We have just concluded our program for our second day together in Guatemala. Figuring that we had more energy today than probably later in the week, we met with two AJWS grantees, while other days (except Shabbat) we will meet with one. The day started on a lovely hotel terrace where we went into greater depth with AJWS staff on how important it is to be conscious of the assumptions and potential (real, but unintended) insults that can be communicated in cross-cultural conversations. We talked and learned of some of the different priorities of American culture vis a vis Guatemalan culture. A good example: you may have an image in your mind of a huipil, which is the beautiful and colorful shirt that many indigenous Guatemalans wear. An American looks at the shirt and thinks “that is stunning, I wonder where I can get one, I want to know how much it costs.” To a Guatemalan it is an important symbol that represents the individual wearer’s personal, cultural, tribal, and geographic history. We were encouraged to recognize the difference between a transactional conversation on the one hand (what you give us, what we give you) and a relational conversation on the other (not seeking the answer to ‘what do you do?’ but instead ‘who are you?’). Unsurprisingly many Americans are culturally attuned to the transactional; we learned that Guatemalans toward the relational.
We soon had a chance to put this sensitive, relational listening and learning to the test, as we met with two NGO (non-governmental organizations) back-to-back, driving across a crowded, busy Guatemala City to do so. Both Incide Joven and La Enreadera de Mujeres are run almost entirely by young people under 30 years old. They both work on different aspects of the incidence and impact of gender based discrimination and violence in the country, seeking to educate the population and help victims in many different and meaningful ways. They receive no support from the government. The Church actively works against them (I asked if Pope Francis’ recent statements, viewed by many as more tolerant and inclusive than his predecessors, had made any difference. The one word answer: “no”). They are not allowed to work in the schools. We had a couple of hours with each organization and got to meet and talk and learn – their stories are inspiring, and I walked away thinking I had just met some very courageous people. Their work is unpopular in many circles of power. Whether they admit it or not, they are at risk. And their work will help to pave the way to a better future for all Guatemalans with every small success they achieve. I, personally, will be praying for them.
Also…we had another wonderful vegetarian dinner at a local restaurant. Sorry to anyone who has ever made me paella, but this was the best I’ve ever had!
Tomorrow we meet another AJWS grantee for more meaningful conversation, and I hope to have an update for you about it. In the meantime, Laila tov (or boker tov when you read this) from Guatemala City.