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Amy Bracken | Posted September 13th, 2011 | Latin America

the view from my home
the view from my home

When I moved back to the States after living in Haiti for two years, it was sad and difficult, but one thing eased the transition: the Diaspora. I landed in Brooklyn, where I was picked up by a Haitian cab driver who drove me through the tail end of the Haitian Flag Day parade. My first day back in Boston, a man was playing guitar and singing in Haitian Creole in the subway station. Soon after that I discovered community access TV had evenings full of Haitian music videos.

I would have no such buffer on my return from Belize. In Punta Gorda I met many Belizeans who had lived in the States – usually LA, Chicago, or New York. Never Boston. I mentioned this to one Belizean Creole woman, and she said, “That’s because there aren’t any black people in Boston.” I was taken aback. “There are a lot of black people in Boston!” I said, defensively. But later, recounting this story to some Belizean friends before my departure, one asked, “Well what gave her that impression?” I found myself explaining that Boston is very segregated, and I even got into its history, including the busing riots of the 1970s. Oops. So much for convincing my friends to come visit.

Growing human mobility around the world is both a sad and a happy thing for people who want to hold onto their own cultures, as well as for saps like me who want to hold onto other people’s cultures. A resident of the little Garifuna village of Barranco was lamenting the fact that so many young people leave, but he said some of them bump into such a strong Diaspora community in New York that they come back speaking better Garifuna than they did when they left.

Ocean View Bar, Punta Gorda, Belize
Ocean View Bar, Punta Gorda, Belize

Ocean View Bar, Punta Gorda, Belize

Still, place matters. When I was in Alaska, someone explained to me that sometimes a language will die because it is so heavily dependent on local references that for people who leave the area it loses much of its meaning. In Belize, connection to the land is of particular importance. Everyone wants to be indigenous, but how do you define it? Mayans were obviously the first in what is now Central America, and the Amerindian ancestors of the Garinagu (Garifuna people) were among the first inhabitants of what is now the Americas. Yet there were Europeans and enslaved Africans in what’s now Belize prior to the arrival of Garinagu and most modern day Mayans. So to whom does Belize belong? This summer, the ruling party’s newspaper ran an astonishing number of news and opinion pieces about ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationalization.’ These are the terms the government uses to assert its right to take over the foreigner-owned utility — including cell phone — companies. One piece compared opponents of these government take-overs to saboteurs of slave revolts of the past. But this is the very government that has divided up the country into oil and gas concessions to 18 companies, most of them foreign. In the case of US Capital Energy and the Sartstoon Temash National Park, it allowed exploration without even consulting the local Mayan and Garifuna co-managers of the park. Before the Belizean Supreme Court recently granted 40 Mayan villages ownership over local lands, past governments granted logging concessions to foreign companies in those areas as well. Now the current administration is reportedly planning to appeal the Supreme Court decision at the Caribbean Court of Justice. If the state takes land from local groups in order to grant concessions to foreigners, is that nationalism?

church, Punta Gorda, Belize
church, Punta Gorda, Belize

Belize belongs equally to all of its people, who, compared to other countries, live in remarkable harmony. The country turns 30 in one week, and this is a month full of flag-waving and patriotic celebrations. The flag shows a black man and a white man together holding a coat of arms. The black man holds a paddle. The white man holds an axe. Between them is a mahogany tree, and beneath them are the words, ‘Sub Umbra Floreo’ (I flourish in the shade). The flag is missing something, a Creole woman mentioned to me once: There’s no Mayan man on it. It’s also often pointed out that the once abundant mahogany have been virtually decimated in Belize, and the country’s shade is shrinking.

Punta Gorda, Belize
Punta Gorda, Belize

My sadness in leaving Belize is not so much a fear that I won’t make it back as a concern that by the time I do return it won’t be the same. I think about the collection of gloomy forecasts that were constantly on people’s lips this summer: the paving of a road to Guatemala and the Pan-American highway (and all the anticipated traffic and trafficking associated with that), the rising violent crime in Belize City and elsewhere, the tourism and foreign influence that threatens to overrun beautiful villages like Placencia, my Garifuna teacher’s characterization of his language as a dying one, the decimation of the rosewood trees – and of much of the forest itself in the South, and, of course, oil drilling and spills into pristine rivers and wetlands.

sign in Placencia, Belize
sign in Placencia, Belize

But there’s also a chance that some really cool things will happen. Among those being planned or for which funding is being sought are: expansion of sustainable community forestry, indigenous women’s textile projects, a drum school in Barranco, eco- and cultural tourism in more little villages of Southern Belize, cross-border exchanges with Guatemalan villages (soccer and environmental education), a youth-led plastics recycling initiative, and on and on. Belizeans need money, and how great it would be if they were able to get it through programs that helped preserve all the things that are at risk: the environment, language and culture.

sometimes the Belizean shore's not so pristine
sometimes the Belizean shore's not so pristine

Back in Boston, with classes starting at the Fletcher School, I’m still tying up some loose ends with my work for SATIIM and the Advocacy Project. The biggest of those ongoing projects is, of course, the Midway women’s quilt. I really look forward to showing it once it’s sewn together, and ultimately selling it for the benefit of the very enthusiastic (and talented) women who embroidered the panels. Stay tuned!

Amy Bracken outside SATIIM ranger station
Amy Bracken outside SATIIM ranger station

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What is sustainable community forestry? Two advocates explain

Amy Bracken | Posted September 11th, 2011 | Latin America

Listen to Conejo residents John Makin and Manuel Caal discuss sustainable community forestry and land rights. Also hear Caal sing and play a church tune…

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Saying ‘hello-goodbye’ to the villages Part 4: Crique Sarco

Amy Bracken | Posted September 9th, 2011 | Latin America

The river at the entrance to Crique Sarco is the Temash. I had been on the Temash down near the ocean, where it’s a solid brown. Here it’s clear emerald. There was once a vehicle bridge over the Temash and into the village, but it broke five years ago, and in spite of promises during elections three years ago, nothing has been done, and the village remains car-free. This seems to be a mild irritant. I’m not sure that anyone in the village actually owns a vehicle, but if the bridge were fixed the bus would probably come right inside, sparing people the long pre-dawn walk to catch it into town.

building in Crique Sarco, Belize
building in Crique Sarco, Belize

There also used to be electricity in the village, evident by the wires running throughout and, in the guesthouse, appliances like fans and lights. But these days no one can afford fuel for the generator. Some of the village does have plumbing, though, and I was half disappointed to find I could take a shower in the guesthouse rather than bathe in the Temash. The village also has all of two stores, at least one of which serves beer.

Exhausted from the journey, from running on little more than tortillas, and from coffee withdrawal, I took a nap and then got a real meal from the guesthouse owner. The lunch was like heaven: buttery tuba fish just caught in the river, beans, more tortillas, and tamarind juice.

I walked around the village, already missing the friendliness and smiling faces of Conejo, when one family sitting outside their house called me over. It turned out to be relatives of the SATIIM ranger Anasario Cal – not surprising given their warmth. Anasario’s brother, and many other men in the village, used to carve wood. Now, I learned, there’s no money in wood carving, and so much in just harvesting squared off logs of rosewood to ship to China, leaving the scraps to rot in the forest.

home in Crique Sarco, Belize
home in Crique Sarco, Belize

On-camera interviews about SATIIM and its projects were not happening in Crique Sarco. There is strong support for the organization and sustainable forestry by part of the village. The World Bank had written a hefty check, and the project was about to launch, when the other part of the village council and the other villagers rebelled. There was a nasty face-off, and sustainable forestry screeched to a halt. Now the World Bank funding is going to the village of Santa Teresa, a new partner of SATIIM’s. It is not in the buffer zone, but it has expressed unified support for a strong, long-term sustainable forestry program.

So I gave up on the interviews and visited Anasario. He had told me he lived in the last house before the river, behind the pink gate that says, ‘Little Paradise.’ That’s pretty much how he presents his life here. He grew up on the edge of Crique Sarco, just down the river, but was stationed all over the region when he joined the police force. Finally, they put him in the station on the Temash in the village of Crique Sarco. He was granted permission to build a house on the land by the station, and then he quit the police shortly after doing so. He now has a yard full of fruit trees. The 21 cacao trees he has in a tight cluster here, and the more than 1,000 on the road out of the village, are harvested for Green & Black chocolate bars. The Green & Black label has been bought by Kraft, which hopefully won’t mean a drop in the label’s vigilance over its organic status. Anasario said company reps from England pay unannounced visits to make sure no chemicals are being used.

SATIIM ranger Anasario Cal
SATIIM ranger Anasario Cal

Anasario explained a bit about the mentality of his village with regard to oil drilling and logging. On the first issue, he said that in the ‘70s Esso came in to explore for oil in the nearby forest. The company employed virtually the entire adult population of the village, paying them well and providing meals. Anasario said this happy memory is etched on people’s minds even though when US Capital Energy came in to explore in recent years they only employed a few people, fired some, paid poorly, and didn’t provide meals.

SATIIM ranger Anasario Cal and wife Lydia
SATIIM ranger Anasario Cal and wife Lydia

The resistance to sustainable forestry in places like Sunday Wood and Crique Sarco is described by some as a misunderstanding, with some people mistakenly believing that it would take away good nearby farmland. Others describe it as a mere lust for farmland and rosewood and resistance to anything slowing the rush. Anasario seemed sad talking about it. He remembered when it happened with mahogany. Now it’s happening again, before everybody’s eyes, and no one is doing anything about it. Of course, the question of who is responsible is a complicated one. Mayan village leaders and government officials point fingers at one another, charging the other with both indifference and corruption.

canoe on the Temash River
canoe on the Temash River

Anasario showed me where his lawn meets the Temash, and where he puts in his SATIIM canoe to do regular park patrols. He also pointed to the cattle ranch across the river, where trees were cut all the way to the water’s edge, causing erosion. He seemed annoyed by this, but he also said he was wondering what to do with a piece of land he had inherited from his father. It’s some of the last pristine jungle in the area, he said, and he’d love to turn it into an ecotourism site, with cabins and trails, but that seems like a tough venture, so he’s thinking about cutting it down and turning it into cattle farms. His son, who works on the touristy island of Ambergris Caye in northern Belize, is urging his father to go the tourism route, but it’s a tougher sell in the jungles of the underdeveloped South.

Following Anasario’s suggestion, I took a walk to a waterfall on the other edge of the village. Getting to and from it involved trudging through deep mud, so on the way back I climbed down under a bridge to rinse my feet in a creek. The sun was setting, and two girls were bathing. I worried about invading their privacy, but they were sweet and welcoming. I asked, if the bridge into the village were fixed, would that make their watering hole less peaceful? They shrugged, and one pointed out, without apparent opinion, that trucks would be driving over our heads. It was hard for me to resist the typical outsider feeling of wanting this place, to which I’ll probably never return, to remain as peaceful and isolated as possible. That’s exactly the accusation people living in poor remote villages make about American environmentalists: “They don’t want us to develop!” I can only hope that life will get easier for people in Crique Sarco and Conejo without the means for that ease destroying what makes these villages special.

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Saying ‘hello-goodbye’ to the villages Part 3: The trek to Crique Sarco

Amy Bracken | Posted September 7th, 2011 | Latin America

I arranged to interview John Makin about sustainable community forestry at 6 am, but I was surprised when he came looking for me at 6:05. He was in a bit of a rush because he and the village chairman were meeting with state forestry department officials. That sounded like a good sign.

In fact, Makin said working with forestry has been a challenge. The committee needs permits from them for things like purchasing a chainsaw (they have one) or building a sawmill (they have yet to get the finances for that). At the same time, Makin said, the concept of sustainable community forestry is new in Belize, so it takes a lot of explaining to the government.

Here’s how it works: When Conejo won its land rights case in 2007, village leaders decided they wanted to find a way to make money while sustainably managing what was now legally their forest. They sought help from SATIIM and established exchanges with Guatemalan villages that have been doing this. The community developed a 20 year plan for harvesting timber from a parcel of several hundred acres divided into 20 blocks. One block is logged at a time, in the dry season (January to June), with care taken to avoid cutting trees of certain sizes. The variety of trees are sold, and several months later, more cutting is done.

The great challenge, Makin said, is competing against illegal loggers, who sell their trees more often, more aggressively and at lower prices. What’s key is finding foreign buyers who are willing to pay more, perhaps because they know and care that these trees are cut sustainably. A growing risk also is that illegal loggers, as they destroy the rest of the forest, will increasingly enter the land of the community forestry project and ruin its work. Hence the growing need for the support from the government.

milpa farming, Conejo, Belize
milpa farming, Conejo, Belize


Now it was time to get all my things together just in case a truck came by on its way to Crique Sarco. I began to walk up the road with my things, not because I planned to do the eight-mile journey on foot, but because I knew there was a spot on a hill down the road where cell phones worked. I had been led to it the previous night, but that was in the dark so I didn’t quite know where I was going now, and I never found the place again. Instead, I eventually put down my things on the roadside and took pictures of milpa farms and cattle ranches. I recorded the sound of chainsaws in the distance and noted the men balancing chainsaws on their bicycles as they trundled down the road, this day, as in past days. I also saw horses hauling piles of already perfectly squared logs of beautiful white and red swirled rosewood – the wood that is suddenly all the rage in China, the tree that is headed for the fate of mahogany (the national tree of Belize) – virtual extinction in the region.

cattle ranch, Conejo, Belize
cattle ranch, Conejo, Belize


I hailed a big public works truck. The driver said he was going to the village of Corazon, not Crique Sarco. I said ‘no thanks.’ I wanted to go all the way, not get left on the road in the middle of nowhere. But then, for a long time, there was nothing. I was getting tired of the road, of lugging my things, of the sun. When the next public works truck came, I hailed it. He was going to Corazon too, but he said, ‘Get in, I’ll take you to the junction and you can walk.”

“Oh, it’s walking distance?” I said.
I got in and we got going. It was then that I asked, “How long would it take to walk?”
“Oh, an hour and a half… two hours and a half.”
At that point, I wasn’t getting out. I would get off the junction and just hope for the best. Or walk two and a half ours in the sun with my three bags. It wouldn’t kill me.
I was dropped at the junction just as a young man lugging a sack of corn on his bike turned onto the same road. He came from Sunday Wood, the village I had just ridden through. Sunday Wood is technically a member of SATIIM, but the village’s strong support for oil drilling and against sustainable logging had soured relations. The young man told me the villagers would be happy to work with SATIIM again if the organization gave them jobs, but in the meantime they would oppose any initiative that might limit their access to cash. The man reached his destination too soon, and I was on my own with a very long, sunny road ahead.

You’d think that a road cutting through the jungle would be a shady one. But here the terrain is low and thick, so from the road it would be impossible to enter without crawling through thorny vines and branches. The sun was unavoidable, until I came to one of the region’s heavenly creeks – perfectly clear emerald water. Here I could drop my things and enter the forest, walking along the steep creek bank. There was no way to capture on film how beautiful this little jewel was, and it went on and on, but now the biting flies were getting me, and I worried a truck would pass on the road. So I dipped my feet, reapplied the SPF 50 sunblock, and was on my way up and down the hilly road.

An hour and a half passed very slowly. Every once in a while there would be a house. A whole family of farmers (all carrying machetes, including a girl in a skirt) passed by and greeted me. The father told me that usually there was a man who drove by at 3pm on his way to Crique Sarco. It was noon. I said I hoped I wouldn’t still be on the road then. He gave no response.

I started to feel weak, and I noticed, finally, a spot of shade at the curve of a road about the size of my backpack. I stopped and was pulling out some left-over tortilla, when I heard a truck. A man and two women in a pickup crested the hill. I waved madly. They were going to Crique Sarco. Why, I never figured out (though I learned he was the cousin of the public works guy who had given me the first ride). He said he was just going to the river at the entrance – it was his destination for some reason, and he was dropping the two young women. It seemed odd, but I was lucky. Now I understood why SATIIM staff are given orders to pick up hitch hikers. If they don’t, people will hold a grudge against the organization. With very good reason, I say.

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Saying ‘hello-goodbye’ to the villages Part II: Getting to Conejo

Amy Bracken | Posted September 6th, 2011 | Latin America

When I got to Conejo, the first thing I saw was the SATIIM truck. Cordelia, the park manager, had driven there as part of an early morning excursion to various villages (I had opted to leave later instead of going with her). She was here now helping Conejo’s sustainable community forestry committee keep its books.

Conejo, Belize
Conejo, Belize

I interrupted the meeting because the committee’s chairman, John Makin, is the owner of the village guesthouse, and I wanted to be sure I had a place to stay. He referred me to the guesthouse manager, across the road, who also happens to be the village’s SATIIM board member.

Conejo guesthouse and SATIIM resource center
Conejo guesthouse and SATIIM resource center

The manager and board member, Manuel Caal, readied the spare, emory wood, shaggy thatch roofed cabin for me, and then granted me an interview about SATIIM and community forestry.

lumber shed in Conejo, Belize
lumber shed in Conejo, Belize

Caal said the indigenous villages’ legal victory against the government for communal ownership of the local land was a key part of beginning to protect the forest. In 2007, the Belize Supreme Court ruled that the claimant indigenous communities (Conejo and Santa Cruz) own the land in and around their villages, and the government does not have the right to use or grant concessions to that land without permission, as it had been doing. Three years later, the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling for 38 more villages. Still, the government plans to challenge the Conejo and Santa Cruz decision in the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Caal describes the ruling as a great positive step. The issue has enormous implications for oil drilling and logging. However, two major challenges remain (besides the government appeal): the villagers are largely split on the issues of oil drilling and logging; and the small and indigent village councils need the help of the government to go after illegal activity – a particularly tough challenge given the corruption and complicity of government officials in the area of logging. I’ll soon post video clips from the interview…

Caal family in Conejo, Belize
Caal family in Conejo, Belize

The rest of my afternoon was quiet and restful. Makin and his wife had Cordelia and me to their house for lunch – chicken soup with piles of fresh-made corn tortillas. Their home was set back from the road, down a path, and typical – earthen floor, walls of spaced out emery planks, a tall stack of drying corn cobs, a cinder-block stove,… and a baby high chair made of slabs of timber nailed together, and an extension cord (apparently from when the house’s solar panel was working) used as a belt to keep the little girl in.

the Caal children escorting a visitor
the Caal children escorting a visitor

Back at the guesthouse, visitors of all ages came over to greet me and find out where I was from and what I was doing in the village. Caal’s five kids were particularly sweet, keeping me company, laughing almost incessantly, and bantering with each other in Q’eqchi. The seven-year-old Josephina took me across the soccer field to show me where people bathed in the creek.

Not knowing the local norms of public nudity/decency, I waited until past the village bedtime to go back and bathe. It was only about 8 but felt like midnight – quiet on the road except for crickets and frogs and a radio in one house that played a mix of reggae and traditional Mayan harp. The soccer field was full of fireflies darting around at waist height, and I kept mistaking them for people with flashlights. Countless stars shone in the velvety sky, but it was almost pitch black at the shaded creek. I stood in the cool water in the dark as little fish nibbled the skin on my legs, and it was then that I completely understood a comment a teenage villager had made to me earlier that day: “I would never want to live in town.”

view from the guesthouse
view from the guesthouse

The comments of the teenager, John’s brother Charles, were not uncommon. I’ve been struck by how often in Midway, and now in Conejo, I hear people express satisfaction with their small, traditional subsistence villages. I am struck by this not just because I, personally, enjoy towns and cities, but because it seems at first to contradict something else I’ve been hearing all summer: that people desperately want ‘development’ in their communities, sometimes even if it means something as drastic as oil drilling. I’ve learned that there is nothing contradictory here. People love where they are and the lifestyles they live, but they would also love some cash flow. As subsistence as their villages are, cash is essential. It’s required to take the bus into town for a doctor’s appointment or to buy books and uniforms for school children, to buy materials for clothes in general and to pay someone to sew them. There’s the need for farming equipment, for food that one doesn’t grow, and on and on. The key for SATIIM and the communities is to find ways to generate cash flow without either destroying the environment or lifestyle and without exhausting that very source of cash flow.

This obviously comes into play with the question of oil drilling. It’s also where sustainable community forestry comes in.


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Saying ‘hello-goodbye’ to the villages

Amy Bracken | Posted September 5th, 2011 | Latin America

Part I: trying to get there

When I fell in love with Belize, it was really Friday nights in Punta Gorda that did it. It was drum classes with the amazing Emmeth Young at Gomier’s Restaurant; then a trek up the road with the drums to Earth Runnin’s, where Emmeth, his Mayan and Creole protégées, and a random assortment of Belizean, Japanese, Mexican, and European visitors and residents played drums and air piano, sang, danced, and, in one case, did some kind of ribbon show, while the bar owner’s kids walked around the front yard bonfire on stilts. And then there was the Garifuna drumming and dancing into the wee hours at Bamboo Chicken, one of the resto-bars that hangs over the ocean.

So I had a problem: If I wanted to take a bus into the indigenous buffer communities that SATIIM works with, spend the night and return the next day, I would have to leave on Friday, since there’s a return bus on Saturday, and that’s the only instance in which there are buses on two consecutive days. As much as I wanted to get to know the villages of Crique Sarco and Conejo, Friday night was a tough sacrifice, so throughout my time in Belize I waited for a ride to surface to take me another day. This didn’t happen, so here I was on my second-to-last Friday here, rushing to the bus stop with my cameras, food, water, and a giant tent-framed mosquito net. The schedule in the tourist office said the bus for Crique Sarco left at 11:30, so I got there at 11:15 and searched through the idling buses… only to find that the Crique Sarco bus had left at 11. The tourist center’s schedule was out of date. It’s not surprising that this fact had gone unnoticed. Tourists don’t take the Crique Sarco bus.

Wandering through Punta Gorda, wondering what to do with myself, I ran into Egbert, the SATIIM ranger from Barranco, whose bus home left at noon. He suggested I take his bus and get dropped off at the junction, then hitch-hike to Conejo. “You think I would get a ride?” I asked.


“If I don’t, how long a walk would it be?”

“Oh, just about two and half hours.”

“Two and a half hours in the hot sun with all my luggage? Are you crazy?”

“Well, you wouldn’t be alone. Other people probably missed the bus.”

I didn’t see how that helped me.

I would enjoy another Friday in PG.

My new plan was to take the 11 o’clock Crique Sarco bus to Conejo on Monday. Then, on Tuesday I would hitch hike down the road to Crique Sarco, and on Wednesday I would catch the 5am bus back to Punta Gorda. A number of people expressed complete confidence that hitching from Conejo down the eight miles to Crique Sarco would be no problem.

My mission was this: get to know the communities a bit — since everyone told me that each small indigenous village in Southern Belize is entirely distinct from the others, and to discuss with villagers what they have and want from SATIIM and its sustainable development program.

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wrapping up the quilt in Midway

Amy Bracken | Posted August 26th, 2011 | Latin America

If you’re a dutiful blog reader but nod off at the word, ‘quilt,’ you’ll be glad these will be my last words about the ladies of Midway.

For much of this chapter of the quilting project, I was a mule, driving to the village, finding out who needed more of which color thread, and going back to the stores in Punta Gorda, where the poor young salesmen had to search, repeatedly, through sometimes dozens of boxes to find a match to my sample. Then back to Midway for a delivery, unless Thomas, the SATIIM ranger, or his wife, Seferina, was taking the bus into PG for a few hours on one of the four days a week the bus runs.

But as a mule I felt I was doing good. The women got really into the project, and were proud of their products, with good reason. Many had never embroidered before, and they were producing beautiful, vibrant images. I wondered if it was hard for them to hand their panels over to me at the end.

Concepciona Ishim
Concepciona Ishim
Some made more than one panel, and everyone I spoke with (which was everyone) said without hesitation that she would want to do another project like this one.

Most of the women are moms of multiple kids, and their housewife chores involve cooking everything from scratch, washing the family’s clothes and linens in the creek, and cleaning houses whose floors are made of dirt. But they were happy to have something else, something different to add to their list of tasks each day. For some it was quiet time in the hammock, away from the family. Others liked teaching the craft to village children.

Acela Cho, Midway, Belize
Acela Cho, Midway, Belize
And I felt I earned their trust. Women in the group started calling me by name (rather than just ‘Miss’), even as I struggled to remember theirs. They sometimes spoke Q’eqchi to me, which might have been absent-mindedness or to shame me for not understanding, but it had the effect of making me feel included. But best of all, they honored me by making fun of me. In discussing how to depict a duck, one suggested they make the beak like mine, pink and pointy. But that was mild. The fact that I have no husband or children is endlessly amusing, of course, and Seferina said I really should get married. “How about him?” she said, pointing to a scrawny dog with bad mange. “He got your skin.”

Amy Bracken and Seferina Ishim
Amy Bracken and Seferina Ishim


Anyway, now the panels are in my hands. I need to get them to the Advocacy Project, who’ll get them to a group of volunteers in the US, who will put the pieces together into a beautiful quilt. Fingers crossed. Then I’ll find places to display it, along with information about the women of Midway and SATIIM. The quilt will raise lots of money for SATIIM’s campaign to protect the Sarstoon Temash National Park from oil drilling, and the it will ultimately sell for a ton of money to benefit the women of Midway and inspire them to keep up the craft. Fingers crossed.

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Quilting: getting the ball rolling

Amy Bracken | Posted August 25th, 2011 | Latin America

I took a long weekend in Guatemala to meet up with a friend on Rio Dulce and buy cheap quilting materials – black cloth, chalk to draw on the cloth, shiny rayon thread of many colors, scissors, needles, and wooden embroidery hoops.

I didn’t worry too much about details. Cordelia and I would find images of flora and fauna from the park, and she would draw them, since none of the women in the group said they could.

But the night before the first meeting of the Midway quilters’ club, I got a call from Cordelia saying she had to go to Belize City to address a medical issue.

I had no idea what to do. I would go to Midway alone in the hopes that someone in the group would come forward and announce that she could embroider and would teach others, and that someone with drawing skills would magically appear. Otherwise, maybe we’d just brainstorm.

But the next morning, as I was cutting the cloth into squares in the SATIIM office in Punta Gorda, Acela, SATIIM’s administrative assistant, asked what I was doing. I explained the project, and she smiled. Acela is Mopan Mayan and knows how to embroider. She said she can’t draw but her two teenage brothers can, and they were just sitting at home doing nothing all summer. So at the very last minute we had a team of four taking the SATIIM truck to Midway.

Still, it wasn’t smooth sailing when we arrived. The quilt committee secretary, Seferina, declared, “Miss, we do not want to use black cloth.” The room agreed. I weakly suggested we at least try, at least for practice, and Acela explained more strongly that I got the black cloth for a reason, because I thought it might sell. And with that the women quieted down, and Acela’s brothers got to work drawing jaguar, heron, toucan, orchids, etc. As the drawings were churned out, Acela gave instructions and got the women sewing.

By the end of two hours, women were clustered in groups, watching each other sew and laughing, really laughing. Naturally, I thought it was at my expense, but casual translators said they were making fun of each other’s embroidery skills.

If nothing else, we had created a reason for village women to come together and have a good time.

No one replied when I said, “Bye! See you next week!” but I knew they’d be there.

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Quilting: a thriller

Amy Bracken | Posted August 24th, 2011 | Latin America

Quilting has never been something that particularly interested me. It’s also not something I ever associated with human rights campaigning.

When, in our fellowship orientation, Advocacy Project director Iain Guest presented quilting as an effective means of expression and advocacy, it took some time to sink in. I could see how it could work in various fellowship postings – how survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and Congolese victims of sexual violence, for example, would benefit from coming together and creating something based on their common experiences, something that would travel the world and ultimately be sold to provide some income. But did it have to be a quilt? It seemed so American, and so country.

True, the AP quilts I saw were interesting and beautiful, but this thing was not for me, I was sure, and not for a campaign against oil drilling in a national park in Belize.

Iain mentioned the quilt idea directly to me a couple of times, by phone and email. The thinking was that a quilt could somehow show the value of the Sarstoon Temash National Park, particularly to the indigenous people living on its periphery. I vaguely considered it but secretly hoped we could forget about it.

Then I was getting ready for work one morning… It was market day, and Mayan men and women were coming into town from the villages to sell produce and handicrafts. One woman knocked on my door, and in spite of my quiet protests, marched into my living room and began to display her various crafts. Among them were squares of cloth on which she had embroidered Mayan calendars and gods. She had grown up doing this. It was part of her culture. Essentially, these things were quilt tiles.

I remembered that Karyn, SATIIM’s development officer, had been talking about getting more women involved in the organization and applying for women’s artisana grants. I thought about Iain’s idea of having colorful animals and plants popping out from black cloth.

I bought a panel embroidered with the Mayan god of corn/fertility, and brought it into work. When my Q’eqchi co-worker Cordelia, the SATIIM park manager, saw it, her eyes widened. She said most village women know how to embroider. She had grown up doing it herself, and the next day she brought in samples of flowers she was sewing with bright shiny thread. Suddenly, this quilt idea seemed perfect.

I was, however, learning that things here move slowly, and at least in some of the Mayan villages, they also move very methodically. We decided to aim for the closest Mayan village, Midway, population 250. It’s about an hour’s drive away, mostly on a rough dirt road, and the one telephone in the village usually doesn’t work. Cordelia instructed me to type up two letters, one for the village chairman (like a mayor), and one for the alcalde (like a sheriff), explaining who I am, what the quilt idea is (including explaining what a quilt is), and requesting that the village leaders gather together as many women as possible for a meeting to pitch the project. We drove to Midway, left a letter with the wife of the alcalde, who was out, and pitched the idea to the chairman, first in English (me), and then in Q’eqchi (Cordelia). He told us to return at 2pm the following Thursday.

We arrived at 1:45 Thursday afternoon and set up chairs in the SATIIM resource center, a small emery wood one-room building in the middle of the village. I had printed out pictures of quilts, and Cordelia had brought samples of her own work.

We waited, me anxiously, as women only very gradually and very quietly began to trickle in. I decided we needed a minimum of 16 quilters for the project to be a go, and by 2:30, there were still only a few. Eventually, the room filled to capacity, with some 40 women and girls in traditional, bold-colored, square lace-necked shirts and patterned skirts, sitting in silence, looking at me blankly when I began to speak.

At the end of my pitch, there was no response, no knowing if anyone had understood a thing. Cordelia translated in Q’eqchi. Still nothing. Thomas, the SATIIM ranger, who works out of the resource center, further elaborated in Q’eqchi. Still, you could hear a pin drop.

We asked who might be interested in the project. Nothing. I was really starting to sweat now. This was not what I had expected. We asked why people weren’t interested. One elderly woman said in Q’eqchi that her and her friends’ eyesight wasn’t good enough. Another woman asked if it mattered what their names were. This took a lot of back and forth with Cordelia to figure out what she was getting at. Apparently, the last time a group came in from outside to do a project, the funders backed out because too many participants had the same last name, and it looked like a family rather than a community affair. I soon learned that many people in the villages have the same last name, but this is simply a fact of life where villages are small and families are big. I assured them this would not be a problem.

More silence. Cordelia speculated that there was a general lack of trust, especially about who would get paid for their work and how.

Some women said they didn’t know how to embroider. We assured them someone would train them.

(As an aside, Dear Reader, if it seems ludicrous to try to tell a suspenseful story about quilting, I apologize but that’s what it was. I kept feeling like I was in a movie, like Twelve Angry Men, but with 40 impassive Mayan women.)

Then, one woman, Brigida Ishim, gave her name and said she’d do it.


Another one, Verona Paau, gave a nod.

Was the ball beginning to roll? Maybe not. Another long silence.

A third, Susana Kus, waved her hand.

Three down, and 13 to go. At this rate, it would take several more hours to get the minimum number. This was killing me.

More silence. The ball was not rolling. We sat for what felt like an eternity.

Finally, we adjourned the meeting. I would have been heart-broken had I not been in disbelief. I wasn’t ready to give up. I suggested to Cordelia we could try the project in another village, but she looked at me skeptically. It could be more of the same, I acknowledged to myself. And if Cordelia wasn’t on board, I couldn’t imagine continuing.

Strangely, though, for a while after adjournment, no one budged. Only gradually, women started to make their way to the doors, but something else happened too: others made their way to our table at the front of the room and told us they wanted to be part of the project. Soon we had 14 people signed up. This we could work with. Maybe more would join, or some would make more than one panel.

I was ready to call it a day and schedule the next meeting, when Thomas said, ‘Now they need to hold elections. They need a chairlady, vice-chairlady, secretary, and treasurer.’ I thought at first that he was joking, but this is how things work here, and the subsequent rapid elections to each post seemed to make the project real, and theirs. Women who an hour before had seemed completely disinterested were now committed to something that none of us still fully understood.

We scheduled another meeting for embroidery training and quilt planning. No one replied when I said goodbye that afternoon, but I left with a nervous sense of excitement that this thing quilt thing just might actually work out.

One Response to “Quilting: a thriller”

  1. iain says:

    You’re right- this is a thriller! Feel I know your ladies a lot better, as well. Hope to see a quilt emerge soon…

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Ball of Fire

Amy Bracken | Posted August 11th, 2011 | Latin America

Emerging from the tiny Tumul K’in radio station where SATIIM director Greg Ch’oc does his weekly Q’eqchi Mayan show, we saw the coolest thing…

It’s fire ball, a traditional Mayan sport played here by youths from six Mayan communities. It’s part of a series of summer Maya games, which also include a hitch-hiking race from Punta Gorda back to Tumul K’in.

2 Responses to “Ball of Fire”

  1. Amy Bracken says:

    Cool, huh? Apparently it’s a ball of wire and cloth, doused in kerosene. I wanted to play but it was a tournament between villages. If I turned out to be really good, I would have thrown everything off :) . Maybe we can set something up when I get back!

  2. Ann Lopez says:

    That was amazing to see. What kind of ball do they use and how do they set it on fire.

    Did you get a chance to play?

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Fellow: Amy Bracken

Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM)





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