Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Climbing a volcano, at least

I haven't been very focused on doing vacation-ey, tourist-y things in Guatemala like going to the beach or visiting archaeological sites. But I have wanted to climb a volcano. Last year, a friend was supposed to take me to climb Volcán de Agua outside Antigua but he disappeared from sight, so to speak, and so we never did it (I was warned to not do it alone as there have been assaults on tourists).  It hasn't been a top priority but I have wanted to do this, so when two friends from the states told me in late November or early December that they were going to be in Guatemala in January on a volunteer project, we decided to coordinate schedules (they would arrive early, I would stay a few extra days) and try to do some hiking, including, we hoped, climbing a volcano.

They are more serious hikers than I am so we set our ambitions high. I suggested Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America -- and also the volcano where the clandestine radio of the guerrilla forces, La Voz Popular, had hidden its broadcast apparatus. It wasn't possible for us to climb Tajumulco on the two full days that we would have together -- it's not recommended to go without a guide, and the only guided tours we could find started  on my last day in Guatemala. By this time, I had plans for the day prior to my departure -- the community radio movement has put together a small book, or perhaps booklet is the better term, about the struggle of the radio movement, and the book launch is set for tomorrow (January 16), the day prior to my departure, in Guatemala City. Also, they are coming from New York -- one from the city, which is at or below sea level (as Superstorm Sandy so vividly demonstrated, and one from upstate, but the elevation there isn't that high either. So they would have needed at least a day or two to adapt to the altitude before attempting to reach a peak that is about 14,000 feet above sea level. I wasn't as worried about the altitude for myself; I'm not as much of a hiker or climber as they, but I've been living for nearly a month in places where the altitude is at least 4,000 feet above sea level and often quite higher than that (I think Chinique is about 6 or 7,000 feet above sea level).

So, I found some alternate hikes for the days we would be together. One was to climb San Pedro, by the shores of Lake Atitlán. This would have the double benefit of allowing me to visit, at least briefly, my friend Brenda who is the coordinator of the community radio station here in San Pedro, Radio Sembrador, and allowing us to start more gradually, or so I thought, as the top of the volcano is only about 10,000 feet. 

I found us a hotel, with Brenda's advice, and then I asked the hotel if they could find us a guide. According to what we'd read, the path starts out winding its way through some coffee farms on the lower slopes of the volcano and it can be somewhat confusing to figure out where to go in places. Also, for safety -- although there have not been a lot of assaults on tourists here, San Pedro is a tourist town (of the blond-dreadlocked backpacker variety; there are about eight Spanish schools also, which is another attraction for rowdy young college-aged people) and so there is always the danger of someone wanting a camera or money.   

The drive here was hair-raising. My friends had been given advice by several people they knew who lived in Guatemala that they should never under any circumstances travel anywhere at night in any kind of vehicle with anyone whatsoever. In general that might not be bad advice, and I try to be somewhat careful of my own personal safety, but I do travel at night. I don't travel at night in public transportation -- and I don't take Guatemalan buses if I can help it, unless my car is in the shop and I need urgently to get somewhere, and I am going along a route I know well. But I have driven from Santa Cruz, for example, to Chinique (a distance of about 15 kilometers), sometimes quite late at night -- for example when I have been at a ceremony at Doña Matilde's mother's house. And I have driven the road from Chichicastenango to Chinique several times at around 7 or 8 - not late, but the roads are dark. There are not assaults along those stretches of road, as far as I have heard over the last few years, and I drive a car that does not look like it belongs to a wealthy person or a tourist -- a Mazda pick-up with a bunch of dents and a couple of smashed tail-lights. Except for the brand (Mazda instead of Toyota) it looks like the typical car that a slightly prosperous local would drive.  

I said I would pick them up or figure out how they could get somewhere we could meet -- their flight was to arrive at 2:30, and Xela is about 4 hours away and the lake also about 4, so they would have to travel after dark. I assured them that I thought it would be fine if we were together and they were willing. There were no convenient shuttles, so I decided to arrange my schedule so that I could pick them up (it meant driving to the airport, which is about 4 hours or more from most of the places in the highlands, but it seemed to be the only way that we could meet up on Sunday and get a full day's hiking in on Monday - unless we met in Antigua. But even to get to Antigua they would have had to pay for a private shuttle as there are no scheduled shuttles after 2:30 in the afternoon.

Saturday afternoon I visited a radio station near Los Encuentros - about 1-1/2 hours from Chinique and right along the Panamerican Highway -- and then traveled to spend the night in the Xela area (actually in Olintepeque on the outskirts of Xela) so I could get up before dawn and visit a radio station in Concepción Chiquirichapa, a radio station founded by ex-combatants of the URNG, and one that is run entirely by volunteers (some of the stations offer small "incentives" to those who volunteer). The car was acting up -- the steering had been incredibly stiff (i.e. I could barely move the wheel without tremendous effort) and I had supposedly had that fixed about two weeks ago. I did have it fixed -- it was working just fine and I was able to steer easily for the first time in over a year, but then as I was looking for a parking spot at around 6 a.m. in Concepción Chiquirichapa -- a small town about 15 km. north  and west of Xela -- the steering just "went" and became stiff as a board, and it took me about 10 minutes to grind the car into a parking spot, with a full crowd of local onlookers undoubtedly making comments in Mam about how this güera colocha (curly-headed white girl) couldn't drive or park. The car also hasn't been handling that well in first gear; it seems to sputter and threaten to stall out, so parking in front of a small crowd is not fun, although I have a pretty iron-clad ego.

After my visit to the radio station I went looking for transmission fluid, which sometimes helps the steering, but it didn't do anything in this case. It took a while to find a shop that was open -- a shop that sold auto supplies, that is. I went to an auto repair shop that looked open but the mechanic wasn't there. A young man who was cleaning his motorcycle directed me to a place around the corner but they were not open so I returned to the main road. Some men who called out to me in English offered another suggestion but the place they suggested was also not open. I asked where there was a gas station and they told me 15 minutes walk away. However, as luck would have it, a stationery supply store that I passed, oddly enough, had some automotive supplies gathering dust on their shelves alongside rolls of tape and pens, and among them, two plastic bottles of transmission fluid. And it was about half the price that I've paid at gas stations. So I took a bottle, went back to my car after saying my goodbyes at the station, and then poured some in. It didn't seem to have any effect, so I had the unpleasant task of turning my car around in the middle of the main street on market day at 10-something in the morning, again in front of spectators, and then headed off to Guatemala, hoping that the car would hold up.

There was, of course, an impediment to my smooth egress from Xela -- a bicycle event which had blocked off the main exit road. I followed the instructions of the police to go on a dirt road around the aerodrome (I have never seen a plane there; mostly it seems to be used for sporting events and people doing exercise and playing soccer) and eventually made it to the highway (I had to stop and ask some local residents because it wasn't clear where the road led to) and got back to the highway and headed off south and east. Even with a stop for pupusas at a new roadside stand between Tecpan and Chimaltenango I got to the airport early, only to find that their flight was delayed until 3:30. This meant that we would definitely be driving after dark, since the turn off to San Pedro is at least 2-1/2 hours from Guatemala City, and we would need to stop for gas and coffee and bathroom, and the road from the highway down to the lake is very steep and windy and pocked, and parts of it are dirt, and as I recalled it, we would have to pass through a couple of towns along the way and the exit to continue on was not always well marked.

The car stalled out a number of times, which was alarming, but as we were mostly going downhill I just coasted in neutral (thankfully the brakes were in good order) and we made it to San Pedro in a bit under 4 hours, and the folks from the hotel came out to find us as their instructions (just take the main street down to the embankment) weren't all that useful -- everyone here knows what "the calle principal" is, but it's not quite so evident to an outsider.

I decided that we would not drive up to the trailhead but asked the hotel to arrange a tuc-tuc along with the guide, and both were waiting for us at 6.

It took a while to get sorted out and finally start out, and when we got to the ecological park, which is staffed by 22 families, it turned out that the guide who had come to the hotel to get us was not the one who was going to take us up the mountain as they went by turns -- and there was another guide ahead of him. We saw him later on, up at the top of the mountain, with the next person who had come after us -- a young Guatemalan man from La Mesilla at the Mexican border, and were relieved that he had gotten some work.

I won't bother writing about the entire trail as there are many blogs about climbing San Pedro. My friends are more experienced hikers than I am, but they had trouble with the altitude, more than they had expected, and it was slow going. I walked ahead with the guide, Juan, a local man who confided that he was illiterate since his father hadn't put much importance on education but had wanted him to work at an early age, but had made sure that his children had more education than he did. I will devote a separate entry to Juan, as we had a lot of time to talk as we spent 4 hours walking up the mountain (I went ahead alone on the descent and he brought up the rear, to make sure we were all okay, so I didn't get to talk to him much then). We passed through coffee plantations, and learned a lot about coffee and the coffee market, as Juan is a coffee farmer as well as a guide. We stopped frequently -- I got really hungry about an hour after we set out and so we broke into our supplies of nuts and dried fruits, and then snacked again a few times. Juan walked easily; he said this was slow for him and he didn't take a drink of water until we had passed the halfway point. When we got to what he said was the halfway point we waited for my friends, and we were all a bit dismayed to learn that we had been hiking for two hours and were still only halfway up.  They had both been reading up about the hike and apparently according to the books we were supposed to start feeling the altitude at the halfway point, but they had been feeling it earlier. I didn't feel much in terms of the altitude, although the hike was hard work. I walk a lot and bike, but I don't do much hiking, although I'd tried while I was here to find places where I could at least walk uphill a bit while taking an early morning walk. 

Finally at a bit before 11 I reached the summit and then waited for my friends. There were some people who had gotten there before us who passed us coming down, and a group of about 4 Americans and Europeans at the summit when I got there. I chatted some with the other guide -- the guides all know each other -- whose name was Domingo and who was impressed by the few words of K'iche' that I know. The language of most of the guides is Tzutujil, but because the department of Sololá has three language groups (K'iche', Kaqchikel and Tzutujil), and Kaqchikel and K'iche' are much more widely used on a national level (that is, they are among the largest language groups in terms of native speakers), most Tzutujil speakers know a little K'iche', and there are some borrowed or common or imposed words. That is, "maltyox" (mal-ti-osh), which means thank you in K'iche', also means thank you in Tzutujil.

The view was spectacular -- hard to find words to describe the vista of the lake, ringed by mountains and volcanos. We had a view of Santiago, San Lucas, Pacaya and Volcan de Agua and Fuego in the distance. A small plane flew by at least a thousand feet below us. It was giddy to be on top, amid the clouds or above them, looking down at the vividly blue waters of the lake, picking out the lakeshore towns, breathing in the thin but clean air.

The morning is getting on, and I should get back to figure out the day's activities. The original plan was to climb San Pedro yesterday and then set out for Xela in the evening and leave at 4 to climb Santa Maria. On the way down, as our thighs were all burning, we realized that we were not up to climbing a second, higher volcano, with a longer hike, the next day.  We could have staggered our way part way up, but there was no way we would have reached the summit and gotten back in time for my friends to meet up with the people who were going to take them up Tajumulco -- they were supposed to be back in Xela at 5 to get outfitted for the overnight hike to Tajumulco, and since it took us from 7 a.m. to nearly 3 p.m. to get up and down San Pedro -- and we were told that the hike up Santa Maria was much longer, we decided to spend the night instead in San Pedro and decide this morning what we would do here.  I also had wanted to make sure I visited my friend from the community radio station here and see her family -- and that would have meant leaving the lake pretty late in the day and driving at night again, to say nothing of arising very early for the hike.

So we took off our shoes and dirty clothes, I called the guide I'd contacted to take us up Santa Maria and told him we'd discovered we were not capable of two volcanoes in two days, and then my friend Brenda came from the radio station to pick us up and we spent the rest of the evening (as much as we had energy for) first visiting the radio and her family, and then leisurely having coffee and then dinner in her company.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why nothing ever gets finished

I have come to the conclusion that there is a certain discipline that I lack, to put things aside and sit down and write and process. When I'm here for a short period of time -- even now, a month seems ridiculously short -- I can't resist to spend the time soaking up experiences rather than processing the ones I've had. And so carving out the time to write becomes a challenge -- even now, I should be getting myself to bed since I got about three hours of sleep last night, if that, and I have to get up early and I have a LOT of driving to do tomorrow, but I am forcing myself to write even just a little. Plus that the particular style of research I've chosen (sporadic, disorganized, or just going with the flow, responding to circumstances) means that I spent a lot of time getting from one place to another. Driving is good for thinking but not for writing.

And so, since my last extended description of what I have been doing -- visiting Santa Cruz Barillas last Saturday - an entire week has passed, and while not every day has been worth recording in great detail, there have been enough interesting things to make me think I should have just spent today writing, rather than trying to do some personal visits, travel to another radio station, and then come all the way out to Xela again so I can visit yet another radio station in the wee hours of the morning (well, 6 a.m.) and then drive to the capital.

So, as you might note, the description of the celebration of the b'aq'tun hasn't been finished; there was another ceremony at the home of Rigoberta Menchú that I haven't even started; there are all the visits to the radio stations; plus some interesting interviews and conversations.  And then last night, January 11, was the election of the "umial tinamit" - the "daughter of the town", what the "indigenous princess/queen" pageants are called in some parts of Quiché.

Therefore, a big backlog of things to work on. Better get started.. except some friends are coming from the U.S. and we have two days of hiking planned. So..... just more to add to the "to-do" list.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The first year of the Pérez Molina government

The news over the past few days has been filled with stories about the change of command in the government. The President has declared that he is closing the National Fund for Peace (FONPAZ), due to charges of corruption, and dismissing the current head of this agency -- who is a member of the same political party, the Patriotas. I won't go into the details of the scandal about misuse of funds, but the government has declared that agency will be shut down. It was established in 2000 with a mission of eradicating poverty and extreme poverty -- and clearly it has not been successful in achieving that goal (whether or not it was actually ever given sufficient funding or mandate to do so is obviously a larger issue, and whether any government agency is actually capable of addressing deeply-rooted issues of structural inequality and extreme poverty is also highly debatable).

Monday the president completes his first year in office, and looking back, it's been a bloody, miserable year for most Guatemalans. Unceasing attacks on social movements and anyone who raises a dissenting voice, both in the media and physical attacks by police, the army and private security guards at the installations of transnational companies involved in hydroelectric and mining projects. More displacements or threatened displacements of communities whose land lies where these government-backed transnationals want to start or expand operations. At the same time, the government seems to be radically rewriting the social contract through legal and legislative means. They instituted a "fiscal reform" which means that community organizations, NGOs and associations (the legal structures governing what we would call non-profits or CBOs are different, and the category of "association" is something particular to Guatemala) are subject to increased scrutiny regarding their finances. These measures are couched in the language of transparency, cleanness and anti-corruption but they are basically about surveillance.

Over the past year the Ministry of Education has announced that they are changing the terms of the educational system, or specifically how teachers are training, and extending the "magisteria" (the course of study for teachers) to 5 years. This has caused a lot of anger on the part of students currently enrolled, and also parents. When I was here in August, I first learned about this the hard way -- when I set out to travel to the Boca Costa, and was passing through the town of Salcajá, a few kilometers outside of Xela, and found the main  highway crossing blocked by students at one of the secondary schools who were outraged about the proposed measure. The anger has increased over the past year, and students and parents throughout the country have been holding meetings, staging protests, and apparently for Monday, when the new program is supposedly to officially go into effect, there is a massive protest planned. Again, this initiative is described by government officials as something that is necessary to bring Guatemala up to par in terms of teacher training, and thus is couched in the language of "modernization", "advancement", "development" and "progress" -- all words which have an unpleasant ring of colonialism and top-down bureaucratization. It is not clear, for example, what happens to the students who are currently enrolled in 4-year programs.

The government also succeeded in passing a telecommunications law in December that granted another 15 years of the use of radio frequencies to the media monopolies that currently have licenses -- while failing again to take any action on the initiative to legalize community radio, and decreeing harsh prison sentences for those who criminally misappropriate the radio spectrum. And apparently the Congress is scheduled to discuss a proposed reform to the criminal code. I haven't seen the details of what has been proposed, but my friends on the left all think it is pretty ominous. 

Oh, and I nearly forgot about the increase in electric rates, and the privatization of water.  On top of this, there was a chilling story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the real threat that bio-fuels pose to subsistence farming in Guatemala -- the backbone of rural economies. When corn and other crops are siphoned off for bio-fuels, there's obviously less corn available for eating, and Guatemala has gone from being self-sufficient in corn production to relying upon imports for about 30% of basic consumption needs -- and this only in the course of several years.  Land that is devoted to the production of bio-fuel crops is also land not available for cultivation. And while poor peasant farmers might see a short-term advantage in selling their land -- say, to a company that wants to grow African palm -- they usually don't end up with enough money to purchase arable land that they can then farm, nor are there enough jobs to employ all the people who have been displaced (whether forcibly or voluntarily).  So the solutions are working in a maquiladora or some other "free trade zone" employment (i.e. internal migration) or migration to another country.

Oh yes, and I also forgot that the government declared about a week or two ago that the international legal proceedings concerning genocide were only valid for events that took place after 1987  - which was when Guatemala signed the international conventions. Or rather, the government declared that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) only had jurisdiction over events that occurred after 1987. Since the most intensive campaigns against the civilian population and most of the massacres occurred between 1981 and 1983 (not to say that there weren't massacres and killings both earlier and later, but those were the worst years), this means that the brunt of the genocide, according to the Guatemalan government, would never be adjudicated in an international tribunal and the majority of victims and survivors would not receive justice.   

Meanwhile, the number of deportations of Guatemalans from the United States reached a record in 2012.

Not a pleasant picture, overall. But as I have written earlier, there has been a corresponding "uprising" (the word "levantamiento" in Spanish doesn't quite carry the connotation that "uprising" does in English -- it's not quite taking over the state or intending to do so, but "lifting themselves up", responding, making their presence felt) or series of "uprisings", popular unrest and protest.  Also, many groups and communities are working through legal means -- bringing cases in the Guatemalan courts and also in international legal institutions like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It's hard to see what might be the results of these. The United Nations has issued declarations concerning the situation(s) in Guatemala.  When the Special Rapporteur of the UN on the rights of indigenous people, James Anaya, was here, he issued an informal statement that was reported in the press. But those seem to have little impact.

On the bright side... well, two days ago, the court in Santa Eulalia released 8 of the community leaders in Barillas, who had been detained since the events in May. After the killing of one anti-megaproject activist on May 1, the community erupted and several community leaders were arrested and shipped off to prison in Guatemala City. Within the movement, they have been referred to as political prisoners. So, apparently the court convened in Santa Eulalia two days ago and in the afternoon declared that these eight leaders were free to go. However, the court hasn't lifted the arrest warrants out for another twenty or so community leaders.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In search of the perfect traje

Some time back, one of my closest friends in the Maya community in New Bedford, a labor rights  activist and community leader, asked me to help him acquire a set of men's traditional garments from Chichicastenango. He is not from the municipality of Chichicastenango, but the men's traje from his town is fairly plain (white pants and shirt made from home-spun fabric, with a red woven sash) and not especially distinctive. In many towns, there is no longer really a specific men's traje, and while nearly all adult women in predominantly Maya towns still wear traje, as I have written in previous blogs, in many areas the women wear "generic traje" -- blouses made of shiny fabric, with puffy sleeves, and decorated with lace, beads and sequins around the neck and sleeves, and machine-woven cortes -- and not the traje that is specific to their municipality. This is partly for economic reasons -- the more "traditional" and locally-identified traje is often quite expensive, as it is usually handwoven (at least the güipiles or tunics) and/or elaborately embroidered (again, often by hand). But also, there is more interchange, interaction and travel, and women who have the opportunity to travel often like to collect güipiles (or other handwoven items) from different areas that they have visited. 

But very few men -- with the exception of parts of Sololá and Todos Santos Cuchumatán -- wear men's traje as everyday clothing. A clothing item that has become popular among men as a marker of Mayan identity is a zippered sports jacket made of dark blue fabric (like that used for cortes in some parts of the country), and patches of handwoven fabric from different parts of the country -- with an elastic waist and cuffs, and usually with some dark blue fabric as the background.  I have also seen men with shirts made of the multi-colored corte fabric (sometimes open-necked shirts like what we would think of as "Indian" shirts or tunics, or more tailored shirts with buttons and collars). So that is how men who want to make a public statement about their Mayan identity might dress.

The men's traje from Chichicastenango is very elaborate, distinctive and quite beautiful. It consists of a short bolero-style jacket and matador-style pants (but a bit looser), a woven sash and a head covering that is actually a square of red handwoven fabric (with black and white threads mixed in), over which there is another layer of weaving or embroidery in brightly colored threads, often of a geometric pattern, or animals -- all of which has deep symbolism (both the colors and the patterns). The corners have long tassels of a darker color, and the scarf is wrapped around the man's head so that the tassels fall down on his back.  The overall design of the clothing is modeled on Spanish clothes. The pants and jacket are made of a heavy, coarse-woven dark brown or black wool. The jacket has embroidery along the edges -- more or less thin lines that go around the neck opening, down the front and along the bottom edge, and at the edge of the sleeves. Then the body of the jacket is decorated with larger vibrant designs -- usually red, pink, orange figure prominently in the designs, although blue and green are also used. Sometimes floral patterns across the chest or back, and also geometric patterns and/or animals. Then the pants have a flap that goes down the side of each leg that is also elaborately embroidered. 

One of my Maya-activist-intellectual friends (i.e. someone who is a public figure in the Maya movement) once got into a discussion with the principal general of the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango (the "head" of the indigenous authorities there) about the clothing. He asked, "But this comes from Europe, no?" Regardless, it has been the "traditional" men's clothing of Chichicastenango for at least a few hundred years. Generally, the only people who wear it are the members of the cofradías, on the feast-days, and the members of the "indigenous mayoralty" when there is a formal or ceremonial occasion. For example, once last year there was a one-day conference in Guatemala City organized by Oxfam, and several members of the alcaldía of Chichicastenango were present, and although it wasn't a ceremony, they wore their garments. When they go to present their various legal cases in the courts in Guatemala.

So, anyhow, this friend had wanted clothing from Chichi, and I had tried last time I was here, but no one had any for sale. I looked into having a suit made up for him, but there are only a few people who still make them and no one was able to get me a contact for one of them. I had also looked into getting a jacket from Nebaj: men in Nebaj wear fitted red wool jackets decorated with black trim; they are also very attractive. In fact, when I was in Momostenango just before New Year's my friend there said he knew someone who sold clothing down by Cuatro Caminos. So when I left Momos, Julian accompanied me and took me to see his friend. She didn't have any jackets from Nebaj but said she would have one made up for me if I wanted. I considered that possiblity. But then, I had also asked a young friend who works with the alcaldía indígena in Chichicastenango and he had said he would ask around.  I hadn't hear from him but then he called me and told me he had found a suit.

Then I couldn't get in touch with my friend in the U.S., to make sure he was still interested and could send me the money -- these are quite expensive, even a used suit. Finally yesterday I was able to get in touch with him and then arrange to go see the clothing. I took photos, sent them to my friend in the U.S., agreed upon the price, and now it just remains for him to send me the money and complete the purchase.

Meanwhile, I found out a bit of the story of why this particular suit of clothing is being sold. My friend from Chichi, V,  had been in Guatemala City, and I had assumed he had gone for a meeting or something having to do with one of the court cases of the alcaldia. No, he told me, he has a brother who has leukemia, and has been in the hospital in Guatemala City for a month. My friend V traveled to Guatemala yesterday to give blood, which the hospital had requested. The family was selling the traje because they need to pay the doctor.

But now it seems that the friend in the U.S. has some money trouble, and after all of this back and forth and running around, might not be able to purchase the traje.  Which makes me feel a little bad, as I had called V yesterday to tell him that we were going to take the clothing, and I would hate to have to call him back and say, no, sorry. But it's not in my hands....

In Barillas -- 1

As the road winds down the mountain, there is a big sign (from some commercial enterprise) at the last curve before you hit the town proper, welcoming the traveler to Santa Cruz Barillas.  Finally a bit of pavement presented itself before us, but my joy was short-lived, as there was construction underway over about half of the paved main street. One of the first things that we saw was the military post about 100 yards from the entrance to the town. There was a small wooden lookout post, and a young man, undoubtedly Maya as are most of the military troops, peering out at us over the barrel of his weapon. I decided that it was wisest to not even attempt to take a photograph. As we drove past, there was another sentry at the edge of the property, although this one ha his weapon strapped across his back.  Lorenzo directed me to turn right and we bumped down a dirt street a block until we arrived at his family's home, a modest wooden dwelling with a corrugated metal roof. Sitting on the bench outside, we could look up the street and see the military encampment: a stark and constant reminder of what had happened eight months ago.  It is nearly impossible to enter or leave the town without being reminded of the military presence.

Lorenzo had found out, while we were driving to Barillas, that there was going to be a meeting of community leaders, but we didn't know whether we would be able to attend it or whether we would just try and catch some of the leaders before the meeting started and then he would try to find a few other people who would be willing to be interviewed. He reminded me, although I didn't need much reminding, that people might not be willing to talk and would be extremely wary of an outsider, since they had been cheated and fooled and taken advantage of by outsiders so often in the past. I understood that the trip might not be very "productive" in any strict sense of the word; this is something that I've learned doing fieldwork, and especially doing fieldwork in the Caribbean and Central America. You have to approach every day as filled with limitless opportunity, but you also have to be prepared that things won't go according to plan -- and that if you have a plan B, that might have to be scrapped, as well as plans C through Z. Unexpected opportunities can arise, and you have to be ready to run with them, and carefully negotiated and planned events might crumble in an instant. So I always remind myself that just seeing another place, another slightly different culture and way of life, is usually worth the effort, and there's always the breathtaking scenery as some kind of compensation for the effort.

We spent a little time with Lorenzo's mother, sister and her children. The children scampered around and played with a wooden box, turning themselves into robots by putting the box over their heads and staggering around in fits of giggles. Lorenzo's mother and sister bustled around to offer us something to drink and eat. Lorenzo took a cup of cornflakes and some atol made with oatmeal. They asked if I wanted some and I asked if it had already been sweetened and they said yes, and he explained to them (I could tell from the few words in Spanish sprinkled in the Q'anjob'al discourse) that I didn't drink anything with sugar, so they offered me water, hot or cold. I had some teabags with me so I took a cup of hot (boiled) water and drank some tea while they chatted and I played with the children and kitten.

The car, which we had parked alongside the house, wouldn't start, but we decided, after poking around under the hood a bit, that we would leave it for the time being and search for a mechanic later, so we could get back to Santa Eulalia. There are mini vans that go along the road, but clearly I didn't want to leave my car there, but I figured I'd deal with it later. My time in Guatemala has been facilitated and enabled in so many ways by friends here, who look out for me, help me when I am in a bind -- almost invariably involving the car. Having a car is both a blessing and a curse; it gives me mobility and flexibility and independence and a degree of comfort and personal safety while I am traveling (it is possible someone might steal the car, for example, although not that likely since it's a Mazda, but it's not likely that someone will steal my Ipod, wallet, camera or computer -- all of which would be possibilities when traveling by public transportation). And so I knew I could depend upon Lorenzo to help figure out what was wrong with the car and find someone to fix it; there is almost always someone nearby who is a mechanic or who knows something about cars. Having a car in Guatemala invariably means doing a lot of repairs and maintenance and so nearly every male over the age of 10 (mechanical knowledge is highly gendered) can lift the hood of a car and poke around a bit and do some simple diagnostics and repairs; hell, I can do that at this point).

Lorenzo's friend, who is also named Lorenzo, called a few times while we were walking into the town center, which I had only seen in photographs of the protests from past months. First it seemed he hadn't arrived in town yet. Then it seemed the meeting had already begun, so we went to have breakfast (we hadn't eaten before setting out).  Then we walked over to where the meeting was supposed to take place, a large hall with concrete floors and a tin roof and a stage at one end. We stood outside; Lorenzo wanted to wait for his friend. A man with a large sombrero, elaborate cowboy boots, jeans and belt with a wide buckle (cowboy wear is popular with men in rural areas) came over and we introduced ourselves. . He looked at me somewhat curiously and asked, "You're not an oreja (literally "ear", but used to mean a spy or an informant). I said, "No, I'm not, but if I were i would probably have been trained to say 'no' also, so you'll have to trust me" and we all laughed. I explained that I was an anthropologist from the U.S. and that I had been in Guatemala several times, including for the entire year of 2011, and that I had learned about the situation in Barillas almost immediately after it happened because people had put the news out on Facebook and other places on the Internet, and that I had helped circulate petitions and pass the news along. I added that I had wanted to see it for myself, and that I was interested in the role that the media had played -- both the dominant and right-wing media, which had portrayed in a very negative light anyone who stood up for their rights, and how the social movements and communities were using alternative media. That plus Lorenzo's presence seemed to satisfy him; he shook my hand and asked us to come inside. 

There was a pick up truck parked inside, with some seedlings and saplings in the bed. A row of benches built into the left hand wall were already almost filled with men and women and few children when we arrived. People looked at me with a bit of curiosity -- there were about twice as many men as women, and I was the only foreigner and one of maybe three people who were not Maya.  

Several people knew Lorenzo and so he introduced me around, and then there was a bit of fiddling around with technology. There were two speakers who had come from the Ixcán-- a region in the north-central part of Guatemala that includes part of Quiché and part of Alta Verapaz; I believe that it is under discussion to become the 23rd department of Guatemala (that is it would be carved out of Quiché and AV and made autonomous) -- and they had a powerpoint presentation, so they were fiddling with the projector while others got a white sheet and stretched it along the back wall as a makeshift screen.

The meeting went on all day and, presumably, into the next day --at least, that was the plan. But I discovered that Lorenzo had to be back in Santa Eulalia by 5 for his radio show, so we only stayed until the lunch break at 1 and then set out to get the car fixed and head home. I was disappointed but felt I had no alternative. The only option for participating in Sunday's meeting would have been to stay the night; no way would I had set out alone on that narrow, rutted road alone (and we barely made it back between the two of us), and that also would have meant sending Lorenzo back on a mini-van, and even though I would have paid for him, I didn't want to do that. Also I didn't really know anyone except his family and the few people I'd met, and I hadn't brought my computer or anything to change into.  So, that was that.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

En route to Barillas: slow processes of revelation and trust

The journey of 2-/12 hours gave me an opportunity to talk with Lorenzo, although we spent some of the ride in silence, other parts searching for the radio station signal or some radio station to entertain us on the long ride.  It also gave me a bit more insight into the life of some of the highland communities.

It was evident from the first time I entered Lorenzo's house, that this was the home of a returned migrant - or a family that had a migrant relative. While Lorenzo's family is hardly wealthy -- they have an outdoor toilet, and use a wood-burning stove for most of their cooking -- there are the unmistakeable signs of migra-dollars. The house is spacious and has "nice" doors and windows -- by which I meant that the door entrances and the windows have half-circles of multi-colored stained glass above them for decoration (the stained glass is not elaborate: the half-circle is comprised of three equal-sized pie-shaped wedges). The back patio is also generous, and has the largest outdoor sink-washing area I have ever seen (there is a separate house in the back where one of his married sons lives with his family). There are electric lights throughout the house, and a microwave in the kitchen, plus a working pick-up, and another vehicle that needs more repairs than the family can easily afford. The family runs a tiny little store at the end of the property, where the driveway hits the main road into town. I can't imagine that they have extraordinary earnings from the store -- there are dozens almost just like it throughout the town, throughout nearly all towns and even into rural areas. It's little more than a wooden shack, selling soft drinks, snacks, and a few other things.

During the car ride, Lorenzo told me a little bit more about his migrant trajectory. He spent a total of ten years in the U.S, on three separate trips. A lot of people make the journey more than once, but often because they were unsuccessful crossing the border the first time -- although in the way that people tell their stories, unsuccessful attempts don't really count. When you ask, how many times were you in the U.S, the answer is given in terms of successful attempts. But since each crossing is lengthy and costly, the fact that someone has done this repeatedly speaks to determination, desperation, or some combination thereof. I didn't ask for precise years -- although I'm sure he would have told me if I'd asked, since this was a friendly conversation and not an interview. The first time he went to Los Angeles, and worked in a maquila, and then went to the midwest (I now no longer remember whether he went to Omaha, Nebraska first, or to Iowa). I know on the second and third trips, he went directly to the midwest, where he worked at least for a time for IBP -- Iowa Beef Processors, now Tyson Brands (one of the major meat-processing companies).  He returned to Guatemala 8 years ago.

Lorenzo's mother and sister live in Barillas, which I hadn't known until we were about halfway there; he mentioned it in an offhand way. It's not surprising that people reveal layers of themselves over time. I am familiar enough with the anthropological literature on "closed corporate communities" (that was Sol Tax's description of the Guatemalan highlands), and the reasons that people -- well, specifically the highland Maya -- tend to keep things to themselves, only gradually sharing personal or familial or community experiences with outsiders. Too often that information has been used against the Maya, and there is no reason on the surface that I should be different from any other gringo who comes under the banner of an NGO, offering to help.  So I took this information in stride, and asked if he thought we should stop and visit his mother. He said yes, he thought we should. I responded that I could imagine that she would be very angry if she learned that we had come to visit Barillas and we hadn't visited her, and that he would be paying the price for that for a long time. He replied that his mother loved him very much. He then started to tell me about Barillas, about the divisions in the town before the arrival of Hidro Santa Cruz -- that there had been problems with delinquency, both "delicuentes comunes" (everyday criminals) and those who were tied to organized crime and narco-traffic. Barillas is quite close to the Mexican border, and nearly all of the towns near the border have been affected in some way by narcotrafficking. The town, or at least its Maya population, had been very divided by the crime waves; there were a series of kidnappings for ransom, among other things, and the community rose up -- as has been the case in other highland towns -- and took justice into their own hands against the leader of one of the kidnapping rings, a woman (whose name I now no longer remember), who was captured and killed by local residents.

But then the hydroelectric company came and started to do explorations in the area, and the opposition to the proposed project brought people together -- again, at least the Maya population. Lorenzo explained to me that the population was almost evenly divided between Maya and Ladino -- with Ladinos dominating the town center, the urban area, and the Maya population scattered between the town and the surrounding rural communities. The Ladino population tends to support the company, while the Maya population is overwhelmingly opposed.

Lorenzo hadn't told me previously how deeply the events of May 1 and beyond had affected his family. He explained, as we bumped along the road that was deeply gouged with holes, that his sister's husband was one of the community leaders, and that there was an order out for his arrest. There are about 30 people who are "wanted" -- all community leaders of the opposition -- in addition to the dozen or so who were arrested shortly after the May 1 events, and are now languishing in a prison in Guatemala City; the community and the resistance movement more broadly considers them political prisoners. Lorenzo told me that the army and police had burst into his family's home, searching high and low for who knows what. Their behavior was much like that of the army during the armed conflict: they barged in without any explanation, started throwing stuff around, never saying what they were looking for, and then left without finding anything. It brought back painful memories for his mother, who had lived through the conflict, and was deeply traumatizing for the rest of the family as well. His brother in law had gone into hiding, and remains separated from his family, now 8 months later.  

As we bounced along the road, he put in a few calls to his contacts in Barillas, and told me, with a grin, that there was going to be a meeting of community leaders, and that perhaps I would have a chance to interview some of them. As it turned out, I didn't get to to do many interviews, but I was able to witness and even participate in the community leaders' meeting, which was worth the bumpy ride out, and the somewhat more nerve-wracking ride back (nerve-wracking because there were a few uphill stretches that proved nearly impassable on the return).

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Getting to Barillas (via San Marcos y Huehue)

Last year, on May 1, during the fiesta patronal in the town of Santa Cruz Barillas, in Huehuetenango, security guards of Hidro Santa Cruz, a Spanish transnational that has a concession to construct a hydroelectric dam, attacked several leaders of the community resistance to the project, killing one. The community quickly reacted, and the government responded by declaring martial law and sending in troops. More recently, in late December, the community erupted again when word got around that the town's mayor was going to sign a pact with the company, and residents occupied the town square until the mayor backed down.  One of the things that was interesting about the May events was that within an hour or so of the declaration of martial law, people starting posting information about this on Facebook and Twitter, leading to a national and international campaign, "Todos Somos Barillas" (we are all Barillas). This was how I learned about the May events, and also the stand-off a few weeks ago. Additionally, the community radio stations had played an important role in getting the word out, since the mainstream media in Guatemala, and particularly a couple of right-wing television stations, have tended to portray those who have criticized or protested government policies. In my mind, Barillas stood out as one of the key communities in resistance against the neoliberal policies of the government (although there are others -- but I knew I couldn't try and visit all).

Barillas is in the northern part of Huehuetenango, not far from the town of Santa Eulalia, where one of the community radio stations that I have been following is located: Snuq Jolom Konob. So when I was planning this trip, I decided that I wanted to spend some time in Santa Eulalia (my previous visit was very brief; in March, I had accompanied a small delegation from Cultural Survival that was delivering some radio equipment to the station, but we really only spent a few hours in the station and then had dinner with some of the staff), and see the radio station functioning over a few days. And, I also wanted to try and visit Barillas, although with a bit of trepidation, since I knew there had been conflicts in the community because of the company and the opposition to it, and the continued presence of the military. I knew that I probably wouldn't be able to get a very complete picture, but I wanted to ... I guess "witness" would be the best term, or "bear witness", or both.  I had a suspicion that someone at the radio station probably knew people in Barillas, and so I contacted Lorenzo, one of the members of the junta directiva of the station, and the person who has been the station's main representative to the community radio movement nationally. Lorenzo and I met at the first workshop I attended at the end of June, 2011, and have kept up a friendship since then. He had lived in the U.S. for several years, and always sought me out to practice his somewhat rusty English when we would meet.  He's probably about my age -- he has grown children and some grandchildren -- and has been involved with the radio station since his return from the U.S. about 8 years ago. This is what I knew before my current visit.

I had contacted Lorenzo via email and Facebook before leaving the U.S., but of course that wasn't the same as talking to him in person, which I did as soon as I got to Guatemala, although I wasn't certain which days I might be coming to Santa Eulalia.  He told me that he had some contacts in Barillas (I didn't really know what kind and how many until today, but I will get to that). Last week I decided that I would come up to Santa Eulalia after the New Year, and so Lorenzo and I were in touch several times, so that he could arrange with folks in Barillas. As he explained and as I had suspected, people in the town are somewhat wary of outsiders, and often reluctant to give information, so he would have to make the contacts and vouch for me and also accompany me.

Thursday (January 3) was the day I originally planned to arrive in Santa Eulalia, but it was a kind of crazy plan, as I had been staying in Olintepeque (near Xela) and I wanted to interview a friend from the community radio movement who had been working with the communications commission of the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (one of the groups that had sponsored the "alternative" celebrations of the Oxlajuj B'aq'tun), who was in San Marcos (about an hour from Xela), and then there was another person from the CPO, Saturnino, whom I wanted to interview who lived in the town of San Juan Ixcoy in Huehuetenango, which is on the way to Santa Eulalia.  So, in a fit of insanity, perhaps, I thought I would leave Olintepeque and drive to San Marcos (an hour), interview Edvin (another hour or so), and then drive from San Marcos to Santa Eulalia, stopping in San Juan Ixcoy to interview Saturnino. The drive from San Marcos to Santa Eulalia would have been another 6 hours or so (since it meant back tracking to Xela, and then going from Xela up into Huehuetenango-- passing through the city of Huehuetenango, and then heading up north, into the heart of the Cuchumatán mountains).  But Saturnino was in Huehuetenango, and I didn't want to rush the interview with him, so after we finished up, around 6, I decided not to try and drive to Santa Eulalia by myself at night. 

That was one of the more intelligent decisions I have made; even in daylight, the road was difficult because it was foggy and lightly drizzling. I had traveled to Santa Eulalia before, but my car doesn't seem quite as peppy as it did in March, and one of the uphill ascents nearly defeated me, just after a small bridge outside the town of Soloma, the road climbs sharply, and the surface was slick, and because the treads on one of my back tires were quite worn down, and I had no weight in the back of the pick up (four or five passengers would have come in handy right about then), the car couldn't get any traction.  Eventually I was saved by a kind soul, a migrant who had returned home for the holidays and whose family lived nearby, and who took pity on me and drove my car up the treacherous part of the slope for me. So in retrospect I am extremely glad that I didn't venture out alone at night.

After I arrived in Santa Eulalia, Lorenzo contacted his people in Barillas again and we agreed that we would go today, as Lorenzo had time free and we would need several hours for the trip (at least 2-1/2 each way), since we were going to go and return the same day. We set out early, and the road climbed out of Santa Eulalia and through starkly beautiful pine forests shrouded in mist. We literally were driving through and above the clouds, or so it seemed. There was pavement for several kilometers, and we fairly zipped along as the sky brightened, but then the road turned to dirt and gravel, and it was heavily pocked with potholes, many filled with water, and studded with rocks. It was one of the more bone-shaking and anxiety-producing rides in all my time in Guatemala, but on the way out I was just struck by the beauty and isolation of the area. We could see into Mexico from the crest of the pine forest, and then road dipped and climbed around some steep and lush valleys. We passed through a few towns -- actually, one town and two aldeas. The town was San Mateo Ixtatán.  Houses perched on hillsides that were dizzyingly steep, and the road wound down and around and back up again.  Lorenzo explained that Santa Cruz Barillas was originally part of Santa Eulalia but broke away and become a municipality on its own, and that the towns were reachable by foot, in about an hour and a half of climbing, while the road wound around a much longer route and took at least two and a half hours. But they were, he said, almost identical culturally because of that shared history.

I learned only about halfway through our ride that Lorenzo has family in Barillas -- his mother and one of his sisters live there. He said, "I'm half from Santa Eulalia and half from Barillas",and he apparently travels there pretty frequently. I hadn't known this, and so it was very fortunate for me that I had reached out to him, because when we got to Barillas, it was clear that not only did he know the town, but that he was known there, which made all the difference in how I was received. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

At Q'umark'aj

There were a total of four ceremonies to celebrate the Oxlajuj' B'aq'tun at Q'umark'aj, starting in the afternoon of the 20th of December and continuing through the next day. There were countless other ceremonies throughout the country, some more private and others  more public. I was at Q'umark'aj starting around noon on the 20th, and so had the opportunity to participate in all four (although I left the next day at around 11, to head to Chichicastenango, where the B'aq'tun coincided with the annual patron saint feast on December 21). Some other friends had gone to Chichicastenango, where there had been ceremonies starting on the 19th and 20th. But I had had the sense that because Chichicstenango is a town that is heavily visited by tourists, and in many ways is dependent upon tourism, that the activity would be somewhat more oriented towards tourists, and that was also the opinion of some of my close friends, including one who lives part-time in Chichicastenango and has a fairly close relationship with the indigenous authorities there. So when my friend Jeanet and I were texting back and forth about our plans for the b'aq'tun and she said that she was going to Chichi, I had a moment's hesitation but decided to stick with my original decision to go to Q'umark'aj. The space itself is very tranquil, in part because it is somewhat "retirado" (out of the way). To get to the main ceremonial space, you walk down a long path lined with tall trees that slope in gently to form a green canopy between you and the sky, a kind of majestic woodland walkway, so that when you arrive at the ceremonial space, which is completely open to the elements, there is really a sense of entrance, of stepping out of the cover of trees and into this open expanse, surrounded by hillocks and remnants of ancient structures. After hearing the commentaries of the people who presided over the ceremonies, who insisted that we not use the word "ruin", I will try to avoid doing so. Their reasoning was that to call the built structures "ruins" is an acknowledgment that the Maya civilization is something that belongs to the past, to history and archaeology and not to the present. Labeling the site as "ruins" means consigning the Maya to museums.  

There were several hours of preparation before any of the ceremonies began.  People cleaned the space, and prepared altars. There were several truck loads of supplies that arrived and people spread out woven straw mats and sorted out candles and incense, and then brought them to the altars. People spread pine needles around the central altar, and then flower petals over that. Inside the circle, priests constructed the altar. A central element in Maya ceremonies is the sacred fire. Someone lights it at the beginning and at different times throughout the ceremony (depending upon the nature of the ceremony) the priests or participants add offerings to the fire -- usually candles, most often light-colored candles but sometimes other colors. I won't pretend to know enough to say why one uses candles of a certain color at certain times; it might have to do with one's nahual (guardian spirit or "sign" in the Maya calendar system), or what one needs to accomplish. People talked, joked, laughed as they arranged things. The activities seemed to be mostly run by the priests organized by Chilam Balam; there were folks from the CPO and the two groups met to coordinate, but the activities were most of a religious/spiritual nature -- at least as far as I saw. Perhaps the next day, after I'd left to go to Chichicatenango, the event turned more political. But there were messages and commentary interspersed throughout the proceedings, which extended over a period of about 18 hours or more.

 There was a marimba set up at one end - I think it was the south end of the space, and also a microphone and amplifier for the people who were presiding over the event. All of us participants were in a loose circle around the altars, although some groups of people were sitting in clusters and kind of spread out on the small grassy hillocks surrounding the central space. Some had clearly come prepared to spend the night, with blankets and bags of food. One family erected two small camping tents, and others had pieces of plastic or tarps, or woven mats. 

People arrived throughout the day and night, often entire families came, carrying young child in arms and older ones trudging along. From the huipiles, I could see that there was a sizable group from Joyabaj, and a smaller one from Zacualpa. Of course, not everyone wears "municipal traje" -- traje that is specific to one locale; most women wear "generic traje" -- puffy-sleeved blouses adorned with lace, sequined, beaded or embroidered trim, and cortes that are machine-woven, so it is often hard to tell where people are from simply by the clothing. However, the organizers were asking people to "check in" by community and municipality and several times throughout the proceedings of this day and the next, someone read out the names of all the communities that were present. 

The marimba was impressive, not just with their artistry but their stamina. They played off and on from about 5 in the afternoon until who-knows-when the next day; there was a second marimba that arrived in the early morning, so that they could alternate, but the first group of marimberos (marimba players) kept things going for at least 12 hours on their own. They didn't play constantly; during parts of the ceremonies, and especially some of the prayers, there was no music, but throughout, one of the priests or priestesses would indicate that they should start, and they did. There was one slightly older man who played the higher, melodic notes: the way a marimba is arranged, the lower notes are on the right as the audience faces the marimba. There are usually three players, and sometimes a fourth playing a drum.  The player to the audience's left carries the higher notes and the melody, and all of the ornamentation and flourishes. The players on the right and at the center play more basic rhythms. Kind of like the relationship between the highest -pitched drum, the quinto, and the two lower-pitched drums (tres-dos and tumbadora) in traditional rumba; the lower pitched drums keep the rhythm and the highest-pitched drum does the fancy stuff. A similar relationship (although not in terms of pitch) exists in ceremonial Afrocuban music: the bata drums are a set of three, and the largest (and thus lowest-pitched) drum, the iya, carries the "melody" and the two smaller, higher-pitched drums, itotele and okonkolo, maintain the beat. So this ensemble of three musicians, and the respective roles of each, is an interesting parallel.

Okay, enough cross-cultural ethnomusicology. Don't expect me to say much more about marimbas in terms of music and playing because I really know next to nothing about the marimba other than that it is the national instrument, that it is autochthonous to Central America, and that it holds a special places in people's hearts and spirits.

The first ceremony started in the late afternoon, before it was fully dark. The priests lined up in two rows, men on one side and women on the other, and started to walk down to the caves, to the accompaniment of the marimba. We were invited to join, and a few of us scrambled to try and take photographs. Many people had camera phones or digital cameras, not just the few journalists who were there for the long haul, and so participants were filming and photographing throughout the ceremony.  The sex-separated lines didn't hold up as we worked our way down the steep, rocky path to the caves. At the entrance, the priests had built another fire, and so we all stood behind them as they chanted some prayers. However, after a while some of the priests went inside, followed by others, while some stayed outside. It was a tight squeeze with about 50 people squeezed onto the path leading to the cave, and hard to see what was going on, but eased up once people started to go onside. There were candles placed along the floor all the way to the back of the cave. The cave is a long, narrow passageway, and only at the end -- as I remember it (I didn't make it all the way to the end this time) it widens out a little bit. The time I had previously entered the cave there was no illumination (other than the screens of our cell phones) and it was a bit claustrophobic and eerie. 

This time it was relatively well illuminated by comparison, but I didn't go all the way back, mostly because people were already starting to come out, and also at the back it seemed very crowded with people and hard to get close to the "action".  I clambered back up to where the main ceremonial site was, and bit by bit everyone else came back up and then the rest of the ceremony started in earnest. It went on for about two hours, and then there was a break before the second ceremony started at 10.  

During this break my friend Eunice finally arrived; she had been delayed in leaving Xela as she had work to finish up, and we had been texting each other intermittently, so I knew that around 7:30 she was at Los Encuentros waiting for a bus, and then around 9 she finally made it to the site. I was about to suggest that we go out and get some food - she had called me from the entrance to say that there were some women selling churrascos, but the organizers had brought some large cauldrons of a traditional food called tayuyos. These are a kind of unfilled tamal, but black beans are mixed into the corn meal dough, along with some salt, before the tayuyos are formed and steamed, so they are simple but have an earthy taste from the beans, and are also more nutritious than plain tamales. This was a stroke of luck for me, and so we feasted on a few tayuyos apiece, and luckily Eunice had also brought some water.  She is the daughter of one of my good friends, and although she is in her twenties, she and I have also developed a strong affinity and have stayed in touch via Facebook mostly. It was good to have some company, although I felt very welcomed, but I didn't really know too many people. My one-time K'iche' teacher Leonardo, who is also an ajq'ij, was there; his family arrived in the morning, but he spent the entire night. And Mario --a very quiet, soft-spoken man who works with Chilam Balam, was also there.  But it was especially lovely to be with Eunice although we didn't talk a lot as we were trying to pay attention to what was going on with the ceremonies -- the last time I was in Guatemala we didn't get to see each other at all.  So although the night was bound up with ceremonies and talks and a little time for sleep, it was nice to just be in the same place and share an experience together.

The ceremonies was mostly in K'iche' with a bit of explanation or interpretation in Spanish. The organizers clearly saw it as a teachable moment, and from time to time called out to people who were standing on some of the structures to get down, saying that it was important to protect the remains of Q'umark'aj, but also noting that this was not a spectacle, not folklore, not a performance. That people were welcome to participate but that it wasn't an event for people to just stand on the outside and look and take pictures 

But in between the organizers took the opportunity to share some reflections about the significance of the event. Earlier in the day, someone had told me that the previous day (the 19th) some government officials (from the central government) had come to Q'umark'aj, but that they (the organizers) had turned them away, as they didn't want the government to turn the b'aq'tun into a political event, something for their own gain. Someone from Chilam Balam had told me that the government tourist agency, Inguat, had offered to provide lights, sound system and other equipment and supplies for the event, but that they had wanted to control in and so they had turned Inguat down and thus had to scramble around on their own to find the necessary equipment.

The second ceremony -- the one that began at 10 -- went on until about 1:30. During this one, the four additional altars were used, and at one point we were directed to go to the altar of the cardinal point that corresponded to our own nahual (each of the 20 nahuales corresponds to a particular color and to one of the cardinal points: I went to the east and Eunice went to the north).  

Meanwhile, probably before it became fully dark, another group, much smaller arrived. They clearly seemed surprised to see that the central ceremonial area was already occupied, but they moved to another flat area about 20 yards behind where the musicians were. They were a pretty mixed group, with a fair number of foreigners. I didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to what they did, other than to note that there was someone who was dressed in a loincloth and with a plumed head-piece, that is, wearing something that looked like a reproduction of a stone carving of an "ancient Maya" -- the kind of costume I have seen people wear in dance performances of the "folkloric" variety -- that is, when school children or others put on a version of the "baile de la conquista" (the dance of the conquest).  It was cold, and he had only the skimpy costume and some body paint. He danced at various times during the ceremony -- something I have never seen in other, what I would call more authentic ceremonies. I subsequently asked a friend who was there if he knew who that group was and he said no, but he thought that perhaps some tourists who had come with a tour guide who had promised to bring them to an authentic ceremony. 

More... and still more....

From radio to radio

With the morning mist I scaled the Cuchumatanes, one of the most spectacular landscapes in a country of beautiful landscapes, to reach the town of Santa Eulalia, way up in the northern half of Huehuetenango, where there is a community radio station, Snuq Jolom Konob, that I visited once last year. As with many of the radio stations, I have met some of the people involved with the station at workshops and meetings and other events, and we stay in touch online between times. I had spent the night in Huehuetenango, the departmental capital, after doing an interview there, and since it was late, I decided not to venture on that road at night -- which turns out to have been a good decision, since I barely made it in the light of day. More on that later.

But now I am safely ensconced in the town, here with my friends at the radio station, listening to the sounds of the marimba and offering a few "mensajes" (messages) to the radio audience (how do I feel in Guatemala? how do I like the sound of the marimba? what else do I want to say to the listeners?).... But now we are going to lunch, with two of the radio broadcasters. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013


it's hard to believe that two weeks have gone by, and I've barely scratched the surface in this blog.The trip has been a bit of a zig-zag, both geographically and in terms of my interests. I've been trying to follow up on the radio stations I'd visited previously and also on the general state of the community radio movement. It's been a year of setbacks, with raids, and the failure of the congress to act on the proposed legislation that would legalize community radio, while at the same time passing a law that grants the monopolies another 25 years' use of the frequencies. It's been a year of intense and stepped up governmental repression, and increase neoliberalization (selling the country off to foreign interests, for one thing), and increased popular mobilization. I've been hoping to get a general sense of the lay of the land, and particular some of the areas that have been the sites of mobilization and repression.  Of course, this being Guatemala, no matter how much I tried to set things up in advance, it wasn't always possible. Plans got scrapped, new ones made, and then there were wonderful unexpected serendipities. I passed through Chichicastenango on the 31st of December and was able to witness a very solemn act -- the indigenous mayoralty turning over the legal documents, some dating back to the 1800s, to the incoming "indigenous mayors".  Traveling here over the holidays wasn't ideal; a lot of organizations shut down for a few weeks between Christmas and the "Día de los Reyes Magos" on January 6th, so I've had to scale back expectations. And the places and people I wanted to see and talk to, respectively, are pretty dispersed throughout the country (or at least throughout the highlands) and so that means invariably a lot of traveling.

I started out in Guatemala City, then went to Q'umark'aj for the celebration of the 13 B'aq'tun. The following day, December 23, I attended a ceremony at the home of Rigoberta Menchú, celebrating the first sunrise of the new, 14th b'aq'tun. From there I traveled to the hamlet of La Ceiba, in a part of Guatemala known as the "Boca Costa" (the mouth of the coast), although the hamlet is about 40 km. inland from the coast proper. La Ceiba is home ot one of the community radio stations that I've been following, Radio Nojibal, and I spent Noche Buena (the night before Christmas) there, and then on Christmas Day traveled back to El Quiché, where I had lunch with friends in Santa Cruz and then finally made it to my firends' home in Agua Tibia outside Chinique.  I spent a few days based in Chinique, finishing up some work for the university and then also visiting Radio Ixmukané, the station where I was most intimately involved, now located in Chichicastenango, about an hour's drive from Chinique. Together with some of the folks from Radio Ixmukané, I visited another radio station, Radio Ixchel, in Sumpango, Sacatepéquez, which is about 3-1/2 hours from Chinique -- we did it as a round-trip, since there are no hotels in Sumpango and my friends wouldn't have had the money to stay in one and I couldn't have afforded to pay for them. Then off to Momostenango, to visit another radio station that I've befriended, on the 30th, and back to Chichicastenango on the 31st, and then back to Chinique that night to pass the New Year with my friends. Up early on January 1st, as a dear friend was being installed as one of the "community mayors" (alcaldes comunitarios) in Olintepeque, a small town on the outskirts of Xela, so I needed to get there for the swearing-in, which was supposed to start at 9.  I stayed in the area for the 1st and 2nd, and then today (January 3) went to San Marcos (an hour from Xela) in the morning for an interview, and then from San Marcos came to Huehuetenango, a trip of about 3-1/2 hours. for another interview. Now spending the night in Huehue (as folks here shorten the name of the departmental capital) and will head out in the early morning to the town of Santa Eulalia, up in the north of Huehuetenango (the department), about 2-1/2 hours from here, to visit another radio station.

Although the traveling has been a bit tiring, I actually don't mind driving here, even though the roads are often harrowing and poorly maintained. I don't want to over-romanticize the country, but there is such incredible beauty at nearly every turn of the road. On the road from Xela to Huehue, which I've never traversed before (the other times I've visited towns in the department of Huehuetenango, I've come from the other side, along different roads), there is a point at which everything opens up to these amazing vistas -- huge expanses of mountains that spread from horizon to horizon, so much that it's impossible to capture in a single photograph. In Quiché the mountains are packed closely together, and there are few places where you actually have a view beyond the next mountain or the next curve. I never really saw a sunrise or sunset, for example, in Chinique, because there are mountains all around and by the time I could see the sun it was already pretty bright, and it disappeared in the west without the sky turning colors, as there were mountains and trees on that side as well. each journey by car is a chance for me to experience more of this fiercely, painfully beautiful country, to drink it in and meditate upon it. Sometimes I have company, as I frequently pick people up on stretches where there are few buses, but mostly I am on my own, which I have also come to appreciate (although many of my friends here, especially those who do not travel much outside their immediate area, and particularly women, think it more than odd).

Sometimes it's hard to stop myself from pulling the car over and taking photographs, although I know it's impossible to capture all of it, and I'm often in a hurry to get somewhere. There are images that are burnished in my mind that I haven't wanted or needed to photograph.  Children gathering wood into neat bundles alongside a highway. Women walking alongside the road with heavy bundles on their heads. Groups of people bent over hoes and tools in fields, turning over the dead corn stalks so that the next crop can be planted. It's a mixture of the picturesque (a problematic concept) and the grotesque: garbage strewn alongside the road, MacDonald's, billboards advertising Nautica and other upscale brands, in a country where over 50% of the population lives in poverty and most of those in extreme poverty. 

The 2015 election has already begun. When I arrived in Guatemala City, driving around the first day, I saw some people painting on the side of a wall, with bright purple paint. When I returned along the same road a few hours later, it was already finished:  "Todos" (all of us) in white letters on the purple background. "Unete" (join up).  Later, I saw a billboard for the LIDER party -- a photograph of a couple of men giving the thumbs up sign, and the slogan something like "I love Guatemala. XXXX [name of town] is LIDER territory." I did a double-take, because I thought at first it was a holdover from last year, but it looked too fresh. Then I saw other ones, and realized that even though party conventions are a few years off, and the election isn't until 2015, the campaigns have already gotten underway, with the existing political parties starting to put out the faces of their candidates, and probably more new parties springing up.