They came from as far away as the border with Mexico—one leaving home at 2 a.m.
In Their Own Words
The following is what four members of the group have to say, in their own words, about Fortaleza's importance:
There's a young woman in a red halter top, hair down her back, rushing in with two toddlers in white dresses clutched to her sides; an old man, his straw cowboy hat held in his lap, taking his seat in the corner; three women in worn housedresses and plastic flip-flops—it's impossible to tell their ages—giggling in their plastic chairs along the wall.
A pot of pache, Guatemalan potato tamale, boils on a nearby stovetop, filling the room with the promise of a meal, maybe the day's only, before the long trek home.
'I Want to Live'
They meet twice a month in this square room on the second floor of an HIV and AIDS facility on the main street of Coatepeque, a dingy little town in western Guatemala. They're a diverse group. But they have two things in common: They all have HIV and they are all poor.
Twenty people in all, farmers, housewives, market vendors. But it's not the virus or their economic condition that brings them together. They call themselves Fortaleza, or Strength, and you can just as easily apply the name to their resolve.
"More than anything, I want to live," says Catalina Gomez. "I want God to keep giving me life." The others say the same thing, like a mantra, or the group's slogan.
'The Habit of Saving'
In Guatemala, where people with HIV lack access to health care and treatments, and face widespread discrimination, the group is helping its members not only live, but thrive.
The group is a prime example of Catholic Relief Services' savings-led model of microfinance. Members contribute what they can. The contributions are then pooled into a community fund—kept in a lockbox—and saved until a member needs to take a loan, or an emergency arises, or the group decides it wants to buy something.
"Giving people a mechanism through which to save helps more than offering them credit, which is a debt they have to repay," explains Melita Sawyer, program specialist in microfinance for CRS. "It doesn't matter what the amount is that people save, it is the habit of saving—of accomplishing something—that gives people hope and allows them to plan for the future."
In Coatepeque, they show up with canvas purses slung over their shoulders, empty save for what they're going to contribute—sometimes as little as 3 quetzales (about 37 cents)—and a deposit card, which is stamped for each contribution and shows how much they've put into the fund.
Since March 2009, the group has saved about $209. It may sound like a pittance, but this is a country where many people live on less than $2 a day.
At meeting's end, the group is treated to something special: A skit put on by local students who use theater to educate the public about HIV and AIDS.
The members of Fortaleza happily drag their plastic lawn chairs into a semicircle. Even the center's two Chihuahua mascots watch as the teens, clad in skinny jeans and T-shirts, nervously put on their show.
It is a dramatization of transformation—from ignorance about HIV and AIDS to acceptance. When the character with HIV drops to the floor, pleading for love, I blush, embarrassed for the group of unsophisticated actors.
But then I look around the room. Members of the audience nod their heads in unison. The elderly woman next to me repeats, prayerlike, "That is just what it's like when your own family rejects you." Then she pulls out a kitchen towel and wipes her eyes. She is not the only one in the room brought to tears by the performance.
My own ignorance hits me hard right then. I guess I totally underestimate how hard it must to be to live with HIV in this country—how isolated and ostracized they must feel. And they don't have access to those uplifting movies and ads we have in the United States. They don't see themselves in anything, so this little bit of drama is a real point of inspiration for them.
Robyn Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean based in Guatemala.
Previous blog post on the group: http://crs-blog.org/hivaids-groups-begin-microfinance-project/