Guest Writer:Janice Prendergast Artist and Art Professor Nassau Community College (www.guatemalahands.org) Amelia (A-mahl-ya)
When our eyes met, Amelia was standing alone in shy silence surrounded by the buzz of the busy disabled children in the makeshift art room I worked at in the Fundacion Pediatrica in Guatemala City. Major burns and muscular deformities had stolen the innocence of the mostly Maya children. And that day, that Sunday after traveling 7 hours from the highlands to Guatemala City, these brave, resilient children would be screened for hand and limb surgery or hand therapy by the doctors and hand therapists who donate their time and skills for the Guatemala Healing Hands Foundation located in Brooklyn NY.
It was clear as rain that Amelia was pure traditional Maya. She had the searching sad eyes and enigmatic smile, she spoke only Maya, no Spanish, and she wore the huipile (blouse) of her father’s community and the skirt of her mother’s. The hand-woven threads with vivacious colors fused to create patterns of ancient Maya symbols in their fabrics. Amelia’s colors in her dress burst forward but her being remained hidden.
Amelia had fallen victim to her culture. The Maya boil large vats of water on outdoor wood fires throughout the day. Like many Maya toddlers, Amelia fell into the vat of scalding water and burned most of her body except her hands. Amelia was now 8 years, severely scarred and had endured countless skin grafts that succeed if there is proper understanding of post op care at home. Many times the skin shrinks back from lack of care due to the language barriers.
But on that screening Sunday, our language was our creative hands. Hands became the language of the art room. My large hands showed her what she could do with the vibrant colored pipe cleaners. Her tiny fingers went to work with the zest that matched the colors. She burst alive weaving, curling, and twisting the stems and slipping in beads to create crowns and jewelry. Her little fingers weaved those stems into my hair, and adorned me with her braided necklaces, bracelets and rings. She did the same for the others and showed them her techniques. Not a word was spoken: all dialogue was with the hands. The act of creating made a community out of strangers, gave pause to fear and a sobering reality, and replaced it with uplifting, spirited, joyous play. And for me this hands-on experience answered a question I had been pondering.
I kept on thinking, what makes the Maya weave with luscious colors that burst with a life force when their lives are of suffering and oppression? I know the answer now, but I think this quote from Elena Ixcot, a Maya weaver, sums it up best: “The act of weaving represents something very important. It shows people on the outside that we want to live; we don’t want to die. Through our art, we can express our feelings and one forgets what one has lived through.”
Amelia lived through a grueling 5 hr. surgery done by the skilled hands of American doctors, followed by a three month recovery. She suffered. I visited her post op and her eyes met mine with the same strong silent power as the first day. A bland white sheet covered her bandaged body, and her left arm was in a cast. Only her tiny fingers peeked out. I touched them gently, and she gave me that enigmatic smile. No tears or screams or moans, just silent endurance. I lifted my camera. She nodded. I took a quick photo.
It is now November, and I recently returned from a hospital as a patient. My sister gave me a group of Guatemalan worry dolls glued together arranged in a circle. Handmade, they emanated the spirit of the strong quiet of the Maya. I would spend hours in pain, but my greatest distraction were the worry dolls that engaged my vision. I thought of Amelia often. Our hands creating, the doctors hands, the therapists hands, the hands of the volunteers, all worked together to bring healing not only of the body, but of the spirit and not only of the moment, but of forever. The photo of Amelia is taped in my studio, an icon for strength and for the blessings she handed to me.