Make Big Waves in Indigenous Guatemala

TL;DR

The Alpha & Omega English Academy was a cornerstone of my Peace Corps service.

Alpha y Omega in Spanish, strives everyday to make great things possible in rural Guatemala for children (and adults) of all ages. With a focus on experience-based language acquisition, Alpha & Omega is directly breaking a cycle of poverty by bringing the opportunity to learn English, participate in language and culture exchanges with Anglophone visitors from outside of Guatemala, and provide valuable experience to youth in a town that was heavily impacted by the Guatemalan Civil War.

In Guatemala, the ability to speak English is highly prized.

Inglés enables its speakers to work in call centers, for international development organizations (which are numerous in the beautiful Guatemalan countryside and bring much-needed foreign money to cash-strapped villages). Furthermore, English speakers can take the TOEFL, a standardized test which measures understanding and comprehension of the English language. This exam is a requirement for most international applicants to American universities at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

Alpha & Omega has built itself up by its bootstraps and I am incredibly proud to have had the opportunity to be involved with its creation since inception.

I have loved everything that AyO has been working on from the early days: cobbling together free classes for community members, setting up meetings with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education to get approval for the school’s charter, striving to find stable space, recruiting students, running marketing and publicity campaigns, and everything in between.

Now, more than ever, the school needs your support to expand its services to a larger area.

Never before has this school solicited donations from Guatemalans, NGOs, or the general public. And never before has your support been more critical. Alpha & Omega is a self-sustaining entity, but your support is necessary to continue building for Guatemala’s future.

In a country where homicide, violence against women, impunity chronic malnutrition, and structural inequality are some of the highest in the world– it is imperative that we invest in the noble and necessary work of Alpha & Omega.

Please join me in supporting Alpha & Omega English Academy’s push to expand services in rural Guatemala!

https://www.gofundme.com/2r0viuk

Check out AyO on Facebook or visit their website.


TL;DR — GIVE MONEY IT’S WORTH IT.

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.

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.

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.

The Ferris Wheel (#43)

Jaw clenching, my head plummets to where my feet were a fraction of a second earlier. I tense my abdomen- hoping to still the bottomless sensation of falling. During the feria or “fair” in town, one of the biggest, loudest, and most popular attractions is the ferris wheel—rueda chicago as it’s referred to in Guatemala. Unlike its American counterpart, the rueda is a whirling wheel of terror that strikes fear into the hearts of men (and probably women too).

I allowed myself to be coerced into setting foot on this centripetal death machine.

I allowed myself to be coerced into setting foot on this centripetal death machine.

An iron structure, often sporting peeling paint and a healthy coat of rust, the wheel is erected in a traditional Guatemalan fashion. With little regard to planning, foresight, or preventative maintenance, a ride on the rueda costs the stalwart adventurer a mere Q5 (about 64¢US). Powered by a manual transmission diesel engine, the operator proceeds to rev the wheel up to its maximum rotational speed giving riders the sensation of freefall for the duration of the experience.

As if this wasn’t enough, just when you think it’s over, the operator throws the engine in reverse and zooms your equilibrium back in the opposite direction.

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.

Vaya (#49)

Vaya is an expression that most literally translates to “okay.” Other translations include “alright,” “uh-huh,” and “mm-hmm.” It is often used by Guatemalans as a nonchalant or indifferent response.

“Make sure you do your homework.”

“Vaya Profe.”

“Thanks for the ride.”

“Vaya.”

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.

The Chicken Bus (#58)

Chicken busses or camionetas as they’re known in Spanish are retired school busses that no longer meet safety or environmental standards. Auctioned off for a song, enterprising chapines drive them down through Mexico to Guatemala where they are converted into flashy public transportation.

IMG_1302

These busses connect all parts of Guatemala, are known for their bright colors, and are often filled with images and iconography of Jesus, the Virgin Maria, and associated slogans such as Dios bendiga el camino (God bless the way). Such prominent displays of religiosity serve as a frequent reminder that the large vehicle hurtling around sharp mountain curves is held together by more faith than maintenance. Camionetas derive their name from the fullness to which they are commonly packed: so dense they resemble the interior of a chicken coop. While onboard, one is lucky if they have at least one buttcheek on the seat and must take care to keep an eye squarely on their possessions. However, it’s a great time to strike up some authentic conversation with local people about the weather, the journey, or why there are six pigs tied to the roof.

Photo credit: travelblog.org

Photo credit: travelblog.org

Another Camionetta story- the other day, my partners and I loaded into an already packed bus to travel to another town. Just when we thought that they couldn’t fit any more people aboard, they loaded 5 more Guatemalan men in the back of the bus, where my partner Laura was already struggling to stand. One particularly confident young man took this as an opportunity to first grind on her, and then hit on her. I’m shocked he didn’t end up kissing her. A few of his quotes: “If you are an American, then why don’t you take a taxi everywhere?” and “Never did I think I would be able to talk to such a beautiful American woman today.”

Hestia Rojas

My friend Dave, owner of my favorite hostel La Iguana Perdida on Lake Atitlán, has written a song about using chicken busses that concisely and accurately sums up the experience.

¡Feliz viaje!

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.

Being Famous (#64)

Stepping off the plane in Guatemala, I immediately felt out of my element. I didn’t know how to relate to people, I didn’t know how to make friends in a cross-cultural context, I didn’t know how I was going to pretend to like my colleagues for the next 27 months (fortunately they ended up turning out to be pretty cool).

However being one of few foreigners in a country that is about 70% rural and over 50% impoverished has it’s advantages: pretty much everyone is curious about you and wants to be your friend. Granted, some people go about seeking friendship in decidedly more creepy and annoying ways, but by-and-large one of the things I’m going to miss about Guatemala is having random people want to come up to me and take pictures with me, have me hold their babies, and join them for a snack.

The local English academy thanking me for helping them set up a website.

The local English academy thanking me for helping them set up a website.

This pseudo-fame also has landed me some pretty sweet opportunities to get to know even more people by being invited to give presentations, speeches, and participate as the “special guest” at many civic functions. Going from being compared to the likes of Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson based on our shared nationality is going to be sorely missed when I return to being just another person in the United States.

But in the meantime, it looks like modeling positive life skills is rubbing off (or people are just good at telling me what I want to hear)!

10409200_1576295069251908_3325204012251508514_n

10406359_1576294965918585_759845176510345528_n

10906170_1576295112585237_6446767268887387877_n

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.

Riding in the Back of Pickup Trucks (#66)

The wind rushes through my hair and blows in my ears. As the pickup truck hurtles around sharp mountain curves, I hold on for dear life, flexing my knees and shifting my weight to keep my balance. Trying not to think of the consequences if the driver were to lose control around the next bend, I enjoy the air on my face and the unobstructed view of nature.

There’s something exhilarating about riding in the back of pickup trucks instead of on a bus or in a car. Never knowing whether or not you’ll be smashed up against a small Mayan lady or a basket full of live chickens, no two rides- or fletes as they call them in Guatemala- are alike. It’s an experience that lends your body and mind to nature and the spirit of adventure on the open road.

Posing in the bed of a pickup truck with my sister Lienne and friend Horizon.

Posing in the bed of a pickup truck with my sister Lienne and friend Horizon.

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.