Saturday, September 17, 2011

Independence day celebration

One hundred and ninety years ago, Guatemala gained independence from Spain. However, in my view, it has been only technically independent. The country's export-oriented agricultural sector has largely been subject to the whims of international markets; foreign capital (as well as domestic elites) has played an important role in shaping the national economy. The majority of the population (the Maya, along with the smaller Xinca and Garifuna communities) has been marginalized and excluded from social, political and economic power. The imperial power to the north has had an undue interest in Guatemala's internal affairs. When Guatemalans elected a president, Jacobo Arbenz, whose modest proposals for land reform rankled U.S. multinational United Fruit Company, the CIA helped engineer a coup that toppled his government, leading to decades of military rule and a bloody civil war that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Maya peasants and ripped apart the social fabric in hundreds of highland communities.  
The Maya and other indigenous populations remain in a kind of second-class citizenship, incompletely incorporated into the nation.  The continued exclusion and marginalization of, and outright racism against, the Maya has been palpable throughout my stay. One doesn't have to do much more than scratch the surface. Walking through town the other day, for example, I passed two pairs of women walking; in both cases, a middle-aged Ladina accompanied by a barely-teenaged Maya girl -- obviously, her "muchacha" (domestic employee). So, part of me says, independence day? Yeah, right. 

These sentiments are shared by some of my friends. Earlier today, the Consejo de Juventudes Indígenas (Council of Indigenous Youth) posted an analysis of the election results, arguing that the number of Maya elected to public office in the recent elections was lower than in the last elections in 2007.  They note that poverty as well as racism keep many Maya from seeking elected office -- it takes a lot of money to run a campaign, and often, when Maya are included in party slates, they are not at the top of the ticket; they are rarely in leadership positions within party organizations.  So, in a country that declares itself to be multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and pluri-cultural, it is obvious that to a degree, those declarations are just rhetoric. Or, to put a more positive spin, a dream deferred, to borrow a line from Langston Hughes.
To be clear, I am not a huge partisan of independence day celebrations in my own country, the U.S. I am not subjecting Guatemalan national identity to a special kind of critical scrutiny. or holding it to a higher standard. Most modern nation-states have constructed their nationhood in such a way that some part of the population living in the national territory -- a racial or ethnic group, women, immigrants, adherents to a particular religion, people who don't own property -- are not granted full membership in the nation.  This is very clear in the case of the U.S. -- we only need look at Native Americans, African Americans, or our remaining colony, Puerto Rico.  

Nonetheless, around here, many people have been in a festive mood -- or at least, they have been displaying visible symbols of national pride for the last couple of weeks. Over the past few weeks, microbuses around here started sporting large rectangular Guatemalan flags stretched out on the front or sides. Tuk-tuks, the small motorcycle-taxis that traverse city streets and dusty country roads, sprouted small Guatemalan flags on their corners.  All throughout local markets, ambulatory vendors hawked flags.

Wednesday afternoon I had finished up at the radio station (someone had asked me to fill in, and I had been there for several hours) and then repaired to the one place in Santa Cruz del Quiché that serves espresso drinks and has wi-fi, a slightly flashy café in a small shopping center (centro comercial) just along the road that enters town from the east.  They also serve sweet and savory crepes, herbal teas, smoothies, sandwiches and a few other things. It's called Café Blintz (why "blintz", I am not sure; they have a branch in Xela, and so I will have to check that out sometime when I am there). I've become fairly fond of the place.  As I sat and read through the New York Times and Prensa Libre, I heard a cacophony of sounds. Some groups of young people ran down a street. Then some pick up trucks loaded down with people started to drive by, with horns blaring and passengers yelling.

Soon I decided I had better leave; I wasn't sure what was going on but there seemed to be a lot of hubbub.  As I headed east, I found myself behind a long line of slow-moving vehicles, barely moving, in fact, on the first big slope of highway leading eastward. I inched forward behind everyone else, and then once we came to the first flat part, I saw what was holding everything up: groups of runners, accompanied by supporters in pickups and on motorcycles. They appeared to be students from local schools, both older elementary school, middle school and high school students. Each group had at least one runner carrying a torch, and many were accompanied by teachers.  There were people along the sidelines, many carrying buckets of water or hoses, which they used to splash and spray the runners -- along with some of the car. My windshield got a few good slugs of water (I had my windows rolled up so I didn't get soaked, thankfully). 

Along with some other vehicles, I managed to maneuver my way into the oncoming lane and around each group of runners, and had a brief bit of smooth sailing until I came to the next group. I didn't count how many groups there were on the highway between Santa Cruz and Chiché, or between Chiché and Chinique. But apparently this running of the torches is a standard part of the independence day festivities. No photographs; it is challenging enough to maneuver a car along that stretch of highway even when there are not groups of runners to be avoided and bystanders waiting to douse everything that passes.
Willy and his daughter

I eventually made it back to town unscathed, but later than I had planned, and decided to still head out for an early evening walk up into the hills. On the way back I ran into my friend Nati, at whose house I had stayed on two of my previous visits to Guatemala, and for the first week of my current stay. She asked if I was going to the town parade the next day and I asked her when and where it was going to take place. She told me it would start at 9, in front of the church.  I decided that it made no sense to try and avoid the celebrations but that I would go out and see what they were like. Arriving home, the guys from the garage were out on the curb with assorted children and spouses; Willy's daughter seemed very occupied with her father's cell phone. We chatted about children and electronics; Willy said that when he was growing up in Manzanillo, a rural community, there was no electricity. His wife added that she, too, had grown up with no electricity and her father had had a small, portable television that he powered up sometimes using the car battery. They said they were probably going to the parade as well. 

I've been hearing the marching bands practice up the street and all over town for the past couple of weeks. One band practiced around the corner from my house every night at around 8 p.m., and I had seen band members walking around with their instruments.  So, up bright and early on September 15, out for a brisk walk up into the hills and then back home to change into something presentable and get my camera and water and head out to watch the march. On the way home, I passed a couple who were unmistakably (judging by hairstyles, clothing, body language, skin color) foreigners; I couldn't tell from a superficial glance 
whether they were from the U.S. or Europe, but they were definitely not from around these parts. I couldn't figure out an easy and unobtrusive way to ask them who they were and what they were doing, but perhaps I'll ask around, if I don't see them again. 

Back out to the plaza in front of the school; there the youngest children were lining up, shepherded by teachers and parents. All were decked out in costumes, although I couldn't seem to discern any rhyme or reason to the costumes. I have spoken to friends in other, larger, municipalities, like Chichicastenango, and they have told me that there, the costumes are more thematic. For example, children will dress up in traje típico from different parts of the country, from other departments or municipalities. Here, it seems more whimsical and not connected to any specific cultural logic. One group of the very youngest children were dressed up as bumble-bees, complete with antenna and black dots traced on their 
chubby little faces.  Another group were outfitted as cowboys (or that's what it looked like to me), with tiny little chaps.  Still another contingent were wearing little skirts and laced bodices and hats -- to my eyes, this seemed to be inspired either by "Heidi" or "the Sound of Music". A group of somewhat older children were outfitted  "Chinese" garments made of a shiny satiny red polyester fabric. The boys wore tunics over pants, and conical hats; the girls had on long dresses that seemed to be modeled on cheong sams, and had their hair fastened into buns with black lacquered

chopsticks. Again, what any of this has to do with Guatemalan independence is beyond me.

It was warm and sunny, and both spectators and paraders seem to flag as they wound their way through the streets. I could actually have stayed at home as the parade went right past my house (it's a small town, and I am just two blocks from the main plaza), but I wanted to see the start, and watch a bit of the movement of the parade through the streets. 

 A lot of people turned out to watch; while I didn't see all of my friends from Tapesquillo and other rural communities, several told me that they had come down for the parade, but that they had been in other parts of town watching. Much of the crowd seemed to move along with the parade as it wound through the town. I stopped off when it got to my house, and took the opportunity to run inside, make another latte, and rise out some clothes since it was
sunny and I had no idea how long that would last. I caught up with the parade again when it passed the market plaza a few blocks away; it had gone to the edge of the town, heading east towards Zacualpa, and then worked back towards the center, ending up where it had started.

As with other celebrations I've observed in Guatemala, cacophony is the name of the game. There were sound trucks blaring recorded music (and sometimes the mixes were odd: American top-40 and current Latin American or Guatemalan hits. I don't know the names of a lot of the songs, but they are ones I've heard over and over again during the past eight months). At the same time, there were marching bands, sometimes pretty close to the sound trucks, but playing a completely different set of songs. 

The bands also had choreographed movements that they performed as they moved, sometimes moving their instruments to the rhythm, or their feet and bodies, or all of the above. 

And, of course, hair gel seemed to the absolutely essential ingredient for marching bands, at least for the males involved. It seemed as though each band had used a gallon or more of the stuff, as nearly every boy in every band had his hair definitively spiked or faux-hawked. The obsessive use of hair gel seems to fade in the late teens or early twenties. 
I did run into several people I knew: Doña Vincenta's daughter-in-law, who is a teacher at one of the local schools, was there with her two children. Jacinta, the wife of my K'iche' teacher, Leonardo, is the director of the main school in town and she was shepherding their youngest child along with her as she supervised the students from her school; I then saw Leonardo and two of their other children along the sidelines. When I walked up to the market plaza to catch the latter part of the parade, I passed my friend Caterino's store, and he, his wife and children, parents and a few other relatives were sitting on stools in the doorway, and then occasionally walking up to the corner to watch the parade more closely.

Laer in the day, according to Caterino, there would be a gymnastics display up at the stadium. What I saw was actually more a cross between cheerleading routines (maybe because the girls had pom-poms?) and rhythmic dancing, performed to recorded music -- such as "Another One Bites the Dust." American pop/rock music -- at least some of it -- is pretty widely known here. I only stayed for a little while because it started to rain and then the rain got harder and harder, and it seemed that it wasn't going to lighten up or end anytime soon.  I hadn't brought an umbrella, just a waterproof jacket, and I was wearing slip-on sandals, so I picked my way cautiously down the wet cobblestones, deciding that I had had enough celebration for one day.


  1. From a friend: Reading and later thinking, why no asking those questions, or did you feel they wouldn't know Spanish and you didn't want to launch out (like with the kids, who already know all the subjunctives:~( etc etc etc.) in the other language? I mean re what got left hanging on parade day. With the aq'iq'ab in the other post the back-and-forth was more back-and-forth. Or felt that way.

  2. My response: what questions do you think I didn't ask? I'm not sure I understand what you mean here by hanging questions: like why they chose the costumes? I absolutely do not know enough K'iche' to ask questions beyond the very simple ones like "What is your name?" "How are you?" "How much does that cost?" But the school teachers are mostly Ladino/a, and the ones who aren't, have to be fluent in Spanish, so language wouldn't have been an obstacle. But I guess I don't see what are the hanging questions beyond some very simple (and I guess, to my mind, not all that interesting) ones. So, the visual language of the parade didn't seem to relate much to Guatemalan independence (nor did the music). Or at least it didn't this year. I'm not sure there is much of a "why"... or if there were, that it would be very compelling.

  3. So it was the language barrier. Thank you. The subsequent question for me is ... were these parades happening just this way all over the country? Did the press/tv report on them from various places/regions? Or ... that was something like what I wish the various ones here had been given a chance to say. Like, what does that China outfit mean to you beyond that it's gorgeous (& especially gorgeous in a bunch like that! — & thanks for picture). Or, I don't know, maybe it came from some story they had in school, or from watching the Olympics, or ... ad infinitum, and that's why they chose to wear it. I felt you were being shy here in asking about things; but maybe for true reasons. "But you know it ain't easy," as the man sang.