An Internacionalista 2023 wrote this letter on August, 2023.

Hello All,

Welcome to my friends and family letter after 2 months of being in Guatemala! This letter is part update/part reflections on my time in Guatemala. I am so new here that I feel as though I have very few concrete learnings to share. I hope that you will get to know me better through this letter and in future letters, as well as more about the struggles I am engaging with here. I have been reflecting a lot on my groundings here, especially given all that I have been told about living abroad. As I learn and experience life here, I am finding differences, connections, and people being people. A lot of what I am finding pushes back against this idea of “abroad” as an abstract yet distinctly different life that is supposed to produce a culture shock. 

I’ve never been sure where I’m supposed to feel culture shock in my body. People have told me it’s coming. I wonder will I feel it first on my tongue as I stumble through Spanish or as I eat something so new i dont know its name? Will I feel it rush over all my body like swimming in a river that’s been protected for years by local Indigenous retornados to the land? Will I feel it just in my fingertips as I graze over embroidery made with significance and patience I could only ever dream of? Will it burn my ears as I am surrounded by new languages, music, expressions? I write to you all, waiting for this sense of shock. I’m not sure it’s coming.

 I often find myself drowning in words, mine and other’s. It’s been a while since I’ve struggled with communication. In fact I often feel pride around my ability to play with words. Not here. Miscommunications are frequent. Pride now looks like understanding 70 percent of any given conversation. 

Photo by: Internacionalista 2023

I have found myself frequently faced with global wealth and resource inequity and disparities. My commitment to equitable distribution of resources has not wavered and has gained new dimensions. However, when being fed by a woman and her family in a partnering community I found myself dodging questions around my access to resources and money. Something I’m steadfastly against as a principle in relationships I hold. After having a conversation about how her family’s cardamom crop has faced significant trouble, how could I disclose Swarthmore’s tuition that my family is paying in its entirety? How would that change our relationship that is based on an exchange of food? How do I offer transparency if not to follow up with material support that, because of NISGUA practices, I’m not allowed to provide? Maybe I’m just feeling guilt manifest in new ways but it certainly feels different here, and I know that I have a lot of work, internal and external, to understand and navigate through these feelings of discomfort. 

I was able to spend time at a school for a morning and realized that something I thought I knew well, pedagogy and approaches to learning, looks really different here. I was inspired by how trust shows up for students and young people. Kids engaged in self-directed big tasks and the teachers supported them calmly. I am realizing how little I really know about the wide range of support for and transfer of knowledge to young people. 

However, I also experienced difficulty engaging with these young people. With Spanish as all of our second languages, understanding each other proved difficult. I learned that my presence as a tall gringa with such language barriers scared them. That’s not an easy feeling. 

Photo by: Internacionalista 2023

I experience beauty differently here. While swimming in the Chixoy River I was overwhelmed by the beauty I was surrounded with. I took so many photos and was so excited to share them with people. Then looking back at them I found myself disappointed. I thought maybe my Samsung just can’t capture this (which is true). But moreover, this beauty simply can’t be captured by a camera. Not the way that I expect from many, not all, beautiful tourist destinations. It is not an in-your-face gorgeous. It does not stun you the way cultivated for tourism water and greenery does. The beauty I felt was an embodied one. Something deeply informed by the struggle I know our partners have engaged in for years to prevent extractive megaprojects from their water.  It feels so different to know that the beauty I am experiencing is a result of years of labor for love and community. 

And yet, in the face of all of these differences, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grounded. I am profoundly rooted in the humanness of everyone I met and each new experience. 

Where I have found difficulty in speaking Spanish, I have also found incredible patience and joy. Many people are more than willing to listen to me self correct my grammar and pronunciation. Several conversations have led to many laughs as I make silly mistakes or we exchange slang or simply words that sound funny when said in English. 

ESP: Una persona dando la espalda a la cámara, sentada sobre rocas a la orilla de un rio y grandes montañas verdes. ENG: A person with turned back to the camera, sitting on rocks on the shore of a river and huge green mountains.

Photo by: Internacionalista 2023

I found that even in houses where I was acutely aware of our drastically differing economic background, I was often comforted by the care that people put into their homes. This is not surprising in the least, but when conversations were hard and difficult, it was nice to be able to look around and see tchotchkes and decorations that clearly had a story and emotion behind them. 

And while it was new and challenging to interact with a school full of children, I also found so much beauty in finding a little love note sketched into the walls of the school. A time honored tradition wherever you are. 

ESP: En una pared blanca dibujado con lápiz un corazón, al centro dice: Te amo. ENG: On a white wall drawn with pencil a heart, in the center it says: I love you.

Photo by: Internacionalista 2023

I think that most of this grounding comes from being exposed to the struggle here. To be able to spend time in deeply organized communities in Guatemala is inspiring. Understanding this profound sense of connectedness and need for collective liberation guides me through sometimes scary feelings. I am learning to sit with these complexities and to dive headfirst into them. I leave you with no answers. I look forward to sending you all more letters where rather than letting supposed fundamental differences be vehicles for my growth, I share the way that these connections drive my understanding of the world and of solidarity. 

Forever in struggle,

Internacionalista 2023.