Guatemala Update

[Note: Former Los Angeles Catholic Worker Community Member Elizabeth Griswold has been in Guatemala the last few months working with rural indigenous communities.]

Hello to all,
   I´ve been meaning to write another group e-mail for awhile. But I keep getting individual ones to which I use my time responding (which is great too—I´m not discouraging anyone please!). Then I tried last week, but the whole thing got erased in the end.
   All is still going pretty well. My schedule is basically teaching every morning from 8 to 12:30 while I visit different elementary-age classrooms. Then I go home for lunch and go back to the school in the pm for middle school teaching Mon and Thurs and helping in the office the other days, if I can´t get out of it (There´s not much to do there, the only value is trying to become better friends with the secretary, because she´s invited me for dinner a few times before. It´s nice to broaden my social contacts, and it´s a really good dinner. They´re the richest people I´ve met, since they have family working in the US.) I enjoy the older kids a lot more—the preschoolers can bring me to such frustration since I don´t know how to reach them and they´re so clingy, but the 6th grade almost brought me to tears over how well they had learned “Hello. How are you?”.


   Other projects come up, mostly with translation, like today I was going to help another visiting dental clinic, but they got someone else, so here I am. I spend almost all of my other time with my host family. I help make tortillas, pick coffee, go on walks, sneak off to e-mail, meet their friends and relatives, and play a lot of hand-slap-to-sing-songs. They are super nice, but it would be more entertaining if I were under 10, like my constant companions. They often “borrow” my stuff, and I find myself singing Miss Hannigan´s “Little Girls” from the play “Annie,” but I remind myself how they have opened up their home, their family, their entire lives to me. I´m also soon going to start teaching English to the nuns at the convent a couple evenings a week, as there is a project underway to make them more independent, which sounds great.
   It´s interesting in a way that I already feel like I am becoming more religious here, whatever that means—like praying more, and actually pondering the idea that God might be more real than I´ve previously imagined. I see the genuine and simple faith of the people around me in its Catholic and Mayan manifestations. In a way I reject a lot as not for me intellectually, and wonder how much faith is based on need. But while I am here and I feel much more vulnerable myself, this may cause a deepening, an opening, a stripping of pride which may make way for more understanding on another level. I also feel that vulnerability makes me less of service though. I´ve never worried about myself as much before, and there´s only so much worry to go around, which makes me value serving in an environment where one is more comfortable and therefore able to give more, which hopefully will come in time.
   I´m actually fine–more then enough to eat, nobody´s tried to violently rob me yet, nothing bad has happened to me at all. It´s just exhausting to always wonder how best to proceed in this culture, to be constantly translating in my head, to wonder if something´s going to make me sick, to wonder if someone´s trying to take advantage of me. Everyday, people ask me to give them money and/or teach them English. They´re poor and because I´m white they know I´m rich—in money and in knowledge. It often doesn´t seem like the right kind of knowledge though. I know how to swim and drive a car, that the Bible is published in different languages and that Tokyo is in Japan; but I can´t speak Kaqchikel, pick coffee quickly, weave clothing or make tortillas worth beans!
   Yesterday, after playing investigator, Everilda, the mother of my host family found out that Nancy, the girl who helped out at the house in the afternoons, stole about $30 out of my backpack in my room. She´s 13 and in my 2nd grade class at the school. Her aunt who she lives with is so mad, she may not be able to attend school anymore. I, of course, feel terrible, like I should have given her all my money and never said anything, because I did suspect it was her. But they said she needs to learn. I had been in the process of finding her a sponsor too. There´s a program to send kids to school for about $15 a month, and one of the US dentists wanted to help. Just last week Nancy was teaching me how to wash my clothes, as I wondered if there is something a bit strange about washing your underwear where you just scrubbed chicken grease off the dishes 20 minutes before…
   A few more brief observations, and I´ll let you all go (though I realize I don´t have a captive audience anyway). My new-found fervent religiosity often leads me to call out to our god in many other circumstances here also.
   As in, GOOD LORD, did that 3-wheeled taxi almost crash into that massive cow? And, I´m still a new born-again omnivore, did the only restaurant I´ve been to really serve me the entire fish with one slimy eye still staring at me? Did Everilda really just cut the wings off that pigeon with children´s scissors to keep it as a pet?
   And, GOOD LORD, child, must you wipe your nose with your hands before offering me a kiss and a bite of the smashed banana you´re eating, because you know I will accept every one of your humble offerings, I just don´t want to spend another week sick. Must I find a way to teach English to over 500 kids from 3-17 years old with no books and classes up to 50, while I copy by hand over 300 drawings, of a girl reading, for the little ones to color and learn their vocabulary only to still have them pronounce the word “koob”? You know, I´m not an English machine, so while I´m happy you´re excited to practice the 3 words you´ve learned and to ask me for more, I can speak Spanish and converse beyond monosyllables, so please talk to me too. And, Good Lord, I teach school all week, must I also help out with the First Communion classes, because I don´t enjoy spending weekend afternoons crammed in a small upper room of the church with 85 little kids for indoctrination time any more than they do. And, I´m not a child myself—I came to Guatemala alone, and I can walk 3 blocks alone without the protection and accompaniment of the 5-year-old, thank you.
   And GOOD LORD, everyone keeps laughing when I talk of the US seat belt law, because if you count the clown piñata, that makes 15 of us in the back of this pick-up. Good Lord, are we really going to play full-court 5-on-5 basketball now, because I´m still tired from yesterday´s full soccer match on the beach? And, Good Lord, why is it that Paula Abdul´s “Rush, Rush” seems to be playing every time I enter the bank? Good Lord, should I learn some more useful skills that I could offer every day, because it doesn´t feel good to tell these begging mothers that their children´s aching teeth will not be pulled because the visiting US dentists must go now–to drink beer and eat a better dinner than anyone else in this town, while a particularly obnoxious one has the audacity to complain about the food.
   So, I will close. I hope the tone of my tome is understandably light-hearted as I try to sort through some of the broken-heartedness that is life here. There is also more beauty than you can imagine. I find much peace in the mountains, trees, breeze; not to mention smiles and incredible hospitality and open-armed love.
   I send Peace and Love to you all as well. Thanks for sticking with me ´till the end–it´s helpful to share some thoughts.

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    • gramma on March 22, 2005 at 1:41 pm
    • Reply

    Great letter, can you get me Elizabeth’s email address? Thasnks J

    • john owen on April 12, 2005 at 7:16 pm
    • Reply

    Hey Miss Griswold,

    So that is where you went. Nice posting. Live
    long and prosper, or other appropriate comments.

    love and peace

    john owen

    • Rosie Lewis on July 6, 2005 at 5:25 pm
    • Reply

    great letter – enjoyed your comments. you captured so well the joy,
    confusion, wonder, frustration, beauty, and the sweet bitterness of life that many
    American visitors experience in Guatemala. Good luck and God bless you in your work there.

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