“What is that?” I asked Karen our tour guide, “That person is called a Brocha!” she said. “That’s a crazy job!”
Staring out my bus window in the middle of Guatemala, I could hardly comprehend the scene playing out before me. We were moving in traffic at 40 miles an hour or so and off to the side was a bus very different than our travel coach, slowing to near stop on the side of the road. Except, where our nicely appointed tour bus was tall with plush seats, I was staring at a converted school bus, not unlike the ones I used to take to school as a child. This school bus, which might have ferried school children in the U.S. some years ago was now painted over in wild colors. Blues, reds and turquoise swooped across the old yellow dog as if Pablo Picasso or Marc Chagall had decided to make their next masterpiece out of steel and rubber. Chrome adorned everything - the windows, the tail pipe, and especially the converted front grill taken from huge big rig and now finding a home on this late model school bus. And then there were the lights and the horns. There were no less than twelve chrome-clad horns recycled from trucks and boats arrayed across the roof and hood of the bus like horizontal pipe organ, and where it should have said, “Slow, Children” above the driver, a new LED sign blinked to life in a rainbow of colors celebrating the impending destination.
On top of the bus still driving along in traffic was a man who sat amongst the baggage. He moved effortlessly as the bus swerved this way and that moving bags around the chrome (of course) rack on which the bags were strapped. He then walked calmly along the room, grabbed the rearview mirror and bent down to speak to the driver through the window. Twisting his body around he landed on the opposite side just as the front door of the bus opened providing him a landing platform. This porter/barker/acrobat is called a brocha, or brush, in Spanish. His job is to help the driver pick up passengers, negotiate fairs and load baggage. He never stopped moving. He is in sync with the bus that the locals call a ‘chicken bus’ because of the famed crates of chickens that passengers used to strap to their roofs.
The lights on the chicken bus supputered “Xela”, in red, green and gold, being the name of our destination as well. We were both going to the same place, Xela, a mountainous city in the heart of Guatemala volcano country. Xela is the Mayan name for "the place". In fact, Xela was the second capital city of the Mayan people and of Guatemala. Most locals prefer that name over the official Spanish/Aztec name, Quetzaltenango. The double name of the city and the life of the brocha and the chicken bus itself told me so much about the country I was visiting.
I was asked to be a part of the American Jewish World Service, AJWS, Global Justice Fellowship. AJWS is a Jewish organization that harnesses the power of the North American Jewish Community to fight for human rights around the globe. I first came to know AJWS almost twenty years ago when it’s now Global Ambassador, Ruth Messinger, came on board to be the fledgling organization’s leader. I was about to enter rabbinical school and had a summer to slack off. Someone introduced me to the work of AJWS and within in a few weeks I found myself on a volunteer program in Ghana, West Africa. The experience of spending almost two months in the Global South changed my life. I woke up to the fact of my own privilege and power as an American man. I felt the chasm between the way the world is in front of me and the way our Torah and prophets want it to be. Not two weeks after coming home from Africa did I start my rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Ever since that time, I have dedicated my life to working on issues of social justice. Twenty years later, when I heard Ruth was taking a few rabbis on a trip to Guatemala, I said "sign me up". She was one of my rabbis, and to spend time with her and learn more about the global work of AJWS just felt right to me.
And so, I sat in my cozy seat, staring out the window at the chicken bus and at its maestro, the idefigatable brocha, I felt like the spiral of my life had taken another turn. The week I spent in the country, I marveled at the beauty and resiliency of the people who live there. There are thirty-seven volcanoes, jungles and cloud forests. There are sweeping plains and glassy lakes. I also marveled at the incredible stories of pain.
I learned of a group of Mayan midwives who are fighting for a rightful place in their medical system. Their organization CODECOT helps women with family planning in a country where the Catholic Church and American Foreign policy conspire to keep women quiet about certain forms of contraception and abortion. When we were at their offices and birthing center in Xela they cooked a meal of tamales and vegetarian chili for us. They welcomed us with Mayan rituals of lighting candles amongst bouquet of flowers. Some of us went to their homes where they showed us how they lived and how women can walk for miles seeking their services.
I learned from the women of the Asociacion Nuevo Horizonte, formed by Mayan Q’eqchies, indigenous women from Chisec in the north of Guatemala. They spoke about the need for integration of women into local councils, training women to feel less reticent about speaking in public and taking on authority roles. They educate women to become more aware of their rights.
I met Edwin Canil, who is a son of a Mayan slave and is now a community activist. When Edwin was six, he witnessed the massacre of his mother, his grandmother and four of his siblings by the military during the Guatemalan Civil War. In tears he described hiding in the jungle and watching his family die. Edwin fled to Mexico and after he grew up he became the head of a team that shaped the legal case under which a former dictator would be convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.
I met many more incredible people in this incredible place. All of them are heroes to me. In spite of their pain, these heroes of moral courage show us what it means to be resilient in the face of tyranny. Like the chicken bus and it’s brocha, Guatemalans have taken a life that feels thrown away, garbage to some uncaring fool, and recast it into a beautiful, powerful machine.