Climate change and its pivotal role in migration

Dear friends of Voces y Manos,

The New York Times recently reported that the number of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border in June 2021 was the largest in years, with border agents encountering migrants an astounding 188,289 times. The article cites the migration as being driven, in part, by “violence and poverty in Central America.” Yet, our experience at Voces y Manos has shown that the drivers of this migration are much more nuanced. We believe that there is a larger, virtually undiscussed, root cause of migration that has loomed for years: climate change.

In the past two weeks, Politico and National Geographic released timely articles highlighting the role that climate change has played in the migration crisis. In “A hunger crisis forces Guatemalans to choose: migration or death,” National Geographic highlights the high levels of malnutrition in the “dry corridor” of Guatemala, a region particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The article documents the plight of farmers who have experienced little to no rain in each of the previous six rainy seasons and the resulting effects extreme weather conditions have had on health outcomes and migration. Politico’s “It’s Not a Border Crisis. It’s a Climate Crisis,” highlights the fact that up to 15 percent of households in areas vulnerable to extreme climate events have experienced migration– and that number is expected to grow exponentially in coming years.

We at Voces y Manos have known this reality intimately for the better part of the last decade. The farming households that we work with in Rabinal– a community right in the middle of the dry corridor– have seen five of the last seven corn harvests fail due to drought. Daily, monsoon-like deluges during the rainy season that were common ten years ago are nearly nonexistent today. In Rabinal and the surrounding communities, our data collection efforts show that 27 percent of households have at least one family member who migrated in the previous year– nearly double the estimates highlighted in Politico’s article.

Through a recently awarded Rotary International Global Grant, Voces y Manos’ agricultural technicians are working hard to confront this reality. Our work, which will extend through 2023, aims to build resilience of farmers and their households to the effects of climate change. Since January, we’ve held over 20 workshops for 500 people in sustainable agricultural practices such as crop diversification, organic composting, and water conservation techniques. We’ve vaccinated tens of thousands of livestock and planted over 70,000 drought-resistant coffee plants and fruit trees. Our work will ensure that communities can mitigate the risk of climate change, have healthier outcomes, and a reduced need to migrate.

The recent and timely articles above demonstrate the interconnectedness of climate change and migration. The need is urgent and real, and will only worsen in coming years. Your past assistance and support to Voces y Manos has been pivotal, and we’re here to ask you again to give whatever you can to help us continue the great work on the ground. There’s a lot more to do, and we’re just getting started. 

With gratitude,

Armando, Jeni, Macario, Michael, Andrew, and Kimberly

Climate Change & the Line 3 pipeline

Dear friends, family and colleagues, 

From Friday July 30 – Saturday August 7, I will be participating in a human rights delegation to northern Minnesota to support Anishinaabe communities in protecting their lands and rivers from the Enbridge Company’s efforts to install the “Line 3” pipeline. I decided to join this delegation on a last-minute basis because I see this issue as vital to efforts to stop climate change. I also see it lying at the crux of other grave injustices we face, from police violence to racism to unchecked corporate power. Finally, these are the very issues that communities in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz have long faced — and that Voces y Manos has been working to address for the last decade.

If allowed to move forward, the Line3 pipeline will shuttle tar sands—the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet—from the Canadian oil fields in Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The net carbon output from this pipeline is estimated to be equivalent to that of 50 new coal-fired power plants. As we enter the fire season and face the dreaded new smoke-filled reality of life amid a rapidly changing climate, the prospect of releasing still more CO2 into the atmosphere is horrifying. 

Bad as the global implications are, the local impacts of this project are equally horrific: Embridge is currently drilling under the headlands of the Mississippi River, pristine areas where Anishinaabe peoples have cultivated wild rice for thousands of years. In the process, the company will use five billion gallons of water, drained from rivers and lakes that are already at dangerously low levels. Draining such an immense amount of water in the middle of a drought is unconscionable, especially because it puts in jeopardy the growing of wild rice, a practice vital to Anishinaabe’s livelihood and cultural survival. The work on the pipeline is also accompanied by the threat of  toxic spills: Embridge has already logged nine “frac-outs,” or underwater releases of toxic drilling fluid into pristine natural areas where wild rice is grown. 

Despite these grave impacts — on Anishnaabe ways of life, on the local ecology, and on our global ecosystem — the Biden administration has somehow allowed this project to move forward. Fast-tracked for approval under Trump, the pipeline never went through a complete environmental impact assessment. This means that there is no assurance that drilling activities are meeting established safety standards, nor are spills being adequately documented. In fact, the nine toxic spills recorded to date have only become known to the public thanks to the careful efforts of Indigenous leaders and volunteers. In the process of  collecting water samples, these individuals risk arrest for “trespassing” — a ludicrous charge given that Enbridge’s polluting activities take place on treaty-protected Anishinaabe land.

The parallels between the injustice unfolding in Minnesota and Voces y Manos’ work in Rabinal, Guatemala are inescapable. There, climate change imperils Mayan farmers’ ability to grow their traditional and sacred grains of corn and beans. And just as the assault on Anishinaabe people comes in the wake of hundreds of years of colonization, Mayan communities too have been rendered more vulnerable to climate change because of years of forced displacement carried out in service of Western-funded  “development” projects. The most striking example is what took place in Rio Negro — a community in Rabinal where Voces y Manos is currently working to provide scholarships and support climate change adaptation — between the years 1979-1982. There, Maya-Achí families were mercilessly slaughtered when they resisted the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would have flooded their community. While the dispossession occurring today in Minnesota is happening more through persuasion and manipulation than overt violent repression, the end goal remains the same: displace the Native communities so that unscrupulous companies can reap enormous profits off their land

It’s so painfully clear to us all — especially as we enter the fire season — that the age of massive climate disruptions has descended upon us and it’s only going to get worse. The Line 3 protesters have strengthened my conviction that addressing the climate crisis requires taking on the attendant crises of colonialism, racism, militarism, and unchecked corporate power. Enbridge’s activities in Minnesota represent the monstrous merger of all these injustices into one. Traveling to Minnesota to raise awareness about this issue felt absolutely necessary for me given the scale of the crisis, and consistent with Voces y Manos’ core commitments, albeit in a different context. 

If you have the time and resources, I’d like to invite you to take a few minutes to read about the Line 3 pipeline and to support efforts to block it from going through: 

— The definitive long form article on the Line 3 Pipeline is this piece, in the Intercept. The accompanying podcast is also excellent.  

Read excellent Op-Eds on Line 3 by Indigenous leader Winnona LaDuke and Bill McKibbin
—To make a contribution or to learn other ways to get involved, Visit: https://www.stopline3.org/

Team Retreat to Rio Negro

Below is the first in a series of short, weekly blogs to be written by the Voces y Manos team about our solidarity work with the Maya-Achí community in Guatemala. Writing from a community grappling with the acute shocks of climate change, poverty, and the attendant issue of forced migration, we are motivated to write these blogs because of the deep concern and interest so many of you have expressed in understanding and addressing root causes of these issues. We believe that the stories of people in Rabinal offer an important perspective not only on the impact of these conditions on daily life, but also on the unscrupulous role that the United States has played and continues to play in creating them.

Before sharing our first blog, let me briefly introduce you to the blog’s authors, the 9-person Voces y Manos team (read our bios here). We come from Berkeley, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Rabinal, Guatemala and are united by our shared commitments to justice and working in solidarity with communities experiencing the pernicious effects of poverty, discrimination and injustice. The blog below discusses one of the first activities we did together as a team: a retreat to Rio Negro, one of the communities of Rabinal that has tremendous historical significance as the site of one of the bloodiest massacres of the Guatemalan genocide (1960-1996). Rio Negro will be one of five participating communities in our climate change resiliency project.

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With no direct route to Rio Negro, our arrival involved a four-hour drive winding northward through the sinuous mountain roads of Alta Verapaz, crossing a heavily armed checkpoint to enter the Chixoy Dam facility, and then taking a 30-minute boat ride across the Chixoy reservoir. Upon docking, we were greeted by Don Julian, who at 67-years-old is spry and built like a marathon runner. He guides us to the beautiful, two-story wood cabin where we will spend the next three days. Looking out over the idyllic landscape, it is hard to believe that submerged under the waters of the reservoir are the homes and bones of hundreds of innocent people who were killed to make way for the dam.

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During the retreat we learned firsthand about the history of Rio Negro, and reflected on what this history means for the design of our climate change project. In 1975, thanks to substantial loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank (both largely funded by the United States), Guatemala’s National Institute of Electrification released plans to create the largest hydroelectric facility in the history of Guatemala on the Chixoy River. The Maya-Achí community of Rio Negro was one of 33 indigenous communities slated to be displaced by the proposed project, yet none were consulted in this fateful decision. Instead, the Guatemalan government created a so-called “model village,” later named Pacux, to house the forcibly displaced residents of Rio Negro. With virtually no land to grow crops or harvest firewood in this community of tightly packed houses (the so-called “model village,” common during Guatemalan military rule, was designed to facilitate maximum surveillance of indigenous communities), a great many families refused to leave Rio Negro.

Responding to the community’s resistance with shocking and overwhelming brutality, the Guatemalan military and paramilitary killed 444 people in a series of five massacres between the years 1980 and 1982. A great many children lost one or both of their parents. In the end, the community of Rio Negro was abandoned, and all survivors were forcibly relocated to Pacux.

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The Pocoxom mass grave in Rio Negro, where 70 women and 107 children were killed

In our conversations with Don Julian throughout the retreat, we learned that after more than a decade of living in Pacux, three families took the bold decision to re-establish the community of Rio Negro. Don Julian tells us the story:

One day, I went out to cut firewood for cooking. Because we had no land in Pacux, I had to chop wood on communal land. Then, a man approached and started swearing at me, asking what I was doing on the land, which he said was not for people from Pacux. I had to return home to my family empty-handed, with no way to cook our food. I cried in pain and frustration. It was then that I decided to return to the community of Rio Negro.

Don Julian and his family carried nothing more than several pots for cooking and plastic sheets for protection from the rain as they set out with the two other families on the 25-mile footpath to Rio Negro. Their first simple meals were cobbled together from the few edible plants in the region and fish from the reservoir. They slept beneath their plastic sheets.

Slowly, the families began to reestablish the community of Rio Negro. A parish provided them with aluminum roofing to construct more permanent homes. Eventually, the community advocated for and won its own school and health clinic. Seeing the resurgent potential of Rio Negro, more families made the decision to relocate there from Pacux. Today, Rio Negro is home to 19 families who support themselves by fishing, farming, weaving, and leading historical tours for visitors.

As we discovered through conversations with Don Julian and others in Rio Negro, the community continues to grapple with profound challenges. While they now have an elementary school, students must travel far outside the community if they wish to attend middle or high school. The health clinic is usually unstaffed and lacks basic supplies. And as climate change progresses, farmers are increasingly concerned about the impact that reduced and unpredictable rainfall is having on their ability to grow corn, beans, and squash. Yet Don Julian tells us he is happy to be back on the land where he was raised, and to be able to pass on to his children the cultural practices and ways of life that he learned from his parents and grandparents.

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Meeting with Don Julian

The visit to Rio Negro was a powerful reminder that climate change is not the first existential threat faced by this community. On our retreat, the Voces y Manos team came to the realization that the ways of life that have enabled Maya-Achí communities to survive genocide and colonization — tight-knit, harmonious relationships among community members and with the natural world — will be the very same elements of resiliency that enable them to face the challenges now posed by climate change. For those team members from the U.S., it was deeply disturbing to learn about our own implication in this horrific chapter of history. For the team as a whole, we left Rio Negro humbled and honored to be able to work in partnership with this extraordinary community and contribute in some small way its ongoing survival and resilience.

José Oswaldo López Toj’s incredible journey to becoming a teacher

By Jenifer Valey Gomez, Voces y Manos program coordinator; translated by Josh Hoerger and Michael Bakal

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José Oswaldo López Toj, age 21, is a recent graduate of Voces y Manos’ high school scholarship program, and one of two students in our college scholarship and internship program. Over the past 3 years, José has worked tirelessly to manage his work and his studies, while supporting his grandparents. José’s parents died at a young age, and his grandparents who raised him can no longer tend to their farm as they once did. As a teenager, José has thus had to take on the triple responsibilities of student, teacher, and family breadwinner. All along, he has found motivation in his dream of becoming a bilingual elementary school teacher. This year, and with the help of Voces y Manos, he took a huge step closer to achieving that dream.

This year — his third and final year of high school — was especially challenging as his high school, Rabinal’s teacher training academy known locally as “La Normal,” placed him in an apprentice teaching position where he was given responsibility for teaching an elementary school class. On mornings, José would teach his class of 20 children at the local school in his village, then rush home to prepare lunch for his grandparents. After lunch, he would change out of his teacher uniform and into his student uniform to attend classes at La Normal. Exhausted after a full day of teaching and studying, Jose would once again return home to prepare dinner for himself and his grandparents. After dark, José would work on his lesson plans for the following day, and finally, his own homework.

Weekends brought some rest from the grind of the week but also their own set of responsibilities: helping his grandparents tend to their chickens and the crops they grow on their small plot of land. To earn spending money for the week, José sells eggs to his neighbors. He also helps his grandparents sell peanuts, and, when they are in season, jocotes (a local citrus fruit), which he seasons with salt, lemon and chili and sells to his classmates before and after school.

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At times these multiple demands were so great that José considered dropping out of school to devote himself entirely to supporting his grandparents. It was in those moments that the Voces y Manos staff provided him with emotional support, encouraging him to continue with his studies, and also provided him a bit of extra cash to offset some of his expenses. Thanks to his constant efforts, the help of Voces y Manos, and ongoing encouragement of his grandparents, José was able to maintain excellent grades.

Not only was José able to graduate this past year, but he remarkably did so as the abanderado (literally the “flag carrier”), the top student in his class. To celebrate his achievements and thank Voces y Manos, José’s grandparents hosted an end-of-year lunch, to which they invited Voces y Manos staff and all its students. When we asked José about how Voces y Manos has helped him, José answered:

“Voces y Manos has given me the support to be all I can be and has been by my side throughout. You can’t give someone the world, but they have done that for me.”

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 José’s achievements would not have been possible without the support of Voces y Manos’ supporters. A monthly stipend of 200 Quetzales (about $30 per month) helped cover transportation expenses, teaching supplies, part of José’s own food, access to a computer, internet and printing. The recent completion of his education degree serves not only as a testament to the incredible dedication that José brings to his daily work but also highlights how even the most modest support opens new doors for those who dream of supporting their families and bettering their communities.

Now, José is completing a work-study internship through a partnership between Voces y Manos and another local NGO called Cáritas. The money José earns through his internship is allowing him to pursue his next dream: becoming a licensiado en pedagogía, or a credentialed, college-educated teacher.

Life Lessons from Genocide Survivors: The Story of the Tum Pérez Family

When I first travelled to Rabinal, Guatemala 10 years ago, I was so deeply inspired by the history of the community — and in particular its young people — that I’ve returned each of the past 10 summers since. This year, I once again had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of young leaders. Although all of Voces y Manos’ students live in the municipality of Rabinal and most speak the local Maya-Achí language, they live in different villages, and each of these villages has its own unique history. To explore these rich histories, we do an activity called Photovoice in which our students use digital cameras to identify and document the strengths they are most proud of in their communities.

I love this activity because it helps our students further develop a positive image of themselves and their Maya-Achí culture. On a more personal note, I’m always impressed by the depth of our students’ knowledge about their culture and inspired by the wisdom we learn from the families we meet.

This year, Voces y Manos’ summer intern Lindsey Moore and I had the remarkable opportunity to join Lizbeth Tum Pérez, an outgoing 15-year old in this year’s program, on a tour of her community of Pacux (prounounced Pah-Coosh). The highlight of the tour was when Lizbeth introduced us to her mother, Doña Anselma, an expert weaver whose life reflects her community’s resiliency in the face of an unimaginably violent past. As Doña Anselma showed us her artwork, she began to share her life story as well. Partway through our conversation, we were joined by her husband, Romualdo Tum Iboy, and through their intersecting stories, we learned how their humble town became the backdrop for a disturbing chapter in Guatemalan history.

Doña Anselma Perez

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Doña Anselma sits barefooted, with her legs extended on the floor. A small backstrap loom is wrapped around her waist as she speaks with us. She shows us a beautiful variety of weavings: brightly colored coin purposes, traditional fajas (belts worn by women) and bracelets. Doña Anselma explains that she learned to weave from her mother, and that her artwork was both a means of subsistence and of keeping alive a tradition passed down over generations.

Doña Anselma was born in a remote hamlet high in the mountains above Rabinal called Canchún, in the year 1981. This was an infamous period in Guatemalan history, and her village was near the epicenter of a human rights conflict of seismic proportions. Cachún is one of 30+ indigenous communities near the banks of the Chixoy River whose residents’ culture and way of life was deeply tied to the river. In the late 1970s, their lives were completely upended when the Guatemalan government announced plans to build a massive hypdroelectric dam that would flood and displace the communities along the river. Despite the fact that the dam project had been years in the making and involved hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign (largely U.S.) investment, the affected communities were never consulted nor given a chance to voice their concerns. When some residents refused to obey orders to relocate from their ancestral lands, the entire community was labeled subversive, terrorist, and an enemy of the state. To make way for the dam and to supress those who opposed it, the government and paramiltary forces mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of innocent people in Canchún and its neighboring villages.

Doña Anselma’s father was one of the victims of this campaign of mass terror and violence. Early one morning while her mother and siblings were out of the house, the military assassinated her father in front of their home. Doña Anselma explains that the reason she is alive today is that her mother, then nine months pregnant, was able to escape from the military by hiding in a dried river bed. It was there in hiding that she gave birth to Doña Anselma. I ask if anyone accompanied her mother at the time of her birth. “¡Nadie!” Doña Anselma replies, “Ninguna comadrona; solo mi hermano de nueve años estuvo allí.” (“Nobody! No midwife, only my brother, who was 9 years old was there.”)

“¡Nadie! Ninguna comadrona; solo mi hermano de nueve años estuvo allí.” (“Nobody! No midwife, only my brother, who was 9 years old was there.”)

Doña Anselma sheds tears as she recounts the difficulties of growing up without a father and in the wake of such mass trauma. She attended school for just one year before her mother took her and her four siblings to work on a sugarcane plantation on Guatemala’s southern coast. Conditions on the plantation were brutal. She and her mother were assigned to work as cooks, which meant waking each morning hours before dawn to make tortillas for the farmworkers’ 5:00 a.m. breakfast. Doña Anselma worked on the plantation from the time she was nine until she was thirteen years-old, when her family could no longer endure the harsh conditions and returned to Rabinal.

Upon her return, Doña Anselma did not reenter school — she had already missed too many years of schooling and her family depended on her for income. At age 15, she married Romualdo Tum Iboy, and at 16 she gave birth to her oldest daugther, Jandy Eunice, who is now 20 and studying to become an accountant.

Romualdo Tum Iboy

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Rain is pounding down on the aluminum roof overhead by the time Don Romueldo, Lizbeth’s father, begins to tell his story. His wife, Doña Anselma, and his mother look on, filling in pieces of the story as he tells it.

Don Romualdo was born in the village of Rio Negro in 1974. Rio Negro, just a few miles away from Canchún where Doña Anselma was born, sits immediately adjacent to the Chixoy river and is the community that was most gravely affected by the government’s repression of the Maya-Achí people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like his wife, he lost his father at a young age. On the morning of June 19, 1981, Don Romualdo’s father was assassinated when he was alone in his home. His father’s body was found later in the brush, “con guzanos comiendo sus piernas,” (with worms eating his legs,”) Don Romualdo recounts.

Years later, after the Guatemalan Truth Commission garnered funds for exhumations of the individuals killed in the massacres, Don Romualdo’s family attempted to identify his father’s remains. “We did a blood test,” Don Romualdo explains, “but we could not identify him.” This meant that his family was not able to provide their loved one a proper burial, and with it, gain a semblance of closure. Don Romualdo’s father was one of at least 440 individuals who lost their lives in the Rio Negro Massacres between 1979 and 1982. The survivors, including Don Romualdo, were forcibly relocated to Pacux, where most remain to this day.

Unlike his wife, who was too young to remember the violence of the massacres from first hand experience, Don Romualdo was old enough — seven or eight at the time — to vividly recollect three impossibly difficult years of his early childhood that he spent in hiding. He and his siblings survived eating whatever food they could find. “Tuvimos que comer cuero,” (“we had to eat the dried cow hides,”) Don Romualdo recalls. Don Romualdo explains that they ate this sustenance raw, because building a fire risked being spotted by the military.

Tuvimos que comer cuero,” (“we had to eat the dried cow hides,”)

Life after the war, once his family could finally come out out of hiding, brought new struggles. Unlike the abundant fish, wildlife, and fertile soil in Rio Negro, the so-called “model village” of Pacux consisted of densely packed houses and scant agricultural land. Families went from living in terror to living in extreme poverty. Don Romualdo recalls the sadness he felt as a child watching his mother struggle to provide for her family, and his embarrassment at lacking even basic clothing. With a forced chuckle that thinly masks his childhood shame, Don Romualdo tells a “funny story” about needing to wear women’s pants because that was all his mother could afford. “Ni siquiera tuve zapatos—” (“I didn’t even have shoes — ”) he says, and the attempted moment of levity turns to grief as his voice breaks off and he buries his head in his hands. I look over at Doña Anselma, whose eyes too are red with tears.

Lizbeth Tum Pérez

In light of her parents’ histories and their fierce commitment to their children’s education, it is no surprise that Lizbeth is not your average teenager. At 15, she is equally comfortable talking with adults or her peers. In class she is outgoing and thoughtful; her hand shoots quickly into the air in response to teachers’ question. She is quick to smile, and completely bilingual. I hear her speak both Spanish and Maya-Achí with her classmates, sometimes switching seamlessly between both languages. One also cannot help but notice she is quite thin.

When she was two years old, her parents became concerned about her poor health and low weight, so they brought Lisbeth to a large public hospital in Guatemala City. The doctors there diagnosed Lisbeth with a heart problem and promptly performed a successful surgery. They instructed Lizbeth’s parents that she was to refrain from heavy exercise, and to return for check-ups every year. But because they could not afford even annual trips to the capital, Lizbeth has not been able to go to a check-up at all in the past three years.

Lizbeth completed her first six years of school at the local primary school in Pacux, but by middle school, she and her family felt they needed to make a change. Her parents explained that school supplies were expensive; and, perhaps because of her physical limitations, her classmates made fun of her. At age 12, she started school at Fundación Nueva Esperanza, where costs were lower, and where Mayan students were allowed to wear their traditional guipil (traditional hand-woven blouse) and corte (traditional Mayan skirt). Lizbeth likes Nueva Esperanza because “nos enseñan de nuestra cultura,” (“they teach us about our culture,”) she says.

Earlier in week, Lizbeth and her classmates wrote “I am poems” in which they describe themselves, their family, and their culture. I ask Lizbeth if she would share a portion of her poem to include in this story. Characteristically, she launches right in:

 “Yo soy una jovencita orgullosa de su cultura; nombrada por sus padres. Tengo un sueño de ser una maestra; de seguir mis estudios; hasta donde pueda…

(“I am a young woman who is proud of her culture; who was named by her parents. I have a dream of being a teacher one day; of continuing my studies, as far as they will take me…)

Con el apoyo de nuestros padres, todos tenemos la capacidad de seguir adelante en nuestras vidas. Aunque nuestros padres no tengas los medios, hacen lo que pueden, y debemos de ser agradecidos.

(“With the help of our parents, we all have the ability to get ahead in our lives. Even though our parents may not have the means, they do what they are able, and we should be grateful to them.)

“Burlan de nuestra traje, pero debemos de ser orgullosas de quienes somos. Podemos aprender de nuestros padres lo que ellos han aprendido de sus padres. Debemos de ser orgullosas de nuestra cultura Rabinalense.”  

(“They laugh at our indigenous clothing, but we should be proud of who we are. We can learn from our parents the things they have learned from their parents. We must be proud of our Rabinal culture.”)

Lizbeth smiles off-handedly, without the slightest trace of embarrassment at having just revealed so much about her life and her identity. Though they say nothing, the twinkle in her parents’ eyes belies how proud they are of their daughter.

By now, the pounding rain has subsided, and we begin to wrap up our conversation. Before Lindsey and I leave, both Doña Anselma and Don Romualdo conclude their heart-wrenching stories by saying that they find hope in her children. Although she was unable to experience a joyful childhood or attend school herself, Doña Anselma says she is gratified that each day her children have food to eat and the opportunity to go to school. Don Romualdo, too, is very proud to be able to send each of his children to school. They may not have been able to do it themselves, he says, but they can at least make sure that their children have a more promising future than they did.

Bringing it home

Having worked with young leaders like Lizbeth over the years, I agree with her parents that young people like Lizbeth are indeed an enormous source of hope. Lizbeth will likely go on to become a teacher, inspiring and educating hundreds of children in her community, who will in turn touch the lives of countless more. Yet without access to basic health and education, Lizbeth’s life would have been radically different. Without a scholarship, Lizbeth easily could have been forced to subsist on meager earnings from work in seasonal labor or the informal sector. Had she not had access to medical care when she was a baby, she may not be alive today. The line separating a life of purpose and meaning from one of abject poverty — even death — is precariously narrow. Sometimes, the difference is a matter of luck; but more often it is a matter of political will, conscious decision, and how far we are willing to extend what john powell calls the circle of human concern.

Voces y Manos is so committed to providing scholarships to young people in Rabinal because we know that the small amounts of assistance can make an enormous difference in shaping a young person’s life. Every person has immeasurable value, and education fuels a series of virtuous cycles that can lift entire families out of poverty. Yet the harsh reality is that for every young person like Lizbeth who is is able to reap the benefits of education, there are many more young people in Guatemala and throughout the world who are denied the opportunity to realize their full potential. This means it’s not enough to help young people beat the odds; we need to change the odds. That’s the reason why Voces y Manos trains young people in advocacy and leadership so that they can participate in the democratic process. By doing so, they will be better equipped to create policies and practices that improve conditions in their communities that for too long have been oppressed and abandoned.

Those of us living in the United States have an important role to play as well. For years, the U.S. has allocated less than 1% of its federal budget to international aid, among the lowest of high-income countries. Yet now, the Trump Administration has proposed a 31% cut to to an international aid budget that was already woefully inadequate. This makes it urgent for our elected officials to hear from us. Partner’s in Health, a renowned international health NGO, has started a petition to urge elected officials to reject any budget that would include cuts to international assistance. In light of the U.S. role in enabling the violence that killed both of Lizbeth’s grandfathers, international assistance is not a matter of generosity, but rather of obligation. By signing the petition, sharing it, and calling our elected representatives to encourage them to safeguard international assistance in our federal budget, we can join with thousands of others in encouraging our government not to turn their backs on the world’s poor.

In recent times, as social change has felt increasingly daunting, I’ve tried to remind myself that for people like Doña Anselma and Don Romueldo, hard times are nothing new. As Lizbeth’s poem so poignantly conveys, we have much to learn from their strength, wisdom, and lived example. Despite surviving some of the most challenging and dehumanizing conditions a person can experience, Lizbeth’s parents never stopped struggling for a better future. Their story is an invitation to us all to remember that the human capacity for resiliency is vast, and that the future is not predetermined, but unfolding with each action we take.

 

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A softening of edges

With my last day (tomorrow) looming large in front of me, I am left with a whole lot to contemplate (well, more than usual – I’m a thinker and my mind is constantly moving). For those of you wondering, despite my witty and lighthearted blog posts (you’re welcome), I’m not going to lie and say this experience as a volunteer was easy. Because it wasn’t; it was difficult. Really, really difficult.

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But, this experience was also really, really beautiful. Volunteering with Voces y Manos pushed me far past the thick, black line marking the edge of my comfort zone. Here in Rabinal, I had access to a wider range of emotions than normally available to me in my familiar home of New Jersey.

I felt joy collecting mangos from the trees with my host sisters, and embarrassed when I ate a mango and threw up (three times) on the side of the road. 

I felt stupid when I couldn’t follow a stream of conversation or clearly express my ideas in Spanish, and accomplished when I relaxed enough to communicate meaningfully (grammar be damned).

I felt tranquil listening to the wind rustle through trees at the Fundación School while surrounded by mountains, and hopeless seeing the Fundación’s milpa plants wilted and dead due to lack of water.

I felt accepted by the community when the Chiticoy bus drivers knew to point the “Canchita” (white girl) in the direction of the correct bus, and ashamed when “Canchita” was used as a cat call instead.

I felt giddy every time I bought and finished a pound (or two) of fresh strawberries. There’s no negative side to this, I freakin’ love strawberries.

I felt loved every time my host mom bought me apples from the market because she knew I liked them, and guilty when she heated water for my baths in the mornings and not for my host sisters.

I felt frustrated by the call of the rooster at 3:00, 4:00, and 5:00 am that I never quite grew accustomed to, and tenderness when the family cat crawled under the covers with me in the morning.

I felt loved when my host sisters laughed at my inability to eat oranges without spraying juice on myself, and irresponsible for eating all of the oranges on the property.

I felt incapable of intuiting social cues in larger groups due to language and cultural differences, and pride every time a stranger asked me if I worked at the Fundación and they beamed in gratefulness when I told them I did.

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In sum: I’ve felt a whole lot over my short six weeks here.

I think what happened, really, is that what I’ve accomplished here has been a lot more subtle than crossed-off projects on long lists. More than anything, what I’ve accomplished is a softening at the edges, a personal shift I’m not sure that I completely understand yet.

I arrived in Rabinal thinking I was prepared for this volunteer experience. I wasn’t. But really, how could I have prepared myself? And (fellow thinkers, here’s a contemplation-worthy question), would I have wanted to be prepared for the breadth of beautiful and difficult experiences that Rabinal offered me? The greatest gift is that the intensity of these emotions, these experiences, surprised me in their depth of meaning and power to alter; they surprised me into shifting and growing.   

Thank you, Rabinal and Voces y Manos, for all that you’ve offered me this summer. These experiences will stick with me long after I leave, continuing to soften edges that I didn’t know were there. 

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How I learned the definition of tejido

I am completely captivated by the rich Mayan culture in Rabinal. Look, my own family has been in the United States for at least three generations, if not more: our traditions consist of turkey on Thanksgiving and presents on Christmas. So when we discussed the importance of interculturality in Voces y Manos’ leadership classes, I couldn’t wrap my head around what culture meant to these students. What was it like to feel so deeply connected to your community that you identify yourself as someone from the “Chiticoy” neighborhood, rather than the larger city of Rabinal? What traditions did parents teach these students that they eventually wanted to teach their own children? And how, exactly, do these students keep the Mayan culture alive?

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Well, given the freedom here at the Voces y Manos office to develop our own projects (thanks, Michael!), I decided I wanted to learn more. Armed with my iPhone camera and a desire to immerse myself in the Mayan culture, if only for fifteen minute interviews, I embarked on a journey to several students’ houses to ask them about their Mayan crafts.  

Ok, so my first visit wasn’t as much of a journey as it was a 30 second stroll down the street, but I haven’t left Rabinal in a month and I’ll take what I can get.

My first visit was with Sheyli, a Voces y Manos scholarship student with the brightest smile I know. After arriving at her house, the first thing she did was smile (and laugh at me a bit) while teaching me the Spanish word for a weaving: tejido. As Spanish words tend to do, it immediately left my brain. But, I must say, the loom Sheyli and her mother pulled from a nearby closet put the word right back in there: how could I forget what tejido meant after seeing something so beautiful and grand? The process of setting up the loom, attaching strings to a tree and wrapping Sheyli in strings at the opposite end, seemed both an intricate and natural process for mother and daughter.

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Sheyli began explaining the weaving process, of which I understood little (see above for an illustration of my weak weaving vocabulary). But it didn’t matter how much I understood: I was captivated by how deftly Sheyli slid the chocol (had to look at my video to remember that word – some words really don’t stick) between the white, tautly stretched strings. Row by row, Sheyli added to her creation. As she weaved, her mother proudly displayed Sheyli’s first weaving, placing it on top of her current one for comparison. As beautiful as the first one was, her current one was even more detailed and precise.

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Struck by the beauty of the process, the only word that I could say was increible, incredible, over and over again. But what was most beautiful about the visit was the obvious pride of these women for their craft, for their culture. Sheyli explained that although she frequently had a lot of homework, she tried to remain committed to weaving twice a week, row by row by row.

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Well, I have to say that I left Sheyli’s house with a full heart, and camera. This afternoon I interview a second student; to say I’m excited is an understatement. Check back in a few days for a post on my next Mayan cultural adventure!

What do candles, sesame seeds, and soda have in common?

Answer: They were all a part of the Mayan Kaj’yup ceremony that took place among ancient ruins on a hill overlooking the city of Rabinal.

Curious how they’re used? 

I certainly was when I saw the Voces y Manos youth, both new groups students and old, carrying bags of these mundane items to the site of the Mayan ceremony.

Our trip began in Rabinal’s central park, where Voces y Manos students, interns, and volunteers congregated before beginning what I like to call subiendo-ing (with subiendo translating to “going up”). This means we climbed up a very, very steep hill for an hour before reaching the ancient Mayan ruins where the ceremony was to be held. Although we began the trip early (7 am!), I had to remove my glasses halfway through the climb because I was sweaty enough that they wouldn’t stay on my face – and I can’t say the students and my fellow volunteers were in any better shape. The immense amount of sweat pouring down my body had me questioning the worthwhileness of this uphill climb until I put my glasses back on and saw this view of Rabinal:

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All I could think was: wow.

After pausing to gulp down half my bottle of water, myself and the rest of the group continued subiendo-ing up a few more stairs to the Mayan ruins. And with that, we were ready to begin the ceremony.

The leader began with a brief history: we learned that Kaj’yup is one of the most sacred and historical sites of the Achí people, who live in Rabinal and its surrounding areas. According to tradition, Kaj’yup was the site of the Achí prince Rabinal-Achí, who continues to act as a guardian spirit over the people of Rabinal. 

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The ceremony itself centered around a homemade fire pit made of wood, bread, and what looked to me like balls of chocolate mousse covered in coconut (can you tell I hadn’t eaten much breakfast?). That still didn’t explain, however, the soda and candles that were arranged to form four corners of a diamond shape.

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The leader explained that these represented the four cardinal directions, which are immensely important in Mayan tradition. Ok, so what about the soda? Well, they represented blood, earth, bones, and water (though, as the latter was easier to obtain than blood and bones, the leader used a bottle of real water).

And with those explanations, the ceremony began! Although I can’t claim to have understood most of it because my Achí is a little rusty (aka, non-existent), the ceremony involved burning candles, sprinkling sesame seeds counterclockwise around the fire, and facing the four cardinal directions during certain key moments during the ceremony (though again, can’t claim to have understood those key moments exactly).

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Upon conclusion of the ceremony, the older students chatted with Voces y Manos leader Miguel (Michael, for those non-Spanish speakers out there) while the younger group began cutting fruits I could only describe as massively humongous. After snacking, we began bajando-ing (going down), which turned out to be significantly easier than our uphill climb that morning. All in all, the ceremony was an early yet beautiful and interesting start to my second Sunday in Rabinal, and provided the students new and old with valuable bonding time. 

Meet our newest volunteer, Sarah!

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Sarah Lewis is from New Jersey and a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in Psychology and minor in Public Health. She intends to pursue an advanced degree in Public Health (eventually), but meanwhile she’s volunteering with Voces y Manos! Get to know her below.  

What inspired you to work in Guatemala, and specifically with Voces y Manos? I am very passionate about global social justice and public health issues and intend to study these issues in the future. I also have previous volunteer experience in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. I worked with an amazing organization in Nicaragua called Outreach360, so I searched for another organization with similar values. I loved that Voces y Manos supports youth in creating their own projects, rather than sending in volunteers to create projects. No one knows the community better than a member of the community themselves.

How did you get involved with Voces y Manos? I searched “public health internships Guatemala” on Google and went immediately to the sixth or seventh page – I wanted to work with a smaller, yet well-established organization. I found Voces y Manos’ website and loved their values and type of work. I applied, and now here I am!

What do you do when you’re not volunteering? I am obsessed with yoga! I’ve been practicing for the past five years and teaching for three. If you can’t find me, I’m probably in a handstand somewhere. I also enjoy reading and writing.

What’s next after Voces y Manos? After spending a week home in New Jersey, I will be traveling to Chile to teach English with the government-run program English Opens Doors until the end of November. I also applied to the Peace Corps and, if all goes well, would be leaving next February for the Dominican Republic as a literacy volunteer. If not, I’ll see where life takes me.  

What would you tell someone who’s thinking about volunteering abroad? Do your research! There are a lot of organizations out there, and they vary in quality. First, identify your own values. If you don’t know much about international non-profit organizations, read about them! Here’s a great place to start. I also recommend the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Carol WuDunn. Then – this is the research part – find an organization that matches those values and holds themselves accountable for their work. Great organizations can be tough to find, but it’s important if you really want to make an impact with your work. Once you’ve chosen an organization, go for it!! Traveling abroad can seem scary, but it’s rewarding and transformative. And once you travel abroad, go with the flow. Life as a volunteer abroad is anything but predictable.

 

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Manuel Osorio: A leader in Rabinal

In January, 2016 a new group of Voces y Manos students eagerly began internships with local host agencies. The internship placements give students an opportunity to gain professional experience, while earning money to pay for university tuition.

The reflection below is written by Manuel Osorio Ixpatá, a graduate of Voces y Manos high school scholarship program who is currently completing a Voces y Manos-sponsored internship placement with a local NGO, Cáritas (Charity, in Latin)Through his internship placement, Manuel is giving back to his community by introducing sustainable agriculture techniques that allow rural farmers to better to provide for their families. As his reflection below shows, Manuel is quickly becoming a true leader in his community.

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Manuel’s reflection

I am Manuel Osorio Ixpata, and I am a Rural Wellbeing and Community Development Professional. I recently started in Voces y Manos’ internship program, and I feel fortunate (and a bit nervous) to take on this new responsibility.

I am working with an institutional named “Cáritas” on their food sovereignty program.

On this project, they assigned me to the role of “field technician”, which includes administrative responsibilities and field work.

At the start of the year, I wrote an annual operational report, and I then began implementing activities related to food production. I deliver five training modules on agricultural techniques during the first half of the year, followed by technical assistance to more than 120 families in six communities in the community of Cubulco (neighbor of Rabinal). Some of the highlights of my experience so far include:

  • In my workplace, my co-workers treat me as a fundamental part of the institution, and not like an intern.
  • I am given large responsibilities.
  • I can count on support from other members of my institution.
  • I speak the Maya-Achí language, which allows me to communicate directly with the population in the communities where we work.

These are some pictures of my work!

 

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