Skylar Sweetman ’07
I wandered up a bare dirt path through layers of green and brown until the trees stopped and opened up to a small field of corn, two huts and a wire box with chickens rustling inside. The sky was clear and warm. A bridge of broken wooden planks sat on top of an empty stream of rocks and spare threads of grass and creaked threateningly as I walked across it. The hut was dark inside, its windows shaded by dark cloths on white strings. An indigenous woman sat on the dirt floor, folding clothes while welcoming me inside with a nod and a modest smile. I smiled back and sat next to her on the floor. She was placing the folded clothes on a bed, at the feet of her little son, who glanced down towards me with half-open eyes, swimming in sleep. He rolled back and forth, holding his hands on his belly in the heat of the room. I spoke small words to the two of them, and she nodded her head as I took her son’s hands in my own. Walking out of the drowsy warmth of the hut into the dampness of the Chiapas rainforest, the atmosphere of this fraction of a family in the hut nearly brought me to tears. But how could I have such strong feelings about two people whom I hardly knew?
This worry has been with me in all the relations I’ve developed – significant and emotionally warming relations – with the many Mayan women I’ve spent time with these past few years as part of Oakwood’s Chiapas Project. These women give rise to a depth of compassion within me which I had yet to find on my own. Yet with all that we have worked for together, and everything that we have accomplished through our cooperation, I have felt a distance between these women and myself that is both frustratingly present and sadly permanent.
To know another person enough to justify a sense of real intimacy, I feel that I would have to understand everything leading up to the present circumstance of their being, a concept so expansive it stuns me. So what accounts for my feelings of closeness to these women, with such different histories from any with which I am familiar? It has sometimes seemed to me that these feelings I have are blind, and it has confused me that they even exist. Although we do support each other and hope with each other, I have worried that there might be nothing real enough in our relationship — that it is one-sided empathy and compassion from myself, and mostly gratitude from them. I can’t even begin to understand whether they register this distance, much less whether they are saddened by it as I am.
The Project has been more successful than anyone could have hoped, supporting these women financially and politically, and learning from them culturally. So I sometimes feel that my concerns have grown only from my own, slightly romantic fantasies, and are more a matter of needs of my own rather than the needs of the women. What upsets me the most in all this then, is that my worries here may be a result of something more self-interested than selfless.
Still, there is a closeness which is real. Regardless of how little sense I can make of it, I have a kind of connection to these women which I do not have towards anyone else in my life. Being with them in their homes, inside the dark, cloudy kitchens where they wander from one end of the room to another, checking on things and helping one another, I feel a sort of naturalness to my presence in their life. A ten-year-old girl is given her baby sister to hold in a sling around her middle. She receives the child from her mother with a tenderness that seems part of the wisdom and strength with which she carries her. Maybe because I’m simply unable to be involved in the specific meanings of things in their lives, such qualities come forth with a brilliance of purity that is absolutely breathtaking. The responsibility that the women take on, without any alternatives and without objections, is evident and beyond admirable. They are, especially, profoundly aware of the importance of family, an awareness which I feel is slowly fading in my own world. Perhaps it is simply the hope I have in their qualities—important and rare qualities — which makes me feel this close to them. These women have been through more hardship than I could dream of, and still breathe with such unyielding dignity and strength that it overwhelms me, bringing me to tears after only days of being with them.