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Fulbright Scholar, U.S. State Department (2009 – 2010)

HablaGuate HomepageIn October of 2009, my husband and I drove back down to Guatemala, the country of my birth, 3,118.5 miles, 53 hrs 1 minute of driving according to Bing maps, all the way from California. While I’d made similar drives with my mother, this time we weren’t headed down to bring back some family member or to be at the mercy of U.S. immigration officials to determine our legal status in the United States. This time we weren’t leaving because we were sick of being treated like mojados and maybe we just wouldn’t come back.

This time I was driving down to Guatemala as a Fulbright scholar, on a grant awarded by the U.S. State Department, making me a diplomatic representative of the United States (the irony doesn’t escape me). My Fulbright project was to research online citizen media and to create a collaborative citizen journalism website for Guatemalans to share information from their mobile phones to a website. With all my community organizing, nonprofit and journalism background, I was going down to listen, to learn and to orchestrate an online participatory space for civic issues in Guatemala.

I already knew that one of Guatemala’s biggest problems was internal communication (the reason why someone in Puerto Barrios has no clue what is happening in San Marcos), the lack of which is then exacerbated outside the country. Communication was prohibitively expensive so people often could not obtain information outside their municipalities. They often turned, as they do now, to community radio stations, many of them deemed pirate stations by the government. My family in the United States, myself included, wanted to know what was happening in Bananera, in Chiquimula, in Puerto Barrios, in Guatemala City. We wanted to share mundane events like the patron saint festivals, las ferias, the processions, and to find out news about catastrophes. Cheap, easy communication was essential for those living within the country and those trying to maintain a transnational connectedness.

This is an excerpt from “Citizen Media, Mobile Phone Democracy” written for ReVista Harvard Review of Latin America.


HablaCentro & Ashoka Fellowship (2011-present)

HablaCentroHablaCentro develops curriculum, tools and strategies to help people in Latin America become more digitally literate and civically engaged;  conducts trainings in the use of digital tools to create more informed citizens; and connects collaborators to opportunities so they can sustain themselves economically through informed global citizenship and storytelling.

At the heart of the HablaCentro strategy is the idea that access to timely, relevant information improves people’s lives, especially if that information is used to fuel civic participation. Until recently, providing Central Americans with consistent, inexpensive access to such information was nearly impossible as violent civil strife gripped many countries and political elites stifled democratic decision-making. As democracy begins to take root in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the time is finally ripe for a mass communication platform built and used by citizens themselves.

HablaCentro’s technology platform allows users to send and receive information via text messages, emails, and local websites in each of the countries where HablaCentro currently operates (i.e. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Venezuela). The HablaCentro platform has already experienced such high demand that Kara’s model has spread virally from Guatemala, where she began her operations in May 2009, to the other four countries through sheer local initiative and volunteer support.

Beyond being a mere communication platform, HablaCentro is designed to promote civic participation through citizen journalism training, information sharing and collective action calls. Through educational outreach—provided to schools and citizen groups—as well as basic online tutorials, HablaCentro encourages citizens to report news that is timely and relevant to their communities, thus creating a bottom-up flow of information to counterbalance the traditional top-down media.


La Pura Vida as a State of Being

February 20, 2013

CR-underwearTo live in Costa Rica is “la pura vida” – a common dicho or saying that literally means “pure life” or “all life”. It’s a newer dicho, having become popular in the past fifteen years after it was coined by the Mexican comedian Antonio Espino y Mora, known as Clavillazo who used it in this film. Although younger people say it often as a slang or when things are going particularly well on a given day, it’s a shared sentiment by Costa Ricans, and something even extranjeros tap into when visiting. It’s an ideology, a way of life, a deeper philosophy of how life should be lived, both in peace, but also to its fullest in the present moment. It also refers to a shared sense of entitlement that you can’t mess with my right or anyone’s right to live a peaceful life. What has become clear after one week of my visit to San Jose, is that viviendo la pura vida doesn’t involve accumulation of wealth or longing for things un-had, it’s a deeper understanding for the richness and appreciation of life itself.

It’s something we discuss for hours while eating pizza and nursing some drinks at Cafe Mundo, a lovely cafe in the ritzier part of San Jose tucked amid boutique hotels, bed and breakfast spots and spas. It’s a favorite spot among locals and Americans who live here and for whom San Jose isn’t just a springboard to eco-adventure-ville. My new friend, Jose Enrique Garnier, a native retired Costa Rican architect, has brought me here. It’s our first two hours of meeting one another after being introduced over e-mail the day before through a mutual friend in Guatemala. Jose Enrique is not only an architect, he was the previous dean of the architecture department at UCR, a documentary producer and now the organizer of what will be the region’s first Cine Arquitectura. He’s soft-spoken and slow to respond, which I thought initially meant he couldn’t hear me. His pauses, however, mean reflection and eventually he responds as any good professor does, by saying “well you have to look at it in context.”

He’s also recently widowed, his wife, who was a journalist, passed away the previous year after thirty years of marriage. He has two sons, both who live in the United States and are in doctoral programs. Sitting across from him I can see he’s had a  difficult year, we both have and neither one feels a need to hide it. We’re both happy for each other’s company. Out of sheer impulse, I had called him earlier and asked him if he wanted to go to the Contemporary Art Museum, it was a shot in the dark, but he agreed readily. “Estoy en San Pedro, te veo pronto.” I’ll see you soon.

I have to stick to Spanish with Jose Enrique, which makes my brain hurt when I ask him about “social paradigms” and “institutional knowledge”, words I do not know in Spanish.  We meet at the museum gates, he wears a yellow golfer’s cap, khaki pants, and a burgundy cardigan that comfortably stretches over his belly. He has his small point and shoot camera in his hand.  I think: If he were grandpa, he’d be a hipster, arty type of grandpa who takes you to the museums and then for a root beer float later.

We enter the museum 45-minutes before they close and we both try to negotiate down the $2 entry fee, shameless I tell him, while he makes his final bid for “2 for one”. “How about 2 for 2?” the museum woman tells us with her biggest and most graceful smile. I don’t think we’re the only ones who arrived late.

“It’s good,” I tell Jose Enrique. “It’ll pressure us to be more selective about the pieces we look at.”

But Jose Enrique isn’t one to rush through things, so we move from piece to piece together, taking pictures of each piece, getting to know one another, scratching our heads when we arrive at a piece we have no idea what to think, then shuffle along quickly to the next piece. One of the exhibits is a national artists’ collection with close to twenty Costa Rica contemporary artists. I couldn’t have picked a better museum partner because Jose Enrique knows most of them and has enough context on everything to teach an entire class. In the pop art section we get to a collection that focuses on outside perceptions of Costa Rica and its role in Central America as the “Switzerland of Central America”, the Swiss Army knife without the army, the missing puzzle piece, the happiest place in the world. “Somos presos del exito.” We’re prisoners of our success, I heard later in my trip and slowly I began to understand.

Then we get to a large piece composed of words in different color font with this as the intro paragraph:

“El 17 de enero 2011 se publico la siguiente noticia en el Facebook de Telenoticias: “Cientos de Nicaragüenses Buscan legalizar Su Estado en Costa Rica “Estós hijo los Comentarios Que Se hicieron el dia al respecto, los cuales se pueden ver en www.facebook.com/Telenoticias7/posts/161151917265734″

It’s one of the biggest debates right now which centers on the increasingly immigration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica and what to do about an already overburdened public medical and social services system.

I asked Jose Enrique what “pura vida” meant in this context and what it meant to him. He pondered that question quietly. “It’s a good question, it’s a dicho, which we use, but in this case, it’s questioning our own ability to let others live their lives.” I was getting confused because there was a clear tension between how outsiders perceived Costa Ricans, how Costa Ricans perceived themselves and the growing pains of a democracy dealing with increasing levels of government corruption, immigrants from Nicaragua, narco-trafficking, money laundering, and the plot just thickened.

The last part of our museum tour involved the upstairs exhibit which focused on the internal violence that Costa Ricans face with decreasing public safety as reflected in the familiar rolled barbed wire over houses, iron bars on the windows, the availability of guns, homophobia, the increasing aggression by the police force, the push and pull between public and private institutions, limitations to liberty of expression, machismo and pretty soon it was getting stuffy in this attic. I look for Jose Enrique who is staring tranquilly over the balustrade at the repeating video of a young man watering his asphalt yard. Not even weeds sprout to ease the tension.

“It’s stuffy in here,” I tell him.

“I think that’s the point,” Jose Enrique says wisely. I felt like I’d just sat through a three-hour lecture on the plight of Costa Ricans.

“Let’s go get a coffee or drink,” I told him.  He nods. “I know just the place.”

We left the museum and ordered wine, vodka and a pizza at the Mundo Cafe. Tucked in between the ferns, Jose Enrique talked about his fascination with Cine Aquitectura, Metropolis, Peter Greenaway, Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner, Tron, even Batman, films where architecture was part of the theme of the film or the protagonist or where you used film as a medium to tell the story about architecture in a more interpretive way. He’s passionate about it, I’m trying to keep up by Googling on my cellphone or writing as many names as I can for later.

I’m, ultimately, multi-tasking while he’s talking, texting and trying to get another meeting moved over to the cafe. It’s yet another person I’ve never met who I’ve convinced to meet with me. I tell Jose Enrique this and he laughs. I’m not sure if he thinks I’m rude, immature, or simply a novelty. So I casually tell him, this person will be dropping by to say hello. I text over the location to the new soon to be acquaintance. His name is Luis Matgui and he just began the Observatorio Ciudadano, an all-volunteer advisory group that will focus on saving La Caja. I look it up: “La Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social es la institución líder en servicios de salud públicos en Costa Rica.” It’s social security and the socialized medical care system which indirectly helps to create a stronger middle class and increases preventive care and, subsequently, extends the life span for Costa Ricans.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard mention of La Caja, the one that’s in crisis, the one that the entire balance of the Costa Rican middle class hinges upon.

Luis rushes into the cafe, looks around. I immediately I spot him and wave him over to the table. He has a full set of graying hair, vivid dark eyes that dart back and forth inhaling his surroundings. He has a soft leather briefcase in his hand that he sets on the back of the chair.  He makes to shake my hand, but then notices I’m Central American and instead gives me kiss on the left cheek. He shakes Jose Enrique’s hand and then sits. I offer him pizza, a drink, he asks for a coke. I ask him where he just ran from and he smiles, “Where didn’t I go today? It’s been a busy day!” I ask him why.

It’s the questions he’s been waiting for. Luis unleashes about his meetings with public officials and civic groups about the importance of saving La Caja, La Caja this, La Caja that, the plight of the Costa Rica, the slow implosion which is coming to a critical phase after the last ten years. Jose Enrique takes a call on his gleaming white iPhone and Luis continues his unleashing, which has become an informative rant at this point, except I’m too uninformed in local Costa Rican politics to be able to connect the dots. But my brain is speeding along with Luis and the night is still young.

The Universal Hipster

Februry 16, 2013

My new friends are hipsters, Costa Rican hipsters, in the part of town called Escalante where businesses mix with residences and people come out of industrial looking buildings with dark glasses, old Vans or flip flops, sagging skinny jeans and holding cigarettes while they double lock their doors. Of course, I know none of this as I step out of the bus in a sketchy part of San Jose, Costa Rica. We’ve just passed the transvestite sex workers standing near Parque Morazán and by now I’ve lost all the feeling in my legs and just woken up from a delirious sleep.

It’s been a seventeen hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa to San Jose so I stumble out into the night, bid my farewell to my Mennonite friends and take the nearest red cab to the “Art House” I am staying at. I’ve never met Juan or his partner Oscar, but I liked the idea of staying with artists in this jewel of Central America and the bastion of democratic principles. The house, I soon learn, is unmarked and can only be found within a certain number of meters from a known landmark. “A 75 metros este del Farolito.” Why 75 meters? Because not all blocks are created uniform, but meters are, Oscar tells me, minutes after the cab has dropped me off and we’re back on the street catching a cab to el “planchaton“.

I barely have time to throw on a sweater before they invite me out to dinner and the once every three months event that is marked by a DJ playing old romantic songs from their parent’s time and hundreds of young people singing at the top of their lungs both inside and outside a well-known club close to the new Chinese quarter which still has not attracted any Chinese people, but the mayor hopes that will change soon, Oscar informs me as we walk. The pungent smell of pot wafts down the street long before we reach the bar, see the crowds pouring out into the pedestrian street lined with red cabs and a few police texting on their cellphones. Inside the DJ looks like she’s about to fly off like a bird in its spandex red skin and there’s moose heads, antlers and manual typewriters on the wall. An iron deer sculpture separates the line of people paying for drink tickets and the ones in line to pick up their drinks. There’s a system here, it’s obvious.

Planchaton, Oscar tells me, is a year-long tradition now. It gets its name from the songs women would sing while they were ironing their husband’s clothes. It’s gone from a few people at a small bar down the street to hundreds of young people, many of them gay, taking over the entire bar and street well into the night. I get introduced to everybody, one kiss on each cheek, and the required nonchalant chit-chat while everyone drinks and smokes their choice, and suddenly I realize I am the oldest one in this small group.

But my hosts are inviting, open and warm, taking great care that I am included in everything and checking in regularly throughout the night. After a couple of tequilas, I’m done, and I tell Oscar so. He tells Juan and both of them walk me out into the street and talk to the cab driver who has some hip thin leather jacket on and skinny jeans. As the cab drives off I see Oscar and Juan in the rear-view mirror watching like two parents dropping off their kid at kindergarten.

Oscar is a quiet, soft-spoken twenty-one year old with large unassuming doey eyes and who has shaved off most of his hair except his subtle moustache. He is of a small stature, moves like a cat and is very aware of the details in life. Like most Costa Ricans, he is incredibly well-educated, articulate, diplomatic and analytical. He is also a political science major at two state universities, a historian and a member of the Gen Z who treats his cellphone like his hand. In the middle of conversations he’s lowered his head to look at his text messages so many times I can’t count. He continues to nod at what I’m saying and I, inadvertently, begin talk to his phone as if it were him.

Juan is eight years older, has pink short hair, wears flip flops everywhere, doesn’t believe in undershirts, wears sagging shorts and half the time looks like he should have a surf board under his arm. He’s a graphic designer, an entrepreneur, a painter and enjoys electronic music played very loudly while he’s painting. They are both foodies; they party hard, have tons of friends coming in and out of their house and tonight I’ve just stepped into the usual rhythm of their lives.

How did I find Oscar and Juan? Air B & B, of course. A few years ago it was Craigstlist, but Air B&B has managed to penetrate Central America in a way that’s very practical and useful in a region that is often very difficult to navigate, unsafe, impossible to build trust in and increasingly more online and more connected.  That lifeline of pixels is what’s creating a universal culture of the digital native and the urban hipster. It’s a hipster that has nothing to do with Brooklyn or the rest of the United States. It’s increasingly a more universal term designating a way of life that young people are seeking and creating for themselves.

The Urban Dictionary informs us that hipsters are “a subculture of men and women typically in their 2o’s and 30’s who value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.” Ultimately, it is a lifestyle which prioritizes freedom, usually achieved through creativity, out of the box thinking and a liquid and nebulous economic status. For example, I have no idea how Oscar and Juan make their money, or enough money to meet their lifestyle which involves  a good number of expensive clubs, drinking, cabs and eating out.  And Costa Rica is expensive, make no mistake, more than Panama and El Salvador which have the USD as their main currency and definitely more than Guatemala and Honduras. In a twenty-four hour period I go through $50. In Honduras, it takes me two weeks to go through $100, cabs and all. I also find out that wages don’t necessarily align with the living costs here. Oscar tells me the average wage is $500 – $700 per month and taxes are around 25 percent which many locals can’t afford. The socialized medical system is also in a state of crisis with the influx of Nicarguans and undocumented immigrants. Everybody gets health care, but not everybody pays.  It’s a recent problem and there’s no clear way to deal with it.

But life is good and safe in Costa Rica, or at least it feels that way when you compare it to other countries in Central America, namely Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, right now the pressure cooker of impunity, corruption and narco-trafficking. Perhaps that’s my undoing because when you ask most Ticos about safety, responses range from you can’t walk after 9 PM, to people will stab you first and then rob you, to narco-trafficking is ruining our country or “Soon Costa Rica will be just as bad as Honduras.” Right. There’s a clear feeling of dissatisfaction with the current state of Costa Rica’s democracy, the presence of corruption and denial of the bigger danger of money laundering in the country. The drug trafficking happens outside Costa Rica and then the money gets cleaned in the most stable country in the region known for retiring Americans, eco-tourism, diplomacy and no national army. The elections are coming up next year and consensus among the young people I’ve met is “Please, not her.”

My friend Jenny and I talk about all these woes over sushi. Jenny works at HP, she’s worked there for ages, she’s gone back to school to learn management, and she looks forward to the small vacation time she gets to travel to places like Mexico City. I met her in Chile a year ago during a Digital Natives with a Cause conference that produced a book written by many of us who attended. Jenny tells me she’s going on thirty-four and things have changed, she prefers staying home, sweating over her math. She makes it clear, she’s not into going out the way she used to in her 20’s and she’s definitely not a hipster. Lately, it’s been hard to understand how so many of her friends make it or how they have incurred so much  debt through credit cards with very little to show for it. It’s a problem I also hear about in Honduras where I watched an Honduran film called “Quien Paga La Cuenta?” which has a very Robert Altman story structure centered around the lives of four people, the debts they owe and the debt collectors who visit them all. It’s a tense and nerve-racking film and it stayed with me even after I left Honduras and learned about the new credit card legislation there that would create more oversight. Because Honduras excels at oversight.

Is debt and financial crisis universal too, I wondered, as I watched the sun set outside the main Cathedral in San Jose.  Mass had begun, so I walked into the park where you could hear the sounds of hundreds of parakeets flying into the trees, see couples making out in the grass, the skateboarders flying off of stairs, children feeding the droves of pigeons parachuting in from every rooftop while the old people sat on benches watching them. Costa Rica, it proved, was just a difficult to grasp as the rest of Central America.

On the Road from Honduras to Costa Rica

February 14, 2013

We’re headed south through Nicaragua and the land gets dryer – bramble and brush with large patches of black where the grass has been burned away. The sunlight is different here, it’s more direct with a soft, but relentless quality like the light of memories that imprints itself in the back of your mind. You know, you will remember this.

We’re into the first few hours of our seventeen hour bus ride through the rest of Honduras, Nicaragua and into Costa Rica. Well before the sun rises around five in the morning we depart the erry abandonment of Tegucigalpa in the pitch dark, where only the outlines of the passing shacks mark the sky from the ground underneath our tires. We make random stops that only the driver knows to pick up lone bodies waiting in the night. Over the hills, the red from the sunrise begins to pierce the night and things start to take shape as we push towards the border of Las Manos, the Hands – appriopriately named because Honduras has a way of drawing you back into its unraveling.

By now I’ve made friends with the three Mennonite women sitting in my row: Hannah, Anita and Dorcas. Yes, Dorcas, named after a disciple who lived in Joppa, referenced in the Book of Acts 9:36–42 of the Bible. I learn this as we’re standing in the dusty border with Nicaragua. It is a border lined, like many other borders in Central America, with miles and miles of tractor trailers parked on both sides of the narrow cracked road that looks like it’s melting in this early morning heat. The street dogs scurry across the road towards the overflowing trashcans with rats’ tails whipping across the top of the cans. As we get off the bus, money changers crowd around the door, flashing big bundles of worn bills barely held together by thin rubberbands. I  choose the one female money changer to exchange one devalued currency for the next. Lempires for Córdobas, but it’s the dollar they all want. I ask her for Quetzales, she sucks her teeth and tells me I’ve got the wrong border.

I wander back to my Mennonite friends who stand out in their immaculate long pink, blue and brown polyester dresses that reach down to their ankles. Their white head bonnets do a poor job of protecting their blonde hair from the unflinching heat. I tell them I plan to stick by them the whole trip, because chances are the bus won’t leave without the three Mennonites, it would just be bad PR. They laugh. No really, I tell them.  I’m in awe they’ve stuck it out so long in Honduras, 17 years Hannah tells me, living on a farm in the Honduran country side with nine children their family has fostered and homeschooled. You make enough money as farmers to keep up fifteen people I ask her.

“People donate from our congregration and somehow we’ve never lacked for anything,” Hannah says. Random people come up to me while we’re standing together and ask me what religion the women are. I step to back and say: “Ask them, they speak Spanish.” Most walk away in disbelief.

Our ayudante Walter comes out with a stack of passports, calls out our names and one by one we get back on the bus. It’s Valentine’s day, I tell Walter. He looks back at me and smiles for once the entire trip: “Felíz Día de Amor,” he says and gives me my passport.

In Managua we change buses. Half of us go, half of us stay in the small bus terminal. The rest are waiting in the terminal, including the crying baby who is fearless in screeching out his irritation with the world that we all feel right now. It’s hot, we’re hungry and thirsty, and our ayudante just ducked out the back door, without saying a word about our next step from here. I sit by Anita who doesn’t know that much Spanish and console her by telling her that even if she knew Spanish, none of this would make any more sense. At 1 Pm a new ayudante, Francisco, comes out with a stack of paper tickets.

He hands our tickets to us as he calls our names and stuff border forms into our hands. The Mennonites and I just got bumped to the back of the bus, near the bathroom.  My new friends show their dismay.  I tell them that all that matters is we’re all in misery together back there.

I could have taken a cab from that stop to downtown Managua to stay a couple of nights with a friend and not endure the next ten hours of our trip, but instead I get back on the bus. Hasta donde aguante el burro.

The rest of my trip through Nicaragua I remember between a delirium of waking and sleeping while the bus snaked through its usual route. I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours, so things were getting a bit liquid as my eyes closed  without me realizing it. In one of my dreams I drove this same stretch of road with Brad and the two German Shepherds in tow with the rest of our stuff in the truck bed. I wake up suddenly when the bus hits a big pothole and I feel relief it’s not us dealing with the road and everything else that comes with it. I don’t need to know the next step, the next bend in the road, and I can just fall sleep and wake to the scenes of a different country and lives lived outside my window. One of the earliest memories of my life was just that, watching the endless Mexican countryside, desert, urban sprawl pass by quickly outside our bus window as my mother and I immigrated to the United States the first time, right before my sixth birthday. I would put my forehead against the cold glass of the window and stare down at the road until sleep closed my eyes and I woke up in a different city, with my mother beside me.

Moments before the border with Costa Rica, I wake to Anita’s snoring and the blaring volume from the new 007 movie on the television hanging from the ceiling in the front of the bus. Things have changed outside. It’s greener, there’s dense forest, wild flowers along the side of the road, less trash, children kicking the ball in their front yards, storefront windows no longer have iron bars on them. You can feel it in the air, there’s less fear. I relax into this new feeling.

When the bus stops we do the usual, hand our passports over to the ayudante, get off the bus with all our bags, let the immigration officers check the inside of the bus, and then we wait until Franicsco returns triumphant with his towering stash of passports. He calls us one at a time, we get on the bus and drive over the border into Costa Rica. We’re all zombies being shuffled from line to line at this point.

You can tell a lot about a country by its border and how it is maintained. A few feet over the border, the bus stops, we get off again with all our bags, enter the air conditioned immigration office, wait patiently in straight lines we’re instructed to stand in, while the immigration office stamps our passports. Mine’s easy, I’m a tourist, I’ve come for five days and then I fly home. Stamp. Please take your bags to the X-ray machines, the kind you only see in airports, very clean and well-maintained. Everyone is very polite, but not just for politeness’ sake.

Our bags are pushed quickly on the belt and on the other side is our TransNica bus, like the faithful steed it has been. I am reunited with my women friends for whom I’ve regained more admiration after they tell me they did this trip just two weeks ago for a bible study class. Now they’re going for a friend’s wedding. It would have to be a very good friend, I tell them, to go through this twice in two weeks.

We get back on the road and a sign greets us into Costa Rica. As the sun begins to set across the hills, you can feel the ocean near. I can’t take my eyes off the rolling green pastures, the red from the sky like a thin veil of warmth.  A new quite tranquility sits somewhere deep now, it snuck into your heart somewhere between waking and sleeping as the world opened its doors to your passing.

What I learned over Chinese Food in Honduras

February 9, 2013

The Chinese food in Honduras is to die for, such that I’ve come to think of the national dish as some variation of chop suey. The baleada, forget it, it’s the plate of fried rice we all crowd around under the bright lights of a flat screen television blasting the re-run of Honduras’ triumpht goal over the U.S. soccer team last week.

On a Friday night, we head to Mandarin, a local favorite in Las Lomas, positioning ourselves strategically between the kitchen and the bar, but in the corner small table where we are now feeling a bit claustrophoic as we increasingly become surrounded by Honduran extended families. The kids kneel down in the walkways pushing their tiny fast cars, some hide under tables, throw fortune cookies in the aquarium while huge spoonfuls of noodles,  rice and dumplings are heaped on family members’ plates. Agua fresca de Maracuya and Salva Vidas are the preferred drinks and I’m eyeing the spring rolls at the table across from me.

It’s  become a spontaneous Girls’ Night Out for the nonprofit ladies of Honduras. It strikes me because it’s the first time I’ve sat with women from Central America, who are in their 30s, single, don’t have children, are educated, living on their own, work in the nonprofit sector and wear their independence proudly. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re looking for something until you find it – so after all these years, I find it in Tegucigalpa:  The do-gooder women friends and the Chinese food, even better than the food I had in Taiwan years ago when I would roam the night markets for dinner around midnight.

Sandra, Hirania and Nora all work at FUHRIL, a long-standing nonprofit that’s served people with disabilities for 30 years. I try to say the name between mouthfuls of fried tofu cubes and they laugh. They’re definitely laughing at me, but I don’t mind because I just want to know about their organization; I’m just not sure how to broach the topic. So we make jokes instead. We order, un pescado entero, beef chop suey, dumplings, rice and, of course, french fries. It’s been a long week so: vodka, sangria and beer. We ask the waiter if he can change the TV channel to the station playing UB 40. He is gracious and changes the channel.  Nora starts talking about a muro, a large wall they’re building. A wall, I ask. “To keep the ladrones out.” People break into the buildling to steal – wheelchairs, hearing aids for the half-deaf children, supplies, anything, even the electricity wire inside the walls. There are big holes in the walls they’ve made to pull out the wire.

It makes their life harder. Not only do they not have much funds to do their work, but now the crooks are taking everything from a building donated to them from the Honduran government. “We asked for someone from the army to stand guard outside our building, but nothing,” Sandra tells me. Sandra has short hair, glasses, gray eyes and is one of 14 children from Choluteca. She has been vegetarian all her life and believes in adopting children because that’s what’s needed in the world.

The food comes and my indignation at the unfairness of it all subsides. But it rankles in the pit of my stomach where the food hasn’t reached yet. This feeling stays with me the entire night.

They do a lot, sign language training, make affordable hearing aides and wheel chairs, help people register as disabled with the State to receive much needed discounts and educational attention, case management, policy proposals for urban development that is friendlier to disabled people, media campaigns to stop the silence around disability and the list is long. This weekend they’re doing a training, a training of trainers, focusing on teaching human rights to people working with those with disabilities. Later I find out some of the trainers themselves have disabilities.

How can it be that you do so much and get so little funding? I ask, knowing the answer after so many years in nonprofit work. They look at each other and burst into laughter. I stuff myself with more food, ashamed. Nonprofits are nonpofits in every part of the world.

When I was six years ago and having recently immigrated from Guatemala, the other kids thought I was disabled because I didn’t know English and couldn’t speak in their language. I stared out the window most of the school day, watching the snow fall on the sidewalk, snow I had never seen in my life, and disappear into the asphalt. The Catholic nuns then began to teach me English and I learned it in three months, enough to talk back to kids who called me a “retard”. Except I still read slowly, slower than most, and still today because of my dyslexia, the reading is slow going. I didn’t consider myself a person with disability, but others did. I was fortunate because I never stayed at the same school for more than one year, so I could reinvent myself and omit certain details about my life. It was my own private disability.  I tell this to Hirania as she’s driving me home and she doesn’t skip a beat: “You read slowly because you had dyslexia and it probably affected your ability to also learn another language.” That’s right, I tell, that’s exactly what happened.

A couple of hours later we are the last ones in the restaurant. The waiters are eating their dinner and the lights have been turned off in one part of the restaurant. We don’t notice. At this point, we’ve thrown ourselves head first into the work of FUHRIL. I learn that they even built parts of their facility using bottle construction and Red Bull cans. I’m writing tons of notes and suggesting fundraisers with jazz musicians, a Kickstarter campaign to help build their wall, an art exhibit with photographs of their clients,  a media campaign just with testimonials, grants, you name it, the creative juices are flowing.

But in the end, it’s the same note of disappointment: they can barely keep up with their current work, much less add more. I ask them how I can help? Sandra smiles, la cuenta comes, and I reach in my pocket for my wallet. Sandra shakes her head and takes the bill, wags her finger at me. “This one is on us, you’ve had to put up with all of us tonight!” Sanda says. I am caught off guard and don’t even know what to say, except this: I want to take video testimonials of the people who have gained something from the program. She nods in agreement, her head bent over the bill. Then she looks up. “It’s something we could use your help with.” How about we start tomorrow? I ask.

Saturday afternoon I am driven by Hirania into a very dangerous part of Tegucigalpa that is a “red zone” because of all the gang-related violence and narco-trafficking.  Their training is at the Catholic Church activity center, the one with the rolls of barbed wired above the matching gray-colored steel double doors that only someone from the inside can open with the push of a button. There’s cameras on every corner of the building and I feel that I am about to enter an immaculate prison. Hirania calls and the double doors open slowly while a couple of guards watch to see who’s coming into the facility.

When I went to St. Mary’s church in Lancaster, I remember the creaking sound of the big gates the nuns would close shortly after the bell rang. I watched from the second floor library as the latecomers hurried to beat the closing of the doors only to be reprimanded by Sister Mary Catherine who wagged her finger at them. Her black robe swished just above her ankles as she hurried them in, like a hen getting her chics into the nest.

I lived one block from the school and walked over before anyone else, but Sister Mary Catherine who would open the library for me to read and do my English homework. It felt safe inside, after our journey by land from Guatemala. St. Mary’s was my first refuge.

We parked, I got my camera and tripod and went up the stairs. Sandra smiled a very warm smile when she saw me.  I wonder if in part she  expected me to come at all. “Let me introduce you,” she said pointing to the large classroom packed with students staring at the newcomer.  That’s not necessary, I told her. “Nonsense, come with me,” and she pulled me to the front of the room, just like in the old days when I was the new girl at yet another school. “Tell them who you are, they want to know why you’re here.” Sandra said to me in front of everyone.

“Good afternoon to all of you,” I began nervously (Should I slow down, should I talk louder? Could they hear me? I thought to myself.). “It’s a pleasure to be here to help in any way that I can in your work.”

I felt their warm gazes and smiles looking back at me as Nora translated into sign language what I was saying. Her hands stopped and she waited for me to say the next sentence. I turned back to the students.

“I’m here to hear your stories, if you’ll tell them to me, I can share them with everyone else.”

What’s Happening in Honduras

February 2, 2013

It is Saturday morning in Tegucigalpa and I do the unthinkable: I decide to walk a few blocks in the middle of the day. I live up the hill from the Presidential House on Juan Pablo II, an area heavily patrolled by police and security guards pouring out from the big hotel chains, Marriott, Clarion, and then the McDonalds, Wal-Mart and the usual fast food asphalt jungle. In Tegucigalpa, no one walks, not by day and definitely not by night. The streets are quiet and abandoned and you get the feeling even the buildings have eyes to watch as you walk by. There is a general feeling of being watched and it’s becoming part of my skin.

There are pockets of safety that everyone knows and navigates towards. “I’ll meet you CafeMania,” you tell your friend or at the MultiPlalaza – malls having now become the new public street that promises safety. Coordinating activities is an elaborate dance of who has a car and who needs to be picked up or cabbed over. The in-between, the public space that forms the fabric we propel ourselves around is tattered and not to be trusted. You cultivate habits and superstitions that help you make it from one island of safety to the next, scurrying with the least amount of possessions on you or ready to part with whatever is requested at gunpoint. You can see it in people’s face, they expect a gun in their face any moment now.

“When I leave in the morning, I pray to God I return to my wife and child in the evening,” a waiter at a Chinese restaurant told me last week. During the day the cab drives me around the hills and I can’t quite get my bearings because there is no center, no core from which the city extends from. It’s a decentralized maze of lomas and increasingly more high rises, like El Castillo, the castle, that floats safely above the reality below. A good reporter friend writes this when he learns I am here: “Tegucigalpa is the town with no center – you’re just endlessly driving around hills, orienting from one strip mall to the next. The bourgeoisie has done a terrible job at city planning there, as with everything else. The only landmarks are the presidential palace, congress, the FESEBES union hall, the Hospital Escuela, the embassies, and the airport. You can tell what kind of a city it is if your landmarks are the morgue and the airport.”

The most difficult part is that once you leave your door it’s the arbitrainess of the violence that is unsettling. I was used to this in Guatemala City, but this is different, it’s feels more unnerving for some reason.

So, I decide to walk in the middle of the day Saturday, walk four blocks to Channel 8, a public station paid for by the government and right in front of the Presidential Palace. As I’m leaving my journalist friend, Luis, who I’m supposed to meet at the station calls me. “You’re not walking there are you?” Yes, I’m walking there, right now, I tell him. He grows alarmed.”Wait for me at the end of your street, I’ll have the taxi drop me off there and we’ll walk together. We’ll take the cab instead.” No, I tell him, I am walking. I refuse to be paralyzed by fear in the middle of the day. I can hear his disapproving silence on the other end of the phone.

We agree to meet and walk down together with every single person behind the fruit stands, behind their cars, behind the Bingo Real, or eating in the McDonald’s watching us walk by. I ignore it and talk to Luis. I’ve been invited by Jovenes Contra La Violencia to watch the first broadcast of the year of their one-hour youth show on the state channel which is actually seen on Channel 10. The Movement of Youth Against Violence has now spanned several countries, including Guatemala and Honduras, where they have chapters around the country that account for some 3,000 volunteer members. It’s run by youth for youth and in Honduras they’re organized enough to have their own nonprofit status supported in part by USAID. They have different teams in charge of fundraising, training, political mobilizations, and this television program which has a significant viewership. The show for now is a cultural, lifestyle show, but I’m ingraining the seed to have them do actual reporting. I bring Luis with me because he works at Conexihon, a collective comprised of  journalists who promote the defense of human rights, the right to freedom of expression, transparency and access to public information. We all stumbled upon each other at TechCamp Honduras and now we’re meandering along whatever sidewalk we can find on Juan Pablo II with the sun blaring down the back of our heads.

There are no sidewalks so we walk partly on the street or whatever thin curb is left on the side of the road. Cars don’t stop or slow down, they just speed up to get past us. One false step and you lose a limb.

“It’s Honduras, nobody cares,” Luis tells me. Really, I ask. He shrugs his shoulders and drops them in surrender.

So what’s happening in Honduras? 

  • In the past three years, there have been 20,573 homicides, with 7,172 murders registered in 2012, up 68 from 2011. The murder rate is 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which comes to 19.65 homicides per day. For comparison, the murder rates in neighboring Nicaragua and Costa Rica is 12 per 100,000 inhabitants and 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively
  • Honduras has one of the most corrupt police forces in the region. Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, has said 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime. According to organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, Honduran police officers “have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country’s criminal interests.”
  • Currently the country’s internal debt is around $3 billion; its budget deficit exceeds $1 billion (6% of its GDP), while its foreign debt lies at around $5 billion, the same amount allocated to last year’s entire government budget.
  • In addition to high levels of impunity for crimes, the country is currently in the middle of an institutional crisis. Current President Lobo encouraged Congress to remove four Supreme Court justices following several decisions that went against his administration. To read more on Honduras’ woes go to Just The Facts =>

At the television station the young people are in the middle of preparing to go live with their show. They dart back and forth, laugh, push each other around jokingly, look at themselves in the camera, do the last primping on their hair and clothes. It’s all sneakers, jeans, red and black T-shirts with their logo and “¡Ponte buso!” Get on the ball.

It’s as much a warning as a command, in this country.

A Sewing Machine for Madgalena


We headed West for Magdalena. We knew it would be a rough ride when we had to get three nails taken out of two tires. We pulled into the nearest pinchazo on the Inter-American.  Crouched between towers of new tires we listened to the Olympic games over the radio. One hour later we were back on the road driving into the looming black rain cloud over Xela, our final destination. It was not as North as Chajul, but midway, intended as a mutual effort and crossroads by both Magdalena and us to get her what she needed.

The air grew thinner and cooler as we climbed towards La Cumbre, what we call Alaska here – a place about as cold as any Guatemalan would be comfortable imagining. We slackened our pace. I was driving Bea’s dad’s truck and still hadn’t adjusted to the zero power steering, the broken fuel meter, no bearings, the lights in the dashboard not working, the four cylinders. Frankly, I hadn’t adapted to being in a car after the accident we’d had in Honduras the week before. But at 25 MPH and the hazards on I felt good about cutting through the dense fog one piece of asphalt at a time.

We descended into Totonicapan, less than an hour from Xela and saw an older man sitting among the rocks with his thumb out. I looked at Bea to make sure she was comfortable with us stopping. She nodded. I reversed back to the giant limestone rocks where he had hidden four loads of wood about 60 pounds per load. He had a younger male friend with him, so that when we reversed we realized how much they’d been hauling up and down steep curves. They loaded up the truck and I swear I could hear the truck let out an “ufff”. They sat down on the side of the bed and whistled. We were moving slower than ever now, feeling the extra weight as I made our way up the hill in second gear, mile after mile. We must have driven 10 miles before the older man banged on the side of the truck, the universal sign for his stop. I looked at Bea and we both thought the same thing: That man was going to walk that entire way with those bundles. They offered to pay us for the ride, we thanked them and resumed our climb up the hill.

Bea and I drove through the terrain like two old experienced truckers – staring off into the expansive landscape of jagged mountain rock, rising corn stalks, deep valleys and moist pine to the horizon. The light was fading quickly.

We’d bought Magdalena’s sewing machine the week before after 72-hours of furiously fundraising $400 online, including the cost of transporting the machine westward to Chajul. I had rushed over with a big wad of quetzales, our local currency, in my two pant pockets and my shoes and made my way to Revue Magazine where Terry Biskovich was waiting for us. She ran a used clothing, book and brick-a-brac store in front of the Magazine office. The shop served as a way to raise funds for her animal shelter in La Antigua – the veterinarian for the shelter was our veterinarian. It was a small town for all of us. What was significant was that we were about to create a win-win situation for everybody involved.

I had gotten the idea to ask her if she was willing to donate the Huskylock 905 Swedish sewing machine that had been at the store for months now with a handwritten $550 price tag cut out as a large dog paw print. She thought about it, told me she couldn’t donate it because she’d just rescued a horse, but she would reduce the price. She agreed to sell it for $400. We shook on it, she put the “SOLD” sign on it.

The weekend before we bought it, Jose Osorio, Magdalena’s friend, had stopped by to catch us up on how the coffee cooperative was doing and the update on Magdalena and the other women. They’d met with various nonprofits that were willing to help them export their textiles as long as the women could produce the quantity needed for export. I asked him if that was possible for them. He said “No.” Why? Because they didn’t have the sewing machine to make it happen. How much was a sewing machine, I asked him. “I dunno, maybe $300?” And would it last long at that price? He looked at me puzzled and then shrugged his shoulders. “They’re Chinese machines,” he said. “They get the job done.” That’s when it hit me that we should show the Huskylock 90 machine to Jose and see what he thought of it.  That same day I dragged him across La Antigua.

We crossed the park hurriedly, I took him up the stairs and he hung back to look back at the machine from a distance. He saw the sewing machine and folded his arms around his chest and smiled shyly. “That’s a good sewing machine, why would someone give it up? Does it work?” All good questions, so we plugged the machine and asked the store clerk how often the machine had been used. “It’s been used once and then the owner realized it wasn’t what she wanted so she donated it to us.” Jose looked puzzled. “The signs says $550,” Jose said. I told him not to worry about that, we’d made an agreement among friends. Jose was thinking hard.

“Are you going to buy that machine for them?” Jose said. I don’t have that kind of money, I told him, but I have a small amount of money and we know other people who have small amounts of money. “We’re going to buy that machine for them, together.”  I’d done the same thing with my Tio Nefta’s House, in true “Eat Pray Love” fashion, and fundraised $3700 in less than a month, built my uncle the house and even a table and some furnishings for his two-room home. We could certainly fundraise $400, buy this machine and get it to Magdalena and the group of women who formed The Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH).

We made it into Xela right before dark and as we parked in the hotel the rain started to fall steadily from the sky. We took out the large plastic containers we’d used to put the sewing machine and our bags to protect against the rain. We ran quickly into the hotel, unpacked and waited for Magdalena and Jose to call. Half an hour later they called from the central park in Quetzaltenango and made their way to our hotel room where we’d put the box with the sewing machine on the desk. We dovetailed our trip here with a screening of  “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” as well as, some testimonies from people of their memories during the armed conflict. Not a minute would be wasted.

When I entered The Revue offices to pay for the machine, Bea, the other intellectual author of our crowdfunded sewing machine for Magdalena idea, stood in the middle of the room like Amelia Earhart, silk scarf tossed across her neck, her motorcycle helmet under her right arm. Her arms firmly on her waist as she waited for me. She was bigger than life and taller than most Guatemalans, including myself.

“Do you have it?” She asked me. Yes, I do, I told her, I have the money. She looked triumphant and it made me smile.

We’d met Magdalena months before when Jose made his usual exploratory rounds in Antigua, trying to find buyers for his organic coffee made in Xix, El Quiche. Jose I’d met through a training I’d done in August 2011 and since then I was his source for contacts and random ideas for his business. On one of this trips Jose brought Magdalena, a young 29-year-old woman with the most ernest smile and wearing the bold colors of her region’s traje against a black background fabric. I sat next to her on the park bench in La Antigua and she told me her story. She and her family, along with many other widowed women, had been displaced from their homes in Chajul during the armed conflict. They’d lived along the northwestern border with Mexico until they were allowed to return, many of them carrying the only things they owned.

Back in Chajul, the lack of employment and opportunities for women forced her and her women friends to be inventive with creating work for themselves and working together to do it. In September 2011 they formed The Association of Displaced Maya Ixil Chajulense Women (ADMICH) which consists of 46, mostly young women under 30 years of age, and the association is led by 7 women from community of Chajul. The president is Magdalena. She wanted to meet me in person, she told me, because Jose had mentioned me. “Es un gusto conocerla.” It’s  pleasure to meet you, I told her, and gave her my blank reporter’s notebook and pen. I told her that I promised to take notes and learn from her if she promised to do the same thing. We had much to learn from each other, our work and from others. The best way to remember was to write things down. She smiled and promised to write more. Even if it’s only numbers, you have to reflect on things you learn, I told her. She agreed.

Magdalena knocked shyly on our hotel door. She and Jose walked into the room after traveling most of the day to meet us. Three buses and five hours later here they were in Xela, right outside our door. Night had set it and the rain had wet her huipil and long black hair she had in a pony tail that fell down her back. She didn’t mind, not the trip, not the rain, she was happy to see us, she said.

We invited them in and I brought the box over from the desk and put it on the bed closest to the door. The box had the sewing machine inside, along with the manuals and dozen spools of string. Magdalena did not take her eyes off it.

Open it, I told her. It’s yours.

I handed her the box and the list of people who had donated to make it possible to purchase the machine. A big smile lit up her face and then she hugged Bea and I, a long warm hug that made me finally relax after our journey. I gave her the car keys and told her to use the ignition key to open the box. Bea filmed the entire nail-biting opening of the box until Magdalena took the machine out and expertly plugged it in. At first,  she was careful, like a mother with her new child, not to drop it and to be gentle with it, but once it was plugged in, it was her machete.

That night we all watched “Granito” together and the next morning, after writing “Thank You” letters, we set out early, even amid protests and blockades along the Inter-American. The rain and fog continued as Jose and Magdalena rode in the back of the truck and we kept the sewing machine in the small front cab, keeping it dry. We gave them our rain coats and drove past accidents, blocked roads, detours, fallen rocks, until we finally arrived at Los Encuentros and had our final lunch together. Afterwards, I handed the machine over to Jose as the rain came down harder and they rushed off to catch la camioneta which was just pulling up. They ran in the rain protecting the machine with some makeshift plastic bags ripped open.

We watched as they made it to the back of the bus and waved back at us. The black smoke from the bus billowed out. Bea and I got back in the truck and headed home.

Created with flickr slideshow.

The Way We Do Things Here

August 15, 2012

They almost lynched a man in my callejon this week. I had just returned from walking the dog, when I turned into our alley and saw a big circle of men surrounding something or someone in the center.  I opened the door and let the dog into the house. This would be no place for dogs. I wasn’t convinced it was a place for most people. I grabbed my cellphone from the table, immediately called the police and said: “There is going to be a lynching in our alley near Iglesia San Francisco, please send someone fast.” I took a deep breath before taking one step further.  Presence, full presence, is what this would require. I had no expectations. I did have this vague feeling of dread because Guatemala is a country where people take the law into their hands and lynchings are a popular way to do that.

As I reached the outside of the circle I asked the neighbor I trusted most to tell me the story. A thief had broken into our neighbor, Alejandro’s, house and Alejandro had caught him red-handed with his computer keyboard under his arm and some audio equipment from his house. There were no signs of a forced entry and worse still was that the thief was the husband of Alejandro’s housekeeper, Monica. She had been a faithful and loyal housekeeper for more than eleven years. The rumor was that she had given her husband the key and over the course of the day Alejandro’s camera and other equipment had been stolen piecemeal from his house. The thief had also broken in while Alejandro’s most prized and beloved possession, a small black terrier, was in the house.

“Whatever you don’t want to do is call the cops,” my neighbor told me. “They won’t do anything.”

By the time I reached the inside of the circle I saw a thin, short man around thirty years of age stripped down to his underwear and in the corner of the callejon against the wall. Surrounding him were the indignant, angry young men, the fathers, the mothers, the wives and then the smaller children clutching to their mother’s legs. It was the paralysis of a still life painting. There was very little motion, except by the younger men yelling obscenities at the man, inching ever closer with each obscenity, and pointing the finger at each other and then at the thief. Alejandro was next to the thief – orbiting him like his own satellite planet.  His face was sweaty and red as he paced incessantly around the thief threatening him and shouting for the key to the house or for Monica, the housekeeper and the thief’s wife. He shoved his cellphone in the thief’s face and the thief cowered away, covering his nakedness by crossing his arms over his chest.

“You’re going to pay for this with your life, you stupid fuck!” Alejandro yelled at him and then swung a punch at the man’s face. His right white-knucked fist landed right below the man’s left eye where the skin began to grow white then red and then began to puff up. The man groaned, turned his face and curled into himself, while retreating quickly from Alejandro. The crowd was quiet for a moment and then “¡Eso! ¡Asi es!” That’s the way to do it, some yelled out. “¡Dale otra” Hit him again! As Alejandro turned to look at the crowd I came out of it and got in between him and the alleged thief. “Get out of the way!” He yelled at me in English. No, I said, you know this is wrong. His face turned red again and his eyes grew into globes.

“You know what’s wrong? That this asshole stole my stuff and I caught him doing it! So move!” I know, I told him, I heard he broke into your house and stole your stuff. That’s wrong and you should be mad because it’s wrong. “¡Entonces quitaté!” So get out of the way!

No, I told him, because doing a wrong doesn’t make another wrong right. This is wrong and we both know that. “¡Quitaté!”

No, besides I’ve already called the police, so I’m going to wait here next to this man until the police arrives. We’re going to use the law, Alejandro, it’s the only thing we have. We were speaking in English to one another. All the men were confused because they didn’t understand. What they did know is that women just didn’t get involved in these matters.

Alejandro saw my face and knew I would not back down. At that point, Brad and Kofy, our German Shepherd, arrived and stood next to me. I was not backing down. Alejandro pulled back trying to contain his anger. I told the thief to get dressed. I saw the police sirens pass and told Brad to get the cops into the alley. Brad left with Kofy and I went to speak to Alejandro.

Look, I told him, you’re right, he did do a wrong against you and his wife also did a  wrong, and anger is the right thing to feel, but hitting a man, lynching him, killing him, will not get you anywhere, you know that. It’ll make you feel good because you’re angry, but nothing more comes out of it.

“What do you want me to do?” Alejandro said inches from my face, his rage making him bigger than life. “Let the asshole go with the cops? The cops will let him go in a few days and then what? They’ll have my stuff and I’ll be the stupid fuck who let him have it. No way in hell!”

I’ve been in your boat, things have been stolen from me, Alejandro, you can keep that man in jail as long as you provide the evidence and ride the fiscal and judge. I can help you, you’ll just need to be patient and take the first step.

“What’s that Miss Know It All?”

It’s making the denuncia, the official police statement.

“No way in hell!”

At that point the police arrived in two Helix trucks and Alejandro said one last thing in my ear: “You haven’t done me any favors, you know, just go home!” As he stormed off three of the police caught up with him outside the door to his house and the other three came over to the corner where the thief had put on his clothes. The man would not say a word, so the crowd yelled out the story at the polic. I followed Alejandro to hear his entire version of the story. Alejandro walked through the sequence of events, unlocking the door, entering his house, seeing the thief with his stuff, catching him and hurling him outside the house. One of the police wrote furiously while the other two just shook their heads. One of them said out loud: “You should just have beaten him to a pulp, that’s what I would have done.”

I turned and glared at him. “You’re the police, even if you think that, keep it to yourself,” I told him.

Who are you, he asked me.

I’m the neighbor who called you. I told the cop to walk Alejandro through the process of making a denuncia and what he could expect. What evidence did he need to provide? How long could they keep the thief behind bars? I got closer to the police writing the report and told him that it was important for Alejandro to be able to keep the things that were stolen with him until they were needed for evidence. I’m not sure he can do that, the policeman said to me. I asked him to call someone above his rank and ask so he wouldn’t get in trouble. He agreed and went off into a corner to call a superior.

Meanwhile the other cops had handcuffed the thief and then shoved him into the back of the truck. His cap had fallen off and all the young men leered at him and called his cap trash. One of them picked it up with a stick. I grabbed it and said “At least try to act mature!” I gave the cap to the man and he took it from me and put it between his legs with his two handcuffed hands.

Alejandro came looking for me and pulled me aside. “Look I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna try, but you gotta take care of my dog while I’m at the police station.”

Absolutely, I told him, pick him up tonight whenever you get done. Alejandro got in the other police truck and they drove down the callejon in a caravan. It was 8 at night.

At 2 AM that night, Alejandro knocked on our door. I had pulled up a sleeping bag and was sleeping outside in our patio with his dog because he would not stop howling for his owner. Little Crocker had fallen asleep inside my sleeping bag and when we heard the knock we both jumped up. I opened the door and saw Alejandro’s very pale, exhausted face. Crocker ran out and bounced into his arms.

How did it go? I asked him.

“It was long, but I did it. The asshole is in jail.”

Good, for how long?

“Until the judge lets him go. I told her I would present my stuff whenever she needed it. Now I want Monica in there with him.”

Do it, use the law to make it happen.

He stared down at the entrance to my house as he petted Crocker with his other hand.

“Hey look, I know I yelled at you. I’m sorry for that. I was mad. I just wanted to say, it was good you were there. So thanks.”

No problem, that’s what neighbors are for.  Let me know if you need any more help with this process.

“It’s gonna take a while you know.”

I told him that this I knew very well. I still had to go to court to press charges against the thieves who stole our own laptops, more than one year ago. Animo, I told him, he was doing the right thing.

He kicked some pebbles by his feet and took in a deep breath.

“I hate this.” He said and walked away.

Dawning Accidents

I hit two cops on a motorcycle with our V6 Toyota Tundra on Monday morning just as the sun rose turning the sky magenta. Kofy, the fearless German Shepherd now always by my side, bolted upright from his usual fetal position in the passenger seat – his ears were two upside cones on amber alert.  He  began a low tone growl and I immediately let down the “limo-tinted” driver window, the kind everyone in Guatemala has, but only the narcos do it to their large piccups (not to be confused with pick-ups). As the window opened completely I saw the wobbling motorcycle trying to get in front of me to pull me over; the second policeman on the back of the bike waved erratically at me like a bird falling from a tree and made for the gun on his ride side. I accelerated. They turned into me just as I was turning into them because at this point I thought they were narcos or crooks trying to mug me – I just didn’t believe that two cops would be pulling me over on the same bike at 6 AM.

Seconds before they tried to get in front of me, they tried to pull me over as I was sitting at a traffic light.  I heard a tap and then a hard  knock on the back of my truck and then on my window.  The common crime here is a thief will tap your window with the butt of his gun and then either break it or hold it to your head through the window until you open it. “I guess it’s my turn,” I thought and reached for my crook lock and handmade police baton which I carried in the back seat. Kofy was ready to pounce.

The pulling over for our extranjero or foreigner plate was common, the pulling up and knocking on my window and then getting in front of my vehicle which is about 20 times the size and weight of the motorcycle that was uncommon and reckless. When my window was completely down and they saw me, the back cop didn’t reach for his gun, but he pointed to the right and yelled at me to pull over. I nodded and said: “Si, voy a parrar a la derecha.” I’ll pull over to the right of the road I said and away from the line of traffic driving head on the lane next to me (eh, reversible lane was active of course).  I pulled over, put the emergency break on, kept the window down and readied both Kofy and my weapon of choice – the crook lock. I waited, patiently, until one of them came to my window.  Both the driver and backseat cop on the bike couldn’t have been older than 25 years old. The driver barely reached the window to the truck when he finally made it over.

“¡Seño, que susto nos dio!” Ma’am., you scared us so! “¡Pensabamos que era un narco y que nos iba pasar llevando!” We thought you were a narco and you were going to run us over. I released the grip on the crook lock right which I held right underneath the steering wheel. I smiled and told them that was funny because I thought the same thing of them. He laughed nervously. In fact, I wasn’t sure if they were really cops, I said to him. Oh, we are, he said to me, and you damaged our official police plates. The cop who rode the back of the motorcycle got off the bike holding his lower spine with the base of his palm and then leaned up against the wall to catch his breath.

I asked him if they were OK, did they need me to drive one of them to the hospital? The officer I was talking to yelled over to the other guy. “¿Estas bien vos? ¿Queres ir al hospital?” Are you OK, do you want to go to the hospital. He wagged his finger back as he grimaced in pain.  I should take him to the hospital, I told him, I can also call my insurance right away. My impulse was to pick up the phone, but I remembered how you should never make sudden moves when cops pull you over. With your permission I’ll take my cellphone out of my glove compartment and call my insurance, I told him.

“¡No, no, no seño! ¡No hago eso!” No, no, ma’am don’t do that! I took a deep breath as Kofy stared down the cop, not a wink escaped Kofy. The cop asked me to get out of the truck and I told him that if I got out my dog was coming with me. He didn’t hear me, so Kofy and I got out and they both backed away when they saw him. “¿Ese su perro muerde?” Does your dog bite? He will if you get anywhere near me, I told him and we held our distance as Kofy growled at them. They huddled together now with us on the other side in front of the truck.

“Mire seño, la estabamos tratando de parrar por mucho tiempo, desde por lo menos un kilometro, no nos vio?” We were trying to stop you for a while, por a long while, didn’t you see us?

I told that it was impossible to see a motorcycle that low to the ground from my tall truck especially with the dark tint and the fact that it was still dark outside and they didn’t have their lights on. I told them that if I had seen them, I would immediately have pulled over. It was not my intention to violate the law in any way. I asked them if they wanted my documents. They said yes and so I went back to the truck to get our truck permit, my license a few other things that I had to explain to them about our out-of-country truck. When I returned, they barely looked at my paperwork. They were both frowning at the fallen, crooked black and yellow metal license plate of their motorcycle and the broken tail light.

“Lo siento mucho de su moto,” I’m really sorry about your bike. I will fix it since it is my fault for not seeing you and driving into you. I also hurt you, so I’m definitely going to call the insurance, make a claim and get your bike fixed. They looked at each other and shook their heads in unison as if they were dealing with a child who had no clue what she was doing. I didn’t. I just wanted to do the right thing.

And then they explained it to me: if we called the insurance, an adjustor would come out (that would probably take an hour), they’d have to file a police report at Gerona, zone 1, all the way across town and we’d have to get the motorcycle towed there, and then the motorcycle would go into the State repair yard for weeks. Not only would it take weeks to fix, but they wouldn’t get another motorcycle to do their job. They wouldn’t work for weeks while they waited for the Ministerio Publico to process their police report, certify it, get a judge to review it and then take a course of action. Then the insurance company would have to negotiate with the MP and agree on a price and where the motorcycle would get fixed and that would probably take another week. Then it would still take more time for that motorcycle to be re-assigned to them because God knows there were other cops waiting in the same boat. They would probably have to pay something for the towing. So what would they be doing during that entire process? Nothing, not working, not earning money, not anything, just waiting.

“Pues por eso seño es que es mejor que  nos de los costos del daño y que alli termine.” That’s why, Ma’am, it’s better if you pay us the cost of the damages and we be done with it. But what about your injuries? Eso no es nada, seño, no se preocupe. That’s nothing, Ma’am, don’t worry. I waited silently as they continued to inspect their motorcycle for other damages. Are you sure this is what you want? I asked them. Yes, most definitely, they both said. I agreed and told them that I would pay them up to Q600 ($78.22) for a bent up license plate and a broken tail-light. They readily agreed. I would give an extra Q100 ($13.03) to help with medicine they needed and I could drive them to the hospital right now and pay for their bills there. Kofy let down his guard, sat and waited by my leg. He was bored with these humans fumbling around. No hospital they said, they were a bunch of crooks there and you came out sicker then you went in.

They looked at me waiting for their money. Oh, I said, I don’t carry that kind of money on me in case I get robbed, you know? We all laughed. Of course none of us did that kind of stupid thing. So I suggested we drive to an ATM and I take out the last of my Q600 from the machine. At this point another Chips back-up had arrived and all he was worried about was the plate. He turned it over and over pensively.  He approved of the damage price I was willing to pay.

We caravanned to the cajero, the ATM machine, I pulled over and Kofy watched my back while I got my money. I paid them, thinking I probably shouldn’t ask for a receipt. The one cop who had been hit was looking very pale and nervous. I have a First-Aid kit in the back of my truck, would you like an aspirin? He nodded and I went back and got the bag. I took out two anti-inflammatory pills and two aspirins. As I was tearing one for him, the other cop said, “Deme uno a mi tambíen porque todavía estoy asustado.” Give me one as well because I’m still a bit shaken up. I didn’t question him.

For the last time as we all stood there, I made the offer again: I am happy to take you to the hospital and do all that needs to be done to do this right.

“Esto es la mejor manera, Seño, no se preocupe ya. Maneja con cuidado.” This is the best way, Ma’am, don’t worry, just drive safely.

I thanked them and told them to have a good day and better rest of week. I called Kofy and we both walked towards the truck. As we pulled away all three of them stayed in the same position as we’d left them, statuesque, as if I’d made the whole thing up.







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