First published in The News Leader.
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Since August 2013, I’ve been living in San Juan Comalapa, a Guatemalan municipality of about 50,000 in the department of Chimaltenango. After graduating from OSU in May 2013, my life has revolved around serving as a volunteer specialist through the Youth in Development Project with the US Peace Corps mission in Guatemala.
Guatemala is a Central American country. I don’t eat tacos or wear sombreros. Food here is not spicy, profanity is scarce, and indigenous Mayan culture is an integral part of daily life as it has been for centuries.
My initial months in the country consisted of intensive cultural, linguistic, medical, and technical trainings. These exercises brooded feelings of isolation and hardened my sense of self-determination. While it was a difficult process, I grew immensely and have been surviving alone, as the only US American for hours, in a sea of chapines, the term equivalent to “gringos” referring to native Guatemalans.
Like the names of many places in Guatemala, the name “Comalapa” is descriptive. Unlike places one might expect to encounter in the US — Macedonia or Columbus for instance — that really have nothing to do with the locality therein being referred to, “Comalapa” describes the lugar entre comales, or “space between comales.” What are comales in the first place? In the first few weeks of my training in Guatemala I learned to make tortillas. Simply put, it’s a pan for making that corn-based dietary staple.
But the former? Comalapa is an artesan town. While home to weavers and musicians, modern Comalapa is most famous for its paintings. It is home to the largest mural in Guatemala which spans over 300 meters. This painting depicts the entire history of the municipality.
Starting with Comalapa’s consecration by the Mayan gods, the painting continues on to illustrate the subjugation of the townsfolk by Spanish conquistadors, a devastating earthquake, the impact of Guatemala’s 30-year armed civil conflict, and finally the youth artists’ dreams and aspirations for a brighter future.
Such artistic fervor can be linked to Andres Currichiche, Guatemala’s most famous painter, who grew up in the town center.
Furthermore, the town was home to Rafael Alvarez Ovalle, the composer of the Guatemalan national anthem. This cultural pride extends to literature, poetry, weaving, and of course: comida, food.
Therefore, entre comales, encompassing diet, culture, and history, is in itself rich and fulfilling. Comalapa bears its name with great pride.
I hope to continue to serve the people of the United States through my work alongside Guatemalans.
My 9-5 puts me in the municipal government’s youth development office. Like the US, Guatemala’s government follows a federal system. The level I am working at could be equated to county government back home. In addition to providing capacity building for my office colleagues, I work with youth aged 14-29 as well as service providers such as health center staff and schools.
Tasked with training these groups in habilidades para la vida or “life skills,” this all-inclusive package develops qualities such as confidence and self-esteem while working to ingrain respect and a sense of worth and dignity.
I have been working with a group called Cero Miedo which is a street art collective featuring break dancers, hip hop artists, and painters, among others. The group, founded by ex-gang members looking to give up the banger lifestyle and contribute their worth to a larger society, has been instrumental in facilitating large portions of my work.
I’ve also been using my martial arts training to teach self-defense classes which easily support the goals of Peace Corps’ project such as confidence, leadership, work ethic, respect, and positive communication.
In the same vein, I work with a small bunch of interested students in an English conversation group. The platform provides an opportunity for language learners to hone their developing skills as well as discuss controversial topics which in turn helps participants find their voices as future leaders of Guatemala.
In my spare time I continue to play ukulele and practice photography. I have also taken up mountain climbing, traveling long-distances via sketchy public transportation to visit far-flung and exotic locales. Brewing wine from local fruits as well as writing for my blog (www.csethna.com) also occupy my interests.