Archive for January, 2009

Making Friends Again

Thursday, January 29th, 2009 © by Susan Swartz

The first Guatemalan woman to catch my eye had a baby tied on her back and a bundle of goods balanced on her head. She was bending down in a long skirt to retrieve something from the cobblestone street and she did it with perfect posture and the grace of a dancer.

And I thought, it’s just like my yoga teacher says back home. Save your back. Use your legs.

Cultural differences make us exotic to each other, but women of the world have our similarities.

Sharing those was the purpose of a women studies trip to Guatemala earlier this month, put on by Ellen Boneparth and her International Women Studies Institute – www.iwsi.org. We went to meet local women and to talk to some of the committed foreign women -from the U.S., Germany, Italy and Australia – helping low income and indigenous Guatemalans promote their wonderful weaving, learn family planning and get a jumpstart with their own businesses. The goal is one of those universal things – encourage independence and autonomy and help women find their voice.

Here were the creators of some of those distinctive Guatemalan designs you often see in an American import shop. Sitting at their looms and sewing machines, they were gracious and answered our questions. I wondered if they were thinking about us: where are your men? Where are your children? Why do you dress so dull? Their everyday clothing is as bright as volcanic lava and macaw feathers. We, in our blue jeans, t-shirts and dark glasses, must have all looked alike and pretty colorless.

At a weavers co-op in San Marcos on Lake Atitlan we asked the women how they felt about equality. They said that having the same rights as men was something they didn’t even think about until they had their own work and an income. Now they can. One of their own had run for mayor of the village. She didn’t win, but that she had the Mayan version of chutzpah to try was an accomplishment women everywhere would applaud.

The Mayan women are as remarkable as their dress, with thick long dark hair that seems to never go gray, creamy unmarked skin and proud carriage. But the culture is still machismo. The Catholic and Evangelical churches are competing for souls. It takes a lot for women to speak up.

In spite of language barriers, we hit it off. And of course, we bought what we could because that’s one thing you can do in Guatemala, even with a battered American dollar. When dealing woman to woman we paid the asking price. Nobody wanted to bargain down a thing of beauty made by a mother who you know lives in a house with a dirt floor on the side of a mountain with nine other people.

In his first week of office President Obama rescinded a major restraint on the world’s poor by lifting the gag rule on international family planning groups that receive American aid. The rule, supported by George Bush, had kept women from receiving counseling about contraception, protection against AIDS, maternal care in general and abortions.

In her new job as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke for women and girls around the world, saying that when women are marginalized, so is democracy.

Will you look at us? We’re barely into the New Year and America is making friends, again.

Listen to the Making Friends Again radio segment on KRCB’S Another Voice.

Between Hope and a Hard Place

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 © by Susan Swartz


An Argentine grandmother used the word “esperanza,” the Spanish word for hope, when I asked her about Barack Obama. A Russian traveler said she planned to find a bar with a television along Lake Atitlan to watch the inauguration.

In the week before Tuesday’s big day, I was traveling in Guatemala. Most of the time we were in a news blackout zone – no CNN, no English language newspapers. But we all knew what was ahead.
Obama was on our minds. The whole world has been between hope and a hard place for a long time and maybe there’d be good things ahead with this new guy in the White House.

The women in my travel group toasted Obama more than once. When we gathered with a shaman in the Guatemalan highlands and threw offerings into a fire my automatic prayer was for Obama. We discussed Obama with our Mayan guide in the jungle at Tikal. The Guatemalan economy is hurting. Tourism is off, he said. Whatever good Obama does for the American economy will surely help his own.

Flying back to California on Monday, the day before the inauguration, there was a kind of Christmas Eve giddiness in the airports. Maybe I was projecting my own thrill over getting home in time for this historic day. Maybe it was the Obama button I was wearing on my new hand-woven purple Guatemalan poncho. It got a lot of smiles and thumbs up, even at George Bush Intercontinental in Houston.

When Tuesday came my husband and I ended up celebrating with a roomful of little kids. Our daughter is a second grade teacher in Santa Rosa. She had the TV on and her room decorated with red, white and blue streamers. The kids in her class are the same age as Sasha, the younger Obama daughter. Sasha’s father is now their president. When they look back on their youth it will be the Obama Years.

We brought cookies covered with sprinkles. My daughter poured cups of milk and we all wished each other Happy Obama Day. After anticipating how best to mark the day, the perfect place turned out to be a second grade classroom with a rainbow of Sonoma County faces in a school threatened with budget cuts.

Another daughter was one of the million people on the National Mall in Washington. She heard and watched the real thing and called into her sister’s classroom with an on-the-scene live report. She told the kids she was wearing long underwear, two pairs of gloves and two pairs of socks and had never been so cold in her life. She also told them it was the most exciting day of her life and that when she and her friends started hugging after those words “Congratulations, Mr. President,” a stranger came up and said she needed hugging, too, and jumped into their group embrace.

A lot of pundits this week were recalling Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. But I was thinking about another one of his – the “How Long, Not Long” speech he gave in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, after the march from Selma for voting rights.

On Tuesday Barack Obama answered the “How Long?” question. Now, the question is “How Far?” do we still have to go?

After time out on Tuesday to celebrate, wars and worries didn’t end. People didn’t wake up the next day to new jobs. But there is hope. Esperanza.

As the guy next to me on the couch said Tuesday, “We have a chance.”

Photo credit: antiguadaily.com

TOMATO TALK – A Book Like Us

Monday, January 5th, 2009 © by Susan Swartz


“The Great Man,” a novel by Kate Christensen, focuses on the life and death of a male artist who seemingly had it all and the three devoted but not altogether adoring women he leaves behind – his sister, his mistress and his wife.
These are women, now in their very senior years, who might have once been known as the women behind the men. The type of women who might have also been described … and dismissed…as “once brilliant” and “once passionate,” assuming that after a certain age, such qualities can only be a memory.
Not Christensen’s women in this 2007 novel. The male hero is fascinating enough as important eccentric New York artists go, but the women are even moreso – complicated, opinionated, difficult, lusty and boldly sexual.
The story is about unlikely friendships and late loves, one of those books that I like because the women defy the gray, regretful stereotype of older women. These are women we might all hope to be. Or grow into.
Consider the one who observes her former colleague and new lover. “He had piercing blue eyes that were now examining her with frank rapaciousness.”
And another who muses to a young friend: “Younger people always think they know what older people don’t know.”
Very New York, very arty.
Try it. And tell me what you’ve been reading that shows us like we are.