9 Questions About Living Elsewhere

1. Where did you live and for how long?
I lived in Tucson for two years, which counts because really it is like Mexico with malls and lots of white people.
I lived in Valencia, Spain for a year.
I lived and worked in southern Mexico, mostly Chiapas, and Guatemala for two years.

2. What made you decide to go there?
Tucson to study Creative Writing
I moved to Valencia because I got a job teaching English and I could study Spanish and live near the Mediterranean

I worked as a long-term volunteer for Witness for Peace in Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Originally I had hoped to work in Nicaragua but after an 11-page single-spaced application, a three-hour bilingual interview and a three-week in-country training, I was accepted for the Guatemalan refugee program and then told I was going to be working in Chiapas. This was in the summer of 1993, six months before the Zapatista uprising. Chiapas was considered a cush and kind of slow location to be.

3. Did you have to lie to enter the country?
I never had a problem crossing the border between Guatemala and Mexico until about a year after the Zapatista uprising. The southern border patrol was staffed by the stereotypical kind of overweight mustached bureaucrats you'd expect but over the course of 1994, those men were gradually replaced with thinner, well educated men who constantly asked questions. So instead of getting the standard 90-day visas that all Americans and Europeans get, I would get 15-day visas, which meant I had to the border and dodge more and more questions. And they got to know my face which really sucked and meant that I had to travel four hours out of my way to another border crossing.

4. Were you/are you legal? Plan on becoming so?
To work in Mexico you needed an FM-3 visa, which our group could not get. Witness for Peace worked as an ecumenical nongovernmental organization openly in many countries, but not in Mexico. They tried early on and then just set up shop.

5. How did you/do you make money? Did you go there with a job or have to find one?
In Tucson I studied, worked and wrote (mostly poetry). In Spain I taught English, studied Spanish, drank lots of espresso and talked a lot and wrote a bit (mostly fiction).

In Mexico I had a stipend and free rent and travel and food and travel back to the states after a year. Our job was basically to accompany the refugees back to the areas they were chased out of by the Guatemalan military in the 80s. So on the Mexico side, we would travel around the camps and get to know the various organizations and refugees. We also hosted delegations of (North) Americans who came down during, just before or after returns. The idea was based on the organization's experience in Nicaragua, where if groups of Americans showed up in a village, the US-funded contras would not attack them. Basically using the Latin American murder maxim of 1 American = 10 priests = 100 peasants against the fascist forces who were not ready for peace.

6. Was housing easy/difficult?
We had a great little cozy two-bedroom house in Comitán, Mexico, a cement block two-story house in downtown Guatemala City, a tiny bedroom of a house we rented in Huehuetenango, and a small and dank and dusty house-room in Santiago Atitlán, a village so smoky and dusty that when my sister came to visit we had to leave on the last boat across Lake Atitlán because her allergies were so bad.

7. Was the language a problem?
In Spain, I was learning. Young people were patient but sometimes older, working-class people would get frustrated by my accent.

The peasant Spanish of Guatemalans took some getting used to. Strange words like chompipe (turkey), colocho (curly-haired), chuchito (puppy) were a few. But once you get the vocab and weird peasant grammar down, they speak slowly and are easier to understand the expression-filled crystal-meth Spain Spanish or Caribbean Spanish speakers. Mexico has its own insane expressions and I feel like I'd have to live there 50 years to be able to understand their fast-paced verbal jokiness. I'd fake it a bit and get their attention. If you can do weird faces and physical humor along with key expressions, man you are in.

Most of the refugees I worked with spoke one of a number of Mayan languages, the most common being Quiché , Kekchi, Mam, Jacalteco, and about 20 others. Some are intelligible to each other and some are as different as Russian and Sanskrit. Most of the men spoke Spanish but lots of the women spoke only their indigenous languages. And when we visited villages, the men were working in the fields most of the day so we'd have the children and women to talk with. Xijonte (shee-hone-tay) means Thanks in the Mam language. The response is Xijonte a Dios. Thanks to God.

8. Favorite things/worst things about the place?
Tucson the best was a diner that closed called I think the Round-up. The saguaro cacti in the desert and the fact that the switcheable middle lanes of the streets are called suicide lanes and the main drag is called Speedway. The worst was the awful clone frat/sorority scene, but they become invisible after a while.

Valencia was the great walks I had to work through the Barrio del Carmen. And the mazcletás, which are the insane noise bombs they blow up at 2pm for the two weeks or so before the Fallas festival. The Fallas is maybe worth seeing but is really kind of awful. There are all these caricature floats they build and then set on fire all over the city. Every street has fireworks thrown and rained down upon from windows and there are millions of tourists. It's kind of apocalyptically awful.

Guatemala: my favorite moment was riding on the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of refugees across this beautiful green mountainy kind of road and stopping at a small pyramid of all things, which was right across the road from where a fairly major massacre had taken place in 1983. I felt like I was in the exact right place I needed to be. My worst moment was feverishly squatting and hanging my giardia-ridden bare ass over a flooded to the top latrine hole while trying not to pass out. Then I took my flashlight and shined it on the nasty brown water and saw tiny white worms squirming and swimming on the surface.

My best couple days in Mexico came when we went to Mexico City for meetings and I stayed in Miguel Covarrubias old studio, stayed up all night watching the movie Reds, the next day took the subway as far as it would go to the Barranca del Muerte (Cliff of Death) to go to an authentic New York bagel restaurant and had my first bagel in a year or so which was served by a sarcastic and really cute waitress from Veracruz.

9. Any good stories about it or advice for others following?
Learn Spanish, it's fucking awesome. Even if it gets crunky, you can always get it back. Or Arabic, that's my fantasy language I'd like to learn. Japanese might be helpful. The problem with Chinese is which one: Mandarin or Cantonese. And then there are a bunch of other ones. Maybe French for the 60s movies. German for Fassbinder.

 

- Jim Finn