Saturday, December 18, 2010

Life has been slightly busy these days, so I'm thinking more in the way of just plain updates this time 'round.

Santa Lucía - December 6-13 marks the week of the patronal festival here in Suchitoto, as Santa Lucía (whose feast day is Dec 13) is the patron saint of the town. I was assured throughout my first months here that it would be a time of locuras (craziness), and indeed it was. Each morning at 4am, a different barrio had the chance to host a small ofrenda at which people from all over town gathered, drank coffee and ate pan dulce, and listened to a small jazz (klezmer-ish?) combo, all the while in the presence of a portable altar to the Virgin Lucía. Then at 5am kicked off the candlelight procession through that particular neighborhood and to the church, where mass was held at about 5:45. After that, each day was different during the daytime, with small artisan fairs, children's days, cultural events, etc. Then (most nights) at 8pm, the given barrio would send a float and various other parade-type elements up the main street out of town and back down the entrance street. This was usually followed up by a fireworks show in the plaza.

BUT THEN...we arrived at the actual day of the feast and Holy Hannah did the locuras ever pile on. The 12th was a Sunday - and the day after the 11th, which was when we celebrated the Virgen de Guadalupe,* thus the second night of even greater celebrations - so there was the regular 9am mass and the noon and 5pm masses were combined into a 4pm, followed by another procession at 5. Then the grand finale fireworks show which was....indescribable. There were regular fireworks the shoot up and explode; there were torritos - little wooden bulls with fireworks attached, which are held by a person who runs around in the center of the plaza; there were various structures set up with fireworks attached to them, including a small model of the church and a Christmas tree. There were an absolute TON of people in the plaza. (Like, if the fire marshal that got upset about South's storage situation were there, he would have just straight up died.) But it was SO GREAT.

And then afterward there was a dance. I met up with a couple of friends from the museum and we went, running into a few more museum folks along the way. It was great - the space was shared between a live band on one street and a dj in the next, each getting an hour at a time to play. Only problem is that the dj's bass system was so strong it actually made me sick to my stomach. But the show went on! We wandered back and forth from one end of the street to the other (the dance is held in a cordoned off street in front of the city government building) for several hours, dancing mostly together and occasionally with (mostly very short) other people. All in all, the night was a success. The Center was closed the next day, so I slept in for the first time in...five months? (Like, I slept almost until 8:45. :)

*We celebrated both ladies a day early because 1) you want to have a dance the night before the actual day off from work, and 2) the Virgen de Guadalupe's day is actually the 12th, but that was a Sunday and you cannot celebrate a feast day on a Sunday (apparently). But we in Suchi couldn't do Guadalupe the day after her real day, since that belonged to Lucy. As you can see, this is all very complicated.

Posadas - The 14th was a day of rest, as far as December festivals are concerned, with the celebration of the Posadas beginning on the 15th. Every evening from the 15th through the 22nd, people gather at a house or restaurant to begin a procession commemorating the time that Mary and Joseph spent looking for a place to rest in Bethlehem. As we walk we sing and try to keep our candles from going out. When we arrive at the next home, a dialogue takes place between the crowd and the owners of the house/business, where we ask to be let in and are repeatedly refused for several attempts, until we're finally allowed entrance and given cookies and something warm to drink. It's a pretty beautiful tradition and I am really glad that dad and Ella will be here for the final night. (It doesn't matter how tired they are after a full day of traveling - we're going.) Come January, I am not going to have any idea what to do with myself.

The day of the scorpion... - Yesterday was quite a day. First thing, right off the bat, was getting dressed. Since it was Friday, I had patinaje, so gym clothes were in order (since usually I skate with the kids). I'd covered for Ariel the day before and hung my clothes outside to air out overnight. Well, BAD IDEA MASTERS. I grabbed them and brought them in and got dressed. When I pulled the bottom of my shirt down, my hand brushed...something, but I didn't make much of it. I checked to see, saw nothing, and figured I'd just touched the hem of the shirt in a strange way. And then, only seconds later, lo and behold, a scorpion fell out of my shorts and scuttled under my backpack.

I am proud to say that I didn't scream. I sort of froze, but I did so silently. I left the room, enlisted the wisdom of Susan, who suggested a combination of bug spray and a shoe, and went in. It sucked, because I didn't want to kill it, but I also didn't want it in the house. But I felt bad because it was only in the shorts because they were warmer than the (50 degree) night air. I had asked Susan for a blanket the night before, and she did not take it as a reason to kill me. Now I was killing something that had only done the same? My overactive organizer's-daughter imagination kicked in and I saw visions of all her little (and not so little?) scorpion allies coming together and reading from their little scorpion bible about she who denied refuge to the one in need against the cold and then getting together and bringing me down. And then I sprayed her and smacked her with my shoe, to which her response was to get pissed and raise her tail. To which my response was to lay the smackdown again and step on the shoe this time. What a horrific squelch. The shoe and the body sat there until the evening. (Bad idea #2: by the evening, the spray had dried and she was sticking to the floor.)

... and the raspon - So I think she got a bit of revenge, at least cosmically, later in the morning. I was skating and I threw myself off the small ramp at the behest of a bunch of 8-year-olds. (Tip: When a story starts like this, you know that everything ultimately stems from the stupidity of the protagonist.) Long story short, I am not 2 for 2 - attempts and pancake falls - when it comes to the ramp. My feet once again got ahead of my center of gravity and I fell straight on my behind. I've fallen several times on the skates and while it hurt for a second, I didn't think much of it. Checked on it at lunch and saw a visible but (kind of disappointingly) small bruise, showed it to a couple people, and ran the afternoon skating session. Then when I got home and went to jump in the shower, I thought to look again. Wow. It was the color of a dark purple eggplant, swollen, etc. After much research (aka, 10 minutes with my colleagues WebMD and WikiPedia), I discovered that I have what must be a subdermal hematoma, basically a big bruise. (I should note that this is different from a subDURal hematoma, which involves bleeding in the brain and is one of the MANY reasons that we require all manner of pads and helmets. While I said this accidentally a couple times to a few people last night, it's not what I have.)

It's already changing color and everything. I think it's going to be pretty cool over the next few days. I'm excited for when it's green and yellow, but highly disappointed that it is in such a hard-to-show-off place. It's only on my upper, outer thigh, so there are plenty of people here I'd be comfortable showing it to. But that would require that I either wear short shorts or drop my pants, neither of which are good options in public.

So yesterday was quite a day. Then Susan and I met up with folks from around town for posadas and walked from the house where we had stopped the night before, to go on to a different home in a different barrio. Today is my museum day, so I'm sitting on my (kind of painful) behind all day long.

Well. This has been today's view into the mundane details of my life. I suppose that makes sense, as life is about to get about as non-mundane as possible when, in FOUR DAYS, the first wave of my family get here! And then the second wave only three days after that! Needless to say, I am thrilled beyond words.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

De maravilla

I just spent a few hours in the museum with a guy (a kid? he's my age, so more or less) who tried to kill himself the weekend before I came to Suchi. I don't even know him that well, since he's kind of quiet and I'm kind of awkward, but I was realizing this morning that he would be only a story in my life if he'd been successful. I am so, so grateful that he is here.* (The word "here" - specifically in the sense of "I am glad that you are/I am/she or he is here" - is coming to have so many meanings for me. Here in this town or municipality of Suchitoto or in El Salvador or in the world or, more philosophically, existing in the same time and place as I/you do. Hard to describe, but I am glad that he's here, present in every aspect of "here.")

There is a woman named Yanira who lives on the street in town. Generally she sleeps in front of the police station, because some people harass her a lot. I think she comes in and out of her direct relationship with this reality. This, mixed with Spanish, makes it sometimes really hard to carry on a conversation with her. Sometimes she gets really angry, and sometimes she is just happy as a clam. Today, yesterday, and the day before, I saw her at least once per day and every time she was in a good place. I am so glad that she seems, at least in this moment, to be doing well. She is so wonderful. It doesn't matter that she always asks where I've been - usually leading with some version of "it's been a long time since you've been in Suchi, hasn't it?" even though I generally have been around. Yesterday I saw her with two bags of groceries and other general needs. And a huge smile on her face.

We had a big concert last night of Christmas music. The harps played - or rather, the harp students played their harpsicles. (Sorry, I just can't help but use "harpsicle" whenever possible.) Ariel's kids choir sang a few songs, including a couple with the harps(icles). A couple of kids from Alex's poetry and rap class read their own poems. The adult choir sang Dona Nobis Pacem and Capilla Celestial (Angels We Have Heard on High). And then we all came together with Paul's guitar class and performed Somos El Mundo (We Are the World).

We were not always (ever?) fully in key, but my God did we do a beautiful thing in that chapel. To see Alex (my neighbor) and Angel, both of whom come and skate every day, come in their dress shirts, looking kind of awkward, because they're 15 and 17 (respectively) and suddenly dressed up; to hear Alex read his poem about nature; to get bumped into by Luis Felipe, who has the most physical, bouncy interpretation of the "Gloria" ever -- these were extraordinary, but also such ordinary experiences. So wonderful.

After the concert, Ariel and I were sitting together just watching people eat sandwiches and drink hot chocolate. Angel sat with us and asked, "¿Cómo están? ¿De maravilla?" - How are you? (And the only way I can think of translating 'de maravilla' is the lame and clunky "marveling".) But yes, we were indeed marveling at what had just taken place. Marvel seems the perfect partner for the anticipation of Advent.

This morning Suchi held the pre-inauguration for the newly-founded farmers market. Now, being from Minneapolis, I was proud of how normal it was to stand at 'my' farmers market and watch my mayor talk about the city being committed to finding a permanent location for the market. (Turns out this is an international problem. :) But even more so, I was thrilled to see the vendors, the buyers, the produce (all of which was from the municipality), the artisan foods produced with other local stuff, and the Centro Arte youth drum corps, a couple of whom had sung in the concert just 12 hours before.

Marvel. And anticipation. We await the market's growth into something more permanent and secure. We anticipate concerts to come, in which at least half will sing on pitch(!) at least half the time. And I marvel at the smiles of two wonderful people whom I would not have known if circumstances had not proceeded as, thanks be to God, they did.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Simpl(y extraordinary) gifts

I received an extraordinary gift yesterday. No, scratch that - I have received dozens of gifts every day of my stay here. But this week, and yesterday in particular, have a couple standouts.

On Friday night, several of us from the Center went to El Sitio to take part in and document (for the museum) their community vigil for Copapayo. Effectively all of the families in the community come originally from Copapayo and the sole survivor of the massacre lives there. There is a sister parish in Michigan that always sends a delegation this time of year to celebrate the commemoration together, which is why the vigil was this weekend. We ate in the house of one of my students then went back to the gazebo/plaza and saw a couple short videos before folks gathered for the procession. Then we all worshiped together in a mass said by the priest from St. Catherine's (this MI parish). After the mass, which was wonderful in so many ways, we went back out in front of the church for music (provided by a group from the neighboring community of El Barío, including Alex's Davíd and Nico, with whom we work in the museum). After the music, the youth of El Sitio - about 90% of them students in 7th-9th grade at the school - got up on the gazebo platform and read the names of the people who were killed in the massacre. After every name, we repeated está presente, "is present" (here/with us). This is a most powerful way recognizing the life and continued presence of people who were killed. And we said it 155 times, including once for an infant of 8 days. It was a gift and an honor to be there sharing the evening with the students and the community that has so opened its arms to me and Christy in our time here.

The gift from yesterday actually starts a couple weeks ago on Margaret Jane's birthday. We (Ariel, Christy, Rosa, Eva, and I) had just gotten back from the actual community of Copapayo on Sunday morning after the vigil the night before and a friend of Margarita's came over for breakfast to celebrate her birthday. The three of us breakfasted together as Margaret Jane and Lita (who is a health promoter in her community) shared stories of their friendship during the war and a trip they took to Geneva to present a paper on health issues among refugee women in El Salvador (of which Lita was then-currently one). This in and of itself was a gift.

During the meal, Lita told me about a book about the experiences of displaced and repatriated communities during and after the war. She told me she would bring it to me and I was really excited, but it sort of fell out of my mind. Well, yesterday, while Ariel and I were doing a lunchtime loop that included food, the ATM, and buying baby shower things for our friends Marvin and Karla, we ran into Lita who was in town for the HUGE confirmation Sunday. (Jay, if you're reading this: 270 confirmands. I think HTLC's new confirmation strategy should include something along the lines of "be Catholic." Just a thought.)

When we saw each other, Lita reached into her bag and pulled out a bound photocopy of the book she had been describing during breakfast. When I told her that I was so thrilled to read it and would get it back to her asap via Susan or Margarita, her response was, "no, no, no - te lo regalo" (basically, "no way, I'm giving it to you"). She made and bound the copy of this book for me after one breakfast conversation and brought it with her since she knew she was coming to town and could give/leave it for me. I almost wept.

Then, back at the museum, I got to looking at the book. It has testimonies, songs, poems, drawings, chronologies, maps - all from people who lived either in refugee camps in Honduras or Nicaragua or in internally displaced camps within El Salvador, such as Calle Real (where Margaret Jane worked for five years in the 80s - and where she and Lita met). Vilma, the other person working the museum for the day, recognized the book and we looked through it together. As it turns out, she was born in Mesa Grande, one of the camps in Honduras, and lived there until she was 6 years old. She knew the tunes of several of the songs and sang them for me, right there in the entrance to the museum.

I...don't know what to do with all of this. I mean, I know of course that we're going to make another copy of the book for the museum and probably a couple more for the other volunteers. The practical, obvious steps. But what I'm actually going to DO with this embodied, copied, bound love that I received yesterday? That is still developing.

Meanwhile, we have grand plans for a Thanksgiving feast this Thursday and I will have no problem thinking of things I'm thankful for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Matthew and nunca, nunca mas

I don't believe that God opened my bible to any certain page this morning when I decided to sit down and read a bit. I'd finished what has become my morning ritual of breakfast and coffee on the roof, listening to the sounds of Suchitoto coming to life and watching the color change against the trees, buildings, and distant rolling hills. I didn't have to be at work until 7:45-ish and I'd showered last night (that's the real reason I had extra time), so I figured I'd sit down with either the bible or my crossword puzzle book. This time, the bible won. (Full disclosure: usually it goes the other way.)

For whatever reason, after flipping through a couple of non-starters (the Exodus and Hosea included), I landed in the Passion section of Matthew. I am leaving Suchitoto this afternoon to spend the evening and night at the Universidad Centroamericana for the vigil commemorating the massacre of six Jesuits and two of their colleagues. There is much to be said just about this particular event in history. I will leave this to your own research, only to say that they were massacred by the Salvadoran military – by US-trained officers – on the night of November 15/16, 1989, on the grounds of the University where they lived. Brutal doesn't even begin to describe the manner of their assassination. Because they were in many ways the intellectual core of the church-based liberation and peace movements, the soldiers removed their brains and strew them across the garden outside their dormitories. It is this level of violence that we commemorate tonight – and to which we say “never again,” though we know that that is an unachievable reality. In any case, we recommit ourselves to the struggle that this might one day be true.

I don't know that I've ever read any of the Passion narratives outside of Holy Week before, so doing so in the fall, a good six months away from last Easter and this, seemed appropriate. It wasn't until I actually got into the thing that I started to realize just how appropriate it was for this day – this time in which we are celebrating the lives of massacred people all over the country, with Día de los Difuntos, the Copapayo massacre, and now the Jesuits. There are plenty of possible parallels to draw between the two stories, but more than anything, several new things just jumped to my eye.

Matthew 26:40 – Since our last spirituality night, we've been talking recently about all of the different ways that a seemingly small comment or gesture can be a profound word of “I love you.” Even while we were at Peggy's discussing this last Sunday, Alex's campo brother called him to check on how he was doing and to make sure he was going to be able to catch the bus home. When Alex sat back down from the call, Peggy very gently interjected, “That was Chomingo saying I love you.”

I read Jesus' words in this verse as an I love you. So much is lost when you only have text, so I'd always read and heard these words as a rebuke before. But think about it. “Can you not keep watch with me for one hour?” Jesus might have a better idea than the others how precarious things will be after his death, and the fact that they wipe out quickly – certainly understandable given what seems to have been an intense period in their ministry together! - is not promising. It is out of concern, not anger, that I hear Jesus underlining that (more or less) “you have to be able to do this.” “I love you.” I love you and I'm about to be not here in the same way that you are used to me being here and it scares me to think that you aren't ready. And I love you. [I feel I should follow this by saying that it does really freak me out to put words into the mouths of biblical characters. But here I am, doing it anyway.]

26:50 – Only ten verses later. Judas kisses Jesus and Jesus says to him, “Do what you came for, friend.” FRIEND. He just coined the phrase “the kiss of death” and Jesus calls him friend. There is, as I see it, a profound understanding there of Judas's helplessness in all of it. I think about the kids here who end up in gangs because...they have no other options. Because they are threatened (or more likely their families are) and so they have to join. Or because a person has to eat and unemployment hovers around 70% here. Or because they simply live in an area that already belongs to a particular gang and in order to be protected in their own neighborhood, they must belong.

I think about the sixteen kids (all but one between 18 and 22 – aka, between Ella's and my ages) burned to death in the fire that raged through the juvenile prison this week, and the 22 more in hospitals, many with burns so bad that they will definitely die as well. They were all put there under the new anti-gang law passed this summer. The gangs here do terrible things, usually to people who have done nothing to call their attention. Not that one can ever earn the violence that is rained down by the gangs. But the kids in that prison – so many of the people in El Salvador's crowded-three-times-past-capacity prisons – were not the folks calling the shots. All too often, those are the same people who own the private security firms, whose pockets thicken when ordinary people feel so much fear that they hire guards.

I think about those guys and the fact that they were in prison, like so many of their (my) brothers and sisters around the world, because of actions that they had only a small part in actually taking on. And I hear Jesus call them “friend.” Clothed in tattoos in a country where that only means one thing, to the extent that my “pollito” (little chicken – it's actually a hummingbird) tattoo catches attention and interest from all sides, I hear an understanding in Jesus's voice that rejects completely what they have done, but sees the utter lack of choice (or at least seeming lack, which is just as crushing) that these guys faced, embraces them, returns a kiss of death with a kiss of life and peace, and says “I love you.”

So this week we celebrate the Jesuits. We will say the presente after the names of Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Celina Ramos, Elba Ramos, Ignacio Martín Baró, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, and Juan Ramon Moreno. We will also say, maybe silently, presente in the names of Antonio Cartagena, Juan Carlos Romero, Gerardo Enrique Alvarado, and the rest of the young men who died in the fire. We will celebrate the lives and grieve the deaths of children of God put to death by violence and poverty. And we will offer our small but resolute nunca mas.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Solo Dios con nostotros

First things first. I'm realizing that I've kind of thrown most of you into the deep end without giving you floaties or anything like them, with regard to where I am and the general situation here. Without meaning to be mean (since I'm a Minnesotan), I have to say plainly and clearly: I have never been to South America and it is not where I am now. In fact, there are a full three countries plus a little corner of Honduras between me and the very tippy top of South America. :) El Salvador is in Central America, which is the land that connects the continents of North and South America, also at times known as the Americas and also (especially outside of the US, where we consider ourselves THE ONLY) known simply as America. (That's right, in a lot of places, there is not a recognized north/south divide.)

I found a couple of maps to orient you to more or less where I am. (Now let's see if I can actually put them up on the blog.)

First, Central America, the general region. El Salvador is the little blue rectangular one nestled in between Guatemala and Honduras.

Alright, second, El Salvador itself. Click on this photo and it should get bigger. You'll see a finger-shaped lake an inch or so directly above the capital, San Salvador. That is Lake Suchitlan, on which Suchitoto (the town where I live) is situated. Suchi is also listed on the map, on the south side of the lake. Two days a week I take a boat sort of around the lake, staying on the south shore and not actually crossing it, to the school I teach in.

Ok, hopefully this helps a bit. Also, I'm not especially close to the equator. I'm probably about as close to the equator (and this is a big guess) as Minneapolis is to the North Pole. Sorry for having made assumptions before and not given y'all the tools that may have been useful. Now you can have a better picture in your head of where I am. (And I think, if today is indeed daylight savings, that we are even in the same hour as Minnesota. We're basically straight south.)


That was a nice geography lesson. Now on to something that is really current in the country. It effectively hasn't rained here at all this month. This is unusual for October. Usually October is the strong end to the rainy season and an important time in the bean crop cycle. The two times it has rained, it has been fast and furious - not what you want hitting DRY topsoil. This being the case, the bean crop is completely lost. Beans are already up above a dollar a pound (and have been for a couple weeks). This means that most people simply aren't eating them, whether they buy beans or grown their own. Since this is often the primary source of protein...well, you probably get it. And since most kids are getting out of school, they are facing two months without the government-provided nutrition program food that they receive in school. (Which isn't perfect, but it almost always has protein. And for the kids that really need them, it simply has calories to get through the day.)

One of the vigilantes at the Art Center and I were talking a few days ago. He works here over night and during the day works his land. His beans are gone. He said that there are some that might re-plant, hoping for some unexpected rain later in the season, but we are rapidly hurtling toward the dry, dry time of the year. Toward the end of the conversation, Eduardo said something that hit me hard: "It's only God with us now."

In any other setting in which I've ever found myself, that would seem like perhaps the bleakest statement possible. But somehow, for a Salvadoran to say that, even given what relatively little I know from my time here, it was galvanizing. There was no despair in Eduardo's voice when he said it, and when he looked at me and turned to walk away, there was sadness AND fire in his eyes. So many people in El Salvador are already all too used to having only God with them. But given that reality, they know better than I ever will that these situations offer no invitations to lose hope.

I don't know enough about agriculture - here or anywhere - to know what realistic expectations might look like in this scenario. But I do know that what is realistic or pragmatic has never before been able to capture or enclose Salvadorans in despair. (Of course I speak in hyperbole, but not by much.)

Prayers are more than welcome. Turning off the lights and taking other small actions - as well as big ones - in the interest of slowing climate change is all the more welcome. Buying beans from close by instead of beans - or whatever food - from far away wouldn't hurt either.

Happy Halloween. The day when the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. While something rings appropriate that this precariousness would come at such a precarious time of the year, let's remember and reaffirm that none ought to live in such uncertainty. For those of us who worship a God who invited herself to a meal in the home of a tax collector - someone who was not a very good neighbor - now seems like a good time to recommit ourselves to living as good neighbors, on the incomprehensible scale that that word takes on, and refusing to let God be the only one who cares so actively.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

You're not the boss of me (aka, mujer super-penosa)

I'm getting back in the rhythm of journaling these days and ended up writing for a bit this morning. It was a time of some good reflection and it seemed worth sharing, if a bit personal. gentle?

The first thing is that tomorrow is my grandpa John's 94th birthday. So in the midst of my day in El Sitio I will be giving thanks for the life and gifts of a person who is far away, yet so present with me every single day. After a really frightening illness a couple years ago, it is even more clear that every, every day is a blessing and I give thanks for both the number of his days and the richness of them. The role he has played in my life is indescribable, both through his own presence and through that of his children and other grandchildren.

Some questions that we've (the CAP equipo of volunteers) been turning over for a bit, along with What feeds me?, include Who am I? What do I believe? and one of mine, using imagery that we came up with on my last venture down here (with CGE), What does my puzzle piece look like these days?

There is a line from a Carrie Newcomer song that keeps popping up in my head: It's not the things I've gone and done I'll regret or be ashamed of, but the things I did not say or do just because I was afraid.

More and more, I'm realizing that I am a person with a lot of pena. (Would that there were a good English translation for pena. The meaning in which I'm using it is a sort of fear-shame-hesitation.) I have lived in the presence and shadows of so many extraordinary people, I think I am - and in many ways have let myself be - intimidated by their talent. I've always had the sense that I have the passion but lack the tools and skills.

As tempting as it is to look back and analyze times in my life where I see the evidence of this, I want to look forward. I want to claim the opportunities to take risks, make myself vulnerable, and live into my potential. My pena keeps me from doing that. It also, I think, leaves no room for true humility, which is utterly not based in fear, but rather a conviction that I am indeed a child of an incomprehensible God and the only proper response to that is awe.

These thoughts are going to keep percolating throughout my day life. It's been a relatively productive morning - I have laundry up, but I hope it rains. I didn't get all the soap out anyway.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It's 3:30pm and we've already had 56 people in the museum today. (That makes it a pretty darn good day.) Nothing extraordinary to report, in general. My days tend to consist of, in rotation, El Sitio, the museum, and patinaje. I work, hang out with the other volunteers, hand out with the folks from the museum, wander town. There is something comfortable about a routine, so long as it doesn't become inertia. I'm getting to know my neighbors, through the young guys who come to patinaje and live next door. (A word on language: English needs a word that works like "joven" that isn't as pretentious as "youth" when referring to a specific number of people.)

The kids in El Sitio are in final exams this week. Christy and I wrote the English exam and Christy proctored it on Wednesday. (I didn't go since I was a bit sick earlier in the week.) Thursday I went and helped with the language arts exam. It's not the most enthralling thing to proctor another teacher's exam, though this one included the word "playboy," so as the only native English speaker, I was in high demand to tell the kids what it meant (which I was also under instructions not to d0). Once a few of them started finishing, I noticed that a sheet of paper was going around and quantities of change recorded - noticed, but didn't think to ask about it. Turns out the kids have to pay for the paper that they write their tests on.

We're starting to get in the habit of going on citas (dates) as volunteers. We got good at doing group stuff before I left and now that we're six, we want to be more intentional about getting to know each other individually as well. We're trying to figure out how we form ourselves into a community, which doesn't come easily (or even naturally, really). And on top of that, how do we act within and interact with the larger communities in which we live. We had a really good conversation yesterday about where we're at and what is really feeding us here. For almost all of us, that answer at least in some way included the kids we work with. But it was a good jumping off point for me to think about other people, places, books, activities that are feeding me as I am here. (And I mean that not just "as I'm here", but as I am here - as in existing, being).

So I want to know: What feeds you? What gives you life and joy? I'm still turning this one over and enjoying the process.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chi chi chi le le le! Los mineros de Chile!

I'm glued to CNN's livestream feed of the miners' rescue in Chile. If you want to watch, too (because it will be going on for many more hours), you can take a look here:

They've been down there for 69 days, since August 5th. That's only three days after I got to Suchi, which has already seemed like an beautiful eternity. My brain can't even begin to wrap itself around spending that much time in a pit in the ground. And my heart? Forget it.

They're about to load up the 13th miner into the capsule! Que todo les vaya bien, mineros!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fallen leaves and other priorities

In second grade, I was not the most organized child, so my teachers and parents instituted a means of daily communication via a notebook that I brought back and forth between school and home. Sometimes it included explanations of my assignments and other times it was for short exercises to be done at home. It was my "Brain Stretcher Notebook." One of the first activities was a list of "words about fall." Since I'm visiting Minneapolis and enjoying the fall colors (if not appropriate fall weather), I was delighted to find the list yesterday. It's pretty much the same as what I love about fall now - only my spelling has changed. (And if any of the words are confusing, say them out loud, as though you, too, were a second-grader.) I think this list explains a lot about me.

1. Fallen leaves
2. Chilly wether
3. Racking*
4. Jumping in piells
5. Migeration
6. Voting
7. Coats jackets exet.....
8. Heaters
9. Storm windows
10. Shorter days
11. Begining of school
12. End of sumer**
13. Pants not shorts
14. No more DQ
15. Rain
16. (if in MN) snow
17. Hibernation
18. Apples
19. Punkins***
20. Flowers dyeing
21. Halloween
22. Harvesting
23. Caning****
24. Scareacrows
25. Jack-o-lantern

*That would be raking, not racking the spoils of some hunting excursion
**It is so sad when civilizations come crashing down
***The n is definitely the result of dad's North Dakota accent
****I'm fairly sure this is canning, caning not taking a large role in my childhood

I have adored having this time here in the Cities this week. It is bizarre visiting a place that has always been my home base. I hadn't realized just how much there was to do in a short time! I'm getting done most of it and seeing a lot of really great people. I'm reminded why I can so easily choose that this would be my permanent place. It is lovely that people here seem to understand that Suchi is also, in a different way, becoming a home for me as well.

One thing I've noticed is that the people here and the people in Suchi must be of the same batch. Some of the other volunteers over the last couple months have mentioned that people in Suchitoto are remarkably friendly and helpful. This is absolutely true - so much so. But it's never seemed out of the ordinary to me, more just what people do for/with each other. Now that I'm here for a bit, it really is coming clear that it is familiar because it is the culture I grew up in, too. You do just stop and talk with your neighbors and with strangers (which is how you turn strangers into neighbors).

Anyway. I am incredibly blessed to have had this time here with family and friends and places. The surprise held - Ella had no idea I was coming until I was here. The wedding was beautiful and joyful. I went to the farmers market and walked down the Greenway. I'll return with new books and new underwear (!) and having voted. It's not tidy, by any means - there are so many people that I have already missed the chance to see while here. But it's been good for my soul to be here for a few days and it will be good for my soul to return. There are two new volunteers who arrived the day I left and I am so excited to meet them. And I can't wait to see the other three CAPsters and the rest of the community.

I went for a run yesterday down along River Road and it was glorious. Sun overhead, shade from trees, leaves underfoot. I saw a handful of runners with their ipods in and couldn't help but think "My God! Why would you run with headphones when there is such a limited window to hear the leaves crunching as you run?" For some reason that struck me as a reminder about perspective. For someone who has the whole fall ahead of them, why bother worrying about missing the sound of leaves? But for me, in this time of acute enjoyment of my favorite segment of the year's cycle, those sounds are gold. I want to be more aware of the times when I am the headphoned runner, tuning out what I ought to be enjoying and giving thanks for. Otherwise I am at risk of missing the beauty of the simplest yet most important entry on my list.

Friday, September 24, 2010

[Note: I am choosing not to say anything about the defeat this week of the DREAM Act and repeal of DADT in the Senate. There are already enough eloquent words about these. I also don't have anything on the execution in Virginia last night, apart from Lord, have mercy on us. This week, my spectacular students are just too spectacular and even large-scale disappointments are no match.]

I really, really love the kids I teach. Some of them are predictably adolescent and, as is normal, I have a hell of a time getting them to take anything seriously. But they are so great - all of them. Yesterday was our first day of English-only classes and they went so well! I had a whole lesson brewing in my head - a walking tour of the community where we could learn useful vocab while building on asking and answering questions (what we've most recently studied). That all got blown to bits when I found an English copy of Green Eggs and Ham.

Oh my, but that book is perfect for what we've been learning - questions, "I like"/"you like," new vocab - all with a healthy dose of repetition. It also allowed me to set up the future and conditional tenses ("Would you, could you in a boat?" etc.). I had 7th grade first and they were such troopers. There were a couple of momentary crestfallen looks when things didn't compute immediately, which set us up to learn the phrases "this is REALLY, REALLY DIFFICULT" and "just breathe!"

At the end of the 7th grade class, after I had officially closed off the lesson and was almost out the door, I turned around and assured them (in Spanish) that they could come and clarify things with me during recess. A minute later, one of the squirreliest of the 7th graders was in the office grabbing a chair and he was downright ecstatic about the class. It was really difficult, but a lot of fun(!), he said. He also said that they were all really surprised at the end when I switched back to Spanish. "It sounded so strange after hearing you speak English for an hour - we were all shocked!" That level of excitement from Evaristo was one heck of a vote of confidence.

Then later, during recess, another really sweet moment. There's a guava tree in the in schoolyard that reminds me profoundly of The Giving Tree. It has no bard left because the kids climb all over it all day, every day. But it produces hundreds of guayabas each year. At this point in the season, most of the easy-to-reach fruits have been picked and what remains are either close-but-not-ripe or WAY out where only the smallest middle schoolers ought to climb. (Though that does stop some of the medium ones - especially when what they need is for someone to weigh down a limb so that the fruits are reachable from the ground.)

For me it's sort of heart-attack-inducing to watch them - the kind of thing that would give MPS lawyers a liability stroke. But climb they do. And yesterday, after a good 15 minutes of searching, maneuvering, and reaching, one of the kids grabbed himself one. Now, I already sort of have a soft spot in my heart for Milton because he reminds me a TON of a guy from the theater at South and he also is always ready to volunteer in class and willing to make mistakes and learn from them. I'd been watching for several minutes, occasionally encouraging, more often commenting that I was going to die just from watching. So after all of this, he comes up and gives me the guayaba, complete with the wormy part picked out. I tried to deflect, then I suggested sharing it, but he would have none of it. This was my guayaba and that was it. It was quite tasty, and not only because it was perfectly ripe.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Last week (on Wednesday the 15th - though actually beginning Tuesday night) Suchitoto blossomed into celebration of the 189th anniversary of Central American independence from Spain. Granted, that independence lasted a very short time, because Mexico (itself celebrating its own 11th anniversary Sept 15, 1821) annexed the region for a few years. But I digress. What we now know as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica went from being colonies of Spain to politically independent states (though not in anything like the current map makeup).

Like most other independences of the colonial era (I use the phrase as though that era had ended!), it was much more a transfer of power from far-away wealth to in-house wealth. I have heard arguments that things actually got worse in some cases for the poor and for indigenous communities after independence. Again with the digressing.

After a GRAND pair of parades (a night parade and a morning one, which bookended a long, bumping dance in front of the mayor's office), I sat down with Margaret Jane and Christy for a few minutes at one of the restaurant patios on the plaza. Margaret Jane was telling us about her first several years in El Salvador, in the mid-80s, working in a displaced community camp in the mountains above the capital.

One of the reasons they set up camps in the hills was that in the capital, people were living in buildings and not able to go out. Hundreds in the basements of single churches - sharing single toilets and sinks, having babies, dying. There were also several hundred living on the grounds of the seminary. They just needed to be in a different place - a place with at least a bit more privacy and air.

This got me thinking, though. If refugee/internally displaced camps were located on the grounds of seminaries, what might that do for the Church's willingness to make bold and prophetic witness against all forms of violence that rob people of their homes and communities?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Brief update

I take a boat to school twice a week. Some days, the lechuga (the water lettuce that grows on the lake) is too thick to take the boat home. That happened both days this week and yesterday there wasn't anyone in the community of El Sitio who could give us a ride to the highway to take the bus back to Suchitoto.

So we walked the same road that many of my students walk to and from school each day. We walked with a handful of them. (We being the five of us teachers - four Salvadorans and I.) It was only my second time on that path, the first having been Tuesday, in a truck, so it was the first time walking it. It goes back and forth between cobble-stoned and dirt. It inclines up, gradually but steadily, the whole time, but then you get to a part where you go straight up on just dirt/mud for the length of about three city blocks.

I will never again complain - even in my head - about ending school early due to the rain. I will never again be annoyed when a student shows up late to the first class of the day. I wasn't spending too much time, before, on the latter, but I was definitely a bit irked each time we ended school early. (Which itself has only happened about four or five times total.)

The path was not mucky, but it was slick, even though it hadn't started to rain yet. We were up in the next community by the time it did start to rain. One of my students had picked up a guacal (a big, multi-use tub) of milk from a house on the road and had it on her head. Standing in the rain is the only way I ever really feel cool enough here, so I wasn't about to use my umbrella, but I grabbed it out anyway and held it over Laura's head as we walked. I'm pretty sure we looked like dorks (read: I looked like a dork and she looked like she was just carrying some milk), but we talked and laughed as we walked, so it was alright.

At one point, one of the teachers pointed out a house about 50 meters up the road and explained that a couple of the girls who had gone ahead lived there and their mother made tamales as a business. I thought, "Oh, cool, good to know." Then when we walked by their house, they each came out with bags full of tamales for us. (The one I got had about 10 in it.) This is THE time of year for fresh corn here, so this was an extraordinary gift, given for no particular reason. I was amazed.

About five minutes later, we came to Laura's house and her brother gave us a ride the rest of the way to Suchi in his pickup. This was after we interrupted the football game that he and his friends were in the middle of, but there was no sense of annoyance from him. He drove us fast and direct - and all the way to town, rather than just to the highway, since we'd missed the 5:15 bus and would have had to wait until the 6:15.

One of my other students hopped in the truck bed with us and rode along to town, since his community has an art exposition at a gallery here and he had something to do in town for it. As he jumped in and sat on the edge, a woman came out of the house and said, "Oh no, down on the floor." I asked if that was his mom. She was his aunt, but all the same, definitely an identifiable parental instinct. :) So we rode back to Suchi, the student, two other teachers, a woman from El Cereto, and me. (The other two teachers were in the cab - we didn't leave anyone behind!) And we talked and joked and it was just such a human experience. I was able to let down my linguistic guard and just speak without worrying about messing things up. And then we were in town and all said goodbye until Tuesday (my next day of teaching). And my tamales and I walked home. And it felt like home. Not a permanent home, for me, but a place where I belong for now.

My "brief" updates never end up being that way. Nor do they tend to capture the full feeling (nor the feeling of fullness) of what I experience. But imagine the situation described in the words I have here and then absolutely FILL it with love and contentment. That's at least a bit closer to the real thing.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I spent this morning in the capital getting my visa renewed. My 90 days of legal tourist status - which I got when I first arrived in Guatemala - come up on Friday the 3rd. I left Suchitoto at 8am and was back by 1pm. (And at least 3.5 of those 5 hours were spent in transit.)

I needed a few copies of documents, a letter from the Center, a passport-size photo, and $25.

I've sat here for about five minutes now trying to figure out a creative and/or deep/reasoned way of putting this, but I have nothing at the moment. What I really want to know is why it was the ridiculously easy for me to renew my visa and navigate the migration system here, but people die EVERY DAY trying to go to the US. And what sort of desperation could possibly move someone - much less thousands of someones - to take on the risk, the physical and psychological pain, and the expense of coming undocumented to the States? People take on these weights all the time. Why aren't we paying attention to the human side of that reality??

There are economic and political arguments that can be made (and even those I argue with), but I came across a quote this afternoon that resonated with me in this particular moment: "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." Wendell Berry

Last week there was a massacre of 72 migrants in Mexico on their way to the US, including 13 Salvadorans and 5 Guatemalans. (Obviously, the nationalities are far from important, but those two figures hit close right now.) I've heard varying things about how much US coverage there has been of this, but here it has its own few pages in the paper each day.

There aren't really words to describe how I feel about the massacre, largely because I think I'm not allowing myself to feel anything, for fear that I'll collapse under the scale of it. I'm letting the numbers get close to my skin because they are so much safer than the real stories. But on the bus on the way home today, I just sat there thinking, "That was so easy. Too easy? No - it should be that easy. Everywhere. For everyone, not just do-gooder from the US who can work a copy machine (sometimes) and a cash machine." Because an equally-equipped Salvadoran in the US would not receive the same treatment - from a migration official who remembered me from my first visit and chatted with me for half an hour.

Diana's (another volunteer here) folks were here during my second week in Suchitoto. At that point I was trying to figure out if I had an option like what I did this morning, rather than having to travel all the way to Mexico and come back in. Her dad half-jokingly invited me to simply "have an illegal experience, like so many in the US right now." I appreciated that reminder. The fear that this wouldn't work out to my most convenient advantage was already weighing on me, but was nothing compared to what would face me if I were living undocumented in the US. I'm not here for either economic or safety reasons; if I were to get sent back and never allowed to come back into Central America, I would be incredibly sad, but my life would continue without fear of violence or hunger.

This is (as my entries are tending to be these days) really just a jumble of thoughts. But there is something at work in there; I just can't tie it all together. I hope at least my general idea came across. It is just so frustrating. The paper today had a photo of the most recently-identified Salvadoran. She was 15. The same age as my teacher's nephew when he left last year, except his nephew survived (barely). She was younger than Ella by almost three years.

Those were really just more things I had swimming around to add to the pile. Still not concise, but there it is in spite of that.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Video trouble

It seems that the embedded video didn't take and blogger won't let me edit the entry. So I'll just add the link to all (three) videos I've put up on youtube.

It's easier than fighting with the technology.


Yesterday was the Festival de Maíz here in Suchitoto. It is the annual harvest fest that celebrates the pueblo itself (Suchi) as well as the agricultural communities in the surrounding area, of which there are more than 70. It was so much fun! Relatedly, I ate SO much corn-based food - atol de elote (a corn drink - this one wasn't the best I'd had, it's usually more cinnamony), tortas (as sort of fried cornbread), elote asado (roasted corn - though here the corn is different in this part of the year - more chewy/less poppy), riguas (corn pancakes - though not like the ones at Maria's), tamales. All so tasty. (Except the atol, which was just alright.) Also, there was a cow raffle!

The day started out with a procession before mass from one of the barrios to the church. I was on the fence about going, but I am really glad that I did. There wasn't much of a program ahead of it, but each of the zones of communities had a queen and king representing the area with some form of artistic/cultural expression. There were about seven pairs of 'royalty' along with kids with environment-related school project, women with baskets of harvested food, etc.

Throughout the procession, we sang and there were occasional chants of "que viva los campesinos," "que viva la Madre Tierra," "que viva Suchitoto." I have to admit, it was pretty cool hearing the nun who leads the interminable pre-mass rosary sessions (and usually holds up mass by 10-15 minutes) shouting "que viva la Madre Tierra, que nos da nuestra vida!" ("Long live Mother Earth who gives us life!")

The one that struck me most, though, was "que viva la iglesia catolica!" My first reaction was, "eh, I feel no real need to wish the long life of an institution that tells so many that they/we are less-than." But then I got to thinking about the real meaning of the phrase "que viva" - it is used for both people/things that are currently living and those that have already died. It expresses a desire for life and THIS I can get behind in the case of the Catholic church - and church institutions in general.

This week marks one year since the ELCA voted to allow pastors to be in committed same-gender relationships and, well, pastors. There are still many open wounds all around. Those who feel they lost the vote in many cases also feel like they are losing their church and this is no small matter. (As many times as I hear "good riddance" and "their loss," I can't help but cringe and be reminded that it is our loss, too, when people and congregations choose to leave.) And at the same time, the pain of many years and several votes to keep things as they were doesn't just go away with a vote and a year, either. So there is healing to be done on all sides (to the extent that there are ever really sides to these things.)

In the midst of the pain - and the immense joy - I consider this to be a move toward being a more living church, more fully alive in proclaiming a gospel of liberation and reconciliation. Maybe even something God could be proud of? I think the Catholic church today has many, many opportunities to take similar steps. I hope that in the face of these new (and sometimes scary) opportunities, the institutional church opts to truly be a living body. It could take its examples from within its own history - from all of the history of the church, but especially from recent liberation movements in all parts of the world. And so, que viva la iglesia catolica. (And the Lutheran one, as well. We certainly have plenty of ground to cover ahead of us.) That we might live into the promises we try to give voice to.

Yesterday wasn't all inspirational revelations and corn-eating, though. The saddest news from the day: as today wears on without a phone call, it is becoming ever clearer that I did not win the cow.

Friday, August 13, 2010

One week in

I started teaching this week at the school in El Sitio Cenisero, a town about a 15-minute boat ride from the landing in Suchitoto.

I'll be teaching twice a week to the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classes. The older kids have school in the afternoon (younger kids in the morning), but I go to El Sitio in the morning with the other teachers. So I have a bit of time to just be there and do lesson planning. I'm still getting my bearings and already realizing that it is going to be a challenge (though the good kind). There is quite the disparity in the lengths of the different classes - about 1 1/2 with the 9th graders, but only about 30/45 minutes with the 7th/8th graders (respectively). They're all starting out at about the same level - effectively no history of English classes - but the difference in time means that will change quickly. I can barely get into the day's material with the 7th grade class before the day is over. (Once I start having homework to cover at the beginning, I have no idea how we'll get any new material accomplished!)

But oh my goodness are they a delightful bunch of kids. (Ok, actually, not all are kids - a few of them are in their late-20s, but still in school, which I have to give them huge credit for.) They are eager to learn and are admirably game to do dorky things (as long as I do them, too), given most of them are adolescents. Yesterday I told each class that I really, really want them to make mistakes in class, because that would show me that they were taking interest and risks. I also promised them that I would take risks with my Spanish, given that we're all in the same boat, as far as learning and using new languages goes. They seemed willing to go along with that general idea, even if they were a bit surprised when I first said I wanted them to mess up.

The other teachers in the school really amaze me. We arrive at school at about 7:30am and leave at 5pm and they teach almost constantly that entire time - save for a few short recesses (maybe three of 10 minutes each) and an hour between morning and afternoon classes. They each teach two grades in the morning - younger kids, so they teach all subjects - and one in the afternoon, where they specialize in a subject. On top of that, they're all in school themselves on the weekends AND a couple are studying English in the Center. And one also functions as principal, requiring that she do the administrative work associated with being a public school. I am in awe of their energy levels, for sure.

Last night, there were five of us in the Center. We cooked up a tasty dinner, then I skyped with the family (including Justin and Amy, with whom I studied last time I was down here). All in all, a lovely evening. (Fact: Bat sonar comes through amplified on skype.) Then this morning I went to the market to grab some veggies to make a salad for lunch. Just chopping up cabbage, onions, and carrots was so nice after going almost a week without doing much food prep. I also tried to buy tennis shoes (my faithful pair finally began to disintegrate in Xela, so I left them there), only to discover (as I had sort of suspected) that my feet are bigger than what El Salvador understands as human feet. Ah well, such is life.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

We have photos!

(from the march I went to yesterday)

Ta-dah! I dyed a shirt using añil, an indigo dye that has been used for (a very long time that I don't know) in the region. The development of synthetic dyes touched off the first economic crash within Central America and set the stage for large-scale plantations of coffee, cotton, and bananas. Now folks are trying to reclaim it and re-learn the traditions. (And they're doing a much, much better job than I am.)

Check out the new albums on picasa to see the whole thing (of both events):

Friday, August 6, 2010

Loads of Lutherans

This morning I got up early and took that 5:15am bus to the capital for a march against violence. It was planned in conjunction with the 24th anniversary of the Lutheran bishopric here in El Salvador. It was a pretty cool experience, all told. I arrived in the city at about 6:30 and took a cab to a hotel where a delegation is staying. (I'd met a couple from this delegation over my first few days in Suchitoto and they invited me.)

I marched along with three ELCA bishops (from the New York, Sierra-Pacific, and Southwest California synods), Bishop Gomez, the Catholic bishop, an elderly bishop (whose specific identity we haven't figured out), and the bishop of Bavaria. I also got a chance to meet Lutheran World Relief's representative in Central America (a former Holy Trinity member - Lutherans basically all know each other).

As we marched, we sang and chanted "No a la violencia; si a la vida!" (No to violence; yes to life.) It seems like a theme that all could get behind, but we know that isn't true. When I got in on Monday, there was no bus service, because the bus owners had ordered a strike. The gangs in the area had submitted a threatening letter demanding a higher renta - the money that the gangs exact from the bus drivers/owners/ayudantes as a form of "protection" (ie, you pay what we demand, we don't kill you). I don't have the statistics from El Salvador, but already by my second or third week in Guatemala, almost 40 drivers, dozens of ayudantes, and a couple of owners had been killed by the gangs there.

There is NO obvious, good option for the drivers. The bus service was back on the next day, indicating that they decided to go with the demand. But how do you feed a family when every day the vast majority of your earnings go toward the renta? And when your bus could get shot up any day as an act of retribution, intimidation, or as a lesson to other drivers? I can't claim to get how this all works. But it does strike me as capitalism at its purest - that system that we spent the 80s killing people down here to plant seeds of.

(Excuse the cynicism, but I am hot, sticky, and at an utter loss of any context through which to understand this dynamic. BUT the march this morning was wonderful. I am back to not having a camera cord, but once I find one I can use, there will be photos of the thing!)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Arrival in Suchitoto

Here I am in Suchitoto, writing from the office of the Centro Arte para la Paz. A bit about my viaje yesterday:

I woke up at 3am in my hostel in Antigua, Guatemala, to pack a few last things and get ready for the trip. My shuttle to the bus station came at 4am, to arrive at 5/5:15 at the station. Except....that the company I booked with seems not to have told the drivers that I needed to go to the TicaBus station, rather than the airport, where everyone else was going. So I had to take a taxi from the airport to the terminal, given that I only had about 20 minutes to make my bus. (Didn't have time to argue, negotiate, etc. - I just had to get there, since I couldn't make my reservation over the phone beforehand.)

Once I got to the terminal, I was fine. I bought my ticket, waited a bit, then left at 6am. We got to the border at about 9am, went through customs, and continued on our journey at about 9:30. I got to San Salvador shortly before 11am and Peggy picked me up. We got back to Suchitoto at about noon, after an absolutely beautiful drive though the campo.

I met a few of the wonderful folks who are currently working here at the Center as volunteers for various spaces of time. They're all from California (though traveling in groups of 1-2), so it has been fun watching them find the different ways in which their lives cross paths. We went out for dinner last night in the town center at a restaurant that makes AMAZING roasted vegetables as well as really spectacular pupusas. (Note: I am going to die of a heart attack here, for all the pupusas I plan to eat. Oh my goodness. It starts now.)

The only problem was that I was so extraordinarily exhausted after several late nights in Xela and then the early morning and travel - as well as the heat, difference in elevation, etc. - that the entire day felt like an out of body experience. I went back to Peggy's (truly spectacular) house right after dinner and fell asleep.

After sleeping from 8:30 til 6am, I felt like an entirely new woman. (More importantly, I simply felt human.) This morning, Peggy and I chatted while getting ready and eating breakfast, came over to the Center (across the street), then picked up a woman who works with Capacitar, an org that trains people in the communities here in using accupressure, massage, etc. in treating the physical effects of psychological trauma. From what people have said, it is an amazing way in which people who are so often ignored and told that their trauma is all in their heads can take control of both the physical and psychological injuries and empower themselves to really fix them. I am probably going to take part in a once-per-quarter set of four trainings offered throughout my time here. On the way to Aguilares (where we were dropping off Joan), we also picked up the principal of one of the schools. We chatted a bit, my Spanish actually doing me proud(ish).

On the way back, Peggy and I talked a bit about what I will be doing here. Between now and November, I will be teaching English two days a week in El Sitio, one of the communities that we visited last time I was here. The teachers live in Suchitoto, but take a boat every morning to the class across the lake. I'm pretty excited. I may be living at the Center or I live with the teachers. That remains to be seen, but for the time being I'm with Peggy (at least a few days while a group of Argentine priests are here).

This morning we might take a hike over to Los Tercios, a cascade nearby. That also promises to be quite excellent. Otherwise, I'm headed to the market to buy some fruit.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Sad Tale of the UCFO, A History Lesson

Fifty-four years ago today, the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was overthrown by a CIA-supported military coup d'etat here in Guatemala. Arbenz was the second president during Guatemala's 10 years of Democratic Spring - the only time in the last 500 years during which Guatemalans have had elected leadership that moved forward on land reform.

And the thing is, Arbenz's land reform wasn't especially radical or scary. The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) held more than 70% of the fertile land in Guatemala, all of the railroads, and the one Atlantic port. (Mind you, this is a US company, not a Guatemalan company.) They were using about 6% of the land they had for production and the rest was lying fallow, while millions of Guatemalans suffered from extreme poverty and hunger. Arbenz basically created a "use it or lose it" policy that gave UFCO six months to start using the unused land and what they didn't use would be transferred to campesinos. (And again, the campesinos are almost all Mayans, so it was their land to begin with.)

This was not an option for UFCO and...conveniently enough, the head of UFCO was the brother of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. So with a bit of CIA help in arms and training, Arbenz was overthrown and a military dictatorship - the first of many - was installed. In 1960, the first guerrilla groups began to organize and the country moved into a 36-year period of civil war. (Not that the military governments hadn't already declared war on the actual lives of the people before that.) This is where we get the term "banana republic."

In the course of the war, more than 250,000 people were killed and more than 1 million were internally or externally displaced. Community infrastructures were destroyed as was the ability to trust one's neighbors and family members. And the violence continues - more people die on a daily basis now in Guatemala than at any point during the war. Before it was death squads and the military; now it is gangs and organized crime. Femicide especially is a growing problem and is rarely investigated.

This is the legacy of the overthrow.

*The title of this post comes from a song in Once on this Island, which is about Haiti (and worth seeing!). But as is the case in much of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is a pretty applicable history throughout the region.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"...for me it is good to be near God"

Well. I had clearly never read Psalm 73 before I got today's GodPause.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.

5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

These early verses work well with a conversation I was having with myself on the way to the Mennonite Bake Shop this morning. (For anyone coming to Xela - this is a must, especially if you like whole wheat bread, granola, good yogurt, donuts, etc.)

On my way there, I saw a wallet on the ground, clearly emptied out and thrown. A few steps farther, I saw the torn up remains of the photos of two children. This was the part that made me sad - the loss of the money was, certainly, a difficulty for the former owner of the wallet. But it is not common to have photos here, especially of family. So these photos of kids (a son and daughter? niece and nephew? grandchildren? godchildren?) were very likely among relatively few. One of those losses bigger than the monetary loss.

Then a few blocks past this, there was a little corner with a slightly more secluded space where clearly many people had pooped over the last few hours. I've realized in the last few weeks that I can also now often tell the difference between urine on the ground - human or dog. (It's not so scientific - generally the dudes here pee on the wall, not directly on the ground. It's more of a height thing.) For some reason I feel less weird about stepping in dog pee.

Another reality of life here is that people tend to be really friendly on the streets. I've noticed this less as "out of the ordinary" than have my fellow students from places like LA and New York. Herein lies my point in all of this: None of the things that I have seen is peculiarly, intrinsically Guatemalan - they happen everywhere.

I think this is one aspect of what makes it so easy to feel at home here. But it also causes a great dissonance between my experience and that of most Guatemalans. I am pretty clearly the among the arrogant mentioned in the psalm. That's not an uncommon reality when I read or listen to biblical readings, but rarely is it so clearly spelled out in ways that describe the mundane parts of my life. My body works well and has not been marred by malnutrition, violence, or lack of medical care. I have access to all the food I could ever want, such that I do sometimes feel like my eyes will bulge out of my head after a good meal. Even as I travel here, I know in the back of my mind that I can rely on my nationality to protect me from most physical crime, given the history of enormous violence in this part of the world on the part of my country. Cultural imports here from the US are unquestioned and taken at face value as being positive. (Example: One of my housemates teaches health classes to kids - sex ed to 5th and 6th graders, food classes to 1st graders. With the younger ones, they play "Good food/Bad food" - the kids ALWAYS label McDonald's as "good food" because it comes from a restaurant.)

11 And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?"

We are pretty comfortable not knowing - or assuming that most folks don't know the things that make us uncomfortable. Most in the US don't know about the School of the Americas, the history of US intervention here, or the currently rampant impunity in the face of human rights atrocities. (More people die in Guatemala each day now than during the 36-year civil war - and only 2% of the crimes are ever even investigated.) And this is comforting in moments when we choose inaction - at least our neighbors will never know.

Last week I took a walk to Parque Central in the evening with two other women from the Casa. We met two grown men - both fairly drunk, but still functional - who talked with us about philosophy and poetry. When people ask what I studied in school and I tell them "religion," it usually sets off a great stream of philosophical questions that I am supposed to have the answer to. I'm not usually especially impressive in this situation and that is at least doubled in Spanish. So when one man asked what he should do (very generally, open-endedly), the only thing that came to mind that fit my language skills was to tell him to keep hope. He sort of sighed and said that he knew that that was important. Then he paused and asked, "But for how long?"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More photos!

Hi folks - this is primarily just to say that there are more photos up at my picasa space: Enjoy! I graduated last night, so I have a few from the dinner and then a couple from my trip to the market this morning. (Really these are just the photos of the multicolored chicks.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Endings (of beginnings?)

I am sadder than I expected about the prospect of finishing up at PLQ. I shouldn't be surprised - I was only going to be here four weeks and have already extended by two whole weeks. PLQ is just such a special place to be. Wonderful people, phenomenal community fostered by the school, SUCH quality education (both Spanish and about the history, culture, current realities of Guatemala). I'm also loving living in la Casa de las Amigas with four other great women from all over the US. I've really enjoyed living in this type of community for the last couple of weeks. (Living with a host family is great, but I have loved the Casa.)

It is bizarre being so close to wrapping up the first stage of my journey. Admittedly, it is the shorter part, but it seemed like such a wide buffer between me and El Salvador - and now it's almost finished! I've more or less known I was going to go back to Salvador since I returned from my semester in December of 2008. I didn't always know how this was going to happen, but one way or another, I knew I wanted to return. The fact that I'm so close now to going is whacky (and so exciting!).

Last night the movie-and-hot-chocolate-night selection was Voces Inocentes, a movie I had seen before and can HIGHLY recommend. I follows a little boy and his family during the civil war in El Salvador and shows the effects the war has on their daily life. It is an intense, powerful film that does include some violence against kids, so that's something to know going in. But still incredible.

Friday, July 9, 2010

New photos - Salcaja

These are the photos from Wednesday's trip to the town of Salcaja, about half an hour from Xela. We visited a "campo de textiles" (literally a textile field). The folks in Salcaja weave a very specific kind of cloth that does now pertain to any specific ethnic group in Guatemala - something of a national semi-indigenous (though based on some Spanish methods) weaving tradition. Very interesting. The gentleman in the first photos took time off from his day to show us a bit of the process. The woman in purple and I interpreted (ha!) for him. Daunting, but doable. (And no, my Spanish is not anywhere near the point where I should be interpreting things.) The field is the only place in town long enough to set up the process, so they weave outside in a community setting rather than in individual houses.

We then visited the oldest church in Central America, La Ermite de la Virgen de la Concepcion la Conquistadora (the Hermitage of the Virgin of the Conception the Conqueror). It was built in 1524 and the altar is original. (The kind of freaky Virgin doll is decidedly not, in my estimation.) It was incredibly interesting being there after having spent the last four years partly in a program looking at colonization and the last five weeks immersing myself in a highly colonized atmosphere (though not so much more than our own - perhaps less in some ways). There's a lot to repent, that's for sure.

Finally, we went to a home brew place where a very local drink called Caldo de Fruitas (Fruit Soup) is made. Not my favorite drink - very sweet and fruity, shocker. But the family is also involved in the weaving process, so the man in the later photos demonstrated for us for a couple minutes.

Yesterday, we had an incredible conference on migration and globalization. The presenter in an incredibly astute, savvy ex-immigrant who "deported himself" back to Guatemala a couple years ago in order to work with youth here who "think that the US is the best place in the world" - so that they know the full reality of what they take on if they leave. And more importantly, to try to develop programs for deportees and a form of alternative economy that could prevent so many people from having to leave in the first place. One of the communities he works with here is a place we visited when I was here with CGE and is well worth a plug: the community of Santa Anita la Union, made up of 36 families in which the parents are ex-guerrilla combatants. It is a truly special community and it was really a privilege to hear our presenter's story. I don't have my notes right this second and I want my post on the conference to do it justice, so it will have to wait, but it is coming.

I am going to be studying in PLQ another week as well, which I'm thrilled about.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be...

PLQ shows a documentary each week on Monday, usually something about the history of Latin America, colonization, or popular movements around the world. Today´s film was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, about the 2002 coup d´etat in Venezuela (and the subsequent re-instatement of the Chavez government).

Now I have to say, I am no great fan of Chavez and think that, in the years following the coup especially, his approaches to press freedom and endless re-election have become very problematic. But that didn´t stop me from sitting on the verge of tears when we watched him leaving the presidential palace, while refusing to resign, in order to keep the military from bombing the palace with people inside. This made me realize a couple of things: 1) I watch too much West Wing. The camera crew (which was there for a simple documentary about Chavez´s popularity among the people when the coup occurred) had extraordinary access to the halls of power, so it was (in a dorky way) very much like watching a certain tv show about the presidency. 2) I hadn´t realized just how much I had believed over the past year that something like that could have happened in the States. Not likely, perhaps, but the fear was there. The opposition rallies looked so much like Tea Party rallies, with their vitriol and ¨populism.¨ I hadn´t noticed this fear before, but it was clearly there.

Another crucial aspect was the collusion between the high-ranking military officials and the media. At one point, AFTER Chavez´s ministers had retaken the palace and the guard on site was clearly supporting them, the ¨provisional president¨ (from the coup) told CNN that everything was under control - a few angry, violent Chavez supporters outside the gates, but all in order otherwise. And since the state channel had been cut, there was literally no way to get the word out to military bases in other parts of the country that Chavez had never resigned and that the soldiers (not to mention the people in general) had been lied to. A good reminder to read with a skeptical eye what we receive via any media source (except the MetroLutheran, of course) and determine who benefits from which sources´ explanations.

In brief (ha!) I highly recommend this documentary. I might not be in line with everything Chavez does, but it is absolutely worth a watch.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Back from the Mountain (School)

Just another quick update to inform that I'm back from the Mountain School and glad to be in Xela again. I love the mountain, but it is a bit difficult, especially in the rain. (And there was an awful lot of rain.) Because so much of the surrounding area is privately-owned land, it is difficult to go out and about, given the proclivity of some folks to hire armed guards (much like the McDonald's here in Xela). BUT - I finally got some photos uploaded from my camera, courtesy of Lauren's cable, so here we go - an attempt at putting photos on the blog.

[Alas, no luck this time. But I can just send you toward my newly uploaded picasa collection: ] Enjoy!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Off to the Mountain!

Just a brief update to explain an upcoming absence: I'm heading out tomorrow morning to La Escuela de la Montaña, the rural school run by PLQ. As of a couple weeks ago, they didn't have any spaces at all in July, but when I asked again yesterday (without much hope of things having changed), there was a space! So I am able to head up there to study for a week amid two communities of people who formerly worked as glorified slaves on coffee fincas, as well as among the mountain trees, animals, and coffee. (I am pretty damn excited about the coffee, I must admit.)

The Mountain School has a capacity of 14 students, so it is very laid back and remote. All of the students live on the school grounds in the same building and share a communal kitchen. But for the official meals, we go into the neighboring communities to eat with families. [Many of the families in these communities are poorer than folks in Xela and would have a hard time actually putting up students full-time, but the school wants to include a homestay-type experience, as well as supporting the communities' projects.]

I'm working right now on a loose translation of "Those Three Are on My Mind" for graduation in a couple of weeks. For some reason, the assassination of the three SNCC workers keeps coming to mind as an event from our own history that can touch my memory in at least a similar way that the war here does.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I was talking with someone at school here today. He's a Guatemalteco and his sister is in the States. Somehow our discussion of reciprocal verbs morphed into a conversation about his sister's experience crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border, the entire country of Mexico, and then the US-Mexico border. It's a harrowing story and although I certainly wasn't taking notes, I want to retell it as best I can.

After deciding to leave, the sister and her son (16 years old) first had to cross the border into Mexico. Because I was planning to go into Mexico for a couple of weeks myself, and didn't because of the level of danger there, I know at least theoretically how many ways there are to get oneself hurt in that part of the journey. In Mexico, they found a coyote who would take them in a truck. The set-up was this: Think of the inside of a U-haul-sized truck with a false wall about a foot inside each real wall. It's in between these walls that they stood - for 24 hours, driving through a sweltering desert. Because another passenger's knee spent the whole time pressed against the son's knee, when they got out shortly before the US-Mexico border, his knee was the size of a small watermelon. And the next step was to walk through the rest of the desert and cross on foot.

They tried this at Juarez (the most dangerous city in the Western Hemisphere, especially for women) and were detained by La Migra (immigration) and taken back to Mexico City. From there they made the journey once again to a point just south of Juarez and tried again. Once again they were captured and this time detained in a prison along with narcotraffickers and gang members - as though they were violent criminals.

Once they got out, they tried again, but this time going into California. It was a 15-day walk through the desert, without shoes. At one point, the mother (ie, my friend's sister) fell off an 8-foot ledge and injured her own leg. So whereas she had been supporting the son, now they had to walk holding onto each other and each supporting the other. [As a side note: the Mexico trip I referred to last time included a trip 100 km into the desert on the Mexico side. It is utterly brutal and if you want any chance of escaping La Migra, you have to walk through literally a carpet of cactus.] Five days out from their crossing point, they ran out of water and had to drink water with mosquito larvae, filtered only through their shirts, and they got sick.

When they finally crossed into California, they were given $5 by their coyote to buy some food at McDonald's, but they couldn't keep it down, since they hadn't eaten in days. And the $5 might sounds kind, but in comparison to the Q60,000 ($8500) that they now owed to the coyote....

They had to spend several nights in a park in LA, waiting for family in Texas to drive and pick them up. My friend told me that before leaving, his nephew had been a weightlifter. Not a body builder, per se, but fit and strong. By the time they got to Texas, he was gaunt and had to stay in bed for 15 days just to recuperate his strength and heal his knee.

The mother and son now work together as janitors in two different establishments - a clothing retail shop and an apartment building. They work one job from 3am-8am, then the other from 2pm-10pm. (Notice that neither of those time slots offer quite enough time for a solid rest.) They hope that if they stay in the States another five years that they will be able to go home.

I offer this story (as something of a re-gift, as I feel privileged to have heard it the first time) as one of so, so many almost-identical stories of crossing. About 750 Salvadorans alone leave each day for the US and something like 400 are turned away or deported. The difference - the 350-ish people - don't all make it, though. The desert is littered with dead people who died in the attempt, starved, dehydrated, killed by gangs, etc. What would compel someone to do that? I am pretty sure it is not an interest in taking US jobs or getting rich and not paying taxes. (For the record, most folks in the States without papers never see a cent of the money that is taken out of their pay - they put in, but they don't receive anything in the form of social security and they aren't eligible for other welfare programs.)

So then a second thing: I miss my sister a whole lot. And I've only been gone two and a half weeks. My friend may, if they make enough, see his sister and nephew in five years, after a couple years already. What a context I come from that I can be upset about a one-year separation not even three weeks in! [Another side note: I just, while writing this, paused and had a conversation with another student here about different degrees of emotion and the fact that, while my experience of separation might exist within a completely different scale than my friend's, it is not less valid. In fact, trying to suppress it out of some sense of privilege-guilt tends to serve more to close dialogue than to open it.]

All of this is toward this point, I suppose: Next time the immigration situation in the US is frustrating, next time it seems that wages are being suppressed because of immigration, next time someone who gives you "reasonable suspicion" to doubt their status is frustrating on a personal level, please think about the situations that lead people to come here. Think on the separation of families and the debt and danger of crossing. Give people a story, even if it is your own fabrication, that is empathetic, understanding that we are all children of the same God and that God could care less about la frontera, except as it crosses and endangers the lives of Her children.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A puzzle of luck

There are some really wonderful people at Proyecto Linguistico right now. A great community of people, several of whom started and will end at the same time as I did/will. There is also a group here from Newman University in Kansas. They're here as part of a summer language program. I've gotten to know a few of them over the last week or so, as well as their professor/coordinator. She and I have been swapping some ideas about how to enrich and broaden the abroad experience for more students. In the course of these conversations, I've realized just how many opportunities I've had - mostly fluke occurrences - to spend time among amazing people in amazing contexts. (And, I should say, all of these have come by way of the truly fantastic people I grew up surround by. I can't think of any of the great chances I've had that were not handed directly to me, or at least sent quite directly my way, by an adult I already knew.)

Starting with the Mexico-US border in 8th grade (through Holy Trinity), then South Africa (courtesy of Tom Witt), Heifer International (again though HT folks both times), the Rolling to Overcome Poverty Bus Tour (via Sojos/CTR connections), and finally my phenomenal experience with CGE (through a whole handful of people).

I am so indebted to the people and communities who have allowed me to see what I have seen and meet the people I have met. The only way I can imagine digging myself out of that debt is to pass along the gift (an appropriately Heifer-ian notion). I joke about being evangelical about CGE's programs. But in reality, it is (at least subconsciously, up til now) my way of trying to strike while the iron is hot in the same way that others have caught me at just the right moment. I know that not everyone will have the opportunity or the interest when it comes to programs like this (and I also know that such programs don't have to happen outside of one's home place!), but as much as I can, I want to pass that gift.

Xela continues to be spectacular. My teacher this week is absolutely amazing - both as a human and as a teacher. I am learning so much! Yesterday a group of us visited the town of San Pedro Almolonga, a pueblito about half an hour from Xela with a complex of hot volcanic baths. Sooooo very nice and relaxing. And on the way there, we got off the bus about a 25-minute walk early and walked through town. It was the first time I have ever seen the Guatemalan campo from that angle. We were in the middle of fields, but surrounded by mountains and fog on all sides. Amazing (and it reminded me a bit of the scene in Mulan where they sing "A Girl Worth Fighting For," but probably only Ella will appreciate that). Then last night we had our weekly movie night at school and watched The Mission. (Wow. That's pretty much all I've got at this point on that. Oh! But Daniel Berrigan is in it? What?)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Un caminata

El Mundial (the World Cup) has started and its effects are felt in full force here in Xela. This morning before going on a hike put on by our school, three of us went out for breakfast. At 7am, the restaurant we went to had the game on not one, but two screens, one of them almost wall sized. While I don't follow futbol (and, I must admit, prefer watching American football), I do enjoy watching games when they're available. So I can't quite get into the gripped place that many here are experiencing, but I definitely respect it.

The hike itself was spectacular. Five of us students went with two teachers from our school, both of whom were involved in the guerrilla in various ways. One was based in the city in a non-armed role. The other had been a combatant in the very area we were hiking in. Our intended destination was a former guerrilla encampment in which he had lived, at various times (it was a temporary camp), throughout the early 1990s. He entered the guerrilla when he was younger than Ella or I are now, because he saw all other options exhausted.

He talked about life as a guerrilla combatant, both in that camp and in general. He said that it is important to remember that was is not a game and is not to be entered into lightly, without trying every other possible outcome first. We seven stood on hallowed ground - ground on which people had died trying to bring about a better existence (no, not just an existence, but a life) for their communities and all of their compatriots. They would rotate one-hour shifts as the night watchperson. They carried bags of 50 to 100 pounds with them everywhere, in the sun, in the rain, through the mountains, and on 'paths' much narrower than the (narrow!) ones we used this morning.

[One thing I learned this morning was that I would have made a terrible guerrillera. Though I said this and the other teacher told me, "Con practica...", as in, 'it took everyone some time to get good at it; you'd figure it out.' I still think I would be awful, but it was good of him to say that.]

The main teacher who led us knew the area like the back of his hand. When we went back up (and down, and up - we had gone down through a valley), he had another student act as the guide. But any time we needed to be pointed in the right direction -- and we went up a different way than we went into the valley -- he was able to tell us exactly where we were and how to get up to the highway.

The main point the teacher wanted to drive home was the importance of using one's experiences to re-commit oneself to the struggle for justice, in whatever form one enters that current. (It's interesting, the word that folks here use to describe joining the guerrilla seems to be a lot deeper than just 'joining' something like a club. It is more toward a complete devotion of oneself, with intention; turning over one's whole being to a larger cause. Not so much in a mob mentality sort of way, but with great concern for others as well as oneself.)

The first Friday night graduation celebration of my time at PLQ was last night. It's always a blast. We sing, we eat, we dance, we drink, we celebrate the teachers and the students. Lot's of fun all around. It is one of the many, many things I love about this particular school. (And if anyone is looking to attend a Spanish school, I would HIGHLY recommend PLQ to you. Folks here now who have been to other schools can't stop marveling at how connected the students are, even though most of us are traveling on our own, and how much the school encourages us to deepen our experience and learning through the activities they put on.) I can't believe that a whole week has gone by of my four short weeks here.