New adventures

Happy (relatively) new year! I left La 72 shortly after Christmas, to spend two wonderful weeks with my family in the Yucatán peninsula.

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Spending time near the sea meant beautiful sea-related murals.

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The four of us stayed by the shore for a few days, with very soft sand for long walks.

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We also visited a number of Mayan ruins, which for me is always a beautiful and humbling experience.

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Tulum, though populated with an overwhelming number of tourists, is a ruins on the beach – a stunning union.

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We also swam in many cenotes – freshwater pools, some in caves and some opened to the air.

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We met up with some dear family friends/chosen family, and went on more long beach walks.

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After saying goodbye, I traveled to San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas. I have been here for close to a week now, living in a communal house for volunteers. I’m in the process of deciding which projects/organizations I’m going to be working with, but I’m already falling in love with this charming city and the welcoming, politically radical, and brilliant people I’m living in community with.

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Shooting Stars

Several heart-wrenching, unjust, and frustrating things have happened at La 72 recently. I am not going to go into detail here – it feels too personal, raw, and potentially voyeuristic. But yesterday, my heart was breaking, my sadness mixed with outrage at the larger systems of injustice.

I was feeling that our work here is akin to accompanying someone as they fight a large machine, only able to offer them a toothpick as a sword, and a bandaid or two for their gaping wounds.

But then, a few hours before dawn, I rode in a truck to Villahermosa to pick up the weekly vegetable donation. I watched the sky, and between 4 and 5am I saw more than 15 shooting stars. (PSA: tonight is peak Geminids, you should stop reading this and take a look!)

The earth moves through the same asteroid belt every year, and these breathtaking yet quotidian miracles burn through the sky. They will still be hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere during the day tomorrow, even when we can’t see them glow. Watching a meteor shower (lluvia de estrellas, a rainstorm of stars!) reminds me that we humans are such small blips in space and time on this planet.

I feel small, but in a different and better way than before. If we are facing the end of our species – which, science says there’s a good chance we are, sometime soon – then what else is there to do but to put out love into this world? To patch gaping wounds with bandaids, and to fight with all of our power to try to prevent the wounds in the first place?

We are little bundles of cells, and our lives are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. But in the time we are here, we can be so beautiful and bold, and full of possibility.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems, which is painted on the wall of the volunteers’ room here. Here is a link to an English translation that is decent.

Como Tú

Yo, como tú,
amo el amor, la vida, el dulce encanto
de las cosas, el paisaje
celeste de los días de enero.

También mi sangre bulle
y río por los ojos
que han conocido el brote de las lágrimas.

Creo que el mundo es bello,
que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.

Y que mis venas no terminan en mí
sino en la sangre unánime
de los que luchan por la vida,
el amor,
las cosas,
el paisaje y el pan,
la poesía de todos.

Roque Dalton

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Abundance

Tuesday was my day off this week, and I went to Pomoná, a Mayan ruins 30 minutes away. It was my second visit to this ancient, tranquil spot, and for the second time, there were no other visitors. I went there to rest, read, and meditate in solitude.

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The first time I visited Pomoná, all I heard were the birds and bugs, the wind, and the occasional voice of a grounds-worker passing through. This time, I was greeted by a strange sound (it’s worth clicking the link, I promise – though maybe not in public without headphones).

Howler monkeys, it turns out, are hilarious. They didn’t make these noises the whole time I was there, though, so I was able to spend some quiet time reflecting on abundance.

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Thanksgiving is a settler colonialist holiday, but it is also one of my favorite holidays on a personal and family level. To me, it is a holiday centered around community, gratitude, and abundance. We celebrate and give thanks that we have enough, or more than enough – it’s the holiday with the Cornucopia, the horn of plenty.

So often in our societies – especially in the U.S., where capitalism and individualism are woven deeply into the fabric of our nation – we fall into scarcity thinking. As fish in water, we often don’t even recognize it as such; we have learned to think in terms of competition, scarce resources, and zero-sum games, instead of abundance. Even in the world of social justice and social movements, we often replicate the very patterns we fight against. Non-profits compete to promote their brand and win grants, personal ambition and ego gets in the way of doing what is best for a community as a whole, and on and on.

Here at La 72, I’ve been appreciating the ways in which we practice abundance. There is no limit to the number of people who can stay here, nor to the length of time people can stay. If there are more people than beds, people sleep on mats in the chapel; if there are even more, people sleep on mats on the concrete soccer court. It’s a tight budget, but whether there are 50 people or 250, everyone will be fed three meals per day.

When thinking about cultures of abundance, I am reminded of the John McCutcheon song my parents used to sing to me before bed, Calling All The Children Home. It’s about a family with many mouths to feed, and there’s a line: “There’s always just enough [food], but there’s always room for more [people at the table].” On a sillier note, I am also reminded of a dear friend in D.C. who once ran around a room after a racial justice meeting, holding a dozen leftover oranges, yelling “non-scarcity of oranges!” and giving them away one by one.

Sometimes, though, it is difficult to escape scarcity thinking here – many things truly are scarce at La 72. If I give extra soap to ten people who arrive today, we won’t have any soap to give the next ten people who walk through the door. For me, it’s important to remember that there is indeed abundance in the larger world, we just don’t share resources equitably.

Perhaps we can learn something about sharing from our black howler monkey friends. According to the internet, “Allomothering is a common activity in Black howler monkeys. This is when females of a group display communal care to each other’s infants, carrying, grooming and protecting the babies.” Moral of the story: be like howler monkeys?

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Accompaniment

It’s been a busy week here at La 72. On the fun side, last Monday I chopped off my hair!

 

 

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I was the volunteer coordinator this past week, which means that in addition to my normal shifts I was in charge of the volunteer schedule, received guests and organized special events, and acted as point-person for questions, problems, and emergencies.

Unfortunately, there were many emergencies. They ranged in nature, from medical (heart failure, dislocated shoulder, asthma attack, dog bite, and convulsions), to logistical (how to get a tarantula out of somebody’s bed), to personal (mediating various disputes). It was extra-challenging because the shelter’s director was in the U.S. for the week, attending various conferences and events.

 

 

 

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The tarantula in question. Apparently this is a baby, small in size, but I still chose to delegate this task.

There were also some beautiful moments during the week. I was able to alleviate a woman’s headache with massage, I had fun reading aloud to a group of kids, and I got to witness a family being reunited after 10 months apart.

Both in times of emergency and in times of celebration, a large part of this work is accompaniment. We do provide various concrete services – and it is satisfying to clean a wound or help somebody get in touch with their family. But we cannot fix many of the major life problems people are experiencing. What we can do is bear witness to people’s pain, and remind them that they are not alone.

In the middle of the night last night, we were awoken because a woman was convulsing on the floor of the women’s dorm. We called the Red Cross, and the first responders told us it was psychosomatic; the woman’s vital signs were normal, but she was under such immense stress that her body was rebelling. Another volunteer and I spent a few hours talking with the woman, trying to help her relax and calm down. The thing that seemed to reassure her the most was when we repeated that she was not alone; we couldn’t fix the problems she was having back home in Guatemala, but we would accompany her as she figured out what to do.

The idea of “accompaniment” is at the core of La 72’s mission and values. While there is of course a power dynamic between staff/volunteers and the people living here as migrants, the framework here is one of solidarity, not of aid.

I’ll leave you with this beautiful quotation in Spanish – the full poem, by Mario Benedetti, is on one of the beautiful murals inside La 72.

Te quiero en mi paraíso

es decir que en mi país

la gente viva feliz

aunque no tenga permiso.

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Día de Muertos // Death

I’ve now been at La 72 – Hogar Refugio Para Personas Migrantes for over a week. Last week, we celebrated Día de Muertos with a host of activities, ranging from fun and silly (e.g. face-painting, a La Catrina costume/dance competition, and more) to somber (a traditional alter to remember loved ones, and a pensive speech from Fray Tomás, the Franciscan friar at the helm of the shelter).

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As Fray Tomás reminded us, paradoxically, many migrants have died seeking a better life. The shelter itself, La 72, is named in memory of the 72 Central and South American migrants who were kidnapped and then killed by a cartel in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2010.

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Adding notes to loved ones who have passed on, in the shelter’s chapel. There are 72 crosses on the wall, honoring the victims of the 2010 Tamaulipas massacre. 

Every person who comes to stay at La 72 completes a “registration,” and one of my key duties as a volunteer here is to do these intake interviews. Yesterday, I interviewed a man who has a young son still living in Honduras. This young man is hoping to find work in the U.S. so he can send money back home to his son and aging parents. One of the questions we ask at the intake interview is whether the person can return to their home country (to see whether they might be eligible for asylum). This man told me that he feared for his life if he returned to Honduras – like many people here, he has received threats from gangs – but that he would return if he needed to: “for my son, I would give my life.”

I also hear about robberies and assaults on the path – both by local people preying on migrants, and by police and immigration authorities in Mexico and Guatemala. One man I interviewed recently was returning to La 72 after a hospital stay. He had left the shelter by catching a ride on top of “La Bestia,” the cargo train that heads north every few days, and jumped off the moving train to escape a band of men with machetes who were robbing and assaulting the migrants sitting atop the train. He suffered a broken leg, hobbled several hours to the hospital, and is now back at La 72 before trying to head north again. Those who don’t jump sometimes face even worse fates – kidnapping, sexual violence, death. Even with all of its risks, many people prefer La Bestia to buses or “combis,” which come with a high likelihood of being stopped by Immigration agents.

Over the past several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would die for. Several of my friends were at the scene in Charlottesville when a man drove a car into the crowd, killing a woman and injuring others. And while I feel very safe and comfortable at La 72 now that I’m here, before arriving I read about the death threats Fray Tomás routinely receives for doing the simple yet radical work of publicly denouncing injustices and abuses of power, and welcoming every human being who walks through these doors, unconditionally.

Famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said, “it’s worthwhile to die for things without which it’s not worthwhile to live.” I’m now surrounded by people who have faced this question – “what would I die for?” – in a very tangible way. People migrate for a variety of reasons; here, 80% of the population is from Honduras, and most are fleeing violence and/or escaping poverty and a lack of job opportunities. Whatever the motive, this dangerous journey is not undertaken lightly. And Fray Tomás, while certainly planning to live out a long life of service and solidarity, is willing to risk his own life for the lives, human rights, and dignity of all people.

While this blog post is on the morbid side – and plenty of time here is spent discussing human rights abuses, tending to blisters, and handing out scarce soap and clothing – there is also an amazing amount of resilience and joy. So, I’ll leave you with this picture of the La Catrina costume and dance competition, featuring one of the contestants dancing in full drag. (Everyone ended up “winning” and getting pan dulce, as it should be!)

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Cusco and Machu Picchu

Living far from home mostly feels like a huge privilege and wonderful journey, but sometimes it’s hard. I miss being present for various life events; recently, an elderly relative passed away, and a baby cousin was born. And last weekend, I experienced being very sick far from home. Luckily, my sister and uncle were with me, and I got great medical care from the clinic I was at. However, it was my first time being hospitalized, and feeling awful in a foreign country with unknown doctors was a little scary.

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(I’m almost 100% better now!)

The reason I got that sick, though, was because I was on an amazing 4-day hike in the mountains near Machu Picchu. The views were stunning, the company was great, and we had a wonderful guide who taught us about the region and Incan history.

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The view after lunch on the first day.

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Close to the end of day 1 – we hiked up that valley!

The first night, we slept in a beautiful meadow at around 14,000 feet elevation, and on the second day, we got up at dawn to start hiking.

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The view from our campsite, before starting up the pass.

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We passed through a magical grove of trees – I’m certain there were elves somewhere.

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At the top of the 15,800-ft pass, looking over to the other side.

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We passed several lagoons, and got views of glacier-covered peaks.

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It started snowing and sleeting – I was happy to be going down, not up!

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We met a lot of cute sheep, llamas, and alpacas along the hike.

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My uncle the mountaineer.

After finishing the trek, we took a train to Machu Picchu. Although I was feeling terrible by then, I still found the massive Incan ruins humbling and awe-inspiring.

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The mountains themselves were dramatic and graceful

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I hung out with this view and rested, while my sister and uncle climbed Machu Picchu. 

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The slope of the roofs matched the angle of the mountains beyond.

I’ve been back in Cusco for a week now, and I have a few more days to rest and gain strength before heading to Mexico to live and volunteer at a migrant and refugee shelter. Now that I’m feeling better, I can enjoy the many things Cusco has to offer, including parades like the one below!

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Performances

In the past few weeks, we’ve been fortunate to attend a large number of arts performances, ranging in quality and formality.

On the less formal side, there are marching bands that wind through the streets daily. I would describe them as “middle-school marching band” quality, but their enthusiasm (usually) makes up for their imprecision in pitch.

On the more formal end, we happened to be here for Sucre’s two-week long Festival Internacional de la Cultura.

We watched a half-dozen dance groups from around Bolivia perform variations on cueca, a partner dance with pañuelos – handkerchiefs. At the end, the audience was invited to dance with the dancers, and I particularly enjoyed watching a girl in a panda hat dance this formal, delicate dance.

Link to video: These cueca dancers warmed up in the central plaza before going on stage.

We attended several other dance performances, including an indigenous dance and storytelling event, and a dance school performance with a few hundred young dancers ranging in age from teensy tiny to teenagers.

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Our view from the nosebleeds – the colors represent the Bolivian flag.

The musical performances we saw included a “tuna” concert, and a performance by a Bolivian baroque youth orchestra. In this context, a tuna is not a fish, but rather a group of university students who play instruments and sing together. The tunas we saw reminded us of men’s collegiate cappella groups in the United States, complete with sophomoric humor and homoerotic undertones.

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The young man on the center left is wearing a lovely sequined dress

We also went to a poetry reading on the roof of a convent-turned-school. The poetry was beautiful (although we didn’t understand every word, we mostly got the gist) and the roof was magical. Rebecca and I returned to the roofs this week to do our Spanish homework in the sun.

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I climbed the bell-tower while Becca finished her homework on the roof below.

It’s a little hard to believe we are leaving Sucre this weekend. I have learned a lot – Spanish, but also some fascinating history and opinions on current events and politics. We have been going to salsa classes, cooking classes, museums, and more, and have met some wonderful people along the way. So, although the time has gone by quickly, it has also felt full and rich.

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Fun with new friends on a Sunday hike.

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