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Won in Translation

Guatemala, April 3, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In 2001, Mercy Corps hired Carmelina and another woman to serve as "cultural brokers" — go-betweens for the mostly Spanish-speaking staff and the mostly Q'eqchi-speaking visitors. Photo: Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps

On any given morning, the spotless health center in tiny Tucurú, Guatemala is abuzz with activity. Carmelina Botzoc is a big reason why.

In the late 1990s, Mercy Corps was asked to reinvigorate the center by its founders, Jack and Marie Eiting. Not only had it fallen into disrepair, but it had failed to attract Tucurú's overwhelmingly indigenous population.

Mercy Corps immediately made several high-visibility improvements. The grounds were spruced up, and the hospital was scrubbed and equipped with up-to-date technology. Bathrooms were modernized; the pharmacy was stocked full.

But things didn't truly begin to turn around until the hospital, which had alienated many locals, made a change that essentially dusted off the welcome mat.

In 2001, Mercy Corps hired Carmelina and another woman to serve as "cultural brokers" — go-betweens for the mostly Spanish-speaking staff and the mostly Q'eqchi-speaking visitors. The job went beyond translating language. For example, Carmelina found herself lobbying patients to have faith in outside clinicians and exhorting doctors to trust the Q'eqchi people's long reliance on herbal tonics.

"For the local population, seeing people dressed like them and speaking their language gave them more confidence," says Carmelina, 36. "The changes have been great: people are making better decisions about their health, recognizing danger signs and coming here when they need to."

She's also been heavily involved with a Mercy Corps youth program, Jovenes 4 Peace, which has organized a group of indigenous teens to educate their peers and their community about HIV/AIDS.

Carmelina says she's always had an interest in helping people in her community. Even before joining Mercy Corps, she'd worked for 13 years as a volunteer health promoter with the government while she raised her five children, the youngest of whom is now 9. "I enjoy the satisfaction I get from supporting people in the community, from helping them emotionally," she says.

Soon she'll be able to help even more. After starting at Mercy Corps with a sixth-grade education, she's two more years of weekend classes away from becoming a nurse. It's a grueling schedule: She rises at 4 a.m. every Saturday for three hours of buses to the university followed by 12 hours of classes.

But when she graduates, she'll be one of the region's few female Q'eqchi nurses — she knows of only one other. And surely it will be partly because of her that others will follow.