Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reflections on mobility and locality

Every time I return from a trip anywhere, whether inside Guatemala or out of the country, I have to remind myself how privileged my life is. We become so accustomed to traveling regularly, for classes, for meetings, for work, that we forget, sometimes, that for a great part of the world's population, this mobility is an unimagined luxury. Yes, thousands of people migrate each year from the Guatemalan altiplano for jobs on coastal plantations, or make the long and dangerous journey to the U.S.  But at the same time, many people in the altiplano, especially women, rarely travel outside the boundaries of their municipality. Women who are involved in civil society organizations have the opportunity to visit other municipalities for training sessions, workshops, and meetings - and that has to be part of the attraction of 'becoming active', that it gives one the opportunity to experience other places. My friends who are lideresas in Ixmukane and other organizations travel to the capital regularly, sometimes more than once in a week, and some have been able to travel to other countries as part of delegations. And so I sometimes forget that a lot of women (and men too) have not had these opportunities.

This was brought home last night as I was chatting over the course of a few hours with my friend Caterino, who lives on the outskirts of my town. We were talking about my imminent departure from Guatemala (well, it is nearly two months off but I feel it looming in the distance). Caterino has offered to store my things and also my pick up, until my return. I told him that I wanted to think about where I would leave the car since I wanted to be able to drive myself to the airport, which means that someone with a license would have to come with me and then drive the car back. He told me that his brother drove and had a license, so that was a relief.

Later, as I was driving Caterino back to his home, he started to fumble around, trying to say something that was obviously hard. 'Well, I don't know how to say this, I'm not sure....' Very uncharacteristic of him, since he is usually very articlate and clear-spoken. But here he was, clearly uncomfortable. I started to get a little uneasy, since I could not imagine what he had to tell or, more likely, ask me that would make him so ill at ease. I thought maybe it was something big, or very unpleasant (we had been talking earlier in the evening about the police having assaulted a man in Tapesquillo, and broken his jaw). I urged him to tell me whatever it was and braced myself. At first I could not fully understand what he said, something about his wife and Guatemala and my taking her. Could he be asking me to take her with me when I left the country? People ask me that all the time as a joke -- a joke that expresses the great disparities. I asked him to repeat what he was saying, and then I understood. He wanted to accompany me to the airport when I left the country, together with his wife. Not just because they are my friends and want to see me off, but because his wife, he told me, had never been to the capital city.  "She doesn't know Guatemala City at all," he told me. "She has only been to Santa Cruz del Quiche." I asked if she had been to Chichicastenango, which is about 18 km. from Santa Cruz (and thus just under 40 km from our town). No, he told me, she hasn't been to Chichicastenango. And thus I realized just how exotic and unimaginably privileged my life seems to my friends here. One day I pick up and just head to New York on a whim because I want to participate in Occupy Wall Street. Admirable, perhaps, from a certain perspective, but also a tremendously privileged use of scarce resources. Then less than two weeks later I pick up and go to California for a few days for a conference. And eight days after my return, I head off again, this time to Canada.

Wistfully, longingly, my friends say that they would love to visit me, that they want to come in my suitcases, that they want me to bring them to the U.S. And it nearly breaks my heart every time, although these requests or expressions of desire are often couched in a joking tone. I cannot overcome the structural inequalities with a wave of a magic wand, I cannot change visa requirements or immigration laws in a way that would make such trips possible. And so I live, albeit uneasily, with the contradictions.


  1. Throughout the years I have had many experiences of people begging me to take them back to the US. Even a dental hygienist at my dentist's clinic once! As soon as her boss was out of earshot, she started begging me "Please, please take me with you! I won't be like others who will abscond once I am there, I will serve you faithfully, you don't have to pay me much, just take me!" and so on. It is heartbreaking yes, and sadly, it makes me reticent to get into in-depth conversations about the US, where I live, what I do, etc., with strangers. I avoid being placed in the position where people ask me to take them there ... sometimes in jest, which is uncomfortable enough, but too often they do mean it. However, it is good that you are involved in situations where you can help and participate in making women more independent and autonomous, even if it is in a small way compared to what we are used to. It is not small to them! So good for you.

  2. Thanks. I have had one or two serious requests... I think I wrote about one of them early on. No begging, just a young woman who came with her husband and baby, very formally, one market day, to my home to see if I could help them. At the same time we are trying to bring some people via the university but it takes a lot of effort and obviously most people won't qualify for a visa.