Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Le gente de maíz/The people of corn

There is a light gray blanket of cloud evenly spread across the sky, so that the movements of the sun cannot be easily detected, and the sky presents the same unbroken surface at 8 as it did at 7.  The ambulance of the bomberos voluntarios (volunteer firefighters) slowly ambles down one of the streets, the last one that eventually leads to the dirt road that goes all the way to San Andrés Sacjabaja -- I have to describe it as such, for if I used the official name, which might be 4ta Avenida, no one here would know what I was talking about.  I could say, "the street where Doña Susy has her tienda" or "the street where the Casa Social (social house of the parish) is located" or "the street where they put the ferris wheel during the fiesta patronal" and then people would know what I was talking about. Behind the ambulance, which stops for a while, although there seems to be no emergency as the lights are not flashing and the siren is not blaring, a young man maneuvers a bicycle, hunched over the handlebars, his face a study in calm concentration. He has an azadon (hoe) over his back, neatly tucked into the space between his small nylon backpack and the green-checked light flannel shirt he is wearing. The hoe has a large, flat blade that sits snugly against his left hip, and the wooden handle, weathered by wear, sticks out a couple of feet on his right side. Off to work his own, or someone else's milpa.

Farther up, after I have turned off to the left on the first road after the pavement ends, I see a young woman whom I have seen often on this road, carrying her baby wrapped across her back in a purple servilleta, and carrying a plastic basin filled with corn kernels that have been soaked and drained; on her way to the generator-powered mill, undoubtedly, to grind the corn into masa for the day's tortillas.  We smile and say hello. Some workers perched atop a new house that is going up, a two story affair made of concrete blocks, faintly try to attract my attention with their few phrases in English. "Hello" "How are you?" "Good morning". I smile and wave over my shoulder as I pass them. I consider calling out "Saq'ariq" (good morning in K'iche') but decide that it is wiser to acknowledge but not really engage them.

Still farther on, a young man, wearing his hair longer than I usually see around here (gently curving down to his shoulders), leads a lone black goat on a rope. He is wearing a neatly pressed shirt, buttoned up the front, with a crisp collar, and trousers, not jeans, shoes, not boots or sneakers. A bit incongruous, at first sight, with the goat, at least to me. But I need to be careful not to impose an alien perspective. No reason he shouldn't be dressed neatly if he is taking the goat somewhere to sell, or if he has an errand that requires somewhat formal attire after doing whatever it is he needs to do with the goat.

It is a bit later than I usually set out on this road, and also people are working different parts of their fields. There are two sets of fields where there are usually people working, and we always exchange greetings -- one on the right hand side after the road starts its first climb. And then a few hundred yards farther on, around another curve, it flattens out for a bit and there are some more fields on the left. But today either because it's later or because the people simply have moved on, no one is close enough to greet me or be greeted in turn. 

The earth around the corn stalks is rich-red clay, now carefully cleared of unnecessary undergrowth, fresh and moist with the season's rain. A friend has been pestering me to read Los Hombres de Maíz, considered by many the masterwork of Miguel Angel Asturias. And I understand why, walking through these fields, where I am privileged, as I often remark, to walk because I want to, not because I need to. The fields are not flat here in the altiplano, but farmers plant their corn in rows that gently hug the swells and curves of the earth. In some places the milpa perches at a precarious angle on a small patch of earth atop some rocks, an angle so acute that one wonders how people can plant, hoe and harvest without plunging off the hillside and onto the road below. The smell of woodsmoke drifts through the air, accompanied often by the slap-slap rhythm of women shaping masa into the day's sustenance. The tortillas are so ubiquitous, so ordinary, that I sometimes need to remind myself that  every grain of corn is a small miracle. Cultivating corn, breaking the earth, planting the carefully culled kernels from last year's crop that one has rubbed off by hand from the cobs that will later go to feed the animals, fighting off the pests that feast on the tender plants... All of this represents so much love and labor and sacrifice.  And I also remind myself, or rather the hills themselves remind me, that people have literally died to be able to have these fields. The sacrifice is not only the daily one of rising before dawn and working hard in the fields or at home, but the centuries of struggle to maintain or regain lands, and the more recent sacrifices that were not voluntary but the price exacted by the army. I know, without having been told specific details, that people were tortured, killed or disappeared around here. If not in these exact fields that I pass nearly every day, then farther up the road, or off a different branch. The redness of the earth reminds me every day of the blood that has been spilled here, so that farmers can continue to plant their milpa, harvest their corn, and feast themselves and their families. Each kernel that is saved and replanted is a gift from the past, carrying the blood of generations, and a message, a promise, a pledge of faith for the future.

Visit of Ixmucané Peten continued

After we had finished the ceremony described in an earlier post, we started the exchange of experiences. The women from the Peten had come prepared with a presentation about the conditions in the Peten, and also the formation of the group. The women in the group were mostly from the communities that had been displaced by the war and had sought refuge in Mexico. The woman who made the presentation, Maria Eulalia, said that she had lived in Mexico for 15 years, and then when the peace accords were being negotiated, they began the process of figuring out how they could go back to Guatemala and negotiating with the government for the kinds of support that they might expect to be able to restart their lives. That was when the women first started to organize, in the process of planning resettlement. 

I can't capture all the details of the presentation; it was very thoughtful, elaborate and precise. The group has been in existence since 1994. They include women from several different communities in the Peten and one in Alta Verapaz. Their key issues are not that dissimilar to those of the women in Ixmukané Quiché -- sustainable economies, domestic violence, lack of services, lack of access to land. The women from Quiché listened fairly attentively, although the meetings are often hard to hear as the sound echoes ferociously in the large cavity of the building, the corrugated aluminum roof is frequently pinged by passing birds, there are trucks entering and leaving the department of roads ("caminos") all day long, and there are nearly always children scurrying underfoot and infants crying.  

Another social difference between the two groups -- or at least the representatives of Ixmucané Peten who visited us (that is, their leadership) and the selected members of Ixmukané Quiché who were in attendance (not the staff, but the socias) is in literacy and also language. The presentation was in Spanish and aided by a powerpoint with fairly fine print, since they put a lot of text on each slide. All the members of Ixmucané Peten were literate, and many of them had more than minimal literacy. They took notes rapidly on their laptops during various parts of the two-day meeting. The women from Quiché had varying degrees of literacy; very few read and wrote fluidly and rapidly. Some had small notebooks, the kind with soft covers, containing about 80 pages of lined paper, the kind that children use in schools here, and painstakingly took some notes.  But it was necessary to have someone translate, or at least summarize in K'iche', each segment of the presentation.

I was in and out, since we had responsibilities at the radio station, just to keep things running, and also helping out with other logistical matters, troubleshooting, and of course taking some photographs. The women from Peten had brought t-shirts for all of us, and we had some small bags made up with the Ixmukané logo to give to them (but those were not  handed out until the last day).

The second part of the day, in the afternoon, was a presentation by Don Felipe about the Maya cosmovision and the importance of spirituality.  I didn't get to hear much of it (there has now been so much that has happened since then that I don't exactly remember why I wasn't able to hear much of it, but probably preparing my 3 p.m. radio broadcast, and then going on the air is a good guess for what I might have been doing).  

There was more the second day, but I'll leave that for another blog entry, hopefully before too long.

A veces no es tan mal vivir en un pueblito chiquito/Sometimes it's not so bad living in a really small town

A veces tenemos que experimentar algo negativo, algo malo, para tener otra percepción, o valorización, de nuestro alrededor. En las últimas semanas, varias veces pensé que había llegado a mi limite de aguantar la vida rural. No hay nada que hacer; todo el mundo cierra sus puertas y apaga las luces a las 8 de la noche; y realmente no conozco a nadie con la disposición de salir -- si existió algún destino. Ya casi había decidido que, aunque supuestamente no tendría que ir a la capital más de una vez cada 2 semanas para dar mi clase cuando clases comienzan la semana que viene, posiblemente iría más (realmente voy a Antigua; quedo la noche; en la mañana voy a Guate; vuelvo a quedar una segunda noche en Antigua, y luego a Quiché otra vez). Cuando hace unos pocos días la universidad me dijo que habían cancelado mi clase, yo diría que voy a seguir viajando, al menos hasta Antigua, al menos cada 2 semanas, si solamente para un cambio de escenario, para respirar otro aire.

Pero hoy soy muy agradecida que vivo en un pueblo tan pequeño que el hombre de la pollería reconoce mi carro aunque no le conozco.  Hoy tuve salida para Chichicastenango en  la mañana y luego fui a Santa Cruz del Quiché para hace mi programa en la radio. Hoy vinieron unos jóvenes quienes han realizado un proyecto de construcción utilizando materiales recicladas (botellas de plástica, principalmente), en una escuela rural. Vino junto con ellos el director de la escuela donde hicieron la construcción). Terminamos, y ofrecí llevar a Caterino, el director, porque vive en Chinique (vive en un caserío a la entrada del pueblo). Los jóvenes fueron en otra dirección (creo que fueron a Pollo Campero -- también viven en Chinique pero no iban directo). Salimos de Santa Cruz, conversando sobre el programa, y después de varios kilómetros, de un momento al otro dejaron de funcionar los cambios. Estuve en medio de cambiar; creo que habíamos pasado por encima de un túmulo, y luego no pude alcanzar el primer cambio. Traté con otros cambios: segundo, tercero. Nada. Estuvimos pasando despacito por la carretera y decidí a parar el picop y salir para que lo que estaba pasando. Ví que la llanta atrás, por lado del piloto (o en este caso, la pilota) se había separado del carro. O sea, que el eje se había quebrado. 

Estuvimos en medio de la carretera, entre Santa Cruz y Chiché, pero en realidad en una area sin viviendas cerca.  Que íbamos a hacer? Vivo frente a un taller de auto servicio, pero aunque saludo a los dueños casi todos los días no tuve la menor idea de como podíamos comunicarnos con ellos. Me di cuenta en este momento que realmente mis contactos no son tan amplias. Pero Caterino comenzó a hacer llamadas. Necesitábamos una grua, por cierto.  El carro no iba a ningún lado solo.  No tuvimos un teléfono de una grua y con la explosión de teléfonos móviles, realmente no existe directorios telefónicos en estos días; no había una operadora, una 411 para llamar. 

Caterino hizo varias esfuerzas; una amigo con un taller pero sin grua. Tratemos a llamar a alguien quien posiblemente tendría el teléfono del taller en frente de mi casa, el famoso VL, mejor conocido como "Willy", pero no respondió. Pasaron varios carros y camiones y tuvimos que pararnos al frente y atrás para indicar a los otros carros que tendrían que desviar un poco para no chocar con el picop. Algunos pilotos bastante agresivos (sobretodo los de unos camiones grandes y los buses) casi chocaron con el carro y con nosotros. Finalmente vimos las luces de un carro de policia. Primera vez en mi tiempo en Guate que la vista de unos policias me dió alegria y no otro sentimiento (por ejemplo, susto o molestia). Explicábamos lo que sucedió.  Dijeron ellos que al llegar a su puesto en Chiché llamarían a la grua en Santa Cruz para que viene a recoger el carro y llevarlo al taller VL.

Caterino llamó a los jóvenes y les dijo donde estuvieron y les invitó a acompañarnos. Siendo Guatemala, siendo gente de pueblos chiquitos donde todavía existe el espíritu colaborador y cooperativista, vinieron los patojos. Pero antes de ellos, pasó otro carro. Lo reconocimos como el carro de uno de los muchachos del taller, y él también reconoció el carro mío, aunque ya era muy oscura y casi no hay luz en esta parte de la carretera. Pero, aquí viene lo bueno de los pueblos chiquitos, aquí todo el mundo conoce los carros de todo el mundo (o al menos, de las personas conocidas). Entonces, él paró, salió de su carro, comenzó a examinar el daño, y nos acompañó también. Luego llegaron los estudiantes y tuvimos un gran grupo parado a la orilla de la carreterra. Si tuvimos una botella y comida hubiéramos hecho una fiesta. El pobre Caterino no había almorzado; traté sin éxito a convencerle a ir a Chiché con los jóvenes para buscar comida o convencer a ellos a ir y comprarle algo. Bueno, dejé de insistir.

Dentro de todos estos movimientos, mandé un texto a un buen amigo. Sabía que estuvo muy distante en este momento pero quería avisarle porque  tuvimos algunos asuntos de trabajo  que serían difíciles sin el carro. Aunque andaba sin saldo (un problema constante con mis compas aquí) encontró la manera de mandarme unos textos a través del internet, y sentí bien acompañada a pesar de la distancia geográfica.

Llamé (porque eso me pidió) para consolarle que estuve bien, solamente el carro estaba mal, y ademas no estuve enfrentando el problema solita (porque así era una preocupación). Al llegar a mi casa llamó Caterino para saber como estuve. Después de pagar el hombre de la grúa (ni quiero decir cuanto era; más que pensé pero no había opción) volví a la casa y casualmente un amigo de aquí del pueblo que se encontraba en otro lado me había mandado un "chat" por Facebook. Le contesté y comenté lo del carro (le había consultado en otras ocasiones sobre cosas automotrices) y casi inmediatamente me llamó y ofreció a buscarme la parte en Chimaltenango el viernes si no hubiéramos encontrado antes.

Entonces un crisis provocó una reflexión sobre ciertas ventajas de los pueblos chiquitos. A la otra mano, porque somos un poco remoto y el carro es Ford Mazda y no Toyota, hay que mandar buscar la parte; no se encuentra aquí en el departamento. Si fuera Toyota, si (pero si fuera Toyota, como yo sé por experiencia empírica, aumenta el riesgo de un robo por eso mismo -- se puede desarmar y vender las partes).

El muchacho del taller nos preguntó a cual grua habían llamado los policías. Saber!! Intentamos a los policías (habían dejado un número con Caterino) pero no respondieron. El muchacho llamó a una de las dos grúas, lo cual tenía guardado en su móvil, y evidentemente  fue la grúa correcta; nos dijo que ya estuvo en Chitatul (una aldea en la salida de Santa Cruz). Ya al rato vino la grúa; tuvo que hacer muchos movimientos para ponerse en posición para amarrar bien el carro mío (imaginan se un camión dando vueltas en la oscuridad en una carretera estrecha con zanjas de cimento en ambos lados). 

Ya! Caterino cogió un ride con los jóvenes y yo con el compañero del taller. Aunque siempre nos saludamos uno al otro casi diario, realmente fue una de las primeras conversaciones. Le dije que iba a esperar en mi casa porque no había razón de quedar parada en la calle frente al taller. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ixmucané Peten comes to visit: Ceremony of 7 Kat

Last week, we hosted a two-day visit of a group of women from a kindred women's association in the Peten, the largest and most sparsely populated department of Guatemala. Probably due in large part to its dispersed population and proximity to international borders (Mexico and Belize) Peten has become home to many narcotrafficking operations. A few weeks ago there was a brutal massacre of 27 peasants who were working on a finca that was apparently owned by a big trafficker. It is also home to many archaeological sites from the Maya past; the most famous is undoubtedly Tikal. 
Las compas del Peten y su piloto
/the women
from Peten

The visit had been arranged as an exchange of experiences between two women's organizations that were formed independently of each other. There is no overarching national Ixmukané association but five or six groups in different regions of the country that are autonomous. All, I would imagine, chose the name for a similar set of reasons: Ixmukané (also spelled Ixmucané) is the grandmother of all humans in the Popol Vuh, and so her name and figure are resonant with symbolism for Maya women throughout the country.

Ixmucané Peten arrived after an 11-hour drive (one of the women's husbands works in the tourist industry and has a van, so that facilitated their travel).  The women were nearly all dressed in pants and t-shirts, a sharp contrast to the women from Ixmukané Quiché, who were all dressed in traje típico.  There was one older woman in the group from Peten who, by the sound of her conversation, spoke Spanish as a second language, but the others all clearly spoke Spanish as a first (and perhaps only) language.

After initial greetings and a few photographs and an initial round of introductions, the day started out with a fairly long and elaborate ceremony led by Don Felipe, an aq'iq' (day keeper) from Tecpan.

We had created an altar at the edge of the property that Ixmukané Quiché uses (the property actually belongs to the state, but it was given to the organization as an "integrated center for women's development". There are several small concrete bungalows, and a large hangar-like building that you can see at the left hand side of the picture.  When the altar was created, over a month ago, Don Felipe said that this would be a place of reflection and strength. Everyone who was at that inaugural ceremony had to bring a rock, and those rocks were left in place after all of the offerings had been placed and some of them burned.  Preparing for the ceremony is a bit laborious. The women who were attending helped carry the items that had been purchased -- eggs, herbs, flowers, incense, candles, sugar, flowers, some cigars, and a small bottle of alcohol.  

Preparing the herbs for the
Only a select number of people from Ixmukané Quiché were invited to participate; holding any sort of meeting is a costly undertaking for the association since few of the women can afford to make the trip without assistance (although it was interesting to hear a discussion a week or so later, when some of the women in Ixmukané Quiché who were longtime activists told about going to meetings years ago, during or just after the war, paying their own way and bringing their own food since there was no sponsoring organization to provide meals, and bringing blankets to sleep on).  Travel and meals have to be provided, and so only about two dozen women from Quiché participated in the exchange.

After everything was carried to the altar the women worked under Don Felipe's direction to prepare things. He was assisted by Doña Matilde, who is also an aq'iq' (although Matilde commented that because of machismo, she did not have as much opportunity as she would have liked to develop herself in this area).
Doña Mati, flanked by Gustavo
and Doña Josefa
 Doña Matilde was one of the founders of Ixmukané Quiché, and was at the time of this ceremony the president of the executive board of the organization.  There was a bit of a scramble at the start because when Don Felipe had arrived the grass and plants around the altar hadn't been cut and he said that everything needed to be leveled off some. I tried to get the man who had come to help "clean up" the site to turn his attention to the ceremonial area (he was busy cutting grass elsewhere) but he wanted authorization from someone higher up than me. So I raced back to the main building and found that Doña Maria, the director of the organization, was about to lead all the women up to the ceremonial site. I explained quickly that Don Felipe wasn't quite ready, that the man who was cutting the grass wouldn't move his operations on my say-so. So the women had to stand around a little bit while the grass was quickly cut down with a machete to what Don Felipe considered an acceptable height. 

The construction of the altar starts with drawing a symbol on the ground using sugar. Don Felipe explained what he was doing as he went along, on the supposition that perhaps the women from Peten might not be as familiar with Maya ceremonies as some of the women from Quiché.  They said that they had been to ceremonies before, but he continued to give explanations throughout, mostly in Spanish (he is Kaqchikel, not K'iche', although the languages have some similarities, and he knows some K'iche'); sometimes Matilde or Maria from Ixmukané Quiché translated into K'iche' for those who didn't understand Spanish.

Felipe explained that this particular day in the Maya calendar was 7 Kat, and that Kat was a day for communities and people coming together.  After the circle was drawn, it was filled in: first incense and some pine needles, and then later piled with flowers and candles. Everyone in the group had been given a flower and a stalk of rue to hold, and we stood in a 3/4 or 2/3 circle around the altar. 

After some prayers, Felipe asked that we place our flowers and the stalk of rue on the altar, which was now piled pretty high with ingredients. He next instructed that candles be distributed to everyone. I think we were given yellow candles first, and then white candles. We held the candles to our foreheads while more prayers were said, and then one by one we put the candles down on the altar as well.

Then eggs were distributed, and Felipe explained that these were to draw out the negative energies (in this respect, the ceremony really reminded me of Afrocuban religious ceremonies, where one uses a symbolic object (fruits, a pigeon, a coconut) and passes it over one's body (or has someone else pass it over), and that item is then either ceremonially discarded, or else sacrificed. At the end of a tambor or drum ceremony, one is supposed to take some fruit from the altar, and cleanse oneself with it, and then leave the fruit at the crossroads for Eshu.

So, we each took our egg and passed it over our bodies. Women did this differently; most started at the top and worked down, front and back, arms, belly, legs. I made sure to do the bottoms of my feet as well.  Felipe then instructed us to put the eggs on the altar -- but we had to find the flower and stalk of rue that we had placed earlier, and place our egg on that flower, that stalk of rue. 

There was some laughter and jostling as everyone tried to remember where she had placed her flower and sought to line up her egg in the right place. Felipe then explained that the candles would be lit, and that we would then watch to see if the eggs exploded. Ideally, the eggs should explode or at least crack. 

That would mean that whatever bad energies that we had been holding in had been released. However, if some of the eggs didn't burst, then we would have to do something else. We stood around the fire and watched as the flames spread through and ate up the candles and the flowers. Soon we started to hear some cracking and crackling sounds, and the shells of some of the eggs turned brown and cracked, and few exploded somewhat more dramatically. The smell of sulfur rose from the fire, along with the thick sweet scent of incense and pine needles.  Felipe poured more sugar on top of the fire, saying that we wanted to give the ancestors some sweetness, and then there was a caramel glaze over the other scents of sulfur, incense and pine.  Periodically, he poured a small amount of alcohol over the flames as well.  After a while, when the flames had mostly died out, he examined the eggs carefully and located the ones that had not burst, and asked whose they were. Mine had exploded quite forcefully, but there were quite a few that hadn't burst. He seemed a bit puzzled, and said this didn't usually happen. I don't exactly remember what he put on the fire, but he put more of something and added more sugar and alcohol and eventually, I think, all of the eggs exploded. 

I was not the only taking photographs. The women from Peten had brought a camera, and Nancy (the one in the red shirt to the left) was the group's photographer. Plus there was someone shooting video for a short documentary that Ixmukané wanted to have made.  In addition, several other women snapped photos from time to time with their phones.  Media -- documenting,  recording and then sharing -- have become as much a part of organizing and educational work, to say nothing of social and cultural events, in the highlands as the events themselves. Felipe seemed nonplussed; later in the day he gave a presentation on the Maya cosmovision aided by powerpoint slides. Necessary adaptations to the times.

Finally, toward the end of the ceremony, Felipe and Matilda did additional cleansings for those who wanted them. We had to go pick leaves of a certain plant; I don't know what the plant is called but it has some medicinal properties as well as spiritual ones. Matilda had a big cigar clenched in her mouth and vigorously puffed so that the air clouded with tobacco smoke. The individual handed her handful of leaves to Felipe, and then knelt down and Felipe vigorously swiped the leaves over the person's head, shoulders, back, hands, and then she could stand and go.

I'll stop this entry here, and then start another one about the exchange and the rest of the visit. 


Here we are rocking out to Michael Jackson. I actually enjoy this part of the work: being a DJ. I did this in college for a couple of years; we did music programs, not really knowing shit about what we were doing. Here am I doing it in a language that is not mine, for a public that I really don't know. We don't have a strong signal, and we don't have any money to do publicity (and no, the radio is not online yet; we plan to do that when we have the money and the technology to make it happen), so it's not clear who the public is. The idea behind having popular music in the afternoons is to make it more appealing to young people, as the mission of Ixmukané involves both rural women and young people throughout the department.

The organization would be happy to have me cover as much of the afternoon slot as I am willing but in the long run the station needs to be sustainable - and that means having people to do this program after I leave. I'm not sure how to resolve that. For the meantime I'm having fun. 

It's been a rapid education. The Monday show is supposed to be rock en español (rock in Spanish) or rock en tu idioma (rock in your language -- another term used for rock in Spanish).  Not a genre or genres that I know a whole lot about. I quickly did some research to find groups and a bit of history and did a show on the early roots of rock en español and then another show on rock mexicano (Mexican rock). 

This next week (June 27) I am going a show on rock in Mayan languages. There are a few groups that write songs in Maya languages -- so far I've been able to find recordings from a group called B'itzma Sobreviviencia (sobreviviencia means "survival", not sure about b'itzma but will check it out for you). They are from San Marcos Ildefonso in Huehuetenango and compose some songs in Mam. Here's a sample of their music.
There is another group from Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan in Quetzaltenango called Kabawil that has some songs in K'iche', and I've gotten one CD's worth of music from them.  Here's one of their songs, "Aquel Rio" (that water).
To be perfectly frank, the music is a bit "soft" for my tastes. I like my rock harder, angrier (I am looking into the Guatemala punk scene, which apparently dates back to the mid-1970s, but I haven't found any CDs to purchase or music to download yet). But I think the fact that there are groups recording in Maya languages is important.

So, the show on Monday will include a dialogue with two people from the Academy of Maya Languages, located a couple of miles away from the radio station, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz del Quiché heading south towards Chichicastenango. What is the significance, from the standpoint of those concerned with the preservation of indigenous languages, of young people recording music in Mam, K'iche' and other Maya languages. I have also been able to get in touch with one of the members of Sobrevivencia (let's hear it for Facebook!) and he has agreed to do a phone interview.  So it should be an interesting afternoon.

Lideresa y otros asuntos: respuestas a unos comentarios//"Lideresa" and other things: responding to some commentaries

One  of the regular readers of this blog is a friend who doesn't want big bad Google to have any more of his/her information that it already has, so will post no comments on the blog but instead sends them to me via email. I usually respond privately but then you (whomever you are beyond the 16 brave souls who are willing to let the world know they are "followers") don't get to hear the benefit of our dialogue, so I thought I'd share some of this.

In a recent post (which I wrote solely in Spanish and haven't translated into English yet; sorry), I used a word, "lideresa", to mean a female leader.  "Lider" is the masculine variant. Apparently this word does not exist in Spanish, or at least not the Spanish that my friend, a native speaker from Cuba, speaks. Spanish, however, like every language in the world, is adapted in different countries, different situations, and even local or regional variations within the same country. The Spanish spoken in Havana's "inner city" neighborhoods is not the same as the Spanish spoken in the countryside. And so it is here in Guatemala. The organization with which I work, a women's organization, does a lot of leadership training for women, and lideresa is a term frequently used in their discourse.  

They --and many other women activists here in Guatemala -- also make a point of using both male and female pronouns and other identifiers. Spanish, as anyone who struggled through it in high school knows, is a gendered language. Nearly everything -- a table, a flower, a radio station -- is gendered either male or female. We were taught that when one refers to mixed groups of people ("we" or "you" or "the students"), one always uses the male identifier ("nosotros" for we, "ellos" for them) to include both male and female participants.  Only when one is referring to an all-female group (an all-female group of teachers would be "las maestras", but a mixed group would be "los maestros").  However, nowadays, at least among the circles in which I travel, the women (and some of the men) make a point of saying "ellas y ellos" -- they (f) and they (m) -- rather than letting "ellos" stand for everyone. "Hermanas y hermanos" (brothers and sisters), rather than just "hermanos." It will be interesting to see how widespread these changes in everyday usage become.

More on elections/más sobre elecciones

The elections are inescapable. Here I am on an overcast Sunday morning trying to catch up on things in my little house in town, and starting about 8:30 a.m. I am bombarded by the sound trucks and sound system from the Partido Patriota, whose headquarters is located across the street from my home. They have done their own version of a popular song, "La Panamericana", that is being adapted all over the country for political and commercial uses. "La partido patriota" is the refrain now, according to the PP. Earlier another song featuring the name of the presidential candidate, Otto Perez Molina. Setting his name to a catchy pop tune doesn't make it any less objectionable in my book. 

Now there are other trucks circulating: "Si se puede Baldizon" (yes we can, Baldizon) to a thumping merengue beat. Baldizon is the presidential candidate for Lider, ostensibly a left-wing party (their color is red, just in case one might miss the point), but the party has what sounds to my ears a pretty conservative discourse about the family -- "solo la familia unida salva Guatemala" (only a unified family can save Guatemala). A little while earlier another truck promoting "Kike" (I think he is the Lider candidate for mayor). Last I heard there were 8 mayoral candidates.

One of the papers this morning carried a story that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal had released the financial reports from the two leading parties, the Patriotas (PP) and the party in power, UNE. The figures that were reported were laughable. UNE reported a total of 357 backers in March and April, mostly with donations around Q50. The largest donation reported was Q1457. The total was Q160,571. Most of the donations came from government employees, particularly in the Ministry of Culture and Sports and Fonepaz. There were also some congresspeople among the donors.

The PP reported 51 donors, 49 of whom are congresspeople, with a total of Q462,000 donated. There was one donation of Q400,000 and the rest seem to have been in the Q1,000 range. 

However, in both cases, the paper notes, the amounts reported contrast sharply with the political propaganda in evidence: billboards, radio ads (at least 2 an hour from each party), tours around the country, posters plastered on every lamp-post in most towns, and nary a rock, tree, curbside left unpainted.  The commentaries were as interesting as the article: mostly along the lines of "Do these people think we are completely stupid? Where are the big fish?"

There is some pressure on party supporters or members to allow their houses to be painted by the party. One of the women who attended the assembly of Ixmukané earlier this week told us that even though her husband had been in the U.S. for several years, some members of the party to which he belonged (I don't remember now which it was) came around and insisted that they were going to paint the house. When she said no, they said that they would at least paint the wall that corresponded to his bedroom. She still resisted; I'm not sure of the outcome of this story.  

No se puede escapar las elecciones. Aquí estoy, un domingo gris, en mi casita en el pueblo, tratando de ponerme corriente con algunas cosas, y comenzado a las 8:30 a.m., soy bombardeada con las camionetas del sonido y el sistema de sonido de los Patriotas, cuya sede está al otro lado de la calle de mi casa.  Han hecho sus propias versiones de una canción popular, "La Panamericana", substiuyendo "El partido patriota" como refrán. Anteriormente, otra canción enfatizando el nombre de su candidato para la presidencia, Otto Perez Molina. A mi juicio, repitiendo su nombre con un fondo musical muy alegre no lo hace menos inaceptable.

Ahora otros camiones dan vueltas: "Si se puede Baldizon" a un ritmo fuerte de merengue. Baldizon es el candidato presidencial de Lider, un partido supuestamente de la izquierda (su color es rojo, para que no se pierde la idea) pero tiene un discurso que a mi me suena muy conservador sobre la familia. "Solo la familia unida salva Guatemala." Un poco antes otro camión promoviendo "Kike" (creo que es el candidato de Lider para la alcaldía. Lo último es que hay 8 candidatos para alcalde.

Uno de los periódicos hoy publicó un articulo diciendo que el Tribunal Supremo Electoral había divulgado las cifras de financiación para los 2 partidos principales, los Patriotas y el partido oficial, UNE. Las cifras reportadas eran irrisorias.  UNE reporte un total de 357 financistas, en marzo y abril, la mayoría con donaciones alrededor de Q50. La donación más grande fue Q1457. El total Q160,571. La mayoría de los financistas eran empleados del Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes y Fonepaz. También contaban con unos diputados. 

Los Patriotas reportó 51 financistas, de lo cual 49 son diputados, para un total de Q462,000. Había una donación de Q400 mil y parece que los otros eran en el rango de Q1,000.  

No obstante en ambos casos, nota el periódico, hay una contraste fuerte entre las cifras reportadas y la propaganda política en evidencia: vallas, anuncios por la radio (al menos 2 por hora para cada partido), giras por el país, afiches en todas las farolas en muchos pueblos, y parece que no queda una piedra, árbol o zanja sin pintura. Los comentarios fueron tan interesantes como el artículo, mayormente como, "Si esa gente piensa que somos tontos? Donde están los peces grandes?"

Existe cierta presión por los miembros de los partidos a permitir que pintan sus casas con los colores del partido.  Una de las señoras quien asistió el asamblea de Ixmukané esta semana nos dijo que aunque su marido había estado en los EU por varios años, algunos miembros de su partido (ya no recuerdo cual) vinieron e insistieron que iban a pintar la casa. Cuando ella dijo que no respondieron que iban a pintar al menos la pared que correspondió a su cuarto. Ella todavía resistió; no estoy bien segura del último capítulo de ese cuento.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reflexiones sobre las noticias, memorias del subdesarollo/Reflections on the news, memories of underdevelopment

We had a visit this week from presidential candidate Rigoberta Menchú, who came to visit the annual assembly of Ixmukané and then later had a rally to present two other Maya K'iche' women who are running for congress.  I will write about that later -- the week has been so busy with the assembly, the rally, and then a day long evaluation of Ixmukané's work on behalf of a Swiss NGO that has funded some projects that I've barely had time and energy to write a coherent sentence.

But I wanted to share some items from the local news.  
TSE declines to proclaim Winaq candidates

I won't translate the entire article but it seems that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal ratified the meetings of Winaq, the indigenous political party that Menchú represents but declined to ratify the selection of candidates (Menchú and her running mate Anibal Garcia). Seems to be a confusing rule and we'll have to see where this goes. Needless to say the entire electoral process has been fraught with all kinds of irregularities and scandals; it seems half of the major parties have been cited for one thing or another, and they are spending a lot of energy launching investigations into each other's workings (or asking various governmental bodies to do so).

In other news. there have been two major actions by local communities against so-called "development" projects.  In Saxaché, Peten, local communities have rejected plans to build a hydroelectric plant. People are apparently worried about being thrown off their land as happened in Chixoy, and about the impact on their subsistence agriculture.

Residents reject hydroelectric plant

And more actions against mining, this time in Jalapa. There have not yet been any major actions or community consultations in my part of Quiché yet -- it's a big department and two weeks ago when we were in Cunén recording radio spots about the elections with women there, in the municipal palace, there was apparently another meeting that had to do with mining operations, but I haven't heard about anything down this way. 

Another setback to women's rights -- A judge has issued a ruling limiting the distribution of contraceptives -- in violation of some of the human rights and other declarations that are supposed to guarantee information and access. A truly regressive move in a country where half the rural indigenous women have their first child before the age of 20 and 70% have not completed primary school education. This was brought home to me yesterday in a meeting of the newly-elected executive board of Ixmukané, when the director talked about the embarrassment and pain of looking at the sign-in sheets from some of the meetings and training sessions held in rural areas, and seeing sheet after sheet that were marked only with thumbprints, not signatures.

Finally, as though we needed more evidence of the uneven development (to take a phrase from Trotsky) and outright neglect that have plagued Quiché for decades if not centuries, turning it into THE poorest department in the country (not "one of the poorest" but THE poorest region in a poor country), a section of retaining wall on the highway, RN-15, that leads to the departmental capital, Sta. Cruz del Quiché, collapsed yesterday, undermining the stability of the asphalt surface and threatening a possible landslide.  This is, of course, a result of the rains, but also undoubtedly some inadequacies or shortcuts in the original construction of the highway. Perhaps inadequate funding, sloppy work, poor oversight, or some of the money designated for the road went to line politicians' and contractors' pockets. This is really the only access road from the southern and western parts of the country -- to get to Santa Cruz del Quiché from one of the two major cities, Xela or Guatemala City, you have to take CA-1 (the Interamerican or Panamerican highway, it goes by both names) to Los Encuentros ("the encounters" or "the meetings", an apt name for a pretty ugly crossroads)  the starting point of RN-15, a road that gives new meaning to the concept of "hairpin turn" (the women from Petén who visited last week and their driver commented about this; one of them literally got sick from the ups and downs, twists and turns; I have gotten to rather like them after months of traversing part of this road pretty regularly). The collapse was just outside of Chichicastenango, on the stretch of RN-15 that connects Chichi and Sta. Cruz. Local officials are asking for some emergency funding, and we'll see what they do with it. 

Nothing like a good highway collapse from time to time to remind you of just how much our part of the country is "the land that time (or rather, politicians) forgot".  Obviously, the conditions of neglect, poverty, highly unequal land distribution, malnutrition and so forth plague much of rural Guatemala; I don't want to claim a truly privileged position for Quiché. We're just the first among equals.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Homenajes musicales/Musical homages

Feliz solsticio. Inicio de un nuevo ciclo. Hoy estaba pensando en que música voy a poner en mi programa de la tarde. Iba a hacer un programa en homenaje a Michael Jackson el jueves (el aniversario de su muerte es el 25 de junio pero no tenemos transmisiones los fines de semama) pero vamos a suspender programación normal miércoles y jueves para la asamblea de la Asociación. Entonces, hoy sería lo oportunidad. También me ocurrió hacer algo para Gil Scott-Heron, fallecido hace poco. Luego, fallecieron dos otras figuras importantes: Albertina Sisulu, una lideresa sudafricana y la esposa de Walter Sisulu, un compañero de lucha de Nelson Mandela, y Clarence Clemons, el saxofonista de Bruce Springsteen.  Ya, creo, tengo un programa que no sea aburrida. Al menos no para mi.

Happy solstice. Beginning of a new cycle. Today I was thinking about the music I am going to play on my show in the afternoon. I was going to do an homage to Michael Jackson on Thursday (the anniversary of his death is June 25 but we don't broadcast on the weekends) but we are going to suspend normal programming Weds and Thurs for the assembly of the Association. So, today would be the opportunity. It also occurred to me to do something for Gil Scott-Heron, who died not long ago. Later, two other important figures died: Albertina Sisulu, a South African leader and the wife of Walter Sisulu, a companion in struggle of Nelson Mandela, and Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen. Now, I think, I have a program that won't be boring. At least not for me.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Que viva la diversidad sexual/long live sexual diversity

Parque Central, Xela
As I extricated myself with some difficulty from the crowded, sweaty nightclub, crammed with posing and grinding drag queens, gays, lesbians and supporters who had participated in a public event about sexual diversity, one of the young men stopped me. "Vas a poner las fotos que tomaste en el internet o en Facebook?" ("Are you going to put those photos you took on the internet or on Facebook?") I was momentarily taken aback -- especially in light of the post I had composed earlier that morning about the ethics of representation. I replied that I wasn't sure but that I would make sure that I got copies to some of the organizers. After my companion, a former comandante (commander) in the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, and I turned the corner, I realized that the query had probably been motivated not by fear that I would post people's faces online, but by a concern that maybe I would not post the photos. 

The event, after all, had been about making visible what had been hidden, and a community that was still, to a large degree, in the shadows, making its presence felt and demanding respect.

And so this will be a more photo-heavy blog post than I have been doing in the past, as I feel a responsibility, in this case, to make sure that some of these photos get seen both by the participants in yesterday's event, and much more broadly as well.

 I had heard about the planned event, a march for sexual diversity, a few weeks ago, from a friend who lives in Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala's second-largest city. It is a city with an interesting past -- it was a Mam capital, and then became part of the K'iche' kingdom, and it was the site where the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado killed the K'iche' leader Tecu Uman (there is a big statue to Tecu Uman but it is in the middle of a very busy traffic circle, so a photo of that will have to wait for a more relaxed visit). It was, for a time, the capital of a breakaway region called Los Altos.  The original name of the city was Xelajú, although the Spaniards changed it to Quetzaltenango; today, most indigenous (and many non-indigenous) Guatemalans call it Xela (pronounced Shay-la) -- while the green and white highway signs point travelers to "Quetzaltenango", many roadside billboards on the highway leading into town welcome visitors to Xela.  
Representa/represent! Some of the event organizers

I had never been to Xela and this seemed like a good excuse to make a trip with a purpose. Although sexual diversity is not directly part of my research, it is one piece of the larger context of gender and ethnicity in Guatemala today.

 And I was simply curious about how a sexual diversity event in the heart of the largely indigenous highlands would play out. While there have been "pride" marches in Guatemala City for some time, this was the first such event ever to be planned in Xela (or anywhere in the altiplano, as far as I know: please please correct me if I am wrong here). Xela prides itself as being the heart of Mayan Guatemala (although Chichicastenango also represents itself as being a stronghold of Mayan culture) and while it is, as I mentioned, the second largest city, and has a lot of bustling urban energy, it is, in many ways, a small town where everyone knows everyone.

So, I had planned to make this a one-day trip. I figured that Xela would be about 2-1/2 hours from Chinique, depending upon weather, traffic and road conditions, and that driving there and back was doable (after all, my friends and colleagues in Ixmukané, and other people I know here in Quiché take the bus to Guatemala for meetings and often return the same day). My friend H., who had told me about the event in the first place, suggested that I might want to check out a natural hot spring about 15 km away after the march ended.  

To quote Sly Stone, "It's a family affair"/
Para citar Sly Stone, "es un asunto familiar"
The day did not get off to a great start. For one thing, I was trying to enter grades and found that I couldn't log onto the university's "portal de notas" (online grade roster) or my class website. That revelation actually occurred on Friday evening, and I contacted the IT folks who told me, on Saturday morning, that there was a problem with the server and they weren't sure how quickly it would be fixed.

So I was feeling less than entirely virtuous when I started to get ready to leave. I packed up a bathing suit and towel for the hot springs; made a thermos of coffee and filled my water bottle; made sure my cameras (video and still) were charged and packed. I decided not to take my computer, since I didn't want to have to worry about it in the class (and didn't think I'd have time to blog or upload photos or anything, so it didn't seem essential). I have to confess that although I double-locked the house door, I had a moment of panic later on once I decided to spend the night in Xela, that perhaps a very very intrepid burglar might break in. This not-so-paranoid fantasy was inspired by the experience of a friend and colleague, who had had her laptop stolen from her car at a gas station while she was getting money from the ATM (she happily got her computer back but mostly because she hired a private investigator and had GPS). 

The importance of checking and re-checking of electronic equipment and making sure I have the right combination of plugs and cords and batteries cannot be overemphasized as during my next-to-last trip to the U.S. in early May I left the charger for my GoPhone in Guatemala (luckily Nokia has been using the same kind of charger on many of its phones for years and I have had many a Nokia phone and did not, thankfully, take all my Nokia chargers to the last e-waste recycling event I attended). On my last trip to the U.S. in mid-late May, I left my computer AC adaptor and the charger for my Nook; I was not lucky enough to find anyone who had a spare of either so I had to purchase replacements for both (well, at least now I have two sets of chargers for each, not a bad idea given my commuting lifestyle).

Equipment and stimulants secured, I realized I needed to change some money at the bank. There is exactly one bank in Chinique, a branch of Banrural (the rural development bank; their commercials, with the tagline, "El amigo que te ayuda crecer"/the friend who helps you grow, are a ubiquitous and somewhat annoying presence on commercial radio here).  Saturday the bank is always crowded, as for many people it is the one day they can make it to the bank; many in the rural aldeas surrounding Chinique only come into town when they need to take care of transactions like banking or paying bills. So I smiled and showed my passport to the extremely young-looking smartly uniformed armed guard at the entrance and took my place in line; there were about 18 people ahead of me (it's sometimes hard to tell if everyone in line has an individual transaction to pursue, or if some people might be a family group and therefore needing only one teller). No use fuming or fretting; just stand in line like everyone else, glance at the TV occasionally, watch people without being too obtrusive, and do something moderately useful like delete text messages from my phone.

More celebrants in Xela's Parque Central
They were very happy to have their photo
taken and struck this pose

Money securely tucked into bra (that's one of the ways women secure money here, at least foldable money), I headed back out to my car and hit the road. The drive was uneventful enough, fueled by a thermos full of latte and on-the-scene news reports from the last day of voter registration (empadronamiento) in Guatemala; the rolls were closed at midnight last night and apparently over 7 million people are now registered, a record number.

I hit the familiar crossroads at Los Encuentros, having navigated through market day in Chiché, a somewhat less congested Santa Cruz and then Chichicastenango's cobbled streets, plus that heavily speed-bumped stretch of road just south of Chichi. I turned right, and soon passed the turn-off for Sololá/Panajachel (as far as I'd ever gone previous on CA-1) and headed into the unknown. It's hard to describe the differences in the landscape between Quiché and Quetzaltenango. The hills are not as steep; there are more rolling slopes of green, and broad vistas.  The highway has a lot of curves and dips but you don't feel quite as much that you are driving in the middle of a forest as you on the stretch of CA-1 between Tecpan and Los Encuentros.  

No photos from the road trip; I was hoping I'd get to Xela in time to see a little bit of the city and not have to drive straight to the gathering point, Plaza Japon. No such luck, but then I found a different kind of luck.  There was little traffic on the road, and the highway itself was in much better condition than the lower stretch of the Panamericana that I've traversed so many times. The pavement was even, there were four lanes until the turn-off for Xela, and there was a median strip a few feet wide for a good part of the way (with grass, no less).  Ditches on either side to carry off the rain waters, and even shoulders in some places.  The day was warm and sunny; since I'd been warned that Xela was cold I had a long sleeved shirt and a hoodie, plus a rebozo just in case.

After entering the city limits I realized I had no idea where I was going, and I'd left my big Michelin map of Guatemala (which has an inset for Xela) in Antigua. After coming to the second roundabout, I decided that rather than just trying to figure it out on my own I'd call the Quetzalteco (Xela native) who had put me up to this, H. Fortunately he answered his phone (this hasn't always been the case in the past) and explained how to get to Plaza Japon. Sort of. Actually, the first thing he told me was that the march had been called off.  I took a deep breath, as I had just driven a little over 2-1/2 hours for something that apparently was not going to happen. However, H., added, "los muchachos" were going to have a "concentración". I wasn't quite sure what to do, and I think I got confused about the concentration, assuming it was going to take place at Plaza Japon. So I had H. give me instructions about how to get there; however, it wasn't entirely clear and I ended up calling from the car and having him explain as I drove (I know, not the safest way but it was the only way I could see ending up in the right place). As I drove along 4a calle (4th Street) I saw something that looked like it should be called Plaza Japon, as it was graced with a pagoda-like structure in the middle, and there was a karate school across the street (just saying). However, there was no one who looked like he or she was connected with a sexual diversity march. I called H. again and he said that he and a few friends, one of whom was involved in planning the event, were at a cantina not far away and I was welcome to join them for a drink. I needed food more than drink but H. assured me that there was food. So I made my way to the corner where H was waiting, parked my car and followed him into a small, very unassuming establishment. There were two small rooms; the first one held a table that was barely big enough for a single person, and then a caged-in counter/cash register area, behind which I could glimpse the kitchen. The other room held 4 tables, pretty tightly wedged into a space that was maybe 8 feet by 8 feet. H and three friends were at one table and we squeezed another chair in and I sat down. One of the men I knew -- he works with an NGO, and we've met at a few large public events. But this was the first time I'd seen him outside of a formal setting where he was giving a speech. The others were new to me. I didn't catch the names on the first round, but understood that one was a former comandante of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (which meant that he was Nicaraguan) and a pastor. The fourth man was Guatemala, and I don't remember how he was introduced, but it became clear after a few minutes of conversation over rum (Barceló añejo, in case you were interested) and some peanuts, that the Guatemalans had all been supporters of the URNG and were now supporters of Winaq, the indigenous (or indigenist?) political party.

As the conversation progressed I learned that the provincial governor had ostensibly given verbal consent for the march, but with the provision that it take place without his permission being made public. Something along those lines. And then he had withdrawn his "behind the scenes" support, this after a press conference had been held about the planned event. We joked about whether, since the governor had originally said that the march could go forward -- but without his support, could it not STILL go forward "without his support".

Javier, the Nicaraguan, and I had a chance to talk a bit; I was curious how he managed to be both an evangelical pastor (with all that the word "evangelical" implies in Guatemala) and a Sandinista comandante. He said his grandmother was a pastor, and I think also his father, and that he had grown up with it, although he took a somewhat critical view. He told me "I can argue against the existence of God as easily as I can for the existence of God." He was actually the main contact with the sexual diversity movement; he said he was unofficially their pastor, as many were still closeted; those who were members of churches did not feel they could talk to their ministers (the evangelical churches in Guatemala are hostile to homosexuality, as they are to traditional Maya spirituality, and the Catholic Church as a rule is not much better -- although there might be individual priests or nuns who are exceptions).

One bottle of rum (Barceló 12 year-old añejo) and several bottles of water and soda later, fortified by plates of lomito and carne asado and beans and tortillas, and several packets of salted peanuts, four of us were ready to head to the Parque Central for the "concentración" (the fifth had a political meeting to attend). Bumping and winding our way into the center of Xela, There was a platform erected in front of the steps of the municipal palace, and some brightly painted banners spread out on the ground in front. Milling around were assorted drag queens, other young men and women, and a few not so young, plus some families with children. Probably not more than about 50 people altogether. 

The gathering was, predominantly, male. I had been prepared for this; when I had first heard about the event and asked my friend H about the gender composition of the organizing group, he told me that it was overwhelmingly male. He had also said, when I asked how many people he thought would turn out, that he thought it would be small.  Several days afterwards we were talking about the event, and he told me that he had seen one openly lesbian couple -- they had been standing on the steps near where he was, and had been looking on from the sidelines. There were some women, mostly young, but I couldn't tell from their appearance or body language if they were queer or just sympathetic to the cause (and I don't mean that "just" to be in any way dismissive; LGBT movements need support from those who are not "singing in the same choir", and sexual liberation should be for everyone). 

There were some speeches alternating with performances: a young dreadlocked woman who juggled, some voguing and lip-synching, and I don't quite remember (without looking at the video) what else. A woman from the department of health (or some health agency) spoke; one of the organizers; a few other people.

 As the sky darkened, the organizers announced that we were going to light candles in memory of those who had died because of a lack of tolerance -- he did not use the words "homophobic violence" or "anti-gay violence" although that is what I understood him to mean.  it is interesting to note some of the differences in discourse between this particular wing or branch of the gay/queer/LGBT movement in Guatemala and the U.S. -- and I don't know to what extent this particular organization -- IDSO (Iniciativa por la Diversidad Sexual del Occidente; the Initiative for Sexual Diversity, Western Division) -- is representative of the gay/queer/LGBT movement in Guatemala

Most of those present lit candles and then we lined up, in twos or threes, and then walked around the square once, in a fairly stately and solemn rhythm. There were a few other people taking photographs throughout. My friends stayed on the steps near the stage and didn't join in, but I went around and took photos as best I could. 

There were a couple of families with children, and one man draped a rainbow flag around his shoulders like a cape. Once back at the starting point, we stood around the edges of the banners that had been arrayed on the pavement.

People were starting to put their candles down but one of the organizers took the mic and asked that we stand for a moment of silence, to commemorate those who had lost their lives, and then place the candles around the edges of the banners.

March organizers on the stage

Placing candles

Moment of silence

People milled around for a few minutes and talked quietly, and then the organizers put some music on the sound system and about half the people broke lose and started dancing in the middle of the square.

It was one, in some ways, one of the highlights of my time in Guatemala thus far. I felt very much at ease It's not that I feel uncomfortable with the women in Ixmukané or with people I know in the town where I live, but I do feel sometimes as though I'm in a fishbowl and I'm conscious of how I dress, move, talk. I usually try to dress fairly modestly -- most of the skirts and dresses I have here are below the knee, none of my jeans are super-tight.  And I have been especially self-conscious about moving my body when there is music playing. I have spent a lot of time around Cubans and other Caribbean folks, both in Cuba and in New York, and people are much freer with their bodies. More physical affection between friends, family members, lovers. And dancing. In Cuba and among Cubans, people use their entire bodies when they dance, they dance with energy and passion, and I've grown accustomed to that sense of physical freedom.  Especially in rumba, where the dance is all about posturing and putting on a particular performance of self. Here, the few occasions when I've been somewhere and there is dancing, I've noticed how generally stiff and restricted people's movements seem. And by "here", I mean here in the altiplano. At salsa clubs in Antigua, the Guatemalans who know how to dance move with the same kind of fluidity and freedom in their bodies as in New York. But up here, most people I know don't really dance. And so I hold myself back. When there's music playing at the radio station and we are standing around, I resist the temptation to do anything more than mark time with my feet. The only times I've been someplace where people are dancing, I've held myself in. For example, at the cofradía both last year and this year, while I did accept invitations (from other women) to dance, I made sure that I kept my movements somewhat restricted, careful not to shimmy or shake anything too much. I'm particularly aware of keeping my hips in check.

However, maybe because it was in a city, at night, in a park, in the dark, in a city where I only knew four people (and two of them I'd only met that day), I felt completely at ease and as though I could dance however I wanted and it wouldn't matter (I might have felt different if anyone from the association had been there with me and watching). 

The organizers invited everyone to meet them at a certain discotheque. J, the Nicaraguan pastor, said that he felt obligated to go since the people in the sexual diversity movement had been telling him about "their" discotheque and inviting him to go and he never had. I said I'd be glad to go with him; he had invited me to stay at his home since he and his family had a spare room; I quipped that if I was staying at his house then I'd have to go wherever he went, like it or not, but in this case it was fine. The other two took of for other entertainments or commitments. 

We went to get something to eat at a restaurant nearby, salads and glasses of wine, and continued to talk. After finishing we went to the club, which was about 2 blocks away, but it wasn't yet open. J suggested going to a restaurant/cafe run by a Swiss man that was on a hill that overlooked the city. It took us a few tries -- none of the streets that go up the hill are named or well marked so we went up the wrong one first and had to turn around and go up another. The view was quite lovely, with the lights of the city glimmering down below. J pointed out where we had been and I could make out the columns on the municipal building (the hill wasn't that high). We finished up, went back down and walked to the club. The music was loud, mostly house, and it was very crowded. J eventually found some of the people he knew -- I think he was concerned that they know that he had been there. So his presence was duly acknowledged. He introduced me to one or two people but this obviously wasn't the time to talk. We stayed for about an hour and then decided to leave. J said his goodbyes and we headed out into the historic center once again, to retrieve our cars from the lot nearby. And, on the door on the way out, I was stopped by someone, as I noted above.  

Now, a week later, I've posted the photos on Facebook and become "friends" with a few people in IDSO; one of them reposted my photos on his wall, which gave me a good feeling. I want  I've also decided that I want to return to Xela to do some interviews with people in this movement. Even though this isn't really part of my project and I'm not a scholar on gay movements, but when I looked and asked around, I realized that very little has been written about gays in Guatemala, and certainly nothing about the movement, such as it is, in the altiplano. It's easy for someone coming from a place like New York to see going out in the street in drag as very quotidian and unextraordinary. However, I realized throughout the evening that it took a tremendous amount of courage for these folks to gather in public, to present themselves to the world in this way.  There was one queen who dressed in a variation of traje tipico: a sleeveless top and a corte. I didn't get to talk to him/her, but one of my friends did, and said that s/he (the reason I'm waffling here is that I didn't get to ask this person how s/e wanted to be identified, with a masculine or feminine pronoun) commented that s/he wanted to express indigenous identity in this way.

I'm also realizing that I need to get out more, and be in places where there is some movement and diversion, and also just places to sit, drink coffee, and read -- other than my home. A third space, as it were. There aren't any around here, and not even in Santa Cruz or Chichicastenango. At the end of five months here, I realize I need relatively regular doses of cosmopolitanism but also the opportunity to sit and talk with friends, over coffee or a drink or food or all of the above.

So stayed tuned....