Not yet 30, María, learned quickly about her role in life, as a daughter, sister and woman, and about hard work. In the mountainous area of Huixtan, Chiapas, where she lives, villages are far between. This area, nestled in southern Mexico, is surrounded by forested hills and can only be spotted by the kitchen smoke rising above the trees.
Her wooden house is difficult to reach. Only one road connects this 18-mile area. Public transportation passes infrequently, so walking is a way of life, often consisting of 4-5 hours from home to town. Women walk balancing firewood on their heads, their children lugging branches or water jugs behind, bringing fuel for lunch. They walk to work, they walk for food, they walk for daily necessities, they walk to the health clinic... Each day is a walk.
The closest government health clinic is 25 miles away, with no permanent staff and one nurse available early on weekdays. People are often sick, but they learn to live with discomfort. “We see illness as a natural part of life. We don't question it,” says Maria. Some villages have midwives, others have health promoters, but most communities have no access to health care. They are treated with traditional plants and a good amount of hope.
“Women have to be strong to help their husbands in work, and their children. Men work in the field or in town to provide for their families. Kids learn to help their parents. There is no time to be sick or cry. However, we do get sick, we do need attention…. Unfortunately there is no one to take care of us. We are far away, and we are alone.”
“People suffer because they cannot get to the clinic, it is too far away, there is no transportation, there is no money to get a taxi, and if you do get to the clinic, the staff is not there. It is so hard. You watch your sister bleeding, you hear your child screaming from pain because he burned his hand, you see your niece unable to walk from weakness caused by diarrhea,” María says angrily.
Maria’s life changed when the local collective Camino del Viento built a small clinic staffed by six health promoters. “For us it was a miracle. We had local promoters who knew our conditions and were available all the time. I think many of us were saved by their presence. Looking at their work and dedication, and knowing how much people need health promoters, I decided to join the group. I knew I could help my kids and the kids in the community. I thought, if I am there people will not have to walk. I can be there for them in case of emergency!” Maria’s face brightens.
At first, Maria worked at the clinic as a volunteer, helping with basics, receiving patients, taking histories, helping midwives attend births. Though she was interested in everything and health promoters willingly shared their knowledge, there wasn’t always time to do so, and Maria couldn’t get to the clinic regularly.
Camino del Viento decided to organize a year of workshops to train health promoters from surrounding communities. Maria was the first one to sign-up. “It has been only one year since I started the training. Only one year! ...The things I am learning are of the utmost importance. I am learning when and how to give shots. I learned how to recognize and treat burns and how to prevent water borne diseases. I already treated my neighbor’s daughter who suffered second-degree burns, and I wasn't afraid. I had everything here,” she points to her head, “...and here,” she holds up her medical notebook.
“We suffer from burns a lot,” explains Maria. “We cook using wood, with the fireplace on the floor. We put pans just above the fire.... Children are still able to reach the pots. It happens all the time. The children have bad scars ...because we get to the hospital too late. I am so happy I know how to treat it. Even more, I learned what to tell people in order to prevent these accidents. I organized a couple of talks with neighbors so they can protect their children. I talk to people about water and how it is related to intestinal problems. People don't know they can prevent suffering. They just think since it is rainy season, we are going to get sick.”
Maria wants to share her knowledge with everyone. She has a deep desire to motivate more people to participate in the courses and serve their communities as health promoters.
“We don’t have other options. We suffer government negligence. We cannot save our kids because of poverty, lack of roads, and lack of access to medical services. It is our decision to fight against this reality because the world around us is not going to change. If we don’t learn how to help ourselves we will continue seeing our children die from diseases that could be prevented.”