A couple entries ago, I mentioned that I’m working on an asset mapping project for OB. I’m still living in Panajachel, but I’ve been traveling to Xeabaj II every week to work on this project, which is part of OB’s integrative development strategy for this group. So far I’ve interviewed seven of the fourteen women in the group, using a survey that I developed that includes questions about their hopes and goals for the future, their assessment of their own skills and interests, and thoughts about the community in general. The goal, eventually, is to bolster their sense of empowerment as a group, clarify their priorities, and help them find the path toward economic independence.
Xeabaj II by the numbers…
- Population: 423 people in 83 households
- Elevation: 9,974 ft
- Latitude 14° 48’ 56” N, Longitude 91° 23’ 14” W
- 47% of women are literate
- 16% of the total population over age 15 have finished elementary school
I told you Xeabaj II was beautiful, right? Here’s photographic evidence:
It hasn’t been an easy project. Working through a translator takes some adjustment, and I miss the immediacy and understanding of subtleties that comes from speaking a common language. It’s difficult to establish a real sense of connection and trust. Though the women have graciously set aside time to answer my questions, what they really want is a project that will bring in some income.
And I sometimes have my doubts. Who am I to enter this community, a stranger, and ask people about their lives, their dreams and goals? I hope I’m not just part of a long list of people and aid organizations who have came, dumped goods or money or ideas, and left, often leaving a sense of dependency in their wake. I hope I’m part of a more far-sighted, integrative project that will leave the women feeling newly energized and confident.
Despite my uncertainties, I know I am so lucky to be learning about a place that sometimes feels like a completely different world. Last week I stayed overnight in the community for the first time. In Petrona’s house, I ate tamalitos, haba beans, and stewed wild chipilín greens, and sat gratefully by the warm stove during the cold evening hours after sunset. I was able to speak Spanish with Petrona’s two sons, but she and her daughters have never had any schooling and speak no Spanish, so I listened as they spoke K’iché. Petrona and her daughter Isahuela were always busy, bringing firewood, carrying water, and preparing food. At every spare moment, Petrona sat down to weave a few rows on the backstrap loom hung from one of the rafters. In the morning, I made tortillas! My first time torteando.
Poco a poco, I think I’m beginning to understand the psyche that permeates Xeabaj II, which in many ways is foreign to the individualistic Western perspective that, I’ve discovered, is very much a part of me. True to the asset mapping project, I can see both the strengths and the challenges embedded in this psyche. Among all the women, the individual sense of identity, abilities, and goals is subsumed by a concern for the communal– primarily the family, then the group and the town. The majority of the women are mothers, and even those in their twenties speak of their personal goals in terms of their children, rather than themselves. The identity of wife and mother dominates all other conceptions of self. I’ve become so accustomed to identifying myself by my own individual skills, abilities, and interests, but in Xeabaj II those factors are of secondary importance. When I ask the women, “What would you change about your community?” the uniform response is, Sola, no puedo hacer nada. Alone, I can do nothing. This sense of individual powerlessness is balanced by an amazing commitment to communal effort, unity and cooperation.
Several of my questions invite the women to use their imagination or think in terms of ideals. In the U.S., these kinds of exercises in imagining are ubiquitous: What do you want to be when you grow up? What would you do if you could change the world? A couple of the women in Xeabaj II looked at me like I was crazy when I asked them questions like these. Their responses were bounded by the reality of daily lives, in which subsistence is always the most pressing concern. Some of the women’s responses hit like a golpe to the corazón, making me so sharply aware of my privileges and opportunities. I asked Manuela, who has never been to school, what she would most like to learn. To sign her name, she replied. To be able to write her name, instead of using her fingerprint. I hope I never take for granted the incredible education I’ve had.
Given my interest in weaving, I was fascinated to hear many of the women say that their primary form of cultural expression is the wearing of the traje, their beautiful handmade huipiles. The men of Xeabaj II have abandoned traditional dress– but orgullosamente, proudly, said Pascuala, we women will continue to preserve our heritage by weaving and wearing the traje.
Here’s Tomasa (left) and my wonderful translator, Dominga (right), the only member of the group who can read, write, and speak Spanish well.
It’s hard to sum up how I feel about the whole experience. The word that comes to mind most frequently is humbled. It’s been humbling, and thought provoking. For women who are scared to leave their little community, I wonder how I appear, the young, single American woman traveling alone. Am I threatening? Am I a source of inspiration? Am I just unbelievably foreign? Lots of big thoughts, but ones I am happy to be pondering.
Sigh… sorry I seem to be capable of writing only novel-length blog posts. Thanks for reading, amigos!