Thursday, September 9, 2010

Familia Sumpanguera

My host family is fantastic, and fascinating.  I live in a home with three generations under (more or less) one roof.  We live behind a lamina (corrugated metal) fence lined with barbed wire that opens into a courtyard lined with small trees and usually filled with some combination of free range turkeys and chickens, and laundry in varying states of wetness and dryness.  We also have two cats and a dog that roam the area, and several poultry hutches which house the three dozen or so birds.  The area is partially paved to make a patio-ish area, and the rest is mud most of the time, with a slick film of moss on top making things a bit hairy if I’m moving too quickly or wearing professional wear shoes. 

Also in the courtyard is an out building that houses a kitchen where Abuela (my Sumpango grandmother – my host mother’s 85-year-old mother) spends most of each day.  She has a wood fired stove in there where the tortilla-making magic happens, as well as loads of fire-wood, and who knows what else.  Right now she’s also got one of our cats in a box with her three new kittens (born Sept 3).  She kept that little event under wraps for three days without the rest of us being the wiser.  Tortillas, poultry, and washing dishes seem to be her domain.  She’s also a sweet dear who is very welcoming to all visitors and likes watching Fear Factor with her grandkids. 

My host father (Sumpango padre) is a teacher in the morning and a director of a different school in the afternoons.  He speaks Spanish as well as two Mayan languages (one of which he teaches on Saturdays), and is also on a council at their Evangelical church (where he attends worship three times a week).  His life story is fascinating (including several significant shifts in areas of politics, religion, and career), and he is driven by a strong sense of social justice.  I’ve definitely had to consciously pick my jaw up off the table at lunch a few times as he casually mentions events he’s lived through and people he’s met that seem out of an historical fiction novel about a composite character borrowing from several real people’s lives.

The engine of the household is my Sumpango madre, who seems to be the first awake and the last to bed every night.  She prepares several rounds of each meal of the day from scratch, based on the schedule of her husband, each of her children, and yours truly.  The house is swept, mopped, and disinfected far more frequently than I’ve ever managed to do with all my high tech gadgets in the US and she strategically scrubs through laundry based on the whims of the weather.  In the midst of all this she also has a small business out of the household selling perfumes and cleaning products to clients (a la Avon or Mary Kaye).  To top it off she volunteers with a women’s cooperative in town that tackles development projects, such as replacing open fire cooking with efficient (and far more hygienic) enclosed wood fired stoves.  This woman has a smile for everyone and the phrase I hear her use most often is (translated), “There is a solution for everything.”

The four children are 15, 12, 10, and 6 years old, with a girl second in line.  The eldest travels to a neighboring town for school, with an eye to medical school for university, and my host sister wants to be a veterinarian.  The next apparently wanted to work in construction and his parents quickly worked to channel that aspiration toward engineering (as my madre explained, they don’t have land to leave their children, so they are giving them the gift of education).  I haven’t asked the 6 year old about his ambitions yet, but he seems to enjoy playing Bananagrams and either tossing a balloon endlessly in the air or stomping on it with glee.  The younger two are quick to invite me into games and eager to explain things to me when my never-gonna-play-poker face gives away my utter confusion. 

This is a family who likes to laugh and play.  They are very Evangelical Christian, but they never pray before meals.  They have indigenous roots, but none of the children wear traje (traditional dress).  They are educated and savvy, but also steeped in their cultural notions of priorities, family roles, and wellness that may or may not seem logical from an outsider’s view.  They have welcomed me with open arms, and let me have my space and privacy too.  I learn from them every day without fail, and feel spoiled absolutely rotten that this is where I’ve landed.


  1. Your family sounds so fun, active and warm. I especially like your description of your abuela. I can't wait to read more. PS You're amazing.

  2. Yeah, this weekend the kittens went missing for a few hours (their mom was hiding them) and Abuela was on the case! She can butcher and eat the chickens she cares for day in and out without flinching, but I know she's a softie. She keeps sneaking food off her own plate to the cats! Glad you're reading, Amber. ;)