Dream Job and Upcoming Life Changes (part 2)

So, I began my work with Unlocking Silent Histories in October, a whirlwind time for the organization and for me! My Dad had flown in from Texas to visit for 10 days at the same time that Donna, the organization’s founder and director (and my new boss, who I had yet to meet in person!) had flown in from Boston, and the first-year program participants were wrapping up their final films under direction of the youth leaders, and we had a screening planned for the end of the month!

My first initiation to the project and my role within it was to participate in a meeting with Donna (via Skype), Erin, and the four youth leaders – Carmen, Chema, Carlos, and Franklin. It was my first day meeting the leaders I would be working with, and I was nervous, and still not too sure what they thought of me that day, but everything went alright. I’ve gotten to know them, and they me, a whole lot better since then, but I think they were critical of me at first. One of these days, I’ll ask them about their first impressions of me, but for now I suppose I can say, at the very least, that I didn’t totally blow it because they still talk to me (and, as I’ve been visiting family in the U.S. for the past week, tell me they miss me when we Skype, so yea, they think I’m cool.)

Unexpectedly, I ended up staying the night in Panajachel (with my lovely Swedish friends!) so that I could meet Franklin and Carmen very early the next day to go into one of the communities and work. It was a great first experience. I met Franklin at the dock in Pana and we rode the camioneta together, sharing a cinnamon roll and talking about music, while lugging our production equipment around. Then we met Carmen at a bus stop and got into a colectivo van together, got off at a dusty downhill path and descended into the community of Chuacruz where I mostly observed and offered some technological support while Carmen and Franklin worked with three young girls – Mirna, Anna, and another Carmen – to complete their films.

The second day of “work” I remember as sort of a surreal blur. My dad was with me and we got a boat to the beautiful little village of San Juan, where I was going to meet Donna for the first time over lunch. Jim, a retired Hollywood film producer who lives in Guatemala and has been volunteering his time with the project, also joined us, and we enjoyed some delicious food and drink at San Juan’s lovely Wine and Cheese establishment. It was so refreshing to meet Donna and Jim, who were both so open and warm, easy to talk to and pleasant to be around. It didn’t feel like a first meeting – more like a gathering of like-minded friends.

From there, we went over to Carlos’ house. Three of our youth leaders – Carlos, Chema, and Franklin – are from San Juan. Carlos is the one who works in the community of San Juan, and leads his group of students out of his home. There, it was a flurry of activity. I had the opportunity to watch more of the students’ films, and Jim and I gave feedback, talking over strengths and weaknesses with Carlos, Chema and Franklin.

Soon after this, I felt more comfortable working with the project, after having gotten to know everyone a bit. We were still in screening preparation mode, and spent long hours at Jim’s house sub-titling, sound correcting, and exporting the students’ videos in preparation for the show. The night of the presentation at an Art Gallery in Panajachel was a great success – it was a wonderful way to recognize the students and their hard work! I interpreted the entire event, which was a healthy challenge, and the kids spoke beautifully about their processes in creating these works of art and cultural preservation. The turn-out was great, and Donna and I were bursting with pride.

After a couple of months working with USH, I remember having a conversation with my best friend Lauren in New York and telling her – for the first in my entire professional/working life, I feel fulfilled by the work I’m doing. Really truly fulfilled. And it’s still true. I’m excited at every opportunity I get to tell someone about my work with USH. I’m proud of this organization, its mission, philosophy, practices, partners. I’m proud of my role within it. But mostly I’m proud of these youth we work with, and feel privileged, truly honored, to have the opportunity to do this work with them. They have accepted me into their lives, welcomed me as a mentor and a friend, and I’m so, so grateful, and excited to be able to witness the amazing things they’re doing and will continue to do!

The last few months (my first few months with the organization) are probably best told through photos, but here’s a brief run-down of what the youth accomplished:

  • A screening of three of the youth leaders’ films in Santiago Atitlan, where the next chapter of the program will soon be formed
  • A two-day workshop with Adobe Youth Voices educator Javier Borrayo, focused on advanced story-telling and production skills they have the opportunity to use in a national and international film competition
  • Many days of continued production with youth participants
  • Leadership development, taking on new roles and responsibilities and preparing to teach new skills
  • A two-day Advanced Production workshop mostly led by our youth leaders, focused on strengthening interview techniques, learning new technologies, crafting narratives, and working in production teams

Now the students are in production in their teams and have just wrapped shooting two new films that will be screened in Antigua on March 15th! But more of that to come in Part 3…


Cultural Divides – An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Sect in a Traditional Catholic Mayan Pueblo


I recently posted about my trip to San Juan la Laguna – a small lakeside pueblo that is now receiving international attention due to the recent expulsion of the Lev Tahor community that had been living there. I saw quite a few of the Lev Tahor members during my visit to San Juan, and also – out of curiosity – talked with some of the local villagers about their thoughts on the Jewish sect’s presence in town. Most of what I heard was benevolent bewilderment.

Little did I know that only an hour or so later, I would walk through the Council of Elder’s town forum on this very topic. The day I was in San Juan, as we walked to the center of the town to take the pick-up track back to San Pedro, we passed through the town square that had a large stage set up with a banner that read “Consejos de los Ancianos.” The square was crowded with people seated and listening as a panel of people spoke into microphones from a stage. We didn’t linger long, just walked through to the truck stop, but noticed in passing that they seemed to be discussing a group of people who were no longer wanted in the town.

The next day, we learned that this council had decided to expel the Lev Tahor community from San Juan.

This is a complex issue that has been percolating for some time, and since I am not a member of either community, I am not making judgments or taking sides. But, I am able to empathize with all those involved, and I find this a very potent example of cultural differences and misunderstandings.

Some Santiago Customs

Children’s birthdays in Santiago are quite a bash! I spent my morning yesterday with the kindergarten class at La Puerta Abierta learning center, which is a sure way to brighten my day. Last week, I attended a gardening class with these same students and together, we learned about seeds and different parts of plants, pulled out weeds in the garden, and planted some vegetables. It’s a hands-on, progressive educational environment at La Puerta Abierta, with some of the most passionate and vibrant teachers I’ve ever seen.

Yesterday’s activities included learning about Guatemalan traje(traditional forms of dress in various parts of the country), English class (with Miss Isa who is fluent in Tzutujil, Spanish, and English!), and a birthday party for a precious little girl named Lolita who just turned 7.

I remember school birthday parties in the U.S. back when I was in elementary school, and more recently when I worked with elementary school students in Florida and Chicago. Usually the parents come and bring some kind of treat for the whole class, everyone sings happy birthday, maybe the birthday girl or boy gets to wear a crown of some sort for the day and be the line leader, and that’s about it, right? Well, there are some definite similarities between school-time birthday parties in the U.S. and Guatemala, but I have to say that Guatemalan birthday parties take the cake (yes, it IS a pun – I am making myself feel old!)

For Lolita’s birthday, all of the students gathered in the main room sitting at tables we had arranged for the party. In the center of all the tables stood Lolita,  next to a small circular table on top of which was a HUGE cake. This cake was beautiful and delicious, and actually, there were two of them! Large round cakes layered with white cake, strawberries, mangoes, and a light whipped frosting, brought (and possibly made?) by Lolita’s mom. We put candles in one of the cakes for Lolita to blow out – which she did after we sang Happy Birthday, first in Spanish and then in English. Then, as she blows out the candles – and this is customary! – her teacher, Candelaria, gently shoves Lolita’s face into the cake! Lolita knew this was coming and took it with grace, she went and got cleaned up (her brother actually licked some of the remnants off her face after that) and sat down to enjoy the cake with her classmates. I also got to enjoy this cake, which was the first dessert item I’ve had since arriving in Santiago, and it was heavenly.

So, we all ate cake and drank some kind of red Kool-Aid like drink. Then came presents! About half the students had brought nicely wrapped gifts to school to give to Lolita for her birthday. Once again, Lolita stood in the middle of the classroom and Candelaria would call up the students one by one to bring their gifts to Lolita. They would set the gift down in a basket at her feet (which was overflowing by the end of this), and then each student would give Lolita un gran abrazo (a big hug!) This was pretty adorable to watch. Later on, Lolita opened all her presents, thanked all her friends, and the kids went outside to play for a while before returning to their regularly scheduled school activities.

On my way home, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to experience another Santiago custom – a funeral procession. Similar to many other Latin American countries’ customs, a funeral in Santiago is a community affair that includes the pall bearers carrying the coffin through the streets of the town, surrounded by a crowd of funeral attendees who chant and sing hymns as they walk. It just so happens that the main cemetery in town (which is quite beautiful and unlike any I’ve seen before) is located about midway between La Puerta Abierta and my house. So, I saw and heard this funeral procession passing by as I was just about to arrive at my front door.

The annual Santiago feria (basically, just a big party in the town?) is coming up next week, so I will have the opportunity to witness a lot more local customs then! I have heard it will include some tribal dances, a lot of parades, some sort of weird contest where people attempt to climb a pole that has been greased with butter, and the crowning of a queen!

As for me, I’ve started a few customs for my daily routine. One of them is swimming in Lago Atitlan in the morning, around 6:30am – out in the middle of the lake, surrounded by volcanoes, the moon descends on my left as the sun rises on my right. One of these days, I’ll take my waterproof camera out with me so you can share in the splendor.

Another new custom is taking my office to places of beauty. A lot of my work requires the computer/internet, and in an effort to save money, I do a lot of it from home, since I have a reliable internet connection there. But every now and again, it is quite nice to pay 10Q for a cup of Guatemalan coffee so that I can soak up the majesty of this place, even from behind my computer screen. This is my office today:

You can’t see it in the photo, but the lake is just beyond those sunlit plants.