Convivir: Learning inter-dependence

On the first day in Chaculá, a small village of returned refugees in the northwest corner of Guatemala, our small group of high school students and adult coordinators walked to the cement block guardéria, the nursery, where the community had been organizing regular get-togethers for the elder folk, the mayores. A small crowd of children snuck out from their homes and followed along. The two o’clock sun was strong, so stepping into the dark building was a relief. When our eyes adjusted, we saw everyone was already assembled: 30 or so elderly folks sitting on wooden makeshift benches beaming big-grandparent smiles. Connie, our host in the community, started greeting people — Buenas tardes, mucho gusto. We followed suit, shaking everyone’s hand, looking them in the eyes, and saying “Buenas tardes, mucho gusto.” Everyone: 30-plus greetings in a long line of salutation and gratitude at the end of which our smiling muscles ached.

After further introductions (by us) and proclamations of gratitude (by them), we were led in song and dance by Isaias, one of the church coordinators. The simple lyrics and dance moves reminded me of kindergarten, yet it felt perfect for the crowd — se mueve, se mueve como la palmera. We all could understand the words and do the dance moves. Everyone was cracking up, moving in silly ways and singing.

Then Isaias asked us to lead something. We’d brought watercolor supplies, and in a bustle dished out paint pallets made from ripped cardboard and water in bottles cut in half (by a man with a machete). Clara, an art-lover in our group, gave a painting demonstration. By this time, lots of curious chicos y chicas had made their way into the room. The kids worked side by side with the mayores and the American teenagers, all sharing brushes and water, and the paint began to move. For the next hour the room was abuzz with color, laughs, and conversation. Bright red houses with ducks, green rolling hills with birds flying in the sky, a man standing on the brown earth, a rainbow worm, a dog and a chicken. We lined up the paintings, old folks’ and young folks’, on the shelf for all to admire. Time slowed down. The late afternoon light dappled the color-rich paintings while kids and elders alike lingered in a timeless moment.

Conviver

A word that I heard a lot during our visit with the mayores was a verb that does not have a satisfying English equivalent: convivir. Convivir shares constituent parts with many English words. Con- means together: connect, confide, concord. Vivir means to live: vivacious, convivial, vital. Despite these deep shared roots, I can’t think of one word that means the same as convivir. The spirit of this word, at least as I came to understand it in the Guatemalan highlands, is beautiful and deceptively simple. It doesn’t take a celebration or a lot of fuss to convivir; you just have to decide to be together. A thorough greeting, a recognition of shared struggle, a round of collective gratitude, a song and a dance, an act of creation — what we did with the mayores, though simple and at times silly, was convivir. It was a profound and quotidian ritual of interdependence.

That night, our group met to write in our journals and discuss themes that had arisen in the day. Many of the students — Juniors and Seniors from small-town high schools in southwest Wisconsin — commented on how much fun working with the mayores had been. We agreed that it was “like walking into a room of our grandparents.” I noted the students’ frequent elision of the 3rd and 1st person: theirs with ours, us with them, they with we. I thought of how easy it can be to convivir. All we had to do was show up and participate. I also realized how this simple work of coming together is perhaps our greatest challenge.

Our daily lives in the US are marked by individualistic ambitions, personal time, power lunches, workout clubs where people run the treadmill, alone. The American Dream is the dream of individual attainment, personal potential realized. One has to work hard to find convivir here at home. But I also believe that in Chacula, or anywhere really, people also have to endeavor to be together. To coexist, in this profound and quotidian way, takes time and energy and vision.

How wide is our care?

The experience of convivir is the highest goal that I have for the trips I lead with high school students to Guatemala. I want my students to master enough language and understand enough history to be able to fully live into the experience of meeting Guatemalans: to truly be present. On this trip, which took place over the J-term of my masters program in 2013, I emphasized journal writing and group reflection. We held nightly classes in which we wrote about and shared our experiences of the trip. As we built up our knowledge of Guatemala, moving from city to countryside, from readings to movies to interviews, they began uncovering some of their preconceived notions: the media images of drug violence and poverty. Wrestling with the complexity of “life on the ground,” they began to question those stereotyped images. Furthermore, they began to see their own country, the United States, from the perspective of Guatemalans. This double-awareness, though uncomfortable and destabilizing, allowed for some profound breakthroughs in their learning and in the quality of interactions. Students began to convivir, not only as a group with each other but also with our host parents, local guides, and new-found friends.

Justicia (justice), Genocidio (genocide)

Of course, there is still so much to learn and so much more work to do to truly convivir with the Guatemalan people. The history of US military support for acts of genocide, the US-backed war on drugs, and the current immigration debacle all present real wedges between substantive cooperation and conviviality between the US and Guatemala. As a teacher, I try to warn my students against romanticizing the poverty they witnessed or erasing the cultural differences. It can be really difficult for middle-class white adolescents to grasp the impact of hundreds of years of colonization, racism and economic exploitation. But, in the spirit of hope, I encourage the sense of convivir: that we are inextricably connected to them.

Street art Guatemala City

My desire is not to make everyone feel better — a quick photo moment of convivir — but to help impart a sense of responsibility, of, dare I say, belonging in this foreign place. I want my students, when someone in the US brings up Guatemala, to respond as an ally. The typical response of a student returning from a “Third World” country is, “I’m so grateful for what I have at home.” My hope is that my students wouldn’t land and assume a state of complacent self-satisfaction, but rather would retain a seed of inspiration and connection, would care about people outside of their country, community, and home.

Continuing to Convivir

Finding instances of convivir in Chaculá inspires me to make it happen in my life here in the States; It helps me remember that life is best lived together; It reminds me of the tenuous yet real connection I have with people all across the world; It encourages me to support organizations and communities in Guatemala; It excites me to continue bringing students so many thousands of miles, outside of their familiar insularity, to be a part of this convivir.

The last night of our stay in Chacula, it started to rain hard, which put the kibosh on our plans to have a community bonfire. Instead, Isaias and a couple of friends came over with guitars. As the rain fell on the corrugated iron roof, our group and their group shared songs and laughs back and forth. “Hallelujah”, “La Llorona”, “What I got”, “Nochecita”, “Ojala”, “El Rey” and “Wagon Wheel”…we traded music for hours, English and Spanish, undaunted by the relentless rain. We strained to find a song we knew in common, and when we came upon “La Bamba” we excitedly tried to belt it out. Tragicomically, no one remembered all the words. Or perhaps there are only two verses? Anyway, we bumbled and laughed our way through our one pop cultural connection. This joyful, complex interchange near the end of our trip signaled a key turning point in my student’s learning. In a trip replete with dense history, confusing politics, tragic personal narratives, and awkward first attempts at communication, this evening provided a release, a sense of belonging. And it’s this feeling, this convivir, that we all took home.