Ms. Menchu Tum was a 1992 Nobel Prize winner.  She has long worked for indigenous rights, learning Spanish and the Bible to be able to communicate effectively and strengthen her message.  In her book, I, Rigoberta Menchu she talks about the Bible as being a weapon- a way to appeal to the Christian culture for an end to the injustices happening to indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala.  She is a controversial figure, because she has been such an agent of change in her country.  When Genelle and Helen saw her speak at a women’s conference, Rigoberta shared with the audience that she wakes each morning and asks herself, “How will I bother them today?”

rendering of Rigoberta Mechu Tum

rendering of Rigoberta Mechu Tum

But truly the work she has done is very positive.  And we were invited to be with a group of educators in Guatemala City at the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation.. What a gift to be with them as Genelle shared teaching strategies, tips, and sustainable teaching tools with the group.  We played the games together as if we were the children.  We also got to talk about Unitarian Universalism.  The gathered group seemed impressed that we could hold it together with no dogma or creed.  I talked about the power of the promises and commitments we make to one another and how that challenges us to grow yet also calls us back to one another and the Holy.  At least I tried to say something along those lines as I struggled along in my rudimentary Spanish.

The most moving part of teacher’s workshop time was when Genelle played Lucia’s LetterLucia’s Letter is a recording of a young woman reading a letter to her mother.  In it she describes the nearly indescribable journey and trauma she experienced because she was sent to the United States from Guatemala to work and support her family.  The young woman was taken over the border by a coyote, a person –usually male- who is paid to traffic people across borders.  Coyotes must be well-trusted, as many coyotes take advantage of the fear and powerlessness of the people they lead.  In Lucia’s Letter, the girl was drugged to walk faster and have less appetite; she was raped and brutalized; and then she was enslaved in forced labor once she arrived in the states- in Immokalee.  All of this is under the threat that the girl would be turned into la migra, or Immigration, the coyote painting exaggerated pictures that she would be jailed or worse by la migra.  In the end, Lucia’s Letter encourages parents to save the money they would give to the coyote and invest that in their daughter’s education in Guatemala.  Educated women and children will strengthen all of Guatemala.

So as we listened to the recording, I could feel the energy in the room shift.  After the recording ended, all of us were breathing deeper, shaking heads, staring blankly, tearing up.  All were quiet together for some moments.  Then some of the men spoke- lifting up the many experiences of trauma that communities in Guatemala have experienced- the kinds of experiences that turned young men’s hair white.  But as I scanned the room, the most powerful movement that was happening was under the surface and in the silence of the women.  It was in the careful composure of their faces that the dams might not be loosed, the indescribable surfacing only through the moistened eyes that looked up so that tears might not fall.  In my belly, I could feel the power of their direct experience, of knowing that aunties, sisters, cousins, mothers of the gathered female teachers, or perhaps they themselves, knew this pain keenly.

Under the surface of everything in Guatemala I felt this.  Even my Spanish lessons revealed how much my wonderful young Spanish teacher had to clearly define herself as Spanish, not Indian, not one of them.  The normative was still the culture of el conquistador, all these years later.  Helen and I went on a tour around the neighboring villages of Antigua.  In one small town we came across a monument.  The monument documented the surrender of a Mayan leader to a Spanish conquistador.  Surrounding the leader who is on his knees, are more Spanish soldiers.  In the right hand corner a priest conspires with a Spaniard.

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At the top of the monument is a rendering of a conquistador on a horse, his horse rearing up, the hooves poised to crush the 3 volcanoes in the background.

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La Merced

When we went to a beautiful cathedral in Antigua, La Merced, a man was singing hymns and playing his guitar.  Adherents were in the pews, one woman singing along with him, crying and singing the words of faith that would hold her in her pain.  Copal and candles burned at various altars as offerings of hope and healing.  I observed a handful of people in tears, coming to this place for solace.

It was beautiful.  I imagined these saddened- grieving people feeling a bit better when they left the cathedral.  I imagined them seeing the pain they experience differently, getting a perspective that gave them the power to choose how to respond in their grief.

I hope we can do that for people at church.  That you come to church to feel things, to experience a greater love.   As Emerson says, “The heart knoweth.”

And this trip to Guatemala serves as a reminder to me of what pain and suffering lies under the surface of everything.  The clothes I buy, the tomatoes from the market, the men on downtown benches.  We can either run and hide from it or face it.  And spaces like churches and temples and synagogues are the places where we can- in a safe, structured way- feel the overwhelm and somehow temper it all with joy.  Somehow, Sunday after Sunday, we can restore hope in our hearts. Isn’t life worth the effort of hoping?

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