Awakening Guatemala
July 1971

“Awakening Guatemala,” Ensign, July 1971, 24

Special Lamanite Section

Awakening Guatemala

For ten years Cordell Andersen couldn’t sleep peacefully. His sleep was haunted by a dream—a dream so big it was overpowering. In this dream he saw two million poverty-stricken Guatemalan Indians pleading for help. He recognized their cry as genuine, for he had personally witnessed their terrible plight in 1957 while serving m their country as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each time the dream came and vanished, Cordell cried out within himself, “Oh God, these thy children have suffered enough! Let the time for their redemption begin!”

But what could he do to give these desperately deserving people a new way of life? He was one lone person, lacking any practical training and having no financial resources. Reluctantly Cordell tucked his dream away and went on working, saving, studying about Guatemala, and waiting.

Finally he could wait no longer. In August 1967, thirty-one-year-old Cordell sold his belongings, resigned his position, packed his wife, Maria, and their four children into an overloaded camper truck, and headed for Coban, Guatemala, a city of 10,000 people, with another 200,000 in the region round about.

Upon arrival, Cordell began to work out a strategy designed to produce a righteous and prosperous people. Sensing that he could not convert these backward Indians to a new and better life until he had won their friendship and respect, he first traveled a network of mountain roads, showing educational films in the villages. This gave him the toehold he needed to counteract the centuries of superstition and tradition that controlled the Indians’ lives.

After spending two years making friends and reducing fears, he felt he was ready. With the words of Orson Pratt thundering in his ears—“… let us sacrifice whatever is required of us for the salvation of this people”—soft-spoken Cordell once more packed up his family and moved onto the primitive Finca Valparaiso (Paradise Valley Plantation), sixteen miles away, to work with the forty Pokonchi Indian families living there.

Cautiously but firmly, Cordell began helping the people understand their problems and the misery they produced. His first objective was to reduce the high mortality among the children through an improved diet and early medical attention, including vaccination and sanitation improvements. There were no medical doctors in this area, and Cordell, who received training as a medic in the United States Army, found himself treating kwashiorkor and other forms of malnutrition, flu, dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, skin infections, and the usual children’s diseases. Typical journal entries read:

November 17, 1969. Hiked across the valley to visit several families. Found Esteban Jul’s woman sick with high fever, cough, and other symptoms of flu. Gave her an arcopulim A shot. Also administered enterolan to one of the children suffering from diarrhea.

November 18, 1969. Gave deworming medicine to sixty men, women, and children.”

On one of his weekly visits, Cordell found a two-year-old boy sucking at his grandmother’s dry breast. Miguelito, the boy, did not have the strength to stand on his bony little legs, for ever since his mother had died when he was four months old, his diet had consisted mainly of tortillas and coffee. His ears and head were covered with a fungus, and his abdomen looked like an overinflated football, a condition caused by protein deficiency.

Cordell instructed the grandmother to bring Miguelito to his home for help. A year later, when it was apparent that the child was dying from pneumonia, the grandmother unexpectedly gave him to the Andersens.

Patience, love, and intelligent care produced quick results. Once the pneumonia was cured, Cordell and Maria searched for the reason why thirteen-pound Miguelito wouldn’t eat. Even water had to be forced down his throat. In desperation they decided to give him one-fourth of an infant’s dosage of worm medicine, even though they realized it would be dangerous in his weakened condition. The medicine was effective, and Miguelito began to eat; he ate for two hours at each meal. Six weeks later and seven pounds heavier, Miguelito walked and talked for the first time. Today the four-year-old is only the size of an average two-year-old, and he may be mentally retarded. Yet he is alive and happy and very expressive.

As a result of these successes, Cordell is now accepted more and more into Indian homes, and he is permitted to supplement diets and begin early treatment of disease.

Cordell’s next objective was to show the Indians how to use modern methods of agriculture. His poultry, cattle, hog, and vegetable projects were not only useful as teaching tools, but they also made possible a balanced diet to replace the traditional beans and corn. Believing that he couldn’t help these people prosper if they worked for nothing, he was determined that each worker should receive money for his labor. This meant that each farm project had to be run as a business, paying its own way as well as showing a profit for expansion.

In addition to work projects that teach the Indians through observation and participation, he instituted formal classwork for those who would accept it. Morning kindergarten and first-grade classes and afternoon second- and fifth-grade classes have been taught by Freddie Renoso, a certified Latter-day Saint teacher, and Rosita Estrada, a Latter-day Saint girl from Guatemala City. At the present time thirty children are enrolled. At 4:00 P.M. a Spanish class using the Book of Mormon as a text is offered to adults who want to learn to read and write as well as speak a language other than the Indian dialect. Literary classes with regular texts are offered for those not interested in religion. On Saturday afternoons boys and men go to the carpentry shop to learn how to make beds and tables for their unfurnished homes.

Basic in Cordell’s plan to bring a new life to his adopted people is teaching them the gospel of Jesus Christ. He and his wife, Maria, are both missionaries. Once they had gained the confidence of some of the people on the plantation, they began to hold Sunday School and sacrament meetings in a small grainery. When attendance reached twenty-five, the little group became known as the Valparaiso Group. By December 1970 all regular church meetings were being held. Almost half of the branch members hold the priesthood: one high priest, one elder, two priests, two teachers, and four deacons.

When Cordell took over his 550-acre plantation some three years ago, its assets were about thirty acres of poor sugar cane and a primitive, run-down sugar mill. There were no farm animals, no buildings in which to house any, no machinery for cultivating the soil. Slowly Cordell began to acquire some basic farming tools, but constantly he has been plagued with the scarcity of spare parts and the lack of money to repair his equipment when it breaks down.

Not being an experienced rancher or builder, Cordell was forced to learn through experimentation. Before chickens could be raised, he had to learn how to build a chicken coop. When a fly problem developed around the chicken coops, he installed raised wire floors. The chicken manure that is cleaned out from beneath the coops now fertilizes the sugar cane.

When he placed livestock on the plantation, he had to learn how to vaccinate for anthrax and find out how to deworm and spray for ticks.

The Indians were suspicious of food supplements and resisted the idea of planting vegetable gardens. For them, corn was the only food worth eating—vegetables were for cattle.

Frequently Cordell waded through ankle-deep mud on dark, rainy nights to treat the sick, who were living in very filthy conditions. At first the Indians wouldn’t inform him of sickness within their family circles until after their own remedies and witchcraft had failed. Thus Cordell faced such challenges as curing gashed hands that had been treated with lime, or infected ears bathed with chicken droppings.

The Indians placed no value on education, and Cordell had to use every persuasive trick he knew to convince them that they should let their children attend the plantation school and then come to evening classes themselves, where they are taught to speak and read Spanish. Without this tool, scriptures and Church manuals are meaningless. Today most key words in the Book of Mormon are still not understood by the adults, but they do understand synonyms, and this enables them to gradually increase their Book of Mormon vocabulary.

Harassment of Church members by nonmembers is common, and threats are often followed by machete attacks. Those who have been baptized are blamed for all local troubles, including the high price of corn and beans.

The daily problems are insignificant, however, when compared to the change that can be effected in an Indian’s life. Twenty-year-old Miguel Max is a handsome five-foot five-inch Indian. Two years ago he didn’t know the meaning of cleanliness (either moral or physical), responsibility, loyalty, initiative, achievement, or salvation. Clad in tattered clothes, he spent his days working the plot of ground allotted to his father, and his nights in a windowless, floorless bamboo and adobe shelter. Sitting in the dirt, he ate with unwashed hands.

Then he met Cordell, who was impressed with an Indian boy who could stay sober when all around him were drunk. It took Miguel Max six months to make up his mind to forsake Indian ways, but once he had made the break, progress was rapid. He was the first Indian to attend Church meetings and Book of Mormon study classes. He is now the plantation’s most competent translator from Spanish into Pokonchi; he was the first to respond to the nutritional program by drinking incaparina (an inexpensive protein supplement), the first to plant a vegetable garden, and the first Pokonchi to be baptized. Now he functions as a home teacher, and in every fast and testimony meeting he stands to bear a testimony based on strong conviction.

Having learned to give vaccinations and shots, Miguel Max is responsible for a large cattle project. In addition, he has earned title to a two-acre piece of ground on which a new 1,300-capacity chicken coop has just been built. He assumes full responsibility for these chickens. He was taught how to drive a car, and amazement blanketed Indian faces recently when Miguel Max drove off the plantation alone, entrusted with delivering a load of chickens to their Coban store.

Because of his dedication and initiative, Miguel Max earned the right to rent the first new house, which is superior to the Andersen home. Reminiscent of a Swiss Alpine chalet, the thousand-dollar home (paid for through cattle sales) has a combination kitchen-dining-living room, a shower room with space left for the flush toilet that will be installed when Cordell can afford a septic tank, and three upstairs bedrooms. The house is wired for electricity, which comes from the plantation’s generating plant.

Miguel Max is determined to earn enough money through extra effort to own his new home. Cordell reports: “One night as I was returning to the plantation, I noticed a flickering light coming from the direction of Miguel Max’s farm. My immediate thought was that thieves were prowling about, as stealing is common. I found no thieves, but only Miguel Max hard at work in his vegetable garden, using the light of a flashlight! Often at daybreak I am awakened by the hum of our Toyota truck. Miguel is already working.”

With the hope of turning each of his Indians into a Miguel Max, Cordell continues to employ, educate, and convert Indian Israel, but only at great personal and family sacrifice. Whenever he finds a parentless child or one dying from malnutrition or disease, such as Miguelito, he unofficially adopts the child. Today he is responsible for providing within his own home food, clothing, shelter, and medical treatment for thirty-one people.

As a result, Cordell and Maria have not had time nor money to fix up and adequately furnish their plantation home. With their seven children (three born in Guatemala), they sleep in three rooms, but often fall short of enough beds or bedding for the extra orphans. Both Cordell and Maria work until 10:30 each night. With as many as thirty-nine members of their household plus guests eating meals in three shifts each day, Maria makes cheese and butter twice daily.

Cordell must supervise every activity on the plantation, for the Guatemalan workers aren’t yet sufficiently trained to be completely responsible for equipment and procedures. After a full day working in the fields, he returns home to perform such chores as giving eleven haircuts in one evening.

The Paradise Valley Plantation project costs the Andersens far more than all the time and money they invest, plus the denied luxury of living in Provo, which they once enjoyed. For instance, their children are receiving only half a day of schooling, which they supplement with correspondence courses. And yet, wonder the Andersens, is not what they are giving their children even more valuable than a formal education?

David, age eight, is an expert swimmer and boater. He is in charge of rabbits and the school’s laying hens. He knows how to garden. He runs the forage chopper and mixes the chicken feed daily. He herds cattle, handles the hogs, and catches fish any time he wants. Already speaking English and Spanish fluently, he is also learning the native Indian dialect. Of greatest value to young David is his sense of partnership in teaching achievement to people who have never known the meaning of hope. He too shares in the satisfaction of teaching those who have never known joy how to smile.

Working as a united family, the Andersens and 240 Indians made substantial progress during their first two years together. Beginning with nothing, they now have:

1. Ten baptized Indian members of the Church who pay tithing, and many investigators who attend meetings regularly.

2. A chapel under construction.

3. A school building with desks and learning tools. (As a school project, each child helps plant the school’s vegetable garden and others care for the school’s 300 laying hens.)

4. A film program featuring educational and entertaining movies on week nights and religious films on Sunday.

5. A recreational program that provides facilities for soccer, football, basketball, tennis, Ping-Pong, boating, swimming, and reading.

6. Forty outhouses. (Prior to 1970 the Indians didn’t know what an outhouse was.)

7. A building project that has begun the replacement of inadequate huts with clean, modern homes. (Until the new houses can be completed, the Indians are improving their present homes by installing windows, building furniture, and raising the fireplaces off dirt floors.)

8. A sprinkling system to make possible the cultivation of unfamiliar vegetables, berries, and fruit trees during the dry season.

9. One hundred hogs (mostly sold now) and one hundred head of cattle.

10. A chicken project. (Eighteen hundred one-day-old chicks are bought about once a month. The profits from this venture partially support the school.)

11. A reservoir stocked with fish.

12. A small store in Coban where surplus eggs, chickens, vegetables, cheese, and butter are sold.

13. A home-visiting committee that searches for early signs of illness. (More than a thousand sick calls were made in 1970. Prior to that 50 percent of the children died before reaching the age of five.)

14. An improved diet. (Pregnant mothers and preschool children receive food supplements as needed. All school children receive daily lunches of cheese, enriched tortillas, garden vegetables, and a thin mixture of powdered milk with incaparina added, furnished by CARE. Regular milk would upset stomachs unaccustomed to it.)

15. Prosperity. (Each worker receives a minimum daily wage that is in some cases three times the average ever before earned by these Indians.)

As the plantation becomes self-sustaining, Cordell plans to involve additional Indians. Already he is using his trailbike once a week to seek out the sick in the hamlet on top of the mountain overlooking the plantation. He is also bringing young Indians from other branches of the Church into his home for six-month training periods, hoping they will absorb enough knowledge and hope to go home and initiate similar programs.

Daniel and José Choc, sixteen-year-old members of the most progressive family in the Patzicia Branch, have just completed this basic training course. Not only did they learn to operate and care for farm machinery, power tools, and a car, but they also gave their first speeches in church, bore their testimonies, and acquired their first real understanding of the Book of Mormon. For the first time in their lives they knew what it was to swim, ride in a boat, wear work shoes, brush their teeth, turn on a light switch, drink potable water in a home, take a shower, sleep in a bed, eat at a table, use knives and forks, and begin a meal with family prayer.

Prophecy concerning the Lamanite people states that the gospel will be restored to them and that the scales of darkness will fall from their eyes so that they will become a white and delightsome people. (See 2 Ne. 30:5–6.) A few of the Lamanites in Guatemala, so long numbed by poverty and misery, are beginning to stir because of the efforts of a white brother and his family whose fondest hope is that love, patience, hard work, and sacrifice will continue to awaken more of God’s chosen people in the years ahead.

  • Sister Jacobs’s avocations include freelance writing for national magazines, teaching and playing the violin, and lecturing. She is author of two books, What Do I Do Now? and So You’re Going on a Mission. The mother of five children, she serves as first counselor in the Oak Hills Fourth Ward Relief Society, Sharon East Stake.

Jose and Daniel Choc, right, learn how to operate a diesel cultivator. (Art by Merrill Gogan.)

Three of the Indian boys on the Andersen farm walk together down a dirt road.

The bottom left picture shows the construction of sanitation facilities. In the middle picture Miguel Max works with a circular saw as he builds a new home. He is assisted by Fernando Mora, the principal teacher of the Indian boys. At the right Cordell Andersen administers medicine to some of those who live and work on the land.

Part of Brother Anderson’s activities include going into the homes of those who require medical assistance.