Saturday, June 18, 2011

Que viva la diversidad sexual/long live sexual diversity

Parque Central, Xela
As I extricated myself with some difficulty from the crowded, sweaty nightclub, crammed with posing and grinding drag queens, gays, lesbians and supporters who had participated in a public event about sexual diversity, one of the young men stopped me. "Vas a poner las fotos que tomaste en el internet o en Facebook?" ("Are you going to put those photos you took on the internet or on Facebook?") I was momentarily taken aback -- especially in light of the post I had composed earlier that morning about the ethics of representation. I replied that I wasn't sure but that I would make sure that I got copies to some of the organizers. After my companion, a former comandante (commander) in the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, and I turned the corner, I realized that the query had probably been motivated not by fear that I would post people's faces online, but by a concern that maybe I would not post the photos. 

The event, after all, had been about making visible what had been hidden, and a community that was still, to a large degree, in the shadows, making its presence felt and demanding respect.

And so this will be a more photo-heavy blog post than I have been doing in the past, as I feel a responsibility, in this case, to make sure that some of these photos get seen both by the participants in yesterday's event, and much more broadly as well.

 I had heard about the planned event, a march for sexual diversity, a few weeks ago, from a friend who lives in Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala's second-largest city. It is a city with an interesting past -- it was a Mam capital, and then became part of the K'iche' kingdom, and it was the site where the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado killed the K'iche' leader Tecu Uman (there is a big statue to Tecu Uman but it is in the middle of a very busy traffic circle, so a photo of that will have to wait for a more relaxed visit). It was, for a time, the capital of a breakaway region called Los Altos.  The original name of the city was Xelajú, although the Spaniards changed it to Quetzaltenango; today, most indigenous (and many non-indigenous) Guatemalans call it Xela (pronounced Shay-la) -- while the green and white highway signs point travelers to "Quetzaltenango", many roadside billboards on the highway leading into town welcome visitors to Xela.  
Representa/represent! Some of the event organizers

I had never been to Xela and this seemed like a good excuse to make a trip with a purpose. Although sexual diversity is not directly part of my research, it is one piece of the larger context of gender and ethnicity in Guatemala today.

 And I was simply curious about how a sexual diversity event in the heart of the largely indigenous highlands would play out. While there have been "pride" marches in Guatemala City for some time, this was the first such event ever to be planned in Xela (or anywhere in the altiplano, as far as I know: please please correct me if I am wrong here). Xela prides itself as being the heart of Mayan Guatemala (although Chichicastenango also represents itself as being a stronghold of Mayan culture) and while it is, as I mentioned, the second largest city, and has a lot of bustling urban energy, it is, in many ways, a small town where everyone knows everyone.

So, I had planned to make this a one-day trip. I figured that Xela would be about 2-1/2 hours from Chinique, depending upon weather, traffic and road conditions, and that driving there and back was doable (after all, my friends and colleagues in Ixmukané, and other people I know here in Quiché take the bus to Guatemala for meetings and often return the same day). My friend H., who had told me about the event in the first place, suggested that I might want to check out a natural hot spring about 15 km away after the march ended.  

To quote Sly Stone, "It's a family affair"/
Para citar Sly Stone, "es un asunto familiar"
The day did not get off to a great start. For one thing, I was trying to enter grades and found that I couldn't log onto the university's "portal de notas" (online grade roster) or my class website. That revelation actually occurred on Friday evening, and I contacted the IT folks who told me, on Saturday morning, that there was a problem with the server and they weren't sure how quickly it would be fixed.

So I was feeling less than entirely virtuous when I started to get ready to leave. I packed up a bathing suit and towel for the hot springs; made a thermos of coffee and filled my water bottle; made sure my cameras (video and still) were charged and packed. I decided not to take my computer, since I didn't want to have to worry about it in the class (and didn't think I'd have time to blog or upload photos or anything, so it didn't seem essential). I have to confess that although I double-locked the house door, I had a moment of panic later on once I decided to spend the night in Xela, that perhaps a very very intrepid burglar might break in. This not-so-paranoid fantasy was inspired by the experience of a friend and colleague, who had had her laptop stolen from her car at a gas station while she was getting money from the ATM (she happily got her computer back but mostly because she hired a private investigator and had GPS). 

The importance of checking and re-checking of electronic equipment and making sure I have the right combination of plugs and cords and batteries cannot be overemphasized as during my next-to-last trip to the U.S. in early May I left the charger for my GoPhone in Guatemala (luckily Nokia has been using the same kind of charger on many of its phones for years and I have had many a Nokia phone and did not, thankfully, take all my Nokia chargers to the last e-waste recycling event I attended). On my last trip to the U.S. in mid-late May, I left my computer AC adaptor and the charger for my Nook; I was not lucky enough to find anyone who had a spare of either so I had to purchase replacements for both (well, at least now I have two sets of chargers for each, not a bad idea given my commuting lifestyle).

Equipment and stimulants secured, I realized I needed to change some money at the bank. There is exactly one bank in Chinique, a branch of Banrural (the rural development bank; their commercials, with the tagline, "El amigo que te ayuda crecer"/the friend who helps you grow, are a ubiquitous and somewhat annoying presence on commercial radio here).  Saturday the bank is always crowded, as for many people it is the one day they can make it to the bank; many in the rural aldeas surrounding Chinique only come into town when they need to take care of transactions like banking or paying bills. So I smiled and showed my passport to the extremely young-looking smartly uniformed armed guard at the entrance and took my place in line; there were about 18 people ahead of me (it's sometimes hard to tell if everyone in line has an individual transaction to pursue, or if some people might be a family group and therefore needing only one teller). No use fuming or fretting; just stand in line like everyone else, glance at the TV occasionally, watch people without being too obtrusive, and do something moderately useful like delete text messages from my phone.

More celebrants in Xela's Parque Central
They were very happy to have their photo
taken and struck this pose

Money securely tucked into bra (that's one of the ways women secure money here, at least foldable money), I headed back out to my car and hit the road. The drive was uneventful enough, fueled by a thermos full of latte and on-the-scene news reports from the last day of voter registration (empadronamiento) in Guatemala; the rolls were closed at midnight last night and apparently over 7 million people are now registered, a record number.

I hit the familiar crossroads at Los Encuentros, having navigated through market day in Chiché, a somewhat less congested Santa Cruz and then Chichicastenango's cobbled streets, plus that heavily speed-bumped stretch of road just south of Chichi. I turned right, and soon passed the turn-off for Sololá/Panajachel (as far as I'd ever gone previous on CA-1) and headed into the unknown. It's hard to describe the differences in the landscape between Quiché and Quetzaltenango. The hills are not as steep; there are more rolling slopes of green, and broad vistas.  The highway has a lot of curves and dips but you don't feel quite as much that you are driving in the middle of a forest as you on the stretch of CA-1 between Tecpan and Los Encuentros.  

No photos from the road trip; I was hoping I'd get to Xela in time to see a little bit of the city and not have to drive straight to the gathering point, Plaza Japon. No such luck, but then I found a different kind of luck.  There was little traffic on the road, and the highway itself was in much better condition than the lower stretch of the Panamericana that I've traversed so many times. The pavement was even, there were four lanes until the turn-off for Xela, and there was a median strip a few feet wide for a good part of the way (with grass, no less).  Ditches on either side to carry off the rain waters, and even shoulders in some places.  The day was warm and sunny; since I'd been warned that Xela was cold I had a long sleeved shirt and a hoodie, plus a rebozo just in case.

After entering the city limits I realized I had no idea where I was going, and I'd left my big Michelin map of Guatemala (which has an inset for Xela) in Antigua. After coming to the second roundabout, I decided that rather than just trying to figure it out on my own I'd call the Quetzalteco (Xela native) who had put me up to this, H. Fortunately he answered his phone (this hasn't always been the case in the past) and explained how to get to Plaza Japon. Sort of. Actually, the first thing he told me was that the march had been called off.  I took a deep breath, as I had just driven a little over 2-1/2 hours for something that apparently was not going to happen. However, H., added, "los muchachos" were going to have a "concentración". I wasn't quite sure what to do, and I think I got confused about the concentration, assuming it was going to take place at Plaza Japon. So I had H. give me instructions about how to get there; however, it wasn't entirely clear and I ended up calling from the car and having him explain as I drove (I know, not the safest way but it was the only way I could see ending up in the right place). As I drove along 4a calle (4th Street) I saw something that looked like it should be called Plaza Japon, as it was graced with a pagoda-like structure in the middle, and there was a karate school across the street (just saying). However, there was no one who looked like he or she was connected with a sexual diversity march. I called H. again and he said that he and a few friends, one of whom was involved in planning the event, were at a cantina not far away and I was welcome to join them for a drink. I needed food more than drink but H. assured me that there was food. So I made my way to the corner where H was waiting, parked my car and followed him into a small, very unassuming establishment. There were two small rooms; the first one held a table that was barely big enough for a single person, and then a caged-in counter/cash register area, behind which I could glimpse the kitchen. The other room held 4 tables, pretty tightly wedged into a space that was maybe 8 feet by 8 feet. H and three friends were at one table and we squeezed another chair in and I sat down. One of the men I knew -- he works with an NGO, and we've met at a few large public events. But this was the first time I'd seen him outside of a formal setting where he was giving a speech. The others were new to me. I didn't catch the names on the first round, but understood that one was a former comandante of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (which meant that he was Nicaraguan) and a pastor. The fourth man was Guatemala, and I don't remember how he was introduced, but it became clear after a few minutes of conversation over rum (Barceló añejo, in case you were interested) and some peanuts, that the Guatemalans had all been supporters of the URNG and were now supporters of Winaq, the indigenous (or indigenist?) political party.

As the conversation progressed I learned that the provincial governor had ostensibly given verbal consent for the march, but with the provision that it take place without his permission being made public. Something along those lines. And then he had withdrawn his "behind the scenes" support, this after a press conference had been held about the planned event. We joked about whether, since the governor had originally said that the march could go forward -- but without his support, could it not STILL go forward "without his support".

Javier, the Nicaraguan, and I had a chance to talk a bit; I was curious how he managed to be both an evangelical pastor (with all that the word "evangelical" implies in Guatemala) and a Sandinista comandante. He said his grandmother was a pastor, and I think also his father, and that he had grown up with it, although he took a somewhat critical view. He told me "I can argue against the existence of God as easily as I can for the existence of God." He was actually the main contact with the sexual diversity movement; he said he was unofficially their pastor, as many were still closeted; those who were members of churches did not feel they could talk to their ministers (the evangelical churches in Guatemala are hostile to homosexuality, as they are to traditional Maya spirituality, and the Catholic Church as a rule is not much better -- although there might be individual priests or nuns who are exceptions).

One bottle of rum (Barceló 12 year-old añejo) and several bottles of water and soda later, fortified by plates of lomito and carne asado and beans and tortillas, and several packets of salted peanuts, four of us were ready to head to the Parque Central for the "concentración" (the fifth had a political meeting to attend). Bumping and winding our way into the center of Xela, There was a platform erected in front of the steps of the municipal palace, and some brightly painted banners spread out on the ground in front. Milling around were assorted drag queens, other young men and women, and a few not so young, plus some families with children. Probably not more than about 50 people altogether. 

The gathering was, predominantly, male. I had been prepared for this; when I had first heard about the event and asked my friend H about the gender composition of the organizing group, he told me that it was overwhelmingly male. He had also said, when I asked how many people he thought would turn out, that he thought it would be small.  Several days afterwards we were talking about the event, and he told me that he had seen one openly lesbian couple -- they had been standing on the steps near where he was, and had been looking on from the sidelines. There were some women, mostly young, but I couldn't tell from their appearance or body language if they were queer or just sympathetic to the cause (and I don't mean that "just" to be in any way dismissive; LGBT movements need support from those who are not "singing in the same choir", and sexual liberation should be for everyone). 

There were some speeches alternating with performances: a young dreadlocked woman who juggled, some voguing and lip-synching, and I don't quite remember (without looking at the video) what else. A woman from the department of health (or some health agency) spoke; one of the organizers; a few other people.

 As the sky darkened, the organizers announced that we were going to light candles in memory of those who had died because of a lack of tolerance -- he did not use the words "homophobic violence" or "anti-gay violence" although that is what I understood him to mean.  it is interesting to note some of the differences in discourse between this particular wing or branch of the gay/queer/LGBT movement in Guatemala and the U.S. -- and I don't know to what extent this particular organization -- IDSO (Iniciativa por la Diversidad Sexual del Occidente; the Initiative for Sexual Diversity, Western Division) -- is representative of the gay/queer/LGBT movement in Guatemala

Most of those present lit candles and then we lined up, in twos or threes, and then walked around the square once, in a fairly stately and solemn rhythm. There were a few other people taking photographs throughout. My friends stayed on the steps near the stage and didn't join in, but I went around and took photos as best I could. 

There were a couple of families with children, and one man draped a rainbow flag around his shoulders like a cape. Once back at the starting point, we stood around the edges of the banners that had been arrayed on the pavement.

People were starting to put their candles down but one of the organizers took the mic and asked that we stand for a moment of silence, to commemorate those who had lost their lives, and then place the candles around the edges of the banners.

March organizers on the stage

Placing candles

Moment of silence

People milled around for a few minutes and talked quietly, and then the organizers put some music on the sound system and about half the people broke lose and started dancing in the middle of the square.

It was one, in some ways, one of the highlights of my time in Guatemala thus far. I felt very much at ease It's not that I feel uncomfortable with the women in Ixmukané or with people I know in the town where I live, but I do feel sometimes as though I'm in a fishbowl and I'm conscious of how I dress, move, talk. I usually try to dress fairly modestly -- most of the skirts and dresses I have here are below the knee, none of my jeans are super-tight.  And I have been especially self-conscious about moving my body when there is music playing. I have spent a lot of time around Cubans and other Caribbean folks, both in Cuba and in New York, and people are much freer with their bodies. More physical affection between friends, family members, lovers. And dancing. In Cuba and among Cubans, people use their entire bodies when they dance, they dance with energy and passion, and I've grown accustomed to that sense of physical freedom.  Especially in rumba, where the dance is all about posturing and putting on a particular performance of self. Here, the few occasions when I've been somewhere and there is dancing, I've noticed how generally stiff and restricted people's movements seem. And by "here", I mean here in the altiplano. At salsa clubs in Antigua, the Guatemalans who know how to dance move with the same kind of fluidity and freedom in their bodies as in New York. But up here, most people I know don't really dance. And so I hold myself back. When there's music playing at the radio station and we are standing around, I resist the temptation to do anything more than mark time with my feet. The only times I've been someplace where people are dancing, I've held myself in. For example, at the cofradía both last year and this year, while I did accept invitations (from other women) to dance, I made sure that I kept my movements somewhat restricted, careful not to shimmy or shake anything too much. I'm particularly aware of keeping my hips in check.

However, maybe because it was in a city, at night, in a park, in the dark, in a city where I only knew four people (and two of them I'd only met that day), I felt completely at ease and as though I could dance however I wanted and it wouldn't matter (I might have felt different if anyone from the association had been there with me and watching). 

The organizers invited everyone to meet them at a certain discotheque. J, the Nicaraguan pastor, said that he felt obligated to go since the people in the sexual diversity movement had been telling him about "their" discotheque and inviting him to go and he never had. I said I'd be glad to go with him; he had invited me to stay at his home since he and his family had a spare room; I quipped that if I was staying at his house then I'd have to go wherever he went, like it or not, but in this case it was fine. The other two took of for other entertainments or commitments. 

We went to get something to eat at a restaurant nearby, salads and glasses of wine, and continued to talk. After finishing we went to the club, which was about 2 blocks away, but it wasn't yet open. J suggested going to a restaurant/cafe run by a Swiss man that was on a hill that overlooked the city. It took us a few tries -- none of the streets that go up the hill are named or well marked so we went up the wrong one first and had to turn around and go up another. The view was quite lovely, with the lights of the city glimmering down below. J pointed out where we had been and I could make out the columns on the municipal building (the hill wasn't that high). We finished up, went back down and walked to the club. The music was loud, mostly house, and it was very crowded. J eventually found some of the people he knew -- I think he was concerned that they know that he had been there. So his presence was duly acknowledged. He introduced me to one or two people but this obviously wasn't the time to talk. We stayed for about an hour and then decided to leave. J said his goodbyes and we headed out into the historic center once again, to retrieve our cars from the lot nearby. And, on the door on the way out, I was stopped by someone, as I noted above.  

Now, a week later, I've posted the photos on Facebook and become "friends" with a few people in IDSO; one of them reposted my photos on his wall, which gave me a good feeling. I want  I've also decided that I want to return to Xela to do some interviews with people in this movement. Even though this isn't really part of my project and I'm not a scholar on gay movements, but when I looked and asked around, I realized that very little has been written about gays in Guatemala, and certainly nothing about the movement, such as it is, in the altiplano. It's easy for someone coming from a place like New York to see going out in the street in drag as very quotidian and unextraordinary. However, I realized throughout the evening that it took a tremendous amount of courage for these folks to gather in public, to present themselves to the world in this way.  There was one queen who dressed in a variation of traje tipico: a sleeveless top and a corte. I didn't get to talk to him/her, but one of my friends did, and said that s/he (the reason I'm waffling here is that I didn't get to ask this person how s/e wanted to be identified, with a masculine or feminine pronoun) commented that s/he wanted to express indigenous identity in this way.

I'm also realizing that I need to get out more, and be in places where there is some movement and diversion, and also just places to sit, drink coffee, and read -- other than my home. A third space, as it were. There aren't any around here, and not even in Santa Cruz or Chichicastenango. At the end of five months here, I realize I need relatively regular doses of cosmopolitanism but also the opportunity to sit and talk with friends, over coffee or a drink or food or all of the above.

So stayed tuned....

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