Monday, December 6, 2010

Photos from the Cierre Cultural

On Saturday the CCBN celebrated its students and their accomplishments of the past year with the closing cultural show. Dance, music, painting, and theater made up the program. Here are some pictures:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

30th Anniversary of the Four Churchwomen Martyrs in El Salvador

Today we remember Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Jean Donovan, four U.S. churchwomen who were brutally killed for accompanying the poor on December 2, 1980, in El Salvador. Maura Clarke had worked in Nicaragua and was a friend to Sister Margarita of the CCBN.

Speaking about her accompaniment, Ita Ford said, "Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent? Can I say to my neighbors I have no solutions to this situation; I don't know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?"

Check out this article from National Catholic Reporter for more about their lives and deaths.

VMM Newsletter

Check out Volunteer Missionary Movement's latest newsletter. Be sure to look on page 3 for past volunteer Christine Ruppert's perspective on transitioning back to life in the U.S.

VMM Annual Report 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jesuit Martyrs

Here's a great article by Dean Brackley giving a more detailed account of the death of the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador in 1989.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wednesday Game Night

For the past three months I have been hosting Wednesday Game Night at my house for some of the neighborhood children. Realizing that I’ve made quite a few younger friends, but that I also need to get work done during the day, I decided to devote my Wednesday evenings to numerous rounds of Bruja (Old Maid), Hens and Chicks, and Go Fish. However, these sessions have turned into much more than just learning to play fair. They have fostered theological discussions, gender debates, and even crazy dance parties.

About a month ago, Brisa (7), Daniella (9), Alondra (8), and Emily (6) were sitting on my porch playing Hens and Chicks. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but somehow we ended up discussing whether or not the devil really exists. Each girl was falling out of her seat trying to get everyone’s attention in order to express her opinion. They started raising their hands, and I tried to organize them into some sort of order. We practiced listening and responding to each other’s comments, and we heard everything from the traditional Catholic story of the fallen angel to the argument that the devil doesn’t exist because we can’t see him to a discussion of evil in the world and if/how we each pray about it. (Keep in mind I wasn’t instigating any of these comments because I was too busy trying to maintain some order). It was pretty incredible to hear some of the arguments being made and personal stories being shared, but I think what struck me most was how eager each girl was to participate. Sometimes one girl would just repeat what another girl said, or say something that really wasn’t very coherent, but even if she wasn’t following the topic, she wanted to have her say. I hope these girls always fight to have their voices heard.

VMM and Vigil in El Salvador

About two weeks ago Greta and I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador to visit our fellow VMM volunteers and attend the annual vigil commemorating the Jesuit martyrs killed in 1989 at the Central American University (UCA). I had a great time hanging out with the volunteers, visiting some of their project sites, and attending the vigil.

I arrived in San Salvador Thursday afternoon, and after a long and sleepy bus ride was thankful for the opportunity to hang out at Stephen’s house. Stephen, our Central American Missions Coordinator, lives in Las Palmas, a favela-like community in San Salvador where he volunteers as a catechist with the local Catholic Church. Walking around Las Palmas felt so different than walking around a barrio in Managua. Houses stacked on top of each other and narrow, winding passages create a labyrinth I got lost in.

Friday I spent the day at Passionist Social Services (SPSS), where Maggie, a volunteer I attended orientation with, is part of the non-violence department and works with children. She does a variety of activities, including teaching English, tutoring, parent formation, and workshops. In the morning we went to English class, where a new group of students learned the basics of greetings and practiced their number pronunciation. In the afternoon, Maggie facilitated a culture of peace workshop with about 30 children ranging in age from three to twelve years old. Maggie told the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and taught us how to make our own peace cranes. It was fun to work with the kids on origami; they understood Maggie’s instructions better than I did!

Friday night I attended a Celebration of the Word at the New Dawn Association of El Salvador (ANANDES), where Olivia, a new volunteer, oversees a scholarship program. Her responsibilities include managing its finances, maintaining contact with donors and families, and providing continuing education for students and their parents. The service I attended was celebrated in the style of the ANANDES founders, and included readings, lots of singing, and commemoration of loved ones who have passed away.

Saturday I spent all day at the UCA experiencing the annual vigil I have heard so much about. The event commemorates the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in 1989 during El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war. The Jesuit theologians, writing from the perspective of the poor, were considered dangerous by the conservative Salvadoran government because of their willingness to speak out against oppression. Early on the morning of November 16, 1989, the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military invaded their home on the campus of the UCA and forced the priests onto the front lawn to kill them. Shooting them in the head symbolized the desire of those in power to end what they viewed as the intellectual force behind the revolutionary forces. The international community responded with outrage, marking the beginning of the end of the war in El Salvador, where the government was finally pressured into signing peace accords in 1992. The celebration consists of a soccer tournament for youth during the day, the making of alfombras, or carpets, made from dyed salt and representing themes of liberation theology, and of course the vigil itself, which includes a candlelight procession, Mass, and various concerts.

My favorite alfombra depicted Jesus taking a campesina (rural) woman down from a cross.

Sunday was my last day in El Salvador, and I spent it relaxing with the other volunteers. We had a community brunch in the morning and talked about “VMM business” and about our experiences in mission. I always feel so renewed after sharing with the VMM community because I am reminded how many others are living cross-culturally and hoping and working for a different world.

Monday, October 25, 2010

English Essays

Last week our English students handed in their Level 4 essays, and I was impressed with the thoughtful organization of their essays’ structures and the powerful themes they chose to write about. One of the topic choices for the assignment was “Life Changes,” as we had recently been learning grammar for before-and-after situations. Here is an example of an essay, unedited, written by one of our older female students:

About three years ago my life changed dramaticaly. I used to live with my husband and didn’t ever let me go anywhere. I didn’t talk with anyone because he didn’t want me to, but I decided to separate from him. But it hasn’t been because he didn’t want to separate from me.

Finally, he left my house. I have always had problems with him, but they’re less than before. Now I live better than before because I feel quiet and less stressed, and my health is better. Now during the day I can work in my house, I can go everywhere, I can study English or do other things.

I really feel better because before I always had been shut in my house. I never talked with anyone, I never visited my family, I never had any activities like go to a party and go to my hairstilist or visit my friends. I lived like a slave, but finally I am really happy because feel really free.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Kermes 2010

At 9am the activities were just starting to pick up momentum.  The small parking lot in front of the CCBN had been emptied of cars and the dozen or so spaces filled with tables of students selling food and drinks.  Reggae ton music blared from loudspeakers on the stage and children began to line up for face painting.  Mothers from the neighborhood made a much longer line to enter the teachers’ lounge, which had been converted into a yard sale of donated second hand shoes, backpacks and clothing.  Behind the scenes, in the theater classroom, kids, teenagers, and even a few adults prepared for the cultural activity of dance and music, for which tickets were sold at $0.35 apiece.

The CCBN holds a Kermes (sounds like care-MESS), or fair, every year on Independence Day (September 15th) to raise money.  Each class donates a food or drink to sell, with proceeds going to the center’s scholarship program.  Students often contribute small change for months in advance in order to save up the funds to buy ingredients for traditional dishes such as baho, tacos, enchiladas, sopa de albondigas, carne asada, etc.  Each class decides who will take turns buying ingredients in the market, cooking, and selling on the big day.  Scholarship students work as setup and cleaning crews, sell raffle tickets, and helping with games for the kids. 

Last year, Amanda and I spent the morning hanging out with our English students selling tacos.  This year, however, we were busy preparing for the cultural event as part of the adult Latin rhythms dance class.  This meant reviewing choreography, putting on makeup, attaching the long yarn braids used in traditional Nicaraguan folkdance, putting on more makeup and stepping into the traditional full skirts and blouses, and of course, adding the finishing touches on the makeup.  The class had a lot of fun performing a folk dance and then doing a quick costume change before presenting the Wacka Wacka song by Shakira.  Other performing groups included the various levels of folk dance for youth and small ensembles from the CCBN orchestra.  It was a standing-room-only event and the audience thundered with applause and whistles after each number, friends and family of the performers snapping pictures and waving. 

The Kermes was a success.  Although the numbers are still out on total funds raised and number of people who attended, activities unfolded smoothly.  Pulling off an event like this is no small feat, and Ingrid, the CCBN receptionist and longtime choir member, and Mildred, Level III Basic Adult Education teacher, did a great job organizing everything.  Santos, Cándido, Antonio, and Ansony, did hours of heavy lifting to move furniture around to accommodate the various activities and bring in boxes of donated clothing and toys for the bazaar.  The administrative team and teachers worked hard to make sure that every last detail had been taken care of.  And on the day of the Kermes itself, friends and family of students and people from all over the neighborhood poured in through the gates to enjoy the festivities.  

The Butterfly Circus

They were all losers until one man discovered them.  

Check out this short film about community and finding your gift.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Join Us!

We are now accepting applications for volunteers beginning the summer of 2011! Click on the "Apply" page above to find a description of the position and the application. Let us know if you have any questions!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Boys to Men, Part 2

Today I stumbled across an Atlantic Magazine article from a couple of months ago about the changing roles and accomplishments of women and men in today's society. Author Hanna Rosin suggests the possibility that “modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women,” and women are destined to be more successful than men from here on out. Complete with a video of Rosin’s kids and husband debating the pros and cons of boys versus girls, she goes in-depth into the statistics that show the ways in which women are dominating more and more aspects of society (mostly using examples from the U.S.) The article echoes so much of what I find myself ranting and raving about, but more than that, it echoes many of the comments I’ve heard from people I work with here in Batahola.

In a conversation about the differences between women and men earlier this year among some of the CCBN's staff, one of the female teachers said something to the effect of "Women do everything. They make the money, manage the money, take care of the house, and take care of the kids. They are naturally more responsible than men, so it fits that they make more decisions." I expected the room to explode, or at least a man or two to argue. But all I saw were heads nodding and a few people saying "asi es." I was shocked. It's well known that micro-lending organizations like Kiva (and even the Sandinista government's own zero-interest lending program) give the majority of their loans to women. The statistics prove that when a woman increases her income, the entire family benefits, as opposed to when a man increases his income and fails to share his new earnings with those around him in a sustainable way. However, seeing these facts on paper or discussed in the political realm is very different than hearing those around you, women and men, acknowledge that women are simply better at life than men. The other night a 7-year-old female friend of mine told me, somewhat out of the blue, “I like to hang out with women more than men. I spend more time with my mom than with my dad.” This might not seem like an unusual comment when considering the role of the absent father, but this little girl has a father who I consider to be an excellent parent. As much of a feminist as I consider myself to be, and perhaps because of my feminism, I found this comment quite alarming.

Perhaps the biggest concern is not the degree of truth in these statements, but what we, as a society, are doing about these perceptions. I have had countless conversations with the women closest to me (and those not-so-close to me) about what it means to be the best woman I can be in today’s world. How many of you men have had such a conversation? How many of us have really asked ourselves what we believe and what want to teach our children about gender identity? And how many of us have really thought about how to change the ways in which society dictates our gender roles without becoming identity-less? These are complicated questions that bring to mind infinite possibilities with serious implications for our future. And until we start reflecting and grappling and sharing about them with ourselves and with each other, we cannot act and make change.

Sojourner’s has an on-going conversation right now on this topic, and next month Richard Rohr (see previous post “Boys to Men”) will be hosting a live event entitled “Is It Really the End of Men?” which will be webcast, giving us all the opportunity to participate in the conversation.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

E and Me

As the door to the teacher’s lounge silently creeps open, I spot two tiny hands reaching around the edge of the door, quickly followed by a mischievously grinning face. As this little pixie spots me her grin grows wider and she charges towards me, practically knocking me out of my chair as she hugs me. E, the six-year-old daughter of a scholarship student in the CCBN’s daily computer class, has taken to accompanying her mom to the CCBN in the afternoons and visiting all her “amigas” aka gringa volunteer friends. Never mind my not-very-forceful comments that she really shouldn’t be back here, E just keeps chattering away about whatever first comes to mind. She often tells us about her two-year-old nephew’s antics, or the various pets she’s had over the years, or moments when she was surprised or scared. It is a nonstop monologue, incoherently jumping from one topic to another, and it can be annoying and endearing at the same time. But, as with most children here, if you start asking some basic questions about their home lives, you quickly realize that not all is as rosy as their smiles. For example, asking E about who helps her at home and who she talks to, she is quick to respond “No one.” Not in school, she’s often home alone, left to the devices of her own imagination for entertainment. There are days she comes in without having been bathed, wearing the same clothes as the day before, and days she casually mentions they didn’t have any food in their house for lunch. She is fiercely affectionate, and her hugs make me feel much better when I’m having a bad day. Today we spent half an hour playing around with the camera on my computer, making funny faces and exploring different effects. E was eager to learn how to point-and-click on her own, and her giggles of delight cracked me up.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Center Profiles: Project FED “Developing the capacity of CCBN students and staff to reduce the risk factors for gender-based violence”

Who is the leadership of the project, and how did you get involved?

Darling, Project Coordinator – I started working on violence prevention when I was 15 years old, at a personal level, by participating in young women’s reflection groups about rights, equality, gender, reproductive rights, sexuality, etc. After about 2 or 3 years I started to reproduce what I had learned and unlearned in those groups with other young women, especially young women in my rural community. I continued to work in and learn from a variety of women’s organizations and initiatives, and for three years coordinated an NGO’s violence prevention project. I was motivated to become a part of Project FED because it’s what I’ve had experience in, but I was also interested in how to bring the gender-based violence prevention theme to the area of arts and culture. I feel a personal and political commitment to institutionalize this work at the CCBN.

Teresa, Psychologist – I have 15 years of work experience on violence issues, including work in a variety of government ministries (health and family) and women’s organizations. My specialties are intra-family violence and sexual abuse, mostly working with survivors. I’ve liked working with women from a young age; my mother was a social feminist leader who taught me a lot. You have to have a lot of sensitivity to do this work, and you also have to be outside the cycles of violence to a certain extent.

Marco Aurelio, Psychologist/Promoter – I have worked in violence prevention since I was 17. I’m interested in all aspects of violence, including violence towards others but also violence towards ourselves. My specialties are sexuality and masculinities. I feel a personal and social commitment to this project, especially because my interest is working on a community level as opposed to an individual level. I want to help people make changes as a community to better themselves.

What is this project about?

This project is interesting for two concrete reasons: the goal of institutionalization of violence prevention (formation, awareness-raising, prevention, etc.) and how to orient everything that the CCBN does towards this institutionalization. In other words, how to give arts and culture activities the face of violence prevention.

What are the most pressing issues for the project?

We must invest energy into working with children and youth. An adult male said to us during one of our focal groups that “the reality is that I’m not going to change.” His attitude can change, and during the two years of the project we will keep sprinkling drops in the bucket and hopefully something will click. But the most important investment right now is with children and youth.

What kinds of activities will the project involve?

Formation activities, trainings, psychological attention, self-care and self-help groups, masculinity discussion groups, and prevention campaigns

Who will benefit from the project?

CCBN personnel, participants, and their families

Why is this project important to the CCBN?

The people have expressed how necessary it is. The CCBN has witnessed an increase in violence among women and children every year. They want to have knowledge about what violence is and practical tools to confront it. It’s a commitment on the part of the administration to figure out what to do to help solve the problem. The resources are all here, but we need to organize them and put them under a vision. It’s really about looking back at the roots of the CCBN, looking at the work that Angel and Margarita did and finding ways to continue that work. Our historical systematization shows how Margarita accompanied women in their transition from housewives to working outside the home. She accompanied them from a social empowerment perspective, telling them they could do it when they didn’t believe in themselves and challenging them to raise their self-esteem and work against the myths society tells women about themselves.

How do you find hope and motivation when you hear so many discouraging stories?

Marco Aurelio – Each of us lived a story of violence in our families. My motivation is that if I’ve been able to bring harmony to my life, others can do it, too. However, they need to have the right information and motivation. So my goal is to provide alternatives to violence that make sense in the context of each person’s reality as a way to lower violence in general.

Darling – Along with coming from a situation of violence, it’s a challenge for me to see how people can do things differently from their families. I’m motivated by the possibility of changing family dynamics and being able to choose the way you want to live.

Tere – Although I didn’t see a lot of violence in my house, I grew up without my father, and this motivated me because I believe that, for a child, it’s necessary for the family to live in harmony. However, if the family is going to live in violence, it’s better for them to be separated. It motivates me to collaborate in making new ways of relating to others, because sometimes people want to change, but they can’t do it alone and they need professional support to be able to overcome their struggles.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Boys to Men

The world is broken. Yes, I knew that before coming to Nicaragua. In fact, I think I’ve had an acute awareness of this fact from a young age. But there are weeks here where I feel like I get hit over the head with evidence of it over and over and over again, and it wears me down, makes me tired, and makes it hard to keep going. On the one hand, when people confide in me, I feel humbled and so privileged to be able to learn from them and accompany them in their pain. On the other hand, I feel so helpless. If all this stuff is just a product of a broken world, what can I really do about it?

And why does it seem like men are so much more broken inside than women? I think women suffer so much hardship and violence at the hands of men, but at the same time, I see that they are stronger because of it; they survive and learn to thrive from it. Men just remain…broken, lost, and unable to identify and articulate how they feel. This is why gender issues are important to everyone, not just women. We are all negatively affected by inequalities based on societal definitions of our anatomy.

According to the book Elementos Sociopsicológicos de Victimología (Sociopsychological Elements of Victimology) from Mexico:

“The traditional model of masculinity is supported by two essential elements that make up a true psychological profile:
•Emotional restriction: not speaking about feelings, especially with other men.
•Obsession with achievement and success.

These two basic characteristics translate into a kind of relationship with the world characterized by:
•Limited affective and sexual conduct,
•Attitudes based on models of control, power, and competition,
•Health problems.”

I see endless examples of this analysis in both my work and community life here in Batahola. Men seeking advice about family and relationships who can’t talk to their best friends about their struggles because they feel a sense of competition with them and a lack of openness. Men who think that their self-worth comes from pleasing all those around them and always succeeding with women. Men who, when asked how they feel, can’t come up with an answer. According to Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, this is not only a Latin American phenomenon. Through his experience leading men’s retreats he has concluded that Western men “[are] trapped inside, with almost no inner universe of deep meaning to heal [them] or guide [them].”

That’s not to say I haven’t met many deeply reflective men in Nicaragua. I have. It’s just that much of the human pain I see here (the pain we all experience as a result of living in a broken world) seems to stem from that explosive word “gender.” And as a young North American woman, I often don’t know how to respond to this pain in a culturally appropriate and knowledgeable way. So I find hope in the sharing of struggle and tend to do a lot of listening, a lot of hugging, and a lot of my own reflecting on how being a woman has shaped my identity for better and for worse.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

English vs. Life

This morning I gave an oral quiz in English class. The quiz was about the past tense (“What did you do yesterday?” “What did you do last weekend?”) and neighborhoods (“Are there any banks in your neighborhood?” “Is there much crime in your neighborhood?”) But before I got to those questions, I asked a simple “How are you?” Greta and I try as much as possible to keep up with what is going on in our students’ lives, but that’s not always easy to do when there are 20 of them. And when we do hear about how they’re doing on a more personal level, we are reminded of just how hard life can be here. It’s not that life isn’t hard in the U.S., it most certainly is, but at least in comparison to the places and situations I come from in the U.S., the people that I’m interacting with here on a daily basis have many more serious and frequent problemas. We have students who are struggling with difficult housemates and divorces, jobs where you work 60+ hours a week and unexpected pregnancies, machismo and transformation, and abusive relationships and insomnia. Not to mention the daily tasks required to run a household, raise children, and simply survive. Again, it’s not that these situations don’t exist in the U.S., but that a simple “How are you?” at the beginning of an English quiz brings an overwhelming torrent of struggle, heartache, and stress from several of my students.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Coro Angel Torrellas on YouTube

Go here to see videos of the CCBN's choir singing a wide range of opera choruses in last year's National Choral Season.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

June In Review

So it has been a while since we've updated the blog, which we apologize for, but truly, the last two months have been absolutely crazy. Here's a brief summary of some of our recent activities:

The month of June began with the yearly visit to the CCBN from Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Cincinnati. IHM has had a twinning relationship with the CCBN for over 10 years, and each year a group of youth and adult chaperones makes a visit to the CCBN to learn about its work, gain some perspective on Nicaragua's reality, and build relationships with the community. Their 3 1/2 day stay at the CCBN was packed full of class visits, puppet shows and play dough with kids, reflections, arts exchanges, and conversations in both broken Spanish and English. One of the highlights of the weekend was Sunday morning's mural painting at the local Carlos Fonseca elementary school, also founded by Fr. Angel Torrellas and Sr. Margarita Navarro. Scholarship students from the CCBN joined forces with the IHM delegation to brighten the perimeter wall of the new preschool area at the school, and CCBN artists collaborated by drawing educational figure outlines on the wall and guiding the youth through the paint process. The wall turned out spectacularly, but more importantly, paint replaced language as a means of cross-cultural communication.

I spent the middle of June back home in Fargo, sharing stories from my work here with some of my community of support and celebrating my parents' 25th wedding anniversary. Initially, setting foot on U.S. soil (aka the Houston airport) after a year was a little overwhelming, but the support of my friends and family made the visit incredibly meaningful and a lot of fun. I was able to do a presentation on my time here to close friends and family, as well as visit with my church about my work. Favorite moments included eating lots of dessert with my best friend, playing mini-golf with my brother, and getting driven everywhere by my parents because I was too scared to get behind the wheel after a year!

Then, I hit the ground running by arriving back in Nicaragua the same evening as another group from Cincinnati, this time made up of a dozen soon-to-be seniors at St. Ursula's all-girls school and two of their teachers. These young ladies spent their time taking in both the rural and urban reality in Nicaragua, as well as sharing with a small group of CCBN youth about school, relationships, the World Cup, and whatever else might come up in conversation. After learning a little Nicaraguan folklore from the dance group, the St. Ursula's girls taught the dancers here the Cha-Cha Slide. So much laughter!

The weekend of July 4th was our semester closing at the CCBN. Instead of a graduation ceremony, the Cierre Cultural was a cultural extravaganza. Music, theater, food, painting, handicrafts, and dance, including our own performance with the Latin Rhythms class, made for a fun morning of sharing art, laughter, and nerves.

Now, it's back to a regular routine of English class and arts youth activities for me. I'm hoping to get more involved with the CCBN's new gender violence prevention project, so more on that coming soon.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Community Organizing

Last week I spent three days at a Cantera workshop learning about community development and organizing. We reflected on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to community organizing in a Nicaraguan context, and we shared a lot about our personal organizing experiences. Cantera workshops are always excellently facilitated, and I particularly enjoyed this one because it gave me so many good, concrete tools that I can use in my work at the CCBN. One of the greatest strengths of Cantera workshops is the diversity present in the room. People from all over the country, from NGO’s, from political organizations, and both paid workers and volunteers with a variety of educational backgrounds and economic circumstances, come together to share their experiences and learn from one another.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the workshop for me was seeing so many of the same theoretical concepts that I had learned at Industrial Areas Foundation’s national training in 2008, but with different methodological tools. For example, IAF’s basic organizing tool is the relational meeting, sitting down with someone one-on-one and probing them about their hopes, fears, and dreams, in order to identify their self-interest. At Cantera’s workshop, we learned about the importance of self-interest and of tapping into people’s dreams, but instead of starting with a relational meeting, Cantera gave us la muñeca, or the doll, as our initial organizing tool. You being by drawing the figure of a doll on butcher paper. Placing the community’s dream at the head of the doll, the committee writes down their resources and places those at the right arm of the doll. Next they place challenges at the left arm of the doll, and their personal commitments at the heart of the doll. Finally, the group makes a list of the initial steps that need to be taken to make the dream come true and places those at the doll’s feet. This tool is very effective in terms of visually laying out where the community stands in relation to their dream. Seeing these methodological differences caused me to reflect on how context determines effective organizing strategies. In the U.S. organizing context, we are looking for a way to take a much more individualistic culture and make it about community, whereas here, the assumption is that there is already an organized structure in place in the community, and that an outsider (such as an NGO) must learn to work within that structure.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

gatito documentary

Good Friday morning. It was hot, and I was still in bed groggily trying to decide if I would be able to sleep a little longer in spite of the heat and take advantage of my vacation while it lasted. The Center was closed during Holy Week except for evening choir rehearsals. As wonderful as it is to listen to all the CCBN’s activities, it sure was nice to sleep in past 8am without being woken up by trombone lessons or recorder class. However, instead of the normal musical din I soon began to hear different kinds of sounds coming from outside, just below my window. It sounded like a kitten. I remembered that the volunteers who lived in the house before us had gained a reputation for taking care of unwanted strays. Groaning inwardly, I rolled over and decided that if it was still there when I woke up again I would figure out what to do with it.

Sure enough, when I opened the front door mid-morning, I found a wee bit of a kitten crying miserably in the corner of the porch. It was still wobbly on its little legs and obviously couldn’t have climbed up the steps by itself, so someone must have left it. Funny, people usually take things from our porch, not leave them (e.g., laundry drying on the line).

I had never taken care of a kitten this tiny, and Amanda hadn’t had any pets at all growing up. Luckily, Laura, one of the previous FOB volunteers and daughter of a veterinarian, had left us a small baby bottle and powdered infant formula for just such occasions. At his arrival, the kitten was so tiny that he even had trouble taking milk from a bottle, and one eye was swollen shut. Now, his eye has healed thanks to some drops, his fleas are gone thanks to a bath, and his little tummy is getting quite plump. He’s even starting to scamper and loves nothing more than to sit between our feet while we are cooking or washing dishes, making it a bit awkward for us to move around the kitchen without stepping on him.

Few of our Nicaraguan friends are as taken with the little guy as we are, but our friend, co-volunteer and freelance filmmaker Melissa Engle has put together a little documentary based on her observations, featured above. At first we were looking to give him away, but no one really seemed interested. Now we’re rather fond of the little guy (okay, okay, I admit I was ready to keep him from the start, but it seemed like Amanda needed a little more time to get used to the idea).

So far we’ve just been calling him “gatito” or “kitty” (not very creative, but easier than felis catus). Other suggestions have been Garfield, Fuzz, and Samson, but we may just end up calling him Tiger. If nothing else, it’ll give him something to aspire to.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Center Profiles: Ansony Gutierrez Jimenez

How old are you?

What was your first experience at the Center?
My first experience was studying the first level of Adult Basic Education. I got to know a lot of friends through this experience. It was both a fun and sad experience because I was scared to go to the Center sometimes, I was nervous about participating.

What do you currently do at the Center?
I help the guys. I help with security and maintenance, and I’m also in the painting class. The painting class is not easy, when I started, I couldn’t imagine getting involved, it’s a scary thing to put yourself out there, but if you say you can’t, you won’t be able to, and if you say you can, you can. The hardest thing about painting is painting faces. I’ve been painting for almost four years. I still remember my first painting, which I gave to my Adult Basic Education teacher, it was of a boy with a beautiful background of a tree with leaves in the fall, and around the tree were a bunch of kids. Painting has helped me economically because I sell my paintings and that’s helped me meet a lot of people.

Where do you live, and who lives at your house?
I live in Batahola Sur, and I live with my grandmother, two uncles, one aunt, and two cousins.

Who, of those that live at your house, work, and what do they do?
Only one of my uncles works. He works in a cosmetics store.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to go out, hang out with my friends, wash my clothes, iron, and go to the gym.

What is your biggest dream?
My biggest dream is to be with my mom in the United States. She has lived in Miami for 14 years and I haven’t seen her since she left.

What is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is walking into a haunted house!

Why is the Center important to you?
The Center is important to me because I like helping the guys, they help me too, and I’ve learned I don’t need to be too proud. I go to the Center to leave behind my sadness. Once you enter here, you lose your sadness. My sadness is that my house doesn’t have food, that I’ll have to go to bed without eating.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Gender Equality

Last week I attended a 4-day Gender Equality workshop run by Cantera, a local Center for Communication and Popular Education. Cantera tries to address gender inequality as an issue for everyone-not just female feminists. After the initial session, men and women broke off into separate groups.

The women’s workshop focused on themes of identity and social conditions. Most of the activities revolved around sharing personal experiences and working in groups. We filled several sheets of flipchart paper with ideas of who we want to be as women. We sat in small groups on the floor and shared our life stories, then used elements of our own stories to make a composite biography of an imaginary woman for each group. As each group read their story in plenary, the same themes kept emerging-abuse, abandonment, limited access to education, single motherhood, poverty.

One exercise that really hit home for me was our reflection on unattained dreams. As a microphone was passed around the room, each woman shared briefly about a dream that she had been unable to pursue. Overwhelmingly, the women expressed their desires to study. Woman after woman told of how she had wanted to go to school, but because her family was poor she had to work in the fields instead, or take care of her siblings, or had become pregnant as a teenager, or had been told that girls don’t need to study because they should be working at home. When the microphone came to me, I passed it on silently, as did the other three foreign volunteers in the room. I have been incredibly blessed with opportunities to follow all my dreams-working overseas, being a “missionary”, going to college, even performing with a professional symphony. I surveyed the room full of women, many of whom are organizers in their communities, and listened to their stories. They had been denied the chance to study-not because they lacked the desire or willingness to work hard, but because of poverty and their social roles as females.

Workshop participants came from all over the country and ranged in ages from teenagers to late 50’s. It seems that most of us work for various NGO’s or community organizations that sponsored them to come so that they could pass on what they learn.

Some of the women I talked with during breaks and lunch in the cafeteria have already been working for years in their communities to teach women about their rights and better social conditions. Victoria, an impressive woman in her 50’s, is a founding member of an all-women-owned cooperative shrimp farm. When she and 35 other women first started working together, the men in their community taunted them, saying they would never turn a profit, that it was man’s work. However, the project turned out to be quite profitable and years later it’s still going strong. Maximina, a 40-something mother and activist from Managua, used to work in a factory under poor conditions, subject to mistreatment by supervisors. “They forced us to work overtime, they didn’t pay us our full salary, and sometimes they even hit the workers.” Then she met a woman from a national feminist movement. She began to learn about her human rights and organize other women in her factory. Instead of firing her, Maximina’s managers saw her leadership potential and made her a supervisor! She eventually quit working in the factory to do workshops with women in her community.

For me, a volunteer working in a different culture, the workshop was incredibly helpful for understanding the disadvantages and dreams common to many women in Nicaragua. And for helping me cope with the frustration I often feel when interacting with men here. And for dreaming of how relationships between men and women here as well as back home would look if/when we achieve true equality.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

VMM Video

Check out this video about the work VMM is doing around the world, including interviews with several missioners.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Jose Angel and Erick leading the workshop

Sorting clothes

Me playing Twister

Youth working together

Melissa and Grismaylin carrying supplies

Waslala's natural beauty

Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a glamorous affair for many in Nicaragua. Attending religious services seemingly takes a backseat to trips to the beach, time with friends, and lots of partying. While many of us in the U.S. (me included) may consider this a week of religious reflection, for many Nicaraguans the hottest time of the year plus universal vacation time equals heading out of the city for some rest and relaxation.

The Youth Group I work with headed out of Managua along with everyone else, but for a slightly different reason. We spent four days in Waslala, a rural area northeast of Managua devastatingly affected by the Contra War in the 1980’s. Because of its distance from Managua, the region is neglected by the government and has limited access to resources. However, it is also an absolutely beautiful part of the country and is actually a protected nature reserve. Within this brief sketch of Waslala you can see the many contradictions and the ways in which life in this region is difficult for its inhabitants.

This was the Youth Group’s second annual visit, and our objectives were to share with the community of Waslala by delivering clothing and school supply donations, leading a self-esteem workshop with children, and learning from the youth and communities about their organizations.

Our time in Waslala was filled with experiential learning:

•What do you do when you’ve run out of food to feed over 100 people who have come to share with you?
•How do you make sure one activity runs smoothly while the next activity is being prepared?
•How do you divide up tasks as a team, making sure everyone feels included AND is doing their share?
•How do you keep a group of 50 children entertained and learning about self-esteem when they range in age from 2 to 12?
•How do you balance learning from the community you’re visiting and sharing your own passions and skills with them?

These are just a few of the tough issues we confronted and learned from as a group. Obviously, there is endless potential for leadership development and teamwork in this experience. The Youth Group did an excellent job responding to these issues, organizing themselves, and learning from one day to the next how to make their events run more smoothly. We also experienced profound sharing with the youth in Waslala who accompanied us every step of the way.

One insight from a group member that particularly struck me was: “These communities don’t need our help. We need to come here and learn from them how to better-organize ourselves.” Exactly.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Going to the Venta

It’s 6:30pm, and Amanda and I are just getting home. Hmmmm, not much in the kitchen to cook for dinner...luckily, there are several ventas all within two blocks of our house in Batahola. Ventas are like small convenience stores, usually on the porch or front room of someone’s home. While you can usually find all the staples such as rice, beans, oil and sugar, there isn’t much to choose from as far as produce is concerned, beyond the crucial onions, tomatoes and plantains. The venta is also a convenient place to buy prepaid minutes for our cell phones

Most of the items sold at the venta can be bought per unit rather than per package. You can get one egg for 15 cents, a stick of butter for about a dollar. Rice, beans, and sugar are sold per pound. You can buy a single roll of toilet paper, and even bring in an empty plastic soda pop bottle to refill with vegetable oil. This makes it easier for households that rely on a small daily cash income to buy only what they need for the next meal. Also, it’s not really common to stock up on cooking ingredients here, since not every home has a refrigerator.

The abundance of ventas makes me think that they’re a popular small business venture. Venta owners can start out small by buying a few products and gradually expand their inventory. And there is the convenience of working at home, where you can take care of your kids, clean or cook meals whenever there are no customers. According to statistics, most venta owners are women. However, it seems that I have seen multiple family members sharing the tasks in every venta I’ve been to.

For us, the best part thing about the ventas is that they are close enough that it only takes a few minutes to get last minute dinner or breakfast supplies. The problem is remembering to get everything we need in one trip!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Solidarity, Art, and Change

Recognizing and taking advantage of the potential for human development and not just artistic development in arts formation is an integral part of the mission of the CCBN, a goal that is being realized through retreats, recreational activities, and gender discussions with the arts groups. I have spent several evenings and Saturdays in retreats and discussions with youth from all the arts groups at the CCBN: choir, orchestra, theater, painting, and dance. We’ve played, we’ve sung, we’ve danced, and we’ve shared about our experiences as artists and as young people.

Before the closing retreat, several of the youth expressed concern to me that they wouldn’t get along well with the youth from the other groups. Seats on the bus were clearly divided by arts group, and our initial circle of chairs was also pretty segregated. By the end of the day, though, everyone was mixed up, laughing and sharing their art with each other.

I’ve been interviewing some of the youth to document their reactions to the events and get their ideas for the future. Many have shared that they learned much about the values of solidarity, respect, and camaraderie. But what most struck them is the way in which they were able to share with members of the other arts groups, despite the fact that they had never really gotten to know each other before. The youth are energized, and they are taking that energy back to their rehearsals and performances, strengthening both their artistry and their sense of identity.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Recognizing God in the Tiniest Flicker

Last weekend Greta and I attended Volunteer Missionary Movement’s annual retreat in El Salvador. We gathered with our fellow Central American VM’s and shared stories about our work and the current political situation in our countries, reflected on how we’ve changed since beginning our time with VMM, and recalled what it means to be a missioner for life. Edwina Gateley, founder of VMM, joined us for the retreat, sharing her wisdom on being part of the movement.

Edwina reminded us that our “mission” with VMM is not simply a two-year stint, but a lifetime commitment to bringing about the reign of God by working for peace and justice. I feel pretty uncomfortable calling myself a “missionary,” and it was good to be reminded that the kind of mission VMM is talking about is not an evangelical one. Instead of bringing God to the people, Edwina talked about learning to recognize God, both in ourselves and in those around us. For us as volunteers this was a an affirmation that no matter what challenging circumstances we find ourselves in (and they are numerous), we should know God is with us, and remember to recognize the ways in which God is moving in our lives. Edwina explained that all we have to do is find the tiniest flicker of hope and know that God is present. For the communities with whom we are serving, we affirm their recognition of God’s presence. It is not about bringing God, or even finding God, but creating opportunities and spaces for community members to recognize God in their own lives. In this way, mission becomes a mutual exchange of support and affirmation.

We also spent time discussing the political and social realities of each of the countries we are serving in and in Central America as a region. Currently, VMM has missioners in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Tim Muth, a VMM board member who joined us on the retreat, has a great blog on all things El Salvador. He and the other volunteers in El Salvador talked about the gang violence gripping El Salvador and the politics behind the campaign against it. Those of us from Nicaragua struggled to explain the tension between social programs and corruption under Daniel Ortega. For more information on this ongoing Nicaraguan debate, read NACLA articles that offer both a more positive view of Ortega and a more critical perspective.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Obama and Latin America

Here's an excellent article by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs that reviews Obama's first year in office in terms of his Latin American policy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Facing Poverty and Privilege

I have no idea what the word “poverty” really means. In the United States, “poverty” is the government designation for the income level at which a family of a certain size cannot meet their “basic needs.” In Nicaragua, poverty means living on less than a few dollars a day. So is poverty relative? I don’t really know. But whatever you call it when someone can’t make ends meet or they skip a meal so their kids don’t have to or they work five jobs and barely scrape by or their children are exceptionally small because they were malnourished at some point, how do those of us with more than enough money and security in our state of excess respond to it? Do we throw money at the situation, give away all we have, lend money, refuse to give money because we believe in justice, or do we simply make sure never to be in a situation where we’re faced with that choice?

I certainly don’t actively seek out people who society labels “poor” just to force myself to face my privilege. But here in Nicaragua, I can’t choose to avoid it as easily as I can in the U.S. Whether it’s my friend asking me for a loan for her son’s school registration fee, a neighbor coming by my house asking for food, a blind man begging on the bus, or an English student who can’t afford their textbook, I frequently feel a familiar pang of guilt mixed with I’m-a-graduate-of-a-liberal-arts-college-and-we-have unpacked-our-privilege mixed with helplessness mixed with relief: “I’m glad I have the money not to be in that situation.”

Did I really just say that? Yup. Truth be told, it’s uncomfortable to ask for a loan or a handout, and I thank God (not every day, just when I’m faced with the issue) that I don’t struggle to pay my bills and can by a ticket home whenever I want. And that’s when I’m living on a volunteer’s stipend.

So aside from mixed feelings and the urge to run away, what do I do when I face a blind man on the bus asking me for money? I passively stare straight ahead (or out the window), don’t give him anything, and then I reflect on the pop culture question ‘What would Jesus do?’ Certainly not what I just did. I conclude that not only am I not Jesus, but our world is so broken I firmly believe that the “right” thing to do is the opposite of what Jesus would do.

I’ve been taught from a young age that handouts are not great – not justice, not the way to bring someone out of poverty, better to give your money to an organization who can distribute it properly. Whatever that means. Being a Christian, especially a Catholic, means justice, not charity. Which means God wants systemic change, genuine equality, not $.25 handouts. So I don’t give money. Because of that lesson, and because I selfishly don’t want to play the game where every time someone approaches me for money I debate their sincerity and make a judgment, more likely to be based in racism, classism, ageism, sexism, and outfit-ism, than anything else. I’d rather not dirty myself with those kinds of judgments. So I avoid eye contact and reflect on the fact that I think I’m actually pretty sure Jesus would give money to every person that asked for it. Never mind that that might be a lot of people, and never mind that they might spend it on drugs or alcohol or other sinful substances. Jesus would not judge, he would simply show love in the moment and share of himself, perhaps offering a word of encouragement or kindness. (Of course, he would do all this without being the least bit patronizing and while continuing to work for systemic change in other ways. But that’s a whole other issue). And so I hold tightly to my money, feeling disgusted with myself that on one of the rare occasions I actually feel pretty certain about what Jesus would do, I can’t even bring myself to follow in his footsteps because it’s just not “right” in today’s world.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Luchando for Christmas All Year ‘Round

For me, what most significantly marks Christmas here is the choir music. Instead of singing about angels, Santa, and even the traditional Nativity scene, most of our Christmas carols talk about Christmas as a state of being, one marked by conscience, solidarity, and action. During the Christmas season I sang over and over again about how Christmas should be present the whole year around in the struggle for social justice and the way we relate to one another.

For example, in “Navidad sin estruendo” or “Christmas without Thunder,” the chorus says:

“To Bethlehem we come and go by pathways of joy, and God is born in each one who devotes themselves to others. To Bethlehem we come and go by pathways of justice, and in Bethlehem people are born when they learn to struggle.”

The word luchar, which I’ve translated here as “struggle,” is the principle word used in Spanish to describe that state of working towards and hungering for social justice. To understand the miracle of Christmas as the birthing of luchadores/as, or “strugglers for social justice,” is striking because we usually associate images of gentleness and passivity with the Christmas story. Struggle, however, has little to do with sitting and waiting patiently. How much more meaningful is the Nativity scene when we reflect on the difficult journey that brought Mary and Joseph to the stable, and when we remember the struggle that Jesus chose in his adult ministry? As a poor, unwed-but-pregnant couple, Mary and Joseph were labeled as sinners by their society, but instead of listening to the criticism, they chose to glorify God by following his plan for them. And as a prophet speaking truth-to-power, Jesus faced both political and personal adversity, glorifying God with his peaceful but revolutionary stance.

The second and third verses of this carol talk about the people awaiting a rich, submissive, kingly figure as their Christ, and how instead, they got a poor but powerful-with-words baby who denounces oppression and proclaims liberation in the name of God. Of course, I, too, love the image of Jesus as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. But that image moves me more when I, like Mary, ponder in my heart the future of the baby and how I can radicalize those around me in the name of Love and Justice (aka God).

The song goes on to say in its final verse:

“Christmas is a pathway that doesn’t produce a great thunder, because God resounds within those who walk in brotherhood. Christmas is the miracle of going door-to-door and finding out if our brother needs our bread.”

And so it isn’t about changing the world alone, miraculously birthing a divine but human savior, or gift-giving. It’s about an awareness of and willingness to struggle with those around us for God’s abundant life.

Click here to hear the choir singing another Christmas carol.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cookie Monsters

Twas mid-December, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except maybe a mouse...and Amanda and I decorating for Christmas as we strung up a line of white lights on our porch, a batch of Betty Crocker cookies baking in the toaster oven. Stepping back to admire the effect of our Christmas decoration, we noticed the distinct aroma of charred cookies. (Luckily you can't make too many cookies at a time in a toaster oven, so we had plenty of dough left to try again). Suddenly, there arose such a clatter in the street in front of our house that we went to see what was the matter. We found a group of eight little boys from the neighborhood, probably ranging in age from 8 to 13 years old. They were clamoring for water and making smooching sounds at us: "Hey, Sweetheart! Bring me water!" "Hey, gringa!"

This immediately caught our attention. As self-proclaimed feminists, we knew we couldn't allow this kind of behavior to continue. Amanda began a dialogue with the boys while I ferried cups of water back and forth. She asked the biggest boy why he was making the smooching sounds.

"Because he likes you!" the younger ones chorused.

"Well," Amanda explained, "when you like a girl, you have to get to know her first before you call her sweetheart and get her permission to kiss her. Do you like it when people do things to you without your permission?"

"No..." another boy answered.

"Well, that's how I feel when you say those things to me."

Lesson over, they smelled blackened chocolate chip cookies and insisted we give them some. Since you can't bake many cookies at one time in a toaster oven, we only had a few cookies to give away. Amanda told them they would have to share two cookies between them.

"We don't care, we want cookies!"

So Amanda doled out pieces of the two crispy cookies, which were greedily snatched up by the boys, who didn't seemed as interested in sharing after all. When the cookies were gone, the boys wandered away and Amanda and I returned to the kitchen to experiment ways to bake cookies without burning them. Five minutes later, we heard the same commotion in front of our house. "Hey sweetheart!" and more smoochy sounds. Amanda stalked out angrily and announced that they were being disrespectful and they couldn't be friends anymore.

When even this didn't deter them, I went out and threw a bucket of water on them.

Once it quieted down again I had a chance to think about what had just happened. Feelings of frustration lingered, and I remembered that at the gym that evening a bunch of teenage boys had also been catcalling at me as they passed by. Was I supposed to put up with it in my own house, too? Then I felt guilty for having resorted to violence, even though it was only a bucket of water, to resolve the situation.

I wonder what Mother Theresa would have done.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The U.S. Economy and Immigration Reform

Recently, the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center released a report detailing how comprehensive immigration reform will not only cause economic growth but is necessary to boost the faltering U.S. economy. The report, complete with economic analysis of three immigration policy scenarios, and written by UCLA economist and founder of the North American Integration and Development Center Dr. Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, can be found below. Or, for a quick summary, watch this interview with Angela Kelley, VP for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress.

Immigration Report - Complete