Political Travel between NYC and DC with a Guatemalan- Part II

Mayan altar

Mayan altar

Early Saturday Eileen drove Gloria and me to Mary’s home in rural Delaware. Mary Peter visited friends in DC and then traveled back to New York to meet us at the end of the week. During the drive Eileen and I talked in English and Gloria looked at scenery, read, and took the chance to be still.

A little note here about being a visiting foreigner. I have bathroom stories from Latin America, Hebron, Moscow and Alaska. Gloria now has bathroom stories too. The sink faucet at Anabel’s is a dial you pull out. The shower turns on when you pull a ring down on the bathtub faucet. One of the gas stations along the way has a button to press rotate a fresh plastic cover onto the toilet seat. And of course in many public restroom the faucets and paper dispensers operate by light sensors. None of these are intuitively clear operations. Gloria and I would giggle and I would demonstrate a whole new system.

Mary, our Delaware hostess, is a bilingual nurse. She had arranged for us to drive another hour to meet a dozen women from Guatemala who have no documents. They told us about their journeys and their lives. As they came into the room, I said to Mary, don’t try to translate for me.

This was the Spanish I had the most difficult time with. There were many people. They told stories. I understood the one who swam across the Rio Grande in a storm, but not the woman who had a Downs Syndrome baby and at first no one explained how to care for the child. Or the woman who works as a caterer. Their Spanish was too quick, full of laughter and tears. They had never told their stories before and it was an important moment for each of them and for Gloria. It was later that Mary told me some of what they said.

One of the things they all described was how they entered the country. None of them had ever talked to one another before about finding and paying a coyote – the one who leads a group across the border and through the desert. One was pregnant when she made the journey. Another brought her six month old son.

They talked about what they left behind in Guatemala. They left families and friends and pueblo culture. But they also left behind unemployment and hopelessness.What they came to here in the U.S. wasn’t a bed of roses. Two have serious problems with their spouses and no recourse since they don’t have legal status. They work in strawberry fields, hoe beets, follow the crops, doing work U.S. citizens won’t do.

One of the women was sixteen when she came. Now she has four children and works as a caterer. Her husband, however, has been deported.

Yet another woman told us how she had to learn the Mexican words for things like shoelaces so she would not be recognized as Guatemalan while she traveled across Mexico to get to the U.S. border. Here she gave birth to that Downs Syndrome child. Then she had a second child because Maryland would not pay for birth control. That second child is healthy. The mom speaks her indigenous tongue Mam; she speaks Spanish; she has learned enough English to make medical appointments and to work with the teachers at school. But she has never had the opportunity to learn to read.

Gradually these women settled in one spot, married, started families, and began to build their lives. They are poor. They don’t have health insurance or social security benefits (though they pay FICA) or any legal recourse. If an employer cheats them, they would be afraid to complain.

I looked around the room at these women and I thought, Why do Americans want to punish them for being will to work so hard to make a better life for their families? Free trade is a big political goal. Why not free movement of labor? If these mothers are caught, they will be jailed, separated by force from their children.

These are the best and the brightest, these immigrants who risk all for a better life for their children’s future. Our policies against them are downright sinful. And there I was, in a church basement in Delaware, as much a stranger as Gloria, hearing details about a kind of travel I will never have to endure.

That evening we had dinner at the home of the Peruvian woman who worked with Mary to organize the meeting. I understood a joke early in the conversation so they relaxed and just talked. I understood maybe a quarter of the talk, but I enjoyed every minute.

The next day, Sunday, Gloria led a group of 30 at a Friends Meeting in a Mayan ceremony, spoke briefly, and answered questions for more than an hour. Gloria led three Mayan ceremonies in all, in DC, in Delaware and in New York. Each time she set out an altar on the floor, using flowers and candles. We prayed to the morning and the evening, the sky and the earth, north, south, east, west, the harvest of corn. Gloria had brought a couple of hundred small candles, beautifully made, dripless, in black, white, red, green, yellow and blue. The participants each lit a candle, praying for our own intentions. Then you brush the bottom over another candle flame and stick it to the floor where it burns itself out. The prayer continues until the candles have disappeared.

Every time Gloria told us about the Mayan calendar and Mayan hopes for the new epoch. Every time I prayed that we humans would grow in grace as we near this new epoch.

Friends, or Quakers, tend to be politically knowledgeable. This group was no exception. They wanted to know about the impact of the military in Guatemala, about US humanitarian and military aid, about the recent election, about the gold mines, about education, about human rights, about the Mayan culture, about Guatemala’s experience of genocide. The questions just kept coming. Nobody wanted to go home.

It did help that Gloria had just been talking about these issues with people at the United Nations and in Washington, DC. She could provide facts and figures as well as recount her own experience. And Mary was a wonderful interpreter. Gloria had prepared a power point, but I had forgotten to bring a projector, so she simply spoke.

That evening we attended a Spanish mass and ate at a Spanish restaurant where the proprietor who had been at church with us refused to let us pay. I left money for Mary to give to the parish.

Monday morning Mary drove us to Helen’s in New Jersey. We took the ferry across Delaware Bay. It was so beautiful, a gift from Mary. This was all new ground for me as well as Gloria. About 30 women gathered at Helen’s home to hear Gloria talk. This group has been meeting for a decade, formed after a university talk about relations among black and white women. There were 14 black women and 15 white women in attendance. I was impressed. This was a group who would have a good time but were serious about bridging cultures, starting with the culture closes to them.

These women asked many questions, but they were different that the questions at the Friends’ Meeting. They were interested in the education of girls, the rights of women, the difference between the rural and urban experience, laws about and access to abortion and contraception, the impact of the presence of soldiers and whether the women felt safer or less secure.

Gloria is indigenous and grew up in an isolated pueblo. She left at 11 to go to boarding school when two volunteer women offered her a scholarship. She was the first girl to leave her pueblo to go to school and the villagers strongly criticized her parents. These women wanted to hear all the details, what empowered her to take such a big step into a different life? That evening they collected $600 for a scholarship for a girl to that same Holy Family boarding school in Chiantla, Guatemala.

Helen lives on the Jersey shore, near Atlantic City and we got two walks along the boardwalk. Then we caught a Greyhound Bus in Atlantic City back to New York.

Now here’s a little reflection about the hazards of hosting an international traveler. I had spent two months with the Holy Family sisters in Guatemala two years ago. It was a great trip. They arranged everything and I visited all the sisters’ homes and works throughout the country. But they arranged everything and didn’t tell me what was coming next. It was with great embarrassment that I realized this was exactly how we had treated them the several times they had visited us. So I determined I would do it differently with Gloria.

I sent her copies of the itinerary as it developed. I offered suggestions about the talks she would give and the people we could meet with. I wrote in my poor Spanish and Mary Peter followed with clarifying emails. I gave her phone numbers, addresses, names of all our hostesses.

But I forgot to give her my cell phone number. I didn’t realize it until we were on a subway in Washington, DC and she told me she had been afraid we would be separated in the crowd and she didn’t know where we were or how to find me or Anabel, our hostess.

If you host foreign travelers, make a card with all the pertinent information for them to put in their pocket.

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