Monday, November 21, 2011

Transnational anthropology, transnational activism

Although living in Guatemala this year, I am still deeply connected to the community in New Bedford, which was how I got started being interested in Guatemala in the first place. I am in contact at least once a week with my comrades and co-workers there, especially in the organization Centro Comunitario de los Trabajdores, and often they give me tasks to accomplish, or consult with me, or ask my help.  Frequently, there are pleas for my presence: "When are you coming back?" "When will you be here?" These cut my heart sometimes: I can't be here and there at the same time. We had originally thought we could do meetings via Skype but we have not been able to get the audio working on the new computer we bought for the organization, so it hasn't been possible, although we have been able to chat on Skype.. but for some reason the audio doesn't come through when we try and talk.  One of my students, Danielle, has been working at CCT for her internship at the university (she also did this over the summer, as an independent study/experiential learning), but we haven't been able to be in touch as much as I would like either. One of my colleagues in the business school, with whom I had gotten a grant to do work with the women's organization, has been doing some technical support, but also we have only been in touch sporadically.

So, I try to keep in touch and help out as I can. From time to time Adrian sends me information and asks advice. A few weeks ago he asked me to get in touch with his cousin here in Guatemala who is working with an organization of people who were displaced after the war. We finally met, after much back and forth, but I am not certain how much I will be able to help out -- I do feel, sometimes, that upon learning that I am from the U.S., or that I am a university professor, or both things, people have some kind of exaggerated expectation of how I might be helpful. Or they don't have any very specfiic idea of what I might contribute, but think that I must be able to do something for them, being from the U.S. and all.  In general, I try to hear them out, to listen and then be very moderate in my responses; I can't promise what I cannot accomplish.

Recently, the director of CCT asked me to review the text for a brochure that they were doing for the organization, and also a brochure for the women's association that we founded last year, Oxib' B'atz'. So, via Skype and email, I reviewed the text, rewrote some parts of it, and then sent it back to them.

Then they asked me to help get a passport for the mother of a friend. The friend lives in New Bedford; her mother is here in Guatemala, in an aldea of Zacualpa. The mother is an experienced weaver, and the idea is that we could solicit a visa for her via the university, on the basis of her weaving experience, and her experience as a Maya woman in Quiché.  They were concerned that Doña J, an illiterate woman who doesn't speak much Spanish and who does not travel much outside of her town, and certainly not much outside of the department, would have some trouble navigating the trip to Guatemala and also navigating whatever bureaucracies she would need to confront in order to get her passport.  So they asked me to go to Guatemala City with her - this is as much a matter of cultural practice, because people here rarely do things on their own if there are family members around. For example, when a friend here, Alicia, went to the U.S. a few months back, three family members accompanied her to Guatemala City to the airport. When I have come through the airport, I often see large family groups (6, 8, 10 people) waiting together outside the arrivals area.

We negotiated the date, since they were eager to get her the passport soon, but I was leaving the country for a few days, and didn't want to turn around immediately and return. I arrived from the U.S. around midday on Monday, November 7, and we agreed that I would return to Guatemala on Thursday, the 10th. I suggested that Doña J should come to Chinique on the night of November 9 and stay with me, so that we could leave early in the morning of the 10th.  I wasn't very clear on what she needed to do for the passport application but figured that at least if there was anything to read or write I could take care of that for her.  They offered to cover my costs; I wasn't sure how much gas would be but figured 500 quetzales (as it turned out, it was a bit more, as I had to pay for parking, and then bought some fruit and paid for lunch).

The coordination involved a few phone calls to the U.S., as I called Doña J Wednesday afternoon to make sure she was going to arrive in Chinique, and because the call wasn't very clear it sounded as though she didn't remember or didn't understand my Spanish (she speaks some but not much) so I called Adrian in the U.S. and asked him to call her. He confirmed that she was set to come to Chinique, so then it took a few calls for us to actually meet up -- she got to Chinique before I did and was waiting in front of the church. I drove up -- there was a basketball game in progress and a lot of people in the plaza -- and called her and then waved so that she would see where I was. Three of her daughters were with her -- she has six kids living at home and two in the U.S., so it made sense that she wouldn't leave them all at home but only the older ones. I hadn't realized I would be having 4 house guests so I quickly bought eggs and they had tortillas (Doña J had been at a a capacitación all day and had purchased a few quetzales worth of tortillas for snacks) and I threw together a very quick dinner.

The next day we set off as early as I could make it: because of Maya codes of modesty, taking showers and changing took a long time as I let the four of them shower first, and they all changed in the bathroom after showering, and combed out and arranged their hair also in the bathroom, which meant that it took 45 minutes before I was able to take my 2-minute shower and throw on clothes so we could leave.

I made some watery oatmeal (this is the way most people eat it here; when I make oatmeal the way I like it, friends say it is hard to eat because it is so thick and "hard") and heated some milk, and then made thicker oatmeal and strong coffee for myself, and we set off.

We started out all in the cab of the pick-up, but before we had gotten to Los Encuentros, which is about  an hour and 20 minutes or an hour and a half away, one of the girls had gotten nauseous and threw up in the back of the car, and so I stopped to let her stand and get some air. Then another one got car sick about 5 kilometers farther.  Then after we'd passed Los Encuentros the first girl got nauseous again, and they decided that they needed to ride in the bed of the pick up so they could have air (not very fresh air, actually, as we were on the Panamericana and although there was not a lot of traffic, what traffic there is, spews lots of fumes and I always have sore lungs and a scratchy throat after I've been driving for any amount of time on that highway).  I had a few moment's qualms about this -- I would drive as safely as possible but we were on the major highway, and inside the cab is a hundred times safer than the bed of the pickup. However, they seemed determined, their mother had no objection or even comment (in Guatemala, people ride in the back of pickups all the time, including mothers with infants strapped around their chests or shoulders, and very elderly people), and they were not my children. So I let them do it; the alternative was a car full of very cranky, whiny, and nauseous children... and having to stop frequently so one or the other could vomit.

We made it to Guatemala in good time, and luckily I decided to call a lawyer friend to check on where we needed to go for the visa. My friend in the U.S. who had asked me for this favor was very fuzzy about what I needed to do and where I needed to go, and Doña J seemed equally if not more clueless. She did, however, as it turns out,  have all the right documents and the correct amount of money.  So, as we entered the city on Boulevard Roosevelt, I pulled over and called my friend Juan, as the only time I have dealt with Guatemalan officialdom it was at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores which is in Zona 10. He told me he THOUGHT we had to go to Migración in Zona 4. I decided to text an American friend who recently traveled to the U.S. with her Guatemalan boyfriend -- she, surely, would know where to get a passport. She confirmed: Migración on Sixth Avenue (Sexta Avenida) in Zona 4. That was fine. Now how to get there? It's not as though you can stop along Roosevelt and ask anyone for directions; traffic moves quickly when it moves and there is no place to pull over. I had a vague idea and made another call to Juan, but luckily I have a good sense of direction so I made it to 7th Avenue (7th goes up, 6th goes down) and asked at a business, and it turned out we were 1 block away. The man directed me to a nearby parking garage and we walked to Migración. There we saw lots of people packed into a small strip mall where Migración was located. There were hawkers on the street offering to help with paperwork, get visas, but they were able to tell us what steps we needed to take. First pay your fee at the bank, then photocopy your documents, then go to Migración proper and hand in your receipt for payment, your original and copies, and get your passport.

Doña J had unfortunately left the plastic bag containing the folder containing her documents in the car so I told her to wait with the girls and I returned to the car (which meant running across a big avenue) and retrieved the documents. We then stood with her and went to the bank, then the copy place, and then she went into the Migración office and emerged about 20 minutes later with her passport. It seemed amazing that one could get a "same day" passport, but when I queried Guatemalan friends, they said that passport fraud is relatively common, and also fewer people here request passports than in the U.S. While it is relatively easy to get a passport it is quite costly: you have Q235 to spend on the payment, which works out to almost 4 times the minimum daily wage of  Q60 which most rural folks don't earn anyhow.  You also cannot do the transactions anywhere other than Guatemala City so you need money for the multiple buses you will have to take if you are traveling from a rural area, and bus fare for multiple family members even if you not acquiring passports for everyone since people rarely travel alone to handle these kinds of transactions. Virtually everyone who was on line with us was accompanied by at least two family members who were not getting their own passports. So it is an expensive proposition. On top of that, it is extremely hard to get visas for the U.S., and also costly (travel, doctor's examinations) and then even if you get a visa, the ticket is costly... so the economic factors provide a barrier.

But we accomplished our mission. We took a photograph of Doña J holding her new passport and I emailed it to the friend in the US. as evidence.. and then we got in the truck and drove back to El Quiché. I had had a moment's thought when I first agreed to do this of trying to take advantage of the trip and setting up some meetings that I needed to have, but I realized that Doña J and her daughters would need to get back to Zacualpa and then to their aldea once I got them back to Chinique... which meant at least another hour or more, depending upon how long they'd have to wait for buses. Thus, working backwards, that didn't leave us any time (since we would need to stop and eat lunch at some point).

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