Why Comix and Tours?
In a remote Maya village in the rainforest of the lush, breathtaking Toledo region of Belize, two Americans, Andy Laties and Rebecca Migdal, will dance to Marimba music by the flickering light of kerosene lamps.
During their visit to San Antonio Village, their hosts, Reyes and Jenny Chun, will teach the two of them many things, such as the names of traditional medicinal plants, the life cycle of the cacao tree, and how to slice a plantain as thin as paper for frying.
But the most important lesson of their journey will be an understanding of the growing threat to the Maya way of life. The two Americans will learn of the heavy price paid by those who resist foreign interests, and of the greater cost of silence.
The Founding of Gonzo Comix and Tours
On January 14 2008, Andy and Rebecca set out toward Belize to discover what sort of venture they were about to launch. Andy is a bookseller and sometime children’s theater actor and jazz musician; Rebecca, a cartoonist, web animator, performance poet and arts activist. As the couple embarked on their journey they were ready for any possibility. Would it be a fair trade design and import company that they founded? An educational publishing house? An organic chocolate packaging enterprise? All they knew was that they were determined to travel to the rainforest in southern Belize, to learn how they could best set their talents to work, to help empower the people there through grassroots community economic development
Along the way the couple met and interviewed a number of people including Toledo Eco-Tourism Association director Reyes Chun, human rights lawyer Maia Campbell and the late Gregor Hargrove, a cacao buyer for Green and Black’s Chocolate. After speaking with local people about their needs and wishes for their own communities, Andy and Rebecca understood that the families of subsistence farmers in that region desperately require better health care, educational opportunities, some form of supplemental income, and an infrastructure that provides for basic sanitation. In order to bring much needed dollars into the area, the villagers hoped to attract more visitors to their award-winning, indigenously owned and operated eco-tourism program.
“How can we help to bring socially responsible visitors to this lovely place, to experience the incredible natural beauty, fascinating culture and history, delicious organic local foods and friendly, delightful people?” the couple wondered. They considered their own areas of expertise and experience, their networks and resources. And so Gonzo Comix and Tours was born.
Says Rebecca: “Our intention on that trip was to search for a community to collaborate with, on an economic development project. Our specific purpose was to find a way to battle poverty and disease among women and girls, and so our plan was to search for ways to assist in bettering the prospects of girls and women to receive an education, health care and economic opportunities.
“We chose to visit the Toledo region of Belize largely because the landmark court decision in favor of communal tenancy for the Maya was such a remarkable achievement. We wanted to learn more about how such a thing had happened and what would happen next.
“What we learned was that in spite of these gains, the economic situation, both for the people in the Maya villages in the rainforest, and the Garifuna villages along the coast, was very fragile. The government of Belize had already granted the rights to oil under these lands and seas to foreign interests. In addition, a major international highway was being built, one that would likely unleash into Toledo a flood of immigrants from among the desperately poor of neighboring Guatemala. The foreign investors would soon have an endless source of cheap labor, and a means to bring in their heavy equipment and begin extracting the oil. In order to protect their environment and their way of life, we thought, the people of Toledo would need help and support from around the world.
“It seemed to us that in order to focus the attention of the global community on the crisis in Toledo we had to utilize our own talents in publishing, marketing and promotion. We knew we had a compelling story to tell. When we arrived in Punta Gorda and later traveled to San Antonio village, we discovered that there were indeed many remarkable stories, ones that we were eager to listen to, record, and to give the people we met an opportunity to tell to the world in their own words, and that foremost among these was the moving story of Maya activist Julian Cho, and the Communal Tenancy battle.
“We also found that there was a good deal of interest in using comics to tell the stories of the Maya and other communities affected by poverty and exploitation in the Toledo region. Because of the low literacy rate, especially in the rural areas, it was felt that comics could not only better communicate people’s stories to the broader world, but might also help to educate the members of the local communities about their rights regarding communal tenancy and its potential impact on the future of the region.
“After meeting Reyes Chun and learning more about the Toledo Ecotourism Association, we decided to focus on a strategy that would bring more socially responsible tourists to the area, while enhancing both economic and educational opportunities for local families, particularly the poorest and those least likely to stay in school, i.e. girls.”
“The strategy that we settled on was to establish a company that offers educational workshop tours, where travelers from the US would have the opportunity to engage in citizen journalism. We would bring our tour members to Toledo to talk with, and to collaborate with locals in developing comics that tell the stories of the struggles of the Maya and other local communities for justice, self-determination and economic opportunity.
“At the same time, we hope to run workshops in Toledo schools for local students ages 8-12, so that they can learn literacy skills through comics, based on a program developed in the US for students who are learning English as a second language.
“And finally, our goal is to publish the best of the comics in the US, and to use the proceeds to establish a scholarship fund for needy students in Toledo. Comics can also hopefully be made available for distribution for free in Toledo, for educational purposes and/or for sale to tourists, depending on the level of funding we are able to achieve.”
Who We Are
Rebecca Migdal is a graphic novelist, author, activist, filmmaker and puppeteer. She has a Masters degree in Communications from the New York Institute of Technology, and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook, Southampton. She has published cartoons, articles and reviews in a variety of periodicals including The Brooklyn Paper, and serves on the editorial board of World War 3 Illustrated magazine, the longest running anthology of political comics in the US. Right now, as a way of promoting awareness of the Gonzo Comix Belize Tours, she is preparing a proposal for the publication of a graphic novel on the life and work of Belizean Maya activist, the late Julian Cho.
Andy Laties is a microcredit entrepreneur and an award-winning independent author and bookseller. His book “Rebel Bookseller, How to Improvise your Own Indie Store and Beat Back the Chains” was a 2006 Independent Publisher Award Winner. He is the manager of the bookstore at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and treasurer of the board of directors of Vox Pop, a New York book cafe, and publishing house championing citizen journalism. Andy is currently completing a Masters degree in International Community Economic Development at Southern New Hampshire University.