A Week of Meetings
category: Emilys Guatemala

This last week has been pretty disheartening in some ways. We’ve heard lots of things that have supposedly come from certain community members we’ve considered our friends, like, “Well, maybe they should just go home.” Though our family assured us that the person who said that was only saying it because she and her friends are sensational gossips. I still felt like I was going to throw up; that comment came from a woman who is one of our best morral makers. I’ve worked with her a lot. Oh and I did, quite coincidentally get sick with giardia. Sunday and Monday were fairly unpleasant days until I was given the go-ahead to take some pills (called the Peace Corps Medical Office), though thankfully no one seemed to take note or start a ruckus over my not feeling well. I usually hide in my house and turn visitors away on those days. A group of girls from the school came over to see us. They’re really interested in doing our dishes; they’ve mentioned it several times. I think that’s a sign that they like us? Also, they’ve already toured the green house and recieved their free cucumber, so they have to find another way to interact with us. They said they’d come back in a few days.

Monday night was a cultural evening in Santa Eulalia for health workers from our municipio as well as 5 or so other surrounding municipios. It was a big deal beauty contest and talent show, but I didn’t feel well enough to go. I sent Jaime on his way, and while I was home alone Lina came by to check on me. She asked me if I was going to have a health talk tomorrow. I told her we’d been advised against it. She agreed it was probably a good idea not to have it. “Just don’t go. That’ll show those ladies that you don’t have to show up and help them. And all the women who are any kind of buena gente will understand why you’re not there. Just don’t go.” I figured I should do as they tell me, so her visit sealed the deal.

Tuesday as the two o’clock hour approached I felt very strange just leaving all the women hanging. I started to focus on how enjoyable it was to stay home for the afternoon downpour and drink tea. Rain battering our tin roof starts to feel like white noise after a while. I know it’s pretty unlikely anyone will come knocking when it’s coming down hard, which brings me a little peace. I really had thought everything would be resolved and that we’d get to do a health talk so I’d announced last week we would be back to normal, but that we’d make an announcement. However, there was no announcement this week. At 2:30 a few young girls came up to ask if we were going to have a talk, “Lots of women are waiting at the health center.” I told them we’d been advised not to have a meeting today, sorry for the confusion. I find myself starting to speak like them, putting the responsibility anywhere but in my hands, “We’ve been advised…” Then 15 minutes later some young adult women came knocking, “Excuse us, xal Emily, is there a talk today?” I told them there would be no talk today.

“But there are lots of women waiting there.” And I stood firm, that I had been advised to give no talk today. The issues from last week were not resolved. They waited for me to change my mind. I didn’t. They waited a little longer before slowly turning to go and heading back to the health center. For a little while we were left alone. I felt bad that morning, knowing I wasn’t going to be working in the afternoon as per usual, so I’d sent Fletch over to Manuel’s house to tell him we still needed to talk to him. He was, of course, busy. I thought, if we can just get this meeting with him out of the way, that’ll be work enough for one day. Manuel has this great way of wanting us to JUMP when he says so, but if we ever ask anything of him he has to stress how busy and important and occupied he is with other things. He just loves to leave us hanging. We get over it by double-booking him so that we don’t waste our time if he just doesn’t show up, which has happened on multiple occasions. He told us he’d be at our house by 3.

Our neighbor Lucas has asked us to show him how to make cookies. He’s thinking of starting up a little business, and his test-selling day is the 15th of September, the local Independence Day–lots of marimba, lots of dancing in circles, lots of fair food being sold outside the community building/school/dance hall. When he arrived we told him we might need to cut the lesson short if Manuel showed up, but it was possible that Manuel wouldn’t come at all. Lucas had shown up at 3; Manuel arrived at 4:30. Lucas’ cousin had dropped by in the middle of his lesson, and for some reason his wife and two women from the health talks ducked into the house behind Manuel. It was a pretty uncomfortable gathering. They literally sat around talking about the weather for 20 minutes, all of us in our 14 x 20′ wooden box. As soon as the big M arrived I’d started feeling shaky and sick to my stomach, but I was trying to figure out how to make the meeting happen by getting the uninvolved parties out of the house so we could just get this talk overwith once and for all. I managed to think of something inoffensive that gave Lucas and his cousin their cue, and finally we shut the door and sat down for business, still unsure of why the women were there.

Sometimes it’s hard to recall what Manuel has actually said by the time he finishes talking and goes on his way. He started everything off and spent an exorbitant amount of time talking philosophically about beehives and queen bees and worker bees and the spiders and the worms that try to get in a hive to eat it, destroying it from inside out. There was something about a bee that body-blocks the entrance so these nastier things can’t come in. I knew he’d do this. I knew there was no way this could be a pithy little exchange, some pats on the back and we’re outta here. He went on and on, gesturing into the air and thumping his chest, yes, again, but less emphatically than last Tuesday, talking about this beehive. I wonder if he sees himself as the keeper of the gate, this body-blocker who is always so self-sacrificing? I have no idea. I was listening to him, but I was always working on controlling my own body’s shaking as well as focusing on what my face looked like. I’m not a bluffer. I’m not a tease. I tend to say and do and think and react honestly to things. Maybe too honestly. I have a really hard time making myself neutral, and since this man has driven me up a few walls and back down again in the 13 months we’ve been here, I no longer have patience for him. I am trying, a this point very hard, to maintain at least a little bit of respect for him. So I had to keep my face from registering my gut reaction of disgust for this epic tale of bees and their hives.

He finished, his arms slowing, his hands alighting on his knees, like a bee to a rose blossom, if you will. Anyway, he wraps up the story by saying, “I’ve heard that you were upset with me. People here talk, there are ears and mouths everywhere. I hear that you’re upset with me, and so I’ve come to ask your pardon, along with a representative from the women’s committee. We’ve come to ask your pardon, even though I know, for my part, that I’ve done nothing wrong. My conscience is clear, but I’ll ask your pardon anyway.” How kind of you?

Fletch and I spent this entire meeting seated directly across from one another exchanging steely glances. We’ve been disgruntled for days. We’ve been trying to communicate with one another, and even that seems to have broken down. I was worried that something would come out of our mouths, his or mine I didn’t know but feared both equally, that we’d both regret. I didn’t know which one of us was supposed to talk first even after all the time we’d spent discussing how we were supposed to act and what we were supposed to say now. I wanted to let him go first if he wanted to. He nodded at me to proceed.

“I think, Manuel, that it’s important you all know why we were offended by what happened on Tuesday. There were many things that happened to make us offended and upset, not just one, and there were things that happened with the women and things that happened with you. First of all, let me say that I’ve always felt very proud of being a volunteer for Temux. We always tell everyone how much we love it here and how wonderful the people are. But last Tuesday, for the first time, I was completely embarrassed by the way this community acted.” We explained to him that, in our culture, being disrespectful to an invited guest was the same as being disrespectful to us as the people who had invited the girls. We were hurt by the fact that, since we cannot speak Q’anjob’al fluently and we depend on the people in this community who can translate for us, they chose to tell us nothing. In fact, they denied that there was a problem at all. We’ve always felt these translators were our friends, that we could trust them, so their refusal to translate was a breech of that trust.

I had to speak slowly, choose my words slowly and deliberately, and try and keep my internal shakes from coming out in my voice. I tried to reiterate how the women attacked the girls before either of them had even said a word, and that we found that absolutely deplorable. Manuel sat here with this serene smile on his face. I can’t even begin to understand what it meant, “You ridiculous gringa…” I have no idea. It made me angry, though. It felt demeaning. So I got to the part about Manuel, because I know if there’s one thing Manuel likes, it’s himself.

“To this point I’ve always felt we were friends, but on Tuesday you treated us like we were your dogs and you the owner, not like our friend. You made it sound like we were hiding plans from you and not sharing things with you. You haven’t been able to come to the charlas for months. That’s fine. You have children to feed. You have a business to run. I understand that. You should take care of those things. But we haven’t hidden anything from you. We’ve been giving these talks in the middle of the town for anyone who wants to come. We’ve invited everyone in this community, you included, to our home at any time. We don’t hide things from anyone. You spent the better part of two months unavailable (at this point I didn’t say, you were DRUNK! I just made the “hang loose” sign with my hands and tipped it up like a bottle so I knew he’d get the picture). In that time we’d arrived at a point where I thought it was a good time to begin HIV and AIDS talks with the women. I have on this paper my notes from when the Organizacion Panamericana de Salud (central american branch of the World Health Organization) came to interview the women. One of the primary questions they asked was if the women knew of HIV or AIDS, had they received any classes on these illnesses?” I turned to the female rep, who was one of the women interviewed that day so she could confirm that I was correct. Her daughter translated what I had said for her. She nodded. “After the OPS meeting, the leaders said we’d get together and discuss what happened. Manuel, that was some 4 months ago and we’ve not had a meeting with community leaders since before that time. This is an illness with a 100% mortality rate. I thought it was important that we go ahead and discuss it with the women because they deserve to know. The women here always act embarrassed when they have to translate, and this talk is confusing the first time someone hears it. I thought I was doing them a favor by inviting the girls from Yulais. You know that Elisea is qualified to give translate this talk. She attended the same Peace Corps sponsored workshop that you and your wife attended. You and your wife could have translated for us, but like I said, I understand that you two have your children to feed and your carpentry business to run. Neither of you have been attending, so I thought it would be a favor to everyone to invite the girls to help us.”

Manuel tried to say something. I wasn’t ready to let him have the floor; he’d taken so much time in the beginning. Fletch had opened his mouth at the same time as Manuel. “Fletch would like to say something now,” and Manuel turned his attention to the opposite side of the room.

Fletch let him know that he felt like Manuel had stabbed him in the back. “I came to your house to explain the situation to you. You said you would come and help me. At this point you had the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding, but you barged in and stirred up more problems. That’s not how friends work together. I had faith that you would come help me and you didn’t.”

“But I didn’t say anything wrong,” he actually whined, and then spoke quickly to the female representative (aka one of the “angry ladies” from last week). She confirmed through a translator that he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Manuel, I don’t know what was said in Q’anjob’al, but you walked in and spoke in Spanish and said, ‘I have no idea what’s going on here. This meeting does not have my permission to take place. I have no idea what these girls are doing here. They don’t have my permission to be here.'”

He nodded his head, “Yes, yes, I did say that.” Fletch re-explained to Manuel how those words were in fact contradictory to him helping us out. We went back and forth for just a little while longer as Manuel began to fidget and compulsively check his phone and attempt to stand up. Now that we’d made him uncomfortable he suddenly had another meeting to go to. His wife, who’d come in the middle of things, said, “Bueno, we’ve heard your words, Jaime and Emily, and we’ve heard your words, Manuel. Now we’d just like to know if we can continue to do the charlas here in Temux. The girls from Yulais should stay there, and us here, and we’ll just gone on like normal. That’s all we want to know.” I was telling Fletch in English what everyone was saying in Spanish, because he started to look confused. We both agreed that everyone here had kind of missed the point.

You see, the goal of our program is train local Guatemalans to do what we’re doing after we’re gone. We want them to be able to give the health talks to neighboring communities. This was the biggest blow to us, because as long as the communities outright refuse to work with their neighbors, such a thing can never happen. All this time I’ve felt like we’ve been progressing fairly well towards this goal until it came down to, “all we want to know is if we can just continue like this never happened and leave everyone in their separate communities so it doesn’t happen again.” I just wanted to throw my hands up and cry, “WHY IS THIS SO HARD!?” The jealousy here is still so incomprehensible to me. Manuel continued to check his phone and shift around. “Alright, well I have another meeting.” We made it clear to him that things weren’t resolved, that there seemed to be a lot of misunderstanding about what we’re doing here and we thought it best to set up a community meeting and clarify what are job is and who we work for (i.e. we don’t work exclusively for this community, although we participate more fully in this community for living here and by extension of living here do the majority of our work here). As soon as we figured that out, Manuel jumped out of his seat and said, “Alright, I’ve got another meeting to go to. See you tomorrow,” and walked out. The ladies followed slowly behind him. We felt pretty demoralized by the whole thing, but a community meeting seemed the best solution or resolution we could hope for.

Wednesday I was out at the pila washing clothes. The house was nearly abandoned, just the old grandma was sitting inside by the fire. Along came the woman who a few people had accused of saying that Fletch and I should just go home. She stopped a while to chat, commented, pleased, at how I was now capable of doing laundry here, because she knew that in the states it was pura maquina that people used. She asked to have the bra I was washing, “You have to put lots of soap on it like this, see,” as the fabric began to froth. I watched her thick, deft hands go to work, thinking about all the practice she’s had, doing this since she was old enough to stand at a pila and now the mother of 10 children. A common discussion ensued, “How much does this cost?” We talked about my clothes and prices in the states and in Guatemala, but slowly somehow the topic shifted to alcoholism and how her husband in the states never sends any money because he doesn’t have work and he drinks too much. She wanted to know if there were people who drank too much in the states, and if so what happened? I told her about alcoholics anonymous and how it was really hard because the person who drinks has to be the one to decide to stop. We talked about how that would especially hard here since all the men egg each other on. We talked a long time. It was strange, because she never said anything at all resembling any sort of apology, but I just felt like she was saying sorry in the way she was speaking and acting. I could just be making that up, but it really did feel like a very indirect apology. I admittedly suck at indirect communication. I’m not sure how many years of being in Guatemala it would take for me to be decent at it.

Thursday our boss came up to visit us. We talked to him about the issue. It was good to see him and all, but I didn’t feel like things were really resolved at all. I became uncertain, maybe I’m focusing on the wrong things, or that I can no longer tell what’s worthwhile from what isn’t. It was a long day. I started to feel awfully homesick, so did Fletch; we weren’t saying much of anything. In the late afternoon I stood looking out at how the setting sun lit up the green landscape and dark grey storm clouds in the west, not sure if I was wallowing in my own misery or trying to get over it. I started over to the family kitchen. They generally cheer me up there. A visit turned into staying for dinner. They’d bought a chicken that day and I think they fear we don’t eat enough meat (I think we’re fine). We had chicken soup, freshly dug potatoes and tortillas. My taste-buds have adjusted enough that I can tell the difference between the chicken criollo and the industrial chicken here; they’d bought the criollo, much tastier. We all talked and laughed, teased the little kids, talked some more until the fire died down and then we excused ourselves. Walking carefully down the muddy slope we both agreed it was a good idea to have dinner with them; we felt a little less crappy.

Friday afternoon was the long-awaited leaders meeting. They’d decided since there weren’t that many of them we’d just do it in our house. Thank goodness. Just after it started a downpour began blown in by cold winds, rushing up through some of the as yet unsealed cracks between the floor boards. We’d taken measures to stoke a fire up before the leaders arrived. There were 5 men, 3 of whom were starting to nod off by the time they sat down. I’d filled the tea pot before they arrived, so we lit the stove to serve them coffee and tea. We’d posted a big Agenda poster on our kitchen shelves mainly so Fletch and I didn’t forget all we wanted to say, but also to give them something to focus on, other than all the weird stuff we tend to keep on our kitchen shelves.

We talked a little about what happened with the women, but it was far from the focus of the meeting. Our objective was to get them to understand, once again, exactly what our “project” here is—health education, nothing to do with projects of a physical kind–and that we now have 11 months to accomplish anything in the community. We talked about the cultural norms, that women are the ones to attend meetings and yet men, who don’t receive the health information because they don’t come to the talks, make the decisions about who should go to the hospital and when. They said, “Jaime, Emily, we don’t want you to worry. It’s always been like that. We don’t want you to be sad; it’s not you.” This was a good time to explain some important issues to them. They’re very worried about always being un pais de bajo desarollo, an underdeveloped nation. If there is always this disconnect between those who receive an education and those who are supposed to make educated decisions, then there’s a bigger chance this community will remain the same indefinitely. I didn’t dare suggest that they start allowing women to make the decisions–I figured that was entirely too far-fetched and probably threatening–I just suggested that they make sure the men have the same health education. Just because this is the way “things have always been” doesn’t mean this is the way things should always been. Development necessitates change, so maybe they should really work on boosting the mens’ attendance. “Nas and Don Simon, you two know the way things were. It used to be that people thought women should only work in the home raising children and tending the house, but you two have changed that. You’ve sent your daughters to school, and now they work and bring home money that helps your family. This is a good change. If you want the men to start attending meetings you have to work together to get them there, to set a precedent and make yourselves examples. You have to repeat and repeat and repeat yourself some more, and never stop inviting men to come to the meetings. After a while, they might just start to go.” For Manuel’s sake and to put everyone’s reverence to work, I shamelessly invoked Ingeniero Basilio Estrada, our boss whose reputation has reached minor-deity status, “Ingeniero Basilio Estrada said himself, invite them, invite them, invite them. Never stop inviting people, even if you think they’ll never come,” followed by lots of slow, reverent nodding of heads. This gathering touched on lots of things, one thing leading right on to the next, and lots of translating back and forth from Spanish to Q’anjob’al just to make sure everyone was clear.

The leaders asked us questions about whether or not the teachers had approached us to support them at the school by giving sex education talks. They said there was some conflict in the community, some parents and teachers for it, some against it. They have, in fact, asked us for help, and all the teachers have at least feigned interest in what we’re doing. We had them over for one crazy lunch on a sunny day in February, and they’d all pitched in to get us a gift–a blanket for our bed. I felt like they wanted us to help them, but we’ve had some real trouble coordinating schedules since the last disastrous (for us) talk we did at the school. The leaders plunged into a discussion on their cultural beliefs regarding sex, which is that sex is so sacred there are apparently no words for it in their language. Their customs dictate that no one ever speak of what happens between a man and a woman for reasons of sanctity. I told them to what point the women’s talks have covered sex (explaining exactly how a pregnancy occurs). Again, something that could hamper a communities development is continuing not to talk about sex so that 12 and 13 year old girls get pregnant and marry and have 8 children by the time they’re 25, and neither parent has finished school. I also reminded them that talking about sex does not have to strip it of its sanctity, quite the contrary. If they don’t talk about it, their children will take lessons from media that does not treat sex with any sanctity or respect. I’m not a religious person and my views don’t align with most religious views on sexuality, but if I have to make a choice about the community not receiving any education or receiving sexual education framed within the cultural and religious perspectives of the community, I think the latter is a much better option. They understood these things, but I feel so adamantly that they should be repeated out loud to the community leaders. I also reminded them that now there is the danger of their children falling ill with STD’s, HIV included, because of all the international and national migration.

They launched into some pretty passionate conversation amongst themselves in Q’anjob’al. Sometimes I can not understand a word of what they’re saying. But something interesting happened. Nas explained, “We just never talked about these things before. It was too sacred. You know, even Lucia (his 17 year old daughter) has grabbed me by the ear and me regaƱo, ‘Dad, why haven’t you ever told us any of this?!’ because now they receive sex education classes in their school. It’s just not our custom to talk about these things, I told her. What happens between a man and a woman, only the man and the woman know.” His facial expressions were interesting, smiling in a bewildered, caught but challenged way, as though his face was asking, “What can I do if I’ve never been given the words to do it?”

Don Simon seems genuinely upset on a regular basis about not being able to fully express himself in Spanish, but when he thinks it’s important he tries. He talked to us about how no one has ever talked about sex as being a responsibility, but he knows that it is. He’s an illegitimate child, another thing that seems to plague him regularly. His father was a ladino that came and went and left his mother to care for a child on her own. She had no choice but to return to her parents for their help. Simon told us, “I feel bad, because I never gave my children, my boys, any instruction. Gavino, the oldest, the one in Mexico, he had a family in San Mateo. He married an indigenous Mateana, but he left her there with his children. I never told him that was wrong. And even though I never had a father, my grandmother was always giving me instructions as a child, ‘No toques el maiz mi hijo. No rompes el chilicayote mi hijo,’ (Don’t touch the corn my child. Don’t break the squash my child.)” I wonder if the corn and squash was as close as they get to sexual innuendo? Mayan culture is so high context. It seems, the way he explained it, that he was talking about closely guarded sexual instruction, but I can’t be sure. “My wife and I married when I was 20 and she was 16. We had a plan, you know. We were going to send our children to school. By the time I was 21 I had my first child, a son. Then came another and another and another until there were 8. Who could take care of all these children? It was hard for me to provide for them. There weren’t just 8, there were 11 and 3 of them died. But our plan was to send them to school. How could we do that? And no one ever talked about the responsibility of sex, about touching things they shouldn’t. I never told my children, and I myself touched others (he said otras, female, other women), even though I was married. We should talk about these things. They’re important.” At first I felt guilty, as it had never, at any time, been my intention to extract confessions from these leaders. I think they were just sharing. Then I realized, you know, I’m sure most of these men, if not all of them, have “touched otras“. Why? Because it’s allowed. It’s perfectly acceptable, the idea that men have an unbelievably potent sex drive, where as women do not, and the men need to be satisfied. Also, men have traditionally been the ones to leave home for months or years at a time to earn money. They don’t generally do celibacy. It probably wouldn’t have been ok for Don Simon to tell us, what I felt was pretty personal information, if it wasn’t already acceptable to the other male leaders in the room.

Sometimes, looking at these men’s faces, I am always shocked with how quickly the world around them must seem to have changed. I am here, but I still can’t quite grasp the gravity of all the things they’ve gone through or how heavily these things of the past and the prospects of the future seem to weigh on them. They do not take us or our presence here lightly. I think something Fletch and I didn’t understand was how important it was for us to keep pushing meetings with this specific group of men. In that respect, we have failed these last 5 months. We can’t do that in the remaining 11. There was so much talk about so many different things. We hadn’t even made it to our last and biggest item on the agenda, our hopes for the coming year. Our stomachs were growling, “These guys have got to be dying, is it ok if I serve them some bread and honey just to give them something?” Fletch asked, out of respect, because I’m the bread maker and it takes a lot of time to make it over and over and over every time we give it out to people as something to share with them. We hooked them up with bread and honey and more hot water and apples. They kept right on going. Did I mention the meeting started at 4? By this point that sun had gone down, the wind and raining were blowing outside. We tried to do our best to keep the fire stoked and the conversation moving. Entmoot.

They were most excited and perplexed by the possibility of any sort of projects that we could do. The meeting revolved around their heated debates, from which we were somewhat excluded except on the most pertinent points or the areas of most confusion. It went on for another two hours. I think if there hadn’t been a medical emergency (a women having labor troubles) and the chuj getting cold, the meeting would have gone on until 11. The last thirty minutes had everyone talking on their feet as though they were headed out the door at any moment, but they didn’t quite move until the 3rd family member had come calling for Nas to go chuj, and we were supposed to go after him. “Bueno, I’m going to Huehue in the morning with pregnant woman, so I must go bathe. I think we should have this meeting to clarify things with the women and explain what our plans are, but we should probably have another leaders meeting before then. I won’t be back probably until Wednesday, you will all have gone by then. We’ll do it in September. Get ready to chuj, you two; you’re after me.” Every one hurried to exchange handshakes and they were out the door. It was 9 o’clock. This was the first meeting we’d ever had in our house, but I think we’ll move for that in the future. Even though we were left with a pile of dirty dishes, at least our house was well warmed and we didn’t have to go out in the cold.

After they left I still felt a little frustrated. The end of the meeting had gotten a little hectic. I think it was mostly residual stress, but also this constant uncertainty I’ve felt all week. I am having a lot of trouble feeling like I have a clear purpose to what I’m doing. I’m constantly questioning myself about whether I’m taking the right things to task, or trying to do too much, or possibly doing too little? It’s been one of those weeks were it seems Fletch and I can’t say a full 3 sentences to one another about anything without getting interrupted by something or someone else or having to change subjects to something more pressing. I feel so very scattered and stretched thin. The meeting lasted until 9 last night, and I was beat. At 6:30 this morning there were children outside our house singing, “Gringos, gringos, do you have candy? Gringos, gringos…” We pulled the blankets over our heads and didn’t answer or get up for another 2 hours.

That’s that for now. I’m trying to focus on getting work done for the next few days until take off for our departmental Ministry of Health meeting followed by fun. Yay for family visiting! We’re looking forward to our trip with the Witches (my mother-in-law and 3 of Fletch’s aunts). That will quit us of our homesick and mopey tendencies for a while, I hope.

Posted by: emily