Please help keep this Site Going

Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


Two Women, Divided by Opportunity

EXCHIMAL, Guatemala — When I was 15, I started to learn how to drive a car.

When Olga Marina Mendoza Raymundo was 15, she got married.

When I was 16, I took the SAT.

When she was 16, Olga gave birth to her first child.

And 10 months ago, as I was enjoying the beginning of my senior year of college, Olga was mourning the death of her husband.

Now as I begin a journalism career, Olga is a 25-year-old widow, a single mother who works full-time farming crops and embroidering clothing, trying to make enough money to feed her three daughters.

She wishes she could have made it beyond second grade and thinks an education would have opened up more opportunities for her. But that is a distant fantasy, a useless “what if” that she has little time for.

“We barely ate,” she remembered. “What we did was work.”

I met Olga in the sky-blue courtyard of an elementary school in Guatemala’s western highlands. The circumstances that put Olga where she is and me where I am are random, capricious and in many ways cruel. As a saying goes, “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

We often call this the lottery of birth, but I worry that phrase doesn’t do Olga justice — or does too much to clear us of responsibility. A lottery is chance, but my good fortune and Olga’s misfortune are partly the results of policies in my country and hers. I also wonder if the term “lottery” legitimizes a kind of fatalism, even an indifference to those who draw the wrong ticket.

Olga’s ability to feed her family or go to school should not require winning the lottery. Those are human rights.

Olga doesn’t know exactly how her husband died last year. It was an accident of some sort. He was working on the Guatemalan coast, where they had met a few years before when she was there working with her family.

“We met and he told me, ‘I’ll take care of you, you won’t have to work,’” she told me.

But since his death, Olga is now the sole person responsible for their three daughters, ages 10, 8 and 5.

I thought of Olga as a kind of alternative me, a Guatemalan sister forced by circumstance into a tougher trajectory but nevertheless continuing forward with strength impossible for me to even imagine. Olga didn’t want sympathy; she wanted opportunity, a level playing ground — and she was determined to create a life of hope. Articulate with a soft smile, she is confident that her children will have a better quality of life than she does.


The author, left, reporting in Guatemala.CreditDaniele Volpe for The New York Times

Already, one of her daughters, in third grade, has made it farther in school than she had. Her dream is to send her daughters to college, but now, making $20 or $25 a week, she worries she doesn’t even have money to support them through high school.

She has thought about migrating to the United States to earn more money, but she doesn’t know how she could take all three children — and she couldn’t leave one behind.

As she told me this, I felt my passport digging into my skin beneath my shirt, and I was reminded of the privilege it conveyed. I’ve never had to pay for school, not even for college, thanks to scholarships. And centuries of political and social structures have favored me or my ancestors because of my skin color and ethnicity, while disadvantaging Olga and her ancestors.

So why write about Olga and the differences in opportunity that divide us? I asked myself this question as I struggled to find the tone to write this reflection. I don’t want to be the wide-eyed or condescending American who parachutes into a place only to judge life experiences so far from her own.

But in the end, I’m writing about Olga because she told me it was important, and I believed her. She said she wanted people in the United States to understand the challenges in her community and to recognize the need for humanitarian aid, which President Trump has announced he will cut off.

For Olga, this aid is important “so that we can lift ourselves up right here, so we don’t have to migrate.”

I thought back to my home state of Arizona, where the remains of 127 migrants were recovered in the harsh desert just last year, 84 of them unidentifiable. I wondered if their fates would have been different had they been given more opportunity, in Olga’s words, to lift themselves up where they were. I imagined Olga and her daughters trudging through that desert and running out of water.

Olga is being helped by an aid program run by Project Concern International and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The program provides cash transfers and technical support for communities heavily affected by droughts and food insecurity, with a special focus on economic opportunities for women. It responds in part to climate change in Guatemala’s western highlands.

I’m no expert on international aid or development. I’m not actually an expert on anything. But when you see a woman of roughly your age, whose life experience has been so divergent, it’s impossible not to muse about fate. It’s easy for a successful American to look in the mirror and feel proud of the hard work that engendered that success — and then you meet Olga and realize that what really nurtured that success was being born to opportunity in the right family in the right country.

What conclusions flow from that? I’m not the expert, remember? But on this trip, I’ve seen evidence-based programs like the Graduation Approach that nurture opportunity. I’ve seen evidence of the success of preventive health care for women and scholarships or incentives for girls to continue attending school. I’ve been reminded of the importance of American-funded humanitarian aid by the people like Olga who are receiving it. I’ve seen with my own eyes the gains from vaccines, food fortification, family planning and climate-change-adapted agricultural techniques.

I would have liked to talk about all of this with Olga, but I worried I had already taken up too much of her time, and she had already been so generous with her story. After we talked, I would get back in a car to drive, and eventually fly, far away. She would go back to her father’s house, to work, to take care of her children and to continue to fight for her distant dreams.

Mia Armstrong, a 2019 graduate of Arizona State University, is the winner of Nicholas Kristof’s 2019 “win a trip” contest, allowing a student to accompany him on a reporting trip and write about it for The Times. This is the second of several articles she will write on the trip.

Read Mia’s first article
Opinion | Mia Armstrong
Where a Miracle Substance Called Breast Milk Saves Lives

Please help keep this Site Going