Hi! I’m Rob Mercatante, also known as “el canche”. In Guatemala ‘canche’ refers to anyone with light hair and skin. (And it’s a much nicer nickname than “the gringo”.)
I grew up in Yorktown Heights, NY where I attended Grace Lutheran Church. The pastor, Reverend Timothy J. Kennedy, became a friend and mentor to me. Inspired by his example, my faith and my desire to serve others grew stronger.
In 1984, I pulled up my New York roots and headed south Hickory, NC to attend a wonderful Lutheran college: Lenoir-Rhyne University. I studied Theology & Philosophy with the intent of attending seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor.
One fateful day during my senior year, however, my life changed forever. Passing by the campus bulletin board, a flyer caught my eye. It was an invitation to participate in student workcamp to Guatemala, building houses with Habitat for Humanity.
And so, on graduation day in 1988, I handed my cap and gown to my parents and got on a bus with other students and faculty, bound for Miami and then a flight to Guatemala!
The workcamp experience touched and moved me so greatly that I decided to put seminary on hold for a three years in order to volunteer with Habitat as an international Partner. Although Habitat has projects all around the world, I was –remarkably– assigned to the El Rosario project in Guatemala… the very same project I had visited with the LR work camp!
For the next three years I helped build homes for the poorest of the poor in a remote coastal village with no telephone service, no electricity and no running water. With each passing day I fell deeper in love with life in Guatemala and the Guatemalan people.
At the same time I became aware that lack of decent housing wasn’t the only problem facing Guatemalans. Equally oppressive were the structural injustices in the form of racism, sexism, extreme poverty, lack of access to health and education, forced disappearances, massacres and other brutal acts of violence occurring within the context of an armed conflict between leftist guerillas and the Guatemalan military.
When my term of service with Habitat Guatemala was completed, I decided to stay in Guatemala and dedicate myself to the defense of human rights. For the next 25 years I volunteered with a number of Guatemalan and international organizations working for peace, justice, and the defense of human rights.
Some of the highlights of my years in Guatemala include:
- Teaching workshops with labor unions, student groups, women’s organizations, and rural indigenous farming communities about their rights.
- Working with a national coalition of organizations to promote the peace process and end the 36-year long civil war.
- Accompanying refugees returning to Guatemala from their forced exile in Mexico.
- Providing training to guerrilla fighters to assist them reintegrate into civil society after the signing of the Peace Accords.
- Working with the government and popular movement organizations to promote dialogue as a solution to social conflict.
- Publishing news and analysis about the situation in Guatemala for a national and international audience.
- Helping coordinate emergency relief efforts for victims of natural disasters such as cholera outbreaks and hurricanes, as well as for communities that were bombarded during the conflict.
- Leading international delegations to monitor human rights and promote free and transparent elections.
- Documenting the exhumation of clandestine graves of massacre victims from the armed conflict.
- Visiting political prisoners in jail and attending trials of activists falsely accused of crimes.
- Being present in communities attacked by the police and military for their defense of water and the environment.
- Working to promote positive U.S. policies in Guatemala.
- Investigating and denouncing human rights abuses, and supporting the men and women who struggle daily for truth and justice.
And seminary? That’s still my fallback plan.