Ixcanul: Volcano

Ixcanul, by Jayro Bustamante.
Ixcanul, by Jayro Bustamante.

On the screen, we see the striking, beautiful face of María and her bulbous eyes under the sparks of a fireplace. The mother helps the girl get ready, by cleaning her soft face with a small rag and putting a headdress on her. The latter part cuts to the everyday scenes of the two Mayan women as they handle the chores, from cooking to taking the eggs from the chicken coop. In one scene the mother teaches the daughter how do skin a pig. She tells the daughter, “smile,” when her future husband visits the family. All the relatives laugh and cheer, boasting about married life and how María will enjoy it, yet she sits idly, wishing she were not there.

The two women take care of the shanty home, while the husband works the land, which has been invaded by snakes. The landowner who plans to marry María’s gives him poison to kill them off. The landowner appears to be much older than María, and has been married before. He seems fair but also crude and unflinching, paying his laborers on the coffee field unless they drink their money away or try to cheat when picking coffee beans, but he also doesn’t inspire honor.

Ixcanul roughly translates to “volcano” in the Mayan dialect of Kaqchikel. Though a volcano may be dormant for a long time, one day it will erupt, and you get this sensation from María, not just because of her pregnancy but because she longs to escape.

The silence dissipates throughout the film as the mother tells the daughter to watch over the pigs— and the sun and wind blow their hair against their faces, or when the mom tells the daughter to count her moons. “Did you count your moons?” she asks, when she discovers the daughter is pregnant. Underneath the moonlight they shower together, and the mother clasps the daughter’s face and pats her hair down. María has sex with one of the laborers, but her mother does not reproach her too harshly, instead gives her a few herbal concoction to get rid of the baby, because she knows the landowner won’t marry her, but when none of those work, she tells María, “The baby is meant to live.”

The first sign of modernity appears when a laborer mentions going to “Los Estados Unidos.” Also when the landowner’s red truck comes down the highway, which is not far from the village. The parents don’t have to venture out until they’re forced to take the daughter to the hospital. The contrast of the Guatemalan city, the loud traffic and the bright lights is an alarming juxtaposition to the quiet life by the volcano filled airy scenes of natural landscapes and a spiritual closeness to mother nature.

Everyone in the village speaks the Mayan dialect. It’s only when we see a census worker speaking to the family that we realize, the alien language of Spanish hovering above them. The census lady doesn’t understand their language, and so the landowner must translate, posing a future opportunity to alter the truth, since the indigenous family relies too heavily on his integrity.

What is even more troubling is no one at the hospital speaks their language even though 60 percent of the population in Guatemala is Mayan. Like in many central and south American countries with an indigenous population, children have been forced to learn Spanish and forget their native language. The consensus is to forget the old ways in order to progress. Knowing these facts, made it more significant for the director Jayro Bustamante to use the Kaqchikel dialect. It provides a direct link to another way of life. The words provide a color, a feeling that we can’t get with another language.

There’s also a sense of female strength throughout the film despite the circumstances. “It’s your daughter,” the father tells the mother after he finds out María is pregnant, as if to say it’s your problem, and you must solve it on your own. The daughter doesn’t have the final decision on whether she wants to marry the landowner. There are few signs of control over her sexuality and body: when she chases the handsome laborer, or when she decides to look for her baby. She begins to discover her own sexuality and her power as a women in an otherwise male-dominated world. This story is told by many girls who are married off too young and forced to take on responsibilities that don’t belong in a child or adolescent’s life.

Update: rain, flood, thoughts

That time there was a giant puddle in the park.

The last two weeks have been consumed by rain with intervals of frustrating heat. It was strange for me, especially knowing that a few miles away a flood had devastated parts of Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes (20 Louisiana parishes were designated as federal disaster areas by FEMA), while my house was sitting untouched in New Orleans. There was ongoing rain and large puddles nearby but nothing serious. My parents were worried about me after seeing reports of homes under water and people rowing boats. I had missed their calls during that weekend, making them more worried, but I eventually called them back to tell them I was safe. They were under the impression that New Orleans had also flooded. I would not know what to do if that was the case. I guess my desk would float or we would be evacuated (this is probably the best scenario).

During the week I did have some troubling dreams, including me wandering around with my dad and sister during a flood, wondering why we didn’t have boats when everyone else seemed prepared. We managed to climb our way out of the flood through a solid ladder that later turned into a cloth ladder and almost ripped when I was climbing. We made our way up to the balcony of a marble building. Days later, my sister texted me: you need to get a boat.

The damage in Louisiana wasn’t a result of heavy winds like Hurricane Katrina, but record rainfall. Also outdated infrastructure couldn’t hold the heavy amounts of rain, and failed to drain water out of the streets. The storm brought 7.1 trillion gallons of rain to Louisiana, three times more than during Katrina. Local rivers like Amite and Comite had record water levels causing the biggest flood since Sandy. Some 20,000 people were rescued and about 110,000 homes were damaged. The Advocate investigated the deaths of 13 people who lost their lives; some swept by the storm while in their cars, others swam for safety, but didn’t make it.

I imagine the disarray.
I imagine the disarray.

Days after the flood, everyone was trying to out figure how to respond; whether to donate to bigger non-profits like the Red Cross or to local businesses and residents who could easily navigate the area and get resources to BR and surrounding areas quicker than national organizations. On Facebook and twitter, people posted photos and videos of how they were helping to evacuate folks with their boats. Some had cookouts or donated food. I saw a video on twitter of trucks hurrying along i10 to get to BR. Even a basketball team showed up to help. People are amazing.

Questions arose about what kind of things to donate. What was appropriate during an emergency? Some local bars and art galleries also held fundraisers where they collected a list of goods and money to donate.

Supply vessels that trasport equipment and personnel to offshore oil and gas platforms passing along the Mississippi River.
Supply vessels that transport equipment and personnel to offshore oil and gas platforms passing along the Mississippi River.

By now most of the water has receded, but up until a day or two there were areas still submerged. At this point affected parishes are in recovery mode, as people try to rebuild their homes, try to get back to normalcy which won’t be for a while. If you’re in the area, and want to lend a hand, there are many local organizations setting up volunteers. This is something I want to be doing in the next couple of weeks. Natural disasters get a lot of attention at first then fade from the news cycle, but the people of Louisiana are still in need: check out these organizations accepting donations.

The conversation surrounding the floods has expanded to infrastructure problems. Scientific American explores how BR and other cities need to modernize their drainage system in order to face future storms that will be exasperated by global warming. As the earth heats up, more moisture is produced which increases average rainfall, making future floods more likely. The occurrence of floods also become more likely when coastlines erode and wetlands that normally mitigate floods and soak rainfall disappear. As Louisiana continues to allow offshore oil drilling, these natural buffers zones will disappear making it hard for residents to continue living near the gulf, as the The Times-Picayune reports.


Ariel views of the damage in Louisiana. 



Adventures in the Kitchen

The scare-factor of seeing a giant roach is equal to Frodo seeing this spider.

This is how I feel upon entering the kitchen. There was a giant roach staring at me from the wall, high up near the ceiling. It’s waiting there, waiting for the right moment to strike. One morning I entered the kitchen to find this awful roach. I quickly left after cleaning the crumbs and retreating to the living room. I came back shortly after to check if it was still there.

And it had moved a few inches, so I knew it was alive.

Needless to say I had all my meals either in the living room or outside. I can’t reach it with a broom. We have high ceilings and even with a chair it would be difficult to kill. I’m thinking, it can either fall on me or on the kitchen counter then run with its little legs down the sink.

I put away our clean dishes in case it decides to climb down. We usually keep the apartment clean, but there’s always one roach appearing every now and then. At least we don’t have to deal with the swarms of little ones, but we get the big ones with giant antennas or as my roommates call them, “antelope roaches.” You could be going about your day all chipper and fancy, but you turn on the lights, and one is suddenly on the kitchen floor, and you stay frozen then slowly retreat to your room where it can’t get you. Sometimes I hear my roommates stomping their feet and screaming when they find one in the living room.

The other day I was having a fun Saturday afternoon, learning swing dance, drinking a lemonade, walking around, and buying Cajun food. I went home and walked to the bathroom and I saw an upside down dead roach or nearly dying, in the bathtub. Since it was too big to go down the drain, I used a broom and a dustpan to chuck it in the garbage.

My chipper, fancy day was over.

Thanks roach.


Poem: La Corneille


It springs up from a fence

And its friends are on the

Grass, pecking

This one flies down

I keep walking

It digs me with its call

To something known

The scene carries its meaning

In the black birds

Like the morning when

They lined up on the wire

Leaving at the first of morning

The emptiness of a muddy afternoon

it calls to fill

the day with premonitions


Poem: blue sky lake

My friend was inspired to write a poem after seeing this photo:

Image: Cynthia Via

She visited New Orleans this past month. We drove to Lake Pontchartrain, and sat there for a while contemplating about our fast-moving day. I forgot how much I needed to slow down. Biking has made me a hopper, moving through moments without settling down to think about them. Suffice to say I miss being a walker. Staring out at the water, I thought: there is love and sadness in that lake. It’s almost like it’s saying, you are no one to the sea. That’s how I feel when I’m floating over an endless body of water.


I see the vastness of the world,

Like the sea,

it’s unrestrained and always moving

while keeping still and quietly examining

everything and everyone.

I am just another vibe.

The girl without a face.

“A girl has no name.”

And yet I still exist!


By Kit Kats.

Thoughts: La Vache



In Hinduism the cow is considered a sacred animal, often seen as a caretaker or a maternal figure. Whenever I see a cow, I feel a sense of peace: something about their eyes and the way they stand. Recently when a friend visited me, we watched the movie, El Cuento Chino, in which a cow becomes a symbol of happiness and pain for the main characters.

Throughout our wanderings in New Orleans, walking, biking under tree canopies, visiting art galleries, and driving, we saw images of cows several times, that we regarded mostly as happy accidents. But they could also be seen as omens, slowly fading into fast-moving days in the middle of the southern heat. We both glanced at the image and remembered what it meant for us. The cow became our shared experience.

Now every time I see a cow, I think about that film and my friend’s visit to New Orleans. On a recent road trip, I felt a familiar sadness connected to driving, and the sudden acknowledgment, that I was an adult with so few road trips under her belt. One of my favorite songs was playing: “Primavera que no llega….” I looked out the passenger window at the green field and the cows grazing the land. A herd of them were spread out: brown, white, dotted ones. They were all there. All the cows you’d ever need. “Only the cow knows my sadness,” I thought, and it felt soothing to see them, to know this moment was sacred, even though I could explain it to no one. I wondered when I would be out here, on my own driving, fading into the clouds

*A spring that hasn’t arrived.

Notes: California Daydream

Twisted tree in the Sentinel Dome (Yosemite National Park), and the “watch-tower” views. Image: Cynthia Via


This trip was a calm realization—soft rain on a summer morning in San Francisco, pine trees outlining the distance, a foggy road near the coast, tumultuous waves on the last day.

To know yourself when met with the unlikely strangeness of the world, long roads, conversations with strangers, and new adventures with old friends.

To close yourself is to say I can only learn this much; I can only live within the structures I’ve imposed. Reaction to new circumstances allows you to grow. Whether good or bad you take it in, understanding that it’s not the end, the road continues.

The changing landscape of California makes spirituality rise from nature, and not from the small corners of ideological belief.

Trust your eyes to see it present— that it’s nature and billions of years to arrive here by chaotic pieces of the universe, that allows a life of proportions, between the extremes.