November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I am lost in the panorama of Guatemala’s volcanoes and endless valleys as I peer out my passenger’s side window.  Padre David hums along to an Abba song in Spanish, waving to parishioners as we climb the steep terrain in his Toyota.  Everyone here has a Toyota 4×4, that’s because there’s no road, just boulders and dirt.  We are on our way to visit some of the most isolated people in the country, a village called Chex Central, a Mayan K’Iche’ community that is celebrating it’s patron saint today.

“Fiesta” lasts two days, and is highlighted with a big mass, which Padre David is rushing to oversee.  A kind of Guatemalan Romero, he talks more about his “proyectos,” which he voices with an imaginary exclamation point!, than Jesus or God.  Since coming to the Aguacatan region, near the Mexican border, five years ago, he’s helped bring peace between warring political factions, and watched the majority of the male population head to the US, leaving behind wives and children.  And now, he’s finally got the confidence of this ethnically diverse population, four different Mayan dialects are spoken here, enough to do his “proyectos,” the latest of which is a series of micro pharmacies in the most remote villages.  A way for very poor, rural, uneducated community members to get basic medicine.  The pharmacies are “Proyecto 2,”  the reason I am here, riding shotgun, listening to Abba, feeling a little altitude sickness as we go higher and higher, is because of “Proyecto 1,”  RADIO ENCARNACION, a radio station for the people.

The people of Chex Central want their “Fiesta” mass broadcast to the entire valley, so we are going to do a live transmission of their party.  After a quick stop for a prayer with a sick elderly woman, we continue our way up the mountain.  The small communities are a collection of very old wooden shacks, and strange brightly colored cement multileveled relative castles, monuments to the sons and daughters who have made the dangerous trek north and sent back their earnings (called remesas).  Every few kilometers, there is another symbol of Northern fruition, a paved curve, just a few feet, enough to make the rocks passable on rainy afternoons.  Otherwise people live as they did before, harvesting corn, beans, onions and garlic on inhospitable terrain.

Finally, walking a good fifteen minutes up a steep incline, we arrive at a small white church, overlooking what feels like the entirety of Guatemala.  We are above the buzzards and hawks, fittingly we are touching the clouds.  Everybody is dressed in their Sunday best, for the women beautiful woven red skirts and white blouses with embroidered flowers, the men in humble work shirts and pants, cowboy hats at their side in reverence.  In fact, after a week of seeing only red skirts and white blouses, I will admit to have fallen for Mayan style.  Apparently every year the seamstresses add slight variation in designs and colors, as the local ladies like their fashion.  Milan has nothing on Guatemala.

It is explained to me that in Guatemala Catholicism and Mayan tradition got jumbled up, and somewhere found a happy medium.  The Virgin Mary wears a red skirt in Aguacatan, and churchgoers burn candles that represent the four directions, and mother earth.  The outside of the humble Chex Central church is filled with young men, loitering on rocks, wearing baseball hats sideways and listening to the service from outdoor loudspeakers.  They are Guatemala’s lost boys, young men whose parents left for the US, and who wear the second hand clothing of the North, including baseball hats and jeans.  They farm, and wait to head North themselves, lost in an uncertain future as unemployment in the US has meant less money coming back home.  Local families are preparing the post mass meal, a free serving of tamales, caldo, and fresh corn tortillas.  A new kind of sustenance is also noticeable, vendors lay out thousands of bags of junkfood and soda, a new, and increasingly popular way to demonstrate abundance.  A man in fake snake skin cowboy boots, jeans, and a ten gallon hat lines up a metal pipe and fires off a homemade explosive which rattles above and below.  It reminds me less of celebrating and more of the mortar fire I got used to last year while living in Sri Lanka.

Stepping inside the cement church, 600 descendents of the ancient Mayan world pack into narrow, humble wooden pews.  As I make my way up the aisles behind the father, the crowd parts, he is their hero, and I am a curious white guy following behind him.  I am immediately introduced to the entire congregation, and with no warning, Padre David, ad-libbing, asks me to come up and say a few words.  Silence.  600 pairs of eyes are fixed on me, as I grab the microphone and step between the Virgin Mary and a Catholic rock group, complete with electric guitars and synthesizers, gifts from the North.  As I begin to speak, I notice no less than 15 video cameras, from the newest, to what appear to be the original models, which look immense on the small, but work strong shoulders of these farmers.  I feel like I’m at an Obama press conference, as lights shine on me, and I fumble for some inspirational words.  These videos will bring this most important event to family members in the US who wish desperately that they were safe and happy back in Guatemala.  I am also on live radio, as the transmitter we brought is now up and running, so thousands around the valley will hear me.  Pressure.

I manage a few minutes on the importance of information, how this community radio station is an important part of their community, that people need news and information to be good community members, to participate and have good lives.  I search the crowd for reactions as a trusty translator puts my words into the local K’iche’ language.  I end with a thank you in K’Iche’ which brings smiles and applause.  The gringo is O.K. they say with their smiles.

Next come prayers from the congregation, most are for a good harvest, and for safe passage to the US.  A few couples, who couldn’t be more than 16, line up for a special prayer with Padre David, while the band plugs in and rattles out a lively Catholic tune in Spanish, a language many do not speak fluently here.  The couples are getting married, a special honor on this special “Fiesta” day, they will have extra luck and expectations in the future.  The girls look so young, dressed completely in white, not too far removed from their first communion.

As the service goes on for another hour, I step outside.  People smile at me, and some shake my hand.  A few elderly men ask me if they can talk in private.  We go to the side of the church and they ask if I might be able to pay for a new school for the community.  They point down the road to a three-room shack, 300 students go to school there, they say, it’s not enough room.  I explain that I’m just a journalist, here to spread the good word of independent media.  They want a school.  Thankfully Padre David appears out of nowhere, puts his arm around one or the men, and asks them what they are up to.  They shy away, and later I learn there is a divide in the community over the school, that these men wanted to add me to their side to gain influence.

After the service Padre David and I sit down at the table of honor, with local community leaders who carry wooden canes to symbolize their power.  They don’t speak much Spanish, so lunch is quiet.  After helping some of the radio station staff do a few interviews with the new equipment I have brought with me, we pack up our things and head down the mountain.  As I step down from the church entrance, an elderly Mayan woman steps into my path and looks up, forcing eye contact.  She grabs my hand and holds it for a few seconds, staring into my eyes.  I smile and say thank you, she replies in her language and walks away.  I wish I knew what was in her mind, even if I knew the words, I probably am years away in human development from understanding the significance.

Mostly I am overwhelmed by the strange paradox that so many of the locals are in my country, dreaming of home, and here I am, descending on their world with very little understanding, but grateful for every detail that is shared.


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