It is an unusual experience to step outside of your own corner of the world and into someone else's. It's as if it takes a diversion from your well-worn path to make you lift your eyes up and remember that there is a world outside of yourself.
Currently, I am in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (known locally as Xela), with a crew of young filmmakers who have gathered here to make documentary films. We've known each other only a couple of weeks, but already are drawn together by our common passion for real and personal storytelling. My crew and I have had the honor of working with an organization called Xela Aid, which is located in San Martin - a town high up in the mountains that is literally level with the clouds. Here, the people hold on to the traditional Mayan culture, which has been passed down over many generations. They speak the language "Mam," and the women wear traditional clothing of brightly colored hand-woven skirts and blouses. Many of the people in San Martin make a living farming land that seems just about vertical, growing potatoes and other crops on mountainsides without the use of tractors or any other heavy machinery. Most certainly, tradition is an important part of the culture.
The Xela Aid organization was founded in 1992 to provide education and health resources to men, women, and children who live in the surrounding areas. Through the donations of sponsors, they provide education for children from preschool age up through college. Part of their services include free yearly medical and dental check-ups for the children and their parents, as well as free eye exams and reading glasses for those who need them. They have established a water sanitation program that provides water filters for families without means for clean water, as well as extensive mental health and therapy programs.
One of the most important missions Xela Aid has taken on, however, is the empowerment of women.
At the top of a steep hill, looking out over the farmland of San Martin, sits a small orange building where a group of Mayan women display their hand-made weavings. Through the help of Xela Aid, these women gain a source of income from selling their works locally to tourists, as well as overseas in the United States. This income not only helps them to provide for their families, but also provides a vital means for them to be financially self-sufficient apart from their husbands. In many Mayan households, women are economically dependent upon their husbands because it is very difficult for them to get a job outside of the home. This creates families in which wives are restricted to the role of being a mother, cook, maid, and overall servant to the needs of their husbands, often lending to the abuse of women and girls on many different levels. This concept of men's superiority over women is called "machismo."
My crew and I have spent the past two weeks getting to know the hardworking people who make up Xela Aid - from the teachers to the students to the doctors to the women weavers. There is no doubt that this organization is made up of people with a raw, pure, and common passion for helping one another. As it happens, a passion such as this is all that is needed to create real and meaningful change in people's lives. As a team, we have decided to focus our documentary on one woman whose life has changed drastically since becoming involved at Xela Aid. She is now the leader of the women weavers, as well as a single mother to seven children. As we begin the filming process next week, we hope to portray this woman's experience in a way that can help to empower other women who face similar situations, as well as continue the conversation about machismo and the work Xela Aid is doing to diminish this mindset.
My time in Guatemala so far has been an eye-opening and thought-provoking experience that I already feel is molding my future. As a documentary filmmaker, there is nothing more satisfying for me than to listen to the intricate stories of other people's lives. Something in the deepest part of my heart is moved by the knowledge and understanding of other cultures and ways of life. It is hard for me to express in words the kind of joy it is to experience the beauty of diversity firsthand and to connect with others on a human level, though our lives may be drastically different. I think there is something in our very beings - the way we watch, the way we listen, the way we smile - that sees no barriers between cultures. How wonderful it is to realize we are not so different from one another as we first appear to be.