When the rains come it’s hard to imagine a time when there was anything but the rain – the mid-afternoon antediluvian waters that carry you into a timeless state of waiting and expectation. Entropy quicken: roads crack, sinkholes open, houses tumble down cliffs, buses collide, and people race to take cover under awnings. The house shudders under heavy rolling thunder, roofs leak, cobblestone is drowned amid thick currents of brown water, the electricity flickers and then disappears taking us with it into a new darkness that to most people feels like winter. For me, it’s time to find a dark den. In the morning the sun hangs back behind ominous clouds and bursts through pockets of humidity and onto us, the specimens of this petridish.
One full year we’ve been here and in August we head back, this time to Texas, to find a headquarters. It’ll be easier that way. I will be more intentional with my chunks of time in Central America. Time passes quickly here as each raindrop that evaporates in the morning sun. Mi abuelita asked me once “¿Como vas a saber como pasa el tiempo si no tienes hijos?” How will you know how time passes if you don’t have children? I’ll know, I tell her, because I’ll feel it in my heart.
When she was visting a couple of weeks back, I had this distinct feeling this would be her last visit to Guatemala, to see her eldest two children and to see her country. “Hay me recuerdas no venir otra vez cuando este lloviendo.” Remind me not to come again when it’s raining. I smiled wondering how someone forgets that it rains more than half the year in their own country. We drove into the banana plantations to see Tío Nefta and I wondering about their life there and how back then it rained, just like now, but things were so different for them.
I’m remind you, I tell her. She doesn’t hear me as she watches the rain roll off the broad banana tree leaves. Half to herself she says: “Cuando hay sol, solo es el solo, cuando llueve, solo la lluvia.” When there is sun, there is only sun and when there is rain, there is only the rain.
In 1982 she came back, for me, for all of us. I was five-years-old and living in La Limonada, a section of Guatemala where you have to make, sell, get lemonade any way you can to survive. We lived in a one-room shack, five of us, with a dirt floor and two small beds that we pushed up against the wall to create a living space during the day. There were communal showers, one section for the women and one for the men, made out of unpainted cinderblocks creating a dark box with no electricity and when the water drained, the snakes would crawl in at night. Mi abuela and I always showered together during the day, right before I walked to school hand and hand with her. The buses rumbled past our house rattling our corrugated tin roof which made the afternoons unbearable with not a shadow to spare between the concrete and asphalt.
One day slipped into the next and I soon forgot that distant feeling of mi mama walking away from me and mi abuela’s firm hand not letting me run after her. We stayed there until her figure was so small against the horizon that it became a small grain of dirt against the jagged edges of the houses stacked up against the hill until the treetops reached for the fading sun. Inside there was a dull feeling of something emptying and falling upon itself.
She walked in as easily as she’d left, two years later, walking down the same street as if time was liquid and her body just flowed right towards us with the same electric walk that made people turn their entire heads to look at her. This time she walked towards me, towards us and not one of us knew she was coming. She opened the door while I was doing my homework and I thought I had invented her with my pencil midair, the shoulder-length, black hair, hour-glass figure, jeans tight against her tighs, and a cherub face with a mischevious grin. She had a gold front tooth and sometimes it would glimmer when she talked or when she made her final bet in family poker games.
Mi mama, la coyota. La machasa de la pelicula.
She took us back with her to the United States that year, threw us into the desert for thousands of miles through Mexico and across the Rio Grande that none of us, including her, could swim. We walked, bused, hitchhiked, tomamos jalones, hopped the trains, ate bread and butter sandwiches wherever we could. It never crossed our minds not to follow her. Who wouldn’t? She was bigger than life.
I’d follow her today, as she’s followed me back to Guatemala since 2009, since I moved here. I know every instinct of her tells her I, we shouldn’t be here, even as mi abuelita also makes her way back to Guatemala for Mother’s Day to see her children. I tell her mi mama it’s my turn to make a path to an unknown destination. She laughs, no longer with her gold tooth which she had taken out to blend in more in the U.S. “Guatemala I know,” she says. “You’ll just have to learn it for yourself.”
On El Día de la Mama, I thank mi abuelita for always being there for me and teaching me compassion. I thank Silvia, mi mama, the woman who has taught me to be exactly who she is: fearless.
It is our last run to the border, to La Mesilla, the border with Mexico which is six hours from Guatemala City. Five military checkpoints and countless speed bumps later we are in Comitan checking our email at an Internet cafe and waiting for the requisite hour to pass before Brad and I can get stamped to go back in. We opt for sitting inside this oven with Internet access where we can at least do some work while waiting. (My bag with my passport and cellphone falls into the toilet at the migration office before we head off to the cafe.) But no amount of tragedy can take away from my full-fledged support of this border Internet cafe where I have already suggested to the owner that having iced coffees and a hostel would bring the gringos in who are stuck waiting for their papers. She nods. She is open to it, she has thought about it many times, but the heat is too much to do more. A breeze blows in from over the mountains and sweeps up the dust on the sidewalk as I talk to her.
Each run for the border has its difficulties, this one is about the journey and not the end bureaucratic maze. The checkpoints came early and often – first the municipal police, then the national police, then the ejercito itself, the military, who are the easiest to deal with because they cannot be bothered with the small print. Fact is, it is all about the state of siege in Barillas and I want to be there before things get violent, which is unavoidable. The town has been striking against the new hydroelectric plant for two months now and this week they set fire to vehicles owned by the plant. The Guatemalan government has responded and brought in the troops. The town is not backing down.
We pass the turnoff to Barillas which is unmarked, but the military checkpoint tells me the way to Santa Cruz Barillas is right passed them. We drive on as life on the road because more vibrant. Women sit on the grass in small groups of colorful huipiles and babies in the center of them, men carry large loads of wood or tables twice as large as them strapped around their foreheads, the painted rocks from the 2011 election remain while mile after mile of trash pores along the side of the cliffs thousands of feet below. There is no barrier between your frail body and the fall.
You really have to want to be here.
Everywhere you are reminded that life means a lot less, if much at all. The jetlag sets in early today. A few days ago I stood on the edge of Tel Aviv and stared across the Mediterranean Sea, ushering in the day for Guatemala. It seemed so far away at that point and so difficult to describe for people. Standing at the foothills of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, I look eastward and think of the Mediterranean so far away and marvel at how different two countries can be.
From Jerusalem I bring back an old manual typewriter in a half torn case that cracks open the leather spine during all the security checks. Random people stare at it with familiarity or confusion, the security guards click on the keys and laugh with each other in Hebrew. Then I trek it across Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Madrid and then back to Guatemala feeling the weight of this commitment. Once the machine almost falls on my head from the overhead compartment as I board my plane from Madrid to Guatemala.
When I show it to my new friend Kiki she doesn’t know what to make of it, she turns it around and calls it the “typing machine”. I tell her it’s my story machine, beneath its heavy keys lies my novel. With the machine and my words I I will pivot towards Ma’ayan Alexander, another writer who gave me this machine – hers in Hebrew, mine in English. But both of us vowing to write our stories and what’s inside us from across the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, two magnets of intention forcing us to create, to weave narratives one heavy key at a time with no “delete” button. We will chisel into stone. But most importantly: I vow to write, we vow to write, the world vows with us and leans in to our stories.
Off of Allendale Street in Tel Aviv, I come searching for more ribbon. Isaac, the owner of the store, knows the machine well, an old sturdy friend he calls it. He tells me the catridges are no longer in the machine’s original red and black, but he’s got plenty of black. I ask him why they don’t make it in the original catridges and he laughs. “Where are you from?” He asks. I tell him Guatemala, via the United States, twenty hours away by plane. He pauses and stares at me waiting for a good story, but as I turn the new black cartridge in my hand, I get restless.
More and more these moments start to feel like a fragile egg I hold carefully in my hand where I have to pay very close attention to the cupping of the hand and the way I care for it as I move through the world or it moves through me.
All of my trip through Israel feels this way, an innate interwoven sacredness to interactions with people, with the religious history just beneath or on the surface, the politics of a present State and a future State, the diversity of the young State of Israel formed in 1948 by so many Jews taking refuge. And then there’s always the general pushy familial informality of Israelis. You have to think fast and think on your feet. There’s no room for ruminating, weighing out options, finding options, there is just well-grounded quick decision-making based on a local knowledge and history shared by everyone.
To learn the city, I ride the buses. The 31, the 18, the 161 through Jaffa and parts of Tel Aviv that later people stare at me in confusion wondering how I ended up there. I learn quickly that Tel Aviv is to play and Jerusalem is to pray. Later on, in Ramallah, I feel the heaviness of the occupation and the unhappiness that stems from it.
Predictability – it was a term I associated with boredom, with the unimaginative, the fearful, the ones who clutched to stability like a shawl of mediocrity. It was the haven of those who shunned the arbitrary and the changing nature of all things; the unexpected and unavoidable truth of our existence. It was the ditch we all had to learn crawl into and drink tea at the bottom, comfortably, still making meaning knowing that death, entropy and all things ended or stopped when we least expected. We vowed, I vowed, the vowing happened down there to make every moment count.
In the middle of editing a video, typing an invoice, opening emails, Skype work chats, and uploads my screen goes black suddenly. My mind and body having merged with the machine, I feel someone pulled the plug straight out of my back. I look around disoriented and then dread enters. Thunder rolls its deep baritone so far away in the distance that I can barely make out the sound before the second screen also goes black.
Somewhere the gods laugh. Sad, pathetic human to expect predictabilty and consistency.
I know better, it’s gone black many times before in the past month as the rainy season makes its early entry to Guatemala. I put my head between my hands and the only thing I see now is the green light of the power conditioner and battery back-up that has regained itself. I hear the brain, heart and soul of my computer start in the hard drive and I take a deep breath. No relief yet, just the expectancy when you jump one side of a river and hope your foot catches the other side just enough solid ground to make it over. The desktop comes up, but I cannot get into it, the computer freezes again before it goes black again, this time for longer. I do this a few times and each time it becomes more obvious I have stepped into a different part of the river and didn’t quite make it over. Perhaps I even fell in.
I start the restoring process from my back-up, 4 hours the status bar tells me. Minutes before I was moving fast, leapfrogging forward at the speed of light and now I’ve dropped back again into the ether. “Bossman say get your dirt out of his ditch, Luke.” Cool Hand Luke would then look up from deep in the ditch, rest his head on the handle of his shovel and then climb back up out of the ditch he’d dug for 15 hours straight. He’d dig another ditch and pretty soon the Bossman didn’t want that dirt there either. What breaks a person? Can a person be broken? Does bamboo break?
On the roads there are more military, policy and traffic checkpoints at different spots; the sidewalks are uneven so that wheelchairs are a rarity, pedestrian crosswalks are also rare, so people with babies cross impulsively the six-lane Roosevelt Avenue during rush hour; sometimes you wake up to Internet, but many times it’s a one-night stand; on a sunny day the electricity vanishes for hours and the water trickles in the evenings long after the tourists have abandoned the area to its long and slippery slope into rainy season. There’s no point to this piling up, things have to be seen independently in their own reality, microcosmically you look at your feet when you walk so you don’t fall. And if you fall you depend on the ground as the only solid thing that you can push yourself back up from.
On Friday the church bells of San Francisco did not ring at 6:30 AM. The day before I stopped setting my alarm clock and told myself it was OK to expect the bells to wake you, to always toll for my morning tea. Silly human. My class schedules change every week, there is no clear school calendar, and the parking we once had to park safely is also no longer something I can depend upon. I stop going to class, it’s too complex, the costs are too great for the little knowledge I gain in Guatemala City’s infamously targeted Zone 10. More and more I yearn for predictability. Do I grow old? Do I wear my trousers rolled? I tell myself it is natural to expect certain things to remain consistent and predictable. A society has to have predictable processes, the atoms depend upon it. I am happy to double roll my pants to cross from one side of the street to the next when it rains and the sewers will not drain and the cobblestone of the streets is missing cobblestone.
It’s a developing country, what do you expect?
The fact is I expect more. My Guatemalan mother expected more when the 15-hour days at United Fruit was her best hope for a stable life; her family expected more from three plus jobs in La Limonada where seven of us lived in a two-room shack along the cerro where the world ended. If a sinkhole opened up and swallowed us, nobody would have missed us. We all expected more back then in 1977 when my mother became a coyote, when her family all quit United Fruit, when we charted unknown terrain through Mexico, when we became undocumented labor arms moving with the waves and seasons of labor – chicken plants, tobacco, cotton, fruit picking – to find a place where we could expect and do more.
I made my way back because I expected more. I expect more. I don’t expect “developing” to be a word akin to resignation to things as they are, to the end that all things will meet. I expect developing to be more “we’re under construction” or these are our first steps, the first bricks, not grains, bricks we all put down to build something, an edifice, a monolith, a social body and state that is less fragmented, less dismembered, less Darwinistic.
A helicopter fell to earth yesterday, a straight drop from the sky, a fallen mechanical angel. We watched it crash between two houses and then I ran toward the plume of smoke out of instinct, nothing in my hand, just a response. It was nine in the morning. The quiet of our Sunday was broken by the sound of two overhead helicopters going from South to West, far and then near, away and then closer and closer. We’ve grown accustomed to more helicopters as Guatemala continues its march towards remilitarization, so we took a bite of our pancakes and thought nothing of it. I waited for the sound to fade with the distance. Instead it grew near again, until it was right over our rooftops.
When we opened the door we saw one of the helicopters pointed downwards against the blue western sky, suspended mid-air like a painting. A long breath escaped my mouth as it spun a few times and then dropped – the thread that held it to the sky having been cut suddenly, ever so delicately, by some force unseen. The fall to earth was great as a big crash of wood, adobe, tin all breaking filled the air.
“We have to help now,” I told Brad and ran quickly with a few other neighbors. On first street I turned right and saw the propeller sticking out like a chopstick from the roof. A dark cloud of smoke and dust was rose of the house; water streamed out from underneath the door. It was a matter of moments if the fuel tank from the helicopter had been damaged. We were up against time. Two of us banged on the door and nothing, we heard a scream. I told a neighbor we needed a ladder to break the door down. A white wooden ladder appeared from another neighbor’s house and all of us grabbed it and put all our force behind it. The doors splintered and opened. Other neighbors climbed the rooftop of the house next door and slowly the worker ants set out to get everyone out of the house – the dog, the family, the pilot, the survivors all injured. Brad brought me my camera and I knew what to do. I got out of the way and found a corner to tell the story from.
Time has a way of passing, one moment and then the next, a series of breaths that unwittingly lead you here. Quickly my mind, my heart rushes and fills – a balloon growing both inside and out and filling with some ungrasphable, intangible thing called living. It’s immediate, it’s primal, it’s the pure instinct and will to live at all costs and to help others do the same.
We are the eighth station of the cross right outside our doorstep, in our callejón, in our alley. The entire street is now one long alfombra of fresh pine needless neatly arranged over sawdust and sand with red flowers and pineapples to welcome Christ as he enters our rarely clean alley. Today you could eat the pineapple off the broken sidewalk. And lest we forget that today is the day Christ carries his burden into our humble narrow cobblestone alleyway where more gossip, envy and quiet stares abound, an altar has been placed in front of the parking lot entrance. This ensures we can’t flee, at least not quickly.
By now the number of people following the processions has increased and one procession flows into another into a long day punctuated by horns blasting and drums thumping down the streets. Black-veiled women and men carrying plastic spears dressed in Roman outfits create a human bubble for the large float bearing Christ and usually his mother Mary and some fallen angel at the end burning in red cardboard flames. Starting Thursday at 3 AM the Romans come to town fully clad and on white steeds. Thus begins the Passion and Death of Christ in a 15-20 hour day where the biggest float of them all carrying Christ out of La Merced Church in La Antigua, re-enacts the fourteen stations – each station standing for an event which occurred during Jesus’ Passion and Death at Calvary on Good Friday. Each stations of The Cross is a point of reflection, meditation and prayer for us sinnermen and women.
So what exactly happens at the eighth station?
The women kept coming and Jesus could hear them sobbing, crying and even wailing for him.
He was familiar with these scenes. They were common when disaster struck or a beloved one died. He had heard the wailing during the years he spent in Nazareth. He heard it again when he went to the house of Jairus in Cafarnaum (Mk 5,38-40) or to Bethany when Lazarus died.
The shrill pitch of the wailing made him stop. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children” (Lk 23,27).
They were stunned by his words. They could not reply. They did not understand what he was saying.
And he continued “For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then “they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Lk 23,29-31). They were taken aback.
But Jesus, even in this terrible moment, is not thinking only of himself, of his suffering, of his drama. He is concerned with the drama of humanity, of all human beings. He propheticaly saw another human drama opening in front of his eyes. And these wailing women had to change their lives.
How many times had he repeated this while preaching in the land of Galilee or Judea? How many times he shouted over wind and tempest, over desert and plains: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1,15).
He was again telling them, and through them those who were following him with a smile on their face: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Mt 21,43) because “the sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How ruined we are! How great is our shame! We must leave our land because our houses are in ruins”(Jer 9,19).
It is the station that reminds us to think of others first, to feel compassion and live from the heart. As I watch the bigger than life figure of Christ on the shoulders of more than fifty people coming towards me like a missle, I can only think of a head-on collision with the godhead. I think of a not so angry Lord, but definitely an annoyed Lord. Is the Dao of all things this station, this interconnectedness of all things, this walking in the other thing’ shoes even if those shoes are carrying a 30-foot christ on them? As a recovering Catholic I drawback at the prospect of this truth being lorded over me. Isn’t interconnectedness exactly this: a perfect sudden present moment in its totality? Even the clean-up crew with their mini-bulldozer at the end of the procession is part of this perfection.
Yesterday was the quiet and today was the storm. Jesús Nazareno exited La Merced Church carried on the shoulders of more than 50 bearers and thousands of spectators. The sea of people parted with his passing and we hid with our dogs and our pixels. It was the first day of the seven-day march towards Easter and the beginning of our stay-vacation. We laughed having become prisoners of our own city, but we were grateful to keep behind the quiet walls.
Brad calls the throngs fanaticism, the opiate, I call it habit. Sergio Aníbal Mejía Cárdenas at TedX in Guatemala City last week, spoke about the tendency to find less education and more ignorance in more religious societies. (Guatemala is known as the most traditional, conservative and religious country in Central America). Superstitions go up and logical, inductive reasoning goes down. In part I believe that applies to Guatemala, a country lacking in auto-didacts and where I rarely see a person reading a book, but everybody knows exactly which procession happens when and the intricate and windy course of each Jesus and Mary. I walked many of those courses as a child with mi abuelita.
Here, the slight bit of cold wind makes you sick, standing in front of the fridge and walking barefoot on your floors gives you pneumonia, not making the sign of the cross when you pass a church dooms you, and all big dogs bite. While it’s true all societies have them, Catholicism in Guatemala in the peak of Semana Santa is a spectacle, a national passtime, a common thread of identity which might not put us on the same page, but it certainly puts us out on the same street to watch the spectacle of the sacred or at least a glimpse of something – a yearning for something unattainable.
Last week our neighbors threatened to shoot our dog in the face because he barked in front of their door. Outside the usual weekend morning procession passed. The horns, the drums, the cymbals, everyone was out of sync.
Isn’t the most important thing how you act as a human being?
There are moving parts in the moving parts and it’s hard to get a footing. It’s difficult to gauge progress or movement forward or back. There is no back, there is no forward. The simple fact of making it through the day intact physically and psychologically is its own reward, its own miracle of life calling for itself everyday. Most people here find their own crevice, their niche, a small corner of the city, the campo, the inside of walls, the terrain and create their sanity there. To live fully, openly and expansively here has too high a price. Disorder and chaos are always near – reminding us how fragile existence is and how quickly one can fall long distances. There is no cushion, no fat, to protect your head from cracking like an egg against the asphalt. A million pieces that no one will pick up. Or will they.
I finally give in and release. In one day many lives are lived.
I too sleep early, rise early, on dog time, I wake with the church bells tolling, the bus ayudantes at 6am yelling “Guate! Guate! GUATEMALA!” and the roar of the buses down La Antigua’s cobblestone and disappearing to the city. The gaggle of uniform-clad students move as one down seventh street amid the thick billows of black smoke, dust, dogs, pigeons, horses trotting down with tourists. It’s a mise-en-scene, you step into it and your part of the no-story story. Everyday I push myself to breathe more, to pause and reflect more on each moving part like reaching out in the dark and grabbing the elephant. Turning the part around in my hand for a moment and then letting it slip into its own ether, it’s the reality that is ungraspable, intangible that makes me uneasy everyday. I watch my dog take it in so clearly in his eyes, so present, so alive in it. I bend my head down, bracing for the punch.
We woke up in Houston this morning, esconced between the high rises and the grey sky reflected in the glass. It’s warmer and more humid than Austin, but the same feeling of ample, open spaces remains. The same feeling of being able to expand into the wide, flat terrain, once desert, now asphalt, concrete and glass with patches of green and yellow wildflowers blooming from last week’s rain. Large trucks and sports utility vehicles share the road with clean, well-lit buses, trains and the humans and cool air-conditioned cars wait at the light. It’s all so orderly it alienates me in its silence.
Texas is the West although it feels like the border of all things to me – desert and marsh, pioneer and settlement, American and Mexican, order and disorder, modern and throwback, blue and red, us and y’all. This morning we got Brad’s passport. The doors are open again to the world outside Texas. But Texas itself is an open door, it’s just a matter of deciding to walk through. It’s an open door back to Guatemala, down the rabbit hole and into entropy, it implodes in itself everyday. But somehow as Brad plots his return – dog and truck in tow – my heart sinks to leave it, as if it were a relinquishing, a surrender of sorts, a giving up. I am always there when I’m not, mired in the wet soil of the banana fields where mi tio roams freely between the tall corn husks and the African palm and green banana. He talks out loud, the fields his companion along his timeless journey where as a schizophrenic he never left.
As we wait for the bus, I hear the silence again, that deep quiet of order that I always find in the United States. The birds don’t sing as loudly, the camionetas don’t rumble, the ayudante doesn’t swing himself from door singing “GUATE!” the dogs don’t bark from the rooftops and church bells sleep in a permanent secular hush. Cars blast hip-hop at the streetlights and gourmet marijuana smoke wafts near. There’s the regular chime of the metro train, but’s quiet in between. No one talks, no one is smiling, no morning greeting (buenos días, Doña Blanca) and there’s a small sphere of private space surrounding each person. Things don’t just hang out loosely and unthreaded. The narrative is in the quiet of predictable things and its stillness. I write at the bus stop and wait. There is an older man with a black felt pork pie hat and thick gray moustache waiting next to me at the bus stop whistling. I offer my seat, he smiles and reassures me that it’s OK. He tilts his hat. On his shirt is a picture of San Salvador, a distant beach, and the caption: ¿Te recuerdas? Do you remember?
I was previewing a vocal track for a remix when our 5-month-old German Shepard, Kofy, started singing along. Sorry the vid is a little dark and shaky but hey our boy was spontaneously expressing himself- so we’ll call it “arty.”
Speaking of artful musical expression, I’ll be DJ’ing at the CUBEREC label night at The Box on Thursday, Dec. 1st, and then at the massive Festival Central Electronica festival at Skate Park (Zone 11) on Dec. 3rd! Real house music y’all- come on out!
Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist writes: este mundo loco se divide entre los indignos y los que están indignados. This crazy world is divided between the unworthy and those who are outraged. It’s a matter of choice to be indignant and confront larger institutional inequalities, to take an active role in shaping a country’s democracy and social contract with its citizens.
From Spain to Greece, to Chile, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, New York and California and other parts of the United States, and a still growing number of countries all around the world people are organizing protests, setting up camps, and expressing their solidarity with the “Occupy” movement. It’s a global movement that has replicated from the DNA of young people acting for change. Some of them call themselves the “outraged” los indigandos who are taking back public spaces to express their indignation over the capitalism that is governing their democracies.
Dictionaries define the the word indignant as someone who experiences “indignation,” caused by an unjust situation. “Anger and irritation, sometimes a violent anger, usually accompanied by loss of self-control.” But there has been no loss of self-control in most of these peaceful protests, there is only that ever present feeling of indignation that is making them take to the streets in numbers, increasing numbers.
In a BusinessInsider interview with Phil Arnone, one of the lead organizers behind Occupy Wall Street, Arnone was asked about the meaning of the OccupyWallStreet protest.
“What this protest is about is an opposition against the fundamental inequality in society — social, economic, ecological — and we want to change the ways that our society is structured and run so that way, the vast majority of people — the 99% — have their interests accounted for, their voices heard, their needs represented. And that’s just simply not the way we feel our society works now. It’s a society run for and by the 1%.”
It’s hard to measure the impact of the protests because there is no clear leadership to the movement, it is self-organized using online social networks, it is horizontal, decentralized, inclusive, has a sense of humor (Indignant Soccer was formed in Madrid), public spaces are taken, and above all, the movement has no clear list of demands or solutions to the economic inequalities it pits itself against.
They have a common enemy and it’s not the press, not the police, not the unions, not other social movements, not your conservative parent. Their enemy is: The System, the 147 companies (the 1 percent that can shell out money for dinners with the politicians who represent that 1 percent and not the 99 percent with their governments).
“Indignation is the origin of all change,”said Pablo Gómez, speaker for Movimiento 15M in Madrid during a recent event in La Antigua Guatemala. “From indignation you move to commitment and construction.”
I was in the audience on October 26 when Gómez said this. I was one of the few people over thirty years old who attended IV Encuentro Iberoamericano de Juventud: Cartajoven 11 “Democracia y representación” organized by La Organización Iberoamericana de la Juventud (OIJ), with Instituto de la Juventud (INJUVE) and the Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española en La Antigua Guatemala. The panel was called “Jóvenes, de la indignación al compromiso” and Goméz sat next to Felipe Jeldres from the Chilean student movement and other young people who organized similar movements in their countries. They were 23, 24 and 25 year olds wearing sneakers that poked out from the table’s white tablecloth, they were your neighbor’s kids and some called themselves militants. Their presentations showed charts of political spending, transnational corporation profit margins, average student debt number, data, lots of data; they knew their rights, their country’s laws, they believed in representation, and they had passion,
“This isn’t just a student movement, it’s a societal movement,” said Jeldres. “It’s not just education that’s bad, it’s everything.” The divorce between young people and the political system was one of the factors that lead to the protests, that and the skyrocketing costs of public education. In Chile two million young people did not vote in their last election either because they stopped believing in the viability of the electoral process or didn’t feel accepted or heard. It was a political and economic reality many shared not just in Chile where many students graduated from a Bachelor’s degree with more than $25,000 in debt and no jobs available to pay those loans.
The validity of the societal order had been lost and young people all around the world had more than glimpsed Max Weber’s “iron cage,”they rejected it.
“It’s better that we are all wrong, then one person be right for all of us,” Gómez stated on the lack of representation of political parties in Spain.
It was the opposite of the alienation that occurs when workers (and students for that matter) feel alienated or estranged from the process of their work or their labor. It wasn’t the envy, that immobilizing feeling, that occurs in the alienated when we can’t perceive who is our enemy and who is our friend. In this case, they knew exactly who to ally with, the 99 percent in the world whose interests were not being represented, and those against them, the 1 percent, buying democracies.
These acts of taking public spaces and exercising the most basic of democratic rights to assemble peacefully in masses has been their biggest weapon.
“We’re not just protesting, we’re proposing a new society and we’re modeling it,” said Gómez.
It’s about re-establishing government for the people and acting for changes that can be made with the money of the 1 percent– including closing the financial equality gap, fixing the global economy and stopping wars, bringing troops home, making concrete that “hope” many of us give our votes for in our countries.
Occupying means being present, representing for the greater collective, and taking an active individual role in the existence of a legitimate order shaped not by routines, but by meaningful engagement with the pacts created with our governments. Social actions, a unified social action, had become the only way to open up a system and to introduce a change.
Sitting in that audience, listening to their stories, I saw that opening and started to believe in the Occupy movement. I had that moment that Galeano speaks about when you know what it is “To have the gods inside you.” Sitting there, I felt both a high and a low, because I wondered why in Guatemala this movement had not reached our public streets, why this same urgency of taking our Democracy back hadn’t quite made it here. We obviously need to take it back and the country’s fight against impunity – CICIG’s investigations, Attorney General Paz y Paz’s work and the opening of the National Police Records, showed it.
The indignation is pervasive here but what keeps the outrage from turning into action? The outrage is muted here. The risk is too great on an individual level when faced with a decomposing State that is not predictable. But isn’t that when it counts most to take a risk – when it’s the hardest thing you can do to have hope and act upon it.
On October 20, the day of Guatemala’s revolution, the country’s government formerly apologized to the family of former president Colonel Juan Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán – 57 years after he was deposed.
“I want to apologize to the family for the great crime committed on June 27, 1954,” said President Alvaro Colom at the National Palace in Guatemala City. “A crime committed against the former president, his wife, his family. It was a historic crime for Guatemala – that day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it since.”
He glanced over at the stiff figure of Jacobo Arbenz Vilanova, son of the ex-president, seated next to Rafael Espada, Vice President of Guatemala, on a stage overlooking the government’s cabinet, diplomats, national institutions, and, the list of people presented by the family. There wasn’t a single young person visible – a bunch of suits and ties and older faces filled up half the seats in the audience.
After many decades, a Friendly Settlement Agreement had been signed by the State in the case of Guatemala vs. Jacobo Arbenz in May, 2011, and processed by the State of Guatemala and the Commission on Human Rights , a body of the Organization of American States.
I sat in the back of the room with the rest of the press and wrote down Colom’s quote: “that day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it since.” It’s what the New York Times wanted, a dramatic quote about history, impact, significance, timeliness, geographic significance, but above all, truth. I called it in to the Mexico City office and wondered: Truth, but whose truth?
Back then the truth was that Arbenz was a Communist and a coup ensued. The coup orchestrated by the Eisenhower administration and the Dulles brothers at the CIA and State Department (who were on the board of directors for United Fruit Company) forced Arbenz into exile shortly after President Arbenz initiated a land-reform policy that saw agrarian councils distribute uncultivated land to individual families. The policy, started in 1952, was in effect for two years prior to the coup, with 1.5 million acres of land changing hands and 100,000 families benefiting from it. Arbenz was forced to resign.
“I say goodbye to you, my friends, with bitterness and sorrow, but firm in my convictions. I am forced to resign, to remove the pretext for an invasion of our country, and I do so with an eye on the welfare of the people. ” (Extract from the resignation speech given by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27,1954).
Arbenz’s family’s property was confiscated illegally and he was deported, along with his family. Arbenz was forced to strip naked before cameras at the Guatemala airport. For the next 50+ years, there was violence,a civil war, more than 200,000 students, workers, professionals, farmers and non-combatants killed, and more than one million people became refugees in Mexico and other parts of Guatemala. My mother became a coyote and in 1982 my family fled to the United States as things worsened in Guatemala.
But why was this apology necessary?
In part it was because a judicial process had been initiated In 1999 when the Arbenz family approached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington seeking restoration of their name and reparations for property lost following the coup. The complaint was upheld by the Commission in 2006, which led to five years of negotiations with successive Guatemalan governments over what damages should be paid.
In addition to the apology, the Guatemalan government would revise textbooks in Guatemala to include Arbenz’ positive influence on the country during the “Guatemalan Spring”. Also, Arbenz’ biography would rewritten, the national highway he built will be named after him, and a new educational program would train government staff to take into account the needs of farmers and indigenous people.
“We suffered the consequences of an injustice that was done in 1954,” said Arbenz Vilanova said. “Now we see today how the United States recognizes its mistakes.”
But, really, why was this apology necessary? Could it be that a social order was being restored, even though it was coming from outside of Guatemala? Could it be a social fabric such as the one Karen Ness refutes in her article “La Sociología y la razón” was being stitched?
“The “collective” does not exist, the social is a series of abstractions, symbols,” writes Ness. Arbenz was a symbol of what Guatemala could have been in its full democratic spring. He was the road not taken and the intersection between state, political and social order. For that brief moment things were aligned for Guatemala and there was an opening, an awakening into its own fledgling democracy. Arbenz was a symbol, the “Soldier of the Village,” a messianic figure that Guatemalans needed to explain where things went wrong and to give it all a narrative. This much is true: We can never know if the memory of him and his obsevable work are completely reliable.
“Jacob Arbenz became president to be able to develop the economic means that were keeping Guatemala from its growth and were choking Guatemala from growing,“ said Vilanova
Perhaps even this moment in the present was some kind of historical revisionism? It was leaving a bad taste in my mouth. His son hinted at Arbenz’s capitalistic tendencies. In the three years, three months and three days that his government lasted he was able to develop out four key points around agrarain reform, the train that competed with the Atlantic road and a port that was built next to Puerto Barrios that is Puerto Santo Tomas de Castilla.
From a macro perspective the structural condition were aligning again – the right of state and the political order were (in a rare occasion in Guatemala) aligning with a social order that many Guatemalans had accepted long ago since the coup. Guatemalans were used to this truth: that nebulous forces outside the individual’s control are always shaping their destiny and they simply had nothing to do with it. Just lower your head and do your work.
Are these apologies common? When was the last time I’d heard the Guatemalan government issue a formal apology for anything? So I called Álvaro Velásquez, professor of social sciences and political analyst at Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Guatemala City.
“While it’s not something strange for the Guatemalan government to issue an apology, the apology is more symbolic than anything else,” said Velásquez. “With a new ex-military government this would not have happened.”
President Colom, however, lauded his administration as one that did not impede justice. This apology was just one of those moments his administration helped set “the stones to build the new Guatemala, the Guatemala without bias, the Guatemala with less inequality and more social justice.” One hopes in the future that justice will grow from within Guatemala and doesn’t reach down from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in D.C. – from the very country that caused this disruption.
Nic Wirtz contributed to this reporting. Sections of this article were published in Americas Quarterly.
There are walls within walls here and my fingers clutch at the hardened skin. It is not like an onion, I say to myself, it is more like bark that protects the tree and at the core reveals a soft life. I peel back and push towards the center, slowly at first and then quickly to the center, growing weary at times, but an urgency pushing me where things will make sense and where the underlying natural order of all things consensual, humane and rational will surface. Just push back the sticky web of things that have stunted movement as if the web hung above my head interfering between me and the forward push into a calculated darkness. The spider’s head contains a big grin that leads me down the rabbit hole. I fall, paws to the ground, I claw and dig cold, wet dirt, and then gaping spaces where things fall endlessly into emptiness, into the unremembered.
In sociology class everything points to things being broken. If we were studying the body of society in its wholeness and balance, Guatemala – brain, body, lungs, stomach – in its state of decomposition and fragmented into a pool of blood, water, cells and organisms competing for mutual survival, would be a patient stretched out on cold metal in ER. Winning would be the entire self surviving, but the zero sum game survival here is piecemeal and the parts win individually if everything else loses. The part only knows its only winning and the whole doesn’t exist outside its borders. Survival is in isolating the damage.
I hit metal when I dig. I tell my professor this. He waits patiently. People have gone crazy this way, he tells me. Since a completely rational society is inevitable and bureaucracy is the most rational form of societal management, we close the door on our own iron cage. Worse still the cage disappears and is inside of us. More metal. But it’s of our own choosing. We have the most democratically-elected cage. It is a tall cage with many bars, I ask if its the same cage for all of us. Silence. My classmates’ cages must be more colorful than mine. I am looking for the ground now. He waits, arms crossed in front of him, at the front of the room.
What if the door was already closed when we got there? I ask. That’s not choosing. It’s a societal contract, he says. The empty bureaucracies that no one understands that is the most rational form of societal management, actions that are simply done from the rote memorization of one’s role in society? What if those actions were completely devoid of meaning, whatever shred of meaning having vanished in its own mechanizations, emptied of content and the players stopped believing in it long ago? Fijese seño that’s just the way things are done, its policy. It’s not a cage, it’s a castle. There are long corridors. Our stability hangs on the ballots in November. We are close to going back to war, he says. His mouth is a thin straight line now.
The walls are hard black metal that disappears into the night. How can we be that close to being the way we were? The bottom of the cage is the sinkhole that stares back at me, the one that swallowed up the three-story building, the taxi, the poor man making the call at the payphone. At night the hole stares up towards the stars – a mouth, a wound, a wormhole, an open dried up vein.
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This time we’ve done it, we lost the thread and picked it back up again between knots, loops and thread on the point of breaking. We’ve strummed it like our own guitar. We’ve reach almost three months in Guatemala and there’s no more time to spend in transition. It’s the critical election season in Guatemala and so our latest project is:
Fifteen years after Guatemala’s Peace Accords ended 36 years of civil war, many young Guatemalans continue to be marginalized from political life. While 70 percent of the population is 30 years of age and younger, voter turnout statistics reveal that few young people register and exercise their right to vote, the online magazine Albedrio reports. Political parties, in an effort to capture this untapped resource, have led strong campaigns on youth marketing issues. However, many young candidates and members of youth organizations say this does not translate into real and effective participation. Youth are interested in participating in political life, but most parties are not willing to give them space as they do not have the financial resources to fund a campaign. Moreover, there are high rates of voter abstention and limited representation by women and indigenous people in democratic institutions.
VOZZ will be a citizen journalism training project in which young Guatemalan citizen reporters aged 16-24 years old – the ages of the highest abstention rates in more than 40 percent of the population – learn the fundamentals of journalism and reporting in Spanish and Kaqchikel. The project will be launched in Guatemala as a test pilot to coincide with the 2011 presidential election.
Vozz, a name created by youth in Guatemala City’s crime-ridden Zone 1 to capture the spirit of having a voice or voz to their stories, will create opportunities for youth to be trained by local reporters and seasoned election trainers, to share their stories from their municipalities, and to distribute those stories under a Creative Commons License on http://www.vozz.com.gt.
Nadia Sussman and Kara Andrade will work with a core group of young reporters (2 youth from 20 municipalities) to first hold a two-day “bootcamp” in Guatemala City to train them on the fundamentals of journalism, election reporting and multimedia tools for reporting. We will ensure diverse coverage of stories concerning the election from rural, indigenous areas where very little reporting is done and from a youth perspective that is very seldom heard. Guatemalan youth will be trained as citizen reporters to produce this body of multimedia stories before, during and after the 2011 Guatemalan presidential elections and will travel to their communities, as needed, to help them with the reporting and production.
We are fundraising from other sources for the total $5500 budget for the project, but the $3000 raised on Spot.Us would go towards:
Student Travel (42 students X $40 each roundtrip with meals from their rural communities): $1,680
Guatemala has not been kind this morning, in fact it was chewing me and spitting me out to splatter against a surface. The few things left unbroken or hanging by a thread, so thin, so fine, have fallen to the ground. Passport renewals, airplane reservations, Internet, toll free calls, pens with ink, military checkpoint in the airport, my lost voice all falling inward, creating this vortex that has its own gravity, sucking you in towards its infinite darkness that you think to leave bread crumbs, scramble for a stick so long someone must be able to pull you out no matter how deep you go, or just blast it like the Starship Enterprise and gain forward momentum out of its orbit, into another life, another place, a light that lies just beyond that your fingertips tingle from its proximity.
“Ya no aguanto mas,” I can’t stand it anymore, the woman at the airport says to her friend as she tries to input my passport number into her system only to face a blue screen. She paused and reads the small type above her bifocals. Her friend files her nails at the other station. “He’s driving me nuts,” she says over her shoulder.
My woman continues scanning the passport over and over and over again in the same way as I wait with my forehead on her counter. My head has become a bowling ball and I can’t stop coughing. I hear her long beautiful white nails that click loudly on each key after she scans. “Hmm, I guess the system is broken, seño, I won’t be able to check you through,” she informs me after 10 minutes of this.
I am numb, I don’t respond, I don’t care, I’ll fall asleep right here and slip away into an ether. She asks between chewing gum smacks, “What happened to your permanent passport anyway?” She is more interested in hearing that story than inputting me into her system. She’s bored, she wants me to entertain her. It’s not genuine interest.
“Ma’am, can I go now?” I ask her, barely raising my head above my arms; I’m not willing to oblige her. There is nothing left of me, I haven’t slept because of a maddening cough, my voice is gone, my plane reservation had been cancelled and re-booked three times while at the Delta ticket counter this morning, I ran out of funds on my pre-paid phone so I couldn’t call anyone, Delta couldn’t let me call Delta because their 1-800 numbers don’t work here, our backpacks were stolen a week ago, my husband called to tell me the city attorneys had stupidly sat him across from the man who bought our stolen laptops at the Torre de Tribunals while awaiting the judge to release our things from custody, our hired guns were on their way, but God knows when, and now my flight was two and a half hours late. I would probably miss my connection to D.C. I felt my chest tightening for another cough, my entire body ready to explode with the cough, before she let me pass. She waved her hand at me, like swatting a fly. I somnambulated to the security checkpoint, untying my shoes for an eternity between each loop. A whole world of pauses.
It’s not going to get easier here. Mayugada, the Spanish word for bruised from continued battering, I think of a banana that is mush on the road, a palmetto bug burned by the bulb. Everyday we get a new dent in the truck. Everyday the big things are treated in such a small way and people just shrug their shoulders. Justice doesn’t benefit anyone here when it’s an entire system of people doing favors for one another and getting kick-backs.
What does it take to live in a developing country? What does it take to live in my country of birth which has and shows no signs of being anything other than a developing country? The fact that it’s the country of my birth and my family affords me no emotional distance to be able to apply some romanticized notion of progress from my own work, from a larger vision of how technology could actually make a difference here in a place where the fundamentals are still not in place for people to really feel safe, protected and an overarching sense of justness and fairness. I think of the word “resiliency,” a trait that you’ve either got or you don’t. ¿Hay o no hay? It’s not something you’re born with, it’s not something that’s taught, it’s something that like a fruit tree that makes it through droughts, endures and prevails in difficult situations only to weather the next drought, more upright, with a new skin protected by the one before it. Perhaps I write it too hopeful when the fact is that it’s a hardening.
Inevitably, we all reach that moment in our relationship with Guatemala that has to go beyond dating. That moment that tests our meddle, commitment, intentions, our resiliency and our very capacity to overcome. It’s a loss of innocence and of a romanticized notion that a halo of protection exists around those of us that are here to do good.
That moment happened on Friday, June 3 when we stopped at Esso Las Majadas in Guatemala City, behind Las Majadas shopping center as we made a gas and ATM pit stop before heading to Chiquimula and Puerto Barrios to visit family. It’s a self-service station with three main points of entry to two freeways (one leading you to the historic district, then further East; the other leading you to the wealthy Zone 10) and just behind it the two large malls, Tikal Futura and Miraflores, that serve as anthills of consumerism. The police use it as their coffee stop, two security guards with shot-guns stand at each corner of the store, an endless number of attendants buzz around checking oil, pumping gas, flirting with the women drivers. One man by the front pump area writes down license plates of all the cars that come in and out of the gas station. By the gated fence that separates it from a bank, young guys sit on the grass, chow down on their sandwiches laughing while traffic remains at a standstill just beyond the gas station. It is an intersection space, tricksters congregate and things move quickly between breaths.
We pulled up to the rightmost pump with the most space, Brad got out to pump, I put my cellphone in the glove compartment, got my wallet. I then walked in front of the truck and told Brad I was going to the ATM. He nodded and proceeded to pay with his debit card. I looked around and got the lay of the land before crossing. Once inside I began my battle with the ATM machine which continued to refuse my card. I tried a second one and finally it worked. With money in hand I I felt an itch to grab some drinks and snacks for the road so we wouldn’t have to stop too much.
I reached the cashier and she took ages to get my change back. Brad had finished pumping and saw me talking to the cashier. Through the outside of the window he waved at me, I told him everything was fine, but asked him with my fingers indicating cash if he had cash to pay the gas. He didn’t understand me, so he walked into the store and I asked him if he had cash. “Oh yeah, the card worked,” he said right next to me at the cashier’s registrar. That’s strange, I thought, that my card didn’t work. I wanted to get back to the car and just start our trip because it was already 12:30. I got my change. “Let’s go,” I said and we headed out the door quickly.
Once in the car I opened the glove compartment looking for my cellphone to call my cousin and give him a heads up that we were running late. But I couldn’t find my phone, not in the glove compartment, not in the side door, not where we put the drinks. So I figured Brad had hidden it for safety reasons. “Where’s my phone?”
“I dunno, babe, you’re always putting it in different places, why don’t you just leave it in your backpack?” Maybe it was in the backpack. So I turned around to reach for the backseat where all three backpacks with Brad’s MacBook Pro, my MacBook Pro and digital camera were all side by side like small obedient children.
But only one of them was there, which I found odd. I looked around and then asked.
“Did you move the backpacks?” Annoyed he said, “No I didn’t move the backpacks, why would I do that?” And then we both turned to the backseat, looked at one another, looked at the back seat and then yelled, “SHITT!!” It was a moment of sheer panic. We looked around immediately, I checked the camper shell to see if it was broken, nothing, I asked the guy taking the plates down if he’d seen anything, nothing. I asked the guards, they shrugged. I asked the guy selling lottery tickets, nothing, the attendants, nothing. The guys sitting on the grass, nada. Nobody, but nobody had seen a thing.
“Let’s check the cameras!” Brad said. And that’s exactly what we did, we ran towards the convenience store, went behind the cash register and asked the camera guy to rewind the tape to 12:20 and to let us watch it with him. We told him we’d been robbed. He obliged and slowly rewound the tape. Everything was in slow motion. And then we watched the crime unfold. It was both a gift and a curse. We saw our truck pull up to the station from two camera angles, the attendants, the people entering the convenience store, me getting out of the truck, we saw all the action from a third person perspective, the way you imagine you would watch your funeral if you could somehow stage it like a Fellini film. Course it makes you realize why the soul can’t bear to watch its down death because the reality is too stark.
In black and white we watched how around 12:22 PM the thief, a thin, short man with short black hair, a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants – he looked like a “waiter” Brad said later – walked up to the truck, looked inside, opened up the passenger seat, took two backpacks from the back seat, closed the door, walked across the parking lot, right in front of the guards with the shotguns, the man taking the plate numbers, the three gas attendants and the guy selling lottery tickets. He got into a black or dark green (depending on who you ask) van that already had its door wide open like a big black yawn. Barely able to hold up both laptops because of the weight of each he climbed into the van whose plates could not be identified by the camera. He then drove onto the bumper to bumper traffic and disappeared into the smoggy afternoon. Two minutes later we popped out of the convenience store and got in our truck. And then we got out again, frantically into the world.
I wanted a copy of the footage. Brad wanted to call credit cards. I wanted to call the police, but nobody knew the number until someone said *110. Brad was pale and livid and my hands were shaking as I held the phone. “Guatemala Police Department Unit, how can I help you?”
I was surprised how calm my voice sounded: “Buenas tardes seño, can you please do us the favor of sending someone out to Esso Las Majadas? We’ve been robbed.”