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).

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