Wednesday, September 1, 2010

guatemala parts FoUr aNd five

pArt four. Life in the in the mOuntaiNs of guatEmala.

Structurally identical cinderblock homes line the three straight streets of Nuevo San Jose. Each house has a sala, two bedrooms, and a kitchen in the back. The kitchen stove is steadily stoked with wood that has been brought on somebody's back from miles away. Windows and doors are placed appropriately and modestly. Two windows and a door in the front, and one of each in the back. A corrugated tin roof is uniform in the community. These houses in Guatemala indicate privilege, but in the mildest sense of the word, for the families who inhabit them. Each yard is composed of worn soil, pressed by countless bare feet, decorated around the edges with bright and vibrant colors of trash; the pinks and blues of ArcoIris cookies or the shimmering yellow of Tortrix chips. Shining always, but fading slowly in the sun, going continuously unnoticed or simply accepted. Trash becomes part of the landscape.

Chickens wonder aimlessly, cocks fight, and children, with chicharrones in their hands, play tag on the street. Neighbors often pause to chat. Women and daughters walk away from home with corn kernels heaping out of a plastic bucket on their heads and walk back from the mill minutes later with masa for tortillas heaping out of the same bucket on their heads. The monotonous sound of tortillas smacking back and forth on worn hands resonates with precision and stands in place of a clock on the wall.

Never ending workdays seem to function as distraction here, as they often do. Religion flows through every home, sustaining faith, halting alcoholism, or saving people from hell. Smiles are ubiquitous. Laughter is continuous. A bus picks up all the working men at 4:30 in the morning. Once they leave, their wives go back to sleep after having prepared them food. The men pay 10 Quetzales ($1.25) to ride forty-five minutes to San Juan, where they must fight for day labor. If they are lucky, they will receive 50-60 Quetzales ($6.25-$7.50) for a days work. But typically they can only find work 3-4 days a week. Work is never secure. And every week their incomes are varied.

They have to go this far to work because they have no land of their own to cultivate. The small plot of land that they have is just enough for their small homes and a small street. The land that they live on is the result of a long labor struggle with their old farm. For generations these families of Nuevo San Jose had lived and worked on the San Jose banana and coffee farm. One day they didn’t get paid. The next day was the same. After a year and a half of working without salary, eating nothing but unripe bananas, watching their children die of malnutrition, and fighting through tireless legal struggles, this group of families agreed to a settlement with their employer and accepted this small plot of land in place of a year and a half of salary. In place of their lost children. In compensation for their suffering. That was sixteen years ago.

Angelina, a proud twin of the community, was born sixteen years ago too. Now she cooks with her mom, dreams of coming to the US, listens to music on her phone, waits for her hair to grow long and hopes she will find work to help support her family. Her father isn’t around anymore because one day he drank insecticide and puked until his death. That day ended his many years of abusive alcoholism.

The uncertainty of every single meal and the pressure of having to feed more mouths than just your own makes cheap liquor and a forgetting mind seem desirable in a desperate way. Some people in the community say that his wife, Angelina’s mother, is better off without him. She passes her days with the evangelical radio show while she cooks in the kitchen, and passes her nights with telenovelas in her bedroom. She buys phone cards when she can to call her mom and ask, “How are you?” She has fleeting memories of the labor struggle and even less of the revolution. She doesn’t speak of the man that was her husband. Angelina doesn’t speak of him either.

While eating eggs and peppers scrambled perfectly together, Angelina and I began discussing relationships as the afternoon rain played every inch of the roof like a drum. The rest of the family was at church. Earlier that day Angelina’s mom said I should marry Angelina and bring her to the US with me. In the dim light, sitting on the standard plastic stools, Angelina coughed up her casual question, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Naturally with my response of “no” she followed up, “Why not?” Feeling brave, I answered honestly, “Because I am gay.” After clarifying that it was not a joke, her face lit up, and she eagerly asked, “Will you cut my hair?” I laughed.

As I cut her hair the following night, kneeling on the concrete floor with mini scissors squeezed around my fingers, I responded to her mother that, “no I don’t not like cutting hair,” and that “no I am not good at it.” I was out of answers when she asked, “Then why does Angelina want you to cut it so badly?” Rumor in Guatemala will assure you that a gay-man-haircut will make your hair grow faster. I couldn’t fulfill Angelina’s dream of bringing her to the US, but at least her hair might flourish.

On the other end of the street Vilma lives with her husband and four kids, each one's name starts with the letter J (Juan, Jessica, Jacqueline, Jennifer). She told me that the current government is bad because now a pound of tomatoes costs four Quetzales, when it used to cost just two. She told me that the only difference between evangelicals and catholics was that catholics drink. Before her family joined the evangelical church her husband would drink every day, and scarcely go to work. Now he goes to work everyday, and never drinks.

For Vilma, the government—so complex, vast, corrupt, and tireless—comes to her in that simple way: the cost of tomatoes. The current government in Guatemala provides universal access to contraception and pays families to put their kids in school. But sometimes things like that don’t matter when the cost to feed a family doubles. And for Vilma, religion—equally complex, vast, corrupt, and tireless—comes to her in it's own simple way: whether or not her husband drinks. And that is real to her while much of the other ideological rhetoric is not. Stances on social issues are irrelevant. Afterlife, irrelevant. I find it amazing how much these impressive religious or governmental bodies go through working on images, beliefs, and intellectual nuances while for most people it is all simply irrelevant, and what really matter are tomatoes and alcohol (at least in the short term).

Vilma will vote against the current political party for tomatoes, or to be more accurate, for the price of food. And that is not necessarily wrong, but it makes me wonder how a government can function if they are taking hits from the side because the price of tomatoes went up after a storm came and damaged the crop.

Teresa lives halfway down the street and she is always proud to describe her happiness. Chickens will peck your feet in her house that is home to three generations, all under the same roof. One night in candle light, which is the only light in their home, she asked me to send a book to someone she knows in the US and when she gave me the address it read: George Castillo, Los Angeles, California. I smiled, and was worried, and explained that Los Angeles is too big for an address with just a name. After fifteen minutes of running around the village we secured a plan to get it to the right address.

In Nuevo San Jose the native Mayan language is almost all lost and Spanish is spoken with many errors. Literacy is a gift and disillusionment with the government seems as widespread as religion, or even as tortillas. It is beautiful everywhere and the people have joy. But the community represents the painful past of war and oppression while it also exudes the sense of passivity that has spread in the country since the civil war, and even more, existed since its colonization.

¡PART FIVE!: a sHortened histOry of guateMala, with digressivE thought.

The history of Guatemala is mind blowing, but it is not unique. It is the story of violent colonization and conquest, oppression, attempted uprisings, and then one more oppressive hand from the United States CIA, leaving the country vulnerable, hungry, and without social justice once again.

Current Guatemala is situated on what was, and is, the center of the Mayan world. Spanish invasion and conquest of Guatemala in 1542 reduced the Mayan population from 800,000 to 100,000. European diseases were spread, massacres prevailed, and the Mayan population was turned into the oppressed peoples under strict Spanish rule.

1821 is the year that Guatemala earned its independence from the Spanish crown. But it was not an idyllic independence as one might hope. A Mayan man described it to me as a shift in power from the elite class in Spain to the elite class in Guatemala, who were just descendents of those that came from Spain three hundred years earlier. And then he said the new ruling class of Guatemala turned to the indigenous population and said, “Hooray! We got independence,” while they continued living in poverty and oppression not noticing any difference, wondering what independence actually meant. I heard this and thought of my own country’s heroic and romantic revolution. Is it really just the same situation?

A break from the history: I found this idea of independence remarkable: just passage of power from one geographical power to the next, not the acquisition of power from within and from the ground. The essence of the term independence is to my sense when a country achieves autonomy, without foreign rule. In this way, Guatemala did get their independence. And so did the United States of America in 1776. But calling a passage of power from one foreign elite to other foreign elite who just happen to be living in the country itself is almost mockery. It is as if a father steals a car, puts the owner in the trunk, and then ten years later his son takes ownership of the car. He leaves the real owner in the trunk, and calls it independence. I admit, this is radically simplistic, but also painfully close.

What does it mean for the anglo Americans to fight a revolution for independence from their anglo ancestors—all of whom are not native to the land. And then nurturing a continuum of native oppression with the achieved independence. But in fact, the word independence is a simply product of colonization and imperialism. I cannot think of a native population that has ever won “independence” from their colonizers. If you can, let me know. We would instead call that successful resistance of colonization. Has that ever happened? But independence as we know it is not a successful resistance of colonial power, it is merely a passage from a far away geographical power to a more local power. The word independence in this way is imperial vernacular.

Anyway, it seems to me that the revolution and independence in the US is in fact very similar to the independence that was won in Guatemala. But when I learned of Guatemala’s independence I rolled my eyes in disgust, while when I learned of the american revolution I am sure that my eyes lit up with pride and passion. Both were simply a change in foreign power which led to continued oppression of native populations. A true independence in this U.S. land would have been if the native peoples kicked us out. But that still has not happened. The notable difference was that in Guatemala’s independence not a single person died. It was achieved diplomatically.

Back to the history. Independence didn’t change much of Guatemala's governing structure. The country was still ruled by dictators who were not elected by the people. A small group of elite owned the vast majority of the country. And the vast majority of the population owned only a sliver of the country. Anti-Maya culture was bred, and racism sailed on robustly. In these years of authoritarian rule, foreign businesses increasingly chewed the country up. One business in particular, the United Fruit Company, landed a monopoly on Guatemala’s economy, land, and labor force.

In the early 1900’s bananas were “discovered.” At least discovered by the US population. They were imported from Jamaica in a small quantity, but the market soon demanded more, and suddenly thousands were arriving every month to US shores. Eventually, our growing bellies surpassed the supply level, and Jamaica could no longer support our bananaffair. This was the seed that sprouted the United Fruit Company’s dominance in Guatemala.

Guatemala was not chosen for investment by chance. A United Fruit executive once explained the decision. He said, “Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.” Therefore, the business plan presumed that a weak government would equate to better business. The Fruit Company quickly bought up miles of land, hired thousands of workers, and exported thousands of bananas. They also monopolized railroad in Guatemala, were the owners of Guatemala’s only industrial port, and eventually they also controlled the postal service. It is widely recognized that the United Fruit Company, in an uneven partnership with the country of Guatemala, was integral in the exploitation of Guatemala’s people and the largest obstacle in the way of Guatemala finding land and labor equality.

Forty years later, in the 1940’s, a small group of middle class teachers and activists began to slowly change the popular mindset of the country. An acquiescent and compliant mass was inspired by the prospect of social change, in part exemplified by the New Deal, which was co-occurring in the US. In 1944 a swift uprising led by two ex-militants overthrew the shocked dictator Ubico. Shortly there after, Juan Arévalo, Guatemala’s first ever democratically elected president, took office. His inaugural address was bursting with US ideology and ideas as shown through FDR’s presidency. It was sprinkled with direct FDR quotes and also decorated with clear anti-communist rhetoric. The new constitution and government were carefully designed in the image of the US’s. All signs showed that the US government would support and rejoice in this new beacon of democratic strength in the struggling region to our south.

In short time, many of Guatemala’s dreams were indeed coming true. Among many other things, President Arévalo legalized trade unions, started literacy programs, made discrimination illegal and created a social security system. The country advanced socially in those years more than in all the other years of its history.

Arévalo’s successor, Jacobo Arbenz, appeared to be even more progressive and motivated then Arévalo, and his first project was the major one that Arévalo had left undone: land reform. Land distribution remained the greatest injustice in the country. When the new government took power in 1944 just 2.2 percent of the population owned over seventy percent of the country's land, while ninety percent of the population owned just ten percent of the land. Meanwhile, millions of peasants worked full days and received very little in return, many living lives in extreme poverty without an inch of land to call their own.

Unfortunately Arbenz’s impressive motivation and execution in land reform may have been the final straw and the reason for an end to the brief years of Guatemalan progress. His comprehensive land reform included buying back all fallow land from large landowners and companies at the price indicated by tax assessments. Unlucky for the United Fruit Company, they had been pulling deals for years to lower their tax assessment, so when the government expropriated their fallow land those harshly low values were used as the amount to repay them. It quickly became clear to the United Fruit Company that the new democracy in Guatemala stood between them and their colossal profits that they had become accustomed to. The weak government that initially attracted them to Guatemala no longer existed, and therein bore their motivation to weaken the Guatemalan government.

Meanwhile, and on another note, Guatemala promoted political freedom and did not prosecute any of the communists; who had formed a small political presence in the country. The country did have laws that prohibited political parties from having official foreign affiliation, and for this reason, communism was contested several times, and similar parties with different names filled the space.

The opportunistic United Fruit Company saw this communism as a means to entice the U.S. government to help them change the government of Guatemala. The Company funded a widespread publicity campaign to illuminate any and all communism in Guatemala to the US public. With time, ignorant articles were published all over, and the US public became informed of the “danger” that the democratic nation, founded on US ideals, presented. Direct connections with the US government amplified the Fruit Company’s plea for help. To mention a few, the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had represented United Fruit. Also, the director of the CIA was his brother Allen Dulles and was a board member of United Fruit. These governmental ties, in addition to the garnered support of the public, allowed for the authorization of the C.I.A. backed coup against Jacobo Arbenz, and put a halt to the mere nine years of progress that Guatemala had experienced.

It shakes me to think that after 400 years of suffering and struggle, when Guatemala had finally built a government that worked, that educated, that was fair, that provided land, and that even represented U.S. ideals, the C.I.A.—backed by corrupt money politics—turned the country once again to its history of oppression.

After multiple military attacks orchestrated by the CIA on land and in air, President Arbenz was forced to resign, giving way to years of struggle which continue today. From the overthrow until 1996 Guatemala went through four decades and 200,000 deaths of civil war. During the civil war the Guatemalan government often referred to a list of 70,000 "questionable individuals" made by the CIA during the coup. The civil war was marked by massacres, rapes, tortures, and destruction. This was all in hopes of restoring what the C.I.A. had dismantled: a government for the people, by the people.
In 1996 the Peace Accords were signed by the revolutionaries and the government, and the revolution came to an end, with no change in governing power. The Peace Accords outlined ideas and hopes for progress and equality in the country, but unfortunately, they carry no legal robustness, and every Guatemalan I asked said that there is little or no change in living conditions since the signing of the Peace Accords.

Coincidentally, the young Che Guevara was traveling in Guatemala when the U.S. overthrew Guatemala’s democracy. Based on letters he wrote, it is clear that this coup he witnessed played a heavy role in the formation of his communist and anti-US perspective. It is not uncommon that US imperialism and racism and arrogance breeds anti-US sentiment around the world. It is obvious that this occurs, but I think it interesting to consider what young activists witness the damage we sometimes do, and I wonder how long it takes until they make it onto our military radar. I wonder what US actions nurtured the views of the 9/11 attackers. I wonder who is watching our current anti-muslim acts, who is watching our protests and violence against mosques in our country.

It seems startling that in 1944 Guatemala’s revolution was inspired by ideals emanating from the US, and on their own will, they shaped their nation after ours. In just ten years, with the CIA backed coup, the US had changed course one hundred and eighty degrees and was then the target of popular and revolutionary energy.

The signing of the Peace Accords is the most recent major event in Guatemala’s history, as it terminated the civil war. With recent shadows and memories of war, the country is still haunted by the violence of conflict, and many suggest that silence and passivity are run of the mill because of widespread fear to resist. Gangs and organized crime, which formed in the wake of the civil war when guns and unemployed ex-militants were on the streets, are growing and gaining control of the country. The violence that was seen in the civil war is living a second life in the form of gangs. I often wonder what political change the energy, weapons, and organization of gangs could create if they focused on social justice.

But as I sit here, shocked by and critical of the actions and influence of the U.S. government, I note the role of the U.S. consumer. of myself. The CIA backed coup in Guatemala, aside from the corruption, greed, and fear involved, is a lot about good old bananas, and our monstrous consumption of them. Like the consumption of drugs which ignites violence and horror along our borders. Like the consumption of fuel, which melts our icecaps, and fuels war. Or like the consumption of plastic which might make our world explode (not based on science, but I would believe it), or which more accurately hastens global warning and disseminates toxic chemicals from sea to oily-shining sea.

Costly consumerism happens to be another mind blowing story, which is habitually involved with war, violence, and corruption. An employee at Shaw’s recently explained to me that one out of three people have bananas in their cart when they check out. I read on that banana’s are the world’s fourth major food, following rice, wheat, and milk. It appears that our banana consumption has not slowed. You know what they always say..."good economy, bad economy, happy or said, bananas sell." They don’t actually say that. But they could. The point is that consumerism does have the power to kill.

The coup in Guatemala was marketed as ideological, as standing up for democracy in the face of communism. But in truth, it was a resource war, and we wanted the land and resources of Guatemala to keep the businessmen’s big, powerful, bananas coming. It screams out parallels to our most recent war (which just “ended”) in Iraq. It was initially marketed for the search of WMD’s, but has been promoted with ideological arguments. Really though, it also seems to be very much a resource war.

Guatemala’s history is remarkable, and in it there is a lot to learn, but as mentioned, it is not unique. Patterns of scary US behavior in developing nations like Guatemala are prevalent. If you can name a history of a nation like that of Guatemala, post it. And we can count how many times actions like this have occurred. What scares me the most, is if I am not educated enough to know what is actually occurring today. I presume that the US citizens in 1954 didn’t understand what their country was actually doing in Guatemala, for if they did, how could they have stood it.

For a much better history of Guatemala, read Bitter Fruit, an extraordinary book written from the Harvard Latin American Studies department about the US backed coup in Guatemala. If you want to borrow a copy, let me know and I will send you mine!

Thanks to, Bitter Fruit, and many friendly Guatemalans for sharing information that helped this post.

Another conflict crop in Guatemala: COFFEE. Once these "fruits" turn red, they are ready to be harvested. Harvesting a 100 lb bag will earn around seven or eight dollars. Once harvested, the bean is extracted from the fruit, dried, roasted, and sold. If you don't already have too many things to do in this life, The Cafecito Story is a great, short, multi-lingual story about coffee, filled with beautiful artwork. It was written by Julia Alvarez.

Lastly, some names have been changed for confidentiality.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tin Marin De Do Pingüe: Guatemala Parts I-III

I have southerned myself this summer. First, south to El Paso for a bit, and then further south to Guatemala. A week before I left, my dentist pushed that needly utensil into my gums and asked me if I was going to Guatemala to help people. When my mouth was free, and my gums identified as healthy, I answered no. For me, I envisioned and categorized my trip to Guatemala as purely selfish. I am here at language school spending five hours a day in class, because I became tired of inadequate Spanish communication ability. So I took the time for myself, without "helping people," to simply learn Spanish. But that isn’t to say that everything I do is not also for myself. It is. And drawing lines around doing things for me and doing things for others is misleading, and for that reason, I kind of forgot about that mantra I had until right now, as I am sitting in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, finishing up my time here.

For me, my time here, and all time, is worth sharing. But the lack of computers, time, and internet has kept me from it. But now, I have retrospective tales and introspective thoughts about my time here. It will come in parts.

PART 1: El Pit Stop Paso

I landed in El Paso for the second time since I had left it in December feeling a tad shameful for my frequent visits. I clearly can’t get enough of it. But aside from immense carbon releases from flights, and monetary costs, I suppose there should be no shame in visiting often.

Every time I land in El Paso a good friend and fellow volunteer picks me up from the airport. The twenty minute ride to Annunciation House from the airport has consistently been enough for me to want a ride right back to the airport. I am quickly informed of the updates of the guests; I am reminded of the people that are still incredibly stuck. When I arrived in March to visit, I learned that a close family to the house just lost their mom to incarceration. The kids were left parentless and paperless. When I arrived in June, I learned that these same kids, who had moved into the shelter, just lost their brother who had to be sent back across the border to Juarez, MX. I was reminded that so many of the same people that had been around in October, November, December, were still around, stuck in the blender that migration causes. In the car, which was now more worn by the sun, I became ashamed for reasons besides visiting often, I felt cold that I had let myself escape that reality for so long.

I am forever shocked and afraid by my ability to step away from pain and suffering. Moreover, it is only when I step back in along side situations and stories of pain, suffering, poverty, and oppression that I realize to what extent I allow myself to forget, in order to continue. I spent a semester at college in euphoria. With constant reminders that the world is beautiful. And that people are good. And that systems do work. And to some extent, in order to function in that world, which I too value, I had to let go of the many other realities in the world in some way. I have blatantly done this with the oil spill in the gulf. Feeling incapable and overwhelmed, I choose to resume my life, without letting myself get taken down emotionally by the spill. In other words, I have ignored it. And this is something that we are asked to do everyday. It is what we do well. Adapt and change and learn and forget. And although it may not be wrong or unhealthy to step away from hard things for a bit, stepping back into the realities that permeate through El Paso reminded me of the separation that I quietly built.

But arriving at the house is when the pain gets met with joy. Although I may feel lost and down that some have been stuck in the shelter for months or years, I joyfully hug them and color with them and eat with them and laugh. And we talk about our situations, and my hopes are just like his or hers. And the sun is still the same as before. And so is the food. And the struggle. But now the upstairs bathroom is done. And I have a different haircut. And Luly has new shoes. And the guests tell me they don’t like my haircut, and I laugh. But they do like the extra bathroom upstairs. And Luly likes her shoes.

Unlike all the other time I have spent in El Paso, the week I had before Guatemala was not crammed with to-dos. My only responsibility was one eight hour shift at Casa Vides, one of the houses run by Annunciation House that is geared towards longer term women and families. For me it felt like enough. The kids, whose mother is in jail, and whose brother got sent to Juarez the day I arrived, live in Casa Vides with their smiles and laughs and attitude. Typically at the houses a volunteer never really takes the role of parent, because that job can be referred to the real parent, but with this family, the volunteers share the parental role. So for 8 hours I had to be the best papa I could be.

Perhaps the most difficult part for me was wanting or needing the role model aspect and power of parent, without having done anything, like consummating, or providing food for example, to deserve it. So when I made sure they ate, I felt I had no right. When I begged them to brush their teeth, I felt I had no right. When I pulled them in from the street at ten to go to bed, who was I to do that? These kids have found themselves in a situation where an ignorant boy, with different colored skin, who speaks their language poorly, is trying to get them to brush their teeth, so he can tuck them in, before he goes to bed and leaves to Guatemala the next morning maybe never seeing them again. There was a babysitter I had that I hid from as a child because her curly hair scared me. These children just went to bed late, some with tears moving down their cheeks, dressed in the clothes of their brother, and laying underneath cartoons their mom had made in jail. And I stood there on the other side of the closed door, listening to know they would fall asleep, knowing that I lacked patience and grace, and feeling quite humbled by all those parents who have cared for their children, and by all those children who haven’t had parents to care for them.

PART II: Evangelization in 17D

It wasn’t long until my stomach was full with 5 am diner food and I was on a plane to Guatemala.

I sat next to Joe. Joe sat next to Jeff. Joe asked me to read parts of his Bible out loud. Presumably to make sure I was actually reading it. Joe offered to walk me through the steps to being saved, in seat 17D. Jeff told me he understood my pain, felt sorry for me. My curiosity led me to this peculiar situation.

When I sat down, Joe said, "I’m Joe." Joe was going to Guatemala to build houses and also to evangelize the area "of course." That wasn’t very "of course" to me. I admit to being highly ignorant about evangelicals and the evangelical church. But before this plane ride, I was even more so. I asked what it meant to be "saved." My summary of the answer is this: there are some people that haven’t been baptized and haven’t committed that Jesus is their savior. These people are not saved. And they will go to hell. Except if they are infants, and then they may be exempt, depending on God’s will. But, if somebody who lives in a remote village, who has never heard of Jesus, still hasn’t been "saved", they still will go to hell, according to the word. This was of particular concern to Jeff. And one of the primary reasons to evangelize, in places like Guatemala, is to save these people from that outcome.

Joe and Jeff said that "practicing" gays would go to hell. And lots of other good people too. If you hadn’t been saved, there was no two ways about it. We concluded, the three of us, that this meant I was going to hell. That was part of the reason our conversation continued for the whole flight, and the reason why I read the bible out loud, and took time to reflect in my journal. Because they were eager to save me. And they nearly did.

Jeff liked my arguments. I argued that the human is not something to control, but instead to liberate. And I asked if there is any good reason to believe just to believe. Truth should be found individually,I thought, not compromised by following one idea. There is always a good rebuttal to my thoughts though. It is the word of the Lord up against mine. And Jeff liked my arguments, but not that much. I felt so intellectually bombarded by the word they preached, that I lost my grounding and felt ever so lost. That intensity passed when we landed, exchanged e-mails, and bid farewells.

But the evangelical movement in Guatemala certainly exists beyond North American evagelizers. Joe and Jeff said that they have saved (baptized) hundreds of people in Guatemala within a week. I have heard that around 40 percent of Guatemalans call themselves evangelicals. Yesterday someone told me a common saying in Guatemala. “If you want to get out of poverty you have two choices: become a politician, or an evangelical pastor, who apparently receive major portions of the churches income, and are given multiple modes of transport to help them spread the word. One nearby church is considering buying a helicopter for the pastor to help him move around more quickly.

A common question here is, "are you evangelical or catholic?" I haven’t experienced any animosity amongst the two sectors. And all of my responses to the question have been respected politely. In fact, some families from the countryside have said that there is only one difference: Catholics can drink alcohol and evangelicals can’t. This was told to me by an evangelical family. The catholic family down the road told me that there was no difference. The issue of alcohol though, can be very relevant to families. For example Vilma´s husband was an abusive alcoholic for years, until he was saved, and now she describes him as caring and loving, and he goes out to work everyday and to church on Sundays. With this I feel like saluting Joe and Jeff. Other differences are that evangelicals are not permitted to dance, or wear showy jewelry. In one of the houses I spent time in, evangelical radio played all day, keeping the single mother Teresa company in the kitchen. But even as music played, spontaneous hip movement would not be welcomed.

This is all a brief, limited, and potentially shallow reflection on religion in Guatemala, but it is in this nature that I have experienced it. It is very central to so many lives here, and plays an integral important role in Guatemalan society. To my foreign eye it can appear silly at times, but not different than the way my lack of faith can seem silly to many people here. My views expressed in the earlier post "Relating Religion" still accurately reflect how I relate to religion. It is evident that religion here is historically central, valuable, and also in some cases, destructive.

PART III: Arriving in Isolation

I realized on the plane that my trip to Guatemala was my first time leaving the country alone to travel. I began to think about isolation. There is indeed a human itch to congregate and interact. This may be rooted in our need to distract ourselves from the abstract existence in which we live. Meanwhile, connection, love,and sharing is no doubt part of our communal abstract existence. I often seek isolation to spend time listening and talking to myself. I do this because I think that anything but isolation is in some sense an escape. A mode for us to hide from ourselves. Conversely I would also argue that isolation is an escape from society and from the intrinsic community that every living being experiences.

A funny occurrence for me has been that isolation breeds relation. I had long conversations with my seat neighbors on every leg of the trip, and in transition too. And traveling alone in isolation has lead the way to meeting more and more new people. There is nothing complicated about it, but it suggests to me that sometimes asking ourselves to step in a hard direction often leads us to then float in the more comfortable direction. For me I asked myself to find isolation, and as a result, have floated into community with others.

At the end of my travels, I finally arrived in two small communities an hour Northwest of Quetzaltengango. I stayed there for three weeks. The next parts will hopefully cover my time there, Guatemala´s history of struggle, and some of the struggles that exist today in the countryside.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

El Paso, Texas: A City on the Edge and in the Center

In a few days I will be back in El Paso. Below is a geography minded piece I wrote about the history and development of El Paso...

If you walk ten blocks north from the flat center of downtown El Paso, you begin to ascend the Franklin Mountains. These mountains are the most southerly tendrils of the Rocky Mountains, horizontally spanning the US from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Part way up your ascent you come across Rim Road which, decorated with a plethora of multi-million dollar homes, snakes around the mountain ridge

If you walk ten blocks south from downtown, you find yourself in Segundo Barrio, in one of the nation’s poorest zip codes. Segundo Barrio is a pattern of crumbling brick churches, homes, schools spotted with brown parks, busy tienditas, and tortilla shops. If you continue walking south through Segundo Barrio you will be intersected by two large walls and the Rio Grande, otherwise known as the US-Mexico border.

Instead of south, if you walk, bike, or drive 50 blocks east from downtown El Paso, you encounter a warning sign to inform you that you are entering the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. To call this reservation vast is an understatement, as it is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

And lastly, if you venture 20 blocks west and a few North from downtown El Paso, you arrive at the Rio Grande flowing southerly away to your left. New Mexico is just on the other side. Depending on where you are in El Paso the Rio Grande could represent one of two borders; between Texas and New Mexico or between the Texas and Mexico. Part way through the city the river bends north and becomes a state border, and the international border formerly on the Rio continues west on a land route to the Pacific Ocean.

If you meander aimlessly through the streets, you will notice the cactuses that speckle the landscape. You will see the sandy earth that indicates a desert climate. You will hear Spanish. You might not hear English. You might not believe that you are in the United States, as the city is incredibly reminiscent of cities in Latin America, and shares little in common with most conceptions of a typical US city.


El Paso sits at the most western tip of Texas and as its name suggests (meaning the pass) its geographical location was no coincidence in its origin. Its location on the border, and in historically disputed land, has shaped its cultural dynamics and highlighted it as a point of international interest and concern. Also, its proximity to Mexico and its central location has influenced economic growth in ranching, the smelter industry, and in illegal industries. El Paso sits in the center of mountains, borders, military bases, and international conflict, and yet it is still very much at the edge, culturally and geographically speaking.


The Anglo origin of El Paso dates back to 1598 when Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande with 400 soldiers and 270 women and children to settle in the mountain pass, which quickly became El Paso del Norte or The Pass to the North (Sandra Sanchez, 25 November, 1991: 8a). The location was ideal because it was at a pass in the mountains, making it easier for Spanish expeditions en route to Santa Fe, and because it was located at a rare water source in the desert, the Rio Grande.

El Paso del Norte was Spanish territory until Mexican independence in 1822. The area was only Mexico’s for a short period when, in 1848, the city once again changed hands. This time to the US as they won the Mexican-American War and set their southern border at the Rio Grande with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This made El Paso del Norte the border town that it is today. The new international boundary, the Rio Grande, cut the pre-existing city in half, leaving two dissected pieces legally separated. The city to the south of the river took on the name Ciudad Juárez and the city to the north took the name El Paso.
Although internationally separated since 1848, the cities of Juárez and El Paso have remained intricately connected in changing ways. Originally, the border really was nothing more than the water that flowed easterly in the Rio Grande. Crossing into the United States meant nothing more than a short wade or swim. Even one hundred years after the Mexican-American War it appeared there was still no animosity or synthetic separations. In 1955 an El Paso native wrote, “There is no iron-curtain here. The only occasional curtain between our cities is an occasional curtain of dust, not man-made. Cooperative, friendly relations exist between us and our esteemed Mexican neighbors.” (J. Harold Tillman, 1955: Pg. 1219)

If you jump fifty years forward in time to 2005, there is a physical iron curtain, more than just the desert dust dancing in the wind. In those fifty years El Paso became a major point of geographical interest to the United States relative to so called national security. With the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and rampant fear of future terrorism, government organizations saw the border as a weakness in national security. El Paso is the United State’s largest border town, with 613,190 people in 2008, (2008 US Census) and therefore received ample resources to build fences and hire more border patrol. Now, a mesh fence runs across the city’s southern limits, permeable to sight but not to (legal) travel. Despite the fence, the cities still feel connected in some diminished manner as their populations and cultures relentlessly travel back and forth, legally and illegally, across the border.

The ephemeral and volatile history of El Paso begs the question of whether or not land is something that can even be justly owned. The multiple changes of the city’s ownership taunt the perceived permanence of a border. The unnatural dichotomy of two cities once one illuminates the strength of divisiveness, and the emergence of a literal iron curtain represents a problem-causing solution to a problem dating back to the days when maps were first made and land was first claimed. The historical inequalities that El Paso represents belittle the border to seem like nothing more than an imaginary line of imposed power.


El Paso’s unique geographical situation has defined its economic development in both the legal and illegal sectors. Connected to both the US and Mexican railroad systems, El Paso became a center for shipping cattle in its early years as a US city. Ranchers from all around the South West and Mexico shipped cattle through El Paso. Also, due to its central and connected location from a transportation standpoint, El Paso was an ideal location to receive ore at a smelter. By the First World War the El Paso smelter employed 3,000 workers. (Mario T. Garcia, 1981: Pg. 3) However, in the late twentieth century, the smelter was shut down following numerous accounts of health issues caused by the smelter. El Paso is also a major point of immigration for Mexicans into the US, and for this reason it has been known for cheap labor. Contractors from the all over the region can count on picking up cheap, undocumented workers in El Paso willing to do the dirty and dangerous jobs. El Paso also became an important location in the US’s realization of manifest destiny. El Paso was a gateway to the west for easterners, and a gateway to the north for southerners.

El Paso’s proximity to Mexico has also influenced much illegal economic activity. Currently, the El Paso border could be seen as a swap shop for guns and drugs. Guns, which are far more difficult to purchase in Mexico, make their way from the US to south of the border. And drugs, which travel from the interior of Mexico as well as from other Latin American nations, make their way north across the border. The dynamics of this swap shop have lead to tumult, and currently, El Paso’s other half, Ciudad Juárez, is the world’s most dangerous city based on homicides per capita.

The city of El Paso has forever changed and flexed in unique ways with different peoples, names, economies, and ways of life. But recently it has become more defined by the borders that surround it and further separated from its other half in Mexico. It has also become a tense environment in US national security efforts. One of the most consistent characteristics though, is its sense of eccentricity, and transcendence of cultural norms in the US. Yet the city remains nobly authentic to itself and to its own undulating identity. El Paso is geographically a city defined by perimeters, but culturally, a city defiant of perimeters.

Works Cited

Charles H. Harris, III and Louis R. Sadler. “The "Underside" of the Mexican Revolution: El Paso, 1912.” The Americas Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jul., 1982), pp. 69-83

Gabbert, Ann. “Prostitution and Moral Reform in the Borderlands: El Paso, 1890-1920.” Journal of the History of Sexuality Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 575-604
Garcia, Mario. “Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920” Yale University: 1981.

Kuhla, Shan. “Special Report: Drivers Edge, Road Trip.” National Post 17 June 2005: DT 9

Sanchez, Sandra. “Final edition, News.” USA Today, 25 November 1991: Pg. 8a

Tillman, Harold. “El Paso-Juarez Area.” Public Health Reports (1896-1930), Vol. 70 No. 12 (Dec. 1955) pg. 1218-1220

U.S. Geoleogical Survey, 1997. “El Paso, TX,” Scale 1:24,000.

U.S. Geological Survery, 1996. “Smeltertown, TX-NM-CHH” Scale 1:24,000.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When to Think of Death (If You Want to be Free)

Death isn’t getting the attention it deserves, and I think we need to think about it, talk about, ponder it, get close to it, and prepare for it. On busy streets, in quiet houses, and in dull offices people resist any thoughts on death in their yearning to be free. These people are the possibly subconscious followers of a belief that those who are free don’t spend time thinking of death. But are these people, maybe you and maybe me, correct in their belief that to find freedom one must avoid thoughts of death?

The premise for this belief hinges on the answer to the question of what makes somebody free, and the implied answer here is faulty. This belief assumes that innocence is what makes somebody free, for by avoiding thoughts of death one remains innocent to its existence, and thus free. However, I think that innocence only creates a perception of freedom, and that real freedom lies in understanding and preparation for important life moments, including the moment of death. Later I will consider the objection that death isn’t even important, and therefore not worth preparation and understanding in the search for freedom. The truth though, exists between the argument and the objection: even though death is not important, the way in which its mystique infiltrates our lives is important and therefore if anyone is to be free, it still warrants understanding.

The premise of this commonly held belief is that through innocence by not thinking about death, one is free. But in truth, innocence does not sustain being free. It is easily understood, though, that innocence makes us feel free. The idea of freedom rooted in innocence can be related to youth. Typically childhood evokes memories of freedom because as children we were innocent and do not spend time meditating or understanding the truths of life or the truths of death. However, is freedom through innocence true freedom or simply perceived freedom? In fact it is a perception. In using the word perception I do not intend to take anything away from the feeling of freedom that childhood or innocence creates, for the feeling is real. But although innocence allows one to feel immensely free, that freedom is shallow, as it does not give one the ability to transcend the challenges of life, it merely gives them the ability to avoid them. And then, when difficulties enter a person’s life, the feeling of freedom becomes evidently shallow. For example, in the freedom of childhood, catastrophic moments of tears and anger erupt from minor incidents like spilt juice. Children, or innocent people in general, really are not free in depth if they cannot navigate through life without catastrophes at difficult moments. Tolstoy’s novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, stands in agreement as it is suggested that artificial life, an avoidance of the truth, is a deception that leaves one confused at the time of death.

The alternate choice from freedom through innocence is instead freedom through an authentic life of understanding. Understanding forges true freedom because it allows one to approach the challenges of life, such as death, with peace and preparedness. Looking at our daily lives, it is no shock that understanding and preparation are essential to freedom. Prior to every significant moment in our lives we prepare and think and meditate in order to allow ourselves to freely navigate that given moment. Before a test, we study. Before a wedding, we ponder. Before a performance, we practice. It is these moments of preparation and efforts towards understanding that give us freedom and the ability to navigate when we arrive at weighty points of life. Why then would we utterly avoid preparation and pondering for probably the most important moment of our lives? To be free, we must understand, and to understand, we must think. Think of not only life, but of death in the same manner.

But still, you may question whether or not death really is the most important moment of our lives, as is central to the prior argument. And that is a good question. The argument I put forth states that because death is important, and freedom comes through understanding of and preparation for important events, then we must prepare for and understand death. But is death really an important moment of our lives? And could it even be important enough to make preparation worthwhile?
Firstly, no. Death is not the most important moment in our lives. Importance in a moment can be described in different ways, and each will be applied to death in order to understand its relevant importance. One account is that importance in a moment is that moment’s ability to affect the future of one’s life. Death, however, has no affect on the future of a person’s life, because from the moment of death on, there is no future to be affected. Therefore, death is not important because it does not affect the future of one’s life. Another account is that importance in a moment is that moment’s interaction with the senses and feelings of a person. Does a moment hurt, pleasure, overwhelm, or relax the person that it affects? In this case the moment of death, cannot hurt, pleasure, overwhelm or relax a person—it cannot interact with the feelings and senses of a person that no longer exists. Maybe right before death, but not at death. Therefore, in this account, death is also unimportant. If these examples aren’t convincing that death is not important, think of your own application for importance, and apply it to death. This distinction, that death cannot be important, differentiates it from the Olympics, a wedding, or an exam because the latter three will have an affect on a person’s future, and will interact with the feelings and senses of a person, thus making them important, and worth preparing for.

And even if we did accept that death is important, as the original argument states, is it important enough to prepare for while considering the downsides that preparation could have? To determine the worth of preparation, we must compare the difference between the benefits that preparation could make with the downsides that it could cause. Preparing for death could make the whole process more peaceful, whereas lack of preparation could make the process terrifying. The downsides that preparation could cause are that in seeking to understand death one could in fact hinder his or her life. In Jeffrie Murphy’s essay, Rationality and the Fear of Death, he wisely offers the idea that we can care so much about life and death that we lose that which makes life worth living. For example in my fear of death and in my pressure to live life well, I could lose the very things that make life worth it, like spontaneity and presence. Connecting this idea to the comparison of pros and cons of the preparation of death illuminates that in the search to understand death one can easily lose the beauty of life, therefore making it not worth an understanding of death because the risk is too large. Put more simply, one could go crazy in their search to understand death, they could over think it. The suspicion that death may not be so important as the first argument suggests is worthy, but the question is whether it carries enough weight to negate the argument.

Both the argument and the objection give valid points about whether or not one must think about death in order to be free. The argument suggests that understanding and preparing for death is monumental in being free for the reason that death is important, and in life we know that understanding of and preparation for important moments is necessary to be free. This is correct in the idea that understanding and preparation are needed for true freedom, however a clarification needs to be made with the word preparation. Preparation is often understood as for the benefit of a singular event. For example, to practice running is beneficial to the marathon, and to study math is beneficial to the math test. However, in the case of death, and maybe other cases as well, I think preparation has a different nature. Your preparation isn’t to make death better, it is actually to make life better. This distinction negates any question of whether or not death is important, because the focus of understanding death is life, not death.

Moreover, the objection to the initial argument is correct in its statement that death isn’t necessarily important. But it falls short in missing that the fear and uncertainty of death that pervade a human’s life are very important. Death’s effect on life is immense in its capacity to control the course life takes. Also, the objection misses that death’s importance is actually irrelevant in the matter because preparation serves life not death. And lastly, the objection states that the risk of preparation is too large, but I have never seen enlightenment or understanding cause any problems in the long run.

Drawing from the strengths of both the argument and the objection I suggest that death is not important but that preparation is still necessary because in order to have freedom during life (which is important), we must prepare for death. I do not state that by preparing for death, death will be better. It is really that if we prepare for death, life will better. This however rubs against the grain of our nature to consider that preparing for something isn’t to make that moment better, but instead to make us better, before and after the moment. But truly, that is the value of preparation, and therefore, in order to find freedom we must understand death not for the importance of death but for the way in which if affects our important lives. Death isn’t getting the attention it deserves, and I think we need to think about it, talk about, ponder it, get close to it, and prepare for it.

Work Cited
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Bantam Classics). New York: Bantam Classics, 1981. Print.

Murphy, Jeffrie G., Rationality and the Fear of Death, Monist, 59:2 (1976:Apr.)

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1969. Print.

Monday, January 25, 2010

You Can Call Me Akfak

The Sisohpromatem

When Blatta Polyphagidae awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed on his trash into a tiny human. He began to choke. Desperately searching for the correct use of lungs, which were foreign objects to him. Normally Blatta could last without air for about thirty minutes, but he had a feeling that with these lungs he wouldn't last that long. Slowly, Blatta's choking turned to panting, and he got the hang of human breathing. The outside of the Welch's juice box in which he resided began to fluctuate in size with every confused breath Blatta took. Somewhat looking like a lung itself.

Blatta was a baby-boomer. All throughout his youth he and his friends salivated over the prospect of nuclear war. They had once seen on a paper that if humanity destroys itself with nuclear war, cockroaches would inherit the Earth. Blatta was an avid collector of newspaper clippings that mentioned nuclear war. He would collect them, display them, and then get hungry and eat his shrine of nuclear hope. This cycle repeated itself.

"What has happened to me?" Blatta wondered painfully. It was no dream. He thought he could go back to sleep and reawaken as a cockroach again but that was out of the question. And for some reason, sticky grape juice residue didn't feel very comfortable anymore, in fact, it was quite bothersome. Blatta became hungry, even starving. "But I just ate three days ago, how could i be hungry?"

Blatta crawled on all fours through the rip in the juice box. His tender skin was torn on the door and bright red blood ran down his side and onto his double mint doorstep. Blatta had never felt so uncomfortable. Hungry, sticky, and worse—leaking red juice. Blatta remembered where he had seen his favorite snack a year earlier.

He took an enormous bite into the back of the stamp, anticipating that it would end his hunger and satisfy his taste, as stamp glue had always done. Instead, it was disgusting and he promptly disposed of the stamp glue in his mouth and began to rain from his eyes. His thorax, or what he thought was his thorax, began to ache.

Feeling lonely, Blatta followed poop paths in search of his fellow cockroaches. By the time Blatta found another cockroach, his hands and knees were caked with cockroach crap. It was his sister that he found, and when she paused from inhaling banana peels, she looked up at Blatta, screamed, and scurried away as fast as her prothoracic, mesothoracic and metathoracic legs could carry her.

Walking Out the Door

The good bye party was painfully joyful, drawn out, and chaotic. From six until ten I found myself receiving dancing advice from ten year olds who couldn’t hold it back while they watched me dance, listening to a song that a group of guests had rehearsed about friendship, crying in my room, and standing in the center of a fifty-person group hug that swayed back and forth over the sala floor. I left Annunciation House at six am the next day with my three sisters and my three trash bags packed in Jet, my toyota. We traveled east on 10, heading towards the rising sun.

The sun came up in front of us and went down behind us. We were in big old Texas for all of it. I was surprised that no heavy emotions or separation anxiety came over me. I was just driving, and not thinking about much else. Transitions always seem to be less dramatic than I envision.

At three in the morning, excluding gas fills, we hadn’t stopped driving. A caffeine high sister decided that we would pull off and find a Tennessee state park, sleep for a few hours, and then continue. As we entered the heavily coniferous state park, and drove past signs for “rustic cabins,” we had delusions that we could find them, peacefully enter, and borrow the beds for a night. Instead we pulled off a dirt road and tried to sleep. One sister accidentally opened a window a crack and the clamor of her chattering teeth became background music to the rest of us. The other two tried balancing their heads against each other as they tried to find comfort among the steering wheel, center console, and all the other impediments of the front seats. After two hours of futile fake sleep, I hopped in the drivers wheel, and took us to Nashville. Weary eyed, we entered a starbucks, brushed our teeths, deoderized, face-washed, and rested a bit until we made the final push to Ashville, North Carolina.

We arrived in Ashville at four thirty which put an end to our epic thirty four hour (look at “four” and “hour” next to must be easy learning to pronounce english words) drive. Next day’s destination was Reston, Virginia where we spent the night, and then continued to New Hampshire the following snowy morning. It snowed all day, and at some point Jet decided to test my skill. The windshield wiper fluid pump ceased to work, which left me periodically rolling down the window, and reaching around to pour fluid on the windshield, as I steered with my other hand. This seemed to do the trick. Jet didn’t succeed in killing me.

Before I knew it, I was back home. After five months on the border I was back to my parallel universe, feeling funny about how easy it was to jump from one reality to the other. I found myself patiently waiting for something to hit me. Now that it has, I wish I had been more patient.

Annunciation House has left me with some things that I won’t be able to get rid off. A knowledge that the more I have the less others have. A knowledge that my lifestyle has the potential to send others into poverty. A realization that there are things more important than my anal antics. A heavy heart that can’t shake off the tears of humans. A view of the dark world that also exists.

It is a swift farewell to the things little Danny dreamed of and worked towards. Good bye to the ambitions of power, a big house, cars, success, approval, and affirmations. So now, I am back to the world in which those goals ruled my life, but I am left without those goals. I am drunkenly stumbling to splice these parallel worlds together, and really, it is really hard.

Exactly at the same moment everything seems to really matter while nothing seems to matter at all. I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way.
I was always good at limbo growing up. But I can’t get under the bar this time.

I’ll start school in about a week, and I hope and fear equally for distraction.