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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More embodiment

2012 – Vagina Monologues. I had no idea what to expect. What I knew is that talking about sex and anatomy thereof made me feel anxious, naive and embarrassed. And I’ve never liked those feelings. Intellectually, I know that all human beings have some kind of sexual identity or desire. But, perhaps because of my upbringing or church background, I couldn’t feel that in my body, down to my core.

In my mission to practice embodiment for Lent, I chose to participate in my seminary’s production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“Experience of self as an active subject in history and experience of God as a liberator are a unity. It is in this deeply personal-and-religious dimension that women are caught up in new experiences, which when articulated move toward new speaking about God. … In struggle, in connectedness, in particularity, in the everyday round of life’s duties, in the love of self and other women, in the love of men in nonsubordinate ways, God is being experienced in new terms.” — Elizabeth Johnson, “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse”

After the production, I checked out some other secular-world shows via YouTube. They are uniformly provocative and sexy. Performing them in a sacred setting doesn’t make them any less provocative — in fact it probably makes them more provocative. Perhaps the most provocative for anyone in a Western culture church setting with embedded dualistic antithetical views of body and spirit is the message that our bodies — our female bodies — are loved by God. And we know this because our female bodies are loved by women.

In rehearsal, I learned to breathe and feel my feet touching the ground. I learned to look people in the eye. I learned to speak prayers with my bodily movements. I learned –not through the text, but through enacting — that God loves my body. Before one performance, a professor who was tasked with praying for the performance shared with me that she looked up at the spring sky and the huge 100-plus-year-old dome in the tower room where we were staging the show. She envisioned God standing above that dome, crouching down and giving birth to the world. We were performing in God’s vagina! I love that.

I’m now working on a Bible study of body images for women, and I’m considering making part of the study a writing exercise about vaginas. What’s great about your vagina? What might you be willing to share?