For the young women carrying babies on their backs to the market, for the men lying on their backs in the back of work trucks in the noontime sun, for the children running down the street chasing soccer balls and chickens,
for the indigenous women with the courage to wear and sow their dress despite the risk of discrimination, for the people on their knees praying to their saints, for the mothers working in garbage dumps to send their children to school,
for the priests who were killed for condemning poverty, for all the drivers with enough guts to drive in the city, for the artists who cover the streets with messages of la lucha para la justicia, viva Guate.
Dear friends, it seems that a year has passed since I last wrote, just hours before leaving on a plane to Guatemala. Now, on this Sunday morning one week following our return, my head is spinning with images, thoughts, questions, and sensations about the trip, what it means to live in this culture, and what I will do with the gift of a Davidson education.
What did we do in Guatemala? We met beautiful and courageous people. In ten days, we met and came to know many everyday folka – from Neulina, a feminist scholar working in a conservative Catholic university, to Armando, a founder of the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project in his community village. We met female pastors, bright children, Mayan spiritual guides, coffee workers, waiters, and shop owners who shared a common spirit of resilience. The people that we met were hardworking, intelligent, and lived with a sense of purpose. They also imparted a brilliant sense of humor that I came to understand and appreciate slowly, thanks to Spanish-English translation!
Before I came to Guatemala, most of the books and articles I read were about violence in the country. Especially in the past thirty years, the country has witnessed unimaginable violence through the “war on drugs,” femicide, and controversy of genocide against the Maya peoples. We found that trom street murals to journalism articles, the people are not afraid to talk about the violence that continues in society. They also do not hide the fact that 75% of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line (The World Bank). Guatemala is a country of paradox: on vibrant and colorful streets, there are posters for the disappeared. In markets where women are becoming economically empowered by selling their crops, they face racism and discrimination.
How have the people survived and moved forward? I expected to see more visible signs of devastation from the war, but I believe much of its effect lives invisibly in structures and relationships among peoples. The effects of trauma and violence affect people’s lives in every society. Guatemala has responded with a dynamic interaction with global culture and religious institutions. The walls and buses are covered in Bible quotes for a reason – it gives people hope and purpose in reconstructing society together. There is also a cultural resurgence through the indigenous and women’s rights movements, growing cooperatives, and artist’s voices contributing to a new vision for Guatemala.
Accion Poetica, an art group, posted a quote in Xela that reads, “I would give you my life in exchange for you to stay.”
With the encouragement of my professor, Dr. Samson, the trip gave me an opportunity to articulate my central questions about the world. Dr. Samson encouraged me to see beyond black-and-white categories, and to see reality in clear and nuanced conceptions. For instance, why is the system of education so difficult for children in poverty to navigate and succeed? How will we, as a global society, mitigate increasing pressure for natural resources? What does it mean when we give cigarettes as an offering to a local saint? What gives meaning to people on the margins in Guatemala? How do our conversations change based on geographic location? Who am I, and what is my place in the world as a North American? If I cannot fix the broken system alone, who can I join in la lucha for justice? What does justice mean in a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent? What is the purpose of the church in the twenty first century? What does it mean to live by shared values for community?
Sitting with many questions, the return to Davidson has been both humbling and confusing. The humbling truth: I am so fortunate to be here, to live in a place where I can safely ask questions and learn and grow as a person. Every day, I am incredibly grateful for my community of friends as we learn from and support one another. Yet it is also a challenge to be present here; I can run around all day with a million things to do, feeling like I don’t have time to witness for a moment the beauty of the blue sky. There are many reasons that I sometimes long to be back in Guatemala. I miss the intercultural exchange of myths and stories, the daily greetings of buenas, the active volcanoes smoking in the distance.
The confusing part of returning to daily life in America is that our culture values individual freedom. Life in Central America is more communal, which is a trade-off to personal autonomy. Placed in a different cultural context, speaking a language I know only marginally, I was constantly reliant upon those around me. I needed others on the trip to process the experience and try to make sense of what we were seeing. Our trip was funded by a generous donor, and reminded me that I also owe my education to others. Coming back from Guatemala, I am led to question who forms my community, and where I find collective identity. The trip reminded me that we find meaning and order in our lives through relationships, and that we need others to find a sense of purpose.
We are coming down the mountain. The curves are never-ending and the road is steep with debris in the way. Our path is obscured by darkness; with each turn, we take a leap of faith that our bus will not fall off of the cliff. The white cross hangs from the windshield and bounces against the glass rapidly as we shake on the cobblestone path. Meanwhile, the sun sends rose and orange eclipses over the village hamlet and the clouds circulate over the fields. The trees turn into shadows as they stand in silence by the roadside. The village streetlamps form constellations to remind us that God lives in the heart of the pueblo, waiting for our descent below. As the rain begins to fall on the windshield, the moon shines her face on the wet ground, and a humming silence falls upon the bus, we travel together. May we be blessed with remembering that we are never alone, and that our home is found with one another, on the road of our common humanity.
Coming down off the mountain and back to Davidson, I feel a new sense of challenge to step outside myself and formulate questions to better understand reality. When we travel, it is easier to step outside the bounds of the self and question cultural norms and “socially accepted behavior.” When we are home, the task continues to simultaneously be an observer and participant. We need to observe, analyze, and describe social processes and phenomena if we are going to change them. Coming back to the US, I still hope to have conversations with those who have been marginalized, and to find ways to change the system so that human needs are met.
A paper we found in a Mayan village that lists women’s needs: to study, to graduate, food to cook, and work.
I will leave you with one story of a woman that we met named Jennifer. She is eighteen years old, and when she stood with her Maya campesinas to greet our group, her eyes shown with a deep inner confidence. Her glowing presence humbled me as we listened to her story. She is one of the only women in her village to finish middle and high school, an opportunity which was funded by scholarships through a women’s economic project called Wakami. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s father passed away last year, which has made it very difficult for her to attend university. She has not let that stop her from learning and searching for a way there – unlike most women her age, she is not yet married, and she continues to believe in the power of her dream to become educated. Her voice has stayed with me since I traveled home to attend class, and I pray that my education will not stop with myself, but will witness to her dream. And I hope that each day, as I remember what a gift it is to be here, I will remember what it means to say viva Guate.