Tuesday, August 21, 2012

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).

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