Fly by May…

Another busy month flies by in Guatemala.  The days, the weeks, the entire month seems to blur.  Thursdays we drive to Chirijox and Saturdays we take a boat over to San Juan.  In between, I am teaching science at math at a local school for two and a half days.  The other days if not with the kids, are filled with conceptualizing this organization we call Unlocking Silent Histories.  In the evenings, I’m catching up on my online class that I am teaching and then completing assignments for an online training refresher course that I am taking.  Finding the time to write this month has – as you might ascertain – been a challenge.  All this is a part of my world as I transition myself into a jammed packed schedule to a more livable one that allows me to put my full attention to this project.  In two small words: busy times!

As May closes, and I see the “light at the end of the tunnel”, I hold on by a thread knowing that in just a few more weeks my full energies can turn towards looking back on and looking forward to this journey called Unlocking Silent Histories.

I am taking this moment though, just to recall the year 2000 when I entered the University of Pennsylvania.   It is almost surreal to remember a shy and quiet grad student, a struggling single mother, a woman attempting to find her future sitting in a room full of aspiring academics trying desperately trying to describe a vision that at that time just did not yet exist.  Now, all in good time, good company, and the best of circumstances, it now is coming to fruition.  If you had an opportunity to read my kickstarter campaign you remember a synopsis of this vision:

I wanted to put technology in the hands of youth so that they could illustrate what they knew, cared about, and hoped for in their futures. I envisioned this as a unique opportunity to help youth feel empowered.  I believed that through insights gained as they investigated, recorded, and analyzed their films, that these youth would obtain the knowledge and tools to help solve the issues and problems of their economically challenged communities.  In a technology enhanced and rapidly changing world, overcoming the digital divide was underlying this vision

I envisioned technology as a bridge between cultures.  A way to facilitate equity of voice – and provide a vehicle for broader discussions that go beyond the confining divisions that often separate communities and groups.   When you dream it, you become it – I believe is the proverb.  And it is becoming.  It is becoming more than I imagined…

The cameras in the hands of the youth are not just about documenting and analyzing problems or successes in one’s community.   It is not solely about overcoming the digital divide.  For me, it is more about finding innovative ways to engage and cultivate learning.  It is about technology as a resource that makes visible culture, knowledge, voice, identify, desire, drive, creativity, vision, and agency…. Instead of being subjects of academia, instead of academics casting their carefully refined lenses upon these youth groups and their cultures… instead of positioning our nicely packaged theory upon them to analyze and shed light from an etic perspective… the aim is to foster a truly emic opportunity… These youth now tell us who they are, how they want to be see, and what they will become.

Not so fast, not so furious… in six months I do not expect great Hollywood productions nor do I expect revolutionized views of seeing them or seeing ourselves.  What I do hope for is an opportunity for seeing through new prisms – what possibilities exists for both them and for us – for them seeing what is inside themselves and for us finding new lenses to see what we see.

Having this particular time in my life, this particular gift – that is – the opportunity to finally make a dream come to life is more than I could have hoped for.  Everyday I learn more about myself – what lenses I bring, what frames shape my perspective of the world, and what conditioned thoughts I need to shed in order to see through the eyes of these youth.  I am continuously challenged intellectually and structurally – by the colleagues who share this journey with me everyday – Marisol, Erin, and Mafer; by locals who freely give their time to observe and assist – Gustavo, Julio, and Iko; by my son, old colleagues/friends and new friends who visit and bring shine new light on the process – Drew, Dana, Dan, Denver, Rick, Tim, and Randy; by Pamela Yates for taking the time to talk with the youth and by the kids – always and mostly the kids – who teach me to listen and learn.  With all things closing up this month, except of course for the project, my time turns to reflecting on Unlocking Silent Histories. I’m humbled by this gift to be here and to be building this with an amazing community of people.


Part 2 of April Flies By… San Juan

San Juan


Our second iteration of Unlocking Silent Histories began on a sunny Saturday morning in a pristine town on Lake Atitlan.  This town is somewhat of an enigma.  There has been a lot of attention on this down in terms of development.  It is the only town with no garbage on the streets.  The community is clean and the buildings almost seem almost stage like.  There are murals on the walls, depicting many aspects of the history of this place.  The painters and artisans are prevalent – more sales, however, are in their stores or studies rather than in the streets.   It is quiet and while there are tourists, this does not feel like a touristy town.  The tourists come because of the nonprofits that exist here and to buy textiles from the woman.  There are tuk tuks that carry people to parts of the town as well as to near by villages.  Chicken buses pass through here as well.  Yet despite the traffic that exists, the town does not feel polluted.  I’m not sure why this is, but it is.  It is not as if there is some magical muffler put on just when they pass this town – but it is true that it does feel different than the other lake towns that have this traffic.


The other part to note is that San Juan has a number of youth programs.  Importance is placed on youth leadership programs for youth.  I suppose that we are peripherally connected to those efforts, but I don’t feel wholly connected.  Rather, I feel largely separate from knowing what truly goes on here.  Yet, I can feel that it is different, very different than Chirijox.  Chirijox is rural and in many respects that the youth are disconnected from much of the outer world.  I do not know this for certain, but I feel a different energy here and this becomes obvious on my day here with this group.

We had five today, there were supposed to be nine, but there were five.  What is more, there were only boys – our girls who signed up did not show.


We (meaning I), after conversations with a member of my board, refocused the direction with San Juan.  Some things I kept the same, but I wanted to return to the importance of history.  It is taking us so long with Chirijox to get them to think about history, that I wanted to be sure to start off with this.  Since our focus is on unveiling the historical notions of the community and how they play into the current lives, it seemed natural for me to start with that.  In this way, I did two things.  First, I asked them what they know about their history.  This the kids wrote.

As they were journaling, I thought it might be boring to ask them to write.  It might instead be more fun to have them play with the cameras.  I asked them to interview each other asking them: What do you think that people think of you?


Here were some of their answers:

  • I am Andres Emilio, and from here in San Juan de la Laguna.  Today, all young people use the typical dress, and their classmates laugh at them.  That is not right because it is their culture here at San Juan de la Laguna.  They are classmates… they are classmates at schools and grade…
  • Hello! Good morning! My name is Juan, and I am from San Juan de la Laguna.  Other places in Guatemala we are discriminated against because of our personality and our culture.  Every town has a different culture.  There are tourists that discriminate against us, but because we have some many cultures they say that they are not same and that they are “bigger”.  Today, we are raised the same way and therefore, in Guatemala they don’t discriminate so much like in the Mayan culture.  Today, we see that tourists see us as different people, but there are some that want to practice our culture, and others that don’t.  We also see that communication is longer because people can put things in the internet.  We can be in different places, and there are people that are interested in our culture.  That is all that I want to say to you…  Like I was saying, we feel comfortable and amongst family here in the community of Laguna.  It is a pretty place and very touristic, but at the same time, we feel very rejected by other places such as the capital and the tourists that look the other way.  We have the same right, but I think they do it just to do it.  Truth, we are always rejected, those who are of communities.  This makes you get and say that we are different and fight for our lives, keep on going.  I feel good when they reject me because I realize that I am different, and I like that.  At least, I am trying to be different than others. 
  • Hello.  My name is Carlos.  In my community they call me Ting.  I am trying to find the way to communicate and express how we feel about being Indian and being from a pueblo/town.  I feel rejected because of the way I talk.  Sometimes I am wearing the typical dress by other people when they look at your with a certain face.  Sometimes the same thing happens with my language…
  • My name is Jose and I live in the in the town of San Juan de la Laguna.  It is a beautiful town that has a lot of riches that we sometimes don’t take advantage of.  The first one is the women here practice sewing.  This is the sewing they do here.  And the other one, this is the fabric of the typical dress that we use here.  Women more…., and men use more the typical dress.  I don’t like to use it because when we use it, it gets really hot.  That is a problem because were not practicing our culture, we are losing our own language.   People from Guatemala discriminate against us, our language.  We don’t get well along with them.  Their customs are different from ours.  I appreciate tourists because they think about our textiles and it helps women a lot, because they are the “administrators” at home.  Thanks!
  • My name is Pedro.  I would like to tell you about how outsiders see us, starting with the language.  I speak Tz’utujil, and sometimes I have realized that in some areas people that do use that language discriminate against you and tell you things.  When you hear that, you feel bad.  The same thing happens with the traditional dress.  For example, if we were to look for a job in the capital, if people would see us use this clothing, people would say a lot of things.  Tourists would say like what we do, because what we do, we do them by hand, for example the textiles and the paintings.  Some people from Guatemala, discriminate and that shouldn’t be like that because it is our culture…


I like this as a start and will return to our Chirijox group and ask them similar questions.  I see these as foundational incentives to inspire them to tell stories of how they want to be seen.

This group is going to be more challenging in many respects, but it is clear that this beginning sets the stage for powerful accounts from these youth.

April Flies By….

Today is April 23 (which is when I wrote this) and I haven’t written a blog entry in almost a month now.  What are we up to and what do I want to share with you?  There is a lot, I believe.  But I will do this in two parts.  First, I will share a special moment in Chirijox.  In my next blog, I will talk to you about our new location – San Juan la Laguana….

What happened today reminds me why I do what I do.  It was so brilliant.  This is trite to say perhaps, but I couldn’t have planned this better if I tried.

Let me explain.  Today, I entered the house in Chirijox where we meet every Thursday.  The house was dark and empty.  Empty, with the exception of one of our students Emilio.  My heart sinks again.  I have traveled on three buses to get here.  The trip takes nearly an hour and a half, sometimes two hours.  If the trip weren’t trying enough, I am lugging three computers, two cameras, a backup drive and an ipad.  The bags are heavy and every trip comes with a risk.  It’s not exactly safe to be traveling on public transportation in Guatemala with so much technology.  I don’t want to insinuate that it is dangerous, but things happen as they happen anywhere.  So weighted down with my equipment, I am prepared for nearly anything that might come up.  This is important when all of the kids are here, but when there is just one, you ask yourself, why I’m making this trek if only one person shows up.  But to look at things so negatively, is to miss opportunities.  And every day, no matter who or how many show, is an opportunity. You realize that no matter how many times things just don’t seem  “perfect”, they really are.  We just need new lenses to see them.

Emilio was there first, and then I turned around only to see Edgar.  Edgar!  I screamed happily and with great surprise.  Edgar has missed many of our sessions and I was very excited to see him.  More importantly, I was very excited to hear that he wanted to continue.  He is behind, but he will catch up.  I have absolutely no doubt about this.   The two of them consulted their introductions and wrote a shot list of what additional films they needed.  They are taking charge of the process and taking on their own direction.  It is a beautiful site to see.

It seemed almost enough to watch our two youngest students working together and heading up to the community to film.  But the best of the day was yet to come.

Carmen walked in the door just before Emilo and Edgar were in the community.  She had told Marisol that she would walk down to tell me that she was sick and wouldn’t be coming and here she was. It was funny because she said that she wasn’t able to do work with us today, but there she was ready to do work.  She handed me her introduction – talking about the importance of nature in her community.  She asked me to look at it.  She had all the video that she needed for this part of her film.  It was the mechanical aspects that she had, but still not the heart of the story.

Every week, we seem to have this conversation.  I wondered and worried if we would get her past this.  Every week, she would say, yes I understand, but it didn’t seem to change what she would do.  Then the moment came.  Out of nowhere, the conversation about the crux of unveiling the history came.

I was telling her again that the connections were what she was missing.  She has pieces, but she is not getting at the tension of the past and present relationship that her community had and has with nature.  I was asking her if she remembered that in “When the Mountains Tremble” Rigoberta Menchú talked about that her ancestors asked for permission to plant the crops?  I’m interested, I said to her, what the relationship was with you and your ancestors.  Carmen, said, we don’t do that anymore.  We don’t ask for permission.  We use to ask permission to plant or cut the trees, but now we just do it.  Ever since we adopted Evangelical religion, then we stopped.

There it was.  In a moment, we had it.  We were trying to get her to pinpoint the tension that she feels.  We were trying to help her uncover the history of why she felt so strongly about nature and bringing attention to it.  We were trying to help her see why others in the community were concerned with the disintegrating relationship and disrespect for nature.  We can’t say for sure that this is the only influence of course, but it is one that is very profound.  Religion was a prominent factor in disrupting the cultural connection and relationship of the K’iche community with nature.  This came directly from her, and immediately she and we all saw it.  She said, I can ask my abuelita.  Yes, this would be great!  That is a start – and ask others in the community as well.  Where did this religion come from? What influence did it have on your culture?

But there was more.  It is so obvious how committed Carmen feels about nature.  It became more obvious today as well.  Her time with us was short today.  She had to go, not only because she was sick, but also because she told us that she had to go give lunch to the workers.  This was an additional tension that came up that day.  Marisol asked her more about the workers, who were they?  Carmen answered that they are the ones that are cutting down the trees.  They work for her father.  Here Carmen is feeding people who do work that she does not approve of and she is trying to stop.  But this commitment to family and to her community and the respect for people doing work is obvious.  It is a responsibility that she has, one that she takes very seriously.  To counter her feelings about this, she is planting tress every day.

I want her to tell this part of her story.  I want her to capture this and let her tell you what this is like for her.  Today, we made not strides, but leaps to getting her on track to tell you, to tell us what that history is and the social and political implications for her community and her personal identity around who she is in this world.