The Language of Electricity

A team from Oregon’s electric co-ops raced against the clock to bring electricity to a remote Guatemalan village, changing the lives of all involved

By Ted Case, Executive Director, Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Francisco Gomez works alongside Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op lineworker Clinton Curtis in Ventura, Guatemala, during the Oregon Empowers electrification project. The group brought electricity to about 30 rural homes. Photo by Mike Teegarden

The road to the village of Ventura, Guatemala, was rutted and nearly impassable. Eventually, it brought us to the shadow of a volcano, where the Oregon Empowers team of nine lineworkers and an engineer—all volunteers from Oregon electric cooperatives—toiled away to bring electricity to villagers living lives without power.

A small group of us traveled there on behalf of Oregon Empowers, the philanthropic arm of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Our mission was to engage in village service projects and participate in a ceremony celebrating the advent of electricity.

By the time the Oregon Empowers group arrived, the crew—working in collaboration with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s international program—had worked 2 weeks straight to meet their goal to energize 40 homes.

We quickly learned their hard reality. With few tools or equipment commonly used at home, they followed in the footsteps of the heroic 1930s lineworkers who brought electricity to rural America by sheer force of will—climbing poles and stringing wire from dawn to dusk.

The Oregon lineworkers, however, had challenges even their forefathers did not face: working 3,000 miles from home on an impossibly tight schedule and with am language barrier. Not a single member of the Oregon crew, which included Pioneer Utility Resources photojournalist Mike Teegarden, was conversationally fluent in Spanish.

However, the villagers—equally motivated, if not more so—joined in to help, digging out postholes by hand and wielding impressive machetes to help clear the thick rights-of-way. After spending a few days in this rugged remote area, it was clear the people of Ventura were gracious and hard-working.

Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op lineworker Clinton Curtis high-fives a Guatemalan teen after an impromptu soccer game broke out after lunch. Interacting with the community was one of the highlights of the trip. Photos by Mike Teegarden

Living a dusty half-hour drive from the bustling well-lit city of Jalapa, the villagers of Ventura knew the Oregon Empowers team was their last hope for modern conveniences—such as light and refrigeration—that most Americans have enjoyed for nearly a century. The future of the village was omnipresent. Children roamed everywhere, shadowing the lineworkers and booting a soccer ball with them during water breaks.

During a tour of the village, we visited a home of a proud woman with 3 children who makes less money each day in the coffee fields than most American consumers spend daily on a Starbucks latte. Her cinderblock home with dirt floors had the persistent smell of smoke from the open fire in the kitchen, but was wired with four lightbulbs and 2 wall fixtures.

As she gave us a tour, there was a sense of anticipation as the crew prepared to flip the breaker. We asked the woman what she was looking forward to most about having electricity. She wasn’t sure, she said, adding with raw emotion, “I’ve been waiting for it for so long.”

Lineworkers had to navigate fields, ditches, coffee plantations and banana trees while pulling wire for the new service.

The breaker was flipped, and we watched the family stare at an illuminated lightbulb like some magical beacon. This moment, which transcended any language barrier, was repeated throughout the village over the next few days.

Clinton Curtis, a journeyman lineman who has served Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op members for 32 years, witnessed the transformations.

“When the lights came on in each home, there weren’t loud cheers or jumping up and down, just pure appreciation shown on their faces, with a held-back tear or a smile,” Clinton says. “We were very lucky to get to help these proud and gracious people.”

On the last day in the village, the final home was energized, and officials from the local municipality held a ceremony to celebrate the electrification of the village. The Oregon crew appeared both exhausted and exhilarated, cognizant that while their feat of engineering was only a small dent in the nearly billion people worldwide still without access to electricity, they had made a powerful connection far from home.

After the speeches, the village families received donated hot plates and water filters, a harbinger of how electricity will change all aspects of their lives. Before the Oregonians left on the long road out of the town, the Guatemalans gave each crew member a gift that, while not suitable for an airplane’s overhead bin, signified their ultimate respect for what the team had accomplished.

They gave them all machetes.

Jonathan Najera, 6, sits in his family’s kitchen, where all meals are cooked on a wood stove.

Project Volunteers

Jeff Pillow—Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative
Matt Ellis—Umatilla Electric Cooperative
Shawn Foultner—Consumers Power Inc.
Travis Smart—OTEC
Travis Deming—UEC
Wyatt Shelley—Harney Electric Cooperative
Jason Sherman—Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative
Charles Tracy—OTEC
Clinton Curtis—Hood River Electric & Internet Co-op
Matt Smith—Blachly-Lane Electric