Today would have been my friend Ellen’s birthday. She would have been 79 years old. Had she been alive, had I died instead, I would be almost 34 years old and somehow it would have seemed less of a practical joke the universe played on both of us. I welcome it, this dance with death she left me to grapple with for the rest of my life, every year as I think on how fleeting life is when we love the people we love and when they love us back. I leave you with a poem from her partner, Rosemary Hyde, who I love as dearly as Ellen:
Birthday Thought to Ellen Jan 26 2011
Tomorrow would have been your birthday.
Web reminders say that I should send a card;
I wonder how to do that from this earth to where you are.
So here’s my birthday card to you, my Love –
An imagined nosegay:
I’m picturing it fresh and pure and white,
With smell so sweet;
Each flower is a precious moment
That we spent together;
Reminder of our songs, our laughter, even tears we shed —
All more special in the love we shared.
I tell you now, again,
How very glad I am that you were born.
I run to stand still. I pray the bus will be late, but knowing the driver, I lock up the house fast, head on into the sun and unabashed blue sky – my only witness to my lateness. I speed up and run when the hand lights up red. The sun is beaming and suddenly I feel fully in my body, but there is no time to waste and so heel to toe I arrive at the underpass before my bus stop and see the pink wreath of flowers, candles and pictures at the foot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. mural under 580. I stop and think of these words:
“Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”
I stood there and felt it in every pore.
I want to be at this end holding fast to the present and welcoming each passing moment, facing that music and dancing with the fleeting moment, instead of ignoring it, repressing it, or letting it go unnoticed.
On the first day of the year, I had enough of waiting and “No”. It was coming from within and it just was’t working for me. I also knew the hardest thing about saying yes to the universe meant accepting everything life puts in front of me. “Most of us have a habit of going through our days saying no to the things we don’t like and yes to the things we do, and yet, everything we encounter is our life. We may be afraid that if we say yes to the things we don’t like, we will be stuck with them forever, but really, it is only through acknowledging the existence of what’s not working for us that we can begin the process of change. So saying yes doesn’t mean indiscriminately accepting things that don’t work for us. It means conversing with the universe, and starting the conversation with a very powerful word — yes.” – DailyOm
It’s the conversation I longed for and it just needed me to welcome it now and not tomorrow or the next day. Time is relentless and the sunsets remind us so with that painful beauty of passing.
If you saw it coming, then why did you do it? Why did you wait? The four boxes of pizza fell from heaven, slipped right through your fingers while you pecked on your phone, it, too, tumbling to the ground along with your slice half-eaten, the grease making a profile against the brown bag crumpled at the top from your clutching. The whole thing just rolled into a corner and it was the first thing you reached for as the phone and the boxes flew in different directions. Things slid in their place, except for one slice that fell unprotected out of the box and onto the dirty, cracked pavement by the bus stop where everyone walks and no one notices. You looked around and quickly tucked the piece back into its place before the fall broke its perfection.
“I knew that would happen!” you said when you noticed I rushed to help you up. We had five-seconds to pick up the pieces. I didn’t want anyone to see your shame and the confusion of how things so quickly just fall apart.
It’s this contact state of balancing moment for moment, atoms crashing into each other, colliding, colluding, bouncing and returning to freer states. Perhaps they are the molecular angels of grace and gentle encouragement that things cannot perfect. They can just be as they are, in their true and present state.
Is it possible that a dream can slip and fade away? Like fortune and the winged ankles of Hermes is it something that needs to be grasped on its way in and not on its way out?
The sun and blue skies of the San Francisco Bay welcomed us to the New Year where we still find ourselves in a “holding pattern,” waiting for our next step. “Recuerdate, mija, que Dios dice, “ayudate que te ayudare”. Help yourself and I will help you. It’s good we kept our home in Oakland for incremental weathering of storms and transitional periods. It’s been our life raft, our vessel of sanity, that unlike planes in the air, has provided us a harbor where we can still have some will over our destiny. Planes in the air, hover, run dry and eventually must land regardless of the terrain.
Can a dream drift and float away? Can you watch it fade away with the passing of each day and then suddenly one waking moment notice its distance like the spec of dust on the outside of that bus — the same bus you take to work each day and look out into the now gray horizon of winter where sea meets land and sky? At what point did you go from “holding pattern” into “passing pattern”? How can you tell the difference when you’re in between? Fear and anxiety grip your insides and your next breath is like the shutting of a door. I think of “The Great Gatsby” and America rising from the ocean to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and that mysterious green light. Lucecitas.
We power the dimming of our lights, illuminating our own paths. Just sometimes the mire of obstacles makes the dock look much longer than I imagine it is. One foot in front of the other, one breath after the next.
I have this paranoia of missing the bus. It’s more a fear of being left behind to be honest. It’s not something I experience when I’m driving anywhere, late and harried, and somehow my fear of missing something at the other end kicks in. Of course, the show can’t start without me, so that mitigates any anxiety. As a result I’m always early for the bus, super early, like half and hour early sometimes.
I bask in the sun of the bus stop eating my lunch early and show up at work much earlier than required. It’s a small thing really, a tiny crevice of a thing that leads me head first into that first feeling of being left behind as a child. The first feeling of my mother leaving Guatemala, leaving her mother, her country, her home and leaving me. Leaving to find another life for herself, for perhaps us, somewhere so far way past the horizon and the silohuette of the shacks lined up against the steep hills of Zone Three’s grime, bracken, a place we called La Limonada where you make lemonade out of limes. It’s hard for a child to imagine deserts, endless blue of sky, terrains that linger in the back of that dream as you waken in the morning. I take a breath and am transported back, to easing into waiting, into trusting.
“The same laws that govern the growth of plants oversee our own internal and external changes. We observe, consider, work, and wonder, tilling the soil of our lives, planting seeds, and tending them. Sometimes the hard part is knowing when to stop and let go, handing it over to the universe. Usually this happens by way of distraction or disruption, our attention being called away to other more pressing concerns. And it is often at these times, when we are not looking, in the silence of nature’s embrace, that the miracle of change happens.” –DailyOM
I see the NL bus which takes me across the Bay and this time, just once, I decide to wait for the next one.
The irony isn’t lost on me. I now do temporary work for a company that makes bridges. “Good afternoon, T.Y. Lin. One moment, I’ll connect you.”
T.Y. Lin is a civil and structural engineering firm that did the engineering behind the Rio Dulce bridge, overseen by Chuck Simon who personally flew down to Guatemala when a crack was reported in the bridge. He was met with helicopters and flown out to Rio Dulce. The bridge still stands and it’s the landmark of the Department of Izabal where I was born and where my grandmother’s mother lived, near Gualán. I couldn’t have chosen better, except I trusted the world to do it for me. Here, put me where you will.
I now connect people all day. Phones rings, the elevator door slides open, someones laughs at their desk, the small fan hums and in each office an engineer pores over formulas, blueprints and simulations on computer screens. Heels click on the cement floors and walk past me, and I sit in the middle of this orchestra of activity. It’s comforting, it reminds me of an old place I know well.
In the great symphony of life, we all have important parts to play. While some people are best suited to be conductors or soloists, their contributions would be diminished considerably without the individual musicians that lend their artistry to the fullness of an orchestra… When we can be fully present in every job that we do, we bring the fullness of our bodies, minds and spirits to the moment. Our contribution is enhanced by the infusion of our talents and abilities, and when we give them willingly, they attract the right people and circumstances into our experience. –Daily Om
To connect people you have to come from a place of peace, to not only have it between the moments, but to be in the moment of that peace that is the underlying fabric. We know it’s there when the quiet sinks in, when we listen. In the quite lobby where my desk sits I learn to listen again, to experience time at a pace more granular and tangible than anything I’m used to or a context I’ve created around myself.
I remind myself I am temporary here and just smile at everyone that passes. But they stop and they make a point of learning my name, get to know me, ask me questions about my background. “Oh, you graduated from our alma mater!” “I have a good friend going to Guatemala for the first time, what do you recommend?” “How did we find YOU?” “Get out, you’re a journalist?!”
Engineers are quiet and pensive and waiting for social moments to reduce the awkwardness. I am “here to help with the transition” because their chief office manager, the Peruvian Carmen, is retiring after 50 years with the firm. On her last day, I help her clean her desk because she can’t bare to do it alone. I tell her I will be her hands and she can guide me. I am mindful, I am respectful. 50 years is a long time, it shows loyalty I’m not sure I have for anything. At least not yet. El tiempo lo dirá.
While delivering the mail Carmen introduces to the head Jefe in an office that sits right below the SF Bay Bridge. “Sit young lady, sit.” He is from Prague, tall, steel-gray features and lively eyes. He asks me:”What is the single biggest problem we have today?”
I answer immediately: “We don’t know how to tell stories, sir.”
He smiles, it is what he wanted to hear. He tells me about his stint in engineering school in Prague and how they didn’t have the option to learn writing. It was all numbers, courses like hard walls. He stares out beyond the bridge. Then turns back.
“All these kids typing on their cellphones, adults using Facebook who can’t even talk to each other, people and their emails. We can’t tell stories anymore, we’re always making these grocery lists of our lives to others!” He turns to me.
“Young lady, do you know how to edit? Can you write a good letter?”
“The best, sir.” Perhaps I should have been humbler. But I feel proud of myself because yesterday I wrote the best letter contesting my $100 parking ticket for parking in my own driveway.
“We’re not talking creative fiction, we’re talking using facts to tell a story.”
“Yes sir, I’m a journalist, that’s my job.”
He listens, his face somewhere between curiosity and suspicion. He comes from Eastern Europe, I need to give him a reason to trust me.
“I met a Guatemalan engineer when I first moved to Philadelphia. He was a very good engineer. He talked about his country all the time, not always good, but he told me this: ‘love your country, it is your root.'”
In two weeks, he told me, he would be back from vacation, and he would see how my letter writing fared. Will you be here in two weeks, he asked. I said, “I don’t know, does anyone?” He smiled and shook my hand.
I think of a song I grew up with that my mom would play on our beaten up boombox. “Yo No Olvido El Año Viejo” I don’t forget the old year, because it has left me many good things. It has not left me, it has carried me to a place of peace I had all along. I am grateful for all the people who have been that bridge for me, bending their backs to provide love, support and inspiration.
Today I hit the pavements of San Francisco as the sun refused to turn up from the gray blankets. I wound my multi-colored cotton Guatemalan scarf that really doesn’t do much to fend off the cold around my neck and braced for the four temp and staffing agencies where I would be dropping off my resume. “Looking for work should never shame you,” my mother’s internalized voice reminded me. “You should always be grateful for work, no matter what it is.”
I put on the poker face of over-politeness and do it the Guatemalan way: I drop in. I wanted to give a face to a name and to be honest, to make it past the all-purpose inbox of death where all resumes go during the horror of economic downturns that we have in California. Worse comes to worse they ask me where I lived and worked last year, I tell them Guatemala and they have no idea where Guatemala is; it happens, at least once a day.
I enter nameless impressive buildings where the building numbers could kill you if they fell off the entrance during an earthquake. My neck creaks when I try to separate the sky from the glass and steel and I feel like La India Maria when I get freaked out by how quickly the glass doors rotate. I have a backpack, I don’t wear make-up and my bangs are in that awkward faze where it looks like I haven’t used a brush in weeks. The manila folder in my hand isn’t even labeled. Floor 8, take a breath.
“Hi, Mrs. Sculley, I was in the neighborhood and just wanted to introduce myself, drop off my resume and inquire about meeting with a recruiter. Will that be possible?” Not even a smile. “Didn’t you submit via email? That’s how everyone does it.” I tell her I wanted to meet them all because they had such glowing reviews on Yelp. She’s not impressed. She goes back to typing on her MacBook Pro, but I’m not going away. “Mrs. Sculley, I promise to stop bothering you and email you my resume if you provide me with your direct email.” I raise my hand and cross my heart and stand with perfect posture. Her face softens. She gives me her card. I thank her. Score. Another four to go.
Back on the street as I swim with the rest of the Montgomery Street fish I wonder why no one will hire fine young entrepreneurs like myself with resumes that are four pages long because they are full of white space to make us look important and over-qualified. We fit great ideas in all that white space. Glowing I tell you. Bah, who wants an entrepreneur, it’s trouble I tell you. I have one month to go before I start another fellowship or maybe not. Money in the hand is never money until it’s in your hand. Another Silvia saying. I am warmed up now and ready for 345 California, 14th Floor, eh, the whole floor is Innovations PSI. The glass doors are wide open and just beyond I can see the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s no receptionist and they have perfectly round mints and the latest Consumer Reports “Top Ten Mobile Tricks” issue. I have to find a way to stay in the lobby and wait for five minutes, if only to enjoy the mint while flipping through the magazine. I sit on the plush lavender-colored designer couch.
The receptionist smiles as she enters, she is being nice for some reason, when she asks me to wait while she finds a recruiter. Mr. Kurt comes out. He tells me he has to go to a meeting in ten minutes. I hand over my resume, he goes through all the pages. “All this is your resume?” I tell him I’m a creative writer. He hands it back like I just gave him a fake dollar bill. “I don’t want it,” he says bluntly. “Is it because I’m killing trees?” I retort. “No, it’s not searchable.” I can solve that, I tell him, I can send him a PDF and Word doc ASAP once he gives me his direct email. He smiles, “Please.” He informs me they only have “Admin work”. I tell him I know how to use a typewriter and that I even typed 70 words per minute on one manual typewriter with no whiteout or return button in a bunker finance building in Guatemala City two months ago. He puts his hands in his pockets and pulls out his business card. He looks at his watch. Time to go. I think I’ve tied on this one.
The going down is always easier. The elevator drops me back to earth and the cold breeze suddenly hits my chest when I open the door. Why can’t journalists have their own recruiting agencies? Maybe I should make coffee instead? I’m sick of writing grants. Yes, I will use a typewriter for money. Maybe I can dance for the next month? Sell lemonade? Better start finding the lemons before someone else does.
There were two things I quickly learned not to do in my first year living in the United States: not go around telling people how much you loved them and, even worse, telling their secrets to other people. For both you gained a reputation that preceded you as someone “loose” with things that should be held close and away from prying eyes and deaf ears. I remember both moments well because both involved learning discretion and being able to discriminate what information should be revealed in what context. I also remembered the feeling when the nuns of St.Mary’s Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania pulled me to a corner, dragged along by my skinny arm and into the dark area right behind the confession booth.
“The Lord teaches us to be humble with all things,” she whispered it close to my ear and then wagged their finger slowly in my face, “and to not do or say unto others as you would not have done or said unto you.” Even if it’s true? I asked. “It doesn’t matter, it’s none of your business child.”
In journalism school I learned truth is not a defense for libel, in fact, it can actually create more grounds for emotional damage and distress and cost you quite a bit in cases where the person is not a public figure. I visualize how an onion thickens and how we only focus on the peeling back. I think of the 300-year -old Sequoias in King’s Canyon and the jaggedness of some rings inside their trunks sometimes signaling periods of great distress and then harmony. The layers form, protect, harden, become foundation and protect the vitality from within by keeping a relationship outside of itself.
I didn’t know it then, but when the nun whispered it in my ear, I lost something. I became self-conscious of everything, the conversations, the constant filtering, “Christ Freeze Tag” became a lie. I listened more and talked less. The context was always changing and I struggled to grasp it. I was less witty for it and people blamed it on the fact that I was an immigrant and didn’t know English well. “She’s slow, she’s just like that.” Perhaps I had become shy or introverted or I rolled backward into myself. It wasn’t an overnight change, but when Sister Mary Catherine whispered it in my ear it wasn’t her words I heard, but this: it’s time to let go of child-like ways.
It was the end of a certain openness and faith I had in the world as a playground of emotion and thought. Information could be dangerous, it could “do unto others” if I was heedless, if I stopped paying attention or was too much with the world. It could do unto others what I had never expected it do unto them because the world, as my mother later informed me, was a constant negotiation for information and for your own truth.
When Joan Kiley and I had a heated discussion this afternoon, I realized that I felt the same sadness around Wikileaks that I had felt that day when I stopped trusting something and then felt the responsibility of creating my own meaning at every moment.
The message remains the same, regardless of the messenger. Whether it’s Wikileaks or anything that involves openness and honesty, it’s about a broader context and about the worlds we want to live in, fight and take responsibility for. It’s about equality and respect and it’s the reason I work in Central America. And so I thank Joan for that discussion and for her poem which I share with you:
Advent 2010: What are we waiting for?
Will we get new light this time around?
Will the sun really return?
Or has it, too, been co-opted by corporate interests
and the wealthiest two percent?
I don’t want to give up
on Nature’s cyclic rhythm.
It is archetypal after all.
But in this dark night
of our nation’s soul
there are moments when the idea of hoarding
matches and candles in a remote cave
seems like a reasonable notion.
Remember the seeds
waiting in the cold
resting in the dark.
Their time will come.
It’s a matter of trust.
Given that the survival rate of the genetically modified
and manipulated is likely far greater
than those bare-naked “natural” little gems,
where do I send my energy of hope
my prayers for new world creative collaboration?
Truth. I shall trust in truth.
Truth may be covered in slime,
living at the bottom of all the moving boxes
the last to be unpacked when the transition
has been made. But truth weathers well,
doesn’t rot or succumb to mildew.
Like an acorn on the dank forest floor
there is an unseen mightiness
about truth, a warmth like fire.
I shall go there and stand with it.
“¿Que prefieres – Guatemala o Las Estados Unidos?” my Antigua-based Spanish teacher asked me yesterday over Skype. “Well in Antigua, the people are very nice but they are not quick” I replied. Realizing that I had just described all Antigueños as slow-witted, not slow-moving as I intended, I quickly added: “In the US the people aren’t nice, but they walk very fast. In Antigua the people walk very slow and I don’t have patience.”
“Ooohhh ja ja ja! Sí que es verdad, pero no es un gran problema, ja ja ja!”
Whew, my bad joke was understood. But it reminded me of all the other times I’ve been asked the same question in both English and Spanish, and how my replies were never quite convincing. I finally arrived at a decent canned answer: “When I’m in the US, I like the US. When I’m in Guatemala, I like Guatemala.” It’s probably more accurate to say that when I’m in the US, I complain more about the US and when I’m in Guatemala, I complain more about Guatemala. The grass is always greener on the other side of the border I guess.
Of course there’s way more green on this side, which is part of the reason we’re back up here. I’ve been working as a contract web designer for the in-house design department of a well-known educational toy brand – making that plata baby – gracias a Díos. Kara is hard at work on her Habla project, making entrepreneurial moves and getting some big players on board. Anyway my point is the green is indeed within reach for many of us in North America. Do I like the US? Hell yeah I like the US because there’s more fat here than in the chorizo and eggs I ate for breakfast this morning.
But are the people in Guatemala really nicer? Yes, the people in Antigua at least are very formal, use proper manners and are indeed very friendly to strangers. It’s like a time warp back to how we North Americans used to conduct ourselves. Or the way many Midwesterners like myself still conduct ourselves: opening doors for others, standing up and shaking hands when meeting someone for the first time, giving up seats for senior citizens on the bus and other mind-blowing acts of civility. Guatemalans do walk really slow though – I think it’s all the babies and goofy kids running around gumming up the works.
The funny thing about that time warp is Guatemala is now wormholing it’s way out of 1961 and into 2011. They’re cruising past all the lame shit we had to sludge through like landlines, web 1.0 and the Atkins Diet but I’m afraid they might also skip important stuff like having a civil rights movement, inventing their own punk rock and discovering a cure for Moco De Gorila.
Anyway, I look forward to being back on the other side to see what happens next.
We’re on the road again and it makes me want to write. It’s the expanse of fruitless trees with their dried branches adding cracks to the blue sky, the wind hissing through the windows, the tall bales of hay and then the entrance into the walls of pine at the base of Mt. Shasta. Time becomes so much more complete, filling every pore of itself in nature.
Five hours to Weed, California seems like a blink of the eye for us, a small price to pay to be away from the madding crowd and to see snow again. I tell mi abuelita y mi mama: “We’re going to a cabin somewhere in the woods.”
“By yourself? UY! Be careful, people get killed in el monte.” Eh maybe during periods of genocide when the military goes into the rural villages in Guatemala. Maybe then, abuelita. “But you’re driving alone? You’re not going en caravana o con amigos?” Why, I ask her, so we move at someone else’s pace? I don’t think so. “¡Ques’eso!” She laughs, half in disapproval at my American ways and the rest dismissing the ludicrous nature of our behavior. “Make sure you take something to cover your nose from the cold.”
It’s a good time to reflect since we’ve been back for more than a month now and time has passed, water through our fingers, ungraspable. In the distance the snow-capped Cortina Ridge and the sky lighting up the fire of an imminent sunset. “Feliz Día de Gracias.” I tell abuela. I no longer say, “Happy Thanksgiving.” I’m more Guatemalan now and while Thanksgiving Day doesn’t directly tie back to our history, it does hold a symbolic element of being grateful for leaving deprivation and entering a place of plenty. I say entering because many times it’s a mental shift – re-framing a concept of deprivation from not having access or owning materials things to having support, love and freedom. Support from those we love and who love us and to feel free to do things that matter both for us and the world.
I am grateful for this and also for ten years ago when Brad and I wandered into the snow-laden forests of Shasta County and Lassen Volcanic Park in search of hot springs and adventure. We found each other.
We’re getting closer to darkness. El Día de Los Muertos reminds us how close we are to that needlehead thinness between living and passing; the passed and the still yet suffering. Two years ago my friend Ellen died in her sleep, bled into herself after many struggles with cancer. I can’t imagine her struggling because she smiled through anything. Even pain was a gift to be appreciated because it could be felt while living and she taught me that there is always something to be made of pain, if only sometimes to remind us of the present that needs to be lived. It’s taken me this long to realize that she’s perished, gone so far away. Yet tonight we summon each other.
I enter the portal, lift up the thin black-laced veil, surrounded by dancing stilt-walking skeletons, and candles to guide me down this crowded San Francisco street where the vessels have been prepared and carried. I move slowly with the crowd and find my way to the park where the aperture has been tended. There by that tree in Garfield Park, I find her and she finds me. As if time had not passed at all. Out of my red bag, I take out the large candle, the pomegranate, the apple, the two keys, the many small candles for all the people she touched with her compassion and love. I pause and light each one with my friend Tal. For once we have no words. I pause and then pull out our her steel-framed picture waving back at me from the beach with her one arm and other shrunken arm tucked close to her body, like all the people she loved and who took shelter there. She waved and you couldn’t tell if it was a wave of farewell or hello or simply “Here I am”. The ocean roared behind her and cool wet sand touched her bare feet. I thought of her pain until the end. I thought of her happiness. And this time, I waved back.
My friend Ingrid is having a baby and I feel so helpless. I sit outside in the livingroom among the women, her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, the mid-wife who peacefully goes in and out of the bedroom where she is giving birth. It is quiet except for the sound of the bubbling water in the fish tank, the cat meowing, the tea kettle which boils over with water, whispering and the utter agony of her cries of pain. Gity, her Iranian mother-in-law is praying in Arabic from a small book which she reads with her dark glasses, bending her entire body into her prayer at one corner of the dark sofa, she emanates tranquility.
“This only happens once in our lifetimes,” Gity reminds me and her daughter. “It is truly a gift that Ingrid gave us.”
I thought I would come here like a photographer, a professional gig for a friend, but it’s more right now and while my instinct is to document, my heart tells me to be empathetic and to respect her privacy.
The mid-wife comes out and we hang on every word. “She’s at 8 or 9 cm, but something is holding her back.” She needs her comfort zone back.
We empty the livingroom, it is her home again, quiet and safe without the pressure of anyone expecting her to perform on their terms. I flee to the dark corners of the baby room and write. From time to time I hear the creaking of the bed and the door. The midwife pokes her head in from time to time with the nicest, warmest smile.
When I asked Gity, who has had four children, two of them twins, and the midwife about the amount of pain she’s in and what the experience of labor is they tell me this:
It’s like things are happening in your body, like your body is stretching and things are happening inside you that you can’t control, you feel what the baby feels, like you’re going to die, like your bones are going to break, you can’t say anything, you become like a child, language is gone. The first one you’re lost because you don’t know if it’s the beginning or the end. Every moment you think it’s the most intense. It feels like your baby is going to come out of your ass, like it’s the size of cantaloupe and there’s no way out.
I cringe, I cannot fathom my body stretching into another dimension. Gity looks at me intensely and then she says “It’s like a difficult exam you cannot fail. You just have to get through it.”
“Today and yesterday many of the 150 country delegations that participated at Conference for Reconstruction and Transformation of Guatemala expressed their support for the plan proposed by the Government of Guatemala. At the same time it seemed clear to most international participants that Guatemala will never be able to move towards development if the tax revenues stay below 10% of the GDP, the lowest in the region, even lower then Haiti.
The Sub- Secretary of the United Nations (UN), the Mexican, Alicia Bárcena, who is also the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) warned: “no country in the world collecting less then 10% of GDP and with a public spending of only 4.5% of the GDP, can exercise effective management, it is a State without the power to act”.
I sent this along to a few friends who are businessmen and know Guatemala to get their take on this. I, of course, have my own theories, but here’s some of the comments they sent along:
Maybe this is the foundation of how to attack it: “It is a problem caused by severe social inequality, a weak state, very low governmental budget and therefore a weak organizational and coordination response of the actions needed to tackle the problem.” Let us turn this into the advantage.
We go after the financial side and make it even more community driven. We also allow the information to flow freely. Some very interesting possibilities for collaboration between two awesome organization here, yet informal. Hmmm I see a lot of interesting approaches from this conclusion. – Erik
“I was startled to see just how low the tax collection and the government spending %s are and I look forward to seeing your elucidation of different approaches to the problem.
Our attorney in Guatemala, Gladys Porras, worked for SAT (the Guate equivalent of the IRS) as a trial attorney in tax evasion cases and recently left the agency to go into private practice. Every day she had a new case in a new town for 3 years! She told me that during that time the SAT estimate was that the % of citizens who had income sufficient to require the filing of tax returns and that voluntarily complied with the requirements rose from 40% to something over 50%.
That tells me that not the very rich and the kind of rich people evade taxes but also the middle class (I don’t think the poor are required to file). So it is endemic, which is not surprising due to the prevailing culture of rampant corruption in the country.
In the article Pres. Colom says that the business community is blocking tax rate increases. I believe that but I also believe the average citizen is against increased tax rates as they have no reason to believe that the government would use the increase in revenues to benefit them. Based on history, this is a perfectly logical conclusion.
So, if not from the rich (who have almost all the power), the middle class (who do not have much power) and the poor (who only have power when they are in outright revolt — and just why would they revolt in favor of a concept so unappealing on its face as taxes — then where could the pressure for fiscal reform originate?
Here are my off-the-cuff responses to the question, listed in order of importance and potency:
#1: The international community. The conference referred to in the article undoubtedly was initiated by that external force (just as the fledgling moves towards legal reform in Guate was caused by the US and the UN). So that means the US government and multi-lateral agencies such as the UN, IMF, the World Bank, and the IDB. They threaten to cut off aid, military supplies, loans etc., if fiscal reform does not happen. They are the ones that posses Big Carrots and Big Sticks.
#2: “Enlightened” business interests. Just as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and some other mega-billionaires are pressing for the continuation of estate taxes in the US, some big players in Guate such as WalMart, Big Chicken (Pollo Campero) etc. could come to the realization that the development of a stable, growing economy which benefits the majority of citizens (a.k.a. consumers) is key to greater profits and get behind financial/fiscal reform. This group possess Big Carrots (a.k.a. money for politicians) but few if any Big Sticks as it is well known that businesses everywhere hedges their bets and buys the corporation of all political elements (and that all such elements, left, right and center, are eminently and equally subject to these thinly disguised bribes).
#3: The pollis (the Latin term I use for the general population although in Rome pollis was just those eligible to vote, not the general population) has no Big Carrots but does have a Big Stick as it posses the power of extreme disruption and outright insurrection. Interestingly, while the demands of groups one and two would be, first and foremost, more revenue for the government to spend on services to the public, the pollis would demand just plain more services. (The pollis never worries about where the money for government services comes from.)
So, as I see it, the ideal analogy for the causation of fiscal, financial, and democratic reform in Guatemala would be a pressure cooker. Heat from the outside (see #1), an inflamed “water” (the pollis — see #3) and a shaky lid (big business, see #2, which sees that all this is bad for business) that tries to hold things together. Now, if I could only solve my own personal problems ….
When I ask mi mama if she ever paid taxes, she sucks her teeth and says the equivalent of “Please, do you think I’m stupid?” Mi abuela retorts: “What for? So the crooks in the green palace get it?”
I honestly think it has to do with trust – among classes, from class to state, from individual to individual, organization to organization and business to business. Mix and match any of these combinations and there still isn’t any trust any way you put it. There is a certain fabric of trust that is missing for many reasons, but on the national level many people, even the middle class are against paying taxes because they don’t trust the government (how could they after the war and now the syphilis experiments, it takes two to tango on all these occasions) to look after their interests or well-being. It never has, why would we expect anything different? The wealthy are used to looking after their own interests and doing whatever they want as long as they have money; the middle class is barely scraping by and they certainly don’t trust the rich to pay their share or the governent to take care of them; the poor are in the daily struggle and all the nonprofits (local ones in particular) provide the band-aids when the whole thing is hemorrhaging.
SF BAY AREA – Waking up in one’s own bed after after being away for one year is as close as I’ll get to waking up in a time capsule, buried amid the rubble, rain and weeds that grow around it like a rock. I stare at the red room we painted years ago and look around the partial emptiness from a night’s worth of unpacking. My little shortwave radio I carry everywhere I roam sits on the table next to me and I turn on the news. All in English. There’s public radio here. The foreclosures have been cancelled because of mistakes.
It’s Columbus Day and the windows have steam on them from the chill outside and our warm bodies inside. I amble about, make the bed the way the nuns taught me, eat my oatmeal, pick up my paper in my white socks (curse when I realize my Wallstreet Journal has been stolen) find the physical vessel for this next phase, touch the plants, re-arrange the dishes and then I just listen to this new quiet of change, of settling in. We’re here for three months and i don’t know how much to unpack to signify the long journey has ended and how much to leave packed and ready to sell, to ship to move to another storing unit. Things are liquid and in motion even with the semblance of stillness. I have populated my desk quickly and I turn off the lights to hide in that tunnel of pixels.
“It’s like a spaceship just landed!” Brad said as he walked in for his pajamas. We’re sharing a closet here as well, and so my office is no longer a closed space for my landings on Mars.
Outside my smile is less strained and I relax into the street when I surface from my office in the back of the house. Everything looks wider and more expansive, and yet I’m fearful in that same old way. I stop looking around, behind, and out of the corner of my eye. There is nothing there. No one is following me. I pull my bag close to me, hide my celphone and pull the credit card and cash out of the wallet. I’ve left the dummy wallet back at home I think to myself. Why did I bring a bag? Anyone will see I have my things in there.
The roads are smooth and dark, like a deep dark mirror in the middle of the blazing sunlight. I hit the button to signal I want to cross the street and the pedestrian icon rings from the other corner of the street. A few people pass me, none of them smile or say “Buenos días!”. I am thirsty but Angelica isn’t there for me to say “Kal awech Angelica!” and to watch her make orange juice while the marching bands pound the city’s heart in La Antigua’s central park. It’s quiet and it’s like I’m inside in the middle of the outside world.
Oakland bound – Three hours from Oakland and the landscape is so familiar it feels like an old pair of shoes – familiar, comfortable and with the novelty of not having been worn since we left. We have ten weeks to make a lot of things happen to prepare for three years in Central America. It’s a long list that we’ll do one at a time like an assembly factory that creates order quickly and efficiently. In this way Brad and I are well matched. I have ideas somewhere up there in the stratosphere and he grounds them. And then we meet somewhere in the middle, a little bit above the horizon from a bird’s eye perspective.
We pass the geometrically aligned pistachio fields that will turn into the garlic fields and the tomato fields and the apricot trees and then into suburb, concrete and city, straight into Oakland. Some of the trees are newly planted and the green is winding up the wooden posts that will serve as their backbone until they are grown enough to have their own base to nourish them. This is the nature order of things, birth, discovery, growth, transition, passage and birth again.
Guatemala taught me focus, the US taught me how to create a process, and the journeys in between taught me introspection as a form of nourishment and strength. “You write so much!” Robert’s wife, Nancy, told me while she was reading some of my posts including the one on Mark Francis. “I think a lot about things,” I tell her, when in fact my head is crowded and I use the writing to give things a narrative and some illusion of order. I will keep writing, I promise to myself, everyday while we’re here and when we’re back. It’s a promise I’ve made to myself before, but this time I intend to keep it because I’ve realized how quickly I can connect to a community of people who have lived with two cultures, two countries and this constant bifurcation in their lives. It’s time to listen more by writing.
VENICE – This is as exclusive as it gets: boutique shops, macrobiotic protein-powdered food and women, new fast cars, manicured lawns, hair-sprayed dogs, six-pack torsos and accessories for the accessories. No two people are the same on the Venice Beach boardwalk where entire sections reek of medicinal marijuana stores and people ride their bikes and rollerblades the same way they drive –like unheeding laser-targeted missiles. I feel suddenly small and slow. Literally, I’ve entered the land of the bionic giants. Does anyone actually work here? I wonder to myself, thinking isn’t the heat supposed to make people slower? This has been my operating theory on why coastal people in Latin America tend to be less rushed about things.
In Phoenix there was space, large expanses of desert and cacti to somehow let the spirit wander; the people were older, nicer and quieter, curious, but not unbounded and unhinged in your “space” like you were in their way or had just entered their narrative without being asked. It appealed to my Guatemalan sensibility of considerateness and politeness. At 7 AM we leave our friend’s house in Phoenix after watching them prepare for their own journey to San Francisco Bay Area for a wedding, but this time with their three-month baby. That’s the second couple on our road trip that has gone from two to three. It’s always instructive to see good friends make that shift and enter a different phase of their lives.
In many ways it’s like window-shopping and seeing if it’s a potential future for us. On every occasion we’re always happy for them and happy we can share these moments in our lives where we can our adventures overlap and we welcome a new member to the family who we’ll also be sharing and growing with us all along the way.
The verdict is still out for us on the babies and parenting, but we both trust that when and if and if ever things go in that direction for us, it’ll be evident and we’ll feel it is the right thing for us and the world. Yes, the world. It’s more my own concern over social responsibility and my love for children that I couldn’t reconcile having a child knowing how many children are in orphanages in Guatemala and if it’s a matter of ego, well, most of them look like me anyway, so no loss there. Brad just likes his freedom. And I like mine, too, and we’re both married to our work, so it’s good we’re honest and clear with each other and others about that. The only pressure we feel from time to time is the change of lifestyle we stop sharing with our friends. But we find places to connect, at least if it’s a genuine friendship with some depth. We grow older; we start to appreciate the differences in paths chosen.
We arrive in Venice, a ten-minute bike-ride away from Venice Beach, chat on the porch with our friend Robert who’s sitting outside reading his new soccer referee manual, before he goes to pick up his son. “Take the bikes,” he tells us. “They’re in the garage.” So we unload our bags and head to the beach on the most janky bikes that have seen plenty of ocean salt and have survived being stolen simply by being so ugly, but practical. In an instant our reality for since Sunday is drastically changed. Wind blowing in our hair from our proximity to the Pacific Ocean, we use our legs for the first time to move us through scenes of eclecticism, narcissism, lifestyle vendors and niche entertainment spots with clever names and slogans. Nothing is real except the appearance of things.
The fatigue caught up with me in the car where I fought off a migraine with three Aleves, but this is really the antidote. We spend a couple of hours biking up and down the beach, stop to watch the skaters at the skate park and then park the bikes and plunge into the soft, cold sand. The sandpipers are out rushing quickly from hole to hole that bubbles when the tide pulls back and there are children throwing buckets of sand around them as they prepare for the best castle ever. Women jog by in bikinis and gay male couples walk hand in hand while one talks on his cell phone. We relax into our skin, free from the anger, the frustration, the fear and the knowing that the random is near. Perhaps it’s because we’re just passing through, perhaps it’s because there are different fears and frustrations associated with this life in the US that we have not yet adopted. As I’m reflecting on this, mi mama calls. “¿Ya llegaron?” Are you there yet? Yes, we’re on Venice beach watching people, I tell her. “¿Se siente bin ester aquí verdad?” It feels good to be here right? I pause because I know mi mama’s leading questions and I can either step into her perception that Guatemala is hell on earth and the USA is God’s gift to immigrants or I can just passively agree with her. I tell her in some ways it feels good to be here, in other ways it doesn’t. How can that be? She retorts. “Porque Guatemala si tiene cosas y gente bonita, pero muchas veces no puedo uno apreciarlo.” “Yeah right,” she says to me in English even though I just spoke to her in Spanish. It’s true, I tell her, has she gone to Monterrico, Sipacate, climbed the volcanoes, seen Livingston, what about Petén and the Mayan pyramids? I feel ridiculous having to convince mi mama that her country is not “una pura mired.” Pure crap.
I am disappointed in myself for letting myself play this game. This is not my battle, it is hers. I have baggage when it comes to living in Guatemala, but mi mama has trunks when it comes to living and leaving Guatemala. I take the exit strategy and tell her Brad wants to say hello. It’s easier that way, to deflect, to just let Brad deal with the assumptions she wants to confirm. Brad goes along with it, tells her about the skateboarders, tells her, yes, he’s ready to go back for three years to Guatemala, he’s got work there, friends and another life. I can hear the pause when he shares this with her.
“But it’s still better in the US right?” She continues not dissuaded. Brad laughs and I’m getting annoyed just listening to her insistence. “Oye mi suegra,” Brad finally ends the conversation. “We gotta go and keep biking. But everything is good! No te preocupes, suegra.” They both laugh and thank god we’re off the phone.
We keep riding until he have to head back to meet our friends for the gourmet taco truck dinner that is a phenomenon on Venice Blvd every Friday. We love these folks, their children, their home, their lives and their commitment to both their work and family. They are active, intelligent, loving and warm. They are the best-grounded combination we’ve seen of careers, family and economic stability. One day, we both say to ourselves, one day, we’ll do it our way. We already are, but the path is still unfolding.
PHOENIX — Around noon we left Hermosillo after much needed rest and pointed our direction north to the Nogales border. Hermosillo is one of my favorite last stops before leaving Mexico, it’s easy, so easy, to find hotels, restaurants, its proximity to the autopista in unbeatable and there’s just a general ease for the I imagine the many overnight business travelers both Mexican and American. The day was supposed to be our shortest day of travel and our biggest feat would be crossing the border into the U.S. It couldn’t be any more difficult than the Talisman or Tecun Uman crossings, so the stress level was very low.
Brad was ecstatic about coming home after a whole year of being away from the US. I just had anxiety, as I’ve always had in my life when crossing the border into the US. What if they say no? What if the citizenship laws have changed and mine is total void? Has my stay expired? All these questions have crowded my mind most of my life as an immigrant crossing the border. This time, these questions I’ve always asked myself in fearing access to the US came and went quickly and, then, for once a statement emerged: So what if they say you can’t come in? So you go back home, you go back to Guatemala. I smiled when while we waited patiently in a well-organized line of mostly trucks and new cars parked at theses sophisticated lanes lined with steel and tons of surveillance equipment, cameras, laser tracking, and stuff that made me feel like we were about to drive through plutonium. I told Brad we needed to cancel our Mexican permit and get stamped out. He waved his hand and said, “Don’t worry, they’ll know what to do.” That’s what I’m always afraid of with Americans, the skipping of certain vital details that impacted Central Americans.
We waited patiently for half and hour, getting the remnants of the informal economy to clean our windshields, sell us churros, wooden crosses and saints, a few elderly people asking for alms and people in wheelchairs. The signs were in English and Spanish and when it came our turn to talk to the US border agent, I was surprised to hear English again, spoken clearly, gruffly and so direct. I let Brad to the talking and we were asked to pull in for an inspection. We weren’t surprised because in the past couple of days by not having a ton of luggage with us and trying to be low profile, we became very high profile and went through about 5 complete inspections at various checkpoints. Agents didn’t understand how we could have so few bags after being gone a year and they asked us tons of questions.
Where are you coming from? Where are you headed? Where do you live? You LIVE in Guatemala? Why? This one always made me laugh. Because that’s where I’m from and where my family is. But you also live in California? Yes, that’s right. What kind of work do you do? Designer and journalist. “Okay, please pull in here on the right, we need to do an inspection.” We didn’t mind, we both enjoyed grading how well they inspected our car.
Outside of Mazatlan one of the agents actually pulled up both back seats, took out our bags (strangely no one look in our bags or in the Thule on the top of the car, in the US they definitely made us open up the G5 box and the Thule). I asked him if he found any money under there, “not one peso, ma’am.” We all laughed and I told him that he’d done the best inspection yet. He smiled and said, “I’ve never had anyone tell me that.”
That same stretch Brad had his first taste of Pozole, with the thick layers of pig fat pouring right off the garbanzo beans and corn. As we were about to pick up speed I had seen the small chairs and tables lined up outside this food stall and I said, “there’s food there.” It’s the one phrase Brad will screech wheels and doing crazy u-turns to not miss where my finger is pointing. Sure enough, this woman about four times my size, with forearms about the thickness of my thighs (Brad’s words) an a stained apron tied around her trunk for a wait was stirring a huge burned pot in the middle of the hottest day we’d experienced in our drive. Brad watched her and then asked what she was making. She looked at him and cracked a side smile by saying “Pozole.” She kept stirring while Brad found the words to get her to feed him whatever she had in that pot. The two other women who sat next to her were half as big, but they were obviously related and found humor in this gringo salivating at their vat of mystery. I came out from the bathroom just in time to see the last bites of mystery go down Brad’s chute. The woman cackled. Brad looked up from his bowl, his mouth still dripping: “What?”
Back at the border crossing with the U.S. I was convinced that border agents’ uniforms came with Ray Ban sunglasses because all of them had them. Like The Man With No Eyes in “Cool Hand Luke,” there was nothing beyond the glass. We did, however, get a thorough inspection and then the guards finished up with us and let us put our stuff back to its place. We cruised out of there and saw our first speed limit sign in English. From that moment on Brad acquired this ease in all his movements and in his face. Like some veil had been lifted. He didn’t have to read or speak Spanish for the next three months, and he was back home. His home, my other home. Yes, it was easier, the roads were impeccable, there were no tolls, we didn’t have to stop for speed bumps and people had become cars, exchanged limbs, skin and faces for metal, glass and paint. Things were easier, but less human.
When we got not the freeway bound towards Phoenix we realized we weren’t going to make it in time for political conversing and dinner with our friends, so we looked for a place to eat. Brad spotted a 1950’s diner and immediately pulled off the freeway and into the parking lot. “DUDE! Let’s eat there!” It seemed appropriate, let’s go eat somewhere that reminded us of an America that used to be and have nostalgia with our milkshakes and apple pie, except I had a margarita. We sat next to the jukebox and didn’t think to even put a quarter in.
Editors note: in the wake of the ruling against Jeff Cassman, we’ve received several new and interesting comments regarding this post. Therefore, we’re sticking this one to the front page for the next week so nothing gets buried!
HERMOSILLO – I went to sleep with this gnawing feeling of being betrayed and lied to and I woke up with the same feeling. It was a feeling I knew well from having been around so many crooks, liars and scammers most of my life which forced me not only to develop a radar for these things, but to always seek the balance at the other end.
At midnight we checked into the Colonial Hotel in Hermosillo after yet another 12 hour day of driving to get us back on schedule with our travel itinerary. We’d stayed at this hotel before so I bargained them down to $60. Still pricey but we had WIFI, great food, pool and awesome rooms. Worth the splurge and Brad was doing the zombie walk, barely able talk so it was time to unpack our bags somewhere.
Once in the room both of us immediately started checking our emails – starved people come in from the desert of data famine. The first email I opened was one from my friend Rudy Giron with the PrensaLibre headline: “Capturan en Antigua Guatemala a estadounidense buscado por FBI“, American wanted by the FBI captured in Antigua, and right below was the big picture of our friend Mark Francis. I thought it was a hoax, one of those online websites that creates a phony newspaper front page just for laughs. I was frozen after reading the entire article.
“Cross reference it on the Prensa Libre page,” Brad tells me half-heartedly while clicking on his own email. “I already did,” I told him. “I’m reading the story from the Prensa Libre website.” At which point Brad stops everything he’s doing and we both drop our mouths in bewilderment. Brad tries to decipher the story from Spanish to English and so I read it to him and then we both continue to do google searches which brings up something from the Nashville post, email all our Antigua friends, look on Facebook, go to Mark’s GuateLiving bog, read the comments, and, yes, it’s true though truth did prove stranger than fiction in this instance: our friend is a scam artist. His name wasn’t Mark Francis, it was Jeff Cassman, wanted by federal agents for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme and about to face trial for mail and securities fraud charges that could put him behind bars for decades.
The first day we met Mark Francis was the week we’d arrived to La Antigua after driving 10 days from Oakland, California. I’d found him through one of my Google alerts for Guatemala where we were preparing to live for a year and his blog, GuateLiving, came up as the most popular blog in Central America. Both Brad and I became instant fans: he was witty, smart, funny and cocky. So cocky at times that it pissed off a lot of people as was evident from the comments. He often came across as making fun at the expense of others and purposely incendiary. “He’s a man’s man,” Brad said when he first read him. “And he doesn’t feel a need to be politically correct.” It was a rare combination in Guatemala to have an expat, pundit, contrarian and unabashedly critical voice on Guatemala.
I looked him up, tried to find pictures of him, learn more about him and his background, but nothing. That meant there was only one way to get to know him, to email and talk to him with the ultimate goal of eventually meeting him in person. We exchanged a few quick emails about how much time he’d been in Guatemala and any travel tips he might have. Soon we were regularly in contact and I asked him to be on the HablaGuate BlogTalkRadio show on “Migrations”. It was a show I had asked Rudy Giron, a Guatemalan who immigrated to the US and then back to Guatemala to be on. Rudy was already showing his suspicion of him and didn’t want any kind of association with Mark Francis whose broad strokes were too broad for the meticulous, detail-oriented, accuracy-driven Guatemalan returnee.
It was an hour-long interview during which Mark shared the story of how he had worked in the financial sector in the United States, originally from Tennessee, and got tired of what he forecasted as the market downturn and the stressful, soul-less life. He and his wife wanted something different, so they sold their large house in Arizona, told their nine kids to pack up a duffel bag each and then got on the bus, all the way to Guatemala. That’s an 11-person family on a public bus. They stopped off in Mexico for six months (the details of why or where he did not reveal) and then decided to move farther south to Guatemala. They loved La Antigua and originally they wanted to live in the small exclusive mostly expat colonial town 40 kilometers from Guatemala City, but since there were so many of them, it was less expensive to live in Ciudad Vieja. They rented what was once a small hotel past the cemetery and on the road to Acatenango and home-schooled all their children.
When I asked him about what he was doing for work in Central America, he said he was looking at options, but that he didn’t need to rush things because he’d invested enough and got our early enough to be able to take care of his family comfortably for a few years. I remember doing the math in my head and thinking, even in Guatemala that’s at least $100,000 a year for what would end up being 12 family members near La Antigua living a US standard. He laughed when I referred him back to the original 11 figure he mentioned for the number of people in his family. “We’ve had our anchor baby,” he said. “Maria was born in Guatemala and so we’re not leaving anytime soon.” An anchor baby, from what troubled seas I wondered.
In talking to mi mama that night and sharing his story, she said in her usually skeptical way: “There’s only one reason anyone leaves the US by bus with so many kids.” “Why?” I asked her. “Because they’re running away from something.” I always took mi mama’s comments with a grain of salt because she’s seen and lived among the underbelly for a while, a survivor, with survivor instincts and the general principle of everyone is guilty until they prove themselves innocent.
“Hay ma, but isn’t it cheaper to travel that way when you have so many kids?” I retorted. “I thought he didn’t have any money problems?” She reminded me. I let the matter drop, I wanted to believe his story, it appealed to my literacy fascination with journeys.
Either way, the guy was, likable. In the car this morning as we make our way to Nogales, I ask Brad why he liked Mark: “He was likable friendly, charismatic, he was an extrovert, funny, he made me feel comfortable around him. He was a good storyteller, a good listener and I liked some of his cheeky opinions about politics even though I didn’t always agree I respected his forthrightness.”
But not everyone liked him. He’d received threats both via email, and now people were coming around his house and throwing rocks in his windows and at his kids. He blamed it on people misunderstanding where he was coming from on his blog. But mostly people were envious of him, had a chip on their shoulders or just felt a need to gossip. The thing that made him laugh the most was conspiracy theories on him just because he was different or had a story unlike anyone else’s. There were stories circulating about him being part of the CIA or that he was part of the Mossad- the Israeli secret service.
Sitting across him at Hector’s restaurant across from La Merced church, it seemed appropriate that we were in a stuffy cave-like restaurant serving hot Italian food in the hot afternoon. He had walked in after us and immediately recognized us sitting by the window facing the church. He was tall, husky, pale with black hair, a goatee and lovely green eyes. On a TV show he would have been Toni Soprano’s younger brother from Italy. He immediately introduced himself, kissed me on the cheek and adjusted his pant legs so his pants wouldn’t get wrinkled before he sat down, legs open and the heft of his belly hanging comfortably under his crossed arms.
“I was expecting someone with more American looks, way more clean cut American, I wasn’t expecting the big Semetic hockey player looking guy,” Brad said in remember that first meeting. Now it doesn’t surprise me, Brad says while driving us the last stretch to Nogales, that he was growing out his mustache and his hair was getting long and greasy. Whenever I’d see him in the park I would say ‘Wow, dude, you’re looking more Chapin everyday.'”
We ordered lemonades, he got a martini. We talked about life in La Antigua, chatted about his new house in Ciudad Vieja, his kids, his blog, Rudy walked into the restaurant for lunch business meeting. He stiffened when he saw Mark, gave him a formal handshake, kissed me on the cheek, patted Brad on the back and moved to the corner of the restaurant. He told us about his threats which he took on with bravado because he had just the same right as anyone to be here. “I’m adding to the economy,” he said. We treated him to lunch for all his help with travel tips and just for being a good person who helped us in our lives and transition down.
“It’s refreshing to spend time with Mark,” Brad said when we left the restaurant. “He’s so direct and straight forward.” At least in the way he expresses himself, I told Brad. You just never know where people have been. The day we met him he’d been to his first Catholic mass in Latin in Guatemala City (the only place where they held it in Latin) in his new used Mercedes Benz that he loved to speed in all the way down to Escuintla.
Over the next few months we stayed in contact via emails, back linking to each other’s blogs, invitations to trips (trips we never made because we were always working) and then the anniversary drinks to celebrate Mark and his family’s first year in La Antigua. We met his wife Sarah and beautiful baby Maria who slept through most of the meetup. There were about 15 of Mark’s friends, mostly online bloggers, expats, students and just funny characters who demonstrated the wide swath of Mark’s eclectic taste in people from different walks of life. It was then that I started to trust Mark more and stopped asking him so many questions to explain some of the inconsistencies.
Christmas and New Year’s rolled around and we got a personal invite to come over to his house for a small dinner with friends and family. We were flattered in a way that our friendship was solidifying. Mi mama was visiting for the entire month so we took her along. On New Year’s eve we found ourselves among a small group of friends and all of Mark’s children, mostly boys, bouncing off ever nook and crevice of the small hotel that had become their home and school. The bathrooms doors still had “Damas” and “Caballeros” printed on them and I got a small tour of each kid’s house, the small school room, the shared bedrooms for the boys and the girls and the living room which was spartan in furniture but full of handmade wooden toys, swords, and shields all in hand-crafted in dark wood. It was a clean, well-organized crew where the roles were well-defined and traditional.
Mark was the father and patriarch and Sarah was the wife and mother who looked after all the children and the new brownie recipes. Sarah was quiet, nurturing and a bit unsure of herself. She tripped over the stairs going up to the boys’ room and she turned completely red and was confused. The rest of the evening we watched the children light up fireworks and throw them in to the empty lot next door. “Matthew don’t throw fireworks at your brother,” the patient patriarch would say and then one of the younger children would come crying and screaming to get fatherly love and understanding. I got to see Mark in action as the central figure of his family and it was refreshing to see how he communicated with his family, maintained order and shepherded the flock. We left early because my mother was feeling uncomfortable, she wasn’t sure why, she said, but she just wasn’t comfortable there.
Last week, I had my farewell drink with Mark. It was originally a coffee to talk about the HablaCentro project I had recently been awarded an Ashoka fellowship to implement. He was very curious about it, what did it entail, did I have a business plan, how much was I going to invest into it. I appreciate that he was interested in learning more about it, but I was suspicious. I guess coming from a Guatemalan family, I’m always suspicious when someone cares enough to ask these types of questions. I met him at the bar across from Rikki’s where he was the center of attention amid this group of expats laughing loudly and drunkenly. We pulled out of the group and sat one table over. I did the Guatemalan chit-chat which I can do for hours, but he immediately steered the conversation.
“Tell me what you’re doing. Why are you driving back, what’s this project?” I explained to him that we were driving back because he needed to sell the car back home and because we both appreciate a good road trip. “Why didn’t you just sell the car here?” I told him the taxes had been quoted at more than $1,200 dollars on a $3,000 car and he said smugly: “That’s because you don’t know the right people at customs.”
I told him I thought that comment was funny because I did have family that worked at Puerto Barrios customs and I knew exactly what they did and I didn’t want to be part of the larger problem in Guatemala. I wanted to model the Guatemala I wanted to see. “Oh, I get it,” he told me with his usual charming, sarcastic gallantry. “You want to do good in Guatemala and since you have that chip on your shoulder about your family, you’re going the extreme trying to do things the hard way.” I laughed, yes, I said you could say that I went a bit to the other extremity.
There was no doubt about it, he was charming and an incredible storyteller. When he told you a story, he had this way of bringing you right in the middle of the action, you didn’t bother with details like what were you doing in Cuatro Caminos at 2 AM with a drunk British woman in your Mercedes Benz yelling obscenities who you just tied up to the passenger seat so the local indigenous people wouldn’t lynch you both for being so insulting? He would wave off my questions and continue on with his story, he had an endless supply of them and Guatemala seemed to be eating out of the palm of his hands.
He bought his way through the bureaucracy, paying for people to wait in line for him and paying the next person’s turn, he bought restaurants without any real source of income, thought of news businesses like bi-diesel run tuk-tuks, ran up against walls and then walked around them. He just had a way of getting around things. And so that evening, two days before Brad and I were about to head back to Oakland by land, I felt uncomfortable by his questions regarding my project. I felt that familiar feeling of someone wanting something from me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so instead I cajoled him into tell me stories.
It worked and so the rest of the hour, I listened to Mark, perhaps for the last time, animated, expansive and full of life and waving at every person who passed who saw and knew him through the window. He was like Cool Hand Luke, cool as can be. The hour went by quickly and so I took leave of him. He kissed me on the cheek and I rushed to meet Brad. In my rush I left my umbrella by his table. I called to him from the window and asked him to slip it between the window bars. “Here you go,” he said. “You should never leave things behind.” Not the ones you care about, I said to him and ran up the street.
Last night my friend Mark Francis died for me in a way that public personas die, in the way that people fall before our eyes who we care about and want to believe in because they show us a certain strength perhaps we never thought possible, a certain invincibility and lightness of being. I never knew Jeff Cassman the fugitive, but I knew Mark Francis who was making a new life for himself and his family in La Antigua, Guatemala. Whether that involved becoming a more ethical person, we may never know.