Thursday, January 20, 2011

What the name means

The name of this blog comes from a comment made by my friend Eliza, who has spent a lot of time in Guatemala over the last decade or so. I was trying to explain to someone that there is more than one Guatemala -- there is the Guatemala of people who earn Q16 a day, and the Guatemala of the cafes that charge Q16 for a cappuccino (and of the people who can afford them). Eliza commented, "GuateBuena, GuateMaya", and although I don't know if she coined the term, I want to thank her for suggesting it. GuateBuena is the Guatemala of the elite (almost entirely non-indigenous) and the tourists, and GuateMaya is the Guatemala of the indigenous majority (which is mostly Maya, although we should note the Xinca and Garifuna communities, also largely impoverished and marginalized).  I don't mean to suggest that these are the only two Guatemalas, but they represent the two extremes.

My work moves me between these worlds. I am teaching at a private university -- which almost by definition means that students are from relatively privileged backgrounds, and only a handful are indigenous. Two days a week I stay in Antigua, a breathtakingly beautiful city about 45-60 minutes from the capital (depending upon traffic and depending upon what part of Guatemala City is your starting point). In the historic center of Antigua, the part that earned it UNESCO world heritage site status, the streets are lined with Spanish schools, boutiques, spas, tour agencies, hotels, bed and breakfasts, internet cafes, and restaurants that cater to the large population of expatriates, tourists, foreign volunteers and people studying Spanish. Indeed, Spanish schools seem to be one of the town's main businesses, and people come from around the world (but mostly from the U.S.) to study for a few weeks or a few months. 
The rest of the week I am in Quiché, a largely indigenous department that stretches up to the Mexican border (I mostly work in the southern part of the department). Here most people make their tortillas from scratch, often with corn they have grown themselves, cook on wood burning stoves, and drive beat-up Toyota pick-ups (if they have cars) rather than luxury SUVs or BMWs. 
I don't mean to oversimplify the distinctions. Antigua's tourist economy depends upon the indigenous (and non-elite Ladino) population. The sidewalks outside those upscale stores and restaurants are traversed by women in traje típico (literally, "typical clothing" but specifically referring to indigenous women's clothing -- a 6-yard length of fabric wrapped around the waist, and tied with a handwoven belt, and a handwoven or embroidered top called a huipil), often with children strapped to their backs, selling shawls, scarves, or jewelry.   So one doesn't have to travel from Antigua to the mountains of Quiché to see the contrasts; they are all around if you care to look. 


  1. I like the name very much! I also like your name "Gringa con sabor" very clever.

    I can't wait to read more!

  2. Your point about the extreme maldistribution of wealth here is quite accurate. And of course maldistribution of land, the problem that resulted in democratically-elected President Arbenz being taken out by the CIA in 1954. This was one of the early CIA-led coups around the world, in the interests of US corporations abroad, United Fruit in the case of Guatemala. One only need read the UN Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (at ) and School of the Americas Watch ( website to begin to understand the violence wrought against presumed "enemies of the State" -- and any indigenous person, even fetuses in the womb, were considered to be potential enemies of the State -- and thus the entire fabric of the society, which was already gravely affected by severe poverty and racism against indigenous peoples.

    I think of GuateBuena in contrast to GuateMala -- good/bad.... and the goodness of the people here, despite their struggles with extreme poverty and racism. Thanks for your other take on the Guatebena.

    I look forward to continuing to read your posts, which paint detailed pictures. Thanks, Lisa!

  3. Thanks. I've concentrated so far on the here and now, with a bit of historical context when necessary ... trying to avoid drifting off into the professorial mode. Land reform -- even the modest one proposed by Arbenz -- is still a key concern here in the highlands. I will probably include some more historical background as time goes on.