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.
Awesome – you should. Check out my Spanish teacher’s new Skype-based school Mundo Del Español. Classes are 1-to-1 with professional, accredited teachers living here in La Antigua Guatemala. It’s super easy and secure to purchase class time, and you can try a 15-minute trial class for free! Hazlo!
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.”
There are some things you just can’t pass up in life, no matter how late you are for dinner or in this case, to the gym. I was dashing across Central Park in La Antigua when right in front of me in the municipality building was the first voter registration table manned by the TSE,– the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, Guatemala C.A. I slowed my pace down, not quite sure how fast this registration process would be, curious, but not ready to commit. Then the significance of it hit me: I had never registered to vote in Guatemala, the country of my birth, ever in my life. Not only that, but here I was a journalist, just finishing up a two-day international conference for journalists specifically focusing on the upcoming election on September 11. Was I about to just cruise on by? I don’t think so. But first, I popped out my cellphone to record a video of the process:
It took a total of five minutes, the fastest process I’ve gone through in Guatemala other than buying saldo or pre-paid funds for my phone. All I had to do was present my DPI, Documento Persona de Identificación, or my cedula, tell them where I live, sign the form, give a fingerprint and then I was done! At the end I got this voter registration form that I’m supposed to take with me in order to vote:
Since the TSE website informs us that the end of voter registration is only 13 days, 23 hours, 2 minutes and 27 seconds away (a lot less after you read this), I felt an urgency to start reading the voter guide. I put the registration form into my pocket, put my cellphone away and then I asked the incredibly helpful young man who walked me through this process (after he got through his initial disbelief that I’d never registered to vote) if he was going to give me a voter guide. He looked puzzled.
“What do you mean, a voter guide?” He asked more curious now than befuddled.
“Oh, something to tell me who the candidates are, what political party they represent and educational information about their position statements on main government topics.”
“We’re non-partisan, ma’am,” he said matter-of-factly. I smiled and told him that many countries provided educational information so voters are informed about the basic information and that that doesn’t mean partisanship, it just equates to an informed voter. He nodded his head and then his face lit up with the answer.
“That’s easy! You can just look at all their Facebook pages and find all their information there. Some of them have their own websites, but definitely, I’ve seen them all on Facebook.”
Some cities you just can’t sleep in and Oaxaca is one of those for me. I wake up Sunday morning on my second restless night of sweaty half-sleep. The rings under my eyes are dark and deep. I’m exhausted, but ready for the road to Tuxtla Guiterrez and possibly San Cristobal de las Casas. Before starting our climb back into the Sierras, now lush and green, we pass by Matatlan which the sign in large type over the road tells us is the “Mezcal Capital of the World.” It’s a sleepy dusty town with houses converted to storefronts selling bottles of mezcal.
“They should sell shots at each tumulo, (speed bump)” Brad says stating the obvious fact that we’re not on an autopista toll road. We’re on a curvy libre winding in and around the mountains. Sundays are great driving days in Mexico and Guatemala, no one is on the road and whoever you happen upon they’re not in a hurry to get anywhere. I imagine I am back in California headed to Big Sur. I scrawl the words at 45 degree angles as Brad rounds the corners adjusting to less speed, less ground. He loses patience fast. There’s no rushing through this terrain. Two hundred twenty two kilometers of this and I can see why we have a nine-hour day of driving ahead of us.
We go through three military checkpoints and are asked to go through a full inspection during one of them. Brad turns on my phone camera and keeps it on throughout the inspection. Where are you from? Where are you going? What’s in the back of the truck? Why are you crossing to Guatemala in La Mesilla and not Tapacula? You’re a student? Journalism? Yes, journalism.
Tehuanatepc 187 KM. The Sierra de Juarez is diverse – alternating from fertile green to dusty burned soil, both remote, raw and uncompromising. The guys in military fatigues with guns bigger than the length of their bodies, stare me down. I am direct and don’t chitchat. I prepare for the Guatemalan soldiers who have no sense of humor. I ask how long to Tuxtla Guiterrez, they say nine hours and I feign disbelief. They smile. “Depends on how fast you drive.” I can drive fast, as long as I don’t have any mezcal.
They smile big and nod. “Have a good trip, ma’am,” they tell me. We drive. That’s all we do at this point, drive and drive past desert, mountains, brush, vast swaths of agave, orange trees hugging tight turns, making sudden stops for tumulous at small towns where often it’s just one person writing for who knows how long until the next bus to take them to their destiny. We’re close to the Pacific, Puerto Escondido, Bahias de Huatulco. We’ll be leaving the state of Oaxaca soon and entering Chiapas. Brad starts a Devo playlist on his iPod, the complete opposite of what’s outside. We eat lunch at Mojades, in a small restaurant run by women cooking up fried fish fillets, tortillas and tamarindo. There’s a baby sleeping in a hammock in a tight little knot of hands, feet and head tucked into itself.
We sit on plastic lawn chairs watching the random car drive by, the neighbor across the road sweeping her one-room home and porch. The sun is so bright the dog at the bottom of the stairs squints in our direction.
A camioneta (bus) with “Oaxaca” pulls up next to our truck and the waitress comes out of the kitchen to warn the little boy playing with the soap bottle, washing the dirt: “Alli viene tu papa.” He timidly smiles and throws himself in the hammock. Out of the bus hops the ayudante, the helper, who lifts his son, kisses him, strokes the baby now in another woman’s arms, grabs a big bottle of tamarimdo juice, hops back on the bus where arms dangle out into the heat. and waves back to his son, nods his head and says “¡Provecho!” I sprinkle big grains of salt on my tomatoes and cucumber salad, squeeze two lemons on it. There’s a simple way to live. But not necessarily easier.
We’re really the worst tourists ever. Instead of touring Oaxaca, we got Brad a new birthday tattoo. Video of the whole thing will be posted up next week! Later in the evening, we see Brad continuing his birthday celebration well into the night.
After a good hour of holding it in through the nightmare that is Mexico City traffic, I finally had to pull over and drain the main vein. The fact that we were rolling bumper-to-bumper through one of the busiest arteries of Mexico City didn’t stop me. Imagine Market Street, Cesar Chavez and Divisidero twisted into one giant congested stretch. That was the scene and as my grandpa used to say, “my teeth were floating.” So fuck it, I forced my way off onto a minor artery, pulled out my major artery, and sprayed my name all over the side of a wall- Mexican placa style, homes!
So now the problem wasn’t my bladder- it was getting back onto that crazy freeway. You’re thinking gee, if there was an exit, surely there must be an entrance in the next kilometer or so, right? Ha ha ha you foolish, logical gringo. No, that periférico was totally adios, so Kara took out the Guia Roji and mapped out an alternate route.
Luckily for all you astute readers, our alternate route included a surprise street protest! As you’ll see in the below video, they’re all shouting “direchale!” at me which roughly translates to: “get the hell out of the way!” Once they started pounding on the truck with their fists, the exact meaning was immediately communicated, and we were Adios 5000!