21 May, 2014

A Two-Side Country

"Paraguay is a two-side country," my student said, to open his group's presentation on popular texts as cultural artifacts. Earlier in the week, we watched A Christmas Story, and I had lectured on the various ways that film functioned as an artifact of Midwestern US culture, the culture in which I was raised. For their group presentation, they were to discuss a popular text that illustrated their culture(s) in the same way.

My ears perked up. I wrote down "two-side country" in my notebook.

"There is a side that we want to show, and a side we do not," continued the group's spokesman, a young man who sits near the back and likes to surf on his tablet while I lecture. "Today we want to show you the both sides."

They began by showing me this: 

"This is Mercado 4," said the next young man in the group, whose turn it was to speak. 

"Mercado 4 here in town?" I interrupted him, even though I generally allow presentations free reign to go where students want to take them, because I knew this place, had stood there myself.

"Sí...I mean, yes."

"I've been there." My students' eyes got big, just for a second, but he recovered. 

"Not alone," he said, not a question.

"No, just me," I said, and he gave me the kind of look I imagine skydivers get a lot, that look that says "you're clearly insane, but I'll give you credit for chutzpah." 

"Did you get mugged?" I shook my head. "That was lucky," he said. 

I nodded, chastened, and the presentation went on. The group used 7 Cajas to illustrate some pretty hard truths about this country : corruption, crime, and the crippling poverty that leads people to do terrible things. I nodded as they spoke, and thought about the woman with a hunched back bigger than her head who I bought some cough drops from for less than fifty cents American, the dirty, naked, lost-looking children who sometimes wander the Plaza where I like to read during siesta time, the man who followed my parents and I for half a block pleading incoherently for alms, the only words I understood for sure being "please," and "rich American." 

Next, my students showed me this:

"We want to show you what is good here, so you will see both," said the final speaker of the group. The least fluent in English, he read from a prepared script. "We are working to be a cultural place, to improve the standing of women, and to make the poverty less for every person. We value art, and music, and beauty. The harp is our instrument, and we love to hear it because it is beautiful and it makes us proud of our home."

I thought about the openness of the people here, the beauty of the architecture, and the way even a simple meal here seems to nourish your body and soul. I thought about the harpist who played in my hotel restaurant one night at dinner, how he seemed to be performing a magic trick and making music all at once, and how pleased he was when my parents bought a CD from him. I could see why, in spite of so many terrible realities, a person could be proud to be from here.

"So you see," said the first speaker, "we are a two-side country." 


  1. This is beautiful to read. I feel like it goes much deeper, as well. For people in general. We are two-sided people.

    1. Absolutely. There are a lot of differences here, but really, they are surface differences for the most part. At the bottom of all of us, we are all a contradiction. But often a beautiful one.

      And thank you. <3