Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In a Coca-Cola World

“When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc…
–Pablo Neruda, “La United Fruit Company”


Paolo turned 10 less than a week after I moved in upstairs, but his parents invited me to his birthday party anyway. It was small, just family and me and the girls who live downstairs. We ate Chinese take-out fried rice with white bread and drank coke and Paolo showed off his new birthday clothes.

Then the cake came out, and Paolo’s mom lit 10 candles, and we sang “Happy Birthday” with the raucous second verse “Now we want cake, now we want cake, even if it’s just a little peace. Now we want cake  – and also Coca-Cola and for the old folks, coffee.”

Paolo cut the cake and, like every year, his father smashed his face into it and Paolo licked it off and smiled and his mother topped our glasses off with Coke.


Paolo didn’t believe that my hometown didn’t have pulperías, which are like corner grocery stores except smaller and on every corner and you ask for what you want through a screened-in window out front.

Here we’ll go into town to buy groceries or clothes, but when the napkins run out or we’re hungry for chips or guests come and we want cold pop for them we run next door to the pulpería.

Many of them are painted red and white, Coke’s curly logo stretched across their walls. People have told me Coke will paint the little stores for free if they get to add their logo and the pulpería owners rarely mind the brand name, in fact it’s as good an advertisement for them as for Coca-Cola.


Coca-Cola has a strange taste, acidic but syrup-sweet. I hardly ever drank the pop in college, and it was almost a mark of pride, in the same way saying “pop” was a mark of pride at age seven, my first rebellion against my “soda”-drinking mother.

When I first got to Honduras, I started drinking it because I liked the feel of the glass bottles it comes in here, and also because water wasn’t free anymore at restaurants, and I didn’t want to pay for water.

But then I drank it because it was familiar; it tasted like family movie nights with homemade pizza, like the snack table at college clubs, like sitting at the bar when I was 20 and my friends all 21.  It tasted the same as it always had, and in a place where everything else tasted different there was a surprising comfort in that.


This is marketing, I know. I am aware of the billions of dollars that Coke has spent to make its emblem familiar and its taste comforting to people for different reasons from every corner of the world.

Have you heard of the Soviet who begged for clear coke so he could pretend it was vodka he was drinking, not the drink of the capitalists? Have you heard that Coke is available in every country in the world but North Korea and Cuba (and that even there you can find it)? Did you know that here where trucks cannot reach they carry boxes of Coke for the pulperías up on horseback?

I don’t know anything about Coca-Cola, really, whether its production is ethical or its ingredients are responsibly sourced. Yet it is as ubiquitous here as in the United States, familiar enough to make its way into birthday songs, onto street corners, and on every restaurant table.

This is capitalism, not nostalgia, though sometimes it is very hard to draw a line between the two. 

Four Truths against Hopelessness

The world in which we live is overwhelming, both vast and minute – as vast and minute as we are, halfway between mitochondria and the Milky Way.

Sometimes in the dark, when our fears crush us awake, it all feels hopeless. We wonder if anything that we do really matters, if the work we do will really make any difference. We pray questions in shy voices, hoping for an anointing like that of Samuel, as clear and loud as a voice in the night.

While some are blessed with unblinking visions and clear goals, the rest of us are left to fend with what we know, truths like these four that help us know why we are here and why we should continue.

1. The world is not as it should be.

To believe this truth, you need imagination. Our world is no Eden. There are wars where there need not be wars, children dying of preventable diseases. Discrimination and oppression rob people of equal opportunities. Our earth is being spent. This truth reminds us that these things should not be, that we should not tolerate these things to be. If the created earth was perfect, then the chaos that we live in is discordance, rotten as only the sweetest fruit can rot.

2. The world is not as it could be.

This truth calls for a rejection of fatalism and the embracing of a bold belief that things not only should change, but that they can. It is one thing to mourn destruction ravaged on people and on landscapes – quite another to take part in the active, hopeful fight against it. This truth says change is possible. We may never eliminate poverty, but why let that keep us from reducing its effects? We may not be able to reverse the destruction we’ve caused our environment, but why not slow further degradation? We may never end wars, but why let that keep us from creating communities of peace?

3. I can work to make the world more as it should be.

The third truth moves the passive (“The world can be made better”) to the active (“I can make the world better”) and so moves us from objects to actors with responsibility for how the world may change. In some ways this truth is the boldest and the most frightening. Individual agency is a powerful thing to learn. What it means is that, whether your work is creating order or shaking up that order, you can be a part of the sort of Kingdom building that brings us closer to the world that God intended.

4. I should work to make the world more as it should be.

The final truth requires us to believe that we are all stakeholders in the process of transforming our world. Action is not only a possibility, it is a moral obligation. But it need not be an oppressive one. In fact, when I envision a better world, believe that this world is possible and, further, that I can be a part of its realization – I feel a purpose of being that makes this final truth a joy. I am not saying that we will bring about Heaven on Earth – we will not. What I am saying is that hope can be found in understanding the world and our place in it. Hope that what we do matters, that we are actors in a work that started long before us and will continue long after us.

You matter, is what I am trying to say. You are here for a reason. The world can (and should) be better and you can (and should) be a part of making it so. This is God’s will being done, on earth as it is in Heaven. It is Kingdom coming. It is Kingdom come.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Visiting AJS's Youth Impact Groups

The schoolyard rings with the laughter of children as volunteers pin a sign on the wall – “Don’t Trade your Backpack for a Baby,” it reads, the motto of a campaign against teen pregnancy.

Other volunteers lead the children in silly songs and dances, and from the perspective of the schoolyard it’s hard to tell that this community is one of the poorest, most violent, and most dangerous areas of Tegucigalpa.

Noe (pronounced “No way”) wears a laminated “volunteer” badge over his t-shirt and looks out watchfully over the dozens of children writing in notebooks or helping each other finish their crafts.
Only 20 years old, Noe is already a respected community leader. He was voted president of his neighborhood, and in that position he’s been instrumental in connecting his neighbors to electricity and even replacing the roof on the community center.

When his work in construction allows him, he loves to come and work with the same Youth Impact program that helped him not that many years ago. When he was 11, he said, he started attending Impact Clubs, part of the Association for a More Just Society’s Gideon Project.

The weekly clubs group children and teens with mentors and psychologists who teach them cooperation, respect, and self-esteem.

Noe contributes a lot of his accomplishments to what he learned in Impact Clubs. “I’m doing things I never thought I’d achieve, that I would never have dreamed about,” he said with a shy smile. “The clubs help us to be better. They change lives.”

Over 350 children attend Impact Clubs in three of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, and even more attend events and trainings like this one that Impact Clubs hold at local schools. In neighborhoods where the pull of drugs and gangs are strong, the clubs are designed to teach children that they have options.

“There are a lot of good things and a lot of bad things in this world,” Noe shrugs, “we have to learn to choose.”

Impact Club volunteers silence the school children and launch into a skit that, in an age-appropriate way, shows a girl rebuffing the advantage of an untrustworthy man.

“Get out of here!” the volunteer shouts, “You don’t respect me or my body.”

Stefany, the starring volunteer, is 19 and has already been leading a club for a year. It’s hard to believe that the enthusiastic, outgoing young woman used to be, “in her own bubble,” as she said, not wanting to talk to anyone.

Stefany started going to an Impact Club when she was 14, and said it was the first time she felt she could step out of her shell:  “I would get so excited when people would encourage me, when they said I was doing something well.”

When she was 18, Stefany stepped into a leadership role. It’s been a lot of responsibility, she said, but gratifying.

 “These kids here think, ‘I’m poor. Why should I study? I’ll always be here, in this neighborhood.’ It’s so hard to change their minds.” But after a few years of encouragement, she says, “They have dreams. They say “I’m going to be a doctor, a nurse, an engineer.”

Stefany teaches initiative by example. With her mom working abroad, Stefany has to look out for her siblings and manage the small family store -- still, at night she goes to a local university to study Preschool Education. 

“My goal is to graduate and to work with kids,” she says, and passion lights up her eyes. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why I Don´t Say “Third-World”: Some Notes on Language

Global North in blue, Global South in red
This month, Mount McKinley, the United States´ highest mountain, officially became Mount Denali, a name native Alaskans have been using for centuries.

Many U.S. Americans likely registered this news with little more than a blink. “Mount McKinly,” named in 1917 for the the Ohioan president who was killed in office, was a good enough name for those of us who had little connection with the mountain or the state. But to the people who knew and loved the monument as “Denali,” who saw the renaming as another example of erasing indigenous culture, the change mattered a great deal.

This illustrates a point – the names we use to describe our world matter tremendously, especially when we are using names that we have invented. Terminology that seems innocuous to us may be deeply insensitive to the very people we are trying to describe.

Another example – I am currently living in a country that others would call a “Third-World” or even an “underdeveloped” country”. People use these terms freely and interchangeably as a short-hand for countries that generally have less infrastructure, lower incomes, and lower standards of living. They do not use them maliciously. However, offense need not be intended to be felt.  

The words we use reflect values regardless of whether or not we realize it. In a search not just for dignity but also for accuracy, I want to briefly describe some of the most common terms for countries like the one I am from and the one I currently live in.

First-World / Third-World Country

Where it comes from:

During the Cold War, “Third World” referred to countries who were unaligned with either North American and European countries (the “First World”) or the Soviet Union and allies such as China (the “Second World”). Because non-aligned countries tended to be ones with less political clout and fewer material resources, the term “Third World” soon became synonymous with poverty, especially as new aid and development programs adopted the term.

Why people don´t use it:

In short – this term is meaningless. Social, cultural, and political realms have changed such that any distinction based on a country´s alliances in the mid-20th century is an arbitrary and nonsensical distinction today. Technically, wealthy nations such as Finland, Brazil, or Saudi Arabia that stayed neutral during the Cold War ear are “Third-World,” while countries like Cuba fall under the little-used term “Second World.”

The second reason to drop the term is semantic. Today, “Third-World” doesn´t summon up ideas of political alliances, but it does recall terms like “third-class,” “third place,” or “third-rate.” This type of terminology makes it sound as if countries have been placed into a ranking system that the United States and Europe (“First-World”, “first place”) already dominates.

Developed / Underdeveloped Country

Where it comes from:

While a marked improvement from “backward,” colonialists previous term for countries unlike their own, “underdeveloped” nonetheless reflects the same perceptions that certain benchmarks of development (e.g. free markets, infrastructure) could not only be measured, but could be prescribed. Quite simply, countries that met these benchmarks were "developed," while countries that did not, remained underdeveloped.

Why people don´t use it:

This term divided countries into two categories based on whether or not they had achieved sufficient benchmarks crucial to “development,” yet both those benchmarks and the overall vision of development was defined by Europeans and U.S. Americans.

Not only is the distinction ethnocentric (based on the idea of one particular culture as superior to others), but the term itself is condescending. It describes nations by their deficits and defines them by what they lack. Neither is the term specific. With no concrete cut-offs, “Developed Nations” easily becomes code for “European and European-heritage nations,” a code that perpetuates the myth that power, culture, and advancement comes in only one style.

Developed / Developing Country

Where it comes from:

This slight change from “Developed/Underdeveloped” attempts to describe states as actors rather than by a static state. Instead of viewing nations as falling into one of two categories, it instead sees them along a continuum where some are simply farther along.

Why people don´t use it:

This is a common term even today. However, it still does not solve the problematic idea that all nations are following the same trajectory towards the same inevitable, and preferred, end. The term also makes “developed nations” sound as if they have already arrived at this ideal, something anyone working against poverty and injustice in the U.S. can attest against.

Majority World / Minority World

Where it comes from:

Two-thirds of the world´s population lives in poverty. The term “Majority World,” (also called the “two-thirds world” as a response to the term “Third-World”) attempts to flip the focus of development from the wealthy few to the struggling majority.

Why people don´t use it:

While I´ve noticed this term is popular among smaller NGOs and nonprofits, it has not caught on officially. Because the term is somewhat vague and not yet well-known, people seem to have avoided it in political and scholarly contexts.

Global North / Global South

Where it comes from:

These terms, which are the current default among scholars and professionals, are based on nothing more than the observation that most countries north of the equator have relatively high incomes and standards of living, while many countries south of the equator have lower incomes and standards of living.

Why people don´t use it:

Of all the terms, this is least likely to be understood by someone outside the international development field. Also, the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, with geographically-southern countries like Australia forming part of the Global North and geographically-northern countries like Kazakhstan or Mongolia forming part of the Global South.


There are more terms I didn´t write about (Core/Periphery, Resource Poor/Rich, Lower/Middle Income, etc.) and they have their own faults and merits.

Personally, “Third-World” and “underdeveloped” make me cringe, though “developing” seems a common descriptor even for people describing their own countries. While I acknowledge the jargonyness of Global North and Global South, after four years of reading and writing papers on international development, they´re the terms that I am probably most comfortable with.

But I´ve also been encouraged to examine my statements and see if I really mean to place two-thirds of the world under a single signifier. If I really mean countries with low GDP per capita, I may use that distinguisher explicitly. If I am talking, instead, about legal infrastructure that creates meaningful rule of law, being explicit about that will describe an entirely different collection of countries.

Whatever terms I use, I use carefully. I am aware how much value and meaning rests in a single word or term, and I want my language to be as honoring as it is precise.

(Sometimes once you´ve finished writing something you find something eerily similar! If you´re interested in an NPR blog on the same topic, I´d recommend this one.)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

You Can Take a Picture

Photo credit: Jonathan Ekka
“You can take a picture,” she said, pausing with her hands on the loom, looking up at me expectantly.

She had been showing me how to weave the colorful woolen scarves that filled the walls of the women´s micro-business, pumping her feet and passing the loom´s shuttle quickly back and forth. It took her three days to finish weaving one scarf, she told me. And then she paused so I could photograph her.

I hadn´t brought my camera, so she turned back to the scarf, deftly weaving a few more rows before getting up to show me bracelets she had made. When I left the business, two beautiful woven headbands in my pocket, what she had said continued to play in my head: “You can take a picture.”

It was what our guide had been saying to us all morning: “We´ll stop here so you can take your picture,” he would say, or “There will be great pictures up ahead.”

When we arrived in the Mayan village, children swarmed around us trying to sell us cornhusk dolls as their mothers watched from nearby houses. “Let us sing the National Anthem in (Mayan) Chorti,” they begged us, and finally I said, okay, and the children burst out into a lusty rendition of Honduras´ Himno Nacional.

“You can film them,” our guide said and the children nodded as he repeated: “You can take their picture.” I didn´t, though if I had a camera, perhaps I would have. I reached into my pocket for my smallest bills and the children took them and ran off.

“Say thank you,” the guide reproached them, and they did, but they knew what I knew – that it had been a commercial exchange.

Tourism is built around the assumption that we will want to photograph what we see, that we will want to pause in front of monuments to be photographed next to them, and that we will want to capture somehow the roguish smiles of the children in torn clothes or the weaving woman with the tired face and deft hands.

In the land where their ancestors made towering statues in their images, these people are in the business of selling their own images, exchanging a photo for the purchase of their handiwork, or a few pennies for a snapshot of a song.

The permission they give is transactional. A flash, and their image is mine to keep, to save, to use to tell the story I wish. This is not for me to condemn. How could I condemn a way of surviving? But it is for me to be aware of, to guard against seeking out pathos with my camera – to focus the lens on the woman´s face when I had not even asked her name.

I thought I would write my way to an answer, but I have none. Just the memory, unrecorded, of hands darting back and forth, a perfunctory smile, and in quiet Spanish: “You can take a picture.” 

Spanish in the Mayan Ruins

I´ve been in Copán Ruinas (in the northwest of Honduras) for one week now, taking Spanish classes every morning and studying Spanish all afternoon. I´ve been writing too – drafting grand and ponderous blog posts that I can´t figure out how to finish. In the meantime, I thought I would writing something unpolished with an update of how it has been so far.

It´s been overwhelming. I speak Spanish well enough to chat over coffee or read laboriously through Harry Potter, but I haven´t studied grammar in years. It´s hard work to wrap my head back around indirect pronouns and subjunctive case, unlearning bad habits I´ve picked up over the last few years. My classes are one-on-one with a teacher for three-and-a-half hours every day, and there is no hiding and no excuses.

It´s been exciting. Copán Ruinas is a picturesque and tranquil city on the Guatemalan border, notable for being one of the seats of the Mayan civilization. The ruins are awe-inspiring – intricate hieroglyphics and enormous pyramids nestled into a fantastic forest where scarlet macaws burst overhead in brilliant flocks.  I´m fascinated by the history that is embedded in the city, history and culture that remains to this day – not two miles away a community still speaks a Mayan dialect as their first language. I´m sobered by the remnants of the fallen civilization, especially the altars and etchings of human sacrifice – a reminder that communities what is great is not always good.

It´s been welcoming. I´m living with Karla and her family, and Karla is a whirlwind. She cooks and sells meals out of her house so that every day at the dinner table I´m eating next to someone different. She cooks everything from empañadas to lasagna and we eat like kings.

I´ve also been welcomed by Urban Promise Honduras, a youth development organization next door, They invited me to their after-school program and youth group, where I was able to connect with kids who told me with all the frankness of children that my Spanish wasn´t that bad – a high compliment!

Even when the lights go out, the dinner preparations must go on.
I have lots of thoughts that I´m still trying to get onto paper, more things I´ve seen and experienced and thought about, but in sum, I am here – I am well – I am learning – I am ready for the next step.

Tuesday, I start my trip to my permanent host family in Tegucigalpa, but until then I´ll enjoy this beautiful and historic city.

Monday, August 31, 2015

From the Safe Side of the Window

The three of us landed in the tiny San Pedro Sula airport and were greeted with hugs and bananas by the local MCC staff. We took our bags out to the MCC car and were hit immediately with a wall of heat and humidity. This wasn’t the U.S. Midwest anymore: palm trees jutted up in every direction; within seconds our arms and faces shined with sweat.

We looked out of the windows of the car as we approached the city, staring at the unpredictable clusters of Pizza Huts and pulperías, traditional homes and towering malls. Mountains loomed over us, and on the nearest one in letters big like the Hollywood sign, I could just make out – Coca Cola. I was back in Honduras.

Ben, a social work grad from Kansas, will stay on in San Pedro Sula to work in the bordos, neighborhoods perched on riversides that are particularly prone to instability and violence. Jesse, from Indiana, will go to La Ceiba on the north coast to work teaching peace and conflict resolution in schools. And soon I will head south to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to work with AJS. But this week, we’re in training together, exploring San Pedro Sula.

It’s hard to know how to talk about this city. If you type it into Google, you’ll see article after article condemning it as the “most dangerous city in the world,” with more murders per capita than any other city, in the country with more murders per capita than any other country in the world.

These numbers aren’t false, but the story they tell isn’t entirely true either. As we’ve walked the city this week, reacquainting ourselves with public transportation, delicious street food, and colorful markets, we’ve been cautious, but we’ve been safe. The violence in the city comes primarily from the gangs, who do not target foreigners.

In all frankness, San Pedro Sula is a dangerous city. But it is not so dangerous for me. The truth is, as a white U.S. citizen hosted by an organization that knows the context and area well, as someone with access to a safe house, a car, and money enough to meet any of my needs – I’m not facing any big risk to be here.

Of course we take different cautions here. When the sun sets around 6pm, we don’t walk outside. We’re learning to be watchful and not to carry anything we’re afraid to lose. But on the other hand, despite the precautions we take, we’re looking out at this city from the safe side of the window, an option that many of our neighbors don’t have.

The city we look out at is a beautiful city, busy with a different sort of busyness than I am used to. In the markets, you can hear five different songs playing at once, the bass beat thumping as vendors shout out their wares. You can smell a dozen things at once, from chicken grilling to ripened fruit. You can see children running after each other in the street, bright fabrics, shiny packages of chips.

As we’ve gone through safety manuals and conduct codes, had passports stamped and plans arranged, we’ve had time to live in the busyness and color of the city. We’re all crowded into the house of the country representatives Ilona and Matthieu, a lovely couple from Switzerland whose conversations drift effortlessly between German and English and Spanish. The two, along with Emily, our coordinator, have taken us to church and traditional restaurants, on mountain hikes and even to a perfect production of Arsenic and Old Lace by San Pedro Sula’s own theater company.

Through all this it’s clear, even as I accustom myself to locked gates and barred windows, that the statistics about San Pedro Sula aren’t about me. They’re about the people living in the bordos who have no choice but to live in the middle of violence, about the homeless who have nowhere to go but the streets at night, about children who have turned to gangs as the only family they have ever known.

Of course safety is a high priority and I’ll continue to be careful. But I want to do this remembering the people on the outside of the window, people for whom statistics are faces, not numbers. These are the people AJS fights to protect and defend; they are the reason I’m here.

Ben and Jesse and I are off to our Spanish courses tomorrow, and tonight will be my last night in San Pedro Sula for a long time. I’m thrilled and giddy to be back, but also sobered at the realization that my reality is still so different from those around me.

Here’s to a future in Honduras where security is not determined by wealth or means, and where safety is an assumption, not a luxury.