From Houses to Homes: Building a House in Guatemala

By Jokichi Matsubara

Volunteers working with From Houses to Homes in Guatemala building a brick house in the country.
Volunteers working with From Houses to Homes in Guatemala building a brick house in the country.

Editor’s Note: Fifteen-year old Jokichi is a boy from Seattle who traveled to Guatemala to volunteer. We applaud his choice of this kind of endeavor at such a young age…a future GoNOMAD Traveler at heart.

For a country with one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America, the gift of a house in Guatemala can be life changing. Many of the impoverished people of the rural countryside in Guatemala don’t have much money, and much of their basic necessities are lacking. The act of building a small house out of brick, which costs about 1,700 US dollars to build, can affect a family’s quality of life immensely.

I went to Guatemala in the summer of 2008, the trip was a gift from my grandparents to my cousin and I. We worked with an organization called From House to Homes, started by a man named Joe Collins. We we joined a group of volunteers to build a house for a Guatemalan family.

After arriving in Guatemala City, my grandparents, cousin, and I boarded the van set for Antigua. The sticky hot air of Guatemala instantly left my cheeks as the AC turned on. As the airport lay behind us, I became aware of my surroundings right outside my window. The cheap stalls in the overpacked city, did not distinguish themselves from the dirty buildings in disrepair.

Flocks of people crowded the small sidewalks, dodging the rain under the blue and black tarps of roadside vendors. Soon we reached the outskirts of the city, and more of the lively forests showed.

The lush green valleys were amazing and even better than any picture you could see. There were plants of every type, from the small vines hanging down from the boulders beside the road, to the massive trees overhanging the hills providing us shade on our winding roads. Before long however, we arrived in Antigua.

The city was like a confusing chessboard with bumpy cobblestones lining every road. The grid like streets were easy to navigate and soon became familiar as the days moved on. We came up to the hotel and checked in. The courtyard, with its old overgrown stone walls which we soon found out to be beautiful in the morning, was spooky, and confusing in the night. The next morning was a Saturday and we did various sorts of activities like hiking and touring the city. The weekend was a blast but by Monday we were ready to get to work.

Typical building in a Guatemala neighborhood.
Typical building in a Guatemala

We woke up at 8:30 to get to the base by 9:00. A truck came and picked us up, and soon we were at the base office for houses to homes where everyone was getting ready to go to their work sites. The building, which was relatively small, had three rooms/offices where people were on their computers. Outside, they had three trucks and a motorcycle parked on the street, which were to take us up the hill.

As my grandparents, cousin, and I walked in we were greeted by the founder, Joe Collins. We also met the manager Oscar Mejia. My grandparents had worked to build a house here before, so they knew a lot of the people there and were glad to see them again. We were given three bottles of water for the day, and we had packed lunches so we were set. Then we hopped into the back of one of the pickup trucks and were off.

The ride, which started off very bumpy was really scary because the crew and I were sitting along the edges of the trunk of the pickup. The rough ridges of the bed were uncomfortable to sit on, and we all settled for the sides. But when we left the town, another problem came up. We were going about 60 mph up the hill, and the wind was really picking up. Luckily, I didn’t fall but I came pretty close. I also met the others who came to build a house. They were two girls from America and Ireland, who were very enthusiastic about it too.

Quickly, we had reached the village of Santa Maria de Jesus and as we were driving through into town, Henio, a Guatemalan worker, and a couple others in the truck waved and called out to neighborhood.a lot of the people there. Henio, with his trimmed mustache, and spiked jet black hair was the lead worker, and the one who you could count on to joke around. One time, when we were driving up to the site, he decided to lean over the top of the truck, onto the windshield; while we were going almost 60 mph!

The town was similar to Antigua with its cobblestone streets and lime plastered buildings, but you could tell the difference immediately.

Celebrating the completed house with a pinata party.
Celebrating the completed house with a pinata party.

Tourists didn’t roam the streets looking for cute cultural trinkets to take home, but instead villager in traditional clothing, carried plastic colored buckets on their heads. There were children of all ages watching, waving, or following us. It was a totally different experience.

After many turns and cutbacks, we had reached the current home of the Mixtun family. Their new house was to be built next door. The road leading up to it was a dirt road, and surrounding it lay rows and rows of corn in which you could almost get lost in. There also were many kids here as well, whether they were cousins of the family, or friends.

I stepped inside the rusty metal doorway and was shocked at what I saw. It was a patch of ground with stray roots sprouting up, and a tiny metal cabin where they slept. Inside, the 10X5 foot space was a small fireplace and a couple of pots and pans which they used to cook their meals. This tiny room housed 5 people! Normally where they would sleep was now taken over by the concrete packages which had to be kept dry. There also was an enclosed ditch on the property covered up by banana leaves; it was a toilet! It was a pretty dismal situation.

We began work pretty soon, and we also found out that a number of workers already started on Friday to lay the groundwork and measure. I was put on wire duty, in which I had to cut steel rebar to secure the concrete.

There was this one boy who was really cute who kept on asking me what I was doing. He then chased after this dog and played with him, for he was easily distracted. We busily worked the first day, measuring, cutting, and finally digging ditches for the cement. My shoes were so full of dirt, that my white socks were brown when I got home.

The finished brick house.
The finished brick house.

The next day we were back at it again. This time it wasn’t as awkward and I felt a little better talking to the other English speaking workers. At lunch time, we took a break and it began to rain really hard. We took shelter under a tin roof that was set up and waited. I don’t know who came up with the idea, but somehow we decided to play BS, the card game. (I don’t know if you are familiar with the game, but basically you play cards face down, and if people think you are lying then they say BS.

However, if the player is telling the truth then the person who said BS has to take all the cards. To win, you have to play al your cards.) With the limited Spanish we knew, and help from the Guatemalan workers who knew a little English, we managed to teach the kids the basics of the game. All the kids loved it and every time someone played a card, they would scream BS with enthusiasm. Eventually they would have all the cards in their hand, but they didn’t care. They had huge grins on their little faces, as if they were trying to show me how many teeth they had.

Another game we played was baseball…sort of. The property had a lot of sticks of bamboo lying around and one day I picked one up and threw rock in the air and hit it. After that, all the boys were really excited to play but most of them couldn’t hit the rock without help. Also, they would come up to me during lunch over the next few days and ask, “bazebol?” I also played games with the Guatemalan workers. My cousin Zachary and I would play muff, a juggling game with the workers who all were good at soccer. It was great to have some sort of interaction besides work, which wasn’t limited by language. The same goes for the “bazebol”.

One of the most tiring jobs I had, and had to do for most of the time we were working was actually placing in cinder blocks and sticking grout between them. This was the basis for the building, and my hands got pruned from all the grout lying on my fingers. It was tedious, yes, but I found enjoyment in every layer of bricks we did. Soon, the walls were at my chest. Then my forehead. Soon, we were on beams set up to prop us up because we couldn’t reach high enough!

By the end of the week, it felt like time had gone by in a matter of hours. I had already been there almost a week, but it felt much less. The last day was Friday, and since we were nearly finished we thought we would have a party in honor of the family. We brought balloons and a piñata filled with all kinds of candy.

I knew it was going to be fun. The children were ecstatic over the balloons and especially this one little girl about 3 years old. She would throw the balloon up and catch it when it came down.

One time it popped when the dog stepped on it and she started crying really hard. It also was nap time too. But after all the fun with the balloons it was time for the piñata. We set it up in their new house and took turns, youngest to oldest.

It was such a great feeling to feel like what we did would change each of their lives. The family would now have more space, not have to sleep on dirt, and cook 3 feet away from their beds. Also they would have a real door, and some safety from wild animals and protection from the rain. This one roomed house would be a major difference to them. Finally, the father and mother thanked us and Joe Collins put up a plaque with our names on it, and set it up beside the door, proudly displaying our names.

I was sad to leave, but I knew that I would have to sometime. We hopped back in the truck for the last time, and waved good bye. The kids chased us as we left, running through half the town, calling out “bye amigo!”

Join From Houses to Homes as they offer volunteers the chance to build homes for poor citizens in Guatemala.

PO Box 85
Mt. Tabor, New Jersey 07878-0085
973 241 4925

Jokichi Matsubara

Jokichi Matsubara writes: I had a lot of fun, and at the same time i learned a lot about the culture and poverty in a 3rd world country. Although all I did was help build one home, I feel like I can really make a difference by helping one family.


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