Friday, February 17, 2012

Here and there

Although I am physically back in the United States, part of my heart and mind remain in Guatemala. This is not an exaggeration or simply a poetic fantasy. During my year in Guatemala I had friendships and collegial relationships with people across the country, and the Internet was a crucial medium through which we stayed in touch with each other. This was particularly true of my friends in the community radio movement. Through the workshops and the national Encounter of Community Radios in August, I developed fairly close friendships with activists (they may not all call themselves that, but I think they are, as they are part of an effort to undermine media monopolies and defend the right to free expression) from radio stations throughout the country. We felt a close bond, and we used the internet to stay in touch.

This was largely through Facebook -- as much as some of my friends in the U.S. look upon it with disdain, it has become an important means of communication. Guatemalans in general -- those who have access to the internet, which is not that restricted any longer if one has a few extra quetzales in one's pocket as every town has at least one internet café -- have taken to Facebook with a vengeance. Please understand I am using café in a generic sense here; outside of the major cities none of these places offers food; they are simply small storefronts with some tables and computers. In Guatemala we simply call one of these places  "el internet". In the afternoons they are full of young people, some ostensibly doing research for school and completing their homework, but also chatting on line. A USB modem costs a little over $20, and one can buy either a monthly service plan (the least expensive one costs about the same as the modem) or pay by the week, day, or even hour, so while it is not cheap, it is not out of reach. During the early weeks of my stay, when I first bought my own USB modem and had to seek help from an acquaintance who worked at an internet in Zacualpa, since I was having trouble initializing it, I looked around when I was at the internet and saw that all of the four or five young people who were in the room at the time were on Facebook.

 My friend Noe was in San Miguel Ixtahuacan and I only actually saw him one time after we initially met in August, when I visited in December, but during the intervening months we communicated frequently, mostly via Facebook. Lovely Nicolasa, a dynamic young mother who is one of two female locutoras (radio announcers) at Xobil Yol in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, and I chatted regularly. The same with Valentín, one of the founders of Estereo Ixchel in Sumpango. In all of these cases, the radio stations have internet (in the case of La Voz del Pueblo in SMI, it is the community organization, ADISMI, that founded the radio station that has computers and internet) and so when the locutores are at the station, they are usually online (since it is often the same computer that is used for broadcasting -- I think all the stations that I have visited personally used a computer-based program for broadcasting) and so we were able to chat nearly daily. And my physical departure from Guatemala has not changed that habit or custom. We greet each other, give quick updates, and exchange ideas much as we always did.

As I am writing this blog, in fact, I am chatting with Valentín. He does the morning show, from 6 to 8 (Guatemala is an hour behind us, so it is 8:45 here and 7:45 there), and so we often greet each other in the morning. He had posted an article about the end of the Maya agricultural year, from the daily newspaper, and so I wanted to thank him for that. He is an ajq'ij (Maya priest) and a farmer -- he does two hours of broadcasting in the morning and then goes off to spend the day in his fields, and then returns several evenings a week to do another few hours of broadcasting after finishing his farming tasks. In fact, Valentín hadn't remembered that I was no longer in Guatemala (I had told him but I don't think it fully sunk in, or that bit of information slipped beneath the surface of the daily flow of more urgent matters) and a few days ago asked me whether I was in Chichicastenango or Antigua. Neither, I said. I'm in Brooklyn.

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