Saturday, August 26, 2006


-¿Qué cosa es ese ruido?
-Un reloj.
-¿Y para qué sirve?
-Para medir el tiempo.
-¿Y a quién se le occurió
semejante cosa?
El tiempo sólo es.
Humberto Ak’abal

Today I had the opportunity to speak to a wise and generous man, Oscar, who helped me better contextualize Mayan culture so I can incorporate its teachings and traditions into the plays I am writing for my theater classes in San Pablo. He taught me that our breath represents the essence of life and the essence of a spiritual energy within our souls: Take a deep breath and feel the energy during your exhalation. This is the closest the Maya come to having a god.

They do not worship “gods.” Instead, they revere Tepeuy, which is this breath, and Mother Nature, the physical. The Popol Vuh (the Mayan creation myth) says Tepeuy united with the materials of Mother Earth to create humans and all living animals. They did this by loving each other, by interlacing their arms and legs, and all that they formed were infused with the spiritual energy of Tepeuy. So, when the Maya look at the world they see this spirit in everything, from an inching worm to the rising sun.

Oscar spoke of the equilibrium of the cosmos and of our role in that system. The Maya believe that the actions of any given individual help or hurt the balance of the universe. Human action has a direct effect on the extinction of animals and the polluted environment. The Maya honor a different Nahual every day, representative of components of our lives. They include: fire, reciprocity, the string of history, water, obedience, work, free will, intelligence, suffering, oracles, air, time, and word. Instead of being seen as gods, the Nahuals are represented as grandparents, who during ceremonies are called upon to remind participants of their beliefs and values. In this way the culture continues on in the knowledge and wisdom of the elders.

The youth group I work with is hesitant to embrace these cultural beliefs. Here in Tacaná, many teens are two or three generations separated from their indigenous roots; instead of having direct knowledge of their ancestors’ way of life, they rely on history books and cultural stereotypes. These prejudices make the teens associate cultural history with uneducated Indians, which runs counter to what they hope to be: successful and knowledgeable Ladinos. In Guatemala the indigenous wear traditional clothing and speak a native language, and the Ladinos wear modern clothes and speak Spanish. While most Ladinos in Guatemala have Mayan roots, they do not consider themselves Mayan. They look away from the past and instead strive to be more modern, admiring western culture’s entertainment, money and clothes.

Through the two plays I am writing I hope to raise awareness of both modern and traditional views of the environment. In Ayer y Mañana (Yesterday and Tomorrow), a salesman sells the sacred earth, air, and water to three happy and unsuspecting people. But once these natural treasures become possessions, the humans mistreat them, forgetting the spiritual energy in all things. The humans burn trash and use diesel fuel, cut down all the trees and pollute the river. But the humans, too, begin to suffer. They are ill. They cannot breathe. They are hungry for a lack of crops. While they complain, Grandpa Water, Grandma Air and Mother Earth arrive to share their wisdom with the actors and the audience, talking about the necessary equilibrium in the earth and the importance of seeing oneself as only a small part of the cosmos.

Only now, after seven months of living here, have I had the opportunity to integrate these important cultural themes into my work. My work has hit a new level of depth and importance, and I hope the cultural research I am doing now will philosophically support the work of la JEM. ArtCorps’s mission touches upon the importance of conserving traditional values and art forms, but in most cases the artists have implemented workshops and programs within their frame of reference, like painting murals or building puppets, two art forms that didn’t exist in traditional Mayan culture. In a place like Guatemala, where a rich artistic culture is slowly passing, it seems unreasonable and foolish to impose something new and different. Instead, a focus should be placed on breathing modern life into traditional forms of expression that reflect the multiculturalism of Guatemalan society. While I am introducing new theater techniques into the community, our performances build on the Mayan tradition of storytelling. And while the students are thrilled to be acting out a script written by a westerner, they will also be learning about their own past. Here in San Pablo, months after my arrival, I feel I have just begun to breathe.

Monday, August 21, 2006

To the Bus Stop

Up, up, up. I haven’t been climbing the hill recently. Today’s the first time I’ve done it alone in months. Everything has changed here on the path—as it does daily—since before my surgery. The thick dust of the dry season was packed down by rains in May, turned to mud by June. Small rivers from daily showers have moved the fallen logs and broken branches. Turned sandy mounts into richly covered mossy banks, flanking the path. Red poppy flowers grow up the vines of the black bean plants, encircle the milpa and grow towards the celeste sky. Distant cousins of the dandelion crunch under my feet; violet dots fill the hillside. Just weeks ago, these colors didn’t exist on the palette of San Pablo. Everything is in process of development, of growth.

I stop for water, for a breath, and think about last night. I question why expressing one’s opinion is looked down upon, taken personally. A room full of teenagers and two leaders whose job it is to lead them, put weight behind an idea. And the rest, hesitantly and obediently, concur. Carefully, I suggested giving the pros and cons of all the ideas. But I am told that I do not understand.

Glassy eyes, a runny nose, dry throat. I am on the steep incline of the shortcut now, and stop for more water. Vibrant lime-green three-leaf clovers descend over rotting brown pine needles, once orange and red, lighting the path with passionate energy. I do not understand. They have tried the same idea before and had success. I know, but what about going through the motions with the other ideas? No, I still don’t get it. That would be a waste of time. The two leaders want this project, not another.

I am on the road now, only 15 minutes to go to the bus stop. Still, I have seen no one. The tip of the volcano flirts with my eyes and the dogs lay still. It’s midday, not their usual barking hour. Their manuals were printed in Guatemala, but written in the United States. The business scheme is plainly gringo, highly organized and full of sensible and rigid guidelines, advice, and activities. My comment reinforces the order of the meeting, the purpose of brainstorming, the goal of arriving at the perfect product. But I still do not understand. I shut up. I think to myself, Why am I here, where my presence is consistently thanked, but my ideas, my talents, and energies are rarely used?

At the bus stop are men I’ve never seen before. They squint in my direction and ask me if I’m leaving for San Marcos. No, just to Tacaná for market day. The volcano rises high above the forest in the distance and has moved on to flirting with the clouds. The ground is dry; the flowers in front of the store are covered in dust. It hasn’t rained heavily in weeks. Later—when I lunch with Ever—he wonders out loud what that means, what kind of rains await us now?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Las Ventanas y Piedra Partida

A friend of ours from San Pablo has a car and we’ve been able to take a couple of excursions now and then to the other side of the valley to explore the cool rock formations and enjoy the sunset over the volcano. It looks cold in the photos, but I promise it’s a lot colder in person.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Love measures our stature: the more we love the bigger we are. There is no smaller package in all the world than that of a man wrapped up in himself.
— William Sloane Coffin Jr.

When we first arrived in San Pablo in January I became immediately frustrated with the way work was going. La JEM and I had distinct expectations of what was to take place during my stay and neither had enough experience to know how to manage the situation. Both sides plowed through the dusty, sunny days of the dry season, knocking over each other’s emotions, losing pride, and trampling any existence of understanding, compassion and love.

I have been apart from San Pablo for a month now and have had substantial time to think. First I went home to celebrate Grandaddy’s life, and then I had a tonsillectomy in Guatemala City. It was during the long recovery period that Ian and I were both able to reflect, and it wasn’t until just a few days before returning that we realized some of our mistakes and have made a conscious decision to be different.

Somehow along the way I became depressed and self-absorbed, trying to accomplish as much as possible and ignoring the important personal relationships that are necessary in working in a team. My lack of experience in dealing with unorganized youth NGOs in remote villages made it difficult to know what to do, and I was still caught up on not having been placed with a professional and “successful” institution. But I was putting too much weight on my expectations. What about theirs?

The people of San Pablo don’t have an easy go of it. Love of family, God, and an earnest struggle for survival make people seemingly content. Many argue that people in poverty feel more, love more, live more. It’s true that the happiness may be more joyful because it comes less often or the tears may be more painful because the loss is greater, but is this really something to desire? They have it hard. With few opportunities and constant rain that accompanies consistent disappointment, failure, and desertion, people are sad. Depressed. When la JEM thought of having an artist to live their community, they weren’t hoping for a depressed one. It’s not what they had in mind. It’s not what I had in mind, either.

Ian and I struggle to see the path our lives will take in the future … graduate school, jobs, internships, exhibitions, publications? On the other hand, we question what we’ve learned here. What is success? What is happiness? Obviously we’re not money-hungry, but are we instead success-hungry? Do we dream of the same prestige in our work that for others comes with money? Is that our vice? What we’ve learned in the past two years of living in third-world countries has nothing to do with degrees, bylines, or reviews. It has to do with life. Experience and growth, and most importantly, love. With a simple smile and lots of love my first two days back in San Pablo have been the most productive and satisfying up to this point.