Free Our Speech

Through her involvement with ATD Fourth World, an activist is empowered to speak out to defend the rights of others.

By Raquel Juarez (Guatemala)

A few months ago, I got the chance to speak with some of my country’s government ministers. I didn’t know them, but naturally we started chatting as we happened to be having lunch together. When I found out who they were, I told them about the help that families in difficult living conditions receive and how, from my point of view, there are other ways to help us.

“It would be much better if we could get a decent job and pay for our children’s education ourselves; a bag of food doesn’t help us much, it’s all gone after a week. Instead of arriving with tankers full of water during a political campaign, lay a pipe so that we get water every day”, I said. They were surprised that I had said such things to them. They thought I was ungrateful for the help we received. I think it was the first time they had heard something like that.

You have to talk to the people who have the power to change things; you have to make them understand so they can’t evade people, but rather support them. It’s important they recognise that poverty is not just a study — you have to walk hand in hand with those who suffer the effects of it and not just judge or accuse them.

But life in Guatemala is discriminatory; it’s not easy to find the strength to motivate ourselves to speak, to demand that our rights be exercised. One of the things that encourages me to speak is seeing the injustices and inequalities that exist in my country. It’s simply unacceptable that children are dying from malnutrition and that families are suffering. We have to be courageous enough to speak for ourselves and for others in order to make that change.

Others in my community come and find me when they are struggling; I speak up for the families, and I support them. But it is not only a question of support, I take time to speak with the neighbours and help them recognise their rights. We must look after those who are suffering, give them strength, and let them know that they are not alone and advise them when necessary.

Being able to speak out without fear is not easy. It is a fear that other people and I have had to overcome. Our involvement with ATD Fourth World has allowed us to learn through activities and family gatherings where we have talked about different topics: children’s education, work, everyday life. At first, I just listened to what they said and I didn’t understand everything; however, bit by bit, I began to participate more and express myself freely.

When I talk to my comrades like Dona Mikaela, she tells me that she didn’t even look up before, yet now she is someone else when she speaks. She has been freed from many things. I can’t imagine what she was like before; now she can raise her voice and defend someone when they are being mistreated. I’m proud to hear that my friends speak with courage.

School is where we should be able to talk the most. My youngest child has had to repeat the first year of primary school several times. This year, I decided to move schools and her new school told me my daughter doesn’t have any problems. In fact, she has made great progress. After that, I went back to the previous school to talk to the head teacher in order to stop them from doing the same with other children. It’s not fair that children spend so many years in the first grade to then not be accepted anywhere else as they are too old.

It’s also difficult because, I speak up in order to avoid being humiliated and people aren’t pleased about that. That hurts, but it is also an honour, a strength and a joy to know that I’m not a pushover and that I can now defend myself.

There are times when they tell me I am a revolutionary, and that makes me laugh because I remember that they also called Joseph Wresinski a revolutionary because he was on the side of those living in poverty.