Memories of Guatemala

  Shawn Larson, right, a 2014 Barron High School graduate, visits with a guest after his Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 talk at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Barron County campus. Photo by Bob Zientara

Shawn Larson, a 2014 Barron High School graduate, spent nearly two weeks in Guatemala early this year and had “a positive experience,” he said during a one-hour presentation Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Barron County campus.

A communications major and a senior at UWEC-BC, Larson lived with a host family, Alfonso and Elena Diego, and their four children.

Larson said he had to get along without knowing much Spanish besides “hi, goodbye, I like chicken, and where’s the bathroom?”

He worked at a Guatemalan school located “next to one of the largest garbage dumps in the world,” a school in which 10-year-olds outclassed him in soccer – although he held his own in basketball.

He learned about coffee making, and he saw a society still in recovery from decades of civil war inspired by what he said was a CIA-backed coup.

He found an economy divided into very wealthy and very poor enclaves, a divide in which education is making some small inroads.

And he observed how some small, independent coffee farmers are bettering their lives as they expand their businesses with the help of “micro-loans” from a nonprofit organization with which he was connected during his visit.

Career plans

Larson said that during his final semester of undergraduate study, he is working an internship as an admissions counselor at UWEC-BC. He recruits new students, goes to college fairs and visits high schools in the university’s marketing area.

After he graduates at the end of the year, Larson will attend Concordia University in Mequon, where he plans to work on a graduate degree in education (and) student personnel administration in higher education.

A polished public speaker, Larson has set an eventual goal of becoming an academic advisor or a dean in a college or university.

“I simply just love communicating with people,” he wrote in response to some emailed questions. “If higher education doesn’t ever work out for me, I’ve considered a career in broadcasting or radio … however, the career path I’m on is where I’ve always wanted to be and I’m very content with it, at the moment.

“On the other hand, if Bob Uecker ever retires from calling games for the Milwaukee Brewers and they need a person to fill his spot, please tell me how I can get that job and I might change my mind.”

Growing coffee

Larson accompanied a dozen other students and two faculty leaders on a January 2019 trip to Guatemala. There, he got well acquainted with the coffee industry. He described half a dozen value-added steps that start with small farmers who earn only $1.60 per pound of raw coffee, to the $10 per pound bags people buy in supermarkets.

Larson told his listeners that things need to be better for the people who grow the original product, but there are many problems to overcome. He said some small farmers take side jobs with major producers, such as Nestle, in order to make ends meet. In 2012, disease ravaged the Guatemalan coffee crop, which cut production and profits and led, indirectly, to an increase in immigration to other countries, including the U.S.

Through a nonprofit known as De la Gente, small farmers can get loans to “buy more land, seeds, plants and (other items) to continually grow their business,” he said. “The results are astounding. Farmers in the southern regions of Guatemala are making 400 percent more profit from the sale of their unroasted green coffee fruit than they ever have before.”

But there are economic headwinds – including the detrimental effects of climate change on the coffee crop, Larson added.

History and society

After the ancient Mayan civilization ended with the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, Guatemala became a Spanish-speaking nation. The country was rocked by a CIA-backed coup in 1954 that ended the planned nationalization of plantations owned by the U.S. based United Fruit Company, Larson said during his talk.

The overthrow plunged Guatemala into more than three decades of civil war, a struggle from which the country is slowly recovering.

The divide between rich and poor is stark, he added. Larson said he was told the current government failed to warn many poor people of an impending volcanic eruption that killed many people, while richer residents, whose homes surrounded a mountainside golf course, survived.

He watched as children of poor families prowled the huge trash dump, looking for items to sell to support their families.

At the nearby school, education is slowly helping to improve economic opportunities for the children, he added. But Larson said it is sometimes hard to keep the children in class, because their impoverished parents want them at home to work at the trash dump.

Larson is the son of Harlen and Stephanie Larson, of Hillsdale, and is one of seven children, including Leah, 26, Emily, 21, Kennen, 10, Hannah, 9, Isaac, 5, and Eli, 3.

He said his Barron High School years were enriched by many mentors, including Ryan Hayes, Greg Mikunda, Julia Zappa and Karen Lettner, among others.

Larson’s presentation was one of a series of free lectures offered by UWEC-BC in its “Thursdays at the U” program.