Sunday, April 30, 2006

Mural in Cunlaj

Last week I spent three days and three nights in Cunlaj, a town on the other side of Tacaná. For three months I have been traveling there every Wednesday for a three-hour painting class, and finally we were ready to do a public piece. Our theme was Hurricane Stan, and each participant did months of thinking, drawing, and painting, until he or she arrived at a final piece. Thus, each section of the mural comes from a different painting. The first day we painted the kiosk wall white, designed the mural, and started sketching it out. The second day we started at 5:30 AM in order to evade the crowds that arrived at 9 for the multi-community sporting event and celebration. We had quite an audience, but this provided more support, publicity, and got even more youth involved. By the end of the second day, about 12 hours later, we had completed the bulk of the work and the third day was left for the details. The mural reads "EL FUTURO DE LA COMUNIDAD ESTA EN NUESTRAS MANOS," or The Future of the Community is in our Hands.

The large hands that flank each side of the mural came from a 16-yr-old female student named Minerva. During early conversations with her regarding her experience of the storm, she said she most remembered the image of her grandfather's hands in the grass, struggling to pull himself off the ground and away from the rising water behind his house. It took 2 months for her to focus just on the hands, but the final product was breathtaking. Another student focused on solidarity, showing the positive aspects that come from such a disaster. This student's brother worked on images of their vivero in Cunlaj, the tree nursery where they are growing saplings to reforest what was lost. A teenager named Hector did drawings of the construction workers rebuiling the homes that were lost. His painting is in the top middle of the mural, showing a celebration after the completion of one such home, complete with a señora making tortillas. Doranelia wanted to focus on women and their role in the after-effects of Stan. She drew women walking far off to the river to wash clothes or collect water for cooking. Cunlaj was without potable water for approximately three weeks after the storm hit.

Dia de la Tierra, Part 3: El Parque

Dia de la Tierra, Part 2: El Salon Municipal

The hand-painted logo of la JEM hung at the entrance, while the rest of the banners hung from the rafters or on stage. I was envisioning a United Nations type thing, with large banners all in rows. We didn´t have enough, but it was impressive nonetheless. We started the event off with some activities, including dynamicas and a large banner of handprints in order to remember the event. We painted a quick banner to hang outside, inviting the people in from the packed market in the street.

People were invited to sign Jem´s promise, which states, I will plant a tree for the pure air of tomorrow, I will take care of the water so that tomorrow thirst will not be known, I will pick up a piece of trash to give hope to my community. In return they received a green and blue bracelet.
This is the banner from the jóvenes in San Pablo, it reads For an eternal kiss of water in pure mountain, I will have in mind that thirst is quenched with water.
The banner from the kids (ages 5-12) in Linda Vista. Because of it´s size and the shape of the globe used for the painting, it was one of the most eye-catching banners.

Near the stage, we did more dynamicas, danced, sang, and listened to the talented muscians do there thing. The leaders of la JEM spoke about the importance of taking care of the environment and I said a few words, too.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Dia de la Tierra, Part 1: Preparation

In order: 1: Kids in Linda Vista working on their banner for Earth Day, 2: Youth in Tacaná working on a recycling theme, 3: Kids in San Pablo helping me to paint the globe, 4: Nametags printed with an image of a tree with roots, created by a potato stamp, 5: Youth in Cunlaj working on a large painting about reforestation, 6: Two young women painting the banner for Linda Vista, 7: An example of the posters that I made for the event; this one hangs in the town hall

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Agua: el buen negocio del futuro

A woman fills her truck with containers full of fresh water in the nature reserve of Agua Azul, Chiapas, Mexico.

Querida aqua,
Cayendo lentamente,
Ya no te vayas.

Water is the most common substance on Earth. It covers more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, and yet only three percent is fresh water. There is enough for all 6 billion of us, but we don’t treat it respectfully. Since rain doesn’t fall evenly on the earth’s surface, some areas are wetter than others, and many areas that do have water pollute it or are unable to distribute it. In Guatemala’s history the country has been covered by water three times, and yet in some villages only a few drops trickle from the faucet. In San Miguel, a town not so far from here, a Canadian mining company used up all the water, and the community has been left with nothing. A recent Prensa Libre article claims that in 20 years all the water in this country will be polluted. Cristian, the founder of the JEM, tells me optimistically that’s it’s not true, but on my way to my workshops I notice—in every town—a small brook inundated with trash. Instead of pure, translucent H2O, a small dribble of dark substance makes its way through the plastic bottles, dirty toilet paper, and who knows what else.

The river Coatán makes its way through this region and into Mexico, bringing with it the rubbish and detritus of one country to another. In Cunlaj, where I have a painting workshop every Wednesday, a whole mountainside leading down to the river is covered in trash. Tacaná’s town hall used it as their dumpsite for years until last spring, when a few international NGOs took notice. There was no clean-up process proposed, and when Hurricane Stan arrived it spread the garbage all over the place, including down into the river. As my students paint pictures of the river during and after Stan, thick dark brown strokes of paint are set apart from the blue sky. Houses, horses, people, whole trees, and piles of garbage float on by.

The organization I work for, JEM, has centered its environmental concerns around water. Their slogan is United for Water, and they use as their logo a drop of water hitting the surface. They see water as the center of the conversation concerning all other environmental topics. In March, three members of the JEM were accepted as participants in the World Water Forum. It took place in Mexico City, a place that used to be an island surrounded by four large lakes but that now has a grave water shortage. (The Spanish, after conquering the city of Tenochtitlan, didn’t know how to maneuver the dam system and drained all four lakes.)

Upon his return, Cristian recounted his experiences. One particular discussion, about whether water should be publicized or privatized, stuck out in his mind. The topic was the most controversial at the Forum, and the delegates tried to make their points in a variety of ways. For example, one banner read, Water, the lucrative business of the future. It wasn’t obvious if the banner was ironic or not. At the end of it all, though, the final person to take the podum said: Why does it matter if it’s public or private? What matters is that people pay the fair price.

Can you imagine? Fair-trade water. Imagine, you, a first-world consumer, buying your water like it was coffee. Instead of Starbucks, there’d be H2Obucks. But here in San Pablo, far from the lavish American life, we feel more connected to the water we receive straight from a nearby mountain spring. And while the tubes break once in a while and we have a wait a day for them to get fixed, it’s nothing like the village up the mountain, where the water pressure is nonexistent. Woman haul water jugs on their heads and donkeys cart large containers filled with the precious substance. Even after potable water systems are installed, sometimes there just isn’t any water.

Here, the balance of my relationship with water has shifted and it has demanded my honor and appreciation. Instead of a daily 10-minute shower, I take a bath of heated water, approximately 8 or 9 gallons, every three days. Instead of a couple loads of laundry a week, I wash my clothes by hand, but only when they’re really dirty, being aware of every container worth of water I splash over my pants and socks. This stuff has changed its relationship to my being. I no longer see it intertwining itself in every moment of my life, constantly running through my fingers. Instead, it is treated cautiously, because one may never know when the faucet might run dry.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

home sweet home

Everything in my mind says go, go, go! Oaxaca, Spain, Japan, India, South Africa, the American West, and more. But my body has been telling me to slow down. Carsickness, heat sickness, diarrhea. No more traveling! it tells me. Take your coat off and stay for a while. Sit still. It seems my body aches for a certain stillness, one where my roots run deep into the ground, a place where my life is intricately tangled.

We have finally moved into our casita here in San Pablo, right in time for the celebration-filled week of Semana Santa. I am hoping that growing a few short roots here in making a home will redress the balance of my tired muscles. Today Ian and I put up posters. Now we’re thinking about making furniture. Next week we’ll be helping to build our bathroom. And there’s always the stove that needs to be carted up the mountain from the center of town. Here we have a beautiful view of the valleys and peaks and it’s cozy and warm at nighttime. Currently I’m in the front yard, listening to the breeze push the trees around, watching the few meandering clouds drift over the landscape. A lavish turquoise lizard suns itself on the rocks next to Ian, who is lost in the words of his journal. The ground is soft and there’s room to plant the stillness I need to rebuild my weary stomach.


Last week we traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, home of the Zapatistas. Our trip started off by crossing the border standing in the back of a pick-up truck, illegally. Nine forms of transportation, one night over in Comitán, and one nervous run-in with Mexican military later, we finally arrived in the artsy and super-relaxing city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

The highlight was Taller Leñateros, a cooperative art workshop (of the indigenous Tzotzil Maya) that produces elegant hand-made paper, provocative silk-screens and woodcuts, and hand-sewn books. They are most well known for their magazine, La Jícara, which always has unique and extremely creative editions filled with original art pieces, poetry, and politics. It was a dream, and one that I am beginning to envision in my own future. The pictures show a Tzotzil woman plucking dried flower petals for the paper and an example of their artwork.

We also took a couple days and traveled to the ancient city of Palenque, one of the top Mayan sites. The Maya civilization reached its period of greatest development about A.D. 250 and continued to flourish for hundreds of years. They produced exceptional architecture and sculpture, made great advancements in astronomy and mathematics and developed an accurate yearly calendar. And, they were one of the first peoples in the Western Hemisphere to develop an advanced form of writing. Today descendents of the Mayas live all over Mexico and Central America, speaking more than 20 different languages and dialects that developed from the ancient Mayan language.

Palenque sits in the Lancandona jungle of Chiapas. It had 19 governors over the course of 700 years, from 100 A.D. to 804 A.D., and housed approximately 8,000 people near its end. It is thought that the lack of resources in food, water, and housing in this over-populated city forced the Mayas to abandon it. This being my first experience with the Mayas, I was most impressed with the designs of their writing system and the intricate relief sculptures. It was ancient candy for my artistic eyes.

Similar to my visit to the Incan ruins of Peru, I felt an other-worldliness here. The temples and palaces are so high up, entirely vulnerable to the sky, and placed in relation to one another that calls attention to the negative space of the air between the structures and to all the air above us, that we cannot grasp, but we can only hope will swoop low enough for us to experience. Modern buildings are tall, but closed off, with compartments and small spaces that confine and constrain. These temples confidently and fully expose themselves to the sky, like they’re not afraid of the gods, as if they have some secret insight.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Guatemala has 33 volcanoes, 3 of which are active. At the end of March we climbed one of the active ones, Pacaya, and we got to see a river of lava! Our guide told us the climb was 90% safe.