July 2005

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Jesus Es Verbo No Sustantivo.

One of the harder things for me to deal with here in Guatemala is the religious situation.

See, I’m an atheist. I grew up Catholic, but I am an atheist…and those who know me well know that I’m a pretty outspoken atheist actually…I don’t like hate religious people or anything (after all, my family is religious and I love them)…but I’m certainly very critical…

But here, things are very, very different. When I told one of my teacher’s that I was an atheist, she was like…”hmmm, interesting, I think there might be a few of those here in Guatemala.” And soon I actually discovered that she is an Evangelical Christian…a feminist, socialist evangelical christian.

And this is the situation: Basically, there are two major religions in Guatemala, Catholocism and Evangelical Christianity…it used to be much more Catholics, but during the 36 year civil war, the US evangelical establishment worked with the Guatemalan government to evangelize the population…because the Catholic church had an increasing number of clergy and parishoners actually starting to fight poverty…and even supporting the guerillas, and the government wanted to use evangelism to counter that…to spread the idea that yes, suffer here under us on earth, but be happy in heaven…in fact, many catholics were killed, priests, nuns…and in some villages the evangelicals would come in and say: “when the army comes, if you are catholic you will be killed, but if you are Evangelical, you will live.” And so now the evangelicals are almost outnumbering the Catholics…

But even more confusing than this…which was confusing because I’m not used to thinking of Catholics as socially progressive, powerful activists (and it should be made very clear that even here they are still pro-traditional gender roles, anti-birth control, and anti-choice…)…is the fact that, given this history, all but two of the teachers at my school are EVANGELICALS (the other two being Catholics)…yet these women are feminist, they are socialist, they are at least somewhat anti-homophobic…I just couldn’t get my head around it…they were so different than any evangelicals I’ve met in the states…

And still, I don’t know what to make of all of this…in a future post, I want to write about my atheism, because I’m actually quite proud of it…of how I started with a lack, with a rejection of religion, and how out of that…with my partner and best friend Briana, I feel like I’ve been able to build a uniquely atheist spirituality for myself…I think that will be a fun post.

But for now, I’m just weirded out…I just don’t understand so many things about Guatemala…but what I have heard from one evangelical woman is that during the war she lost so much, she suffered so much pain…that she felt like in religion, through the notion of a personal relationship with god, and the idea of heaven…she felt like at least someone understood her and was paying attention to her…this is something I can understand, although it makes me sad…because there really should be tons of people, living flesh human beings, family, friends, neighbors…who can provide that kind of recognition and support…

But we don’t have that kind of world yet…

Finally, in my experience here, and hearing all of the work that the Catholics have done for social justice here…I have become a lot more softened toward the need to work with religious folks in the states…something I’ve been avoiding for awhile…

Because as a really good folk song down here says: Jesus is a verb, not a noun…and there are those fighting for a church of the poor, for a church to improve the world here and now…and there are those who just claim their religion and then go on raking in their cash…clergy definitely included.

Yes, dogs can be racist. How do I know? Because of the 3 dogs at the mountain school. Anytime there is a North American in the driveway, approaching the school, whatever, they are totally calm…they trot up, they turn over on their backs to be scratched (yet funnily they never actually get scratched, because they are so dirty and flea-ridden and scarred up)…yet almost any time they see a Guatemalan, of any age, the three of them charge forward, barking and snarling, chasing kids down…and so the kids who come on Wednesdays are often scared to come near the school for fear of the dogs…and two times I actually escorted kids past the dogs…with my magical soothing white skin to keep the dogs at bay…

So weird, yet a completely true story.

Noche Cultural Con Los Niños

Every Wednesday night at the mountain school, there is a special event, called la noche cultural…where the kids from neighboring villages can come to the school and play with us students, and also do art projects and play games and such, and then afterwards hot chocolate for all…

Now it started with just maybe 10 to 15 kids…but now it has become a youth culture institution…and anywhere from 50 to 90 kids come every week, from ages 5-18…

And it isn’t run by the school, it is run by a local youth group, which has students who get scholarships from the mountain school, and they plan all of the activities and they coordinate it…and they are hella organized!

Now, these Wednesdays were my favorite parts of my two weeks. I love playing dumb games like duck duck goose and hokey pokey (but in Spanish, of course), and the second week it was drawing…and I just loved being surrounded by young people, doing art, playing tag, checkers asking them about their lives and having them ask me questions in English…it was just super fun…and the organizers were an inspiration in terms of youth leadership (and I taught one of the them, the only male actually, how to yo-yo)…

And it was all good except for one thing…this one kid, maybe 8 years old, who was playing a drawing game with me…and it was going great…and then he suddenly draws a vagina and he keeps trying to get me to say some slang name for it in Spanish…and I refuse and I tell him that he’s being disrespectful, ¨ya basta¨(enough already) etc…but he’s getting such a kick out of it that he RECRUITS like 6 or 7 younger kids to start drawing vaginas, and they were literally following me around the activity barn slyly smiling and asking me to say the word in Spanish…it was really out of control…but I think there is something a little bit deeper going on there, behind little boy humor and sexism…I think they very much enjoyed having the upper hand over us because we didn’t know the language…and this is something that makes sense to me.

The Dorm In The Mountains

I came to the mountain school upset, because of the woman in the street, and in my first days there I remained upset, because I (and a few other folks) was trying to solely use Spanish, and yet it seemed like almost all of the students were using English all the time. Even more, there is actually rule at the mountain school to only use Spanish when there are Guatemelans around, but still, even then, there was so much English…

Plus, in general I’m not one for group social dynamics, and I was definitely feeling anti-social. I’m the same way at parties…I just sit in the corner and wait for people to talk with me…and if not…I’ll just pout there the whole time.

But the mountain school is such a unique environment, with like 4 bedrooms with 2-4 beds in each, that social interaction is required…and so I pretty quickly became friendly and open with the group…and also, the school is excellent in that it does a really good job of making people feel welcome, and every Monday, everyone (including the teachers, who actually live in other towns 10-15 minutes away) plays a name game…and that really solidifies bonds.

So there in my two weeks at the school, I had my share of joking nights, group cooking experiences, political discussions, study sessions, personal story exhibitions…and this is a reason that I didn’t want to leave…it just felt good to be there, in the school, in my classes, in the whole environment…even in the many emotionally intense times in the villages, or hearing stories.

One night, for example, I started talking with just 2 people about how I didn’t know what to do in regard to buying gifts for people back home…because I want to bring things back, and I want to support local economies a bit…but at the same time I think it’s extremely problematic when folks buy things from other cultures that are culturally significant, and just take it as a souvenir…what activists in the states call cultural appropriation…for example, I’ve read and heard numerous times here that Mayan women hate to see non-Mayans with their clothing, their blouses and skirts…because this is something that they have fought more than 500 years to have the right to wear, to hold onto their culture…and yet they sell this stuff, because people will buy it and it will provide an income…yet I don’t want to be that person…taking a piece of their culture, a piece of their struggle, and just bringing it home as a gift that will go on some friend’s or family’s wall…that’s just not me…

And so this conversation started with just the 3 of us, and pretty soon half the students were involved, and there was arguing, but mostly there was just reflection about what our place is as North Americans here…with our money that can buy us pretty much anything we want…if we wanted, it could probably even buy people…so what does it mean to be responsible in that kind of situation of unequal power between us and them?

Anyhow, the school was really fun, in just a dorm style social sense…and, of course, it was vast majority women, which is always where I’m most comfortable…so that added to the fun of it, because I didn’t feel weird being a feminist man around a bunch of non-feminist tourist dudes or anything (and there are such dudes, cruizing for Guatemalan women in the bars…but not as many as I’d feared…although I don’t actually go to the bars!!!)

Still waiting to see if I’ll get to go back…

A note: This post has some intense stuff that may be triggering for survivors of violence.

And so there were these two autonomous villages I was visiting, certainly poor, but showcasing a level of community and solidarity that I’ve never seen in the US…in my very particular suburban culture…I’ve tasted it in my extended Alaskan family, but nothing this strong…

But this is all romanticizing, because the reality of life in Fatima, Nuevo San Jose, and I imagine much of the countryside in Guatemala is something much deeper and harder than it first seems.

First, the sexism. The work of the women…everyday, for every meal, making tortillas from scratch (literally, often from the whole kernels of maize), washing the clothes (every day because of so many kids, and by hand…which I had to do at the mountain school, in the giant sink that’s called a pila…and it just ripped apart my arm muscles trying to ring all my pants out…and those were just clothes for my one person!), cleaning, taking care of kids, cooking, shopping…and then…being available to their husbands.

There is a reason there are so many kids here, and the reason, plain and simple, is male domination. It is the men who refuse to use condoms. It is the men who reject birth control (it is widely believed there that getting a vasectomy makes a man gay…which I’ll talk more about in a second). It is the men who expect their wives to be always available to them, and who judge their maleness on the number of kids they have…it is sexism, plain and simple…

And it is the men who are spreading aids in these communities…yes, aids, because these men don’t have work or they only have work in other cities…and so every day they are traveling to other cities…where they have mistresses and prostitutes…and then back to their wives…where aids and other sexually transmitted infections are spread…and this is not just general, this is a reality in Fatima and Nuevo San Jose specifically. Sexism and machismo are very real here…and they are deadly…as they are in the United States also…I didn’t hear any stories about domestic violence, but I’m sure it’s a reality, just as it is everywhere.

And as for sexuality…here it is something that isn’t talked about…and since children aren’t supposed to move out until marriage…there aren’t many options for clandestinely queer folks either…but there are queer folks in Fatima and Nuevo San Jose…closeted…and at least one of them is an alcoholic…

Also, there was a teacher in the school in Xela who is lesbian, and who had to flee to the United States in order to be with her partner without being harassed, attacked, and completely rejected.

And there is the work. The constant work. Work to chop and gather firewood, work to support the family, work on the fincas during certain seasons…these people work extremely hard, men and women…but especially the women and girls.

And there are gangs (but not in Nuevo San Jose and Fatima…yet), and there drugs, and there is alcohol, and there is a family with a developmentally disabled baby…who has never seen sunlight because the family is too ashamed to take her outside…she’s three years old…

And things are just simply hard…painful in ways that I’ve never seen or understood. What aspirations are there? What ¨I can do anything if I just work¨ idea? These people have been working for generations, not even asking for anything but sufficiency…and they were denied even that…until they fought…and they are still fighting, simply to have water, to have a little school…to have houses that actually can stand a windy day…and still, there is no work…the school is the most stable work…and with growing free trade (the reason there is no work is because free trade concepts have destroyed the notion of fincas having permanent employees…now it’s walmart, temp job style…where people are hired for three months at a time…paid almost nothing with no benefits…and then fired) policies, this situation will not improve.

There is a reason why feminism and socialism are talked about so much here (and the women talk about feminism a lot…not the women in the villages, but my teachers)…and that’s because they are needed. Period. They are needed.

My Two Families In The Mountain School

Okay, so I had just gotten started talking about the families I ate with in the mountain school, and now I want to continue with that…

Like I said, my first family was a little bit awkard, because the mother was very busy with other things (she had a son sick with a tooth infection…because, as Lynn told me, here dental care amounts to getting your teeth pulled or filled, without much medicine or hygeine…because such things are caro…they are expensive…hence why nearly every adult Guatemalan I met in those two villages had many, many gold and silver teeth…looking very much, I must say, like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or other rappers who decided to make such a thing a fashion), and she also talked really fast and didn’t make much of an effort to see if I understood her (which I usually didn’t)…however…the kids were great.

The oldest girl, whose nickname was China (Chee-na…named that way because her eyes looked asian when she was little…which is actually a common, and obviously racist, nickname around here) was extremely responsible, basically being the mom when the mom wasn’t around, and she was only 12 years old.

There were also two older brothers both claiming to be 15…but they don’t know their birthdays for sure…and they played checkers with me every single day…on their own homemade board made of notebook paper, with pieces of maize for red and dried beans for black…however they play with their own crazy rules…in which a ¨king me¨ actually turns the piece into this crazy super piece which is basically like a queen in chess, and it can move anywhere and devour like 4 pieces in a turn…they beat me consistently for four days, and then I picked up the logic of the game and I won…once in awhile.

Also, there were the youngest kids, the youngest being 5, who would read to me from their school books, and then on Sunday morning, my last morning, they read the bible with me…and they actually read it incredibly well for how difficult it is.

The majority of these kids go to school every day, which is just one school house where kids of all ages go…but sometimes China and the oldest boy would have to stay home to do work in the house (wash clothes…always by hand…make tortillas…always by hand…or clean the house…or gather firewood), or because the family couldn’t afford to send all of the kids to school everyday…here they have to pay to go school, because the government barely pays anything.

I had a lot of fun with these kids, and they were super friendly with me, but I could definitely see how fast they have to grow up here, and even more I could see the gender difference very clearly…while the boys would watch TV (one time it was like this really bad US ¨B movie¨ about snakes with really bad Spanish dubbing), the oldest girls were always working…and sometimes getting yelled at by their mom…every single day, this was the pattern.

My second family was in Nuevo San Jose, the older and larger village, with a woman who had 6 kids (although I think she has 8, but two of them are now grown and live in their own houses…I couldn’t be sure), all of whom were super friendly with me. This woman was older, she wore the traje, or the traditional Mayan dress for women of the embroidered shirt and woven shirt, and she told me that she also speaks Mam…which is one of the larger indigenous languages…but her kids don’t.

With this family, I was invited to eat with them in their kitchen, with its dirt floor and holes in the lamina walls, and I was a lot more comfortable with them than the first family. We talked about the history of their town, the struggle to move, about the weather and about cooking…they taught me how to make tortillas by hand (at least the flattening part), and they would actually let me do the dishes…which made me feel a lot more comfortable.

Also, the kids loved to read with me, especially the two younger girls…and so everyday I’d bring a children’s book from the school (mostly indigenous stories published by a multicultural press in San Francisco…but actually the favorite book…by far…was Donde Viven Los Monstruos…Where The Wild Things Are!!!), and we’d take turns reading one page apiece. It was really fun…and then afterwards, I’d go into the house with the girls, and we’d play jax…jax is like THE game right now among girls in those villages…and these girls have abilities in jax that I could have never imagined…seriously, they’ve got some crazy tricks. I was horribly bad my first night, but by the end of the week, I could get to where I was scooping up 6 at a time…which is really not very impressive compared to these girls.

Now, with this family, I didn’t even know there was a husband…until my last day, when he came home at 8 in the morning, without a shirt, wailing and totally, completely drunk…and the poor mom just looked at me and laughed with clear embarrassment…and then, obviously, my whole understanding of the house situation changed…as my little bubble of this family living happily and serenely in their village was suddenly popped…seeing the look on the youngest boy’s face when his dad came home is one of the permanent memories I will take home…as cliche as that may sound.

And this brings me to the deeper level of the family discussion…which I want to make a separate post.

My first evening at the mountain school, Lynn, the coordinator (who is a North American, from Wisconsin…and she has been here since before the founding of the mountain school, she seems to be kind of a force around here, well known by the locals, and I believe well-respected), took us down the hill on the side of the school’s property, down some concrete steps, to the dirt streets of the neighboring village, Fatima…she then led us down the street, and dropped some of us off at the houses of our families for dinner.

My house was three houses down on the right, and it had a little fence with a little gate, and the house itself was of cinderblocks and lamina (which is the rusted corrugated metal roof that is almost standard here). I was welcomed in by the mother, and she sat me down in their front room, which had a bare concrete floor, two beds, some faded looney tunes posters, and a homemade bulletin board with family pictures on it…and a table with a red checkerboard tablecloth, like an Italian restaurant.

The father sat with me while the mother cooked dinner somewhere in the back, and I talked with him about the history of Fatima, his family, and his work (he commutes every day by bus to another town to do construction work…and he’s lucky because the majority of men there don’t have work, and take buses every day just to find work, or do day labor)…and then my dinner, which was fried tortillas (tostadas) with homemade guacamole on them (really, really good!!!)…and then I met the kids…all six of them (and they have another one, who lives in Guatemala City and works in factory making mosquito nets for beds)…and then about 10 minutes of awkward silence, and I headed back to the school…

That night, at orientation, I learned a little bit about the history of the school and of its relationship to the nearby villages: that the school partially chose its location in 1997 because of Nuevo San Jose and its story of struggle…and Lynn spent many months before the school was open developing relationships with the families to make sure it was okay with them, and they set it up so that students would be a source of income for the families…and there was already a woman’s group organized in Nuevo San Jose, so Lynn worked with the woman on things like cooking hygenically and such, and established payment that was signicantly above that of working in a finca for a week…and they set up a rotation system so that the families (really, it’s the women…) would share students and thus the income…and at first there was a big problem because the women thought that it would be rude of them to actually have guests eat with the family in the kitchen (which is behind the house, with dirt floors, open walls or lamina walls, and a wood-burning cement stove), and so they would serve students in the front like in a restaurant (which actually was my experience with the first family…I was never invited into their second room or kitchen, which I respected but felt weird about)…but actually, even before that…right before the school opened, the women had a big meeting and decided not to work with the school after all…because they didn’t want to have to cook pizza and hamburgers, and because they were embarrassed about their poverty (so says Lynn)…and so Lynn worked with them and made it clear that this was about sharing their lifestyles, not adopting North American lifestyles…that it was okay to serve tortillas and beans, that it was okay to eat with their hands…etc…and now everyone I’ve talked with says that they love the school, and they love what it’s offered, economically and culturally, to their communities…but more about that later.

In fact…once again…I have to go study…so this is just have to be extended again. Lo siento. I’m sorry.

La Escuela De La Montaña, Part 1

Okay, I’ve just got a few minutes before I’m heading off to a workshop on human rights in Guatemala, but I really need to get moving on my stories from the mountain school, as new stories pile up each and every day…

Here are the basics:

The mountain school is sister project of the same collective that runs the language school in Xela, and it was started in 1997, I believe. It is a school in the country, located on land that used to be a finca (a plantation)…and I believe that the school building itself used to be the finca owner’s house.

The climate in this area is very warm and humid, with sun and warmth almost every morning and heavy rain EVERY afternoon. The property itself has all sorts of trees, coffee trees, banana trees, chickens, three dogs, two cats…and now…two ducks (who arrived while I was there)…the property is super comfortable, except for the billions of mosquitos that ripped my arms, legs, belly, and face apart. There are hot showers and electricity…and all of the students (12-14 at a time) live in the school…it’s a total dorm atmosphere, which was really fun…

Now, the school is located on the same old finca property as two small villages, Fatima and Nuevo San Jose…both of these villages are completely composed of families that used to live on fincas (that is, they born out of many generations of people who have lived on the finca, worked on the finca, and died on the finca…basically straight up peasants in the feudalistic sense of the term), but the finca owners ended up screwing with these folks too many times (in Nuevo San Jose’s case, by not paying them AT ALL for more than A YEAR!), and so the families organized unions (having to meet secretly in the Catholic church under the guise of worshipping, for fear of being killed or persecuted as “guerillas” since this was during the civil war that lasted for 36 years until the peace accords in 1996), and struggled, and struggled…until they were left with no choice but to leave their homes on the fincas (carrying all of their possessions on foot in the rain for miles and miles…all at once…at least in Nuevo San Jose’s case). So, now there are these two collectively built villages, Nuevo San Jose which is 11 years old, with 25 families, and is composed of two parallel dirt roads (more like wide dirt paths) with houses on both sides…and Fatima…which is 5 years old, with something like 15 families, and which is one dirt road with houses on both sides…through cooperation, solidarity, and struggle, they have built a school, they have gained services like electricity and water (Nuevo San Jose at least, Fatima still doesn’t have water)…and who knows what will come in the future…but it was always a joy to hear the stories of these important places from the families…and the mixture of pride and sadness (because the fincas were their homes…and they had thought they would grow and die there, as unjust and hard as that seems to me, and probably you too) was obvious on their faces.

Now, although the students live in the school, we each had a family, which changed each week (so I had two total), and we would eat three meals a day with our families…and that is where I’ll have to leave off right now…but when I return I’ll talk about the families, about the school, about the teachers and students…and poco a poco…about all this made me feel.

In the meantime, I’m doing fine here in Xela…I’d rather be in the mountain school still, and I’m a little bit overwhelmed by my studies right now (only my fourth week of Spanish and I’m studying the “advanced” track of grammar…subjunctive tenses…youch).

More later, and much love to you all!

Jeremy’s In A Cryin’ Mood

Well, I cried yesterday calling Briana about my blog and the email I had recieved and I talked about my feelings and some of my experiences and I just started gushing in the internet cafe…

And now I’m in the language school, at my break, and I decided to check up on the Zapatista guerillas in Mexico (who, for those who don’t know, have guns but haven’t actually used them in ten+ years, and who are some of the most inspiring fighters for justice I’ve ever read about or followed) reading the newest translation of a communique at this site

…and I just started crying again…because it talks about this new generation of youth who have grown up in that struggle and how they are making the struggle even more strong and brave and inspiring than the previous generation…for me, it’s so beautiful…

Anyhow…more later about the mountain school.

I just checked my email and I had recieved a message from one of my closest friends challenging me for being so dry and so anthropological about such a powerful, sad, unacceptable situation as I saw there on that first day at the mountain school, and I really want to write more about this because I’ve been thinking alot about this very thing these last few days…about how I’m writing about my experiences here, and how I feel this dissatisfaction with how disconnected my writing style is from the feelings I’m feeling and all of the ways that I’m being pulled and twisted by having seen even the little bit I’ve seen of what things are like here.

In truth, I feel like there is something really tremendous building inside of me, with much of the shape and momentum of a whirlpool, which is frothing and fomenting with anger and fear and pain and sadness…and definitely guilt…and I think much of this began when I saw that woman. Before that, I feel like my experience here had been relatively unchallenging for me, but seeing her, and then seeing the reaction of the people who lived in that area, and feeling my alienation from the situation, our ‘observer’ status here, and my fear of saying or doing more, I feel like a big part of me started sucking in…and I found myself wanting to focus more and more on Spanish, on Spanish…studying, studying…to avoid all that I was feeling by being in a situation that is so wrong in so many ways…

I don’t know if I know how to really describe this…

Basically, I feel like after seeing that woman, and then spending more time at the mountain school, seeing the poverty, the struggle, learning more of the history of the area, of Guatemala, and of Central American in general…I kind of shut down emotionally. In my last post, I was kind of trying to portray that, that banal resignation in the face of really horrible things which I have witnessed numerous times here…and I feel like in the last two weeks alot of my emotions have been swallowed in this manner, because I don’t how how to hold it…I just don’t know how to hold this kind of reality right here, in front of myself, in my consciousness…I’ve never had to do that, this intensely, before. I’m a person so used to looking for solutions, so used to finding tactics and strategies, and trying to move towards reconciliation with people as soon as I can…and here, none of that works…this is a situation I can’t change here, there is a history and a reality that I cannot take back…I can’t take back the disappearances, the murders, the rape, the terror, the trauma, the violations of every kind of dignity…it’s just there, present in the air and in people’s stories, in people’s daily lives…and I don’t know how to hold that very long in front of myself…so, Spanish, Spanish, studying, studying…telling myself that maybe if I had just a few more words, a few more conjugations of verbs, maybe I could be that much more helpful…

But no, this is a situation that the little white boy Jeremy can’t fix…instead, I think I need to be more attentive in my observations, in my reactions, so I can learn what I can, connect where I can…so where I can help (and there are constant opportunities), I am emotionally ready and willing to step up…

…It’s just so much, it’s this massive torrent of pain and injustice…how do people here not completely lose themselves in that…that’s a feat of tremendous struggle and resistance in itself.

To anyone who was struck, hurt, offended, offput by the dryness of my previous post, I’m deeply sorry…it was a symptom of a much deeper problem, of my disconnection…my inability to put ME into these stories…and it’s something I’m working on…poco a poco…little by little.

Important Note: This story is painful, and may be triggering for survivors of violence. I’m sorry.

On Sunday morning, there were four of us heading to the mountain school, all of us gringos…and we decided to meet at the big Catholic church in the central park of Xela. I had arrived early, though, so I spent a half an hour in the church, exploring the architecture, the stained glass and high, high ceilings, admiring the stations of the cross potrayed by full sized mannequins of Jesus behind glass displays…and watching people as they lit candles and prayed.

And then the four of us took a minubus (minivan packed full of passengers) to the bus terminal, where we then borded a chickenbus (a brightly painted old american schoolbus with primary school-sized seats…that same brown vinyl that I remember from growing up)…and sat for half an hour while people boarded trying to sell us stuff…candy, soda, fried meat of some sort…and then off, for an hour and half in a completely packed bus, through the windy roads and the beautiful fog, past all sorts of towns and billboards and brightly painted cemetaries (they don’t seem to do the anglo grey cemetary thing here…it’s all reds and greens and yellows and blues…) and the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen on plants (I hear they’re called orejas de elefantes…elephant ears)…until we reached the town of Colomba, which…oops!…was past where we were supposed to go. No harm, though, the ayudante pointed us to the bus stop going back the other direction, and we sat in Colomba for ten minutes where all of the locals just stared and stared at us with our backpacks…very different atmosphere…not unfriendly, just not used to gringos.

And then back on the bus for ten minutes until we got to our stop, which is a big yellow sign for the village of Santa Domingo…and we got our bags from off the roof of the bus, and we were ready to walk down the stone street to the mountain school…

And just 30 feet down the road, we saw her…a woman lying in the street, maybe mid twenties, with flies circling around her, with a stick of bamboo awkwardly placed between her legs and under her skirt, and with a bundle of bananas under her skirt as well. I thought that I was seeing a dead body, and I can still feel my body’s shock response.

One of my companions grabbed the woman’s shoulder and tried to wake her up, but no luck…she was alive, however. And then my mind began circulating around the question of rape…of what to do, of how to support her…another companion walked to the house right there, and found a woman living there, who expressed no interest in helping us, and then we found another older man walking by, who also expressed no interest…so I and another volunteered to run to the mountain school for help while the other two waited with the woman…

…and we ran, and the mountain school was only about 100 feet further, with a nice little welcome sign, a driveway, and then a gate onto this beautiful property with a cute little white stucco house, with hammocks and chairs on the front patio, and a beautiful political mural…and I ran in, and an American woman and a Guatemalan woman came with me to check it out…and when they saw the woman…

…oh, well, it was just ____, a known drunk…and so we were urged to just leave her there, because she was known to try to fight people when she wakes up…and one of the women of the school said that she might try to talk with the family for them to go check on her later…and so we left the woman there, in the street, with the stick, but they moved the bananas and pulled her skirt down…and all four of us, I think, were unsettled and wondering about that woman for the rest of our time there…

The Subtleties Of Growth

I’ve just returned from two weeks that have changed my life. Not any kind of drastic change…not any kind of sell my possessions, drop out of the world kind of change…something much more silent and soft…like the fine hairs on my cheeks. I’ve had this weird sort of privilege of dropping into the middle of a situation that was so incredibly foreign to me that my brain was forced to create new categories of thought and understanding in order to be able to function…for two weeks, I was dropped into these two communities, Fatima and Nuevo San Jose (both associated with la escuela de la montaña…the mountain school), I ate every meal with families in these two communities, and within this, my understanding of poverty, of struggle, of work, of families, of religion, of education…all of it was shaken and challenged and…with that, just as with my learning of Spanish…I feel like I have grown enormously.

I don’t know how I’m going to be able to write about these last two weeks. There is so much to tell, and even more to process and analyze and reflect on…

I think I’ll probably try to do it in little bits, snapshots of my experiences…

I’m Heading To The Mountains…

For two weeks, this blog will probably be silent, because I’m heading to a language school in the mountains for two weeks, where there is no phone or computers. At the school, I will live in a dorm with 9 other students, and I will eat three meals a day in the homes of people living in the neighboring village…who collectively own a coffee plantation connected with the school…see, all of the profits from these schools I’m going to go to cooperative projects like this…still I’ll be interested to see how this experience is…will it be healthy and cooperative and social, or will it be a weird, racist kind of “let’s go look at the quaint brown people in their quaint huts.” From what I hear, many of these families in the mountains are very politically active, and so I look forward to talking with them about our respective countries. Most of them are Mayan (as is the slight majority of the country, as opposed to being Ladino or mixed Spanish blood)…and they speak Spanish as a second language, with one or another Mayan language being their first language. In Guatemala, the majority Mayan, indigenous people are poor, and they have experienced a lot of discrimination over the years…and Mayans were the primary force behind the guerilla movements that existed in this country for 36 years (until the peace accords in 1996).

So, until 2 weeks from now, I love all of you, and I hope you’ll write to me and comment here, even though I won’t be able to write back for awhile.

It is the future…and the world is now effectively mono-lingual…Standard Web English has become the primary language of nearly the entire planet. Most of our world’s 6,000 languages are now extinct. The only people who pay any attention to other languages are scholars, missionaries (who are trying to translate bibles and eventually convert people to English…which is partly true because missionaries are actually currently one of the dominant forces in the fields of linguistics and translation…can you believe that?)…and….

And also there is this drug…called Linguacine. It’s an hallucinogen that affects the language processing centers of the brain, and so if someone is on it, and they read or hear a passage from a language, their high will be different depending on what language they are experiencing…so there is this subculture of addicts…called Polyglots, who live in these drug-den libraries, where they study and preserve scraps of languages in order to keep themselves high. A little bit of an agglutinating language here, a little bit of Semitic tri-consonantal languages there…and all of it creates a new experience for these people.

Our main character is one of these people…coming from a wealthy family, he’s a bit of a drug tourist…he often hitches rides with missionaries to sneak into indigenous areas and snatch bits of languages from those people…because to hear an exotic language from a native speaker is a delicacy for a Polyglot.

But at some point, in these drugged travels…he encounters a group of deaf people who speak a unique sign language, who are resisting all attempts to extinguish their culture and communication. At first, this character is just savoring his high…but with time he comes to see how this thing that he is stealing from these people, this thing that he is using for himself, is the core of these people’s lives and culture…and he realizes how much deeper language and meaning can go…and so he begins to work with these people, and also with a wider network of linguistic and social rebels…many of whom have been creating their own new languages to counter the dominance of Standard Web English…

Anyway, I thought it would make an interesting story…

Picture the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Picture me walking home alone, in the dark, through narrow, poorly lit streets. It is raining, and it is my first night here and I am almost lost, just barely finding my way back to my house from the school. I come upon a street, where in front of me there are 13 or more dogs laying in the middle of the street, in my path. Suddenly, another dog walks up to the group, they all hop up, start growling and a few start barking…I am only ten feet away, and I’m hoping this mob of dogs won’t start growling at me…I’m just standing there, frozen…and then…suddenly, the whole pack (this is border collies, labs, retrievers, mutts) turns towards me and starts trotting! I start walking slowly backwards, but I feel like all is lost…if I run they can catch up…so if they’re going to attack me, they’re going to attack me…

…but no, they just trot on by, like I am invisible…and that is that…

…but it sure is a fun memory.

If you take a moment and look to your right, you will see our Jeremy habitat…yes, there is a living, breathing Jeremy in there, so keep your hands and feet on this side of the fence. He’s more scared of us than we are of him, but if you startle him, he may snap, so just be careful. We took him in when he had a broken wing, and he’s been here ever since…our keepers are taking very good care of him, and we believe that in five more weeks he will be well enough to fly home.

Now, let me paint you picture of what this Jeremy’s life is like in here:

Jeremy lives in a house in the city of Xela (pronounced shay-la), with a mother and her two sons. The mother has three sons total, 18, 22, and 24 years each…but the oldest has a wife and cute baby named Diego, and he lives elsewhere. There is a husband as well, but he lives and works in another city, and comes home on Saturdays. This family has a contract with Jeremy’s language school, el Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol, and they have been taking in creatures like this Jeremy for 13 years now. The family is extremely friendly with Jeremy, and they feed him three times a day…a diet of eggs, tortillas, and black beans in the morning…a large lunch of vegetables, meats, rice, and tortillas…and a smaller dinner of more meat, vegetables, and rice. Jeremy seems to love his food, and as a gesture of gratitude he does the dishes after lunch and dinner every day.

The house is modest, but very pretty and comfortable, and Jeremy has his own room all to himself, where he studies and reads. He shares a bathroom and a shower (which has a strange heater contraption attached to the shower head to generate lukewarm water…and which uses much electricity and will shock Jeremy if he touches it in the wrong way. The family has refrigerator, a Sony tv with satellite, cell phones, and a stereo…but they the mother does the laundry by hand in a large stone sink, and so Jeremy believes that this family is more of the middle class persuasion compared to many families in Guatemala. However, Jeremy seems to be stunned by some of the decorations in the house, and at how they are things that he would normally take for granted or throw away…for example, the family has, as the centerpiece of their dining room table, a Batman Returns placemat…and Jeremy is curious because Batman Returns (and this place mat) was created in 1992.

Every morning, Jeremy wakes up at 6 in the morning, to the sounds of dogs barking, roosters crowing, cars rumbling, and firecrackers cracking (which Jeremy naively mistook for guns at first). Jeremy brushes his teeth with bottled water, gets dressed, and goes down to breakfast with the mother. At every meal, the mother talks in a very slow and friendly manner with Jeremy, in Spanish, and Jeremy attempts to slowly carry on conversations with her. He has improved considerably in this in the week he has been with us here.

At 7:45am, Jeremy walks ten minutes through the narrow streets of Xela, past many houses and small shops, to arrive at his language school…which is run by a collective of more left-leaning Spanish teachers…who set up the school to not only teach Spanish, but to teach about the social, political, economic situation of Guatemala. Jeremy has one-on-classes with one teacher a week, for five hours, from 8am-1pm. In these classes, his teacher teaches him by writing concepts and words down on long pieces of paper, while he takes notes…then the teacher talks with Jeremy about his life, his opinions, politics and history. Jeremy is very happy in these classes, he very much liked his first teacher…and he has learned much…but he is still slow in speaking, and shy.

The school is laid out around an indoor courtyard, where the sun shines in, and where there are lots of political posters and bulletin boards decorating the beautiful yellow walls. During the half hour coffee break during classes, Jeremy mixes with the 40+ other students, trying to speak Spanish, but often falling back on English.

After class, Jeremy walks back to his house, where he eats lunch, and then he either returns to his room to study, or he goes out to do activities with the school (the school hosts workshops and movies and trips related to the reality of Guatemala). So far, he mostly just studies and walks around alone, admiring the city.

He eats dinner at 7:30pm or 8:00pm, and lately he has taken to watching tv with the family (shows like Los Plateados…which is a cowboy soap opera…and la mujer de ejero…or something…which is a traditional soap opera…and the news). At 10pm, Jeremy goes to sleep and sleeps soundly until the roosters and dogs and firecrackers wake him up the next morning.

So far, Jeremy has very much enjoyed his stay in this habitat, and he is acclimating well. He loves his family, although he feels shy and embarassed to not be able to discuss more than favorite fruits and preferred types of movies…but he is new to all this, so we expected this of him.

This is embarassing, but must be shared:

In Xela, you are not supposed to put your toilet paper in the toilet. You are supposed to ball it up and put it in the trash can. The problem is, old habits die hard…and because I’m quite concerned about damaging people’s plumbing…I’ve had my hands in numerous Guatemalan toilets this week…damned toilet paper…soaks up water so fast!

My alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer have served me well, I’ll tell you what!

No time to describe my daily life today, once again…but that’s okay, because I’d rather discuss the process of learning a language and the power of it for me…

For me, learning a language feels something like walking around, gathering precious stones…with each word I pick up, memorize, use, whole new avenues of discussion and sharing are opened up. I learn the word baño, and suddenly I don’t have to hold it in anymore. I learn the word cuesta and I can find out how much things cost…I learn the word ejercito (army), and then the story of Guatemala begins to unfold. The story of CIA organized coups, US supported massacres, kidnapped and tortured activists (many younger than me), North American and European corporations gobbling up this land and its people for centuries…the story of a country that many of us in the United States would have trouble even finding on a map (including myself, even four months ago!)…with each word I can come so much closer to a person, to buried histories…and it’s beautiful and endlessly satisfying.

But it’s exhausting too…as I find myself spending entire days trying to figure out what I want to say to my “host family” (I’m living with a mother and her two sons, 18 and 21 years old)…do I want to ask about movies, or do I just want to talk about food…not many options yet…and a couple of days ago I was just pacing around a group of stores because I was scared to go in and have to ask for la espuma (shaving creme)…because here in Xela, the stores are counters with their products behind them…so to buy something requires human interaction and communication…and each night I have no problem falling asleep, because my brain has been fully active for sixteen hours…trying to find the right endings to verbs…trying to figure out whether I’m saying “of” or “for,” trying to figure out just one more way to understand people’s stories…

I go to bed each night feeling full intellectually…but its impossible to sit completely comfortably here…because this is not my country…and my country does not have a pleasant history here…and my responsibilities, as someone who wants to struggle for justice in my country alongside folks struggling for justice here in Guatemala…my responsibilities feel very real to me…and that’s primarily why I’m here, learning Spanish…so I can be that much better at fighting for a better world alongside others…

…and it’s important to recognize how much farther ahead folks down here, in Latin America, are in that struggle than those of us in the States are…we have much to learn, and much to inspire us. I just want to keep gathering these stones…just want to keep listening and paying attention…

My Travels Continue…

On Sunday, July 3, my plane taxied into the Guatemala City airport, and I saw a relatively small building with these big windows with like crowds of people staring out at us…then off the plane into a terminal that felt more like the basement of a government building (dim flourescent lights, dusty tourist posters on the walls) to this North American than it did an international airport…not a judgement, just an observation…and then two minutes in customs (they didn´t search my bags or anything, just stamped my passport and that was it)…then I was in the main area of the airport…

Masses of people, some holding signs with families’ names on them…indigenous women wearing huipils and cortes (gorgeous, colorful embroidered blouses and long skirts)with babies slung on their backs…and everything in Spanish…

I pass through a big mass of people into the area where the bank windows are, and get my money changed into quetzales…$70 bucks US and I get like $500 quetzales…most of which I still haven’t used…

I find an airport worker…or rather he finds me…and he gets me a taxi (I haven’t used any Spanish yet…just said “taxi, Galgos” (Galgos is a busline that goes to Xela) and he puts me into the taxi…and the driver then starts talking to me…and I remember mumbling back, but don’t remember what…but it was clear that I didn’t speak Spanish, and then we were silent…I felt like an idiot…but I said “Lo siento,” and he smiled.

Quick drive through Guatemala City, past this big, ancient, empty stone fountain, into the neighborhood with all the bus stations (as well as a red light district)…and I pay the driver the equivalent of 8 bucks…and I’m in the station…where I botch Spanish again trying to get a bus ticket…and then wait for two hours in the station for my bus to leave…across the street is a Shell station…and it looks exactly like a Shell station in the United States…and I’m taken aback again by the power of corporations to transplant themselves all over the world…mostly I just sit there for two hours, but I occasionally would walk outside, and see many old, beat up cars rumbling by, lots of local buses (which are old school buses, their doors removed, painted bright solid colors…with ayudantes (bus assistants) hanging out the sides of them…and I watch a group of Guatemala City cops milling around for awhile…they wear these funny hats that make them seem not very intimidating…like panama hats almost…don’t know what they are called.

Anyway, on to the bus, which is an old Greyhound bus which is completely full, and there are many Americans on it…tourists and students just like me…and there is a young boy with a soccer jersey who keeps staring and smiling at me as he is opening and closing the emergency window…then off we go, through the streets of Guatemala City…past many old buildings, many rusted metal roofs, and also many chain stores: a burger king, a wendys, a mcdonalds, the largest pizza hut I have ever seen…Texaco star marts, quaker state…HOOTERS!!! And I see many billboards, billboards the entire four hours of my ride, and I immediately notice that the women in them don’t look too much like the women I’m seeing around…they have brown and blonde hair, and mostly bluish eyes…sexist North American beauty standards imported…

…and then onto the highway, which I didn’t know it was a highway until someone told me…because really it was four hours on this two lane road, stopping frequently…picking up passengers (picture a Greyhound bus with an employee who stands with the door open on the highway…with families and children and folks just standing alongside the highway…and this employee yells out that there’s space on the bus…and then the bus stops every half hour or so and picks up people along the way)…it was wild…and the highway itself…I don’t think there was more than 500 feet of straight road the whole way…it was all curves and rises and falls, all over these hills covered with beautiful trees, or shanties of cinder block and corrugated metal, or terraced farmland…four hours of that, and I absolutely loved it…

And then into Quetzaltenango (Xela) where the first things I noticed were cars with Jesus slogans painted on them…a massive church that looked more like a wharehouse…and the dogs…dogs…dogs…all of them relatively small, not like german shephards, more like collies and small labs and small retrievers…dogs just wandering by themselves in the streets, sniffing at garbage…apparently wild…and I felt right then how hard it was going to be to not want to pet them because it was so strange…how these dogs seemed to be some of the cutest dogs I’ve ever seen…they weren’t like dirty or scabbed or anything…they just looked like a bunch of cute, small lost dogs…and I wanted our bus to just stop and pick up each one of them…

Into the bus station in Xela at 6:30…and a friend of a friend is waiting for me…and it turns out that she knows another guy on the bus, so the three of us go to find a hotel for him and I…

…and now is the time to describe Xela…It is a city of hundreds of thousands of people, spread out across what seem like rolling hills…with tiny old buildings crowded together, separated by these tiny threads of mostly cobblestone streets…a completely new landscape for me, and beautiful to me…but not in like a pristine, exotic way…but in a gritty, history-shown-in-the-buildings way…

Oooh…I’ve run out of time today…ick…so, we’ll have to stop here…and actually, I think tomorrow I’ll jump ahead to what my daily life is like here…and tell the rest of the travel story as it comes up…suffice it to say, my hotel experience was fun and interesting and comfortable…and I have been enjoying my time here from the very beginning.

My Travels Begin…

So, I have been in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala for 4 days now. I arrived on Sunday. Between then and now, there are many stories, and I’m afraid that many of them have already slipped through the cracks…but before it’s too late, I really want to kick-start this blog with a review of my travels so far:

Saturday, July 2…I am rushing around Briana and I´s apartment, cleaning, packing, emailing and calling people to say goodbye…and then at 5:50pm, I’m in the air heading toward Houston, TX

I arrive in Houston at midnight, at the George Bush airport (can you believe that? Not even dead yet, and the dude’s got an airport…and it’s a huge one at that!), and my flight to Guatemala City doesn’t leave until 9am the next morning…so I decide to sleep in the airport…but first, this young security guard starts chattin’ me up, for like an hour…we talk about working in schools, about Texas, about rollercoasters…she asks me whether school districts do drug tests because she wants a job in a school but she smokes a wee bit of pot…she was super friendly, and the time just flew by…but it was bedtime, so I got a tip from another security guard that the chapel was a great place to sleep…so I stretched out in the chapel, set up a little camp of books, my jackets, and my alarm clock, and I went to sleep…along with two other people in the chapel (I felt like we had a special bond with each other…a special chapel kind of bond). In the morning, I was awoken by a flight attendant praying right next to my dirty feet!

Breakfast in the airport: the greasiest muffins the world has ever seen (seriously, how can a muffin be greasy anyway???), courtesy of Starbucks (it was either that or Texas barbecue for breakfast)…I shaved in the bathroom, put my money belt on, got my passport checked…and I was off to Guatemala.

Hours of flying over a beautiful sea, and then over beautiful green land, trees and small little plots of farmland, and small little villages connected by sparse dirt roads…and then over Guatemala City itself…which was just endless buildings with rusty tin roofs…and then, on the hills, these massive homogenous gated communities and another massive hotel complex thing…

On the runaway, taxiing in, I spotted a Burger King and a Wendy´s sign in the distance…and that’s when the I started really feeling weird…feeling like I was entering a different world in many ways…funny how it was the familiar corporate stuff that made me feel that way…but the context is so different…and it’s so strange when the corporate chains are by far the nicest buildings around…there’s something inherently wrong with that….

And that is all for now…we’re going to make this a little series, okay? In our next installment, we will witness Jeremy as he botches his first interaction in Español, we will read about a beautiful and interesting bus ride, and we will discover the dogs of Quetzaltenango (Xela)…stay tuned!!!

Hello my friends and family, and welcome to my blog!

For a long time, I’ve felt like I have a whole bunch of ideas, questions, and weird little stories that I really want to share, but often my real-world fears, insecurity, and social awkwardness get in the way, so I decided that I needed to start a blog…to write down all of those things that pass by in my life and don’t otherwise get shared, that are in constant danger of just decaying, dissolving, atrophying inside my head and my heart. For those of you that know me pretty well, you know how much I keep in, and so I hope you enjoy seeing what I’m going to try and let out.

As for the name of this thing… 2 eyes open… it has a variety of meanings, all of them important to me:

Two eyes, because I am here, with each of you, sharing this planet, and I want to experience as much of it as possible, with both eyes open, always learning, always exploring, always asking questions…and always being attentive to those things that are so often made invisible…injustice, suffering, trauma, oppression.

Two eyes… one for viewing what is wrong in the world, what needs changing… and one for looking at what is right in the world, and what new, beautiful things can be built within it, by struggling for justice and change.

Two I’s… because one of my favorite philosophers, Martin Buber, has said that we have two ways of relating with the world, two ways of saying “I:” I-It, where we see the world and those around us as objects for our use… and I-You, where we see everything around us as fellow participants, and we truly understand and value their full being…and Buber says: without I-It we wouldn’t be able to survive…but without I-You, we are not fully human…too philosophical? Too cheezy? Well…this is the kind of stuff I keep inside…so whatever.

And two eyes… because in my favorite board game (and I play a LOT of board games), Go, in order for a group of pieces to survive, they must form a structure with two eyes (which is the logo of my website), where the pieces are mutually supporting each other in order to “breathe” and stay alive…in my view, this is a powerful metaphor for what movements for social justice should be doing… building spaces of mutual support where each of us can breathe, where we can mutually inspire each other… we can form communities of two eyes, where even if everything else around us is going wrong, we still survive… and outlive those things, those social ystems, those people… who are against us living fully.

And so, this is my blog… this is the kind of stuff it’s about…life, the struggle for justice, discovery, love, creativity, relationships, games, ideas…

And because I am starting it here, in Guatemala, where I am studying Spanish for six weeks… it will begin with a lot of stories… funny, serious, political, linguistic… this site is going to be all over the place, I guarantee… and that’s the point. Because I, in all my authenticity, am all over the place. I hope you can handle that.

Love you, each of you,

Jeremy

PS For my family members reading this, I know that much of my political thoughts/observations might alarm you or make you uncomfortable… and that’s okay… hopefully someday we can discuss it and learn from each other… and you know that I’ve always loved sharing my particular blend of leftist radicalism with you… I welcome any amount of debate/questions you want to email to me. My email is jeremy_louzao@yahoo.com. Please, please email me!!!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi