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Independence Day

September 15 is Independence Day in Guatemala. The whole country is a buzz of light blue and white. The national flag can be seen flitting from windows, in the tops of buildings and flowing from cars. Men don blue and white striped shirts. Styrofoam models of the six national symbols even hung from the rafters in the local grocery store. A pervasive fervor of national pride fills the air.

The sense of patriotism was certainly alive at Camino Seguro. The whole project put on two separate caminatas – festive walks through the community – one for the morning group of students, and another in the afternoon.

First thing in the morning, I gathered with several classroom teachers to help decorate the Camino Seguro trucks. They were decorated with balloons and streamers in blue and white, posters of the the peace program values of the month, the national symbols, and drawings of children in traditional clothing. Mr. and Miss Camino Seguro had been selected from the morning classes, and they got dressed up and rode in the backs of the trucks. In the afternoon, the littlest students in first grade took turns so they wouldn’t have to walk the whole way.

When everyone was in position, we set out into the neighborhood. Neighbors lined the streets to watch our students parade past. The students flocked around the trucks, as their radios gave students something to dance to. I’m famous in these parts for my stellar YMCA dance  (if I do say so myself), and girls were grabbing me to dance with them right and left. Groups of batoners showed off their dexterity. A number of students dressed in traditional Mayan clothing: the huipil is the embroidered blouse and the corte is the woven skirt worn by women. Because of men’s economic role outside the home, traditional men’s clothing has changed drastically; our boys wore white or cream woven shirts and straw hats as their traditional dress.

In addition to our students, a local school marching band came to lead the caminata. Marching bands are an integral part of the Independence Day experience. When we returned to the building, the band led us in to the yard. They continued to play until a group bearing antorchas ran in. The antorchas are torches made of poles with flaming coffee cans on top. It’s like the Olympics, and they’re EVERYWHERE! For days leading up to Independence Day, antorchas can be seen being paraded all over the country. Usually, they are run along the highway from city to city; however, with the damage from storms this year, the government only allowed the antorchas to be run within the limits of a city.

Once we were all back inside the building, everyone headed to a presentation in the comedor. First, students carried in the flag and antorchas. Then Miss and Mister Camino Seguro were recognized. Next came the national anthem and the pledge; the requisite placing of hands over hearts and removal of caps felt comfortable and familiar. Then came the meat of the presentation, with students talking about the significance of the national symbols of Guatemala: the flag, the coat of arms, the White Nun orchid (the national flower), the quetzal (the national bird), the ceiba (the national tree), the marimba (the national instrument) and Tecún Umán (the national hero).

The national pride was also in full swing in Antigua. The night of the 14th, a big celebration was held in Central Park, complete with food stands selling meat plates, pupusas and roast corn cobs with lime; a marimba band and even break dancers. A fireworks display was set off at dusk, and the celebrations continued well into the night.

The next morning, the parade commenced at 8 a.m., with the last unit going by around noon. One group was divided into four sections, each representing a part of the creation story contained in the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh is the sacred text of the Quiché, an indigenous group in the western highlands of Guatemala. Another group put on two choreographed dance numbers to songs from High School Musical. They were dressed to the nines in 50’s era garb. Hundreds of teenagers participated: a line of pairs ran down each side of the street, a line which stretched on for two and a half blocks. A delicate quetzal floated through the streets atop a number of poles guided by teenagers. It reminded me so much of the dragons skimming above heads at the Chinese New Year Parade back home in San Francisco.

Now, when I say “parade” what I really mean is “endless string of marching bands.” (Do you remember when I said they were important? That was an understatement.) Guatemalans LOVE their marching bands! And so do I! I was a faithful member of the school marching band all the way through middle and high school. I couldn’t have been happier to see the continuous string of roll-stepping youth. One of the schools – an all-girls school in Antigua – even played the Waka Waka World Cup song. I was hooked! The bands march late into the evening. I left the celebration around 10 p.m. and the bands were still going strong marching around Central Park and through the streets. Just before I headed home, the band I was watching broke out into the YMCA. I let out a yelp and started singing along, doing the dance in time. A gaggle of early teen girls in front of me started giggling and watching. One of them pulled out a camera and recorded the spectacle of a gringa carrying on. The night couldn’t get better than that.

The day for me marked a different sort of independence. There are very few opportunities to go out into the community around the project. The area is pretty unsafe, so it is a necessary measure of protection to limit how much the staff and volunteers are out and about. For someone who is unknown to the community, it is unwise to spend a lot of time out on the streets. So, the the caminata for me marked the first time I walked through the community and could really pay attention. It is incredibly difficult to witness the drunk men on the streets; the kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to school; the garbage piled high waiting to be sorted, cleaned and sold.

Any way you slice it, this is a tough neighborhood. Ironically, with our students, sometimes it can be easy to forget how tough this neighborhood is. They have their difficult moments, as all kids do, and they certainly are a product of this environment. But, if you were to compare a snapshot of some of our kids with kids from the States, it might be hard to pick who was who. They’re well-groomed and well-dressed. They obviously have adequate nutrition. They have great manners when they want to. By a lot of measures, they appear to be doing just fine. It’s a testament to the strength of Camino Seguro.

But, by a lot of measures, both this community and our kids have a long way to go. There is a lot of trauma in this neighborhood. The people living here see and hear a lot more than anyone should ever have to deal with in a hundred lifetimes. The going is tough, and it can take a very profound toll on physical and mental health. For every student who Camino Seguro is able to support, there are several more who we just don’t have the current capacity to support. Some 60% of the families are run by single mothers. Of the rest, the father figures are, unfortunately, not often a positive role model. Cycles of oppression are apparent at every turn.

It’s important to remember all of this. It is paramount to remember the work left to be done at the same time we celebrate all that has been accomplished. The work doesn’t stop until the community can have a celebration to mark its independence – from drugs, from crime, from poverty, from neglect. That day is a long way off, but the caminata has most definitely begun.

This week, I saw peace in independence.

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