Archives For Penelope Norton

_DSC0359Penelope Norton is a former youth, now friend, who interns with our partner Highland Support Project in Guatemala. This is from her blog, an important reflection on how culture objectifies women. As Penelope points out, we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think machismo attitudes don’t play themselves out in a variety of societal ways; we’re kidding ourselves too if we think our own culture is immune to such abuse.

It didn’t hurt, but I could still feel where his hand had landed harshly on my backside. For several hours after I could feel the outline of every finger not due to pain, but because of how gross I felt. Thinking back to the few moments before it had happened it all made sense. I was waiting at the only light there is on my 15 minute walk to work. When it turned green I proceeded to walk across the street and as a couple was about to cross my path I slowed down. They were looking at me for what seemed like more than the average amount of time. I only seemed to notice it looking back on the scene. As I slowed, out of my peripherals I noticed a boy oddly close to me and once I slowed he veered away from me and down the street I was crossing. A block later I heard hurried foot steps behind me and then a firm smack. I immediately wheeled around amidst a stream of curses (I’m embarrassed to say)and by the time I had made a one/eighty to face my accoster he was already scuttling away and had made it at least 5 feet. The maybe 17 year old boy in a school uniform, the same boy from the block before, was retreating as fast as he had come on.

I had known it would be coming. If I had read into the events that happened right before the slap that was heard through Xela (not really); the couple watching him follow closely behind me, me turning on him right before he had planned to slap me while I was crossing the street I would have realized it was coming. I have been here four months and I’m honestly surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. There are many American, European, and Canadian women in Xela working for non-profits or here to go to Spanish school. We stick out like soar thumbs and due to our light skin, blue eyes, and golden hair we’re targeted. We’re new, exciting, something men here don’t see everyday. We’re something to brag about, “I touched agringa‘s ass today!” I have made many girlfriends here and they all have the same story to tell, all seeming to have the same reaction, dumb-founded stairs, silence, and sometimes even tears. I had mentally prepared myself for this moment, for when it was my turn. I had decided from the beginning that I could not stare dumbly. I told myself from very early on, “Penelope, you will take every precaution to be safe here, but something like being slapped, pinched, or grabbed will happen to you. You can either let it happen or you can do something about it.” I had given myself this pep-talk every time I had heard one of my girl-friend’s most recent stories.

Within my family I am known for my “take-no-prisoners” mentality and I hope it never fades. I was mentally ready. I turned around ready to do I don’t know what, but found him already several feet away. Metal water bottle in one hand and tupperware container full of my breakfast (yogurt and fruit) in the other. With him already out of arms reach, making it unable to grab him by the collar and shake him I did all I could and chucked my breakfast at him. Store owners watching. The boy’s eyes widened and I think he was literally dumb-founded. Unfortunately missing, my rage had not given me the clarity to aim (you can be sure something I will be practicing) and the unusual weight and balance to the tupperware throwing me off. He kept retreating and I proceeded to walk after him, metal water bottle raised yelling at him the whole way till he was in full sprint and around the corner. I am sure this was not his first rodeo, but I am confident that this was the first time he had ever received this sort of reaction. Ashamed and embarrassed of what he had just done to me I went and retrieved my breakfast which had luckily not broken open, but was lying sadly in a dirty puddle.

I think about all the women that are sexually accosted on a much greater level. How, what happened to me was really just child’s play, but still made me feel disgusting and low. Why is that women are the ones that feel embarrassed after something like this happens? We did nothing wrong!

Guatemala lives under macho rule. Women don’t have much to any say, constantly belittled, daughters don’t usually receive the same treatment as sons, wives don’t find themselves partners in their marriage, but just an object conquered; expected to clean, cook, and bear children. Within this macho culture women are raised to be passive and to obey men. Women are constantly berated with more than your average cat call (a simple whistle just won’t cut it); heads hanging out of windows, targets of obscene sexual comments, and as I have experienced being touched inappropriately and without permission. This is normal. Sometimes I feel like the women have bought into it here, but really its all they know.

I only hear the stories of the other Western women that are here as I don’t have many opportunity to have these conversations with Guatemalan women. I assume that they have similar and worse stories. In reality, us “white girls” have a little protection. If a Guatemalan women is touched, raped, goes missing its rare for justice to be served. There is little weight put on their lives. Heads would role if this happened to a “white girl”. They rather not go through the trouble.

In Mayan culture God is made up of both feminine and masculine energy. When Mayan priests begin their prayers they first recognize the feminine energy, second the masculine. It was with the invasion of the Spanish and the male dominated culture they brought with them that the traditional gender role views slowly began to shift. While Mayan culture’s appreciation of both female and male energies equally remains it suffered a greater blow. Guatemala has been heavily wounded by violence. The civil war left deep scars and Guatemalan women are especially exposed. In Guatemala more women (per capita) are murdered than anywhere else in the world (2009), and the murders, the so-called “femicidios”, are characterized by raw brutality and hatred towards women. Women find themselves the punching bags to drunk, stressed, depressed men.

While the appreciation for women within Mayan culture has suffered it is still a breath of fresh air to get out of town and walk through the dirt paths of the Mayan communities.

The need for education is great. The need for a rise in women’s self-esteem is desperate. We work every day through women circle meetings to praise women. Teach them their not worthless. They are more than a body who’s soul purpose is reproduction. I am proud of our work in the communities. We have seen differences in pride and self-esteem which will in turn change the view of how things should be in the home and the rest of the community.

Things are changing, but not fast enough and not on a large enough scale. Never the less I am proud of the progress we are making.

*For family and friends that read my blog I want you to know that I am not in danger. I am extremely careful. I walk no where on my own after dark. When I notice men on the sidewalk I move to the street and visa versa. I am very aware of my surroundings. If anything this experience has strengthened my vigilance. Please do not be worried. I promise I am more than alright.

My church will send out two service teams over the next weeks to Guatemala, about 50 people in all. Over the past 8 years, hundreds from our congregation and community have served in Guatemala with our partners and friends, Highland Support Project.

meeeeIt will come as no surprise to the pastors and the jaded out there, but the Christian ‘mission industry’ is rife with organizations and projects that do little to remedy the causes of systemic poverty, do less to foster equitable relationships with the ‘poor’ and do very much to make North American Christians ‘feel good’ for a week before they leave for home, grateful for their ‘blessings.’

Painting churches and repairing storm damage and hugging orphans, while all good, is not mission- at least not in the New Testament use of the term.

Highland Support Project gets it right and with them we’ve gotten to be a part of it.

Penelope Norton is a recent college grad, former church youth, friend and now employee with HSP in Guatemala. This is from her blog (subscribe to it!) and she makes the above point better than me:

I was able to go home last week for the funeral of my grandfather. I am so thankful I could be with my family during this time and beyond the sadness of morning my grandfather I had a wonderful time being with family and close friends.

It was on my return flight to Guatemala, from Atlanta to Guatemala City, that I was overcome with the realization that Guatemala has too much foreign aid! There were 4 mission trips alone on my flight and I know for sure that there were at least 2 other flights coming into Guatemala that day from the United States.

The reason I can confidently say that these were mission trips was because each “team” had their own specially made t-shirt, which each person in the group was wearing. Each t-shirt bore the cross and a verse from the bible about the mercy of Christ. I am intimately familiar with the look; I myself went on several mission trips where we were all extremely coordinated in attire. I am not sure what the appeal of that is . . . I tried to ask a member of each group what they were going to be doing for their week in Guatemala although I never made it over to ask the neon, tie-die group.

Pretty much all of them had the same answer, “we will be visiting an orphanage”, “bringing medicine to a really poor community”, “painting a church”. Now that is all good and well, but what does that “poor” community have once those mission/service/volunteer teams leave? A bottle of medicine that will run out in a month? A memory of white faces that treated them like they were poor? A building that is freshly painted, but will probably never be used because it was not that “poor” community’s idea to have it there in the first place?

I am sad for both groups of people, the community that is now poorer and the group that came to “help”. Please do not get me wrong, this is in reference to any group of people whether they be from a university, a church, temple, mosque, or volunteer organization.

In reality the team of people that came from the states to help had all of the best intentions in mind! I cannot be upset with them for that I just wish they could see how their aid has left the community they worked in. What actually happens is people come for a week and everything is all smiles and it feels as though the team has made a world of difference in the lives of the people, but most mission/service/volunteer teams will end up giving away aid for free and where does that leave the community?

The community develops the mindset, “I don’t need to work, I can wait on the next hand out that comes from the next service team”. These handouts leave a community that once had developed systems of support, entrepreneurial aspirations, investment in their children’s education, and pride in themselves without any of those things. This type of aid reduces people to believe that they are incapable of doing for themselves, they are reduced to having zero self worth, and they don’t take ownership for their community any longer. It is true that communities need help!

In the organization that I work for we measure poverty not by the amount of money you make, but by the opportunities available to you. Instead of giving material things we give experiences and opportunities. Instead of giving food to a family we teach the woman of the house a skill that she can support her family on. Instead of giving medicine to a whole community we organize support systems so that relationships can be formed in which they are comfortable to ask their neighbor for help. Instead of painting a building that was our idea to erect in the first place, we work with community leaders to identify what communal problems they want addressed with some support from our organization. This puts the power back in the hands of the “poor” and they are “poor” no longer.

They have their pride and they are invested in their families and communities. This might take more investment and it won’t provide instant gratification, but it is the right way of doing things.

As ashamed as I am about the horrid t-shirts I had to wear on the high school mission trips I am proud that my church chose to participate in mission that truly benefited the community instead of leaving it a poorer place.


If you treat this woman like she is poor she will believe it and become so.