Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Mayan woman applies extraordinary abilities to serve the poor of Guatemala

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the July 21, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

Adela Tambriz shows one of her staff members some computerized information about FTF reforestation projects. Making extensive use of spreadsheets and computer graphics, her year 2011 Plan of Action includes 40 rows of activities ranging from making kitchen cabinets and installing latrines to constructing houses. The spreadsheet columns show the time period (month) of accomplishment, and staff member responsible for conducting and monitoring the program. (IR photos courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

A Mayan Indian woman makes her way down a mountain path to the home site of a young mother and her 10-year-old daughter. Adela Tambriz carries some ground corn in a hand woven fabric on her head, and some medicines in a bag. She also has a small piece of hard candy for little Antonia.

The widow, Catarina, lives in a decrepit, dirt-floored structure that clings to the steep hillside, like so many others in the Guatemalan land of volcanoes. It has a bed and a fire pit for cooking, but no water, electricity, or even an inside toilet.

Catarina sees Adela coming through gaps in the wood slats of her house. With some effort she pulls herself up from the only chair in the room, and moves outside to greet her visitor. The left side of Catarina’s face and shoulder are badly disfigured from when she had an epileptic seizure and fell into the open fire pit on the floor of her home. She is so severely scarred that the slightest touch causes bleeding.

Life has been difficult for Catarina. Her husband left her two years earlier, and she has no means of support, other than a nearby brother who is already struggling to feed his wife and four children. So Catarina welcomes the maize (corn); it will be the mainstay for many meals of tortillas.

Adela also gives Catarina some ointment for her burns, and instructions on how to take it, along with some guidance about keeping her open sores clean. She has arranged for Catarina to see a doctor, and will be back in four days to take Catarina into the city.

Adela Tambriz is not a nurse, or a government social worker. Nor is she related to Catarina in any way. She is simply a highly devoted servant of the highlands. A Quiché-speaking native, she has dedicated her life to helping the poorest of her Mayan people rise out of poverty and gain a sense of dignity. She does this primarily by guiding natives of the Spokane mission area onto the road of self-sufficiency.

A soft-spoken, but extraordinarily talented woman, Adela has combined an energetic work ethic with innate intellectual and organizational skills, all within the framework of a steadfast Christian faith. Her service has earned her the appreciation of the poor of the Highlands, as well as the recognition of charitable and national officials. Some of her achievements have been recounted in the research study titled Roads to Change in Maya Guatemala.

Adela became the program administrator for Spokane-based Adopt-A-Family (AAF) in 1990 when Sister Liz Judge of the Sisters of Charity of New York was assigned to another region in Guatemala. Adela came to AAF with well-developed computer and personnel skills, having previously administered a children’s program for Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese who ministers in the mission. Aware of the possible paternalistic meaning of the AAF title, and the cooperative nature of the program, she adroitly began referring to the Guatemalan operations as Family-To-Family (FTF), rather than AAF.

For some of the impoverished natives, Adela’s help has come in the way of food, medicine, and housing. She has helped hundreds families learn how to grow vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Thanks to her efforts, numerous families have learned how to care for and raise chickens.

Adela Tambriz shows one of the smaller woven products produced by families participating in one of the weaving courses. Families on the sponsorship program sometimes thank their sponsors by sending them a small woven gift such as a towel or scarf at Christmas time. The photo shows some of the many families that are participating in various programs designed to provide them with skills to produce products that will yield income to make them more self-sufficient.

During the past 20 years, Adela has assisted well over 600 families of the Highlands with building materials and housing needs. For many families, this has also meant having a latrine, or stove and chimney for the first time. She recently received word that a grant she had been working on for several years has been approved. It will help 32 families who are in desperate need of housing.

The major thrust of Adela’s effort, however, has been directed toward training activities to help disadvantaged native people learn skills that will enable them to become economically self-sufficient. To do this, and with support of sponsors from Spokane, she has taught and arranged for training classes that range from weaving, sewing, and embroidery, to baking, carpentry, furniture making, and even raising trout. Some courses have been designed to improve family relations and enhance the self-esteem of the native women. Well over 1,000 native people have benefited from her courses.

To facilitate the training programs, Adela has managed the construction of three training centers in distant locations. The first center, built in the very remote area of Tzamjuyub in 1992, required the construction of a road and some bridges. It also brought about the introduction of (solar powered) electricity to the isolated village.

One of Adela’s most notable, and profitable, accomplishments has been the restoration of forests to several areas of the 7,500-12,000 ft. elevation Highlands. The forests now yield Christmas trees for sale, and provide wood for construction, furniture, and even chicken pens. A side benefit of these programs has been the restoration of ground water to reforested areas that were previously barren.

In addition to being a source of income and employment for native families, the reforestation projects have drawn national and international attention as model programs. The National Forestry Institute of Guatemala has cited Adela for her numerous agricultural, handicraft and construction activities, and she has been awarded a grant from the United Nations Development Program for her work with reforestation and organic food production. In recognition of her work to design and implement sustainable reforestation practices, in 2007 she was invited to join with a Guatemalan delegation in a presentation in Brazil.

Adela Tambriz has used her initiative, skills, and leadership abilities in a way that one might expect from a Nobel Prize winner. She hasn’t received the award yet, but her service to the people of the Spokane mission in Guatemala would seem to be most deserving of it. She is putting action into the worded response that Bishop Bernard Topel gave to Pope Pius XII in 1958 when the pope asked Spokane to help in Latin America. Bishop Topel replied, “I will do something about it, Your Holiness.”

(Jerry Monks is a member of the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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