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.

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