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.

No comments:

Post a Comment