February 9, 2013
The Chinese food in Honduras is to die for, such that I’ve come to think of the national dish as some variation of chop suey. The baleada, forget it, it’s the plate of fried rice we all crowd around under the bright lights of a flat screen television blasting the re-run of Honduras’ triumpht goal over the U.S. soccer team last week.
On a Friday night, we head to Mandarin, a local favorite in Las Lomas, positioning ourselves strategically between the kitchen and the bar, but in the corner small table where we are now feeling a bit claustrophoic as we increasingly become surrounded by Honduran extended families. The kids kneel down in the walkways pushing their tiny fast cars, some hide under tables, throw fortune cookies in the aquarium while huge spoonfuls of noodles, rice and dumplings are heaped on family members’ plates. Agua fresca de Maracuya and Salva Vidas are the preferred drinks and I’m eyeing the spring rolls at the table across from me.
It’s become a spontaneous Girls’ Night Out for the nonprofit ladies of Honduras. It strikes me because it’s the first time I’ve sat with women from Central America, who are in their 30s, single, don’t have children, are educated, living on their own, work in the nonprofit sector and wear their independence proudly. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re looking for something until you find it – so after all these years, I find it in Tegucigalpa: The do-gooder women friends and the Chinese food, even better than the food I had in Taiwan years ago when I would roam the night markets for dinner around midnight.
Sandra, Hirania and Nora all work at FUHRIL, a long-standing nonprofit that’s served people with disabilities for 30 years. I try to say the name between mouthfuls of fried tofu cubes and they laugh. They’re definitely laughing at me, but I don’t mind because I just want to know about their organization; I’m just not sure how to broach the topic. So we make jokes instead. We order, un pescado entero, beef chop suey, dumplings, rice and, of course, french fries. It’s been a long week so: vodka, sangria and beer. We ask the waiter if he can change the TV channel to the station playing UB 40. He is gracious and changes the channel. Nora starts talking about a muro, a large wall they’re building. A wall, I ask. “To keep the ladrones out.” People break into the buildling to steal – wheelchairs, hearing aids for the half-deaf children, supplies, anything, even the electricity wire inside the walls. There are big holes in the walls they’ve made to pull out the wire.
It makes their life harder. Not only do they not have much funds to do their work, but now the crooks are taking everything from a building donated to them from the Honduran government. “We asked for someone from the army to stand guard outside our building, but nothing,” Sandra tells me. Sandra has short hair, glasses, gray eyes and is one of 14 children from Choluteca. She has been vegetarian all her life and believes in adopting children because that’s what’s needed in the world.
The food comes and my indignation at the unfairness of it all subsides. But it rankles in the pit of my stomach where the food hasn’t reached yet. This feeling stays with me the entire night.
They do a lot, sign language training, make affordable hearing aides and wheel chairs, help people register as disabled with the State to receive much needed discounts and educational attention, case management, policy proposals for urban development that is friendlier to disabled people, media campaigns to stop the silence around disability and the list is long. This weekend they’re doing a training, a training of trainers, focusing on teaching human rights to people working with those with disabilities. Later I find out some of the trainers themselves have disabilities.
How can it be that you do so much and get so little funding? I ask, knowing the answer after so many years in nonprofit work. They look at each other and burst into laughter. I stuff myself with more food, ashamed. Nonprofits are nonpofits in every part of the world.
When I was six years ago and having recently immigrated from Guatemala, the other kids thought I was disabled because I didn’t know English and couldn’t speak in their language. I stared out the window most of the school day, watching the snow fall on the sidewalk, snow I had never seen in my life, and disappear into the asphalt. The Catholic nuns then began to teach me English and I learned it in three months, enough to talk back to kids who called me a “retard”. Except I still read slowly, slower than most, and still today because of my dyslexia, the reading is slow going. I didn’t consider myself a person with disability, but others did. I was fortunate because I never stayed at the same school for more than one year, so I could reinvent myself and omit certain details about my life. It was my own private disability. I tell this to Hirania as she’s driving me home and she doesn’t skip a beat: “You read slowly because you had dyslexia and it probably affected your ability to also learn another language.” That’s right, I tell, that’s exactly what happened.
A couple of hours later we are the last ones in the restaurant. The waiters are eating their dinner and the lights have been turned off in one part of the restaurant. We don’t notice. At this point, we’ve thrown ourselves head first into the work of FUHRIL. I learn that they even built parts of their facility using bottle construction and Red Bull cans. I’m writing tons of notes and suggesting fundraisers with jazz musicians, a Kickstarter campaign to help build their wall, an art exhibit with photographs of their clients, a media campaign just with testimonials, grants, you name it, the creative juices are flowing.
But in the end, it’s the same note of disappointment: they can barely keep up with their current work, much less add more. I ask them how I can help? Sandra smiles, la cuenta comes, and I reach in my pocket for my wallet. Sandra shakes her head and takes the bill, wags her finger at me. “This one is on us, you’ve had to put up with all of us tonight!” Sanda says. I am caught off guard and don’t even know what to say, except this: I want to take video testimonials of the people who have gained something from the program. She nods in agreement, her head bent over the bill. Then she looks up. “It’s something we could use your help with.” How about we start tomorrow? I ask.
Saturday afternoon I am driven by Hirania into a very dangerous part of Tegucigalpa that is a “red zone” because of all the gang-related violence and narco-trafficking. Their training is at the Catholic Church activity center, the one with the rolls of barbed wired above the matching gray-colored steel double doors that only someone from the inside can open with the push of a button. There’s cameras on every corner of the building and I feel that I am about to enter an immaculate prison. Hirania calls and the double doors open slowly while a couple of guards watch to see who’s coming into the facility.
When I went to St. Mary’s church in Lancaster, I remember the creaking sound of the big gates the nuns would close shortly after the bell rang. I watched from the second floor library as the latecomers hurried to beat the closing of the doors only to be reprimanded by Sister Mary Catherine who wagged her finger at them. Her black robe swished just above her ankles as she hurried them in, like a hen getting her chics into the nest.
I lived one block from the school and walked over before anyone else, but Sister Mary Catherine who would open the library for me to read and do my English homework. It felt safe inside, after our journey by land from Guatemala. St. Mary’s was my first refuge.
We parked, I got my camera and tripod and went up the stairs. Sandra smiled a very warm smile when she saw me. I wonder if in part she expected me to come at all. “Let me introduce you,” she said pointing to the large classroom packed with students staring at the newcomer. That’s not necessary, I told her. “Nonsense, come with me,” and she pulled me to the front of the room, just like in the old days when I was the new girl at yet another school. “Tell them who you are, they want to know why you’re here.” Sandra said to me in front of everyone.
“Good afternoon to all of you,” I began nervously (Should I slow down, should I talk louder? Could they hear me? I thought to myself.). “It’s a pleasure to be here to help in any way that I can in your work.”
I felt their warm gazes and smiles looking back at me as Nora translated into sign language what I was saying. Her hands stopped and she waited for me to say the next sentence. I turned back to the students.
“I’m here to hear your stories, if you’ll tell them to me, I can share them with everyone else.”