When Tita Evertsz first set foot in La Limonada in 1994, she was walking into one of the most dangerous slums in Guatemala City, a city that then had one of Latin America’s highest homicide rates. It was a neighborhood that the police rarely entered, even though it is home to more than sixty thousand people and sits at the foot of the country’s Supreme Court building. On that first day, Tita didn’t know what she was getting into. But twenty-five years later, she’s still there.
Back when my grandmother was young, La Limonada was largely uninhabited, a ravine of foliage about one mile long by half a mile wide, split by a winding stream. She would tell me stories about it on childhood visits to Guatemala – stories of a valley filled with lemon trees. There were so many lemons, she said, that in the early morning or late evening, when the sun was a deep orange and the dew rose to eye level, you could stand on the damp soil of the ravine, open your mouth, and feel drops of lemonade on your tongue.
When I repeated this description to Tita, a delicate woman with a face dominated by her smile, she laughed. The citrus groves are long gone. But today, she said, the name is still deserved, since the people who live here are “as tough as lemons.” She grinned and made a fist.
The once-lush ravine is now crowded with cinderblock shanties, their tin roofs held in place with more cinderblocks or scrap metal. The stream still flows but is chocolate-colored, mixed with trash and sewage redirected from other parts of the city.
The first influx of squatters who settled here used it as a hiding place – an alternative to ending up in a grave. They were refugees from the repression that followed the CIA-backed overthrow in 1954 of Guatemala’s President Jacobo Árbenz, a democratically elected leader with socialist leanings. The government-sponsored reign of terror lasted more than three decades and left at least two hundred thousand people dead or disappeared. The ones who escaped to La Limonada built shacks and used rainwater for bathing, cooking, and drinking. Though the number of settlers quickly reached into the thousands, they were considered homeless and did not figure in government census reports. Since then, several generations of neighborhood residents have spent their lives working menial jobs, hustling, and begging. It’s not a place where nuclear families last long; what takes their place is gang life.
Standing at the edge of the La Limonada ravine is like looking down into a crater of stalled dreams – “the cemetery of the living,” as journalist José Alejandro Adamuz Hortelano has called it. But Tita Evertsz doesn’t see it that way. “I sit at the edge of La Limonada and all I smell is hope.”
In 1994, before she first entered La Limonada, Tita had been volunteering at a nearby general hospital when a mother and her ten-year-old daughter were rushed into the emergency room. Much of their skin had been scorched away; the match that started the blaze had been lit by the woman’s husband. Tita spent days at the girl’s side. There she had an epiphany: “Rather than fish bodies out at the mouth of the river, I decided it was better to go upstream to see who, or what, was throwing them in.”
Without knowing what to expect, Tita walked into the La Limonada ravine. Homes with no windows flanked alleyways only a few feet wide. Low-slung clotheslines of wet T-shirts hung inches above her head.
It was a dark time of her life, Tita told me, but also one that set her on her path. A mother of four, she returned a few days after her first visit, pushing a stroller with her four-year-old daughter and a pot of rice and beans inside. She handed out food to hungry children and single moms. Walking among the neighborhood’s gang members, dealers, and addicts, Tita saw something of herself in the faces around her: she had spent years in an abusive relationship and was no stranger to the allure of drugs. She prayed: “Lord, help me to prevent this and not have to heal it.”
She soon decided to focus on the children of the neighborhood. Within a year, she founded Vidas Plenas (Full Lives), whose mission, as stated on the organization’s website, has been to “support the physical, educational, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of the children, youth, adults, and families of La Limonada and other communities that need it.” At first, she met with resistance from some residents, especially the drug dealers, who saw her efforts as a threat to their influence. Then it took her several years to find a suitable location for the school she wanted to start. But she persisted, and in the year 2000, the first students filed through the school doors.
The school is now called Limón Academy, after the neighborhood’s signature fruit. Since then, it’s been joined by three additional schools (a fourth is under construction) named for the mandarin, orange, and grapefruit. Approximately four hundred children now attend these academies, served by a staff of forty. The schools charge no tuition and receive no government assistance; they seek to supplement the children’s public education and serve as community centers. The only requirement for parents is mandatory attendance at a monthly parenting class where they receive counseling and updates on their child’s progress. “Focusing only on the children is like trying to fly a plane with one wing,” Tita says. “We needed to get the parents – the second wing – involved.”
A typical day at the academies starts with the children, aged two to twelve, washing their hands, taking a vitamin, eating a balanced meal, and brushing their teeth. After a short Bible study, they do their homework, study art, or engage in sports and physical education.
I sit at the edge of La Limonada and all I smell is hope.
The academies can’t save everyone, of course. Students regularly drop out, falling victim to necessity or temptation, and even those who stay must contend with the pull of criminal activity. Amelia, for example, comes from a family of thieves, a skill they passed down to her. Stealing is still her family’s livelihood – but Amelia says that, thanks to Tita, she “steals less now.”
Other students’ stories are of outright success. Several alumni have gone on to complete college, taking advantage of scholarships Tita has offered. One former student, Abby, is now a teacher at one of the academies.
If you stand at the rim of the ravine and know where to look, you can spot the brightly colored academies of Limón, Mandarina, Naranja, and Toronja below. You can see roses growing in pots on window sills and freshly washed teddy bears hung out to dry in the warm air. The air doesn’t taste like lemonade, but it is full of hope.