Family Detention Shames American Values

The phenomenon of family detention, taking place in facilities in southern Texas, indefinitely imprisons women and children, defying fundamental principles of our great nation which we celebrated this past 4th of July weekend.

Source: ABC News

Ordered by the Obama administration in response to the 2014 spike in undocumented migration from Central America, women and children are often denied timely access to medical attention, legal counsel, and basic nutrition. Idyllically named “family residential centers,” these facilities are not to be confused for what they really are: internment camps for victimized people fleeing out-of-control gang violence, violence against women, dysfunctional civil societies, and outrageously corrupt governments.

Source: Wall Street Journal

As a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Guatemala I can definitively affirm systematic corruption, convoluted bureaucracy, and wanton incompetence at every level of government. With impunity in the 90th percentile, Guatemalan people—especially women and children—have few legal rights or recourse in their home country. The Guatemalan government is unable, and even unwilling, to address crime. Flouting an oligarchic power structure, maintained by the top 20% of Guatemala’s wealthy ruling class, Guatemalan leaders make a mockery out of good governance.

The United States plays a historically significant role in destabilizing democracy in—from the bloody staged civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador to the Banana Republics and Sandinistas, through Panama which was broken off from Colombia by the CIA in order to facilitate a 99-year deal for the construction of the Panama Canal. Detaining women and children who are fleeing the consequences of past US actions is not the answer to these contemporary issues.

Having just celebrated yet another anniversary of the longest-standing democracy in the modern world, family detention goes beyond unconstitutionality. It violates every fiber of what is America and what we stand for: liberty and justice for all. Rather than address the problem of massive northward migration at the source, the Obama administration has taken the easy route over the moral high ground upon which the President won two terms in office.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

Inscribed on our Statue of Liberty, the President seems to have forgotten his own roots and immigrant past. The man who now jails helpless children, forcing them to wait upwards of 8 hours for necessary medical care, seems so different from the freshman Senator Obama who traveled to sub-Saharan Africa and publically took an HIV test with his wife. Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative through the US Peace Corps is overshadowed by the Obamas’ hypocrisy where the downtrodden, abused, and dejected women of Central America are denied interpreters and education for themselves and their children.

Source: Texas Tribune

The Department of Homeland Security will argue that medical services are available. Overcrowded medical trailers cannot accommodate the high volume of need in these brimming internment camps. Do detainees have access to lawyers? The attorney trailer, occupied mostly by pro-bono lawyers, can only fit 60 persons at any given time. And what about education? Schooling is available to Spanish-speaking children—but living in prison with limited access to medical care, crying and broken mothers fleeing abuse, and a diet of chicken nuggets, beans, and tortillas are not conducive to positive youth development. And what of non-Spanish speakers? Latin America is home to 37 language families and 448 distinct indigenous languages. With violence, impunity, and extreme poverty (often resulting from the aforementioned oligarchical power structure) arriving in rural communities, more monolingual indigenous people are making the trip north.

Family residential centers are simply under equipped and unqualified for the task they have been charged with. Gang violence and political instability are directly correlated to America’s drug habit and lopsided foreign policy in Latin America dating back to the Cold War. It is time to demand the President end this un-American and unjust practice. The real way towards curbing undocumented migration is to address the paradigm of failed governance that exists in Central America’s Northern Triangle. Family internment is a poorly-applied bandaid atop a festering wound.

Source: The New York Times

For more information about the week stint I’ll be doing in Dilley, TX at the Dilley Family Residential Center following my Peace Corps service: http://specialprojects.myajc.com/family-detention-immigration/.

Correction: The CIA did not exist until almost 50 years after the coup in Panama. The US Navy supported the Panamanian rebellion. Thanks to reader, friend, and RPCV Sammy B. for bringing this to my attention.

Making Wine (#36)

Currently I’m fermenting my third batch of blackberry wine. Blackberries, a local agricultural stable abound on the local market and are easy to prepare as they don’t have a skin or tiny seeds that have to be carefully strained out. In lieu of a glass carboy I use a five-gallon jug that we would recognize atop a water cooler in the States. Capped with a bung and airlock my parents sent me for Christmas a couple of years ago, a batch takes about 4-6 weeks to fully ferment using locally-available baker’s yeast. While not ideal for wine production, it does the trick and I’ve learned to compensate for the strange aftertaste by using less yeast and increasing the sugar content.

This latest batch has been happily bubbling away for about five weeks and I look forward to cracking it open before leaving Guatemala!

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Happy 4th of July Peace Corps/ Guatemala!

Happy Independence Day to my friends and colleagues of Peace Corps/ Guatemala. I salute you and the work that you do for Guatemala on behalf of the People of the United States of America. It is an honor to serve with you!

Empowerment through Belly Dancing

First published in the July issue of Qué Pasa magazine, translated from original Spanish.


In Quetzaltenango, there’s an emerging art in which women use their bodies to express themselves and through which they’re challenging gender norms and machismo. Kiri Glinz, Claudia Santiago, and Gabriela Figueroa teach belly dancing and Spanish flamenco dancing; these three artists are strong women who are motivated to inspire a change in society’s ideas through dance. They give dance workshops in collaboration with nonprofit organizations like Asociación Hogar Nuevos Horizontes (which supports female victims of domestic violence).

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Glinz and Santiago are practitioners of belly dancing. It’s a form of Arabic art where women in loose clothing adorned with bells express themselves through sensual and – according to some – provocative bodily movements. “Even more so in a sexist country, there are people who have no knowledge about this style of dance and get carried away by the costumes, fueling the belief that every woman who practices this art is an exhibitionist,” explains Santiago.

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Fighting against stereotypes, Glinz and Santiago dance what they call tribal fusion, which combines elements of traditional belly dance with colors and biomechanics which represent individual creativity. When asked about the impact of belly dancing on women and girls in relation to gender equality, Glinz says, “Through my art, I want to open the minds of men and women to various forms of artistic expression while also giving confidence to girls.” Figueroa speaks proudly of her flamenco school called Porsolea. “[The school] teaches girls to be strong, brave, disciplined, and consistent.

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“When they take the stage, their self-esteem goes up because they look prettier and because they feel more confident,” says Santiago. These three artists and teachers are managing to raise awareness of little-known art forms with respect for their own Guatemalan identity.

Garifuna People and Guifiti (#37)

As the brown spirit trickles from the mouth of the glass tumbler, I purse my lips in anticipation of intense bitterness. The harsh burn of alcohol torches my throat and I feel chills that tickle my brainstem. The drummers hammer out a hypnotic rhythm on their drums, palms rising and falling, feeding off the energy of the impassioned dancers around the fire. Different regions and ethnic groups in Guatemala have their own local homebrewed liquors which are made out of the reach of regulatory authorities and without the need for permits or licenses. This is Guifiti, the clandestine intoxicant distilled by Guatemala’s Caribbean people, the Garifuna.

The Garifuna people of Guatemala live in the Caribbean department of Izabal where their own distinct culture thrives. A mixture of African and Caribbean cuisine, music, and dance, the Garifuna people speak their own language-a fascinating Carib tongue considered by linguists to be a member of the Arawakan language family. The particularly interesting bit about Garifuna (known as “Karif” to native speakers) is its atypical use outside of the Arawakan language area of northern South America.

The Garifuna language was once confined to the Antillean islands of St. Vincent and Dominica but due to the Garifuna people’s history involving warfare, colonization, and migration, the ethnic group has spread to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Perhaps part of a larger pattern of northward migration, many Garifina communities have now begun to spring up in US cities as noted by the organization Garifuna Coalition USA, based in New York City.

Guifiti an overwhelmingly bitter beverage with a dangerously high and unmeasured alcohol content is not for the faint of heart. Containing licorice, nuts, cloves, and a variety of other strong and odiferous spices, Guifiti will hit you with the force of a horse’s kick and knock you to the ground for the rest of the evening.

#Guatemala #homebrew Guifiti

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Jaibalito (#38)

Stumbling over a rocky, narrow path, I grip the ground with my toes. The sharp cliff on my left-hand side bodes unforgivingness to the flat-footed traveler. The hike from Santa Cruz la Laguna to Jaibalito takes about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace. On the way the walk offers unparalleled views of Lake Atitlán’s southern banks, adorned with three majestic volcanoes and four distinct peaks: San Lucan Tolimán, a dual-crested complex volcano; San Pedro, and Santiago Atitlan—both stratovolcanoes, the latter is considered active by geologists, though the last eruption occurred in May 1853.

The view is precious, as described by none other than Aldous Huxley himself:

Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.

The walk to Jaibalito takes one past the Isla Verde boutique eco hotel where one can arrange for a Maya spa treatment complete with a hot stone massage and time in the temezcal, a wood-fired sauna built out of adobe. Climbing up into the hills beyond Isla Verde brings the hiker to stunning views of Lake Atitlán from atop the sharp escarpments of the Sierra Madre mountain range.

Arriving in Jaibalito, the trail winds through what resembles a naturally-formed Japanese rock garden where massive boulders flank either side of the path. Crossing a metal bridge that appears to be a remnant of the 30-year armed conflict in Guatemala, travelers enter the town, passing by the official school and its expansive soccer field.

Rest stops are possible at a number of places including the upscale private club Ven Acá and the budget backpacker paradise of Posada Jaibalito which offers fully-furnished houses for a monthly rent of Q300 (about $38). As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you can guess which of the two venues I recommend.

On the way to Jaibalito #Lake #Atitlan #Guatemala #peacecorps #HowISeePC

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Pizza Maya (#39)

Sinking my teeth into a toasted tortilla, beans and cheese ooze out from between the unleavened corn loaves. My host mom cackles gleefully, handing me a napkin, as piping hot globs drip onto my plate.


“Pizza Maya” is an invention by my beloved Señora Juana, Guatemalan chef extraordinaire and my darling host mother in the land of the eternal spring. A delicious snack, tortillas are only about the size of your palm. The pizza Maya is a creative Guatemalan take on a foreign, outlandish culinary concept which involves the incorporation of locally-available dietary staples.

¡Buen provecho!

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Making Friends Along the Way (#40)

“Come join our conversation,” said the beautiful Colombian girl. Her dark flowing locks curled invitingly, beckoning to me as fervently as her outstretched hand.

Guatemala is a country full of travelers. It’s favorable currency, beautiful views, and rich culture are enticing aspects of this humble Central American nation. While not all the people I’ve encountered on busses and in hostels have been as enticing as the lovely Colombian lady, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many different people from all over the world on my travels through Guatemala.

When I return to the USA, I’m going to continue seeking out cross-cultural experiences. Aside from speaking different languages, getting to know diverse people exposes me to different perspectives and ways of seeing the world.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Burning of the bull (#41)

Sparks shoot into the air and firecrackers blast out towards the crowd gathered in the town square. The effigy of a bull prances around to the sweet, tranquil sound of marimba hammering out a traditional son rhythm. The juxtaposition is strong and people cringe as the bull passes them by—yet the crowd doesn’t disperse.

During the fair in my town, there are many attractions available to celebrate the patron saint: John the Baptist. One of my favorite and probably least-sensible traditions is the “burning of the bull” where a likeness of a bull is constructed out of wood and wire and strung up with all manner of pyrotechnics. A man then proceeds to get inside and dance around with the flaming frame of a bull burning around him, discharging fireworks at bystanders. People, rather than flee for their safety, are mesmerized by the spectacle which occurs in the main plaza of San Juan Comalapa just before the final dance on the last night of the town fair is opened.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Fair Weather (#42)

The festivities, spanning the length of the last week in June are a beautiful flurry of religious activities including alfombras and processions. But also, appropriate homage is paid to Comalapa’s other cultural fortes such as music. Roving bands parade through the streets cheerfully tooting trumpets, glockenspiel-esque representations of the marimba, and plenty of percussion and soul.

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Parades, pageants, and the town dance highlight the week as all-important occurrences in the social lives of all- young and old alike. Street food vendors and souvenir peddlers cram into every available inch of space in the central park. Mechanical rides and typical “try-your-luck” carnival games abound- though structural integrity and safety standards are dubiously observed (at best).

First published here on csethna.com.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.