August 2005

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Goodbye Letter

This is it. My last post from Guatemala. For this last post, I want to translate into English the speech I gave for my final graduation from the mountain school. I think it says everything I want to say:

There aren’t words. There aren’t words to describe my experiences here in Guatemala, here at the escuela de la montaña. How can you describe the subtle changes inside of a heart?

I’m a gringo. I come from a country, a culture where latinos and latinas are almost invisible, as farmworkers, gardeners, maids, mechanics. Where my students who don’t speak English are treated as if they don’t have brains. We, we white folks, are so lost in our things, in our money, in our TV, in our conquests, and in our racism that we don’t listen to latina voices. We don’t listen to the powerful stories, the touching dreams, the brilliant ideas. We don’t know the history of Guatemala…we don’t even know where Guatemala is on a map.

Supposedly, I’m different. Before traveling to Guatemala, I did know much of the history of Latin America. I have read many books and almost every day I would read news from Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brasil, and Guatemala. But this was just words and paper. Actually, I wasn’t prepared for this trip.

When I arrived in Guatemala, especially when I arrived at the escuela de la montaña, I realized how much I don’t know, how much I don’t understand. I noticed many little absences in my heart that I had never recognized before. There are no words.

My time here has been so much more than the grammar and the official activities. It has been a wonderful mix of sights, experiences, jokes…and, the most important thing, relationships.

Because of y’all’s affection and because of this project, I am returning to my country a different person, with love, rage, and solidarity. And an ear that is larger and more capable of listening to latina voices.

Well then, thank you all. You will be in my heart forever.

I am crying now, in the internet cafe, just I was crying then, in the mountain school. I think, with our without visible tears, I’m going to be crying for a long while now.

Thank you all for reading and caring about me, and I hope you know how much I love you and care about you.

My Spanish

Something that I’ve noticed is that I really don’t write much about the main thing I’m doing down here: studying Spanish. I really haven’t discussed how easy or hard it is for me…mainly because there’s so much else to talk about. However, while I’m still in this country, I want to dedicate some space to it.

I have loved learning Spanish. It has been coming very easy to me. The grammar has always been really interesting to learn, and it has also come relatively easy to me. My teachers have told me that I demonstrate a strong capacity to learn languages and I don’t really know if that’s true because I’m really insecure…but I’ve recieved enough strongly positive comments from enough different people that I believe it a little.

However, I do know that talking is hard for me. I’m slow, unless the conversation is politics, and then I speed up and talk a lot better…and I still can’t understand a thing when people are talking fast…but when things are slow, or I can read it, I understand everything but the smattering of words I don’t know…and that’s just a matter of learning more and more vocabulary.

My writing is my proudest thing. I’ve written probably about 20 pages worth of papers in Spanish here, and I think they’ve been some rather interesting papers (my last one was basically my atheism post, but in Spanish, as preparation for a really interesting conversation with my evangelical teacher this last week)…and I think my writing style translates well into Spanish, so I can actually have nice rhythm and imagery.

Now, when I get home to Seattle I have a difficult road ahead. I have to keep reading constantly, writing, learning new words and many idiomatic expressions, polishing the few points of grammar I still find a bit slippery (prepositions and actually a little bit of past tense which trips me up sometimes)…but especially talking. I don’t know, I think I might become one of those white people who orders in Spanish in Mexican restaurants…is that a bad thing…I don’t know…

For some reason, I really want to watch the lord of the rings trilogy in Spanish…

One Of My Favorite Things

I’ve been really satisfied writing on this little website, mostly for one specific reason. Those who know me even moderately well know that I keep a lot to myself…as I’ve mentioned before. They know that I often try to maintain separate worlds and fronts in my life…with my friends, my work, my family, my politics, myself. I get really nervous at the idea of certain people knowing everything that I think or feel, for fear of putting them off or scaring them…but here, for the first time ever in my life is just my honest thoughts, and I have invited my friends, family, co-workers anyone to read it.

When I think about the feelings of it, it feels like growing up. This whole trip has felt like growing up. Maturing just a bit into a place where I can be comfortable with all of who I am, nerd, radical, sissy, intellectual, atheist, gringo…all of it…this is me and I love me, and I feel like here in this space I’ve become a lot more comfortable opening myself up authentically for other people to really love me (or not if they choose) too…something that is obviously really scary.

I hope to keep writing when I get home…I have all sorts of thoughts about games, about international and local politics, about my work and studies. I don’t know who reads this, and I tend to assume only Bri, Dave, Mom, Dad, and Chris…and then occasionally other people…and that’s kind of fun…because I really am not writing for you all. That stopped pretty early into my trip.

This is much more for me than for you…sorry.

Quick Mountain School Blurb

The kids in the two villages remembered me.

Some remembered my name, Jeremias, and called it out in the street.

Some remembered my reputation for playing checkers and so I ended up playing probably a couple of hundred games of checkers with the 15 year old boy in my family (who has been PERMANENTLY kicked out of school for one fist fight…so he does nothing but hang out at home and play soccer…and he always wanted to read his Winnie the Pooh books with me).

Apparently, I’m told by a teenage girl, that the girls remembered that I’m cute, and that I speak good Spanish…which obviously was very flattering. The Spanish part of course.

And, I couldn’t believe it…that entire group of young boys remembered that horrible vagina drawing game and they tried to egg me on the entire night with it.

And the teachers remembered me…and were very happy to see me again…

And I’m saying all of this not out of ego or anything, but to just give a sense of how much of a communitity that place is.

More tomorrow.

Back In Xela, Safe And Sound

Just got back from the mountain school, and now I’m in Xela for my last night…I got this crazy nice hotel room for ten bucks with three beds in it!!! Tomorrow afternoon, I’m taking the four hour bus ride to Guatemala City, where I’ll hope to stay in a hotel near the airport for my morning flight on Monday.

Things are winding down, I feel like I’m just living in a state of hovering around crying all the time right now. After being back in the mountains again, I just want to stay here for longer. But I’m also ready to come home. I have a world of ideas, personal and politica,l waiting to be dumped into action when I get home, back into my real world. In the meantime, I’m going to eat at a nice restaurant tonight, I’m going to say goodbye one last time to my family in Xela, and then I’m just going to sleep and think and just be still for an evening.

Tomorrow will be the final day of the Guatemala phase of this blog…and then it will morph into something else…

It’s really strange and beautiful…these little things that keep happening, these little coincidences…I’ll learn a word in Spanish just accidently, then 15 minutes later in a totally different situation it’ll end up being a key word in a conversation…little bits of serendipity.

Por ejemplo, I had just wrote that post on my blog about my anarchist atheism, right? Well, last night, me, my friend Peggy, and my friend Terezia (who actually spent a year in Guatemala and a year in Mexico, so she speaks fluent Spanish…leaving me feeling awe-inspired, jealous, and inadequate all at once) decided to hang out at the house of their friends…one of whom is a teacher at my school. So they are two young, hip Guatemalans…and from 10pm to 4am we hung out at their house, while they all drank rum and cokes (me, just cokes with lime juice…since, of course, I don’t drink), and we talked in Spanish… and…serendipity…the discussion was about anarchism and about atheism! In Spanish, I actually had to hold my own trying to defend and explain my ideas…why I wasn’t just totally naive and stupid…why being anarchist is more than their stereotype of someone who wears all black, has dreadlocks, plays hack-sack (?), and juggles with fire sticks (?!)…and it was an incredibly fun night, that felt exactly like all of my favorite nights of staying up with friends having political conversations…and I just would pause periodically and be like…this is in Spanish!….this is in Spanish! And it felt like just another night with friends (although my talking was obviously slow and full of errors)! Just 5 weeks ago, I knew 100 words in Spanish…and I couldn’t say anything out loud…and now this…I not only could defend anarchism, I actually got them to acknowledge the beautiful and elegant philosophy that it is (much of this was framed in a debate between anarchism and communism…which they are more familiar with…and I tried to bring feminism into the equation as well…of course).

So, it was a great night…and it was a great way to say goodbye to my time here in Xela as I head for the mountains. And there’s something interesting about this, as well…

I can’t remember if I wrote this here…but for my graduation at the mountain school two weeks ago (they have a graduation every week for students who are leaving…where the students are asked to do something, sing, dance…etc. in Spanish) I did an activity of popular education which we do here in the states…this group brainstorming activitity that is meant to counter sexism and build consciousness about the difference between how men are raised and how women are raised…it’s called the act like a man/act like a lady boxes…anyway, I did this activity, facilitated it and explained it totally in Spanish…and it worked! And the two male teachers got kind of defensive…and one of them started arguing with me in Spanish…so I had to try to argue back in Spanish (very, very hard!). The women, however…at least most of them…loved it.

So, what I’ve been hearing is that teachers have actually been talking about my activity still these last two weeks…one of the women even did it with one of her students! Ooh, how flattering…cross-cultural solidarity and movement building in just a little way…so I really look forward to going back there and seeing those folks again.

See you in a week!!!

Okay, first…for those few who may be reading this who didn’t know: I am an anarchist. Now, there is no reason to be alarmed, because being an anarchist does not mean I believe in chaos and destruction, or that I am a bomb-wielding terrorist or anything…anarchism is a political philosophy just like any other. To be really simple about it, it’s a philosophy that people deserve the maximum amount of freedom possible and thus that we deserve a society that is free from all forms of oppression: sexism, racism, homophobia and heterosexism, ecological destruction, poverty and economic exploitation, and government oppression and war, etc…it is a philosophy that believes in grassroots, participatory democracy…it IS radical, it COULD be called naive or utopian, but it IS NOT mean-spirited, cynical, or destructive…and if anyone has any more questions about it, I would love to talk with you about it…for hours and hours and hours.

Now, with that said, I really want to write about something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile now: my spirituality.

Somewhere in the last few years, especially as I’ve become more and more fascinated with the growth and organization of right-wing christian movements in the US, I’ve started to become really bothered by the fact that I, as an anarchist atheist, am so often considered non-spiritual…and so I’ve been thinking, writing, and talking with Briana about this, trying to get a grasp on just what my beliefs are…what my spirituality is…so here I’d like to chat a little bit about it.

“If You Don’t Believe In God, Then What Do You Believe In?”

I believe that we are here, right now, and this is it. This is our life…and it will only last for a short time, and then we will be gone. Because what we are, as human beings, are beautiful, complex, and fragile patterns of matter…nothing more, yet nothing less, which have risen like a wave out of deep and rich process of evolution…but which will ultimately crest and crash back into the ocean of particles and elements that we were born from…and with our deaths, our memories, our consciousnessess will scatter in all directions…circulating back into the stew.

There is no higher consciousness guiding us, there is no grand plan…there is simply energy and matter and time…and the dancing, dancing relationships between them…

“Boy, That Sounds Depressing”

Now, I know so many people who hear this and think it’s so depressing…but I’ve never understood that…I think it’s just the opposite…I think it is an immense and almost unthinkable blessing that out of a gigantic mess of natural processes and chemical reactions…we have actually come to be, with our eyes and ears and our languages and cultures…that out of completely lifeless and soulless universe life actually DID happen, and that these impersonal processes have actually led to the evolution of PERSONALITIES…our personalities…and so we are lucky enough to be here…alive…and we are here together right now…sharing this thing, this experience of life…and really we are all we’ve got…

And this is another thing that is so depressing to so many people…this idea that without God we are alone in the universe…but when I hear THAT perspective I get depressed…because it feels to me like it’s missing the whole point: WE ARE NOT ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE. We are surrounded by life…we are surrounded by personalities and emotions and consciousnesses…more than we will ever be able to comprehend. People, bird, fishes, three-toed slothes, amoebas, viruses, chimpanzees, mushrooms, forests…what I don’t understand about people who believe in God is…why isn’t this enough…Why isn’t it enough that we have eachother? Why do we need something above us, watching over us? What extra comfort does that give…because for me that idea is far more scary…(that there is a boss in the sky that has a plan for me and that He doesn’t have enough respect for me to actually treat me like an equal, to introduce himself…and to level with me about what the point of this world is…but that’s just me. I don’t think it shows any real kind of love to leave your children in the dark, suffering and dying so you can watch and judge…that seems pretty abusive actually…sorry, I went a little too far into the negative there…apologies).

So this is the foundation for my spirituality…a spirituality of us…a spirituality without a hierarchy or a need for a leader or for a top-down plan…it is a spirituality that says: we are here, in this beautiful world, and we are here together…now we have a choice…we can work together to learn and grow and celebrate all of the beauties together…or we can fight and exploit each other and waste our lives…or we can tell ourselves that this world is actually just some kind of test or fake world, and that real life begins after we die…as for me, I choose the first. And by choosing that first, I have my moral code and I have my politics…and I don’t need any ten commandments or other scriptures to tell me not to kill or hate or steal…because I know that we’re sharing this life…so I don’t have any reason to do any of that bad stuff.

“But What Happens When We Die?”

Now there is one other part…and that is the whole death piece. I know that alot of religious people find it really important this question of what happens after we die…and there is all this fear of that after death piece…and for those people who feel like they need to know that they will live forever somewhere…there is no comfort I can give…because that sounds boring to me. I find it far more fascinating and powerful and neat that really I just have this tiny window…that I need to make this as powerful an excursion as possible…and…

…and I need to make sure that I am doing what I can to help my fellow people and creatures get the most out of their lives as well…because that’s the point for me, that we get to live TOGETHER…so this is why justice is essential for me…and also I believe that it is only in each other that we find our meaning and where we can become bigger than ourselves…by carrying the stories of those who came before us, and having our children carry our stories…we become a part of a larger project, something that, while not immortal and absolutely eternal…will continue for more than just one or two generations. We find meaning in our lives in how we live with each other…and for ourselves.

And so my spiritual practice is in sharing my life with my family, my friends, my neighbors…my spirituality is rooted in the struggle for justice…my mass is those times when we sit around to tell our stories, and where we bring forward the stories of the past…of those people who had their time and then passed…for us to learn from, for us to be nurtured by, for us to be inspired by (and for us to acknowledge those billions who have been wronged)…

This works for me…this fulfills me and enriches me…this gives me meaning…and this makes sense to me…

And I’d love to hear what you think about it…

“But Atheists Don’t Have The Communities That Churches Offer”

And this is absolutely true…I think one of the strongest and most positive things about religions are the social elements…the congregations, the discussion and study groups…the buildings that you can go to at least once a week to find people who connect with you about a deep part of your life…they connect with your most basic worldview…

And this is why I keep saying…not even joking…that anarchists and other social justice activists need to start building churches…or something similar…I would love to have a place to go once a week where I knew I could find people who shared my beliefs…where we could celebrate together and tell stories and histories together…share donuts and tea…in fact, strategically, I think it’s going to be essential for building commmunities that can actually change this world.

Ooh, this was a fun post to write!

Back To The Mountain School

Well, it looks like there is a space open in the mountain school for my last week, so I’m taking it…which means that I need to wrap up all of my Xela business by Saturday…youch! Much to do. But I’m glad that I get to have one more week in such a neat place as the mountain school…getting to play with kids again.

A short history of Guatemala…

Well, there were the Mayans and other indigenous peoples. Millions and millions of them for thousands and thousands of years. It was a country of many cultures, many languages, many complicated political relationships…some very democratic and inspring…some less so…but people were living their lives and growing and learning and changing…socially evolving as all humans do…or at least try to do.

Then there were the Spanish…looking to expand their holdings…and thanks to Columbus…they came here, and they tried to conquer. They brought their weapons, they brought their diseases…and they brought their bodies…which many used to rape the women of this and other countries…tearing apart communities, disrupting gender and family systems, and creating new “races” of peoples in the Americas…ladinos. The Mayans resisted…they fought hard…but here in Guatemala one group of Mayans sided with the Spanish against another…and ultimately all were defeated…yet many made for the mountains…where they have been living in resistance for more than 500 years.

With the Spanish came the church and all of it’s elements…conversions, land confiscations (lots and lots of land!)…some progressive priests…and many, many brutal ones. A colonial economic system was set up that was designed to feed Spain…and that it did…first with plants like indigo which was used for dyes…then with finca after finca of coffee and bananas.

And as the system evolved, just like in the US, Guatemala won its independence…but it remained a country based in dependence on other countries…Spain, the US, Germany…(there are a lot of German roots among the rich classes here). Much land was transferred among few hands, from the church into the pockets of landowners, who set up a variety of systems (including slavery…and there are people of African descent here too) of forced labor…to use the endless supply of indigenous people to generate larger and larger profits…this is an old story…but one that still doesn’t get told often enough…

And, unique to Guatemala, there was one particular US company that ended up getting a really special deal: the United Fruit Company…which was mainly in the banana business, but also basically owned the country, all of the electric systems, and the whole railroad system on the side…and the rich were very very happy.

But, eventually, in the mid 1940’s, the people got tired of this obviously criminal situation, and there was a revolution…and new presidents rose up who began reforming the system…bringing more democracy (“literate” women could now vote…which was pretty clearly aimed at excluding indigenous/poor women), and, finally…land reform…more land in the hands of ordinary people…less land in the hands of the super rich and the corporations.

The United Fruit Company didn’t like this…so they contacted their friends in the CIA (and this is documented…there literally were FRIENDS in the CIA…or close to it), and the US began to make a lot of noise about Communist Guatemala…

…and so, there was a coup…the army took control of the government…executed tens of thousands of people…activists, intellectuals, artists…and they turned back all of the reforms that had been made in the previous ten years…

…and for ten years they held their power with an iron fist, making the rich richer…as is almost always the story…until a couple of more progressive army officers decided they wanted democracy back…and so they tried to launch a new coup…

…but it was unsuccessful, and these men were forced to go into hiding…and thus was born the guerilla.

And for 36 years in Guatemala, there was a civil war. As a way of dealing with the guerilla, the Guatemalan government used every possible tactic of terror, torture, and control possible…all with the support, training, and (especially in the 60’s) the direct leadership of the United States. To be an activist in Guatemala was to commit suicide…as hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared (kidnapped and never seen again), more than 400 villages were completely massacred…because the government had a strategy of “draining the pond to get at the fish…” that is, kill all of the people surrounded the guerillas, and then killing the guerillas.

In the late 70’s, during Carter, US-Guatemala relations got more sketchy…because of Carter’s asking for stronger human rights guarantees in relationship to arms sales…and so direct military aid from the US stopped…but really it was just funneled through Israel…and so you can see pictures of tanks and airplanes in Guatemala with Hebrew writing…and the Guatemalan military actually was trained by Israeli advisors about how to deal with the restless Mayans (and the Mayans in the mountains were the base of guerillas…they are also the majority…they are also the most poor and oppressed in the country…and they are also the people who were most targetted for killing…it was genocide…plain and simple genocide)…and so the tactic of completely destroying a Mayan village, then relocating the survivors into new “model” villages where no one spoke the same language…and thus couldn’t organize…this tactic was actually called “Palestiniazation” (can you believe that?!!!).

In the 80’s, under Reagan…the murder could get back on track with full US support…and during 1982-83 alone, something like 80,000 people were killed…while the US congratulated Guatemala’s progress towards democracy in fighting communism (and the guerillas were not Communists…in any strict sense…socialists yes, most of them, but not communists).

During this time, wealth just stayed in the same hands, more or less, and actually got concentrated further upward…and by the mid-80’s 87% of the population lived below the Guatemalan poverty line…87%…

In 1985, there were some democratic reforms…and the military no longer directly ran the government (that is, on paper), and this led slowly towards the peace talks, and the peace accords of 1996…which I plan on reading because they are supposed to be beautiful…but they have just barely, barely been implemented.

Right now, the former organization of the guerillas, the URNG, is now a leftist political party…which is extremely small, weak, and divided…and so…this is kind of the attitude that is most common around here…people who are tired, cynical, thinking about themselves more or less…and many many leftists who are wonderinf if anything was gained from that 36 years of fighting…since even now, the land situation has not changed. However…there is less racism against Mayans than there used to be…and there are some strong feminist movements here, and some really strong women in positions of power…but overall the sense I get is that people are tired, depressed…and lacking hope…

Political discussions here are not excited debates and discussions about visions and ideals…my observation is that they are far more grounded…mostly denunciations, critique, complaints…about corruption, about crime (and this is important, because the war didn’t really end, it just got transferred in the streets, into the street crime of corrupt cops and growing, growing, growing gangs…which, incidently are some of the same gangs that Latino kids at my school claim)…

And when I was at the mountain school…walking down the narrow muddy paths of the villages, watching the kids play in the street…I imagined the sight of the army rolling in…killing all of these incredible kids…burning the parents alive in the tiny church…and leaving the few survivors left to die in the hills. I couldn’t help seeing this as I walking down those streets, and I didn’t want to prevent myself…because this blood, this blood here in Guatemala is almost directly on US hands…and though it’s not my fault as just one American…it is my responsibility to know this history…to reflect on it…and then, having done that…doing what I can to support these people here in fixing their horribly, horribly messed up country.

It is very much a country living with post-traumatic stress disorder…and no one wants to talk about it.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi