A Dangerous Story

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The single story creates stereotype, and the problem with stereotype is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Guatemala is a poor, dangerous country that everyone wants to leave. 

This is a story we often hear in the United States. It's one narrative people of all opinions and politics can agree on. One side feels pity and encourages us to welcome those arriving from its origins. Others point to this story as the reason people desperately want to be in the U.S. and why we must take extraordinary measures to keep them out.

But it is one story of Guatemala. And taken alone, it is a dangerous one - for U.S. citizens and Guatemalans alike.

The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult and it emphasizes that we are different rather than how we are similar.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For those of us in the U.S., this single story dehumanizes real people into objects of our pity or the anonymous enemy. It also ignores how much we have to learn from our neighbors to the south. We may not know that there is innovation and entrepreneurship happening in this country that could ignite creativity abroad. We may never sit at the feet of and listen to those whose faith has been shaped by experiences we've never known. And we may not recognize that while Guatemala has severe poverty, there is also a middle class. There are esteemed doctors and dentists and musicians and businesspeople. There are malls and restaurants and nail salons and CrossFit. (The photo above is the mall by my house in Guatemala City.)

Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

For Guatemalans, the single story that there is nothing in their country is demoralizing and fuels emigration. I suspect it also reduces in-country migration, which could be a possible solution for some families facing violence in their local neighborhoods. This single story places Guatemalans at the whim of U.S. politics, the mood of the day, and requires them to tell their sob stories to elicit pity and compassion. It threatens their dignity.  

When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are wild and colorful stories of Guatemala. They are as diverse as the threads of the local woven fabrics and the more than twenty languages spoken in the country. We need a broad understanding of Guatemala so that we can partner together as equals seeking the best for all.

So how do we do that? 

For starters, we can educate ourselves about the history of Central America (including U.S. involvement). Here's one resource.

We can also partner with diverse, Guatemalan churches - from different socioeconomic backgrounds - on our missions trips, and we can visit modern restaurants and stores in conjunction with rural villages. These experiences will allow young people on missions trips to experience what is both different and similar to their lives in the U.S. They will meet Guatemalan peers who can help them create a more robust narrative of the country from their solitary visit.

And we can support Guatemalan-led innovation and development. In our work with Bridge, I've been amazed (revealing my own tendency to lean into the single story) by the Guatemalan professionals - engineers and salespeople and business owners - who have generously lent their expertise to help us get this project off the ground. Relatedly, we're in conversation with Guatemalan investors who want to contribute and see the business expand and grow into its mission. At the same time, local craftspeople have helped us create unique machines to speed up our production and young laborers have shown up day after day to work alongside us in the warehouse.

The reality is that we are all stronger when we participate together in creating a fuller, more robust story.

P.S. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story" is a must-watch, if you haven't seen it. Here's the link!

P.S.S. This piece was originally sent to my monthly mailing list. You can sign up here.