On Thursday, April 26, we attended an International Coffee Hour at UWM’s Inclusive Excellence Center. The coffee hour was focused on the country of Guatemala, and featured Guatemalan music, coffee, and a short presentation from a Guatemalan student named Nelson, who has been living in the United States for roughly five years. The Inclusive Excellence Center is located in the Student Union, and, according to the Center’s website, “is primarily dedicated to working with a promoting diversity, equity and social justice on campus.” International Coffee Hour highlights different countries throughout the year and is “designed for students to not only network and meet new people, but to ask questions and gain global knowledge through the experiences of others.” Guatemala was the final country to be highlighted this year.
Before entering the event, we were encouraged to put on nametags that included phrases like “ask me about where I’d like to travel” and “ask me about where I’m from” to encourage conversation between attendees. Once inside, we could help ourselves to a spread of snacks, coffee, and tea. The roughly twenty or so attendees, most of whom appeared to be students, chatted quietly as Marimba music played in the background. After about ten minutes of mingling, Nelson began his presentation, which covered a range of topics from food, politics, and things to do in Guatemala.
Nelson was dressed professionally, and though he knows his home country well, he referred to notecards that he held in his hands. He did seem a little nervous, but also genuine about wanting to share about his home. As he talked, we observed that there were times that he paused, trying to think of the right English phrase for what he was trying to say. He was translating on the spot for us, using hand motions and descriptions in order to tell us in English parts of his home culture that he remembered in his dialect of Spanish. As we were paying careful attention to not only what Nelson was saying, but his whole embodiment of translation in action, we could see many of the practices and actions described by Laura Gonzales in Sites of Translation. He was a good communicator, and we think most of the audience appreciated the work he did to explain Guatemalan cultures and customs.
For the most part, the presentation was lighthearted. Nelson shared pictures of his family, his favorite spots in Guatemala, and spoke of memories of going out dancing with his siblings. We all had a good laugh when someone from the audience asked him what he missed most about home and listed food before family, which Nelson defended by saying that no one makes better food than his mother. So when he said food, he was really thinking of his family. This reminded us of the texts we’ve read that show Latinx cultures are focused more on family, collective success, and community. He seemed quick to defend himself, that he would never put food above family, and he talked with much fondness when he showed pictures of his cousins.
However, the presentation had its serious moments as well, such as when one attendee mentioned the hardships during and following the Guatemalan civil war, questioning the poverty that is still present there. It is worth mentioning that this attendee was observed to be white, and they continued badgering Nelson with questions about Guatemalan government and solutions to poverty until the person hosting this event stepped in politely to suggest space for others to ask questions. While this student mentioned they were asking these questions for a paper they were writing, it was clear that they were not considering Nelson’s feelings about being put on the spot in front of people as to what’s wrong with his home. He did the best he could to answer the questions, but he seemed very uncomfortable and possibly even offended that this person would assume Nelson represents the whole country of Guatemala. We were surprised by this interruption, and also reminded of our discussions in class in which we’ve considered how one person can be viewed as the representative for their whole culture or race.
On a different note, another observation that we made is that as he discussed certain facts about food, music, or other components of his presentation, Nelson consistently differentiated Guatemala from Mexico. It seemed that he had grown accustomed to pointing out that his country and its traditions were different from others, as if people in the United States often assumed things about his home and heritage. He made the comment, “I say ‘Mexican’ because you are more familiar with it than Guatemalan”. However, he went on to give us many ways in which Guatemala is not Mexico, and many ways in which each town is its own culture. For example, one picture was of a girl wearing a uniquely patterned and brightly colored outfit. Nelson told us that each community has their own specific colors and patterns that marks them as part of their own community. Additionally, he made it very clear that there is not one language and culture in Guatemala, but many. He mentioned 21 groups and languages of Mayan that have survived in Guatemala, and even a language that mixes Mayan, African, and English, called Garifuna. Lastly, he showed how different communities celebrate holidays in various ways across the country.
Guatemala is home to many language, religious, and cultural variances. Nelson taught us not only to see Guatemala as multi-cultural, but as separate from other Latinx-identifying countries. As we chatted afterwards about our experience at the International Coffee Hour, we wondered if students were encouraged to come because of classes they were involved in, and how to get more of an audience for these speakers like Nelson who are willing to share about places outside of America. Considering the fact that UWM has international students, and that the world is bigger than the United States, we wondered if it might benefit graduate students to go to these as well. It can teach you about other places and people, but it can also be a means of networking with other students and of showing support for people of various communities.
DK & CS