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.


  1. Racism is really intense in Guatemala. I compare it to the pre-Civil-Rights-era US. Sometimes one hears outright incredibly ugly racist comments. It also plays out in ways that discourage indigenous people from improving their lives. An indigenous friend told me how he went to apply to take the entrance exam for the public university in Guatemala. He took the bus that left Pana at 4am, to arrive first thing at the required office in the City at 7am. He waited and waited at the office, and was told by the person he had to speak with, to wait until 11am. Then he was told he had to wait until 2pm. Then he was told to wait until 4am. Then he was told to return the next day. The person he was to meet with had no other appointments, he was simply discouraging my friend. He knew that my friend had taken a bus for three hours one-way, and that he did not have money to stay the night in a hotel or to take the bus the following day. Also, many Latinos employ indigenous workers in the homes, as maids or gardeners, and they often pay incredibly little while requiring over 70 hours of work each day. Of course not all Latinos act this way, but societally, racism is part of the social fabric of Guatemala. (As of course it remains in the US....)

  2. One HEARS less overly racist statements spoken openly in majority-indigenous communities. But the lived experience of those who venture from the aldea to the capital, or to institutions where they must confront representatives of the dominant culture, is scarred by incidents similar to what you describe.