Saying good-byes is never easy, but it has proven more difficult than I ever would have imagined at the start of my Peace Corps service over two years ago. I sit here in my adobe house in a mountain top village in the western highlands of Guatemala profoundly changed by this experience.
Words cannot describe.
Rural poverty can often be romanticized as living a quiet bucolic provincial life closer to the land, but my time in Comitancillo, the community where I served, has stripped away any veneer that may have clouded its harsh reality. To romanticize how people live, especially the Mayan women whom I worked with, is another way of dismissing them.
Comitancillo has the second highest rate of malnutrition in Guatemala, a country that has the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. The average birth rate among women I work with is 8. Infant mortality soars and alcoholism ravages.
Peace Corps is not a whirlwind two week voluntourist trek. Far from it. I do not romanticize my experiences here either. Many fellow volunteers who I entered service with hoping to get involved in development work after have sworn it off as too frustrating. I understand the sentiment, but because of the amazing women I had the privilege of working with, I feel nothing short of inspired.
Before entering Peace Corps, many of my beliefs were not founded on experience, but rather on a book I read or a conversation with a college professor. After two years living here, I have found so many of my prior convictions fallen to the wayside while others have been strengthened.
I am a feminist. Dirty word, I know. And I probably wouldn’t have been wearing it across my chest two years ago, but something happened to me without my even taking notice at first. I spent two years educating Mayan women living in extreme poverty and because I am a woman, I couldn’t help but imagine what my life would be like if I were in their place.
Most are illiterate having received little or no formal education; at every meeting I have to bring an ink pad so that the women can sign in using a thumbprint. Most show up with a child strapped to their back and another in tow as the birthrate looms at 8. They are weather worn from the daily routine that includes carrying firewood, cooking over open fires, hiking long distances through the harsh mountainous terrain, and caring for children and animals. Alcoholism plagues the local population and many deal with abusive husbands. And there is no domestic abuse hotline or shelter in Comitancillo. As the women say, they have to “aguantar”, endure. On top of this, they are Mayan, inexcusably relegated to the outskirts of an unimaginably forgetful and often uncaring world.
What ever happened to the Maya?
I remember studying these “ancient” populations in school as if they were extinct. Far from it. They have survived through Spanish colonization and enslavement, a coup staged by the United States’ CIA of a democratically elected president calling for land reform (United Fruit Company wasn’t such a fan...), the resulting genocide of the Mayan accused of being Communists, and now, a country deeply divided along lines of race and socioeconomic status. And yet 60% of the population in Guatemala remains indigenous... proudly.
The Mayan women I work with are nothing short of inspiring. They stand small of stature, most barely reaching 5 feet in height. Many of their smiles, some of the most beautiful I have ever seen, reveal spaces formerly occupied by teeth. They cover their bodies in colorfully embroidered blouses called huipiles, and cortes, ankle reaching woven fabric wrapped around their lower bodies and cinched with a cloth band, a faja.
Without even knowing what constitutes being an environmentalist or a feminist, never mind an ecofeminist, they are the movement’s strongest constituents. They may not be able to read what the laws say, but they sure as hell are there when protests happen because they can clearly tell the difference between right and wrong. They march against mining companies, not for overarching philosophical ideals, but because they know that their families and animals will not survive if they do not have clean water to drink. They took time they never had to go to talks I gave on organic gardening techniques, because they saw how costly chemicals could be, both monetarily and environmentally. They planted gardens and learnt about nutrition. They quietly asked questions about family planning not wanting to be persecuted in a culture dominated by machismo and the Catholic Church. Everything they ever learned has a practical application and so they concern themselves with the daily “lucha”, an overriding word meaning both the fight and the struggle.
Everyday I wake up in Guatemala and I feel blessed. What a gift. I have a college education, unheard of in my community, especially for a woman. I will never have to “aguantar” an abusive relationship. I am 27 years old and childless by choice. I feel powerful by virtue of knowing my rights and being able to exercise them.
Still, women have a long way to go, not just in Guatemala, but the world over. We are bound by media portrayals that poison us, and culturally imposed expectations that it is often easier to conform to rather than to rebel against. And still, I feel comparatively free.
As my grandmother always says, “The world is your oyster. Enjoy it.”, and so I aspire to.
It is with equal measure of anticipation and fear that I am returning to the United States. I keep asking myself, Where do I fit? I am apprehensive to return to a culture that is obsessed with images that are nothing short of just that, images. Nothing real. I don’t want to be seen as self-righteous, but I am genuinely concerned about returning to a place that frankly, just doesn’t care. I have no job, no lover, no car, no home.
And yet... now know I have so much.
I feel like a fully formed person, a woman, and I’m not sure I would have been able to say this two years ago struggling with that requisite mid-twenties existential crisis. I know how I feel, and yet am now more accepting of diverse opinions than I was as a “cocksure” (eh-hem) college student. I had the privilege of two years in Peace Corps with many evenings left free to contemplate the drastically different environment I willingly immersed myself in. I watched the rise of a recession and the institution of the first black president from a primarily observant perspective.
And so it is with both apprehension and pride that I return to the country that has afforded me all of these opportunities. Thank you to both my friends and family in the States and my friends that became family in Guatemala for all the love and support.
Keep on fighting the good fight.
Much love and peace,
Read the following article featured in the Economist to learn more about Guatemala and malnutrition...