From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

¨Making it¨ through these two years

Hello, people whose world I will soon be joining. So begins my last week in Nicaragua.

I made it.

Although, examining those three words, I find them to be poorly chosen. Yes, I was put to the test by parasites, dust, the fumes of a poorly organized city, and more tryingly, a (comparatively) simple lifestyle which emphasizes befriending and accompanying the poor, and all the weight and hopelessness that implies. I feel their entrapment somewhat lies on my shoulders. That is, their enslavement in their lives and themselves is largely due to a legacy and culture I carry and have tried to unlearn, and an identity I cannot erase.
Yes, I made it, though I look four (and feel twenty) years older and yellower, as my very honest friends here say, though when I find myself quiet and allow my heart to absorb what it has found in these two years, I still buckle over in astonishment, expressed through laughter, tears, or speechlessness.
Yes, it is wonderful that I am still alive after the hardest two years of my life. But “I made it” is problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, the sentence emphasizes my initiative. As if I deserve praise and recognition for an accomplishment. But mostly I feel powerless in this experience, in this life, as if I have been plunged gearless into white water, and should be grateful, not proud, for having been plunged. And if I did stay afloat, it’s thanks to those who in some way offered me buoyance, though they themselves might have been drowning more than I.
Secondly, I’m not done yet. JVC is very clear about this from the very first discernment weekend. “I made it” could be better expressed, “I’ve begun.” Nicaragua has sucked me into a vortex of committed ruinage. I will never think or behave the way I did. And though they might forget my name, though I will probably become that-one-chela-who-told-stories-and-wore-many-colors (if they even remember that), I will never forget them. I seek to live in honor of them from now on. I seek to live consciously of, critically toward, and grateful for my reality. I seek to continue “living simply so others may simply live.” I seek to deepen my understanding of living the way Jesus and many others did and do. Most importantly, I seek love.
Perhaps you find this all idealist, silly, extreme. But those who set the world on fire have been called all of those things. (The Pharisees to Jesus: You’re silly)

And now for a change in topic and mood. Here’s what my days have been filling themselves with lately.
  • Jana and I recently spent the night in the neighborhood where we work. I’ve only done it once before. El Recreo undergoes a juicy, goth makeover when it turns dark. During the twilight hours, families leave their tin houses to take in cooler air and rest for an hour before it’s time to wash the clothes and cook dinner, so there are more people to greet, and more time to greet them. I feel more connected with the community. It makes me wonder whether I’d ever be strong enough to live in a neighborhood like that, or in a house with a poor family. That’s truly solidarity. But the gangs and drugs and loud dogs also come out at night. So when 8:00 hit, Jana and I retreated to our friend Silvio’s street, and at 9:00, to his patio. From a safe plastic chair I heard drunken vulgarities over the barbed wire fence, and wondered whether being outside at night in El Recreo would be as dangerous legend tells.
  • My friend Mey invited me to a Katia Cardenal concert on a recent school night. Jana and Sister Meli from Proyecto Generando Vida came along. I teared up during the deepest melodic segments. Colorful Nicaragua has awakened the musician in me, and I will feel so silent and white without her. Afterwards, sister Meli, of the Congregation of Zion, spent the night at our house. I like that some nuns can go to late-night concerts and spend the night in dirty-but-welcoming volunteer houses.
  • On December 7th, the Nicaraguan celebration of “La Purisima” (the purest) Virgin Mary, Jana, Chelsea and I boarded four different Managuan buses and screamed Mary songs at the top of our lungs, accompanying ourselves with plastic bottles filled with rocks. This was a prank combining two Nicaraguan realities: poor children boarding buses with homemade instruments to sing and ask for money, and the Purisima tradition to go out and “gritar” Purisima songs around the city on the night of December 7th. It felt a little sacrilegious and disrespectful, but I wouldn’t have missed it. Our friends Kira, Velky and Fabi accompanied us, sitting at the back of the bus and pretending to be passengers who randomly decided to sing along. Some people laughed encarcajada. Others ignored us completely or stared pointedly out their windows. Many smiled secretly and tried not to notice. And a few blessed souls sang joyfully along. It was the closest to candid-camera I’ve ever gotten.
  • On my last free Saturday in-country, I returned to my host family in El Arenal, the rural community where I spent a week during my first month in-country. It meant a lot to me to say goodbye to them because of how different we are and how close we’ve gotten…I’ve never experienced those so starkly and simultaneously. It was the shortest and best visit I’ve ever had with them. Mari, the oldest daughter, is pregnant, and told me she’s worried about the costs of a C-section in January. Javi, the youngest son, told me how he feels the community university group is losing its voice to “gringo influence”: nightlife, designer clothes, and a repudiation toward the farming traditions of the pass, in favor of glorifying the city. And Alejandro, their dimpled, smooth-skinned first-born, confessed he’s always had a crush on me. “But I respect you so much that I never wanted anything to happen. It would be too complicated.” What a visit!
What else do I have planned in the coming days? A goodbye party with 100 invites. A first communion for my best friend Yelba’s daughter.A trip to the market to be a tourist for the first or second time, to buy goodies for loved ones.And one last week of work. And then, amidst red eyes, hugs and tears, I’ll get on a flying machine to Portland, Oregon.

You’ll hear from me on the flip side. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Last Newsletter

What follows is an update, not a blog. I sent this to a few people...thought I´d make it public.

Speaking with a good friend in the States last night, I realized it´s been at least half-year, yikes, since I last sent out my news from Nicaragua. Perhaps it´s because my time with JVC has become less an exciting adventure I want to publicize and more a transformative experience that deserves my full attention. And so I like to think that since I last emailed (almost) everyone I know, I have been less and less communicative with the States side of things, and, I hope, more available to mi gente aquí.
This, in the end, is problematic, since in one month I´ll be on a plane back to Oregon, and the impermanence of being here will set in (please spare a thought or prayer for me on December 19th). And so I send out this email in hopes of connecting heart-to-heart with some of you, who may be able, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, to help welcome me back.
Life is good. Other than a few stomach bugs and a bad cold, I have been healthy. I have also been happy, though acknowledging that is more complicated. It´s hard to be happy when children you see every day are hungry, and you go home to too much food. Or when diabetes and lupus are considered lethal diseases because there isn´t money to combat them. Or when your friend Jorge, whose house straddles the line between gang territories, tells you, ¨I´d like to live to be forty. That would be a nice long life.¨
What I´m trying to say, and what I go everyday discovering more, is that oppression is no longer an unfortunate word written in the news. It´s a reality that affects me personally, through my friends. Actually, it affects all of us personally, whether or not we want it to. As Mother Theresa said, ¨If you truly have eyes to see, Calcutta is everywhere.¨ And at first reflection, it´s hard to stay I´m happy within that reality.
But one of my favorite songs says, ¨Look at your life through heaven´s eyes.¨ And so I make an intentional daily effort to go to bed watering the flowers instead of fretting about the weeds. And there are many flowers in my life. For instance…
Every other Friday, the library hosts story time with some of the kids who come to the Comedor for a free meal. These kids are mistreated by almost everyone. Because they have  live, and can´t read, and have learned to swear and scream a lot, it was a long time before they enjoyed Story Time. But with pep in my voice, the right animation, puppets, and patience, these kids come and participate in the dramatization of a story, exercising their imaginations for a few sweet moments. It´s a beautifully unexpected half-hour that always leaves me smiling and sweaty. Picture included below.
Though it´s pretty make-shift, I also have continued to form a reader´s club with eleven seventh graders (nine are male. Bummer). We can´t read together every week (reading is so BORING, Heather!), but by mixing reading with games, questions, and theater, these kids continue to show up. We recently took a trip to the zoo (picture included). We´re also planning to act out Rubén Darío´s poem ¨Sonatina¨ during the project´s end of the year bash (it was their idea). Aerobics classes continue to go well. Six to fifteen young women (and a couple brave young men) show up twice a week to crazy-dance to popular music (including ¨Sexy and I know it¨ and ¨Boom Boom Pow¨ by the Black-Eyed Peas—I never said it was the cleanest quality) with commate Jana and I.
I´m not going to miss working with large groups of children all day (though I´m apparently good at it, and need to be a mother, they say). But I will miss these spaces where my passions meet the need of the world, and I hope to find a place to plug into them in the States.
Speaking of that, I am excited to be back. Really! (As my mom pointed out when I was considering staying another year, ¨Heather, you love it everywhere you go.¨) I am not excited to say goodbye or lash out at family and friends because I´m experiencing a cultural car crash. But I am excited to the challenge of continuing to grow in the States.
The truth is, being here has been a grueling test of humility, guilt, and exhaustion, exemplified by JVC´s emphasis on accompaniment. Our role is not to ¨do¨ or ¨change¨ things—that, in the Freirean sense of the term, is only something Nicaraguans can do for themselves. Our role, rather, is to be with people. And though I have grown in my ability to sit powerlessly before suffering, and to acknowledge the complicated power dynamics at work by my presence here, I am ready to stop stepping on Nicaragua´s toes, and go apply what I´ve learned amid the people who formed me. My prayer is one shared by all returning JVs—that we do not grow complacent, that we do not forget whom we have become. ¨Live the ruinage!¨ They say.

Because US Americans like ¨plans,¨ I´ll share a couple of mine. I´m going to spend Christmas and New Year´s with my family in the Portland, OR area. I then hope to take a train trip through California, visiting (and taking advantage of hospitality from) everyone I know, in mid-January, until, well, I run out of money and energy. I´d like to try woofing and visiting a couple intentional communities along the way. Then, back to Portland, where I´ll take my time to discern what´s next—be it work, learning to farm, studying, volunteering more. I have no idea. I´ve never had no idea what to do with myself. This is a scary sponge soaked in privilege.
First, though, I have one more month left in Nicaraguita. I plan to hug, cry, and thank a lot. I don´t plan on making much contact with people in the States during this time—though I would love to hear if you´re thinking of me, and would love to skype or talk on a cell phone (those still exist, right?) when I get back.
Until then, thank you for your support, and I wish you open eyes and an open heart during the Holiday season.
P.S. Enjoy the first picture, of my friends Kenia and Zach, and a gringa who dressed up like the Grinch for Halloween because Nicaraguans tell her she has a protruding stomach, perturbing serious face and a green tint to her skin. They´re more honest than estadounidenses.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Death and Vacation: My Journey to the Murder Capital of the World

During my last three days of vacation, I’ve thought a lot about death.

I have a feeling that might shock people. I don’t think it should. As English poet John Donne maintains, Death is one of the only two things in life that really matter (sex being the other). It’s also an incredibly normal, frequent phenomenon. But in my culture, and most others, it’s an avoided and terrifying ordeal.
With this blog, I’m not going to try to prove that death isn’t wrenching. But after a few days on vacation in Honduras, I have been struck like a tolling bell that it's a little more normal than I once thought.

Granted, it’s not that I hadn´t experienced death before this two-day trip—three good friends, two Nicaraguan, have died on me in the last year. One because she couldn’t afford treatment for lupus. Another because she got hit by a woman talking on her cell phone while driving. That is, totally preventable, enraging situations.
But in Honduras, death is as frequent a topic as fútbol. BBC calls it the murder capital of the world, with a violent death every 74 minutes (an interesting investigation explains why).

As the sun, gracias a Dios, began to disappear behind green mountains, our bus pulled into San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the country’s industrial capital and most dangerous city. We passed a dozen factories behind barbed wire, where turbines painted with familiar brands like “Pedigree” and “Unilever” emitted face-furrowing fumes and questionably legal green toxins into the River Uloa, which bubbled under a bridge underneath us. I was accompanied by my Nicaraguan friends and co-workers Yelba and Zach, and Lydia, the Honduran who would be our host.

Lydia is a very devoted, very loving, consistently positive Bible-banging Christian. Though she has annoyed me with occasional subtle preachiness, I have been amazed at her gratitude for life, and her resilience to suffering.

Her mother died from ovarian cancer when she was 18. Her father, dejected, abandoned their family to work in the States, and her brother moved from their home on the Coast to San Pedro Sula. Luisa was left to live with her grandmother and find some way to support herself financially. She is now a successful dentist who sold her clinic to do two years of missionary work in Bolivia and Nicaragua. 15 years later, she says her patience and faith are paying off. Her father is even returning from the States to live with her at the end of September.

I have seen Lydia’s well-earned stubborn heart and smile. And so it didn’t surprise me when, pulling into San Pedro, she wise-cracked, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re getting in before dark. We’ll make it to the house without getting killed.”

I proceeded to tell her I didn’t appreciate the joke.

She chuckled, her curvy body jiggling. “I’m not really joking. People get killed all the time here, everywhere. That’s the reality of the world, and instead of worrying about how it’s going to happen, we should enjoy every moment we have.”

She said this without fear, sadness, or the strain of suffocating sorrow in her voice. I was captivated. It struck me that she has learned to accept death, something I’m told is necessary to living a fulfilled life.

The next day, we drove to a tour of Honduras’ famous dam, invited by her sister, a tour guide. On the way there we picked up her friend Luis, a short, squat, cross-eyed catracho with a comb-over. Lydia informed he his father had died three days prior and he needed to get away for an afternoon. “How are you doing, Luis?” Lydia piped, pulling into the parking lot surrounded by barbed wire.

“You know, I’m as well as I can be, considering my Dad died. Making the most of it. The sisters are taking it hard. I’m trying to be there for them. But all will be well.”

It sounded like a comment I’d make after getting a bad deal on cherries at the supermarket.

During the remainder of the afternoon, I was struck by his intelligence, amiability, and strength. As we pulled away from the green valley created by the dam, we once again crossed the polluted river Uloa, which flows through Chamalecón, the most dangerous neighborhood in the city.
“The river beneath us,” he whispered to Zach and I, “is where the maras dump the people who don’t behave.”
“Damn. Is that in the news a lot?”
“Yes, but that’s not why I know about it. I live down there. I was in the MR 18 gang for five years.”

Luis, prompted by nothing at all, told us everything he could fit into a single backseat car ride. He has tried heroin, cocaine, everything, but drugs were never his addiction. As a gang member, he was always addicted to violence. He has killed more than one person and served time. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep at night if he hadn’t taken out some of his rage with one of his two guns.

Then he found God. He told his homies he wanted to become a Christian. This is apparently the only way, other than dying, of getting out of a gang. He joined Lydia’s Mennonite Church and they kept him under close watch for four years. If he didn’t attend mass one Sunday, they’d have shot him.

That’s not what has kept him in Church. God has. He says both times a random pandillero has pulled a gun on him in the past month alone, he has prayed, and both times, the maje lowered his gun and let him pass. He’s also helping other former gang members to pull out. So far, their church has twenty youth in a rehab group. “All for the glory of God,” he says.

We went to eat platter-sized baleadas before dropping him off. “We’d better get going, though,” he chuckled. “I want to get home alive.” 

I laughed with him, and hurt badly at the same time. The catrachos I met in the last four days have transformed my way of thinking. I thank them for their hearty acceptance of what life has dealt them. But I was grateful to cross the border back into tranquila Nicaragua, where the burden of privilege churns my heart, but where I go to bed (more-or-less) safely. But because they can´t, I will always carry them in my heart. Is that enough?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ivan Illich, SJ Blasts International Volunteers from White Culture

Read this article if you are, or ever have been, a white volunteer in an international setting, for whatever period of time, and are interested in getting your heart exploded.
I intend to blog about it soon, but for now, I would like the world to know I´m thinking about it.
Some ¨favorite¨ quotes of mine:

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.
You start on your task without any training. Even the Peace Corps spends around $10,000 on each corps member to help him adapt to his new environment and to guard him against culture shock. How odd that nobody ever thought about spending money to educate poor Mexicans in order to prevent them from the culture shock of meeting you?
People who understand that your own bad consciences push you to this gesture would laugh condescendingly.

There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on

If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.

The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn't have been volunteers in the first place.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


I have found prison to be a healthy place to be.
I´d rather be in prison than be a lobbyist.
Though it can be chained, the truth cannot be silenced.
You cannot teach democracy behind barbed wires and the barrel of a gun.

Here was some of the lightly-drizzled wisdom shared on Sunday in Managua by Father Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam vet who founded the world´s most influential anti-military movement, the School of the Americas Watch.
On Saturday, a fellow JV announced to me that Fr Roy was in Nicaragua with an SOAW delegation, aiming to persuade President Daniel Ortega to pull his troops out of training at Ft. Benning Georgia, the school whose graduates have gone on to murder Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four churchwomen in El Salvador, Sandino, the El Salvador Jesuits, and to lead oppressive, US-interest regimes throughout Latin America.

Needless to say, I followed him around.

I first caught him at 14th of September, a Christian Base Community (CBC) where I attend Sunday celebrations. Actually, he caught me. I showed up to 14Sept as usual, ready to tell the community about FrRoy´s 2pm talk at the North American cultural center in Managua, and then two large white vans pulled up outside. Many important-looking, kind-faced Estadounidenses rolled out with cameras and artisan garb. I'd never seen him before, but for his infamous searching laser blue eyes, I recognized Fr. Roy bringing up the rear. He was wearing a Romero t-shirt. With a few holes in it.
The CBC turned Sunday´s celebration into a call for justice and a dialogue with the delegation. ¨We have come, among other things, bringing an apology,¨ shared Fr Roy. ¨For countless years of suffering that our country has caused yours. We walk amid you humbly and hoping to learn.¨
Don Rafael, one of the community´s founders, monitored the encounter. ¨We´ve had good gringos in our midst before,¨ he said, glancing at me with a chuckle, ¨but we want to thank you for being in solidarity with us. May we work together to live the Gospel.¨
After a quick lunch at home, I headed to Casa Ben Linder, Managua´s North American culture house, where Father Roy shared some of his story. He has a softspoken voice, strained by past and present anger, and a tired angel-face.
A navy veteran who received the Purple Heart, Fr Roy´s true conversion came when he became a Maryknoll missionary in Bolivia. He witnessed firsthand the environmental, social, and psychological effects when the US treats Latin America as its backyard.
He first exercised civil disobedience at Fort Benning when he learned the US was using the base to train Salvadorans in war tactics, the same Salvadorans whose party had murdered Oscar Romero. Dressed as high-ranking officers, Fr Roy and his companions infiltrated the base with a boombox, climbed a tree at night, and played Romero´s final sermon into the barracks. It ends, ¨Stop the repression!¨
¨Needless to say,¨ Roy wisecracked, ¨they weren´t as amused by our efforts as we were.¨ The group spent a year and a half in prison, writing hundreds of letters to build up support for what would become the SOAW. Every year in November, thousands of protesters from all over the world gather outside Ft. Benning for a solidarity march and vigil. It takes three solemn hours for the throng to sing the name of every known victim of the School of the Americas.

My time in Nicaragua (at least for this round) is wrapping up. I leave mid-December. When this reality has hit my heart, I feel stripped from my core. I feel I will be leaving my soul in this country, and headed back to a place where the majority don´t (and say they can´t) live with their eyes and hearts wide open.
But Fr Roy´s visit reminded me that no matter where I go, I am not alone. There are people with me, people better than me. People who are willing not only to risk their comfort, but their liberty and their very lives, for the good of the most oppressed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Richard´s Story: A Fourth of July Reflection

Today, as always, I finish mopping the hallway that floods during rainy season and dusting our humble collection, and I sit down to prepare a game for reader´s club. As soon as I sit down, I hear Richard tumble through the front door. ¨CHELA!¨(White girl) he announces, and three shushes of disapproval follow him as he shuffles to the table where I pretend to be very focused. He knows full well of the library´s low voices rule, and decides full well to violate it every day.

¨Hola, Richard,¨ I smile, noticing scars he has from his ear and under his eye, and the glaring gap between his two mustard front teeth. I decide to give him my time for a few minutes, though I always struggle between paying attention to kids and the tasks that keep the library functioning. ¨Como estás?¨

Richard has never been the politest kid. He is barely nine, but cat calls me from corners, and loves screaming GRINGA or CHELA everytime I pass his house. Though I know nothing of his family, I assume he has a hard home life. There are some kids with hard home lives who are still angels. I would not use this word to describe Richard. I feel like every moment he´s about to lift my skirt or tear a book to shreds.

This morning he wastes no time starting a fascinating conversation. ¨Is it true that you´re a gringa?¨ The direct way he asks the question demands my immediate presence. ¨Gringa¨ is, to many Nicaraguans, a derogatory term for someone from the United States, referring to the ¨green¨camoflauge of US troops, who have never been the nicest people to invade Nicaragua.

¨It´s true,¨ I answer, resolved to ask him not to call me that word any more. ¨What do you think of that?¨

¨Is it true that gringos are bad?¨

I blink into his unblinking eyes. I am suddenly aware that this eight-year-old may know more about the history of his country than I supposed.

¨Some of them are. Do you think I am?¨

¨No, you´re not. But they are. Mi papa has a video where they kill Sandino. And they kill a lot of children like me. So they´re bad.¨

Richard has taken my breath away. The United States did fund the dictatorship that led to Sandino´s assassination. And in the 30s, 40s, and 80s, US troops did commit atrocities against civilians, even children, who stood up to their regime. This still happens around the world.

I know this. I just never expected that an eight-year-old Nicaraguan would.

He continued spouting history, of the Battle of San Jacinto, where Nicaraguans finally defeated the despot William Walker, a gringo who had declared himself president of Nicaragua, and of Somoza, and of the current favored politically party, the Sandinistas, who historically opposed external meddling. My mouth and eyes widened steadily.

¨Richard,¨ I gush. ¨You´re right.It´s sad. Gringos did kill many people. There are many who are very, very bad.¨

¨But you´re not bad, chela, right?¨

¨I don´t think so, Richard. What do you think?¨

¨What´s your name?¨


(He makes the characteristically confused face). ¨Je-ders. Like that?¨

¨Yes. Very good,¨ I giggle.

¨Can I call you that now, chela? Jeders?¨

¨I would love you to call me that, Richard.¨

He takes off pirhouetting through the library, oblivious (or perhaps not) of our stern shushing. As I´m leaving the project for lunch, I hear him call at me through the gap in a tin fence. ¨Gringos are bad! Gringos are bad!¨
My blood begins to churn more quickly, and then I hear him say, ¨But you´re not, Jeders.¨

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

My apologies for the gap in blogging. If you don´t care to hear my reasons, which actually do explain a lot of how I´m doing lately, you can skip this paragraph. Firstly, I like to think that with six months left in Nicaragua, I´m more involved in the reality here, and less connected to computers. I also limit my time online and on computers because it helps me lead a simpler, more intentional lifestyle. But I´ve also not blogged recently because I´ve been in a whirlwind of thoughts about privilege, race, and my role here. Some day I´d like to be able to express these questions in a precise blog.
                But because I´m still too ¨in it¨ to blog about it, for now, here are some moments of privilege that have hit me recently. Moments like these, and many more, are transforming me in Nicaragua.

  • When I return in December, I´ll be thinking, ¨How wonderful were those two years with the poor of El Recreo.¨ But I´ll be saying that while surrounded in comfort. I don´t think the majority of my friends here would say, ¨Oh, how wonderful my whole life in El Recreo.¨ Would I say that if I knew I´d be spending the rest of my life here?
  • I made friends with an English-speaking 27-year-old, a kind, gentle young man. He is very different from the aggressive, sexually charged young men I encounter on a daily basis. Every day I pass his house on the way to work and see him with his mother. When I see them, both of them leap to their feet and invite me in. They´ve also invited me to a wedding and a quinceañera. His mother even shoves him towards me when we´re together. Yes, we´re friends now, and I am grateful for our times together. But what was the fundamental reason for the way they´re treating me? The color of my skin. He would not have sought me out otherwise.

...The truth is that I will never be Nicaraguan. I will never be fully received. I will never experience the truth of this poetic fire of a place, because my view is tainted by the culture that has formed me...

I say that I have come to unlearn some of what I grew up around. That is my heartfelt intention. Consumerism. Individualism. Pride. Comfort. As a JV I supposedly try to leave those things behind and follow people who live more in line with the Gospel. But by spending thousands of dollars to fly here and be among these people, I am merely perpetuating the privileges I have tried to leave behind? Is my presence like that of any other rich white person amid less rich non-white people, regardless of my intentions? By being here, am I unintentionally zapping Nicaraguans of their culture (at least what foreign invaders have left of it)? Perhaps the most harmful question that occurs to me is, what should I be doing instead?
I approached Zach with some of these questions. What am I doing here? Should I even be here? What is my role here?
¨No me importa,¨ he said. (It doesn´t matter to me). ¨Lo que me importa es que estés.¨ (What matters is that you are here)
I chuckled, took a deep breath, and reflected on this. Sometimes, I need to let go of spiraled intellectual baggage, and just be in Nicaragua. After my deep breath, Zach said, ¨pues, almorcemos?¨ (Well, can we go eat lunch now?)
Always, Zach. Well, at least til December.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Yo Soy Elias

A few months ago I wrote about the life of a girl from El Recreo from her own eyes (see ¨Me Llamo Katerín¨), in the style of Angela´s Ashes.
Well, lately another boy (teen) at the library is tugging at my heartstrings lately. His name is Elias. He´s very thin and very poor and very determined. I will let him explain the rest...

Yo soy Elias. I think I´m 13 years old, but I don´t know because we don´t celebrate my birthday. I love soccer. I love mi mamá, although I don´t think she loves me sometimes. I have two sisters and a brother whose tongue hangs out the side of his mouth and he can´t speak so he can´t leave the house and mi mama calls him Mudito (Little Deaf One). I don´t like my sisters but I have to take care of them because mamá doesn´t.

When I finish with school in the morning, I go look for women with big bags. I offer to carry for them and sometimes they pay me. Then I can afford lunch. Or I pick up plastic bottles near the basketball court and sell them to recyclers for a few reales. Sometimes I buy myself una coca-cola. Once I bought mamá an ice cream, but she yelled at me for wasting money, so I don´t do that anymore.

After looking for money I go to the library to do homework. It´s so boring and I don´t see why I have to copy pages and pages of text books into my notebook. I don´t know why I need to learn if some day I´m just going to wind up a vago like mi papá. That´s what mamá says anyway.

I finish homework as fast as possible so I can do something more fun. Like soccer with the boys on the field. But sometimes there aren´t any games going on because someone has stolen the ball, so I hang out in the library.

The gringa librarian´s mom came to Nicaragua and made Valentine´s Day Cards with us. I don´t have friends or a girlfriend so I didn´t care about them, but I made one anyway because they had glitter pens and salvaje (savage cool) paper. But when I was going to leave the gringa approached me and told me that they were missing glitter pens.

I have taken things from the library before. One time I took a pencil. They have so many and I didn´t have one in the house. But I didn´t take the glitter pens. So I lifted up my shirt and emptied my pockets so she could see. She stared at my tattered jeans and the plastic bag I use to hold them up around my waist. Then she said sorry and let me go. Whatever.

I went back to the library a couple days ago for game day. They let us play games on Fridays. Most of them are missing pieces and I don´t know how to play the rest, but it´s something to do, so I go. I was going to borrow Monopoly but I saw they had new books on top of the cabinet. I don´t usually touch books, but one of them was about the 2010 World Cup. ¨SALVAJE!¨ I yelled. Then I forgot the gringa´s strict rules about voices in the library. She came up to me shushing but was smiling. She told me I could read it. I didn´t know we were allowed to touch the books.

I´ve never read a book for fun, but this was different. They had player bios and team stats. Then Melvin saw me reading it and came and joined me to read the Brazil chapter. I guess we forgot what time it was and the gringa never came to tell us to lower our voices because when she tapped us on the shoulder it was time to close the library. She was still smiling.

I still don´t like books. But if they´re about soccer, I guess they´re okay. Maybe I´ll go back to the library tomorrow. And learn the gringa´s name. And I wonder if they ever found those glitter pens.

Elias (left) and Melvin, huddled over ¨A Todo Fútbol,¨ a book donated by a family friend. One of my favorite moments at the library in El Recreo.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Culture Virus

Warning. I’m about to bash my country’s government’s atrocities in Latin America. Surprise!
When my friend Zach first met me, he thought I was twenty-eight. At first I thought it was appearance-related. Due to my mature face, figure, and demeanor, I have been called my father’s wife or sister more times than I can count. But Zach assured me my physical and emotional maturity weren’t the deciding factors. “Es que, all of you estadounidenses (people from the United States) confuse me. You seem much older than you are.” I wondered what nationality could have to do with maturity, so I asked for clarification.
“It’s like Americans are more…developed? Educated? Like you’ve reached a higher, wiser way of being.”
RED FLAG. Bueno, the US is responsible for a lot of good things. Like an escape from famine and religious and political persecution. And jazz music. And big dreams. But let’s face it. The way we have dominated the world doesn’t work. If you don’t agree with that, you should stop reading this blog post. But my argument is that Zach is very mistaken.
Perhaps mistaken is the wrong word. Brainwashed might be appropriate. For as long as I’ve known him, Zach has exhibited symptoms of “internalized oppression.” I first learned about it in my post-colonial literature class and comprehend it more fully thanks to my new favorite light reading material, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paolo Freire, the father of popular education. In this process, by which imperialist societies dominate developing countries, “the invaders (in this case, the United States) penetrate the cultural context of another group (Nicaraguans) in disrespect of the latter’s potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade.”
For those whom colonial studies are completely foreign, I will explain the example of internalized oppression that is applicable to this blog—though examples are plentiful (the UK to the Americas, France to Lebanon, Russia to Cuba). The US has occupied Nicaragua since the 1700s—with its troops, dictators, and more subtly, its culture. Thanks to years of invasion, Nicaraguans like Zach perceive their invaders as superior. When Zach thinks of the States, instead of seeing the military bully who funded a war against the people’s revolution in the 80s and 90s (read about that here), an overspending, neoliberal monster, he thinks of shiny skyscrapers and limitless opportunity. But at what cost? As cell phones, designers, and consumerism invade, traditional Nicaraguan values of family, simplicity, and art are lost.
Zach loves made-in-China Hollister and American Eagle. He listens to Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers. He clings to catchy English phrases like candy. Although he hates it, he’s studying accounting because he thinks it will help him find a job that will get him enough money to move out of El Recreo neighborhood and support a family. A noble quest that I have no right to judge. But I can’t help wondering whether he’s pursuing happiness, or the unattainable, unsustainable “American dream” of white picket fences and a mini-van, which he must see in all those glossy magazines and on the Disney Channel. Did I mention he can't afford a good education, but prioritizes getting the Disney Channel?
Interesting, too, is the fact that I am doing exactly the opposite of what he’s doing, I’m an Estadounidense who chose to leave suburbia for El Recreo, a barrio of tin houses, trash-lined river beds, and drug sales. I am an upper-middle class North American who hopes never to purchase meat, own a microwave, or buy new made-in-China clothing ever again (yay thrift stores!). My habits confuse him. What’s wrong with her, he must think. But I also hope it occurs to him to think, what’s right? He’s certainly done the same for me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

December and January Pics

Even Jesus went on vacation (I don´t know if this is true, and just compared myself to Jesus, but let´s move on).
So did I...three precious weeks with multiple wack-o activities--visiting the JVs in Belize!!--that I will go into in further detail más adelante. For now, enjoy these tantalizing pics.
In early December, the JVs and our friend Benja took to the streets to sing (and tocar) hymns to the Virgin Mary, in honor of her Immaculate Conception. Though hundreds of Nicas were out that night, you can be sure our group received the attention we (may not have) deserved. Feliz Purísima!

Some friends jamming to Nica tunes in our living room. Listen to a song they´re teaching me, by the famous Nica duo Guardabarranco!

The first English sign I´ve seen in a long time. When you reach Belize after leaving Guatemala, the color of the water changes from brownish-green to powder blue, and the stress leaves your chest. At least that was what happened to me.

The PG JV house! Complete with mold, ants, collapsing roofing...and smiley JVs (pictured...Allison, second-year from Wisconsin), coconut trees, hammock, fresh fruits and veggies (take that, Nica). Across the street from the Caribbean. Guau.

Okay, this photo has nothing to do with vacation. These are kids from El Recreo, the barrio where I work. I sign off with this photo to prove how content I was to come back to them :).