Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bilingual Frontera/Tecúm Umán Productions Present EL CANTO DEL K'ICHE

Tecúm Umán, the last leader of the K'iché:
statue on main plaza with black cape
signifying that the town is in mourning.
The following video descriptions are currently in the planning stages. The videos will be available early next year.

El Canto del K’iché
       El Canto del K’iché is a four-part video series that focuses on the lives of children and their families in the communities of El k’iché or Santa Cruz del K’iché in the western highlands of Guatemala.  Featured in the videos, either directly or indirectly is organizer Paulina Vus Lopes who works with the community in an effort to address the various social and cultural issues that confront them. Some of these are of a violent nature, such as domestic vioence; others are laden problems rooted in discord and animosity; and still others are due to a lack of adequate educational programs for children. The economic base is weak and unstable; thus, a large amount of difficulties stem from the lack of resources that affect the peoples’ outlook on life, their daily negotiations with the insurmountable psychological turmoil, and their dimming view of the future and hope for their children.   
       Following are brief summary descriptions of the proposed videos.

When Children Speak
       With Paulina’s leadership, the community works together with limited resources to implement a two-week school, La escuelita: Despierta Conciencia, for 8 to 10 year-olds. Their curriculum is tailor-made to meet the needs of 60 children and their families, focusing on goals of cohesiveness in the community, and working toward solidifying their value system, and embracing the spirituality of their Mayan ancestors.

Women’s Visions
        The wisdom, talent, and visions of women are highlighted in this video. The community centers around those they respect and admire, and conversely, women who are active contributors in their field give their heart and spirit to advance the social and spiritual causes of the community. Thus, the circle of good faith, respect, and giving is repeatedly generated and practiced by the womenfolk.  

The Family That Stays Together  
       In this video, families are featured in an effort to educate the audience about the families’ struggles and difficulties, as well as their triumphs and advances.  The historical context and economic reality put the families to the ultimate test, and their challenges are immense and obstinate. But their vision remains steady and clearly anchored on the horizon, and their success depends to a great extent on family unity.

The Healing Arts
       The use of medicinal herbs and other plants to heal and promote a healthy body and mind are keys to a good, productive life according to Paulina Yus Lopes, the spiritual healer and community organizer. This video highlights her work and philosophy, and how her roles as feminist and community worker have energized her own spiritual well being and healing process.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bringing Out the Untold Stories

With Teresa and Magdalena

     No one can describe the suffering of another, but a voice can share the images, smells, sounds, and textures of a certain place, time, and situation. The connection is fragile since it takes a listener to complete the circle, from start to finish and many times over. Like the hummingbird and the flower, or the river and the parting earth, there is harmony when connections are melded. Thus, stories are told and their secret unfurled so that whoever listens takes their essence and safeguards its gifts. Humans are not only storytellers but story keepers as well.
     When people suffer, they huddle together and try to comfort each other. Somehow, their embrace and gentle caressing of their loved ones also serves to console themselves. Their lives are abruptly changed and whatever belief system they held is suspended, just like everything else. Fear and anxiety permeates the daily existence, emotional pain from losing family members is a constant burden, and not knowing what tomorrow may bring, the uncertainty and doubt, kills every chance for a glimmer of hope.  Poverty itself can kill the human spirit and extreme poverty sucks the life of a human body. 
     The families’ stories of those that I’ve met in Santa Cruz del K’iché are full of sorrow and suffering. Far from the eternal spring that is used to describe the country of Guatemala (“el país de la eternal primavera”), it is rather a land of stark contrast in its people, culture, and language.  Over half of the population lives in poverty and most are members of the indigenous communities. Almost 50 percent of Guatemalans belong to an indigenous group. Tragic circumstances have caused the deaths and ruin of many communities, from natural disasters to horrific wars and repressive dictatorships. Yet, there are so many stories of survival and transcendence, as well as re-births in everything from spiritual awakenings to ideas of solidarity and perseverance. These are the stories that matter the most, the ones that will outlast the tragedies and sufferings, and bring a new dawn to the next generation and the ones that follow. These are the untold stories in search of the listener who holds the keys to its secrets.
La Nueva Escuelita – Despertando Conciencia

Children in El K'iché
     In an earlier blog posting, I wrote about Paulina Yus Lopes, the spiritual leader and community organizer who works with members of K’iché communities. One of their projects is the “Escuelita,” a two-week program for children that includes a specialized curriculum aimed at bringing families and communities together by educating their children about their innermost, invaluable aspects of their culture – their spirituality, language, and values.    
The Upcoming Trip
     The purpose of my next trip to El K’iche and surrounding communities is to document the work of families as they bring their efforts and resources together to bring more solidarity to their community. Their school program lasts for a brief two weeks, but their goal and direction are intended to leave a lasting impression. The curriculum includes teachings of the Mayan culture that will help children and their families become more solidly grounded in their daily existence as a community with strong and enduring ties to the culture and language of their ancestors. Children are viewed as the hope for the future, and their education inclusive of the traditions of their culture is paramount, not only to enrich their lives and to solidify communal and family ties, but as part of the healing process. The lengthy suffering and residual wounds from the impact of a torturous civil war have rooted a kind of new vision and hope for which the Nueva Escuelita plays a central role.
     As part of the documentation, I will film and photograph the children and their families, and bring back products of their work or artifacts such as written stories, drawings, and paintings. I will share these photo and video representations through postings in social networking venues. I will display the children’s expressions via their artistic works in as many different formats as possible, including the social networking forms.
     One of the most important aspects of this project is to educate others about the lives of the children and their families. However, it’s also important for the communities in El K’iché to learn about the work of our communities in the Rio Grande Valley. Indeed, we have commonalities as well as differences, and so much to learn about each other.  Thus, I will make a formal request to local RGV schools to allow me to share the documentation and artifacts with school children.  In so doing, I will ask children to create their own written and artistic expressions that I can take back to the children of the Escuelita, thereby creating an educational channel of cultural exchange.
     In terms of Mayan spirituality, every human being is not only part of the universe but he/she is the universe. Indeed, what I hope to achieve is to learn about the K’iché universe and share its abundance with others. It’s an appropriate metaphor when we consider that we have so many universes to discover and learn about here on earth, in the same continent that we inhabit.

Monday, October 15, 2012

University Students Doing Fieldwork in Santiago, Atitlan: In Search of Truth They Find More Questions

        Sociology students from the University in Guatemala City sat in front of me in a bus headed for Panajachel. I asked them about the name of a tree with rich, bright orange blossoms and from that point forward our conversations turned to school, research and fieldwork. Before long, our shared confidence in each other led to an exploratory adventure to Santiago, Atitlán, accessible mainly by boat from the shores of Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. In all, there were three: Alejandra, Karla, and Natalia. Young, intelligent and studious, the students' assignments were to learn about the governing entity in the town of Santiago and to seek an inquiry on the infamous Maximón, a spiritual icon made of wood and dressed up to look like a man. After a few hours of searching, the students located a contact person to interview in the municipal office, and to my surprise they finally located Maximón. But the Maximón visit was too much for one of the students who became fearful and offended by the spokesman's intimidation and fear-mongering tactics.
       When we arrived in Santiago, a gentleman, a self-proclaimed city tourist guide met us, and when he learned that the students wanted to re-visit Maximón whom they had located the day before, he offered to take them (I was unable to make the trip then). The students showed him a photo that they had taken of him and the guide quickly dismissed the authenticity of the photographed Maximón. He claimed that he is one of several imitations in town and that he knew the real Maximón, "el verdadero." He pointed to the telltale signs: the modern tile work on the floor, and the relics were not right. But, the students turned down the offer, especially since they couldn't afford his fee.
       We walked up the hillside to the town's market and made our way through the crowded aisles, with extra precaution not to fall or step on the venders that insisted on setting their baskets and containers in almost direct path of the customers. There is chaos but there's also order when you consider the politeness and patience of those walking behind you. The students asked about the real Maximón, especially in vender booths with medicinal herbs and specialized candles. Finally, someone gave them directions: out the main street in front of the market, up the hill and a left at a radio tower.
       But first, the students were to meet their professors at the main plaza. They introduced me to their sociology professors, Lic. Francisco Ernesto Rodas and Lic. Efraín Pérez. They recognized the need to interview municipal officials about the city' s government. Inquiry as to who was available led us to Mr. Rafael Estrada Arteaga, Coordinador de la oficina de seguridad (Coordinator for the Office of Security).
       The briefing by Mr. Estrada Arteaga started on a note of despair with the following information: the 1996 Peace Agreement that ended the 36-year war did not last; a 12-year conflict ensued, from 1996 to 2008;  the massacre of 13 protesters by the military, including a ten year-old in 1990 (read about Pedro Rafael González Chavajay's painting of the massacre at; and the flooding disaster of 2005. He explained that the national government provides limited resources, such as the national police, so the city has had to resort to recruiting volunteers, some regarded harmless and charitable, but the "rondas civiles" are made up of civil groups, specifically evangelical church members who patrol the streets as policing guards; and, most disturbing are the conflicts between the Mayan authority, the Catholic Church, and the evangelical groups.
       "El respeto a la autoridad no existe," ("respect toward the authorities doesn't exist"), claims Mr. Estrada. There's no Mayan authority as mayors of the municipality; instead, indigenous leaders lead the communities. The communities, he says, are confused about their roles as citizens of this town, conflating rights versus responsibilities. He cites paternalism as one of the barriers in uniting the efforts of everyone. And, he regards the Catholic Church as irresponsibly disregarding its role in not supporting the authority. "Hay que profundizar el constitución" he quotes in alluding to the need to strengthen or re-establish authoritative order.
     The Mayan response was absent in our interview. But certain facts have to be included in order to make a fair assessment of the issues. There's no doubt that the Maya community has a profound mistrust toward the government. As a colonized country, dictatorships have cause sharp divisions between them and the officials, as well as among themselves. And, in the 36 years of civil unrest many Maya political and spiritual leaders were killed. Their preference for autonomy is rooted in their history; acceptance of any government resource is not allowable, not by any written law, but from the peoples declarations that indisputably correspond with freedom and solidarity. Unless the government works out a viable plan that is inclusive in every aspect of the Mayan culture, the people will remain fiercely autonomous, as they have for hundreds of years.
       The only presence of any infrastructure development occurring in the city is due to the disaster of 2005 when some parts of Santiago communities were affected by mudslides from torrential rains, causing the deaths of many, and destroying homes and property. In his twelve years as Coordinator, Mr. Estrada Arteaga has seen very little change in the city's operations and developments.
       Afterward, the students resumed their search for the town's verdadero Maximón. As we walked uphill toward the radio marker, we met a couple of tourists sporting a camera, sunglasses, and sun hats. They signaled toward the direction of Maximón and gave us specific directions. We arrived at the doorway in the middle of an alley, not quite a street, and followed a precarious path, hardly anything out of the ordinary. Once we stepped on the porch we knew we were in the right place by a message written very legibly on the side of the house. We had arrived at Maximón's shrine and it costs two quetzales to view, and additional for photos and video. We paid the fee, of course, and the students and I went inside while the two professors sat outside on the porch.
       Upon entering the shrine-house, we found in the center the effigy of Maximón, surrounded by several relics and icons clothed and adorned with a mix- match of colorful arrangements, ranging from plastic toys, paper hangings, to flowers and hand-made objects, representing the local culture and a blend of religions, including Christian and Mayan. On the right, inside a life-size glass encased casket was a Christ-like figure. Several men sat around Maximón, one on each side, three in the back, behind a long rectangular table. The elderly man in the center, wearing sunglasses, was the alcalde of the cofradía, or the committee that serve as caretakers. While only the spokesperson spoke, everyone else sat quietly, eating their lunch.
       Maximón is a wooden figure like a tree trunk, about four-feet tall, wears a mask, and is outfitted to look like a gentleman with several expensive ties and fancy hat. Hand bills in a variety of denominations adorn his costume; indeed, money appears scattered throughout the shrine as if to ascertain its predominance in the presentation. Maximón appears to be smoking a cigarette or a cigar and the presence of liquor beside him adds a shady or villain aspect to his character. Historically, Maximón was known as Judas Iscariot's replacement during the Christian Holy Week, and, is associated with Xibalbá, the Mayan god of the dark Underworld.
       Natalia took the lead in asking the questions, simple, descriptive, using an academic tone of language. The spokesperson, the ex-alcalde of the cofradía, responded accordingly, but it wasn't long before he became agitated and nervous in his voice and body language. He then begin to question the students, intimidating them with an arrogant disposition, and demanding their identification and documents granting them permission to conduct the interview, and even asked them to write down their names, addresses, and school name. He asked the cofradistas to perform a "peritaje," a sort of "blessing" that appeared as if they were praying, making the sign of the cross, not unlike the Christian prayer. It was at this point that one of the students became visibly shaken; later, I learned that it was a frightful reaction from what she perceived as the "evil eye" or something similar. She remained frightened long after the visit and mentioned repeatedly that she needed to visit her church.
        Of course, we left the shrine with many more questions than when we first arrived. Since there are Maximón effigies in other towns in Guatemala, the one in Santiago Atitlán can't be claimed as the one and only authentic, verdadero. For the community members that believe in Maximón, he possesses both saintly and human characteristics. Based on the folk legend, it is the story of a man who sneaks his way into the hearts of the wives of men and sleeps with them while the men toil in the fields. When the men folk find out, they choose to cut off his arms and legs, extremities that have the least to do with the act that he committed. Thus, Maximón is both the effigy and the lesson inside the legend. But since he paid for his crimes, he is somehow forgiven and looked upon as the hope of a second chance. But he appeals to his faithful followers who can relate to him and his imperfect morality and, instead of giving up they ask him for redemption, even if it means making a crooked bargain.
       The students' discussions centered around the similarities between what they observed and their understandings of the teachings of the Catholic Church, the Mayan ceremonial rituals and what they observed at the Maximón shrine. At the surface, the cofrades seem to poke fun at both the church and the ladino's (non-indigenous) economic system. To an outsider, the inexplicable blending of religious overtones and outlandish adornments and designs, serve to point out how they perceive the church in the context of a colonized people. The symbolism becomes clearer when considering how the Christian church imposed upon them a religion that they couldn't understand and certainly they didn't need or want to replace their own religion. Similarly, the overt presence of money signifies an economic structure that as a colonized people were forced to accept, replacing their own economic structure and thus, abolishing their rights for economic gain. The Christian church has charitable bases, but its unknown whether or how the confradía engages in helping the community. Perhaps, their acts of giving are structured differently and are invisible to us.
       Our final discussion focused on the question of how Maximón is associated with the narcotraficante's la santa muerte, the iconic skeletal figure dressed in a medieval robe and whose scythe conjures a grim reaper character. Both Christian and Mayan religions infuse prayer in their daily lives and in ceremonial or ritual events. Various referents are used to express one's faith in prayer: Christians have saints or saintly persons, the Catholic Church venerates the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Maximón fills the void for those in need of prayer and specifically in reference to a religious effigy that understands their trials and tribulations. They ask for forgiveness, and to heal their wounds, but Maximón accepts the "eye for an eye" judicial settlements.
       I asked the students what they hope to take with them as lessons from their experiences and investigations. Their response was that this information would help them better understand the people and the communities. Whereas none of our explanations would properly or completely satisfy all our questions we realized that learning is the first step toward understanding.