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. 

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