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.

Guatemala’s Star Wars Fans (#35)

Guatemalans, like people with good taste all over the world, have their own loyal following of Star Wars or La guerra de las galaxias as it’s known in Spanish. Annually in November, the group known as Star Fans Guatemala puts on a large convention in the beautiful Hotel Santo Domingo in La Antigua, Guatemala.

A handsome rascal posing in front of a sawdust STAR FANS alfombra.

A handsome rascal posing in front of a sawdust STAR FANS alfombra.

Invited to participate last year an an exhibitor, I took the opportunity to recieve free admission and the chance to get to know Guatemala’s loyal and dedicated fanbase for the greatest science-fiction franchise ever created.

The founder of Star Fans proudly stands by his recreation of the Battle of Geonosis.

The founder of Star Fans proudly stands by his recreation of the Battle of Geonosis.

I met myriad interesting people who come mostly from Guatemala City. There were no surprises that the demographic of people able to afford such luxuries as cosplay and collecting licensed props and toys come from the country’s more affluent, yet small middle and upper classes.

A proud group of female fans that dresses up for social benefit and charity events.

A proud group of female fans that dresses up for social benefit and charity events.

Yet those participating in the event were down-to-earth, rather than spacey, people. The above womens group, Femme Stars, meets monthly to visit children in Guatemala’s hospitals and motivate groups of women to make positive change within themselves.

An impressive army of 6" troopers.

An impressive army of 6″ troopers.

I also got to see lots of cool action figures and things that I would have bought when I was a kid if I had adult income. Good thing I still don’t have that kind of disposable financial ingress.

Star Wars cosplay unites fans of all ages.

Star Wars cosplay unites fans of all ages.

But in a country so often divided by ethnicity, language, culture, politics, and social class it was refreshing to see children, young and old, come together about something so quintessentially human as Star Wars.

Guatemala's General Grevious

Guatemala’s General Grevious

Many participants, rather than buy costumes that would cost thousands of dollars from licensed retailers, opt to creatively make their own out of locally-available materials. The Grevious above is made out of repurposed cloth, cardboard, and styrofoam.

The President of the Lego Club of Guatemala and his son.

The President of the Lego Club of Guatemala and his son.

My first memories with Star Wars are curled up on the sofa in my family house with my Dad. He carefully awakened a wonder within me of that galaxy far, far away. The annual event is an opportunity for families to come together around something that inspires curiosity in their children.

A happy family from a galaxy not so far away.

A happy family from a galaxy not so far away.

 

Star Fans Guatemala puts on a wonderful event. I felt welcome as a foreigner and was immediately drawn in to a warm and communal atmosphere. As I left, I knew the Force was with me.

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.

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.

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.

Marching in Parades (#55)

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Right behind the pretty girls, the “princesses,” how baller is that? Front and center with the mayor, his council, the superintendents, their staff (secretary is totally picking his nose in this picture), the police chief, and other municipal employees, I may have underdressed slightly for this event. But hey! How many nice clothes can a Peace Corps Volunteer expected to trot out?

I love how my entire town always makes the utmost effort to make me feel important, included, and at home. It’s a charm, a sweetness, a personal touch that I’m going to miss when I return to the land of the smartphone.

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)!

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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.

Art Exchanges (#74)

One of my greatest memories of my time in San Juan Comalapa are the art exchanges that I’ve organized in conjunction with local partners. One took place between local elementary school children and their counterparts from the USA, China, a handful of African countries, a Pacific island, and Central America. The other transpired between young adults in Comalapa’s municipal government and former university and state government colleagues back home. The goal of both activities was to promote positive identity development by encouraging artistic representation of one’s own culture, customs, and country.

While I won’t be able to organize international exchanges as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the idea lives on in my heart and perhaps one day I can send art to future PCVs as a participant!

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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.

Cooking with Walter (#76)

My friend Walter Simón is very talented. Aside from managing his family’s textile operation, he is learning English, violin, and studying gastronomy at university. Walter is a pro at making delicious beverages like cappucchino and plates like lasagna from scratch. He is also an ambassador of Guatemalan cuisine. In this video he explains- in English- the process for making caramelized figs. Due to their freshness, Walter’s figs are 100x better than the kind you can buy on the street and easily 1000x tastier than those fig newton cookies you can buy at the store.

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.

Youth Orchestra/ Aula musical (#88)

Happy Mother’s Day from San Juan Comalapa! Some of my fondest memories here in town involve affiliates of the Aula musical, whose name conjures up imagery of a one-room music school. In reality the Aula musical is several rooms and about xx number of students, often hosting foreign volunteers from Germany and Norway. The music school provides an essential public service to the youth of Comalapa by bringing exposure to classical music to a small corner of the country’s rural indigenous highlands. In addition to learning well-circulated pieces by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, the Aula musical and its youth orchestra featuring students from xx – xx, also places an emphasis on Guatemalan music. The national anthem of Guatemala, declared the “most beautiful hymn in the world,” and the “Luna de Xelaju” are local favorites.

A special shoutout to Nico Telón for being a great friend and as one of the Aula musical’s teachers, a driving force behind the organization’s success.

Since it’s Mother’s Day, I’d like to share some photos from the group’s recent performance for students’ mothers.

Despite my limited musical ability, staff and students of the Aula musical have been kind enough to include me in several of their activities including Mother’s Day last year and accompanying their rendition of the national anthem for an impostor astronaut claiming to be the first Guatemalan to organize a space mission.

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.

Long Way Home (#89)

Many people come to Guatemala looking to experience rural culture. The indigenous way of life is common just a short way outside most Guatemalan cities. My site, San Juan Comalapa is home to Long Way Home, an NGO that focuses on sustainable development and environmental stewardship. Having celebrated over 10 years in San Juan, Long Way Home has awakened a growing consciousness in the community that parks, homes, and schools can be built comfortably out of garbage. Currently the organization fully funds the construction of a middle and high school while running a primary school for underprivileged youth in the town’s rural village of Paxan. Long Way Home runs an active volunteer program that serves stays of all durations and needs. Volunteers have the opportunity to gain valuable experience developing skills related to sustainable construction, community outreach, and non-profit management. Furthermore the organization arranges for its volunteers to live in a communal house, in hotels, or in homestays with local families depending on personal preference. [check out the original article appearing in ¿Qué Pasa? magazine].

As part of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I collaborated with Long Way Home and my childhood elementary school (with the help of Mrs. Stone and Dr. Kim Sethna stateside) to organize an art exchange.

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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.