Monday, February 21, 2011

Fair trade and indigenous women: Oxlajuj Batz

Everywhere one turns, it seems, there are NGOs and volunteer organizations and fair trade groups and cooperatives, many of them focused on women, especially indigenous women. In recent years there has been a spike in fair trade and foreign non-profit organizations working with indigenous women artisans. It makes sense, as Guatemala is well known for its hand woven textiles; "Maya weaving" is one of the "brands" that the national tourist agency, Inguat, uses to promote Guatemala. I write this not to in any way belittle the efforts of these groups or to minimize the crying need to address women's issues; the fact that only a tiny fraction of the violent crimes against women are ever prosecuted is just one index of the grave problems that women, and particularly rural women, face.  I myself am involved in some such efforts, although deeply aware of some of the contradictions. 

I will leave a fuller analysis or reflection upon the politics of handicrafts and fair trade for another time.  Some months ago, in the early phases of establishing a Mayan women's handicrafts association in New Bedford, I came across an organization based in Panajachel, Sololá, called Oxlajuj B'atz (thirteen threads).  When we were starting to brainstorm possible names for our group, one of the first names my Maya colleagues came up with was Oxlajuj B'atz (oxlajuj means thirteen in K'iche', but it is also used to refer to a large group or collective). So I started to search to see if the name was "available". I didn't find any corporation under that name registered in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but I searched a bit farther and found a non-profit based in Guatemala that worked with a number of  women's handicrafts cooperatives in different parts of the highlands. We chose another name for our group (Oxib' B'atz: three threads) but I decided to write to Oxlajuj B'atz anyhow. I explained how I had come across their organization and also told them about our group, and mentioned that I would be in Guatemala in 2011.  A few months later I received a very friendly (and somewhat apologetic) reply from someone on their staff named Andrea, who invited me to contact them when I was in Guatemala. I started trying to call and email her shortly before I arrived, and after a few abortive attempts we finally spoke by phone and agreed that I would come down to visit them on Thursday, February 10.  

So, last week, after my usual Thursday morning yoga class in Antigua and some errands, I set off for Panajachel. This was my first trip to Lake Atitlán; previously I'd only seen it from a distance -- there is a "scenic view" spot along the Panamericana, called the Mirador de las Nubes (lookout point of the clouds) and I stopped there once on my first trip to Guatemala but I had never been to the lake itself.

The directions had me taking the highway to Los Encuentros -- a pretty ugly crossroads along the highway. There is actually a town and perhaps the town center is lovely but my only encounter with Los Encuentros is as the junction where there is a big green and white sign informing drivers that if you take the right fork, it will take you to Santa Cruz del Quiché and other points in Quiché; the left fork (which is really the continuation of the road) will take you to Quetzaltenango (also called Xela). The junction itself is crowded with buses and camionetas and trucks; passengers walk in the middle of the road, dispatchers or inspectors (not sure who they are but there are usually some people who seem to have clipboards or pads of paper walking around between the vehicles) circulate, some food vendors perambulate, and the whole thing is a bit of a mess.  I had always taken the turnoff for Quiché, but this time I stayed to the left and then looked for the turnoff to Sololá (the town right before Pana) and then for Panajachel. 

The road was narrow but only gentle curves and slopes until I reached Sololá and then it started to really wind down towards the lake. Sharp hairpin curves along cliffs, with the lake surface peeking through the trees to my right, a dizzying sight. No false moves here; a sloppy turn and you wind up doing something that looks like Thelma and Louise or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So I didn't really look at the lake much and certainly didn't stop to take pictures along the way (I did take photos -- just a few -- down in the town, along the lakefront).

I found my way through the town and turned onto Calle Santander, lined with stalls selling handicrafts, jewelry, and also storefront boutiques. There looked to be a few businesses that would be of interest to locals, but a lot of cafés, restaurants, and also, a number of shops designed to appeal to tourists of good conscience, promising that the proceeds of the tour or the sales would go to benefit women or children or families. The pedestrians walking along the street were a mixed lot: mostly foreigners, split pretty evenly between three groups: young people (with their fair share of tattoos, piercings, dreads, gauzy skirts); and then two groups of not-so-young. One seemed to be more well-heeled vacationers or retirees, and the other, solidarity tourists or volunteers (distinguished by their clothing, body language, hair styles). I overshot the corner where Andrea had said she would be but since we both had cell phones we quickly found each other and she guided me through the one way streets around the block to the building that Oxlajuj B'atz occupies.

Andrea explained that they had fairly recently moved into this building which is very centrally located. The building, which is over 100 years old, was purchased by a Dutch expatriate who is renovating it for varied uses. There will be two rental apartments; a restaurant; some other areas that have not been defined. Oxlajuj B'atz has a storefront, where they sell the good produced by the various cooperatives with which they work, and office and meeting space upstairs. Andrea explained that the store serves as a training site as much as a revenue-generating enterprise; they don't really expect the store to generate a steady revenue stream but women can gain experience in sales that can perhaps lead to jobs in the future.  I didn't really look at the store closely until after I had gone upstairs to meet and then outside to walk around, so I will more or less write this "in order". 

After giving me a tour, including the patio out back where they will be doing weaving demonstrations, Andrea took me to the conference room and heated some water for tea and explained the history of the organization. This non-profit was founded by some folks from the states, who worked with other non-profits that did work in Maya communities, and then it became autonomous, although it still uses the Maya Educational Foundation as its fiscal sponsor.  The cooperatives with which it works are in over a dozen communities, spread throughout 7 departments. Some of the cooperatives are quite seasoned; the one member cooperative that is located in Quiché has been in existence for 25 years, and many of the current members are daughters of the original founders.

There is a staff person who visits the cooperatives regularly, and the women come into Panajachel (I'm not sure with what frequency; probably depends upon the cooperative and how far it is from Pana) to bring the finished goods to place at the store. In addition, there are workshops and training sessions: for example, on women's rights, conflict resolution, leadership, organizational structure. The central office tries to provide support for the cooperatives (that is, helping them figure out effective ways of running themselves) and markets their goods while trying to keep them from being dependent on the central office (i.e. "you tell us what to do and we'll do it.").  

She gave me a few brochures, apologizing that they were in Spanish; I explained that they would be useful since I could give them to the women in Oxib' B'atz' in Guatemala and in New Bedford. She also printed out a copy of their strategic plan for the next five years, which I have to admit I haven't had time to read (I have several hours in airports and on planes next week, so plenty of time for reading).

I mentioned that I wanted to find a way for the women in Tapesquillo -- the Guatemalan contingent of Oxib' B'atz' -- to meet some of the more established cooperatives. While Adrian, my colleague back in New Bedford, is very concerned about the group, both in New Bedford and in Guatemala, maintaining its autonomy and "doing its own thing", the women in Tapesquillo have almost no organizational experience. Maybe the "almost" is being generous. I'm not interested in having them follow someone else's blueprint, but I think it would help them to see another group that is up and running, and to be able to talk to some other women who are in circumstances similar to theirs -- living in isolated rural communities with little in the way of jobs or education -- and perhaps gain some confidence (as well as pick up some useful tips). Otherwise I fear that I'd have to help jump start them (and I still might decide to do some workshops on organization for them), or they would just sit around and wait for Adrian or someone to tell them what to do next.

Andrea told me that there was an international women's day activity planned on the Saturday prior to March 8 -- the women from the different cooperatives would be coming to Panajachel and doing weaving demonstrations in the courtyard. The women from Tapesquillo were welcome to come, and this way they could meet a lot of the groups and also see the entire set up. I said I'd speak with them, and also expressed an interest in having them meet directly with one of the longer-running cooperatives since I imagined that at a public event with a lot of people there might not be a chance to really have a focused conversation. So we agreed that I would stop in some Tuesday when they have a staff meeting and then get put in contact with the group in Quiché.

Andrea told me that there was a lot of pretty overt racism in the town. Most of the population of the town center is Ladino and foreigners (tourists and expats), and the indigenous people live in the surrounding areas. They of course come into the town center to take advantage of the presence of tourists.  fair amount of resentment in the town 

I wanted to take a look at the lake and the view, so I made my way back to Santander and walked away from the center, down towards the water, past more stores and vendors and tourists. Many of the vendors -- it was nearly 5 -- looked as though they had just about run out of steam; some were clustered on the ground near their stands talking, but were unwilling to pack up in case they got some sales. 

Once I got to the lake, I noticed that there were as many Guatemalan tourists as there were foreign visitors (Andrea, who lives in Pana, had told me that it was a popular site with Guatemalans and my limited experience bore that out). A few young couples embracing; a few groups of young men looking at the view and taking photographs of it and themselves.  The sky changed every few minutes, clouds and mist circling around the mountains. I would have stayed longer but I was anxious about reaching Los Encuentros before dark (it gets dark very quickly in the mountains: long twilight and then poof! black sky). I thought I could probably maneuver the road from Los Encuentros to Chinique in the dark if necessary (and yes, I did, although it was very slow going with all the hairpin turns and lack of lighting or reflectors).

Back at the shop, I tried to resist the temptation to buy out half the stock. Each item had a small tag (they are all identical in size and basic design) that opens to a bilingual (Spanish and English) description of the cooperative from which item had come (the individual artisan was not always named).   Here, for example, is the text on the tag for a maroon cotton scarf I bought (the scarf has a slit so that you can slip one side through, depending upon how you want to arrange it).  
Waqxaqi Kan means "the 8th Weaving Day" in our language, Kaqchikel. The group was formed in 1985 by 6 women widowed from the Guatemalan civil war remaining alone to raise our children. We got organized and started looking for opportunities to be available to help our families through our ability to weave. Now we are 20 women working with a variety of handicrafts.

There was a space to write the name (but it was blank on this particular scarf). In addition to handwoven scarves, table runners, place mats, and bedspreads, there were also small purses and wallets, and some notebooks that were bound in handwoven cloth.  There were some sewn handbags, and also some other items: fair trade coffee (but no dark roast, so I didn't buy it); chocolate balls for making hot chocolate; some ceramics; some artisanal-made shampoos, and a few DVDs and calendars.

When I was able to tell the women in Tapesquillo about this, they were excited about the idea of taking a trip to Panajachel. Because of poverty and lack of transportation, they don't get to go to many places, and they are envious of my mobility. Since none of the three women who have been most interested in the project has a partner at the moment (two are single mothers, the other is just single) they joked about looking for novios (boyfriends) in Panajachel.  Their mother/mother in law -- two of the women are sisters and one is their sister in law -- joined in the merriment and said she wanted to come too,  and look for a new husband (her husband was in the room but not paying much attention to our conversation).

Cars and crime

Okay, so I've been hit with two petty crimes against my car (here pickups or "picops" are lumped under the general rubric of "carro"). The first occurred about two weeks ago; the last one this weekend.  

On one of my Sunday excursions up to teach English in Tapesquillo, someone (probably a local kid) apparently tried to remove one of the "aros" (the decorative hoops that adorn the wheels of my truck). The aros do not serve any real function as far as I can tell, and they are secured on with plastic fasteners in addition to being fit into the wheel rim. I had parked the pickup about 25 yards up the road from the entrance to the school, next to the local church, one of the few places on the road to Tapesquillo 1 where there is space alongside the road to leave a vehicle. 

However, the school building is quite a ways down the path... so it's not like anyone was surveilling the road. I returned to my car to see that one of the aros (passenger's side, front) was hanging off (although the plastic clip was still fastened).  I wedged it back in, and my friends suggested that the next time I come I put my car inside the gate that opens to their house. 

There isn't really a driveway, however ... the road takes a very sharp curve right where my friends' home is, and there are is a very steep drop from the paved surface, a lot of ruts and rocks. It looks really, really sketchy. Also you have to walk through someone else's property to get to their house (i.e. their house does not front onto the road but is behind and below another house). I was worried about my ability to get out of the "driveway" (a well-founded fear, as  you will see below).  I put the car halfway into the "driveway" and was able to partially close the gate behind.

But when I returned to the car, the aro (same one: passenger's side, front wheel) was missing. My friends assumed some neighborhood kids had probably taken it to use for a toy, or just to mess around -- I can't imagine that a single aro would have much if any resale value. What I don't know is whether this was specifically targeted against me (as the lone gringa who traverses the road to Tapesquillo), or whether it was generalized mischief.

Then, Saturday night or Sunday morning, someone removed both driver's side and passenger's side mirrors on the truck. I have access to a parking space two and a half blocks away from my house, where my landlord parks his truck. It is not locked but it is off the street. However, sometimes I've just been tired or lazy. And until Saturday nothing had ever happened.

Sunday morning when I returned from my walk, I was walking along the sidewalk and noticed something odd where the mirror should have been on the driver's side of the truck (I had parked with the driver's side next to the sidewalk: people park their cars every which way here. I thought someone had folded the mirror in to get by but when I got closer I saw that there was no mirror, just the arm that held the mirror.  I looked on the passenger's side and someone had industriously taken a screw driver and removed the mirror and the arm that held it. 

Again, no way of knowing whether this was general mischief or whether someone knows this is my car and is expressing his (sorry, I can't imagine a young woman doing this, not in this town) resentment.

Luckily I live across from an auto service center, and although they were not open on Sunday, they took care of it first thing this morning.  And from now on I will be parking off the street, no matter how tired or lazy I am.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A chance encounter: Ofrendas en Chiché

Today being Saturday, I went to the market in Chiché, planning just a quick stop to get some yerbas (greens), chicken and some gifts to bring back when I return to the U.S. for a brief visit next week. I told myself sternly before leaving to not allow myself to get seduced and buy too much, so that I don't end up with a puddle of brown mush in the fridge upon my return. Last week I ended up giving away a couple of things (small quantities) so they didn't rot and go to waste. 

On the way back, as I was snaking my way out of town, I passed in front of the church, a simple but lovely structure. I've never stopped there, but today my eyes and nose were grabbed by the sight and smell of three men on the plaza in front of the church, wielding metal cans filled with pungent incense, the smoke of which spiraled through the air in great clouds: sacerdotes Mayas (or aq'iqs).  

I greeted them (they nodded their acknowledgment of my presence even as they continued their prayers and their labors with the incense) and motioned towards my camera; they nodded again (which I took to mean that it was okay to take photographs), and I did my best to not impede their work.

One stood in front of the entrance, on the steps; I noticed that at his feet he had a small burlap sack with candles, a plastic bag filled with what looked like popped corn, and a small flask of aguardiente or rum.  

I do not know a lot about Maya religious practices -- that is, I don't know the details of prayers and the specific meaning of each of the offerings. But my previous experiences with Afrocuban religions (and the few discussions I have had with Maya friends about religion) have given me a basic conceptual scheme. Like in Afrocuban religions, the Catholic Church provides a locus or a shelter. I don't think people think of what they are doing as "syncretic"; they are simply doing what they do. So it didn't surprise me that the church was open, and that people in the community were using it for their own purposes -- and although I didn't speak to anyone today about what they were doing, I would imagine that they did not see any contradiction between today's offerings and perhaps going to Mass tomorrow.  Although the Catholic Church has not always been hospitable to Maya religion (or "spirituality" as it might be called), and certainly not at all levels, there have been priests (and nuns) who have been tolerant or welcoming; in 2009, I attended a community worship led by a Franciscan sister in a remote rural community, and the floor was decorated with traditional offerings: candles in four colors, pine needles, and before the Catholic prayers began, everyone knelt and saluted the four cardinal directions with prayers in K'iche'. 

When I entered the church building I was momentarily blinded: the sun's rays refracted through a thick cloud of incense smoke. There were three low flat stone tables in the center of the church -- that is, in the middle, an equal distance from the side walls, and leading in a line towards the altar.  Each was partially covered with thin white candles, brightly flaming, arranged in evenly spaced rows.  As I stood and watched, two other priests tended the tables: saying prayers, lighting more candles, and placing the end of each newly-lit candle in the flame of one already standing, softening the wax so that the candle could stand upright, eventually filling the space on top of each tables. Each one worked slightly differently and I didn't stay long enough to analyze what each did, but they lit candles, sprinkled flower petals, and then rum on top, reciting prayers all the while. 

One man worked alone, his wife kneeling quietly alongside or slightly behind him. Another, younger man, was accompanied by a friend, assistant or another priest. There were a few women seated on the side of the church, and when I arrived one woman was kneeling alongside the altar at the front, which was already nearly filled with candles. I again motioned to the priests when they looked at me, with my camera in hand, and they indicated their assent. The air was sweet and heavy with incense and although I don't know enough K'iche' to understand the prayers, and I didn't know the specific details of why this offering was being made, I tried to imagine what it might be about.

Two young women dressed in jeans came in while I was there, and few elderly men wearing morales (crocheted shoulder bags) and straw hats. A young girl wearing a Chichicastenango-style huipil over a pair of maroon or purple sweatpants with a white stripe down the side and sneakers scampered in and out. 

I moved back to the entrance, and saw that the spaces on either side of the open doors had been filled with candles placed on the floor.  Back outside, one of the priests was standing in front of a small house-like structure on the plaza in front of the church. It had three arched openings in the front, and he placed round globe of incense and candles on the ground inside each of the arches -- starting on the right, lit the candles, and then stepped back and swung his censer around as the candles burned and then the incense inside caught fire. 

A friend who saw the photos on Facebook says that this would have been an offering to Tojil; he didn't offer more details but in looking through a few sources, I found references to Tohil as either a fire deity or a jaguar deity, who was especially important to the K'iche' and Kaqchikel. According to some sources he is the patron deity of the K'iche', or at least the patron deity of Q'umarcaj, which was the ancient K'iche' capital (the remains of which I visited a few weeks ago).

More news: war, violence, and the politics of language

The war is not over, not by a long shot.  Just a casual glance at news stories in today's paper, for example, demonstrates the long-lasting impact and many unresolved issues. One article discussed a group of people who had been forced to flee because of the war and who returned to their community to reclaim lands. The current residents stopped them. The mayor met with them and declared that the government had to do something about the situation.

That's the link for the article. One of the women is carrying a sign saying "I returned to MY Cubulco, 30 years after they killed my parents, siblings and burned our house." It doesn't say what the ethnicity is of the people who are opposed to returning these lands to the war survivors. But this speaks to one of the overarching problems in Guatemala: land reform. This is on my mind as we were supposed to have had a workshop on the subject of agrarian reform this afternoon (but it didn't happen because of lack of coordination).  So I've been reading up a bit and thinking about this.

The war left many scars: the graves, marked and unknown, of the hundreds of thousands who were killed; the psychic and physical scars on those who managed to survive rape and torture. But in addition, the war occasioned a massive redistribution of land .. and largely away from indigenous residents and into the hands of ladinos, the military and its allies and supporters, and other elites.  Perhaps as many as a million people fled their homes to escape the violence, becoming internal or international refugees. In many cases, as this women's placard indicates, the military razed the villages, burning crops and killing livestock. But they also then grabbed the lands for themselves, or gave them away. The original inhabitants may not have had any formal paperwork that indicated their ownership (or they may not, in fact, have been legal owners of lands that they had inhabited and cultivated for generations .. the problems in land ownership and the structural inequalities in tenancy and ownership really date back to the conquest), but the new inhabitants (especially if they were military or local elites) were usually able to get papers (by hook or crook -- probably crook, if you ask me) and thus the original inhabitants were often effectively robbed (de jure as well as de facto) of their lands.

Another article announced the publication, some twenty years after it was started, of a K'iche' translation of the Bible. One of the priests spoke about the importance of being able to read scripture in one's native tongue (even an atheist like me can appreciate that). The work on the translation was apparently, one of the smaller casualties of the war (I'm having trouble reloading the page of the newspaper to get the exact text of the article and also add the link, but will add it when I can).

Violence continues to plague the country. Fortunately it has not been a direct issue for me here in Chinique. But yesterday eight people including a candidate for mayor in a town in Jutiapa were killed; today the woman's mother died of a heart attack (related? when I can read the story, I'll find out). And another person, a youth of 16, who had been wounded in the attack, died last night.  Yesterday's paper -- or rather the web page -- also carried a late-breaking bulletin that the secretary/treasurer of one of the major soccer (fútbol) teams, Xinabajul, was killed in an armed attack. Today's paper had some additional stories of armed attacks (two police wounded, in one story) and deaths by violent means.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Driving while female

As I've indicated in earlier posts, driving in Guatemala (or being a passenger) is a high-risk undertaking. Bus drivers and passengers can be subject to extortions and killings. The highways are winding and steep, and a good stretch of the Panamericana is under repair, so there are construction delays, detours, and unpaved stretches. All of which can lead to accidents. I'm surprised I haven't seen more, but yesterday on my drive up from Antigua I came across a back-up somewhere north of Tecpan due to a bus that had ... well, I'm not sure what had happened to the bus, but the rear wheel and bumper on the driver's side seemed to be completely missing. There were a bunch of unhappy looking passengers on the side of the road being interviewed by police; another bus, presumably from the same company, had stopped and some of the packages were being accommodated on top. Sorry, no photos: it's dangerous and energy-draining enough to just drive those roads; figuring out how to stop so I can take a photograph without being killed would take more effort than I can spare.

However, pervasive machismo means that female drivers face additional risks -- male drivers who are so incensed by the presence of a woman behind the wheel that -- if one can possibly imagine this -- they drive even more recklessly than normal.  At least that's what it feels like from my perspective, as one of the very few female drivers on the Panamericana. I do not know what the statistics are nationally for drivers and driving, but I would say that a ratio of 80% male to 20% female is a very generous estimate of the percentage of female drivers. There are more women driving in places like Antigua, Panajachel, and Guatemala City -- but up here in the altiplano I'd say the ratio is 90/10 at best.  

I am not kidding about the additional risks. On Tuesday, as I was driving along, heading south on the Panamericana, minding my own business, another driver (male, of course) tried to take me out. Not with a gun, but with his vehicle.  We were on one of the rare stretches of the Panamericana that has two lanes in each direction, a little south of Tecpan. There is, at this point, no raised divider between northbound and southbound lanes (and a good thing, as you will soon learn).  So, there I was, enjoying the afternoon sun (it's been relatively cold and cloudy, so the sun on the highway was a treat). I was in the left lane as I had just passed a few slow moving vehicles and then came upon another truck in the right lane. I decided to pass him as well, although I wasn't going exceptionally fast (we were on a relatively level stretch of road). Apparently he didn't want a woman to pass him. That's the only explanation I can give for what he did. Instead of just staying in his lane and accelerating, preventing me from getting ahead of him, he abruptly swerved into my lane. The only option I had was to swerve to the left as well which put me into the passing lane on the northbound side -- that is, he forced me into the opposing traffic. 

Fortunately, there was no concrete divider: otherwise I would have ended up having to go over it (the dividers are about 5-6 inches high). Even more fortunately, there were no vehicles in the lane into which I was forced for another 1/2 mile or so (we were on a flat, straight stretch so I had pretty good visibility).  I was able to recover my equanimity, and then found a place where I could cross back over to my side of the highway. I did see that truck again, several kilometers down the road (as we came upon one of the many construction sites) and copied down the plate number ... but I didn't see any highway patrols until I was very near the turnoff for Antigua, and it was on the other side of the highway, which would have been difficult to reach, and I also thought, "Well, what are they going to do?" 

There's not a lot I can do to disguise my gender identity behind the wheel: binding my breasts would be too uncomfortable, time-consuming, and probably wouldn't work.  Maybe invest in a baseball cap or a straw "cowboy" style hat like a lot of people in the campo wear? It's hard to discern, from a distance, which truck or bus drivers are just ordinary garden-variety homicidal maniacs, and which ones really have it out for women. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

News briefs

Corruption, waste and fraud, lack of accountability ... these are common themes when Guatemalans talk about politics and elected authorities.   The press, in my humble view, does a pretty good job of calling attention to these issues -- "transparency" has been a common thread in much of the news coverage, particularly about the upcoming elections.

A news article today noted that the controller's office had found "irregularities" in how 311 municipalities had used funds. There are 332 municipalities, so that means (looking somewhat cynically) that there are perhaps 21 municipalities where there is no waste, corruption and fraud? Or that it just hasn't been found? Or that those 21 have done a better job of covering their tracks?

Locally, in Chinique, the women of Ixmukané have been trying to find out what happened with a sum of Q400,000 that was given to the municipalities for programs to benefit women. Apparently Q83,000 was spent, but there has been no accounting of the remaining Q317,000.  And the mayor has been "out" or otherwise engaged each time the women have come to talk with him.

The political parties have begun to muck up the countryside with their propaganda. The most common form of electoral promotion here is painting rocks and trees with the colors of the political party (and sometimes the insignia or initials). The green patches, or a white patch rimmed in green, is the UNE -- the party that emerged from the URNG (the umbrella organization formed when the guerrilla forces united). The red patches are the Partido Patriota -- one of several right-wing parties. Those are the ones I've seen most frequently around Quiché. There has been, however, a lot of criticism of the parties for defacing and damaging the natural environment -- since trees are a favored spot to paint these patches. On the path I take for my morning walk, there are green and white patches on many of the trees; on the road outside Santa Cruz del Quiché, heading towards Chichi, there are stretches where it seems over half the trees have been so painted. The road to Tapesquillo has a mixture of green/white and red patches, and some faded lettering (from a previous campaign, no doubt) for "Urge: Mano Dura". I don't know much about that party, but from the name it sounds like it has to be pretty far-right. On  the news a few weeks ago it was reported that environmental groups had asked the parties to pledge not to paint the trees -- doesn't seem to have had much effect.

There seems to be a lot of cynicism about electoral politics and elected officials -- at least among the people with whom I have spoken. No one seems to place a lot of faith in government -- local or national. This is not to say there is no mobilization or enthusiasm -- a few weeks ago the main square of Chiché was closed off for an UNE rally, and on the road into town, I saw a sizeable group of people, mostly women, marching and carrying placards for the party.  My acquaintances, however, are somewhat skewed towards people who are "community organizers" (for want of a better term), and so perhaps they have a more jaundiced view since elected officials have not been extraordinarily helpful, for the most part.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Violence and everyday racism

Guatemala is widely considered one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere. I am not going to try and fully analyze, in a blog entry, the causes of the endemic violence, but they are rooted in the everyday violence of deep structural inequalities in wealth, land distribution, education, political power (which creates a culture in which some people are just seen as being more valuable than others), in the civil war, which left over 250,000 dead, and the lack of real justice for most of the victims of the war.  The culture of impunity that characterized the actions of the police, military and the government during the war have continued or been reproduced in the present.

And so many Guatemalans -- especially residents of the capital -- live in a climate of insecurity, uncertainty and fear.  Not that this has escaped notice; the radio station that I listen to regularly, Emisoras Unidas, and the daily paper Prensa Libre, regularly report on these matters, and with a critical edge (I don't watch much Guatemalan TV so I can't tell you how the national TV stations cover this). This morning the current Archbishop of Guatemala City, Msgr. Oscar Vian Morales, in his weekly homily, argued that the lack of respect for life which characterizes the country is based in a lack of values and ethics. He also took the political parties to task for not "telling it like it is" (his exact phrase was from a biblical text where Jesus says (in the Msgr's phrasing), "hay que decir si cuando es si, y no cuando es no" -- you have to say yes when it's yes, and no when it's no.)

It is hard to read a newspaper or listen to the radio for long periods of time (at least the news stations that I favor) without feeling a sense of dismay. Today's Prensa Libre, for example, reported that yesterday (Saturday) there were 12 people who died violently in the capital and provinces. I somewhat cynically commented on Facebook that at least there were no discoveries of dismembered bodies of women -- last week there was a story about the discovery of a female victim's body parts in two different sections of the capital, Zona 5 and Zona 18. 

The victims were: 

  • a policeman who was killed by a bullet intended for a woman who is the president of a local market in Villa Nueva (the woman, her daughter and one other person were wounded)
  • the 71-year old auditor of a cooperative in Villa Nueva
  • a man shot in Zona 11
  • a taxi driver shot to death in Zona 8
  • a prison guard in Jutiapa
  • a 33-year old man in Tecún Umán, San Marcos
  • 3 men died in Huehuetenango (a western department). 1 "perished" (with no further details) and the other two were killed by gunshot.
  • two men were "terminated" ("ultimados") in Suchitepequez
  • one man was shot to death in Chimaltenango at km 54.5 of the Panamericana.
So that is unfortunately not a atypical day. People do die of non-violent causes: two people, a man and a woman, died today as a result of serious injuries sustained Friday as they were on their way to receive the Mi Familia Progresa (Mifapro) benefits promised by the government. They were traveling in a "picop" (pick up truck) from their rural aldea to the municipality where the benefits were being handed out, and apparently twenty or so of the passengers were taken to the hospital with injuries (no details about what the nature of the accident was). The driver fled the scene.

To give you a sense of the endemic and pervasive racism, I'll turn to the online comments that accompanied this article (a common theme is that the president is an hijo de p.... or worse).  Although the names of the victims were not published (they are waiting for the families to claim the bodies first), it seems logical to assume that the majority of the beneficiaries are indigenous since they are the poorest of the poor. So many of the commentaries used terms like "indios malditos" (evil little Indians -- "indios" itself is a derogatory term), "indios de mierda" ("shitty Indians"), "estúpidos" (do I need to translate that) and "burros" (again, I think no translation needed). Although some commentators took the others to task for being racist, one commentator suggested that the shitty ignoramuses were just traumatized leftists and that they would have been better off sucking the president's dick for the 300 little quetzales they were given. 

It is hard to know how representative these commentators are of popular opinion in Guatemala.  In communities like Chinique where there are not a lot of non-indigenous people, one does not hear a lot of overtly racist comments, or at least not in public (what Ladinos say to each other about indigenous people behind closed doors is another story -- Charles Hale has explored this territory at least among Chimaltenango's Ladino population). I have spent most of my time with indigenous people so I haven't been privy to those private conversations among Ladinos.  According to some new acquaintances I made who live in Panajachel, there is a fair amount of racist commentary in the town. Panajachel is perched at the edge of Lago Atitlán, and has been a favored tourist destination. Friends recalled it being a hippie haven in the 1970s, and it currently attracts day trippers as well as overnight visitors; its main street is lined with tourist-friendly shops (including many that appear to promote fair trade and support community development projects).  My acquaintances who live in the town say that there is a lot of resentment from the non-indigenous town residents of the indigenous people who come in from outlying areas to sell trinkets to tourists, and that they hear a lot of racist commentary. The center of town is pretty much given over to tourist-related enterprises (hotels, restaurants, gift shops) and one strip of Calle Santander is pretty much wall-to-wall vendors and stores, a few of which seem to cater to the resident population. I only spent a few hours in Pana, and most of it in the headquarters of a fair-trade  non-profit that works with indigenous women, so I didn't get much of a sense of the town, but I will rely upon my informants who live there.

Walking and driving

I am about the only person around here who walks to walk. It feels a little strange; it is a luxury. I can walk because I want to, not because I have to. I have a vehicle; no one would understand it if I decided to walk the hour or more each way to Tapesquillo for my English class. And although I have not yet established what one colleague suggested might be "Dr. Lisa's Taxi Service", when I drive I can also give rides to other people, who would otherwise have no option other than to walk, perhaps carrying heavy cargo from the market.  

Last week, for example, as I was preparing to go up to teach, I got a call from one of the women who wanted to know if I could pick her up, and along the way I stopped and gave lifts to a few other people.  When we brought a weaver from Zacualpa to Tapesquillo to show and talk about weaving styles, the only way we were able to do it was for me to get her (since she lives in an aldea outside of Zacualpa, and although it is not as far from Zacualpa as Tapesquillo is from Chinique, and the road is nowhere near as steep and winding, there is, however, very little vehicular traffic on that road and no cars that go back and forth on a regular basis, as there are on the Tapesquillo/Chinique road.  So I drove out to get her, and then on the way back, got a call from one of the women who was going to attend the weaving discussion, asking if I could stop in La Cruz, on the outskirts of Chinique, and pick her up. When I arrived, she had an elderly couple with her. I tried to indicate that they could all get in the cab, but they were already climbing into the bed of the truck. The road was, as it usually is, quite dusty and we all -- passengers inside the cab, passengers in the bed -- looked for ways to cover our breathing passages (for me it's always a trade off between the suffocating heat if I  keep all the windows closed, and the dust that has given me a chronic cough and sniffle since I arrived). 

Most mornings I take a walk outside of town; sometimes I don't get around to it until the afternoon but that's not the usual routine. I head up on the last street on the western edge (more or less) of town, that turns to a dirt road after it passes the street where the big antenna is located, and eventually, I am told, winds up in San Andrés Sajcabajá.  There are usually very few people headed out of town during the week, and in the early morning on weekends as well. There are occasionally motorcycles that whiz by, and much more occasionally trucks or 4X4s. Most of the people on foot are heading into town: children heading to school, women carrying basins of corn to be ground, and on Sunday morning heading in to market. Sometimes there are women returning home with ground masa. But mostly I have the road to myself.  It stretches up for a while without any dwellings close at hand, although there are some narrow footpaths that lead to houses that are not easily visible from the road, and then more than a kilometer up the road, there is a settlement of sorts -- several houses, one after the other, that are constructed right along the road. The patios and entrances seem to be on the "inside", away from the road, presumably to give some privacy to the families. I say presumably because I've only called out "Buenas tardes" when I've seen people outside their homes as I have passed, and haven't had any conversations.

This morning I started out somewhat later than usual as I was trying (more or less unsuccessfully) to view and stream and download some things.  The market was in full swing when I passed by, but I had gone to Chiché yesterday, which has a market about 5 or 6 times the size of Chinique's, with more selection, fresher produce (according to my friends; a lot of what I saw this morning in Chinique looked pretty crisp) and better prices, so I wasn't planning to make many purchases (some staples like rice and salt).

As the pavement ended and the dirt road started, I saw on the curve up ahead a woman and young boy herding some cows and other animals. As I got closer, I could distinguish both sheep and goats (about half a dozen of each) along with the cows and calves. A couple of dogs tagged along; they didn't seem to be doing much to help, just along for the outing. There were two or three dogs that lagged behind, just kind of ambling along, and the others were closer to the herd of animals, but again, didn't seem to be "working". Nor did the boy, for that matter. Both the woman and boy had switches, but the woman was the only calling out to the animals, flicking her switch, and trying to keep them all on the path (a few rebellious calves and sheep plunged off onto the side of the road and she strode quickly after them, but then rejoined the group a little farther on). We greeted each other as I passed through the herd; she asked if I was going "up ahead" ("pa'rriba va?"). I said yes, but that I was just going out to walk, to stretch my legs.

I didn't take a photo; I am a bit circumspect about interrupting people when they are working, or at least people I don't know.  I thought about it, and then decided not to ask: for me to feel good about it, it would have required more of a conversation -- who I am, what I am doing, how to find her again so I could give her a copy of the photo. Some other day, perhaps -- it's not like she was taking the animals to pasture today and today only.  Yes, the light is different every day and perhaps I will never see the shot I saw, of the woman walking towards me, a male goat leading the way... but I have to balance aesthetics against ethics.

Sometimes I have offered rides to people who have declined; or rather, who have not even acknowledged the offer. I usually slow down on the road to Tapesquillo if I see a woman, or a couple, or a woman and children, especially if they are loaded down with things and gesture towards the back. Sometimes a person indicates they are only going a short distance; other times the person hasn't blinked or nodded. I figure, I have the truck, might as well use it. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Migrant farmworker at home

As many of you know, many farms in the U.S. -- both family farms and agribusiness operations -- rely upon migrant agricultural laborers. Farms in New York State are no exception to this, although perhaps many New Yorkers imagine the lettuce and strawberry fields of California or the orange groves of Florida when they think of migrant farmworkers. Several years ago I went apple picking near Albany and discovered that the small family farms in central New York state were full of Mexican and Central American laborers, many of whom had been crossing the border annually for seven or ten years.

A few years ago I joined a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group that got its produce from a family-owned organic farm in Hudson County. I joined the CSA not only because I wanted to get fresh, organic produce but to support local and sustainable agriculture (and also because the CSA subsidized the membership of low-income folks). [If you want more information about the Flatbush Farmshare, you can find it here:]  As part of the core group, I organized trips to the Farm at Miller's Crossing, owned and operated by Chris and Katie Cashen (here's the farm's website:  When we arrived at the farm, Chris introduced us to some of his employees, and explained that he contracted workers from Guatemala. He did all the paperwork to bring them to the U.S. legally each spring, and then flew them back home in November.

He introduced us to Carmer, who was the head of his crew. Carmer had been working for him for several years, and nearly all the other employees were people Carmer had recommended (including some of his relatives). I started to chat with Carmer and the others and found out that they were Kaqchikeles (one of the twenty-odd Maya ethncities).  A big smile spread across Carmer's face when I told him that I had visited Guatemala three times.  Kaqchikel and K'iche' are closely related languages (the Kaqchikels were the subjects, or allies -- depending upon which chronicler one reads -- of the K'iche' for a couple of centuries), so I tried out a few phrases in K'iche' -- "La utz wach lah?" (How are you? -- which is almost identical in Kaqchikel). The smile grew even bigger as he replied, "Utz, maltyox" (fine, thank you).  We spoke a little more in K'iche'/Kaqchikel, and then reverted to Spanish as he asked me how I had learned the language. I explained that I worked with Maya K'iche' people and had gone to Guatemala to study K'iche' in Antigua. His face brightened again and he told me that he lived near Antigua and that I should visit him and his family the next time I was in Guatemala.

I explained that I would be spending most of 2011 in Guatemala and he insisted that I had to come visit him. He spoke to one of the other men and they found a piece of paper and he wrote his name and his cell phone number on it, and then tore off a piece so I could write down my number.

He went off to do some work and I went back to join other folks from the CSA. A little later I was talking to our farmer, Chris, and he said, "Wow, Carmer was so thrilled that you spoke to him in his language; he was telling all of the other workers about it." (When I told my friend Miryam, a sociolinguist who works on language rights in Peru, about this she remarked that for people who have been subjected to linguistic racism -- and other forms of racism -- in their home country, hearing someone else -- and someone from the dominant culture -- speak their mother tongue is very affirming). 

Carmer called me a week or two later, just to see how I was, and to remind me that he was expecting me in Guatemala. I think he called once again, and then one night in November I received a call from him; he was at Kennedy airport, preparing to leave for Guatemala. I told him I would be there sometime in the first two weeks in January, and asked him for a phone number in Guatemala so that I could call him when I arrived. I entered the number he gave me in my cell phone (I later transferred it to my Guatemalan cell phone) and wished him a safe journey.

A few days after I arrived in Guatemala I started trying to reach Carmer, but no one ever answered the phone. Then, about two weeks later, he called and we made plans for me to visit -- I told him that Tuesday of this week would be good (as Tuesday is when I usually come back down to Antigua from Quiché). The phone rang Monday afternoon as I was driving on an errand; it was Carmer, asking when I was coming. I reminded him that we had agreed I would come on Tuesday, not Monday.

Tuesday I didn't get as early a start as I would have liked; no matter how much commuting I've done over the past eight years, actually picking up and leaving one place to head to the other is often difficult. The day had finally gotten sunny and warm in Chinique and I just wanted to sit in the quiet of my house.  Since I was leaving for a few days I had to take out garbage, clean, check to see if the clothes I had hung out in the morning were dry (they mostly were). Even though people have assured me that it was unlikely someone would break into my house while I was gone, I still didn't want to advertise my absence by leaving laundry up on the roof, highly visible, for two days (although, since Chinique is such a small town and at least some people would undoubtedly recognize my truck (and thus notice that it was not there, I'm not sure that the presence or absence of laundry would make much difference).

Just as I arrived in Chichicastenango (having covered only about 1/3 of the distance I had to travel), around 3:30, the phone rang: it was Carmer, asking when I was going to arrive. My heart sunk; he told me he and his son were waiting for me. As the truck bumped along Chichi's narrow cobblestoned streets, I gently reminded him that I had told him I would arrive around 5:30 or 6, and that I would call him when I got closer. He told me that I should continue past Chimaltenango and go to San Lucas, and that he would meet me at the Esso station in San Lucas (I fervently hoped that there was only one Esso station). So I continued on, listening to an interesting talk show on Emisoras Unidas about the recent revelation that RENAP (the Registro Nacional de Personas, the national agency responsible for issuing official ID cards) had made errors in thousands of recently-issued identification cards.

I finally arrived at the Esso station and called Carmer to find out exactly where he was (since I didn't see him standing around) and he emerged from his car and greeted me warmly, and then introduced his son and also the gas station owner whom he said was a friend. We got back in the cars and I followed him about 15 minutes to the town of San Pedro Sacatepequez. I followed his directions to pull my truck halfway onto the curb of an exceedingly narrow street, and then we crossed the street to an open doorway. We entered a small shop filled with cortes and huipiles; the walls were hung with brightly colored cloths and richly embroidered tops. I noticed that the floors were covered with shiny new turquoise/green tiles, as was the upstairs room where we visited and ate. He explained that this was his family's business, and we walked through the store, pushing through a curtain at the back into a large courtyard. 

There were a few women toward the back, and as they walked towards us he introduced his wife, his sister and a sister in law. I followed him and his son up a narrow, steep cement staircase. There was a terrace or balcony at the top of the stairs and behind it a single room. It was furnished with a large entertainment center, at the center of which was a flat screen TV that was on the entire time (but with the sound off for the most part). On a table next to the entertainment center, covered with a towel or spread saying United States Marine Corps was a computer that was being used to play music. A large Guatemalan flag hung on one wall, and  there was a double bed covered with a plush spread that served as a sofa or settee, and a few chairs. 

The photo to the left is of one corner of the room: Carmer's older son is on the left and Carmer is on the right.

Carmer introduced me to a slightly older man sitting next to him, saying that this was his pastor, whom he had invited to meet me. He explained that he was a Christian, an Evangelical, and he wanted his pastor to meet me. The other people were Carmer's wife's brother and the brother's wife (he did not, for the most part, tell me people's names so I can only identify them by their relationship to him).

Carmer, his brother and sister in law, pastor and I chatted while his wife, another sister in law and daughters got the food ready (at least that's what I presume the others were doing) They asked me what I was dong in Guatemala, whether I liked the food.  Another son came in; Carmer introduced me (the daughters didn't come into the room until later when we were finished eating). His sons wanted to know how I had met Carmer, so I tried to explain the concept of a CSA (I described it as a cooperative of consumers). Before it got dark we stood on the small balcony -- I wanted to take a photograph of the surrounding.
He pointed out the buildings belonging to various acquaintances who were working in the United States. One man, he told me, worked on a different farm in the same part of New York State. He told me the name of the farmer -- all the small farmers in that part of the state know each other, and most of the farmers who either farm organically, work with CSAs, or both, know each other -- but I explained that I really only knew Chris. There seemed to be a lot of new construction going on everywhere -- as in many other parts of Guatemala where there is a substantial portion of the population that has relatives abroad. Which is to say, much of the country -- the statistic I read a few months ago was that over 30% of the households have a relative abroad. 

We talked about the differences in topography and climate between this part of Guatemala and El Quiché where I spend most of my time. I asked if he had terrenos -- literally, terrain but used to mean farmland. He said yes, but outside of San Pedro. But he said that the family really lived from the store, selling textiles.  He told me that he was going back to the U.S. a little earlier this year than in previous years; Chris, the farmer, had some new things he wanted to do, so Carmer was coming some weeks before the rest of the crew arrived.

As we sat and talked, a table appeared, having been carried upstairs by one of the sons, and some additional chairs and a cloth to cover the table. Then, once the table had been set up, plates of food arrived (I am using the passive voice deliberately; obviously the women and younger men of the household were doing this, but since they came quickly and then left it felt as though things were just arriving).

Here is a view of what we were served: a rich stew of shredded beef with some potatoes in the sauce, over rice (rice cooked with peas and some strips of sweet red pepper) and a mild green chile sauce on the side. The accompanying beverage was coffee- but in this case coffee ground with some cereal, which is apparently a popular mixture here (I saw packets of café con cereal at a local market).  It actually tasted pretty good; I don't mind the mixture, what I usually don't like about the coffee here is that it is extremely weak, but this at least tasted like something other than water.

A few minutes later a young woman arrived with a big basket of tortillas, neatly stacked in overlapping rings (sorry, too busy eating to take out the camera and shoot). The special guests ate at the table; the younger folks made do with plates balanced on their laps or on the double bed that occupied much of the room. The other women, one presumes, ate in the kitchen (I just observe gender codes; when I am a guest in someone's home I don't question them -- there was one woman, one of the sisters-in-law, who ate at the table with us).

After dinner, Carmer's wife and his sister (I think that's who the other woman was) joined us and we got into a conversation about clothing. I don't remember how the conversation started. I had brought a gift for Carmer's wife -- this is usually what I do when a man is the one who extends an invitation for me to visit his home; I bring a gift for his wife.  An recognition of her importance in the household, and also (I hope) a sign that although I was invited by her husband, I respect and acknowledge her (and also that I have no evil designs on her husband). I didn't know that they had a store selling tejidos ("woven things"), but I figured that a nice servilleta is ALWAYS useful. You can use it to cover a table; carry groceries; or even to wrap around yourself if it gets cold if you forgot to bring your rebozo.  I usually keep at least one spare servilleta around for such an occasion (and I always find ones that I like in the markets; depending upon the quality and complexity of the weaving, a medium-large servilleta costs between Q70 and Q150). 

So I think we started to talk about weaving then about clothing (I had changed into a long black skirt and top with a sweater over for the occasion), which meant talking about women's clothing. They commented that they liked the servilleta and that the patterns were very different than the ones in San Pedro Sacatepéquez. I asked what the tejidos were like and Carmer's wife said that almost no one wore the local huipiles and cortes any longer, they all wore the ones that everyone else wore. I said yes, that was true all over the country, that most women wore the machine-made cortes and sewn huipiles, with the exception of Chichicastenango, where a substantial number of the women still wear the distinctive "Chichi" cortes and huipiles (I forgot to add Joyabaj, which I only visited once briefly, but was immediately struck by the fact that most of the women I saw during that visit at least wore the equally distinctive Joyabaj huipiles, and a lot of them had on the full regalia of Joyabaj huipiles, cortes and also head adornments).

They all nodded in agreement and said that women only would wear the local traje maybe for a wedding or some special occasion.  Carmer's wife said she had a huipil and went down to get it. She brought it back -- elaborate embroidered geometric designs on top of hand-woven fabric. One of the other women said, "But if you went out in the street like that everyone would point and stare at you because no one wears them." They urged her to put it on and model it for me, which she did.  She also showed me some woven ribbons which she said were used to adorn women's braids. I said that I needed to take a photograph, and then the other women said she should get the corte so I could photograph the entire outfit, which she did. I said to Carmer that all we needed now was for him to put on his traje and everyone laughed (I would doubt that he has any; only men in very rural areas still wear traje -- the areas where I have seen the highest proportion of men wearing traje, which is still pretty small, is among the market vendors in Chiché and in the rural aldeas around San Andrés Sajcabajá). I started to photograph, and then one of the women said, "Oh, no, what's missing is the rebozo" so she went down again and got the rebozo, and then posed with the entire outfit.
Although the image is small, I think you can see enough of the detail to see how elaborate the embroidery is, especially on the huipil where you can barely see the woven fabric underneath. The women told me that a huipil like this would cost about Q1000 or Q1200 and that they didn't know of anyone who was still making them.

Carmer had invited me to spend the night when he first asked me to come visit him family; he had told me that they had an extra room and extra bed (which was probably the room in which we were eating).  As it got later, he asked me again if I were going to spend the night and I explained that I had to pick up my colleague at 7:30 in the morning in Antigua and so it would be easier if I spent the night there, and that I also had work to do (which was true).

So I prepared to leave, and promised to come back again for another meal and visit.  Before I left, a few more people arrived: some of Carmer's daughters. One, I think, had just gotten home from school (there is a morning session and an afternoon session in most schools, and I think most secondary schools are in session from 1-6 p.m.)  I didn't really get a chance to talk to the daughters as they had come later and stayed in the background. I got the entire group (or as many as were present) together to take a photograph (Carmer wanted to make sure that I would send these photographs to Chris, and his son also gave me his email address so I could send the photographs to them). The son, of course, had a digital camera and snapped some photos (probably some unflattering ones of me eating) which I will have to ask them for as well. But here is the best I could do for a group shot. It is hard to take nice photographs of large groups of people in small spaces crowded with furnishings with either insufficient lighting or overly bright ceiling lights.

I think we are missing at least one son and possibly a daughter; I'm not sure what happened to them but I couldn't stay around longer.  I think the younger woman sitting down second from the right is a daughter, and the two young women wearing purplish jackets/sweats are also daughters.

I took one last photo of Carmer and his wife in the shop. Carmer wanted his dog, Spike in the photo. They have a new, young puppy but the puppy refused to stay put so we gave up trying to have him in the photo.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Polite curiosity, or "es muy alegre allá, verdad"? and social etiquette

The question, which translates as "It's very happy there [meaning the U.S.], right?" is probably the most frequent query I get about my home country. 

To put the question and my replies to it, in context, I should start by saying that I am one of very few non-Guatemalans at the moment living in Chinique. At the parroquia, there are a few nuns  who are from other countries in Latin America. I think one is from Colombia; the priest, Father Hector, is from Spain, but he lives in another town and comes to Chinique to lead mass, perform baptisms and weddings.  But as religious people, they are in a different category. There were, some years back, other foreigners who worked with an INGO called Médicos Descalzos (barefoot doctors), but they are no longer an active group, at least not in Chinique.  In fact, when people meet me for the first time, they often ask if I am with Médicos Descalzos since that is one of the available categories for classifying foreigners.

The etiquette in small towns and rural communities is that anyone walking on the street greets anyone and everyone he or she meets, regardless of whether the person is known to him/her or not. So when I go out for my walk in the morning (and I am undoubtedly the only person out walking for the sake of walking and not walking in the service of some higher mission like going to work, going to school, taking corn to be ground into masa, hauling a load of wood to sell), I greet and am greeted by nearly everyone I encounter. "Buenos días" is standard; often people will both greet and take leave of each other, even when passing on the road. So, a person approaching me will call out "Buenos días" to which I reply in kind, and then as we pass, "Adios" to which, again, I reply in kind. An alternative is "Que le vaya bien." (hope all goes well with you). So just going out for a stroll or to run an errand or chore involves potentially dozens of social interactions. Obviously as the day progresses into afternoon and evening the greetings switch to "Buenas tardes" and "buenas noches". I call out to storekeepers sweeping the sidewalks in front of their establishments, and also to the guys at the auto repair shop across the street from my house, poring over the inner workings of a pick-up engine. It's what is expected.

"Adios", or "adios, pues" is also called out as a greeting, not only a leave-taking.  On occasion, I will call out a greeting in K'iche': "Saqarik" (good morning) or "Xeb'ik" (the pronunciation of the former is more or  less phonetical: sahk-a-reek; the pronunciation of the latter is trickier and varies widely; the b is kind of "eaten", and the way some people pronounce it, it sounds more like "shper ik"). Occasionally people (and I mean more or less total strangers) will respond in kind -- that is, they will reply in K'iche'; more often, they will reply in Spanish. Which is cool. I don't think most people here expect to hear a gringa speaking K'iche'. I don't think most people here don't expect to encounter a gringa at all, frankly, and certainly not one speaking K'iche'. I'll write about being the only gringa for miles around in another post.

So, there is a mixture of politeness and superficial (and I don't mean artificial, necessary, but "on the surface") social engagement, along with distance and reserve. People who greet me out on the dirt road leading outside of town do not necessarily make eye contact or invite further dialogue as they hurry past on their way into town, back home, or out to their fields. The reserve may come from my unknown status and murky identity: I imagine that "Who is this strange white woman and what the hell is she doing out here?" (or variants thereof) must be running through at least some people's minds.

Cordiality may have a number of roots (and I'm just speculating here). In small towns and rural areas, most people are probably distantly related or at least known to each other -- and here I mean within ethnic/racial groups: the social divide between indigenous and non-indigenous (Ladino or mestizo, depending upon who is doing the categorizing), between wealthy and everyone else, is pretty sharp.  

So most people are at least somewhat known to each other (you might not know fulana but you know who she is -- the daughter of so-and-so, the wife of so-and-so). There is also a degree of interdependence -- although I think that has undoubtedly been undermined by the war (when people were either forced to -- at gunpoint or worse --  or volunteered to, patrol and inform upon their neighbors and friends), poverty, the deteriorating economy, and the fact that some people (perhaps due to migration and remittances) have more of a cushion than others.  It's easy to romanticize rural communities and small towns as places where everyone knows everyone, where everyone helps each other out. Everyone knowing everyone, in the Guatemalan context, can mean that everyone knows who was an informant or collaborator with the armed forces, or who participated with the guerrilla.  Everyone knows that person X "named names" or worse. However, person X still retains his or her (usually his) home, lands, social position. These are things that are rarely, if ever, discussed (although I do know some ex-guerrillas who do talk, at least among friends, about their activities).

The worsening economic situation is not evenly shared. There are new houses being built all through Quiché. Yesterday I took the back road from Tapesquillo to the highway that connects Chinique and Zacualpa (well, it actually connects Sta. Cruz del Quiché and Joyabaj, but I was only going as far as Zacualpa), and as I passed through Cacabal, saw neatly laid out rows of fresh adobe bricks drying in the waning sunlight. Someone, obviously, building a new home or an addition to an existing one. Throughout Chinique and other towns, and along the highway, one sees freshly painted exteriors of newly-erected buildings. Each of the four times I have visited, there are new buildings along the 20 km. stretch between Chinique and Zacualpa, for example, and new buildings going up in each town. So some people evidently have the money for home improvement or home construction, while others, who live on rutted and rocky dirt roads up in the mountains, lack refrigerators and other amenities. 

While most of the truly violent, horrific and endemic crime (assault, robbery, extortion and murder, the latter often quite grisly) takes place outside of rural Quiché, this is not to say that there is no crime,  especially theft and domestic violence (I'll deal with the latter separately, and when I know a bit more about it locally). Those who have a bit more are sometimes the object of envy; I know people whose homes and small businesses have been robbed. One friend lost the equivalent of Q50,000 (merchandise, plus his computer, printer and photocopier: many small stores offer photocopying and printing services since even people who have home computers often lack printers).

So beneath the placid surface of small town life -- and sometimes not very beneath -- are many social, political, economic and cultural/racial rifts.

But back to social etiquette. I neither broadcast nor withhold information about who I am and what I am doing, but reply truthfully when people inquire.  Casual encounters of the sort I described above do not usually produce queries. However, the second or third time I went to the closest corner store, the sweet faced young man who attended me shyly asked where I was from. I told him I was from the U.S. and he asked what I was doing in Chinique. I told him I was living up the block and described the house (there are only three houses on my side of the street), and explained that I was a university professor in the U.S. (hot news flash: most people do not know what an anthropologist is; some people have heard of archaeologists, or if they have heard of anthropologists they think we are all archaeologists, so I just say I am a professor at a university) and that I was here because I was studying migration to the U.S. I went on to say that knew a lot of people from Chinique and Quiché more generally who were living in the U.S. and so I wanted to come here to see what was happening in the communities that migrants had come from.

Of course, many people whom I meet casually, when they realize that I am from the U.S. or at least someplace that is not Guatemala (which takes about a minute), immediately ask or state, "Ah, entonces estás paseando?" meaning, I suppose, "Oh, you're enjoying yourself" or "You're on vacation" (paseando has varied meanings).  It is hard to not have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to that ("Whaddya mean, vacation? This is work, buddy."), although I usually control myself. From the perspective of someone who performs back-breaking agricultural work, or hauls loads of wood up or down mountain roads using a strap around his or her forehead, or who works long hours at a corner store, probably not for a real "salary" of any sort, what I do (as far as anyone can see) probably looks like "paseando". 

I usually politely explain that I am not on vacation but that I am here teaching and doing research, and volunteering with some women's organizations. That part -- being a trabajadora voluntaria -- is something that people understand, and helps locate me a bit.

A frequent query, from friends, casual acquaintances like local store owners, and people in the organizations with which I work, is the phrase I have used in the title of this blog entry, "Es muy alegre allá, verdad?" I have found it hard to give a simple reply to that question although I do my best to avoid launching into a lengthy political or sociological analysis about social inequalities in the U.S. This question comes from returned migrants, some of whom now have nostalgic memories of the U.S. with good roads (NYC may have a lot of potholes but in general the road conditions even in the worst parts of U.S. cities are in NO way comparable to rural "highways" in Guatemala, or even the best parts of the Panamericana), apartments with refrigerators, heating, and other relative luxuries.  

Sometimes it is accompanied by a query about what I think about Guatemala: "Aquí está muy triste, no?" (Here it's very sad, no?).  It also comes from the relatives of migrants, or those who have not migrated and may not know anyone who has. I try to weigh who is asking the question before answering it. There isn't a simple truth here: life in the U.S. in general is easier, for the majority of the population, than life for the rural poor in Guatemala. Daily life for the urban poor in East New York, the South Bronx, or the South End of New Bedford is not as harsh as life for the rural poor in Guatemala. Perhaps on some Native American reservations (and I have not visited many so I can't speak from personal experience but from reading and talking with people who have) conditions are similar.  

To illustrate, my friend Caterino and I were talking with folks up in Tapesquillo on Sunday about inequality, racism and poverty (facts of daily life). There is no doctor in Tapesquillo (there are comadronas, midwives, and many have more extensive medical knowledge but they are limited in what they can do for people). If someone gets sick, what do they do? It takes 45 min to an hour and a half for a healthy, fit person to walk down to Chinique (walking at a good clip, and depending upon how far up the mountain one is located).  Sometimes you can get lucky and catch a ride, maybe paying a few quetzales to the driver. If you need to hire a driver, it costs about Q50 or more each way.

There is no hospital in Chinique, just a health center (centro de salud) and a few private doctor's offices. Anything really serious would require going to Sta. Cruz del Quiché, and more specialized care would mean going to Guatemala City. I am sure there are rural areas in the U.S. where doctors and hospitals are distant, but I think in general (and this is a very broad generalization) we have somewhat better access to health facilities.

So, when people ask for my opinion, comparing alegria in the U.S. with tristeza in rural Guatemala, I generally answer that yes, in many ways life is better in the U.S. although I point out (again, trying to avoid launching into the professorial lecture mode) that especially with the economic crisis, a lot of people in the U.S., including many immigrants, have a hard time and that most people do not live in the kinds of homes or drive the kinds of cars that they might see on television or videos. That there are rich and poor in the U.S. also. That there is crime and violence also -- although not as prevalent as in Guatemala. Without being patronizing, I point out the things that are positive (or better, from a certain point of view) here: people's generosity, helpfulness, sense of community.  Again, while I try not to romanticize, I am profoundly humbled nearly every day by the care and attention I receive from people here -- I sometimes literally have to stand up and get ready to leave or physically cover my plate to avoid people pushing immense quantities of food on me. So, without denying their experience of rural Guatemala as a place that is muy triste, I have to be forthright about my (perhaps more privileged, possibly more nuanced) experience.