Wednesday, January 18, 2012

No escaping race and gender codes

Racism and racial attitudes in Guatemala are inescapable facts of life. Being on the privileged side of the racial divide means that I experience these in a different way than my Maya friends, but I experience it nonetheless. Two small scenes from the past week brought this home.

Sunday morning I went grocery shopping in the open-air market in Santa Cruz del Quiché with my friend Jeanet. We both had plastic-woven baskets and walked together, discussing our purchases -- we were buying food for a barbecue that we were organizing later in the day; this was one of several going-away parties. We stopped at one vendor and purchased some avocados, and as we had a lot of purchases to make I turned away and started to look at other produce. The vendor, also a Maya K'iche' woman like Jeanet, asked her (in K'iche') if I was her patrona (boss or employer). Clearly, the only time most people see a white woman and a Maya woman together in the market is if the former is the employer of the latter; there are not very many inter-ethnic friendships, or relationships among equals. So the woman automatically put us into what were for her familiar categories: patrona and servant. I turned back and said, "No, she's my patrona," and Jeanet and I laughed. I didn't get a chance to talk to her a lot about this exchange but I know that this sort of thing - and worse -- happens all the time.

On Monday two young Maya male friends of mine showed up in my town and wanted to go out to some of the dances that were going on for the patron saint feast. We wandered around from one open-air concert to another, together with a Ladina friend of mine and her son. I wanted to dance, so at each sarabanda (a generic term for an open-air party with live music and dancing), I danced with both of my friends. I could feel people's eyes on us - -both Maya and Ladino (most of the people at all three sarabandas were Maya but there were Ladinos/as present). At one of the sarabandas a man turned his video camera on us for a while; I'm not sure whether it was just the oddity of a gringa, or an older woman dancing with a much younger man, or a white woman dancing with a young Maya man, that caught his eye. At the last sarabanda, in the headquarters of the town's one cofradía, I had no sooner walked out onto the dance floor with Lucelio when a slightly drunk Ladino man, also pretty young, came over and tried to cut in. I said, no, I was going to dance with my friend, and he tried again, and I said no again. He stood for a moment and looked at us, and for a second I was worried that he might do or say something unpleasant, but then he took off and rejoined his friends and didn't ask me again.

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