Connie Vanderhyden has given a lot to Nueva Esperanza, Chaculá, a remote, impoverished village in Guatemala’s western highlands.
She helped a group of migrants, displaced from their homes by right-wing death squads, settle there in the early 1990s. In the years that followed, she raised funds so that the village would have electricity and health care, so that young people would have a proper education.
But Vanderhyden, who lives in Viroqua and coordinates the Kickapoo-Guatemala Accompaniment Project, insists that she has gained just as much.
“I’ve learned a great deal about the impact a larger, more developed country can have on a smaller country like Guatemala — politically, economically and historically,” she said. “When you go and see the struggles these people are having, it really puts into perspective how they’ve been exploited.
“It’s a huge, heart-opening situation. I’ve been completely impacted by knowing this community, these people, for so many years.”
Vanderhyden has a sort of second home in this rural corner of Guatemala, having visited at least once a year since 1994, often with a dozen or so Viroqua-area volunteers by her side.
Her efforts have been paid back twofold, she said.
She’s watched poverty-stricken children grow into successful adults, becoming teachers and nurses and lawyers in a place that so desperately needs them.
She’s seen the town itself, built from nothing in the 90s, take on a whole new shape — with a secondary school, a clinic and a paved road all being constructed in recent years.
And just last week, Vanderhyden was presented the North-Central Council of Latin Americanists’ Award of Merit — a tribute to her commitment to a speck of a place about 2,000 miles away.
“It was a surprise and an honor to be acknowledged,” she said. “It means a lot that they feel this work is important, like I do.”
Vanderhyden, 68, had a long career in education, most recently serving as the director of UW-La Crosse’s Academic Success Institute. She taught Spanish at Viroqua’s Youth Initiative High School and continues to work as an interpreter.
But the people of Nueva Esperanza, Chaculá, are never far from her mind, perhaps because she met them at such a volatile time in their lives.
In the 1980s, military repression rose to unprecedented heights in Guatemala. As many as 200,000 people were killed or otherwise disappeared, as massacres wiped out entire indigenous villages.
Once the conflict died down, Vanderhyden’s group elected to start fresh, up in the highlands, rather than return to their homes. Her job was to accompany them and ensure their safety on the journey. Twenty-five years later, she has yet to relinquish that responsibility.
“It became obvious the village wanted accompaniment beyond just the returning process,” she said. Pretty soon, “I was part of their life, participating in their struggles.”
Life in Guatemala has stabilized, but Vanderhyden maintains that human rights and social justice need constant defending, both in Guatemala and across the world.
She points to the white-hot immigration debate, centered now around the migrant caravan trudging across Mexico, and says people and countries should move closer together, not further apart.
“I hope I can continue doing this, and it would be nice if this would continue beyond when I’m able to do it,” she said. “To get out of our own situations and see how other people live, see that different part of life, is a mind- and life-expanding experience for everyone.”