jueves, 29 de octubre de 2009

one last breath...


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.

For example...

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.

Amazing women. 

Humble revolutionaries.

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...










martes, 2 de diciembre de 2008

amalia and me at the river

lunes, 3 de noviembre de 2008

celebrating day of the dead in todos santos
todos santos drunken horce race

my good friend juanita giving a charla
preparing lunch with the ladies

jueves, 30 de octubre de 2008

just a quick note...

at a time when international diplomacy seems more important than ever, peace corps is facing cuts. although with a faltering economy it is understandable that everyone needs to start tightening their belts, peace corps is not where the US government should be cutting back.

read this...

"Congress loves the Peace Corps . . . and in most cases accommodations are made to give it a little bit more," said Maureen Carroll, who went to the Philippines in the first wave of volunteers in 1961 and still helps with training. "But if they think it is a good thing or a nice thing, it seems they don't think about it enough to double or triple its funding. There are a lot of competing forces."
(quoted from LA Times article below)


President elect Barack Obama has stated that he wants to double the size of the Peace Corps by the year 2011, the organization's 50th Anniversary. Please visit the below website and sign a petition to get "More Peace Corps".


...there seems to have recently been many areas where the US government has gone wrong, but through my own experiences as a volunteer i have come to believe peace corps is something they've actually done right.

write to your senator and let them know what you think.


martes, 28 de octubre de 2008

afternoon with the ladies of taltimiche

domingo, 5 de octubre de 2008

going home again...

last month i loaded my backpack with a bathing suit and a couple pair of clean underwear heading back to the ¨home¨I left almost exactly one year ago.

volunteers returning stateside during their service seem to have mixed experiences. some, especially those that go back during the holiday onslaught, become woozey and a bit overwhelmed by the pressing weight of reimmersion in the consumer culture they (happily...) left behind. others delve giddily into the so-called luxuries they previously took for granted: hot showers and cold beverages.

i thankfully felt a healthy balance of each.

i got off the plane in fort lauderdale ready to make my connection and was immediately struck by how enormous people were. they were tall and just massive. it was strange having left a town where the majority of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition to a nation of Goliaths. i am by no means a petite woman standing at a seemingly towering 5 feet 8 1/2 inches here in guatemala. upon arrival i felt transformed into a liliputian bouncing down the hall like an in the flesh version of pong.

passing through customs did little to assuage my nerves.

HAVE YOUR PASSPORTS OUT AND READY PEOPLE!!! why the hell were they screaming at me? i got off the plane and all the sudden was being barked at in english.

i´ve never seen anyone more misserable in their work environment than the woman working the xray machine in fort lauderdale airport.i quietly shuffled through the line wondering silently to myself if it wasn´t to late to turn back. i got to the passport check and the man behind the counter looked me up and down quizically. he questioned how it was possible to have left the country for a year and only be returning with a small backpack. i explained i was in the peace corps. he looked at my bleary eyes, worn out hikers, and patched jeans and seemed convinced....

yup, definetely peace corps.

i made a run to the ladies room, got in a stall, and just sat there.

i felt like a lost kid in a supermarket searching around a sea of legs wondering where my mama went. i sat on a toilet with my head in my hands feeling sorry for myself. i wanted to go home. i thought back to my typical morning commute through the mountains of guatemala looking down on silent clouds floating below my feet. i listened to the conversation of women carefully applying their daily war paint in the mirror outside and began to wonder if this was still my world.

after a few more minutes of wallowing with little other alternative i decided to face the crowds.

i can't say that my reaction was surprising. even prior to my departure to peace corps i had been trying to embrace a more simplified pace of life. every time i turned on the tv i felt bored and even repulsed. if media is a mirror to culture then we should be embarrassed as to what our reflection reveals about our own displaced values. this is not to say i am by any means a moral purist. i drink modestly, smoke occasionally, swear regularly and with ease, and believe in freedom of speech despite what (some) conservatives swear is derailing so called "patriotism" and "traditional values". still, when what captures our imagination are dumb-downed reality shows and 16 year olds that place little value on anything apart from possessions, it makes one wonder, what are we choosing to worship?

philosopher of religiosity paul tillich once made us consider, what are our ultimate concerns? it may be time to revisit this culturally and societally defining question. we are loathed on the international stage and fighting to maintain some crumb of credibility in the diplomatic realm. predictably, cnn polls reveal a country divided geographically with the red states settling in a neat pile at the bottom and center of the map, and the blue states slowly seeping in along the northern and coastal edges.

there seems to be widespread panic that the united states is flailing. that we may not be able to maintain our vigilent watch as the leader of the free world. and why should this cause such an inflated inferiority complex? so what if we are number two or even number three? yes, it may mean that we have to take public transportation, and limit the daily latte consumption. but don´t worry. you´ll be fine. the united states has the infrastructure, educational base, and technological capabilities to withstand a financial meltdown.

we will not end up suffering the financial and human hardships that guatemala struggles with every day.

the united states has been on a material pandemic binge in recent years and it is only natural that there would be a resulting reverse effect. we treated clothes not as something to uphold modesty and warmth, but rather as a disposable razor; used a few times and then thrown out when the most recent issue of cosmo informs us that it has been relegated to the ¨don´t¨list. we sat our children in front of television sets for an average of four hours a day and then wondered as their attention spans were widdled down to the length of the typical 30 second commercial spot. we medicated our children with ritalin and ourselves with prozac transforming the word ¨stress¨from a noun into a verb. we bought every fast food gimic including scantily clad pop goddesses and suffered from diabetes and heart disease as a result. and so hear we stand, the so-called leaders of the developed world, bloated from a solid 20 years of excess.

as sarah palin strides onto the political stage in her three inch heels and plastered smile expousing values of "small town america", i wonder does that america exist any longer? she is appealing to a nation nostalgic for a time when things were supposedly simpler. it is an understandable yearning as the United States (and global) economy faces a heady and uncertain future. we want something as comforting as grandma's apple pie and palin's "gee whiz" and "gosh darn't" wholesomeness seems to many an appropriate dose of old fashioned medicine.

still, i doubt as to whether the nation palin speaks about actually can still be found. as her political rallies are lined with (lets face it) a sea of white women proudly sporting american flag paraphenalia it makes me wonder if these supporters are truly listening to the v.p. candidate´s words. sure, she can deliver a heck of a prepared speech complete with appropriate winks and "you betchas", but do the views she relays accurately reflect the world we currently live in or even aspire to live in? her candor, outside of face to face interviews where (gasp!) she is made to think on her own, is said to appeal to the "everyday six-pack joe" and "hockey mom". But truth be told, how many of us currently truly fit into those stereotypes?

women are not just hockey moms and thank god for that.

recently in a phone conversation my father told me of a sign in a neighbor's yard proudly declaring "WOMEN FOR PALIN!" accompanied by a hot pink high heel. i greatly admire the strong work ethic of both governor palin, senator hillary clinton, and other women that choose to enter the political realm. that is why they should be touted as role models for young women; because of their intelligence and conviction. not because of their oh-so fahionable glasses, or the amount of leg they choose to bare (or not bare) at political conventions.

when did the high heel become the symbol for women's lib??

in the year 2007 it is disappointing to see how far women still have to go in order to achieve gender equity. it is even more disappointing to see many women themselves buying into the shallow images being distributed by the republican campaign. as much as i am happy to see a woman standing at the forefront of politics, her vagina is never going to be the reason why i choose to vote for her.i felt at times what could best be described as pitty for senator clinton as she made a tough race for the democratic candidacy. she is what i see as a fiercely intelligent politician well-versed in the pitfalls and possibilities that arise upon murky capitol hill. she has stood firm in her support of reproductive rights for women including to the controversial morning after pill. yet, as a candidate she was constantly being told to "soften" her image. it was believed that the public just couldn't handle a tough woman. so a political candidate in the running for what is arguably the most powerful job in the world was reduced to doing fashion critique for glamour magazine.

as tina fey quipped that "bitch is the new black", on SNL i couldn't help but notice that the immediate parallel being drawn between women in politics was to fashion.

all candidates, no matter what their sex, are in some ways obligated to do the talk show circuits discussing their leisure activities with Regis and making fun of themselves on SNL, and it is important part to getting to know a candidate. still, there seems to be added pressure for female politicians to not come off as too "hard". they are encouraged to relay their maternal instincts to audiences basking in the light of little junior's successes on the baseball field or jane's success in the school geography bee .although i think parenting skills may be in some way a testament to a candidate's character, what does it have to do with solving the current economic crisis and how as president they would handle a war spiraled out of control in the middle east?

as women, we have fought long and hard to be able to have jurisdiction over our own bodies, and palin believes that, even in the case of rape, a woman should be denied her right to choice. our nation has made great stride in recent years in granting individual freedoms and not having government determine whom we choose to love (at least in some states), and what god we worship. palin represents a regression from all that progress we made.

there is a natural instinct to backpeddle when things go awry as they appear to be doing in the United States. as senator obama's campaign pronounces the need for "CHANGE", many citizens feel as though things are just changing a little too fast for their liking.

still, it is important that we heed the call for forward progress. as much as many would love to revert back to the pre-JFK provinciality of the 1950's, that time has passed. trying to mimick it would be in many ways nothing short of dangerous. time to move on.

it has been strange living in another country as the presidential campaigns unfold back in the states. it has also been scary. do i want to return to a country run by a president that sees a world divided and shirks off diplomacy as pandering to terrorists?

it remains an open ended question until we are made to answer and define ourselves in november.

after a few more hours en rounte i made it safely home. i lay on my bed in the same room i grew up in and stared up at my ceiling still decorated by glow in the dark stickers mimicking constellations.

despite a bit of a trying start i ended up having a WONDERFUL time in rhode island. i am blessed with an amazing family and friends. i am a beach soul through and through and miss it terribly living in the western highlands of Guatemala. although it was nice having good beer and ben and jerry´s ice cream, it is the people and the ocean i truly miss.

i parked myself on the sand for two weeks straight and soaked in as much of that salty air as i could. i was truly on vacation. i got to do all of those things that made my hometown such a special place to me...danced to some quality reggae at the mist with my love, got a vanilla chai at crazy burger, wore (scandolously) short skirts and bikinis without fear of being culturally inappropriate, bought the new york times on sunday morning, sat on grandma peg´s front porch, did a beautifully classic vermont hike at mount hunger, watched my cousins give an irish step dancing performance, and got rid of my farmers tan.

i understand the comforts of simplicity and why people are drawn to them. it was nice coming home and not thinking of anything beyond the food on my plate and people near to me. what we face now are questions of a more profound matter beyond this immediate material world. are the values of equality, and freedom we decree in national documents really what we are ready to put into action? i eventually had to return from days languished on the beach absorbed in books to the outside world too easily escaped.

it is of necessity to see those things which are beautiful in our everyday lives while at the same time recognizing that our everyday labours are a realization of our faith. our fear of inaddequacy, financial ruin, and failure will only be salvaged if we can see with clear eyes what is truly right in front of us this moment, and how our doings are in truth, an act of worship.

jueves, 10 de julio de 2008