Friday, March 31, 2006

From the sketch book

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


It’s mango season and the streets are filled with the rich colored balls of deliciousness. Kids and adults alike meander around town sucking on these tasty treats as if they were ice cream cones or lollypops. They start at the top, making a small slit, and then squeeze the juice up to their mouths. The second phase commences by pealing off the skin and sucking the stringy bits attached to the pit and shell, until they’ve stripped it of all its possible goodness. The last phase—for me—requires floss. In Tacaná, the pits cover the ground like a storm of ladybugs, and the bright yellow and orange skins paint polka-dots in the dusty streets.

This past Saturday was Ian’s birthday and I made tomato sauce and pasta. You know we’re in the middle of nowhere when tomato sauce and pasta is a special treat. The normal fare is black beans (boiled, refried, or blended), scrambled eggs, maybe rice, and always tortillas. Our host mother makes a simplified version of vegetable soup, fried rice, and chow-mein with soy meat, so it doesn’t get too monotonous. But generally we eat what there is, gathering around the stove and not talking about the possibilities but eating them. Last night we ate boiled potatoes, leftover pancakes, plain pasta, and the rest of Ian’s cake, which was actually a very elaborate meal. There are always either corn tortillas or tamales, which are palm-sized masses of fresh corn meal each wrapped in a large banana leaf and steamed. Sometimes they stuff them with meat. Guatemalans can eat five or more with their meal, but Ian and I tend to eat only one since they’re heavy and, honestly, tasteless. New fruits and veggies for us have been güisquil (a large green wrinkly vegetable which inside looks like green melon, but it’s hard and tastes like a tastier potato), nances (marble-sized yellow fruits, each with three little hairs), and sonsas (violet and silky fruit, watery and sweet).

Friday, March 17, 2006


March 8th was International Woman's Day, a good time to honor women and their bodies. Here in the third world physical and emotional pain for women is a way of life. In a recent conversation with our host mom, Doña Mímí, we learned that her mother gave birth to 11 babies, always alone. She would shoo the kids and husband out the door until it was over. Doña Mímí remembers being at the fire in the kitchen when her mother would appear with the baby wrapped in her skirt, still connected by the umbilical cord. The mother would boil water to wash it and then cut away the cord and placenta, tossing them into the fire. Three of the 11 didn't survive long after being born, a common occurrence in Guatemala. While the infant mortality rate in the United States is 6/1000 babies, here it is 35/1000, a number that seems low to me given the number of women I've met who have lost a child. I dedicate this year's women's day to all of the women who have gone through months of pregnancy only to lose their child. We celebrate this day for the mother of our host mom, for our neighbor, for the woman in Linda Vista whose daughter died when she was 20 days, for the mother of Teresa who lost her first baby only an hour after being born, and for Teresa, who has lost a lot.

Her name isn't Teresa, but I am able to remember how to pronounce her name because it rhymes with Arsenio, as in Arsenio Hall, the late-night show host. Not that I see her that often, but I’ve been thinking about her a lot. When she was 18 she went to work in Mexico to help out her family financially. Even though three immediate members of her family work in the U.S., eight siblings are expensive. But being an 18-year-old female far from home is tough, and soon she found herself raped and impregnated by her boss. He paid her off so that she would leave and shut up. She did and along the way became the mother of a beautiful shy little girl. Being a victim of rape made her unwanted by most, but in three years time she found herself in love and engaged. She became pregnant, and three months in the baby's umbilical cord choked it to death. Then, the fiancée presented her to his family, who questioned his reasoning for wanting to marry a poor woman from the country. They refused to bless the union. The couple planned to marry regardless, but he disappeared. A few months later she stopped going to visit, stopped calling, and stopped having hope. Her smile is tired, and I can tell that it's a lie. I don't know her that well and we're not friends, but we are the same age.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


I am teaching nine art workshops a week with about 180 students in total, 60 of whom are kids. My week starts on Tuesday when I travel to Linda Vista, named “pretty view” because it overlooks Tacaná and the Tacaná volcano. After at least 2-1/2 hours of travel, my day begins with four teachers in the school, a workshop I’m really excited about because I know that what I teach them will get passed on to their students, making it immediately sustainable. We are currently working with a map theme, and we’re developing ideas for murals with the hope of having the families of the students participate. After the teachers, I have time with about 30 kids, ages 6-13. The first time I gave them paper and crayons and told them to draw, they looked at me widly and pretended not to understand. Everything here regarding art is concrete and exact. The teacher shows everyone how to draw an ideal flower, and they all churn it out as if they’re factory workers. It's always the same mountain setting with the same houses, trees, and animals. This past week we read from the Mayan bible, the Popol Vuh, and I had them each try to draw the images they had in their heads while listening to the stories about human beings made of mud and wood. Later, in the afternoon, I work with teenagers, and while we’re learning about drawing and painting principles, we’ve begun some really important projects. In all of my communities we’re working on community books regarding Hurricane Stan. I’ve distributed pages to everyone in my workshops in the hopes that they will fill them with drawings and text about their experiences and also talk to those around them to record their thoughts. All the pages that have so far been returned are fuerte, and I’m really learning a lot. Recently someone handed in a poem they had written about a little boy talking to his mother, telling her about his excitement regarding how the hurricane had left behind rainbows. In these more formal workshops with the youth we’re also developing ideas for murals about Stan and the messages they want to communicate with their communities. They range from no longer believing in God to wanting to plant more trees in order to avoid erosion. Tuesday nights Ian comes to Linda Vista to teach an English class and keep me company (this is the only night during the week that we sleep away from San Pablo), and then in the morning he travels home while I move on to the next community of Cunlaj.

our backyard!

Cristian, our good friend, a leader of la JEM, and an aspiring musician.

Alongside the baby chickens

alongside the baby chickens
they flee
aware of the danger
the pain
the complicated emotions
he poisons the air they breathe
ordering them to leave his land
the teenage girls vanish
abandoning her
she tries to fend him off
the drunken belligerent
love of her life

This is the story of my friend, a friend who recently was drawing and talking and in an instant, everything changed. This is the story of a friend who lives in a machista third-world country, without opportunities, possibilities, resources, or contacts. She has dreamt about leaving, but poverty doesn’t poke air holes for its prisoners. Seemingly, there’s no way to escape. All her life, she tells me, she has hoped for just one normal father-daughter conversation. She’s wished that maybe he would say something nice, something supportive, or something to show that he recognizes her presence. She tells me it’s not right to have to live with such violence, but when faced with the opportunity to make it end, she decided not to do to him what he has done to her. Instead, she lives with the back pain, the emotional anguish, and the thought that maybe things would be different if she had not been born.

ink drawing of the house below