Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hard work of everyday life and structural inequalities

In no way do I want to romanticize rural poverty. It's easy for me as a middle class urbanite to find the beauty in the lives of my friends who generously opened their home to me, apologizing every so often about what they characterized as crude conditions. The bathroom was outdoors but I could look up and see the stars or watch the sunrise as I performed ablutions or other bodily functions.  As I made breakfast and washed some clothes yesterday, chickens and turkeys and ducks and dogs scampered and waddled and clucked and begged for food.  I took some pride (probably foolish) in being able to wield an axe skillfully enough that I was able to split some large sticks of ocote (heavily resinous pieces of pine that are used for kindling) into more manageable pieces without chopping off a toe or a finger, so that I could start the fire in the morning.

As we were driving into Santa Cruz yesterday afternoon, Catarino repeated that he was sorry that they couldn't offer me a better place to stay, and I kept on repeating that it was fine (which it was) and that they were my friends and I was very appreciative that they had taken me in and housed me, and that I knew I was putting an extra burden on their household by being there (although the room I was using was not one that they used constantly; they slept in one large room, and used the "second room" for watching TV and studying, which they continued to do while I was there).

But I have the choice about living in a rural household, and they don't. Catarino is a teacher and school director. This means he has more education than most people around him, and represents a tremendous effort and sacrifice, since there is no secondary education in Chinique. To go a diversificado or high school, one has to go to Santa Cruz del Quiché, which means either at least Q10 a day for round trip travel, or renting a room in Santa Cruz. There are some university satellite campuses in Santa Cruz, but they only offer a limited number of carreras or majors, so one either ends up studying what is available (teaching and social work are heavily favored), or traveling to Xela once a week to take Saturday classes at one of the university campuses there (which often means making the trip there and back the same day to save on having to pay for an hospedaje) or figuring out how to live in Guatemala City so that one has a wider range of options.

And yet even on a professional salary, they can't afford to do much about their home. Like so many people in the altiplano, they don't have much land -- really just the land the house is on. Both of their families are poor and fairly large, and Catarino's family didn't have a lot of land to start with, and so there was just about enough to give each of the children a small piece on which to build a home when they married. Last year during the rainy season part of the roof collapsed (the house is made of adobe bricks) and they were able to put up a tarp to cover the gap but haven't been able to reconstruct the roof. completely.

Everyday life represents a lot of hard work, primarily for women but in actuality for everyone in a family. Poor families cannot afford to buy bundles of firewood that have been chopped or sawed into manageable pieces. One sees men, women and children trudging along the roads and in towns with heavy loads of wood on their backs, fastened by a strap stretched across the forehead, and there are also households -- usually situated alongside a road -- that sell pre-cut firewood. Some of those who gather wood sell it door to door, or else take it to one of these businesses, where they get a lower price but have more security of a sale. In poor households like the one where I lived, people have to gather and cut their own wood, and so cooking takes a lot of effort. Tortillas and beans are staples of the diet and both require a lot of cooking time (as the dried corn has to be cooked first), and the cuts of meat that are generally used for stews or soups also need a lot of time to cook. Then water has to be boiled for drinking water. I didn't do an estimate of how much firewood is needed, but Sandra and Catarino both ended up chopping wood at least twice a day. If one is making a special meal for a holiday (Noche Buena or Easter), which usually means cooking enough for family and friends, then even more wood is required. They do have a small electric range, but only rarely use it as, like most people, they are trying to keep their electric bill down.  They also have an electric blender and a few other appliances, and running water and a flush toilet, but nonetheless it takes a lot of effort to ensure food, clothing and shelter for a family.

Sandra did laundry several times a week; there was rarely a time when I entered the yard when the clotheslines were not sagging with the weight of damp clothing, or dry clothing that hadn't yet been taken down. It's not that the family has an excessive amount of clothing.  But they have two small children, and since the house surrounded by a large stretch of reddish-clay dirt, things get dirty fast, and since they don't have an excessive amount of clothing things have to be washed more frequently, and so there was always a large plastic tub or two filled with clothes that were soaking, or waiting to be soaked, or shoes that were soaking before being scrubbed with a stiff-bristled brush to remove some of the red dirt that tends to cake up on the soles, especially on shoes that have treads.

It is very hard to stay clean, I discovered, and have a "presentable" appearance. When it's not raining there is a lot of dust from the dirt, and the run-off from the outdoor sink, or laundry, or spilling out bathrwater turns the dirt to mud, and when it rains the entire yard and the path leading down from the road turns to mud which adheres to your shoes, and seems to get everywhere.  Friday I was heading to Santa Cruz to the "centro" of Ixmukané, and since my car was in the shop waiting for a new hydraulic pump, and although I had bathed, by the time I had climbed up the drive and reached the road to wait for a bus, the soles of my sandals were caked with dirt and my feet and lower calves were speckled with flecks of the same.  I tried to brush it off with my hands, and partly succeeded, but my feet were still a little grimy. This brought home a point that many of the rural women who are socias of Ixmukané have made about the shabby treatment they receive when they go to the hospital or a doctor's office or a bank -- that the staff look down upon them because they arrive with dirty feet or shoes since they usually have to walk a long distance (even if there are buses, people can't always afford them, and even if one an afford the bus, one still usually has to walk some distance on dusty or muddy paths and roads (there doesn't seem to be any kind of happy medium, it's either clouds of dust or clods of damp earth and mud).

This is also a reflection about privilege. As I noted earlier, I have other options available to me. I could probably have stayed with other friends in town or another town, or arranged to stay at the one hospedaje (I didn't even know there was one until I met the people who came to observe the mining consultation; it's not publicly advertised, but apparently one of the more prosperous families in town rents out some rooms in their large home, so it would have to be privately arranged. I think I have met the family in question and have at least a nodding/waving acquaintance with them, but I didn't know they took in guests until I was picking up the Belgian and Swiss couple to give them a lift to Chichicastenango). Or rented a room in one of the larger towns. But these are my friends, their children are very fond of me (and vice versa) and since we are connected through some complicated bonds of reciprocity, when they invited me to stay with them when I returned, I decided to accept.  So I tried to adapt myself so that I wasn't putting too much of a strain on them, since my normal routines and rhythms are not the same as theirs. I am not sure I consume more electricity than they do. I use my computer more but don't watch TV, and we all have phones that need to be charged. So we might be even there. But I am used to bathing with hot water every day, and making fresh coffee when I want to drink some, and using an espresso pot, and so forth (I always offer them coffee when I make it).  I can afford to have a car; they have a motorcycle, which has been out of commission off and on throughout the time I have known them, and just broke down in a way that can't be repaired. So I try to balance things out by purchasing things for the household like oil and soap and toilet paper as well as food (they won't accept any money from me for staying there), and giving rides or running errands, and doing some of the general household chores (as well as taking care of my own stuff).  But there is no way of fully balancing it out. Of this I am keenly aware. I get to drive to the airport and enter through the front door, while they are not allowed in with me, and get on a plane and return to a place of relatively more abundance and comfort.

This also brings me to reflect about race and gender and work, specifically domestic labor. Catarino took some photos of me while I was washing out my clothes by hand in the outdoor sink, and I posted them on Facebook. Not to show what a heroine I am, but to share a little bit of what daily life is like (and yes, I guess I have to confess that I wanted to "show off" a bit -- here I am, roughing it). The photo attracted a lot of comments, and I reflected back on some comments from Maya women acquaintances over the past year. Women often asked me where I ate, and seemed surprised that I cooked for myself. They seemed surprised, actually, that I knew how to cook, because after I answered the first question about how I ate or who cooked for me, by saying, "I cook for myself," there was nearly always a follow-up question, "Oh, you cook for yourself?", as though to affirm what they were hearing. I realized that in most of their experience, white women, or middle-class white women, usually have domestic help.  And so there is this assumption -- based on their life experience -- that white women do not know how to cook, wash clothes or clean their homes.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Non-post-racial Guatemala

A friend recently started a facebook group called Bulletins from Post-Racial America, and I decided to post a reflection on Guatemala (which is, after all, part of America in the more expansive sense of the word).  Here is my reflection. It will duplicate some things I have written or will write here on the blog, but thought you might find it interesting.

A brief reflection from a definitely non-post-racial (and, as I and others would argue, non-post-war) Guatemala. Earlier this week I visited a community radio station in the majority Q'anjobal town of Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango, near the Mexican border. Huehue (as it is popularly called) is one of the 6 or 7 departments that constitute the mostly rural and predominantly-Maya altiplano occidental (western highlands), the part of the country where the majority of the Maya population lives. This is a region characterized by deep structural inequalities that are rooted in the Spanish conquest -- which is not a distant historic antecedent but a key element in collective memory. Most of the population is poor and many live in what international agencies characterize as "extreme poverty". Along with that, we find high rates of illiteracy (especially among adult women), malnutrition (especially in young children), maternal and infant mortality. Oh, and did I forget to mention racial stratification, marginalization and discrimination? 
I know all of this, from study and from having spent a year living the in the neighboring department of Quiché (which has the unfortunate privilege of having been designated as THE poorest of Guatemala's 22 departments, but I'm not about to start the poverty Olympics here). 
But how deep all of this runs in people's daily lives and psyches was brought home by a conversation with my friend Lorenzo Mateo Francisco, a Q'anjobal man who plays a leading role in the local radio station Snuq Jolom Konoq. Lorenzo and I had met during some workshops for community radio folks around the country and had protested together outside Guatemala's congress in August, demanding that the government create a legal status for community radio stations. He had invited me to visit, and I finally was able to accept his invitation. Before visiting the radio station, he suggested that I meet him at his home and meet his family and I gladly accepted -- it was a long drive alone over pretty challenging roads, I was genuinely interested in meeting his wife and children, and I have learned enough about highland Maya etiquette to know that it is a privilege to be invited into someone's home, and turning down the invitation by saying I was too busy or whatever, would have been an insult. But mostly I genuinely wanted to meet them.
His wife heated up a simple and delicious soup and some tortillas and his children (teenagers and young adults) wandered in and out and we were all introduced.
Lorenzo and his wife stood aside for a moment and talked in Q'anjobal as I went to wash my plates, and when I returned he told me, "We were talking about your visit. This is a very racist country, and around here, white people don't generally come into our homes. They keep us at a distance. We might live in the same town, but they don't visit us in our homes, they don't see us as equal to them."
I started to reflect upon how racially segregated social life is in Guatemala. Non-Maya and Maya might work together at a community health center, or an NGO, worship at the same church, greet each other at the patron saint feast or in the cemetery on the Dia de Todos los Santos, but rarely visit each other's homes (the only exceptions I know of are among political activists)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Community radio update and reflections on media

Traditional leader
Okay, so the ostensible purpose of this visit was to do work with the community radio movement and most specifically, to see if I could be useful in helping Radio Ixmukané get back on the air.  And of course all the other things were part of the package.  My first mini-project upon arrival was to attend the public meeting with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who was making a 4-day visit to Guatemala and one of those days, last Tuesday, March 13, had been set aside for a large public gathering with leaders of indigenous communities. The community radio movement was going to have a representative -- among the dozen or so people who had been invited to make brief public statements on specific themes concerning indigenous communities -- and also some of the stations were going to do a live broadcast.

So I called my friends at the radio station in San Mateo, Doble Via, a radio station run by young people in the community (and with the support and guidance of Alberto Recinos, better known as Tino, who became a radio broadcaster while he was in the guerrilla forces during the armed struggle; he spent 9 years broadcasting for La Voz del Pueblo, a radio station that was set up on the slopes of the Tajumulco volcano), and arranged to meet up with them. So after waking up in Guatemala City on Monday morning of last week (my flight arrived Sunday night, and because of the delays I didn't arrive in Guatemala City until nearly 11 p.m.), I set off for Xela (San Mateo is just outside of Xela on the highway leading to San Marcos) and got there in the early afternoon.
Rosendo Pablo speaking on
behalf of community radio

It's always an inspiration to visit the community radio stations that are part of the community radio movement, and Doble Via is especially inspiring because of the energy of the young people who comprise the station's collective. While I was there, I had the chance to witness an 11-year old boy, Luis, who was taking his turn at the controls, and observe his poise and articulateness as he skillfully selected songs and took the microphone during his program, inviting listeners to call in and make requests.  Alex, the young man who was one of the station's founders and who has played a leading role in its evolution over the past two years, and I lunched together and talked, and then I returned to the station and just hung out for a while, talking to various of the volunteers who were there.

I ran into Tino, and told him that I would be happy to help transport people and equipment the next day, as the public meeting was to be held in Totonicapán, about half an hour from Xela. He happily accepted my offer, and then there was some discussion about who would go and what time we would have to meet. We agreed upon 5:45 a.m. (with a 6 a.m. departure) so we could get to Toto before transit became too difficult.  As I was about to head to my friends Humberto and Ana's home to eat and sleep, the young folks told me that there was a birthday party for one of the compañeras, and so I went off with them to eat some paches (filled tamales, except made with potatoes instead of cornmeal paste) made by the birthday girl's mother.
Up early the next morning, I was the first to arrive at the radio station (even though I was coming from farthest away).  Soon the others arrive, we loaded up the trucks (one of the adults who participates in the radio station, Santos, also brought his pickup, so we had room for everyone and everything). We needed to have something to identify ourselves, as they had received a message the previous night that only cars with some identification would be allowed through, so we got a banner for Mujbab Lyol (the association of community radio stations that was founded 14 years ago and to which Doble Via belongs) and stopped on the roadside outside of Toto to fasten it to the front of Santos' pick-up so that we could enter beyond the check point. The checkpoint was staffed not by police but by representatives of the indigenous mayoralty - Totonicapán's 48 communities all have indigenous mayoralties, and then those 48 mayoralties have a council that has elected a president; it is because of the level of organization of this municipality, some friends opined, that Toto was selected as the site for this visit -- bearing staffs.

They were blocking the main entrance road to Toto and diverting traffic, but we were allowed through and were able to get our trucks very close to the entrance to the stadium and unload and get ourselves inside early and set up for broadcasting and also to videotape and photograph the event. I went up closer to the platform, together with the young women who were going to do the videotaping. They had two cameras and we found positions for both, one on either side of the platform, so that they could have multiple angles for shooting.

We didn't really have much contact with the folks who were doing the transmission as they were about a hundred yards behind us, although I ran back and forth a few times when we needed to communicate something.

Compañeras from Doble Via
The area gradually filled with people, although according to friends who have participated in previous events with other UN officials who have visited Guatemala, the participation was not as large as the organizers had predicted. I don't know enough about the ins and outs of who was coordinating and planning and who did the inviting. It seemed that the largest contingents were from Totonicapán, and every community had its traditional leaders present. There were some people from Quiché, although not many whom I knew, and some from Petén and the Verapaces.

About seven or eight community radio stations were present. A few of them had brought placards which they carried, and others were simply present. It was a pleasure to reconnect with some friends from the radio stations in Santa Eulalia (Snuq Jolom Konob), Momostenango (Estereo Maya) and Todos Santos Cuchumatán (Xobil Yol), and once again, exciting to feel part of an energetic and vital social movement.

Throughout the day (and I am not sure I will have the time or energy anytime soon to do justice to the actual event -- the presentations and issues raised) the master and mistress of ceremonies made reference to the community radio stations that were transmitting the event live, and it was gratifying (and even more so for the compañeros and compañeras who are engaged in this struggle daily) to have our presence acknowledged.

There were probably two or three thousand people present. The entrance to the area was flanked by traditional authorities from Totonicapán and the seating area was filled with people bearing the dark wooden staffs that are the symbol of the indigenous mayoralties. Throughout the day (the event started sometime after 9 a.m. and ended a bit after 1 p.m.), the MCs and other speakers asked for a show of the presence of traditional authorities ("ancestral authorities" is the direct translation of the Spanish term that is most often used: autoridades ancestrales), and it was thrilling to see, under the bright blue sky of a March morning in the highlands, so many staffs being proudly held aloft.

Also, the event was heavily mediatized. Digital media technologies are pretty widely available in Guatemala. Most people, or most households, have at least one cell phone, and many people now have phones that take photos, shoot video, and a fair number of my acquaintances, especially the younger ones and those with some professional training or who work for NGOs or "institutions", have some variant of a smartphone, so there was a veritable sea of people stationed close to the platform filming and photographing the event.

It's been a long time since we ethnographers and privileged foreigners were the only ones with cameras, which is probably a good thing as people in the communities where we work are no longer dependent upon us for the images and sounds. There was a lot of good natured camaraderie among those of us who were photographing the event: and here I would distinguish those who took a few photos, and those of us who were trying to document it more or less in its entirety (which included "professional" people with press tags, such as the young woman above, or the journalists from the mainstream media, and people like myself who came with one of the delegations).

I figured photographing it with a good camera was a useful undertaking, and I was able to share photographs with several people -- some of those who attended but didn't have cameras, or didn't have good cameras, and one or two people who weren't able to attend. Someone who was sitting in one of the first rows of seats (I moved around but stayed fairly close to the girls from Doble Via who were videotaping, and they were just in front of the first row of seats) introduced himself as a representative of a community organization from Petén and asked if I could send him photos; he scribbled his name, phone and email on a scrap of paper and I was able to send him a selection of about 60 images (I shot close to 600).  I write this is not to toot my horn or show how wonderful I am, but to explore "out loud" how I negotiate or understand my commitments to the people with whom I work.

Taking photographs is part of what I do (always with the consent of those photographed) and sharing the photographs is equally if not perhaps more important. I take some pride in making nice images, in framing and focusing and selecting an aperture and exposure... but in part I am learning to give up ownership of the images. That is, when I give someone copies of photographs on a flash drive or via email, I don't set any conditions about how they are used, or whether I get acknowledged. I suppose if someone wanted to "publish" any photographs in a newsletter or book or article, I'd appreciate it if they put my name... but this is a new media landscape here.

Well, this wasn't where I intended to go with this blog entry, but here I am.  So let me get back to the event, in brief.  The authorities lined up and made a kind of gauntlet, and the official delegation including Navi Pillay entered and mounted the platform. 

Then three Maya priests (two men and a woman) did an invocation and prayer to start the formal event.  I think two were K'iche' and the third was Mam, but I'm not certain.  After that, several representatives of the ancestral authorities spoke (I don't remember now how many) and then a series of people were called to make brief presentations on several key issues such as mining and the natural environment, and culture.

I recorded much of the proceeding as well, although I couldn't monitor the audio recording very well while I was moving around taking photographs.

It's hard to summarize, and perhaps even more difficult to draw some conclusions about the event and its significance. Much of what was said were things that those of us who have been paying attention to the plight of Maya and other indigenous communities in Guatemala are very familiar.

There was a person from the Valle de Polochic, where residents have been forcibly and violently displaced, and someone from San Miguel Ixtahuacán in San Marcos, where Canadian transnational Goldcorp runs the infamous Marlin Mine.  Others spoke about hydroelectric projects, and the ravages caused by large scale biofuel initiatives (in Spanish, "agrocombustibles"). In many of these cases, the companies have forcibly displaced peasant farmers, activists have been killed, and the state has either done nothing or helped with the displacements and/or been responsible for some of the violence.

For those who attended, I think it was important to feel that someone from the international community was there listening to their concerns, and hopefully taking note, and perhaps would even DO something.

Afterwards, I did an interview with one of the radio stations, Snuq Jolom Konob from Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango -- Lorenzo, one of the key figures in this radio station, became my friend at the very first workshop I attended back in late June of last year. We ended up being put in the same small group to write a script for a radio spot, and he started to tell me about his time in the U.S. (he always looks for an opportunity to practice his English with me) and we have been friends ever since, and so I agreed to let him interview me.  And then I spent a little time talking and taking pictures with the friends who had come from some of the radio stations across the country.

Then off to lunch with some of the folks from Doble Via, from Cultural Survival, from Radio Ixchel in Sumpango and Xobil Yol in Todos Santos. And then back to San Mateo to copy photographs, talk, regroup... and then set off the next morning for the community consultation on mining about which I've already written.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Justice rolls along, still...

One of the big fears of many in the human rights/indigenous rights communities regarding the election of Otto Pérez Molina was that the legal cases against those responsible for massacres and crimes against humanity during the armed conflict -- the few that were in process -- would grind to a halt and that no new cases would be brought forward. However, the day after the new government took office, Efraín Rios Montt was served with papers, and his case is proceeding. In the last few weeks, sentences have been handed down.  Just before I left to come back to Guatemala, more people were held accountable for the 1982 massacre at Dos Erres, and there was just a news flash that 5 people who were responsible for the massacre in a town called Plan de Sánchez, in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, were found guilty and given sentences of 7,710 years (there were 256 people killed, and therefore, each defendant was sentenced to approximately 30 years for each victim; I just ran the math and it works out to 30.11 years per victim, so I'm not quite sure how the tribunal arrived at that figure).  As I wrote in an earlier blog, these heavy sentences do not bring back the dead. They do not return husbands to wives or mother and fathers to orphaned children. And many of the ones who handed down the orders and who designed the strategies are still at large. But it is still ... I'm not sure what the right word is. It's not satisfying, it's not gratifying, but it feels right.  There isn't a complete news story yet, but here's a link to the short update. 7,710 year sentences handed down (in Spanish)

More on the economy

The economy is probably the main concern for people in highland communities: the lack of jobs, lack of any real economic development opportunities, and the gross inequalities that exist.  What's interesting in the community consultation process about mining and also the debates about hydroelectric plants (another big-ticket development item promoted by the government) is that people in the extremely poor areas where these projects are being proposed see through the short-term economic argument -- that is, that mining or a hydroelectric plant will bring jobs.

I have not done a profound economic study, household by household, but it strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that people here can get by one day to the next on their salaries and given the rising costs. A breakfast at a regular comedor, nothing fancy, costs Q15 (just under $2). This would be eggs, fried plantains, beans, tortillas, and coffee or tea. Lunch in a marketplace comedor costs anywhere between Q15 and Q25 (depending upon the city and some other factors). So if you are making Q50 a day, that doesn't allow you to eat out much.

An anonymous source (this makes me feel like a real journalist, to have anonymous sources) read my blog this morning and told me that a barrel of gasoline costs Q1400 and by retailing it, a vendor can take in Q1500, so on a good day a vendor could make Q100. Not the lap of luxury but enough to maybe buy some bottled water (Q2 to Q4 for a 625-800 ml. bottle), an occasional beer (someone will have to give me the price on that) or eat at a markeplace stall occasionally.

It's the economy, stupid (first part)

Since I left, prices have gone up for many basic goods -- in some cases just a few cents or a few quetzales. But when a day's pay for a laborer is about 35 quetzales, and a half-hour inter-urban bus ride (say, from Chinique to Santa Cruz)  runs about 5 or 6 quetzales each way, a small jump in price can make a big difference. Gasoline prices increased throughout the year I was here; they started out around Q27 and then had reached about Q34 or Q35 by the time I left (occasionally dipping down to around Q31).  Gas prices vary around the country: they were always higher in Quiché than in Xela, and there were a few very cheap gas stations right at the edge of Guatemala City along the highway. Some other cheap gas stations in the towns leading up to Chimaltenango.

When I came back, gas was over Q36, and prices edging up towards Q40 in parts of Huehuetenango (where I have been visiting a community radio station up toward the Mexico border in Santa Eulalia). And the contraband gas industry has grown alongside it. During 2011, one occasionally saw people selling contraband gas alongside the road. At first I saw the vendors on the Periférico in Xela, and then as the year went on I saw vendors in other places, such as the highway between Chichicastenango and Los Encuentros. The gas is brought over the Mexican border and I don't know exactly how it is distributed, but I never saw an evidence of an effort to stamp out the trade or the businesses. The vendors set up along the highway; they set up a plastic gallon jug of gas or diesel with the price written on the side in marker (up here in the altiplano the price for a gallon of regular runs between 25 and 28 quetzales. Some stand alongside the roads with a funnel in hand and wave it to attract passengers. Police travel along these roads all the time but I have never seen one harass a vendor. Oh, and I purchase gas from them. As one of my friends said, the vendors are just poor people looking for a way to earn a few quetzales. The gas doesn't seem to be any worse or better than what is sold in "legitimate" gas stations.  I haven't asked any of the vendors about how they got into this, where they get their gas, how much they make ... partly because I am in a hurry most of the time when I am traveling the roads, and also since I am enough of an oddity in most of the places I travel, I don't want to make folks uncomfortable by asking questions.

Over the last week or so there has been a big controversy about meat prices. Complaints about the butchers and the prices they charge. In response they blame the wholesalers. In Guatemala City the butcher shops have been closed (they are open up where we are), and it's not clear what will happen.

The other big economic issue are the new taxes that the government is imposing on small business. This is the name of cracking down on corruption. A lot of small business owners who just scrape by don't pay taxes (nor do they collect them from customers). And the government is apparently going to go after them, which has a lot of people upset. More on this later.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hands-on ethnography

Filmmaker John Marshall, who documented the Ju/'hoansi of the Kalahari over 5 decades, commented once that sometimes you have to put down the camera and pick up a shovel -- a wonderful credo for engaged ethnography. You have to roll up your sleeves and help people when they need your help, not sit on the sidelines and take notes about how they are trying to do X or Y.

Much of my work over the past year has been just that: throwing myself headlong into whatever needed to be done: carting a truck load of chairs, gathering flowers, attending a funeral, sweeping the floor, driving people to places.

So in that spirit, today I am putting down my computer and picking up a machete and helping cut weeds at the Center that Ixmukané uses in Santa Cruz del Quiché. The organization is in the process of moving its operations, at least 60% of them, to the center in Santa Cruz, a set of concrete bunkers on a property that used to be a school, or at least was built to be a school. This is because they want to re-establish the radio station but in Chichicastenango (which is where the offices currently are; the center is only used for special events and workshops).  They need more space (the radio won't fit easily into the current offices) and also a place where they can put the antenna on the roof (in the current office building, we would have to pay extra to put up the tower for the antenna). So, the idea is to rent a new set of offices that will house the radio and a few of the staff for about the same rent they are currently paying, and then move everything and everyone else to the space in Santa Cruz, which they have more or less rent-free.

So today we are forming a work crew and cleaning up the grounds. We were asked to bring machetes and hoes if we had them, and my hosts have a machete, so I will bring that. But I will take the camera to document the work.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Consulta de Buena Fe part 2

It's a bit hard to write about something while it is going on, especially if one does not have one's computer on at all times. I was being an official observer during a consultation, and then we had to bring the officials from the community down to the town center because we needed to make a copy of the "acta" that confirmed the community's vote on mining, and they didn't want to part with it, and then I drove them back, and then came back, so I haven't been able to sit and write as readily as I might like.

The process was interesting and time consuming. Community decision-making in Guatemala is a laborious process; everything has to be read, translated and duly recorded. Everyone who came had to sign it; there were several tables for sign-in. One for people who were registered voters (i.e. in the electoral system). One for people who had only their cédula. One for people who only had their personal identification document (DPI). One for people with no documents. All proceeded smoothly but it started around 8:15 and continued until 10. It was a bit after 10 when the person who was leading the consultation started to explain the agenda for the day.

The actual decision-making was pretty swift (100% against mining) and kind of thrilling, and then what took time at the end was having every adult present sign the acta so that it was official. The children voted as well, but they did not sign the acta.

Well, I am back in the town center now, with a live marimba playing and a press conference about to begin, so more later.

Community Consultation in Good Faith -- Part 1

My computer is balanced on a rickety table from a rural school in the community of La Puerta, one of the 33 communities that comprise the municipality of Chinique de las Flores in El Quiché. At the table to my right, a woman is recording names in a book, as residents one by one pass to sign their names, formalizing their decision to reject mining. The process of community consultations has been going on in Guatemala for several years, as more and more transnational companies seek to exploit the mineral resources.  The right to a community consultation (called "consulta en buena fé" -- consultation in good faith) is established in international conventions such as the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) that spells out the rights of indigenous people. In Guatemala as in other countries, for the most part both the elected government and the national and transnational companies have not called consultations and they have roundly ignored the results of the processes.

It just so happened that my visit coincided with the community consultation in Chinique, the municipality where I lived for a year, and so when I was planning this trip. I decided that I wanted to observe the consultation.  Somehow I received a "friend" invitation on Facebook from "Consulta Comunitaria de Chinique", and readily accepted without knowing exactly who it was; I figured at least I'd be able to get information about the consultation.  After I had found out about the consultation from Facebook, I also got an email from my friend Catarino telling me about the consultation. But I hadn't made any specific plans for the day. It wasn't until yesterday when I was reading an article in the newspaper that I realized that the consultation would take place in each of the communities. That is, they weren't going to bring 10,000 people to the center of the town, which would be logistically difficult and very time consuming and costly for people. Even in rural communities like the one where I am, people have to walk a distance to get to the school building. I hadn't figured out where I would go; I sort of assumed I'd show up in the Salon Muncipal and stay there. So then I started to think about what I would do. Catarino was going to Tapesquillo 3 where he teaches. I thought about going with him. Then I called my friend Adelma, who works at the health center, and asked her. She said that I should go to the Salon and talked to someone named Bener; that she and others were going to meet and get their assignments. I stopped at Catarino's house to drop my suitcase and then went into town. Adelma wasn't ready but I just parked my car and went to the Salon and waited a moment, assessing what was going on. There were several obviously non-Guatemalan people wearing credentials of some sort -- international observers, I assumed. A few had cameras. I walked inside, greeting people, and waited until someone said hello and asked me to sit down. I explained that I had communicated via Facebook with some of the people organizing the consultation and wanted to know if I could observe or help in any way. The young man asked if I had come by way of Casimiro. I said no, that I had spoken to Adelma and she had told me to come to the Salon and ask for Bener. The man smiled and said that he was Bener. I mentioned that I had a car and would be happy to take other people if they needed to transport observers. He and the others who were registering the observers consulted for a moment and then said I should go to La Puerta.

La Puerta is a fairly isolated community -- well, no more isolated than the Tapesquillos, actually. It is off the highway that runs between Chinique and Chiché. I had been there three times, but never all the way into the heart of the community. I said I sort of knew how to get there, so Bener told me there were people who needed to get there and I could take photographs. They took my name, nationality and institution, and then gave me a tag (I will upload the photo here on the blog) so I had an official credential, and we took off. As we left, we passed people on the highway who were on their way to consultations in other communities... I had a kind of momentous sense of what this day signified. There has been a banner across the entrance to the town against mining, since I arrived last January, but the actual formal consultation process was today.  There were a lot of women, disproportionately so. That is, in general the consultations have involved more women than men, in proportion to their percentage of the population, probably due to migration (either within the country or international). Older women, younger women, children,  women with babies on their backs and many of them with strips of straw that they were braiding.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

First impressions

Everything is both familiar and fresh. I arrived late last night and stayed in the Centro Histórico, or, as my friend Trudy Mercadal dubs it in her blog,  the centro histérico (I don't think that needs much translation). I have not spent much time there: a punk concert here, a documentary screening there, protesting in front of the Congress, that sort of thing. It's dense, with muted colors, and walls heavily marked with graffiti -- both tags, brightly painted murals, and then a lot of political graffiti, most of which seems to originate with a group called HIJOS Guatemala, a group that is trying to keep alive the historical memory of the genocide. They often plaster the walls with 8-1/2 x 11 flyers, each with a photograph, name and brief information about someone who was killed or disappeared in the war.

There are lots of bookstores, including some specializing in used volumes; a number of small shops that advertise "we buy gold" and that also sell jewelry. The streets are narrow and crowded, with narrow sidewalks and, like in the older parts of Havana, the houses are built right on the sidewalk, not set back at all (with a few exceptions) so it feels perhaps even denser than it is. The colors are all dim and grimy and faded. And at the same time it houses much of the underground, bohemian and alternative cultural scenes.

This morning I went down the street from the hotel to a lovely old café, Café Leon, with its high ceilings, large curved wooden counters, its doors perpetually open to the street. I watched the servers painstakingly decorating the cakes that would be sold throughout the day, and the other patrons, who seemed to be mostly middle-aged and upper-middle-class, at least at that hour. And then spent a frustrating 3/4 of an hour trying to turn dollars into quetzales. Last time I used my debit card mostly and had very little US currency with me, and occasionally went to the U.S. Embassy to cash checks (only when I needed a lot of cash, like to buy my cars, or when I happened to be in Guatemala anyway). But since my card was hacked, and I lost $600 in the process (my bank in the U.S. doesn't have very good fraud protection, and they didn't do anything for me), I decided I would use cash this trip. Travelers' checks take too long and especially in Quiché, not all banks changed them (at least not in the past). I did have occasion to change cash, a few times in Antigua and a few times in Chinique,  at the only bank in town, which was Banrural. So I assumed it would be fairly easy -- just a bit more bureaucratic than taking out money from an ATM, since you have to fill out a form.

I went to the first bank I found, Bantrab (banco de los trabajadores: workers' bank) and then told me that they only changed money for people who had accounts. They suggested I try the Banco Industrial around the corner. So I took off, and had the same experience. I went back to the hotel and the clerk said yes, the banks are like that now, they are very strict and they will only change money for people who have accounts. It seemed to me to go against the interest in attracting tourists: how are tourists supposed to change money? He told me there were money changers on the street but when I queried more, it seemed like their rates weren't that good. But then he suggested trying Banco GT, and finally I was able to get some cash (I'd had a few hundred quetzales with me, but I'd had to buy food, pay for a hotel and bus fare for Catarino, and with gas prices very high, it would cost me at least Q600 to fill up the gas tank of the car).

There were an unusual amount of police and soldiers on the streets, and so I had the sense of being surrounded by armed men at all times, as all banks have at least a few armed security guards. I later heard something on the news about a protest of some sort, so perhaps that was why all the police and soldiers.  There was a man walking a small herd of goats along Eighth Avenue in the Centro Histórico, moving them along the narrow sidewalk. I snapped a photo. No one else seemed to pay much mind.

Getting into my pickup was familiar and comforting; as sick as it might sound I missed the confusion, challenge, chaos and occasional outright terror of driving in Guatemala. But my hands and feet remembered what to do, my sense memory kicked in and I was off.

After getting enough money for several days I headed for Xela; I had hoped to meet up with the community radio folks in Guatemala but they weren't going to meet until the afternoon and I really didn't want to hang out in the capital, so I contacted Alex, a friend who founded the youth-run community radio station in San Mateo, just outside of Xela, and arranged to meet him at the station, and so I headed for the hills.

The same suicidal/homicidal drivers on the roads. Construction everywhere. Not in the same places as before, and overall the highway seems better. The road crews are now sporting orange t-shirts (orange is the color of the Partido Patriota).  Buses crammed with people, usually converted school buses painted with bright colors and sporting names like La Sanjuanera (the woman from San Juan). Buses are the main means of transport for many people, including vendors, and so the tops of the buses are usually piled with large bundles of clothing, of produce, parcels of all kinds.  One bus had a huge rope net stuffed with a few hundred cabbages balanced kind of precariously on the roof rack. Some are more modern, at least on the outside (that is, they actually seem to have been built for inter-city transport) and have slicker paint jobs, but I don't know how much more comfortable they are on the inside.

The weather was indeterminate; cloudy, but not rainy, and cooler than I remember it being last March. But then, in the altiplano, it was relatively cool for most of the year, with the occasional extremely sunny day when it got quite hot in the afternoon.

The strangest thing is not having a house. I got used to having a place of my own, and it made me feel somewhat rooted here. Now, I don't have a fixed location; I don't live anywhere here. In the same way that my research has become a bit unsettled and less geographically focused, since the radio station has not opened up again, and I am not sure it ever will, my overall presence here is somewhat rootless. And so I am not sure I will ever be somewhere long enough to take things out of my suitcase (although I hope I will stay somewhere long enough to at least wash out some clothes: I didn't think about that when I packed, and only took about 4 days' worth of clothing, assuming that I would be able to (a) retrieve stuff from Chinique, and (b) wash some clothing (since it is all hand wash and air dry, that means staying somewhere long enough so that the clothes dry).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Same as it ever was?

It wasn't entirely real to me until the plane had landed and I had picked up my bags, gone through customs and immigration and walked out of the airport to find my friend Catarino waiting for me, after a four hour delay in my flight, that I was actually coming back to Guatemala. I had gone through all the motions of packing, trying to plan out my time here so that I could use two weeks effectively, making all the arrangements I needed to so that my life in the U.S. would function more or less smoothly during my absence. I was originally planning to visit Guatemala starting March 16 but moved up my trip, as I wrote earlier, and so I had to juggle syllabi and arrange for the car and the cats to be taken care of.

So the U.S. part went a bit more smoothly. Over in Guatemala, it was a bit harder to find people and make plans. I had left my trusty white Mazda pickup in the care of my friends Catarino and Sandra, and needed for them to bring it to Guatemala City (that was the deal we had made when I left the car with them) so that I could have a means of transportation during these two weeks (that was why I left the car instead of trying to sell it, as I knew I would be coming back over the next however many years). They weren't answering their phones, and I started to melt down a little. Well, melt down is perhaps too dramatic a term, since I rarely panic or get overly anxious. But I was a bit worried. I called and called both of their numbers and got no response. I tried calling Catarino's aunt Reyna, who lives about 200 yards away from them, and she told me that she was working in the town hall but would check their house when she got home and get a phone number that I could call. The next morning she told me that they had gone away for the day to the fiesta in Tapesquillo where Sandra's family lives, but she would try later that night. And then my Guatemalan cell phone died. I wasn't using the phone to make calls, but to look up phone numbers... and I hadn't copied any of them down, except Catarino's which seemed to be kind of useless at that point.  The charger was in New York and I was in Massachusetts. I called Adrian to see if he had any useful phone numbers in Guatemala but he didn't. Then I decided to check Facebook and Reyna's daughter had listed both her phone number and her email, so I called (she didn't answer either) and emailed her. She didn't reply but apparently eventually she passed the email message along and Catarino finally opened an email account and wrote to me. So we exchanged some emails back and forth and then I bought a phone card so I could call him before I left and make final plans.

He doesn't have a license and so Sandra's brother would have to drive them down, and then return Sunday afternoon, leaving Sandra and Catarino to wait for me. I felt a bit bad having them wait, but for better or worse, this is what people in Guatemala, or people who live far away from the capital, do for each other. As I wrote in an earlier blog when I was preparing to depart, no one goes to the airport alone. I had seven people accompanying me, and not because I had asked them.  The only person whose presence was really "necessary" was Sandra's brother who was going to drive the car. Sandra and Catarino had asked to go with me, the kids asked to come, and then the other guys just jumped in at the last minute.

But my situation isn't unique. When Alicia, a woman I know from Tapesquillo, went to the airport to fly to the U.S. in the spring, her father in law and two younger male relatives (I think brothers-in-law) went with her, and they left an entire day early.

So although I felt a twinge of anxiety about asking Catarino and Sandra and Sandra's brother to do this big favor, it felt like the norm, and I also have done several important favors for them which they cannot reciprocate in kind, and this was a way of equalizing things a bit by allowing them to do me a big favor.

I should add that all the preparations came in the midst of a big event in the migrant community in New Bedford -- several activities commemorating the fifth anniversary of the immigration raid on the Michael Bianco factory, a sad and traumatic event that is in large part responsible for my current involvement in Guatemala, and my long-time and long-term involvement with the migrant community in general, and the Maya K'iche' community in particular in New Bedford.  There were plans for an interfaith service followed by a candlelight "Stations of the Cross" walk, making correspondences between the stations and the raid, and then a cultural event and vigil at the. I was involved in the planning, and I knew that I would be wanted to take photographs on Friday -- the events were planned to start at 6 and end sometime after 9. And then I wanted to take advantage of the weekend to have a meeting with the women from the weaving cooperative (well, that's not even really an accurate description of the organization now, but the women's association we set up before I left)... which meant meeting early on Saturday as my flight was leaving out of New York on Sunday morning. So Saturday meeting and then drive four hours, get home, clean, pack and figure out the last of the arrangements and then get myself to the airport.

I will leave writing about the 5th anniversary events for another moment, since this entry is already getting unwieldy and we have not even got me to the plane yet, much less to the studios of Radio Doble Via in San Mateo, Quetzaltenango, where I am now sitting waiting for a meeting that was supposed to have begun nearly 15 minutes ago.

The Friday events went well; the meeting with Olivia and Paula and Adrian was productive and fairly brief. Olivia had asked if I could bring some jackets for her younger siblings but she had left most of them in the room of her brother who lives with them in New Bedford, and he had locked his room. But she found another couple of jackets and wrapped them up and gave them to me. And then I realized that I needed to pick up a few gifts for people. I had promised to buy some backpacks for Jeanet and her husband Nazario but moving my trip up a week didn't give me enough time to order online the specific models they wanted. Two friends here are having babies and I wanted to get small gifts, and some things for Catarino's kids, so I made a lightning-quick trip to TJ Maxx. Then I got a message from my friend Kan asking me if I could buy him a digital voice recorder. This came on Saturday late morning just as I was heading for New York. I couldn't imagine what he was thinking, that digital voice recorders are sold on every street corner in New York and that I could easily run out and find out. They are also something that is much much cheaper if ordered online, and there certainly wasn't enough time to do that.

Finally made it back to New York around 4:30, and got packed and into bed at a relatively decent hour and aside from the fact that the car service had not actually recorded the reservation I made, got to the airport with no problem (and learned a new route in the meantime), and then set out on my journey.

There was a long layover in Mexico City made even longer by some delays. The plane was full of people from Australian and French NGOs that do work in Guatemala, along with a few academics and people coming to study Spanish; not a lot of sun and sand tourists. So a lot of people with whom to talk and share experiences.

Finally arrived; my friends were there with their kids asleep in the car. I found them a cheap hotel in the Zona 1 (where I was staying) and then got up and launched into my stay.

Now I am running off to have dinner with the folks from the Radio Comunitaria Doble Via in San Mateo, with whom I am traveling to Totonicapán at 6 in the morning.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Back so soon?

It seems that I hardly got home and certainly have not finished unpacking, and already I am heading back to Guatemala. I had been planning to visit over my spring break plus the following week, and had written my syllabi for my classes so that the week after spring break students had some self-directed assignments so that I could stay another week (we only get a week off). I had planned to arrive Friday March 16, the day our break starts. And then I found out that there was going to be a visit from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights from March 11 through 15, and that the community radio folks were going to present their concerns on March 13. Damn! I'd just bought the ticket.

However, as luck would have it, a few days later I learned there had been a problem processing the credit card and I would have to do the payment over. I had a few days' grace, and I thought, well, maybe I should try to go earlier. This would mean rearranging the syllabi for my classes (not as simple as it sounds; I have some multi-part assignments and I have to present them to the students in stages, and also I had plotted out the reading assignments carefully in my upper-level class so that the two-week gap did not occur while we were in the middle of a book. But it was tempting. And then I also had to find out whether I would be able to attend the meeting with the U.N. representative; no reason to move heaven and earth if I were not able to be present. So a few quick emails and Facebook chat messages later, I found out that I could participate, and I checked out airfares and found out that I could get a ticket for slightly less money, actually, even though at that point (Monday of this week) my departure was less than a week away. I could not just move my departure up by an entire week (my original plan was to leave the U.S. on a Friday and return on a Sunday two weeks later, giving me 15 full days in Guatemala) because this weekend there was to be an event on Friday night in New Bedford for the fifth anniversary of the immigration raid and I could not miss that, so changing the dates also meant shaving a few days off the trip. But after a few hours agonizing over the syllabi for my classes I decided I would go for it and so I bought a ticket for.. Sunday. That is, less than two days from now.

It seems to have crept up all of a sudden. I've been planning to go back since I left, even before I left, but this part of the semester has just raced by. And so I haven't been able to set up all the things I'd like to in Guatemala, but I'm going anyway. After having been there for a solid year, it now feels very strange to be planning such a short trip. It feels rushed and incomplete. Also, I no longer have my own home there, and so I have to contemplate going back without a place of my own as a base. I am somewhat rootless. And I will not have the luxury of cooking for myself.  I'm a traveler, now, not a resident.

And at the same time I've experienced a heady rush of emotions as my friends in Guatemala have expressed their enthusiasm for my upcoming visit. I've told people, mostly via email and Facebook, throughout this week and it's as though they have all reached out and embraced me.

So, here goes...