Sunday, November 25, 2007

A word on mosquito bites, plantations, and family as a way to sum up the Mayan Empire.

It is my fourth day back in the states and I woke up hella early today. I figured it was my bodies way of telling me it was time to write. The non-pen and paper kind of writing, but I digress. I've been reaching for a summation of my trip, a way of wrapping myself in the love that it gave me and using it to shawl me from the world I am about to step back into. But rather than trying to combine several stories from the trip, I thought I would tell just one, and see where I go from there.

About four days into my trip, I went to a "Finca", now I have no idea what a finca is when my family tells me where we are going. I am wearing a purple tank top and comfortable cotton skirt, we are in Barrios at this point in time and it is hot as a mofo in Barrios (though I hear I got off easy). I see no reason to change. I ask what a Finca is and all anyone can tell me is that there are lots of fields. So I say, what the hell, and head on out with a few cousins. Before I know it, I am in the most beautiful terrain I have ever seen. A mix between jungle and forest, depending on the stretch you are driving through. At some point my cousin in-law stops the car in what can only be described as a Lychee Forest. Huge mama jamma lychee everywhere in tons of different colors, lots of yellows, reds, red with green spindles, oranges, etc.

Now I'm hard headed, so when I'm told that it probably wouldn't be good to climb around in all of it, that there are many insects and mosquitoes and I may pay consequences, my response is "It will be worth it" (which I still believe). And so hiking through I go, parrots flying past me, mammoth butterflys the size of your hand, and the faint buzz of insects. I pick fruit and taste, and laugh as a chicken follows my dad.

The rest of it is an interesting experience, where as beautiful as the finca is, I cannot get over how the indigenous people in the fields are being treated. Young Mayan's seem to be working the land in a way my American ass can only interpret as "plantation". Which as beautiful as it is, makes it hard for me to see it as anything but that. Which I know isn't very culturally open, but on another post I can describe this in further detail. It made me a little heartsick. I did my best to not let it read to my family, who was really trying to show me everything beautiful in Guatemala. By the time my father told me that he had worked on a Finca as a young boy and so had many of our family members, I was ready to leave.

I get home and realize that I have in fact been highly bitten by mosquitoes. Only, these bites are larger and more swollen than I have ever had mosquito bites ever. One of my aunts says that if I was bitten by mosquitoes then they were of the mafioso variety. haha. My aunt who is a nurse there looks at them to be certain I have gotten no other dangerous insect bite and deems me fine but in for a lot of itching.

Now I'm not trying to be obnoxious, but I've traveled a lot, so a few mosquito bites, even bad ones, is a blip on my travel radar. My father on the other hand looks obscenely worried. For the remainder of the day he continues to look at me in duress as if watching the mosquito bites on my legs is painful. Now to his credit, it does look bad, evidenced below.

But his reaction surprises me. The father that I have known has always been ornery and slightly apathetic (I say this in the most loving way possible). After a day of trying to find things to calm the itching, Mama Mirta (my dad's aunt/oldest living relative I have/pseudo-grandmother/all around gutsy lady) says we should put menthol on my bites. This sounds like a good idea to me, I figure the menthol will cool the bites and I had been putting ice cubes on them when no one was watching to get some relief until then.

I put on the menthol all the way across my legs and my dad watches, grunts mildly at me, but says nothing. It takes me 5 minutes max to slap it on and provides me minimal but definite calm.

Later that night, after everyone had gone to bed, I was up writing in my journal and about to slather on some more menthol. My dad comes in the room and says "Ay mija, look at what they did to you. Your mother would kill me." I laugh and agree, but tell him I'm fine. But he asks me if he can put the menthol on my legs for me. I am so ready in that moment to say "No dad, I can do it, I can take care of myself, its only mosquito bites, I'm not a princess." But instead, I look at the worry lines creasing his forehead and ease myself back on my uncles couch and make room for him to sit as I think "don't let him not be your dad right now". And for the next 30 minutes my dad sits on the couch and one by one rubs menthol on each of my mosquito bites. He shakes his head in what can only be described as sadness as he looks at each one a throughly rubs the menthol into each as if he were preforming an important surgery. And it dawns on me then, 1 am, sitting on the couch of an uncle I've only known for days, in a tiny tiny tropical and rural port town in the south east of Guatemala, just how much my dad really does love me. It hurts him to see me with mosquito bites. And where as I was fully willing to brush them off as inconvenience and take a minimal 5 minutes to take care of them, my dad thinks its worth 30 minutes of his time to try and make it better. Now for those of you who are familiar with my father, haha, you know he isn't the most expressive man. He has a gruff exterior and its tough for him to say I love you unless severely prompted and it takes him years to allow any new people in his life, his expression in the states is usually one that verges on scowl. So you can see, how a girl as emotional and expressive as I am, was a toughy for him to handle. But that night, and many other moments on the trip, I was struck by how in our baggage as father and daughter, I had not ever truly understood just how much my dad loves me, even if its hard for him to say it. I am loved.

Family in Guatemala is just different than in the states. There is a different way that family relates to each other. They talk and become friends and rely on each other. When one family member hurts the whole family does and when one family member has joy the whole family rejoices. Older people are treated differently. They are spoken to with a different regard and importance. Like you know your time with them is limited and you are blessed to learn whatever you can. It is not rare to see a group of people in conversation that spans at least 3 generations. In a household where there is no father, there is almost certainly an uncle that guides a boy into manhood. And at very least in my family, they go from being Tio to Papa. It is not rare that a family overwhelmed with children has one child raised in the grandparents home.

All of this is necessary to even get by in Guate. Because really, you can be a doctor, lawyer, nurse and still be absolutely poor. The pooling of resources both emotional and economic within the family becomes a way of surviving as much as a way of life. For sometime, they need each other, and in needing each other, they begin to want each other around too. And though my dad was pulled from all this love and support at a very young age and put in homes and orphanages until coming to the United States, this is where his base was created. Everything he learned about being a dad got packed into the first 8 to 9 years of his life. It is heartbreaking but important for me to remember that. Because the knowledge that that nine year old boy soaked in about family and all the bruises and trauma that followed created the man who sat at my legs and dedicated 30 minutes every night for 5 nights to provide his daughter with comfort.

There are so many stories I have been privy to in the last three weeks. So many. Rich and beautiful stories. Stories about my revolutionary great-grandmother "La Abuela", that hid propaganda in tortillas to help Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, spread the gospel of the need for change for the poor. Stories about her exile and escape from her mother country. Stories about the loss of her 13 children and her immediate jump to raise all her grandchildren in their absence. Stories about my 10 aunts and uncles and their upbringing in steep poverty but rich experiences. Stories that are full of immense pain and tremendous pride at what each of them had to do to guarantee survival for the rest. And how they always always minded the rest.

No doubt, I'm American. I have the optimism, idealism, and privilege that defines my ability to really embrace and take on the world. My sense of justice was created here because justice can prevail in our society, even if present governance tells us otherwise from time to time. It is nowhere near what we see in other countries.

I understand now, perhaps better than at any time in my life, that I am Guatemalan and Mexican. I am fundamentally tied to my culture. To a people whose ruins remain more amazing than any modern day building I have seen. Linked to traditions and values created out of struggle and hope. I am loved by them. I was loved by them before I ever was even born. And they fought for themselves, each other and my future. And now I get the distinct honor of being their historian. Making sure that my kids, my students, and my friends know where they come from.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Crazy Thoughts

I had a someone ask me how I felt about forgiveness. I immediately answered "good, uh, most of the time, uh, it depends." And now, weeks after the question, I sit here and fully get that that particular response means that I'm pretty crappy with it. The good news for all those concerned, very rarely do I think people do things so bad, that forgiveness is necessary. I leave room for people's humanity, the mistakes they make just because we make mistakes as people. I love the utterly flawed and aware. My ability for empathy is so big, I think a key to it, is really accepting other people for what they are.

I chose to take a few days before my vacation to sit and mentally prep myself for what it looks like to be with my extended family in Guatemala, what 2 weeks with my father looks like, thinking about what I want to gain from really 3 weeks without the constant pressure of work.

Here is the thing about sitting and thinking. You get all sorts of crazy thoughts. Left to my own devices, thats what happens, crazy thoughts. I somehow manage to blame myself for every mildly inconvenient to traumatic thing that has happened to myself, my friends, and my family.

This of course brings me back to thought number one, I'm crap at forgiveness. I wonder if the people who live life good, I mean real good, thats what they get a handle on. How to forgive themselves for their humanity. How you take the pieces and look at yourself as utterly flawed and incredibly beautiful is a mystery worth solving. I can do it for others, I'm just puzzled as to how. If I could crack that, how I do that, I might have a shot at turning the same kindness around for me. This way, on the first Monday morning off I can remember, prepping myself for my first vacation in years, I wouldn't be mulling my crazy thoughts and my crap forgiveness. haha.

May your crazy thoughts not inundate you today, peace and quiet is so hard to come by after all, you wouldn't want to kill it with your own brain. ;c)