It’s amazing what one month can do. Four weeks ago, I touched down in Los Angeles in the rain after a life-changing week in my adopted homeland of Guatemala. I was so in love with the place and the people; I was fired up about their struggles; it was painful to try to contain the story that was demanding to be told.
Tonight, I sat down with my fellow world travelers to discuss for the first time how to present the story of Guatemala publicly — and I was scared by my own disconnect. One month had dulled my passion and numbed my resolve. It was terrifying to realize how quickly work and school and messy roommates and chicken alfredo has replaced the connection I felt to Guatemala. My life descended from importance into triviality.
What scared me the most was the way I had slipped back into my U.S.-centric mindset. At some point in our conversation (and probably more than once) I referred to the people we met as “they.” They. One of the most potent and destructive words in the English language. In my mind, subconsciously, I had placed my Guatemalan friends and family into a box labeled “other.” You can’t care about the other. You can’t laugh with the other. You can’t learn from the other, because they’re different. They’re separate.
And that’s stupid.
Because we’re not different. Our situations and background may not be the same, but that doesn’t make someone alien. It’s so easy to put people in that “other” category. It allows us to dehumanize and keeps us from getting too close. However, that was not my experience. I was emotionally compromised. All my walls were torn down by a wonderful group of people who didn’t see me as a white guy on vacation, but as a brother and a son.
Biologically, it’s not that far off (no human being is more distant from me than a 40th cousin), but beyond the DNA, we really are closer than we’re comfortable admitting. Even in a developing country like Guatemala, the young people have Facebook and wear screen-printed T-shirts and the older folks have cell phones and watch American Idol.
This strangely pervasive idea in the American consciousness that we’re somehow different on a fundamental level is bogus. We need to get over ourselves, because we’re all the same. Our experiences may differ, but a human being is a human being no matter where you go. As Ivan Norantes, a Mayan spiritual leader told us, no one is greater and no one is lesser.
As I embark on this process of bringing the story to the masses, I need to keep this in mind. I don’t want to disconnect. I don’t want to simplify, generalize or assume that I know it all, because the story of Guatemala is a long, nuanced and complicated one. I want to tell this story as truthfully and respectfully as I possibly can.
No pressure, right?
— 30 —
Interested in learning more about Guatemala? Read my previous blog posts here, here and here. If you’re so inclined to get inside my head, you can do so via Twitter (kinda like that movie with John Malkovich), where I go by the moniker @jonnyeberle.