Where Peace Can Reign Through a Pair of Shoes3 years ago
In a mile long ravine in the middle of Guatemala City, a slum called La Limonada houses somewhere between 60,000-100,000 people. Broken into 10 different barrios, or neighborhoods, the boundaries of which are known by the gangs that are so prevalent here. This is considered one of the most dangerous slums in the world.
Poverty is on every corner. Narrow alleyways are lined with concrete walls and metal roofs. Glue bottles litter the streets, the drug of choice here, and an empty sign of the desperation to escape, even if just for a few hours. There is hunger, violence and pain within this slum, and that is seen in the faces of the gang members and their victims alike.
Guatemala has the fifth highest homicide rate in the world. Gangs from LA migrated down into the country during the 36-year civil that declared 200,000 people “missing” who were never recovered. The instability of the country made it an ideal place for the gangs to recruit, children mostly, many of which were either living on the streets at an early age, or were responsible for caring for themselves for hours each day while their parents or guardians worked.
The school system in Guatemala only has children attending for a half day, approximately 3-4 hours of schooling, which not only places them at a disadvantage in their education, but without childcare, many children are on their own. There is no aftercare, no daycare. Sometimes a parent is able to remain home with them, or another relative cares for them.
These exposed children, really just looking for a place to belong and perhaps a full belly, are easy swooped up by the gangs. This becomes their family, people with whom to relate and care for them. It fills a void left by the lack of parental and familial support. It becomes their support system, except it’s one that does nothing but take advantage of them.
It is extremely difficult to escape the gang life. Gangs essentially brand their members by placing gang tattoos in visible places on the face and neck. This defining mark is an identifier for potential employers and that person is automatically labeled as untrustworthy, without room for an explanation of change and a desire to move beyond a darker past. It provides a brutal atmosphere of hopelessness for gang members looking to leave and find employment. Others attempt to escape and are murdered. The gangs trap members in a way that is very similar to human trafficking in other industries. They are coerced, marked, threatened, and sometimes abused to keep them in line with the desires of the ruling gang members.
But, there are places where hope exists. Where former gang members are embraced with open arms and a nonjudgmental attitude of understanding exists. In the slum of La Limonada in Guatemala City, one such place exists. Otto Garcia, a former gang member himself, understands the complexity of the gang life. He knows what it’s like to be desperate, and he knows how hard it was to leave. Otto grew up with a single mom who worked 2 jobs to support them. He left school after the sixth grade, unable to attend further because of the cost, and began his career as a shoemaker at the age of 10. After years in the gang, he was able to leave, and through a micro loan, eventually began his own shoemaking business. While an obvious goal was to provide for his family, he also had another plan: to provide work for people like himself who wanted to turn their life around. He wanted to provide options: to give people the opportunity to leave the gang, and to prevent the younger generation from ever starting. All of this is possible through a pair of shoes.
Opportunity is key in violent areas such as La Limonada. It will never solve all of the problems, but it can certainly play a role in reducing violence and allowing for new life to begin. It is amazing what a simple job can do in promoting peace and security in vulnerable places of the world. Investing in people and entrepreneurs like Otto can make an incredible difference. He believes in people, regardless of their past, and can see the good in them. His ability to relate makes him an invaluable asset to his community, as a leader and business owner, and he truly believes that change will come. All of this is possible through a pair of shoes.
And Otto’s story is not yet finished. His business is growing and thriving and he has big dreams of hiring more and more people. Not as a way to profit for himself, but as a way to provide a way out. Jobs as a path to peace are critical in communities like La Limonada, options are essential, and opportunity is paramount. Peace can reign in the vulnerable places.
Otto has partnered up with The Root Collective, a US-based ethical fashion company that believes strongly in empowering and uplifting marginalized communities. Having access to a buying market has allowed Otto’s vision to continue to grow and take shape. He’s been able to hire men, like Hubert. Hubert’s story is one of incredible hardship, but you’d never know it by his quiet manner and soft demeaner. Hubert has been given a second chance at life and, as he puts it, “I just love making shoes.” There is hope in his eyes that shines beyond the gang tattoos. And all of this is possible… through a pair of shoes.
Photo credit to Em Grey at Shimmers of Grey