La Pura Vida as a State of Being

February 20, 2013

CR-underwearTo live in Costa Rica is “la pura vida” – a common dicho or saying that literally means “pure life” or “all life”. It’s a newer dicho, having become popular in the past fifteen years after it was coined by the Mexican comedian Antonio Espino y Mora, known as Clavillazo who used it in this film. Although younger people say it often as a slang or when things are going particularly well on a given day, it’s a shared sentiment by Costa Ricans, and something even extranjeros tap into when visiting. It’s an ideology, a way of life, a deeper philosophy of how life should be lived, both in peace, but also to its fullest in the present moment. It also refers to a shared sense of entitlement that you can’t mess with my right or anyone’s right to live a peaceful life. What has become clear after one week of my visit to San Jose, is that viviendo la pura vida doesn’t involve accumulation of wealth or longing for things un-had, it’s a deeper understanding for the richness and appreciation of life itself.

It’s something we discuss for hours while eating pizza and nursing some drinks at Cafe Mundo, a lovely cafe in the ritzier part of San Jose tucked amid boutique hotels, bed and breakfast spots and spas. It’s a favorite spot among locals and Americans who live here and for whom San Jose isn’t just a springboard to eco-adventure-ville. My new friend, Jose Enrique Garnier, a native retired Costa Rican architect, has brought me here. It’s our first two hours of meeting one another after being introduced over e-mail the day before through a mutual friend in Guatemala. Jose Enrique is not only an architect, he was the previous dean of the architecture department at UCR, a documentary producer and now the organizer of what will be the region’s first Cine Arquitectura. He’s soft-spoken and slow to respond, which I thought initially meant he couldn’t hear me. His pauses, however, mean reflection and eventually he responds as any good professor does, by saying “well you have to look at it in context.”

He’s also recently widowed, his wife, who was a journalist, passed away the previous year after thirty years of marriage. He has two sons, both who live in the United States and are in doctoral programs. Sitting across from him I can see he’s had a  difficult year, we both have and neither one feels a need to hide it. We’re both happy for each other’s company. Out of sheer impulse, I had called him earlier and asked him if he wanted to go to the Contemporary Art Museum, it was a shot in the dark, but he agreed readily. “Estoy en San Pedro, te veo pronto.” I’ll see you soon.

I have to stick to Spanish with Jose Enrique, which makes my brain hurt when I ask him about “social paradigms” and “institutional knowledge”, words I do not know in Spanish.  We meet at the museum gates, he wears a yellow golfer’s cap, khaki pants, and a burgundy cardigan that comfortably stretches over his belly. He has his small point and shoot camera in his hand.  I think: If he were grandpa, he’d be a hipster, arty type of grandpa who takes you to the museums and then for a root beer float later.

We enter the museum 45-minutes before they close and we both try to negotiate down the $2 entry fee, shameless I tell him, while he makes his final bid for “2 for one”. “How about 2 for 2?” the museum woman tells us with her biggest and most graceful smile. I don’t think we’re the only ones who arrived late.

“It’s good,” I tell Jose Enrique. “It’ll pressure us to be more selective about the pieces we look at.”

But Jose Enrique isn’t one to rush through things, so we move from piece to piece together, taking pictures of each piece, getting to know one another, scratching our heads when we arrive at a piece we have no idea what to think, then shuffle along quickly to the next piece. One of the exhibits is a national artists’ collection with close to twenty Costa Rica contemporary artists. I couldn’t have picked a better museum partner because Jose Enrique knows most of them and has enough context on everything to teach an entire class. In the pop art section we get to a collection that focuses on outside perceptions of Costa Rica and its role in Central America as the “Switzerland of Central America”, the Swiss Army knife without the army, the missing puzzle piece, the happiest place in the world. “Somos presos del exito.” We’re prisoners of our success, I heard later in my trip and slowly I began to understand.

Then we get to a large piece composed of words in different color font with this as the intro paragraph:

“El 17 de enero 2011 se publico la siguiente noticia en el Facebook de Telenoticias: “Cientos de Nicaragüenses Buscan legalizar Su Estado en Costa Rica “Estós hijo los Comentarios Que Se hicieron el dia al respecto, los cuales se pueden ver en www.facebook.com/Telenoticias7/posts/161151917265734″

It’s one of the biggest debates right now which centers on the increasingly immigration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica and what to do about an already overburdened public medical and social services system.

I asked Jose Enrique what “pura vida” meant in this context and what it meant to him. He pondered that question quietly. “It’s a good question, it’s a dicho, which we use, but in this case, it’s questioning our own ability to let others live their lives.” I was getting confused because there was a clear tension between how outsiders perceived Costa Ricans, how Costa Ricans perceived themselves and the growing pains of a democracy dealing with increasing levels of government corruption, immigrants from Nicaragua, narco-trafficking, money laundering, and the plot just thickened.

The last part of our museum tour involved the upstairs exhibit which focused on the internal violence that Costa Ricans face with decreasing public safety as reflected in the familiar rolled barbed wire over houses, iron bars on the windows, the availability of guns, homophobia, the increasing aggression by the police force, the push and pull between public and private institutions, limitations to liberty of expression, machismo and pretty soon it was getting stuffy in this attic. I look for Jose Enrique who is staring tranquilly over the balustrade at the repeating video of a young man watering his asphalt yard. Not even weeds sprout to ease the tension.

“It’s stuffy in here,” I tell him.

“I think that’s the point,” Jose Enrique says wisely. I felt like I’d just sat through a three-hour lecture on the plight of Costa Ricans.

“Let’s go get a coffee or drink,” I told him.  He nods. “I know just the place.”

We left the museum and ordered wine, vodka and a pizza at the Mundo Cafe. Tucked in between the ferns, Jose Enrique talked about his fascination with Cine Aquitectura, Metropolis, Peter Greenaway, Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner, Tron, even Batman, films where architecture was part of the theme of the film or the protagonist or where you used film as a medium to tell the story about architecture in a more interpretive way. He’s passionate about it, I’m trying to keep up by Googling on my cellphone or writing as many names as I can for later.

I’m, ultimately, multi-tasking while he’s talking, texting and trying to get another meeting moved over to the cafe. It’s yet another person I’ve never met who I’ve convinced to meet with me. I tell Jose Enrique this and he laughs. I’m not sure if he thinks I’m rude, immature, or simply a novelty. So I casually tell him, this person will be dropping by to say hello. I text over the location to the new soon to be acquaintance. His name is Luis Matgui and he just began the Observatorio Ciudadano, an all-volunteer advisory group that will focus on saving La Caja. I look it up: “La Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social es la institución líder en servicios de salud públicos en Costa Rica.” It’s social security and the socialized medical care system which indirectly helps to create a stronger middle class and increases preventive care and, subsequently, extends the life span for Costa Ricans.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard mention of La Caja, the one that’s in crisis, the one that the entire balance of the Costa Rican middle class hinges upon.

Luis rushes into the cafe, looks around. I immediately I spot him and wave him over to the table. He has a full set of graying hair, vivid dark eyes that dart back and forth inhaling his surroundings. He has a soft leather briefcase in his hand that he sets on the back of the chair.  He makes to shake my hand, but then notices I’m Central American and instead gives me kiss on the left cheek. He shakes Jose Enrique’s hand and then sits. I offer him pizza, a drink, he asks for a coke. I ask him where he just ran from and he smiles, “Where didn’t I go today? It’s been a busy day!” I ask him why.

It’s the questions he’s been waiting for. Luis unleashes about his meetings with public officials and civic groups about the importance of saving La Caja, La Caja this, La Caja that, the plight of the Costa Rica, the slow implosion which is coming to a critical phase after the last ten years. Jose Enrique takes a call on his gleaming white iPhone and Luis continues his unleashing, which has become an informative rant at this point, except I’m too uninformed in local Costa Rican politics to be able to connect the dots. But my brain is speeding along with Luis and the night is still young.

The Universal Hipster

Februry 16, 2013

My new friends are hipsters, Costa Rican hipsters, in the part of town called Escalante where businesses mix with residences and people come out of industrial looking buildings with dark glasses, old Vans or flip flops, sagging skinny jeans and holding cigarettes while they double lock their doors. Of course, I know none of this as I step out of the bus in a sketchy part of San Jose, Costa Rica. We’ve just passed the transvestite sex workers standing near Parque Morazán and by now I’ve lost all the feeling in my legs and just woken up from a delirious sleep.

It’s been a seventeen hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa to San Jose so I stumble out into the night, bid my farewell to my Mennonite friends and take the nearest red cab to the “Art House” I am staying at. I’ve never met Juan or his partner Oscar, but I liked the idea of staying with artists in this jewel of Central America and the bastion of democratic principles. The house, I soon learn, is unmarked and can only be found within a certain number of meters from a known landmark. “A 75 metros este del Farolito.” Why 75 meters? Because not all blocks are created uniform, but meters are, Oscar tells me, minutes after the cab has dropped me off and we’re back on the street catching a cab to el “planchaton“.

I barely have time to throw on a sweater before they invite me out to dinner and the once every three months event that is marked by a DJ playing old romantic songs from their parent’s time and hundreds of young people singing at the top of their lungs both inside and outside a well-known club close to the new Chinese quarter which still has not attracted any Chinese people, but the mayor hopes that will change soon, Oscar informs me as we walk. The pungent smell of pot wafts down the street long before we reach the bar, see the crowds pouring out into the pedestrian street lined with red cabs and a few police texting on their cellphones. Inside the DJ looks like she’s about to fly off like a bird in its spandex red skin and there’s moose heads, antlers and manual typewriters on the wall. An iron deer sculpture separates the line of people paying for drink tickets and the ones in line to pick up their drinks. There’s a system here, it’s obvious.

Planchaton, Oscar tells me, is a year-long tradition now. It gets its name from the songs women would sing while they were ironing their husband’s clothes. It’s gone from a few people at a small bar down the street to hundreds of young people, many of them gay, taking over the entire bar and street well into the night. I get introduced to everybody, one kiss on each cheek, and the required nonchalant chit-chat while everyone drinks and smokes their choice, and suddenly I realize I am the oldest one in this small group.

But my hosts are inviting, open and warm, taking great care that I am included in everything and checking in regularly throughout the night. After a couple of tequilas, I’m done, and I tell Oscar so. He tells Juan and both of them walk me out into the street and talk to the cab driver who has some hip thin leather jacket on and skinny jeans. As the cab drives off I see Oscar and Juan in the rear-view mirror watching like two parents dropping off their kid at kindergarten.

Oscar is a quiet, soft-spoken twenty-one year old with large unassuming doey eyes and who has shaved off most of his hair except his subtle moustache. He is of a small stature, moves like a cat and is very aware of the details in life. Like most Costa Ricans, he is incredibly well-educated, articulate, diplomatic and analytical. He is also a political science major at two state universities, a historian and a member of the Gen Z who treats his cellphone like his hand. In the middle of conversations he’s lowered his head to look at his text messages so many times I can’t count. He continues to nod at what I’m saying and I, inadvertently, begin talk to his phone as if it were him.

Juan is eight years older, has pink short hair, wears flip flops everywhere, doesn’t believe in undershirts, wears sagging shorts and half the time looks like he should have a surf board under his arm. He’s a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, a painter and enjoys electronic music played very loudly while he’s painting. They are both foodies; they party hard, have tons of friends coming in and out of their house and tonight I’ve just stepped into the usual rhythm of their lives.

How did I find Oscar and Juan? Air B & B, of course. A few years ago it was Craigstlist, but Air B&B has managed to penetrate Central America in a way that’s very practical and useful in a region that is often very difficult to navigate, unsafe, impossible to build trust in and increasingly more online and more connected.  That lifeline of pixels is what’s creating a universal culture of the digital native and the urban hipster. It’s a hipster that has nothing to do with Brooklyn or the rest of the United States. It’s increasingly a more universal term designating a way of life that young people are seeking and creating for themselves.

The Urban Dictionary informs us that hipsters are “a subculture of men and women typically in their 2o’s and 30’s who value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” Ultimately, it is a lifestyle which prioritizes freedom, usually achieved through creativity, out of the box thinking and a liquid and nebulous economic status. For example, I have no idea how Oscar and Juan make their money, or enough money to meet their lifestyle which involves  a good number of expensive clubs, drinking, cabs and eating out.  And Costa Rica is expensive, make no mistake, more than Panama and El Salvador which have the USD as their main currency and definitely more than Guatemala and Honduras. In a twenty-four hour period I go through $50. In Honduras, it takes me two weeks to go through $100, cabs and all. I also find out that wages don’t necessarily align with the living costs here. Oscar tells me the average wage is $500 – $700 per month and taxes are around 25 percent which many locals can’t afford. The socialized medical system is also in a state of crisis with the influx of Nicarguans and undocumented immigrants. Everybody gets health care, but not everybody pays.  It’s a recent problem and there’s no clear way to deal with it.

But life is good and safe in Costa Rica, or at least it feels that way when you compare it to other countries in Central America, namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, right now the pressure cooker of impunity, corruption and narco-trafficking. Perhaps that’s my undoing because when you ask most Ticos about safety, responses range from you can’t walk after 9 PM, to people will stab you first and then rob you, to narco-trafficking is ruining our country or “Soon Costa Rica will be just as bad as Honduras.” Right. There’s a clear feeling of dissatisfaction with the current state of Costa Rica’s democracy, the presence of corruption and denial of the bigger danger of money laundering in the country. The drug trafficking happens outside Costa Rica and then the money gets cleaned in the most stable country in the region known for retiring Americans, eco-tourism, diplomacy and no national army. The elections are coming up next year and consensus among the young people I’ve met is “Please, not her.”

My friend Jenny and I talk about all these woes over sushi. Jenny works at HP, she’s worked there for ages, she’s gone back to school to learn management, and she looks forward to the small vacation time she gets to travel to places like Mexico City. I met her in Chile a year ago during a Digital Natives with a Cause conference that produced a book written by many of us who attended. Jenny tells me she’s going on thirty-four and things have changed, she prefers staying home, sweating over her math. She makes it clear, she’s not into going out the way she used to in her 20’s and she’s definitely not a hipster. Lately, it’s been hard to understand how so many of her friends make it or how they have incurred so much  debt through credit cards with very little to show for it. It’s a problem I also hear about in Honduras where I watched an Honduran film called “Quien Paga La Cuenta?” which has a very Robert Altman story structure centered around the lives of four people, the debts they owe and the debt collectors who visit them all. It’s a tense and nerve-racking film and it stayed with me even after I left Honduras and learned about the new credit card legislation there that would create more oversight. Because Honduras excels at oversight.

Is debt and financial crisis universal too, I wondered, as I watched the sun set outside the main Cathedral in San Jose.  Mass had begun, so I walked into the park where you could hear the sounds of hundreds of parakeets flying into the trees, see couples making out in the grass, the skateboarders flying off of stairs, children feeding the droves of pigeons parachuting in from every rooftop while the old people sat on benches watching them. Costa Rica, it proved, was just a difficult to grasp as the rest of Central America.

On the Road from Honduras to Costa Rica

February 14, 2013

We’re headed south through Nicaragua and the land gets dryer – bramble and brush with large patches of black where the grass has been burned away. The sunlight is different here, it’s more direct with a soft, but relentless quality like the light of memories that imprints itself in the back of your mind. You know, you will remember this.

We’re into the first few hours of our seventeen hour bus ride through the rest of Honduras, Nicaragua and into Costa Rica. Well before the sun rises around five in the morning we depart the erry abandonment of Tegucigalpa in the pitch dark, where only the outlines of the passing shacks mark the sky from the ground underneath our tires. We make random stops that only the driver knows to pick up lone bodies waiting in the night. Over the hills, the red from the sunrise begins to pierce the night and things start to take shape as we push towards the border of Las Manos, the Hands – appriopriately named because Honduras has a way of drawing you back into its unraveling.

By now I’ve made friends with the three Mennonite women sitting in my row: Hannah, Anita and Dorcas. Yes, Dorcas, named after a disciple who lived in Joppa, referenced in the Book of Acts 9:36–42 of the Bible. I learn this as we’re standing in the dusty border with Nicaragua. It is a border lined, like many other borders in Central America, with miles and miles of tractor trailers parked on both sides of the narrow cracked road that looks like it’s melting in this early morning heat. The street dogs scurry across the road towards the overflowing trashcans with rats’ tails whipping across the top of the cans. As we get off the bus, money changers crowd around the door, flashing big bundles of worn bills barely held together by thin rubberbands. I  choose the one female money changer to exchange one devalued currency for the next. Lempires for Córdobas, but it’s the dollar they all want. I ask her for Quetzales, she sucks her teeth and tells me I’ve got the wrong border.

I wander back to my Mennonite friends who stand out in their immaculate long pink, blue and brown polyester dresses that reach down to their ankles. Their white head bonnets do a poor job of protecting their blonde hair from the unflinching heat. I tell them I plan to stick by them the whole trip, because chances are the bus won’t leave without the three Mennonites, it would just be bad PR. They laugh. No really, I tell them.  I’m in awe they’ve stuck it out so long in Honduras, 17 years Hannah tells me, living on a farm in the Honduran country side with nine children their family has fostered and homeschooled. You make enough money as farmers to keep up fifteen people I ask her.

“People donate from our congregration and somehow we’ve never lacked for anything,” Hannah says. Random people come up to me while we’re standing together and ask me what religion the women are. I step to back and say: “Ask them, they speak Spanish.” Most walk away in disbelief.

Our ayudante Walter comes out with a stack of passports, calls out our names and one by one we get back on the bus. It’s Valentine’s day, I tell Walter. He looks back at me and smiles for once the entire trip: “Felíz Día de Amor,” he says and gives me my passport.

In Managua we change buses. Half of us go, half of us stay in the small bus terminal. The rest are waiting in the terminal, including the crying baby who is fearless in screeching out his irritation with the world that we all feel right now. It’s hot, we’re hungry and thirsty, and our ayudante just ducked out the back door, without saying a word about our next step from here. I sit by Anita who doesn’t know that much Spanish and console her by telling her that even if she knew Spanish, none of this would make any more sense. At 1 Pm a new ayudante, Francisco, comes out with a stack of paper tickets.

He hands our tickets to us as he calls our names and stuff border forms into our hands. The Mennonites and I just got bumped to the back of the bus, near the bathroom.  My new friends show their dismay.  I tell them that all that matters is we’re all in misery together back there.

I could have taken a cab from that stop to downtown Managua to stay a couple of nights with a friend and not endure the next ten hours of our trip, but instead I get back on the bus. Hasta donde aguante el burro.

The rest of my trip through Nicaragua I remember between a delirium of waking and sleeping while the bus snaked through its usual route. I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours, so things were getting a bit liquid as my eyes closed  without me realizing it. In one of my dreams I drove this same stretch of road with Brad and the two German Shepherds in tow with the rest of our stuff in the truck bed. I wake up suddenly when the bus hits a big pothole and I feel relief it’s not us dealing with the road and everything else that comes with it. I don’t need to know the next step, the next bend in the road, and I can just fall sleep and wake to the scenes of a different country and lives lived outside my window. One of the earliest memories of my life was just that, watching the endless Mexican countryside, desert, urban sprawl pass by quickly outside our bus window as my mother and I immigrated to the United States the first time, right before my sixth birthday. I would put my forehead against the cold glass of the window and stare down at the road until sleep closed my eyes and I woke up in a different city, with my mother beside me.

Moments before the border with Costa Rica, I wake to Anita’s snoring and the blaring volume from the new 007 movie on the television hanging from the ceiling in the front of the bus. Things have changed outside. It’s greener, there’s dense forest, wild flowers along the side of the road, less trash, children kicking the ball in their front yards, storefront windows no longer have iron bars on them. You can feel it in the air, there’s less fear. I relax into this new feeling.

When the bus stops we do the usual, hand our passports over to the ayudante, get off the bus with all our bags, let the immigration officers check the inside of the bus, and then we wait until Franicsco returns triumphant with his towering stash of passports. He calls us one at a time, we get on the bus and drive over the border into Costa Rica. We’re all zombies being shuffled from line to line at this point.

You can tell a lot about a country by its border and how it is maintained. A few feet over the border, the bus stops, we get off again with all our bags, enter the air conditioned immigration office, wait patiently in straight lines we’re instructed to stand in, while the immigration office stamps our passports. Mine’s easy, I’m a tourist, I’ve come for five days and then I fly home. Stamp. Please take your bags to the X-ray machines, the kind you only see in airports, very clean and well-maintained. Everyone is very polite, but not just for politeness’ sake.

Our bags are pushed quickly on the belt and on the other side is our TransNica bus, like the faithful steed it has been. I am reunited with my women friends for whom I’ve regained more admiration after they tell me they did this trip just two weeks ago for a bible study class. Now they’re going for a friend’s wedding. It would have to be a very good friend, I tell them, to go through this twice in two weeks.

We get back on the road and a sign greets us into Costa Rica. As the sun begins to set across the hills, you can feel the ocean near. I can’t take my eyes off the rolling green pastures, the red from the sky like a thin veil of warmth.  A new quite tranquility sits somewhere deep now, it snuck into your heart somewhere between waking and sleeping as the world opened its doors to your passing.

What I learned over Chinese Food in Honduras

February 9, 2013

The Chinese food in Honduras is to die for, such that I’ve come to think of the national dish as some variation of chop suey. The baleada, forget it, it’s the plate of fried rice we all crowd around under the bright lights of a flat screen television blasting the re-run of Honduras’ triumpht goal over the U.S. soccer team last week.

On a Friday night, we head to Mandarin, a local favorite in Las Lomas, positioning ourselves strategically between the kitchen and the bar, but in the corner small table where we are now feeling a bit claustrophoic as we increasingly become surrounded by Honduran extended families. The kids kneel down in the walkways pushing their tiny fast cars, some hide under tables, throw fortune cookies in the aquarium while huge spoonfuls of noodles,  rice and dumplings are heaped on family members’ plates. Agua fresca de Maracuya and Salva Vidas are the preferred drinks and I’m eyeing the spring rolls at the table across from me.

It’s  become a spontaneous Girls’ Night Out for the nonprofit ladies of Honduras. It strikes me because it’s the first time I’ve sat with women from Central America, who are in their 30s, single, don’t have children, are educated, living on their own, work in the nonprofit sector and wear their independence proudly. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re looking for something until you find it – so after all these years, I find it in Tegucigalpa:  The do-gooder women friends and the Chinese food, even better than the food I had in Taiwan years ago when I would roam the night markets for dinner around midnight.

Sandra, Hirania and Nora all work at FUHRIL, a long-standing nonprofit that’s served people with disabilities for 30 years. I try to say the name between mouthfuls of fried tofu cubes and they laugh. They’re definitely laughing at me, but I don’t mind because I just want to know about their organization; I’m just not sure how to broach the topic. So we make jokes instead. We order, un pescado entero, beef chop suey, dumplings, rice and, of course, french fries. It’s been a long week so: vodka, sangria and beer. We ask the waiter if he can change the TV channel to the station playing UB 40. He is gracious and changes the channel.  Nora starts talking about a muro, a large wall they’re building. A wall, I ask. “To keep the ladrones out.” People break into the buildling to steal – wheelchairs, hearing aids for the half-deaf children, supplies, anything, even the electricity wire inside the walls. There are big holes in the walls they’ve made to pull out the wire.

It makes their life harder. Not only do they not have much funds to do their work, but now the crooks are taking everything from a building donated to them from the Honduran government. “We asked for someone from the army to stand guard outside our building, but nothing,” Sandra tells me. Sandra has short hair, glasses, gray eyes and is one of 14 children from Choluteca. She has been vegetarian all her life and believes in adopting children because that’s what’s needed in the world.

The food comes and my indignation at the unfairness of it all subsides. But it rankles in the pit of my stomach where the food hasn’t reached yet. This feeling stays with me the entire night.

They do a lot, sign language training, make affordable hearing aides and wheel chairs, help people register as disabled with the State to receive much needed discounts and educational attention, case management, policy proposals for urban development that is friendlier to disabled people, media campaigns to stop the silence around disability and the list is long. This weekend they’re doing a training, a training of trainers, focusing on teaching human rights to people working with those with disabilities. Later I find out some of the trainers themselves have disabilities.

How can it be that you do so much and get so little funding? I ask, knowing the answer after so many years in nonprofit work. They look at each other and burst into laughter. I stuff myself with more food, ashamed. Nonprofits are nonpofits in every part of the world.

When I was six years ago and having recently immigrated from Guatemala, the other kids thought I was disabled because I didn’t know English and couldn’t speak in their language. I stared out the window most of the school day, watching the snow fall on the sidewalk, snow I had never seen in my life, and disappear into the asphalt. The Catholic nuns then began to teach me English and I learned it in three months, enough to talk back to kids who called me a “retard”. Except I still read slowly, slower than most, and still today because of my dyslexia, the reading is slow going. I didn’t consider myself a person with disability, but others did. I was fortunate because I never stayed at the same school for more than one year, so I could reinvent myself and omit certain details about my life. It was my own private disability.  I tell this to Hirania as she’s driving me home and she doesn’t skip a beat: “You read slowly because you had dyslexia and it probably affected your ability to also learn another language.” That’s right, I tell, that’s exactly what happened.

A couple of hours later we are the last ones in the restaurant. The waiters are eating their dinner and the lights have been turned off in one part of the restaurant. We don’t notice. At this point, we’ve thrown ourselves head first into the work of FUHRIL. I learn that they even built parts of their facility using bottle construction and Red Bull cans. I’m writing tons of notes and suggesting fundraisers with jazz musicians, a Kickstarter campaign to help build their wall, an art exhibit with photographs of their clients,  a media campaign just with testimonials, grants, you name it, the creative juices are flowing.

But in the end, it’s the same note of disappointment: they can barely keep up with their current work, much less add more. I ask them how I can help? Sandra smiles, la cuenta comes, and I reach in my pocket for my wallet. Sandra shakes her head and takes the bill, wags her finger at me. “This one is on us, you’ve had to put up with all of us tonight!” Sanda says. I am caught off guard and don’t even know what to say, except this: I want to take video testimonials of the people who have gained something from the program. She nods in agreement, her head bent over the bill. Then she looks up. “It’s something we could use your help with.” How about we start tomorrow? I ask.

Saturday afternoon I am driven by Hirania into a very dangerous part of Tegucigalpa that is a “red zone” because of all the gang-related violence and narco-trafficking.  Their training is at the Catholic Church activity center, the one with the rolls of barbed wired above the matching gray-colored steel double doors that only someone from the inside can open with the push of a button. There’s cameras on every corner of the building and I feel that I am about to enter an immaculate prison. Hirania calls and the double doors open slowly while a couple of guards watch to see who’s coming into the facility.

When I went to St. Mary’s church in Lancaster, I remember the creaking sound of the big gates the nuns would close shortly after the bell rang. I watched from the second floor library as the latecomers hurried to beat the closing of the doors only to be reprimanded by Sister Mary Catherine who wagged her finger at them. Her black robe swished just above her ankles as she hurried them in, like a hen getting her chics into the nest.

I lived one block from the school and walked over before anyone else, but Sister Mary Catherine who would open the library for me to read and do my English homework. It felt safe inside, after our journey by land from Guatemala. St. Mary’s was my first refuge.

We parked, I got my camera and tripod and went up the stairs. Sandra smiled a very warm smile when she saw me.  I wonder if in part she  expected me to come at all. “Let me introduce you,” she said pointing to the large classroom packed with students staring at the newcomer.  That’s not necessary, I told her. “Nonsense, come with me,” and she pulled me to the front of the room, just like in the old days when I was the new girl at yet another school. “Tell them who you are, they want to know why you’re here.” Sandra said to me in front of everyone.

“Good afternoon to all of you,” I began nervously (Should I slow down, should I talk louder? Could they hear me? I thought to myself.). “It’s a pleasure to be here to help in any way that I can in your work.”

I felt their warm gazes and smiles looking back at me as Nora translated into sign language what I was saying. Her hands stopped and she waited for me to say the next sentence. I turned back to the students.

“I’m here to hear your stories, if you’ll tell them to me, I can share them with everyone else.”

What’s Happening in Honduras

February 2, 2013

It is Saturday morning in Tegucigalpa and I do the unthinkable: I decide to walk a few blocks in the middle of the day. I live up the hill from the Presidential House on Juan Pablo II, an area heavily patrolled by police and security guards pouring out from the big hotel chains, Marriott, Clarion, and then the McDonalds, Wal-Mart and the usual fast food asphalt jungle. In Tegucigalpa, no one walks, not by day and definitely not by night. The streets are quiet and abandoned and you get the feeling even the buildings have eyes to watch as you walk by. There is a general feeling of being watched and it’s becoming part of my skin.

There are pockets of safety that everyone knows and navigates towards. “I’ll meet you CafeMania,” you tell your friend or at the MultiPlalaza – malls having now become the new public street that promises safety. Coordinating activities is an elaborate dance of who has a car and who needs to be picked up or cabbed over. The in-between, the public space that forms the fabric we propel ourselves around is tattered and not to be trusted. You cultivate habits and superstitions that help you make it from one island of safety to the next, scurrying with the least amount of possessions on you or ready to part with whatever is requested at gunpoint. You can see it in people’s face, they expect a gun in their face any moment now.

“When I leave in the morning, I pray to God I return to my wife and child in the evening,” a waiter at a Chinese restaurant told me last week. During the day the cab drives me around the hills and I can’t quite get my bearings because there is no center, no core from which the city extends from. It’s a decentralized maze of lomas and increasingly more high rises, like El Castillo, the castle, that floats safely above the reality below. A good reporter friend writes this when he learns I am here: “Tegucigalpa is the town with no center – you’re just endlessly driving around hills, orienting from one strip mall to the next. The bourgeoisie has done a terrible job at city planning there, as with everything else. The only landmarks are the presidential palace, congress, the FESEBES union hall, the Hospital Escuela, the embassies, and the airport. You can tell what kind of a city it is if your landmarks are the morgue and the airport.”

The most difficult part is that once you leave your door it’s the arbitrainess of the violence that is unsettling. I was used to this in Guatemala City, but this is different, it’s feels more unnerving for some reason.

So, I decide to walk in the middle of the day Saturday, walk four blocks to Channel 8, a public station paid for by the government and right in front of the Presidential Palace. As I’m leaving my journalist friend, Luis, who I’m supposed to meet at the station calls me. “You’re not walking there are you?” Yes, I’m walking there, right now, I tell him. He grows alarmed.”Wait for me at the end of your street, I’ll have the taxi drop me off there and we’ll walk together. We’ll take the cab instead.” No, I tell him, I am walking. I refuse to be paralyzed by fear in the middle of the day. I can hear his disapproving silence on the other end of the phone.

We agree to meet and walk down together with every single person behind the fruit stands, behind their cars, behind the Bingo Real, or eating in the McDonald’s watching us walk by. I ignore it and talk to Luis. I’ve been invited by Jovenes Contra La Violencia to watch the first broadcast of the year of their one-hour youth show on the state channel which is actually seen on Channel 10. The Movement of Youth Against Violence has now spanned several countries, including Guatemala and Honduras, where they have chapters around the country that account for some 3,000 volunteer members. It’s run by youth for youth and in Honduras they’re organized enough to have their own nonprofit status supported in part by USAID. They have different teams in charge of fundraising, training, political mobilizations, and this television program which has a significant viewership. The show for now is a cultural, lifestyle show, but I’m ingraining the seed to have them do actual reporting. I bring Luis with me because he works at Conexihon, a collective comprised of  journalists who promote the defense of human rights, the right to freedom of expression, transparency and access to public information. We all stumbled upon each other at TechCamp Honduras and now we’re meandering along whatever sidewalk we can find on Juan Pablo II with the sun blaring down the back of our heads.

There are no sidewalks so we walk partly on the street or whatever thin curb is left on the side of the road. Cars don’t stop or slow down, they just speed up to get past us. One false step and you lose a limb.

“It’s Honduras, nobody cares,” Luis tells me. Really, I ask. He shrugs his shoulders and drops them in surrender.

So what’s happening in Honduras? 

  • In the past three years, there have been 20,573 homicides, with 7,172 murders registered in 2012, up 68 from 2011. The murder rate is 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which comes to 19.65 homicides per day. For comparison, the murder rates in neighboring Nicaragua and Costa Rica is 12 per 100,000 inhabitants and 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively
  • Honduras has one of the most corrupt police forces in the region. Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, has said 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime. According to organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, Honduran police officers “have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country’s criminal interests.”
  • Currently the country’s internal debt is around $3 billion; its budget deficit exceeds $1 billion (6% of its GDP), while its foreign debt lies at around $5 billion, the same amount allocated to last year’s entire government budget.
  • In addition to high levels of impunity for crimes, the country is currently in the middle of an institutional crisis. Current President Lobo encouraged Congress to remove four Supreme Court justices following several decisions that went against his administration. To read more on Honduras’ woes go to Just The Facts =>

At the television station the young people are in the middle of preparing to go live with their show. They dart back and forth, laugh, push each other around jokingly, look at themselves in the camera, do the last primping on their hair and clothes. It’s all sneakers, jeans, red and black T-shirts with their logo and “¡Ponte buso!” Get on the ball.

It’s as much a warning as a command, in this country.

En Este Día

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.

First Day of our Stay-Vacation

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?

Entropy

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.

Getting to Know Houston


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?

Atomic Dog


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!

The DNA of Change

October 31, 2011

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.

 

 

Belated Apology

October 25, 2011

By Kara Andrade

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.

The State In Me

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.

So You Wanna Learn Spanish, Eh?

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!

Mundo Del Español Talk

We’re At It Again

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:

VOZZ kids

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

Nadia Sussman Travel from New York: $500

Meals: $820

Total: $3,000

Wanna help? Just click the green button:

Romulus Rising

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.

A Thief in the Day

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.”