church, Seminary

Xela, Guatemala: No more silence

“I got married to be a family together, not to be a single mother,” said the woman.

“I can send you money!” said the woman playing her husband in the play.

“Money isn’t everything,” she replied.

He went anyway, crossing the border after several tries and staying in the United States for too many years.

The story is real and all-too-common in Guatemala, creating the circumstances for many social problems in the country, including hunger, violence, unplanned urbanization and homelessness. Six women of the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala have created a project called Historias de Fe (Faith Stories) in order to share their life experience outside Guatemala and to educate and encourage Guatemalans. On Wednesday, the stories they shared with our seminar were about migration, a topic that touches most Guatemalans.

In one skit, the women re-enacted their experience in attempting to get visas to travel to the United States to visit the theater company Looking for Lilith. One woman was denied a visa, even though she carried the same credentials and reference letters as everyone else. She suspects she was denied because she got flustered when the U.S. Embassy interviewer asked questions about her income. Her answer differed slightly from her paperwork. Other women said it might have been that Spanish is her second language, and she wasn’t as confident. No one is told why a visa is denied; it is the discretion of the interviewer, who might see 100 people a day for three minutes apiece.

“You see people come out, and you know they’ve been denied. Some are crying,” said Marina. “I was almost trembling when I went up. I thought that would happen to me.”

For North Americans to hear this highlights the incredible privilege that comes with a U.S. passport. I have never been detained at customs. As a visitor, I have never had to apply at a consulate for a visa. (My parents did when we traveled to El Salvador in 1993, and someone did my Costa Rican student visa paperwork for me in 2001.) I don’t tremble when I approach a port of entry; I assume they will let me through. If something goes wrong, the most I will have to do is correct my paperwork or pay a fee.

Not true for Guatemalans. They can and often will be harassed and asked the same question over and over, officials “trying to trick” them and betray a desire to overstay their visa, the women said.

Freedom of movement is fundamental to who we are as human beings, and international policies, especially those of the United States, increasingly serves to remove that human right. Migration should not be stopped, but migration forced upon people by economic need or violence, must be stopped, and freedom of movement, exchange of culture and ideas, and trade and commerce must be restored.

I was struck during the women’s skits, which they developed themselves and which are their own true stories, at how similar their project is to The Vagina Monologues and V-Day anti-violence projects. At San Francisco Theological Seminary, women are preparing to produce the Monologues for the fifth year. Participating in the play has been the single most transformative experience of my seminary career. Learning to speak for my body and to recognize and celebrate its sacredness taught me more than anything else what it is to be created in the image of God.

I was telling this to one of the Faith Stories women, and telling her that the play is a bit scandalous but is intended to voice things that women experience but that are kept hidden. “Que callamos,” she said. “That we are silent about. We can suffer internally, and we feel alone. For this reason we need to share.”

That is why the women of Faith Stories do what they do. People who see their stories realize that they are not alone. They can speak.

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church, Seminary

Border and Beyond: A Seminary Journey

Reflecting on Genesis 1:26-27, today the image of God is motherhood. We have heard from a white U.S. pastor and mother who wept as she thought of the fear a Mexican mother felt when she was stopped by police, leading to a deportation order. We have heard from a woman who, at age 6, thought her mother might be dead, killed by a Guatemalan death squad, until her grandmother received a letter sending for her. We have heard a mother housed in the sanctuary of a church, pleading against deportation, describe her treatment by North Americans as amor de Dios, the love of God. She is fighting a lucha bella, a beautiful struggle.

How do mothers behave when their children and families are threatened? That is how God acts, and that is how Christ calls Christians to act toward her children.

My exploration of Central American-U.S. immigration started today. Over the next 10 days I will be spending nights in Douglas, Ariz.; Agua Prieta and Tapachula, Mexico; Quetzaltenango, Xela and other sites in Guatemala; El Limon and San Salvador in El Salvador.

I am traveling with 14 other people as part of a Presbyterian Church-USA seminar called Voices from the Border and Beyond. We are mostly white, mostly from the west coast and southwest U.S. and mostly Presbyterian. We are hearing stories of privilege and power, fear and fighting, social movements and public policy.
Today we prayed to a God “scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized.” Please pray with us.

(Prayer by Kate Compston in Bread of Tomorrow by Janet Morley)

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