Noe Valley Voice July-August 2000

Living with the Maya, Giving Back to the World

By John Bird

You need to spend a certain amount of time with Margaret Bean, and listen carefully, to begin to understand the scope and breadth of her life experiences, and the path she has chosen. In her soft Scottish brogue, she will share her memory of being a 6-year-old girl crouched next to her mother in an air-raid shelter her father had dug in their back yard on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. She'll talk about the German bombers flying overhead and the earth shaking when a bomb exploded just across the road.

A few minutes later, Bean, 66, will tell you about the thunderstorm she experienced three nights ago at home in Antigua, Guatemala. When the power went out, she finished writing a letter by candlelight, hunched over her laptop, grateful to have a computer that could run on a battery.

Bean arrived in the United States in 1960 with a nurse-midwife certificate, $36 in her pocket, and a yearning to pursue a career in community health care. In New York City, she worked as a registered nurse while studying for a degree at N.Y.U. For seven years she was a senior editor at the American Journal of Nursing, and even did a short stint as a medical staffer on a Caribbean cruise ship -- a way for her to see another corner of the world.

Her first year in San Francisco, 1977, she worked for San Francisco General Hospital's nascent nurse-midwife service, one of the first birthing centers in the nation. Later, she helped open a similar birthing facility at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Bean also wrote a proposal, which received state funding, to open a hospital-based midwife service for four satellite birthing clinics managed by Alameda County. "I was a crusader," she writes in her memoirs. "I had a vision. I would help bring competent, compassionate, beneficial change, we would slash the high neonatal mortality rates, and we would do it now."

In hindsight, she realizes she was woefully unprepared for the rough-and-tumble climate of big-city health care politics. "There was extraordinary social unrest and political posturing [going on] at that time." Bean got burned out -- "in fact, burned to a crisp."

It took her a long time to recover from that experience, to understand that she had served as a catalyst for the state and county to work together to launch a new health service, and ultimately to provide care to underserved neighborhoods.

In the early 1980s, she settled in Noe Valley -- in an apartment on 25th Street near Grand View -- and joined the Noe Valley Ministry, the Presbyterian Church on Sanchez Street. Bean gained much from being a part of that community. "I've always enjoyed hosting small events that bring people together to put the fun back in fundraising -- a sort of 'Share the Spirit' program," she says.

For one such activity, Bean arranged to use Bethany Methodist's kitchen, "with its wonderful huge double ovens," to teach a shortbread baking class. Bean gave everyone ingredients to bake 21/2 pounds of Scottish shortbread. Each participant got to take home a one-pound loaf; the rest was sold at a bake sale on 24th Street. The project netted $500 for the Ministry's community benevolence fund, and all the bakers got to hear Bean's stories of growing up Scottish.

Bean also served as the Ministry's representative on the Interfaith Sanctuary Committee, a group offering shelter for refugees fleeing Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. A two-week Spanish class at a language school in the Yucatan was her introduction to the history and culture of the ancient Maya.

Her curiosity piqued, in 1988 Bean took a river trip into Guatemala, traveling from Palenque to Tikal. The country was being torn by civil war, and the river was an escape route for guerrillas and refugees alike.

"I was so furious when all my luggage was stolen, including 10 rolls of exposed film," Bean fumes. She vowed to return to Guatemala to take more pictures.

That opportunity came three summers ago, when she moved to Guatemala. Arriving in Quetzeltenango, initially she lived in the homes of two different families, and later worked at Colegio Evangelico la Patria, a private academy. With the title of health care consultant, she did a needs analysis to help the school administrators develop short- and long-term goals. She also operated a first-aid station for students and staff.

Her early experiences were both difficult and heartwarming. "I saw how hard the Guatemalan people -- particularly the women -- worked, and for a mere pittance," Bean writes. "I felt a great respect for the people I had met and lived among-- and I wanted to give something back."

She set up a scholarship fund for a 10-year-old girl named Lisbeth. Lisbeth was especially bright and gifted, she thought, and would benefit from getting an education at a private school. "And it eases the burden a bit on her mum," adds Bean.

Bean now lives in Antigua, where she rents a cottage just outside of town. Recent additions to her household this past year have included a sheep dog, Iona, and a kitten, Squitten. From her front room she can see three volcanoes. One, named Fuego, puffs frequently.

These days, Bean continues to consult to local volunteer groups. She is occasionally called to disaster relief sites for help with translating. She has developed a network of friends, both natives and "gringos" from England, Australia, and the U.S. And she has discovered a special kinship with the local Quakers group, noting that their sense of social justice and volunteerism parallel her own. She is trying to learn to be more computer-savvy, and likes to walk her dog in the nearby coffee plantations.

But her life in Guatemala is still filled with adventure.

"Yesterday was a very Guatemalan day," Bean wrote recently. She and a friend set out to visit a women's cooperative to attend its first-year anniversary celebration. First they had a flat tire, so they caught a bus, which had to detour around a desrumba, a landslide on the mountain road. Nobody they asked seemed to know quite where the cooperative was located. Finally, they found themselves walking up a narrow, twisting cobblestone lane, "and suddenly a whole horde of joyful, traje-clad [traditionally dressed] women and children were pouring out to greet us." Bean, once again, was home with the Maya.