Of course it’s sunny out today.
After three weeks of rain upon fog upon smog here in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, we had our first day of true blue skies, and I can’t go enjoy it for the same reason I can’t enjoy the frijoles and platanos I smell in the kitchen. Today is Yom Kippur, and I’m fasting. And when I’m fasting, I have little energy (or water reserves) to take advantage of today’s surprise appearance from the sun.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for Jews, but it has always placed a distant third in my personal religious hierarchy. Both Passover and Chanukah, with their historical lessons of liberation and their contemporary celebrations of family (and yes, abundant food), resonate on a deeper level with my politics-over-theology sensibilities.
Yet there is one lesson I take each year from this highest of holy days: sacrifice. Abstaining from eating and drinking for 24 hours is a reminder to my stomach and my spirit that although they both play a crucial role in my life, today I am prioritizing the latter. This choice, and the ability to fulfill it, is a show of faith in the divine, but more so, faith in people—faith in myself, and us as a community, to place principles before comfort, if only for one cycle of the ever-elusive sun. Especially this year, here in Guatemala, Yom Kippur is not so much the Day of Atonement as it is the Day of Discipline.
For if there’s one lesson I have taken so far from my short time here in Guatemala, it is that of discipline. From the routine activities of daily life to the countless sacrifices made during and now after the country’s civil war, life here demands much of its people. And somehow, in forms both physical and political, they meet and then exceed the challenge. Not everyone makes it—far from it, unfortunately—but those who do have already provided me with some strong examples.
There is Maritza, my gracious and ever-active host, who does the laundry every day by hand in the house pila (water basin) and hangs it all in the small courtyard by 9:00 a.m. so that it can dry before the inevitable thunderstorm comes in by noon. There is Clara, our neighbor down the block, who gets up at 5 a.m. every morning to hike up El Baul, the main hill and public park overlooking the city—but only before mid-morning, when the city’s thieves come out for their own recreational activities. There is Almaro, my language school’s activity guide, who takes us on day trips to Mayan villages and natural hot springs, returning us back to Xela only to hit the road again himself (paid for out of his meager earnings, not by an NGO grant) for nightly meetings across the country with what’s left of the country’s Left.
And then there are the stories I have been told from the days of the war.
In 1954, the United States organized a military coup that toppled the democratic, progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in order to maintain the United Fruit Company’s massive profits and control of Guatemala’s banana plantations. Since that fateful day, the military has viciously repressed the economic and political rights of the Guatemalan people, especially in poor Mayan communities. Like much of Latin America, the people rose up in the only way they could, launching a guerrilla war that lasted from 1960-1996.
Some call it a civil war, but many call it a genocide: more than 200,000 people were killed during the conflict and more than a million were displaced. According to the UN investigation, more than 93 percent of the mostly civilian deaths were perpetrated by the government. Throughout the conflict, and to this day, the Guatemalan government received full economic, military, and diplomatic support from the United States.
Last week, in the small town of San Mateo, I met Dino. When Dino was twelve years old, his father, a peaceful community leader, was killed by the army. By the end of that year in 1984, Dino had joined the URNG, the Guatemalan guerrilla movement. Later, he became an instrumental player in “La Voz Popular” (“The Popular Voice”), the guerrilla radio station during the war. For nine years, Dino and his comrade Mario transported La Voz’s recordings from the makeshift production studio across the Mexican border to the so-called broadcast studio (a cassette player attached to a 30’ antenna) atop Mt. Tajumulco, the highest peak in Guatemala. During his job as el enlace (the link), Dino didn’t drive a car once. Every week for nine years, he traveled the 50-plus miles of roads, rivers, and mountain terrain by bicycle, swimming, and hiking—all the while evading the brutal armies of two countries searching for him and Mario.
The war ended in 1996, but the massive social inequality and barbarous living conditions that confront the country’s mostly Mayan poor have continued. Dino, therefore, continues to fight for justice as he knows best, coordinating Guatemala’s network of short-wave, community radio stations, one of which he showed me around last week.
“This is my weapon,” he said, holding the station’s sole microphone. “If the people had access to the mass means of communication, we wouldn’t ever need to pick up a rifle.”
Of all the stories I have heard, though, none compare to that of Don Pedro. Don Pedro, our guide Almaro’s father, came to speak at our school two days ago. From the moment he began speaking, it was obvious that his story was going to be painful to hear, but important for him to tell. During the war, Don Pedro was a community leader in San José, a small town in northern Guatemala. In the early 1980s, he initiated a community credit union and other cooperatives projects intended to improve the town’s subsistence economy. Not the most radical idea by any stretch, but because of it, the army accused him of being a guerrilla fighter.
One night in June 1982, more than 50 soldiers stormed Don Pedro’s house in the middle of the night and arrested him. They took him to an interrogation center, where he was thrown into a mud pit and viciously tortured in an attempt to make him “admit” his guerrilla ties and name other rebels. For the next eight days, a rotating crew of soldiers (mostly other poor Mayans like Don Pedro himself) beat, strangled, urinated on, and cut him with machetes. Don Pedro refused to cooperate, and after eight long days of no food and water, he was finally let go.
“What they never knew,” Don Pedro told us, wiping the tears from his eyes, “was that I did in fact know some compañeros (comrades) in the mountains. But I believed that they were going to kill me no matter what I said—so I didn’t say anything. I didn’t allow anyone else to get tortured like I did because of me.”
Two days after being let go and returning home, Don Pedro was warned by a neighbor that the army was watching his house again. That night, he fled his home and made it to Chiapas, Mexico, where he joined thousands of other Guatemalan refugees. He remained there for the next fifteen years. Now, he is back in Guatemala, where he has helped build Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), a village of returned refugees along the Pacific coast. Among the community’s projects is, of course, a credit union. The struggle continues, and so Don Pedro does too.
Struggle is a way of life here in Guatemala, ever since the first Spaniards invaded in 1519. The decimation and exploitation of the Mayans and their land that began in colonial times continues to this day thanks to multinational, mainly U.S.-based corporations and their local allies. Most people’s lives are not as extreme as Don Pedro’s, but many are. The sense of la vida dura (the hard life) is present from the vast, extremely poor rural areas to the just-regularly-poor cities. I am a foreign student here for just a few short months, but the conditions and contradictions I have taken in have already hit me hard. And as is often the case with traveling, as much as one learns about their place of visit, the deeper lessons always hit closer to home. Yes, America the beautiful, I mean you.
Its pockets of hookah bars and internet cafes notwithstanding, Guatemala is worlds apart from the lives of most Americans. On the most basic of levels, this is obvious from the moment you go to your first bathroom and see the sign telling you to please throw your toilet paper in the adjacent trashcan because the city’s weak sewage system can’t handle it. Being in Quetzaltenango, I am made painfully (and odorously) aware of the countless comforts and privileges I take for granted back in the States. Not just the cable TV and iPhone apps (both of which are actually readily available here), but decent plumbing and drinkable tap water.
Bigger than the economic gap that separates our peoples, however, is the emotional gap. This difference, though, mainly goes the other way. Guatemalans willingly give up the comforts they do have (an extra hour of sleep, a peaceful life spent with one’s family) in order to attain larger goals (daily exercise, radical land reform). This type of long-term vision is a rare quality for us Americans. Our favorite word is “Now.” Or better yet, “Right now.” We are a culture that wants and supports fast food, quick results, easy money—all the while offshoring and exploiting the hard labor and concurrent amount of massive violence to the poor, both within and beyond our borders. Our comfort is made possible by others’ pain.
By no means do I mean to incriminate all Americans as lazy, greedy people. I know far too many teachers, farmers, caregivers, day laborers, and yes, homeless folks (who work harder to find food than I ever will) to make such a claim. The average American works hard, takes care of their families, and looks out for their community. But even amongst us decent, community-minded people, who is really giving their 100 percent?
I feel like, on a good week, I give maybe 60 percent of what I’m capable of giving, for the greater good and for myself. What part is that other 40 percent? That part is me, after a hard day’s work at my youth arts non-profit, skipping the community group’s press conference at city hall denouncing the latest school budget cuts. That part is me doing my Sunday errands driving around in my air-conditioned car, even though I could easily bike my flatland streets and would then be exercising my legs rather than war-won oil. That part is me choosing to watch yet another episode of Sportscenter rather than join my partner planting vegetables in our community garden. (This one is a double whammy: the only thing that takes more discipline than cultivating one’s broccoli patch is nurturing a healthy relationship.)
I say all this not to pile loads of guilt onto my skinny shoulders—I’m Jewish, so I’m good in the guilt department. But yes, I am acknowledging that there is more I could do. Much more. And like the good American that I am, I could do it Right Now. The revolution is not going to come tomorrow, and not even Gandhi ever reached perfection, but surely I can raise my weekly humanitarian score up to a modest 80 percent. That I could do. That’s something we all could do.
Maybe if we all lived up to 80 percent of our morals, if we acted upon just 80 percent of our best, most selfless selves, we would have the power to actually stop the bloodbaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe we would be able to put Walmart’s hyper-exploitation business model out of business, and instead make farmers markets the norm well into the exurbs. And yes, for my friends here in Guatemala and beyond, maybe we would be able to support our neighbors south of the Rio Grande by supporting fair trade and economic justice rather than sweatshops and military dictatorships. Fortunately, from the look of things happening on Wall Street right now, maybe my fellow Americans are ready to step up to that 80 percent and beyond.
While I have been here in Guatemala, thousands of people in New York ignited a movement with three simple words and a hashtag: #OccupyWallStreet. Inspired by the Egyptian, Spanish, and (closer to home) Madison, Wisconsin, movements of the spring that organized massive occupations of public spaces, the NYC protesters chose the site of global capitalism to demand real democracy for the 99 percent of Americans who are not the millionaires calling the shots.
This is not a new demand, but what has inspired so many other Americans, and started to scare a few politicians, has been the protesters’ dedication and discipline. Rather than just do the usual march around the block and go home chanting, “We’ll be back,” they never left. They came with tents, tarps, and a vision, and have now occupied Lower Manhattan for more than four weeks. What’s more, more than 100 other protests have started across the country, from #OccupySanFrancisco to #OccupyMinnesota. The ideology of corporate capitalism is on the defensive, if only a little, for the first time in years. And the movement, with its twin tactics of participatory decision-making and individual sacrifice for the greater good (i.e., sleeping in a public park for weeks), continues to inspire millions of people and shows no signs of slowing down. This is the power of real discipline, of real democracy.
Committing to these goals wouldn’t be easy—biking is never as quick as driving, mending relationships is much harder than breaking them. Daily life might be a little harder, but my guess is, it would also be better. Do we want the “Community” program on NBC or community in real life? Real community is far more valuable when you need to borrow a cup of sugar, or to save the local river from being turned into a sewage pipe. As far as entertainment goes, no soap opera can ever compete with the dramas and comedies of everyday life. Whatever time I don’t spend in front of the TV, I am playing soccer or learning the piano or cooking for my Shabbat potluck. Discipline is not just sacrificing the things you don’t need, but dedicating yourself to the things you do, and love to do.
Today is Yom Kippur, and this is what I need to do. Across the world, millions of people are atoning for their sins of the previous year and asking God for redemption. I, too, will pray today, asking for forgiveness from above, but as importantly, from below. To my fellow travelers on this crazy planet: I’m sorry. I can do better. We all can. If you hold me to my promise, I’ll do the same for you. We don’t all have to get up as early as my neighbor Clara, and hopefully we don’t have to endure as much as Don Pedro, but we can at least get to 80 percent. Hey, let’s shoot for 85 percent.
Sitting here in Quetzaltenango, I look around and see the Guatemalan sun that has so mercilessly accompanied my fast begin its retreat into the clouds. I realize it’s time to head to my friend’s house, where we will break the fast with beans, salad, and of course, fried plantains. As I step out the door, I feel a drop on my head. Sure enough, within two blocks, it’s pouring buckets like it always does. I lift my head to the clouds and can only smile, remembering that I need to use whatever time on dry soil I have, because someone will soon put puddles in my path.