Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas, alcohol and celebrations

December in the altiplano is chock-full of celebrations. Not that there is a lot to celebrate if we look at things in a broader perspective. Government corruption is rampant; a whole slew of people close to the current government have been indicted for misappropriation of funds; most people still don't have enough money or food or land (at least around here); violent crime does not seem to have dropped in honor of the festive season.

Nonetheless, the Christmas season seems to have started around November 1, right after the Día de Todos Los Santos. Yes, I know, I'm horribly out of order here and I promise to write about the Día de Todos Los Santos (all saint's day) very very soon. Right around that time (I wasn't keeping exact track) Christmas ornaments and decorations began to appear. The café where I often buy a morning latté put decorations on tables, and then some massive artificial Christmas trees, popped up in public parks. Many of these trees are sponsored by the largest brewery in Guatemala, Gallo (pronounced "guy-oh", not to be confused with Gallo wines in the U.S.).  "La mejor cerveza" - the best beer -- is one of their signature advertising slogans. I cannot say whether or not this is the case. I have had about 4 Gallos since arriving in Guatemala 11 months ago, but I am not a beer connoisseur; seems okay to me, neither the best nor the worst.  It certainly did the trick the day I smoked 4 cigars (well, did my best to puff smoke out of them without damaging my lungs) at a ceremony, and after soaking myself in the thermal baths in Sacapulas.

The tree in Santa Cruz del Quiché es un "arbol Gallo" (Gallo tree), and it has been lit nightly since about three weeks ago. There was an actual inauguration of the tree which I did not attend, but I drove through town that day and there were crowds of people in the area around the Parque Central, and there have been a lot of people pretty much every day since. Taking one's photo in front of the tree is a popular pasttime. In Xela, the tree in the Parque Central is sponsored by one of the banks, perhaps only slightly less objectionable as a sponsor than a brewery. The reason that the brewery's sponsorship is problematic is the high incidence of alcoholism and alcohol abuse throughout the country, but especially in highland communities. It is a major public health problem and according to at least one source I consulted, one of the leading causes of death for Maya men in the highlands.

Alcohol abuse is a complex issue, tied up as it is with poverty, inequality and racism. I see the effects of it nearly every day. On market days, when many people come down from mountaintop hamlets to the main town or village, a lot of people, especially men, drink. I often come across men passed out on the street, stretched out stone cold on a sidewalk or street. No one seems to pay them much mind, and everyone just picks his or her way around the unconscious bodies. Or one comes across men who are staggering, unsteady on their feet, or just standing in a kind of dazed state.

There is a distillery (or distribution center, I am not sure which) for tz'am (local corn liquor; I was told that tz'am is a more correct term than kuxa) a few blocks from my house, and on the occasions that I have gone in to make a purchase, I have come across men (and a few women) in various states of inebriation. Sometimes I see people sitting on the curb on that block, or leaning up against a building. The last time I was there, I was purchasing a fairly sizable quantity to bring to some friends, and there were three or four men inside, who were drinking what they had purchased. The "factory" (this is how people refer to it) keeps a stock of small bottles (probably 4 oz.), and also some glasses, so people can make their purchases, drink up and then get on their way -- if they are capable of doing so). In the case of this particular factory, the owners are Ladinos and the majority of their clients are Maya. At least, that is who I have seen on the premises or nearby.

During the patron saint feasts, alcohol consumption is even higher.  Streets and squares are filled with semi- or completely drunken people, and at the sarabandas (dance parties with live music) that I have attended, judging by appearances most of the people who are out on the dance floor are under the influence. On one occasion I accepted an invitation to dance from a friendly-looking middle-aged woman -- it seemed a relatively safe choice, as I like to dance, and noticed other pairs of women dancing together. However, once we started moving, she lurched and dragged and nearly pulled me off my feet, so I did my best to keep us both in a secured and upright position and then once the song was finished politely made my excuses to avoid having to dance any more.  Several Maya friends say they avoid going into town during the fiestas for that very reason -- too much drinking, too much rowdiness. And it is fairly easy to see the connection between overconsumption of alcohol, especially by men, and other problems like domestic violence, sexual abuse (especially of minors) and continued poverty. Hard to make ends meet when one or both parents drink away a lot of their earnings, hard to save money, hard to invest in anything more ambitious. But the drinking doesn't produce the poverty -- which is a standard explanation, especially by upper-middle class Guatemalans, bureaucrats, and undoubtedly some Evangelicals. The moral judgements easily slide into racial and ethnic judgements. Many middle class Guatemalans, or middle class Ladinos more precisely, talk about alcohol abuse among the Maya as though it is either a biological or cultural inheritance -- that is, it is a sign of the cultural or biological inferiority of the Maya, although most people might probably not put it so crudely.

It's easy to say, well, they shouldn't drink so much, or they drink because they are ignorant, or they wouldn't be so poor if they didn't drink so much, have so many babies, and waste so much money on frivolous things like patron saint feasts. That they would not be poor if they worked hard, saved their money and became good little petty capitalists. People work extremely hard here -- it is not easy walking miles along rocky mountain roads carrying 30 pounds of firewood secured with a strap around one's forehead. It is not easy getting up at 4 or 5 a.m and taking a few precious cows or goats out to pasture, and even more difficult if one does not have grazing land of one's own, cannot afford to rent pasture, and must therefore pasture one's very modest flock on a narrow strip of grass alongside the highway, on one of those treacherous curves on RD 15 between Chichicastenango and Los Encuentros. People do not pasture their flocks on precarious patches of grass alongside the highway in order to make nice snapshots for tourists; they do it because they do not have adequate land.

A "cuarto" (quarter -- I think about 4 oz) of tz'am costs Q5 (less than a dollar). Let's say Juan Q. Público drinks Q10 worth on the weekend. Even if he saved up all that money, that would be about Q500 over the course of a year ... that doesn't go a long way. You could buy a bicycle. But you couldn't buy a car. You couldn't pay the workers you would need to help you build a house out of adobe bricks. You can't buy a piece of land for Q500, or even Q1000 (let's assume he's a heavier drink and splurges Q20 every Sunday). You can't stock a store for Q500 or even Q1000.  So, there might not seem to be much of a trade off -- the immediate pleasure and release that comes from drinking, as a relief from the brutal grind of daily life, balanced against the very modest prospects that saving that money might afford you.

So the real causes of rural poverty are structural (and sometimes invisible if you don't know the history) -- centuries of land theft and racism are among the most important factors.

Anyhow, back to Christmas. So there is something painful and ironic and sad about the beer company sponsoring Christmas "joy" when their products are tied up with so much misery. And there is something sad about the promotion of consumerism. Almost overnight, dozens of little street stands have popped up all over Santa Cruz, for example, and other towns, laden with fireworks, sold in long red-covered strips, or individual poppers, ornaments, lights, and sometimes random seasonal luxuries. Last night in Santa Cruz, while I was standing trying to get a good shot of the Árbol Gallo, I saw the vendor behind me had a few bags of imported walnuts in the shell.  When I walked to the parque central from the Despensa Familiar, where I had been making a few essential purchases (lentils and oatmeal), the street was lined with vendors, which is not common that late in the evening (about 6:30). Most of the year, the street vendors leave when it gets dark. But the sidewalks were covered with assortments of goods  -- sweaters, knitted caps, sunglasses, and cheap plastic toys. One man stood with a doll in his hand and accosted passersby with his pitch to buy a Barbie, for your little girl, for your precious one.  Pedestrians stopped, fingered sweaters and jackets, perhaps a bit longingly, and asked about prices. A woman's sweater or jacket usually costs at least Q70 (around $9) for a fairly simple design, and obviously more money for more elaborate ones. That is at least a day's salary (if one actually has a job that pays a salary, which few people around here do). So, what people in the U.S. might see as very mundane purchases are hard-to-imagine luxuries.

There are several celebrations other than Christmas itself. December 7 is the quema del diablo (burning of the devil): at 6 pm., in most places, people burn their trash, anything they don't want, and sometimes a piñata-type figure of the devil. I missed most of this since we had a big activity that day and I had to run some errands and had offered a ride to about 5 women from Ixmukané who live either in my town or along my route home.  December 8 is the feast of the Virgin of the Conception (not sure how that translates into English-language or non-Latin American Catholicism).  December 12 is the feast of the Virgin of Guadelupe.  Chichicastenango apparently has nearly a month of festivities (although none of my Chichicasteco friends has been kind enough to give me advance warning about which day might be interesting to observe; I only find out about things after the fact by seeing the photos they post on Facebook), although the actual day of the patron saint, Santo Tomás, is December 21, and I have been invited for that... we have an invitation from the alcaldía indígena, but I am not entirely about the details (like where I am supposed to be).

I don't yet know what I will do for Christmas, or noche buena -- literally "good night", but that is what Christmas eve is called here.  I am not Christian, although in the U.S. I have for the last 30 years passed the day with the family of my now-ex-husband (they are no more Christian than I am, but as somewhat more recent immigrants, they viewed Christmas as an "American" holiday and therefore celebrate it as a family day; since my family is Jewish, we never saw it in quite that light). On an aesthetic level I enjoy the Western baroque and classical music of the season (and I usually go to a Christmas eve service in order to hear some).  I have received a couple of invitations to visit people's homes and eat tamales, so I will probably accept at least a few of them.

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