Thoughts on flexibility in community-based work

What I’ve really enjoyed about working with PMH is how quickly the organization adapts to the needs of our partners and communities.

We’re “out of the office” this week, preparing backpacks filled with essentials (toilet paper, sanitary napkins, painkillers, etc.) to be distributed to asylum-seekers in the migrant caravan. We used to use identical, red backpacks to distribute these packs.

As we expanded the program, it became clear that those brightly-colored bags were a target on people’s backs. What worked when we were distributing packs to a hundred people doesn’t work when we distribute packs to three thousand people. PMH took that criticism and switched to buying backpacks of different colors and patterns. It’s a small change that has tangible, positive effects on migrant safety.

This is why it’s so important when doing this sort of work to listen to people directly affected by our actions. And, as a coordinating institution, why communication with our partners around the country and region is central to success.

What do the people in our community actually need, and how is our organization responding to those needs? We should be asking ourselves this question daily, because circumstances change daily.

Guate-Nica-U.S. Slang Dictionary

Since arriving in Guatemala, I’ve found myself comparing Guatemala City with Managua. There are many similarities: I can find many of the same fruits I know and love, everyone tells me not to ride the city buses, the most common second-person pronoun is vos. However, there are plenty of differences, too!

The differences that have affected me most in my day-to-day life are the minor linguistic ones, like níspero being a light orange, watery fruit in Guatemala but a kind of mamey in Nicaragua. Or the fact that the same exact Walmart-owned grocery stores have different names here!

Image descriptions: Identical images, both with green backgrounds, white text reading “Variedad y ahorro en grande,” and red and yellow details. One reads “Maxi Despensa,” the other reads “Maxi Palí.” Images © Walmart, 2016 and 2017.

Image descriptions:  Identical images, both with blue background behind white text reading “Somos parte de tu vida.” and an orange flower. One reads “Paiz,” the other “La Unión.” Images ©  Walmart, 2015.

So, as every Fulbrighter seems to do in their host country, I’ve been collecting the Guatemalan slang I’ve learned over the past month and a half, with the twist of always trying to think of how I’d say them in Nicaragua. I’ll update this post as I learn more!

In no particular order, here are some roughly-equivalent slang words in Guatemalan Spanish, Nicaraguan Spanish, and U.S. English:

Español guatemaltecoEspañol nicaragüenseU.S. English
chilerotuani, deakachimbaawesome
cabalexacto, de acuerdoexactly, agreed
canchachelawhite girl
no tenga penano se preocupa,
a la orden
don’t worry about it,
you’re welcome
está biendale puesokay
biencomo nono yeah
señoseñorita, señorama’am, miss
patoja/o, chavachavala/ochick/guy
pisto, lanariales, platadough, paper
en serio¡al chile!for real!
amiga/o/xbroder, prixbro, dude
trailerfurgónsemi (truck)
camioneta, burraruta(city) bus
chapín/chapina (guatemalteco/a)pinolero/a, nica (nicaragüense)yankee (person from the U.S.)
mala suerte¡salada/o!too bad!
guardiaCPFsecurity guard
túmulospolicia acostadospeed bump

Also, there are some foods that have different names in Guatemala. These aren’t slang, but here are a few that have tripped me up in La Terminal (ojo: no one knows what “quequisque” is in Guatemala):

Español guatemaltecoEspañol nicaragüenseU.S. English
tamal (colorado)nacatamala tamal filled with chicken or pork and vegetables
güisquilchayotemirliton squash
sapodillanísperoa fruit in the mamey family
queso frescocuajadafarmer’s cheese
(chile) pimientochiltomabell pepper

And here are some slang words that are the same in both countries:

Español guatemalteco/nicaragüenseU.S. English
a laoh, man!
¿qué onda?what’s up?
a huevoof course, exactly
gringo/awhite person, usually from the u.s.
maje, babosostupid
con permisoexcuse me

Reflections on Peace

If peace means this, I don’t want peace:

  1. If peace means accepting second class citizenship, I don’t want it.
  2. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
  3. If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
  4. If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

-Martin Luther King, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” 1956

As part of my final report for the Davis Projects for Peace Grant, I was asked to define peace in my own words. This was an extremely difficult question for me, partially because I wasn’t convinced that peace was a worthy goal in the context of present-day Nicaragua. Peace in Nicaragua, as implicitly defined by those who tag their social media posts with slogans like #NicaraguaQuierePaz [#NicaraguaWantsPeace], means that protestors should leave the streets and allow the country to return to a false stability dependent on the suffering of the majority of the population. Those who define peace in this way place the onus for ending state violence and restoring peace has been placed on those against whom violence is committed, rather than holding those who commit violence accountable. Because, per Max Weber, the state has a monopoly on violence any retaliation by protestors against government repression is construed as violence, while the initial act of violence by state-led groups is not categorized in that way. The price of peace in Nicaragua, according to this group, is accepting injustice and bearing state violence without complaint.

However, this myopic definition of “peace” ignores the fact that protestors – including those that use violence – are, in fact, working towards peace. In a 1965 speech, Malcolm X said, “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” Peace cannot, therefore, be defined simply as an absence of conflict; true peace is dependent on freedom for the oppressed. An absence of conflict can still be violent if the conditions for that conflict still exist. Any “peace” that does not address the root causes of the conflict is a conditional peace for the privileged elite.

In the United States, too, this incomplete definition of peace is weaponized against those who resist government oppression. When police officers murder Black people, for example, the police and the city governments behind them define peace as having streets clear of protesters. They often invoke violence to achieve this result. That use of violence towards a supposedly peaceful goal is widely accepted because they are acting as agents of the state. When Black Lives Matter protestors chant “No Justice, No Peace” in response to state-sanctioned murders, they do not simply mean that protestors will not allow peace (quiet) until there is justice, but also that peace in and of itself is conditional upon justice and freedom. However, when protestors (in the U.S., in Nicaragua, and elsewhere) use violence as a tactic in the fight for true peace, that protest is no longer categorized as “peaceful.”

I believe that the use of violence does not necessarily preclude a truly peaceful goal, nor do so-called “peaceful” or “non-violent” tactics necessarily mean that a group is acting in the pursuit of peace. To use another example, those who protest same-gender marriage by refusing to provide same-gender couples with the same services allowed to heterosexual couples are not exerting physical force, but they are perpetuating oppression. This act may appear peaceful on the surface, but it is at its core a violent act because it strips people of freedom.

The appearance of peace in Nicaragua prior to April came at the cost of the exploitation of Indigenous and Black communities, the disenfranchisement of poor people, and the silencing of the population as a whole. Nicaragua can never return to peace, as certain groups demand, because peace in Nicaragua did not exist before April 2018.

Similarly, though many recent editorials following Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court lament a supposedly unprecedented division in the United States, the United States can never return to a fictional undivided or peaceful state of being, because the country was founded on the oppression of Indigenous and Black people and continues to depend on their exploitation.

The only way to achieve peace – in Nicaragua, the U.S., or anywhere else – is by fighting for justice and freedom for oppressed groups through community-led initiatives. Violence may be necessary to achieve peace. This is not ironic; this is not an oxymoron. Sólo el pueblo salva el pueblo – only the people can save the people.

we will fight if we must, but the fundamental goal of r/evolution must be peace. […] r/evolution means the end of exploitation. r/evolution means respecting people from other cultures. r/evolution is creative.

–Assata Shakur, “r/evolution is love,” 2012

How not to mail a package to Nicaragua

In my last post, I talked about the circumstances that led to my community partner’s (Podcasts for Peace) and my decision to change the focus of our project and administer funds long-distance. One of the seemingly-minor changes we had to make is strikingly representative of the complications we face as a result of shifting plans: instead of bringing items I had purchased in the U.S. to Nicaragua in my suitcase, I would have to mail them.

None of the items were particularly expensive on their own when purchased in the U.S., but they were either completely unavailable or prohibitively expensive in Nicaragua. Usually, we would find someone else from the U.S. who planned to travel to Nicaragua in the near future and send our packages down with them. That wasn’t an option this time – travel to Nicaragua has declined substantially in light of the socio-political crisis. Our inability to send a package with a traveller is symptomatic of an issue that has much more serious, widespread effects on Nicaraguans. A friend of mine recently left her job in the tourist sector after having worked for months without pay, for example, and thousands of Nicaraguans are in the same situation.

So, we decided to send a package with DHL.

After a month stuck in customs, we’re fairly certain it’s never getting to its final destination.

WhatsApp Image 2018-07-23 at 10.48.59 AM
Last known photo of missing package, seen 23 July 2018.

The biggest mistake I made in the process was responding to my community partners’ urgency with my own panic. I felt that I had let my partners down by failing to hand-deliver the car parts, computer batteries, and other items we had agreed were essential to the work Podcasts for Peace and other partners do. As a result of these negative emotions, I made decisions I believed would speed up the delivery of the package. In reality, these decisions resulted in the possible loss of hundreds of dollars in shipping fees and package contents or, at the very least, hours of our time spent chasing the package around Managua.


This unfortunate experience happened at the beginning of the implementation of the project, and has informed the choices my community partners and I have made. Although we began using the funds and implementing  much later in the grant period than we had planned, we did so in the pursuit of clearly defined goals, not out of desperation to finish as soon as possible.

As the end of the (U.S.) summer approaches, I’ll be the first to admit that we aren’t “finished.” However, we have reassessed our plans to define realistic goals that could be accomplished in the limited time we had. Rather than trying (and, inevitably, failing) to complete everything we had intended, we began by analyzing what we could do with the time and resources we had at our disposal. This adaptive approach was far more successful, and encouraged open lines of communication between all partners.

On uncertainty: Adapting to realities of #SOSNICARAGUA

On April 16th, the Ortega administration in Nicaragua approved reforms to the debt-ridden National Social Security Institute (INSS) that, among other measures, decreased Social Security payments for retirees while increasing workers’ contributions. Tensions already ran high following the week-long fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, which spurred protests; the state responded violently. The fire was finally extinguished on April 13th. In the days following the announcement of INSS reforms, protests broke out throughout the country, coming to a head on April 19th with state violence towards university students and other protesters. The conflict continues: at least 212 protestors and civilians have died, thousands have been injured, and many have been imprisoned or disappeared, according to the most recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Also on April 16th, I received this email:

Letter from the J William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board's Office of the Chair informing me of my selection for a Fulbright research award to Nicaragua.

Previously, I learned that I’d been awarded a Davis Projects for Peace grant and an SI2 grant from Mount Holyoke college to develop and carry out computer education classes at Podcasts for Peace, a youth-focused community center in Alemania Democrática. I didn’t have much time to celebrate the end of checking my email constantly for acceptance letters, invitations to interview, or form-letter rejections before the reality of my situation set in: my future was just as uncertain as it had been before I received my acceptance letter, if not more so.

The uncertainty I felt watching the news through social media (due to government censorship of dissenting media networks, eyewitness accounts on Facebook and WhatsApp became the most reliable source of information) was nothing compared to that of my community partners in Alemania Democrática, my affiliates at Nicaraguan universities, and my friends around the country. As the proposed start date of my project at Podcasts for Peace approached, it was obvious that flexibility would be key in this rapidly-changing environment. An increase in thefts in the area made purchasing new computers inadvisable; an attempted break-in at the building left employees and clients feeling unsafe; political disagreements exacerbated existing intracommunity conflicts, weakening the sense of community in the neighborhood; a member of the team resigned; etc.

After consulting with trusted community partners and mentors, we decided to start from scratch. We identified the most pressing, time-sensitive concerns as food insecurity, psychological needs, physical safety, and utilities. We created a new budget, leaving behind the now-obsolete plans we’d spent months perfecting. Simply put, the reality in which my grant proposals were based no longer existed. We had to harness all of the flexibility we had developed as employees of community-centered organizations to reframe the project in a way that was relevant to the community’s developing needs.

Further reading on Nicaragua:



Hello, world! This blog will be dedicated to lessons learned, mistakes made, and experiences had in my community and global engagement as a recent graduate. I’ll also reflect on prior experiences and how they affect the way I view my current reality – I’ll try to connect my English major to work with migrants, my internship in Massachusetts to my study abroad in China.

I’m currently managing a project based in Managua funded by Davis Projects for Peace and the Mount Holyoke College Student Innovation Initiatives Fund from the U.S. (and temping, but that makes for much less interesting blog posts). In October, I’ll head to Guatemala to spend ten months as an independent researcher at the Universidad Rafael Landívar through the Fulbright U.S. Student Award.

Thank you for reading!