Sunday, December 27, 2015

Constructing Transparency


“So, what exactly do you?” Even three months in, my friends and parents are asking me this – probably because I haven’t been able to give them a very good answer yet. My official title is “Research and Communications Facilitator”, while my access card says “Investigadora” – “Investigator”.

What this means in practice is a lot of reading, writing, translating, note-taking, and summarizing of long and complicated documents. It’s a desk job punctuated by regular trips and visits to everything from community youth projects to the office of the director of police* (*I still need to write about this one).

Here’s an example of what ASJ is doing, and how my work fits into it:

In October of 2014, ASJ signed an agreement with national anti-corruption organization Transparency International (TI) and the Government of Honduras (words commonly used to describe this agreement: landmark, groundbreaking, watershed). Through this agreement, the government agreed to open its books to ASJ (which acts as TI’s Honduran chapter), and in exchange, ASJ would provide detailed monitoring and evaluation of the transparency and effectiveness of some of the most vulnerable government systems: Education, Health, Tax Management, Infrastructure, and Security.

The government’s cooperation was a huge step forward. One of ASJ’s biggest hurdles previously was simply getting access to the information that could help them determine whether corruption was taking place. With more and better information than ever before, they were able to draw an accurate picture of the management of these government ministries.

What did that look like?

Almost my first week at ASJ, the TI team had a 80ish-page report for the ministries of Security and Education, the results of scanning tens of thousands of pages of documentation and analyzing them according to over 500 different criteria. (These people are absolute bosses, by the way.)

While I was still trying to master the difference between preterite and imperfect verbs, I had to read through the document and its 20ish-page summary in order to first translate the summary to English, and then summarize it even more to a more-manageable 5-6 page length.

The English summaries went back to the TI team, who checked them over, added comments, and made changes and additions. The documents bounced around for weeks as they were tweaked and altered, wording softened in some places and strengthened in others.

If it seemed like a lot of fuss for two documents, we just had to remember back to what they were saying about this document (groundbreaking, landmark, watershed).

Last month was the first-ever presentation of these reports – they would form a baseline against everything in the future would be measured. After such a public agreement, the government would be forced to acknowledge what they said, present a plan for improvements, and be checked against that plan every six months. They were a big, big deal.

So what kind of things did these documents contain? If you really want the details, you can read my summary of the Education report here – if not, I’ll catch you up.

The TI team first looked into Purchasing and Contracts in the Education system. What kinds of textbooks, classroom supplies, and computer equipment were they buying, for how much, and from whom?

With all the purchase documentation in front of them, the TI team started to see some strange things. Purchase specifications were written in strangely specific ways, ruling out companies who could have provided virtually identical products. These specifications meant that only one company fit the bill, even though they weren’t the cheapest or best-ranked company. (You see what that is, right? Corruption.)

Then purchases were delivered late and without proper receipts. Millions of dollars of goods were delivered without being registered. Textbooks were purchased from one company and delivered with labels from another company – none of this was supervised or sanctioned, which means that even if the lapses were errors and not intentional corruption, money that should have been spent on children’s education was being lost.

The team then turned to Human Resources. Now, ASJ’s coalition Transformemos Honduras exposed a few years ago that 25% of teachers on payroll couldn’t be found in their classes. This finding prompted the removal of the Ministry of Education and an overhaul in processes such that now, that percentage has fallen to 1%. But there is still a long way to go for a transparent and accountable payroll system.

In Honduras, there are very specific legal regulations about the teachers that are supposed to be hired for public schools. Teaching candidates take a qualification test, and are supposed to be hired by rank – the highest-scoring first.

Practically, though, bribes and connections often find candidates their positions. Some teachers employed at the time of the audit had scored only 60% on their qualification test – which shouldn’t even be a passing grade. The TI team also found some strange documentation. In some classrooms were the qualification test had been given, every single candidate had passed the test, and, even more strange, with the same pen and handwriting.

Other documentation that could have shown such irregularities was never delivered at all. One department said they couldn’t deliver it because the previous committee had it all burned. (You know what that sounds like? Corruption.)

These findings were ugly. Not only were unqualified teachers teaching, teachers with misconduct accusations also continued in their post. Last year, 60 teachers were suspended for everything from falsifying tests to physically and sexually abusing students – 59 of these teachers would later be reinstated.

Though Honduras has taken huge steps forward in the last few years – thanks in great part to the work of Transformemos Honduras and a new receptive Minister of Education – it clearly has a long way yet to go. Reports like the one I have been working on are important because not only do they bring these problems to light, they hold public ministries accountable for fixing them.

After the President of ASJ stood up at a televised conference and presented these findings, the Minister of Education followed him. “We’re aware of these errors,” he said, “And we’re working to fix them.”

Chalk another one up to the power of research and investigation, of persistence and bravery and telling the hard truth. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

I Won’t be Home for Christmas



Christmas Eve, 2015

This morning I came down to see the kitchen in chaos. Nacatamales, a meat-stuffed cornmeal dish cooked in banana leaves, were stacked to the ceilings and in an enormous pot on the stove simmered the torejas, french toast soaked in sweet, honey-cinnamon sauce.

“Are you sure you won’t come with us?” they asked me. They were going to La Paz, where their cousins lived, a plan that had only come into focus a few days ago, after I had already accepted an invitation to spend Christmas morning with a group of volunteers and ex-pats.

“I wouldn’t be back in time,” I said, trying to snag a piece of toreja and burning my fingers in the process. “I wish I could go!”

The boys ran downstairs at that moment, Paolo running in front of David, who was still nursing a skinned knee. “Cookies for Santa!” they yelled, which I had promised them yesterday, and we started to clear banana leaf fragments off the table to put together the over-priced sugar cookie mix.

It’s been Christmas here for a while now – without Thanksgiving to divide the holiday season, the malls all put up their three-story trees in October. Last week, we put up our Christmas tree and decorated with ornaments and garland. Fireworks, a Christmas staple here, have been sounding all night for months.

All of this, though, has felt familiar, but not-quite-right. Nacatamales and torejas don’t seem like Christmas food. My church has barely mentioned advent. It’s so warm my cheeks burned after less than an hour outside – if it feels like Christmas, it feels like someone else’s Christmas.

When we finished frosting the cookies, the boys ran to finish packing up their clothes and games. I helped drag suitcases and pots of food outside, hugged and kissed everyone, and waved as they all climbed into the truck bed.

“What a shame,” Doña Juanita kept repeating, and asking if I was sure I would be okay for the night. She doesn’t believe that I eat unless she puts a plate of food into my hands, and the thought of me passing 24 hours without her made her anxious. I promised again and again I could take care of myself, I would be sure to eat, and that I’d enjoy my Christmas morning the next day. And then they drove away and it hit me like I’d swallowed something heavy that I was alone.

I have the house to myself. It seems so much bigger empty. I’ve closed and opened the fridge a few times, closed and opened my books a few times, and tried to write, but I don’t want to write.

I’ve never been alone on Christmas Eve before.  

My friends are with their families. My neighbors have left and locked up behind them. I want to go to church, but I’ve been told the holidays are the most dangerous time to go out, and it would be dark, and I would be alone. I want to call home, but they’re preparing for the Christmas Eve service. I eat one of Santa’s cookies and wonder if I should pretend the day isn’t happening at all.

I don’t want someone else’s Christmas. I want the Christmases I grew up with – the changing of seasons, bulky coats and hats, Christmas songs on the radio and a trip to the Christmas tree farm. I want the slow procession to light the advent candles and the rush to catch up on our felt advent calendar that we always forgot.

I want the boxes dragged up from the basement, the cardboard ornaments we made in preschool that no one has had the heart to throw away, those handpainted wooden trees and whatever ornaments we or the cats haven’t shattered. I want tinsel and cookies and dad practicing his flugelhorn for Christmas morning.

I don’t care about the malls and their tinselly displays, but I want that feeling of walking through them and suddenly noticing little things for my brothers and sister’s stockings, things that will make them laugh on Christmas morning. I want the bell ringers outside, and the spirit that tells us to dig deep into our pockets. I want the countdowns. I want cookie exchanges and caroling. I want to be home in the room I grew up in.

I want the Christmas story that I’ve heard so many times I can mouth the words along with the reader. I want O Come, O Come Emanuel and O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Holy Night, all those songs that begin with "O" because our mouths are still opened in shock all these years later, barely daring to believe what happened that night. I want the shepherds and the wise men;I want the miraculous; I want the magnificat.

I want the hush after the Christmas Eve service as we wish our friends the best, put on our coats and step out into flurries, singing Christmas carols on the ride home and rushing inside to play board games while our parents heap things on the table in the next room to wrap.

I want us crowded into a single bedroom, the youngest so excited about tomorrow that they can’t sleep. I want us waking up to an alarm when it’s still grey outdoors, sneaking downstairs together to see plump stockings and brightly colored boxes around the glowing tree.

I want the cinnamon rolls in the oven early enough so that as soon as their smell begins to fill the house, mom and dad come downstairs and we flip on the lights, eat more chocolate than we should, delight in the thoughts we had for each other, fiddle with new toys, crack open new books, open the new family board game.

I want the trip to our aunt’s, the same big meal we have every year, turkey and cranberries and bread and pies. I want to marvel at how much my cousins have grown, hug my grandmother, and watch my brothers and sisters tease and taunt each other with the fierce and sassy love we have for each other.

I want to come home late. I want it to be snowing. I want to see our house from down the street by the one string of lights we’ve twined around our lamppost. I want to know that there’s nothing to do tomorrow, nowhere to go, that I’m already where I need to be.

Christmas looks different this year. But all those things I want don't make it Christmas, any more than nacatamales and fireworks make it Christmas here. Just know that here in the quiet of an empty house I am dwelling on the same words that you are:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. 

Merry Christmas. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Living Deep and Living Wide


On the banks of the river Cangrejal huge boulders rise smooth and grey and triumphant. You can stand on their edge and see the water rush below you, roaring like the sound of a shell to your ear, which is really the sound of our own heartbeat, slow and mighty.

It was my first time in La Ceiba, my first time seeing the river, and the newness and the roar of the water made me feel brave and awake, a feeling as sharp and fierce as fear.

It’s hard not to chase this moment of awe, of discovery, of experience, of life as life feels that it should be. Who’s to say I didn’t chase it here, all the way to Honduras, that this pursuit didn’t influence a decision I thought I made based on wisdom, passion, even altruism?

Yet as I unpacked again and settled into a new adoptive home, this narrative began to fall apart.
I believed, falsely, that breadth of experience would make up for depth, that knowing a little about a lot of things would excuse me from knowing intimately anything at all.

I know Honduras widely, but not deeply. I have visited banana plantations and the Honduran Congress. I have visited more of the country’s beautiful edges than my host mother, but I don’t know my neighbor’s names, who’s sick and whose daughter is looking for a job, where to stand to avoid the pick-pockets, how much to pay for bananas on the street corner.

This knowledge takes time, it takes intimacy, it takes a sort of attention span that’s longer than the three days I spent on the river bank – a lifetime, or the start of one.

It’s also far less glamorous, less exciting, and it feels a little more like work.

Because when the blurry line between vacation and home is crossed, things get harder. Public transportation turns from a thrill to a frustration. Cracks appear. After weeks, the precocious boy who hugged you every time you entered the room will turn moody and pout – you will have lost your novelty. You’ll search for what you felt on the riverbed and there will only be a ghost of a memory, replaced as it is by new feelings like duty and connectedness and place.

When the inebriating thrill fades, we find ourselves wanting to move on to another country on our bucket list. We live, we know, in a world that wants quick results, cheap thrills, the gasp of a new view and not the savor of nuances

But I’ve learned that what the world wants is very seldom the path that I should take.

My host mother knows and is known here. She’s mothered dozens of surrogate children and grandchildren and been steadfast as she watched the world change before her. She has lived on this block for thirty years, and who’s to say that experience is worth less than the parts of the world I’ve seen briefly, through the viewfinder of a camera or the demanding itinerary of a scheduled trip?

Wendell Berry, one of the prophets of home and community, writes in Life is a Miracle:

My own experience has shown me that it is possible to live in and attentively study the same small place decade after decade, and find that it ceaselessly evades and exceeds comprehension… Living and working in the place day by day, one is continuously revising one’s knowledge of it, continuously being surprised by it and in error about it. And even if the place stayed the same, one would be getting older and growing in memory and experience, and would need for that reason alone to work from revision to revision.

Isn’t this what we’re looking for, in the end? To be revising, to be corrected in error, to be surprised? What if this is found not in living widely, but in living deeply – to not just live at a place, to live in it, to be of it, as we are of faith, as a thing that forms and shapes us so deeply that we cannot be rid of it?

I have a feeling that what I look for when I seek to recapture that rush of newness, that excitement, remains elusive by the very act of looking for it.

I can chase a feeling across the planet – live widely – but to know and be known, I need to learn to live deep.

Tegucigalpa by Taxi


“Corruption,” my taxi driver grumbles when he sees a child on the street corner collecting money, supposedly for a hospital.

“Corruption,” he says, shaking his head, when we pass a bridge that has been under construction since I arrived four months ago.

When we pass the pick-up trucks loaded with military police, straight-faced and armed to the teeth, he begins waving his hands back and forth: “These police are making minimum wage, and they’re driving nice cars and living in nice houses. Where do you think that money comes from?”

He is one of my favorite taxi drivers, loquacious and opinionated, and I am an eager audience. I am naively curious about the “real world” here, wanting to test the facts and statistics I’ve read in reports and news articles from behind a tidy desk.

This week I’ve been reading about the gangs that control segments of Honduras like a patchwork quilt, vying for territory, charging small business and transportation “Impuestos de Guerra,” or “War Taxes” for the right to work unmolested.

I ask him suddenly if he’s ever been asked to pay.

He hesitates. “Nine hundred lempiras,” he says. It’s a little over $40. “What’s today, Friday? So it was yesterday at about two o’clock that they came to pick it up. Three hundred each for three of the gangs.”

Nine hundred lempiras is about three days of minimum wage here, but he is self-employed, and there are surely weeks where this is more than half of what he takes in.

“Think of it,” he says, “I work hard, 5am-9am every day, every day of the week to care for my family. Then I’m giving all that to someone who did nothing.”

He’s thoughtful now, and cars pass in front of him in the chaotic ballet of Tegus traffic. The roads are pitted and swerving and impossibly steep. Tegucigalpa feels sometimes less like a city than a conglomeration of smaller villages merging into and over each other, dusty and cracked and colorful, and the streets twist and swerve like they were added as an afterthought.

I used to wonder why someone like my taxi driver would so readily pay whatever the gangs asked. I would file a police report, I thought, get a coalition together, fight back. But it’s not that easy here.

“Did you hear I lost a son?” he says suddenly, turning so quickly down a side street that I bump against the door.  

I hadn’t heard.

“All I wanted to do was take care of my family,” he began, and the story tumbled out. “I bought my sons taxis. I taught them what I knew. I always wanted to set a good example for them.”

“One day my son came to me and said, ‘They’re asking for 300 lempiras (about $14) but I don’t have it.’ I didn’t have it either. So I told him to come and hide at my house for a few days, not to drive his route. But before I saw him again, he… he disappeared.”

A woman on the side of the road, baby hanging on her hip, peddles bright pink and purple cotton candy off a high, white stick. She waves her wares back and forth, looking bored.

“We found his taxi empty by the mountain,” he continues, “I went up into the mountain to look for him. Five, six days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. On the sixth day, well…”

“I’m sorry,” he says suddenly, and wipes his wet cheeks on his sleeve. Cars honk behind us and the car shudders forward again.

“That was four years ago and I still feel it like it was yesterday. He was only 30. My wife and I gave our whole lives to teach him, to show him good ways.” His voice chokes.

He never did anything. He had good friends. And I don’t want anyone to die, we’re all human beings, but if someone had to die, why couldn’t it have been–?” he stops.

“They took him up to the mountain…” Our taxi rumbles over potholes and he breathes.

I’ve read about gang activity in Honduras and passed by graffiti claiming allegiance. But I live on a different level, safe and protected, blissfully unaware of the checkerboard that divides my neighbors into warring territories of violent rival gangs.

There were two gang-related shoot-outs last month, one just a few miles away in a place called “El Infiernito,” or “The Little Hell”.  I read about the massacres and sighed sadly, but I didn’t know anyone who was killed. I’ve never lost a friend or family to violence. It’s a pain I know intellectually, but not emotionally, not physically.

“I was in bad shape after I came back down,” he continued. “I had to be in the hospital for a week. I had an IV in my arm here,” he pinches his right arm.

“My other son never drove his taxi again. He left for the United States. He says he’s not afraid there. But I don’t get to talk to him very much anymore. His younger brother sold his taxi too – but what could I do? I’m 59 years old. No one will hire me anywhere. They only hire young people, but I ask you – do young people have this kind of responsibility? That I wake up at 4am and work until 9pm – do you know of any young people who would do that?”

He wipes his eyes on his shoulder again. “We’re setting an example for the children. They see us go out to work. I never smoke, never drink, my wife sells food and I drive and we’re proud of what we do. It’s enough to pay electricity, water.”

“I don’t blame God,” he says suddenly, and we drive in silence for a few minutes, wheeling through turns in which he leans on his horn in the sharp insistent way that here means, “I’m coming through whatever the light says”.

After a few minutes of silence we arrive at my destination, I pay him quickly, gather up my things, and turn.

“God bless you,” I say, “God be with you.” It seems so weak and hollow after everything that’s been said.

“You too,” he says, “And call me when you’re ready to go home. I’m always available, any hour just give me a call.”

I’ll call him again and we’ll talk about it again, spinning down Tegucigalpa’s steep streets. It’s all he can do to keep his son’s memory alive – to tell his story to anyone who will listen. It’s all I can do right now – to listen. 

Chasing Home


1.

There are many of us: young, thoughtful, adventurous types, or so we would style ourselves.

We itch to see the world beyond where we grew up, that city where we took piano lessons and played soccer, harbored small rebellions while earning the good grades and trophies that showed off our parents’ shepherding of our little gifts.

We know, we have learned, that we can be anything we want to be. We can go anywhere we want to go. We are special and smart and important and we are also all a little lost and a little lonely. To be charged with greatness is no small task.

Loneliness is not unique to our generation, but our generation is particularly susceptible to it. We have not exchanged place and family for trajectory and career, as some critics of our generation would have it – we have exchanged them all for experience. The next border, the farther hill, something that will suddenly fill the restlessness we can’t explain in the places that should be home.

2.

There is a children’s book about a snail who leaves looking for home and finds it only when he circles back to where he started. For us it is more complicated than that. My family had moved ten times by the time I was ten, and we have no history in the place where we eventually landed. When I left my parents’ house, I moved through nine more homes in four years – I have no deep sentiment for place, no understanding that I pertain to somewhere.

This is what it is, it seems, to be 21 and unattached. “Settling down” is just that – “settling,” and wanderlust becomes a virtue. We are young, this is what it is to be young, and we want to live widely, we want more and better experiences, we want most of all to never be bored.

Who are we? We are not materialistic – we scoff at materialism. Handbags are gauche, but those who have traveled more widely, more boldly, more obscurely earn their own type of status. “When I lived in Phnom Penh… in New Delhi… in Accra…” whether a week or a month or a few scattered seasons we crave something beyond the same tomorrows. Like a drug we chase it, that thrill, that reminder that we are interested and we are interesting.

I met people living widely on my own wide travels – at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, in Guatemalan markets, at the open-mike night of my college’s coffee shop. They had been to several continents, had opinions on world politics, listened to playlists where Peruvian folk bands and Romanian rock shared space. They were genuinely interesting people, propelled by a contagious enthusiasm. They were beautiful and confused and looking for something, we all were, whether we knew it or not.

3.

When I was a child, I craved traditions. Our family had grown out of ours, our heritage sloughed off over generations until there were no holidays or songs or foods that were particularly ours. I wanted the warm reassurance of something that stayed the same year after year, wherever we were.

When I was twelve or thirteen I tried to gather my siblings into one bedroom on Christmas Eve for a sleepover I hoped would become annual. Against the bickering and adjusting of sleeping bags and pillows, I would try to read the Christmas story, try to capture the magic that comes when we know exactly what to expect next.

In the years after, one sibling or another would beg off to their own rooms, and now for the first time I won’t be in the country to try to convince them otherwise. Here, alone, I’m reliant on traditions that are alien to me, though I like the way they look.

Perhaps this has something, or everything, to do with what I feel like I am looking for. Somewhere there must be something that will sink with the weight of habit deep enough that it weighs me down. 

Understanding International Anti-Corruption Measures in Honduras

photo courtesy flickr user rbreve
They called themselves the Indignados, “The Outraged,” and they took to Honduras’ streets by the thousands in June of 2015 when it became clear that the current President’s campaign had received funds stolen from the Honduran state.

The funds came from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS), an entity charged with providing public health in Honduras. As much as $330 million was pilfered by corrupt officials, Insight Crime reported, who used back-room deals, overvalued contracts, and political maneuvering to steal desperately-needed money while Honduran people died in hospitals for lack of medicines and equipment.

The fact that the corrupt companies donated $150,000 of the stolen money to Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez’s political campaign in 2013 further enraged the Indignados, who called for his impeachment. Hernandez denied any knowledge of the source of the funds, and promised to return the money, but this did little to garner trust with the protesting groups.

His political party, the Nationalists, had taken power from the opposition in 2009 in a military coup, and for some people, marching in the streets became a way to protest this, to protest the unthinkably high levels of violence and drug activity in Honduras, to protest the rampant corruption that made theft on such a grand level possible.

The marches were unavoidably political. Mel Zelaya, the president who had been ousted and would later become a de facto leader of the new leftist “LIBRE” party, was seen marching in the rallies. Popular sportscaster-turned-politician Salvador Nasralla, who ran against Hernandez in 2013 for the new Anti-Corruption Party, would become a vocal supporter of the marchers’ demands.

Besides the removal of the president, the Indignados had a specific request. On signs held up in protests or words spray-painted onto walls, they claimed, “We want the CICIH”.

What they wanted was a CICIG, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) – but in Honduras.

CICIG was created in 2006 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government. Funded through U.N. partner states, the independent, international entity supports state institutions by investigating emblematic cases of corruption, filing criminal complaints, and joining criminal proceedings as a private prosecutor[1].

At the same time as the Honduran IHSS case was unfolding, the CICIG was filing cases in Guatemala against their current political regime. These cases implicated dozens of officials up to and including the president and vice-president for involvement in a huge corruption ring out of the tax and customs department.

Protests also broke out in the streets of Guatemala, calling for the resignation of the political leaders. In May, 2015, Vice-president Roxana Baldetti stepped down under pressure from the CICIG and the Attorney General’s office. In August, Baldetti was sought for arrest, and the President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, was sought for impeachment. He was impeached on September 1st, resigned rather than face an impeachment trial, and was immediately taken into custody to face charges.

People in Honduras were looking for similarly dramatic results.

By September, the torchlight marches had waned, and the Indignados movement began to fade. Progress was moving slowly on the IHSS case – out of 40 charged, only one had reached a conviction. In October, José Ramón Bertetty, the financial manager of IHSS, was charged on one of his multiple counts of abuse of authority, fraud, and misuse of public funds. The Director of IHSS, along with other high-ranking officials, are still awaiting trial.

Observers would have liked swifter, more decisive convictions, but even this much rule of law was unprecedented. The accusations followed a string of high-profile arrests. Reports by Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) exposed corruption in medical purchasing and warehousing that led to then-vice-president of Congress Lena Gutierrez being charged with corruption, along with her politically powerful family. Ten Honduran nationals were extradited to the United States to face charges for drug trafficking. Honduran ex-President Rafael Callejas was extradited to stand trial for corruption related to FIFA.

The increasing will of the Honduran Public Ministry to process corruption cases, however, is limited by inadequate budgets, historically inefficient management, and other procedural difficulties. A “CICIH” could potentially offer the support, independent investigation, and oversight that the Public Ministry needs to process the cases that are coming to light.

But creating a copy of CICIG in Honduras would be difficult. CICIG had been working in Guatemala for nine years before it won the emblematic victory against the president and vice-president.  It is also a particularly expensive program, ranging from $12 to 15 million per year. Protesters demanding a copy of CICIG for Honduras, but also hoping for decisive and immediate results in the lack of a clear funding source, were bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, many observers say that a CICIG-equivalent, instead of strengthening the legal institutions of Honduras, could actually create dependency on a foreign unit of investigators and lawyers.

Another proposal emerged. At the end of September, the secretary general of the Organization for American States (OAS) announced a new initiative – MACCIH, La Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras).

The announcement of the initiative, made in Washington D.C. with President Hernandez in attendance, showed the real will of international organizations to partner with Honduras against corruption. It was also notably different from the CICIG.

The initial proposal for the creation of the MACCIH gave it a limited scope in the prosecution of specific cases, instead installing it in a supporting role for the Honduran justice system. An international body would, like the CICIG, support in the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases. Unlike the CICIG, this body would be composed of both national and international actors. The MACCIH would also create a “diagnosis” of the state of the justice system in partnership with the Center for the Study of Justice in Americas (CEJA), first offering recommendations for improvement, and then acting as an international observer for their implementation[2].

Proponents of the draft praised a proposal that could support the Attorney General’s office in obtaining immediate results, and for a much lower price than the CICIG ($1-2 million per year). Opponents called the MACCIH a face-saving effort of the President to get out of a stricter CICIG- like proposal.

The Alliance for Peace and Justice (APJ) sees the MACCIH as an overall positive movement, as long as it has real autonomy and access to government information – provisions that are left vague in the current draft. Statements published by organizations including APJ, the Wilson Center, and representatives of the Indignados movement requested that a final draft contain language that explicitly grants the MACCIH independence in its investigations and full access to government information and personnel, as well as specifies that MACCIH be led by a Head of Mission above reproach and with real authority.

“To squander this opportunity by failing to put in place a meaningful body with teeth would be a mistake,” wrote Eric L. Olsen and Katherine Hyde in a report for the Wilson Center, “Simply signing a vague agreement in the hope of some future payoff is no longer a viable alternative.”

The MACCIH proposal has been through various revisions as OAS delegates met with various stakeholders in the Honduran government and civil society. Nonetheless, a scheduled December 10th signing of the agreement – set to happen in Washington – was abruptly canceled to a later date in January.

This could be a sign of political “cold feet” or the workings of further revision processes, but civil society has committed to not letting the Mission be forgotten. By continuing to discuss the needs of the Honduran people, there is hope that a proposal could further the work that has already begun of chipping away the corruption within Honduran systems.


[1] Wilson Center report
[2] InSight Crime


Friday, December 4, 2015

Scenes I Can’t Capture


I woke up early the morning we were camping. Everyone else was sleeping and only I saw the army of trees on the mountaintop come forward with their branches swaying. The sun rose behind the sheet of fog and forest and I saw it for what it was for a moment: a cool, clear disk.

This isn’t nearly right. I can feel it, what it’s supposed to convey, the sun so pale through the mist that I thought it was the moon and I stared at it until my eyes started to burn. I can hear the quiet breathing of my friends in their hammocks, see the silhouetted crest of trees, feel the damp chill of the mountain air, and the right words for all of this haven’t come yet.

---

We drive through the street markets of Comayagüela as the last light fades. The taxi rumbles, waiting for the sea of pedestrians to move aside. Everything is lit with Christmas lights. Everything is for sale, bras and leggings hanging like bunches of polyester bananas. Everything is light and noise and the choke of exhaust until the pedestrians pass and we leave it behind.

Around a quieter corner I see children, young adults, standing, facing each other. His hands are cupped around her waist and her eyes are on our taxi as we roll by. He leans across the gap between them and kisses her neck. She continues to watch us, not moving, not bending into him, her eyes round and dark like a deer’s.

I don’t have words for the sensation, the quiet epiphany, that the world is so much bigger and more colorful and complicated than I know. I feel alien. I feel ghostly, hovering over life for a second. At home the four-year-old climbs in my lap, kisses my cheek, and I am home and not home, here and far away. I don’t have the words for anything I’m feeling.

---

It’s the morning again; I can tell by the droning of the fruit and vegetable seller: licha, licha, mínimo, sandía, aguacate. It is dark still. The air is fresh and cool.

Licha, licha, mínimo, sandía, aguacate. I wake up to this and a rooster crow. The day has already started, and I am in it, quiet, watching until the light comes through my window, my alarm clock purrs, and I get up to face the day. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On a Dark Day


I saw the news scroll across the bottom of the television screen that hung above my friends’ heads – for whatever reason, the restaurant was playing the news in English. “100 hostages reported in Paris concert hall” and “40 dead” and “Explosions throughout the city.”

The number of dead and injured kept climbing on the ticker at the bottom of the screen – I couldn’t hear what the reporter was saying, but she stood on a dark street and the people running behind her looked afraid. After a few minutes, the channel changed to a soccer match and I turned back to my friends’ conversation.

That could be it. That could be my entire connection to the tragedy that is still unfolding. But it shook me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head all last night, this morning.

“Pain is one of the gifts God gives us.” From the back of my mind comes a lesson from my second or third-grade science book. I remember the picture of a girl with her hand outstretched, about to touch a hot stove. “Pain lets us know that there is a problem so that we can fix it,” and she pulls her hand back. The second picture shows her smiling, hand raised.

This morning I took a bus to a coffee shop so I could read the news – 129 dead in Paris; 352 injured, 99 in critical condition. I read friends’ posts that pointed out, rightly, that similar massacres occurred this week: in Beirut where 43 were killed and 239 injured, and in Baghdad, where 26 were killed and dozens injured.

I read posts criticizing the media for focusing on tragedies in wealthy, Western nations while ignoring these tragedies elsewhere. I remembered again that while the media runs on a news cycle, the world does not. Though I haven’t read about Syria in a few weeks, refugees still flee for their lives from the atrocities that continue to happen there. Somalian refugees still crowd into boats that cross the Mediterranean. Refugee camps in Nepal still host families who have been left stateless for two decades – the world has more or less forgotten them.

And why stop there? In Honduras more than a dozen people are murdered every day. In the United States, mass shootings erupt often enough to feel like a pattern. Around the world, violence and hatred against women and ethnic and religious minorities form a slower and subtler massacre that doesn’t prompt the same outpouring of support.

But compassion comes from a bottomless well. Praying for France does not detract from anyone’s prayers for these other tragedies; on the contrary, prayers nearly always prompt more and greater prayers, more and greater action.

Anger or judgment against those expressing pain, even if it's only changing a profile photo on Facebook, deadens our own feelings, holds our own hand to the fire.

“They can’t feel anything.” Now I remember the page in my Storybook Bible where Jesus heals the men with leprosy. They were wrapped up in bandages, almost like Lazarus stumbling out of the tomb a few pages later. “They have no feeling in their body,” I remember my mother explaining, “So when their foot gets hurt they keep walking on it and that makes the hurt worse. But then Jesus healed them and made them feel again.”

This violence is terrifying. This violence is senseless, and I use the word “senseless” as if any murder makes sense. These reports would be easier to read if my senses were deadened. They would be easier to ignore. If you feel nothing you can smile as your skin blisters, keep walking though every step cripples you more.

As a global body, we should welcome the pain we feel, knowing it is a signal to react as quickly and decisively as the girl pulls her hand from the stove. 

It is empathy, feeling others' pain, that should compel us to donate talents and time and money to counter hate and violence from our immediate neighborhoods all the way to our extremities on other parts of the globe. But more than that, it is love.

It takes a brave love to withstand this pain day after day, to resolve to not let ourselves become numb to it. We will be exhausted by this. There will be days where we think that we cannot continue.

But feeling, even pain, especially pain, is what it means to be healed.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Justice Looks Like Paperwork


It’s the end of the month, so I’m going over my budget and making sure everything is accounted for. Every purchase I’ve made all month is meticulously recorded, receipts are duly labeled, photographed, and filed in a manila folder. It’s tedious work. My spreadsheet rarely comes out right. I don’t like doing this.

My friends, family, and church donated generously through Mennonite Central Committee so that I could work here at the Association for a More Just Society, and through MCC all my expenses are paid – rent, food, transportation – as long as they’re all properly documented in my Excel sheet. Sometimes I wonder, when I enter my daily fifty-cent bus fare, whether this is all a little bit much.

But there is a reason for this sort of attentiveness, however time-consuming. In fact, I’m becoming convinced that these are the details that matter about an organization, that these records and audits and due process, as unsexy as they might seem, are actively bringing about justice.

“Transparency” and “accountability” are the mantras here in an organization that spends most of its time making sure that the government works as it’s supposed to.  It’s an uphill battle. No one thinks that they’re a crook, especially not people who have been unchallenged their whole lives. No one thinks they need the sort of accountability that exhaustive documentation provides.

Certainly a few corrupt people exploit regulatory gaps to steal millions of dollars or threaten others’ lives. But most people’s corruption looks a lot more tame. It’s clocking in twenty minutes before you actually start to work. It’s failing to get a signature. It’s signing off on something you didn’t actually do, because you’ll get to it eventually.

It’s not that any of those minor infractions breaks a system, but the culture it creates, the balance of risks and rewards it shifts, starts to strain a system to its breaking point.

The Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is Transparency International’s local chapter here, and last year signed a landmark agreement with the Honduran government that charged them, as civil society, with monitoring the transparency and anti-corruption efforts of major government ministries.

That’s how I found myself from the first day elbows deep in the Honduran Education System’s Purchasing and Contracts protocols. I translated graphs of compliance percentages and documentation delivered and began to realize why people say that the Devil’s in the details.

You can’t talk about justice on a big scale without talking about justice on a small scale. You can’t talk about education reform without making sure that it’s recorded whether your teachers actually show up to teach their classes.

Take health – Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America, and approximately 70% of its population depend on publicly-funded hospitals for all their medical care. Yet too often they’re sent home without desperately-needed medicine to treat illnesses from heart disease to schizophrenia because the hospitals don’t have the necessary medicines in stock. When I visited the hospital, doctors talked about buying extra sutures with their own money for the times when the dispensary ran out mid-surgery.

There are two ways to respond to this system that isn’t working as it should. One could create supplemental medical brigades, donate medicines from abroad and send foreign doctors, form health nonprofits or give low-interests loans to purchase medicines on the private market. Or one could go to the source, the Ministry of Health itself, and start to ask questions about why it isn’t working like it should.

Transformemos Honduras, a program of AJS, did the latter, sending request after request for the sort of official documentation that would help them see how medicine purchasing was being managed. Though Honduran law says the information should be delivered within ten days, they waited six months, during which time these justice fighters probably didn’t feel very much like heroes.

When what documentation there was began to come together, it told a bleak story. The Ministry of Health wasn’t analyzing the market to see how much medicines should cost, and it wasn’t following the purchase contract process in the way the law laid out. That meant it was paying double, triple, even seven times as much for medicines as it should. What’s worse, the companies themselves were involved in writing the purchase orders, telling the Ministry of Health what medicines it should purchase instead of the other way around.

The already-strained Ministry of Health was overpaying for medicines that weren’t even necessarily the ones that were needed. Even worse, some of these medicines were never delivered, while others were delivered in unacceptable quality – after audits started, auditors found some medicines infected with bacteria, while others were delivered with only four of their 11 essential ingredients.

The story gets even worse – the warehousing government medicines was run by a woman who appeared to use the stash as her personal piggybank, forging medicine orders and selling the excess, mismanaging the disorganized warehouse so that expensive pills were left to spoil while people in hospitals died for lack of drugs.

In 2013, Transformemos Honduras presented their report, which was numbers and percentages and all the little pieces of methodology that sometimes seem unimportant. The effect was electric. The Honduran government immediately removed the director from her position. She, along with other wealthy, powerful people would eventually face consequences -- caught in their corruption by a missing trail of paperwork.

It’s not always fun or exciting to sift through hundreds of spreadsheets or file the government forms that will give you access to hundreds more. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. We need to realize that investment in “unsexy” work like social audits and performance reviews is foundational to creating systems that serve the most vulnerable well, and that transparency and accountability aren’t just buzzwords, they’re building blocks to better systems.

Working at AJS, I’m empowered to be a part of civil society’s oversight of government systems. But transparency and accountability touch my own life as well. It matters that I account for the money I spend, that I’m willing to be as open with my use of others’ funds as I want the government to be with their’s.

So I stare at the expense column in front of me. I write my daily 50 cents under the appropriate column in my expense spreadsheet, hit save, and then hit send. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why I Don’t Recycle


I.

I used to recycle religiously. My environmental-scientist roommate helped me learn how to twist off caps, tear off labels, and flatten plastic cartons. We kept our recycling in a big wicker basket, and every other week we would empty the paper and bottles into a bin and drag it to the curb to be picked up, trucked off, sorted, and crushed – remade.

I don’t do that anymore. I throw plastic bottles in with cardboard in with banana peels almost like I don’t believe that the damage we are doing to our planet is irreversible. It’s not that I don’t believe in recycling and not that I don’t want to do it – but the systems that are in place around me simply aren’t set up in a way that makes it possible.

The fact is that recycling as I thought of it in Michigan doesn’t really exist in Honduras. There are no wicker baskets, and definitely no curb-side bins. Instead, at the end of the week, my host dad will drive our bags of trash to the single dumpster that serves our entire hillside community. 

For people who don’t have a vehicle and can’t make the walk down the steep hill with their bags of trash, the street has to do. Throwing garbage in the streets is not a good thing – but for many it’s the only real option. Throwing things away, let alone recycling, isn’t a moral decision, it’s a practical one.

It’s impossible to understand individual behavior without understanding the systems that provoke it, the balance of costs and benefits that always lead people to consider or decline actions.

In the United States, I didn’t recycle because I was a better person than the people who live here in Honduras – I recycled because it was easy, because single-stream recycling and curb-side pick-up tipped the balance of costs and benefits so far towards recycling that one would have to be actively against recycling not to do it.

I could judge Hondurans for not making the same decisions I used to make in the United States – but that would be ignoring the fact that our decisions aren’t actually the same at all.

I don’t recycle here because I can’t recycle here. Because of the lack of any recycling system, because of the way that materials are reused in different ways, no one would blame me. As I realized this, I started to think about other systems, how decisions I think people should be making may not actually be a meaningful option for them.

II.

In Honduras, about 4% of murders result in an arrest, leaving an astonishing 96% impunity rate for homicides. Victims of crimes don’t always report them to the police, witnesses of crimes don’t testify, and dangerous criminals are left on the street.

The answer to this seems obvious – people should report crimes, lawyers should prosecute them, and judges should punish them. Yet Honduras’s justice system is riddled with roadblocks and dangers that generally mean involvement carries a much higher cost than benefit.

How could I tell people here that they need to cooperate with the justice system when doing so means risking death threats for themselves and their families? Witnesses have been shot for cooperating, their names revealed by corrupt police officers. Lawyers have been assassinated for standing up to the wrong people. Bribes and rampant bias mean that the wealthy and powerful are far less likely to be charged with a crime, let alone convicted of it, while the poor have none of these protections.

The fact that Hondurans don’t often bring cases to be prosecuted is not a problem of apathy, of laziness, or of disinterest – it is a structural problem that keeps everyone from equal access to justice. The balance of costs and benefits is warped – the choice to trust a broken system isn’t a meaningful choice.

It works the other way too – the costs of standing up against corruption are high, but the costs of corruption itself might be quite low. Without justice systems that regularly prosecute corruption, the scales are tipped again, leading people who in other situations would follow the rules to decide the benefits of crime are too attractive to ignore.

Context matters. Attaching moral significance to systemic failures too often blames the most vulnerable for their own problems. In the United States, it’s easy to feel moral superiority for doing things – recycling, eating organic, getting a college education, even trusting police officers – that simply aren’t meaningful choices for others.

These decisions aren’t always up to individuals. If we believe that eating organic is important, we need to do more than tell people to do so, we need to invest in making this food cheaper and more accessible. Valuing higher education means changing patterns of costs and benefits so that it’s a real option for students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background. Increasing trust in police means ensuring that their interactions with people of all backgrounds are equally above reproach.

People aren’t always going to make the same decisions as me. Sometimes this is because they disagree with me – they don’t think recycling is important, they’re attracted by the corruption’s apparent benefits. But more often than I realize, there is no real decision for them to make.

I don’t want to say that what is good or what is right should be easy. But what is good should be possible, and it should be possible for everyone. Individual choices matter, but what matters more is the existence of choice in the first place.

That is part of why I get so excited about the work we do here. It is more than throwing a single can in a recycling bin. It is more than throwing a single person in prison. It is a fundamental readjustment of entire systems of benefits and costs, making it easier to do what is good and harder to break the rules – giving everyone the real opportunity to make choices that are better for them and better for our world..  

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Bodies We're In

Back before I cared about pesky things like brushing my hair or ever changing out of my favorite t-shirt
“You’re only 21?” the teenage girl asked, her eyes sliding up and down me. She barely came up to my shoulder – I could have closed my fingers around her slender arms. “American vitamins,” she marveled under her breath.

I am tall here in Honduras, and not just tall, big. Hondurans, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s a common occurrence for me to look eye-to-eye with men and tower a full head over other women.

Hondurans aren’t shy, either, about calling attention to size. “Gordita,” or chubby, is tossed around affectionately. I knew a stout little boy called “Gordo.”

“But what do you really want to be called?” I asked him.

“Gordo,” he said, looking at me oddly.

I am gordita here. When I went looking for jeans, I picked out a pair in my size and could barely pull them over my thighs in the dressing room. I came out and asked my friend if it was possible they were mislabeled. “Well, they’re not American sizes,” she said, and I reddened at the implication.

I can’t help it. I know better, but I still wish I was small and thin like the women I see every day, more deft with makeup, more in tune with fashion, less mottled white by my sunburn’s uneven peeling.

It’s harder, too, because for the first time everyone’s eyes are on me. Men stare blatantly on the bus. “Chela,” they shout, which means white or pale, “Gringa,” “Hermosa,” or whatever English phrases they remember  – “I love you,” usually.

I wonder, helplessly, if I wore pants instead of skirts, tied my hair back tighter, wore clothes that were older or looser if the attention would lessen. This is exactly why I hate those catcalls so much; because they make me start thinking that they are somehow my own fault. 

And so I’m torn both ways, wanting to be thinner and prettier and more polished, and wanting to be plain enough to be invisible, to walk to work just one day without the being shouted at. Perhaps some of the things the men say are compliments, but they don’t feel like it. They just make me more conscious of the way my hair frizzes in the humidity, my freckled nose, the weight in my legs that wasn’t there when I started college.

I always write when I have a question – I write to arrive at an answer. The easy answer would be, but Kate, you are pretty, or but Kate, you’re not that big, absolving me of one or two fears and leaving the door open for one hundred more.

What I want to say instead is that others’ perception of the way my body looks doesn’t affect the way my body works. It doesn’t affect the writing I do at work or the friendships I cultivate afterwards. It doesn’t affect the miracle of sustaining life that my body manages to perform every day. Leave the question of whether I'm pretty or fat or neither or both aside – would it matter if I was?

Bodies are incredible. I marvel at the thousands of sequences of effortless movements logged in my muscle memory, the twisting of hair into a french braid, the tying of a shoelace, the way I grip a pencil. I marvel at the way my fingers curl around a guitar’s neck, the way I breathe without thinking about it, the way the scar on my knee turned pink and then white and then so smooth I can barely find it.

These are the bodies that we have; we fill them up with ourselves. Things like slenderness and prettiness, however that’s defined, certainly exist, but they’re only a piece of a marvelous whole. It’s the whole that matters, not the shout of a stranger on a crowded corner or a well-meaning joke from a friend.

Our bodies don’t make us remarkable – we make our bodies remarkable. And when I think of remarkable people, I think of every shape and size and color, every level of ability and disability.

It’s not that beauty or size isn’t a question – it’s just not half as interesting as the other question: Who cares how it looks, what are you going to do with it?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Beholden, Be Held!


When the world was created, God said, “Behold!” and we were beholden, forever unable to repay the debt. “It is very good,” he smiled nonetheless and he held it up to admire.

---

“Sit, Kati, I’ll bring you your breakfast,” Doña Juana says and I sit and watch her scramble eggs. She is blind in one eye and her legs are stiff. I jump up when she falters on the step but she does not spill even a drop of my coffee.

“Let me get it,” I beg her, though she always says no. I feel uncomfortable. After so much kindness I feel beholden, though I don’t know what to offer more than what I already pay in room and board.

I wonder what I should do, how I could uphold my side of the bargain. Should in Spanish is “debe,” from the Latin debere. Debe also means must and it also means owe though in terms of repayment my obligation falls somewhere debe and could if I wanted to – no one is really asking.

What is it I would have – equal acounts? Refusing those kindnesses I can’t repay? To let others serve you is itself a type of kindness, to refuse that help a type of pride. I don’t want to debe but I forget that there is no must attatched to receiving, that Doña Juana’s service is as free as grace and equally unearned.

When we eat together she talks about God’s faithfulness. He has given her more, she says, than she can ever repay. “He has sustained me,” she tells me, and the word she uses could also be translated held: “I only pray that he helps me to care for you and the other students well.”

It dawns on me like the dawn does here – I awake and there is light – that we are drawing from infinite accounts. Obligation turns sweet, from I should, I must to I may, I get to, our debts paradoxical: the easy burden, the light yoke.

Together we are beholden to each other, held up by each other’s service and fixed on each other’s needs. In my weakness I take freely; in my strength, then I will give.

Behold!” they will say, when they see this – “How beautiful it is!”

In the Strength You Have


“The angel of the LORD came down and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abierzrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.’”  – Judges 6:11-12

At the Association for a More Just Society where I work we’re exhorted to be “brave Christians” and to “love fearlessly,” with an active love. This ignites me but it also scares me a little because it’s hard to think of myself as valiant. If the angel of the LORD came down he’d know all the times I didn’t speak up when I should have; he’d know I climbed to the top of that cliff by the river and just stood and watched while everyone else dove in.

I get excited about justice in theory, but too often I’d rather thresh my wheat in a winepress where it’s safer, where I can hide my work until it’s finished and no one will come to challenge me, to threaten, to rob, or to steal.

“‘Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.’” – Judges 6:13

“You have to know something about Honduras,” my ten-year-old host brother tells me, “Don’t go out after dark. Don’t talk on your phone in the street. Don’t stop to count your money. Just keep walking.”

He and his brother watch television with passive curiosity as it shows another murder in the streets. The camera pans in close. Blood flows from the drug-runner’s hair onto the pavement as police circle around him. He was only a boy.

This doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like a twisted accident that I was born in health and safety that so many can only dream about. At night I hear the lusty voices of church members singing to Him who is “all-powerful, great, and majestic” and I wonder if He is there with them, and if so, why some of their children go to bed hungry.

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14

I forget how God works: that on earth his hands and feet and hearts and mouths are called to knit themselves together and to act.

I’m not here to save the world, I say, and sometimes smugly, because I perceive that condescending zeal in others. But, why am I here, then, if not to use what strength I have? Why am I here if not because I felt sent? Every day I read reports of corruption in Honduras’ Education System, Security System, Property Institute, and if my small notations and translations help to shake that it is good that I am here.

I have no delusions of being a savior; in fact, I am painfully aware of the harmfulness of that mindset. But servants, too, can be sent, in what strength they have.

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel?” My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”  – Judges 6:15

Why choose me to do anything when better choices exist? There will always be others who are quicker and smarter than I. They will speak better Spanish, write better, and faster; they will be funnier, even, and know how to cook. Why do anything, then, if someone else could do it better?

Because others don’t do it and it needs to be done. This is how I found myself unexpectedly leading worship, writing editorials, teaching English. Skill matters, of course, but not nearly as much as willingness.

The LORD answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.”  – Judges 6:16

We ask why injustice happens in this world and the answer isn’t an answer but a command – Go.

The least of us will lead the march, and the LORD will be with us, behind us, before us. And we march on with a promise – that it is justice that wins in the end. 

Speaking Spanish


“How’s your Spanish?,” friends ask me, “Are you getting fluent?,” and I don’t know how to answer because one minute I’m translating a dense legal document and the next I can’t understand someone asking me for the time.

There are things I love about Spanish, and in my best moments, it rolls out of my mouth. Most often, however, my speech is stilted and strange and scattered with, “Can you repeat that?”s, and strange Spanglish constructions like, “Fue como, like, supercool.”

I was excited, in the beginning, to be surrounded completely by the language I was learning. I spoke Spanish even with North American colleagues, stayed up late watching Spanish movies and listening to Spanish music and begged my housemates to teach me new Honduran slang.

It’s in the last week that I began to miss English fiercely. I crave its round sounds and ridiculous clusters of letters, its depth and delightful preciseness. I miss more than the ability to communicate – I miss the tools of my trade. I had always prided myself on writing and speaking well, and suddenly I was handed different tools to use; they felt cumbersome and did not fit well in my hands. 

I love Spanish in the mouths of other people, but in my mouth it still feels strange and ungainly. I know how words are supposed to sound, but I can’t quite form them. I forget important words just as I need to use them. I can ask directions and order food but I lack the words to express new insights, dreams, and passions – I still pray in English.

I have never been good at the sort of light small-talk one shares with coworkers and acquaintances, and in Spanish I am even worse. I can ask a specific question about a chart on a report, but my tongue goes into knots when someone asks about my weekend. I am quieter here.  

In English I was always the student in the front row with her hand up. If a thought came into my head, it would burn on my tongue until I had said it. I would fidget, sometimes, with the weight of my thoughts. It was as if they didn’t exist until I had spoken them aloud. I thought quickly, often out loud, talking over and around others and seizing on debates.

I can’t do that in Spanish. I listen more, nod in silence more, laugh more at other people’s jokes. I am in a position of learning, not sharing, and passive reception. I do not set the stage. This can be frustrating to me, maddening, even, but it is humbling, and that humbleness is good.

The other day I was speaking to a friend about my frustrations, and she said, in Spanish, “Don’t worry, you already speak bastante,” “Bastante” means “enough,” but also “more than enough, a lot,” and even in my worst moments that’s true. I don’t speak fluent Spanish or perfect Spanish, but I speak bastante Spanish, enough to understand and be understood – enough to start. 

Something-American


One-quarter English, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German, I would tell people if they asked me, but this strange genealogical math doesn’t account for the 1/132nds of Danish and French and all the unregistered names through the hundreds of years my mother’s mothers have been in the United States

I’m just American, I used to shrug. There were African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and then there was me, it seemed, the garden variety American, with nothing for my hyphen to hitch itself to.

There must have been a point where my ancestors made the switch, swapped their hyphens for a new descriptor – White – Scots and Brits and Germans swimming in the melting pot that traded identity for privilege. They lost the Irish temper and stepped into a culture ready-made for them, one stained with legends of superiority and lies about what they deserved.

An unwritten trade, but a trade it was, and as their daughter’s daughter I feel no kinship with the heritage they left. It always felt easier to define myself by what I was not, and so I checked the boxes: Caucasian/White. Not Hispanic. I am not Black; I am not European; I am not Asian; I am not ethnic, I lied to myself, I am the blank palette, white like a coloring book, or like rising dough, not yet baked.

In cultural exchanges, I always felt I had nothing to offer. My ancestors had already gone before and opened their arms, spreading out diseased blankets and hatchets and hoes, burning their language into people’s throats and their religion into people’s hearts and I walked behind them, their current slapping against my knees.

I am the daughter of my father and my mother. They are White like I am, just White, one-quarter English, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German, but only if you ask them. They passed on to me skin that blisters in the sun, a freckling nose, and yellow hair. They passed on their faith and their optimism, their value of books, hard work, and education, their stubbornness and their pragmatism, and also the advantages they have in renting a house, in being offered a job, in walking fearlessly down streets at night.

I never felt a pull of heritage more strongly than when I left my country. I am White, and my color means I must be from the U.S. (they also yell “Gringa!” at the girls from Denmark). I am conspicuous here and people are curious here, which means for the first time I am asked to describe my culture, to own my culture, to represent a country that is more diverse than I can explain.

Two hundred years ago the immigrants that were my father’s fathers came to a country that asked them to leave behind what made them different. Here today, as an immigrant, or a visitor at least, my culture is valued, sometimes more than the culture here. What power that speaks to – how far the culture my ancestors adopted has spread.

It’s a spool I’m still unraveling, this grappling with what it means to be who I am and where I’m from. But I no longer see myself as the default, and that is the beginning. I cannot lie and pretend I am not shaped by my heritage, even if what was once ethnicity has been ameliorated into something tamer and broader, suburbs and college loans, lunchmeat sandwiches with iceberg lettuce and casseroles made from canned soup.

History continues to exist even as time moves forward. Though we are not defined by the distant past we are certainly shaped by it, I have been shaped by it, and to know it well is to know better who I am.