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In the Highlands, Hope

\nBoing Boing's Xeni Jardin reports on reactions to Obama in a Guatemalan village.

I have been traveling to Mayan villages in Guatemala with my father since I was a teenager. First, to accompany him during cultural and language research project, later, as a blogger and reporter, and most recently, to work on a nonprofit foundation he started with local Mayan community leaders. The organization works to promote cultural and economic sustainability, and implements appropriate, non-environmentally-damaging technology to solve basic needs: the lack of clean water, energy, cooking fuel.The village where we spend most of our time is high in the altiplano, above Lake Atitlán, in the Sololá area. There are no black people here. Nor are there white people, other than occasional missionaries and Peace Corps workers. In fact, I don't think there are really any ladinos (the Guatemalan term for people who consider themselves more Spanish than Indian) here. There are only K'iche Mayan people here.They are extremely poor. Hunger and malnutrition are widespread. So are diseases caused by unclean water. Often, moms cannot afford the most basic medical care for sick kids, and the kids die of completely preventable or curable diseases. Many-maybe even most-of the adult men leave to seek work in the United States. Many of them die along the way.
So, despite many years visiting their homes and sharing their difficult life experiences, we were surprised by their reaction to the Obama election. It was of great symbolic importance. That sudden jolt of aspiration felt around the world? It struck here. Hard. It meant hope. It meant a renewed belief in change, for a people who have survived natural disasters, racism, and 36 years of civil war that many describe as the Mayan genocide. If a black man can enter the Casa Blanca, they are saying, maybe a Mayan person can one day become president of Guatemala. Maybe we will live to see a true democracy here, the thinking goes-a government that represents the rights of Guatemala's First People, instead of representing their destruction.There are no landline phones in this village. Some heads of households have cellphones (the inexpensive kind, called "frijoles," because they're cheap and bean-shaped), but not everyone has even this basic connectivity. Don Victoriano, the local leader of the international nonprofit, travels to the one nearby internet cafe once a week or so, and pays a few quetzales to correspond with us over a Hotmail account. On November 3, we received an email which read (I'll translate from the Spanish and K'iche here):"We are preoccupied with concern over the elections in your country. We are praying for you, so that your country doesn't suffer such a horrible depresiòn caused by bad governments. We hope in Ajaw [the Mayan creator god] that Obama wins. I don't know how you feel, but that's how we feel."To understand why Don Victoriano and others felt such intense preoccupation with what happens in America, all you need to do is look at the walls in their homes. They are covered with snapshots of sons who left. These concrete block houses were built in haste by NGOs after a hurricane caused a mass migration to this barren, high-altitude spot. An internal refugee camp became a permanent settlement. On those concrete walls, in nearly every home, there are snapshots of Mayan men standing in North American restaurant kitchens, or holding carpentry tools, or surrounded by other elements of hard labor: they are K'iche sons who've left for el Norte, because surviving in their homeland has become impossible.One young man from the village went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to work on reconstruction efforts. It's dangerous, hard work. Compañeros are often injured on the job, but have no health care or legal protection. They're like slaves. He sends home Mardi Gras beads to his child, with handwritten notes. His son pins them to the wall.

So, what happens in America happens to Guatemala. Two days after that earlier email about the elections, Don Victoriano returned to the cibercafé to send "An Urgent Message of Congratulations for the Presidential Elections."We believe that Ajaw has heard our prayers for America, because we know very well the difficult situation in our world right now. May the creator bless Barack Obama, the future president of the USA, who, in his hands, will carry the destiny of this huge and powerful country. We chapines [Guatemalans], we've been so concerned about the situation in America, because what happens in America affects us deeply and immediately, economically.But today, America has achieved what so many have dreamed and died for, for so many years.I heard the acceptance speech of Obama, at four in the morning when I turned on the little battery-powered radio I have here. And I had the tremendous surprise of hearing the news that Barack Obama won by 58%.Maybe now we do not see races, or the color of the person. What is important is peace, liberty, and harmony so that we may all have the power to work. I, and my family-it made us so happy. And we give a triumphant hug to each other as if we were norteamericanos, because it made us so happy in our hearts.Next Thursday we're going to have a Mayan ceremony, with the mamas and the niños, to give thanks to the Creator for this triumph, and for his spouse and two children. I believe this is the first Afroamericano who has arrived in the White House. Only Ajaw could have made this possible. May the creator bless him, and guide his decisions so that he makes good ones.I hope he makes good decisions, too.Xeni Jardin is a Boing Boing tv host and executive producer, and Boing Boing blog co-editor living in Los Angeles, CA.Photos by Xeni Jardin

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