"Lin ka’ba lain Mateo"
"My name is Mateo," he greets me in his native Que'chi language. Mateo Salam has the boyish looks of a gentle fourteen year old, yet the aspirations and vision of a Mayan elder. Only eighteen years of age, Mateo came to the village of San Pablo after having completed his high school degree at the technical school, Julian Cho. Mateo was the first in his family to receive a high school diploma, and aspires to teach primary education in one of the many small villages in the district of Toledo.
Between aiding his aging grandparents, tending to livestock, tilling his land and clearing weeds for future plantings, Mateo also dedicates a few hours a week to the banana plantation. He is not fond of that job, but until his family’s farm is generating sufficient revenue to meet basic needs, he must continue the monotonous task of removing the inflorescences (flowers) after a banana bunch has adequately formed. “It is temporary,” he reminds me, “and though it is money, the conditions are bad enough to make you only a short term worker.”
During my afternoon with Mateo and his family, we enjoyed a simple lunch of fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal, ground pepitos and black pepper, which is used as a nutritional-supplement, and hard-boiled eggs. Not sufficient for this author, but seeing the scarcity of resources, I kindly accepted the offering, and the imminent hunger pains. With my voracious appetite I ate my tortillas and hard-boiled egg and imagined for a second laboring for hours in the field only subsisting off such few calories. It impressed me thinking about this, and how my hosts toiled in the banana plantations, milpas and elsewhere while subsisting off such small meals.
Following lunch, we toured the property and discussed Mateo’s vision for the land; his hope of incorporating more fruit trees, hardwoods such as mahogany, cedar and rosewood, and diversifying his crop production. He envisions his garden growing in size and density, and becoming a central piece to the property and his family’s diet. Soon after, our work commenced and the beads of sweat began trickling down my brow. Beneath the intense tropical sun and surrounded by the jungle’s humidity, we toiled and questioned our choice in time. At this hour, one would typically be relaxing in the hammock and enjoying a brief siesta, but we chose differently and for that we paid the price of sweat. Together Mateo and I labored to widen his garden beds, break up the nutrient poor clay soil and incorporate the remnants of his compost. As we worked, we talked and discussed how to improve his garden; mainly how to improve the soils and combat certain pests with the abundance of Mexican marigolds that surrounded us. Every so often we’d share a laugh and then continue onwards.
By late afternoon we concluded our work, shared a firm handshake and said our goodbyes. As I left, I could not help but wonder about Mateo and his family’s future – will he be teaching as he aspires to, what will his garden provide and will it be sufficient to meet his family’s needs, will his newborn niece experience a similar life of simplicity, or will she migrate like others to the “big city”? These are questions one always has as they depart a household they’ve visited and shared experiences with. We are left to wonder, imagine and hope.
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