Sisters' school stands out in Guatemalan dump town

This story appears in the Landfills feature series. View the full series.

by J. Malcolm Garcia


View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Global Sisters Report is publishing a special series about how trash is managed in the world and how sisters are helping people affected by landfills. We start this project to mark the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis' encyclical, Laudato Si', about climate change, pollution and waste, which warns that: "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."


The sisters who teach at the Francisco Coll School know all too well the difficulties their students confront daily.

The students live in a barrio near a massive garbage dump not far from the school and less than a half-hour drive from the posh tourist attractions of downtown. The children suffer from malnutrition, they suffer at the hands of drug-addicted parents and gangs, they suffer from toxic pollutants released into the air from the dump. And sometimes, the very thing they lean on for survival — the 40-acre dump and its mounds of plastic, glass and cardboard that can be sold to recycling centers — threatens them, too.

On April 28, at least four people died after a mountain of trash collapsed on men, women and children — known as "guajeros" (garbage pickers) — who had been scavenging for recyclable material to sell. About 10 people were taken for medical treatment after the collapse. A garbage truck was also buried. Twenty-six people are still listed as missing and presumed dead.

The Guatemala City garbage dump is the largest landfill in Central America. More than a third of the country's trash goes there. The scavengers take out and recycle a million pounds a day. In the process they expose themselves to toxic fumes and hazardous materials.

The most senior scavengers rush garbage trucks to attempt to take over the newest items before anyone else. Tragic tales abound about people in their haste getting crushed by the trucks. Recyclable items include glass and aluminum among other material. Scavengers with the most experience know what different trucks carry; trash from supermarkets and restaurants is valuable, and people collect that to eat or sell later. The trash piles can reach several stories and collapse like one did in April.

"I was home when I heard the news about the collapse," recalled Sr. Gloria Xol, 42, a day after the collapse. She stood in the courtyard of the school surrounded by unusually subdued children. Three children said their grandparents were among the missing.

"We had a special prayer," Xol said. "We had candles and prayed for those affected."

Xol is one of three nuns with the the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin teaching first through sixth grade. The school, established in 1995 and named after Saint Francisco Coll, stands in a barrio dubbed by locals as simply "el basurero," the dump. Students who graduate become eligible for a middle school next door run by International Samaritan.

The families of the barrio live in a network of trash-choked alleyways and hovels cobbled together from corrugated metal, cardboard and wood. Old mattresses buttress thin walls. Families and their animals share beds. Split sacks of recyclables take up the corners of the one or two rooms the shacks have been divided into. More trash fills the alleys. The homes of the scavengers totter on land that had once been part of the basurero above thin layers of sand and rotting garbage that often becomes unstable when it rains. Foul-smelling smoke of garbage fires hover above the barrio like fog.

"I have stopped expecting to work in tidy places," Xol said. "It is part of my work to be in dangerous areas. I am happy to be here. I have a calling and a mission to be here. We believe the Gospel should be taught in everyday life no matter the circumstances."

Most of the adults living in the barrio and working in the dump have little to no formal education. Some fled gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras only to run out of money and stop here. A majority of families are illegally squatting on the land they live on. The Francisco Coll School uses as its address Aguilar One, one of the settlements or squats.

Amidst this blight, the sisters offer what little hope their students have of receiving an education and escaping the life of poverty led by their parents, most of whom scavenge 12 hours a day in the dump, earning just U.S. $1 to $5 a day, seven days a week.

"Many are orphaned," said school principal Sr. Gloria Marlen Guadron, 38.

"They don't get proper nourishment. Another thing, they face gang violence. Thank God I've never had a problem with gang members. As a sister, I'm respected in the community."

But that respect goes only so far inside the classroom when students are exposed to violence on a daily basis.

"The thing is the children bring the reality of their lives into the classroom," Xol said. "They are violent. If I start to correct them, they will talk back to me. 'Hey, you don't know who I am. I know gang members.' If I respond with threats, it will only get worse. I calm them down, try to get them through the episode. I don't criticize. I try to understand their situation."

In one instance, for example, Xol learned that a boy who often started fights was being physically abused by his mother. She would beat him with wires.

"He started crying," Xol recalled. "He told us about the situation at home. He was only 9. I told him the way he felt when his mother beat him was the way the other students felt when he fought with them. I'd like to get into his heart and remove his pain because he hasn't changed."

The pain hasn't stopped for Fernanda Mayen, 12. Both her parents were murdered.

"People say my parents got mugged," Mayen said. "My father, I don't remember when he died. My mom, I was in the second grade three years ago; she died near our home. A friend found her."

Mayen now lives with her maternal uncle in a shack that floods when it rains.

"Mud gets everywhere, and we cannot walk freely because everything gets dirty," she said. "A rug absorbs all the water, so the furniture doesn't get wet but the rug smells."

The financial meltdown and world-wide recession in 2008 made life even more difficult for families here who had little to nothing to start with. Construction jobs that poor people had traditionally depended on vanished. Remittances from friends and relatives abroad have dropped.

"In this area, 25 percent of the whole population is living in extreme poverty," said psychologist Marcelo Colussi, who meets with children from the Francisco Coll School once a week. "The problem is that the broader society equates poverty with criminality and ostracizes this area. That creates an aura that life has no value. People get used to that kind of thinking. They look at it as normal."

About 300 students attend classes from 7:30 a.m. to noon. Many drop out to earn money for their families. An after-school tutoring program focused on math and language skills meets from 2 to 5 p.m. three times a week to offer additional instruction and to keep students off the street after school lets out. About 40 students show up. One, Francisco Ixcoy Socorec, 11, uses the after-school sessions to practice handwriting and multiplication and division.

"I'd like more police so we wouldn't get mugged and jumped in the street," Socorec said. "Sundays it is common to hear shouting and drive-by shootings."

As a result of deep budget cuts, some classes have ballooned to as many as 50 students, said fourth grade teacher Jessica Gomez, 27. She grew up in the barrio and attended school here. Her mother, who works as a janitor at the school, moved into the area when she fled the violence of El Salvador in the 1980s.

"I feel reflected in the children," Gomez said. "I was extroverted and I know how the environment affects the kids. When I was studying to be a teacher, I felt it would be great to come back and give back."

Gomez's late father was an alcoholic. Her mother, Altagracia Arevalo, raised Gomez and six siblings by herself in part by working in the landfill for 12 years, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.

"It was very difficult," said Arevalo, 52. "I had to learn how to pick up food that was still edible for us. I feel sad for the children who don't have support from their parents. Of course, I'd have preferred not to have had to work and support my children but that was my life."

That type of perseverance inspires Guadron, the principal. She joined the order in her native El Salvador after she read a biography of Francisco Coll and began attending prayer groups. She took her vows last year. The shocking conditions of the barrio and the recent deaths in the landfill, she admitted, at times test her faith.

"I think sometimes, 'How can I help my students so they don't become the next victim?'" Guadron said. "I don't know sometimes if we're really helping. I wonder how many of these children will pull through and have a chance in life. How many will fail? Every day when I pray, I put this school and these children in God's hands. It is all I can do."

[J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance writer and author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in KabulWhat Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten. He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism.]