“I learn more from these grassroots, simple people than they will ever learn from me. That’s a humbling experience.”
Sister Margaret Smith has lived fifty-two years in Latin America. She entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1950 from Hanover, PA, and after graduating from Maryknoll Teachers College in 1956, she studied Spanish in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and taught and was principal in an elementary school in Lima, Peru until 1966. In contrast to city life, she next went to the jungle area of Riberalta, Bolivia and taught religion and English in the public high school.
In 1971 she moved to La Paz in the highlands and studied the Aymara language and lived with the Aymara indigenous people in a rural setting doing pastoral work, community development and adult education.
In Cochabamba for five years she worked on the coordinating team of the Bolivian Mission Association promoting Bolivians as missioners to their own people and beyond; training a mission team for Guayamerin, Bolivia.
It was in 1987 that she began her present ministry of sharing rural life with indigenous Quechua farmers in Yatamoco. The man who was then in charge invited her to “come to Yatamoco,” and she agreed to go for two weeks of the summer vacation, and asked if he could get her the use of the school. He said they would bring a truck to pick her up. When they arrived in Yatamoco, she thought she was going to the school but she was told, “No, we have a house for you.” They brought her to a house which no one wanted to live in because three people had been assassinated there a year before. It was considered a haunted house. So she said, “Oh, fine, this looks great to me.” She reminisces, “I was only going to stay two weeks. So, here it is twenty-one years later and I’m still in the house!
Originally she planned to go further up into the mountain in the dry season. But since public transportation has not improved, she spends most of her time in Yatamoco. There are two places higher up where she visits about once a month in each place for three or four days.
“In twenty-one years I’ve seen children born, I’ve seen them grow up and I’ve seen them migrate. It really hurts to see all the young people leaving the community that I’ve known for so many years, but I came to realize that it’s essential for them because there is no work here.” The amount of land cannot support a larger population. There is a constant migration out of Yatamoco for people who are looking for jobs in other parts of Bolivia or Argentina or Spain or somewhere else, and at the same time, a constant migration into Yatamoco of families higher up in the mountains who are worse off.
Sister Margaret lives in very simple quarters, has very little in the way of furniture, no TV, and her door is always open for people to come in and say hello, or just sit and talk. She says, “My present mission has been the most satisfying. I have been able to realize my dream of living with indigenous people in a rural area. I have no position of leadership. My door is always open as I strive to be a good neighbor and give testimony to Christian values.”