Ralph Winter’s Guatemala Years

On Saturday morning, January 9, 1965, the Los Angeles Times had an article with the title “Factories for Guatemala Sought by Missionary” with the subtitle “Minister Praises Climate in Highlands, Describes Rural Work Among Indians.” The writer introduces Dr. Ralph Winter by quoting him saying the highlands of Guatemala has the best labor market north of the equator. Winter is identified as an anthropologist, linguist and ordained United Presbyterian minister who has worked in Guatemala for eight years after his one year in Costa Rica. He tells his interviewer, “…there is an industrialists’ gold mine in Guatemala in low-pay, high-quality labor.” Winter goes on to mention the weather, claiming that it is just as perfect at an 8,000 foot elevation in the mountains as it is in Southern California, where he was born and raised. At the time this article was written, the Winters were visiting his parents, Hugo and Hazel Winter, in South Pasadena for the holidays, having arrived after 80 hours of driving from Guatemala in the family’s station wagon. Winter, an alumnus of Caltech with an engineering degree, shares that for time and financial reasons, the family drives straight through with two drivers taking turns, one driving while the other sleeps. Amazingly, the road is black-topped all the way from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to South Pasadena! Next, the writer reviews Winter’s educational background: studies at Princeton and Fuller Theological Seminaries, the universities of Michigan and Oklahoma and a doctorate in linguistics at Cornell University. In 1956, the former Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) appointed him to Guatemala, “but with the disfavor attached to the word ‘missionary’ in some foreign countries, he is now listed as a ‘fraternal worker’ with much of his time spent among the Mam Indians.”

The Mam Indians are a tribe of 250,000 members and are descended from the Mayans. They already had their language reduced to writing and had a New Testament in their language for a long time by the time the Winters arrived. Yet the Winters work equally with Guatemalans of both European and Indian descent. The programs they established are open to anyone interested. Their area of the mountains is brisk, hilly and dry, therefore limiting agriculture and making industrialization the only feasible way forward. So the Winters have actively pushed for it in the last five years. Factories were set up in the region to test the Indians’ aptitude for the work, and the results were pleasing. “The only real difficulty they have is the bias against them—because they are Indians—when they go to the capital to sell things,” Winter states. The Winters on many occasions have had to be intermediaries between productive Indians and the market place they face. One policy that has been set up is for an Indian working in a factory to retain his hold on a piece of land, even the smallest parcels, and Winter is proud of this fact in the lives of the Indians. So the factory workers increase their income with labor. Winter admires these people for being independent, practical, very different from other Latin Americans, and pragmatic when solving life’s problems. He strives to engage in gospel work as he engages in rural development work. The National Presbyterian Church of Guatemala has 15,000 committed members in a population of 3.5 million. But 60,000 have access to Presbyterian churches in their locations.

The Winters have a variety of areas they are focusing on while working in their rural region. These include helping to establish public schools that are funded privately, medical work due to Mrs. Winter being a registered nurse, running small plants, and establishing credit unions. Winter indicates that of course their goal is to plant churches as well. The writer quotes him, “We find that the most important thing is to gather people together weekly and renew and reinforce their hopes and aspirations. We feel that the church network provides a solid background for our other activities.” One result Winter hopes for from the partial industrialization of the mountain country is that progressive Indians will stay in the highlands where they would rather live. He thinks that progressive people emigrating in search of work badly affects society as a whole. The article concludes with the announcement that Dr. Winter will only speak publicly once while in Southern California on Sunday evening at Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

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