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.

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