Saturday, February 5, 2011

Possessions, consumption and money

One of the things I have not fully figured out my way around is the constant queries from acquaintances and friends here in the campo about how much various of my possessions  cost. These range from ordinary items that nearly everyone here has -- woven items like delantares or aprons, which are an essential item of female attire in the altiplano, servilletas which are all-purpose cloths, often used for carrying goods or babies on one's back -- to luxury goods like my digital camera (digital cameras are widely available -- that is, even stores in a small town like Chinique carry digital cameras, although they are out of most people's price range), to the truck. I don't like being evasive and I don't like lying, but I am also not eager to draw more attention to the socio-economic distance between myself and the people around me. It's not that I am so "out there" -- I am far from the only person in town with luxury goods; there are Guatemalans who have much nicer, newer and pricier cars, fancier phones, flashier clothing.  On the other hand, I don't want to pretend that we are all really the same, that I'm just another person living in the town but with a different passport, phenotype, and mother language.  That is, I neither want to overly accentuate nor negate the real differences and inequalities that exist. 

It's hard to know what motivates all the queries, and of course, I'm painting with broad strokes here. Some have friends and relatives in the U.S., or have been there themselves. Some of the queries come from people who are relatively well-off (and those probably have a different motivation than queries from friends who are quite poor by Guatemalan standards).  

It's not that I expect people to allow me to live in their town, visit their homes, poke around (to a degree) in their lives without some reciprocity (although I have been, up to this point, been somewhat circumspect about asking a lot of financial questions).  Many have little knowledge of the U.S. except through conversations with migrant relatives (or second-hand reports if no one in their close family is a migrant or a return migrant), or popular culture (and some who don't have TV have limited access to that). 

So, I haven't figured out how to handle this. When people have asked about ordinary household goods and textiles, I answer readily -- and my friends will equally readily tell me if I've gotten what they consider a good price or good value, and I appreciate their comments on the quality or attractiveness of the goods I've purchased. Sometimes they ask where I've purchased something if they think it's especially attractive or a good value, and I am happy to share my knowledge. I also now feel free to ask them about similar items -- to get an idea of what the going price is for a certain kind of weaving, so that I know what to expect. Today, for example, I went to Chiché with two of the women in the weaving group from Tapesquillo and I noticed that Alicia had a nice servilleta on top of her basket that was similar to ones I'd seen in the market, so I asked what she had paid for it so that I'd be prepared the next time I came to Chiché.

The one time that I felt relatively uncomfortable was when I had a meeting with women from the weaving group here, shortly after I had moved in, and one of the women, who will remain nameless here, walked around asking me the price of nearly everything in the house, which felt slightly invasive.

Regarding purchasing: I do bargain -- not extraordinarily hard, not all the time, and not over small, inexpensive things (like a 1-quetzal bunch of radishes). But when I shop with others, I follow their lead, and I also listen to the negotiations around me in the market place. Someone offers a servilleta or sávana (literally, "sheet" but also an all-purpose term for a largish piece of woven cloth) for Q80, you offer Q70. A notebook is Q3.50, I offer Q10 for 3 notebooks.  Often the vendor lowers the price before the potential client asks. I finger a servilleta and ask for the price. The vendor tells me "Ochenta" (80). If I stop a moment to think, or start to move to the next stall, often he or she will say, "La doy para setenta" (I'll give it to you for 70), or "Setenta lo último" (70 is the last offer).  So I don't bargain hard because many of these items are relatively (or quite) inexpensive compared to what similar items might cost in the U.S., and my income and level of subsistence is much higher than average in Quiché (and probably much lower than average in the expatriate/tourist/Guatemalan elite communities in Antigua). But I do bargain a bit because it seems to be the norm (and it's also a way of engaging  in conversation).

For items that I've purchased with help or participation of Guatemala friends -- like most of the furniture - I have no qualms about divulging the prices -- since everything was purchased in more or less local stores, are fairly ordinary (although more pricey) goods, and it's also likely that whoever accompanied me shopping already shared the information.

Regarding the car, I've joked (if they are good friends) and said, "Cuando estás listo a comprarlo, te doy un buen precio" ("when you're ready to buy it I'll give you a good price"), or "Estás ofreciendo a ayudarme con la compra?" ("Are you offering to help me with the purchase?") and we laugh. 


  1. other possible answers:

    "lo de siempre"



    "no recuerdo"

    "mi tío me lo compró"

  2. Thanks, Ilyse, for the suggestions. No one would believe the last two, however!