Friday, February 24, 2006


Thanks to all who have written me and sorry for being MIA. So that you know I plan on posting once a week and from now on I am going to make it more informal.

It´s everywhere. A thick layer resides on my clothes, in my hair, on my skin. I wrap my head in my scarf to protect myself from the clouds that sweep over us like monstrous waves. The buses are stuffy and we duck behind the seats when they stop to pick up more passengers, letting in the hideous substance that has invaded our lives. I stare out the window at the lush green forests turned light brown and the muted images of the people walking by.

There´s a tristeza here, a rough melancholy, that I am beginning to understand. Today we visited the community of Cuá. An enormous hole in the mountain has created an enormous hole in the hearts of the people. On October 6, 2005, Hurricane Stan caused sixteen houses and fourty-six people to be buried when the mountain fell on them with explosions and waves of earth. We walked across the site and I tried hard not to think about the eleven cadavers that have not yet been found. My hopeful side imagines them dreaming as they sleep while the other part of me sees them screaming in claustrophobic fear. A young student on his way home from school walks by on the well defined paths. Past the facade of where the school used to stand, past the empty shell of the catholic church, past old toys, broken chairs, and half-buried dishes.

Perhaps it's the Spanish or perhaps it's the intensity of this event, put I am unable to put myself in their place. I imagine the hole in the mountain constantly and try to burn a hole in my heart in order to fully empathize, but this image comes and goes as I teach my classes and hang out with friends. For those I visited today this image does not disappear. It confronts them every morning when they wake and every night before laying down to sleep. They are strong--and they appreciate my visit, but they don't need me to entirely understand.

We walked together back down the mountain, commenting on the dust. It is everywhere and has muted the colors of the earth, our clothes, and perhaps even our emotions.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Vacation, Day One

the view from our hotel room
waiting at the dock for a boat-taxi

Panajachel is also known as “Gringotenango” because of the influx of ex-pats and trinket-buying tourists. The pasty Americans and Germans create startling silhouettes against the rich Prussian blue of Lago Atitlán. We came here on vacation for the week, but our first day has been revealing. All I can think about is work, la JEM, and art.

In search of a romantic B&B for Valentine’s Day, we stumbled upon an art gallery instead. An art gallery! My excitement waned after meeting the stuffy, stuck-up, and rude German owners. They say they run the oldest gallery in Central America—35 years old—and were too busy setting up an erotic exhibit for V-day to answer questions or ask why I was around. They had an extensive collection of work from foreign and Guatemalan artists and bragged about once having a Picasso and a Max Beckman. On display were works made in the style of VitroMache, especially stained-glass lamps, mirrors, and sculptures, some made from discarded bottles, all put together with a mixture of glue, paper-mache, and cement. I was intrigued by the technique, thinking it would be excellent for a large sculpture/memorial I am thinking about for one of the communities in which I am working, and I asked where I could learn more. They sent me to the studio of Patric, where VitroMache began, just a few doors away.

A Mexican hippie, Patric came to Guatemala five years ago as a volunteer, teaching people how to make art out of garbage. After going broke and becoming disillusioned he started charging for his workshops. It was only then that he began to see results. Working against what he calls “the paternalism” of the U.S., Patric thinks charging hefty sums for his workshops is the only way that Guatemalans will be serious about working. Then, he reasons, they will have skills which they can use to pull them out of poverty, without having to rely on the foreigner. He implies economic freedom is the only true freedom. Patric refused to teach me if I didn’t then turn around and charge others for the same knowledge. He was appalled at how little my students are paying and was convinced that they had the money to pay but were looking for a handout. He thinks volunteerism is a gigantic farce because it perpetuates the expectation that someone else will do the work for you.

Our friend, Doug, who recently finished two years of Peace Corps service in the mountains of Peru, referenced this in regards to his village when he explained to us that the native people would tell the different NGOs exactly what they wanted to hear so that they could benefit from more programs and funding. Also, a professor from Williams, Peggy Diggs, urged me to do ArtCorps but also questioned whether the program was merely promoting Western values (environmentalism, children’s rights, etc.) in the face of traditional values and cultural mores, possibly leaving the communities forever changed in the long-run.

I don’t know. La JEM decided long before I arrived to focus on the environment in order to save their land and their future; a foreign NGO didn’t tell them that was important. That said, my mere presence here in Guatemala does promote Western values. I am unable to say that I am from a brother country like Colombia or Nicaragua; I cannot improve the relationships among Latin American countries and teach the children in the market about my country, because they already know, or think they know. Every once in a while, when I explain that I once lived in Venezuela, some children look at me and ask, “What is Venezuela?” I am from the country that is the envy of all, the place most everyone wants to go, and my presence, my culture, my clothes, and my beliefs—including the way I think about, make, and teach art—it is all very Western.

Patric questions the foundation of why I am here in Guatemala. I imagine my participants from the first week of workshops and ponder whether they are serious, whether they will continue, whether I am perpetuating the paternalism of the U.S. On the other hand, I resent the stereotype and the idea that as an American I can only further damage this place. And yet again, I do not know exactly what I think I’m doing here. It’s insulting that Patric immediately assumed I can’t help, and that he, as a Latin American, has the ability to so easily crush my optimism, but it’s worse that I have lost confidence in my myself, in my mission.

Gringotenango isn’t a real place, though. It’s where the tables fill at sunset to watch the lake disappear into the darkness, where foreigners sip overpriced beers, where the streets are always full of indigenous women and children trying to hawk artesanía in broken English, where there are health food stores that sell bagels, hummus, and sushi. This place is not real—it’s easy. It’s easy to live off the foreigners and hang out with hippies that have the same relativist ideas. It’s a small touristy island in the middle of a country wrought with poverty, struggle, and no, I don’t know what else.

I do know that San Pablo isn’t disillusioned and that the jóvenes aren’t expecting me to fix all of their problems. I may have some students that think I can teach them how to paint in three weeks, but I know the base of la JEM knows how little an imprint I can and will make. Don Feliciano, our gracious host father and the founder of the progressive school in San Pablo from which la JEM was born, is very wise. I saw this as he introduced us to his village in church the first Sunday after our arrival; minutes before calling us up to the microphone, he made the point of saying that Sólo el pueblo puede levantarse. Only the people can lift themselves up.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Heading North

Only 19 years old, Alex is most times a man of few words, sensitive yet stern, attentive and yet entirely oblivious. Around the ladies he grins and flirts, sometimes he even lets loose and throws his arm over their shoulders, wistfully prancing down the path, giddy. Then my guide returns to my side, concerned with how the altitude affects my breathing. He goes ahead and checks the buses to see if there are seats, and he always calls ahead to our destinations to make sure everything is ready. Yesterday in San Marcos at the banquet for the awards ceremony for the JEM, he came over to my table to talk about the lunch because they were going to be serving meat. He advised me to push the chicken aside and just eat the side dishes.

Alex hasn’t seen his brother in four years and his father in six. His little brother has never met his dad and his mother went through cancer and surgery while her husband took odd jobs up north. They—the brother and father—have encouraged Alex to come to North Carolina, saying that they’ll help him get the papers and pay for the passage. He was having trouble of some kind in school last year and was seriously considering leaving when the boys convinced him to stay and be my guide for the year.

Alex’s brother and father, two cousins of Waner, the mother of Angelica, the father of Ever, two uncles of Cristian, and on and on. It seems everyone has been there, is there now, or wants to go there. At the planning meeting in Conlaj, before talking about art they asked about English. Edger told me that it was essential for them to learn English since they all wanted to go north. One boy in the meeting spoke perfect English because he and his family lived in the U.S. for seven years. Ian met a rancher at church who had been there for six months. We both were sitting on a stoop in front of the studio of an artist when a big-bellied man with a coarse voice and perfect English struck up a conversation about his time in Carolina. A man with gold stars in his front teeth approached me in the plaza of Tacaná. He had spent 14 years working in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Florida and Tennessee and in a few months plans on returning.

After hearing Don Feliciano, Cristian’s father, talk at the school assembly about those that go to the U.S. earning money but remaining ignorant, I knew that there was room to express my own thoughts. I nonchalantly expressed my feelings to Alex in regards to him going north and I naively tried to explain that the U.S. can’t solve all problems. He responded, Hay que cuidar a su familia. One must take care of his family. I then tried to steer him away from the idea of working the fields up north by talking about the dangers, mistreatment, and racism, and I told him that studying or trying to find a grant could get him a student visa. He looked at me with wide eyes and didn’t respond, absorbing what I had said and shrugging it off at the same time. I realized that I have no idea what I think. Perhaps my privileges do not allow me make judgments or give advice. The people here, like the decisions they are forced to make, are genuinely complicated, scraping at the door of a global economy that forgot Guatemala was on the map. Then again, they are straightforward and simple. Here there are no jobs, no infrastructure, no money, and hence, no options. Except to head north.