Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Circle of Life- and the shapes in-between

When one thinks of the historical ‘bases’ in the game of life, the bases are often represented by birth, marriage, reproduction, and the home plate of death- with the reoccurring ‘high-five’ birthday celebrations along the way.  Over the past month I have attended and been a part of a few events celebrating and remembering these traditional stepping stones.

In an A-Rod/Texiera first-third double play, my neighbor Mary had her third child, Selvin Jr.  Celebrating new life and a legacy for the parents, Selvin Jr. is a healthy and happy baby and seems to be getting bigger each day I see him.


Besides birth, the only other unavoidable passing in life is death.  In memory of an important figure in the community who passed three years back, a mass and luncheon were held two Saturdays passed.  Having been the father of: the wife of the first PC volunteer in Chirrepec, Kamille’s neighbor and landlord, and ten children, it was evident the importance and respect this man  held within the community.  The gathering included ‘q’, a traditional chicken dish, tortillas, tamales, tea with cardamom, a full band, and handful of marimbas.  Christmas songs were even played.  Jingle Bells in Q’eqchi on the marimba was my Peace Corps equivalent of the warm feeling of hearing Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is you’ for the first time in the car and knowing the holidays are around the corner.

The son of one of my co-workers was recently married.   Kamille, in her traje, and I, in my pila-worn button down, trekked to the far-side of the Co-operative near the German ruins.  The sun was bright, the music was loud, and the baskets were full of tamales.  One thing my fellow volunteers and I have noticed at weddings is the seriousness of the newlyweds, including ‘mean mugs’ in virtually all photos taken at the celebratory occasion.  This couple seemed to be different, smiles brimming cheek to cheek and an clear feeling of elation to be getting married.  Seeing this change reminded me of gradual changes I have encountered throughout the past year with many of the youth in the campo.  For example, certain girls having education as their first priority, young men hoping to become doctors or architects, young women with self-confidence and hope for the future, and recognition there is more than just the path of the circle.

Gloria turns 22
Peace Corps is a journey of sharing, learning, and constant reflection.  Personal gratitude for our freedoms, access to education, ability to choose, diversity, and virtually endless opportunity were sentiments that seemed to ring true to a number of us volunteers as we shared what we were thankful for over our seafood dinners in Livingston.  Each testimony was followed by your best gobble gobble- I must say I think mine was the best.

Livingston is a prime example of diversity right here in Guatemala.  The black Caribbean community, or that of the Garifuna, came from an island in the eastern Caribbean.  Back in the 1630’s a pair of Spanish slave ships from Nigeria shipwrecked, creating a mixed culture of indigenous and West African traits.  During the late 18th century the Spanish and British moved the Garifuna population to Honduras and parts of southern Belize, at which point the Garifuna moved from Belize to what is currently the Livingston community.  Undoubtedly a unique experience, Thanksgiving was full of culture, seafood, and heat!

street music
typical dress
me jumping

In relation to heat, tomorrow evening is the celebration of Bolas de Gas in San Cristobal, Alta Verapaz.  Groups of local men make soccer sized balls out of old shirts and wire and soak them in gasoline overnight.  These balls are then set on fire and kicked and launched around, initially one for each corner of the plaza- symbolic of community—or so I’ve heard.  No worries mom, I will not be in attendance this year but thought it was a unique local event to mention.  The holidays have begun with a spark.   

Miss you all,

"Each of us has a fire in our hearts for something. It's our goal in life to find it and to keep it lit."
-- Mary Lou Retton

Monday, November 1, 2010

One of the next topics I planned on writing about was immigration.  Ironically GAD, the Gender and Development Committee, just released this month's Gender Blender newsletter on the exact topic.  There are an estimated 13.5 million Guatemalans in country and somewhere between 1 to 1.5 million living in the U.S.  Here are two interesting articles by fellow volunteers touching on issues related to immigration in two different respects.

All In: Immigration with High Stakes
When Your Last Chip is Your Life
-Aliyya Shelley

What pops into your mind when you hear the words ―asylum seeker- or ―refugee? What color is their skin? What features are prominent on their face? What gender do they identify with? What is their name? There exists a plethora of adjectives to describe them, but really when it comes down to it ―they are no different from you or I. In fact, here in Peace Corps-Guatemala, a number of our brethren have family members or indeed, they themselves have been a refugee or asylum seeker in the past.

The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him-self of the protection of that country…" and an asylum seeker as, “who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their application.”
For more information on the difference between the two, visit the UNHCR website

The United States is no stranger to refugees or asylum seekers, and while our system is undeniably far from perfect, it isn‘t a total failure: refugees make-up around one-tenth of the total number of immigrants, and more than two million refugees have been given legal status over the past 30 years. Different from those who emigrate of their own accord and personal preference, asylum seekers are often left with no options in their country of origin. Frequently, female emigrants are forced to leave due to reasons pertaining to gender – domestic violence, persecution, sex trafficking or sex slavery, rape with impunity, honor killings, forced sterilization, and so on.

One such asylum-seeker is Rodi Alvarado.

Rodi’s Story:
Rodi Alvarado was born and raised in Guatemala. In 1984, at the age of 16, she married Francisco Osorio, a former soldier, who was five years her senior. Almost immediately after they were married, her husband began to threaten her, and to carry out violent assaults. Those assaults continued without respite over a ten-year marriage. Osorio raped and sodomized Rodi, broke windows and mirrors with her head, dislocated her jaw, and tried to abort her child by kicking her violently in the spine. Besides using his hands and his feet against her, he also resorted to weapons — pistol-whipping her, and terrorizing her with his machete. Rodi’s repeated attempts to obtain protection failed. The police and the courts refused to intervene because it was a "domestic" matter. When she ran away, Osorio found her and beat her unconscious. He told her that she could never get away from him, because he would "cut off her arms and legs, and...leave her in a wheelchair, if she ever tried to leave him."

Desperate to save her life, Rodi Alvarado finally fled to the United States — a difficult decision because she was forced to leave her two children behind with relatives. Shortly after arriving in the United States, she was fortunate to obtain the help of the San Francisco Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, who arranged for Rodi Alvarado to be represented by volunteer attorney and domestic violence expert Jane Kroesche. These legal efforts were successful, and in September 1996, a San Francisco immigration judge granted her political asylum.

Unfortunately, the grant of asylum was not the end of Rodi’s ordeal. The Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed the grant to a higher court, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). And in June 1999, the BIA reversed the decision of the immigration judge, by a divided 10-5 vote, and ordered that Ms. Alvarado be deported to Guatemala. The judges on the BIA did this even though they believed her testimony that Osorio had sworn to "hunt her down and kill her" if she returns to Guatemala, and that Ms. Alvarado could not get protection from the government in Guatemala.

Thankfully, after close to fourteen years of legal struggles, Rodi was finally given permanent asylum status on December 10th, 2009. She was one of the lucky ones. Whilst the help she received is truly exceptional and her legal team went above and beyond the call of duty, sadly her story is not an exception; women like Rodi Alvarado are being raped, mutilated and murdered here in Guatemala every day. More than 3,800 women and girls have been murdered in Guatemala since the year 2000 and activists have called for international support to end what is commonly referred to as ―femicide.

The widespread slaughter of women and girls in the form of femicide is not unique to Guatemala however; the murder of women and girls in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina (and beyond) is all too common. Though impractical to give carte blanche to all international victims and/or survivors of gender-based violence, the global community clearly has responsibility. But what does that responsibility entail…granting asylum status to the (at least) one of every three women globally who will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused during her lifetime?! Is more flexible immigration policy the key?! A ―safe house‖ in Switzerland?!

Half the Sky : Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof‘s new book (co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn), highlights three particular abuses across the globe: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality. In their book, they also provide tangible solutions on how to address all three – I recommend reading it, then reading it again, and keeping a copy for reference as it does what all of international development needs, and is sometimes lacking: the presentation of both problems and solutions. It does not suggest that all op-pressed persons should flee their homeland for the United States – the puritanical land of milk and honey and golden opportunity – but rather it is a call to action for all members of the globalized world to battle gender inequality around the world and to push for education and opportunities for girls around the globe.‖

On International Refugee Day (June 18th), Secretary Clinton shared the following, and though vague, and not specifically pertaining to gender-based violence per se…, it IS a starting point,
"It‘s a question of better governance, more accountable governance, of political and diplomatic efforts, of reconciliation and peace, of the growth of democracies and economies. But that doesn't in any way undermine the importance of meeting the day-to-day needs of those who have been displaced by conflict, by terrorism, by natural disaster."

Though Secretary Clinton‘s words didn‘t explicitly address femicide here in Guatemala, they are certainly relevant to it. The days of impunity for gender-based violence and femicide can only be ended with more accountable governance to chaLlenge the status quo; and even "out in the sticks" in our rural aldeas, that is some-thing we, as volunteers, can be a part of. No, we cannot form an independent government firmly rooted in fair and equal human rights to topple the current administration, but we can participate in the empowerment of the people, of our communities, to expect and demand more from their governments. Perhaps, in time, through this practice the need for asylum seeking will lessen and the violence contained in stories such as Rodi‘s will be less frequent and ojala, eventually eradicated.
Christian-- Our waiter from Livingston, Guatemala who has been in the states since 1996.
By Devon Baird
It happened as a result of what would normally have been a typical afternoon conversation with my Guatemalan coworkers. Characteristic of most PCGMs, it hit me like a ton of bricks and caused me to sit in silence and reflection for a moment.
PCGMs, aka Peace Corps Guatemala Moments, happen sporadically throughout service and are familiar to all volunteers. You might be talking with the leader of a coffee cooperative, eating tamales with one of your neighbors, or sitting through a COCODE meeting when it strikes: a feeling of “getting it”, when you never quite understood something about Guatemala, its culture, or its complexities before.

In my case, this latest PCGM came about as a result of talking about immigration with my counterpart. “I’ve been missing my boyfriend so much lately,” I lamented during one of our typical girl chats in the Oficina Municipal de la Mujer y la Juventud. “He’s still not sure when he’s going to be able to come visit, and he hasn’t even gotten his passport….”  I noticed my counterpart’s eyes begin to water. Hmm, I thought. I didn’t think she’d get so choked up about it.
Then, she started to bawl uncontrollably. “Es que...manana Andres va a ir por los Estados.”
OK, so this was definitely not about my boyfriend not coming to visit anymore. I also began to tear up upon hearing this, knowing that she had been struggling for months to keep her husband from going to the US, mojado and in search of work, leaving her and her two young children behind to await his uncertain return.
Here I was, fretting over not knowing when I would see my novio, whom I talked to often online or on the phone anyway, while my counterpart was dealing with something completely heartbreaking and life changing for not only herself, but her family.

I felt like a hypocrite. I came from the place thousands of people risk their lives to go to daily on a government-paid plane ride, and could go back on another plane ride whenever I felt the pangs of homesickness a little too strongly. I listen to co-workers, neighbors, and friends in my site talk about their loved ones in the Estados Unidos daily. I hear my favorite hairdresser, with a son of 18 months, talk about how she is saving up to pay her coyote and go in six months. We joke in the Muni all the time about who I’m going to “llevar en mi maleta” when I go back, but we all know no one is coming back with me.

Sometimes it frustrates me: Why would anyone want to risk everything to come to my problem-ridden country?! There are so many issues and it’s so complex over there. So much racism still...and no Guatemalan-style tortillas! You are comfortable and happy with your family and life here. Don’t go!!  But despite the internal confusion I’m usually faced with when thinking and talking about immigration, this time I got it. I was face to face with an example of why people immigrate to the United States as I talked with my counterpart and saw her heartbreak. I understood the pressures and factors that were pushing her husband to leave everything. My counterpart is a model of a strong Guatemalan woman, mother, and wife. If she was having a breakdown in front of me at work, that’s saying something. Illegal immigration, for my counterpart’s husband, was a last resort. This was no “let’s make some extra cash so we can buy a big screen TV and Ford truck.” This was survival. After being jobless for over a year with no prospects in sight, mounting debt, and growing children with health problems due to poor nutrition and hygiene, a decision needed to be made.

With regards to immigration, as is characteristic of many “controversial issues” as we like to so politely call them in the US, a full spectrum of opinion exists, from vehement opposition to wholehearted support. Sure, there are some families who may be milking the US for all it is worth in hopes of scoring the best Honda moto or HP Laptop in town. But in the majority of situations I’ve encountered, Guatemalans go to the U.S. because there are absolutely no opportunities here for them, and they are desperate. They want a better life for their family. They are motivated and taking initiative to “superar.” How can something that sounds so simple be the cause of so much pain, hate, and confusion on both sides of our borders?
I started writing this article a few weeks ago. This past Friday, my counterpart got a call from her husband's dad while we were in the office. “Entonces llego al fin?” she said quietly on the phone through teary eyes. Her husband had made it to Los Angeles after 8 days in the desert, incommunicado. We sat quietly for a few moments after she hung up. I asked if I could give her a hug, and she nodded. Then the tears began to flow again.
“It’s just that I don’t know whether to be happy or sad,” she explained. “Of course I wanted him to arrive safely, but part of me hoped he would get caught
and be sent back home. But now he’s actually there. Now it’s real.”

Even though her husband had gone for the good of the family, my counter-part felt conflicted. To her, after having had heard so many stories about crumbling marriages due to immigration, she knew this could be the beginning of the end of their relationship. It was goodbye to the father of her children and love of her life.

So, “what’s my stance on immigration?” one may ask, as if the answer to that question is so simple. Well, it is simple, actually: more than anything, immigration is about human beings. Every person, every “number” who risks their life and crosses that expansive desert or swims that dangerous river at night, is just that- a person. Every “one” has a story, a family, a heart and mind. That crucial fact is what’s missing from so much immigration policy, which labels these people as “aliens,” negating their essential humanity.
When it comes to immigration policy, remembering this simple concept would not be a bad idea. Even better, every American should join the Peace Corps, be sent to Central or South America, and have their own Peace Corps Moments.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Saw the Sign— and it Opened up my Eyes

          As the title track on the first cassette I ever owned in my life, the 1993 Ace of Base smash hit- The Sign- still holds significance in my life, or at least makes an excellent title for this post.  I am sure I could likewise find a way to title future posts with various other tracks from the album-- “All that she Wants (Is Another Baby),” “Happy Nation,” “Living in Danger,” only to name a few obvious examples.  My primary project within my work is that of eco-tourism; I am working alongside a Q’eqchi community in order to improve a tea-tour, offered on both foot and bicycle. 

“A concept that describes a form of development that respects
tradition and culture,protects and preserves the environment, and 
educates and welcomes visitors sustainably over the long term.” 

Although widely misunderstood or unimplemented in most areas of this country about the size of Tennessee, tourism is clearly a virtually untapped financial resource for many of Guatemala’s unique, diverse, naturally beautiful, and culturally rich departments and communities.  Rafting, volcanoes, lakes, waterfalls, rain-forests, Mayan ruins, bird-watching opportunities, and communities containing some of the deepest and hardly altered Mayan lifestyles are widely prevalent.  Despite this fact, there remains a significant need for improvements in customer service, computer literacy and training, language ability, business and accounting practices, promotional materials and resources, presentation, and feedback-…the list goes on.
          Having worked within customer service for a number of years, conducted market analysis and promotional improvement projects in New York, and worked with European tourists the summer before I departed, I felt confident- and still do in a different way- I had the tools to improve this tour and make a positive impact on business level—beyond the cultural interchange, secondary projects, and inevitable spreading of laughter.  Beyond this resume knowledge, one major aspect I overlooked for some time was my ‘outsider’s point of view’.
For example, in a recent meeting with the head directors of the Cooperative there was difficulty among those in attendance to grasp the concept of cultural tourism.  Sure, bird watching, adventure tourism, agro-tourism, Nature views and waterfalls, but why would someone want to see how traditional food is prepared or typical clothing of the Mayan communities?  Would someone actually pay to learn about history, play a marimba, and eat caldo?  Having an outside perspective it is easy to understand the answer to these doubts is yes; the first large group of U.S. tourists we received actually indicated this interest in their feedback.

While in the Estados Unidos  (U.S.) we are constantly surrounded by signage.  Is this the men’s or women’s bathroom? How long is this trail or path? Is there a handicapped child in the area? Where is the next rest-stop off the highway? How far is Jimmy Johns?  What is the speed limit? Simple information displayed to inform, protect, promote, assist, and make things happen around us with some sort of fluidity.  Informing of locations, directions, and information is especially important within tourism.  Those visiting are clients and have no previous knowledge of the destination and its surroundings.  Simple right? 
We as a Cooperative are currently in the process working to get funding for official Cooperative signs on the major roads.  Knowing local resources, NGO’s, governmental organizations, etc. to reach out to and work with is undeniably an important step to becoming professional, efficient, and connected for the future.  Professional external promotion and signage is necessary in moving forward, but my ‘outsider’s view’ noticed a shortage of internal signage  on a very basic level.  Things as simple as locations throughout the tour, bathroom differentiation, office labeling, general information, directions, and distance were not present.  Simple signs can make a world of difference, allowing the client to get to what they need, when they need it.  Using the router, which we were briefly trained to use during our training in February, I have begun a sign project with those on the Co-operative.  Teaching how to draw out, space, carve, and paint signs made out of wood, I hope to teach a skill which will be used well on into the future.  Ironically I am fairly decent at sign-making myself; one of my most significant contributions in promotion has been one I did not even realize I possessed.

-Don Chico and I- One of the hardest workers I have ever met.For the publication release event we also made three signs on the Chicoj Cooperative. 

Although I could tap into studies on color preference based on life experience or age, eye-tracking studies on websites, or size and shape significance, one of the things I overlooked as an outsider was finding the balance in what I know and the functioning culture of where I am assisting.  Luckily this was a simple project and my error was simply in using cursive writing.  I have found that many Guatemalans have had to re-read a few of the signs which were made in cursive, a style of writing not as commonly used.  I am currently reading The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz (Thanks Aunt Maureen) and found this following excerpt relevant to what I am getting at.  The lesson seems to be taking basic instinct, knowledge, and experience and implementing it in a way that intermingles relevantly. 

UNICEF hired an expensive Italian designer to create a poster campaign aimed at convincing women to vaccinate their children…They were perfect, except for the fact that the extremely low literacy rate in Rwanda made it likely that words written even in Kinyarwanda would have little impact.  Much better would have been pictures that told stories…Just seeing this process, though, helped me to think differently about how to design future messages and programs, how to move away from our view on how things should be done and observe how people live and communicate with one another.

Nevertheless, in dealing with tourists, both foreign and Guatemalan, there is a unique challenge of finding a balance in how things are communicated, presented, and targeted.  Our Viviente Verapaz team, representing the alliance of eleven tourism sites , recently put together a promotional item fitting within that universal communication middle ground- print material.  After months of meetings and preparations we recently held the Viviente Verapaz guidebook release feria at the Chicoj Coffee Cooperative, in which we hosted and fed over one-hundred attendees.  The 23 page book, a review of the sites in Alta and Baja Verapaz region, is aimed to be distributed to tourism agencies, restaurants, hostels, and other places visitors frequent throughout the country.  
Preparing tea for the lunch
Kamille and the Chicoj tour guides
Throughout the process we stressed counterpart participation in fulfilling all steps regarding the publication and event.  A major goal is for each Cooperative president or tourist site director to begin meeting regularly, eventually taking on this alliance as their own. Host-country national membership would allow for legalization as a certified organization, opening up doors to increased funding down the road.  The immense opportunity the alliance holds is claro como agua- clear as water.  This event and publication have opened up my eyes so to speak, but I am the one who saw the sign.  I am hopeful we will see the sign and potential during my service and for years to come.

Until next time—The Ace of Base,


Chirrepec tour-guides talking with media
Cover of the alliance guide-book

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Go to the people:
live with them, learn from them
love them
start with what they know
build with what they have.

But of the best leaders,
when the job is done,
the task accomplished,
the people will say:
"We have done it ourselves."
-Lao Tzu

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Oxib, Tres, Three

Brushing Contract

Thanks to the collection of toothbrushes and toothpaste by my Liverpool Worldwise School Match Program class we were successfully able to put on the first of three workshop sessions at the second school on the Co-operative. Bantiox!  Although there is a hold-up with one of the two packages down in the capital, we utilized the limited number of toothpastes we had by pairing siblings together.  Not only did we end with one extra toothpaste, but we will now be starting a third workshop with a neighboring community using the materials from the awaited package. 

The magic number seems to be three.  The children are reminded to brush a minimum of three times daily, making sure to brush all three key areas; upper-level teeth(both left and right quadrants), bottom-level teeth, tongue.  It is now 'summer vacation' for the students until January, the month that will mark the beginning of a new year, the introduction of floss to the first school, plaque check-ups for the second, and my one-year mark in Guatemala.  Again students sing happy birthday, mouths full of tooth-paste foam and some even blood, to dental hygiene and healthy smiles-  a song likewise holding significance to Peace Corps in January as well, marking the 50 year anniversary as an organization.    

Friday, October 15, 2010

Rich in Vitamin A,K,E,B6, and C-arrot

As promised I have a follow up on the baking activity put on with some of the students from the Chibulbut School.  A few girls grew and harvested one row of the garden, which included carrots.    Kamille decided to make carrot cakes with the students; she then went on to make them with the women of the Cooperative.  It was a unique way to incorporate healthy vegetables into a yummy snack; the cakes were extra healthy made of mostly carrots with a sprinkle of sugar- yet undeniably delicious.  It is widely unknown, but Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in all of Latin America, even higher than Haiti (the region’s poorest country), and ranks sixth in the entire world for chronic malnutrition.  Over 1 million children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, of which nearly 70% are indigenous.  Diets consisting of little more than tortillas can cause permanent damage on development and growth.  Likewise, the recession has caused a significant decrease in the money being sent back from the U.S. to support families, as nearly 15% of Guatemala’s GDP comes from remittances.  As I have witnessed firsthand, many of the crops families do grow are believed to have better value as market-sale income than as nutritious supplements for family benefit. 

After a morning of rival soccer outings between Co-op schools, the girls who tended to the carrot row gathered to make baked carrot goods with the richest vegetable source of the pro-vitamin A carotenes, antioxidant compounds protecting against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and vision promoting nutrients—I mean, delicious CAKE.  I have attached the recipe in the local Mayan dialect, Q’eqchi.  Buen provecho.
1              sek’  harin                                                    2            lekleb  Royal
½             lekleb  atz’am                                               1               lekleb canel
2/3         sek’  aceite                                                    1               sek’ azucr
2              b’ukuk li mol                                                2               zanahor k’ajinbil

1.   1.    Junaji li harin,  li Royal, li canel, ut li atz’am
2.   2.  Junaji li aceite, li azucr, ut eb li mol b’ukbil, ut k’e rikin li harin.
3.   3.   Kut  li zanahor sal i junaji, ut k’e sa jun molde engrasado.
4.   4  K’e sa li xam 1 ½ honal.
 Info Source: UNICEF