Friday, April 20, 2007

Semana Santa "Holy Week" in Guatemala

I can sum up the past four weeks in ten words: Danny visited(!), El Salvador, Tikal, Semana Santa processions, Iximche’, and Quetzaltenango. But of course you have no idea what any of that means, so I will give you one piece at a time.

Piece #1: Danny visited me for the holy week of Easter and it was truly magical. We visited El Salvador on a class trip, the Maya site of Tikal on our own and Antigua for the Semana Santa processions, and I want to thank him publicly for such a beautiful and breathtaking week. Here is a photograph that encapsulates the feelings of the week: discovery, enchantment and tenderness. (The photo is from atop Maya ruins at Tikal overlooking Temple IV, which is peeking out of the forest canopy between our feet.)

Piece #2: When we crossed the border into El Salvador, I found the differences with Guatemala striking. Driving through the green countryside, I first noted the well paved and maintained roads. Plainly the Salvadoran government had at one time spent a good deal of effort and money to develop and maintain clear passageways through the country (more so than the Guatemalan government). However, alongside these well managed highways and underneath large billboard advertisements championing capitalistic ideals were shanty towns of poor squatter communities with nothing more than plastic, wood and garbage for homes. The dichotomy and allocation of resources was arresting. This contradiction sent a clear message: even today, the El Salvadorian government is more interested in being able to manage and oversee its people (through the use of well paved roads allowing easy travel and close tabs on all areas of the country) than to house or feed them.

It was especially intriguing to note the dissenter psyche of the people persevering in the capital city of San Salvador. When our class visited the National University, I was immediately aware of the explosive feel of the campus because of a strike between workers and professors. The campus was littered with trash (as a form of protest by the workers); there was a burnt and painted shell of a car denouncing a particular professor as the culprit for the demonstration, and graffiti was everywhere: on buildings, fountains, monuments and the ground. It seemed that graffiti was an accepted form of expression and forum of opposition. I thought how this sort of student reactionary behavior to an administrative dispute would never take place within the sterile and sheltered universities of the United States. It was fascinating to see the students actively oppose a bureaucratic issue. I noted that this unrest and suspicion of authority is what unites and, in part, defines the young generation of Salvadorians; and rightfully so - they grew up during a bloody and savage civil war.

With our ex-guerilla fighter and marxist professor, we visited the Museo de la Voz y la Imagen, which is dedicated to maintaining the history of the civil war (with no help from the government which has no museum or dedication to the war). Seeing photos of the horrifying massacre in the pueblo of El Mozote was intensely haunting and compelling. Among such disheartening images and histories, I was impressed by the way in which the museum director spoke about the events. She presented the exhibition and repeated one theme over and over: the importance of remembering what happened so that it would not happen again. This hopeful understanding of her purpose within the museum and her duty to the future and past generations of Salvadorians was commanding and I admired her sense of purpose.

What impressed me most was a F.M.L.N. (the political party created from the revolutionary efforts of the 80's) legislative tribunal in the central square of San Salvador. With the National Cathedral looking down upon us, senators from the F.M.L.N. party summarized the past week’s governmental activities and led an open discussion, fielding public commentaries. The hundreds of people who had gathered in the square listened to the demands, approvals, and criticisms of the government, (all made by fellow ordinary citizens) and either applauded or hissed as they saw fit. To me, this was the most impactful experience of El Salvador, because I have never seen any example of representative government truly this direct and from the heart of the people. The senators stood there and listened to the desires of the people they represent without censuring or reviewing what was being said, and truly connected as all of it was broadcasted live on the radio. My feelings were intensified by the nearby presence of the steps of the National Cathedral, where, not twenty years ago, unarmed members of the very same party, the F.M.L.N. were massacred by the government during a peaceful demonstration.

Our final day in El Salvador we rode in the back of a pickup truck and trudged on foot through the rough Guazapa hills to visit the base camp and strong hold for the revolutionaries during the war. As we passed over rotten and weathered old boots, tin cans, and bullet shells – remnants of the fight there – we were guided by an ex-guerilla fighter named Orlando. He cautioned us to stay on the trail, because landmines are still present. Seeing how the fighters lived for the years of the war made me realize just what exactly these men and women gave up to be there. And how much they believed in their fight against the government, in order to make those sacrifices.

Our professor had this to say about our experience, “What you saw was a great achievement for El Salvador: a lot of people died for you to be able to see that F.M.L.N. meeting. A lot blood, tears and sacrifice was given for that meeting to be there. El Salvador isn’t in heaven, but change has happened. Our guide, Orlando, only left the Guazapa Hills once during the 10 year war; once to fight in the capital of San Salvador. He spent his entire life fighting in Suchitoto; he sacrificed his youth. Before, in his time, you never would have been able to go the places you have been, and see the things you have seen, and this in itself is progress.”

Piece #3: Last weekend’s travels included the Maya site of Iximche’ ruins and the second largest city in Guatemala; colonial Quetzaltenango. Photos do these experiences better justice:

What the World Wants Most

In the dining room of my home, with leftovers of dinner spread out over the flowered table cloth, laced doilies covering every visibly flat surface, and strange figurines peaking out from the silverware cabinet, Victoria and I sat talking about her childhood. Victoria told me that she was one of 12 children born to a very poor Guatemalan family. Her mother was always tired from working and her father was generally too drunk to have a steady job. She started working when she was seven years old, after only two years of school. In her home town of Quetzaltenango (very cold climate) she had slept on the ground with her brothers and sisters because the family didn’t own beds. She remembered receiving her first pair of shoes when she was 15 years old. She talked about not being educated and held up her calloused hands, saying that these were the reason that she was still alive. She has worked hard her entire life for the things she has. She looked around her dinning room, her kingdom, and added that she never would have dreamed that one day she would own a home. Not one like this.

Henry drove us through the foggy, curving hills surrounding Quetzaltenango and talked about how he had learned English, a story which I have heard over a dozen times. He worked in the U.S. for a couple of years doing “a little bit of everything.” He described this part of his life as terrible. Not because of living conditions (although they were pretty terrible too – sharing a single home with dozens of people, sleeping in shifts in order to save more money to send back home), but because he left his wife and 5 year old son behind. He said, “No one should have to live like that. Alone.” He told us that for the first two years he talked to his son on the phone every night; because he wanted his son to remember who he was. He was terrified of his son forgetting him. And his son was terrified of his father forgetting him – he would ask his father “Do you still love us Daddy? Do you have another wife there? Do you have other children?” This broke his heart. He said that most men do get remarried and start new families after two or more years, but he couldn’t do that to his family. So he came back. And now he is the center of his son’s universe. He said that his son never leaves his side. When I asked him where he would prefer to live, he said firmly, “With my family.” When I clarified and asked if he would prefer to live in the states or here in Guatemala, he thought for a second and then said: “In the U.S. you can work there for three months and save enough money to buy a car, but here you can work for 5 years and not make anything. Life is better there.”

I met my friend Vinicio through the magic of music. Every morning I woke up to reggaeton thumping through my bedroom wall and decided that I needed to meet the mystery neighbor behind the hip-hop beats. I was greeted by a genuine mustached smile, English gangster slang and South Side LA tattoos covering most of his body. As we swapped music, we swapped stories and I learned that he had been in jail for the past three years (his second time) and that he had been let out early. He told me his story with as much honesty and sincerity as one could imagine. He didn’t hide anything; the good or the bad. Vinicio was born in Guatemala, but moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was about five years old. He described himself as the black sheep of his family and said that he got involved with gangs when he was really young (his first time in jail was age 17). After he got out this second time, he knew that he could never really go back to L.A. because he would just be killed. One way or another, the gangs would suck him back in and he would end up dead. So without anything but the clothes on his back he took all of his money and bought a plane ticket to Guatemala. He talked about wanting to do better by his Lord and about how he loved his God and his Virgin Mary in a way that he just couldn’t understand when he was younger. He talked about wanting to turn it around and live right. Working two honest jobs here in Antigua and staying away from Guatemala City (where there is a twin gang for every gang in the U.S.) are his best bets at starting over. Vinicio talked about how hard life was in jail – “I learned respect in jail. You have to. Even something like moving the TV screen can get you stabbed if you don’t ask first. You have to respect everything and everyone or else you will end up dead.” And he described how hard it is adjusting to life outside of jail. Breaking habits like eating meals in silence and adjusting to sleeping in a room alone are the minor things. What is hardest for him is that he doesn’t really feel connected to anyone here. He is without any real friendship. His family back home doesn’t believe that he has started over (which he doesn’t blame them for, cause he hasn’t given them much to believe in), and his second family, his gang, the ones that he grew up with, the ones that would have died for him (and he clarified that no one ever wants to die, but you back your boys and fight for them) he must avoid and hide from. He is alone in a foreign homeland.

Everywhere that I have visited in the world, people are all saying the same thing: “We want a safe home, we want a loving family, we want true friends.”