Guatemala

You are currently browsing the archive for the Guatemala category.

Sometimes simplistic identity politics are just easier than actually thinking about the realities of power and relationships. Over the years, I have been served well by facing potential conflict by just bowing, acknowledging the depth and obscenity of my privileges, and asking for readmission to the good graces of my more marginalized friends or comrades. Not manipulatively either, I’m talking genuinely believing that my privileges simply make me more wrong than people who’ve faced more violence, or trauma, or exploitation. The formula that this approach provides can ravage one’s sense of agency and self-worth, but it eases tension, and it allows one into all sorts of spaces where one would not normally be invited.

The problem is, those kinds of politics aren’t just simplistic, they are dangerous. They are patronizing and flat. The truth…god!…the truth is just so much harder and messier.

I’ve been here in Guatemala for almost two months, which is actually one of my longest consecutive stretches yet. In that time, I’ve spent nearly every moment in this same house with my family. That much time in close quarters with between 12 and 23 people? You don’t need an MTV reality show to know that things are going to get real. Pet peeves. Petty and not so petty conflicts. Days without speaking to certain people. Sulking, simmering, then later singing together. Always, at least one person is having a bad day or is feeling sick, and on a good number of days that includes me.

This is to be expected from any extended family trip, I know. Especially with in-laws. But how does one manage that when the landscape of culture and power is as freaking weird as it is in our case? What does it mean when your in-laws feel comfortable teasing you all day long, playing with you, but when they are actually angry with you, they say nothing because they know that you are their sole provider? You have the power to cut them off at any level you want, from luxuries like cable and ice cream, all the way to electricity, health care, and food. How does that not just totally screw up the authenticity of a relationship? How do I handle, at the same time, that Glendi and I have all this power and responsibility, but I also feel like I’m never allowed to say “No” to anything, because then I will be a hoarding, cheap, privileged gringo? What happens when I know I’m being lied to or manipulated, as sometimes happens?

Tonight, I crossed the line from playful family banter to being a North American ogre, and I just don’t know how to process it cleanly. I don’t usually write about details like this, but this time I feel like I was sufficiently in the wrong that it won’t embarrass or shame my family to share it. I need to write this out, and maybe it can help some others in my life have a little window into the constant, exhausting complexities of our family situation.

Here’s the story.

In rural Guatemala, the word agua doesn’t mean water. In reference to beverages, it means soda. If you want to drink actual water, you need to ask for agua pura. The Guatemalans I know almost don’t drink plain water at all—usually only after playing an intense sport or if they are sick or something. With their three meals a day, they drink sugary coffee, sugary packaged juice (like Tang or Kool-Aid), sugary soda, sugary boiled water, or a sugary corn-flour water that they make. They think plain water is a very gringo (or canche, which literally means blonde-haired) thing to enjoy. They think it tastes bad, and they often make jokes that it’s more for animals to drink than people. I know this, I’m used to this, and I’ve been fine weathering 6 years of constant comments about how weird I am for what I prefer to drink at the table. I’ve always been a big water fan.

Fine. This has been fine for years, and mostly I’ve just been fine with boiled water from the family well.

Then comes the baby, and in consideration for her baby stomach and our decision to not give our baby coffee and sugared drinks, we started buying big jugs of pure water. The whole family could access them, but the family still made constant comments that they were for the baby and also for me, because I prefer water to coffee and other sugary stuff.

Two jugs a week, supposedly only being used by a few people, because no one else even likes the stuff.

Over time, I start realizing that the two jugs are being finished in 2-3 days, with me accessing a tiny portion of the water. I’m playing basketball with the family every day, and I’m drinking almost nothing. My pee is almost always yellow, often dark yellow. Some days I’m only drinking 2 or 3 coffee mugs of water in an entire day that includes almost 2 hours of intense basketball. I can’t find water because it’s being used for juice packets, or because everyone else is drinking pure water as well.

When the water is gone, few people even mention it. They go back to their sugared coffee and sugared boiled water etc. The baby doesn’t have pure water to drink and neither do I. Not until the next delivery in 3 days, or unless we go out and buy more from the local stores.

Okay, context set—from my perspective, at least. So, here’s what happened tonight.

It was dinner, just a few hours ago. Chile Rellenos. Delicious. The family, as usual, is drinking sugared coffee. I have my bag of pure water, which we had to buy earlier today because there wasn’t any water and no one had said anything for a few days—I don’t like to be demanding here. Suddenly, I see one of the teenaged boys asking for pure water instead. At lunch, I had noted that 4 other family members had drunk from the bags of pure water along with their coffee also.

In the sarcastic, even caustic style that I see my family tends to use, I said loudly to the whole table, “Ah, I see how it is. Whenever there’s no pure water here, no one cares, no one complains, and I just go without water for days. But when we finally have water, everyone suddenly wants it. You all finish it in two days and then I don’t have any water any more!”

I was smiling. For me, this was a family nit pick, not actually something that’s a huge deal for me. My family, however, was not smiling. The teenager pushed his pure water away in a “never mind” gesture. Glendi left the table, her food untouched, and sobbed in her bedroom. One of the twins later ran to his bed—which I share with him—and cried for 20 minutes.

Glendi told me that I was bitter and yelling and that I hugely insulted her family, claiming that pure water is only good enough for the gringo and that no one else should be able to have it, not even the young ones. The twin, crying and crying, told me that if he had millions he could buy all the water he wants, but since he’s poor, only the rich, proud gringo gets to have the water.

With one side of my mouth, I apologized for hurting feelings and being insensitive. With the other side of my mouth…immediate defenses. I explained that my tone was an attempt to use the family’s sarcastic style, and that I actually was mostly just ribbing on them for what I saw as hypocrisy. I told them that of course I’d actually prefer for them to drink pure water, but if they want to, then we should buy enough for everyone, or we should boil enough, and all it would require is spending less money on powdered drinks and sugar…that it was an issue of family priorities, and pure water is only a priority when it’s in the house—for me and the baby’s consideration—and when it’s not in the house it’s not even an afterthought.

Nothing. They went to bed angry and hurt. See, I crossed a line of class and culture that is so hard to uncross. I exposed myself as privileged and as an outsider, and that’s just how it goes. Here’s what I let slip from my mind: although I am one of their sole providers, it is highly humiliating and insulting for me to ever criticize their consumption decisions, especially with the kids and especially with life-affirming and healthy things like water. I understand how they read what they did into my words, and I understand how there were so many other ways that I could have broached the subject. I also understand my reasons. It feels so messy to me.

This particular situation will clearly wash over after a few days. The family will probably whisper and gossip about it for awhile when I’m not around. It will probably make it to some circles of aunts, uncles, and in-laws. Can you believe what Jeremias said?

That’s fine with me. I think it’s important for my family to be able to be mad at me. It’s healthy and authentic. However, I wish we could talk about it more openly, rather than either speaking in sarcasm or in broad class strokes.

That’s the thing, though. How do we talk about this stuff openly? Because the need for money is so constant, because Glendi and I are always giving so much, there are so many little screw ups or moments like this, so many reminders of the one-sided nature of our situation, so many examples of how the power dynamics distort the fullness of our relationships. I don’t know how to navigate to a place where we discuss this openly and healthily. For example, why didn’t I just use my abundance of conflict resolution and even teaching skills to just directly address my frustration about water weeks ago? (seriously, I sometimes don’t know where the hell so many of skills go when I’m down here!)

So hard, so sad, so confusing. And I just end up feeling really bad about myself, while still also feeling unheard.

I wish I knew more people with these same unique family dynamics, but I still haven’t had much luck. I could really use more people to talk to about this.

Poems for When You’re Older #3

August 2013, 14 Months Old

Here in the Caserio, they keep thinking you’re a boy.
After the correction, always the short pause,
then the question,
“Why no earrings?”

My love, forgive me,
but how could I welcome you here,
with a ritual so full of metaphor
for so many things to come?

To hold your head in my palm as I sing,
those same songs that help you sleep,
while another hand
quietly rubs the ice that numbs you.
To leverage this smile and soft voice that you know,
as the needle tears through.
To see you scream, as I pat and coo,
as this thing
that has nothing to do with who you are,
or who you could be,
this thing that was mined and made
by hands we will never know,
becomes a part of you.

This thing they will know even before your name.

Almost there, almost complete.
Here, just a little clasp
to keep your body
from pushing it away.
And here, babe,
just some dabs of alcohol,
because this thing is want to bring infection.
But after a few days, look!
All better. So pretty.
Your skin has grown
around the thing.
Adapted to the lifeless and cold.
As if it were natural.

It isn’t.

My love, forgive me,
but I figured that this world
will try enough enough on its own
to stab you,
puncture you,
and tell you that’s who you are.
I didn’t think it was a father’s job
to help it along.

Robert Frost, Meet Karl Marx…

All well-worn trails radiate calmness,
where so many boots, and shoes, and sandals,
paws, galoshes, and fleshy summer toes,
have worked the earth down into rounded edges,
like the dulling of a knife.
The line is almost fuzzy, out of focus,
between the smooth and clean undulations
of brown clay
and the unkempt edges of grass, forest, jungle.
It suggests an unspoken collective contract
between thousands,
that by asynchronously walking this same ground,
–you earlier, and me right now–
all those messy things might be held back,
kept in their place.

These are the properties that trails have.
They are social relationships, set in slow motion.

And just as the same path
can hold its rough, yet unmistakable integrity
as it grazes green fields,
then cuts deserts,
dips into seasonal creeks,
or polishes down the jagged rocks from other years’ avalanches,
it can bring the same familiarity
to fashion and fad,
to rituals of control.
To horror. To loss.
Just as the disparaging dinner table remark,
the offhand comment about your body,
is easier to take when it’s not the first,
so is each bloody sidewalk,
diabetic death,
wad of safety money rolled into newspapers,
made so much softer, even soothing,
by the rhythm of its repetition alone.

“It’s okay, my friend,”
the trail always whispers,
“you are not the first to see this thing.
Just keep going.
I need your lone, humble tread,
to make it easier for there to be a next time.”

Party of 23…

A quick family update, by the numbers.

These days, there are 23 of us in Glendi and I’s orbit of family responsibility:

    -Glendi, me, and Amanecer (3)
    -Mariana (19), Ivan (16), Josue (14), Juan Jose and Jose Juan (both 10)
    -Isabel (22) and her husband, Oswaldo
    -Walter (23), his partner Gaby (23), and their newborn, Mario David (4 months)
    -Mario (26), his wife Estefany (20), and their daughter, Genesis (4)
    -Ines (37), her husband Oswaldo (40?), and their children Celeste (17), Anavi (15), Alan (12), Pamela (10), and Melany (5)

We are the complete providers for 12 of these people, and we have regular backup responsibilities for the other 11–especially regarding emergency expenses and healthcare.

In the last two years, we have lost two immediate family members–Glendi’s parents–and we have gained two babies and two new spouses/partners.

In the last year alone, beyond the health crises and deaths of Glendi’s parents, we have struggled to help our family with:

    -Adopting the four youngest siblings so they can eventually live in the U.S. with us
    -Two lay-offs and chronic unemployment
    -Violent extortion for multiple thousands of dollars (twice)
    -Robbery at knifepoint in a bus
    -A piece of rebar through a kid’s foot
    -A piece of corrugated metal stuck in a scalp (that was me!)
    -Scarlet fever
    -Life-threatening post-childbirth sepsis
    -Multiple staph infections (potentially MRSE?)
    -Ongoing type-2 diabetes
    -Stage 1 uterine cancer
    -Potentially hereditary liver problems causing systemic allergic reactions

Since I joined the family in 2007, and with the tremendous help from so many great friends and family members, our positive material impact has included:

    -Building 1 1/2 new houses on the family property
    -Building a store that ran for a year
    -Buying two used cars (the first of which was stolen at the hospital), for safer and cheaper family transport
    -Buying a motorcycle for Glendi’s brother to commute with
    -Getting internet into the house
    -Building the family’s first septic tank, shower, and two toilets (thanks to all who donated!)
    -Buying two additional plots of land for agricultural produce and our eventual school
    -Getting two family members graduated from secondary school, and one into college so far!

Sometimes it’s so easy to get lost in the details from week to week that I forget just how much we’ve done together, how much we’ve been through. Sure, a lot of this stuff is painful, but it’s all punctuated with so many hilarious and loving moments. I feel so honored and fortunate to be a part of this family, and to be able to help in the ways that I am able…which is never enough.

At around the same time that I read the news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, 4 people were shot just up the road from the house here in Guatemala, as they were commuting in the same truck that Glendi’s siblings usually take to go pick coffee. A 7 year-old girl and her 16 year-old brother died in their mother’s arms. A man who was shot in the groin ended up losing both of his legs. If Zimmerman’s trial sent the message that black lives don’t matter—which it did—then what of these campesinos, whose deaths will not even lead to an arrest?

There is a connection here, between what is happening in Guatemala and what happened to Trayvon Martin in Florida—which itself is just a brutal extension of the profiling and violence that youth of color face across the United States. There are layers of lessons here, but to see them all we have to go beyond the easy conclusions about race and fear. We have to be willing to step beyond simple liberal outrage and even self-identification with Zimmerman’s fears of black masculinity. Of course, there is truth at that level, but if we want to just wallow there we might as well just loop Ludacris’ scenes from the movie Crash over and over on top of the cable news coverage and we’ll have all the in-depth analysis we need. People across our planet have been taught to fear black people. Yes, it’s absolutely true. I am absolutely included. But that is not all this is about.

What Zimmerman did wasn’t just the tragic overreaction of a scared and damaged man, and his acquittal wasn’t just a lone aberration of justice. Zimmerman’s trial was a personalized example of a deep yet unspoken U.S. doctrine: that disproportionate and deadly force is entirely justified in order to defend American comfort from even the slightest rumblings of The Other. Trayvon Martin was an outsider in a gated community, and he made Zimmerman uncomfortable. When Zimmerman acted on that racist discomfort and confronted Martin, Martin did what no Other is allowed to do, he responded naturally with appropriate defensiveness to a threatening and abusive person. That is, Martin stepped out of his place, and Florida law gave Zimmerman the legal right to defend himself—which is to say, defend his sense of entitlement and comfort—and he killed Martin right there.

Those of us North Americans who live comfortably in our privileges find it easy to shake our heads and pout our lips. We can cry for Trayvon and we can wear black solidarity hoodies. We can wring our hands and acknowledge the fearful Zimmerman that lives in all of us. I personally have no qualms with these responses. I must and will acknowledge my own racism and my place in propping up such a racist order. But let’s be real. What Zimmerman thought he was doing for his neighborhood is basically what happens each time our country sends out a drone strike, sponsors a coup, or authorizes an ICE raid. Self-defense. Standing our ground. The comfort levels of those that matter must be defended, at all costs to The Other.

What Zimmerman did was scarcely different from what the powerful have continued to do to Guatemala since well before 1954: strike out at even the slightest sign of justified self-defense with completely disproportionate brutality. The consequence of Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal is a U.S. environment where the lesser value–the Otherness–of black people’s lives has been re-affirmed, even by legal institutions. The simmering consequence of these same dynamics in Guatemala is that Glendi’s friends, neighbors, family members all have been touched by countless deaths that no one outside of these communities even cares about. They are just another permanent Other on the world stage. They pick our coffee and our bananas, but they are easily replaced.

If there is any truth to the connections that I’m making, then any calls for post-trial racial healing and introspection ring hollow without a far deeper soul-searching. If we are so interested in healing, are we willing to relinquish our comforts so that we can take our bloody boot off the necks of half the planet? Are we willing to stand down our drones and our bases and militarized police forces?

No? Am I being too extreme, too rhetorical? Then how convenient, and how useless so much chatter about one trial in Florida.

The old era.

Behold the revolution. Goose included.

The day that I finish writing a piece about how difficult it is when people have different ideas and intentions about winning, this awkwardness happens:

Here in Guatemala, the whole family is gathered in the living room after enjoying some amazing homemade tacos. All 23 of us are crowded there, laughing and gossiping. The twins are finishing up a game with the chess board that we gave them and I taught them how to play. Somehow the talk gets around that my brother-in-law–a 40-something manager of a large coffee finca–knows how to play chess. He confirms it, and I’m excited! Usually, the rural Guatemalans I’ve met are wicked skilled at checkers, but don’t know chess.

The family starts rallying us to face off each against each other. They set the board up in the middle of the room. Some of the boys start taking bets. Who’s gonna win? “It’s a battle of the minds,” one of my sisters-in-law says.

The tension is high, the whole family is staring. I make my first move, a pawn two spaces forward. He concentrates. Moves his pawn…diagonally?

I pause. The twins–who have been enforcing the correct movement rules on each other for days in order to get them memorized–look at me with their heads cocked. What’s going on? I ask him how his understanding of chess’ rules allows him to move like that. He giggles and takes the move back. Honest mistake.

Except it continues. Knights moving diagonally. Pieces double-jumping other pieces. Even pieces capturing my pieces from halfway across the board.

He’s playing checkers with the chess pieces…at least some variant of checkers.

I don’t know what to do. There is a growing history here of Glendi and I having to step in and help their family make ends meet–helping cover debts, pay for hospital visits, bringing gifts that he can’t afford to give his kids. There’s embarrassment there about needing so much help, as a man responsible for his family.

He claimed proudly that he knew chess. I really don’t want to embarrass him right now, with all his kids watching, betting, cheering–to pause and explain how each piece is supposed to move, or to tell him he’s playing a totally different game. Instead, we awkwardly play this hybrid monstrosity, chesskers. And before it get’s too painful to figure out what winning actually means, I choose to make a series of silly moves and then resign with the shake of his hand. The family won’t let me live it down. “You got beaten!” “Our dad crushed you!” Later, the twins whisper, “That wasn’t actually chess, was it?”

What was I supposed to do? Usually I prefer being blunt in the face of cultural misunderstandings like this, but when it’s so built up, so tied up in being about our intelligence and level of education, and when there is already a touchy power-dynamic developing given our roles in the world, I didn’t know what else to do. Letting him win and letting them chide seemed like the best of all the awkward options.

Guatemala and its abundance of muses…

Finally, I get the greatest perk of being a teacher: my summer break. One of the biggest factors in choosing to teach was the 2-3 months I would get each year to be with family, and it feels so good to make good on it. I get to be in Guatemala for a whole two months, with Glendi, Amanecer, and the other 21 members of our family down here!

As is usual, the emotional turbulence of being here–the culture shock, the intimacy of both joy and conflict, the constant discomfort that comes with being a privileged person having to share in poverty, the exhaustion of always thinking in Spanish–are giving me plenty of things that I want to write about, starting with the things I already mentioned in a previous post. Of course, internet access is spotty, but I’ve been reading every day and writing in my notebook, so hopefully some stuff will make it to this site soon enough.

In the mean time, people are mostly okay down here–though we have some more chronic health problems looming–the baby loves it here and is almost walking, and, for me, the first week is always the hardest but I feel like my grumpy attitude is turning around.

Looking forward to a summer that is both intense and refereshing!

Less than two weeks after his historic conviction for Genocide in Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt has been let off the hook by the constitutional court.

Democracy Now has been doing a fantastic job of covering this story, so I don’t have much to say here except this: this has nothing to do with simple court disputes, and everything to do with Guatemala’s military oligarchy. How dare those poor blanket wearing Indians try to take down an ex-president and general–and potentially even the current president. How dare that uppity female judge actually lay down a conviction and then order additional investigations. The masters of Guatemala wouldn’t have it, and what they want, they get. For now, at least.

But this won’t go away so easily. That case, that trial, that conviction…all of it was hard-won by resilient people. They will not give up, and I doubt now that President Otto Perez Molina will get away so unscathed next time. Movements may take time, but they do move. Someday, oh someday, Guatemala will have its spring again. And justice will come, if not with courts, then with torches.

In this together…

I get home weary, with shoulders slumped. My movements to the front door fluctuate between shuffle and ooze. Dazed, blank, I turn the key and step into the living room and, each time, it’s such a warm and energetic shock what I see.

Each time, for about the last month or so, I get to enter the house and see my daughter’s masterwork. I get to see the joyful product of her newest, most dedicated hobby.

You see, my daughter is a radical librarian. And a damned systematic one, at that.

Pretty much each morning, afternoon, and evening, she race crawls into the living room, grips our bookshelf and lifts herself up, then proceeds to pull my books from their homes one, by one, by one. We put them back, she crawls back and does her work again. She will not be deterred.

—-

I think about those books today, and their soggy corners from all the chewing and slobber…and I can’t stop thinking about the news.

Guatemala. The historic, heroic trial of the dictator Efrian Rios Montt–the architect of the worst of the Guatemalan genocides in 1982-3. Just before damning testimony will be shared about the current president, Otto Perez Molina, and his involvement in the genocides as a young officer…the trial is annulled. There is video of those days, when his code name was Major Tito. He is standing over the bodies of some radical peasants. Their skin is dark brown, like Glendi’s brothers. Her dad.

The peasants had radical books on them. Like mine. They were killed.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Today. FBI agents in Hawaiian shirts are visiting activist houses. Not so subtle intimidation before May Day. They even visit Left Bank books, where so many of these books–now on the floor–once came from. Where so many times I thought about which titles would be most useful for building a revolution.

All the death and all the fear of so many generations who have struggled for a different world than this one. So many legacies are in those pages, now squeezed between those craggy, tooth-pocked gums of my baby. How many people have had to hide, or burn, or justify their possession of those books I come home to? How many comrades in danger, or shock, just because they happen to be more active than I am?

If, one day, my daughter chooses to agree with what those books are about? And she chooses to act?

Will she be safe?

Will she remain undeterred?

Fighting Over the Crumbs…

Snapshots of internalized class warfare in Colomba Costa Cuca, Guatemala:

    -In August, when I was last in Guatemala, a 13-year old classmate of my brother-in-law’s was kidnapped when gang members tried to take his dad’s motorcycle. 3 days later, his body was found in a creek in a whole other state of Guatemala. His arms were cut off, he was decapitated, scalped, and his jaw was cut from his skull.

    -Around that same time, my oldest brother-in-law, the head bookkeeper and supervisor at a large coffee finca, started getting phone calls from extortionists threatening his family. He changed his number. Two months later, a group of men were waiting for him as he left a bank nearby. They put a pistol to his back and told him that they hadn’t been playing around on the phone. I don’t know how he found the–what was it?–$4,000, but he did pay them. He had been too scared to tell anyone, so he didn’t ask Glendi or I for the money. We only found out because his wife found a bank receipt in his pants.

    -During this Christmas, just up the street, gang members used the late night fireworks to cover the sounds of their gunshots as they killed a young man and dumped his body near the cemetery.

    -Today, up the street at a streetside cell-phone card stand, assailants beat the clerk and stole about $1,500.

    -Last week, when my family went up to our school land where there is coffee growing, people had already stolen most of the coffee beans for themselves. You can forget about the bananas…they always are stealing our bananas.

    -Almost every night, we have to listen outside to make sure no one will sneak in to the back yard and steal our New Year’s turkey. It’s happened plenty of times before.

    -Oh, I didn’t even mention last summer, when I personally was stuffing bundles of $2,000+ cash into a red bag in order to pay off some mysterious people threatening Glendi’s sister….that’s a much longer story there.

It’s winter break for me, and we’re spending all of it in Guatemala with Glendi’s family. In addition to celebrating Christmas and the New Year with her siblings, we’re also here for the first step of getting Guatemalan legal custody of her four youngest brothers, so we can start trying to bring them to live with us in the U.S. It’s going to be a long and expensive road. For this reason, Glendi and Amanecer—our 6-month old baby, for those who don’t know—are going to be here indefinitely, until the court process is finished and we’ve procured Guatemalan passports for each of the boys.

In the free moments here, I’ve been reading a good number of books—some about teaching, some fantasy novels, and a good number about politics. It’s a rare opportunity to reconnect with some anarchist reading, so I’ve been diving into In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary by Ngo Van, Building Utopia: The Spanish Revolution 1936-1937 by Stuart Christie, and Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle by Maia Ramnath. For some reason, I’ve developed a habit of reading 5 or 6 books simultaneously, so all this reading has been extra enriching.

However, because all three of these books discuss peasants’ struggles and peasants’ realities quite a bit, reading has been a depressing reminder of the current state of things in Guatemala and beyond. Reading Ngo Van’s accounts of his peasant childhood from 1912 to the 1920’s, I was taken aback by how similar his life and cultural experiences were to Glendi’s—some 60 year’s later in the 1980’s. After finishing Building Utopia, I described for Glendi’s family how anarchist militia columns marched across the Spanish countryside and attempted to help liberate peasant communities and collectivize land as they passed. The response from her siblings—who had just returned from picking coffee—was a predictable, resigned silence. In his old age, someone asked Ngo Van why he kept so active in politics and struggle, and he responded, “Because the world hasn’t changed.” He’s so right. One only need to look at the peasantry to see how the fundamentals of capitalism and oppression have stayed intact.

Actually, the fundamentals have gotten a lot worse. Because while peasants traditionally lived in a social contract that at least offered stable employment and income—exploitative though it was—in Guatemala, they are now no longer peasants, but farmworkers. They have been proletarianized by having their homes kicked off the land, where they have to be rehired as essentially temp workers. Where once they got a pittance of a salary but also a finquero-owned house, a school, a church, and a communal water source, now they just get the pittance of a salary, and they have to fend for themselves for all the rest.

It’s summer here, and my family members have been going to the finca to pick coffee every day. As a group of 6-8 people working 6 hours together, they collectively make about $12 a day—after picking about 250-300 pounds of coffee. Their two week salary was just enough to pay for yesterday’s meal of little beef patties and elbow macaroni salad. Seriously. One day’s meal—plus some extra kitchen ingredients—cost two week’s salary for 6-8 people. Without outside income sent from the United States, how do Guatemalans survive?

Can the world be changed?

I think I still believe it’s possible. With a new baby, a new place to live, and a new job, I’ve been far away from my own organizing spaces in Seattle, but I’ve been watching some of it from afar, with a certain grumpy old man attitude. I’ve been annoyed at the rhetoric radicals use, the decontextualized escalations of militancy, the often simplistic framing of issues into “revolutionary” and “reformist,” and the overheated and frantic responses to repression. I’ve been especially dismayed by the cultural, political, intellectual, and tactical effects that insurrectionist anarchism has had on Seattle. Silently complaining to myself and making no positive contributions whatsoever, I’ve watched myself get more conservative. But now, with some space to think, read, and write, I think there’s a healthier approach. I hope there is, at least.

When I read about revolutionaries of the past, my hope refills and I feel motivated to keep pushing, but when I think about the present, both in the movement and in my own family’s reality, my energy vanishes. Luckily, I still have two weeks of reflection time here in Guatemala to improve on this dynamic.

The kids? Not alright…

This last friday, my mother-in-law died. We are in Guatemala now.

Pretty much exactly a year ago, my father-in-law died. Doing the math in my head, this means that my little siblings-in-law no longer have parents.

Now what the hell do we do?

I look at our wiggly, bright little baby–born June 3rd, by the way–and I think about all the things I hope for her. Then I think of these others–so many others in so many places, really. Who is doing the hoping for them?

What can we do from so far away in the US? Our electronic funds from across the world offer quite a frigid hug. Our tinny voices and pixelated skype faces rub out all the subtle expressions of love we try to display. Right now, I only have ten days here. How can I possibly fill it with all that I want to give these little ones? How to condense 8 lost months of care and attention into just a few rainy days?

The kids deserve more than that.

We have our own business to sort out back in Seattle, I know. The baby. The new teaching job. Glendi’s business. Moving. Getting back to some revolutionary organizing…

I know, I know. Put it all on my to-do list. First, damn, we’ve got to do something about these kids.

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.

I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s “3 Cups of Deceit,” the 90 page article that exposes Greg Mortenson–the author of the bestselling books “3 Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools”–for his lies and tricks. Wow. Almost every page drew out a verbal exclamation from me as I read it on the bus. Krakauer makes a devastating case against Mortenson and his charity, Central Asia Institute, which has received over 50 million dollars to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He paints a portrait of a man so wrapped up in created a heroic image of himself and his work that he’s willing to throw his own close people under the bus, including the communities that he’s supposedly dedicated to.

I read the article as soon as I heard about it because, I have to admit, I was inspired by Mortenson like millions of others. I read “3 Cups of Tea” last winter when I was in Guatemala, when Glendi and I were finally getting serious about building a free community school down there. I was mesmerized by the story of a humble, complicated white guy who, through the building of respectful relationships with people at the grassroots–and without government intervention–helped communities provide education to thousands of children. While I was upset by some of the implicit Islamaphobia in the book, I still thought that it was a powerful story of how much can be accomplished when privileged people approach solidarity from a place of listening, mutual respect, and responsibility.

Ha! It’s really jaw-dropping how far from the truth the stories were. I won’t spend my time going into all the details because they’re all over the net, but they include at least dozens of schools that simply don’t exist, dozens more “ghost schools” that are just empty buildings because teachers and supplies were never sent, Mortenson repeatedly claiming that a group of people who treated him with the utmost respect and friendship were Taliban who had kidnapped him for 8 days, and the subsequent banning of Mortenson from certain communities for his defamation of them. It goes way beyond this, though.

I feel sick. Not because I’m actually surprised–somehow a large part of me just reacts, “It figures”–but because of what it exposes about the ethics of international solidarity work. While Mortenson’s offenses are particularly outrageous, they actually highlight how easily such projects can be corrupted. See, the reason Mortenson got away with this for so long is because of the tremendous distance–geographical, cultural, linguistic, and technological–between the communities in which he was supposedly working and the communities in which we live. This distance allowed him to be a gatekeeper and a translator, and it made it really hard to enforce meaningful accountability. I actually think this phenomenon is rampant in international solidarity projects (and in U.S. non-profits), and I actually feel hints of it in my own representations of Guatemala here in the U.S. When privileged people have the power to set the narrative of what marginalized communities need, it is a pretty much a certainty that eventually that narrative will become corrupted and abusive.

This is what should have tipped us all off, and which I assume many anti-imperialists have probably been arguing against for years: that Mortenson has spent the last 15 years endlessly speaking for communities, without making any real efforts to step back and support those communities to speak for themselves. That open communication– based in authentic and lasting dialogue between the community affected and those wishing to work in solidarity–is the foundation for ethical international solidarity projects. If it’s not there, then we should always know that something’s fishy.

And if it’s not messy, then we should also assume that something’s wrong. International, cross-class, cross-cultural communication is fraught with contradictions. Differences in perspective and education level are real. It doesn’t usually make for heartwarming, page-turning bestseller material. In the Mortenson case, for example, it’s ridiculous to assume that the top priority for every community was building a school. That narrative should have been doubted from the beginning, as Krakauer touches upon. What happens if a community wants a medical clinic, a road, a mill, irrigation? How did those conversations happen? One of the tricks of the Mortenson books was that they did have some of that messiness, but it’s incredible to see how much of it is projected upon the communities and not the North Americans. And it’s really telling that I didn’t notice it until now.

It’s impossible for me to separate this thinking from Glendi and I’s own aspiration to build a school. So far, it’s been very much our project. We do have a plan for moving toward community control of the project, but there is no question that the project is starting from our own values, priorities, and money. Two ways that we’ve made sense of the ethics of this are that 1) Glendi is rooted in the community where we are working, and this project comes from her own dream to make this school happen, and 2) the current channels of community leadership are so corrupt that if we try to engage them they will potentially destroy or deeply distort the project…and so community control has to wait until we can do more on-the-ground organizing. I think these two points have merit, but what is the process by which the community itself–not the community power structure, but the base community–gets to speak for and control the project? Is it going to be a patronizing decision by us, the benefactors, that now our neighbors are “ready” to assume control? Do we just go to a mass meeting with a big check and do whatever the first mass meeting decides? This is not easy, and I would argue that anyone who thinks it is doesn’t have much on the ground experience in such things.

So if authentic international communication, decision-making, and accountability are hard, there’s at least one thing that’s not so hard: telling the truth! This is where Mortenson’s “management style” is straight up racist and criminal. While I know that my presence in Guatemala, every dollar I send, every dollar I hold back, every piece of advice I give from my perspective is problematic, at least I admit it openly. I talk about it. I ask about it. I try to read about it. That’s the least I can do. That, in my view, is the basic humility that privileged folks need to have when working in communities that are not our own. Honesty and transparency are the bare minimum…they are what allow us to turn our perpetual screw-ups into lessons, and then into solid contributions.

I’m curious about what will happen to Greg Mortenson and his charity. I personally hope that he loses his fortune. I hope that, in his absence, the communities that were supposed to benefit from his work will find more listeners and authentic supporters. And I hope the thousands of other projects like his will take a long hard look at ourselves, and start making some deep changes to our work.

Patience Is a Faith-Based Initiative…

Here in the few remaining moments we have left,
just what do you propose we say in our defense?
That much was decided before any one of us were born?
That we were nothing more than objective observers to the madness
and throw up your hands in sadness?
“We’re powerless to change anything anyways.”
So just lay back upon your death bed
and gaze idiotically back up the chain of command
from which we receive our directives.
I guess it’s just common sense to preach
what ought to be but ensure it never is in the present tense
–Propagandhi, Last Will and Testament

There are nights where it feels right and true to approach change as a patient builder, with a plan of struggle that will take decades. I can sleep soundly and wake up motivated in the morning. But then there are nights like tonight. I can’t sit still, I can’t feel comfortable in my body thinking about the possibility that I might die without seeing some real measure of justice and equality in this world. It’s like the day after a sunburn, that unbearable itch after the pain…I can’t just go to bed with this feeling.

I talked to Glendi–who’s in Guatemala right now–on the phone this evening, and it looks like it’s time to send money again. Her dad is without pills, there is no food, her siblings’ school projects are lacking materials, and they are behind on paying for the new water project we just raised money for. Nunca alcanza, nuuuuunca alcanza. It’s never enough. And for my lovely, fierce Glendi, that means that she never gets peace…not even on the night that she herself almost died did she get peace.

And I can’t take this. Can’t we put the struggle on fast forward, skip to the part where we win? Can it really be that we’re still somewhere in the first act, and the disc keeps skipping backward? And so in the meantime does that mean that all these millions of families have to keep trying to play tricks on tragedy each day in order to see the next?

I have a hard time with militancy. I abhor violence and violent rhetoric. But there is no denying this sharp edge that comes out, like retracting claws, when nights like this come along.

I know the theory from many angles why guns and seizures of power will not bring the justice that we need. But that just means that our other ways–our building and constructing and fighting with moral force and creative nonviolence–had better be that much better…relentless…focused.

Atheist or not, tonight I cling to this faith with a desperation matching any churchgoer: that there will be some redemption for this pain that doesn’t leave them…that there will be peace within a hard-won justice for at least the young twins by the time they are grandparents. And instead of praying for it, I write for it here…with the feeling that it’s echoing futilely off into the silence just the same.

Not Tragedy, Just Poverty…

On January 19th, Glendi and I lost the baby we had just found out about days before. We nearly lost Glendi as well, from the internal bleeding. That exact same day and hour, Glendi’s dad was hospitalized for the fourth time because of end-stage kidney disease. Glendi’s mom, newly diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver (maybe from malaria or hepatitis, we still don’t know) had been running a fever for 3 days. Weeks later, she’s still running a fever. Our 2 years of savings ran out just about right then. We have no insurance for Glendi’s emergency, so we’ll just have to wait and see about that. And then, on January 20th, Glendi’s cousin was murdered in Guatemala city while attending a funeral for one of his other cousins. He died along with six others, gunned down right in front of the church by gangsters.

This is just the pain of 2011, so far. 2010 was already one of the hardest years yet. More hospitalizations; paying over 2 thousand to secure Glendi’s brother a teaching job, only to have him not be paid a dime (in a public school!) for the ENTIRE school year, and then to be downsized at the end of it; her other brother finding a job driving trucks that pays only $250 a month, with an average of 20 hour days, 6 days a week–no exaggeration. And I won’t say much about 2009, because it was no joy either.

Just so much struggle, while still only moving backward.

With emotional cycles that already swirl between inspiration and depression, this reality has been hard for me to take. The first few problems, I could face it optimistically alongside the family, with an attitude of, “we’ll make it through this thing, things are gonna get better.” But then after a few years of nonstop crisis, the optimism has gotten really ragged. I think one reason for the even more constant numbing activities–video games, tv, online window-shopping, almost never being able to be alone with my thoughts–is that I don’t know how to think about myself, my family, or our future anymore. One becomes scared of making plans or hoping, because that is one more thing that you’ll probably lose.

Sometimes, from my perspective and upbringing, this feels like some kind of grand, almost poetic or operatic tragedy. Something from a movie. It’s been easy for me, and the people from my world and community, to get stuck there. But that is not what this is. What this is, actually, is exposure to the global reality of poverty. What looks and feels like personal tragedy when seen from an individual and family lens is actually the institutionalized experience of millions of people around us. This pain is the status quo in Guatemala and in so many other places across the world.

We are not alone with the malaria, cirrhosis, or kidney disease. They are rampant in Guatemala. We are not alone with the unemployment or terrible, exploitative jobs. We are not alone with the street violence. Just talk to Glendi’s neighbors, cousins, colleagues; all of them know these stories in some form or another. It’s sad to hear what is happening to the family, but it’s no surprise for folks.

In the U.S., there is a simplistic notion that countries in the global south (or in the poor U.S.) are there to provide resources and cheap labor and wide open markets to the rich countries. This is true, on a systemic level. However, this is not actually what makes a whole country like Guatemala run. There is only so much profit to be made in Guatemala from resource extraction and labor exploitation, and there are far more people there than are needed to make that profit–that is, there is a huge surplus population. The coffee and banana workforce have been downsized and converted from a feudal system of peasants who live on the land where they are exploited to a day-laborer system with no job security and no economic stability. This means that there is a huge swell of people with few work prospects and desperate needs, and this creates a roiling economy of poverty that is brutal, predatory, and ever-present. Narco-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, bribery, sex trafficking, scams and schemes, robbery, this is what fills in the spaces where there is no more room for the traditional exploitative jobs, or the small household stores, or remittances from the U.S.. And the hunger, pain, violence, and disease that accompany this reality are also sources of exploitation and predation.

I write about this not to diminish or even distract myself from the pain of our personal reality, of this terrible 2011. I’m writing about this because I need to realize that I’m not alone in this pain. And being in the U.S., Glendi and I have access to resources that millions of others don’t have. So to lose too much hope, to give up the fight against this system, it’s just something that I can’t do. It’s a shock to see how so many people live, and to see the people who I know and love living it. But for them, it’s sad but not all that new, and they keep trying to move forward.

I’m hurting, we’re hurting, but we’re not alone. Sticking together, trying to stay present with each other, with our feelings…maybe we can build the resilience to push back even harder at this system. This is why Tunisia, Egypt, Venezuela, Bolivia are so inspiring. Because sometimes these humble and hurting people can fight back and win. Hopefully that parallel reality can help me stay away from the constant video games for a few days, at least!

Tonight I leave for Guatemala, to support Glendi in the care of her father and her family. Her dad has diabetes, and his kidneys have failed. It’s pretty much terrible, and it’s been very hard for everyone. It’s been hard for me to be so far away from them.

I bought my ticket yesterday. It’s that kind of trip. I’ll be gone for a week, and probably won’t have time to write while I’m there.

There is much to say, though. I’ve got a heap of questions to unravel and feelings to express about all of this, but they’ll have to wait.

In my time in Guatemala, I had the opportunity to tour Glendi’s sister’s high school in the city of Coatepeque. In the Guatemalan education system, youth spend a couple of years studying general secondary studies in what’s called Basico (basically junior high through freshmen year), and then they spend 1-3 years studying specialized studies in a Carrera. At Vicky’s school, the major Carrera is primary education, and it focuses on training certified primary school teachers.

The school was located on a city block, wedged between other businesses on either side, all in a one-story cinder block row. Walking through the narrow entrance was the main office, which was just a single desk, with an old manual typewriter, an aged hole-punch, and stacks of papers. On the walls were little hand drawn cartoon faces and cartoon suns and clouds, the kinds of decorations you’d expect to see in a place teaching primary school teachers. Past the main office was an open air courtyard, and all of the classrooms themselves. Maybe 8-10 cinder block square spaces the size of maybe a small U.S. classroom, with rows of very old, chipped wooden desks. The ceilings were that foam paneling stuff you see in office buildings, but browned in many spots by leaks. On the floor were rusty electric fans, and the only thing on the wall (especially since it was still “summer” break time), was a half-chalkboard/half-whiteboard panel.

I didn’t see a single book anywhere in the whole school. I didn’t see any technology either, except for the manual typewriter at the front desk. The registration system was made up of students’ names in a single notebook.

This is a private school. It costs us more than a month’s worth of an average Guatemalan’s salary to pay for this school each year. Imagine paying for this level of schooling for 5-10 children.

I was shocked and deeply saddened by this experience. To know that even private high schools like this are not even comparable to the access to education and resources that a public high school offers here in Seattle. The difference is night and day.

And this really got me thinking. What does it mean to think about youth empowerment–which is my paid work–in an anti-imperialist way? What does it mean to support youth empowerment for marginalized young people in the U.S., which respects and validates their experiences of oppression and their demands for equity…but in a way that also encourages solidarity with the very different realities and needs of fellow youth across the globe?

Truth is, I actually think that we’ve been bad at this in our own organization. When young people come in with complaints about their day, about their school, about their lives, the almost automatic response is to take their side, nod our heads, and universally respond, “man, that’s so messed up.” And it is…but I also think it’s important to be aware of the relative privilege that U.S. youth have compared to youth in other parts of the world. Building a global revolutionary youth empowerment movement demands this. What is the role for context and broader thinking when talking about injustice and organizing in U.S. youth’s lives?

What I want to avoid doing in thinking about this is playing oppression olympics. I don’t want to discount any youth’s experiences of injustice, be it racial profiling in the hallways, or lack of access to quality textbooks, or whatever. However, doesn’t real youth empowerment for U.S. youth also mean education about their incredible level of privilege and access in the bigger global picture, and the need for them to flex those muscles for justice as well? How can youth organizers in the U.S. work on their own issues and fight for changes, while also recognizing the other issues that youth are facing in other places, even within the U.S.?

For example, Glendi. When she was ten, her family pulled her out of primary school completely. She was set to work on the coffee plantations, spreading fertilizer and doing other tasks…for 4 years. She began 4th grade at 14 years old (the age that U.S. youth are usually high school freshmen). This is not uncommon. She was lucky, in fact, to get the option to return to school at all…her sister never did return after 6th grade. Her mom has a 3rd grade education, and still regrets the lost opportunity. Vicky’s school was described above, but what about the fact that in addition to school, she also gets up at nearly 4am every morning to grind the maiz for tortillas, handwash the clothes for 12 people in the communal tank, handwash the dishes for 12 people in the communal tank, sweep and mop the floor, and cook breakfast before and after going to school? At the same time, facing similar problems that young people face here, such as sexual harassment on the bus and by teachers, inaccurate and racist education, and structural racism against her and her peers as indigenous youth.

This is a fundamentally different structural reality for young people–and Glendi’s family is actually relatively well off within the village!–than what the majority of even marginalized and poor youth face in the U.S. Indoor plumbing, library access, public transportation, mail systems, etc…are basic infrastructural elements that even the U.S. poor mostly have access too…at least in Seattle. Even undocumented latino immigrant youth have a relative privilege compared to many of their peers in Latin America…because they made it across the border…that is a big, big deal! I think these different realities should be really taken into account when we talk about organizing, and what youth empowerment looks like.

Really, what I’m trying to say is that in the U.S., youth empowerment must not just be about empowering young people to face their own oppression in their communities, but also to build up a radical, movement-based sense of themselves and organizing in solidarity with youth who are fighting their own oppression on a global scale. This means that within our moments of “that’s so messed up” we also have moments of recognition of how many options youth here actually have–like my organization, which pays youth up to a 3-month Guatemalan salary to organize for change–and how they can use that structural privilege to fight against imperialism.

What I’m also trying to say is that when I eventually move to Guatemala for a short or long period of time, I want to think about how to do youth empowerment work there…and I really want to think about how it could look different from what we do up here in Seattle.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about this stuff over time.

Oh, how Guatemala has changed me…

I began this blog nearly five years ago, with the help of my friend Dave (thank you for more than you know, Dave). I started it as a way to share my thoughts as I took my first real journey outside of the U.S., to learn Spanish in Guatemala. Since then it has provided me really vital space for me to reflect, play with my ideas, and, frankly, grow in a lot of ways.

Now I’ve just returned from my 8th trip to Guatemala, and on the plane home alone, I was just weeping, weeping. I was so moved by how much I love that country, its people, its history, and especially the family that has welcomed me in there. Guatemala has changed me in so many ways, I feel like it’s a critical piece of understanding who I am and what I value these days. How could it be otherwise, with Glendi in my life??

But as I’ve eluded to in previous posts, I don’t really talk about it much anymore. I think that as the ties with Guatemala have grown stronger, and as I become more humbled by how much I don’t know or understand, it becomes harder for me to share. It’s not just the class and race complexities that make it hard to talk about, it’s the whole web of it. Just how different the whole picture is from the realities of my life and my friends’ lives in the U.S.

But I want to keep trying. This blog first started as a way for me to talk about Guatemala and my growth as I spent my first six weeks there. Now that I’ve been there 8 times, there are so many deep reflections that I could be doing here, and I want to give myself the freedom to do that.

But for now, let’s just settle for a quick few fun highlights from my trip:

-Riding for 7 hours in the back of a pickup truck on the way from the capital to Glendi’s family’s house. I love the wind, the sickening sweet smell of burning sugar cane, the disgusting, shit smell of the rubber factories, and the way my legs always completely fall asleep. It’s precisely the length of the journey, so many unknown locations and people that we pass, that really affects me…makes me feel so small in the world.

-Setting up two makeshift basketball hoops outside the family’s house, and playing almost daily 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 tournaments with nearly everyone in the family and extended family, from the 6 year old twins to the 35 year-old Inés. Since I’m a giant compared to everyone else, I get to play Shaq style, just totally guarding and blocking everything…that is until they got really good at passing underneath my legs!

-Picking coffee with Glendi’s dad and brothers on our little plot of land…my first time learning how they pick coffee. It was fun, and the social nature of it reminded me of our old family fishing trips in Alaska. I’m glad that even though the family is very conscious of the exploitation they face when they pick coffee at the fincas…that the actual activity is enjoyable for them. For me, even spending one day doing it, I appreciate just how hard they all work under the sun, and with all the bugs, every day of the week. Glendi’s dad also tried to teach me how to cut brush with a machete…but…that’s going to take me a lot longer to learn! Wow!

-Seeing all of the URNG (the old guerrilla army turned leftist party) graffiti on every single road sign in the area. It gave me hope about increased leftist mobilization since my previous visits, and reminded me that next time I want to plan more than just family time…I want to really seek out and spend time with some more organized Guatemalan leftists. However, I also cynically thought that the graffiti could just be one night’s work of just a small group of youth…who would still be great to connect with!

-Reading 5 books and writing all sorts of stuff in my journal, really re-connecting with some of my favorite political ideas….which hopefully I’ll be writing about more. The peaceful thinking time I had, mixed with the playful family time, really allowed me to get grounded with a lot of the emotional and political stresses that I’m feeling in Seattle these days

-Swimming, swimming, swimming!

-Visiting the kids schools was just so, so humbling. To see, generally, how young people live, interact, find their identities within their families…it really makes me question the work that I do in Seattle. What is youth empowerment in the context of deep poverty? What is youth empowerment in the context of barren schools with no books, and only a few typewriters that are in the main office? What is youth empowerment in the context of rigid gender roles that also maintain a very real family labor system…that if not maintained can grind a families health and hygiene to a halt? Wow, oh, wow are these big things to think about…and they just humble me when I think about my job.

It probably sounds like the trip was mostly low-key fun, and though it really was fun, what made it so powerful was that underlying everything was an emotional intensity, and some critical realities that I can’t really talk about here, but which gave everything a real electricity. Guatemala makes me feel in a way that makes me realize how numb I usually am. And it really makes me ask myself why I feel so numb so often. But that’s another thing I hope to write more about.

Until then, I’m home, I’m thinking, I’m feeling. And I’m alive, and that’s so, so special.

Much love,

Jeremy

Class politics, family style…

Let me share a little bit about the economic reality in which Glendi and I live, because it’s really intense, and I want to start talking more about it on this blog. I really need to talk about it more, reflect on it more…feel it more.

Here’s the short version: Glendi and I are more or less the sole breadwinners for our family of 11 people in Guatemala (and occassional supports of 4 or 5 others). This means at least one monthly payment to cover all food and utilities expenses (which are constantly rising in this economic climate), but it also needs to cover school fees, clothes, transportation, medical expenses, and so much more. This is something that we, of course, have built into our budget, but every month, when we send our payment (and especially when we have to send our frequent emergency payments), I am just struck by this reality. We are responsible for the health, nutrition, safety, and economic stability of a huge family who we barely even get to see every year. Coming from my own very stable U.S., white, managerial middle-class family, there really is no straightforward way to assimilate the full implications of this. It takes time, and it is a daily struggle (and one which I am privileged and honored to be a part of).

Truth is, it’s something that I find hard to talk about with my friends, and especially with my family. Sure the numbers and broad politics of it, fine. But the deeper emotions that I live with, and which have been stirring in me for these two years that Glendi and I have been living together…this is something else. I mean, I’m still me. I still like movies. I still play video games. I still like new gadgets and toys and all of that shit. And at the same time I don’t just have some distant family that I married into because I love their daughter…her and I are their core economic (and often emotional) support. I am involved. I have been grabbed by a context and pulled into the center of a family that is so different from me in every way…and it’s so real and so immediate that often there isn’t a lot of time to pause and analyze it.

I mean think about it as like some pop-ed workshop scenario exercise about power and privilege: Twenty-something middle class white guy marries spanish-speaking immigrant campesina and becomes a primary breadwinner for her 11-person family. What are the intersections of oppression? What does allyship mean? Just how problematic is this social relationship? I’ll tell you! It’s extremely problematic, and it’s also our daily life. With an economy in rural Guatemala in which there is almost no legal work, where health problems are mounting within the family, and in which the majority of children are still focusing on their education, what other options does Glendi’s family have but to depend on what their family in the U.S. can send them? And in a context where we make 4-8 times what they make in a month for doing much easier work, what moral option do we have but to send part of our check to them every month?

Having friends who are mostly white, anti-racist activist types, this is something that I like to talk about, but which leaves me feeling lonely. It’s a situation where I feel so much more comfortable talking with immigrant folks, because they know what it’s like to send the moneygram or money order, and to know that it’s never enough.

It’s never even close to enough.

And it’s so, so much harder, and so much deeper, when this beloved family calls and needs to ask for more. To think about their dignity, and the fierce injustice of needing to depend on this white guy and his wife (who only got here because of marrying the white guy) to be able to fucking pay for their pre-school for the twins, or the diabetes medicine, or little cotton balls for a school diarama…and even more complicated when we are stretched, and we don’t know if we can pay…but we also know that we do have a subscription to netflix that we could cancel or cut back…

This is just the beginning of me talking about this and working it out. It really goes so deep, and touches so many layers that I am going to need time to get at it. But I really want to. Because I feel like my inability to express myself about this to my friends and family is really cutting them off from understanding what my life and emotional state are really like…

…and also why I sometimes think that a lot of current U.S. activist preoccupations and analyses are kind of bullshit…much more than I used to, anyway. I mean, when people who you love are fucking screaming from malaria, or locked up in fucking Texas deportation prison, or they are eating beans and rice for the 7th straight meal of the week, because they can’t afford even carrots…then yeah, one’s sense of what is most important politically really changes. And you kind of do start thinking about some “oppression olympics” and some “class reductionism” sometimes. It’s hard not to. But it’s also important to keep the bigger picture in mind…but it does change you.

And I have been really changing. Not toward the sell-out side of the spectrum, not by a long-shot. More toward the, I am so pissed at this society that I need to do more side of the spectrum. My anger is a lot more visceral, and a lot less academic than it used to be.

As you’ll see as I eventually write about this more.

Eyes on El Salvador in 2009…

Just a quick note. Last night Glendi and I attended an event talking about elections in El Salvador in 2009. They take place in March, and though there is always danger of US intervention and fraud, right now the FMLN (former guerrilla group turned political party) candidate, Mauricio Funes is on track to win.

This will be a big deal if it happens. Not only because it’ll be the second ex-guerrilla group after the Sandinistas to win power in Central America, but also because it will keep the leftward tide moving in Latin America. Who knows, maybe 2012 in Mexico? It also will of course have interesting implications for Guatemala, and their weak center-leftist president, Colom.

In other news, Venezuela has its regional elections on Sunday, will almost all the governorships and mayor positions in play. It’s the first vote after the Chavistas’ constitutional referendum loss, and Chavez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela are putting A TON of energy into it. I’ll be watching closely, as it will be a good gauge of what direction the Venezuelan revolution is moving.

So, I can’t bring myself to talk about myself right now on the blog, so instead I’ll talk about politics.

A lot has happened while I’ve been away, and there is a lot that I’d like to cover (Burma, gender justice, the US anti-war movement, immigration justice, and so much more), but I want to make sure that I cover that which I’ve been best at covering: shifts in power in Latin America.

About a month ago, Rafael Correa’s leftist coalition in Ecuador triumphed in their elections to the constitutional assembly. They have more than a sufficient majority to write any constitution they want, and the draft of the constitution that they are discussing is really promising. They are heading toward a similar kind of “socialism for the 21st century” as Venezuela…not the neo-liberal stuff of Chile and Brazil. I’m excited about this process, and I think they have a lot more momentum in their favor than the constitutional assembly in Bolivia, which is just having a really, really hard time right now.

At the beginning of November, the center-leftist Alvaro Colom defeated the right wing ex-general (and school of the Americas graduate, and ex-head of the secret police) Otto Perez Molina, to become the president-elect of Guatemala. It’s so weird, Glendi and I have actually seen him speak in person, so I’ve been within 15 feet of the future president of Guatemala! I wasn’t hopeful during his campaign, but his victory speech was so directly tied to his ideas and his social-democratic ideology, and his follow-up announcements as well, that I believe that he does want to bring change to the country. Also, in a Telesur interview they asked him if he’s a leftist, and he said something like, “if being against neo-liberalism, which has brought so much misery to Latin America makes me a leftist, then yes, I’m a leftist.” That was impressive. He also declared that he would have normal, friendly relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and is already set to discuss petroleum deals with Hugo Chavez in December! This is a good sign…he’s not playing to the powerful by distancing himself from the Latin American left. He’s also not afraid to reference Jacobo Arbenz, the last lefty or center-lefty that Guatemala’s had…who was ousted in a coup in 1954. I’ll keep blogging about Colom, but for now I’m enthusiastic.

On December 2, Venezuelans will vote on new constitutional reforms…69 of them in total (voted in two bloques). These are designed to “deepen” and “accelerate” the move towards socialism and popular power. The media has focused primarily on the reforms which would allow indefinite re-election of Chavez, and which would allow for certain democratic liberties to be suspended in states of emergency…and I think there is real room to criticize these. However, the reforms also include major strengthening of the super-democratic communal councils, prohibition of discrimination against LGBTQ people, social security for informal workers, lowering the voting age to 16, a 36 hour work-week, free education through the university level, separating popular militias from the military command…and more. I think it’s certain that if this passes (and polls are all over the place on this one), the process in Venezuela really will change significantly. That country is moving!

In Paraguay, a popular ex-bishop, who is rooted in liberation theology, Fernando Lugo, is running for president and is ahead in the polls. They call him “the red bishop.” Elections aren’t until 2008, so we’ll see. But this looks really promising.

Also promising is Mauricio Funes, a respected long-time journalist in El Salvador who is now running for president with the ex-guerrila group, the FMLN. He has a really strong chance of winning, and watching videos of him on youtube, I totally think he’s got what it takes. If he wins, then Central America will definitely be considered as part of the leftist trend in Latin America. Right now, it’s too much of a mixed bag to tell. Now come on Mexico! Must we wait until the 2012 elections for you to go left, or might you have a revolution before that?

This was just a little update. In future weeks I’ll want to write more about Venezuela, and maybe about Colom, but for now this is fine. I’m just trying to get in the habit of writing again.

Hope you all are doing well!

Nearly a year since Glendi and I really started talking about this, and now we’re almost there. I just need to pack my bag and head to the airport, and then…

Glendi, her mom, and her brother Ivan will meet me in the airport, where we will travel by bus for four hours to reach her home, and there we will spend 1 bittersweet week, as Glendi prepares her things and her family says goodbye.

I’ve been talking with Glendi’s dad and he seems a lot more prepared emotionally than he was a few months and weeks ago. Stilly crying occasionally, but much more open about his excitement and happiness for us as well. Glendi is excited. Her mom is excited and sad, of course.

I have so much I want to write about, but I don’t have the time. Hopefully during the summer, now that school is out (yay!).

I want to talk about my hopes and my fears about Glendi and I. I want to talk about the possible futures, about the balance between this relationship and my other friendships. I want to talk more about the politics of this relationship. There is just so much. There are all of these things that I’m thinking about all of the time, but I still haven’t put them down in this blog yet.

Still, for now I can tell you that I feel so free and happy…and I’ll let you know where it goes from there.

Much love, and hope to write a least once from Guatemala.

Over the last few days, Guatemalan presidential candidate Rigoberta Menchú and her political alliance have begun to discuss their plans for Guatemala, should they win. However, they are saying that they won’t officially announcement their programs and plans until next week.

What they have hinted at, though, is pretty interesting in my opinion. Crucially, they are calling for constitutional reform, including the possible convocation of a constitutional assembly, to “build a new republic.” While possibly not as ambitious as Evo, Correa, or Chávez, it is an interesting parallel.

Further, they discuss guaranteeing indigenous political participation and gender equality in political parties, regulating property, reforming the intelligence services (notorious in their brutality) to come under democratic control, redefining the role of the military, fighting corruption and crime, reforming the economy and tax system, and more and more and more.

As of like two weeks ago, Menchú was in 4th place with only like 5%, but the most popular, Alvaro Colom, only has like 25%, and the campaigns only officially started last week. The majority of Guatemalans are indigenous, and so if Menchú can energize indigenous communities, I think she could possibly have a shot at second place, thus being a part of the second round, against Colom. This would be really interesting, with Guatemala facing a turn even slightly leftward for the first time in half a century.

Guatemala doesn’t have the kind of social movement strength that Ecuador or Bolivia had in electing their presidents. It is very much still a traumatized society, from everything I’ve observed and read. So maybe there just won’t be a strong lefty government there for a long time. But even a non-corrupt social democratic government, which can build even basic civil institutions (like a tax system, a real justice system, school systems, health care, etc.) would be a massive improvement. I do think that Colom’s center-left UNE is corrupt, but they also have a very strong infrastructure and they can also possibly win a lot of congressional strength, so I don’t think even their win would be so, so bad. At least they could get some institutional functionality out of it.

I’ll write in more detail about the campaign and compare the candidates as things build. But for now I’m just glad that ambitious language like “new republic” and “constitutional assembly” are being discussed. People in Guatemala don’t trust the system. That’s why talking about going beyond or outside the system is refreshing to me…and hopefully will be refreshing to the indigenous base. But the deeper question is, do indigenous Guatemalans trust Menchú or think she’s a sell out, and do they believe in her electability enough to vote for her instead of Colom (who also has his base amongst indigenous people)?

Quick read about Bolivia’s Morales…

Just read this piece about Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia.  You should check it out, it’s an easy read.

Also, an update about the Guatemalan elections:  A recent poll has Rigoberta Menchu in second place to Alvaro Colom, 20% to something like 32%.  If the two of them make it to the second round and shut out the hard right candidate, Otto Perez Molina, that would be excellent.  But there are still many months to go and I don’t think the campaigns even legally start until May.

Rigoberta Menchu and Chavez Updates…

Here are some articles about Rigoberta Menchú’s run for the presidency of Guatemala (one, two). Seems like most commentators think that this year will be more a practice run for her, and that her real chances to win will be in 2012. If that’s the case, then Alvaro Colom will hopefully win, and we’ll at least get some kinda-sorta leftist in that country. But who know’s what’s going to happen by September?

Chávez has been cranky lately about other radical Venezuelan parties and organizations not being willing to dissolve themselves to join his new united socialist party, and I think his reaction is really telling. I mean, come on, how can he so easily expect the Venezuelan Communist Party — with decades and decades of history of struggle — to dissolve themselves so easily to join a party that will clearly maintain Hugo has the figurehead? His reaction really bothers me and I don’t think it bodes well for the future of the process…which overall is still beautiful, but seriously, Hugo, practice what you preach and move aside a little bit!

My god (who doesn’t exist)!

I didn’t expect it, but it’s happening…Guatemala, of all places, might be joining the leftward trend in Latin America.

Rigoberta Menchu, indigenous leftist winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has entered into this September’s presidential race in an alliance with her new indigenous movement, Winaq (which is a Mayan word meaning the whole integrity of a person…or something close), and the center-left Encuentro Por Guatemala, which is headed by Nineth Montenegro, another famous activist, and I believe one of the founders of GAM (mutual aid group…a group of families of the disappeared). The press in Guatemala is all over the place in their comments about Rigoberta (an indigenous leftist woman running for president!), and most seem to think that she won’t win but that she might come in 2nd or third…but no one really knows.

The problem is that the front-runner is Alvaro Colom, a social democrat (center-left, more or less) who is something like 12 points ahead of second place Otto Perez Molina…who is a hard right ex-General (from the genocide days of the civil war) who’s campaign slogan is simply “firm hand.” Now with Rigoberta in, she’s going to be taking votes from Colom…which might end up just strengthening the ex-general to win in the second-round of voting. Boy I hope not.

My partner, Glendi, and I (that’s a long and beautiful story that I’ll tell you all soon enough!) actually saw Colom speak back in August of 2006. He wasn’t bad. But he’s not all that good either. She’s rooting for Colom. But I’m rooting for Rigoberta. Because if she wins, she’ll probably sign on to ALBA alongside Evo Morales, Carlos Ortega, Chavez, Castro, etc…and then Guatemala will get cheap oil, doctors, reading programs, etc…and those alliances are so important.

If Colom wins, maybe he’ll pursue similar alliances, but I’m not sure, because the right wing is already attacking him as a “Chavista” and he’s vigorously denying it.

This will be an interesting 6 months in Guatemala.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi