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).


  1. It is truly an astounding situation. It must be challenge for you (not, of course, to distract attention too much from the huge hardships faced by these women) to live and work confronted so closely with the giant gaps in privilege that most of us up North here either choose to for the most part ignore or at least don't often confront face-to-face.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Being here does put things in very sharp perspective, and has pushed me to think about so many things that are invisible privileges because we take so much for granted (like a shower with running water rather than heating water on a wood-burning stove and then pouring it over yourself with small basin). I appreciate it when people comment on the blog so it doesn't feel so much like a monologue.

  3. Heartbreaking. My cook, Catalina, can sign her name, write down numbers and make very accurate sums and calculations (better than mine, probably). But she cannot read nor write, so I can see how these young women would not automatically assume that just because you are making marks on a paper, you can read those marks. Catalina made sure that her son would have a different future, and she put her son through private school and even the first years of college. It makes me angry when people tell me about the poor here "they don't want to learn to read nor write, it has no value to them." Clearly it does, from the story you are telling and from the fact that when at all possible, they, more often than not try to ensure their children's education. Catalina at this point is not interested in furthering her own literacy, for the moment, but I have a feeling she might become more interested in it in time, now that her own son has graduated and moved on.