Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eso si me pone la cabeza mala (this makes me crazy): Scenes from a Sunday in the altiplano

It's Sunday, the day when the surrounding countryside spills into the town center to sell, buy or both; to gossip, catch up with friends, go to church, get drunk, or all of the above. Yes, now that I know where the  kuxa factory is in town, I can notice an increase in traffic on the weekends and an increase, sadly, in the number of people (mostly men, just an observation) passed out drunk on the sidewalks. And because we are in the period between the two rounds of the presidential election, which means we are still in election season, Sunday is the day when the sympathizers and the faithful, whether by their own volition or because they have been paid to be so, of the Partido Patriota, haul their sound system out in the street in front of my house and blast their music.

It's enough to drive a visiting/resident with leftist political tendencies crazy; hence the title of this entry is adapted from an album by the Cuban group Los Van Van, "Eso Te Pone La Cabeza Mala."  I often spend Sundays at home, catching up reading and writing, and so I am especially bothered by the incessant music, since there is really nowhere I can go. No part of my house is more insulated from the pounding, throbbing beats than any other.  The closest thing to a solution is to put on headphones and blast music of my own choice on my computer. Today I was especially nauseated by their colonization of Ritchie Valens' classic, "La Bamba". Really, is there nothing sacred?  I thought about turning up my sound and trying to blast something else, NWA or Neil Young, but that seemed foolish (I would definitely be unable to concentrate) unrealistic (even my clip on speaker can't compete with their sound system), and possibly worse. I try to keep a fairly low political profile in town, although perhaps people have figured out my sympathies. I have told them to very few close friends, but maybe the people allied with the traditional parties are paying more attention to me than I think. On Thursday, I received word from a Maya friend in the U.S. that a member of the URNG (one of the three left-wing parties, in case you are just reading this entry and haven't kept up with my ongoing analyses of electoral politics here) was killed in San Andrés Sacjabajá. The friend warned me to be careful, especially of the candidates in the second round. I told him that I didn't know anyone who was a candidate in the second round (there is a repeat of the mayoral election here in town, but although I know the names of some of the candidates I do not know any of the candidates, including the incumbent mayor who is running for re-election). His response was, "Although you don't know them, I am sure that they know you."

Sunday also means that I occasionally get visitors, which is an unexpected and mostly pleasant interruption in the routine. My interpretation of local codes of etiquette demand that visitors be welcomed in and offered something to drink, minimally, and something to eat if possible. No matter that one might have one's bag in hand, preparing to go to the market. Market must be put off to welcome the visitor. So this morning my preparations for market day were delayed slightly by the sound of a visitor at the gate above my house. The house is "desnivel", which means below the level of the street. About 5 feet. There is a chicken-wire fence at the street level, and then one descends down a concrete ramp or some steps, to get to the ground level and then the house. So if I am sitting in my front room, which does triple function as office, dining room and living room, at my desk which faces the window which faces the street, I can usually hear if someone opens the gate. I heard a noise this morning as I was getting ready to head to market and saw the familiar figure of Don Gorgonio, one of my friends from Tapesquillo, a rural community or aldea in the hills outside of the town. Don Gorgonio is the brother of a friend who now lives in the U.S., and I have not been up to visit folks in Tapesquillo nearly as frequently these past six months as I had been doing when I first arrived. So it was with a pang of guilt along with one of pleasure that I recognized his slight frame descending the stairs, and I opened the door while he was still walking across the yard. When my daughter was here in late August, we did make two trips up to Tapesquillo, but since I have friends in several different households, spread  throughout the various communities that make up Tapesquillo, it wasn't possible to time a visit so that everyone we might want to see would be available, and while we visited Gorgonio's home en route to visiting his mother, he was out in the fields, which are not adjacent to his house but a couple of kilometers away, and so we did not see him.

Many families have land somewhere other than immediately surrounding their homes. In some cases this is because a family that had land and a home in a rural area moved from the countryside into a town for schooling or work, or to escape the violence of the armed conflict, but retained their land, and therefore trek out to work it on weekends or whenever possible. In some cases this has to do with marriage patterns and inheritances (not that I understand all of this). For example, my friend Caterino and his wife live in Agua Tibia, a caserio or rural hamlet just along the highway, about 2 km. outside of town. Their house is right behind Caterino's parents' home (so I am supposing that when they got married, Caterino's parents gave them a small piece of land to build their house). However, Sandra's family lives up in Tapesquillo 1, and the couple has land up there, so they often go up on weekends to work their land, and stay with Sandra's family. Jeanet, my colleague at the radio station, who live in Santa Cruz del Quiché (that is, the town proper) and her husband have some land out between Santa Cruz and Chiché (which is where Nazario's family is from), so I am supposing that the land might be from his family. Landholding, farming and marriage have not been at the center of my research, but I am just recording what I have observed. So as different siblings in the same family marry, landholding will change. Or, looked at another way, a multi-family household like that of Doña Matilde (which consists of Doña Matilde herself, plus two married children and their spouses, and I think one other child who might or might not be married) might have, between them, several plots of land in dispersed locations.

Gorgonio was accompanied by one of his grandsons, Eliseo, who was shy and quiet. I invited him in and offered to make him coffee. Most people here, as I think I've probably mentioned, drink what is for me painfully weak coffee, but many of the friends who visit me have developed a taste for espresso and cappuccino since that is all I make and serve. It's been raining a lot lately -- the last two nights it has rained through the entire evening, and yesterday the rain started in the mid-afternoon and did not let up until dawn -- and so it's been hard to dry my clothes. And so yesterday I had put wash out to dry and then it started to rain, and hard, just as I was returning to town from a trip to Santa Cruz. I rushed up to the roof madly and grabbed what I could in one armload, and then tried to arrange it somewhat neatly on chair backs and on the staircase leading up to the roof. I saw Gorgonio was hesitating about sitting down so I explained what had happened and how hard it was to get clothes to dry in the rainy season, and scooped up enough so that he and Eliseo could sit without feeling as though they were in the middle of a laundromat.

Gorgonio told me that he and some others were looking to buy some plots of land on the coast since a lot of people up here did not have enough land and wanted to be able to farm and support their families.  Land shortages are, unfortunately, nothing new, and have their roots in the early years of the conquest, when the Spanish defeated the K'iche' kingdom, sacked and destroyed the temples and towns, and tried to concentrate the Maya in specific areas so they could be controlled. Then follow some centuries of other forms of land-grabbing and titling (i.e. theft, sometimes carried out through legal means-- you take the land, write up some papers in a language that only the colonizers and their allies understand saying it's yours, and of course the people from whom you stole it don't have any papers "proving" that the land was their first; read Greg Grandin's The Blood of Guatemala for some discussions of how a literate and Spanish-speaking K'iche' middle class in Xela -- Quetzaltenango -- were able to use the legal system to defend their property rights). More recently, the armed internal conflict exacerbated these inequalities as many people abandoned their lands when fleeing the violence, and returned to find the lands occupied by others -- often military people and their local supporters.

So land "shortages" are anything but "natural"; they reflected centuries of displacement and disenfranchisement.  Gorgonio said that he had gotten a group of people together and they were trying to talk with one of the government institutions to see if they could get some financial assistance (I am not sure if he meant through a loan or some outright help). He is part of a cooperative in Cacabal, which is up in the hills near Tapesquillo, where about 60 families live. Gorgonio is the president or director of the cooperative, which was comprised of families that had been displaced during the war and negotiated with an absentee landlord of an abandoned finca to purchase the property with a loan from the Catholic Church. Land disputes, according to the newspapers, are on the increase, and apparently Quiché is one of the areas with the highest number of disputes over land.  In recent months there have been displacements carried out by use of force in Alta Verapaz (some of these disputes involve hydroelectric projects or agribusiness concerns -- the drive to plant African palm has threatened a lot of small cultivators, as well as local ecosystems), and a number of community leaders have been assassinated. So this is not lightweight stuff.

I mentioned to Gorgonio that a Guatemalan friend living in the U.S. and I were thinking about putting together a cooperative and purchasing some land, but we weren't sure where we were going to do it, and our idea was to pull together a group of people here, and set up the cooperative so that the land would be worked cooperatively, not as individual holdings (this is all pretty speculative at the moment, but yes, we are really planning to buy some land here). He responded that nowadays people were very individualistic and used to a situation where everyone worked their own little plots of land. I said we understood that and it would take some work to set up a cooperative. I also mentioned that we wanted to do organic farming, which would limit what we could do, since some crops (corn, for example) are especially hard to grow organically.

The coffee steamed up and I managed to find something to put out on a plate: some cookies I had purchased in Antigua a few weeks ago. We chatted some more; I asked after his wife and mother, and he said that his mother was somewhat better, which I was glad to hear. She is in her mid-80s and suffers from diabetes; her health has been somewhat precarious over the past several months, and she has a lot of trouble seeing now. She does not leave her home that often, and I know I should go up and see her again soon. I asked after his sons who are in the states; he said that they were fine.

 After we drank coffee and they ate cookies (I gave Eliseo the choice of some herbal teas, but he asked for coffee; I made his cup about 2/3 milk and 1/3 coffee), they were ready to go and I was ready to hit the market. It's always a challenge to limit myself to a quantity of food that I can actually cook and consume in a week; even in our very small local market there are an abundance of temptations, and even though I have a very small refrigerator I sometimes find containers or bags of things that I had forgotten, often in a pretty sorry or even moldering state.  So each week I promise to exercise restraint and each week I only partially comply, which sometimes leads to meals consisting of three different kinds of vegetables or everything-but-the-sink soups or frittatas. I did pretty well today, keeping in mind that I have to go to a protest and then a conference in Guatemala, which means at least one night and possibly two when I won't eat here.  More about food and markets in a future installment, most likely....and of course about the protest and the conference.

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