Thursday, April 1, 2010

Back in the U.S. (s.r.) by Harmony Pringle

Deplaning into the Georgia airport gave me a sense of familiarity, but also one of dread. I turned on my cell phone after 4 weeks of disuse and nervously anticipated the calls to come. “How was Mexico? What did you learn?”
During the wrap-up session at the end of the travel seminar, we role-played how to talk with people about our trip. We confronted our teachers in the forms of an apathetic friend, a sympathetic relative, a staunchly capitalist economics professor. After all, what good was our new knowledge, or our deeper analysis, if we couldn’t share it with people back home?
I’ve had varying luck with these encounters this break. When people casually ask, “Hey, how was your trip?” it’s easy to get worked up, to spew out a bitter history of “development” policies – IFI’s, SAP’s, FTA’s. I left various friends looking shell-shocked and overwhelmed by acronyms. I may have brought the stories to Ohio, to California, but I hadn’t brought them home.
After all, communication isn’t about talking at people, but talking with people, opening ourselves up to learn from their experiences, just as we hope they’ll learn from ours. The Zapatistas represent this type of true communication with the caracol, the snail. The words come from your heart, and spiral outward. English draws the same metaphors – “speaking from the heart,” and taking things that others say “to heart.” Imagining the stories we heard in Mexico and Guatemala physically connected to me, helps remind me that they are connected to me, and to all of us. When we share these stories, remembering that connection, we help the other person find their part in it.
At the San Diego airport, waiting to check-in for my flight back to Tucson, the woman in line next to me asked what I was studying. I answered, "border policy, immigration issues," but didn't launch into a seven-minute spiel. I waited for her to ask questions. I wanted to respond to her particular doubts about borders walls and national security. I wanted to talk with her.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Farewell travel seminar (Leif Johnson)

Now, after almost exactly a month of near-constant travelling, we´ve reached the end of the travel seminar. A month ago, we flew into Guatemala, and most of us were immediately shocked by the climate, the culture, and the fact that we were very definitely not in the United States anymore. Now, most of us are headed back, and everyone is going their separate ways for a week or so. Some are headed back to their schools for a reverse on the normal spring break trip, others are going back to Tucson, I am staying in Mexico, and someone else is going back to Guatemala. Regardless, we are all going with very different ideas in our heads than when we came. Speaking for myself, there is also a drive to do serious work when we return to Tucson in a little more than a week. Our last days in Oaxaca have been aimed largely at that goal, and we have had long and useful discussions about what we are taking away from this trip and what we want to do with that knowledge. Through the past weeks we have seen a lot of impacts of US policy that have driven people off of their land and towards the border, met those very migrants and felt the need that propels them forward, and worried as we learned more and more about how difficult their path is. But, even more than that, we´ve seen people who are working to change that system, and been asked to carry on their work in the United States, either as portavoces (voice-carriers) or by doing our own work in our own places our own ways. I think we all have very different ideas of what that means, but I think that´s something that a lot of us are ready to figure out, both over the next month and over a much longer time. From here, we´ll see where we go.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Oventik (Mary Hewey)

On March 7th we took a trip to Oventik, the Zapatista community, or Caracol. In Spanish caracol means snail or the pattern seen on a snail’s shell. In the Mayan culture, the caracol represents truth and words spoken from the heart.
We arrived in the late morning. We parked outside the gates and waited until a woman came forward, wearing the Zapatista’s infamous pasamontañas (balaclava). Earlier Julio Cesar, our driver and group-appointed guru, told us: Nos cubrimos para descubrir (We cover ourselves to be discovered). He told us that the Zapatistas used these masks as a way to draw attention to the indigenous people. And it really does draw you in. I felt almost a bit nervous as we waited for the woman to tell us whether we could enter or not. We had to hand in our passports so that they could be sure we weren’t working for the government. It was almost like in the airport, where you often feel nervous during the security check even though you aren’t carrying anything illegal onto the plane. Luckily, after a few minutes we were allowed in.
First, we met with the Junta de Buen Gobierno, the group of community leaders in Oventik. All members of the Caracol must participate in the Junta at some point so they members of the Junta are constantly rotating. As a group we wrote down a list of about ten questions, and then handed them in to the Junta so they could discuss them as a group before speaking with us. After about fifteen minutes, we were allowed to enter into the building where the Junta was meeting. All members of the Junta were wearing pasamontañas or a red bandana wrapped around their face and it was about 50/50 men and women. During our meeting, the members of Oventik`s Junta provided us with answers to our many questions, but I don’t think there is anyway to fit it all into one blog entry. So, I’ll outline some of the main topics which we discussed.
First off, we all wanted to know what it really meant to be a Zapatista. We were told about the main ideals of Zapatismo, autonomy and resistance, and their goal to create another world, namely the caracoles. The Zapatistas speak with, not for, the indigenous people, the campesinos, and the pueblo. They also emphasized the fact that the Caracol is a substance-free community. Also, members cannot have any connection to narcotics or human trafficking. The Caracol is a place where everyone works together as a unit in order to sustain their way of life.
Migration was, of course, another main topic of discussion with the Junta. Migration is not permitted in Oventik. The Junta told us that while short trips (a few days or a week) outside of the Caracol are acceptable, anything beyond that is deeply frowned upon. They told us that once a Zapatista is away from his or her community for so long, he loses the principles of Zapatismo and takes up new ones, which often go against those found in the community. Members who leave could bring back dangerous behaviors, like the consumption of alcohol or drugs, as well as dangerous values, like consumerism or capitalism. They lose la semilla, the seed and origin, of their identity.
In one of our final questions, we asked what they would like us to do, how we could support their work in the Caracol. They told us that we should be a portavoz (spokesperson) for Zapatismo. So I hope in some little way we are doing just that right now by sharing this blog with, well, whoever reads this!
After our meeting with the Junta, we had lunch and then toured the community. We saw the weaving cooperatives, the school, and the free hospital. All the buildings were covered with murals. Some had paintings of Che Guevara or Emilio Zapata, some had paintings of Zapatistas, and others just had designs or Mayan symbols. They were all brightly colored and truly beautiful.
At the end of our visit, Julio Cesar provided us with yet another beautiful quote, which I believe has stayed in the back of all our minds. So, I think it’s best to end with that very quote:

Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas
They wanted to bury us, but they forgot that we are seeds.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Acteal (Jess Himelfarb)

Yesterday we visited Acteal, a significant site to those fighting for indigenous rights. Tensions between the Mexican government and groups such as the Zapatistas and Las Abejas (bees) had been growing for several years. The Zapatistas and Las Abejas recognized their common struggle for peace, justice, and dignity for indigenous communities, although Las Abejas are a faith-based organization that reject the use of arms. On December 22, 1997, paramilitary forces (trained in the United States) surrounded a small church in Acteal where many people, mostly women and children, were praying. They opened fire, killing 45 people in a massacre that lasted several hours. The two truckloads of policemen nearby did nothing to stop the attack. In the van ride to Acteal, I attempted to prepare myself mentally for what I assumed would be a very sad and difficult visit. I was surprised to see, upon our arrival, a long line of men, women, and children smiling and marching proudly towards the church. We came on a particularly special day--El Dia de Las Mujeres--and there was a special march and mass in honor of the women. Most of us got out of the van to march. People were carrying flowers and banners saying "Vive Las Abejas." It was a much more festive scene than I was expecting. We went down several steps to an outdoor platform where the mass was just beginning. Many people were dressed in their traditional garb--the men in white gowns and hats with colorful ribbons and the women in woven skirts and ribbons in their braided hair. The mass took several hours and was conducted in Tsotsil and Spanish. It was a beautiful ceremony with singing and music and speeches.
Acteal 2009

After lunch we met with the Mesa Directiva of Las Abejas to talk with them about the organization. They told us their history, the make up of the organization, their view of immigration, and their goals of today. Then they led us to the church where the massacre occurred and to the memorial of those who died. Being in these places made me feel sad until the man who was explaining the significance of the memorial said that he is not sad because he knows that those who died are together in the house of God. I think that Las Abejas view the massacre as a terrible event but that instead of dwelling on the hurt of those deaths, they see the massacre as a seed--a moment of growth and strength. This makes me think of something our wonderful driver, Julio Cesar, said: "Quisieron enterarnos, pero se los olvido que somos semillas" (They tried to bury us but forgot that we are seeds). In response to the attacks, Las Abejas declare: "It is time to harvest, time to construct!"
The students in Guatemala

Monday, March 8, 2010

San Caralampio (Mary Jeanne Harwood)

Students from 2009 in San Caralampio

San Caralampio is a small farming town in Mexican state of Chiapas, which shares a border with Guatemala. There, we were welcomed so warmly to the houses of three farming families. I was overwhelmed with their graciousness and hospitality, cooking us wonderful meals (and yummy elotes), giving us the tour of their farm lands, taking us swimming, and sharing all their thoughts and frustrations and joys. I was struck by the parents' love of their tradition, and as Sam called it, a quite confidence in their family and land. They all seem so aware of how economic politics has played out, and the implications for their land, people, and migration, which was both devastating and inspiring. They have been heavily impacted by NAFTA, and other economic regulation from the US and Mexico. The now have to sell their products mostly in Guatemala, still operate on government owned land, and are steadily in the Monsanto seed cycle. All these have robbed them of their independence and control of their own products and land. Even though we always struggle with the feeling of immediate helplessness and guilt, here in San Caralampio, I felt that listening to their stories, giving them to space to share their thoughts, was so important. This passage Berit shared with us, from Rilke's plea in "Letters to a young poet" resonated with me, "have patience with everything unresolved in your heart... don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not love them, and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Before we left, we extended warm thanks and hugs from both sides. We all left feeling a part of this community. From all our travels, I felt the strongest sense of solidarity with this community, a sense of responsibility, and a desire to return again. As Riley pointed out in one of our group discussions, over and over we heard one of the fathers say "caminando juntos", we walk together.

Tapachula, Chiapas (Berit Engstrom)

Casa Belen Casa Belen is a migrant shelter just outside of Tapachula, a city just north of the Guatemala\Mexico border. It is part of a larger network of shelters throughout Mexico, Latin America, and the world. Padre Flor, the resident priest , has been working there for 12 years. We had the chance to meet with him a number of times, as well as eat and talk with many of the migratns who were staying there.

When asked what we could do on a human level in the United States to work towards justice for migrants, Padre Flor paused, closed his eyes for a moment and then responded. ´´ A smile, the extension of a hand can be given by everyone. Listening to someone´s story --immediately communicates to them that you are interested---bridging gaps and breaking walls.´´

This happened here at the shelter yesterday in a most unusual circumstance. One of the migrants approached Mary, and pointing towards me, asked what my name was. She responded ´´Ana,´´ which is what I have been going by during our travels. Hearing that, he turned to me, and asked if I had been to NIcaragua. I responded that yes, I had been to NIcaragua many years ago. Then he looked at me, and asked if I remembered him, Denis, from El Tule. El Tule was the small community( of a couple hundred people) in the highlands of NIcaragua where I had lived and volunteered for 6 weeks building stoves with Amigos de Las Americas 5 summers ago. The hours that followed left me with a mixture of disbelief and awe. Questions filled my mind, and I wondered how the path of one human life can be so drastically different so unbalanced, compared to another. He shared his story of trying to cross into the United States, of losing his wife to another man while working in Costa Rica , and of the uncertainty his future held. I thought of my own life during this past five years, and of all the varied and wonderful experiences I have had , the new people I have meet, and the new ideas I have been lucky enough to be exposed to.

Despite the hugely different life experiences that Denis and I have had, I tried to keep Padre Flor´s words in mind. Perhaps what I could give---a smile, the extension of a hand, and an open heart and mind were enough. At the very least, they were a beginning , a beginning of an exchange and understanding that will hoefully grow and become an exchange and understanding on a much larger level.

Buen Pastor

A shelter for migrants who have been injured and lost limbs from traveling on the train. Also, a place others who need medical attention can come without having to pay.

After getting a formal tour of the place, and hearing the opinions held by the two men who worked there full time, we had the chance to talk with some of the men who were staying at the shelter.

One of the elderly men who was there recovering from surgery, and not because of an accident on the train. When I introduced myself, he slipped in his false teeth and began to sing. After that we had began and exchange of songs. He would sing, and then some of us would chose a song, and sing something back for him. It was that way for a number songs---a reminder of the simple joys that can sustain our minds, when our bodies fail us.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Santa Anita

Santa Anita was one of the most interesting and welcoming communities we have visited, in my opinion. The community is largely made up of ex-guerrillas of the URNG who decided, after the war, to create an autonomous community. Santa Anita survives economically by selling organic coffee and bananas on land that they work themselves. The community bought the land, although they are still trying to pay off the loan, and has built schools and a health center. All of the buildings are painted with colorful murals that they use to teach the youth the history of Guatemala, the URNG, and the importance of the land.

We walked through the coffee and banana plantation to a lovely waterfall and enjoyed relaxing and cooling off. It was so nice to see the beautiful environment and to recognize how important the land is to this community.

In the evening we had the opportunity to speak with a community member named Marconi. Marconi is an ex-guerrilla who fought in the mountains for four years. He spent another eleven years helping to organize during the 36 year war. I asked him about his experience in the mountains, to which he replied that it was very, very difficult. He said it rained constantly and they were always soaked, tired, and hungry. The most difficult part, to him, was to see a compañero fall at his side. But, he said they knew it was war and they were mentally prepared because they were fighting for something they believe so strongly in.

Throughout our talk with Marconi, what moved me most was Marconi´s demeanor. For him to have fought so hard and suffered so much and still be sitting here and speaking to us with such a a gentle and kind spirit is just amazing. He still holds hope that one day he will own his land and be free of the debt and that his children will not have to struggle like he did.