Guatemala struck movement in the depths of my soul, similar to the low rumble of the active volcanos that have surrounded us. I knew that we would witness much poverty, and what many would classify as oppression. I knew that at times my heart would feel pressed between a pair of vice grips, and that my compassion would be stretched. I also knew that something in our experiences would deepen my relationship with Mother Earth, humanity, and the core of my own existence; that my acceptance for both joy and sorrow would expand, and that my mind would reach terms with the mysterious forces of human nature. Guatemala has been a part of this knowing unfolding.
During our travels I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with many people and have conversations with them about the nature of humanity. It begins with a conversation on a topic I am passionate about: anger. Naturally, this topic brings up pain and sorrow: individual, familial, societal/cultural and collective. Our experiences in Guatemala have been both full of joy and then full of sorrow. One minute we’re surrounded by nature, witnessing the miracle of life all around us, and living amongst self-sustaining indigenous communities that are holding onto the lineage of their ancestors. The next minute we’re learning about the cultural entrenchment of gender-based violence: from intra family physical, psychological and sexual abuse of women to punishment or murder of advocates that fight against it -leaving a majority safer to remain silent.
During our time in Antigua we met up with a program director of an NGO I was involved in during its launch in the United States. It’s was an empowerment program for teen and tween girls called REALgirl. Ten years later, the programs have expanded into Hong Kong and Guatemala to provide education on gender equality. The program director in Guatemala saw a need to have a program for the boys for several reasons. He saw an impossible battle for the girls with violence and bullying from boys playing a large role at a young age. He saw that boys were also victims to a system that robs them of their own humanity. I asked him how he saw anger in the culture and community. He took a deep breath, and replied with one word: “Silence.”
In the program the students unpack the cultural messages of gender. Some common messages shared are: “You are not a man unless you are Machismo,” and, “You are a pretty woman when you are quiet.” Students of the program learn how to use their voice when they experience, or witness forms of gender disempowerment. Most find that the challenge in using the tools they learn, begins at home. Karl and I visited these workshops at a public school in the outskirts of Antigua. My heart filled with joy to see education on gender equality being facilitated in the community. My heart also filled with sorrow knowing that in a majority of the world, gender inequality and violence against women is still alive and well, even in the United Staes.
A big take away from our experiences in Guatemala is moving even deeper into the core of my own humanity: that is, my right to exist – as a cisgendered woman with my own experiences, and my own voice regardless of the cultural messages I have received otherwise. During our travels I found myself with this overwhelming feeling that, “I don’t belong here. I don’t have a right to be here.” At times it has even felt unsafe. When it suddenly dawned on me just how familiar this feeling was, and that: NO. I do have a right to be here. I have a right to exist regardless of any context.
Sometimes I can almost hear our Mother weep with sorrow at her state of imbalance, where amongst many other issues, being a person who exercises their right to exist could mean jeopardizing one’s safety. Still, I know it’s been worse, and in my heart I believe that we are in a continual process of evolution, finding balance and wholeness no matter how inhumane it might seem. Nothing is black and/or white. As darkness cannot exist without light; joy cannot exist without sorrow. It’s in this space that I am finding the place where joy and sorrow meet, and hold hands weeping together.
There are some amazing people in Guatemala that are exercising their right to exist and standing up for others right to exist. Please check out their causes and their work to learn more:
Elena and Daniel of Chez Daniel:
Both Daniel and Elena of Chez Daniel in Antigua do incredible work for their communities. Elena has been involved in an association for education for Ixil children and has graduated some 400 students past the 6th grade over the last 30 years. Daniel is a photographer that has been capturing the history of Guatemala for 30 years.