November 6, 2015
SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA – It’s 6 p.m., and Vicente Bocel sits on a wooden chair in front of his adobe home in Caserío Cooperativa, an area within the Cantón El Tablón hamlet in Guatemala’s western Sololá department.
The 68-year-old is expecting visitors — the seven people who usually attend his alcoholism support group — and he hopes new people will come too.
The scenario repeats every Tuesday and Thursday.
“I wait for people,” he says. “If they come or don’t arrive to these meetings, I sit and wait. Sometimes I fall asleep in my chair, but I continue to wait for people.”
Alcoholism affects a lot of men in his community, Bocel says, and he wants to help change that.
Nearly 8 percent of the more than 7 million men in Guatemala suffer disorders related to alcohol use, including dependence, according to 2010 data from the World Health Organization.
The average annual per capita consumption of “pure alcohol” among men in Guatemala was 7.5 liters between 2008 and 2010, according to WHO’s Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014. This exceeds the world average of 6.2 liters by 21 percent.
Bocel says he had his first drink when he was 11 years old. His father gave it to him. From then on, his father bought alcohol for him every day, he says. There were many times when he and his father were drunk or passed out on the street together.
“My father used to give me a small drink, and this way, little by little, I began to like alcohol,” he says.
It’s common for sons to drink with their fathers, Bocel says. He says he often sees young men with older men stumbling along roads and passed out near the highway near his home and throughout Sololá department. Alcoholism is customarily passed from fathers to sons, Bocel says.
Bocel kicked his addiction six years ago. He did it alone, he says, without help from a support group or center. Noting that his community doesn’t have a support group for alcoholics, he started his own in January. Unidad Servicio Recuperación, which translates to Recovery Service Unit, uses the Alcoholics Anonymous symbol for visibility, though he is not a member of that organization.
In addition to hosting twice-weekly meetings, Bocel knocks on the doors of homes in his community to try to persuade others to attend. He speaks with the people who cross his path, and he leaves invitation letters at houses.
“That way, little by little, it will work,” he says.
It’s an accepted social practice in small Guatemalan hamlets to teach boys to drink, says Francisco Ralón, a psychologist and professor at the University of the Valley of Guatemala’s Altiplano campus, in Cantón El Tablón.
Fathers often tell their sons, “You really are a man” when their sons drink together, Ralón says. Sons often feel proud to follow their father’s example because they are aiming to conform to a social and gender expectation, he says.
But this practice has consequences, says Dr. Alejandro Paiz, a psychiatrist and director of the Sanatorio Philippe Pinel, a private rehabilitation center in Sololá for drug and alcohol abuse, among other conditions.
“The people of this locality abuse alcohol because they see it as normal, something natural among themselves, and it’s there where the major problems arise,” he says.
Bocel’s group is the first and only one of its kind for the 1,600 residents in Caserío Cooperativa, Cantón El Tablón, he and sources who work in this field say.
There are other support groups for alcoholics in the department, but they are far away, he says. The closest is in the Sololá municipality, the capital of the department, about a 45-minute bus ride from the hamlet. The other support group in Santiago Atitlán is more than 2 hours away by bus.
Bocel says his support group is uniquely positioned to help men in his community in more ways than other sources of assistance in the area, including churches, schools and rehabilitation centers.
He does not charge a fee or force his religious beliefs onto others, he says. Schools that offered workshops or classes had an end date. Meanwhile, his sessions are continuous.
“My sessions are available two times per week, and I will continue until I die,” he says.
More important, he says, his sessions are conducted in Kaqchikel, the Mayan language that indigenous people of this community speak. Many people here do not speak Spanish, which limits their options, he says.
“People prefer to be attended to by their own people. There is more trust; there is understanding because they are in the same context,” he says. “We speak a common language; we have customs and respect.”
Francisco Coché, who runs a center to help alcoholics in Santiago Atitlán, says he and staff members at his center don’t visit people’s homes because they don’t have time for it. In this way, Bocel’s method to engage new and existing members is unique in the area, he says.
Coché has also seen how alcoholism is passed down from fathers to sons in western Guatemalan communities. A young boy cannot separate himself from his father’s example, he says.
“If my dad is this way, I will be this way,” Coché says is the most common reasoning he hears among children.
Mariano Ajquichí, 65, says he remembers wanting to be like his father, a heavy drinker. With his father’s permission, Ajquichí started drinking alcohol at age 12.
“I remember well that my father gave me a sip, a tiny drop, and because of that little cup he gave me, I liked it,” he says.
Ajquichí says he allowed his three sons to drink alcohol when they were 12 and 13 years old at family parties because he thought it was normal. The three, who are between 27 and 45 years old, are now alcoholics, he says.
Ajquichí is one of the seven attendees at Bocel’s group. Bocel visited him at his home in January and persuaded him to attend, he says.
Ajquichí says he is one of three people who have been sober for at least four months thanks to Bocel’s support group. Other members stay sober for a day or days at a time but not for an extended period.
Ajquichí wants to help his sons achieve sobriety. He feels responsible for their condition, and Bocel’s support group has helped him realize he can break the cycle in his family, he says.
“I didn’t speak much with my sons, and now I plan to do it,” he says. “It will be difficult for me, but I will do it so they can stop drinking alcohol.”
Bocel says he looked for help at centers for alcoholics more than 10 years ago when he lived in Guatemala City, the country’s capital. He says he was never able to find success because he did not have his father’s support.
In 2009, he found that support in his own children and quit because he realized he could be a negative influence on the younger members of his family if he continued to drink alcohol.
“My grandsons and granddaughters are growing, and seeing myself, I was embarrassed and I don’t want them to follow my example,” he says.
Bocel begins each session of his support group with a welcome. If someone new arrives, Bocel tells his own story, how he was raised and got involved with alcohol, and how he has managed to stay sober for the past six years.
Bocel and the members form a circle to read and discuss the latest news stories and academic studies related to alcoholism. Everyone shares a similar experience with the group, he says. Bocel then offers his advice for each member’s situation.
Members set goals for themselves, such as not drinking one day, then two days, all the while measuring how long they can last without a drink. The end goal is to provide support to fathers so they can support their families, Bocel says.
“If they see that Dad drinks, they drink,” Bocel says. “If the parents have clarity that their actions are wrong, they try to avoid that their sons follow the chain.”
Bocel’s biggest challenge is getting new members and keeping them, he says.
Matías Tuiz, 35, has been drinking since he was 16. He attended one of Bocel’s meetings because Bocel invited him, but he decided to not return, he says. He doesn’t feel comfortable talking about his life and knowing about the lives of others.
“I cannot stop drinking, and if I attend, it would be a waste of time,” Tuiz says.
But Bocel wants more members. So he asks attendees to in turn invite other people. He already counts on the help of Ajquichí, who on top of speaking with neighbors also distributes invitation letters.
“And that way, among everyone we can help each other solve this problem,” Ajquichí says.
Bocel says no woman has approached him or the group for help. He thinks this is because women might be afraid of being stigmatized for this issue. But he says he plans to make strides with women next year and hopes that one day soon, the group will have women as well as men as members.
But whether his group grows or not, Bocel says he’ll continue his work.
“I will always stay, even if the people don’t always come,” Bocel says. “I will be waiting for them.”
Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, GPJ, translated interviews from Kaqchikel. Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.