Here We Shall Begin

by Kendra Patterson (United States of America)

Making a local connection Guatemala


In Nila’s third-story, open-air kitchen, I fry spices in a pan with a wobbly handle while she squeezes tomatoes to a pulp in her hands. The mountains ringing Lake Atitlán throw green, brown and yellow onto the water. I see the same colors in Nila’s cortes, her traditional skirt, as if the mountains’ reflected light reaches even into our concrete-floored pavilion. Nila runs a weaving collective here in San Pedro La Laguna, in Guatemala, for single mothers like herself, and teaches Mayan cooking for extra income. She tells me that she left her husband after two years of marriage. Her mother said Nila was the family’s shame. This was the darkest time in Nila’s life. Nila says: “I could not see my way forward.” In the Mayan story of creation, the Popul Vuh, the gods cloud the vision of the first humans so that they will not become like the gods themselves, able to see and understand all. The gods obscured their sight as if breathing a mist onto the surface of a mirror. I know this blankness. These last few years I have been paralyzed in a dark fog, unable to act. When I tell people I’m taking a year off to travel, I sound like I know what I’m all about. In truth, I’m traveling because I don’t know what else to do. Right now though, I have this: We make tamales. We cup and fold banana leaves around cornmeal, tie them with a strip of agave leaf that has been softened over the flame of the gas stove. Later in the photos I take of Nila working, I will see that her hands blur. On the lake, two water taxis speed toward each other. They cross, separate, their foamy wakes sloshing together in the widening distance between them. Nila says: “I asked God–I am not trying to preach, it is just my experience–I asked for just one opportunity.” My eyes snap back to her face. She tells me how one day an American couple stopped her for directions in the street, and she answered back in English. They hired her to teach them Mayan cooking. They bought blankets she wove on her backstrap loom. Nila says: “I tell you my story because it’s important.” I have stars in my eyes. No one has given her permission to feel that way, to do anything she’s done. I breathe in, then out. My lips tingle. This is how life works. I leave carrying four tamales in a cloth tote. I think about how some people have eyes that keep trying to look farther. They look outside their house, their village, their country even. And eventually they are able to see.