Change the way you map the world around you, and you might see and hear and taste anew. see more
Mapmaking with fabrics and dances and sloths
By Nathalie Vadnais
Consider the map. We’ve all used one to get from point A to point B, to navigate the geography of the place in which we find ourselves. We also live in a world profoundly shaped by the arbitrary drawing of borders on colonial maps decades or centuries ago. But change the way you map the world around you, and you might see and hear and taste anew. That’s an idea that resonates with the Peace Corps community — which is why Hannah Engel-Rebitzer launched the World Maps Collaborative, through which she partners with mapmaking artists in a dozen countries to help them reach global audiences.
“Mixing traditional cartography with the abstract and experimental, our maps celebrate local culture and voices,” she writes. She served as a small business development Volunteer in Costa Rica 2010–12. That experience showed her the challenges artists faced in exporting their work.
“Mixing traditional cartography with the abstract and experimental, our maps celebrate local culture and voices,” says Hannah Engel-Rebitzer.
She later lived in Malawi while her husband, Taylor Stearman, worked with the Peace Corps there. For the World Maps Collaborative, she partners with artists throughout Africa and Central America to show the interaction of modern life with much older boundaries — and how these interactions transform local languages, cultures, and traditions. It’s a cartography infused with a deeply personal and artistic relationship between people and place.
The artists featured here create their maps through painting, sketching, and digital media. Each artist receives a base commission for their work and receives a majority of the profits from each sale. The platform picked up momentum just before COVID-19 hit — providing support for artists when they needed it. Engel-Rebitzer is also interested in working with the Peace Corps network to broaden artist participation.
Central America by Carlos Violante and Alejandra Marroquin. Follow them on Instagram: @delirioestudio
For a map of Central America, Carlos Violante and Alejandra Marroquin used hand-drawn sketches and bright colors and designs to highlight the rich diversity of the rainforests, jungles, beaches, mountains, and farmlands. Some animals featured—from toucans to tree frogs—are unfortunately at risk because of unsustainable hunting and fishing practices, deforestation, and climate change.
El Salvador is home for the two artists, who met at university, where both studied design. They run a studio, Delirio, and they share a deep love for their home and a respect for nature. For this map, “Our focus was mainly the biodiversity of the region,” Carlos says. “Even when the territory is not that big, it is home for thousands of species of plants and animals.”
Their artistic contributions feed off one another; the result here is truly playful. That matters, says Carlos. “There’s a new generation of artists, designers, and creative people in general that want to generate work inspired on their own culture instead of trying to replicate European and American aesthetics,” he says. “It feels fresh, authentic, and almost like a cultural re-vindication of those aspects of our identity that are looked down upon by the first world.”
Rwanda by Izabiriza Moise. Follow him on Instagram: @kuuruart.space
Izabiriza Moise believes in the power of storytelling to connect us. “Who we are as Rwandans and what [we’ve] been through” are central to his map, he says, which depicts Rwanda’s 30 districts using pieces of fabric and acrylic on canvas.
With this map and much of the work he does, Izabiriza Moise wants to show that his country is defined by far more than tragedy. “Whatever happens, we become again. We have a rich history and unity, and we are using what we have.”
Moise is largely a self-taught artist. With two friends, he founded Kuuru Art Space in the capital, Kigali. It is a place for young artists to experiment and receive support. Moise’s own community art projects include murals at orphanages and hospitals. In 2020, he participated in projects to support mental health with the University of Global Health Equity in Kigali. “If that art can heal me, it can heal others,” he says.
With this map and much of the work he does, he wants to show that his country is defined by far more than tragedy. “Whatever happens, we become again. We have a rich history and unity, and we are using what we have.”
Nicaragua by Nasser Mejia Moreno. Follow him on Instagram: @nassermorenoart
Nasser Mejia Moreno painted with acrylics on homemade paper to map places and cultural symbols in Nicaragua. “The social economy of my country is based on agriculture and tourism,” he says. “I tried to portray the places and activities that are associated with both locals and tourists.” The map becomes a place to connect visitors and those who call Nicaragua home.
Moreno did not have access to formal art education in the community of Granada, where he spent most of his early years, but he acquired skills through well-known artistic mentors and by studying art. And art by others is on display in this work, too — from dances to ceramics, making up some of the mosaic pieces of this map.
SEE MORE AND PURCHASE MAPS: theworldmapscollaborative.com
Nathalie Vadnais served as an intern with WorldView 2021–22. She is studying international relations at Virginia Commonwealth University.
His Family Fled the Nazis. In Ecuador, He Grows up Changing Names and Identities to Navigate an Uncertain Fate.Doris Rubenstein’s historical novel is based on the life of Enrique Cohen see more
The Boy with Four Names
By Doris Rubenstein
Reviewed by Nathalie Vadnais
In Germany in 1935, just after the Nuremberg Laws were passed, a young Jewish man named Abie is confronted by Nazi soldiers while walking with his Aryan girlfriend in public. In self-defense, Abie attacks one soldier and, believing him dead, flees to relatives in Holland. They equip him with their son’s identification and he takes a train to Milan, where he finds an old friend — and refuge.
So begins Doris Rubenstein’s historical novel The Boy with Four Names. In the story, Abie meets a young Jewish woman in Italy and, together, they flee — thanks in part to some forged documents courtesy of the Olivetti family of typewriter fame. They try their luck in Mexico, Argentina, and finally Ecuador. There they are welcomed as refugees and earn citizenship while working in agriculture. A son is born — Enrico, the Italian version of Heinrich, in tribute to poet Heinrich Heine. Enrico grows up in an unstable world and adopts four different names to assimilate into different cultures and escape dangers.
This is a novel written for young adults, Rubenstein says, but she hopes it will strike a chord with older adults, too. One reason: There is a real boy with four names — Enrique Cohen, whose family fled Europe when he was a toddler and wound up in Ecuador.
This is a novel written for young adults, Rubenstein says, but she hopes it will strike a chord with older adults, too. One reason: There is a real boy with four names — Enrique Cohen, whose family fled Europe when he was a toddler and wound up in Ecuador. Rubenstein served with the Peace Corps in Ecuador 1971–73, though she had actually met Enrique before that; he attended University of Michigan, met Rubenstein’s cousin, they wed, and together returned to Ecuador. When Doris Rubenstein would visit Quito during her Peace Corps service, she would stay with the Cohens. “I’ve been back for visits five or six times over the past 48 years,” she told interviewer Donald Levin. “I was always curious about their story, but they really didn’t talk about it much. I got snippets here and there, but nothing close to a narrative.”
Jewish farmers in Ecuador: a scene Enrique might have known. Photo courtesy Jewish Refugee Assistance Library
That changed in 2013, when Rubenstein was invited to an event at the synagogue in Quito. “My Jewish (and non-Jewish) friends in the States were amazed to learn that there are Jews living in Ecuador, some for four generations now,” she told Levin. “Their exposure to Holocaust stories pointed toward those who fled to the U.S. or Canada, or Israel. Maybe some of our generation knew that Jews had gone to Argentina because of the Eichmann trial. But Ecuador? As for teens, the only ‘teen’ story they seem to know of is Anne Frank’s, and that’s got a pretty sad ending. I thought that a different story directed at them—like Enrique’s life—would shed new light on the lives of Holocaust survivors.”
Rubenstein is the author of five previous books and considers herself primarily a writer of nonfiction. She sat down for an extended interview with Enrique Cohen in 2019. “His wife sat in on it, and after it was over, she said that she’d never heard most of the stories he told,” Rubenstein says, “and they’d been married over 50 years at that time!”
This review appears in the Spring-Summer 2022 edition of WorldView magazine.
Nathalie Vadnais is an intern with WorldView. She is completing a degree in international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who returned see more
In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who left family and home for work across the border — and returned. Conversations from a time before COVID.
By Paul Theroux
On a sojourn in pursuit of understanding, writer Paul Theroux set out five years ago to travel the length of the U.S.–Mexico border. Then he drove his old Buick south, visiting villages along the back roads of Chiapas and, here, a mountain town near Oaxaca. An excerpt from On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey.
In the small Zapotec-speaking town of San Baltazar Guelavila, I asked Felipe, a local man, the meaning of “Guelavila.”
“It means Night of Hell, sir,” Felipe said.
“And this river?”
“It is the River of Red Ants, sir.”
“That hill is impressive.”
“It is the Hill of the Nine Points, sir,” Felipe said, indicating the separate small peaks of the ridge with a dabbing finger. “Our soul goes there when we die.”
“The maize in the market is colorful.”
“Our maize has four colors,” he said with pride. “Red, white, purple, and blue. It is from ancient times.”
“That big snake painted on the side of the house,” I said, “it’s unusual.”
We were in the center of town, near the plaza and the market. The town itself was off the main road south of Oaxaca, at the end of a potholed track three miles into the mountains. A mural painted on the flat, high end-side of an adobe building near us depicted the blue archway entrance of the town, a man plowing a field, a woman making tortillas, and another man digging a chopped agave plant to cook in an oven for mezcal.
But the largest image in the mural was a sensuous snake, coiled around one upright of the blue archway. The snake’s singular feature was a rose blossom attached to — apparently growing from — the top of its greenish head.
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. “We believe that local people hunted this snake with the rose on its head day and night, because capturing it would bring us good luck.”
“Wouldn’t it be dangerous to capture a snake that size?” It was thick, with a darting tongue, and in the mural about thirty feet long.
“No danger, sir. Because no one ever caught the snake, and as a result they never had good luck.”
Felipe was a cotton weaver who made scarves and caps, his looms located in a two-story building at the edge of San Baltazar. Making adobe and distilling mezcal were the town’s other industries. Felipe had been to the States. He gave me the most succinct version of a border crossing.
“I crossed the border. Everyone was kind. My bosses were good to me. The thing I missed most was eating with my family. It’s very lonely in the United States. So I came home.”
All this time, whenever I arrived in a town like this, I was under the influence of my memories of the people I’d met — many Oaxacans — on the border. Many of the men in San Baltazar had been to the States, including a certain man who Felipe, clearing his throat with an awkward cough, warned me had a superior attitude as a result of having spent a lot of time over the border. That sometimes happened. A person went across, spent years in the States, then returned presumido (stuck-up).
I asked Felipe whether he could round up some returnees from the States and meet me under a tree near the weaving operation, the building with the looms. It was a lovely morning in San Baltazar, finches flitting in the boughs of the big shade tree. We sat on folding chairs, the men, young and old, sitting or standing, and the dog of one of the older men lay snoring at his feet. The sun streaming through the boughs gave them shadow-carved faces.
From his tone, I was sure the first man to speak was the stuck-up one. He was not conceited, but he was the loudest, the most reckless, and in a society where modesty was valued and boasting frowned upon, he might have seemed intimidating. But he was funny in the way of a person wishing to take charge, so humor took the sting out of his bluster.
“My name is Nilo,” he said. “Like the river.”
A big man in a dirty red T-shirt, he reclined on the thick up-raised roots of the tree, wagging a sandal on one foot, and rather than facing me, he shouted his answers to the fifteen others gathered there.
“It’s an adventure!” he shouted. “You leave your family — you don’t know whether you’ll live or die!”
This dramatic opening seized the attention of the others, and hearing the shout in his sleep, the dog twitched one of his ears.
“Where did you cross?” I asked.
“Tecate — I walked across,” he said. “It was easy then. I was with twenty-six people, four from this town, the rest from Mexico City. I paid 450 pesos, which is nothing, really” — about $25 that morning. “Now they charge 15,000” — $830. “But you can always get someone to pay, and then you pay them back. Listen, if you work hard, you can pay it all off in a year.”
“I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
Nilo’s confidence and his casual way with sums of money impressed the younger men. And they must have noticed, as I did, that Nilo was the grubbiest man in the group, with squashed sandals and dusty trousers, now and then lifting his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, exposing his rounded belly.
“Doing what sort of work?” I asked.
“Construction. I was in roofing.”
“How do you get hired?”
“Not a problem!” he yelled, enlightening me. “The guys doing the hiring are from here! Oaxacans. My brother’s in Utah — he’s been there twenty-seven years. I was in the States for fifteen.” He nodded with authority.
“I would have stayed, but my mother was getting old.”
As though to puncture Nilo’s bluster and give it a sense of reality, Felipe said, “It’s dangerous. All sorts of bad things can happen if you go with a stranger to the border. They might kidnap you and force you to get money from your family. You say, ‘I can’t pay.’ So they make you take drugs across.”
Nilo shrugged and made a face, as if to convey the thought, Hey, bad things happen everywhere.
“My brother,” Felipe went on, “the coyote dropped him at a house near the border. The people at the house robbed my brother of everything he had. It was obvious they were in cahoots with the coyote.”
“The polleros come here all the time,” the old man with the dog said, using the variant word for coyote. “They look for people who want to cross. I went with one — it was ’93. I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
I said, “Given the fact that there are dangers, and it costs money to go across, is it worth it?”
“Yes,” Felipe said. “If all you’ve got is a roof and nothing else, you go there. I was twenty-three when I went. I didn’t even have a roof. And there’s more work now than before. I went across, worked in construction and tree trimming, then got a job in a Chinese restaurant — doing dishes, then I was an assistant chef.”
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. The mural of San Baltazar Guelavila, near Oaxaca. Photo of mural by Thomas F. Aleto
“Why did you come back?”
“I couldn’t save enough money,” Felipe said. “Even after eight years I was still struggling.”
Nilo tugged at his grubby shirt and howled in contradiction, saying, “If you know how to save, you can save 8,000 in six months.” I took this to mean pesos, about $440.
“At the Chinese restaurant I was making $150 every two weeks,” Felipe said, and raising his voice, added, “I got into debt. I ate Chinese food for a year and a half. I never want to eat Chinese food ever again.”
I asked him the name of the restaurant.
“Chow Mein House,” he said. “In Azusa.”
Azusa is just off the 210 Freeway of Pasadena, on the way to Rancho Cucamonga, though Felipe lived in a house with other migrants in Covina, and took the bus to Citrus Avenue and Chow Mein House.
“How about you?” I asked a young man who’d been listening in silence.
He said his name was Isaac. “Have you been to the States?”
“No. But I’d like to see another place. To see how they live there. To know it.”
Another man piped up, “I’d like to leave here and find markets for my work.”
“What is your work?”
“Weaving,” he said, and explained, “Making rebozos and ponchos and shawls.”
“You should go. It’s amazing,” Nilo said, talking over the man. “It’s like being a goat in a green valley! You see it and you want to eat it all! You drink and eat and spend money!”
The old man with the dog said, “The work is hard. The pay is low. And sometimes there’s no work.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
“You can’t say there’s no work!” Nilo said. “There’s always this” — and he began gesturing — “you go into a department store, pick up some things, rip off the security tags, steal the things, and sell them on the street.”
Encouraged by the men’s laughter, he went on, “Or go to a grocery store, fill your shirt with shrimp” — he lifted his shirt and bunched it with his fists, the imaginary shrimp, to make his point — “and you walk out and sell the shrimp.”
I said, “By the way, that’s against the law. You can go to jail.”
“He’s joking,” one of the men said, in case I got the wrong idea about Nilo.
“Here in San Baltazar I was a rebellious young man,” Nilo said. “My father was gone. I broke windows. My mother was useless. Mothers can be weak! I was always drunk and getting into trouble. I needed my father.”
“Where was your father?”
“In California! He went when I was nine,” Nilo said. “It was the most beautiful time of my life.”
“I had no free time,” Felipe said, protesting. “I worked. I was tired. I slept. Then I worked again.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
Two women and two young girls walked from behind a one-story adobe building, the women carrying pitchers on their shoulders, the girls carrying clay bowls, a sudden biblical glimpse — attending women in long skirts, bearing drinks.
Men with stories to tell: Men of the town of San Baltazar Guelavila flank writer Paul Theroux. Photo courtesy Paul Theroux
“Tejate,” Isaac said. “It tastes good.”
The liquid poured into the bowls was gray, with a grainy texture and a scum of bubbles on the surface, and it tasted sweetish, a thick soup of — so they explained — maize, flor de cacao, peanuts, coconut, and roasted mamey seeds, or pixtle in Zapotec. Because of the extensive grinding, kneading, roasting, and toasting of ingredients, this pre-Hispanic concoction is called one of the most labor-intensive drinks on earth.
“Important people used to drink this,” Felipe said, and by important people, he was harking back six hundred years, because (in the long memory of Mexico) he meant Zapotec royalty, for whom tejate was reserved.
“Drink, Don Pablo! You are welcome here!”
Except for Nilo, the rest of the men were weavers, spending all day at a loom. Nilo explained that he had diabetes and was no longer strong. “Because of my diabetes they wanted to cut my leg off!” But he had refused, and stubbornly, defiantly still walked, though he had no work.
Felipe guided me into the nearby building and upstairs to the weaving room, where there were seven head-high wooden looms, some of the weavers sitting, thrusting the shuttles at right angles through the tight threads, pulling the beams down, working the treadles, and in all that effort — the rattle of skeletal frames and the stamping of treadles — lengthening the cloth by one thread.
(Recalling that, it seems a fit image for what I am doing now, fussing with my fingers and hesitating, then tightening the line and starting again, minutes passing, this memory of weaving enlarged by one sentence.) Some of the men who had been seated under the tree, talking to me, took their places on benches at looms and resumed weaving. With the clacking and chattering of the wooden machinery in this upstairs workshop, it was hard to hold a conversation, yet I noticed that the men were speaking in a language that was not Spanish.
I beckoned Isaac to a balcony and said, “Are you speaking Zapotec?”
“Yes,” he said. “We speak Zapotec among ourselves.”
A man listening said, “It’s like having a secret language! You can talk about someone who doesn’t speak it and say anything you want while in their presence.”
The town of San Baltazar was completely bilingual, the school taught in both Spanish and Zapotec. But Isaac’s son Alejandro, who was fourteen and said he was a student, was not in school that day, though school was in session. Alejandro was sitting at a loom, weaving lengths of black cloth.
“How’s business?” I asked Isaac.
“Demand is unstable,” he said.
“Yet we keep working,” Felipe said. “We work twelve hours a day. It’s hard. It’s like working in the States.”
This excerpt appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated April 30, 2022.
Paul Theroux began teaching English as a second language in Nyasaland as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1963. During the nation’s transition to independence as Malawi, Prime Minister Hastings Banda accused Theroux of supporting one of Banda’s political opponents. Theroux was expelled from Malawi and was early terminated from the Peace Corps in 1965. He is the author of more than 30 books of fiction and 18 travel books including The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster, Dark Star Safari, and Figures in a Landscape. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.