contrast and equality

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Yesterday, we had some adventures of a most ambulatory nature.

We went to Zona 1, the historical district of Guatemala City. It is filled with contrast: old buildings versus apartment towers; businessmen with suits and bluetooths (blueteeth?) versus indigenous women selling woven hats on the street; supermarkets versus fruit and fish and cellphone charger tiendas set up on the side of the road.

We visited the Catedral Metropolitana and toured the inside. It felt so strange to blithely snap pictures of a place so sacred to so many people. This picture is one of the places where people can place candles dedicated to a particular saint. I believe this is from San Jose’s niche.

Outside the cathedral, there were pillars erected in memory of those who were massacred, executed, assassinated, and kidnapped during Guatemala’s incredibly violent civil war. These pillars are covered in names. It was overwhelming. It floored me how deeply the horror of this event is ingrained into the national consciousness, and how little we know about this civil war in the United States. 200,000 people were brutally killed, and this event doesn’t even cause a blip on our historical radar. What else has happened or is happening that we actively ignore?

This is a group picture from our tour of the Palacio Nacional. In the middle of the back row, you may or may not be able to see a portion of a statue — the statue is of two left hands meeting and holding a white rose. The rose is fresh, and changed every day. It represents the peace accords signed in 1996 to stop the war. The hands are both left hands because the left side is closer to the heart. The base of the statue is sixteen pairs of interlocked arms, which represent the sixteen towns that were most brutally devastated during the war; they are interlocked to show the strength that the people of these towns demonstrated.

We were in the bus, on the way back from Zona 1. I had my camera pointed through the window at everything we were passing, trying to get a good snapshot of our surroundings. The bus halted at a stop sign, and I was delighted to see these two children through the viewfinder of my camera. I snapped one picture and paused to evaluate the composition of my shot. As I looked at them, a man standing just to their right turned and made eye contact with me. He and a few other men started laughing and discussing the gringas taking pictures on the bus. He was smiling, but it was not a pleasant smile.

I sunk down into my seat and withered. I am a stereotype. I am a rich white American female tourist who cheerfully snaps pictures of hungry babies without asking. I am there for the show. Realizing that killed me. It’s a fact; I can’t avoid or negate it, as much as I try to do so.

A week ago, if you would have asked me what really needs to happen to effect social reform, I would have told you that people need to treat each other as equals, to smile at each other, and to love one another. That’s nice, but I’m starting to think that that might not be enough. Guatemala City is brimming with social injustice. It is ingrained so deeply into this culture that even a thousand humanizing conversations and a million warm smiles will not fix the underlying issues.

I don’t know what needs to happen. Maybe I’m making things too complicated. All I know is that I stand out like a sore thumb here, and I am way more uncomfortable with that than I thought I would be. I can’t avoid being a white American. But I can grow beyond it. I will not deny my race, my heritage, my economic standing, my education level, or my gender. But I am more than the sum of those factors. And the people here? They are more than the sum of their factors. They are more than poor. They are more than indigenous. They are more than women. They are more than any of these things. As complicated as social justice can be, there is one fundamental truth that should unite us all: we are all children of God. That is ultimately what should define us.

One response »

  1. I finally have interwebs at my apartment and am getting caught up on your adventures!
    I hope you’re not being too overwhelmed by all the new insights and information and experiences you’re gaining. It can be a lot to handle all at once, especially when the lot we handle is a heavy history and reality of war, brutality, poverty and injustice.

    You don’t need to feel guilty about taking that picture, though I think the emotional experience you had with it is somewhat valuable. You saw something that meant something to you and you responded to it as you could; by making it a memory. How many others walk by the hungry children without seeing them at all? And you are there and working and seeing and responding because you CARE, because you recognize the privileges you have been born with and the responsibility that comes with them. You read pillars with 200,000 names; an tragedy labeled with an anonymous number and no faces, no identities. The picture you captured put faces to the ongoing tragedies in Guatemala, and had you not been in a moving bus, knowing you, you would have also acquired names and grubby fingerprints to go with those faces.

    Enjoy the continuing adventure, and keep your sweet sensitive heart resting in the Savior.

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