SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2004        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Joshua Tieman

Laj Felipe- Li Cuamig
(Felipe- My Friend)

    I would have to say that the most impacting event that has transpired in my life was my two year experience of living in a different country. At the impressionable young age of 19 I served a mission for the LDS church in the early part of 2000, and had the amazing opportunity to serve the people of Guatemala in Central America. That experience truly opened my eyes as to what “difference” really is. The people were different, but it wasn’t  just their skin color; their language, their dress, their food, their clothes, their games, the smells, the colors, nearly everything about them and their country was different from what I was used to being around. I remember being scared at first because the country didn’t look like ours. The streets were narrow, the houses were small and shabbily constructed, and the entire place was dirtier than what I was used to seeing outside my window. The plants, animals, and even the weather were also radically different from what I had been raised in. Removing myself from all that was familiar and “normal” to me radically altered my perspective on life.
 I think the single most perspective changing experience was the friendship I had with Felipe Cucul, a Keck’chi Indian from the Guatemalan highlands. I was transferred to Sepamac, a small village high in the picturesque mountains. This place was the extreme of different, no water, no electricity, and all of our cooking was done with gas that we had to pack in. One of the first people I met in that small village and who through the course of my time there grew to be a great friend was Felipe. The first time I went to Felipe’s house I remember being awestruck. Here was a man who had lived his entire life in a house that most of us would not even consider storing our lawnmowers in. His small hut was constructed of bamboo and other woods. He owned no socks; all of his shoes were rubber boots that made walking in the muddy trails easier. All of his clothes were tattered and torn, not because he didn’t take care of them, simply because he worked so much in them day after day. His house furnishings consisted of a simple fire pit, a hammock to relax in, and several beds that he had handcrafted himself. His walls were decorated with pictures that he had cut out of old newspapers, something to add color to his wooden walls. And Felipe himself was so different from anyone I had met before. Here he was a sixty something old man who still went out and cut down his daily share of firewood like he had since he was five. Yet his smile, his demeanor, and everything about him was loveable. I’m sure his encounter with me was startling for him as well; I can only imagine what he was thinking…

    I was scared the first time I saw him, this huge white man who was supposed to be here to help us. Ninye, I have met a lot of missionaries over the years as a member of the church, but I’m always in shock the first time I meet them. Ra had told me he was going to the valley to pick up his new missionary companion, some kid who had been living in the Senahu Mountains. He knew my language, or at least that’s what I think Ra had been trying to explain to me. Ra was a good kid and missionary but had only lived here for 3 months so he hadn’t learned to talk all that well. But this new guy, he had lived among us for a while now and supposedly knew our language.

As he walked through the opening of my hut I was scared at first. This guy was huge, probably 60 centimeters taller than me, his feet were huge, and he wore boots of skin not like my rubber ones, he must be rich. His shirt is white and the fancy type with buttons, his pants look relatively new, all Americans must have this much money. Who wears a tie everyday of the week? Especially during the summer, how’s he ever gonna carry firewood in that shirt without ruining it? He says he’s only 20? That can’t be, he’s bigger than anyone I’ve ever met, maybe some of the other missionaries were this big but it never ceases to amaze me. I wonder what they eat. Probably meat and eggs every meal, like I would if I had that kind of money.

 Then he introduced himself, not bad.. he talks like us, not irregular and unsure like Ra his companion, he must have learned in Senahu. I ask him some questions about his mission so far and how long he’s been here. He seems to know more about us than most, he knows about getting firewood, about axes, about planting corn and he even asks about the mysteries of the forests, chol quink and the xilic. Why does he want to know about those things? Then he talks about the work of the missionaries, he seems excited to be here and eager to work. We talk about the members, who’s helpful, who needs help, and those who are interested in the word of god. I promise him my help and he and Ra head back to their house to unload his stuff. I think I’m gonna like this new kid, this Qui as he is called.

Here I was thousands of miles away from my home and this man and everything about him was so different, yet at the same time there was a peace and tranquility that doesn’t exist in our hustle and bustle society.  Through my time there Felipe grew to be my best friend and through our friendship I grew in every aspect, in my personality, in perspective, in attitude. This man who at first seemed so different taught me more about life than I could ever imagine. The first time we met, my view of Felipe and his world was very a typical of a middle class white boy raised in America in the cushion that we live in. I thought he was poor, smelly, dirty as hell, and probably not very intelligent. How could these people who live in the middle of nowhere be very sophisticated or advanced in the ways of the world. Well my viewpoint then was radically different than it is now.

The longer I spent there the more I learned about the Keck’chi’, their traditions, customs, and more importantly, their personalities. The more I learned about them the more I matured, the more I developed as a person and the more accepting I became of other cultures. My viewpoints expanded and I learned that it is critical for us to look at the person themselves, not their clothes, hair, skin color, language, or where they live. I grew to learn what matters most in life and how appearances can be deceiving.

 These people, while elementary and crude by most North American standards were extremely talented, developed, and sophisticated in their own ways. I never met people so courteous, kind, or genuinely caring about others’ welfare. I learned a great deal from the Keck’chi Indians, I learned what it really meant to be equal and how we are all fundamentally the same. I learned the most important lessons from those I thought would know nothing worth teaching. That’s why my encounter with Felipe was and is so important to me, it is representative of all my past feelings and all the things I learned since then. It marked a critical turning point in my life.

Now as a full time resident of the United States the lessons I learned so far away from here still have a great relevance, especially in the southwest where I live. Immigration is a huge debate in Arizona and is extremely controversial. I find myself now viewing the entire argument from two different perspectives. I must view it first and foremost as an Arizona resident whose taxes, insurance, and economy are affected, albeit positively or negatively, by immigration. The ever continuous flow of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, into this country radically affects us here in Arizona and I can understand why it is such a controversy.  However, I also have the viewpoint of all those Guatemalans I lived with whose only hope and dream of a better life is to journey here and make a life for themselves. I’ve seen the extreme poverty and horrendous conditions that many of those people are simply forced to live under due to their governments and other socioeconomic factors. When it comes down to it I know that I would do the same thing they are if I had to face the possibility of raising my family in those conditions. As affected Americans I believe we must first be understanding and compassionate of the immigrants to this country and try to gain some perspective on why they are here. Second I believe we must take an active role in the community and find out how we can help, and what means can be taken to improve the immigration system of this country. Only once we begin to understand and participate in the process can we truly make a difference. I know my experience for several years as a Guatemalteco has helped me be a better American for now and forever.  

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