For weeks I’ve been speculating about what Guatemala would be like when I visited it again. Would it be more progressive? Would the downturn in the world’s economy over the past few years have hurt the country badly? Would so many of the members of my church still be struggling economically? Would it look and feel like the same country?
Now that I am here, I find that much of my speculation was right—and it was wrong.
I first came here almost exactly 48 years ago—November 4, 1964. I spent two years as a missionary in Central America, and 12 months of that time in Guatemala City. I have returned twice for 10-day visits, in 1985 and 2000, so I was aware of some of the changes that have taken place. But I wondered how the country had fared over the past decade-plus.
So, does it look and feel like the same country? Yes—the geography, the climate, the culture all still feel familiar. And no—there is something about the people that is different, for the better.
By early morning light, green, forested hills still surround the city, and I can still feel that this is the “land of eternal spring,” where the temperature is almost always pleasant and it’s possible to live without central heating or air conditioning.
But the vista of those hills is punctuated now by many glass, steel, and brick high-rises, and streets that once seemed broad avenues are choked with rush-hour traffic. The city has undoubtedly more than quadrupled in population since that period when I lived here. While many families did not have a telephone in the home back then, I read recently that Guatemala has more cell phones than people, meaning that many Guatemaltecos have more than one phone. When you walk through a shopping mall here, that’s easy to believe. Many teens have gtheir own phones. Guatemalans eat at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King. Pizza Hut delivery motorcycles zip through traffic. They have Walmart; Paiz grocery stores associated with Walmart;Office Depot; and the Guatemalan equivalent of Costco. (Membership here was cheaper than in Salt Lake City.) In exclusive stores and malls, people can buy the latest fashions not only from North America, but also from Brazil and Europe.
I can feel a change in the people. More of them are well educated, the middle class seems much larger, and they have higher expectations.
This holds true for the members of my church as well. Last night we went to a meeting in a big new building in a poorer area of town. Some 200 teens and their leaders were in attendance. They represented several LDS stakes, meaning that they and their families would add up to thousands of members. I admit I shed a tear or two as I looked around me and thought about the meaning of what I was seeing. When I was a missionary in 1964-66, I worked in this area of the city. One small, struggling branch covered the whole northeastern part of town, and its meetinghouse, like almost all the others in the country, was a rented home adapted for use as a church. Sunday attendance of adults, children, visitors, and members might have reached 200 on a good day.
Perhaps the best measure of church growth in the country is seen in a video Sister Searle and I watched a couple of days ago. It was a recording of the cultural celebration that took place the night before the recent dedication of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple. Hundreds of youth from the western part of Guatemala danced folk numbers, sang, and performed in a tribute to their largely Mayan heritage. The production was a well-choreographed, well-rehearsed, well-executed show that was the equal of anything that could be offered anywhere else in the Church. The young people obviously enjoyed themselves. One young woman who sang should be recording CDs commercially.
As we watched, the impression came: “You were part of this.” I thought: “No, surely not I. Others I knew, yes. But I never had the opportunity to serve in this area.” But the impression persisted: “You and all of the missionaries who served with you were part of making this possible.” If so, it is an honor to be included.
After the end of my mission in 1966, there was an opportunity to tour some of the famous ruins of Central America and Mexico on my way home. At Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, I stretched my legs after a long day of travel by climbing up one of the pyramids as fast as I could. I was wearing a Guatemalan typical shirt that surely marked me as a tourist, but as I reached the top, a young Mexican I had passed called out behind me: “Gana Guatemala!” (“Guatemala wins!”)
Guatemala is winning because of the growth of the Church in this country, and I am grateful to have another opportunity to help.