day twenty nine: senderos


on day twenty nine i was feeling stressed

and lonely

and anxious/panicky

and a little bit sad

so i took a run through the school and wandered off through the senderos (trails) at the back of the school and sat on a fallen tree in the sunshine and talked to myself and to the trees and to God for a little bit 

and i was reminded again of how lucky i was to be in a place where sunshine is common and green spaces are close and time is relaxed and freedom is here

nicaragua is good to me.

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day twenty three: cemeteries, cathedrals

we start our trip to granada with a trip to the cemetery.
it isn’t your average tour beginning — way to start off our day trip with a bang, right? — but it is an introduction into the city of granada because it’s the only one of its kind in nicaragua.
see, granada was colonized by the spaniards, which explains why the houses and the cathedrals and the graveyards look the way they do. the indigenous nicaraguans weren’t the ones who built giant churches. they weren’t the ones who constructed to-scale replicas of european cathedrals. they weren’t the ones who buried their dead in elaborate monuments complete with hand-carved statues and life-size crucifixes.

faith — and capitalism — seem like the strongest influences on the architecture here. the stones near the center of the cemetery, the tallest and most elaborate ones, are owned by hugely wealthy families. the others, the littler ones with names and dates in a larger structure, are rented out to those with money (rather like smaller, more morbid apartment complexes). and the smallest ones on the outskirts of the cemetery, marked sometimes only with a cross or a stake, are those that belong to the poorest people.

i can’t help thinking how ironic it is, these white white stones under blue blue sky covering dark dark injustices. this continuation of colonization and religion even when bones and bodies no longer care, when both death and love are “the great equalizers”, and yet those who love their dead insist on obvious inequality.

under the rule of the spaniards,
 we’ve turned the cemetery into a business
and the cross into a status symbol.

if you were to ask me which part of my identity i am consistently the most conflicted about, it would be religion.

i grew up believing in a God that loved people and loved me, one that brought truth and light and softness, one that championed the oppressed and cared for the marginalized, that was always trustworthy and always just and always good. and that’s the one i still believe in, even though my understanding and interpretation of Them (does God have pronouns?) has changed and deepened over time.

but there are other versions of who we call God, versions that are white and/or rich, that advocate logic but not love (or, alternately, that produce emotion but ignore truth), that defend the innocence of the oppressor and place blame on the hurting, that are used to justify colonialism and invasion and injustice and prejudice.

and it’s hard, sometimes,
to remember that i share a faith with people who believe
in that God, too.

it’s harder
to remember that i am constantly trying to separate
what i have learned from Christianity
with what i have learned from capitalism.

and it’s harder still
to remember that i have directly and indirectly inherited
a religion that has silenced and exploited and crushed so many people so many cultures so many lives
so many so many so many

and i don’t know what to do with that.

i end my trip to granada with a trip to a church.

i’m alone for the afternoon — i wasn’t feeling well earlier this morning and so skipped out on lunch and ended up exploring the market and the nearby square — and so i climb up the stairs and duck into the cathedral partially because it was in my friend’s guidebook but mostly because it’s hot and i’m in need of a little quiet and a little shade and a place to catch my breath. it’s a beautiful beautiful building, as are many of the cathedrals in central america… the product of colonization, probably, but also a community space and a major landmark.

i used to visit churches when i was abroad during my junior year, too.
while church gatherings, ironically, don’t always feel like good spaces, the empty church cathedrals usually felt right. they gave me a sense of reassurance, somehow; being alone in a place that was strong and beautiful, that had stood for centuries and promised to stand for centuries more.

i don’t think i can erase histories of violence and oppression, nor do i want to. i can’t change the fact that christianity now is messy beyond belief, and i don’t know enough yet to fully sort out all the tangles of capitalism and imperialism and colonialism that are inherent in challenging my own faith. if anything, all i know from exploring this country (nicaragua is still a deeply religious country) and this city (granada is the oldest colonial city here) and the graveyard this morning is that, well, these tangles aren’t new.

the people in the cemetery are dead,
but the issues aren’t.

this religion came through conquerors, and yet
it comforts my grandmother, sustains my mother, guides my father, challenges me.

the issues are alive,
but so are we. so am i.

and i don’t know what to do with that.
(but i’m working on it.)

day fifteen: cardboard houses and china girls

“de donde eres?”

where are you from?”

it’s a question that i’m used to by now.

i went to switzerland for my junior year and was asked this practically every time i introduced myself. equally familiar was the look of confusion when i said “the united states” and the insistent questioning “but where are your parents from?” “…your grandparents?”
i got the question so often that i wrote my college essay about it.

i don’t look american — whatever that means – i guess. i’m third-generation chinese-american, fluent or semi-fluent in four different languages and none of them mandarin or cantonese, recognizable as asian in foreign countries but easily marked as US-born by how i dress and walk and move in a myriad of “not-really-chinese” ways.
but especially here, where people stay in the same town (even the same house) for generations upon generations and where half the people in the local community are related to my host family, it’s hard to explain all that in limited spanish.

my nicaraguan friend Jennifer tells me, patiently: “it’s because when they ask where you’re from, they’re asking about… (she stops, hesitates, and switches to spanish) …tus raices (your roots). pareces china (you look chinese). you need to explain.”

so my answers end up layering, one on top of the other. i was born in the states, my parents were born in the states too, no, not the same place i was born, yes, two of my grandparents were born in china, yes, i’ve been, no, i don’t remember much, it felt like a foreign country, yes, english is my first language, no, i cannot speak chinese…
i feel clumsy in this explanation, almost guilty about the complication of my heritage.

and even then, i’m still left trying to answer the inevitable questions nicaraguans have about chinese life and cuisine and culture. what is the food like? do they eat bread? do i eat chinese food at home? can i say something in chinese? what do the dragons (the word for “dragon” here is león de china, literally “chinese lion”) represent?
i do my best to respond to everything, hesitant, painfully aware of the fact that my chinese-ness is inadequate to answer fully. 
somehow, this makes my american-ness seem inadequate too.

this week, i go to help out with one of our children’s projects in Los Martinez.
when i enter there are dozens of kids laughing, reading, playing, and doing homework — our big project for today is building a cardboard house, and a group of girls instantly pull me into their circle to help them cut and assemble boxes. not all of them have their own (some of them only have pieces of cardboard) and so we’re basically constructing new boxes from scratch. as i build one little girl’s house, she asks me if i’m chinese. i laugh and tell her my standard answer — i’m american, but my grandparents came to the US from china.
but she doesn’t seem to get it.

why don’t you speak chinese? she asks me. what is chinese food like? is it true that you eat with sticks? when are you going back? 
i laugh again and tell her that i speak english, that chinese food is good, that yes, i know how to “eat with sticks”, that i’m going back at the end of the day to La Mariposa.
she shakes her head and asks, again, but when are you going back home?
ohhhh. i tell her that i’m from a state in america called oregon and i’m going back home in two months. but she still isn’t quite satisfied.
no, your other home, she insists. in china.
i shake my head, laughing, as another boy tries to explain to her that la extranjera is an america girl, not a china one — she is, in fact, not from the place that she looks like she should be.

home’s a funny word, isn’t it? 
home is both the house i’m staying in here and the college i go to in Pennsylvania and the place where i grew up in Oregon. but for this girl, and for a lot of nicaraguans, the question about my home and where i’m from has to do with who i am, where i belong.
and if you’re going to count race, language, heritage, migration and immigration history, it’s an even messier question… one that even i’m never quite sure how to resolve. that answer’s layered, as well — a constant buildup of what one of my friends at BMC calls “diasporic blues”.

where do i belong?
at this point, even i don’t have a good response.

meanwhile, at the project, the boy has finished explaining and walks away, satisfied that he’s clarified things. but i’m watching the little girl, who looks from the cardboard house in her hands to me and then back to the house again.
she still looks puzzled.

me too, kid. me too.

day four: panama project

i visited el proyectos (the community projects) on day four… i’d heard about all of the projects from Hassell (who organizes the volunteers), and i’d worked with the children two years ago, the last time i was here, but i hadn’t visited all of them. the first few projects were what i expected: after school programs or preschool-like care, with laughing children and craft projects and volunteers practicing their spanish.

the panama project is different. 

panama (the area, not the country) is pretty rural and extremely poor — approximately 4km from the la carretera principal, the main road, it’s got only three mototaxis (small open vehicles, about half the size of a golf cart) to ferry people back and forth. kids walk 2, 3, or more km just to get to school, and parents carry groceries back from the main road for their families. but in addition to extreme poverty, there are two primary problems that people living in this community face.

the first is the lack of water. panama is on top of several low mountains (very near a volcano, but we’ll get to that later) and it’s extremely hot and dry there. during wet season (may-november) they’re able to collect rainwater for washing and laundry, but there’s a severe lack of potable drinking water… and again, any water that comes via outside must be transported by foot or on a mototaxi, since they don’t usually own cars. La Mariposa brings two barrels of filtered water (each barrel is about four feet high and maybe a foot and a half wide, so a little larger than your average garbage can) a week to the entire community via truck, but that’s all they can do.
the second issue is the lack of clean air. remember the volcano? well, because they’re living so close, the smoke from the volcano affects the health of the people in panama… people get sick, the elderly have respiratory problems, etc. even the smallest children sometimes have small spots on their teeth, the sign of decay due to smoke, and some people develop spots on their skin as well. the roofs deteriorate more quickly (metal roofs, for example, oxidize extremely fast), too.

because of the heat and the volcano, about the only foods that grow in the area are piña (pineapple) and pitaya (dragonfruit), and their cultivation is the main source of income for most families in panama. the work is very difficult and not very well paid, so most families don’t have the chance to access seemingly “basic” resources  like more food or cleaner water — let alone things like higher education (university is practically unthinkable) or more job opportunities.
that’s where La Mariposa’s project comes in: a woman from panama asked if it would be possible to teach the children english, so that they would have more opportunities. she opened her house and, with the support of La Mariposa, built an area for the children to learn. this past april, three teachers from La Mariposa began to teach english to children after school.
the children are focused and bright — when i came by, one group was reading pronouns and another was singing a song about waking up and the last (the kids who were too young to read and write even in spanish) were learning articles of clothing. ‘‘they like to learn”, Hassell told me, smiling.

i was talking to Don Martin (the husband of Doña Maria) and Hassell as they explained all this, and i didn’t understand what a pitaya was, so Don Martin walked into the field and picked one and handed it to me.
i thanked him, turning it over in my palm, and then handed it back.
he shook his head and motioned for me to keep it.

“es un regalo” —
it’s a gift.
and he winked at me and Doña Maria and Hassell laughed,
and i laughed too,
and then suddenly i felt like crying, and i didn’t want to cry, didn’t want to disrespect this small gift, didn’t want to add my stupid pointless guilty tears to the list of things that these wonderful people had to worry about… 

because what right do i have? what right do i have to sit here and act as if my pictures and my presence are going to do any lasting good here? what right do i have to help teach english, to provide these children with “more opportunities” when my country is the one creating a system that demands they learn english to access those opportunities in the first place? what right do i have to champion their justice when i am complicit in a politic that actively perpetuates their oppression?

what right do i have to cry? 

i didn’t have an answer — i don’t have an answer — and i was upset that i didn’t have one, and frustrated at myself for being upset, and most of all i was determined not to show that i was upset or frustrated because what good would that do?

and so i smiled,
and listened to Doña Maria tell story after story,
and held my gift in my hand,
and told myself not to cry.