August 2011

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The Escuela Popular Sindical…

For me, Glendi’s uncle is kind of like the leftist, Guatemalan version of my Alaskan grandpa. During all of my adolescence, my grandpa would take me aside at the family gatherings and he would try to engage me in discussions of conservative ideas. I love him dearly for it. He was so concerned about me, and my descent into revolutionary socialism that he gave me a deep exposure to his perspectives and his intellectual heroes, like Rush Limbaugh. I learned a ton, including a respect for conservatives as people, even as their ideas repulse me. Glendi’s uncle gives me almost the exact same vibe that I remember from growing up, except the ideas that he’s trying to expose me to are on the other side of the political spectrum. At family gatherings we sit together and talk about Guatemala, the U.S., rich and poor, religion, and social struggle. He makes me feel so comfortable here.

In the hours before the church service that we had for Glendi’s dad here in the house, I sat with her uncle and talked with him about the upcoming elections. He told me that he had no hope for any changes, and then he proceeded to talk about the ongoing land occupation that he’s involved in, the organization, Plataforma Agraria (Agrarian Platform) that he participates in, and about the radical radio programs he listens to. When I talked to him about my upcoming studies, he started getting excited and told me that he too was taking classes at the university, and that’s when things got really interesting.

It turns out that Glendi’s uncle is taking these Saturday classes in Political Economy and Popular Education at the nearby university in Xela. The classes are free, and they are taught voluntarily by radical professors who aren’t otherwise free to share all of their perspectives. Glendi’s uncle loves the classes and how much they are opening up his mind about the way Guatemala works, the history of colonialism, and the necessity of struggle. He’s well into his fifties, but he looks like a teenager when he talks about these things.

Naturally, I wanted to see the classes for myself, so this morning at 6:30 he came by and we took the 1 ½ hour bus ride together to Xela. We had a quick cup of coffee sitting there at a stand at the bus terminal, we walked a brisk and winding path through the open market, and then arrived at the university at 9am.

There were multiple classes taking place at the same time, but the class we entered was political economy. The students were all indigenous, 5 of them men (ranging in age from late 20’s to mid 50’s) and 10 of them women (mostly in their mid-twenties, and almost all in traditional Mayan clothes). Many of the students seemed to speak an indigenous language in addition to Spanish, and the youngest man speaks Spanish, Mam, and English (he spent 7 years working in a chicken farm in North Carolina, and in a restaurant in Lousiana). The professor looked to be in his sixties.

When we entered, the class had already started, and the topic was gender roles and patriarchy, and their relationship to private property. The perspective was definitely Marxist, with a strong slant toward discussion of the specific history of colonialism and imperialism in Guatemala. It was very lecture-based, and the students were deeply attentive but quiet. I was fascinated, especially to see such concrete analysis and discussion of dynamics that I witness all the time here, but from a solidly Guatemalan perspective.

At one point, the professor had to step out, and the students started talking to me, naturally curious about who I was and why I was there. They asked for a quick English class and I obliged, teaching them typical greetings at the whiteboard (the classroom was old and dirty, as most Guatemalan classrooms are…like one would imagine a really old, poor elementary school classroom in the U.S….except the whiteboards looked relatively new and clean.). Then we discussed all sorts of politics. It was so fun!

To close the class, the professor played a CD of this kind of radio play (I’m thinking that it was from the guerrilla times, when they had a clandestine radio station) about the true story of the Spanish conquest. It was entertaining and informative, but I couldn’t get a sense of what others thought.

The second and final class was related to actual techniques of teaching and sharing political ideas. The focus today was on making a magazine, and the professor—a middle-aged lighter skinned woman—guided the students toward understanding how to select themes, analyze problems and conditions, and how to organize the theme into different articles. She was really smart, funny, and good at guiding student participation. By the end of the class, the students had voted on their magazine’s theme, which will be health and the political conditions surrounding it.

After the class, Glendi’s uncle introduced me to the professor. I asked if the classes were linked to any specific political organization, and she told me that, no, they are just extensions of the university, which the professors are fighting to get formalized into real courses. She continued to explain that she is a deeply committed revolutionary and that during the war, the university was a key base for the urban guerrilla (according to Glendi’s uncle, the professor actually spent time in the mountains). She told me that many students and teachers died because of their participation. I told her about the revolutionary study groups that I see around me and participate in in the U.S., she was very excited and we mutually acknowledged our international bond of struggle.

Just like the evangelicals here who always greet each other with “hermano” and “hermana,” there is something so deeply warming about greeting other leftists across international lines. I feel rejuvenated. Especially because of so many terrible things happening around us here in Guatemala all the time, it feels so good to be able to talk with Guatemalans using a language and perspective that can mostly share. While I’m not a Marxist, I very much appreciate the Marxist understanding of class and power, and it was really cool to see that applied to this specific country’s context. It just fits so much better for explaining all that’s happening to us than the religiously heavy language that I mostly hear.

Even cooler was to see the explicit expressions of hope from the students. They don’t expect anything from the upcoming elections, and they don’t expect any major changes soon, but there was an optimism about long-term change and movement building that I don’t usually see in Guatemala. Glendi’s uncle, for example, doesn’t believe that he’ll live to see the revolutionary changes that are necessary, but he says that he’s taking the classes so that he can help the next generation.

It’s that kind of attitude that hits me in the tear ducts every time.

The Word “In-Laws” Doesn’t Work For Me

Before all else, thanks for the supportive comments from all those who read this! It’s really motivating and heartwarming…

Hi from an internet cafe in Colomba Costa Cuca, Guatemala…about 10 minutes drive from Glendi’s family’s house.

So, things truly have been as challenging as I speculated, but they are more stabilized now. Immediate dangers and hospitalizations seem to have been dealt with, and now is the longer-term struggle of supporting and re-orienting ourselves as a family which has lost one parent and which is in grave danger of losing the other…and in which all the older siblings are living and working away from the home. My main job in the house seems to be playing with the little ones and helping them with homework, but I try to be useful in other ways also. But I still don’t know how to chop firewood or wield a machete.

When I’m not doing family stuff, I’m reading all my pre-reading for the masters program, which starts 1 day after I get back. I’ve read 5 books in 1 week. Yesterday I read Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in two sittings…man, that book was really good. I also read this fantastic and deeply thought-provoking book of life stories of youth with learning disabilities, and that one really pushed me in some intense ways.

But things here are sad, for the most part. There are laughs and good stories, but it’s all tempered by grief, fear, and pain. Like I said, there is a lot more going on than just Glendi’s dad’s death.

But here’s a thing that I think about a lot. When I talk about our family in Guatemala as my “in-laws,” it feels so cheap. And I feel like the response that people give me is watered down. The word really implies a certain order of distance as compared to one’s blood family, but in my case, it’s pretty much the opposite. I’m much more intimately connected now with my Guatemalan in-laws than with my own family, because of the economic and emotional role that Glendi and I have in their lives. It feels weird, and it feels wrong at times, and often I want to bow out, but that isn’t a real option that the family wants for me at the moment…so instead I know all the dirty secrets, and I’m in those family meetings where huge things are decided.

Like I said to my friend a couple of weeks ago, I don’t feel like my previous life and background have prepared me for this. I still play with legos, I still talk to myself. In so many ways, I’m still a kid. Yet Glendi and I are also often put into the position of being heads of this huge and complex family…it’s a really weird mash-up, and it makes me feel insecure pretty much all the time. And I also have very few friends who share the situation or experience, so I sometimes I feel low on resources.

But with this intimate level of connection and responsibility, there is also that root idea…intimacy. And that is beautiful. I love my family–in both countries–so much, and I’m always learning so much, and even in deep struggle I find space for optimism. But like Sherman Alexie says in that book, hope might be something that’s for White people. Because I’m not sure if the rest of my family is feeling it right now.

Remember those kids in school who would make up elaborate lies about themselves in order to impress you, and then would develop those into even more outlandish lies in order to keep up the momentum?

If I could tell you all of the disparate, outrageous, terrible events happening to our family right now in Guatemala, you’d think that I was one of those kids. For now, I can’t tell you because things are really sensitive, but as I fly down to Guatemala right now, I’m steeling myself for some of the greatest challenges yet in my life. Things are really bad right now, and for reasons separate and beyond the painful loss of Glendi’s dad.

If you are reading this, please be thinking about us. When you eventually hear about some of this stuff, you really won’t believe it. It’s like the worst greek tragedy one could write.

However, in a brief distraction of positive news as I wait for my plane to board, I just finished and incredible month long intensive to become an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher. It was super hard, but so fun! I forgot both how much I love everything to do with languages, and also how good I can be at school. I actually kind of shocked myself by how well I did in the program. But then again, I barely slept. It is also really weird how a month ago I was completely locked in the non-profit executive mindset, and now my mind-set–beyond the immediate crises–is now very, very oriented toward teaching. And I am really excited about being a teacher!

With all the love in the world for you who read this, and with trepidation in the face of the coming weeks…

I like to pretend sometimes,
that I got this hunching spine
from working so meticulously at my craft.
Each day carefully placing my toolbox on the table,
unfolding the lid and curling my soft pink fingers into their positions
to forge these words into some kind of weapon,
to whittle at these ideas until they pierce the chest.

I like to pretend sometimes
that this glow is a kiln,
I wipe my brow, and it makes no matter
that my hand comes away dry.
Because this feels like the work of a workman,
and I make like I’m adjusting my spectacles
and gripping my tweezers
as I deftly shift another syllable.

I like to pretend sometimes
that I’m just like that man I watched
crack firewood with ballet strokes,
cut grass finely with a dull machete,
coax coffeebeans to fall with massaging fingers,
like the spider spindling the fly.

I like to pretend sometimes,
because I’m good at it.
Because that is what carefree little boys do.

Because what fun is it to recognize
that this squirming bad posture
comes from all the slouching,
as I remove a handful of Doritoes from the bag,
and gently wipe the orange dust on my bedsheets,
so as not to sully my controller?
What adventure is there in the truth
about all the books I never wrote,
all the marches and meetings I left early
because I didn’t want to miss my shows?
How do I look at Don Mario’s picture,
and remember wincing at the sunburn from swimming,
that day when he planted all day and then collapsed?

I like to pretend sometimes,
not because I feel guilty or inadequate,
but because this is what I know how to do.
Because, don’t you understand my part in this whole thing?
My actual craft, at which I excel?
My calling is to escape, over and over again,
Using all the fine instruments that more calloused people make for me.

My emotional resonance was tuned early to Skywalker,
my first loyalties were to the autobots.
And so all the grandeur and dedication of art and revolution,
gets tiresome after a half hour with no breaks.

However, my pretending didn’t prepare me
for marriage,
family,
and so much loss.
I didn’t expect the toll on my artisanship,
as the loom with which I textured my fantasies
broke apart in my arms.
All the posing and posturing feels awkward,
when the people next to you in the picture
are the real deal.

Now, at least for a moment,
this writer is not content with pretending.
I open this toolbox again,
and the glow this time feels like nothing more,
and nothing less,
than what it is.
I unearth old notes and plans and blueprints,
search for my sharpest and most effective verbal implements.
I hunch here and stare into these white spaces
and I feel driven to fill them.
Because now I don’t want to be a craftsman,
but instead, there’s something I need to craft.
These soft pink fingers need to come up with something,
that can stab and tear,
that can motivate and heal,
that can take on just a piece of the fighting work
that so often falls to more calloused hands.

You are killing my family.

Don’t think that I don’t know that. Don’t think for a second that I’m fooled by all those temptations you offer for us to blame ourselves, for me to blame them.

Well, okay, for a second I was fooled. But not now. This has you written all over it.

See, I can follow the money, I can follow the violence, I can follow the misinformation, there’s actually quite a number of trails I can follow back to you. The coffee trees, the dialysis bags, the gunshots, the distended bellies, the fucking casket that’s lying there in the living room right now…I know it’s you.

You made their homeland into an experiment in fractured, traumatized psychosis. That is what your counter-insurgency and your anti-communism boiled down to. You run the poor against each other just like those bored, twisted rich kids that pay homeless men to fight to the death. And now, you want me to actually believe that this is happening because my family just isn’t doing things right? That we just don’t work hard enough? Are you kidding me?

And you’re right. I can’t do shit about it right now. The powerlessness is palpable. This pain, this unimaginable frustration, has me gnawing at my own hands, has us sniping at each others’ jugulars. But I like to think that there are at least small parts of us that are saving up just a little bit of the rage that we’re not investing in self-hate, in circular attacks. And that little bit, we’re saving for you. Multiplied by 7 billion, that rage could count up to something big.

Hopefully it’ll be enough to topple you. Hopefully, I will get to see it. Hopefully, when we have taken it all back, and you are curled into your isolated little corner, you will just repeatedly tell yourself that you just didn’t work hard enough, that you just didn’t have the drive to succeed. That would be a good laugh.

I forgive many people for many things they do to me. I forgive easily, and I forgive in abundance. It fills me with dignity to do so.

But I don’t forgive you.

I want my father in law back, you pieces of shit.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi