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 MontaƱa, 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.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Estoy aqui en Xela!

I'm sitting the one of the classrooms at my school - Proyecto Linguistico Quetzaltenango - in Xelaju, Guatemala. (To explain the name difference, Quetzaltenango is the official name for the town, but Xelaju, shortened to Xela, is the Mayan name meaning "surrounded by ten mountains.")

So far things are excellent. My baggage has not yet arrived and that is causing some stress (or at least some smelly inconvenience), but my mom has risen to the occasion (and surpassed it by quite a bit!) and has given both Taca and American Airlines a respectful but firm piece of her mind. We hope that the pack will arrive today in Guatemala and maybe tomorrow in Xela. I'll keep you posted, but if I have to wait too much longer, you'll smell me from wherever you're reading from.

Class started this morning with an orientation to the school and to Guatemala. Having already been to both, it was review for me, but really important stuff to remember. My teacher's name is Karla, which has yet to cause too much confusion, but I can see it happening. I have a lot to re-learn. But I also feel really good about how much I've retained and how much has come back in the past couple of days.

As always, I am AMAZED by the programming the school puts on. There are political, cultural, educational, and recreational activities every single day. For example, I'm about to go watch "Life and Debt" (but in Spanish - Vida y Deuda), a documentary about international lending bodies and the impact that they have on the actual development of indebted countries. Tomorrow, Thursday, and Saturday there are hikes planned in different parts of the nearby area. Every week there is a lecture on current events in Guatemala. When I was here with CGE, we had a lot of our own programming, so we weren't always able to participate in the school's stuff. (And it was excellent programming from CGE, too, so I can't complain.) It will be nice integrate more fully into the community of the school this time around. So far I've met some really excellent people here at the school and I look forward to meeting more.

I'm glad that this time around I don't feel like I have anything to "prove" with regard to contacting folks back home. When I was abroad, it was such a relatively short time and it was an intentionally apart experience, I felt as though I ought to minimize my phone contact. This time, I'm all about the skype. I think it will be a good thing. :)

At orientation this morning, I was greeted by a mural with one of my favorite quotes I learned last time I was in Central America, from Pablo Neruda: "Pueden cortar las flores, pero no pueden detener la primavera." (They can cut down the flowers, but they can't hold back the springtime.) Ruminate on that rich clump of spiritual cud.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Up, up, and away

Slowly but surely, I'm checking off the last handful of 'to-dos' before leaving. This time tomorrow, I will be about to board the plane to Guatemala. This time Saturday -- barring volcanoes, mudslides, or sinkholes -- I will be in Xela, about to set off on four weeks of brain-pulverizing immersion Spanish. I can't wait to be there. I can wait to be not-here, though. I haven't quite figured out the latter part, though. It's not as real as the fact that I'll soon be back in Xela at El Cuartito or La Luna and studying at PLQ.

In truth, I still have quite a bit of packing left to do. I wish I had finished earlier, in order to have a chance to just be in the city. But not getting that in will simply make it more sweet when I come back next year. Stress notwithstanding, this last week has been delightful. If the weather in El Salvador is this nice even 20% of the time, I will be a deliriously happy Minnesotan. (And Salvadorans will wonder exactly what they did to deserve the frigid temperatures. This country and I are definitely a weather mis-match.)

In any case, I am almost off. I should be pretty well connected, though that certainly remains to be seen for sure. Keep me posted on how things are in Minneapolis (or wherever you are reading from). I'll do my best to do the same here.