Thursday, January 10, 2013

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.

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