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)

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