xwotzb’al yehom b’aanuhom

Cultural Exchange

Last week Sanimtacá hosted 30 students and teachers from Shalom Christian Academy of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The visit was a mission trip for the senior class organized through Proeval Raxmu.
I joined the small envoy from Sanimtacá to meet the group in Cobán. After introductions, there was a small soccer match to break the ice. The cultural differences were apparent from the start. When the boys played, the Pennsylvanians used passing and teamwork while the Q’eqchi boys made up for their disorganized drives to the goal with superior ball control. The Sanimtacans were stunned every time the white goalie stopped a play by catching the ball in his hands instead of slapping it away.
The differences between the girls were even more pronounced. The Mayan girls stood in place with their hands at their sides, striking at the ball only if it came near, while the North American girls stormed aggressively around the pitch.

The group arrived in the community the next day. I was nervous about cultural appropriateness. I worried that one of the students might, not knowing the local customs, do something inflammatory like toss some food to a friend, wear a hat to dinner, or enter a building without asking permission.
So I was slightly anxious when the groups came together. Both the Mayans and the Americans made gaffs. The Q’eqchi’s were fascinated by the exchange student from Indonesia and as they asked me where she was from, they pulled the corners of their eyes back to eliminate confusion. When the American girls were paired with their host families, naturally, they hugged their new host parents. I smiled at the confused acceptance on the Mayans’ faces and realized that both sides were so concerned about not offending the other that all the rules had been relaxed. A detailed primer on protocol might have only increased the salient self-consciousness.
The primary cultural obstacle was the language. There was a little bit of Spanish understanding in the group, but the amount of Spanish actually used in Sanimtacá is so small that a student with a few years of high school Spanish is nearly as lost as a student of German or French.
Rob Cahill from Proeval Raxmu was on hand organizing everything and translating Q’eqchi’ to English and vice-versa. The students went off in pairs with their host families for the night. After dinner, everyone met back for an evening activity at either one house high in the valley or a lower one.
While Rob translated the activities at the high house, I was in charge of translation in the lower one. Three women demonstrated backstrap Picb’il weaving in the center of the candle-lit room while the students played games with their new host siblings. I was busy as the sole intermediary. The families wanted to know if their guests were satisfied with their accommodations and What were their names again? The visitors wanted to communicate their schedules for eating and bathing and to assure their families that everything was fine.

I went to bed around nine but woke up to a knock at my door at midnight. When I came outside, there were three people waiting in the dark. Qawa’ Avilardo explained that there was something wrong with his white people. The kids started to tell me what was wrong and I couldn’t understand a word. I had to realize that they were speaking plain English. I explained to Avilardo that one of the students was feeling sick and we led them up the valley to wake up the nurse.

The next day everyone split into three groups for community service projects. While one group planted fruit trees near the village school, another planted wild avocado trees before the treeline near the top of the valley. I led the third group on trail maintenance in the cloud forest.
Qawa’ Ernesto and I shared the history and folklore of the area during the ascent to the forest. On the trail we pointed out the animals and Ernesto found orchids for the group to see. Trees had fallen across the trail in two places and we removed them easily. The rest of the trail was in good shape.

We met the other groups for lunch at the bottom of the valley. The kitchen at the center of town is a high-ceilinged wooden building with long tables for dining on one side and open fires over earthen tables on the other. A score of the local women were cooking cauldrons of stew and clapping out tortillas.
We were served and the students sang a song before eating. The women working over the fire stopped cooking to listen. Conversations at the tables revolved around the adventures of the night before and the labors of the day.
After lunch we went down to the school for arts and crafts with the kids. The villagers wanted to know if I knew our visitors before they came. They wanted to know where Pennsylvania was. They wanted to know which one I was thinking about marrying.
In the evening I went around to a few of the houses to help the families and visitors get to know each other a little better. There were a lot more questions and jokes than there had been the night before. I ate dinner with Qawa’ Roberto and his family and encouraged the visiting girls to learn how to make tortillas. The family talked me into making tortillas too. Our tortillas weren’t round or particularly attractive, but the family loved that we were doing it. I told them that after learning how to make tortillas, I should be able to find myself a good husband, which made them fall out (that joke only really works in a pre gender-equality society). The family couldn’t pronounce the girls’ names so Clarissa and Briana became Cabeza and Playera (Head and Shirt). The evening activity was Qawa’ Roberto’s demonstration of making and bottling local-plant shampoo. I caught the neighbors retelling the story about Pedro’s plan to snag a man. With all of the action in the community, demand for candles had spiked and we had to end our workshop early when we ran out of candlelight.

The next day was similar to the one before. I led a different group into the forest and we gave them the tour we have been working on for the past year and a half. At lunch the women cooking surprised us by singing a song in Q’eqchi’. The students answered back with a song in English.
The Pennsylvanians were telling me about how difficult it was to communicate with their host families; about pointing at things and about the mutual smiles of incomprehension. I suppose it appeared to them as if I had sprouted, like some Greek Titan, fully formed and fluent into this world. But there were months that they didn’t see, months of not understanding.

When we met for the evening activity (weaving baskets from pine needles), the atmosphere was completely different. It was already the third night and everyone had settled into a comfortable attitude. The early worries about causing offense were gone. The visitors had written up little visual dictionaries to learn Q’eqchi’ words for common things, and to teach the English. A few women were hard at work weaving baskets, but no one seemed to care, the house was full of conversation. Kids were blurting out “How are you!” Someone was teaching villagers how to snap their fingers. The science teacher’s husband was rolling his Rs loudly and making everyone laugh. The locals had loosened up completely and were joking loudly with the confidence that nothing inappropriate would make it over the language barrier. Everyone was fed and relaxed and the candles had been restocked. When Ernesto suggested that we call it a night, it didn’t take. No one really wanted to leave.
But there was something else I noticed. In three short days the community and I had grown a lot closer. It wasn’t just that the people were depending on me for communication with their foreigners. Having all of these visitors fresh from the United States reminded everyone in the village, myself included, how difficult it used to be for us. The innocent incomprehension of our tourists became the measuring stick that showed how far I’ve come.
And while the Americans struggled with the steep roads and worried about the spiders at night and left some of the weird food untouched, Pedro told them there was nothing to fear, that it was all normal.
So we (the village and I) remembered how I strapped the corn over my head last month to help bring in the harvest, and how I took the muddy slopes right behind the men when it was time to plant, and how I knock back the campo coffees and pound p’och and ch’och’ with the rest of them. And remember the old days when Pedro used to speak Spanish?
And I realized we were looking at each other differently. I wasn’t the weirdo anymore. And neither were they.
Because integration isn’t a one-way street. I’m not an actor in a play called Sanimtacá where I pretend to be a part of the community. As I worked for acceptance into the community, I was also learning to accept the community as mine. I didn’t notice that it was happening. But now that the village was suddenly full of white people who speak my first language, I could see that I felt more comfortable with the Q’eqchi’s. Going over to speak English with the North Americans was harder work than speaking Q’eqchi’ with the villagers I had common experience with.

That was the humbling realization I took with me to church the next day. It was November 1st, Q’e Sant, “Time of Saints” or All Saints’ Day. During Q’e Sant, the Q’eqchi’s remember their dead. All of the North Americans were there in the church, but most of the villagers were observing in their homes. Those that came offered prayers and sang a Q’eqchi’ hymn.
Robert talked about the observation of Q’e Sant and the violence that Sanimtacá lived through in the eighties during the Guatemalan civil conflict. He explained to the students that when the people of Sanimtacá remember their dead, many of them are remembering murdered loved ones. He reminded them that the violence in this country was launched and financed by the United States government.
“I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty or to say that America is bad. But I want you to keep it in mind when you look at the world today and the part that we -our country, plays in current events.”
After the service, someone came over to ask me more about the violence in Sanimtacá. And I tried to tell a story that had been told to me. But I couldn’t.

Before lunch there was a marimba and dance demonstration. While three men played the marimba, four barefoot girls in traditional dress danced their humble dance with heads down. They passed out b’oj (sugarcane moonshine) for the visitors to sample.

In the afternoon the village gathered for a farewell party. People made speeches and gifts were exchanged. Tears were shed by hosts and guests.
After the farewell some of the young guys from the village invited me back to finish the b’oj with them. So we went behind the pig stall and killed the rest of the moonshine while the guys talked about marrying Americans and dared each other to take more than one drink.
There was a time not too long ago when they would ask me questions in Q’eqchi’ and try to get me to agree to ridiculous things for a laugh. But that time is mostly over.
“Pedro we heard you make tortillas which is great because Francisco is still single. What do you think?”
I make a serious face like it’s a serious question and I need to think about it. Then I ask if they’re all crazy and they whoop.

The Shalom Christian Academy seniors left the next morning. There were more gifts and a few more tears. Even so, I could tell that the kids were ready to go home. They packed up, took a few final photographs, and left to hike up the valley where the trucks were waiting.
Jim and Sharon, two of the adults with the group posed with Qawa’ Javier and Qana’ Kristina before leaving.
“This place is really great.” said Jim. “It’s hard to leave. But I guess it’s going to be even harder for you.”
Actually, I haven’t really thought about it.

One Response to “xwotzb’al yehom b’aanuhom”

  1. John P. Says:

    Hey Pedro, This blog is very great and my family loved reading it. Thank you for posting this information.

    P.S.( I was the kid who woke you up in the middle of the night) haha.