Goodbye Guate Introduction

Tomorrow, April 28, 2015 will mark 100 days left in my service. In the coming weeks I will focus on finishing up my activities and leaving appropriate documentation for others to read about the successes and lessons learned during my service in Comalapa.

As a way to reflect on the things I appreciate and will miss the most about Guatemala, I present to you the Goodbye Guate blog series. Each day I will post about one aspect of Guatemala I love and wish to share with you. It is my hope to awaken your curiosity about the land of the eternal spring. By the time we reach #1, I will have completed 27 months of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Be sure to check back tomorrow to kick-off T-minus 100 days!

If you’re curious about my final days in the States leading up to my arrival in Guatemala, check out the “Countdown to Quetzales” series.

Lt. Colonel Weikuo Lee, MD

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy grandfather was a great man who died quietly in his sleep last night. Serving as an imperial guard for the last emperor of Manchuria, Weikuo Lee withstood the Japanese invasion of China. After WWII, he fought for an open and democratic society alongside Chang Kai-shek. Being unable to defeat communist forces on mainland China, my grandfather fled for his life to the island of Taiwan and worked to establish the Republic of China where free speech and entrepreneurial spirit are taught and encouraged from a young age. His family, unable to escape the mainland, was captured and tortured by the communist party.

At the request of the Taiwanese government, Ucone traveled to the United States where he studied medicine at NYU and Harvard. Deciding to remain in the States, he sent for his family and enlisted in the US Army as a doctor. During his service, Ucone** achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and managed hospitals where wounded servicemen and women would arrive to recover. Drawing upon his Chinese identity, Ucone was weary of using drugs and chemicals to promote health. Weikuo Lee became a leader in pioneering the sciences of chiropractic and rehabilitation medicine.

Lieutenant Colonel Weikuo Lee, MD was honorably discharged from the Army as he grew older, though he didn’t fully retire until his 70s, when his first grandchildren were born. Then he took up all kinds of hobbies, oil painting, model trains, making myriad rather complex things like clocks out of rubbish, jogging, bird-watching, and being a really cool grandpa.

My grandfather inspired me to do many things. His collection of coins from all over the world, including from before common era, sparked a curiosity within me that burns brightly to this day. I want to know about everything and he was the perfect man to foment that insatiable yearning for knowledge and achievement.

Colonel, Doctor, Professor, Chinese-American, father, grandfather, Weikuo Lee passed away in his sleep, in his home last night. April 15, 2015. He was 91.

** Ucone” is how I said wai(4) gong(1) (maternal grandfather) as a child. It’s stuck as an adult.

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The racially diverse emoticon: A divisive rift rather than an inclusive gesture

With Apple’s recent announcement of racially inclusive emoticons, some users rejoiced over their digitalized emotional caricature having a similar skin tone. Meanwhile others with more malicious intent have begun to use these emoticons for more nefarious purposes such as slurs and other racially-charged liable. I argue that these new emoticons serve- not to remind us that we have the same feelings- but rather to divide us based on the color of our skin.

The company should’ve never made race a question, making the emojis raceless with yellow faces and leaving it at that.

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photo: WaPo

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Yellow. Have you ever seen a (healthy) yellow person? I don’t mean my mom and grandparents from Taiwan, I mean actually yellow. You haven’t because among healthy human beings there is no such thing. The “classic” yellow emoji represents the corresponding feeling being communicated and doesn’t give much deference to skin color- usually unimportant in body language communication.

photo: USA Today

photo: USA Today

The company should’ve never made race a question, making the emojis raceless with yellow faces and leaving it at that,” writes Paige Tutt in The Washington PostRather than focusing on the purpose of an emoticon- to convey nonverbal expressions, thoughts, or feelings- the consideration of skin tone reminds us that even our emotions have skin color. The new emoji underscore the notion black, Asian, and white people can’t feel the same things nor share the same emotional landscape.

The friends I didn’t know I had

“Ma’m, the programs that I offer through the Peace Corps are more aptly suited for adolescents,” I explained to Seño Virginia.

Since joining the Peace Corps and moving to Guatemala, I have struggled to understand the full scope and purpose of my project. Ambiguously named “Youth in Development” (YiD), the project encompasses a wide array of disconnected themes such as leadership, HIV education, self-esteem, cross-generational communication, and institutional development.

“Cyrus, he works with the kids,” is something that can all too-often be heard slung around town. Yes, I do sometimes play with other people’s juvenile offspring, but the focus of the YiD project in Guatemala is on teenagers aged 14 and up.

As I explained to Seño Virginia why I wouldn’t be very effective managing, let alone teaching, a room full of four-year-olds, I saw her face fall. Thinking to myself that I had just lost the opportunity to collaborate with a local institution on some aspect of YiD project implementation, my heart leapt when a smile danced across Virginia’s lips.

“But your friends, you have friends who are good with kids, don’t you?”, she asked with a grin.

Friends? What friends? Cristina? Connie? My site mates and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers?

“No,” continued Virginia as she thoughtfully looked to the ceiling, “the other girls.”

What other girls? The pickings are pretty slim in my rural mountain town. If there were other girls here I would surely know. But then it dawned upon me like Luke Skywalker figuring out Princess Leia is his sister (slowly and reluctantly). There are others here- a group of three Belgian women who arrived in town about two months ago.

Hesitantly I asked, “do you mean the ladies who work at the New Dawn school (Twilight book lol)?”

“Yes! Those ones!”, Virginia exclaimed.

Because we are all foreigners, albeit from different countries with dissimilar mother tongues, we are supposed to know each other and have a strong sense of camaraderie and of course, a functional collegial relationship.

Now I understood. Because we are all foreigners, albeit from different countries with dissimilar mother tongues, we are supposed to know each other and have a strong sense of camaraderie and of course, a functional collegial relationship.

It looks like I’m behind on networking here in Guatemala.

Holy Week: Demonstrations of Faith in San Juan Comalapa

First published in ¿Qué Pasa? Magazine.

San Juan Comalapa does not disappoint when it comes to the celebration of Holy Week, or Semana Santa as it’s known in Spanish. This predominantly Kaqchikel Mayan town is nestled in the mountainous highlands of the department of Chimaltenango.

During Cuaresma (Lent), Comalapans hold small velaciones, or holy vigil prayer groups, in private houses. According to tradition, people form these different groups with their friends or neighbors. Various imágenes (statues) of prominent religious figures – such as Jesus of Nazareth and St. John the Baptist – are placed in the homes of the most devout Catholics, and small altars are built and adorned with flowers and fruits. Receiving weekly visitors in one’s home during Cuaresma is considered a great honor within the community. Each Friday during the season, a small imagen of Jesus is carried throughout the town, borne by four parish members at a time.

When Semana Santa finally arrives, festivities begin with a formal Mass on Maundy Thursday, three days before Easter Sunday. An evening Mass is held where the Eucharistic ministers dress as Jesus’ twelve disciples. In a symbolic reference to the Last Supper, Father Regino Majtzul Teleguario of San Juan Comalapa’s Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus washes the participants’ feet in a theatrical dramatization of this well-known Biblical scene.

Good Friday activities begin at 6 AM with a grand procession which bears the imagen of Jesus around the town’s main streets. The crowd then returns to the Church of the Sacred Heart, where a reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion is carried out using the imagen of Jesus, which is then carried through the streets of San Juan Comalapa in a solemn procesión.

Although the celebrations of the Passion of Christ aren’t as exuberant in San Juan Comalapa as the ones in Guatemala City or La Antigua, they are definitely worth a visit in order to experience the diversity of expressions of faith and devotion that can be found in the country during Cuaresma and Semana Santa.

Happy Peace Corps Week

My Peace Corps service today passes the mark of 627 days. In the past 1.7 years I have learned a tremendous amount about the development process, the country of Guatemala, and myself. I’ve made friends, lost friends, fallen in and out of love, learned lessons, received hard knocks, had triumphs and failures, and generally speaking- grown up. I’m leaps and bounds different from the person I was one year ago, and this newfound perspective on the world and on life is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I hope this video can provide you with some insight on the journey so far. I would like to also make a special shoutout to Marta Mudri, a beloved friend of mine who has made the journey down to visit all the way from Ohio, not once- but twice! I couldn’t find any flattering images featuring both of us on my computer which is why she does not appear prominently in the video.

Thank you to my supportive colleagues, friends, and family for all the support, encouragement, and slaps across the face- you keep me sane. Because of you all, I am able to serve Guatemala on behalf of the United States with pride, creativity, and my 110%.

The soundtrack is the song “Worn Out Passport” by The Copyrights from their album “North Sentinel Island” produced by It’s Alive Records. Listen to it, it’s the perfect soundtrack to my life and the life of any Peace Corps Volunteer, traveler, or wandering soul. North Sentinel Island is also purportedly the world’s hardest place to visit.

Celebrating Guatemala’s National Anthem

First published in ¿Qué Pasa? Magazine

On March 14th, 1897, the dulcet tones of the country’s National Anthem first rang out from the Teatro Colón. This day commemorates the acceptance of the piece, with its score composed by Rafael Álvarez Ovalle and lyrics written by José Joaquín Palma, as the National Anthem of the Republic of Guatemala.

According to the Committee for the Construction of the Monument to Distinguished Maestro Rafael Álvarez Ovalle, an official national hymn wasn’t even considered until 1887. On February 1st, 1897, a panel of three judges approved the “popular hymn,” and a decree was issued on February 19th to debut the work at the Teatro Colón which at that time existed on 11 Avenida of Zone 1 in the Guatemalan capital.

Recognized as one of the world’s most beautiful national anthems, the National Anthem of Guatemala is not only powerful and explicit in its expression of the political and social conditions of the time, but also in declaring the fervor of Guatemalans for their country. That fervor can also be seen in San Juan Comalapa – the birthplace of Maestro Álvarez Ovalle, located in the department of Chimaltenango – on March 14th. That’s an important date for the town, as it celebrates one of its home-grown personages.

The Cuchubal: An exercise in working together

Today I learned of an interesting phenomenon, cuchubales, as they’re called in Guatemala. The purpose of a cuchubal is to organize a group of friendly responsable people from within a community and collect an equal sum of money each month. For example I will organize 10 friends who will each contribute 300 Guatemalan Quetzales every month to the cuchubal. Each month one member of the group receives the full sum of Q3,000 and can use it towards some need of theirs.

cuchubalThe system is a sort of cash advance for those who need it and the order of who receives the “pot” any given month is determined by raffle. Smaller or larger groups can be arranged depending on the timeframe that one wishes the event to take place.

Some of you may be wondering why the rigidity of the lunar cycle? Why not just collect money every week and have the whole thing move along much faster? Payments in Guatemala are based on a monthly schedule- aside from obvious services like rent and utilities, salaries are paid monthly and so is tuition. So all finances in Guatemala are based around this monthly cycle. While the cuchubal doesn’t enhance wealth through interest or other capital gains, it is a large lump-sum payment issued based on gradual contributions over time which can be immensely helpful in getting your car repaired, replacing the burned-out lightbulbs at home, or paying the setup and installation fees for an Internet connection.

Cabal en Chimal is a series about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer living and working in Guatemala’s department of Chimaltenango. On Lenguaje Lunes, this blog focuses on language and cultural tidbits plucked lovingly from the people of Guatemala.

Action, Adventure, and Discovery on the Silver Screen

North of Liberty, or Norte de la Libertad as the film is known in Spanish, chronicles the story of three college freshman on a cross-country road trip in a vintage VW minibus. The film sparks a sense of wonder and amazement that these three boys are actually able to pull off the coast-to-coast journey in a ramshackle old van. North of Liberty is also a story of maturation, a narrative of boys crossing over the threshold of adulthood and becoming men. The film holds audiences captive, awakening wanderlust and curiosity while underscoring that no challenge is unsurmountable.

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Todd Whitaker, North of Liberty‘s director, sums up the spirit of the film as encouraging to “follow your dreams, overcome your fears, and try to get to know this wonderful, vast, and multifaceted world that will surely surprise you.”

The film comes to San Juan Comalapa on January 30 and 31 for a double header.

San Juan Comalapa: The Florence of the Americas

First published in ¿Qué Pasa? magazine.

Leer en español.

San Juan Comalapa is a peaceful mountain town about 35 kilometers north of La Antigua. This rural municipio has more than 50,000 inhabitants, of whom about 90% are indigenous Kaqchikel Maya.

The town, located in the department of Chimaltenango, is home to the largest hand-painted mural in Guatemala. Spanning more than 180 meters in length and 2 meters in height, it has 62 distinct scenes depicting events from the foundation of the town by Mayan gods to the armed conflict that wiped an entire village off the map. This mural’s beauty lies in the story told from a uniquely Guatemalan perspective and rendered by artists born into a vibrant tradition of painting. Internationally acclaimed artists Andrés Curruchiche and Óscar Perén hail from Comalapa, and the influences of their unique styles of art predominate in the expansive mural.

San Juan Comalapa has more to offer to those who are looking for even more culture: the town is well-versed in music. The score of the Guatemalan National Anthem has its origins in humble Chixot – the Kaqchikel name for Comalapa, which itself means “between comales” (the flat, metal pans used for cooking tortillas over open flame). Rafael Álvarez Ovalle, the anthem’s composer, was born and raised in San Juan Comalapa where he began his ascent to fame as an acclaimed classical musician and composer. In Comalapa, a museum has been erected in Ovalle’s childhood home where an extensive collection of carefully restored personal effects and original scores can be found.

Proudly proclaimed as La Florencia de las Américas (The Florence of the Americas) by locals, San Juan Comalapa lives up to this reputation as a locale with a grand cultural tradition and is an embodiment of what it means to be Guatemalan. A trip to the Land of Eternal Springtime isn’t complete without a visit to the heart of the Mayan world – conveniently located between comales.