Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wrapping up

I continue to be amazed by so much of what we do here and so many of the people we meet. This morning we had a meeting with Father Fernando Cardinal, a Jesuit priest who was involved in the revolution and later named the Minister of Education in the FSLN revolutionary government. He also led the first major project of the Sandinista government, the national literacy campaign.

He shared with us his stories of involvement in the pre-Triumph organizing of the revolution as well as his experiences as Minister and in his work since. He is the only priest in the more than 400-year history of the Jesuits to be expelled from the priesthood and then later reinstated. (He did, however, have to redo his year of noviciate, after more than 30 years as a priest. But he laughed when he talked about that requirement.)

Then, as a sort of sending off, he told us to take advantage of life, to live authentically and intentionally. He talked about what a sad situation it would be if, in 15 or twenty years, we had children who came to us and asked, ¨Where were you in 2009, when X happened? What were you doing? Didn´t you know?¨ Then he presented the converse of that situation, in which we are able to answer, ¨I was in the front row, out in the streets, educating myself and acting.¨

In her final for El Salvador, Arpita wrote a letter to herself in 10 years. One of the lines that has stuck with me is her injunction to herself: ¨Make me proud to be your past.¨ As we all enter into a new leg of our experiences together, I think those of us here are thinking a lot about what the future self might look like or do. I´m not sure about any others, but I for one vascilate between having NO idea and having far too many ideas of what that might be. Ultimately, though, I think a lot of it does come down to this idea. The person I am already becoming had better be someone I would be proud to be after having lived this experience and grown and changed over the last few months, together with this wonderful group of people in this astounding context.

Monday, December 1, 2008


I am in the midst of writing an exam on trade, particularly trade liberalization in Central America. Obviously, one of our main foci is CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. It is an agreement between the US and Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica which largely openned borders between the countries. It has had (and will continue to have) troubling impacts particularly in the agricultural sectors of the Central American countries.

When we drive around town, there is a lot of graffiti. One of the most common phrases is CAFTA NOS MATARA (CAFTA will kill us).

So I would like to recommend an article to folks about the process by which CAFTA was negotiated. It is by a man we met with earlier this week and was published in Revista Envío, a journal published by the Nicaraguan campus of the Central American University.

¨CAFTA will be like a brand-name Hurricane Mitch¨

Related to CAFTA (and a throwback to our last country), one indication of the desired relationship between El Salvador´s political establishment and the US: the Salvadoran negotiating team signed CAFTA sight unseen. A document of more than 3000 pages and they didn´t even bother to look at it first. (The relationship is often described as one where Salvador is the step-child trying to gain the love of the US.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Now that I´m one-third of the way through writing my exam, I feel it´s time for a break. So what follows is a quick, completely non-exhaustive list of things for which I am thankful (in no particular order).

-family: near, far, old, new
-the chance to talk to a good chunk of dad´s side of the fam this afternoon
-all of the people who have welcomed me into their homes over the last months, despite my broken Spanish (as Doña Santos, my most recent host mom in the campo said, ¨Ahora tienes muchas mamás!¨-- ¨Now you have a lot of moms!¨)
-the other people on the program -- in a way, this is a subpoint to giving thanks for family
-the communities we have lived in and visited, the stories we have heard, the opportunity to learn about the impact that US foreign and economic policy has had in this region that is never covered in the news
-the home-places that are waiting for me when I get back to the States and my community, which I am anxious to re-acclamate to (in particular I´m thinking here Seward/South Minneapolis, HTLC, the U of M and all that these encompass)
-the knowledge that, with courage and practice, I won´t ever fully re-acclamate
-a presidential inauguration that I actually WANT to attend (this is big)
-(because I´m really missing her right now) my bicycle, Maude

Again, far from complete. The idea is simply that I have a whole lot to be thankful for. And, as is usually the case, only one of them is really a ¨thing¨ at all.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

post-elections and the campo

The last two weeks (since the elections on the 9th) have been a bit intense in Managua. Most of the days between the election and yesterday, there has been some level of destruction (and in a few cases, violence) in varying places in town. The gist is that, only weeks before the mayoral elections (thoughout the country), the Frente Sandista banned two of the major parties, one of which looked like it had a chance of winning the Managua mayorship, which is in turn seen as a first step toward the future presidency. So these parties joined with an already-existing coalition of parties (under the banner of ¨Todos Contra Ortega¨ -- everyone against Ortega, the current president).

When the initial results of the Managua race came through -- with the Sandinista candidate winning at 51% -- there was an immediate outcry from PLC supporters that every vote be counted. Thus began a recount that lasted until last night, when Alexis Arguello, the FSLN candidate, was confirmed as the winner. [So even though I´m not in Minnesota, I´ve gotten to go through the recount experience. Actually, the two races seem rather similar -- very polarized with plenty of people who don´t want either major party candidate.]

Last night there was a gigantic victory rally with Ortega, his wife, Arguello, plenty of music, the whole works. And meanwhile, our part of Managua had lost power for most of the afternoon (but you can bet the rally had all the electricity it needed).

Thus, we hope, the election drama is over. But it did come with a cost: many (so many) cars were burned or smashed, other property was destroyed, and two people (a man and an 8-year-old girl) were shot and killed on the first day following the elections.

One really bright spot in the midst of all of this was our trip to the campo this past Monday through Thursday. We went to a town north of Estelí (about four hours north of Managua) that runs a coffee cooperative through the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives Miraflor Nature Reserve.

We stayed in host families scattered throughout the community. El Sontule itself is tucked into the mountainside, which meant lots of wind and cool, brisk weather. It was excellent (if a bit chilly) for those of us who missed ¨crisp¨ fall days back home. There is so much to say about the community, it is difficult to summarize. After two weeks living in Managua, relatively cooped up due to the tense situation, the 15-minute walk to the bus each morning was heavenly. The ability to be outside at night, even just walking to the latrine, was amazing.

Aesthetically, it was a magnificent place. But the people we lived and spoke with surpassed all of that. Rebekah and my mom, Doña Santos, is a member of the women´s cooperative. Twenty-one women own two manzanas (about 3.5 acres) of land, on which they grow coffee collectively. It has been an incredible way for the women to gain a measure of financial independence and bring additional income into the families. The cooperatives (there is also a mixed-gender coop project) run workshops and trainings on organic fertilizing, self esteem, reforestation, solar panels, etc.

All in all, it was a very impressive, dynamic community. All of the homestays (from what I heard) were different but all wonderful.

Classes are getting to be a bit overwhelming, as we are wrapping up our final three weeks here. We are essentially at the mid-term point of our six-week classes (of which we have two right now), but since it is such a short time, we have also already turned in our proposals for final projects. Such condensed class periods makes for one assignment right on top of another! But the further we get into the two classes, the more they integrate and overlap. That is the way I prefer semesters -- lots of overlap and interaction between the course material. I feel that I get a more holistic view of what I am studying this way.

So in the midst of the city, in the midst of exams and projects, in the midst of stubmling Spanish conversations and mixed emotions about going home versus leaving here (two very different concepts in my mind), I try to come back to Julian of Norwich:

All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

A bit more on Nica

It´s election day again, this time municipal elections in Nicaragua. Seems simple, right? Wrong. We´ve been advised either 1) to stay at home with our host families or, if we need to work on homework, 2) go straight to the CGE house, using only taxis from the cooperative based in our homestay barrio.

Today´s FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) are not the Sandinistas of the 70s and 80s and, I will wager based on what little I know of him, the party of Sandino himself. Criminalization of political parties, concentration of power in the hands of the FSLN and the opposition party (in such a way, though, that the FSLN has the PLC party in its pocket through control of the legal status of their former president), more and more steps toward authoritarian control of the country.

The women´s movement, so integral to the victories in the 70s/80s, has been shunned for supporting the accusations of sexual abuse brought on by Ortega´s step daughter.

None of this is to say that the Frente isn´t doing good things in people´s lives at the individual level. For example, Amy and Arpita´s host mother was talking a couple days ago about the direct support her family has received in dealing with her husband´s health problems. Thousands of families, at least to some degree, have received food assistance as part of the ¨Zero Hunger¨ campaign. These are all very real, tangible impacts. And I know that it is easy for someone (me) whose daily needs are being met to say that the tangible benefits can often mask systemic abuses -- or even systemic contributions to the very poverty and hunger being addressed by the (highly-publicized) programs. But the fact remains that if you´re confined to a hospital bed, you won´t be going to the polls today, even if your party of choice IS one of the two legal parties in the elections. And if the Frente can get you the medicine to get out of that bed, that´s not be brushed aside.

(What makes the two party situation so disheartening is that one of the four pillars of Sandinism was its comitment to a multi-party system that would allow contributions and participation from people all over the political map. The fact that the FSLN has been so integral in removing that possibility is pretty hard to hear about. But, of course, they didn´t act alone. More on that in a minute.)

Yet, just as is the case for me with Chavez and Castro, I´m not willing to give special passes to authoritarian (or borderline-so) leaders just because they are on the left. If I want my leaders to be both progressive and transparent, then Nicaraguans have every right to expect that from theirs as well. (Not, of course, to say that if I don´t, they don´t. You all get my drift.)

But this would ultimately be too easy if the assumption was just that Ortega, Castro, Chavez, and others went in with hopes of becoming dictators. I honestly don´t think that is the case. There is another common theme that tends to run between people who take up leadership (especially in the Americas) at the head of popular or leftists movements: They immediately become targets for US opposition. In Cuba and Nicaragua, the theme was Communism during two major ¨hot¨ periods of the Cold War -- we need to keep the communist threat out of our back yard.

[And a side note: Central America is not unaware that US foreign policy considers CA the US back yard. Some people plant flowers in their back yards; some let their dogs poop in them. What´s been our approach?]

What I´m getting at is this: In Nica, after the Triumph of the Revolution (in 1979) the FSLN was never given the opportunity to really establish a successful government before the Contra war began. Obviously, that was the point, from Reagan´s perspective. But in the initial phase of the revolutionary government, Ortega (yep, he was president then, too) went all over the country holding listening sessions where he would set up a microphone, invite the community, and ask what they needed from the government. Now I don´t know how much of that information made its way into policy. But Somoza´s (the previous dictator and end of a dynastic line that began in 1934) way of interacting with the people was shooting them or cutting off their hands. Seems like a step or two up to me.

Also, there were immensely successful literacy and health campaigns in the first few years. Tens of thousands of youth were released from school for a year to go out into the campo, where literacy rates were sometimes in the single digits, and teach both children and adults. By the end of the 10-month cycle, illiteracy on the national level (previously 56%) had been reduced to 12%. The majority of the adults, who had not been able to read before, were reading at a third grade level -- after 10 months! Similarly, youth were sent out into the campo with materials for vaccinations and polio was irradicated from Nicaragua.

By the time these gains had been made, the Contra war had also started. Thus a government that had begun to be successful in really reaching the people in both urban and rural areas suddenly had an exterior force against which to rally and consolidate power. Speculation thirty years after the fact doesn´t bring change, so I won´t dwell in it long. But I can only imagine that without the presence of US intervention so common in Central America, the Sandinista government might have felt a bit more freedom not to move toward a more authoritarian model.

(Then also important are the 1990 elections when the majority of the people knew that voting FSLN would continue the US aid to the Contras, ie, continue the violence. That defeat for the Sandinistas also plays a huge role in where they are today. Imagine this: during the 1980s, 30,000 Nicaraguans were killed in the Contra war. This is after 70,000 were killed under the three Somoza regimes. In 1990, Nica had a population of about 3.9 million. Contrast that to the US during Vietnam, where 57,000 US soldiers died in a population of about 150 million. Who in the US didn´t know someone killed or injured in Vietnam? There are essentially no families in Nicaragua that weren´t touched by death in the 80s.)

This has become an incredible stream-of-thought entry. It wasn´t intended to be a Nica history lesson! I didn´t develop my thoughts on US influence on CA dictatorships (of the left or right) as much as I had intended. But I would love to hear people´s thoughts on what I did get out there!

Pray for a peaceful election time here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Elections and elation

There are no words to describe the anticipation that built up over the course of yesterday afternoon and evening or the excited energy that exploded when the words ¨Breaking News: Obama Elected President¨ flashed onto the TV screen.

We are living in our Managua house now and have been for the last week. It is interesting -- growing up in the Community of St. Martin, I remember hearing every once in a while a homily preached that included stories of when Jack and Sara NP lived in Nicaragua. I had no idea at the time what they did there (or where it was, really). Turns out the room I stayed in my first night in Managua used to be their home. Fancy that. I´m a huge dork about historical connections to people I know in the present, so needless to say I am enjoying not only the house but the link to home.

The last three days have been a whirlwind. We are in a new country, which comes with the necessary tours around town to get a sense for historial places and to put visuals to some of the locations which we will be talking about over our time here. We also have started two new classes, a history/women´s studies course and a political science course. Both are very interesting, although right now I tend to favor the history.

Tomorrow we move in with our host families for a four-week stay. All of the families live in the same neighborhood and all have some connection to a community cultural center. When we were talking about who is going where this afternoon, Joe gave a little description of each family and they all sound AMAZING. I am immensely excited for this homestay.

Alright. This was brief and scattered, but it´s an update. I hope all is well wherever this finds you. For those of us from the US, may we sleep (and walk through the day) with our heads just a bit higher. Not because things will be perfect or because injustice has been ¨fixed,¨ but because we have one more reason to hold hope.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Para no tener otros Copapayos

We visited the colonial town of Suchitoto this weekend. Situated as the town in the middle of more than seventy cantones (sort of like hamlets), it is the place from which Sister Peggy does her work of building the programs of the Peace Center. And what programs! It is amazing what the Centro Arte por la Paz has going in that area.

The area that Suchitoto encompasses was the locale of seven massacres during the civil war, including one in the town of Copapayo. We went to the actual site of the massacre, in which 150 people were killed by the military troops of General Monterosa (trained at the School of the Americas). We heard the testimony of the only survivor of the actual massacre. [To expain, many people fled by getting into boats and leaving on the lake/reservoir, but only one man, who was 9 years old at the time, survived of the people who were on the hillside when the military discovered the community.]

At the site, Peggy expained a bit of what happened and events that led up (the military harassment and small-scale attacks that led the community to vacate their homes). She said that the tradition, when visiting the site, is to take a few moments of silence to re-dedicate ourselves to peace, so that there will be no more Copapayos, no more massacres, and that those places that exist in violence today might know peace. So let us all take a moment to re-dedicate ourselves to this struggle and this vision.

As part of our course, we spent the last week working in small groups with books that look at more specific aspects of liberation. Rebekah and I took a book called Soul Sisters, which put poetry to a set of icons drawn of women of the New Testiment. We then used our experiences and interactions with Central American women, as well as women of the bible, to write our own poems. I'm not, by any means, a poet. But here is my product.

In her day, as in ours, “adultery”

only meant anything if a

woman had strayed.

Vilma knows this

all too well. Her mother

had no men on the side;

her father had plenty of women.

No wrong was seen.

So a childhood of poverty,

after father’s flight,

ensued. Mother,

always loving, had to be

convinced that her child was not

hungry, despite days without


The girl grew up, swearing

to break cycles and avoid repeating

history. Yet cycles are strong

and patterns easy to repeat. And

so three generations of faithful women –

representing entire communities of their sisters –

are left or infected by non-“adulterous” men.

In her day, as in ours, children

were all too often placed at the

bottom of the priority list –

daughters with particular ease.

Chata knows this, abandoned

by father and struck by mother’s

death. Yet she has the same

fortune as the daughter of Jairus –

a community enamoured of its

children, its future.

Just as the healer said “fear is

useless,” you, Chata, are fearless.

Only girl on the futbol team,




force of spirit.

Pride of her community.

Daniel also knows this love. Not

a daughter, but a young, deaf

son in a place where this affords

few options.

Easily relegated to the least

position, but child of parents who

refuse to do so.

The pride in father’s eyes as

you heal yourself through

weaving and learning is

more than enough to put an end to


In her day,

as during the war,

as in ours, mothers bore

children; mothers raised

children. Mothers, with too much

frequency, outlive their


Mothers across Central America

know this to be wrenchingly,


terribly true.

They share in the benchmark –

and the day-to-day – experiences of

la Madre de Dios.

Life under repressive occupation;

labor in surroundings that

emphasize the depths of

poverty possible in this creation. Sacrifice.

They raise children who learn to

question the need for this


They raise children who

raise people to from their knees

to their feet in pride, and sometimes,

back to their knees

in awe.

And as a result,

(because we know how the

story ends, because cycles are

strong and hard to break)

they raise children called ‘subversive,’

children who must live as refugees, and

children killed for the

danger they pose to systems and cycles which

deny and attack the existence of life.

In their day, as in ours,

women encounter their God on the

road – to Jerusalem, to las Flores,

to and from the tomb. Yet

despite their travails – and their

victories – these sisters hear and draw power

from the words “do not seek among the dead for those who


Sunday, October 12, 2008

None of this is possible without our organization

Everyone in the community of Nueva Esperanza knew exactly what type of plant gave me the second degree burn on my leg. Apparently, it's called "pan caliente" (hot bread).

Nueva Esperanza is a community of 100+ families (in around 500 people total) in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador. The vast majority of the residents (and all of the founders) are survivors of the Rio Sumpul massacre in Chalatenango in 1980. After the massacre, they found a place to take refuge -- the basement of a church in San Salvador (about a two-hour drive on good highways),
an approximately 30' x 30' space with one sink and one toilet -- for 400 people. They gradually added a stove on the roof of the church building and lived there, with the church constantly surrounded by death squads to prevent their leaving, for three years. With the help of two English students, they eventually received permission to leave the country and go to Nicaragua, where they established cooperatives in common with Nicaraguans and lived for another 9 years.
In 1991, they received the right (after a year-long process) to return to Salvador. While their intention to live and own land cooperatively was opposed by the government, they managed to do it. They built houses, ten at a time; they held classes under trees until a school could be built. In the years since, they have built a community infrastructure that includes a clinic, a health emergency fund, a food cooperative (400 hectares of land held in common) and processing plant. Leadership of women and youth is especially encouraged; the president of the community is a woman. (And one hell of a strong one at that.)

[It deserves to be noted that the one-year process to return included a brief time occupying the Salvadoran embassy in Managua -- holding mass, putting on plays, and receiving food from Nicaraguan supporters. Finally the people from neighboring embassies called and put pressure on the Salvadoran government to "let those sons of bitches out -- they make too much noise and we can concentrate."]

Based on the words of the people we met with, as well as the clear message sent by the everyday lives we witnessed, education is clearly the most important element of community life. Probably the biggest point of pride is that they provide transportation so that children from throughout the entire zone (the lower Lempa area) can come to school in their infancy-through-high school education system. (I'll say again, this is a community of more or less 500 people, plus those from surrounding communities.)

That actually leads to the second major emphasis: solidarity/organization. The level of commitment between the small communities in the area is astounding. There are organizations that deal with environmental degradation and the flooding inherent in living in a river valley, youth groups that receive two of the eleven spaces on the community directiva. I can't count how many times I heard this weekend some version of "none of this would be possible without our organization as a community." It was quite inspiring. It also shows through their commitment to using their resources with integrity. They receive a great deal of support from communities in Belgium, Spain, Germany, and Canada and they are intent on using that money well and without any corruption.

The major, unifying theme of the community is the reality of its being a Base Christian Community. The people meet in smaller groups, share the eucharist, and allow their faith to truly guide their decisions and community life. At mass last night, the theme was the banquet of creation. Hearing those stories in the context of a community that truly strives to share the abundance it does have and works hard for it gives them an entirely different meaning. I probably got about 80% of the Spanish, but every once in a while, my mind would wander, touched off by whatever the priest (a Spanish man who has been with the community since about 1995 in Nicaragua) had just said. For some reason, I had never approached the story from the avenue of what keeps people not from being invited but from accepting the invitation. The other priorities that make us think they are more important than attending the banquet.

During communion, Peggy's (our professor) lesson from class last week about the meaning of 'eucharist' as a giving of thanks came to mind combined with others of her words (from a different context): A gift given out of someone's subsistence, rather than their excess, is an entirely different type of gift.

And finally, from class this morning, a pretty amazing poem that gave me chills:

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
"This is my body, this is my blood"?

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
"This is my body, this is my blood"?

Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
brocaded robes belying barrenness,
Ordain that she not say it for him now.

--Frances Croake Frank

(This reminds me why I'm so proud of my mom.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I've temporarily given up on photobucket, given how many problems I've been having with it. I'm focusing more on my facebook photo albums, which are easier to organize.

Trip to the Jesuit Center on the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2083299&l=50fc3&id=40106718

and from the weekend accompaniments:


Base Christian Communities

This past weekend we split into groups of two to four and traveled to Base Christian Communities throughout the country.  My group, Annika, Nathan, Sam, and I, went to San Jose las Flores, a town of about 2000 on the border between El Salvador and Honduras.  In 1981, the community as it was then was the site of a horrible massacre in which 800 people were killed by the Salvadoran army, with the help of the Honduran army amassed right across the Rio Sumpul (this is known as the Rio Sumpul massacre, if that name sounds familiar).  

We had the chance to meet with leaders of the town directive, women involved in the various community business projects for women, men involved in the fruit and vegetable cooperative, and former combatants in the armed conflict.  

San Jose las Flores, as it is now, was established in 1986, mostly by families who had not lived there prior to the massacre (though there are certainly exceptions to this).  It is easy to understand why, as one of our friends told us, "we receive absolutely no support from the government."  It is a town with a community-run restaurant, bank, pharmacy, cooperative, ecotourism business (just getting off the ground), bakery, and clothing workshop.  Children in the community are not allowed to work in community projects while they are of school age, as the investment in their education is seen by the community as well worth the wait.  In a country like El Salvador, where the president signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement literally sight unseen out of a desire to appear open to all new and exciting waves of capitalism, it is pretty clear why this community gets no support.  (The more I learn about the historical and current relationship between the US and El Salvador, the more I understand my own input into situations like this.  It is not uplifting.  But at the same time, there is so much going on here that is uplifting, just on smaller scales, that I believe Sister Peggy and all the others when they say that that people here live in hope.)

Our guides (sort of) for the weekend were two students of 17 and 18 years.  They showed us around town, took us through the the fields of the cooperative and to a community soccer game, and led us on a hike before we left on Sunday morning.  However, on that hike (or rather, from my time on the hike), I learned that there are plants that burn people with sensitive skin.  As a result, Ani and I have lovely boils on our skin, she on her arms (both) and I on my left leg.  Mine is small potatoes compared to hers, but it still stings and makes me not love whatever plant inflicted it.  (From what I've found, I think it was rue, but I am not sure if rue actually grows in Central America.)  All of that said, the trip up the mini-mountain to see the cross dedicated to the victims of a different massacre and the view of las Flores that it provides was well worth the burn.  

Major things that stuck out for me from the weekend: 

-No one who lived in las Flores, who we talked to, could imagine themselves living anywhere else.  Often they would ask how we like it and, when we said very much and returned the question, they could speak volumes of how much they love the town and and offered that they would never leave of their own volition.  

-Our initial assignment in going was to meet with one of the Spanish nuns who lives in the town and the priest to learn about this being a BCC.  As it turned out, however, we never got a chance to meet with anyone directly employed by the church.  In reality, though, it was just as well that we didn't.  While I'm sure they would have had plenty of wonderful things to add and enriched our experience, without them, we were able to see the ways that people truly integrate their faith into their everyday lives in ways that compel them to think of the community in the same "breath" as thinking of God.  I think it was a better introduction to the reality of life in a BCC because we saw the lives of the people who didn't have to be involved in church or religious activities, but still acted in whatever ways best contributed to the common good as this flowed out of their faith.  It was impressive and inspiring.  

-The words from a man whose guerilla name was Julio (again, this is for safety, as people here still get assassinated): "The most important thing is God.  Second, solidarity among the people.  And third, our organization; our struggle.  But first God."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

San Salvador

We are now in San Salvador in the guest house (temporarily) run by CGE.

But before we get there, a quick rundown of the last week. We left Xela last Friday (just over a week ago) for one night in Santa Anita. The community of Santa Anita was founded by former combatants in the Guatemalan civil war after the signing of the Peace Accords. They collectively own 1000+ cords(?) of mountainside land, about 950 of which are in production of a fair-trade, organic coffee crop. We met with the man in charge of roasting and foreign markets for the coffee. It was a great introduction to the reality of fair trade labeling (not a blemish-free process, by any means) and the lives of ex-guerrillas.

The following day we split into two groups, one of which went to Cantel and one to La Escuela de la Montana (the Mountain School of PLQ). I went with the latter group, seven in all, including Rebekah the intern/coordinator. It was a pretty fantastic week of four laid-back Spanish class days, at least one presentation or field trip each day, etc. We visited a regular coffee finca owned by a former president of Guatemala who is now the mayor of Guatemala City. We also spent a great deal of time with the other folks living at the school, from California, London, and Sweden.

Friday (two days ago) we returned to Xela for the day and night, then left for Antigua. In Xela, I caught up on all of my emailing from the previous week. In the course of that, I found out that a friend from high school was struck and killed by a truck on his bicycle on Tuesday. I also found out that the older brother of another South friend died during the week. Without much time (or many details that I know), I will simply ask people to keep Jeff and Nick's families in your prayers right now.

As for now (note: several days later than when I started this, due to computer access) we are in San Salvador taking a class on Liberation Theology. We have a three-hour lecture three days a week (the middle days) and at least one history or current events lecture each afternoon. This afternoon we met with Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest and one of the major bases in the history of LT. For those familiar with the massacre of the Jesuits and their gardener's wife and daughter, Sobrino was supposed to be in the house with them that night. He happened to be out of the country, but the military thought he was there. He had already written a great deal on LT and has continued to do so, especially in ways that do not always endear him to the church hierarchy. He is quite a presence and not usually able to meet with CGE semester programs, so we were pretty lucky.

This weekend are the rural pastoral accompaniments in Base Christian Communities. I am very excited to see these more practical, real-life examples of LT being acted out in the lives of Salvadorans post war.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Damas y...cebollas?

I´m realizing that I have yet to say much about the class aspect of this program. So here we are:

Yesterday (Tuesday on account of the national holiday on Monday) we began our third and final week here at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzaltenango. Friday is our ¨graduation¨ ceremony, which includes a traditional Guatemalan dinner, provided by the faculty, while the students are incharge of drinks.

Each weekday for the past two-plus weeks, classes have started at 8am, with a break from 10:30-11, and then continued til 1pm. Some days we have group activities (with just the CGE group) and some days there are cultural, political, or otherwise educational activities planned by the school. My teacher is great, though we´ve been having communication difficulties the last couple of days. (I think I´m to the point now where my Spanish is not SO simple that it can just act like English. It´s causing me troubles.) Right now I´m working on the subjunctive form which, I would bet, just caused all of you Spanish-speakers and -learners out there to give a big, fed-up groan. It certainly does for me. But all in all, I´m getting things decently.

The big challenge for me, linguistically, is to remember the things I learned one or two units ago, as new information gets packed into my not-so-spongy-anymore brain.

Next week, the group splits into two to head for a one-week stay at rural language schools. Classes there will be only 4 hours each day, as opposed to 5 here. There won´t be a set curriculum; we will simply decide, with our individual teachers, what things could use more time. One of the opportunities we´ll have in my group (in a PLQ-affiliated school in La Montaña) is a visit to a regular, non-cooperative coffee finca. I´m excited about this because we are going to be visiting a couple cooperative/fair trade growers and it will be good to have a basis for comparison.

Today, we visited a Mayan priestess (sacerdota) who told about the twenty major spirits in the Maya tradition and allowed us to participate in a ceremony. Interestingly, we were scheduled to meet with a husband and wife priest/-ess couple, but we were unable to. There was a change in the law regarding personal identification in Guatemala today, which caused some unrest on local levels. That in turn caused some highways to be cut off in various places, so out original presenters were stuck en route and had to turn around. [Just a note, we´re all more than fine here. We didn´t even know this had been happening until Joe told us why the plan had changed.]

In general, things here are going very well. We have been here almost a month -- at the end of this week, we will be one quarter done with the program, which is hard to believe! As always, I will try to keep updates coming as often as I can manage.

Until then...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Non-alligned civilians

This will have to be brief. We spent the holiday weekend (Independence Day from Spain, which is September 15 for most of Latin America) in San Pedro Atitlan. It is a town on the second largest lake in Guatemala -- rather touristy, but not full of people, so really just a laid-back wonderful place to spend two days. We took a two and a half hour bus ride and then a half hour boat ride to get there. Our hotel was about a block up from the lake and we rarely got further into town than that (though we did travel laterally near the lake, in our defense!).

We kayaked and enjoyed the views. There is a sizeable Israeli community there, so I got my hummus fix for the last three weeks. Then yesterday was spent walking around Xela, watching the holiday festivities, and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Also, in the group there were two birthdays yesterday and another tomorrow, so there was plenty of celebrating. (I should mention that about half of our number actually hiked to the lake, a two+-day hike. They´re crazy, in my opinion.)

This afternoon we met with one of the teachers here at PLQ to hear his experiences as a non-alligned civilian during the conflict. Suffice it to say, at each turn, my understanding of the history here becomes more complex and confused (in the ¨good way¨). His stories underlined for me the reality of nuance in the midst of conflict, even when that conflict seems to demand taking a side. The experiences he told of -- the loss of two classmates in 5th grade to a grenade explosion; the loss of another classmate in a chillingly Emmitt-Till-like situation during a class fieldtrip (the boy turned up tortured, tied up, and thrown in a swimming pool because someone thought he wanted to steal army uniforms); the death of his own uncle when he (the teacher) was five.

This uncle was his father´s only brother and, for me, there is always something incredibly wrenching about hearing that someone has lost their one and only sibling. (It probably comes from my own experience, not that I think it is somehow easier to lose a sibling if you have others. I´m not sure what it´s all about, really.) It was a difficult lecture to listen to, but incredibly interesting at the same time. The brother (his uncle) was forcibly recruited into the army, underage, which was a common practice at the time, especially for indigenous young men. This also led to stories of the three times he was able to just barely escape being conscripted himself.

As I said, this is brief, but I want to keep folks up to date. Also, new photos, without titles or any helpful information. But they are there, which is more than the internet cafe could do. (I´m at the language school lab at the moment, now that the internet is back up.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

(Just a few) new photos at the bucket. More to come, but I´ve had issues with loading them from my camera.


You can also check out Annie´s blog for a few good photos from Chichicastenango. (For the record, we came up with the ---inca.blogspot idea completely independently of one another.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008


The group spent the weekend in a town called Chichicastenango, or Qiche´, about two and a half hours outside of Xela. (As a note, many towns here have multiple names, one Mayan and one Aztec-derived. If it ends in a -tenango, it is the Aztec title for ¨place of the...¨)

We left on Friday and just got back about an hour ago. Our main purposes in going were to visit a sewing cooperative and see the main Catholic church in town. The cooperative was founded during the mid-80s by a Methodist pastor and a group of women whose husbands had been killed as a part of the war. Many of them (the husbands) died when, in 1982, the local Methodist church was locked and bombed with 40-plus people inside. (To note, this was not at all uncommon during ¨la guerra.¨ The notion of the church as sanctuary was completely off the table. A good film, which my class watched last week, was La Hija del Puma. Very heavy movie, not for kids, I would say. But incredibly powerful.)

After this, many of the women needed to find a way to make a living and raise their families. This was combined with the fact that the war was vastly disproportionately focused on indigenous communities to point the women toward a sewing cooperative that produces traditional indigenous woven and sewn crafts. Scarves, shirts, bags, dolls, blankets, wall art, you name it, they make it and make it beautifully. As a cooperative, all of them women contribute and each is assisted in different forms by the money made. (Their crafts, and those of the men´s tailor project associated with them, can be found in the US through Ten Thousand Villages, for those interested.)

This morning was the Catholic church. It was built during the colonial period directly on the site of a sacred Maya area. The intention of squashing the culture by taking this particular piece of sacred land did not directly work out, however. (Obviously in other ways, this idea was incredibly successful. I´m simply talking about this church in Chichicastenango.) The two traditions have been blended in remarkable ways since then. This particular church is one of the only places in Central America where marimbas, an instrument usually identified with ¨pagan¨Mayan traditions, are used in services and the accompaniment for the different parts of the mass. Preaching is also done, by a native speaker, in both Qiche´and Spanish. It was quite impressive to walk through a group of traditional Mayan elders to enter the church only to see similarly-dressed people sitting up next to the altar.

The other amazing (and overhwhelming) thing that happens in Chichi on Sundays is the market. Good heavens, the market. It is, for you Minnesotans, more visually stimulating than the State Fair and, while it takes up less ground, easily packs in as many people. I intentionally left my money at our hotel, because I knew there would be just too many fantastic things available. (I was right.)

I feel like I should say something about Chichicastenango itself, as it is such a lovely town. We had such a good time, despite our limited time there. We found great people to talk to, wonderful restaurants and cafes. We tried to go dancing to marimba music, but it had been canceled unexpectedly. All in all, really a wonderful place.

The ride back was relatively uneventful with one exception. (Mom, you can skip this part; Darlene, you can delete it before showing grandma and grandpa...) Since we were traveling through mountains, the roads were not always terribly wide or actually buffered by anything. I never felt like we were in danger, but about half-way through the trip back here to Xela, we saw a group of people congregated around one of the edges. As it turns out, a car had run over the edge and plumeted into the canyon.

This isn´t to scare, but it really made me (and all of us) reflect a bit on the brevity and fragility of life. I know that to think about that when confronted by the likely death of someone is more than cliche, but it is true nonetheless. So I remain thankful to have the opportunity to take part in a journey like this, in safe hands, and really see so much of a place that I would not otherwise have had the chance to know. I pray for families and loved ones of the people who went over.

This is not much of a note to end on, and I´ve meant to say this anyway: May I just say that the people I´m in this group with are some of the most fascinating, genuine, wonderful people. I feel like we´ve known each other for more than just two weeks, yet we continue to learn so many things about each other. It´s great!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Food and...

[Note: I started typing this on Tuesday, the day after our classes started, but didn´t have time to finish. Plenty more has happened since then, but I wanted to finish this thought first.]

Yesterday was a very good day. As I was reflecting on what made it that way (calling my family for the first time, a good conversation in class, fun group activities), I realized that food had a lot to do with it. For the first time since we got our host families, yesterday´s meals all included something other than pasta, rice, or potatoes. At breakfast I was met with a large plate of papaya, pineapple, watermelon, and banana. Lunch and dinner were broccoli, rice, and salsa. It got me thinking.

It is amazing how closely tied my mood is to my eating habits. (My family will testify.) When I eat well I feel good physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. The thing is, that is such a privileged fact to even know about myself. It requires a long enough period of access to fresh, good food that I know it makes me feel wonderful.

Now, I live in a world (heavens, a city) where most people do not know what that feels like. I was going to write ¨know that such a reality exists,¨but not only would that be hyperbole, my guess is that most people know damn well what I and millions of other people sleep well each night despite our relatively full knowledge that their realities exist.

And I don´t reall know what my active response is. To quit eating quality food (that is, to stop supporting local, small-scale farmers and the public policy that allows me that food) seem like a pretentious but ineffective attempt at solidarity. It seems to me that solidarity doesn´t mean that we all agree to accept, for eternity, the wost conditions in existence in the name of equality. That seems a whole lot more like giving up, and the more I learn -- and the more overwhelmed I get -- the more I want to continue. As dad interprets the psalm (141? 145? one of them) verse ¨my tears are my food,¨the more I cry and scream, the more fuel there is under the fire.

So we have come full circle back to food. Not really sure where this leaves me. This will, I´m sure, be a pretty constant thought train through the rest of the semester (rest of my life). It continues to unfold in my mind.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Just a quick addition: there are now a few photos uploaded to my photobucket account. They can be found, without having to sign in (or sign up) at http://s465.photobucket.com/albums/rr11/korlamasters/for%20CA/Xela%20week%201/

Xela week 1

What does it mean to be called the ¨sons and daughters of God¨when you attempts at peacemaking bring about your own or others´deaths?

At the top of the mini-mountain near Proyecto Linguistico -- Baul -- there was a worship service of some sort taking place with a large number of indigenous people and a band set-up. The leader opened up the service, which seemed to materialize right as we sat down in the pavilion in which it took place, with the Sermon on the Mount. More on this in a moment.

I have been in Guatemala five days already. Two of them we (the 19 of us who are students, Joe our group leader, Rebekah our semester intern, and Ruth and Fidel the Guatemalans who will be with us during this leg of the semester) spent in Guatemala City. One of the first descriptions we got was that we were spending two nights in a¨post-war city.¨ That, of course, refers to the thirty-six years of civil war that permeated Guatemala from 1960 until 1996.

Yet the Peace Accords have not been a panacea by any means. Violence and crime are still regular parts of everyday life. Proyecto Linguistico (PLQ) intentionally places female students in home-stays closer to the school than their male colleagues so that there will be people to walk us home after dark, because being a woman places one at risk.

Right now we are in Xela (the Mayan name for Quetzaltenango, which is an Aztec word), short for Xelaju (pronounced ¨Shayla-WHO¨ or Shayla). It is smaller, somewhat safer, and more colonial than Guatemala City. We are getting to know the city, which sits in a basin encircled by mountains and volcanoes. We have been going through orientation information and simply getting to know each other, as we´ll be together for the better part of four months.

I am excited to learn more about the indigenous community here, as the indigenous communities in my own home have played such an important role in my life so far. Fidel, one of our leaders, is from one of the Mayan communities between Xela and Guatemala City (about a 5-hour drive). In three weeks we will spend one week in a rural setting, mostly with indigenous people, so this will be a good chance to learn a lot.

Without much more in the way of time, I am back at where I began. What does ¨they shall inherit the earth¨mean to a people whose land has been taken away countless times over the centuries? Whose parents, sisters and brothers, and friends have been killed for their land?

Injunctions to turn the other cheek and let abusers pluck out one´s beard?

If these are to be taken at face value, they are not worth much in the way of ¨good news.¨

I suppose my job while I´m here is to see more of how they are in fact the good news as they were preached to people in all too similar a situation, millenia ago and worlds away.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

CC and the RNC

While I'm truly crushed that I'll be missing the Republican convention (sarcasm is so much harder in writing), it is good to know that there are plenty of sane people who will be in town simply continuing to do what is right.


This isn't directly related to my being in Central America, aside from the fact that the program is the reason I will be gone. I am reminded of something a friend of ours said after a recent trip to China: Why is it that everywhere else in the world, Christians are known as the people willing to assist everyone in need without expectation of reward? Why not here?

Hopefully non-confrontational-confrontations like this (between convention attendees and CC/the Cities' homeless) can nudge along the change that can make that international reality one for the States as well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

First post; one month out

Today is July 25. My plane ticket (which I now, finally have) is for August 25. This means that one month from right now, I will have been in Guatemala for 2 hours. [It also means that I will be celebrating Lauren's birthday remotely. Bummer.]

Slowly but surely, the ducks are beginning to line up (no thanks to my organizational skills). I got two key forms into CGE yesterday. Somehow, that seems to have triggered a light switch of sorts where the balance shifted from majority-overwhelmed to majority-excited. This is a good trajectory.

I am very much looking forward to this, but I also have nerves that I think are healthy for a trip such as this.

I haven't yet figured out what my blogging vs. email-writing situation will be. Most likely, my communicating will use a bit of both. But I will try to keep folks updated as best I can. I especially don't think I'll be doing much blogging before I leave, but I wanted to have a spot to do any reflecting as I prepare.

Until I do...