Friday, March 4, 2011

Quick trip to the U.S.

It's easy for professional and middle-class people from the U.S. and other privileged countries to take travel, and even international travel for granted. My academic friends in the U.S. -- at least those who have jobs, or grants -- travel frequently for research, to give talks, to attend conferences. 

However, the privilege of having a passport that allows me to travel relatively freely, and a salary that, while it is certainly modest by comparison to most bankers, lawyers and other well-paid professionals, permits me to plan a couple of trips during my first few months in Guatemala, stands in sharp contrast to nearly everyone I know here. The idea that one can just pack a bag and go to the airport and get on a plane seems barely short of miraculous to most of my friends from rural communities -- a possibility so remote for many of them, that at times I almost didn't want to talk about it.  When I did mention it (since I had to explain why I couldn't attend certain meetings and activities that Ixmukané had planned in late February), some of the women looked at me in amazement, that I spoke about it so casually.

My trip was occasioned by my having to meet with a colleague to plan a conference that will take place in Puerto Rico in April (yet another trip out of Guate).  I taught my class, and then went straight to the airport. My friend Carmelo generously offered to meet me at the airport and take my pickup for the time I would be away; I accepted, since I had no idea what else I could do with the truck (there is a parking garage at the airport but I wasn't sure they had long-term parking and given the crime rate in Guatemala City, I would have been dubious about the security of the lot). 

Entering the airport in countries like Guatemala (or Cuba), where so few people have the opportunity or the means to travel, is always a slightly disjunctive experience -- much like visiting a shopping mall with its manicured surroundings, armed security guards, and name-brand luxury goods. The Guatemala where I spend most of my time -- largely indigenous towns surrounded by even more heavily indigenous rural villages and hamlets, where the majority of people are poor and many, still, illiterate -- seems worlds away.  The faint reminders are the gift shops selling handicrafts, chocolate and coffee, and the advertising posters, often emblazoned with images of women and young girls in traje típico. Few of the travelers are so attired, although I was pleased to notice that at least one  airport employee was an indigenous woman (or rather, a woman whose indigeneity was marked by their wearing traje típico). The young woman who was collecting the departure tax wore traje; she was the only one I saw.

Of course, I offered to carry things to relatives in the New Bedford area.  I didn't advertise this extremely widely because I was only going to be in New Bedford for about 24 hours. A few people with relatives in other locations, most of whom are pretty fuzzy about U.S. geography, inquired but I had to explain that I wasn't going anywhere near Trenton, for example, and the best I could do would be to drop a package in the mail unless their relatives wanted to come up to New York.

However, I had long ago agreed to bring some packages for the women in Oxib' B'atz'. Both Paula and Olivia, my compañeras in New Bedford, had given me things to take to their families in Guatemala: Paula had sent something for her sister Francisca, and Olivia for her mother Juana.  When I had met Francisca and Juana a few days after I arrived in Guatemala, to deliver the mandados (literally "sent items"), one of the first questions they had asked (after "How are you?") was "When are you going to los Estados?" ("the states"). The same with Doña V, who has four children in the U.S. I decided not to take it as a sign that they were eager to have me leave, but rather as an indication of the urgency with which families here seek the means to communicate via in-kind remittances with their relatives in the U.S.  There are package express services all over Quiché and all over Guatemala, but although I have not checked their prices, the services would have to be beyond the means of extremely poor rural families. And so the infrequent appearance of someone like myself who is likely to be traveling back to the U.S. at some point -- at the very least, at the end of my stay --holds out the possibility of being able to send something to a loved one.

I have written elsewhere (in my dissertation and some articles I wrote about Cubans and remittances) about the significance of these "reverse remittances" -- which include food, clothing and other items that carry cultural and emotional significance. In my view, the "home country" senders are, on the one hand, trying to restore the imbalance between themselves and migrant relatives; while they are grateful for what the migrants send home, whether money or other items, being positioned as only recipients distorts any kind of relationship of reciprocity. So, by sending goods to the migrants, they position themselves as senders and not just recipients of handout. Also, the cultural and emotional weight of the remittances -- beans from the family's plot, hand-woven textiles made by the sender -- might be intended (whether consciously or not) to evoke a sense of obligation and responsibility in the migrant. Families' fears that their migrant relatives will become perdidos  (lost) are not paranoid fantasies. There are responsible migrants who stay in touch with their families and send money when they can; there are migrants who effectively abandon their families -- taking up with other women (or men), succumbing to drugs and alcohol. So the reminders.

There is another angle to Maya sending hand-woven textiles, especially items of women's clothing. If anyone remembers the film El Norte, the Maya K'iche' brother and sister who fled to the U.S. had to disguise their Guatemalan and indigenous identities so that they wouldn't get sent back to Guatemala. This is still true today for many Maya migrants, since nearly all make the journey por tierra (over land) and without documents. If they are apprehended at the U.S./Mexico border and are known to be Guatemala, the U.S. will deport them to Guatemala, which means starting the entire journey over again. However, if they can pass for Mexicans, then they will be deported to Mexico, which makes it easier to try and cross again.  

So, people don't carry identification papers, and women trade in their traje tipico for jeans when they journey northward (and they don't even carry it with them for fear of divulging their identities). So, once they are settled in New Bedford, and have paid off their debts, they often send money home and ask their relatives to send them traje típico. No one I know wears traje except on special occasions, but most Maya women who have been in New Bedford for a few years have at least one set.

Juana is a highly skilled weaver, and on previous visits she had sent a tiny huipil she had woven (in the distinctive Zacualpa pattern), and an equally petite Zacualpa-style corte for Olivia's daughter.

So, I had arranged with Francisca and Juana that I would call them a week before I left so we could arrange for them to give me whatever they wanted to send to New Bedford.  The Sunday before my departure found me heading to Zacualpa in the early morning, trying to coordinate meeting both the women, who come from aldeas that are in opposite directions from the town center. Sunday is market day, and so Francisca was already coming to town to sell some fruit and vegetables. Juana often works on market day as well, making tortillas, but she wasn't doing that this Sunday. 

I felt a bit guilty that I couldn't really visit with either Juana or Francisca but I had to get back to Chinique for my English class, so they gave me their packages - Francisca had some hand-woven dish towels and a VHS cassette; Juana had two savanas that she had woven -- the word literally means "sheets", like the kind you would put on a bed, but it is used to describe a large square woven cloth. I'm not sure what distinguishes a savana from a servilleta -- if there is a size (say, a square meter) at which something becomes a savana. 

I snapped a few quick photographs and then went back to Chinique. I also contacted Doña V and asked if she wanted to send anything; I cautioned that I could only take a small amount. On one previous occasion she had loaded me down with several pounds of beans and chiles, and also packages of roskitas (rusks). I told her I could take a pound of beans and a pound of chiles, and so she prepared a package and then also added some photographs (I recognized them as copies of photos I had taken).

Returning to New York was fairly seamless. I won't say it was as though I hadn't left, but I slipped comfortably back into my New York ways -- and I didn't even read Prensa Libre every day, I'm sorry to say.  Although I have to confess that I did sit in the rental car lot at JFK at 2:00 a.m. for about 5 minutes reminding myself how to drive an automatic (I instinctively started to wrench the gear stick way over to the right and down for R, but of course it wouldn't budge sideways).  So I soaked up New York, and relished in the tastes of  wood-oven pizza and arepas in the East Village, Chinese street food in Flushing and Manhattan Chinatown. There are other varieties of food in Guatemala (especially Antigua, and probably Guatemala City too, although I spend as little time as possible there), but this was a chance to soak it in. 

The trip to New Bedford was brief and I really only saw a few close colleagues in the Maya community. Leaving had been hard; while of course I was excited about the Fulbright and the opportunity to spend a longer period of time in Guatemala, my departure came at a time when there was a lot going on in the community -- initiatives that had started some time back seemed to be coming to fruition.  There were plans to do a major event to commemorate the anniversary of Monseñor Gerardi's assassination, and the handicrafts assocation, Oxib' B'atz', was still in a formative stage. So I had left all of that, although I had found a student to do some work in the office and had stayed in touch via email, and we were trying to figure out how there could be meetings in New Bedford in which I could participate via Skype (that necessitated getting them a new computer; this is in the works but hasn't happened yet).

So my whirlwind visit got me caught up, sort of, on events in the community. I was greeted warmly when I arrived at the community center, and both Paula and Olivia arrived, eventually, to collect their packages and talk a bit. It was hard to give an adequate update on how things were in Guatemala: January  and February were grim months in terms of crime, violence, impunity and corruption. So what does one say? "The country is really fucked up but your family is okay?" I don't want to get my friends too preoccupied about my safety; it's not that I feel I'm immune to violence, not by a long shot, but most of it does not seem to be random, and Quiché does not seem to be at the center of the maelstrom.

One friend confided that he was planning to return to Guatemala to see his family sometime in the next year or so -- but that he would come back to the U.S. (traveling, of course, by land, in the absence of any serious immigration reform between now and then). There are not that many who make the round-trip again voluntarily -- I do know of deportees who have returned to the U.S. (at great legal risk, since the penalty if one is caught and deported a second time are very severe). 

No comments:

Post a Comment