“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
I created this blog as a digital archive of my creative endeavors and collected stories of life in Guatemala – my home for a year. Earlier this year, I made the (perhaps questionable) decision to leave my comfortable and fulfilling life in Chicago, Illinois in order to pursue a new social justice adventure in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. Here on the lake, I work as the Guatemala Project Coordination fellow for Natik.
Why, you might ask? The reasons are many, but here are a few of my core beliefs that guided me in making this choice:
- Humans have a higher consciousness that allows us to empathize with others; empathy should lead to action. It is our human responsibility to care for and stand with our fellow human beings, the world we live in, and the creatures who share in it with us. We are all interdependent.
- Society bestows privilege upon select groups of people, and therefore great disparities exist between groups. One must first recognize the situation based privileges she has, and strive to use them in service toward a more equitable and just society, seeking to eliminate the disparities experienced most acutely by the most marginalized and vulnerable groups.
- To experience personal growth and transformation of consciousness, one must undergo discomfort, difficulty, or distress.
- Stories are powerful, and everyone has one if you’re willing to listen. Each individual has the right to determine the story of her own life, in her own words – those voices should be amplified, not appropriated.
- Cultural differences are to be appreciated and respected. Curiosity, humility, and a willingness to learn are the tenets of cultural respect.
Some of the theoretical frameworks that have informed my viewpoint and inspired my choices are:
- Feminist standpoint theory – Knowledge is socially situated. Marginalized groups are situated in ways which make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.
- Social Work ethical principles – Including, but not limited to: respecting the right to self-determination, challenging negative discrimination, treating the person as a whole, distributing resources equitably, and working in solidarity.
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed/Popular Education – linking the identification of issues to positive action for change and development through an education process is in which everyone is an active participant.
- Human Rights/International/Protective accompaniment – an international intervention strategy, whereby volunteers are “simultaneously encouraging activists to continue their work, and protecting them from violent attack.”
- Collaborative power – the power of many to do together what no one can do alone.
- International Solidarity – a society “rooted in social justice and human dignity, where a person has a value for being, rather than having or producing.
- Collective narrative practice – a respectful, non-blaming approach to community work that centers people as the experts on their own lives and views problems as separate from people.
For those of you who want the full story, here is a long and heavily subjective narrative account of some life events that have brought me here:
I’m originally from Houston, Texas – Clear Lake, to be exact. I’ve also lived in New Orleans, Orlando, Edinburgh, Chicago, San Cristobal de las Casas, and now Santiago Atitlan. But Houston, Texas is where this tale begins. Though I wouldn’t choose to live there again, Texas is where I’ve spent most of my life thus far, and had I grown up elsewhere, this story might be wildly different. In the early years of my life, Ronald Reagan was president, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was recently passed, Texas voted nearly 56% Republican, the state executed 42 people over a 5-year span, Houston hosted the G7 Summit, unemployment rates soared, Space Shuttle Discovery and the Hubble telescope were launched, and the city of Houston hovered at around 40% Latino.
Amidst all of this, my childhood happened, and it was nice, albeit rather insulated – without much exposure to the outside world or to people who were different from me.
In high school, I started working as a hostess and then server at an upscale restaurant specializing in Latin American cuisine that was owned by a Mexican family. I worked with an entertaining group of people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic. I was the only non-immigrant and only non-native Spanish-speaker on staff. My coworkers became like a second family to me, and I was able to practice Spanish and experience other cultures. I also began to recognize the privileges U.S. society bestows upon those who are white, U.S.-born, native English speakers. Although I come from a working class family that struggled with poverty and debt, and neither of my parents attained a college degree, my social location granted me access and ease in many ways that I heretofore had not recognized.
Those privileges were starkly illuminated by a car wreck. One of my best friends who worked at the restaurant with me was from Mexico. She was in the U.S. on a student visa (that she was in violation of), and was trying desperately to find a way to stay. Late one night, we were driving to a friend’s house together and were hit by a drunk driver. My friend suffered serious internal injuries. Both of us were rushed to the emergency room, and I spent the entire ambulance ride trying to explain to her brother, in Spanish, what had happened as I lay strapped to the stretcher. Over the next few months, I witnessed her family’s struggle to navigate the medical and legal processes that followed this traumatic event – they were thrown into a situation that involved complicated terminology and procedures, speaking a second language, and without the legal rights of U.S. citizens. A complex web of systemic injustices worked strongly against them, and as I helped in whatever ways I could, I was awakened to the continuous struggles, social inequalities, and systematized oppression experienced by my family of co-workers, the majority of whom were undocumented, on a daily basis.
I graduated high school at 17 and went off to college, where I had many transformative and self-revelatory experiences (isn’t that what a Bachelor’s Degree is for?), some much-needed identity formation took place (feminist, queer, progressive, activist), and I lived through some monumental socio-historical events (the invention of Facebook, Hurricane Katrina). After all of that, I ended up in Florida with an interdisciplinary degree mostly focused on World Cinema and Documentary Filmmaking. I landed a job with the county government working with at-risk youth in poor, urban, crime-ridden areas. The invaluable experience of working with these youth (which was always a tremendous challenge) shaped my life course – I found great passion in working for the rights and well-being of the most vulnerable populations, but I needed to better equip myself to do so effectively.
I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to social justice work, so after a failed attempt to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer (bee sting allergy – let’s not talk about it) and backpacking Europe for a few months, I moved to Chicago and began applying to graduate schools. I chose to attend Loyola University Chicago (a Jesuit school founded on principles of social justice and liberation theology), where I completed a Master of Social Work with a specialization in Children & Families and Immigration & Migration, and a Master of Arts in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies. My academic work in Social Work focused on U.S. immigration policy, structural causes and patterns of international migration, risk factors and best treatment practices for immigrant and refugee families, and the barriers to psychosocial health and well-being for immigrant trauma survivors. In the field of Women’s Studies & Gender Studies, my work centered on participatory research methodologies, intentional communities and alternative living practices, and the voices and stories of women across borders. My graduate school years have had the most salient impact on my current life choices.
For my first level social work internship, I went to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to live and work in the field for a summer. In the indigenous region of Chiapas, I worked with Kinal Antsetik (Land of Women in the native Tseltal language) where I had the opportunity to conduct short-term individual therapy and do group work with a group of 14-20 year old female scholarship students, living and studying together at the organization so that they had opportunity to continue schooling beyond the 6th grade. I also worked alongside a group of textile design students from IberoAmericana University in Mexico City who worked with a related project, Cooperativa Jolom Mayaetik– a fair trade artisan women’s collective. All of this work took place under the umbrella of an organization based in Mexico City called Semillas: Sociedad Mexicana Pro Derechos de la Mujer (Mexican Society for Women’s Rights). In my spare time, I worked with women and children at a capacity-development center for indigenous peoples called La Albarrada. So, I got my first taste of international development work, and I knew my life would never be the same.
I returned to Chicago to finish my degree programs, and began my second-level internship at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a state-wide coalition focused on community organizing and political advocacy. There, I was able to be a part of the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in Illinois, work on the successful campaign for the passage of the Temporary Visitor’s Driver’s License bill in Illinois, and assist in the daily operations of our immigrant integration programs. This internship turned into a full-time position as the Immigrant Family Resource Program Manager, a program that partners with 37 community based organizations through grant-making to facilitate immigrant and refugee access to public benefits programs and other social services in the state of Illinois. We accomplished this through the work of countless dedicated front-line social service staff, who assisted families throughout the application process, provided interpretation and translation services (in more than 50 languages!), assessed family strengths and needs to guide them along the path to economic empowerment, and conducted community outreach to inform immigrant and refugee families of their rights and responsibilities.
I was also elected to serve as a Union Steward for our unit of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers at ICIRR. The fight for worker’s rights is a struggle, and being a part of a labor union, serving in the unit leadership, and connecting with our union members and organizers really taught me the value of solidarity. My union brothers and sisters are amazing people doing amazing work, and working toward their benefit was an honor. I feel a deep connection to the history and principles of the labor movement, and I will always remain committed to the fight for equitable labor practices. Solidarity forever!
I learned so much in these positions at ICIRR and from my co-workers and partners of the coalition – this was exactly the work I wanted to be doing in the United States – a deep involvement in the immigrant rights movement, an application of my social work practice on the community level, an opportunity to practice activism and engage with diversity on a daily basis – it brought together so many of my interests, passions, and personal beliefs, and I think I’m still realizing the extent of the growth I experienced during my time at ICIRR.
During this time, I also traveled to Honduras with the Chicago-based group La Voz de los de Abajo (part of the Honduras Solidarity Network) as an International Election Observer for the first Honduran national election since the 2009 coup d’etat. As a part of this delegation, I had the honor of serving with a truly dedicated group of activists, meeting and hearing the stories of countless Honduran activists, artists, political candidates, and citizens, and witnessing some of the most incredible political activism and state repression imaginable. Fellow delegate and filmmaker Eric Torres created this video about one of the many events that occurred during our time there, and I had the privilege of helping him shoot some footage while we were there, reminding me of my original aspirations of documentary filmmaking, using media as a social justice tool. So, I got my first taste of international accompaniment work, and once again, I knew my life would never be the same.
So now, I am here, at the water (which is what Atitlan means in Nahuatl). And my life is definitely not the same! All of these experiences, especially those in recent years, guided me in my decision to move to Guatemala and work with a collaborative, sustainability-focused international development organization. Natik, with its mission to “empower marginalized communities to transform themselves through collaborative and innovative solutions to poverty,” is a perfect fit for me. As a Natik fellow, I work with local leaders here in Guatemala who are the true driving forces behind our programs – my job is not to take over or manage, but to accompany and support. Through daily conversations, problem-solving discussions, and collaborative projects, a powerful exchange takes place. I am here to learn as much, if not more, as I am here to teach.
My work here is international social work at the community level – promoting social change by working in solidarity with local community members to assess needs, solve problems, evaluate progress, implement interventions, while always upholding the principles of human rights, human dignity, and social justice. My work here is Women’s Studies and Gender Studies in practice – identifying and working to overcome structural barriers specific to women, supporting the development of women leaders, facilitating greater access to economic and educational opportunities to women. And my work here will even include filmmaking – amplifying the stories and voices of the people impacted by Natik’s programs, exposing the outside world to the the economic and educational realities of life in Santiago Atitlan, documenting and raising awareness about our work and the amazing Guatemalan people who are doing it.
This is the life I’ve chosen. I am proud of, grateful for, and humbled by this life of mine. And I’m happy to share it with all of you.