Portrait of three smiling SOS girls from Children's Village Jocotán, Guatemala…
An interiview with Mariana García Perez who was born in 1949 in Guatemala:
Portrait of three smiling SOS girls from Children's Village Jocotán, Guatemala
An interiview with Mariana García Perez who was born in 1949 in Guatemala:
An Introduction to Mariana "I had the idea because I loved being with children and had already worked with them. I found out that these children were motherless and thought they needed the help of a mother." Mariana is an SOS Children's Village mother in Guatemala, who has been there right from the start. She is a prime example of one of a first generation SOS mother. She is a mother with "mucho amor" for the children, a mother with all her being. At least that is what Mariana is now, but as she says, she used to be irascible and impatient. Living with the children has changed her. When Mariana started working for SOS Children's Villages, she had completed three years of primary schooling. During her career as an SOS Children's Village mother, she has quietly caught up on her education. Even during our long conversations, this subject hardly ever comes up. Mariana enthuses about her training to be an SOS mother and about the constant in-service training she still receives.
For many women, who take on the profession of an SOS mother, it is a positive step forward .In the developing countries, this starts with the fact that the women get access to education, as well as the chance to be a working woman and, in some countries, to be able to live on their own. For the women who come from the poorest backgrounds, being an SOS mother means they have taken a step up socially, have material security, even into old age, and receive training and prestige as a working woman. These women have taken the opportunities presented to them and are able to pass this on to the children in their care.
The Story of Her Life "Even if we did not have very much, at least we had something." My father's name was Pio García and my mother was called Amalia Perez. We were four children, two boys and two girls. Now there are only two of us still alive, one brother and myself. I was born in Dos Quebradas and was the third of my parents' children. My father died when I was twelve years old. By then there were only three children living at home, because my eldest brother had already married. We worked together with my mother in the fields. My older sister stayed at home and did the housework, because she did not like working in the fields. Then she got married. My job was to look after my married brother's animals and to help with the coffee bean harvest.
When I was seventeen, one of the sisters said that I could work in the school. I did the washing there, cleaned and made sure that the children's clothes were clean. I liked working for the children. When the children were older, between twelve and fifteen years old, the mother superior sent me out with them to work in the fields as well. Time passed. I worked there for eleven years and in the meantime my mother died.
There was no school and no teacher in the place where I grew up. However, my sister read an advert in the paper, which said that it was possible to learn by doing a correspondence course. I was already able to write a few letters and so I filled out the piece of paper and asked for the correspondence course from the capital. One day I received all the papers. They sent me all the books. So I worked all day and learned at night, but I only got as far as the third year.
I enjoyed working with the children for eleven years. Then I had problems and went to the town of Chiquimula to work. I was there when the first houses were built here in the SOS Children's Village. One day, Auntie Luisa (Note: Luise Sinnhuber was then the project director for SOS Children's Villages in Guatemala) came to visit Father Gabriel and he recommended me to her. Then she came to Chiquimula and spoke to me. That's how I came to SOS Children's Villages. Father Gabriel convinced me to take the job, even though I was a bit afraid. At first I didn't want to take the job, but he came twice and told me that I would be able to go on a course and that I should at least give it a try. So I filled out the forms. A fortnight later, I got the letter saying that I had been accepted and could attend the course in Quetzaltenango.
Could you describe your parents in more detail for us? My father was a farmer. He worked the land. He grew maize, black beans, animal feed and sugar cane. He made unrefined sugar from the sugar cane. He did that every year by hand. In order to get the juice out of the sugar cane you had to use three sticks; one big one and two smaller ones. One man stood at each side, the sugar cane was in the middle and two oxen walked in circles to get the juice out. The sugar juice was then cooked in a big tub. You needed a lot of wood so that it cooked hard enough to turn into syrup. Finally, the syrup was poured into pipes where it cooled and hardened. My father was a small man. He was thin but was a good worker and enjoyed working. He had four brothers and four sisters.
My mother was from Muyurcó. She was also one of nine children, five boys and four girls. She also liked working. She used to get up with my sister at three in the morning to grind corn on a stone. That was hard work. She worked the land and weeded the maize field. I used to work together with my mother a lot. We gathered in the beans and picked the coffee beans. Even if we did not have very much, at least we had something.
Can you remember your grandparents? I can only vaguely remember my grandparents from my father's side. On my mother's side I only knew my grandmother. She was a tall, thin woman and she spoke Chortí, the indigenous language. My parents couldn't speak it any more because my grandfather couldn't speak Chortí. My grandparents were the same as my father - they were farmers.
Are you still in touch with members of your family? One of my uncles from my father's side is still alive. He sometimes comes to visit me when I am at my little house. My brother also visits me regularly on my days off. My younger brother is dead. He was dragged off and killed by the guerrillas. My big sister is also dead already. We were neighbours in Camotán and her children, three girls and three boys, still live there. I sometimes visit them.
Do you know a woman who is a role model for you? I admire one of my nieces: she was ten years old when my brother, her father, disappeared from the face of the earth. We didn't know what had happened to him. He just disappeared. Two years later, the mother also deserted the children. My niece was the eldest and she took on the role of the mother. They lived with my other brother, and she brought up her brothers and sisters. She only got married when the other children didn't need her anymore. She is the woman I admire most.
Do you have a good friend that you can talk to? Yes, I have one friend here at work and another one outside. That's my niece, but she is like a friend to me. I talk about everything that happens outside of the SOS Children's Village with her. I think that everybody needs somebody that they can talk to.
What are your particular strengths? A sense of responsibility. I am responsible for everything I do here. And I try to keep everything nice and clean. Order and responsibility are very important to me.
What do you like to do in your free time? When I have some free time, but there's not much of it, I take the children to the playground. On my days off, I go shopping to Jocotán, or I go to the doctor in Chiquimula if I need to. I like to read the bible and to clean my little house. When I go to Dos Quebradas, I help my niece with the housework, or we take the children for a walk across the fields.
Motivation for Her Choice of Profession "I have always liked children and they also grow fond of me very quickly." I had the idea, because I loved being with children and had already worked with them. I found out that these children were motherless and thought they needed the help of a mother. I first heard about SOS Children's Villages from a friend, who was working in a small hospital whilst I was still working at the school. She told me about it and we went to the SOS Children's Village together. She is still an SOS mother in Quetzaltenango. It all started with the course in Quetzaltenango. There I was trained in how to work with children. First there was a three-month course and then I spent ten months working as an SOS aunt. When I had finished the ten months, the first family house here had been completed. Auntie Luisa told me I could come to Jocotán as an SOS mother. So, I started on the 15th of April 1983 with seven children. I was thirty-three years old then. Another child joined us in the first month, so then there were eight. That was the first group of children here in the SOS Children's Village.
Was there a point when you decided, "That's what I want to do"? Yes, there was a point. The priest, who had recommended me, told me that I would be responsible for a house here and would have to run it. I didn't know anything about the job. It was only with time that I found out what it was all about. I was a bit scared, because I didn't know whether I'd be able to manage it, but during the course they explained the work to us and showed us a lot. Then I knew that, with time, I would be able to do it. I have always loved children and they also grow fond of me very quickly. Then I decided to become an SOS Children's Village mother, because these children would have strong ties with me.
How did your family react when they found out that you wanted to be an SOS Children's Village mother? As my parents were both dead by then, there was only one of my brothers and my sister. Before I started, I told my sister that I would be going away and would be starting with SOS Children's Villages. I told her about the work and who I would be living with. She approved.
Did you ever think about starting a family of your own? I never thought about that. I always wanted to help. My brother who died, the one who was dragged off by the guerrillas, he drank a lot. I was always worried about what would happen to his children if he were no longer there. It would have been terrible if there had been nobody there for them anymore. I never thought about having a family of my own, because I wanted to be able to help my nephews and nieces. When he was taken away, I was already in Quetzaltenango. I supported his wife financially but she simply went away two years later. After she disappeared, my nephews and nieces moved in with my other brother. I helped them, particularly financially, until they could look after themselves.
Experiences as an SOS Mother "You have to work with a lot of tolerance here, because what the children need is love." When I came here, the youngest child was one year old. I have come to love them so much, that has made me happy here and I can work with joy and enthusiasm. After I had been here for two years, I was given a three-day-old baby, José-Manuel. That was the greatest joy. That is what gives me inner satisfaction. So, I have been happy here up to now and still enjoy my work very much.
How would you describe your task as an SOS mother? There are no words to describe it. It doesn't seem like work to me. That's how I feel about it - it isn't work at all. The most important thing is to have the will to fulfil the tasks, and I do that with love and dedication. I give a lot of myself and pray to God to give me patience.
Have you, as a person, changed since being in the SOS Children's Village? Yes, I would say that I've changed, especially my personality. I didn't have much patience in my previous jobs but when I came to the SOS Children's Village, I realised that children need a lot of patience. I feel that I have gained more patience every day since I've been here. I am also more committed and give more of myself than I used to. One reason for that is that I now live together with a group of people. Before I came to the SOS Children's Village I was a bit grumpy, irascible and bad tempered. With God's help and thanks to Him, I have in that direction since being in the SOS Children's Villages. You have to work with a lot of tolerance here, because what the children need is love. You have to be careful that your temper doesn't run away with you. I think it was the children who most helped me to become patient.
You have already mentioned your training in Quetzaltenango. I would like to know how you experienced it. I was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to remember anything they showed us. We had to take an exam at the end and I wanted to pass, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to work in the SOS Children's Village and I wanted to work there. I enjoyed all of the training, but cookery was my favourite. They also showed us how to mother a child. I had never had a child, but they showed us how to deal with a small child and how to love it. Then we sat the exam and the next day they told me that I had got everything right. I was also worried, because I'd only had three years of primary schooling and we also had lessons in maths, language and writing. But they helped us. We also had exams in public relations, cookery and first aid. I passed everything. That made me want to do the job even more. I knew that I would be able to put into practice all that I had learned in theory, because I had already worked as an SOS aunt. That really motivated me and gave me strength. When Auntie Luisa brought me here I already felt a bit surer.
Have you taken part in any in-service training since? Yes, the last in-service training was in Quetzaltenango at the end of July. We have one week's course every year. They used to be more spiritual days, days for reflection and self-examination. But, since the purpose-built centre has been completed, we have had a course every year. We refresh our knowledge about children, how to deal with them and how to live together with them. I enjoy these courses, because they help me. I always return with greater inner strength.
Could you tell us how your working relationship with the other SOS mothers has developed? I get on well with the other SOS mothers. We have to work well together, because the children see how we interact with one another. If I need something, I go to one of my neighbours and they give me it. For example, if I have a lot to do, I go to one of the SOS mothers and ask her if she could help me. She comes and helps. We all get together once a month and, for example, celebrate the birthdays. We also have a "savings package". Each of us puts a small amount in a piggy bank and every month the contents are paid out to one of the SOS mothers. Whoever is going to receive the next monthly payout invites all the others for coffee. We also have work meetings with the village director when he wants to make an announcement or something. There is no fixed date for these. A memo is sent out telling us when the next meeting will take place. He's an incredible person, a good man. He often comes to our houses to visit us and we work together very well. If a small problem arises with one of the children, he immediately comes to help.
Are you able to relax on your days off? Yes I can, but when you've been working here for as long as I have, you feel best when you are here rather than anywhere else. I always get slightly ill when I go outside. I'm happiest when I have my days off and the children are not at school. Then I can take at least two of them with me, if the village director gives me permission. During term time, I can only take the little ones, because the bigger ones have schoolwork to do. But now, in the holidays, I take three of them with me at a time until the holidays are over. The children enjoy that too.
What sort of contact do you have with your surroundings, or the village that you come from? I have a lot of contact. On my days off I visit people who live close by, my family and friends. I like to talk about other things such as farming, for example. I can never be quiet. I always have to be talking to people. I also like to take the children to church festivities. I take the children to Camotán, where I come from, on the 8th of December, which is the day of the Immaculate Conception. And here in Jocotán, the 25th of July is the day of the local patron saint, Santiago. We always take part in those festivities too.
What have been the nicest and most difficult experiences you have had in your time in the SOS Children's Village? It's nice to see how the children grow. The best thing was when the first girl graduated from school. It was also wonderful when I was given the little one. At the time I wasn't feeling too good. My legs were hurting and I was a bit depressed. Then they gave me the little one and, I don't know what happened, but all of a sudden the pains were gone and everything was all right. I was extremely happy to get him.
It was very difficult for me when my sister died five years ago. That really affected me. The death of the SOS mother from house number two also affected me badly. About a year ago, she was on holiday when she became ill and she never returned. This SOS mother had been here for seventeen years when she died. She was such a good woman.
Have you been here long enough to have met Hermann Gmeiner? What impression did he make on you? As far as I'm concerned, he is a saint. I tell the children about everything he did and that he's in heaven now, taking care of us. We have taken in so many children who were extremely malnourished. If it hadn't have been for him, they would have died. I feel that he isn't dead and is still amongst us. That's what I think about Hermann Gmeiner. We always pray for him at mealtimes.
When you think about your future, how do you see yourself in ten years' time? As a little old lady! I think in ten years I will look a lot older. Up to now people don't believe how old I am. I hope that I can be with the children right until the end. If God should let me live, but I no longer have the strength to work with the children, then I would like to work in the fields again. I would like to have two cows. That's what I would like but only God knows what He has in store for me.
Do you know yet when you will retire? Definitely not now! There is, of course, the arrangement that an SOS mother can retire after fifteen years if she is in bad health. But Auntie Luisa told me that it's possible to do twenty-five years and I'd like to do that. I hope that God will give me the strength to do it.
The Children in Her Care "There used to be a playground too, over by the mango tree, where the flowers are." The five that were on the photo I showed you were my first children. They arrived on the 15th of April. Two more joined us two days later, and in July another arrived. Then I had eight children. The change in climate from Quetzaltenango, where it was cool, to here, where it is hot, made it difficult for me in the beginning. We were also the only family in the SOS Children's Village at that time. Nobody moved into the next house until June. The village director, Father Gabriel, also only arrived at the end of June. The SOS aunt and myself were all on our own for three months. But the children soon felt at home. You could sense that they needed love and that they hadn't had any before. I spent a lot of time with them. We played and talked and I took them for walks along the river. Then school started and only the youngest stayed at home. The days just passed. I helped them with their homework, which was difficult for me because two of them had problems with maths and I had to help them every afternoon. But they all survived the school year and advanced to the next class. By the end of the year there were families in three houses and there were other children to play with. There used to be a playground too, over by the mango tree, where the flowers are. Then the second year at school started and the children were doing better. That's how we started.
Then a kindergarten teacher and primary school teacher came to the village and from then on the children went to kindergarten and primary school here. I had a lot of fun with the littlest one, as he was always so happy. When I was cooking, he used to walk through the whole house, pick up a basket and say, "Buy some bread, buy some bread!" Time passed and he grew up and became more and more astute. Because he was so young when he came here, he always looked at the village director as his father. The director often came to visit the children and have coffee with them. The little boy would give him a hug and say, "Here comes dad!" Three years later I was given another little one. They all grew up and by the time they were in the fifth year at primary school, they were already helping in the kitchen and with the cleaning. By the time the girls had finished primary school they could already cook. The eldest one could even bake bread. The three girls then went to the secondary school in Chiquimula and boarded there. They always came home at weekends and in the holidays, though. The eldest boy then moved to the youth home. Three of the children didn't want to continue their education, just finish primary school. One of them went to America when he was sixteen. I don't know if he's still there, because he doesn't write any more. We stayed in touch for a while. He wrote and even sent me a bit of money but that's two years ago now. I don't know how he got into the States, but I'm sure it wasn't legally. The first time he tried, he got arrested, but the second time, he managed to get in. He wrote me all that in a letter. He asked me to send his birth certificate, which he needed for work.
What are the other children from the first generation doing now? Of the first ten that I had, six have learned a trade, two just completed primary school, one is in the States and one is a policeman. The first group was made up of ten children. The eleventh one that I had is still here as part of the second round. He's in the third year of secondary school and working for McDonald's now. He did a practical there last year and they kept him on straight away. That was a bit of luck, because it's very difficult to find work.
How many children are living with you now? I've got ten children here again now, including the one from the first round. The children all have their moments. They argue with one another, but after a while it's all forgotten and they're playing with each other again. I have four boys and six girls. The eldest girl was so undernourished that you could count her ribs. The three boys will be moving to the youth home at the beginning of next year. Two have completed the middle school and will be starting apprenticeships, the third has just finished primary school, but because he's already sixteen, he'll be moving to the youth home as well. He was already quite old when he came here and that's why he's so behind with his schooling. But he wants to continue. He was the best pupil in the school. He has the ability to learn. The other children are still at primary school and one is at middle school.
What do you know about where the children come from? I don't know much. Three of them are from a town here in Camotán. Their mother died and their father abandoned them. The parents of two of them both died. I don't know what of. Perhaps it was an illness. A lot of people in these small villages are sick. We got the children from very poor huts. There was a cholera epidemic. The parents probably died during that. The grandparents couldn't cope with the children and applied for them to be taken into the SOS Children's Village. Two other sisters, whose parents had also died, were living with an aunt who was very poor too. The eldest, his mother died giving birth to him and his father has an alcohol problem. He never comes to visit and the boy doesn't even know his father.
Are the children still in touch with any members of their families, aunts or grandparents? There is an agreement in the SOS Children's Village that relatives are allowed to visit the children every three months. Some visit, others don't. I have one boy here whose father visits him regularly. The aunt of two of the girls often visited, but she fell ill and we don't know what's happened to her. But the children are happy here and they feel that they were born here.
Do the children ask about their parents? If the children were older when they arrived here, they would talk about their previous life. The eldest, who is sixteen, never asks about his parents. He knows that his father is alive, but never asks after him. I told him he should visit his father before he moves to the youth house, but he said, "No, this is my home and this is the place I'll come back to."
Do you know the children's hopes for their futures? The older ones already know what they want. They want to finish their education and then work. One of them wants to go to the military academy. One wants to become an accountant and says he wants to work and build himself a little house. The youngest says he wants to finish his schooling and his training and then move in together with a woman and live with her. The girls want to become kindergarten teachers or teachers, but they're still very young and don't really know exactly what they want to do.
What do you hope, for the girls and the boys? I hope that they all complete their training. I just hope for the best for all of them, and that they all become valuable members of society. They should become good people who can stand up for themselves and keep evil at bay. That's all I want for them.
What special thing do you think you can give the children to help them on their way? I think that it's important for me to be able to give them responsibility for themselves. I want them to be able to take the best with them into life. I'm happy, because up to now they have all found work and are making their way in life. It was difficult for them to find work after they'd finished school, but it worked in the end. Even though they weren't living here anymore, I was still worried about them.
Are you still in touch with the children who have left home? Yes, they visit me every year. I'm overjoyed when they all come at Christmas, for example. The one who is a policeman always says, "I wish I were a little boy again and then I could stay here forever." He comes here quite a lot, because with his job he has more free time. The little ones still see him as a brother. He likes to play with them and they enjoy that.
Once the youths are living in the youth home, do they still come back here? None of mine are in the youth home at the moment, but they used to come every Sunday and if ever there was a celebration, or on Mothers' Day. It's just like going home for them. The ties are never lost. They are always there.
To my Colleagues Around the World You always have to pass on your entire inner strength to the children. You have to love them as if they were your own children, and must try to be patient. I believe that you can achieve much with patience. That is what we need. You have to accept the children as they are. That is all I can say. I don't have any more words to express it. Greetings to all and, "onwards, onwards!"
SOS Mothers drinking tee at the SOS Children's Village Hohenau, Paraguay
I've been finding out about the SOS Children's Village Work in Paraguay:
In 1973, three years after the National Association was founded, the first SOS Children's Village in Paraguay was opened in Hohenau. Construction started on a second village in the capital of Asunción in 1981 and SOS Children's Village San Ignacio followed in 1988. SOS Children's Village Panambí was opened in 1993 and is a facility for disabled children. SOS Children's Village Luque was officially opened in 1999 and the newest SOS Children's Village so far was built in Belén, in the north of the country in 2002.
Existing SOS Children's Village Facilities: 6 SOS Children's Villages, 3 SOS help for teenagers, 3 SOS nursery schools, 2 SOS Schools, 1 SOS Social Centre, 3 SOS Medical Centres, 4 SOS Vocational Training Centres