Friday, July 21, 2017

This morning Jenny’s family feasted on opossum for breakfast, thanks to her strong and swift arm.

(She is, after all, our town’s home-run champ.) When she heard that a marauding opossum was stealing the mangoes from our trees before they could ripen, she offered to liberate the trees from the intruder. As a bonus, she could provide some much-needed protein for her family.

So she arrived last night - slingshot, son, and flashlight in hand. Within minutes of scampering up and down the trees, a dead opossum was dangling from her son’s hands.

Two years ago, none of my neighbors would think of feasting on opossum. This morning, any one of them would be glad to trade places with Jenny’s family.

Back then, my problem with mangoes was their abundance. Kids and birds had their fill, but I still couldn’t cart enough rotting ones to the compost pile before the flies descending upon them. Today I almost take inventory before they ripen, assigning them mentally to my priority mango recipients - always the youngest ones: Lucia, Chachi, Yeiverly, Neka… They are the ones whose weight loss worries the most.

Jenny lives on the other side of the pine trees I planted 20 years ago as a border between her family’s land and mine. At the time, my goal was to hide the pigsties that her dad Vicente kept in that corner of his land. But as the trees shot up – triple the size of others I have planted elsewhere - my affection for Vicente’s pigs grew in proportion to their daily contributions to my trees’ gigantic growth.

The pigs are now gone, the final one slaughtered a few months ago. Vicente used to collect the pigs’ food on his way home from work each day, leftovers from the vegetable markets and restaurants in town. Today there are no leftovers. And besides, Vicente’s car has joined the fleet of the towns’ aging relics, unable to move without functioning tires or battery.

When we first arrived Palo Verde, some 22 years ago, Jenny hopped over the young pine trees the minute we drove up our dirt road on Saturday mornings. While David and I cleared the massive weed sprawl of our newly acquired land and planted trees, Jenny led games of stick ball or tag with my three kids, always bounding with friendly energy.

Today those pine trees provide shade for daily conversations where Jenny and I hold court, each onone side of the rickety chicken wire fence. The sound of the wind stirring the pine needles, the cool air under their canopy, and the perfume of pine resin feels like a reprieve from the heat of this nation, ablaze in conflict, hunger, anger, frustration. Jenny and I never hurry in our conversations.

Inevitably, it is one of her three kids who call me to the fence each day. Elisa!!!!! Ven a la cerca!
How many treasures pass over that fence daily. From Jenny’s side, black beans or potatoes scrounged from nearby fields, hot soup made of pumpkin and oregano, green banana arepas. From my side guamas and guavas, mangoes and mamones, limes and lemongrass.

From both sides so much love and nourishment of the body soul. The absolute affirmation that we are in this together and will not let each other fall.

This morning the international news is filled with scenes from yesterday’s national strike in Venezuela. Battles with Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters.

The real Venezuela is the fence that connects, not divides, Jenny and me. For all my 34 years in Venezuela, I have survived and thrived because of the solidarity of those next door, across the street, down the road. It took a village to raise my children, and I see in them the community spirit that enveloped them with love and radiates forward with generosity. Venezuelans are, by their nature, a people of deep solidarity, affection, connection.

I call out in my dreams for all Venezuelans to put down their sticks and stones, guns and gas, and come to this fence. Gather beneath the cool of pine trees. Feel the breeze and smell the sweet resin. Stand in awe of this gorgeous land so that – together – we may heal it.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Yesterday, half of the participants of our youth exchange weekend didn’t show up, because they were looting.

They were the half who live in the city of Barquisimeto. The other half were kids from my little town of Palo Verde. It was meant to be Part Two of a rural-urban youth exchange that began last month.

I have known the looters since they were 8 years old, when I lived and worked in their barrio as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner. They are now in their last year of high school, just weeks from graduation.

I taught them as kids to play the cuatro and my partner taught them to play the drums. We formed a musical group called Los Zagalines de San Juan.

One summer when my artist-daughter Maia was home visiting from college, she helped the kids paint a colorful mural. It sprawled across the outside wall of the cultural center – the kids’ second home. The title of the mural was: Este es el barrio que sonamos. This is the barrio we dream of. Kites, trees, mangoes, kids, and pink and turquoise houses lit up the wall.

As I look back, I wonder how we didn’t realize then that the barrio we dreamed of was already a reality. Every single kid I knew was in school, universities were free and abundant and nearby, and any profession seemed within reach of anyone. Food was so subsidized, it was practically free. A former Maryknoll colleague joked in her visit that it seemed that for every year of Chavez’s presidency, people had gained a kilo. Medical care was free and around the corner. Community councils distributed everything from light bulbs to internet satellite dishes, for nothing. Even houses were free for those who needed one.

Venezuela was about seven years into the revolution at that point in time. We never ever dreamed of the backwards slide that awaited.

My young future looting friends remained on the straight-and-narrow throughout the decade that followed. They steered away from drugs and gangs , became wicked good drummers. They rose through the ranks of the cultural center’s vacation program, first as participants, then as facilitators, then full fledged counselors. Younger kids dreamed of being just like them. Parents thanked them for their dedication.

Thursday evening the bedlam began. Ledys and I had come to the barrio to visit his dad. We got out just as the National Guard post was going up in smoke. We skirted past road blocks of burning tires, trash and glass, and dodged a shooting spree between the Guard and protesters.

No one can explain just how the situation dissolved into looting. We started receiving calls from friends in the barrio around 8 pm, then at 10, at midnight and into the wee hours. Dozens of food stores in the commercial strip of the barrio had their windows and walls smashed. Word spread and what seemed like the whole barrio descended upon the goods, clearing the shelves with amazing proficiency.

When the smoke cleared – literally - some 24 hours later, we received a call from the coordinator of the cultural center. Four people from the community were dead and one of the kids from center was caught red-handed and jailed. After hearing our shock, he informed us that at about a dozen of the youth leaders were involved in looting.

For every year that has past since Chavez’ death, those extra gained kilos have been shed. And maybe two or three or four times more times as many more. These kids - my Zagalines, my muralists, my drummers, my camp counselors, my dreamers. They have become walking skeletons. Their crime this past weekend was that of hunger.

When it was clear that road blocks made it impossible for the looting contingent to join the gathering, we decided to go continue, with half the participants. We played games in the grass, we went on a walk to the nearby farm to collect dried bean pods, we held a scavenger hunt as the shadows of the mountains closed in on us. We ate arepas made of green bananas and sang around an improvised campfire. Everyone stayed up well past the midnight curfew.

But the core of the gathering – the exchange part -the part where the rural kids were to share with their urban cohorts about their food gardens, well , that part was put on standby. Just as the soul of this nation remains on standby.

And as we went to bed with half of our participants missing, so Venezuela goes to bed with half of its participants missing, missing the food their bodies need.

When and how will this end. That is the question on my lips as I arise with the sun each day , to plant yet another banana plant. It is the question on my heart as I fold my arms around these young and skinny bodies who come to help, startled by their strength and resilience. It is the question in my soul as I lay my own weary body down each night, after calling out to the stars and to the heavens for guidance.

Monday, June 19, 2017

One of my life’s big dreams was just fulfilled, albeit fifty years late.

Five decades after being sure that I couldn’t possibly live one SECOND longer without a horse, I finally own one.

I should have named my new horse Manguera, which means hose in Spanish, since I got him by trading irrigation hoses for horse with my neighbor Lelo who needed to water his new corn field. But since “Manguera” doesn’t quite have a ring to it, I decided to call him Mistico.

Mistico was delivered to me by Yeiverly – age 7 months – riding regally atop this lovely black horse, led by her parents – Bebe and Yelimar, ages 17 and 18. Good choices for delivering dreams. These are two of the most dignified people I know.

Today’s internet buzzes with stories of young Venezuelans – actually two sets of them - each proclaiming to be nation’s Dream Deliverers.One set carried guns, tear gas and dresses in olive green. The other carries gas masks, Molotov cocktails and sometimes dresses in nothing. According to your politics, one set is defending or delivering dreams, while the other destroys them. Or vice versa.

But my dream has been delivered by Bebe and Yeli, bearing horse and baby, dressed in rubber boots and tattered jeans. 
My vote goes to them as Venezuela’s Dream Deliverers.

I first got to know this unique couple as they slung mud a few years ago. Not at each other, but at my bahareque (mud) home. Skilled in the ancient art of “mud-stucco” - they gave my home its final smooth layer of mud, adding a grace, a softness, and a harmony it had previously lacked.

I loved watching them work as a team. From dawn to dusk, they hauled and sifted tons (literally) of dirt, mixed it with dried horse manure, stomped it to a smooth sticky paste with their bare feet, then slung it forcefully against the walls. Finally, they smoothed the mud with knowing hands.

At 15 and 16,these young teens were amazingly strong, skilled, hardworking and shockingly free of sexual stereotypes. They were breath of fresh air, an innocent page of Little House on the Prairie coming to life, amidst a backdrop of a nation turning to ashes.

Both seemed to have been born on a horse, so we never had to search for our supply of horse manure! I loved watching them race one another bare-backed down to the river after a long day’s work, ready to jump into the cool waters flowing down from the mountains.

In Mistico’s first few weeks under my care, either Bebe or Yeli or both came daily. They taught me to rope and tie him, to lead him to the kind of grass he likes, add salt to his potato peels. They bathed and groomed him, they shod him and cured him of fleas and parasites. They built his little stable and taught me to call and hug and love him. In the early evenings we rode together down to the river, and we shared with an easiness that somehow comes with the slow gait of horses.

We talked about the rains awaited, the corn ripening, the challenges of surviving off Bebe’s salary in the potato fields – 50 cents a day. About their unsuccessful search for cream of rice for Yeverly, about skipping meals each day, about pulling together with their family of ten to make a soup of zucchini or squash to try to calm the hunger of the day. About wanting to wait for another child and about the total lack of birth control at public health centers. About scrounging harvested fields for left-over black beans or tiny potatoes. But especially, about their love of horses.

Each day as Bebe and Yeli came there was always something in their hands. Some of those scrounged potatoes. Some pepper seeds from their field. A plantain plant. A baby onoto tree. Their generosity , like that of many of my neighbors in my village, in the midst of raw hunger, is truly stunning.

Venezuela’s dreams will not be delivered by tear gas, guns, or Molotov cocktails. This nation, led down the destructive path of group addiction to oil and food imports by governments on the left and right, will not reclaim its dreams on these battlefields.

My vote for Venezuela’s Dream Deliverers is Yeli and Bebe. They know how to grow food. To build homes. To care for children and animals and the earth. To share with their neighbors. To support one another. To live free of stereotypes. To give their strength and passion and hard work and know-how to create a softer, gentler, and more harmonious Venezuela.

Thanks for delivering my dream deferred, muchachos bellos. How I hope that you can deliver it to this nation that I love.

Monday, May 15, 2017

We buried my friend Chuy last Sunday. The kids from Conuco Colibri worked with extra entrega to finish our gardening tasks early – planting corn and building a hugelkultur this week– so that we could attend the funeral together.

I met Chuy 17 years ago when I was rather new to my rural community of Palo Verde. I was teaching a group of kids to play the cuatro. 

Venezuela has given me one of the greatest gifts of my life: music - via this lively, little four-stringed instrument. I have been working to to repay this debt of life by teaching others play it. Now, thirty years - and counting - of teaching, that debt is far from being paid.

But of the hundreds of young people that I have taught to play– Chuy was unique. That is because Chuy was blind.

At the time, two of my children were playing in the El Sistema Youth Orchestra, directed by their friend – teenager Gustavo Dudamel. In the violin section, my daughter Maia often sat next to Paola, a blind fellow violinist. At their concerts, Maia would tap Paola’s elbow to indicate when the next piece was about to begin, or when to rise for the inevitable standing ovation. I always wondered how Paola kept up with the others.

Chuy showed me how. He not only kept up, he led our little cuatro class. He practiced more than anyone, he listened more deeply to the nuances, he imbued more spirit into his strumming. As I placed my hands over his to guide him to learn new chords, a deep connection was forged.

Chuy and I and the other young musicians of Palo Verde played together for many lively Christmas seasons, tromping from mud house to mud house at 5 in the morning and at 8 at night, nine days in a row, playing our cuatros and tambores, drinking hot chocolate together, carrying out the centuries-old tradition of aguinaldos.

In 2004/5 I was absent from Venezuela for nine months, accompanying Maia in her last year of high school in New York. I returned to Venezuela late that spring, with a delegation in tow. It was one of dozens of groups that I brought to Venezuela to see first-hand the hopeful changes taking place in my adopted nation.

As our bus stopped for a drink in the plaza of nearby Sanare, I saw from the window of the bus as a rickety jeep pulled up to the plaza. Suddenly, I recognized the driver. It was Chuy. Chuy? Driving??

My partner Ledys raced out to bring Chuy into the bus. We embraced and with great emotion, Chuy told me and the delegation participants how he had been to Cuba twice over the past six months, and had free eye surgery that restored his sight. Blinded by diabetes as a teenager, now - some eight years later - he was gifted again with sight.

Chuy told me that he had recently seen me on tv, when I had been on Chavez’s weekly Alo Presidente shows. His mom had commented Chuy, that’s Lisa!

No it’s not! he responded. But then: well, actually I’ve never really seen Lisa.

For the next ten years I teased Chuy that he never imagined how beautiful I really was during his blind years of our friendship.

From then on, whenever I brought a delegation to Venezuela, I would invite Chuy to speak to them. His story was such a concrete example of the almost miraculous changes in the lives of Venezuelans, especially those living on the margins, like in my community.

I showed them the dozens of free new houses in my community, funded by the government. I showed them the lovely new free clinics that sprouted up in just about every barrios and village (and took several of them to be treated there themselves).

 I took them to classes where old and young who had been excluded from schools were proudly learning.

But it was Chuy’s story that most touched the heart. And somehow proved that, in spite of the massive media smear campaign against Chavez, those Venezuelans who had been marginalized , forgotten, relegated for decades, suddenly felt that they were empowered citizens, with full lives, healthy bodies, wide-open futures.

Even though Chuy was now a full-visioned person, he never stopped identifying with those who had no sight. He continued to run a radio show with the local association of the blind, attended their meetings and helped support their sale of crafts from his little store. Chuy radiated the solidarity and love of others that is deeply part of the Venezuelan character.

Early on Sunday afternoon, I walked alongside Chuy for the last time through the streets of Palo Verde that he and I had filled with song so many times. Along his coffin as well walked our kids from Conuco Colibri, and the whole village of Palo Verde. Chuy was beloved, and everyone had their own story.

We walked slowly, and sang the old familiar songs. No one wanted to hurry. No one wanted that street to be emptied of Chuy’s cheerful presence.

As the funeral procession approached the lush spring that marks the end of our village, Chuy’s coffin was loaded on a car for the remaining ride to the Sanare cemetary. Everyone - young and old, hopped on flatbed trucks, on top of jeeps and pick ups, squeezing in for the ride to his burial.

Only my partner Ledys and I turned around, and headed back to our little farm, at the far other end of the village. We walked slowly, remembering Chuy. We missed him so much, already.

In that backwards walk I felt the backwards tide of my adopted nation. Chuy’s sight had been restored by the concrete achievements in Venezuela over the past decade and a half. But now Chuy’s eyes had been closed forever as those achievements slip away. 

Our backwards journey as a nation meant that Chuy had been unable to find his medications regularly over the past two years due to massive scarcity of even the most basic medications. He had been unable to follow the most basic diet for a diabetic in that same time frame. 

My heart aches for Chuy. My heart aches for the dreams we held so close. My heart aches for what is to come.

While some raise molotov cocktails ,guns and shields to try to defend or challenge this stark status quo, I’ll continue to raise up my weapons of choice in this necessary battle to forge a new Venezuela. A hoe. A shovel. And a cuatro.