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Holding Back

Publish date: January 1, 2011

So, this week I went “home.”  In Guatemala I never know how to answer the question when someone asks where I’m from. It really shouldn’t be a complicated question, but it is for me. I end up retracing my steps for the past 28 years instead of giving a simple locale. I don’t quite feel like a Minnesotan anymore. But then, there are certain Minnesotaisms that will always feel happy and familiar, and certain over-pronounced vowel sounds that will always be a part of my vernacular. It may not be every facet of who I am now, but negating it would be turning my back on 24 years of my life and no small portion of what formed me into who I have become. So, I can’t just say I’m from San Francisco at leave it at that. I give the long version every single time, probably to the poor questioner’s chagrin.

Since I moved from the “frozen tundra,” I’ve always maintained that I’m happy my family is there so I can still go visit. I love it, in fact. Sure, it’s really cold outside (why does the biggest holiday have to be during the coldest time of year?!), but it never ceases to feel warm and cozy. More than anything, I love spending time with my family, particularly my niece and nephew. They are in elementary school and are at incredibly fun ages. Their inquisitive minds leave me in a search for just how to explain any number of phenomena, and I smile with satisfaction to myself at their boundless creativity and thoughtfulness. Playing in the snow with them is even more fun than it was when I was a kid. Of course, no Minnesota visit would be complete without spending time with at least a half dozen people who top the list of “Forever Friends,” as well as visiting a few of my favorite establishments. If you’ve never been to the Twin Cities, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by the myriad of galleries, museums, music venues, restaurants and outdoor recreation. The area has it all, except above zero temperatures in January.

Although I love being back in Minnesota, people invariably ask more of the exact questions that seem simple but that I have no clue how to answer. Of course just about everyone I saw asked, “So, how’s Guatemala?” It’s impossible not to ask that question. It also felt impossible to answer it. I found myself stunned. I avoided the question like the plague. I would change the subject, throw them off by throwing a question right back at them. I’d grope for an answer, not wanting to say too much. After getting frustrated with myself for my fumbling, somewhere during my second week back it hit me: I was protective. Fiercely protective. So fiercely, in fact, that I all but refused to talk about my experience. What was that all about?

The truth is, I didn’t trust people to not judge my kids, their families or Guatemala as a whole when I talked candidly about what I’ve seen and experienced. I have a big Catholic family with Irish and German roots (my parents’ siblings total almost twenty, and that doesn’t include spouses; the sheer number of cousins is mind-boggling), so it’s impossible to keep in regular contact with everyone. I didn’t have hours to recount the whole story – about the civil war, the rampant poverty, the subjugation, the corruption, the pervasive sense of abandonment and of fending for oneself. I feared that telling an anecdote or two of what I’ve seen and experienced without getting into all of the underlying social issues would bring people to snap judgments, which probably wouldn’t bode in my kids’ favor.

Originally, I moved to Guatemala for me. I stay in Guatemala for them. The Safe Passage families are my family. These kids are my kids. They have it hard; I don’t want someone who has no idea what they’re dealing with relegating them without a real sense of the complexity of their individual situations, or of how things in Guatemala came to be this way. I wasn’t willing to risk exposing what has become my community to that. So, I stayed tight-lipped. “Guatemala is good. The kids are inspiring. I learn every single day.” If I was really letting my guard down, I might add, “but it’s hard.” The hardest part is feeling like you’re alone in what you’ve experienced and how it’s changed you.

I was alone, but not because I needed to be. I was alone because I built walls up around myself. The problem, then, wasn’t with everyone else. The problem was with me. I was the one who was being judgmental. My world may have been a lot bigger, but my mind was a lot smaller. I have to be the ambassador for the community. Not everyone can just drop everything and go live in Guatemala. Looking back, when I signed up for this year, I think I was also tacitly agreeing to spreading the story and raising awareness.

I’ve always said that I want to make the world a smaller, more understanding, better place. The whole point of traveling is to open up the avenues to make that happen. One of the most important avenues is the conversations you have with people who haven’t seen and experienced the same things you have. Throughout my lifetime, I have learned so much from stories others have been willing to share with me. It is my privilege and responsibility to do the same. When asked about Guatemala, I should have been a conduit for information. I should have opened up about my experiences and let people ask questions. But, I lost that somewhere along the way. Instead, I let a big opportunity for making the world a smaller place pass me by.

So, I’ve learned that I need to let go of a lot of negative thoughts that I’m holding on to. Minnesota isn’t at all the place I’ve somehow made it out to be in my mind. People there aren’t closed-minded. They are warm, open, generous and truly caring. No one is going to rush to snap judgments about my youth and families if I am patient, open and honest about what I’ve learned. The issue is that many people just haven’t had the opportunity to see or experience the things that I’ve been able to. I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to do and see so much, particularly as such a relatively young age. It is an honor that people so humble and so giving want to know something about my experience. Next time, I won’t shy away from sharing it.

When I first moved away from Minnesota, my executive director wrote me a going away message, “Don’t forget Minnesota. It will always be who you are.” I won’t forget again.

This week I saw peace in a hometown reality check.

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