Thursday, August 30, 2012

Challenges of class and gender

Many of the people with whom I have spoken in the various community radio stations have talked about how their involvement in the radio stations -- and in the broader movement, for those who have been able to attend workshops or other activities beyond their involvement in their own, often hyper-local station -- has opened their eyes, their perspectives. They talk about how it has helped them in some cases on a personal level -- to lose the fear of and gain confidence in expressing themselves verbally in public, to raise their self-esteem, to feel that they have something of worth to contribute (these are terms they use, just in case you were wondering if I was imposing some categories from the outside; of course many of them have attended workshops and so they have picked up certain kinds of discourse). At the same time, they say that they also like being able to do something for their communities -- which in many cases are rural, isolated, poor, with few resources, or some combination of those.  

While the discourse of the indigenous movement and the radio movement proclaims equality -- especially racial and gender equality -- and some of the stations' founders or key organizers have made efforts to be inclusive, the larger social divisions of gender and class make their appearance. Young unmarried women often have to overcome the opposition of their parents or boyfriends to become involved in a radio station. Many times families try to exercise very strict control over the movements of their daughters, requiring them to stay home and take care of domestic chores, and only permitting them to leave the house for specific tasks --taking corn to the mill to be ground into dough for tortillas, or running an errand to the store. If they are going to school, they can go to school and back, but often parents don't want them socializing much, and certainly not talking to boys. Some families still do not favor educating their daughters beyond what is necessary to sign their names, make simple calculations, and it is not infrequent in a family with several children to see that boys have all gone farther in school than the girls.  If the family is religious then the girls can go to church but invariably in the company of their relatives.  

Child abuse is nearly as prevalent as spousal abuse. Many parents discipline their children physically, and certainly they threaten to do so a lot. This is true among some of my migrant friends; when their kids misbehave the mothers threaten, "Quieres cincho?" -- do you want the belt -- even if they may not actually use it much (but unfortunately many do). I won't moralize here or try to analyze too much why, but a certain level of spanking or hitting is part of daily life in many families. However, in some families it goes much farther.  Several of the women I know have told me about incidents of intrafamilial violence involving their mothers, themselves as children or within their marriages.  According to a young woman to whom I spoke recently, "Women say, 'I will put up with this for the sake of my children.'" Children don't have many options: their parents are their parents and if the parents hit them they try to do their best to avoid confrontation. And even in many of these families, the children, especially the older ones, continue to stay at home and work to support their families. For older children in large families, especially girls, this often means sacrificing their own education and dropping out so they can help their parents farm, tend a store, weave, sew or whatever it is that the family does to support itself.

So what does this mean for community radio? Young women, as I noted earlier, have to confront and overcome parental resistance or disapproval in order to venture forth to a radio station -- a place where there are both men and women, and a place where they will be exposing themselves, or at least their voices, in public. And for women of any age to speak in public means challenging established structures that keep them silent and often invisible. Even within Maya communities, where many talk about the complementarity of male and female roles, women are often shunted aside by male community leaders. Most of the community development councils (COCODEs), that try to get resources for rural hamlets and communities, have all-male membership. At public meetings, women are often discouraged or even prevented from speaking. So for a woman, even a young woman who doesn't yet have maternal responsibilities, to imagine that she could put herself out there, in a public arena, that she could take a microphone and speak, that she would have something to say and that people would listen to her, takes guts, at the very least.  She might have to deal with active discouragement or sabotage by her family, or at least one parent (usually her father).

There are very few married women involved in community radio. Once women get married, especially if they have children, they have very little time to call their own. Household maintenance is very labor intensive and the general expectation is that women will take care of the cooking and cleaning -- which takes hours since  it is done by hand. Once the dinner dishes are cleared it's time to prepare the maize so that in the morning it can be ground. And husbands may be jealous, worrying that if their wives are going out somewhere to a meeting or to a radio station they might meet a man and start a clandestine relationship. 

So, this is one of the specific themes in my research (yes, sometimes it's hard to remember that I am actually trying to do research and not just hanging out or visiting or offering support to community radio stations) -- the participation of Maya women in radio, and the way that community radio is shaped by and intersects with both discourses and social movements around revindication of indigenous identity and rights.

Some of the women and girls whom I have met in the course of this have had enough trust in me to share some painful and private experiences. Recently a young woman told me about the obstacles she had to overcome, and the ones she still faces, in order to participate in community radio. We had met several times before in different activities, and I sat in the studio with her during her broadcast which she did with confidence; it was mostly a musical program but she interspersed announcements and greetings from listeners and information about the songs she was broadcasting with discussion about the importance of dialogue in the family. After she finished we talked for a while. I hadn't known anything about her family and personal life. She comes from a large and poor family, and had to leave school much earlier than she wanted since she was one of the oldest children and needed to help support the family.  She was pretty introverted in school and rarely spoke up or spent time talking with other children. From home to school and from school to home. Her parents were somewhat physically abusive; as she said, "If I did things right, they hit me, if I did something wrong they hit me."  

Her life was very restricted; she told me that she only went to the mill to grind the corn or to run errands, and that there were days that she didn't leave her house. But she wanted something more, and to make something more of her life. She heard about the community radio station in her community and one day told her parents that she wanted to go there. Her father, who is an Evangelical, said no, that he didn't approve of the kind of music they played and she couldn't go. The next day she raised the subject again and her father again said no (just to put this in perspective, she was about 19 years old at the time).  However, her mother said she would support her, and so off she went. She didn't know anyone but joined the group and started doing programs and participating in training workshops. She told me that it had been important to her personally, since she had very low self-esteem and was afraid to speak in public and it was hard for her at first. She had never used a computer before and she was frustrated sometimes when other people in the radio station who had much more experience with computers would tell her to click on such and such an icon or buttom, but she didn't understand what it meant to "click" and what an icon was.  

 She told me that she had benefited a lot from working at the radio station, but she still felt somewhat at a disadvantage because she only had limited schooling and other people had finished high school or were studying at the university. Her family also cultivated fields and she had to help them out. Sometimes she had to get up very early in order to complete what her parents needed her to do around the house or to work in the fields before getting to the radio station, and she would arrive a few minutes late for her program. She got criticized at meetings, and it sounded as though she wasn't able to articulate that she was late because she had to spend some hours working in the fields first. Her father also at first used to give her chores or ask her to do errands right before she had to show up at the station, purposely, it seemed, to make her late for her shift. However, she said that he had changed his attitude and now came to the station once a week to do his own program. 

Two of her younger sisters were inspired by her example and started working at the radio station, and through that, they were able to get work. People heard them and they were invited to do some recordings for local businesses and be announcers at events. She still wants to figure out a way to use the radio to let women know about their rights, and specifically do something about domestic violence, which she says is widespread in her community, but a lot of women don't even know that they have rights. 

It was humbling and moving to talk with her, and I'm grateful that she trusted me enough to talk with me so openly, particularly about her family and about the ways she felt disadvantaged even within her radio station. 

Put down the camera and pick up a shovel

Rony (center) and two of his brothers
There is a well-known essay (well-known at least among visual anthropologists) by the ethnographic filmmaker/activist John Marshall by this title. Marshall got his start as a teenager in the 1950s when his family traveled to Africa with some funding from the Rockefeller Foundation (if memory serves me right) and shot a film called The Hunters . This was back in the day when ethnographic filmmakers undertook to document so-called "traditional cultures" that were being threatened by "modernization" and "development". These works were often Informed by either by the exoticizing colonialist gaze (oh, how cute and quaint and innocent the natives are, how strange and interesting their customs) and/or "salvage ethnography" -- the idea that traditional cultures would be steamrolled out of existence by modernizing process like industrialization and urbanization and that the work of ethnographers (whether armed with cameras or not) was to document these "traditions" before they disappeared, so they could form part of the collective archive of humanity. Something like that.

Pascual, one of the volunteers from
Doble Via
Marshall later became an advocate for the indigenous South Africans known popularly (and incorrectly) as "Bushmen" or "Hottentots", but who call themselves the San (or Ju'Hoanxi), and used his filmmaking talents to explore the impact of so-called development projects on this formerly nomadic and pastoral (livestock-raising) population. But he also helped raise funds from international sources, established foundations, and got his hands dirty in the life and politics of the community. Hence the title of his essay came from a statement he made, that sometimes you have to put down your camera and pick up a shovel. If the community is digging a well, maybe instead of standing on the side filming them, your ethical obligation is help dig the well.  In other words, he completely threw aside the idea of the researcher/filmmaker as objective and distanced observer. He was not, of course, the first to challenge that "classical" and positivist notion --  Jean Rouch had already pioneered a more collaborative and dialogical style of filmmaking that made no pretensions to objectivity.

Thus, today, when I arrived at Radio Doble Via, the community radio station in San Mateo, Quetzaltenango, planning to spend the day hanging out in the cabina, I found my friend Pascual working hard with a mason on the construction of the expanded center. Doble Via belongs to the Asociación Mujb'ab Lyol (Encounter of Expressions) -- an alliance of radio stations -- and is actually the headquarters of the Association, and with some support from international sources, the Association and the station are constructing a training center that will also have a dining room, kitchen, and rooms for guests -- so that when there are training workshops for the radios stations throughout the country, instead of having to put people up in a hotel in Xela, the participants can be accommodated here.  

With Pascual. He assures me his
wife and many admirers will
not be jealous!
So I decided to divide my time between the "studio", such as it is (they just moved from another location about 2 blocks away a week ago), and the construction. It feels good to do physical labor (especially as I have been spending a lot of time sitting on buses and now in my pickup), and also to feel that I am contributing a VERY modest amount to their efforts. 

Hopefully I can bring some students here next spring to lend a hand. They are planning to finish the outline of the structure in the next couple of weeks, and then start on the second floor in October, but undoubtedly there will be work to be done in March. So, if anyone from UMD is reading this,  the trip will be coordinated through one of the classes I am teaching next term, but if there is enough space I will allow other people to participate.

I also want to think about how we can raise some money for the radio stations in general. This station, Doble Via, and the one I visited earlier this week, Nojibal, each only have a single microphone in the studio. Some of the radio stations don't have any outside support and therefore they have to look for ways of paying electricity -- and maybe offering a small incentive (not a salary) to the volunteer broadcasters. It's hard when I go to a station and the volunteer staff asks for help. I have limited personal resources, and how would I prioritize writing a grant for station A versus station B? Cultural Survival provides technical assistance, subsidizes participation in the workshops, and has provided some equipment, but their mission is to see the stations as self-sustaining. Some have more ability to raise funds from their listeners than others; some have more contacts with international collaborators. So, I'm thinking on this....

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Yes Virginia, there really are chickens on the chicken bus

The name "chicken bus", is of course only used by North American and perhaps some European travelers in the so-called "Third World". The locals, here in Guatemala, simply call them camionetas, buses, un transporte (a means of transportation). People carry all manner of things on the buses: big sacks stuffed with corn, vegetables, crates of soda, cartons containing bottles of oil or bags of soap powder. However, in the three years I have been traveling to Guatemala, I have very rarely seen chickens on the buses. Three years ago I was on a microbus traveling between Santa Cruz del Quiché and Chinique during the period of the patron saint feast in Santa Cruz and a woman got on on the bus with a grown chicken in her basket - -the typical market baskets that everyone, including me, uses.  

But I hadn't seen anyone else bringing livestock on the buses. A few days ago traveling to Chichicastenango on the bus from Santa Cruz, there was a woman who got on the bus in Santa Cruz but left before the bus took off since she was waiting for a friend who didn't arrive in time. About halfway there, the assistant on the bus (the person who collects the money and packs things on the roof and takes them down) found a costal -- a bag used to pack corn or produce -- tied up, but moving around. A few pathetic squeaks came from the bag -- obviously a kitten. I can only hope the woman had good intentions with the kitten. I took the bag on my lap and tried to comfort the terrified kitten without opening the costal because the kitten would undoubtedly jump out and try to run around in the microbus. Eventually it calmed down a bit. I asked the assitant what he was going to do, fearful of what he would say. He said he was going to send it to his house and take care of it. And as we approached Chichi, his brother was standing on the side waiting, and the bus slowed down and the man handed the bag with the kitten off to his brother.

Finally, this week, traveling to and from San Marcos and San Miguel Ixtahuacán, on two separate occasions (only one of which I photographed) someone got on the bus with a large cardboard carton containing chickens (or maybe chicks). I don't know if the people bringing the chicks/chickens had just purchased them and were taking them home to raise, or whether they were taking them to be sold.  However, finally justifying the label "chicken bus."

Skipping ahead: on to the Boca Costa

I was in a bit of a quandary, when I finished up my wild weekend in the highlands, about where I would go next. I know I haven't finished writing about it, but the basic outlines were: Momostenango, Xela, a meeting outside of Xela with the Mam and K'iche' leaders from the area of Quetzaltenango, up to San Miguel Ixtahuacán (SMI) in San Marcos... and then, what? I had a few days this week and how to use them productively? I wanted to go back to Radio Ixmukané but knew that Ixchel was going to be away some days and wanted to make sure that whatever time I spent there would be productive. I had been invited back to Xela for Saturday, September 1, a meeting convened by the Consejo de Pueblos de Occidente (The Council of Western Peoples, a regional Maya organization) inviting community radio people.   I was finally able to reach Ixchel when I was in SMI and we agreed that Thursday afternoon and Friday would be best. So that left Tuesday, Wednesday and perhaps the early part of Thursday. I could always go up to Todos Santos Cuchumatán, where I had previously visited the radio station Xob'il Yol Qman Txum. One of the key announcers there, Nicolasa, is a dear friend and I know she really wanted me to come and visit. The other option was to try and visit a radio station I hadn't yet visited. 

Danielle, my friend from Cultural Survival, had mentioned a radio station in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán in Sololá, Nojibal, that she thought would be interesting for me to visit. I didn't know much about the station other than the very little that they have on their Facebook page, and I had tried to contact them before leaving for Guatemala. Danielle said they responded to Facebook and so I managed to make contact with someone from the radio station on Facebook; she later told me her name was Manuela. A lot of radio stations have Facebook pages that bear the station's names, but are used by whatever person happens to be behind the microphone at that moment. So when I see Estereo Ixchel Sumpango in chat, I don't always know who it is (since I don't have their programming schedule memorized, although I know bits and pieces of it; if I see them online early in the morning, I know my friend Valentín does the show from 6 to 8 a.m.)

She told me they would be glad to have me visit, but couldn't exactly explain where the station was. She told me in the aldea of La Ceiba, but that meant nothing to me. I had seen the signs for Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, the municipality (township) to which La Ceiba belongs, along the Panamerican Highway not far from Xela, and so naively thought it was pretty close to Xela (it actually isn't that far if one knows where one is going and the traffic isn't bad, but it wasn't where I would have assumed). She gave me the phone number of the president, Idelfonso, and I did try to call several times the first day I arrived, and also called the number(s) that appeared on their Facebook page, but never got a response. I tried intermittently during the first week, and we were able to communicate very briefly on Facebook, but I wasn't able to get clear where they were and how to get there. Finally the day I was in SMI, I tried again and we were finally able to communicate. Someone finally answered the station's telephone number,  a man named Cristobal (who turns out to be one of the founders of the station, and Manuela's father to boot).  He then messaged me to give me directions about how to drive. I dillied and dallied over the decision, especially when he told me it would take 3-1/2 hours from Xela. I knew that I would have to return to Xela by bus from SMI, about 4-5 hours including stops, and then hopefully my friends would bring the car to Xela. But I realized I would have to return to Quiché with them since I couldn't very well leave them on the side of the highway waiting for a bus in the evening since there aren't any along that route at night. So that would be another two hours. And then in the morning, 2 hours back to Xela and then 3-1/2 hours to La Ceiba. But I thought it would be better to go somewhere I hadn't visited, and especially as there are few community radio stations on the south coast; most are in the highlands. So my initial message to Cristobal was that I wasn't sure, but then I wrote back to say, yes, I would come.

And I am very glad that I did. The drive was not as arduous as I thought, and I made it to the outskirts of Xela in good time.

However, this would not be Guatemala if there were not a road blockage. The students at a secondary school in Salcajá had blocked the roads - the conflict was over the authorities adding two more years onto the teacher training program and the students objected to that. All well and good but I had to get to Xela in order to get the road to the south coast. I walked up, took some photos, talked to the students, tried to talk my way through as a journalist but they said the road was blocked until 3 pm.  As my friends in the Maya movement say, if you don't block highways, no one listens to you. And so the students were demanding to be heard. I thought I would have to cancel the visit, and I called the radio (they had called me to check on my progress) to tell them I wasn't sure what I would do.

However,salvation appeared in the person of another driver, a young man dressed in professional attire, who asked me if  I was going to Xela. I said yes, I had to get to Xela and then to the highway to Mazatenango and from there to Samayac in Suchitepéquez. He said he knew a back route and so I carefully made a U-turn (not that easy in a line of cars stopped along the highway) and we went back up to the crossroads at Cuatro Caminos. However, we were told that the other highway, a few miles to the east, was blocked (I actually knew that, but I thought he was talking about a back road and not the other highway exit). He thought a moment and said he was going to try to go through some of the small towns and avoid the highways altogether. And so we set off through the community of San Andrés Xecul, which belongs to Totonicapán, and over rutted and muddy and rocky roads, we wound our way into the town, where the main streets were under construction, but managed, after about 15-20 minutes, to get back onto road that ran parallel to the road that connects Salcajá and Xela. Yes, dear readers, I am the kind of girl who will drive off into the dawn's early light (well, it was actually around 9 a.m., and the sun was quite bright, but I can take poetic license, can't I?) following a complete stranger over back roads in an unknown area, in hopes of reaching the promised land. This is not the first and surely will not be the last time that I have gamely set off following a complete stranger driving off into the wild. 

 It was pleasant to see another side of the sprawling metropolitan area and be closer to trees and grass and animals and houses, and eventually we spilled out onto one of the main roads that leads to the roundabout known as "La Marimba" (because there is a big monument in the center with a marimba on top). He pulled over, got out and explained which of the spokes of the roundabout would take me to the south coast (he said it would indicate Retalhuleu, one of the departments along the coast, and it would take me to the city of Mazatenango, here usually abbreviated as Mazate). And so, I called the folks in La Ceiba, told them I had found a way to get around the road block and was headed their way.

The sun was strong, and the terrain very different from the rocky slopes of Quiché and the altiplano. There were mountains and volcanos but larger stretches of green. The first 20 kilometers or so took me past areas with natural hot springs, many of which have been developed into resorts; there was one lovely place (at least from the outside) along the highway called La Cumbre, advertising itself as an ecotourist center. It was situated so that it faced the fields, valley and slopes, and advertised hot springs, swimming pool, walking paths, and I made a mental note to try and return sometime on a future trip that hopefully will be longer than two weeks (climbing a volcano and visiting Tikal are also on the list).

Soon I had moved out of the tierra fria (cold country) and into the tropical coastal area -- the vegetation changed, and instead of small family plots large fincas. The highway's edge was dotted with signs for various fincas, and I immediately thought of my friends from Quiché, many of whom made the seasonal trip to the coast throughout their childhoods, to cut cane, pick coffee or pick cotton. Not for them the hot springs and luxury resorts, but hours of numbing and poorly paid physical labor. To this day, families in Quiché, as soon as school lets out or even earlier. pack up and head to the coast for a few months, returning to tend their fields and harvest their corn. My friend Sandra, according to her husband Catarino, passed much of her childhood traveling to and from the coast to pick cotton and coffee.  So it was hard to look at the beauty with neutral eyes.  According to Diane Nelson, who writes about Joyabaj, in that town many campesinos (peasants) are indebted to local landowners who also have plantations on the coast, and are basically obliged to provide agricultural labor on the coastal plantations. The gates and entrances are, in some cases, imposing, grand, elaborately manicured.. but I can only imagine what horrors lurk inside. 

Roadside signs advertised hotels that rented by the 8-hour block of time Iwhich obviously have one purpose and that is not to get a good night's sleep), resorts, and then some sprawling areas of cheap cantinas and comedores, undoubtedly  for the workers and not the elites. Large stretches of cultivated area on both sides of the road, and then a few large businesses like a Coca Cola plant. Mazatenango was loud, bustling, filled with foreign brands and flashy stores and lines of shiny motorcycles along the main strip. I just asked around for the highway to Samayác, and it turned out to be very close. I wound up a road paved with cement bricks and soon found myself in front of the church in Samayác -- the only gringa in sight, not too surprisingly. I called the station, Nojibal, to tell them I had arrived, and set out to wait. I attracted a little attention when I popped open the hood of my car to do minor maintenance -- check water, brake fluid, hydraulic flluid, and oil (all of which I keep in the car at most times). I was aware that people would look, but I could smell the heat from the radiator from inside the car and knew that I needed to cool it off. So I splashed some water, checked the reserve, replenished hydraulic (sorry, transmission; hydraúlico is what it is called in Spanish) and brake fluid.

Soon I saw a plump, smiling, middle aged woman headed towards me and I greeted her and told her that I was the person who came to visit the radio station, and we set off. The first part of the road was unpaved and deeply rutted, but after about a kilometer or two we reached a paved area (marking the boundary between Suchitepequez, the department where Samayác was located, and Sololá, where La Ceiba is located). Another kilometer or less took us to the radio station, where I have been since yesterday (Monday) afternoon.

To say I have been welcomed warmly is a dramatic understatement. I will leave that for another blog, as I am only staying for another few hours and I still need to interview Cristobal, who was one of the founders of the station 12 years ago.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

More riding on buses (and what I did when I got there)

The last few days have been a whirlwind of visits, most of which involved long trips on multiple buses. Over the weekend I went to Momostenango, where there is a community radio station run by the Maya priests, to attend a workshop on locution, and from there to Xela to hang out with my friends, and also for a meeting of community radio stations (the meeting turned out to be scheduled for a different day, but that is another story). And then from Xela I was going to San Miguel Ixtahuacán, up in the mining country of San Marcos.

The original plan was, of course, to be able to do this all easily with my own car. But the car was not cooperative and so I did my best to go through with this on bus. With mixed results. But again, with much respect for people who make these trips every day or every week, and don't think it praiseworthy enough to blog about -- if they had the time to blog.

So Saturday morning up at 3:50 to catch a bus to Momos. Someone in Santa Cruz had told me there was a direct bus that would pass right by my home in Chinique and go to Momos. That turned out not to be the case, and I took a bus to Santa Cruz, then another bus to Cuatro Caminos (Four Roads) -- basically a crossroads on the highway, where the Panamerican Highway intersects with the road that goes to Totonicapán. It is crowded with throngs of people getting off buses, waiting for buses, running to catch buses,  people loading huge bags of belongings, produce, other goods that they are taking to market, or bringing home from market, plus food vendors, fast-food chain restaurants like Holandesa and Pollo Campero, Then from Cuatro Caminos, I caught the Momosteca, a bus line that runs to Momostenango.  Seeing Guatemala from the window of a bus is a slightly different vantage point than from behind the wheel of a car. 

Mostly the angle, since even though I usually sat in the first few rows if possible (one feels the speed bumps and potholes much more intensely in the rear of the bus), I never have a straight view out the front window as I would if I were driving.  I managed to get to Momos before 9 a.m., when the activity was going to start, and so was able to observe and participate throughout the day.

I had never arrived in Momos by bus, and so the bus let me off a few blocks from the central plaza; Julian, my friend from the radio station, had told me that the workshop was going to be held at the municipal building, not at the radio station (the radio station is in his home and it is kind of tight quarters, so it would have been hard to comfortably fit that many people). I was able to navigate to the muni (municipal building) and call Julian (where would we be without cell phones?) to find out exactly where in the building the workshop was being held. It was led by a professional radio announcer, one of the few Maya in the business. 
I actually saw him last year at the Rabin Ajaw festival; he was one of the masters of ceremonies.  The participants were mostly men. I know Julian has tried to involve more women in the station but it doesn't seem that the efforts have been completely successful, or if there are more women involved in the station they were not able to make the workshop. There were two young women, girls, really. One only stayed for part of the day, and the other said she was just observing and not yet participating in the radio, so she held off doing some of the exercises that required each person to stand up and say something.

The workshop began like nearly every activity I have attended sponsored by a Maya organization: with everyone present somewhat formally introducing him or herself. In this case since everyone from the radio station knew each other it was for the benefit of the workshop leader, but also part of the formality and ritual of such meetings. But I think it goes deeper than that: self-presentation is important, especially for people who have been silenced and marginalized.

Most of the people who are announcers are non-professionals with little education. The few exceptions were Julian's sons, all of whom have had more schooling than he did, and one man who introduced himself as an economist and sounded and looked like a Ladino professional. He did, in introducing himself, say that he had Maya heritage from his grandmother, but that it had not been emphasized in his family.  
The workshop was more about the technical aspects of speaking on the radio: correct ways to announce the hour (don't say "faltan 20 minutos para las 2" or "there are 20 minutes lacking before 2", use the 24 hour clock so that 1 p.m. become 13 hours -- all of this sounds more normal in Spanish, I assure you), how to project one's voice, breathing from the diaphragm.   We did some exercises that were fun: blowing a balloon using only the diaphragm, holding a lit candle at arm's length and exhaling so as to make the flame flicker but not go out.

I think the importance of the workshop was perhaps less in what was actually covered and how much of it people absorbed or were able to use and remember but in the actual act of participation. That is, attending a day long workshop on locution means that you are taking yourself seriously as a broadcaster -- and that others then take you seriously.  It is a form of validation and self-validation. And of course, this being Latin America, the workshop ended with presentation of little certificates of recognition for everyone who had participated: a sort of diploma issued by the professional association of indigenous broadcasters, that certified that one had attended a workshop and received training in X, Y and Z.  

I didn't get to visit the radio station; it was too far away for me to visit by public transportation if I wanted to make it to Xela by evening (since the buses don't stop anywhere close to the radio station and I would have to return to the center). The buses do not run late and they do not run frequently on weekends. And since everyone who participated in the workshop took off, there wasn't a lot of point to hanging out in Momos by myself, so I headed back somewhat earlier than I had thought. 

Cars and buses (part 2)

I am, I confess, much more attached to my pick-up here in Guatemala than I am to my car back in the States. It has been an interesting if not entirely pleasant experience getting around without it. 

I had ambitious plans when I arrived, to visit several radio stations as well as spend some time with the radio station where I worked last year. So my itinerary included criss-crossing the highlands and visiting some of the more remote areas, and being able to schedule several meetings in quick succession. My car had other plans and I had to take it back into the shop shortly after I had retrieved it. I had had it towed on last Sunday, and then ran around and got the spark plugs so they could be installed. We got through the installation but the car still wouldn't run (this was Monday afternoon), and so I left the car in the hands of my friend Catarino and the mechanic and took off for Chichicastenango,where I spent the night in a hotel, since I needed to be in Sumpango, which is close to the capital, for a meeting of the leadership of the community radio movement. I took a very early morning bus to Sumpango (a little bit before 5) and got there by 7:30 (only because I was reading and missed the stop for Sumpango; I had to go nearly into Guatemala City where there was a place I could cross over to the other side of the highway and get a bus in the other direction, but I still managed to get there by 7:30.  

The meeting was a strategy session about the direction for the radio movement in light of the current political situation in Guatemala - which is pretty grim. In the course of it we wrote up a denunciation of a proposed law introduced by the LIDER party, that would impose criminal penalties on people who broadcast without authorization. I am writing a separate blog post, "Freedom of Expression" about this, so I won't go into much detail here. Here is a link to the online letter-writing campaign that Cultural Survival created at our request: please sign onto it and send the link to your friends (there is a Spanish version as well):
Email campaign to stop criminalization of community radio

When the meeting was over I went to the radio station. I unfortunately didn't listen to my friend Anselmo when he told me that the last bus for Quiché probably left around 5. I was sure he had to be mistaken and so I set out at around 6 for the highway. I couldn't find a mini-bus so I walked and got to the highway overpass where buses stop, and waited. And waited. Buses whizzed by, some stopped, but none seemed to be going farther than Tecpan, which is only 90 kilometers north of the capital. I talked to some other people waiting; one person told me to take a bus to Chimaltenango and there the buses for Quiché would surely stop (there were some that had zoomed by without stopping). But that seemed a bit risky and Chimaltenango has always seemed to be one of the more sleazy, unpleasant places; it is the center of human trafficking in Guatemala, according to colleagues who study that. Finally someone recommended that I go to Antigua, since there would be buses until about 9. There are two ways to get to Antigua from the Panamerican highway, but he recommended that I head south to San Lucas since the buses from there would run until 9, but at the other transit point, a bit farther north from Sumpango, there wouldn't be any transport. So I set off. Getting to San Lucas was easy; however, the first six buses bound for Antigua that stopped were so crowded when they got to the stop that I couldn't imagine squeezing on with my backpack full of clothing and a computer and camera.  But I was able to get on the 7th bus and easily made it to Antigua.

I had no particular notion of where to stay. I had stayed in Antigua a few nights a week for most of my year in Guatemala, but I had first rented a studio apartment, then a room in a group house, and then finally had found a rooming house run by a woman who uses the income to support a scholarship fund for Maya students seeking higher education. However, she was a very quirky and kind of neurotic person, and basically kicked me out in January because I had (a) extended my stay twice (a day each time) because my car broke down and the repairs took longer than I had planned, and (b) I had accidentally left an item of clothing on a hanger in one of the common areas (since I hadn't brought enough clothing I had to wash stuff in the sink and put the hanger down when I sat down to eat and forgot about it until the morning, when she told me I had to leave.  It wasn't that she didn't have room for me, or that I was occupying space that had been designated for other guests; the house was mostly empty those two additional days. But she was annoyed because on both mornings I had said that I THOUGHT I was not going to be staying for the night, and by the time I called her to tell her that I would need to stay for another day, she had had the linens changed. I know that was extra work for the person who helps around her house, but it also meant additional income.  

In any case, as a result I didn't know much about hotels and rooming houses in Antigua because I had never had to worry about this much. I had always had a place. I had looked at a few places on line when I was in Chichi the previous day thinking maybe I would have to stay in Antigua at some point, and remembered the names (but hadn't noted the phone numbers). 

This was the first time I had ever entered Antigua on a bus, and so I got to see the city in the same way that local people who commute to jobs in Guatemala City and other points along the highway see it. The bus was filled with an assortment of people, probably a pretty good cross-section of the population, students and professionals, women in traje and men carrying briefcases, most of them whipping out their phones at one point or another to check on dinner preparations, reassure a worried child or spouse, find out what needed to be purchased. No one looking outside the bus to admire the lights, the architecture, the cobblestones, but focused on what they needed to do when they got home, before resting and then girding up for the same journey in the morning; with rush hour traffic, it can take three hours to get into Guatemala City. 

When I got off the bus and started to walk down the Sexta Avenida (Sixth Avenue) I passed a pleasant looking place near La Merced, a beautifully ornate church at the north end of town. I checked that they had room, and would be open late, and then wandered off to look for food. It's a guilty pleasure, eating in Antigua -- a shift from a steady diet based around corn -- tortillas or tamales -- with eggs, black beans, cheese and sometimes soup or chicken.  One can get sushi, panini, salads, excellent falafels, and so forth. I have my short list of favorite places (including one really good hole-in-the wall comedor right near La Merced, but they are not open in the evenings), and was pleasantly surprised to find that one of them, Luna de Miel (honeymoon), a creperie run by an expat Frenchman, had moved up to the north end of town. I had actually been thinking about going there, but wasn't sure I wanted to walk the four or five blocks with my backpack as it had already been a long day at that point (about 8:30), when I stumbled across a blackboard outside their new establishment.  So I allowed myself to sink into the momentary comfort of the tourist bubble (although about 1/3 of the patrons were Guatemalans, but mostly in the company of foreigners), and to sit on the soft cushions of a comfortable sofa up on the rooftop terrace, sipping some very reasonably priced (and generously poured) red wine, which accompanied a perfectly done crepe filled with spinach, cheese and tomatoes. 

Antigua is always a kind of oasis for me, with its ruins and trees, its very orderly grid, the park, the cathedral, although I know that its relative tranquility and charm are highly cultivated and are the result, in part, of policies and policing that do not benefit all sectors of the local population. And yet I can't just dismiss it as simply a tourist bubble. The physical beauty of the city and its surroundings, the majestic vistas of volcanos, are also quite real. One of my friends, a former guerrilla, told me that during the armed conflict, Antigua was always a haven, since it was never attacked directly by the military, and since there were a number of safe houses there. So it always represented peace, tranquility, and a respite from the immediate dangers of the war. It was possible to breathe, to relax for a moment. And I guess that perspective, or those associations, rubbed off on me.

So, although it wasn't part of the original plan, I slipped into a brief zone of pleasure.  I ate food that is not available in Quiché, and that my friends could not afford if it were. I leisurely sipped wine by starlight and moonlight, and slept in a tidy hotel with palazzo tiled floors, fresh sheets, a private bathroom, and hot running water (this was not a luxury hotel; my room cost less than $20, but I just lucked out).

In the morning I walked the rain-washed streets, admiring the way the irregular surface of the cobblestoned streets creates reflecting pools for the brightly painted stucco exteriors. The city wakes up in phases; the newspaper vendors and shoe shine boys and men in the park at work, already, by 7, but not vigorously, easing into the day. A few photographers out, taking advantage of the morning light. I treated myself to a strong latté at Café Barista, not my favorite coffee but they are open early and have comfortable seating so I could pull out my computer and work before heading for the series of buses that would deposit me in Chichicastenango. The tourist buses, which are more comfortable and less crowded and more expensive, called "pullmans" or "pullmancitos", only run from Antigua to Chichi on market days, so I couldn't splurge on one even if I had wanted to. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cars and buses (part 1)

Sometimes it seems like I have come back to Guatemala in order to take care of my car. It was having problems before I left in January (with the radiator) and then again in March when I was here for two weeks I spent more time than I would have liked taking care of it. It has been a benefit when it is working; although I spend more money than I would spend if I traveled solely by bus, I can leave and arrive when I want. For example, I am in Chichicastenango now, where Radio Ixmukané has relocated, and since my car is in the shop, I have to be very aware of when the last bus leaves, since there is not bus service late in the evening. That means I can't stay at the radio station in the evening unless I have a car (or unless I want to spend the night in Chichi, which means paying for a hotel), and now that the radio is broadcasting until 9 p.m., it would be interesting to listen to the evening programming sometimes. There are journeys that just are not easily made via public transportation -- for example, to get from Chinique to Momostenango, where I was invited for a workshop in Saturday, would probably involve three or four different buses and might take a very long time. Some journeys, however, are much faster via bus, since the drivers go at a breakneck pace.  So it usually takes me close to 4 hours to get from Santa Cruz del Quiché to Guatemala City, but the buses do it in 3 hours or less.  

However, the downside of having a car, and this is not just for me but for most of the car owners whom I know, is that one spends a lot of time and a lot of money repairing it. The roads are bad, most of us drive cars that are pretty old (mine is 13 years old), and thus there is a lot of wear and tear on vehicles, especially in the rainy season, which is about half of the year. It's not so much the rain itself, but the damage it does to the roads. Dirt roads turn into muddy swamps. Highways turn into endless series of potholes connected by crumbling strips of pavement. On most of the secondary highways and rural roads, there are frequent speed bumps, so one is both constantly downshifting and upshifting, but occasionally not seeing the speed bump in time and thus hitting it at a faster speed than recommendable for the continued health of one's chassis, shocks, and so forth.  Rural roads are usually a combination of dirt, gravel, and stone -- again, a lot of bump, bump, bump on the car, and a lot of strain on the transmission, battery, and engine to make it up the steep and winding roads on uneven surfaces. 

So, on Sunday, I set out to visit the mother of a friend in who lives in the states, up in the hills above the town. My car didn't seem to want to make the journey; something didn't feel right. It's a very steep road, lots of hairpin turns and dips, and is mostly dirt, gravel and rock. Under the best of circumstances it is a bit of a hairy drive; when my brother and daughter were here last summer, my brother was visibly uncomfortable when I drove them up the road to visit some friends to whom I felt obliged to present my family. There have been some improvements, a few parts have been smoothed out and partially paved, but the angles of the inclines and the curves haven't changed. Because of the rain there were parts that were kind of muddy and it was hard to make it up some of the slopes. At a certain point, not far from my destination, there is a very acute curve on a steep incline and the road, although paved at that point, is sharply banked and I always have to prepare to be able to make that turn.  I couldn't make it, and the car stalled on the curve. I knew that I wouldn't be able to make it without a little bit of momentum so I backed up as well as I could (going downhill in reverse on steep curving roads is perhaps my least favorite kind of driving). Still couldn't get any power going around the curve. I tried a few times, including with the help of my friend Armando, who lives in the house right at the curve (his parents weren't there, but neither of them drives so they wouldn't have been more help). Armando basically helped by guiding me, as it was hard to maneuver backwards down a slope. This is one of the few times when I actually want someone guiding me, as oppose to the sometimes unwanted intrusions from male bystanders who think they need to teach me  how to parallel park.

So, finally I gave up and then parked the truck as safely as I could and proceeded on foot, then after my visit returned and with Armando's help (again, gladly received) turned my car around 180 degrees so I could drive back down the mountain and take the car into a shop and see what was going on.  Doing a 3-point or K turn was part of my driver's test back in 1973, and I have executed many since then, but it is completely different on a relatively flat and paved surface than on a steep and narrow mountain road where sometimes pine trees are all that stands between you and the nearest ravine.  Did someone say guard rails? huh? what are those? 

The car was not happy, and stalled out several times. Too bad I am not conducting research on auto repair shops or transportation because it has seemed during this trip that I have spent more time purchasing parts, talking with mechanics, and in general dealing with my car, and then having to figure out how to get around without it.

Finally I came to halt after the Bridge de Xola (the first one on the way down, the second on the way up). I called my friend C. because I thought (correctly, as it turns out) I was going to need his help. It has occurred to me that life in Guatemala -- not just mine, but everyone's -- really depends upon family and friends. Everyday life activities take a lot of effort and it is nearly inconceivable to think of how one single person could manage, especially when it comes to taking care of something more extraordinary like a repair on one's home, faulty electrical wiring in one's office, or getting one's car repaired.

I was able to get the car started, but it stalled again; again I got it started, but it never quite made it to town. C arrived on his motorcycle; it seemed one of the spark plugs was gone, and so we tried to do an "artisanal" repair with with electrical tape and using our keys to enlarge the opening where it has to be "plugged". No good. Someone passed by and tried to help. Still nothing happening. C called a mechanic named Santos. He came out with some tools, but after a total of about 2-1/2 hours messing around the diagnosis was that the car had to go into the shop and we needed to get new spark plugs. Santos got someone to come and tow the car and I meanwhile headed to Santa Cruz where I was expected for lunch with my friends Jeanet and Nazario and their two daughters, Mati and Josselyn. 

Thus began my saga of riding on buses -- the converted school-buses, some of which still bear the trademarks of the American manufacturers, called camionetas, and the mini-vans (called here micro-buses). In writing about this, and possibly complaining a bit, I don't want to claim any special privilege. Here it's quite normal to get up at 3, take a bus at 4 for a meeting at 8 in another department, stay until 3 in the afternoon and then take another 4-hour bus ride to get back home to one's house. When friends at home shake their heads in amazement at my weekly commute, in my own car, of 4 hours to Massachusetts and, a few days later, 4 hours back to New York, I think of the people in Guatemala who often make a 6-8 hour roundtrip journey in a single day, and sometimes more than once in a week -- if they are people who live in the provinces, but are active in political activities and have to come to Guaetmala to lobby Congress or have meetings with people, or attending training sessions, then they do this uncomplainingly.

Mining resistance on line

Now in San Miguel Ixtahuacán with the people involved in the resistance to transnational mining companies -- above all, the infamous Marlin Mine, operated by the Canadian company Goldcorp. We are here in the headquarters of ADISMI, the Asociación por el Desarollo Integral de San Miguel Ixtahuacán, together with the various petitioners who make up the umbrella group FREDEMI (Frente en Defense de los MIguelenses -- the Front for the Defense of the people of San Miguel).  We are now listening to the lawyer who is the chief legal adviser for the case currently in the Interamerican Commission of Human RIghts, talking about the use of the internet to maintain the flow of information.

So, it seems appropriate to blog while this is going on. Now a discussion about the utility of the internet among other mechanisms.  The lawyer's group that is helping with the case, Plurijur, maintains a blog that has updates on the Mina Marlin case. I will put a link here so in case if any of you are interested in looking more into the matter.  

The blog of Plurijur

An interesting issue: not everyone here has internet access. Yesterday I read in the paper that 16% of the population has access to the internet. I'm not sure what that means. In nearly every town there is an "internet" -- some small storefront with a handful of computers. Here, for example, in the headquarters of ADISMI, there are several computers that are online.  However, it seems that people are a bit doubtful of Carlos' (the lawyer) arguments about the importance of this.  Now Carlos is explaining how he documents the movement on the blog, also on Facebook.

Plurijur on Facebook

Lack of access to the media, to the internet, is real. However, as Carlos was saying, people can come to ADISMI, they can ask their children or grandchildren, or some of the younger people involved in the resistance, for help in accessing the internet.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Again, with the community radio stations

It was hard to coordinate everything before I left, and this being Guatemala, whatever plans I had made beforehand were not extremely relevant once I got here. Or, perhaps I should say, this being fieldwork. People have a way of changing plans, taking decisions that are not necessarily to the convenience or benefit of the researcher. I arrived and my car was not yet ready. That, perhaps, is to be expected. I had agreed to carry a large suitcase containing thread for some weavers in Sololá. Plan A was that I would drop the suitcase off in Los Encuentros. Plan A was based on my car being ready. Luckily I was able to learn before I arrived in Guatemala that we needed a plan B: thanks to Facebook I was able to get a message to the friend who was taking care of my car and who was going to drive to the airport. So, Plan B was that one of the weavers would come to the airport and get the suitcase (which weighed nearly 50 pounds; I was only bringing a carry-on for myself, half of which was occupied by a backpack I had bought for another friend, plus my backpack with my computer and camera). We managed to find each other and together mounted a bus heading to Los Encuentros, where my friends came with the car and we did the hand-off, over a couple of ears of grilled corn enjoyed in the pouring rain. The rest of plan A was to go to Xela since I had thought I had a meeting on Saturday (I arrived on a Friday) with someone from the community radio movement who lives in San Mateo, just outside of Xela. I didn't yet have a phone but I used the phone at the home of my friends Humberto and Ana, where I stay when I am in Xela, to call my colleague from the community radio movement and the Asociación Mujb'abl' Yol (one of the main organizations of truly community-oriented radio stations), who informed me that he couldn't meet the following day as they were hosting some visitors from Michigan (which I had known; I thought my meeting them was part of the plan) and that he was taking them on a trip to somewhere (I didn't catch the name as it was unfamiliar) leaving at 7 a.m. and returning at 5. The thought of hanging around all day in Xela was not appealing (well, in the abstract, sure, but given I only had two weeks and work to be done, not so much). He said that I should come to the meeting of the directors of the radio movement on Tuesday in Sumpango (down closer to the capital), and we would talk there. The meeting was to discuss the idea for a book -- something that I had proposed back in the fall. The reception was pretty lukewarm when I presented the idea (well, one or two people liked it but most didn't see it as a priority), so I dropped it.

Fast forward to March, when I accompanied a delegation from Cultural Survival/Community Radio Movement to the radio station Snuq' Jolom Konob' in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, to give them a donation of equipment. As we were handing over the equipment, we convened a meeting with key people from the radio station and they began to talk about their experiences. Tino, my friend from Mujb'abl' Yol and one of the national leaders of the radio movement, looked at me across the room and said, "Lisa, you were right. Now I can see what you were talking about. We really do need to systematize and share the experiences of the different radio stations." So the book project was revived. Tino and I exchanged a few emails over the intervening few months but it was clear that this would take at least one face to face meeting, and so I was very persistent in the days before my departure to try and schedule it as early as possible in my stay.

Now the scheduled meeting with Tino was postponed. So I started to make calls to see what I could do to salvage my Saturday since I had traveled all that way. There were a few radio stations I had not visited, that seemed to be kind of along the way back from Xela to Quiché. The other ones that I have had contact with and had perhaps thought about visiting again, were off in other directions. I wanted to get back to Quiché so I could at least briefly visit with my friends in Chinique, and I had been invited to a lunch on Sunday in Santa Cruz by my friends Jeanet and Nazario.  And I also was eager to visit Radio Ixmukané; it wasn't clear how much collaboration they wanted from me at this point. When I was here in March we had met with the newly-appointed coordinators of the radio station, two very young but enthusiastic people, Ixchel and Diego, and I had promised to give them as much support as I could long distance. However, we never managed to establish a real mechanism for that, and I had scarcely managed to communicate with them via Facebook and email before my departure to tell them my dates and request that we find a time to meet.  I will go into more detail about this later; so many interwoven narratives and chronologies that it may be hard to follow but a little backstory hopefully will give some context as to why I set myself up to do these crazy jaunts around the country.

About a dozen calls to a radio station in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán in Sololá proved unproductive, although I had exchanged emails with them via Facebook and had two telephone numbers, but no one ever responded to my calls. I rummaged through my notes and found a number for another radio station in Sololá, Stereo Juventud, and the compañera whose name I had, Olga, responded right away and invited me to stop by, explaining that they were very near to the intersection of highways at Los Encuentros. I stopped to fortify myself with a few pupusas (my favorite pupusería, Pupusawa, was not open but there is another place a few yards away, so I got my fix for the road and set off).  

The radio station was, literally, right along the highway, in the home of some of the founders. They were very gracious and sweet when I stopped by, and I am very appreciative of how in general people have received me warmly, even when, as in this case, I am someone nearly completely unknown who just calls out of the blue and says she wants to come by and talk. My appreciation of this generosity comes from an appreciation of the unfortunate history of the relationship between "outsiders" and Maya people in Guatemala (which of course reflects the history of relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people's world wide). How would anyone know, just because I say so, that I will treat what they tell me respectfully, that I will not simply take what they share with me and use it to harm them, or to benefit myself and not them, that I will not sell the information for commercial purposes or hand it over to the CIA or the Guatemalan government?  And so I don't take for granted that I will be welcomed with open arms wherever I go.

I spent a couple of hours with them,  talking and then being interviewed on the radio. The station is about 14 years old, and is located, as I said, in a home. The home also contains a pharmacy and a medical office: Santiago, one of the founders, is a nurse/health promoter, specializing in pregnancies and childbirth, and has a pretty constant flow of people, mostly women, in and out of the home. Some come just to get medicines, others come to consult with him. 

I wanted to get to Chinique before it was too late, and I had finally managed to contact Diego from Radio Ixmukané, who told me that Ixchel would be at the station, so I called her from the highway and stopped by the station - -in the new location, at the entrance of Chichi -- and listened to the last part of the evening's broadcast. I was thrilled that they were on the air 7 days a week, and that now they also received a lot of phone calls from listeners, which we had never had when the station was in the outskirts of Santa Cruz.

So, I've been able to re-establish some contacts, forge some new ones, and I think advance some on the collaborative project. I've committed myself to go to San Miguel Ixtahuacán, the community where the infamous Marlin Mine is located. The radio station there has been off the air for a while, and in conversing with folks from Cultural Survival and the community radio movement, they seem to think that the station isn't doing anything. So I am hoping I can help them more clearly formulate their strategy for re-initiating. 

My own research -- well, it hasn't been so clearly focused. I need to come back with more time, to be able to do some more systematic observations at radio stations, and think about how to integrate all of this in the larger framework of the attacks upon indigenous people and the overall grim situation in Guatemala today.  More reflections on this in days to come, I hope. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The uncomfortable privilege of the word

It was late, relatively speaking, when I seated myself at the long table in the open-style restaurant inside the market building in the plaza of Chichicastenango. It was around 9, and I was not sure where I would find food at that hour. I had stayed at the radio station until almost the end of the broadcast day, but I had to get up early in the morning and I hadn't eaten anything yet. My friend Diego took me to the modest hotel, where I very informally checked in (no register to sign; I just talked to the man at the desk to tell him I was going to eat and then return, but I did go up and take a peek at the room). We walked up towards the plaza which was dark and mostly deserted; a few people huddled around a fire over which a woman was patting out tortillas. Inside the market most of the eateries were already shut down but one was open and after finding out that carne asada would take 15 minutes I just ordered some eggs, and then sat down to wait I pulled out a small notebook I have been using recently, and started to jot some notes. The three or four employees were cleaning tables, and after a while I saw one of the young women looking at me. I thought maybe she was going to ask what I wanted to drink, but she didn't say anything to me and I returned to my writing. When I looked up again, she was again looking at me. I wondered what it was she wanted, and smiled at her and went back to what I was doing. She came closer, and I asked her if she wanted something or needed to tell me something. No, she said, looking longingly at my book, "it's just that you're writing and I don't know how to read or write. It's nice ('es bonito") to be able to write." I didn't know what to say in response. She works in a cafeteria, cooking, cleaning and waiting tables. I cannot say anything that will erase the divide of literacy that separates us. It is not that I am white, or middle class, or a foreigner, or an academic that is at issue in this instance, but the simple fact that I can read and write. She came closer and looked at the page, trying perhaps to decipher the squiggles on the page and figure out how they combined to make some kind of meaning. "And can you read what is there?" she asked me after perusing my scrawl. I  was about to say, "Of course" but realized that she took none of this for granted.  Making marks on a page was one thing; a lot of people  know how to sign their name. But reading is something entirely different, and so there is no taking for grant that a person who can make marks on a page will also be able to perform
 the alchemy that turns the mud of those markings into the precious metal of words.  

Another one of the young women came over and they both leaned over the table and looked very intently at what I was doing. "I don't know how to read or write either," said the other woman. I felt helpless. It wasn't an accusation, and she said it without anger, but yes, with a touch of wistfulness. What could I do, in that moment, to change their situation? I couldn't teach them to read or write in the space of the 15 minutes it would take to eat my eggs and then prepare to leave. I have read enough to know that adult female illiteracy is extremely high in Quiché and especially among Maya women, and so here were two slightly shy and lovely statistics hovering over me. I couldn't think of anything better to say than to hope that they would have a chance to learn to read and write, and leave them a tip (which is not the norm in working-class eateries like this, or in all but elite restaurants in Guatemala).

The politics of race in a small town

As I have already been back here for a couple of days it is hard to go back to the first day and trace the impressions so I will jump right into the thick of things. Although my little town in the mountains no longer has any direct bearing on my research, I still have ties to people in town, and my pickup and many of my belongings are still there in the home of some friends. So for a variety of reasons I needed to go there for at least a day or two. I couldn't very well ask my friends to bring my car to the airport for me and not visit them. They ended up not being able to bring it there because the clutch was being repaired and the repair wasn't done in time for them to make it to the airport when my flight arrived, but that's kind of beside the point. I also had a few errands to run for friends in the migrant community: visiting a friend's mother and leaving a package for someone else.

My friend C had very proudly written to me that he was now studying at the university. When we were able to talk, finally, face to face, I asked him where he was studying, thinking that he would have to commute to Santa Cruz del Quiche, Chichicastenango or even Xela, No, he told me, right here in Chinique, they opened up an extension.  He was studying for a degree in education -- teaching is one of the few professions that has been relatively available to Maya students. Or to look at it another way, Maya students who have gained access to higher education have had few career tracks open to them other than education.  When we talked again, he told me that there had been a controversy about where to locate the extension. The ladinos wanted it to be in the center of town. However, the majority of those seeking degrees -- primarily teachers in the municipality's schools - are Maya and they live outside the town center. So they lobbied to have the extension located in Agua Tibia -- the aldea (hamlet) closest to the town (it is reached by a road that forks off the highway leading into town, just before the entrance to the town). The ladinos said that it was hard for them to get to Agua Tibia. The Maya said it was hard for them to get into town. "But you are accustomed to it," said the ladinos, "and we aren't."  However, the Maya students eventually prevailed and the extension is located in a "community".  The term "community", when used as a geographical reference in Guatemala, has strong racial and class connotations (as in "I live in a community" or "She goes out and works in the communities").  "Community" encompasses aldeas, caserios, and cantones; it signifies rural, poor, marginal, an area with dirt roads, or houses with dirt floors.

Which leads me to reflections on dirt. This is the rainy season and it rains nearly every day, sometimes for hours. In the towns or areas with paved roads the rain leaves puddles and creates potholes. Where the pavement ends, the rain turns everything to mud. And so it is nearly impossible for people who live in houses that are reached by dirt roads or dirt paths to keep their shoes clean. In my friends' home, where I am staying off and on, the yard is spongy and squishy, and when I go to wash my clothes or my face in the outdoor sink my shoes get heavy with mud. So I am constantly scraping my shoes with a stick or scraping the soles over the door jamb. That is another sign of being poor and rural: having dirt on one's shoes or feet, from walking on muddy paths (or in the dry season, on dusty dirt roads).