Friday, October 21, 2011

Snapshots of rural poverty

Every time I traverse one of the highways in Guatemala, I notice the people standing, waiting for buses or some other transport. A woman stands with several baskets arrayed on the ground. A child stands near her. A man emphatically talks into his cell phone while keeping an eye on the highway. The weather has been rainy, and then clear and cold, but women are all bare legged, and often have towels, blankets, or shawls wrapped around their upper bodies, to keep warm.

On the one hand, we might look at these people, and the women especially, and notice the disjuncture between the handwoven skirts and güipiles and the factory-made, mass-produced makeshift shawls. On the other, we might realize that people take what is available and adapt it to their needs. Mass-produced clothing or household items such as fleece blankets or socks are widely available throughout Guatemala. Some are manufactured in Central America (undoubtedly in maquiladoras) and others are imported from China and elsewhere. And so international commerce, the market, may make certain things more readily available for people (a hand woven blanket would undoubtedly cost much more than a mass-produced one), but at the same time undermine local economies (I haven't looked into this but am speculating: obviously people used something to cover themselves before these fleece and polyester or acrylic blankets were available).

There is also a kind of stolidness and weariness on people's faces as they wait. Especially over the last week as there have been heavy rains and landslides... but people have to travel, to go to market to sell their goods, or purchase things that they will bring back and sell. Long lonely waits are an inescapable fact of life in the highlands.

And lonely the highways are. I don't think I've yet written about the complete lack of traffic in the highlands. Once I get past the congestion of Chimaltenango, which extends part of the way to Tecpan, the next sizeable town, there is very sparse traffic up to Los Encuentros. There are clusters of traffic near where highways intersect and around towns, but otherwise I often drive for stretches of several kilometers and only see a handful of vehicles in either direction.

Back to clothing: a lot of women around here wear t-shirts and cortes. A friend from Ixmukané commented on this one day when we were talking about clothing -- I think it was at an event where I had worn a güipil over a dress, and she remarked that I had on a güipil while she was wearing a t-shirt. We laughed, and then she said something that I already knew, which was the güipiles were relatively expensive -- especially those of Chichicastenango which have elaborate woven or embroidered designs -- or both.  So this is not necessarily a "look" born out of choice, or a desire to be half "western" and half Maya in one's attire, but a reflection of the practicalities and exigencies of rural women's lives. And so if they have to choose which half of their attire they will keep "traditional", it is the skirt.  On the other hand, my clothing choice -- a güipil over a "western" clothing item, is hardly an original one. Many ladina professional women, particularly academics and people who work with NGOs (and perhaps some of these women are Maya as well; can't tell by appearances) dress this way -- a beautifully woven güipil over jeans, trousers, or a skirt. The other day I was at a large gathering organized by an NGO and nearly all of the female staff members wore güipiles over pants.

There are a few images that spell out or define rural poverty for me. One is the children, some as young as four or five, or old women and men, who carry heavy loads of firewood on their backs, the strap held across their foreheads. Often there are two or three children together; sometimes they are accompanying adults, the entire family group trudging along with loads of wood. A few times I have seen people in town in the early morning, looking for vendors for their wood. I think, "those children should be in school", but of course, the families need the money, otherwise, why would they all be out at 6:30 or 7 in the morning?

Another image that symbolizes rural poverty are women washing their clothes in the ditches alongside the highway. I have only seen this on the highway that runs from Santa Cruz to Totonicapan, a stretch of road that is very sparsely traveled, and there are few towns along the way, just clusters of settlements. The road is relatively new, and there are sloped cement ditches on both sides, so that the rains will run off and not flood the road surface. In the last couple of weeks, as the rains have been fairly heavy, there is a lot of runoff in the ditches, and women from the surrounding areas come out to wash their laundry in the ditches. This, to me, is an indicator of rural poverty because it means that these women do not have running water in their homes-- if they did, why would they bring their laundry out onto the side of a public highway to wash it?  In other areas, I have seen women washing clothes in streams alongside highways, and I see a lot of laundry laid out to dry on the grass alongside highways, or hung along ences that run alongside the road.

I do not have photos to accompany this blog.  Every time I see people carrying wood, or washing clothes in the ditches, something stops me. I do not want to either sensationalize these people, dehumanize them by turning them into objects, or "naturalize" these conditions. It seems to me that the only way to ethically represent them would be to stop, converse, explain who I am and what I am doing, and then ask if would be alright to photograph them and share their photographs. I have not  had a chance to do that, and so I have refrained from taking photographs.

These may seem like small details, hardly earth shattering revelations, but these kinds of everyday occurrences become so commonplace sometimes that we don't really even see them.

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