Dreaming big with your feet on the ground (part I)

with Jose, Maria and Thelma at the gallery

This time the road took us down trails we had never walked through in the last year, giving a new twist to our point of view, watching reality from others’ shoes and eyes. This time we were not in the outskirts of Guatemala city, but in the nicest neighbourhood, surrounded by bodyguards, new fashionable cars and sparkling works of art. Once more, Someone is taking us by the hand while we stubbornly resist, thinking we are in the wrong direction. Once more, it is us who are wrong. I t was hard to believe that someone from this environment could see past their own reality and be able to serve others from the heart, in a country so polarized in social matters as Guatemala where these opposites almost never touch.

Who would have imagined that in this super top art gallery in Guatemala city we would find our next silent hero? Or that who was arriving with a bodyguard to this fancy coffee shop would be our next heroine? Surely we have forgotten a dose of faith somewhere in the way here. Fortunately, after only a couple of words we shake away our doubts and enjoy so much generosity being transmitted to us by José and Patricia.

We only knew about José that he is an important businessman from one of Guatemala’s wealthiest families, but we never imagined we would meet someone with such a deep and devoted heart. In just 5 seconds he had captivated us, so we made ourselves comfortable in the modern chairs of the Rozas-Botrán Art Gallery to fully enjoy the conversation. José says that as far as he can remember, he had always had the clear example of his great grandmother, grandmother and both his parents, who following the same guidelines, took him to visit a Home for handicapped youth and elders managed by volunteers when he was only 8 years old. “I think I have always had it in me, this ‘something’ that fully captivated me. The first time I volunteered to feed special kids, it was a strange experience which I didn’t know exactly if I liked it or not, because of course, when you are so little, you cannot understand certain limitations; I would feed him and he would spit it out, but it was because he wasn’t able to chew on it well, and I thought: ‘How strange!’ And tried again… But that is where this silent communication begins, I would call it soul-to-soul, it is this special energy that maybe he couldn’t express in words but we were already communicating, that was amazing, it was like an illusion. From that moment on, every Christmas –I can’t remember well–, but if my gift was for example 200 dollars, I would go to Paiz (supermarket) to see how many wooden boxes with colouring books and crayons I could buy, that really was a joyful time for me. Then when I was about 17 years old I started as a formal volunteer in the ‘Works of Brother Pedro’. After that I had a difficult time when I was sent abroad to Boston to study, because when I arrived I was from another atmosphere, my friends and my surrounding environment were more like… materialistic, partygoers, shopping, travelling and weekends in New York. That is when I kind of ‘lost my way’, like we say here, and started changing my perspective of life, but I never lost my spirituality; that was basic. I have always been quite a believer, even if no one would come with me, I would take the train to attend Mass alone on Sundays; that helped me a lot. Then I was living with my family in Miami for 2 more years, and finally I got to the point when I felt that that was not a full or complete life. Something was missing, it was a life full of restaurants, yachts, trips, shopping… Everything was very pretty but it was not living fully, so I said: ‘NO. In Guatemala I really DO have lots to do! And I made my mind about coming back. I was about 27 then, and when I came back we formalized many projects and in a short while the Franciscan Brothers invited me to become the Director of the Social Works of Brother Pedro, –which is the largest in Central America– and the Hospice St. José. With that I was fully immersed in the art events, becoming aware that as we grew in size, we needed to raise more money, so we worked all year long organizing events. Slowly the team of the Foundation was growing, what had started as 3 executives and me, was now 7 and… Now we are 63! Funds come mainly from Art and private donations. Then we bought the campus and the first Hospice Hospital for babies and kids with HIV was built, which was something nobody wanted to face a few years ago. My sister, mi best friend and I are deeply involved, the important thing is to dream big and work on it. It can be accomplished, it really can, we really made it from a very tiny house to a huge hospital.”

The campus is almost 7 years old, but the rest of the projects started way back almost 20 years ago, in small areas until they were able to grow up: “Now we have 60 kids who have mostly lost their parents when there was not medicine available while living with us. We also have external consulting from people who live in rural areas, medical attention to the elders and community service; they are about 1200 people getting attention. At the Hospice Brother Pedro, people from rural areas are getting medical attention almost for free with incredible medical excellence, doctors from everywhere operating, doing transplants, etc. That is when the idea for the Center for genetic studies is born ‘Invegem’, where they study why we get certain anomalies or lymphoblastic leukaemia at an earlier age here rather than anywhere else in the world, investigating risk factors, how to prevent them, etc. The Foundation sponsors the whole research centre, but with the certainty that this is someday going to be sustainable. Now we have started with the ‘screening’, an exam made to each baby born in the country with which we have now accomplished a 2 year pilot program in different cities and now it will be expanding to a national level, which is our dream. Then we would be able to assist the 400.000 babies that are born every day. The tests from the entire country come here to the Invegem.”

José was never able to move away from these childhood memories, that deep contact he had had with young special teens or elders. “I was never able to detach from that: when I was living in Miami, I was still supporting, involved in things here even though I was far away. I really missed being immersed in this. When I attended Mass and saw that they would ask people to leave food in a basket at the door, I thought there was something else missing like: ‘Come on over, and let’s go together to visit and mingle’, everything was too calculated, it was like humanity was being lost.”

José’s family has always played an important role in his life, as important as in the Guatemalan enterprises. “This was something interesting, because when I came back from the US, automatically my grandmother and my dad, which are great people, would name me substitute director of the family’s sugar refinery which is a huge corporation where my dad was the director. My uncle was the president and my dad was the president of the liquor industry Ron Botran and Zacapa. I had that strange but amazing duality of providing social support and being a manager, which was ideal. Suddenly I saw that there was an interesting relationship between the Enterprise-social help. My dad told me: ‘In life, if you don’t get closer to the ones that really have the big money, how are you going to help the ones who don’t have any? If the ones that have nothing want to help the ones that don’t have anything also? We have to support each other.’ This concept was amazing for me, that is when we saw we had to unify concepts, so we got in the Council of Private Foundations of Guatemala, Rotary, etc. There was a point in my life when I was the director of 11 foundations at the same time; I was a little bit tired.”

José graduated in Business in the US, but had always loved art, since he was a kid he had always loved painting and admiring sculptures. When he was 12 years old his grandma Clarita took him to Europe with their cousins without their parents, and in Florence is where his love for the Renaissance began. He took notes, had his judgement defined and even discussed with the guides! His love for art was already deep in his flesh. José’s personality altogether with his good taste and his passion for art made it possible for him to transform a material ‘thing’ into service to others, propelling so many others to have a giving spirit. “To Guatemala that has been a huge gain,” –stands out Thelma, the editor–, Action speaks louder than words. The whole family is involved; his parents, cousins and nephews are now growing up and getting more committed.” This is how more and more professionals have been joining the project ad-honorem: various artists, the architect, the lawyer, his niece who is dedicated to new branches of art, her cousin in law Maria who is the director of other area and so many others to whom it is being passed on. “All the benefits that we get go to the Foundation. Every work of art here will be sold on consignment: the artist gets 50% and donates the other 50% to the Foundation. God sent us the right people in the right moment, and that is how we have been shaping this amazing team which keeps on growing together.”

His whole ‘life-scenario’ was setup for him to become a successful businessman, wealthy and well-known, focused in increasing the family fortune; but José always kept his feet on the ground, never losing his way and really aiming that success and acknowledgement towards others. The fact is that when your vision changes –before I couldn’t understand it, now I do, a bit–, that the less you have the happier you are; you realize that it is much more important to generate for others and leave a great legacy behind you instead of generating it for yourself, because that would be selfish. Basically that about adds up our present philosophy, and I think that you have dream really big, because then you can leave a big footprint and spread it to others. Then more people can join in, like the lawyer, who saw where we were going and he told me from his heart: ‘I want to donate my time’ –by the way he is a super successful lawyer who would charge us a fortune for his services–, he is helping us strengthen the legal structure of the Foundation and achieving its first goal that is making it last 100 years. That is because you can see how the kids’ life changes, today for example Etelvina called me, the first girl we got here with HIV. We have seen her grow up, finish high school, now getting ready for her Confirmation and she was asking me to be her godfather; so, in the long run, it’s as if they were my own kids! And to think we had no clue how to manage kids with HIV, whether they would live or not, and seeing now that they have a perfectly normal life, as prosperous teenagers getting into college; that provides us the energy to go on with all this.”

From a practical point of view, José tells us that when he returned to Guatemala and started up his professional career, his divided his time this way: “It was 30% work, 30% social life, 30% helping others, and a 10% to the rest, family, etc. Then proportions started growing: 50, 70, 80, and thank God, it is now like you say, I would say I devote 90% of my time to help; it has happily been captivating me.”

José doesn’t take a rest, not only do they devote themselves to organize events, art festivals, street art and expositions to raise funds; but they also promote different projects, like the one called “Great Mini Chefs” which is a huge success, being able to link a very exclusive restaurant in Guatemala city to a group of special kids. “They really wanted to help and I have the blessing of having a niece with different abilities and she has many friends who up until 2 years ago almost couldn’t interact and I thought it was the ideal group because we have to integrate special people to our society. I think that if it can get through to the leaders, it will penetrate deeper and lots of customers in this top restaurant are leaders. It was a delicate matter getting these kids in the kitchen, there were too many dangerous things, fires and knives, but it has been a mere success, better than we had imagined. We called it ‘Great mini Chefs’ because they have great spirits, great hearts; but are mini because they are young and petit. It has become a very nice program that has been running for 8 months and where they have a wonderful time learning with Chef Sergio; we are looking forward to make this permeate into society. It is such a beautiful interaction that I think slowly we will accomplish it, spreading these activities to other organizations who work on this.”

Just in case, we asked José if he had paid any cost for this life devoted to others, if he had sacrificed other things he would’ve wanted to do instead of this and he answers: I think that you really can be a successful businessman, with the exact balance of achieving your goals in life, which in this case is leaving a deep footprint to others. And if I really analyze costs, I would say there was none, because I wouldn’t change a second of my life as it’s been because definitely all those experiences have made me be what I am today, so I would not change anything; I would say there was no cost involved nor I had to renounce to anything in favour of this life.”

Definitely the peace and calm that José transmits us makes us wonder where his strength comes from; where he finds the energy to face these projects where he always puts others before his own interests. And again we find out that ‘by chance’ we are again before someone with a lot of faith because with no doubt he admits: “My strength? I am sure it is the constant search of God, spirituality; because before I used to attend Mass once a week and would think people who went every day were weird and couldn’t understand them, then I started feeling the need to go on Wednesdays too, every time feeling closer to God, wishing to visit Him in the Holy Sacrament; and finally I reached a phase in my life where now wherever I may be I need to attend Mass every day. Then I know, I am sure that God is my strength, because surely there are days pretty devastating with difficult decisions, but you do not get weak. I can imagine that without God’s strength I would feel week and would slowly feel disappointed with such big problems; but instead when you know how to confront them with faith and hope, difficult problems make you grow up and be a better person, so I think it depends on how you focus on it.”

—> Continues in : “Dreaming big with your feet on the ground (part II)

outside the art gallery

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