged.
Garbage trucks dumped their contents over the edge on the far side. The basueros working below ran at the last minute to avoid the shower of trash, then scrambled back again to begin searching the latest load.
Our guide had led us to the houses, single file, down a trail made slippery by recent rain. That same rain had turned the dirt floors in these houses to an inch of mud.
We stopped at a house, bright pink fabric in the window, and a woman stepped out. She was old, or perhaps her life had made her look much older than her years. She wore a loose, worn dress topped with an even more worn apron. She was barefoot. She waved us into her house, and our group of fifteen completely filled it.
The tiny single room served as living room, kitchen and bedroom to her family of seven. It was especially difficult there during the rainy season, she explained, because water ran through the house much of the time. On occasion a mud slide would carry a foot of mud into her home. It was a hard life as a basuero, she told us, but it was better than living on the streets.
She told us with pride that she had built this house herself and that her children were not hungry. Her family specialized in collecting tin which they carried into town two times weekly to sell as scrap.
We left her, complimenting her on her skills, and continued our walk down the soggy trail along the edge of the dump, pausing occasionally to hear someone’s story. Not many people were home – they were all in the bottom of the dump or dragging their finds to their homes. No time to talk.
The only others we were able to speak with were two men who looked to be in their fifties. They were building a casket of scrap wood. Just the day before, a three-year-old girl had been run over by one of the dozers. It wasn’t until we’d left that I wondered where the child would be buried.