Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Le gente de maíz/The people of corn

There is a light gray blanket of cloud evenly spread across the sky, so that the movements of the sun cannot be easily detected, and the sky presents the same unbroken surface at 8 as it did at 7.  The ambulance of the bomberos voluntarios (volunteer firefighters) slowly ambles down one of the streets, the last one that eventually leads to the dirt road that goes all the way to San Andrés Sacjabaja -- I have to describe it as such, for if I used the official name, which might be 4ta Avenida, no one here would know what I was talking about.  I could say, "the street where Doña Susy has her tienda" or "the street where the Casa Social (social house of the parish) is located" or "the street where they put the ferris wheel during the fiesta patronal" and then people would know what I was talking about. Behind the ambulance, which stops for a while, although there seems to be no emergency as the lights are not flashing and the siren is not blaring, a young man maneuvers a bicycle, hunched over the handlebars, his face a study in calm concentration. He has an azadon (hoe) over his back, neatly tucked into the space between his small nylon backpack and the green-checked light flannel shirt he is wearing. The hoe has a large, flat blade that sits snugly against his left hip, and the wooden handle, weathered by wear, sticks out a couple of feet on his right side. Off to work his own, or someone else's milpa.

Farther up, after I have turned off to the left on the first road after the pavement ends, I see a young woman whom I have seen often on this road, carrying her baby wrapped across her back in a purple servilleta, and carrying a plastic basin filled with corn kernels that have been soaked and drained; on her way to the generator-powered mill, undoubtedly, to grind the corn into masa for the day's tortillas.  We smile and say hello. Some workers perched atop a new house that is going up, a two story affair made of concrete blocks, faintly try to attract my attention with their few phrases in English. "Hello" "How are you?" "Good morning". I smile and wave over my shoulder as I pass them. I consider calling out "Saq'ariq" (good morning in K'iche') but decide that it is wiser to acknowledge but not really engage them.

Still farther on, a young man, wearing his hair longer than I usually see around here (gently curving down to his shoulders), leads a lone black goat on a rope. He is wearing a neatly pressed shirt, buttoned up the front, with a crisp collar, and trousers, not jeans, shoes, not boots or sneakers. A bit incongruous, at first sight, with the goat, at least to me. But I need to be careful not to impose an alien perspective. No reason he shouldn't be dressed neatly if he is taking the goat somewhere to sell, or if he has an errand that requires somewhat formal attire after doing whatever it is he needs to do with the goat.

It is a bit later than I usually set out on this road, and also people are working different parts of their fields. There are two sets of fields where there are usually people working, and we always exchange greetings -- one on the right hand side after the road starts its first climb. And then a few hundred yards farther on, around another curve, it flattens out for a bit and there are some more fields on the left. But today either because it's later or because the people simply have moved on, no one is close enough to greet me or be greeted in turn. 

The earth around the corn stalks is rich-red clay, now carefully cleared of unnecessary undergrowth, fresh and moist with the season's rain. A friend has been pestering me to read Los Hombres de Maíz, considered by many the masterwork of Miguel Angel Asturias. And I understand why, walking through these fields, where I am privileged, as I often remark, to walk because I want to, not because I need to. The fields are not flat here in the altiplano, but farmers plant their corn in rows that gently hug the swells and curves of the earth. In some places the milpa perches at a precarious angle on a small patch of earth atop some rocks, an angle so acute that one wonders how people can plant, hoe and harvest without plunging off the hillside and onto the road below. The smell of woodsmoke drifts through the air, accompanied often by the slap-slap rhythm of women shaping masa into the day's sustenance. The tortillas are so ubiquitous, so ordinary, that I sometimes need to remind myself that  every grain of corn is a small miracle. Cultivating corn, breaking the earth, planting the carefully culled kernels from last year's crop that one has rubbed off by hand from the cobs that will later go to feed the animals, fighting off the pests that feast on the tender plants... All of this represents so much love and labor and sacrifice.  And I also remind myself, or rather the hills themselves remind me, that people have literally died to be able to have these fields. The sacrifice is not only the daily one of rising before dawn and working hard in the fields or at home, but the centuries of struggle to maintain or regain lands, and the more recent sacrifices that were not voluntary but the price exacted by the army. I know, without having been told specific details, that people were tortured, killed or disappeared around here. If not in these exact fields that I pass nearly every day, then farther up the road, or off a different branch. The redness of the earth reminds me every day of the blood that has been spilled here, so that farmers can continue to plant their milpa, harvest their corn, and feast themselves and their families. Each kernel that is saved and replanted is a gift from the past, carrying the blood of generations, and a message, a promise, a pledge of faith for the future.

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