A week when everyone looks like you

La Semana 2010 Crystel 8 years old

La Semana 2010 Crystel 8 years old

I know even before I get to the high school for the fiesta that I am going to cry at some point during the evening. Antonio and Crystel have been attending La Semana Cultural Camp for a week every summer since they were in first grade. Now fifth graders, they are going to join 450 other children born in over 20 different countries and perform the Latin American dance that they had learned during the week. There would be 25 dances, put on by everyone from first graders to Ayudantes (adoptees who recently graduated high school).  Except when we travel in Guatemala, Latin American Cultural Camp is the only place that I could lose Antonio and Crystel in a crowd. . .  because here everyone looks like them.

Antonio and amigo 2013

Antonio and amigo 2013

If this is my experience as an adult, imagine what it would be for a child to be surrounded by his or her own ethnic origin if only for one week a year. To top that off, all the children are adopted. For the first time, a child doesn’t have to explain him or herself to a new friend. There are no questions. Everyone is adopted.

Families travel from 14 different states and Canada to attend La Semana. The adoptees learn Latin American crafts and dances, try Latin American foods, hear Latin American music, and are exposed to written and spoken Spanish. The children also take a class that focuses on age-appropriate topics related to adoption. Most importantly, they just get to be kids with other kids like them.

Crystel and friends up to no good. 2013

Crystel and friends up to no good. 2013

Every year, La Semana, focuses on a country. This year it is Paraguay. Throughout the week, campers explore the culture of Paraguay. Through video and games they get an overview of Paraguay’s food, music, geography, sports teams and animals. At a Paraguayan market and fiesta, campers taste food and drink, create with beads and clay, and play traditional holiday games.

Jody has been at La Semana all week volunteering her time in the craft department. La Semana is successful due to the volunteer efforts of the families of children attending camp. All camp programs are planned and executed by the families involved. There are fewer than seven paid teachers for more than 450 campers. To encourage participation, La Semana requires a parent of kindergarten through tenth grade campers to volunteer in some capacity.

Chicas

Chicas

Jody is already inside Lakeville High School having saved our seat hours ago for the fiesta in the gymnasium. Tears start welling up in my eyes as I see parents streaming through the school entrance holding hands with their young children. The fiesta is a time for the campers to show off their ‘stuff.’ Inside the dressing room, they will be transformed as they put on traditional dress, and the girls adorn themselves with red lipstick, blue eye shadow, and blush.

Crafts are the best!

Crafts are the best!

Jody texts to see if I want to sit and wait for the dances to start. But I don’t. I want to stay in the gathering area and watch everybody. This unnerves Antonio and Crystel to no end because I often do this no matter where we are. “Mom, quit staring,” they will say. Unfortunately, it will be their cross to bear.

This afternoon, I have an opportunity to observe over a hundred Latin American teens and young adults. I witness what Antonio and Crystel will look like in a few years and start to cry. They’re beautiful.

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Day 2: San Pedro la Laguna

I wake up to the cluck, cluck of chickens. The patio door is open to the outside and their fussing is distinct. I feel safe enough to leave the door ajar each night and let the breeze waft in off of Lake Atitlan. I can’t explain why or how it feels safe … but it does. It is the same knowing as when I know that something isn’t safe.

I wouldn’t keep my door open in my hometown of Richfield, Minnesota.

Soon Jody is frying fresh eggs from these same chickens and Antonio is urging Crystel to catch one. She does. Antonio finds enjoyment in Crystel doing what he himself won’t do.

After breakfast we meet our guide Sam who by the end of the day will feel like family.

Because of our experience with Sam, Jody and I know we will always request a guide when visiting Lake Atitlan. Sam is knowledgeable and bilingual, but even more than that, he knows how to relate to two nine-year-olds. He becomes their companion. For Antonio and Crystel, it is the slow melding of being around another Guatemalan. Antonio and

Sam

Crystel can think, when I am older maybe I will be a little like him.

Being around a person of the same ethnic origin, someone who they like, allows Antonio and Crystel to intuit that being Guatemalan is a good thing. This is something Jody and I can’t give them. All the words that we have can’t compare to spending time with others of their own culture.

Los Elementos dock being worked on

Antonio and Crystel are around many Hispanics in Minnesota and the Spanish dual language school that they attend in Richfield. They never have to feel alone or at odds with their skin tone. Still, there is a difference in being in your birth country and knowing that everyone you see is Guatemalan and not Mexican, El Salvadoran, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or a mix of the former.

In the days to come Jody and I will witness our children’s growing sense of pride in their ethnicity.

Antonio at home in his kayak

Sam helps us carry our kayaks down to the water. Los Elementos Adventure Center has kayaks that fit the children. All of us are happy that we can each have our own. This is the first time I have ever seen Antonio and Crystel navigate on the water under their own power. They don’t have any hesitancy jumping into their kayaks and pushing off.

Included in our lodging at Los Elementos is access to the kayaks during our stay. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel will take them out again. I am content to sit and look at the volcanos from the patio, but I also know that I am missing out on that special feeling of being in the water surrounded by vast outcroppings.

Lunch

After our morning we head off to San Pedro la Laguna in a launch for a horse ride. Once we arrive at San Pedro, we decide that we are hungry. Sam assures us that the restaurant Shanti Shanti is open even though it is still early. This sets the tone for our day. We don’t have set times that we have to be any place. Horseback riding will come but not quite yet.

Having Sam with us makes Jody and me more adventurous in choosing our lunch and more inclined to say ‘yes’ to milk shakes and other drinks.

Lake Atitlan and Mayan Indian Nose out our window

When our family traveled to Guatemala in 2010 we didn’t try a lot of things because we didn’t want to become ill. In 2003 when we had brought Antonio and Crystel home we all got terribly sick with a gastrointestinal bug. Not the homecoming any of us wanted.

Sam, Jody and I order curry, Antonio orders his regular staple of pasta with just butter and Crystel has a cheese quesadilla.

Our view from the restaurant looks right out over Lake Atitlan and Indian Nose, a unique mountain formation that resembles the face of a Mayan Indian in repose.

Choosing handicrafts to bring home. See woman’s head dress. Crystel will soon be wearing one.

A Mayan woman and her son approach us while we are waiting for lunch. She is from San Antonio la Laguna but comes to San Pedro every day to sell her handicrafts.It is nice to be able to ask Sam if her asking price is good and to have his help in negotiating.

In 2010 when we traveled to Guatemala, Antonio and Crystel hated when I did any bargaining. Especially, if it was children with whom I was haggling. Even though I explained to them that that is the way it was. “Just give them the money,” they insisted. Now, I wanted to poke them and say, See?

Crystel’s new head piece.

Sam let us know that negotiating also puts him in an uncomfortable spot because he understands that the woman is trying to make a living and yet he knows what a good price would be.

San Antonio is named after Saint Antonio, Sam says. We smile at Antonio. He lets us know that he wants San Antonio to be a destination on our next trip to Guatemala.

San Pedro la Laguna

San Antonio is known for their hair ribbons. The Mayan woman demonstrates how to put a ribbon on Crystel. It seems fairly complex and we ask if we can video her doing it.

We aren’t planning on buying handicrafts but it feels good to do so. It seems as if the money will go directly to her and her family.

Making our way to the horses

Lee Beal had told us in the morning that we could have Sam go horseback riding with us or we could go alone. We opted for Sam to join us especially, when we found out that he had never been on a horse before.

Horseback riding seems like the thing to do in Guatemala. It has become one of our must-do things.

An interesting trek to the horses

We took a horse ride in 2010 and it was a remarkable way to see a village. You go slowly, you are up high, you can observe your surroundings, and there is excitement involved because you don’t know what your horse is going to do. Invariably, at some point in your trek the horse will start trotting, which leads to uncontrollable, scared, excited laughing.

Getting to the horses in itself is an adventure in San Pedro. We were led down narrow paths, past people working in small plots, and in-between buildings. Finally when we arrive it’s like the farm moved to the city.

Added to the excitement is an occasional BOOM.  San Pedro is celebrating their Festival of San Pedro with fireworks, carnival, and games.

After our horse ride we stopped for lunch again. There are many Spanish language schools in San Pedro, so we stopped at a restaurant frequented by students.  Jody and I had very good nachos with fresh tomatoes.

Before taking a Tuk Tuk to the dock, which Saint Antonio was all for, we walked through the main part of the village where the carnival was set up.

Riding horses in Guatemala. The thing to do!

Sam called Lee and told him that our first weaving class would need to be delayed by one day. We weren’t quite ready to leave San Pedro.