Pedro a.k.a Quic a.k.a b boy Quick…

IMG_0609Quíc (his Tz’utujil name) is one of 10 children, many of whom continue to live in his house.  Quíc is the youngest.

When our group meets in San Juan, Quíc is often late. When he enters, he slides into the courtyard of the house where we meet.  His entry is essentially silent and none of us notice he is comes in.  When we do, he greets us with the local handshake and then sits down to join us. His reasons for being late are legitimate.  He is either working, helping at home, or returning from a cultural event.

He has a confidence and ease that is unmistakable.  Through his interactions with others in the group and with me, it is clear that he has a good heart, is hard working, and positive.

IMG_0485The recognition of Quíc’s character and self-assurance are evident not only here, but also in other spaces. Like Tín, Quíc enjoys playing sports and participates on the Juego Pelota Maya.  He does not have as many leadership roles in the school, but instead does a great deal in the community.  Quíc participates in a group of break-dancers and rising hip-hop artists.  He attends a lot of events that relate to his historical culture.  And he manages the computers at the community library. Currently he talks about studying engineering.

It is not hard to imagine that Quíc has many different “faces”. Normally, I see him dressed like a kid who loves rap.  He has torn jeans, a baseball hat and a t-shirt. Then one day, I saw him in a collared shirt, dress pants and a tie. He was unrecognizable for a moment. He was on his way to work, where he monitors computers at the library. My response and surprise could not be contained.  Wow you look so professional!  I say. Thanks he says. This us so different than what I am use to seeing you. I asked him what he liked better – the “street” clothes or the dress clothes.  Ambos.  Both he replied with a smile.  Both are igual (equal).

IMG_0484I saw just one more side. When I watched the Maya Ball Game that he and Tín participate in, he was dressed with accents that are customs of his culture.  He had a handkerchief of sorts on his head and a traditional belt around his waste.  These are important aspects of the game and each have meaning.  Quíc and I are working on putting together a video of Maya Ball, so we will return to the meanings at another time.

For now, and in my experience, Quíc is a complex and interesting person. He has a strong interest in understanding more about his ancestors and his Maya roots.  He struggles to find a way to learn. His parents know very little about the history of things such as Maya ceremonies or Juego Pelota Maya.  He does not know his grandparents and his only more senior relative is mute and illiterate.  There is no way to communicate the knowledge that he holds.  Yet Quíc is determined.  He reads book from the library and searches for more information on the Internet.

IMG_1551Upon meeting Quíc for the first time, he might see like an ordinary teenage, but he’s far from it.  I am constantly amazed with him, his passion, and his gentle and honest spirit as I get to know him better.  He has such a positive self-image and his deeply amiable soul just emanates from within.



Tín (Part 1)

“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction,     by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.”

cap Carlos Agustin Vasquez Mendoza.  We will forgo his Spanish name and call him Tín.  I remember the first time his mother told me that this he was also called this. I got the impression it was a nickname.  He never insisted that we use it and now that I look back, I realize that I didn’t really pay attention to the pride glimmer in her eyes when she told me this.  Something in me must have known it was important because I remember her look as if she is standing before me right now.

Tín is his Tz’utujil name, which I can only surmise is used just with his family and close friends.  After many months in this community we have moved toward using it as well.

Tín was the first person in the group that I saw on my return.  I wasn’t sure that it was he at first because he wasn’t wearing his baseball cap.  But as he continued walking toward me it was obvious that it was.  We both smiled.  He shakes my hand and sits beside me on the bench near his home.  I’m early!  I said.  A novel event because getting between Pana and San Juan always involves waiting at the dock.   Tín and I chatted for a few moments about my trip away and then I left him for a bit to go help Chema.  I told him to go eat lunch and I’d meet him at 1:30 as planned.

girls2When I returned in Tín’s house to meet him, Chema’s two younger sisters greeted me. Tín is Chema’s uncle so the families are often at each other’s houses. The girls scream my name and embrace me. Then they showed me a newborn puppy that Tín’s family breeds and sells.  It is very nice to have such a warm welcome to San Juan.

Tín emerged from his bedroom and we talked about his progress.  He had told me in Facebook that he was just doing interviews around the community to see what people were thinking of his topic.  This was a great start and one that we discussed sometime in the early stages of the development. His topic is “The Pathway to Success”.

In talking with him on several occasions, it obvious that his idea of success is very specific.  I will let him tell you about that another time.  Our conversations have led him to his focus on uncovering a community definition of success and exploring what the knowledge, state, and ideas of his community are in order for him to assess his own definition. What Tín is doing is essentially a video ethnography.  He is taking video, watching it and essentially finding themes and patterns in the conversations that he has with others.  This will be the main focus of the work with him.  Yet in our first meeting back, we didn’t get much further but to say that he was ready for me to bring computers in order to start organizing his videos.

I want to pause a moment and share a little bit about Tín.  He has the strongest presence in the group.  In the beginning, he seemed hesitant and suspect of who I was and what my agenda might be.  It was as if his eyes were always reading me – cautiously and inquisitively.  Over time, we’ve developed a trust – not necessarily through language, but through a feeling that each has a genuine interest in his ideas.

thinkingNow, when I see him there is an unmistaken openness and comfort in his vibrant smile.  Emanating from that smile is a continuous air of confidence that is evident in any space that his occupies.   The way I can describe him is someone who is interested, curious, and having an endless thirst for knowledge.  He has always asks the deepest questions and it is clear that he wants so much to talk about ideas, politics, social justice, and anything that comes up.  He’s always thinking and is also very ambitious.  He is the president of his class.  He heads an organization for his church.  He plays Maya Ball, soccer, and participates in traditional dance.   I’m sure that there are more activities that I am missing; yet these alone are impressive.

alphThere is always someone in a group that seems to be “alpha” so to speak and from the very beginning it was Tín.   I’m sure that I have written about this before, but I recall saying that if I could gain his confidence, then the others would follow.  I’m not sure that this is really true anymore after getting to know the others better.  Their participation is not dependent on him.  But his participation is dependent on my ability to continuously engage and challenge him. At the same time he has an internal motivation and purpose for participating, so he will finish despite my limited language, which, by design, inhibits my potential influence on his work.  A blessing and a curse they say, and I absolutely feel the impact of both.

An example during one of our interactions illustrates his desire for rigor. Tín was editing for a short time and then would get up, walk to his family and talk with them for some time.  After doing this several times, I say to him, “Are you bored? “ He says a little bit.  I ask, is it because I can’t talk to you that deeply?  Yeah that is it, he says.  Tín is just so smart and I know that he wants to be challenged.  This is the most difficult part for me.  I know how important the dialogue is and I’m just going to have to make it happen.  I will rely on a few strategies to do this. They include 1) google translate, 2) writing to the students in Spanish, and 3) hiring someone or bringing along more volunteers.

This work however is not really just about work.  It is about developing relationships and learning from these youth.  And my relationship with Tín needs some attention.  I’m pretty confident that we have developed a good relationship so far. He is welcoming and approachable.  Yet, I feel that we still need to connect outside this project and come to find a way to communicate more fluidly and comfortably. My Spanish seems to be better with some in than group than others; and with Tín, it is a little sluggish.  With Tín, I need to enhance my vocabulary in order to sustain our more philosophical conversations so that I can learn more from him.

To my surprise (and delight), he invites me to his Juego de Pelota Maya game (Maya ball game) on Sunday.  It’s a sign that maybe he wants to cross “learning” boundaries and find more opportunities to let me know him outside the project as well.  I wouldn’t miss this opportunity and of course I didn’t.

ball I left that Saturday and returned Sunday morning to watch the game.  I invite Chema to watch with me so that he can explain the rules to me.  Quíc (Pedro – who I will introduce in more detail soon) and Tín are on the same team.  Tín and Quíc see me and smile… a clear indication that they are glad to see me.  Tín greets me in Tz’utujil – this language is unmistakable.  I feel privileged that he does this, because I feel that it is a sign of acceptance and trust.  I watch the game in awe.  The power and strength that these kids need to do this is obvious.  I just kept thinking about how lucky I am to be here and be invited into their world.

groupsittingAnd after the game Tín and Quíc sit on the seats overlooking la concha (the covered playground).  They are playing with my ipod (Tín) and looking at the photos I took on my camera (Quíc) and then taking some themselves.  You guys must be starving I say.  We are.  I am too, I reply.  There is a pizza place that is good, Tín says.  I have 100Q, I reply.  That’s enough; let’s go, says Tín.  So off we go, Chema, Tín, Quíc and I.  I say to myself this is a gift and a serendipitous opportunity for relationship building…

pizzaWe wait for pizza, we play with the technology – Quíc find music on the iPad and later takes the camera from me and starts taking pictures.  He’s even teaching Tín.  Chema plays angry birds and takes a few photos of his own from the iPad.  Tín uses my iPod to do translations of words from English to Spanish and Spanish to English.  This all happens as we listen to Bob Marley.  Today music, technology and pizza bring us together. I think about talking shop, but I remember to just enjoy and let it be.  This is relationship building that I’ve been saying we need is here.  And it is just as important as the learning that takes place in the project.  The play continues as we dig into the pizza and share thoughts and enjoy lots of laughter.



“Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future.” (Freire)

sanjuanAs mentioned in my last entry, any hesitation, apprehension, and uncertainty about my return dissipated when I stepped off the launcha in San Juan la Laguna.  A sense of calm overcame me I walked from the dock, up the steep hill, to the top of the village.  I was looking forward to seeing everyone as just a day before I left the US, they were writing asking me when I was going to return.  They were anxious to get back to work and who would not be inspired to return to youth eager to learn…

I was heartened by the fact that they continued to work in my absence.  In these three short days I spent back in the amazing village, however, I was challenged by the conversations around that work.  There are two stories here in particular that I’d like to share.  Each cause me to pause and inform the next steps of this work of uncovering patterns of learning and knowledge in this small indigenous community.  The two deserve separate entries.

1186029_564791053558809_1762481031_nToday, I want to write about my interactions and time with Jose – who from this point forward will be referred to as Chema.  Chema is his Tz’utujil name and just these past few days, Carlos (aka Tín) and Pedro (aka Quíc) started referring to their friend as Chema.  With the desire to emphasize their primary identity and at their request, I will now call each of them by their Tz’utujil names.

Chema is always an interesting enigma.  He is wonderfully generous, polite, and thoughtful.  He attends every session and often offers to organize everyone when we schedule events. He has taken many films. I would venture to say he has taken the most films in the group.  Contrasting his enthusiasm to work on this project, he often seems hesitant to be first to talk or to take risks with his thoughts and ideas.  These last three days have given me a small window into what might partially attribute to these actions.

weavingChema originally defined his topic as “resources that come from the mountains”.  He had decided, or so I thought, to talk about the natural resources in San Juan and their significance to the artisan community.  Because of this, I was somewhat confused by the disparate videos that had been capturing.  While he has several videos that reflect his topic, he also has many that relate to religious ceremonies.

processionFor example, the first day I returned, Chema wrote to me telling me he needed my help.  His memory card was full and he wanted to video a procession that was taking place early in the morning. I had already planned to meet Tín at 1:30 and was not prepared to make is across the lake that early. Instead of my rushing to the launcha and hoping it leaves soon (because it never leaves quickly), I suggested that he borrow Tín’s camera.

I didn’t broach the nature of my confusion on my first day back with him because Chema was in a hurry to get to a Maya ceremony that was taking place in San Pedro (the next town – 20 minutes away).  Instead, we talked about our time over the past month – mine while I was in the States and his while in San Juan.  The conversation took place for about 30 minutes while we waited for the videos to download. After seeing him the first day and reviewing his films, I talked with Erin (my colleague from Maya Traditions).  “I’m not really clear where he is going,” I say to her.  She says, “I am not sure either”.  I wasn’t worried quite yet.

Chema and I had additional encounters over the last few days.  The next was on Saturday – our typical meeting time.  It was then that I decided to raise the question about his direction.  During our conversation, I leaned toward persuading him to choose one focus. With this approach, I ask him what is most interesting to him and what he feels is important for the world to know about what San Juan is in his eyes.  He looks at me somewhat blankly but also with these bright eyes that just sparkle with authentic indecision.  Everything, all of it, is important he says.  It is, I can see in his stare that everything is important to him and he genuinely is having a hard time deciding.  I often have the sense when working with you that learning decisions are difficult because they are typically made for them.

A different thought entered my mind as we continue to tackle this welcomed problem.  Maybe, just maybe, I’m trying to simplify the process rather than allow the complexities of the connection to emerge.  We explored the possibility of expressing the San Juan of the past and the San Juan of the present and what story there is in this.  He likes this idea and decides to go off to video a tour that represents an historical Maya practice within his community.

We will uncover this “past and present” idea more clearly together as we move forward.  I am confident about that and at the same time, I realize it is going to be a difficult feat.


I say this as a result of our third interaction on Sunday.  Chema and I were sitting together watching the Juego de Pelota Maya (Maya Ball Game) together.  He was explaining as much as he could about the game. I loved watching the game, but I was not able to decipher the rules by myself.   Chema knew just a little about this and explained as much as he could.  You are going to ask those who play, he said.  I’m not really sure.  But this is a game that is important for you yes? I asked.  I thought that I heard you say that you play this in school.  He replied, yes, but I don’t like to play it so I don’t understand it fully.   This is often the answer that Chema gives.  While he attaches himself to his Maya history, he has a surface understanding about the significance of many of the practices.  I am curious about how he reconciles the past and present and become enthusiastic about our immanent conversations.

We began discussing the history of the game.  Now, my Spanish is still coming along, so I’m not sure that I have this exactly correct, but it goes something like this.  There is a female god that is the owner of this game.  She loans the balls to the men to allow them to play this game.  And in an authentic game play, the women will dance at the game’s conclusion.  I do not exactly recall how, but our conversation turned to the hair of one ball player.  He was the only one in the group with long hair.  Chema said that it was thier custom to have long hair.  Curious about his interpretation of this I ask, why don’t you have it anymore?  He replies, because the religion does not allow it.  I hesitate and consider how I can phrase my adverse reaction to this.  Finally I say, do you ever question why they don’t allow it and what that means for your culture?  No he says with a nervous laugh and a smile.

churchNo.  The brisk and simple answer reverberated in my mind.   This response of accepting realities is a one that is common in my interactions with youth – not only here but also in many settings.  Accept and absorb and continue to live without challenging or questioning… This, for me, does not sit well and is the opposite of the aim to foster critical consciousness in this learning environment. Chema’s movie – and his learning path – will ostensibly juxtapose past ceremonies and present processions.  With this, he will question the historical events that have contributed to this change and what this means for his community.  I take this moment to encourage him to think about coming up with questions related to the differences between past and present and the reasons for them.  I encourage him to consider what gets lost and what is gained.  I begin to conceptualize what the next Saturday session might look like for Chema and for the rest of the group.

We now have several items to center our focus on with Chema.  One is the “issues” of his seemingly dissimilar themes, another relates to unpacking how to represent or connect this past present contrast, and finally the third is to generate a curiosity to question what has so far been uncharted questioning of why and so what.  It is going to be an exciting journey for the two of us in the coming weeks. We are going to have fun Chema.  I’m looking forward to what you uncover about yourself and your identity in this process.

Inhabiting Border Worlds

“Hope is essential to any political struggle for radical change when the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair” (hooks, SECP).

sanjuanboatBeing back is Guatemala is bittersweet. I actually felt more indifferent about being back than I thought that I would.  I recall reminding myself that my time in the US was temporary and that I would return to Guatemala soon.  I talked about Guatemala constantly as if I had not actually been a US citizen. So the ambivalence that I felt upon my return surprised me.  Time away, I realize is important.  It helps us to step back and reflect on what you are doing and why.  Reflecting upon my life between worlds makes sense to me now.

The time did not seem optimal for being away.  My mind was constantly on getting back to work with the youth in both communities. My month away from Guatemala begin with travel to Nicaragua.  I was there with a friend who had access to small communities where most tourists didn’t go.  This was a great opportunity to visit other communities and compare life in different parts of Central America.  Following Nicaragua, my trip to the US included stops in Austin, TX, Shavertown, PA, Austin again, and then a visit to Cambridge, MA.  I was visiting family and friends in the states.  The purpose of the trip was also to complete some loose ends for continuing to work toward establishing Unlocking Silent Histories as an educational non-profit working with indigenous youth.

Being with family and friends felt like an opportunities for me to recalibrate my identity and direction.  For me, this trip allowed me to reflect on the connection that I have, the importance of family, the gift of my son, and the irreplaceable friends who feed my voracious appetite for knowledge, inquiry, and curiosity.    Each location was difficult to leave for one reason or another, but I knew that I also was anxious to get back to work.

My path to return to Guatemala took me back through Houston and then to Guatemala City.  I arrived on Wednesday night at 9:45 PM.  I walked out to see a friendly face, welcoming me back. Martín is the brother-in-law of a dear friend, Gustavo, in Panajachel.  I had not met Martín before, but his warm greeting felt as if I had.  Family is tight here in this country.  It has been my experience that when one family member takes you in, the rest of them open their hearts to you.  For me, I sense an immediate acceptance and feel like I have a few different families around the lake.  And with each passing day, my Spanish improves because they teach me, they have patience with me, and thus they make me feel very settled and at ease.  I am pretty sure most of us feel as if our language is more fluid when we are comfortable.  (So wine is not always necessary!).

I enter the car very tired, but do have enough strength to engage in a little conversation.  We talk about Gustavo and how he has been for the past month.  While we are driving, Gustavo calls me to make sure that I am safely on the way.  I always appreciate this and he does it for every trip I take.  Martín and I also talk about the rain, the traditional food, and his home.  He has, if I recall correctly, 23 roosters (gallos) and 15 hens (gallinas).  You can’t live in Pana, I said.  No, in Jucanya, he replies. I couldn’t imagine that many animals in one space in Pana.  Pana is one of two the “cities” on the lake so having open land for this much livestock is for the most part of out the question.  I fall asleep most of the way, but when I wake we talk some more.

The roads were dark and foggy and we were driving quite slowly.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was going more slowly because he was “instructed” to take care with me.  I know that many people worry about this country.  Everyone asks me if I’m safe there.  They read about the problems and hear about the history.  Yet, I always feel safe in the hands of the local people that I have connected with.  That local connection and understanding is at the heart of what makes travel so compelling and rich for me, but it is also my way of traveling safely.    Seeing beyond the story that the media paints, I find that opening my eyes, mind, and especially my heart makes all the difference.  As I’m thinking about this, though still indifferent, yet memories began to surface about why am I here and why I enjoy working with Maya communities.

We enter Pana and I feel like something is not quite right. I was a bit out of sorts with the various time changes and feeling as if I wasn’t quite ready to leave my friends in Cambridge, just like I wasn’t ready to leave my son in Austin.  In my Cambridge world it was 2:30 AM and in my Austin world it was 1:30 AM.  With my confused sense of time, I couldn’t understand why there were still venders on the street.  Martín reminds me that it is only 12:30 AM.  With his light-hearted reassurance, I started to reacclimatize to the reality in which I landed.

As I feel the internal adjustment, I think to myself, perhaps when you travel a great deal, one tends to adapt more easily.  At the exact same moment, I question myself. I’m not certain that I fully believe what I’m thinking.  When I landed in Austin on July 31st, I found it astonishingly difficult to adjust. The culture shock from Guatemala back to the States was particularly unsettlingly.  It all started with the planes – a screen on every seat, people holding cell phones, objects, lights, loudspeakers…. The entire stimulus was quite overwhelming.  Immediately and continuously in the US, I missed the simplicity of life in Guatemala.  I missed walking, I missed the market, I missed the lack of choices, options, and the significantly diminished emphasis on material things.

Guatemala is third world… so you know that the people here struggle with many things including water, malnutrition, education, and work to name a few. At the same time, there is a heart, a familiar openness and happiness in the people that I recall in the Dominican Republic.  That somehow gets lost in the progressive country we call the United States of America.  Excessiveness is abundant.  The tough transitions back and forth made me realize that something was still not right inside me.

I consider the location around me and try to center on why I feel uncomfortable.  While in Pana, I live on a lake where 75% of the Guatemalan population is indigenous.  Yet, it feels as though the majority of people I see are foreigners.  The abundance that exists in the US and in other first world countries has permeated the boundaries of a simpler Guatemala.  I think we call this “progress” but I’m not really sure about that.   While many people cite that they want to escape a material life, the patterns of holding onto many of the “luxuries” of life remain – this includes cars, houses, and the like.  There are clear attachments to political, social, and cultural norms that are unconsciously embedded in their (and my) daily first world practices.   And they are ever present around the lake.

Clarity begins to surface.  My education has taught me to question power and influences of outsiders.  It has also taught me to listen to locals and involve them in the deconstruction and agency of their own lives.   What is the impact of the infiltration of foreigners on this already marginalized Maya world?  What chance is there for local control over one’s future?  The concern about these kinds of questions coupled with the fact that the connection I rekindled with my son, my family, and my friends reinforced a sense of contentment – both at “home” and “abroad”.  I put these in quotes, because as I cross boundaries, home takes on a new definition for me.  It is something sentimental rather than a fixed location. Without hard and fast boundaries, I consider I inhabit “border worlds”.  I “live” in multiple locations and my crossing of worlds – for me – requires that I be conscious of my participation in each of them.

“Inhabiting border worlds” is a concept that I recently read, but it also reflects other ideas that I have come across.  Each relates to living simultaneously in the past and the present.  One definition of this concept suggests that “we come to see our space shaped irrevocably by the colonial presence that created” (Haig-Brown, 2008) new nations.   I didn’t quite internalize how I applied this concept to my own experience, but at this moment, its reality is quite visible.  The colonial world in which I have lived has infiltrated the new nation where I currently reside. “Border worlds” captures the synchronicity of my unrecognizable hesitation to return and my elation to be back.  This disequilibrium for me is the constant reminder of how we all unconsciously illustrate our co-existence in yesterday and today.  And without recognizing ones role in the “progress” of new nations, I wonder: Is my life and work here helpful or is it part of the “problem”?   Are the forces around me too great to overcome?  Having such questions might be one of the reasons that I didn’t feel 100% fervent about being back.

Then, a day after returning, I stepped off the launcha in San Juan la Laguna and immediately, I felt settled again.  Greeted by welcoming faces of the youth with whom I work continuously inspires me.  They are enthusiastic and ready to learn and eager to question. My work at Unlocking Silent Histories is to provide opportunities for youth to question the relationship between their history and past in order to raise consciousness and to make informed decisions about their futures.  In essence it is to recognize the history of colonialism in order to create a more constructive future.  We all inhabit these “border worlds” and are in one way or another influenced by them.  It is how we see them, understand them, and enact them in our daily lives that can make all the difference.  I’m glad to be “home”.

We are back!

After a long hiatus from writing, we are back.  We needed some time to reflect and to set in motion the establishment of Unlocking Silent Histories as a non-profit!   Continue to follow us as we quickly move forward as Donna now has all her focus on the work here in Guatemala!