Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Now What?

A week ago yesterday I was zipping up my suitcase. I was checking that all my papers were in the right places. I was trying to decide which of my mud-splattered, hole-riddled clothes I wanted to take home with me.

“Are you nervous?” my mamá asked me, seeing me pace our courtyard, trying to collect my thoughts.

“It’s a mix of thoughts,” I told her. Our pesky dog yipped around my ankles as I dragged my bags up the stairs for the last time. After so many months, there were people back home I couldn’t wait to see. But it felt strange to be leaving so much behind.

My little sister/niece ran out and hugged my knees. I dropped my bags and she pulled at my hand, dragging me into the living room for one last game together. She was too young to know this would be the last time.

“Lay on the floor!” she told me, characteristically bossy. I obeyed and we stared up at the ceiling, our hands folded beneath our heads.

“What are we looking at?” I whispered.

“The stars,” she whispered back solemnly, and pointed. “They’re beautiful. And that’s the moon.”

At the appointed time, all ten of us students trickled into the park dragging suitcases and families behind us. We had a school bus rented for the occasion, so mamás and cousins and siblings and friends could come with us.

I tried to be sentimental as we rolled out of our city for the last time, but it didn’t feel real. We’d left so many times in the four months for a day or a week that it was hard to believe this time we didn’t have a return ticket. But I blinked and tried to memorize every little detail.

The airport was an organized sort of chaos. Somehow we made it through all the lines and baggage-checking points and emerged to find our families waiting for us. In a crowded airport, we hugged and said our last goodbyes to these beautiful people who had cooked our meals, cleaned up after us, encouraged us, and looked out for us all semester.

I hate long goodbyes. I hate crying in public. I want a clean break, and that wasn’t happening. But we made our way through the glass doors eventually and onto the airplane and we stowed our bags and heard the warm Georgian voice of our flight attendant and it was really over.

Even though I had an aisle seat, I caught a glimpse of the country growing smaller as we took off into the sky. It was the end of a chapter.

I landed safely. Collected my bags. Distributed some much-deserved bear hugs. Saw friends. Laughed. Went home. Ate too much and did too little. I am eating too much and doing too little. The page has turned and the next chapter started, but this one doesn’t seem to have much of a plot.

A week away from goodbye, I’m struck dumb by the force of the question, “Now What?

Four months doesn’t erase your memory. Dropping the toilet paper in the toilet felt weird maybe twice. Homemade food is nice. Carpet is okay. So maybe my mom laughs at me when I accidentally point with my lips and not my fingers; so maybe I’m surprised when I sneeze in a crowded store and don’t get a single “Salud” but things aren’t as weird as I thought they were going to be.

I prepared myself for reverse culture-shock. Instead, it’s almost a letdown how ready I am for extra clothes and applesauce and hot showers. I still fit in with my family and my friends. So what’s changed, then?

I have to remind myself of why I went abroad in the first place.

Was it to feel morally superior when I came back? Was it to impress people with all my cultural knowledge, or to be considered a more interesting person?

I hope, instead, it was to go humbly into someone else’s home and see what I could learn. To better understand, globally as well as locally, who my neighbor is and what responsibilities I have to her. And even if I feel like the same sister/daughter/friend who left, I know that I have learned a lot.

So now I just have to do something with it.

After four months of helplessness – of people feeding me and guiding me and translating for me; giving me deadlines and asking me questions – it’s up to me to keep on going. The things I’ve learned have to become to things I do, and that’s a tricky process.

Now what?

In some ways, my life isn’t as exciting anymore. There won’t be volcanoes or trips across borders in my near future. But in another way, my life is just getting exciting. Anyone can have an experience, but it all depends on what you do with it. Now my life, more than ever, is in my hands.

What I’m going to do with the things I learned will fill its own chapter. I’m not going to stop asking questions and exploring ideas. I have three more semesters of college, and who knows what comes next. So stay with me! The story (I hope) is just starting to get good.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Five More Days

Five days left! I can count them on one hand, or one foot if I’m feeling creative. Five days until I walk back into that airport, fly over that ocean, and emerge in weather that will be so shockingly, unforgivably cold.

(It’s 20 degrees here, too… but in Celsius.)

My favorite guy’s going to be waiting for me in that airport. I’ll be going home to family I love, friends I’ve missed. I’ll be coming home in the middle of the Christmas season when everything’s even more magical than it usually is.

But coming home isn’t going to be easy either. I’m already preparing myself for the shock of being back in the Midwest USA; for the jolt of leaving a place that's become home and people who have become close. It's going to be a great, but rough, few days; and if anyone wants to give me a hand, here are a few things you can do when you see me soon.

1) Be Patient

Maybe I’ll come off the plane so excited that I can’t stop talking. Please be patient while I settle into normal human conversation! Be patient when Honduras comes up again and again. Be patient enough to sit through unending photo slide shows.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll step off the plane quiet. All this takes time to process, so please be patient while I think of the right words to say – or any words at all. Please be patient if I don’t have my stories polished yet. Or when I just need to be alone.

I love Honduras, in a complicated, comfortable way. It’s hard to leave my host family, my friends here, my beautiful city, food and music that’s becoming more and more familiar. Please be patient when I’m backwards-homesick. Because I’m going to miss this place.

2) Ask Questions

Whenever I’d go anywhere as a kid, my dad would ask me about it this way: “So you got out of the car… and then what happened?” Please don’t do this. Four months is a long time, so you’re going to have to be a little more specific. I’ll start practicing a little spiel for the hundreds of casual “how was Honduras?”s I know I’ll get, but I can’t fit much depth into a spiel. So give me a little more to go off of. “Tell me about living with a Honduran family.” “What did you do on vacation?” “What is Development Studies anyway?”

I want to share so much with all of you. But I don’t want to bore those who’d rather not hear. So if you’re curious, ask! One of the best ways to love is to listen.

3)  Hold Me Accountable

I’m coming in with an aching conscience and a thousand new ideas. I want to start putting these ideas I have to work. But I can’t do this alone. So will you please help me? Tell me when a plan is silly or overly ambitious. Call me out when my behavior doesn’t match my goals. Keep me humble. Help me keep on learning.

This is maybe the most important way you can be nice to me when I come home. Don’t let me get carried away on the high of my study abroad experience, but don’t let me forget it either.

This also means… expect me to be nice to you too! No matter where you’ve been, you have your own four months of experiences, ideas, stories, and growth. So make sure I ask you about that. make sure I’m patient with you, make sure I know what I can do for you too.

4) Other Things!

Nearby loved ones. Come and see me! I can’t wait to talk again. Far-away people – send me an email! (kap29@students.calvin.edu) I want to hear what you’ve been up to.

Let me whine about the cold at least a little bit.

Give me at least a month’s grace on “Well, in Honduras…” comments.

Let me practice my fractured Spanish with you.

And if you know where to get a good baleada in West Michigan – hook me up. I will love you forever.

Michigan, I’m coming for you!

Five more days.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What Does Gratefulness Do?

I gripped the motorcycle with my knees as it sputtered like a balky horse. It was the second day of my two-week internship for “Growers First,” an organization that works with coffee farmers in Honduras, and we were spending most of our day checking on coffee projects and interviewing farmers and their families. All these families lived up in the mountains, and the roads to get there rivaled any dirt bike course.

We were late getting back, and I only just had time to pull off my sweatshirt and muddy rubber boots and run a hand through my motorcycle-whipped hair before my host family here took me to a Thanksgiving dinner.

At one farmer’s house in the morning, we had sat in plastic chairs on his concrete floor; looking out a window with no glass at a pit latrine screened by tattered sheets. He had given us dark coffee with so much sugar it stung at the back of my throat.

This taste was still in my mouth when I sat down at a table laden with every kind of good food. We had two forks each, I remember, and two spoons. With turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and three kinds of pie, it was a Thanksgiving meal to rival any. So what was I supposed to do? I gave thanks.

I have so much to be thankful for. I could start with great parents, and siblings who are some of my best friends. I love my school. I love what I’m studying. I have enough food to eat, more clothes than I can wear. I’m safe and healthy. I have incredible friends and an amazing boyfriend. But I’m starting to realize that the question isn’t what I’m grateful for, but maybe what is grateful for.

What does grateful matter if I don’t do anything about it?

If you ever wonder what upper-middle class Hondurans talk about at Thanksgiving dinner – it’s probably exactly what your family talked about. Politics. How good their kids are at technology. Whether or not they should buy an iPad.

And I sat, smiling at the jokes, stuffing my face. The house where we ate had more Christmas lights than Bronner’s Christmas store, and all I could think of was the bicycle at that one house in the mountains that had been turned into a generator. By pumping the pedals by hand, a single light bulb in the house would flicker on.

What does it mean that so many people don’t have the things I’m grateful for, let alone the things I take for granted? As my intention span dozed in and out of a conversation about children’s grades and a new proposed tax, I thought about what it means to be grateful. I think, in the end, it’s:

1) The recognition that something is good, and

2) The recognition that it was not you who made it so.

So, Gratefulness isn't Self-Congratulation. If I come back from Honduras remembering the poverty I saw and thanking God that it’s not me who uses a squat latrine, then my time here will have been wasted. If my takeaway is “I’m glad I’m not them,” then I have everything backwards. Because that brings with it the ludicrous assumption that it was me who put me in my position. I did very little to be where I am. I owe a God who made me, parents and teachers who helped shape me. However, I need to be careful not to go to the opposite side and loathe myself for what I have…

Because Gratefulness isn't Guilt. After spending three months taking cold showers, am I ready to give up warm showers forever? Heck no! I can’t wait to get back to a warm bath. See, part of recognizing that something is good means enjoying it. Are you eating a sumptuous dinner surrounded by loved ones? Don’t begrudge yourself the happiness! This is a good thing. But…

If these are really good things, then gratitude goes beyond simply acknowledging them. Gratefulness does. Do I recognize that my family is a good thing? Then how am I caring for them, showing my appreciation for them, supporting them? Am I thankful for warm food, a comfortable bed, or entertainment? If these things are good, then how can I share them with others?

I can’t say it’s easy to accept the reeling proximity that allows me to see subsistence in the morning and feasting in the afternoon. But giving based on guilt is only charity. It is to soothe the giver’s conscience.

Giving based in gratefulness comes closer to the needs of another’s heart. What is it you most cherish? What is it you most miss? How can you share this with others so that they’ll know the same joy? As you count your blessings and I count mine, let’s think of what to do with all of them. Let’s not leave our thankfulness as a list recited one day a year, but let’s make our gratefulness do. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

No Deep Thoughts

I have less than three weeks left in Honduras, and I'm struggling to gather my thoughts. There are a lot to gather. I've seen, heard, and learned so much over the last three months that I can hardly begin to make sense of it all. I want to write all the deep thoughts I have, but I'm not ready to put them into words.

I expected to come back from Honduras a changed person. I think I was hoping that the change would be obvious, dramatic, and exciting. I didn't expect to be the same person, weighed down by a few more thoughts, struggling with a few more convictions. Turns out, it's not that easy to change.

I can see the next few months play out like a movie. I come home passionate about helping the poor and marginalized who I've met, or outraged at the injustices I feel I understand. I come out too strong against certain things. I'm a little too ignorant. A little too self-righteous.

I can see over time, how the temptation of comfort will creep up. Eating sustainably is way too hard. Taking the bus is inconvenient. I would give, only I need this money for something else. And the memories fade a little. Passions are muted. Everything goes back to the way it was.

Dear Lord, let it not be so.

Here in Honduras, justice is right in my face. We spend hours every day learning about what it means to eat justly, to shop justly, to care for the environment and elect good leaders. We're excited about it. We're seeing things happen right in front of our eyes. It's real.

When I go back to Michigan, I'm going to have to look for it. I'm going to have to work to get to the same level of passion. I'm not going to have professors guiding my thought processes or friends studying the exact same things. It's going to be a different sort of real. Who I am isn't going to be handed to me: I'm going to have to decide.

Right now, I'm still in the middle of what's been the most interesting and intense four months of my life. But in three weeks, that will be over. If I'm realistic about it, I know that all I'm experiencing now isn't half as important as what I do with these experiences next month, next year, and for the rest of my life.

Studying abroad will change your life. But it's not a passive thing. You don't let Honduras happen to you, you jump in and engage the culture. You ask questions. You start to form those deep thoughts.

The thing about study abroad is that it ends. But the changes don't have to. What I want to start asking now is how to keep these things real. To transfer my Honduran real life to my Michigan one. How to remember the things that are important even in a complete change of scenery.

So I don't have any deep thoughts now. I think it's going to be a while before I can form experiences into opinions and opinions into a transformed life. It's not going to happen automatically. But I'm determined to make the effort.

Observing Election Day

**note, all facts are as I understood them, and may change as more information is released**

On Sunday, November 24th, I watched the Honduran people elect Juan Orlando Hernandez as their next President, with about 34% of the vote. Opposition candidates Mauricio Villeda, Xiomara Castro, and Salvador Nasralla pulled in 28, 21, and 15% of the vote, respectively. After learning about these candidates and following the race for over three months, it was an incredible thing to watch.

My Honduran dad has been running for mayor of our town, so I’ve seen a little bit into the political process. He’s not running as a third-party candidate, but as a sixth- or seventh-party candidate.He doesn’t have any posters up or anything, but he’s definitely informed.

I voted early. Well, not me, personally, but my Honduran brother did take me to watch him vote. (above, walking past the political parties' tents on the way back) We stood in lines outside the grade school, just like the lines in the United States. The streets of Santa Lucia were full of people, but they were quiet. Even the vendors hawking dulce de leche seemed more subdued.

He voted for one President (he wouldn’t tell me who), one Mayor (his dad, he told me), and twenty-three Congressional representatives. The ballets are three separate pieces of paper with the faces of all the candidates on them, so that even those who can’t read can mark the one they want to choose. With over one hundred Congressional candidates, one of the sheets approached table-cloth size.

On the way out, he got his pinky blackened with indelible ink. “That was really calm, right?” he asked with a grin. He wiped his pinky with a cloth to try to rub the ink away, but it only smeared onto more of his finger. “This is going to be here for days.”

Tension has been high over the last few weeks. Two brand-new parties have challenged the traditional two-party system, creating a four-way tie for a while. People feared violence and fraud. Some people stocked up their pantries. My family told me not to go out at night. The new Libre party, whose candidate is the wife of the President ousted in the 2009 coup, attracted the most outspoken following; while the National party controlled more of the government and military police. No one knew exactly what was going to happen on Sunday.

We had an invitation to go and observe the elections, but our professors told we’d wait and see how things turned out. But as I watched the news with my family they turned to each other and admitted – everything was pretty calm. So we went down to the capital city.

It was eerie. Public transportation was suspended for the day. Malls and stores were closed. The streets were empty and quiet, except for the hubbub around voting centers. We drove up to a storefront where in a small office on the second floor, a friend of our group runs a polling center. He managed phone calls from each of the 18 departments of Honduras, compiling the exit polls into an accurate picture of the vote.

After observing the polling process, we went out to the streets, visiting three voting centers before we went back home. Each center we saw was orderly and professional. People were happy to show us the boxes that were filling up with the paper votes – they would later count each by hand. Representatives from each of the eight political parties sat at each table in each room in each building. Most were there from well before the stations opened at 7am until 3 or 4am the next day when all the votes had been tallied. By sheer number of people observing, they hoped to eliminate the possibility of fraud.

And everything went without incident. Maybe the military stationed at every corner with stern faces and bulky guns helped keep any protests down. Or maybe people were just taking their decision seriously – around 65% of Hondurans showed up to vote, the highest in over a decade.

After getting back, I watched the news with my family all night long. Results trickled in from different departments. After a preliminary exit poll showed Xiomara in the lead, she announced her victory on public television even as results showed her losing by several points. Just after, Juan Orlando announced his victory, one that was more supported by evidence.

I've spent a little time on Google, and the headlines I read seem inflammatory. “Tension increases in Honduras, as election sparks competing claims of victory, fraud” or “Honduras Presidential Elections in Dispute as Activists Defy Violence to Back Ousted Leader’s Wife.” It’s true that Xiomara has not backed down her claims to the presidency, however, as contested votes come in, her position is becoming weaker and weaker. All evidence points to her losing by 5-6%.

The winners of Congress have yet to be announced, but it seems clear there will be a house split at least four ways between the different parties. In a system that demands majority vote, that could cause some slow government over the next four years. A lot remains to be seen.

My dad didn’t win mayor. I don’t know if he really thought he would. But one of the people working at the tables yesterday told me something important: It’s important that Hondurans get involved in politics. But if things don’t work out the way they like, it’s important that they don’t give up.

There was a lot to be thankful for yesterday, even if the result wasn’t what 65% of the population wanted. Relative peace. High voter turn-out. Few indications of fraud. If people channel the passion they had for political parties into the issues those parties supposedly stand for – security, education, anti-corruption – then Honduras really will keep moving in a better direction.

Whatever happens, I feel a little bit of responsibility and a little bit of pride. Whatever happens, I got to watch it start.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Being Gringa

In Michigan, there’s a light-hearted debate over whether we should be called “Michiganders” or the clumsier “Michiganians.” (The governor agrees with the former, as does my computer’s spell-check.) People from Ohio are Ohioans and Hoosiers come from Indiana, for some reason. There are as many names for residents as there are states, which is why I was so flabbergasted when I sat down to write something about my home country and realized there doesn’t seem to be a word for someone from there.

“I’m proud to be an American,” but so are Guatemalans and Peruvians – technically, the term refers to everyone from Canada to Chile. Yes, the United States of America is the only country with “America” in its name, but the blind coopting of the term “American” can still be offensive to the rest of the countries that make up the "Americas". This is even worse because of the already-stark power imbalance between the rich USA and countries just an inch south on the globe who struggle with widespread poverty.

It's interesting coming from the majority culture in one of the most powerful countries in the world: before I came to Honduras I'd never experienced being the only one of my race on a bus or in a downtown market. I'd never realized how subtly minorities were marginalized. Did you know clothing stores still light-pink items in the color "nude"? Being in the majority, whether that's race or nationality, brings with it the privilege of being the "default." Culturally, you're "normal," everyone else needs to define themselves by their distinction from you.

Here, I look like less than 8% of the population. But even that doesn't completely change the power dynamic. Imported U.S. media, music, and films perpetuate ideals of a certain body type or hue of skin. Even Hispanic telenovelas feature actresses who don’t look very much like the typical Hispanic woman. But I’m still a small minority here, and I have my own name:

“Gringa!” a little boy shouts, giggling as he tucks his head back into the window to hide. Most adults are too polite to use that to my face, but the children will point and shout if their parents aren’t watching. Some North Americans don’t like it -- part of the objection over labels may come from never having been labeled by someone else before -- but as long as it’s in love, I don’t mind “Gringo” or “Gringa.”

There is a word in Spanish for someone from the United States – “Estadounidense” – but it’s a mouthful and I’ve never heard it used. More often I’ll hear “Norteamericano,” but technically that lumps Canada and sort of Mexico in with us. And when we ask Hondurans to tell us their thoughts about the USA, the use of the word “American” is often one of the first things they mention. “We’re Americans too,” they tell us.

“Gringo” really isn’t a slur. Usually it just means “someone who’s not from around here.” I’ve heard conflicting stories about its origins. One version says it stems from American troops who marched and sang either “Green Grow the Lilacs” or “Green Grow the Rushes.” “Green Grow” became “Gringo” to those who didn’t speak English. Another version says it stems from a protest cry; that Mexicans or Central Americans would shout “Green, go home!” at the U.S. soldiers who were either dressed in green or wore green stripes on their uniforms.

Academically, linguists thinks “gringo” may be a version of the word “griega,” which means “Greek.” Spanish, too, has an expression that translates into “it’s all Greek to me,” and foreigners who are unintelligible are said to be “speaking in Greek.” Regardless of its origins, over the 150+ years the word has been in use, the word has become pretty neutral. If it’s yelled at me in the street, it’s not my favorite thing; but between friends, I’ll own the term with a grin.

Words are never unimportant. Labels affect the way we see things, both consciously and unconsciously. Even if Panamanians and Uruguayans didn’t mind that we use the word “American,” how does that affect the way we think about ourselves and our place in this hemisphere?

Whether the terms I hear are ideal or not, I am a foreigner here.  If labels bothers us, why not think about the terms we use with "others" when we're back in the majority? I know I'm not exempt from this system. While I’m waiting for a shorter, more neutral, or catchier word to describe where I’m from, I’m okay with being “Gringa.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I Visited Your Sponsored Kid

When we walked into a brightly-painted classroom and twenty adorable children burst into a performance of a Bible song, I almost turned to look for the hidden cameras. At another project, teachers proudly showed off children who were doing so well in school that they were tutoring the grades beneath them. Compassion International’s after-school program and one of World Vision’s schools offered us just a glimpse of life for a few of the tens of thousands of Honduran children who are supported by international “sponsors.” While this glimpse was encouraging, I still wondered what difference child sponsorship really makes.

Sponsorship seems like a beautiful idea. One (wealthier) family sends a monthly check to an organization which then will support one (poorer) child in the family’s name. The child and family exchange letters, and the family receives regular photos and updates from “their” child.

It’s hard to ignore ads with the pleading faces, and the promises that a small monthly sum can transform a life. It’s hard not to let your heart melt when you see six-year-olds who are excited about reading the Bible. But one lesson I've learned this semester is that things that seem obvious can be much more complicated than they seem. And these organizations are definitely more complicated than one check going directly to one child.

While Compassion International and World Vision have similar goals, they follow very different strategies. When you sponsor a child through Compassion, that child immediately begins to attend after-school programs two or three times a week. These programs teach Bible stories and offer homework help, and many also offer leadership programs and skills classes for older children. All of Compassion’s work is partnered with a local church. The church gets to choose which children will attend the programs, and generally hosts the children in the church building and uses church volunteers as staff.

On the other hand, World Vision has moved to a more community-based form of sponsorship. While the child whose picture is on your fridge does get benefits like academic and health monitoring, the money for each individual child goes to support community programs. I interviewed World Vision’s education coordinator earlier in the semester, and she explained their reasoning.

“When you give [the money] to that one child, they get the school kit, they get the nice uniform,” she said, “But what about the other children?” She pointed out that that type of sponsorship can foster jealousy within families and communities, and a dependence on foreign aid. Instead, World Vision works to empower families and communities through schools, agriculture programs, and other projects.

There are pros and cons of both Compassion and World Vision’s approach, and both are full of anecdotal evidence that their programs are changing lives. But is sponsoring a child the best use of donation dollars? Unfortunately, real scholarship on the effects of sponsorship is lacking, 

When we visited Compassion, they insisted that sponsorship was the best way to do their programs. Not only was it a good way to keep them accountable for the money they spent, they said, they thought the cross-cultural connection was important for both child and sponsor. They also mentioned the power of people internationally praying for the children and their homes. It’s true that the children we met knew the names and home-towns of their sponsors, and were required to write frequent “thank-you” letters for any extra gifts.

But in all honesty, the reason that organizations do sponsorship is simply that it raises more money than any other type of fundraising. Donors feel connected to “their” child, and many will sponsor for years. This is a good thing, because one of the biggest problems with child sponsorship is that it can be ridiculously expensive.

World Vision employs many people just to track the 21,200 children participating in its Honduran programs. “They report back six times a year,” the education coordinator told us, “It’s a really hard job, to monitor all these things for all these children.”

To sponsor a child through Compassion costs $38/month, while World Vision asks for $35/month. But of the $420 donated yearly per child to World Vision (we didn't learn specific numbers for Compassion), $305 never leaves the main office, going instead towards things like strategies, marketing, curriculum, translating children's letters, postage, and other overhead costs. Of the $115 that makes it to the headquarters of each country, $72 then makes it out to the local office to do the projects, after-school programs, and everything that World Vision is really all about.

This money isn't disappearing -- I'm sure you could find an honest accounting for each dollar on their websites -- the sponsorship model in general is just very expensive.The truth is that for every $2 you give in child sponsorship, about $1 goes to the programs benefiting the child, and $1 goes to taking their picture and mailing it to you and all the other steps that go into monitoring tens of thousands of individual children.

A more subtle objection to child sponsorship comes from the pleading faces in the ads. Campaigns based on guilt can be manipulative, and many people are misled to believe that their donations are what are keeping a child from starvation, which is hardly ever exactly true. Sponsorship can also undermine families and local communities, damaging local agency and filling parents with the shame that some North American is able to provide for their children when they can't.

Finally, the very accountability that Compassion workers praised can also be a hindrance. Direct sponsoring means that organizations must answer to donors who seldom understand what’s actually needed in any region. It can be very hard to “sell” your donors on latrines, for example, if they would rather build an orphanage.

So do I support child sponsorship? That's still a complicated question. Because of the high cost of tracking individual children, something that’s exclusively for my benefit, I think my donations are better spent elsewhere. But if that connection is important to you, I wouldn't tell you to stop. I've seen with my own eyes the children benefiting from the existence of these programs. But, knowing the expense, make it worth it. Write letters to your child – they treasure them. Go out of your way to learn more about their country. Let your sponsorship stretch your giving muscles and your global awareness, broadening your "world vision" (if you'll permit me that one) and your "compassion."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mud and Coffee, but Mostly Mud

The tire exploded without warning. We jerked forward in our seats and clapped our hands over our ears, looking back to see shreds of rubber strewn across the road behind us. The bus lurched and dragged, but its seven remaining tires pulled it steadily to a tire shop that was just a hundred yards away. In retrospect, this could safely be described as foreshadowing.

Our class was on another long weekend trip, this time to a more rural part of Honduras to learn about coffee and microfinance. Even with a new tire, it was tough going, especially when the paved road ended. But downhill is always easier than going back up…

Over the weekend, we spent two days and two nights climbing through coffee fields in the rain, meeting coffee farmers in the rain, and learning about microfinance… in the rain. It was a great trip, but I had to buy cheap rubber boots just to get around.

The morning we left didn’t bode well. The air was still damp, and my friend Bethany was miserably sick. She curled up in the back with a blanket and pillow, and we jolted down the soupy roads; Carlos, the driver, trying not to make her bounce too much.

We crept along until a hill that had seemed inconsequential when we’d arrived stopped us in our tracks. Carlos gunned the engine and sped up as fast as the heavy bus could go, but the tires started spinning and we slipped backwards.

A handful of men and boys who lived nearby came out to watch. “Every bus gets stuck on this hill,” they told us. We started to climb out to observe the damage. The wheels spun helplessly, flinging mud onto our clothes and hair.

What else could we do? We all pitched in. The onlookers, too, joined us in finding sticks and stones from the side of the road and throwing them under the tires, hoping that the traction would be enough to get us up. We made an assembly line, throwing muddy rocks from hand to hand and dropping them in the path of the bus. It started to rain again.

We tried pushing the bus; we tried pulling it. A pick-up truck tried to tow us, but the thin rope it used nearly snapped. Carlos revved the engine over and over, but each time one wheel caught for a moment on the rocks or twigs, the others would mire down again.

Soon a large, empty delivery truck came up behind us, waiting for its turn to attempt the hill. This truck wasn’t heavy enough for its wheels to catch, so we all climbed onto the back. The rain was light, but it was enough to smear the mud that coated us and stick our hair to our faces. We jumped up and down together on the back of the truck, the smell of burning rubber in the air as the tires spun around and around in place.

I’m from the suburbs. As we jumped up and down on the back of the battered truck, and I looked out over hill and the distant coffee farms and the dripping-wet banana trees, I laughed at how very different the world can be from what I’m used to.

Finally, with the help of the rocks strewn in the road and our weight balancing the back, the tires of the truck turned and the truck lurched and it shot up the muddy hill. We all screamed victory.

Energized, we put our shoulders to the back of our own bus one last time. We threw more rocks underneath the wheels and backed out of the way as the engine roared and finally propelled the bus up the hill and around the muddy corner. With mud caking our hands and our rubber boots, we climbed aboard and sat down ready for our next adventure.

Bethany lifted her head up wearily from the back seat. In the rain and mud and madness, I had forgotten she was sick, forgotten that throughout all the jolts and bumps and failed attempts, she’d been wrapped up in the back seat.

“How was it?” we all asked her.

“Well,” she said, already sounding better, “I was sleeping through a lot of it.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Brief Over-Simplification of Honduran Politics

We dropped into Honduras right as the Presidential race was beginning to heat up. It’s now a month before the election and things seem even crazier than they were two months ago. With the acknowledgment that I am a North American student whose Honduran political knowledge is younger than some of the food in the back of your fridge, I present to you… a gross oversimplification of the 2013 Presidential race.

Historically, Honduras has had two political parties: the Liberal and the National. People compare their ideologies respectively to the Democrat and Republican parties of the United States, but it’s also widely acknowledged that the two parties are functionally the same.

The regular exchange of National and Liberal candidates was halted in 2009 with a coup to oust then-President Mel Zelaya, a Liberal candidate who made waves partially by trying to pass movements that would allow himself to be reelected. Zelaya was replaced by an interim President, Micheletti, until the current Presidential term started.

In 2010, the National candidate Pepe Lobo became President. I don’t know enough to tell you if he’s been good or bad for Honduras, but I do know enough to tell you his name means “Baby bottle Wolf” in Spanish. In case you wanted to impress anyone with some Honduran trivia.

The 2009 coup was hugely controversial, with the country split between supporting it and protesting it. Zelaya, who was marginally popular before, actually gained popularity after being ousted. But one of the biggest changes the coup caused was the end of the two-party system. There have always been third-party candidates, but this year, the race is between four candidates from four different parties. Here, the who’s who in the 2013 Presidential election:
Juan Orlando Hernandez is from the National Party, and is the current President of Congress. Though Hondurans will openly admit that all politicians are corrupt, Juan Orlando is seen to be particularly shady. He has a massive amount of money to spend on his campaign that is coming from somewhere and as a result, posters of his face hang from almost every telephone post in the country.

Mauricio Villeda is the Liberal Party’s representative. We met him at a debate, where he chatted with us in English and shared a story about ordering a hamburger in Ann Arbor. People consider him the most honest candidate, but also, perhaps one of the weaker. Charisma is not his strong point. “He might make a good President,” someone told me, “but he’s a terrible candidate.” He also suffers from the new weakness of the Liberal party that comes from…
Xiomara Castro. The wife of Mel Zelaya, who has no previous political experience outside of being first lady, formed her own party after the coup. The Libre party, a splinter of the Liberal party, is now nearly as strong or stronger than the two historic parties. Stop and think for a moment how crazy that is. Imagine a strong personality from the Democrat Party forming her own party and within three years having a chance to win. Xiomara has found her place farther left than the Liberal party, and appeals to low-wage workers, teachers, and other people desperate for change.

The fourth player is Salvador Nasralla, better known for being a beloved sports announcer and the host of a Sunday morning game show. He jumped on the small Anti-Corruption party, and the strength of his name has won him more followers than he otherwise might have. Again, stop for a moment to ponder this. The best analogy I can think of is that guy who always announces the Olympics. Bob Costas for President, 2016?

With 30% of the population currently undecided, it’s still anyone’s game. Polls show Xiomara and Juan Orlando near-tied with Villeda a close third, but at this point polls are partly speculation. What is certain is that no one candidate is going to get more than a third of the vote, meaning an election were the majority voted against the winner. (This doesn’t only happen in the States, I guess!)

It’s a huge privilege to be right here in the middle of this, meeting the players that are going to affect Honduras over the next four years. We’ll be right here watching the voting and, even more interestingly, the results. No matter what happens, this is a historic election for Honduras. And now that you’re (at least a little bit) informed, you can turn your eyes this way and follow along with us!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Surprise Concert

I was eating pancakes when I received the call.

“So, I think my mamá wants us to play music for this thing, but I’m not really sure what it is or when, but she asked if I could play the violin and you could play the guitar.”

These are not the best phone calls to wake up to.

“I don’t have a guitar.”

That seemed to settle that, so I hung up and moved on to my papaya. I hadn’t taken more than a bite when the phone rang again.

“She says she’ll find us a guitar, and could you be here in 15 minutes?”

I thought for about two seconds, but I've found that when someone asks you to do something a little crazy, the best response is very often 'yes.'

My friend Bethany and I both live with faithful members of the large Catholic church here, and her mamá was hosting a gathering of church workers. Knowing that we liked to play music, she asked us last-minute if we wouldn’t mind being the lunch-time entertainment. Or at least this is what Bethany gathered from the phone conversations she’d been having all morning. Phone conversations in Spanish are very hard.

We sat in her room and played through a few hymns and praise songs, me grateful that in the absence of sheet music I could fall back on a genre that seldom has more than four chords. After 15 or 20 minutes we shrugged at each other and set off, instruments in hand, to find the venue.

“What are we doing?” I asked Bethany.

“I don’t know, but somehow this is normal life in Honduras.”

Her mamá was calling from a venue we’d never heard of, the “Casa Blanca.” We ended up asking a tajadita seller for directions. The place was a compound, with beautiful trees and trellises and open meeting centers. We milled awkwardly outside a meeting hall for a few minutes before Bethany’s mamá found us, hugged and kissed us, and filled us in.

“I have fifty priests down there,” she exclaimed, “I hope you can improvise!”

We were ushered in to a room where a few dozen people were gathering food from a buffet. As the murmur died down, we received an introduction from a priest who had been hastily filled in on our names.

“Let’s welcome Bétany and Kateri who will be sharing three songs with us this morning,” he said, and we shrugged at each other again, and launched into “Be Thou My Vision.”

We were meant to be background music, and we were. People talked quietly, but applauded enthusiastically when we stopped. If I faltered or played the wrong chord, Bethany saved it with a strong melody on the violin.

It was really not that bad.

Everyone was polite afterwards, and they gave us food from the buffet and asked about our time in Honduras. The priests shook our hands (there were no more than six or seven priests there, in the end, the rest of the people were church members) and we left no more than 40 minutes after we arrived.

“What did we just do?” Bethany asked.

We shrugged at each other and moved on to something else, both a little bit more convinced that when someone asks you to do something a little out of your comfort zone, you should probably just say yes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Church, Translated

“Church” translated into Spanish is “iglesia,” a delicate word that makes me think of stained-glass windows, or maybe icicles. Though the Conquistadors got off on the wrong foot in Latin America, massacring millions in the name of the God of love, they left behind more than their language. In their wake they built cathedrals of astonishing beauty.

Sometimes on Sunday nights, I go to Mass with my Honduran mother. The sanctuary is breathtaking, with ornate paintings and a gilded altar. But when the priest speaks, his voice is carried away to the high ceilings, or lost in the people murmuring the prayers along with him; and I don’t understand.

It’s a little easier at the Evangelical churches. They’re recent imports. Ten years ago, Protestants were almost invisible – now they’re close to 40% of the population. Their churches are smaller and poorer. We sit with a dozen or two others on folding chairs and listen to the pastor preach in her booming voice that I still don’t always understand.

In the sanctuary, in the folding chair, I stand when the others stand and sit when the others sit. I try to steal glances from the coveted few hymnals to sing along with songs I don’t know. I bow my head when we all are led in prayer. What’s left when you don’t understand the words? Letting a wave of rapid and devout Spanish pass over me I realize that at the heart is Jesus – or it’s nothing.

I’m not used to feeling lost in church. The church was my third parent, my sixth sibling, or maybe just a doting great-aunt who had me over twice a week and spoiled me with toys and candies. And along with the root-beer-barrel candies that they must have bought in bulk in the 1970s because they were ancient and sticky and as abundant as the loaves and fishes, I grew up with the taste of the Christian language in my mouth.

Going from my Baptist church to my Christian Reformed college, I hit a little lurch. It was like moving to England where I could make myself understood, but I couldn’t quite figure out which were cookies and which were biscuits, or stop myself from giggling when someone said “loo.”

I learned that when the Scripture reading’s done, the reader will say, “This is the word of the Lord,” and I’ll say, “Thanks be to God.” I learned the subtle art of hand raising, which is usually on the second chorus right as the guitar drops out; and I learned that when you shake each other’s hands you say, “Peace be with you,” unless you want to be extra earnest, in which case you grasp a hand in both of yours and simply exhort, “Peace!”

With this under my belt, I was prepared to tackle the “iglesia.” I may not understand the homily or the main points of the sermon, but when someone takes me by the hand and offers, “Paz,” I can figure it out. But as the people rush around me and snatch the hymnals that I reach for, I realize how much less I’m learning without the Spanish language.

My mind wanders when it isn’t caught by words. I count the gilded ceiling tiles. I wish that someone would come over afterwards and explain to me what everything means. And picking at a string in my dress with my eyes accidentally open because I didn’t realize it was a prayer, I realized two things:

First, if someone wanders into your church who doesn’t speak your language well, they’d greatly appreciate your help. Printed sermons are phenomenal, but outlines work. The words to unfamiliar songs are essential. Ask if they have any questions. Be patient enough to answer them. But second, and maybe more relevant to our churches back at home, “Church” itself can be a language.

Is it hard to believe that not everyone knows “Awesome God” or “Amazing Grace”? That people may not know a VBS from the NIV? If Church isn’t their native tongue, they might not. And while they may have learned enough about “Jesus” or “love” to get the gist of the message, when the message is on reconciliation or tribulation or sanctification without an explanation, people can leave without any better understanding when they walked in.

Jargon can also be dangerous. It lends itself to empty prayers. It’s easy to say things automatically that you don’t really mean, disguising a lot of nothing in stained-glass wrapping paper. But it’s more than that. This jargon can seem like the password to a secret club, where inside everyone sounds like each other. The truth is it should never be about sounding more like each other. It should be about sounding more like Christ. Being fluent in “church” should never be a prerequisite for being welcome in one.

The goal is not simplicity of thought, but simplicity of purpose. And this purpose is not potlucks or discernment or love offerings – it’s a gospel that transcends language barriers. When the pursuit of Jesus Christ becomes the focus of the Church, there might be very different accents; but in the end, regardless of the language in which it’s spoken, “church” translated will still be church.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Blind Leading the Blind

In Honduras, football is sacred. And I’m not referring to that silly, showy sport with all that padding and goalposts. I’m talking about nothing but a field, a couple nets, and a ball that you actually kick with your feet. When Honduras plays, the country’s on holiday. Men, women, and children wear their jerseys and when the games start, the streets empty as people pile into each other’s houses to watch.

I was buzzing with excitement too, though I couldn’t define a fault or a penalty if you asked me. I was like a kid asking how to say “goalie” and “field” and “announcer.” We sat on little folding chairs in a room with a dozen friends who pressed against the television, listening with all their might. When the announcer roared or we gasped in disbelief, sometimes they turned to us and asked, “What happened?” because none of them could see. We found ourselves guessing because we couldn’t understand the rapid stream of Spanish words and thus we watched, our parts together making a whole.

My friend Anna and I first visited the blind school with our class. It’s an organization dedicated to providing life skills and vocational training for adults, many of whom become blind later in life and must relearn how to do the things we take for granted – like ride the bus or dress themselves. They study music, massage, computers, braille, and carpentry. It’s one of the most highly-regarded schools in the area and people come from all over for the two-year program. And it’s about two blocks away from us.

We visited again, just the two of us, and began to meet the people there. They walk fearlessly between classroom and courtyard. The veterans hold the arms of newer students, and the bold grab the hands of the timid. Our new friends introduced us to newer friends, and we passed hours talking in Spanish that seemed to roll off our tongues easier there than anywhere else.

We were completely charmed. I tried not to be offended when a blind man, Nixon, professed undying love for Anna because “she is the most beautiful.” Another new friend was eager to perform for us a Spanish pop song that he’d translated into English. He sang it in an accent we couldn’t understand, but with such abandon and sincerity that we applauded uproariously at the end.

Our new friend Leo got out his guitar and played some of his favorite songs for us -- everything from traditional Honduran music to “Yesterday” by The Beatles. Almost everyone at the school is musical and we passed the guitar around to everyone who heard it and came over. We watched the blind climb trees to pick fruit, dance salsa together, and smile with the unbridled joy that comes with not knowing how to guard your facial expressions.

We left only when it became dark, and promised to return the next week for the big game, when true to our word, we leaned forward on the edge of our seats as volunteers passed us popcorn and coke in little plastic cups. When the ball rolled into the net, we all shouted together, and I didn’t know how full a room could be with sound. Our friends jumped up and ran into each other, hugging everyone who wandered in their path. We screamed and pounded our feet against the floor, for a moment, feeling like our hearts beat together with the hearts of all Honduras.

I’m not going to cheapen our experience with some play on words that has to do with what our friends see and what they don’t. All I know is that the blind lead the blind with more care and love than most of us could muster. And as we said goodbye again, laughing and shaking hands we were counting down in our heads how many days before we can visit again.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Calling a taxi is still not easy. Directing a taxi where to go, when you yourself are not exactly sure, is even more difficult. This is why my friend Anna and I ended up at the wrong university stadium last Saturday. By the time we drove to the correct stadium, we missed the walking tour we wanted to participate in. However, Honduras has definitely instilled an attitude of “go with it,” in us so we thanked our driver, made a few phone calls, and changed our plans.

We started by checking out the marketplace in Tegucigalpa. It was bigger than any farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, with booths full of fresh beets, pataste, papaya, squash, pineapple, and any other food you could imagine. Everyone was yelling and kids were riding on their parents' shoulders, and it was just so much fun. We bought pupusas from a vendor and walked past butcher stalls to watch a makeshift dairy churn cheese in huge plastic barrels. Honduran cheese is different from the cheese we're used to. There's quesillo, which is kind of like mozzarella; but most dishes use a hard, salty, crumbly cheese that I still haven't learned to appreciate.

From the market, we walked to Central Park. Everyone we passed by was enormously helpful. People offered directions without us asking, some even welcomed us to the city. Our next stop was the National Art Gallery. A local orchestra was practicing in one of the empty rooms upstairs, so the entire time we browsed, we were serenaded. Overall, I was quite impressed by the innovation and quality of some of the work in the museum.

All in all, it was a great cultural experience. We met tons of kind people, used our Spanish enough to call taxis and talk about consumer rights with a curious passer-by. It’s also nice to feel like I’m figuring out a city. We were almost giddily exited when we realized we could get from Congress, to downtown, to the market, and back if we wanted to. A second-hand store attendant recognized us from last week, and we found a new favorite bakery. At the end of the day, we saw the walking tour that we had missed -- a group of tourists, everyone with expensive cameras, staring at things though their lenses. I think we ended up getting the better part of the deal.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Dead Fish, Volcanoes, and Friendship

Last weekend we took advantage of our Friday off to visit the beaches on the South of Honduras. We hired a little bus to take us down to the wharf, and I ended up sitting in front next to the bus driver. This move always takes a leap of courage, but he was talkative and friendly, and in one of my proudest Spanish moments so far, we managed to chat for the entire drive!

We were dropped off at an isolated wharf, where "lanchas," little boats, waited to ferry us across to the island Amapala. 

Amapala is a small, poor island that depends on tourism for much of its economy. Southern Honduran beaches have dark sand and dark water. Since most tourists prefer the pristine, white-sand beaches of the North, we had a lot of the island to ourselves.

Once we were on the island, we checked into a little hostel for only $6 per person. On the other side of the island there are larger, more resort-style hotels and nicer beaches, but it's nice to be in a place where adventures are more important than comfort. Thankfully, spiders in the shower, sharing beds, and hungry cats that steal our loaves of bread are all still adventures.

We took mototaxis across the island to one of the beaches. Mototaxis are ubiquitous in Honduras, and they're wonderful. They're like little motorized tricycles with open sides that can squeeze four passengers and zip between traffic. They're perfect for rural areas that don't have roads for cars, or just for people who only want to spend 50 cents to get somewhere close by.

Though the beach wasn't anything out of a guidebook, the views were still spectacular. We were surrounded by mountains on every side, and rock formations bordered the little beach we found. 

My favorite part about little vacations is the people we meet. We found some fisherman and watched as one expertly filleted a stingray. 

We also ran into a group of school principles on vacation. We talked to some for a while and got to show off our (limited) knowledge of Honduran geography and history. Before we left, they saw my camera and wanted to be in a picture so we would remember them.

When the tide came in and swallowed the beach, we waited for our mototaxis in a restaurant right behind us. There we ate what was likely the freshest seafood I've ever had. Food that can stare back at you is the best kind, right?

The next morning, we started on a hike up the mountain that fills the center of the island. Years and years ago, it was a volcano, which made me imagine clambering up black rock sides and staring down into an open top, belching smoke and fire. Disappointingly, it was almost exactly like any other mountain, with the exception that the path was made up of much more volcanic rock.

After a 2-hour hike, during which I sweated more than I've probably ever sweated in my life, we finally reached the top. Through the clouds, we could see mountains and inlets for miles. To our left, El Salvador stretched into view, and Nicaragua to our right. As the clouds shifted and changed, we could see the shrimp and seafood farms that make up tiny pools for miles inland. With the sun shining through the clouds, it was a spectacular view.

At the summit, we also met a new friend. When exploring the area, we ran into a man with a machete and two barking dogs. Through a particularly difficult conversation, we finally established that he was the keeper of the paths, and lived up on top of the mountain in a little hut for a month at a time. He was thrilled to see us, which is nice, because it's always good to befriend men with machetes.

"Do you like guavas?" he asked us, when it looked like we were ready to leave. When we said yes, he led us to a wild tree off the beaten path, hacking grass down with his machete to make a way for us. "This is a good way to celebrate our new friendship," he said, but he said it in Spanish, and with a strong accent. "Do you understand?" he said, and we said no.

"Friendship -- that's when people look after each other and care for each other." He shimmied up the tree, tying his barking dog to a branch. "It's when they make sure the other is safe, and they want to give them things." He picked armfuls of guavas and handed them down to us, enough to fill our backpacks. "Do you understand?"

We nodded our heads and shook his hand. And there, on top of a volcano, taking fresh fruit from a very kind mountain man I think we really did understand friendship a little better.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Little Things I Love about Honduras

-Men cutting the grass on the median with machetes.
-Strangers coming up to practice Spanish with me
-When the Honduran soccer team is playing and the entire country puts on their team jersey
-Playing in the living room with my 2-year-old “niece,” blowing imaginary bubbles
-Delicious, fresh juices I’ve never heard of before (Hibiscus? Passion fruit?)
-Waking up every morning to find fresh pancakes on the table
-When the sun sets and we can look down from our backyards and see the capital city sparkling with a thousand colored lights
-Fried plantains
-The patience of strangers who speak at half the speed when they see how lost I am
-Handshakes with air kisses
-Our bus driver who drives us a different route to school every day
-The delightful absurdity of hearing “My Heart Will Go On” every day on our bus ride into town
-Pulling into Santa Lucia after a long weekend, seeing the little lagoon and the corner market, and thinking, “Aah… I’m home.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Questions for the Proactive Consumer: What's a Maquila? (1 of 3)

Stop what you’re doing for a minute and check the tag on your t-shirt. This may require some contortions on your part. That’s okay. I’ll wait.

Got it? Now, what connection do you have to that country, whether it was Bangladesh, Nicaragua, or Vietnam? What connection, besides the fact that your purchase supports a system of thousands of workers in conditions that you probably wouldn’t appreciate?

You’ve probably heard about “sweatshops” before, and you probably think you know where this is going. But my goal isn’t to make anyone guilty, it’s to take an honest look at the processes that go into making these t-shirts we’re both wearing. (Mine was from Haiti).

I had the privilege of visiting four different garment factories in the North coast of Honduras, where about 2% of the United States’ textiles originates. Though Honduras only holds a small share of the U.S. market, a full 62% of Honduran exports are textiles that will end up in the United States. For Honduras, it’s a huge chunk of their economy.

Factories in Honduras are called maquilas, which is a word that originally referred to the amount of flour the miller would keep in exchange for grinding it. In the same sense, the economic boost and job creation the factories offered was the “maquila” that Honduras got to keep, while the USA ended up with both the textiles and the companies’ profits.

I’ll start by conceding that the conditions we observed when we visited weren’t awful. It was loud and the close quarters were chaotic, but the rooms were air conditioned and music played over loudspeakers. The workers were dressed nicely. Some of them smiled at us as we walked by.

But it’s still easy to see why people get outraged. In Honduras, maquila workers make less than the Honduran minimum wage. To keep international companies from leaving Honduras, the Honduran government set a different minimum wage for maquilas. While elsewhere, people must be paid 325 U.S. dollars per month, in maquilas, they can be paid as little as $225 per month, which comes to just above $1 an hour. Even this is twice as much as Chinese workers make, and five times higher than what maquila workers make in Bangladesh.

To put this in perspective, when I was working at a hotel this summer, I made an hourly wage that was eight times higher while working four fewer hours per day. And this was not because I had any particular skill set. This was because I just happened to be born a couple countries north.

Besides the low pay, maquilas also threaten the health of their workers. The lint and chemicals in the air can affect workers lungs, while repetitive motions lead to injuries like carpal tunnel and torn rotator cuffs. One woman we spoke with said that after three years, every worker has been affected by some sort of stress injury.

Finally, the pressure against unionization is still very much in force, at least throughout Honduras. Though it’s illegal to fire workers for attempting to start a union, the practice is commonplace. When enough union workers are blacklisted from all maquilas, the rest of the workers are too afraid to make any motion to organize.

Judging from the information in the last few paragraphs, it might seem like maquilas are terrible and should be eliminated. Groups like United Students Against Sweatshops would certainly agree. But it’s not as simple as that, or as clear-cut. If maquilas were completely bad for Honduras, Honduras wouldn’t want to keep them so desperately. And there are other things that you won’t read on No Sweat handouts.

Maquilas provide employment for 150,000 Hondurans, and millions of Latin Americans in total. The average Honduran maquila worker has only finished 6th grade, and while this is higher than the national average, it still means that they would have more trouble finding a job elsewhere. The other side must be heard. In one article we read, author Paul Krugman says, “Bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all.” As unpalatable as this may be, it’s worth pondering.

People often compare maquila workers with workers in the United States. But this is a false comparison. Instead, more telling studies compare maquila workers with those who want to work for maquilas. One maquila told us they turn away 93% of applicants. In several factories, the turnover rate was under 2% per year. People want these jobs. And they keep them. In a study my professor did, 96% of maquila workers said they were very or somewhat satisfied with their jobs.

This raises an important question: Do we need to change all maquilas, or do we need to change the society that makes working there look like an attractive choice? Can we do both? And what does that look like? I'll admit right now that there is no easy answer. But that's why I'm here this semester. Because knowing is the first step towards action.

Questions for the Proactive Consumer: How do you Make a T-shirt? (2 of 3)

What does it look like to work in a maquila? This varies factory to factory, but the processes are the same. Everything begins in a textile factory. T-shirts start out in a large concrete room where spools of white yarn are fed through tubes into a whirring, spinning cylinder-shaped machine the size of a phone booth. If you’ve ever seen a grandmother knit socks with four needles, you’ll have an idea of what this machine is doing, except with over 1,000 needles.

The fabric comes down from the needles in one smooth tube that is rolled onto a bolt. When the bolt is full, workers take it to a huge, steamy room where machines that cost upwards of $1 million churn the fabric through softeners and dyes. Other machines dry, iron, and preshrink the fabric. Workers monitor the machines in the 90 degree room, most wearing face masks against the lint in the air. But most workers are in the next room where the finished fabric is cut.

Some fabric goes through machines that press pieces for clothing out in patterns, but most goes to be cut by hand with mini chainsaws, cutting through a hundred layers of t-shirt material at a time. These premade, precut pieces are sold in Honduras, but also to El Salvador, Haiti, and other maquilas around the world. From spool of yarn to stacks of precut sleeves takes about 48 hours. Since the machines can’t be safely turned off, shifts work around the clock.

Maquilas buy fabric in precut pieces. The pieces are separated by garment color and style and given to “cells” of workers that stitch the garment together. Each t-shirt is sewn by 8-10 people, while polo shirts take up to 22 workers. The “cells” work in an assembly line style, so each does the same motion throughout his or her 12-hour shift, 1800-4800 times per day, depending on how complicated the product is. The finished garments are folded and boxed right at the cell. Underwear is hung on racks and price tags are affixed. In most maquilas, the workers put in 44-hour weeks, working 12 hours a day for four days, with three days off.

Though we visited two textile plants and two different maquilas, our visit to Fruit of the Loom was by far our most in-depth. An entire team of workers met us at the front of the factory. When he found out we’d be visiting, Fruit of the Loom’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, Stan, had decided to make his own visit coincide with ours. Stan shook each of our hands as we entered a room stocked with drinks, donuts, candies and snacks. They were desperate to impress us.

Fruit of the Loom, which manages Spalding, Russell, and Vanity Fair, employs 1,177 people in Honduras alone. In 2008, Fruit of the Loom closed the one maquila in Honduras that had unionized—reputedly to eliminate the union. Pressure from student groups forced the company not only to reopen the factory, but to pay back wages for the year that all its employees had been without work.

Stan was understandably cautious with our group, as if he expected that any moment we would break out into a protest. “Students against Sweatshops are really hard to work with,” he sighed. “They’re the reason I have no hair.”

In their credit, Fruit of the Loom has come a long way since reopening their factory. Three of their plants now have fully recognized unions, and the company is one of the highest-paying in the country.

They’ve also taken steps towards environmental sustainability with a shift from traditional coal-burning plants to new ones that burn king grass which is grown nearby. The waste product from the dyes is organic and clean enough to be used to fertilize the grass, creating a renewable circle of energy production and waste treatment.

Though the wage gap has yet to be closed, and many issues persist, it’s encouraging to see the improvement that has happened over just a few years. It’s also important to note that this change only happened when pressure from the inside (the desire for unions) met pressure from the outside (students against sweatshops.) Fruit of the Loom will do what it takes to keep a profit, and if underwear shoppers suddenly find the ethics behind their boxer shorts important, the company will be forced to comply.

I can’t overstate the power of organized groups, whether that’s inside or outside of the company. We, as shoppers, can change what we demand. But the workers themselves are fighting for better rights too.