Risking life, trusting God

Mateo Santiago gathers with the children of Floresta, Guatemala, who now attend school in a building erected in the summer of 2017 with money Santiago raised in the Belfair, Washington area, where he has lived for 18 years. Photo: Courtesy Mateo Santiago Mateo Santiago gathers with the children of Floresta, Guatemala, who now attend school in a building erected in the summer of 2017 with money Santiago raised in the Belfair, Washington area, where he has lived for 18 years. Photo: Courtesy Mateo Santiago
Thankful for blessings bestowed in the U.S., Mateo Santiago is giving back to Guatemala

Mateo Santiago was risking his life, riding La Bestia through Mexico, toward the opportunities he hoped to find in the U.S.

For three days in 1999, the 18-year-old from Guatemala joined thousands of others riding atop the freight cars of the dangerous train network known as The Beast. At each stop, Santiago and his traveling companions (three cousins and a friend) climbed down to refill their water bottles, get some rest and hide from the Mexican immigration officers. At one stop, gangsters robbed them of cash and a watch. At another, they had to pay the police what little they had left.

The group had already been caught on their first attempt to cross through Mexico, jailed for a few days and sent back to Guatemala.

But failure wasn’t an option.

The son of a farmer and the second-oldest of seven children, Santiago had received only a sixth-grade education in his tiny rural community of Yincu, San Pedro Soloma. Leaving his tight-knit family and community was a tough decision, fueled by the desire to find a way to help support his family.

His parents, Pedro and Isabela, gave him some money for the trip. “The deal was that if we make it, great,” Santiago recalled. If not, they would have to return to work in Guatemala.

It took three tries, and the effort was grueling — after riding the train, they had to rest in Tijuana for 15 days to regain strength, relying on the generosity of the residents for food. While crossing the desert into the U.S., they were caught and sent back to Mexico. But on the next try, Santiago and two of his cousins avoided capture and made it across the border.

It would be 17 years before Santiago saw his parents again.

For 13 of those years, Santiago mostly worked in the Western Washington woods, “picking brush” — cutting branches from native salal and evergreens for use in the decorative floral industry. But he also became an active member of Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair, near Bremerton, and began assisting the area’s growing Guatemalan community as an advocate and interpreter (he speaks English, Spanish and Q’anjob’al, his native Mayan language).

Now, after earning his GED and an associate’s degree, obtaining his green card, getting hired as a school-district interpreter and becoming Hispanic ministry coordinator at his parish, the 37-year-old Santiago is giving back to still-impoverished communities in Guatemala.

Santiago’s local and parish fundraising efforts recently provided a generator and building materials for a school in a remote village, and he worked with nonprofits to provide 15 computers for three schools. He isn’t stopping there: His next project is purchasing land for new outdoor bathrooms at the school in his family’s village (there is no indoor plumbing).

Santiago, whose original plan was to stay in the U.S. for five years, is amazed at how his life here has unfolded.

“I always think … that whatever I do in my life, it’s because of God’s blessing,” Santiago said. “Without him, I don’t think I’d’ve done anything like what I’ve done here.”

Santiago provides an important connection to Guatemalan families at schools, in the community and at Prince of Peace, said Mary Ann Shutty, the parish’s pastoral assistant for administration. “He brings a lot of what we do here as Catholics to those families, and there’s such a relationship, such a trust built there,” she said. For his efforts, the North Mason School District in Belfair honored Santiago with a Community Leadership Award in April 2017.

“The Holy Spirit drives him,” Shutty added. “He’s very humble, he listens, he doesn’t judge and he does the best he can, and people know that.”

Mateo SantiagoMateo Santiago enjoys time with extended family in Guatemala during a visit in summer 2017. Photo: Courtesy Mateo Santiago

A bittersweet return

After getting his green card in 2016, Santiago couldn’t wait to return home to Guatemala to see his family.

It was the culmination of a busy four years. In 2012, Santiago got his work permit, earned his GED and got his job as an interpreter. He started classes at Olympic College in Bremerton in 2013 and graduated in 2016, the same year he became a permanent resident (he plans to apply for U.S. citizenship, but must wait three more years).

The trip back to Guatemala in the summer of 2016 was certainly easier than his journey to the U.S.: Hop a plane to Los Angeles, then another to Guatemala City for an emotional reunion with his parents before a 10-hour drive to their village.

“It was really good to spend time with them after 17 years,” Santiago said, and to meet extended family members he had only talked with by phone.

But the trip was bittersweet. He was surprised that the level of poverty hadn’t really changed in all those years. Some of his cousins were having a hard time surviving, with not enough to eat; one 17-year-old cousin, whose father died, now must provide for his family.

“Being here in the U.S. for a long time, a lot of times we do forget about our own people back home,” Santiago said. “I just thought that they were having a good life, like I’m having here.”

When it was time to return to Belfair, Santiago felt bad about leaving people in so much need. After all, he had an apartment, a job and a car waiting for him. “I will never go to bed at night hungry or not having enough blankets to cover myself,” he reflected.

That realization struck him deeply.

The day before his flight back to the U.S., staying in a Guatemala City hotel, “I sat for hours and hours thinking about those people,” Santiago said, wondering what he could do to help.

“I guess going back home gave me the opportunity to reconnect to my roots and realize that poverty is still the No. 1 problem we have there,” he said, “and also why … a lot of us are willing to risk our lives to come to the U.S. and try to get a better life and also to support our siblings.”

Starting a new life

Santiago’s transition to life in the U.S. wasn’t easy. He spent eight months in Valley Center, California, where his cousins had a half-brother who gave them a place to stay. Finding work meant going from house to house, knocking on doors; the first day out, Santiago got a job raking leaves. But it was difficult to get work without speaking English, and he realized he needed to learn the language.

After a few months, his cousins moved, leaving Santiago living alone in a small trailer. “There was no cellphone, nothing,” he said. “I remember crying a lot of times. It was tough, you know, it was so hard. I pray like three or four times a day.”

Eventually, his oldest brother, living in Washington state, drove to California to pick him up. They arrived in Belfair, then went on to Lynden, near Bellingham, to pick strawberries for two months. When they returned to Belfair, Santiago’s brother taught him how to cut brush.

Santiago began attending Prince of Peace, but with only a few Guatemalans in the community, Spanish Mass was offered there just once a month. So Santiago and others traveled the 54-mile roundtrip to St. Edward Parish in Shelton for Spanish Mass. As the Guatemalan community in Belfair grew, Santiago and others advocated for Spanish Mass at Prince of Peace more often. Now it’s offered every Sunday, drawing about 250 people, mostly Guatemalan natives, Shutty said.

Although Santiago’s parents weren’t married in the church and religion wasn’t a big part of their lives, they made sure their children made their first Communion and were confirmed. “They were getting us prepared for spiritual [life],” Santiago said.

At Prince of Peace, Santiago assisted the priest at Spanish Masses for several years. About nine years ago, Santiago and three others started a group for young adults. “We didn’t have any idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Santiago said with a laugh. From the young adult group came leaders to begin a teen youth group.

“It’s been so great, working at the church for a long time as a volunteer,” Santiago said.

In 2013, he helped bring the National Pastoral Maya Conference to Belfair. The celebration of Mayan culture and Catholic spirituality is sponsored by the Pastoral Maya Ministry of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Mateo Santiago and members of the young adult group at Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair make Christmas wreaths as a fundraiser for improvement projects in Guatemala. Photo: Stephen Brashear

A school for Floresta

It was the young adult group that Santiago turned to when he returned from Guatemala in 2016. He told them about the poverty, the desperate need, and asked, “What should we do for them?”

The group began doing fundraisers, making and selling Christmas wreaths and doing yard work during the summer. Their efforts netted about $2,000. Other donations came from people Santiago has known a long time — lawyers, teachers and others — “who really actually envisioned what I was trying to do in Guatemala.”

He decided to return in the summer of 2017 to help the people of Floresta, one of the most remote villages in San Pedro Saloma — getting there takes six hours of driving, a river crossing on a rickety suspension footbridge and a three-hour trek up a mountain by foot.

Santiago heard about the village at a Sunday Mass during his 2016 visit to Guatemala. In his homily, the priest spoke about the region’s far-flung villages, “that they’re having a hard time, that they’re really forgotten,” Santiago said. “I was just thinking, OK, what should I do?”

When he got back to Belfair, he contacted the Guatemalan priest for more information about Floresta. Then the unexpected happened.

While helping translate for an older Guatemalan man living in Belfair, Santiago asked the man about his life in Guatemala. “I come from Floresta,” the man told Santiago.

And he still had contact with people there, including a resident named Mario, who became key in helping Santiago organize the Floresta project. The community needed a new school building, so Santiago agreed to buy the materials with donations if the village would provide the labor.

It all came to fruition in July 2017, when Santiago, accompanied by his father, made the trek up the mountain to meet the community. “I just told them that not even a penny of the money that I took down there was mine,” he said.

It took about 60 people just an hour to tear down the old school building. The materials for the new school were purchased the next day, and when Santiago and his father returned 20 days later, the building was completed.

Because Floresta has no electricity, donations were also used to buy the community a generator and a sound system for community gatherings.

Now Santiago and the Prince of Peace young adult group are working to raise the $6,000 to $7,000 needed for the bathroom project in his home village.

It feels good to give back, with the help of the youth group and others in the community, Santiago said.

“Life has been so great and I feel so blessed,” he said. “I just do what I think is good. I’m doing it because I like it — I don’t want anything in reward.”

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Northwest Catholic - January/February 2018

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.