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”.

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