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.