GHRC Delegation–Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty

On Friday morning, our delegation traveled to the American Embassy in Guatemala City to relay our concerns regarding women’s and land rights at the American Embassy. We met with: Political Sector and attaché for Labor and Human Rights; representatives of USAID; the Deputy Director of Narcotics Law Enforcement; and staff from the Department of Immigration, Customs, and Trafficking. 

It was very meaningful to listen to my fellow delegates share how they were affected by the individuals and organizations we had met. Our delegation co-leader, GHRC Director Kelsey Alford-Jones spoke eloquently, imploring the representatives to seek out ways to “advance sustainable and culturally appropriate development that allows for local efforts to flourish.”

After our meeting and lunch at Casa Cervantes, we had a discussion with the Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty (ISMU), a community group made of residents who live in Zones 5 and 6, which are shantytowns situated on ravines. The residents of Zones 5 and 6 formed ISMU to advocate for improved living conditions in their neighborhoods.

Throughout our week, we had often seen these shantytowns from our van window as we drove through Guatemala City. One delegate had asked our driver Carlos if the shantytowns had a name, because in Brazil, such shantytowns were called “favelas.” Carlos told us that Guatemalans call the neighborhoods “limonada” (translated as lemonade) “because lemonade is strong.”

On Friday afternoon, we arrived at ISMU feeling drained from our conversation at the Embassy, but we were soon revived by the warm welcome we received from families of ISMU, many of whose children were present as well. We sat in a circle with the families, and as we ate the generous snack they served us–coffee and tamales made with cheese and a vegetable called lorocco, which had a similar flavor to rhubarb–we learned about the living situation in Zones 5 and 6 that motivated the residents to organize and form ISMU.

ISMU reported that many neighborhoods lacked vital services such as sewage systems and potable water, and as a result children in the community commonly suffer from diarrhea and respitory illnesses. Another member explained that the neighborhoods also lack access to public services. For example, firefighters refuse to come to Zones 5 and 6, if a home caught on fire, residents “would have to use public transit.” Police only come to the neighborhoods “when there is a death,” pharmacies and food delivery services will not come either.

The culmination of these factors prompted the families to come together “in pursuit of dignity and solidarity.” ISMU has a presence in 22 communities, and members focus on helping residents negotiate and mobilize as a collective to ensure their rights are recognized and respected. In the past, ISMU has led a protest in front of the National Palace. Members also had to overcome internal barriers to persist in their community organizing efforts.  Most women in the neighborhoods work from 6:00 am until 7:00 pm, which makes scheduling meetings difficult.  Another barrier is childcare because as mixed gender community group, neither the husband or wife from a family is available to stay with the children during meetings.

The families’ support for one another from within their community is especially valuable, because as one father, who worked as a volunteer fireman, explained, a strong residential prejudice against the people who live in Zones 5 or 6 exists. If residents put their addresses in Zones 5 or 6 on job applications, they are sure to be rejected.  Another ISMU member shared a popular joke that characterized the residents of Zones 5 and 6 as the people who “make stiff tortillas.”

ISMU perseveres, and continues advocating for the passage of a law that would recognize that residents of Zones 5 and 6 possess rights to fair and dignified housing.  Additionally, ISMU provides leadership and training on income-generating skills for women. One such effort is selling handcrafts made from recyclables. Displayed on a nearby table were colorful baskets made from plastic trash bags, funky jewelry made from soda tabs, and many other items that bespoke to ISMU’s capacity for transforming what many see as waste into unique sources of beauty and strength.


Handcrafts made by ISMU from recyclables

After our conversation, our delegation delighted in having “down time” to chat with ISMU and play with the children, and also peruse and purchase handcrafts.


Our delegation and members of ISMU

Learn more about ISMU

1. Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty. International Development Exchange: IDEX Partners. The International Development Exchange, which forms partnerships with community leaders and organizations in developing countries to alleviate poverty, has written a profile for ISMU.

2.  Notes From the Field: IDEX Partner ISMU in Guatemala City. IDEX Blog. 2012. This link is to the IDEX Blog post about ISMU.


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