Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Passions in Secret, or, the Explosion of "Auto-hotels"

Since I drive a lot, and visit a lot of different parts of Guatemala (well, within limits: mostly in the western highlands), this gives me the opportunity to observe whether certain phenomena are purely local (like teenaged Maya girls driving tuk-tuks in San Pedro la Laguna), or are more widespread (like the popularity of knock-off Hollister and Ambercrombie gear.  Which brings me to the recent growth of auto-hotels (that is the name they go by in Guatemala; we might call them motels). A few years ago, perhaps on my second trip to Guatemala, I noticed ads for one "auto-hotel" on the outskirts of Santa Cruz del Quiché, the departmental capital of Quiché. There are at least a dozen hotels and rooming houses in town, mostly located near the Parque Central -- where the Catholic Church, government palace (direct translation of palacio de gobernación), municipal building and the marketplace are all situated -- or near the bus terminal, which is about 6 blocks away.  However, this one caught my attention because it was out on the outskirts of town, on the road heading toward Chichicastenango, a strip of road with a few sparsely-distributed gas stations, some roadside eateries and a lumberyard.  The architecture was distinctive: a row of individual garages, of the kind you would see in an American suburban home, with roll-down doors, and on top of those, a row of rooms (the idea being, I suppose, that you park your car and then go upstairs to your room). I passed it several times a week as I often made the trip between SCQ to Chichicastenango, and I never saw many vehicles there - but I usually made the trip in daylight, so perhaps that wasn't the right time. It was called Princess Auto Hotel (no translation here; that's the name), and the billboard featured a silhouette of a figure of a fairy-tale princess (long gown, crown). 

In any case, I started to notice auto-hotels, nearly all with a similar architecture, in other areas, like around Xela -- and again, situated on the outskirts, not in the center of town where there are a lot of hotels -- Xela being a major tourist destination. So, my hunch is that these are mostly designed for Guatemalans and not foreigners -- after all, tourists would be more likely to want to stay either somewhere very picturesque, a room with a view, or in the center of a town with amenities for tourists, or both.  Back in 2011, I heard some advertisements on local radio stations around Quiché for the Princess, touting its attractions for couples -- privacy, a place to be alone, to sleep tranquilly.  The auto hotels' billboards advertised 24 hour availability, cable TV, hot water (no small attraction in a country where a lot of people don't have indoor plumbing, see recent post). 

I didn't think a whole lot about these, but then on this last trip, I started to notice more of these auto-hotels, and at least one whose name implied perhaps another agenda. Or maybe not. But on the outskirts of Xela, on the highway heading towards Cuatro Caminos, there is a new auto hotel called Pasiones en Secreto (Secret Passions). In addition to hot baths, cable TV, internet, 24 hour service, this one advertised a jacuzzi -- something that one doesn't see much outside of high-end hotels in Antigua. 

But what intrigued me most was the name, as it seems to suggest that the hotel is designed for illicit encounters. Which led me to wonder: what is going on here? Who are these hotels serving? Or who are the developers imagining as their clientele?  Does the mini-boom in auto hotels means that there is a shift in family or sexual patterns underway? Are they geared towards men who spend a lot of time on the road? They are not, for the most part, situated near red light districts (there are a few around Chimaltenango, which is the center of commercial sex industry in Guatemala, but there are lots and lots of cheap roadside hotels around Chimaltenango, and since I am usually trying to make my way through heavy traffic I haven't observed the auto hotels there as closely) but are out on the highways, not in the middle of nowhere but not in densely populated areas.  So they don't appear to be geared towards men traveling on their own who might want to purchase the services of a sex worker.   The radio ads I heard for Princess sounded like they were geared towards married couples who might be living in crowded multi-generational, multi-family settings and in need of some privacy --a  place to have sex without the kids, the dogs, the in-laws, the grandparents, within earshot or even sharing the same room. There is a new sign outside Princess, but I wasn't able to slow down and read it closely as there was a truck on my heels, but I did catch the line "Impress your partner" -- so that seems to bespeak an established relationship.

I asked one of my friends what she thought about this. She spoke about the need of young couples for a place to be intimate - that more and more teenagers are having sex at an early age. But I'm not sure she's completely correct on this as an explanation for the growth in auto hotels. That is, I'm sure she's right about teenagers and sex. That's a well-documented phenomenon -- in rural areas, people either marrying very young or girls getting pregnant and having babies at a young age without the benefit (or drawback) of a marriage.  Some of the sex is non-consensual (incest is pretty rampant) but some of it is undoubtedly teenagers doing what teenagers do. However, teenagers are very unlikely to own cars, especially in rural Guatemala. And although Santa Cruz del Quiché and Chichicastenango are both relatively sizable towns, the entire department of Quiché is basically rural by comparison to the area around the capital -- and certainly capitolinos (residents of the capital), or at least middle class and above capitolinos view it that way.  For the Guatemalan elite, just about everything outside of Guatemala City, Antigua and Xela is the equivalent of Mirkwood on the map of Middle Earth, or in that famous New Yorker magazine cover, the great expanse to the west of 12th Avenue in Manhattan.  A used pickup costs around Q40,000  -- more than a year's salary for most people (for those who actually earn a salary, which a lot of people in rural areas don't).  So I don't think teenagers are the main target clientele for these: teenaged couples who would want a private place to have sex would be traveling by motorcycle or bus or tuk-tuk, or foot, and the auto hotels are not conveniently located unless one is traveling along a fairly major highway.

So is there a population of mobile or at least car-owning adults with the economic means to pay for a hotel, and the need to use one? Are Guatemalans having more sex than before? Are they have more affairs? Are they having more of the kind of sex that you really to have some privacy to enjoy fully? 

So, this remains a small mystery to me ... but maybe someone among my Guatemalanist friends, or Guatemalan friends, might have some deeper insights. Then again, I could call up the popular sexologist, Yulissa, host of a nightly radio call-in show, "Intimately, Yulissa", which airs on Emisoras Unidas, one of the main commercial radio chains...

Rural life

I have written before about the gap between rural and non-rural, but it always requires a bit of a shift in position when I make the transition. Or perhaps it is the gap between poor and very poor, or comfortable and poor. I don't want to impose external categories, and the lines are not hard and fast. But I remembered, with a start, when I woke up this morning, that I cannot just jump out of bed, make breakfast and take a shower like I could in the parish hall in San Miguel Ixtahuacán. Making breakfast means lighting a fire in the wood burning stove; cleaning myself means filling up a large cauldron at the cold water tap outside, lugging it to the stove, and waiting until it is hot enough, and then filling up a big rubber basin outside with hot water, and finding another small basin to pour the water over myself. I don't want to claim any heroism for accomplishing any of this; hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan women (and men) do this every day. Lighting the wood burning stove successfully is also not an instantaneous act, at least not for me, and not even for my friends whose house this is. You have to select the first wood you are going to use carefully, find some kindling (my friends, who are poor, don't purchase pine pitch, called ocote, at the market, but hack out the inner part of pine logs that they gather or cut, which is somewhat resinous but not as much as what is sold in the market), make sure that the matches aren't wet.  

So, now my water is heating... then I faced the task of getting the mud off my shoes. My friends live at the bottom of a dirt path which gets very muddy, and both my sandals and the soles of my feet were covered in mud just from walking from the car to the house and back, and then walking up the road to get the chicken for dinner, and back, and then going to the car so we could pick up a bottle of wine and some lightbulbs... So my sandals are caked with thick, red mud and pebbles.  Luckily I had other shoes to wear inside the house, but I wanted to clean off the sandals I wore yesterday as those are the newer and better ones. 

So, having indoor plumbing, having a gas-burning stove, having hot water are things that distinguish rural from not-so-rural (obviously there are people in rural areas who have indoor plumbing), or not-so-poor from poor. Adobe rather than purchased bricks as a building material. Some kind of tiling on the floor.  A toilet that flushes and not a latrine. These don't all go together. That is, I know people who have large, well constructed houses and tiled floors, running water in the kitchen, but outdoor latrines.  

Monday, July 29, 2013

San Miguel Ixtahuacán: background and arrival

The day after I visited La Puya, I traveled to San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, a subsidiary of the Canadian transnational Goldcorp, has been operating the Mina Marlin (Marlin Mine) since 2005. San Miguel Ixtahuacán (SMI) is located in the mountains of the department of San Marcos, about an hour and a half from the departmental capital. I haven't any idea how many kilometers lie between SMI and San Marcos, but precise geographical distances are pretty irrelevant in Guatemala, since the terrain, the conditions of the roads and the slow-moving trucks and buses mean that "average travel time" is in the realm of the imaginary.

I've been to SMI twice before, but this time I was coming with a friend who is one of the attorneys for the resistance -- which began in earnest about two years after Montana started to extract gold.  I first became interested in the situation here through meeting two people, one now deceased, who were involved with a now-dormant community radio station. Noe, Oscar and I met at the First Encounter of Community Radio, on August 8 and 9, 2011 in Guatemala City. The three of us ended up sitting together during some of the sessions and we somehow just quickly became friends. Noe and Oscar were already close friends and co-workers, and the two of them stuck together, and so the three of us bonded.  Oscar was then 19, and Noe in his early 30s (both looked much younger than their biological ages). They were eager for me to come visit their community and the radio station, and I finally made it there in December of that year when I was trying to set up some screenings of a documentary called Cyclovida, about two Brazilian farmers who set off to find people who conserve seeds rather than using hybrids or GMOs. I thought that maybe communities that were experiencing environmental problems might find the film interesting and so I contacted Noe and asked if he thought he could set up a screening.  We showed the film in a private home, and spend the night in the community center of a local community development organization that is part of the anti-mining coalition FREDEMI (Frente de Defense Miguelense -- the San MIguel Defense Front is the best translation I can make), and the following day Noe took us to view the mine. Oscar had been on the coast working for a few months but apparently had come back home for the holidays; we talked on the phone but he wasn't able to come meet us. The radio station had been founded for the purpose of giving a voice to the anti-mining movement -- as well as for other community concerns. 

The radio station wasn't on the air at that time; there had been some technical problems but Noe hoped that it would start broadcasting again soon.  Then in March of 2012, when I visited Guatemala over my spring break, I was hoping to see Noe and Oscar, but Noe contacted me to tell me that Oscar had committed suicide.  He was very upset as they were close, and he had tried to be a mentor to Oscar, not only regarding the radio and the mining resistance, but in terms of his personal and family life.  I didn't visit SMI on that trip, but I stayed in touch with Noe intermittently, and had some conversations with other folks in the community radio movement, and decided that I would try and support the folks in SMI who wanted to restart the radio project. My visit coincided with that of an attorney who has been representing the resistance movement and some of the communities in a variety of legal cases, Carlos, and so we got to talking as there were some meetings that were going on during my visit and I was invited to sit in on them. In addition to Noe, there was a man named Maco who has been training as a documentarian and has been videotaping and photographing a lot of the resistance activities, and so Carlos, Noe, Maco and another resistance leader, Aniseto, and I had a variety of conversations about trying to develop a radio and documentation project. 

When I was in Guatemala in December and January, I did not travel to SMI but Carlos and I were in touch and met to see where we could take this idea, and have stayed in touch since that time, hatching some plans that involve working with some of the women in the resistance movement and helping them start a radio station -- basically from scratch.  Which would mean raising the funds and also arranging for them to get training and support so that they could really become self-directed and self-sustaining. Exciting and also a little scary as it means jumping off into areas that are not entirely familiar.

So, during the last few weeks before my departure, Carlos and I were in touch a lot since I wanted to be able to spend a couple of days in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, both to meet the women (since all of this had been mediated through conversations with Carlos -- he had spoken to the women, and had spoken to me, but I had never met them, nor they me) and to get a better sense of the lay of the land and the politics of the situation.  There was a lot of juggling back and forth as the residents of one of the communities, 7 Platos, had put up a blockade, and Carlos wasn't sure it would be safe to travel, as the situation was pretty tense.This made it hard for me to make plans as I wanted to give priority to going to SMI.. but couldn't know for sure when that would be, which made all of my other plans very tentative. I needed to go with Carlos as he would have to introduce me to the women and other people in the resistance.

So, about two days before my departure, Carlos told me that we would go up to SMI on the 14th as there was going to be a rally. Then the next day he told me that we couldn't go because of the blockade. About two hours later that same day, he told me that there was going to be an important meeting with some of the community leaders and the mayor on the 16th, and that we would attend that.. so we were back on. We would stay a few days and there would be time for me to meet some of the women, or at least one of the leaders. 

I realize that this is a lot of prologue and perhaps not all that interesting. But I need to write this out for myself, to set up the context.

So, the Monday after I visited La Puya, Carlos and I met up on the highway (he took a bus and got off and waited for me as I was in Antigua and didn't want to head back towards Guatemala City to meet up) and made our way to SMI. We stopped in Xela because my friend JL, who had been keeping my car and had brought it to me in Antigua, had forgotten to give me the registration along with the vehicle and the keys. So, Xela is on the way, and we met JL for lunch at my favorite pupusa place, Pupusawa, and then headed northward. 

Since the earthquake last fall, driving through San Marcos has meant passing destruction, some rebuilding, a lot of homes still looking as though they might tumble at any minute.  We arrived in SMI in the early evening, stopping to make a flurry of phone calls to find out where we might stay for the night.  I had been promised that we would have a place to stay but apparently the details hadn't been worked out. I know Guatemala well enough to know that worrying or fretting or fuming would not change anything so I just decided to let matters take their course.  Eventually, a call was placed to the parish priest in SMI who offered to let us stay at the parish house  and so we headed into the town center. 

The parish house comprises a bunch of rooms around a courtyard, part of which contains a concrete swimming pool about 25 feet in length, and another part of which is devoted to a garden, some of which seems to have been planted with care. There is a lot of arugula, more than I have ever seen outside of a commercial farm, some basil, carrots, mustard greens, beets, turnips, a fig tree, a pomegranate tree, and a bunch of flowers. There might be more vegetables but those were the ones I recognized. The priest, Father Erick, is a tall, thin man somewhere northward of 50 years old. He is from Belgium, and has been in Guatemala for over 20 years, all of it in SMI.  There are a a handful of teenaged boys from the surrounding communities who stay at the parish during the week since they are studying in town and getting to town each day from their hamlets would be difficult. Most were shy and quiet, although very polite and friendly in their own way.

Well, I'm going to leave this as is for now. Next installment will be about the meeting with the mayor and the politics of remediation.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Embodiment, poverty and politics: the shape of power

Just  quick and facile observation about the politics of resistance: as I sat in the back of a large room in the municipal building of San Miguel nearly two weeks ago, watching the interaction between the residents of a community called 7 Platos, who had blockaded the highway to the mine for a couple of weeks to protest the mining company's non-compliance with mandated remedial measures, representatives of the municipal government including the mayor, representatives of the company, and representatives of a national agency called INFOM, it struck me that there was a physical difference between the people behind the table and the people in front of it, between the authorities and those over whom they apparently exercise authority. Most of the community residents, poor peasant farmers who spend their days doing hard physical labor, were small statured, and many were thin. I saw very few protruding bellies -- yes, some of the older men had little potbellies, but there was no one whom I could call fat. Most had lined faces, some looking quite a bit older than their years -- faces worn by poverty, and weather-beaten. In the front of the room, the faces were less lined, and the bodies rounder; a few were fairly chubby, even corpulent. One member of the mayor's council (I'm not sure what his title was) had very expensive-looking and extremely pointy-toed light colored cowboy boots; they reminded of the exaggeratedly elongated boots worn by the Finnish rock band Leningrad Cowboys. The same man represented the city government at the rally today, wearing the same boots, and again the physical contrast between those in the resistance and those in power.

On the road, and small pleasures

Okay, time for some confessions. I have taken my coffee obsession to new heights or depths, depending upon how you look at it. I really like having good coffee. Especially when I travel. It's not just the caffeine kick but the thick, rich taste. Or rather, it's mostly not about the caffeine but the pure sensual pleasure. Which is why I won't drink coffee in most places. I'd rather go without than drink something that doesn't give me pleasure. When people in Guatemala offer me coffee at their homes, or at a public event, I will sometimes take a cup if it's very cold and the coffee is very hot (which isn't very often), or at someone's home I will take a sip or two to be polite but it doesn't satisfy me. When I lived here in 2011 one of hte things I brought with me was a burr coffee grinder (if you're a coffee maven then you know what a burr grinder is, and know that it is supposed to be much better in terms of extracting the full flavor of coffee and not overheating the beans -- one of the keys to good coffee is grinding the beans just before brewing, and with a burr grinder, the beans pass through the grinding mechanism just once, as opposed to the other grinders where the coffee beans stay in a small enclosed space and the blades whirl round and round).  I bought a small stovetop espresso pot and also an electric cappuccino maker so that I could have good fresh coffee in the morning. Since I don't live here any longer, when I come here for two weeks or a month, I have to plan out how I will get some decent coffee while I am here. I know that I can count on getting good coffee in Antigua (except that I don't usually spend a lot of time there) and in Santa Cruz del Quiché of all places. I keep my coffee grinder and coffee pots at the home of my friends in Chinique where I stay when I am in that part of Guatemala -- but that's generally only a few days out of a longer stay.  And there are some places in Xela -- except that the places that have good coffee aren't anywhere near where my friends live.  But for the most part when I stay with people, there isn't really any way to get good coffee. I usually buy some coffee in Antigua or someplace and carry it around with me and try to figure out some way to make passable coffee (usually improvising a filter or using a strainer). 

But this trip I have gone over the line.  This trip started out with 4 days in Antigua, where I can indulge my passion at Fernando's, a small cafe on 7ma Avenida Norte, which has the best coffee I've drunk in Guatemala. Or rather the best lattes (I think part of the secret is in the milk, very rich and creamy). I was looking at their merchandise (they also sell chocolates and some artisanal cosmetics and toiletries) and noticed that they had a coffee maker called an AeroPress. It is similar to a french press -- well, not exactly. The coffee maker is a cylindrical tube with a sieve-like plastic cap at one end that you can twist off and on. You insert a small round coffee filter into the cap and twist it onto the end of the cylinder and place this all on top of a cup. You measure ground coffee into the cylinder, and then pour boiling water over and stir. There is then another cylindrical tube that is a plunger -- you insert this into the first tube and then press down gently to push all the water through the coffee and into the cup. It actually makes a very respectable cup of espresso (and you can use more water or a different kind of coffee bean to get something that tastes more like French press). Because of the paper filter, there are almost no grounds in the finished coffee. 

In any case, I was looking at it, and at first was taken aback by the price (Q230). But then I checked online and Fernando's was only charging $5 more than Amazon would, so I decided that it maybe wasn't that unreasonable and I purchased it, so that I could have a reliable supply of good coffee anywhere -- as long as I could boil water and purchase decent ground coffee somewhere.  Fernando, the owner, told me that when he travels he not only brings his own coffee maker but he also travels with a grinder -- since according to the experts, coffee loses some of its flavor within 15 minutes of being ground. I wasn't quite ready to be that obsessive -- and my grinder is in Chinique, where I am was not planning to go until about 3 weeks into my trip. So I stocked up on some coffee (Fernando's, in keeping with this idea, doesn't even sell ground coffee, only whole bean) and have been enjoying delicious coffee every day. 

Back to the "on the road thing". As anyone who has read this blog knows, my work in Guatemala involves a lot of travel.  As do the lives of people who are involved in their communities, I should add. Most of my close friends in Guatemala travel at least once a week from their home towns to Guatemala City or someplace else for a training workshop, or some other activity. This weekend, on my way to San Miguel Ixtahuacán (up in the mountains) for the second time this trip, I stopped in Olintepeque at home of my friends J.L. and Sholy (not sure how one actually writes out his wife's nickname). All three of their grown daughters were away for the weekend -- one, a musician, was somewhere with her band; one was at a judo competition in Guatemala City; and the oldest, Eunice, who is one of my closest friends in Guatemala, was off somewhere at a workshop (the latter travels so much that her parents weren't quite even sure where exactly she was THIS time).  Eunice and I have only crossed paths for one 24-hour stretch of time spanning two days during this trip, and it's not clear we'll get to see each other again, since our travels often take us in different or opposite directions.  When I was in San Pedro la Laguna, I briefly visited my friend Brenda, who is the director of the community radio station there. I stopped by her family's home the first day, and then I was planning to drop by again on what would be my last full day, Friday. However, on Thursday I decided to walk into town (my hotel is 2 km from the center) and spend a little while at a local café, Cristalinas, that I like a lot, and since I would have to pass Brenda's house I stopped in to say hello again. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision as she told me that she was going to Guatemala City on Friday so I wouldn't have seen her again if I'd waited.

As might be expected, my car has not been without its share of problems. The battery was never really  the right fit, and so even though various mechanics and friends have jerry-rigged wires to hold it in place, with the rocky, rutted and twisting roads here, it nearly always gets jiggled out of place. And the terminals get dirty. So it's been punking out on me, sometimes in very inopportune places.

The road down to San Pedro la Laguna is one of the most breathtaking (for the views) and heartbreaking and gut-wrenching (for the steepness, curves and innumerable potholes) stretches of road. Luckily (or not) a large part of it is downhill. Or, looking at it from the perspective of starting out down at the lake, it is mostly uphill. When I traveled this stretch of road in January, leaving my friends at the lake and heading to Guatemala City, I started out at around 4:30 a.m., in complete darkness, and because I was stuck behind some slow moving buses and trucks on the curves, I couldn't get enough momentum to make it up all of them and had to go down backwards in the dark until I got to an area where I could work up enough speed to make it up the curve (giving myself enough room behind the slow-moving obstacle).  This time I left in broad daylight, around 9, and I found out that the buses go once an hour. So I ended up leaving around the same time as the bus but was able to easily pass it on the road out of town so I knew that I wouldn't be stuck behind it on a curve. It was, of course, much easier to navigate the steep curves and ruts in daylight -- but also more terrifying, in a way, since I could see just how steep some of the curves were, and how sharply they were banked. This allowed me to figure out how to attack each curve, but it also caused me to think back to January -- and I realized that maybe it was a good thing that I made the ascent in the dark because if I'd seen what I was up against I might have given up. In the few days between the ascent (when my car had punked out) and the ascent I'd gone to see my mechanic in San Juan (yes, a girl needs a mechanic in every port -- I have two in the area around Xela, one in Chinique and one by the lake) and he'd fixed the battery, more or less, and told me what else he thought I needed.  It was mostly smooth sailing (although I find that I have to do my own version of "The Little Engine That Could", sending positive vibes to my motor and to myself). 

The road to San Miguel Ixtahuacán is another story -- there was one curve that I miscalculated and the car stalled out in an awkward position on the curve. It was steeply banked on the right hand lane -- i.e. my lane -- and I hadn't known if there were another vehicle so I tried to stay pretty close to my lane which was a mistake. Eventually, I managed to rouse a few people from nearby houses (it took 10 minutes before another vehicle came along, and that was a bus that didn't appear to want to help) to help me out. They ended up just standing behind and guiding me as I backed the car carefully (guard rail? What guard rail?) so as not to plunge into a ravine going backwards, and then was able to attack the curve at a different angle and get up that slope and on.  I was supposed to have had a friend with me but he didn't answer phone calls so I had ended up making the trip alone... finally making it down the very steep and winding road into SMI and safely (more or less) to the parish, where I am now housed.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Consulta de Buena Fé: Sija

So, there are basically two kinds of consultas that take place, and now I've seen both of them. The kind of consulta that was carried out in Chinique was "raised hand", and the the consulta that I witnessed in San Carlos Sija was by ballot. There are obviously arguments in favor of both. The "raised hand" consulta involves gathering everyone in a particular community in an assembly. Once everyone is there (or once the organizers decide that they have critical mass), they are lined up by age and gender (at least that was how it was done in Chinique). Adult men in a few rows, adult women in a few rows, adolescent girls, adolescent boys, and then children. Then someone read out what was being considered, or read and explained what the matter was at hand. This was done in both Spanish and K'iche', as Chinique is largely indigenous; I'm not sure how the assembly in the town center was carried out, as the Ladino population is concentrated there, although there are indigenous residents. This took a while; there seemed to be a fair amount of explaining and not just reading. Then the person convening the meeting asked if people wanted to approve mining or not. I believe that he first asked for a voice vote.  Most people shouted out "no" loudly. Then a show of hands. He asked people to stay with their hands raised while the teachers from the school circulated and counted and wrote down the count -- this many women, that many men, and so forth. Then one by one people filed past the tables and signed the libro de actas, or put their thumbprint and had one of the teachers print their name (there might have been some loose sheets of paper to speed up the process, so there could be more than one line).  

My friend J.L. is  a big proponent of the ballot method, which is how the consultas have been carried out in Quetzaltenango, for the most part. In his view, it has several advantages. The first is that since the count goes on all day (the polling stations are open from early morning until late afternoon -- in Sija it was 8 until 4, although a few stayed open later than 4. So people can vote at their convenience. With the assembly, which is set at a fixed time, if you can't make the meeting (if you leave early to go to your fields, for example) then you can't vote. So turnout can be potentially higher. People can vote at any one of the polling stations -- they don't have to vote in their community. So if someone happens to be going to the town center to the market or for an errand, he or she can vote there.  Also, according to J.L., the raised hand voting lends itself to peer pressure. The argument is that people won't vote how they really feel because the vote is public, not secret, and therefore someone who might have a minority position (in favor of mining, say) is likely to suppress it because he or she doesn't want to be seen by his or her neighbors as going against what the rest of the community wants. The companies and the government argue that the raised hand consultas are manipulated by the people opposed to mining and that they give a distorted result. So, voting by ballot allows each person to vote in private, and theoretically they are then less subject to peer pressure. However, it is more individualized and less collective. There never is a time when everyone is all together. 

With the raised hand voting, each community is able to tabulate its count fairly quickly -- what takes the longest is having everyone present sign the "acts" so that it is all official. With paper ballots, the count at each polling station starts after the station has closed -- in Sija, some of the more remote and rural communities closed well before 4 p.m., as the local officials had determined that most of those who were likely to vote had already voted. 

The atmosphere at the polling stations we visited was, for the most part, somewhat festive. in one or two places there were loudspeakers and music -- the idea was to create the atmosphere of a "civic party" (according to the guidelines for observation). There were observers sent to each station  -- some of the observers came from neighboring departments like Totonicapán -- and each observer was supposed to fill out a 3-4 page questionnaire.  A lot of people came in family groups -- there were mothers with a couple of young children in town, and the children all voted as well. We watched at the polling station in the town center as some six and seven year olds laboriously wrote out their names on the sign in sheet, and then carefully took their ballots and went to a desk or table nearby and marked the ballot, carefully folded it and deposited it in the large plastic bags that were affixed to each polling table.  There were adolescent girls who came in arm-in-arm, and teenaged couples holding onto each other for dear life. All of the stations were very orderly and people seemed in a good mood throughout. 

J.L. said that the organizers were a bit concerned about the turnout and the outcome because Sija is one of the municipalities where the indigenous population is in the minority. Most of the inhabitants are Ladino, and so folks weren't sure how they would vote. Also, in one or two of the communities farthest from the municipal center, there had been some organizing by the pro-mining forces, and apparently some confrontations (although nothing violent).  

When we returned to the town hall,  and then went for lunch, there wasn't enough time to go to additional communities so we just waited for the votes to be tallied. The leaders from each community -- usually a delegation of four or five -- came in with all of the documentation. They had the paper ballots; the sign in sheets; and the libro de actas.  There was a tally sheet for each community, and the tally sheet broke down the votes by age category (children 7-12, adolescents 13-18, adults with voting papers, and adults without voting papers). This was not restricted to people who had voter registration cards, but the adult voters were separated by those who had voter registration cards and those who didn't. The largest number of adult voters were those without registration cards -- whether that means that they actually were not registered, or whether they simp,y didn't bring their voter ID with them, I don't know. 

So the community leaders came bearing bags of ballots and papers and then the large leather-bound libros de actas, and then had to line up and wait while the people who were doing the official vote tally checked everything over, and entered the totals from each community onto a series of spreadsheets -- both printed ones, and on a few computers.  It took a while for each community's results to be checked and recorded. One of the first communities had a discrepancy in the count, as they hadn't sorted the ballots out but had put them all together (apparently each set of sign in sheets -- for a particular age group -- was supposed to go together with the corresponding ballots). So the organizers separated the ballots out into piles that corresponded to the number of names in each category - except that it didn't seem that there was the right number of ballots. They counted and re-counted and finally it all tallied up.  That was the only group that took that long.  

As I noted in my earlier blog entry, when we left in the early evening the results weren't in -- not even by 11 p.m. which was when J.L. had called over to Sija to see if they had results yet.  But the final count was 99.25% against and .75% in favor of mining - a pretty resounding  no, I'd say.  There is another consultation this week, in San Francisco el Alto, a town in Totonicapán. It will be on Tuesday the 30th. I've been invited but am not going to be able to attend as I have promised to be in Chinique on that day -- some friends in the U.S. have built a house for the woman's mother, and the family has planned a lunch and ceremony to inaugurate the new house. I am also supposed to talk to some other relatives on the man's side, who were victims of an extortion. I don't really know any of the details, but I guess that is what I am supposed to be finding out. 

The consultations have great symbolic value; what legal weight they have remains to be seen.  The country seems to be split in a number of ways: on the one hand there are the communities and the social movements that oppose these neoliberal policies, and then there's the government and the transnationals, which seem to operate by a different set of rules. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lakeside reveries

The morning air is fresh and cool, and near-silence broken by the steady thump of Juan's hoe in the milpa alongside the little terrace outside my hotel room, the soft hoots and warbles of birds in the background, the whirr of a vehicle on the road, the irregular rhythm of a woman a house or two away talking, maybe to her children (I saw a small boy slip his head around the side of the next house over when I was walking to the store last night).  Farther away, someone is listening to the radio, but it's not too loud or unpleasant. For now, at least.

I have taken a few days' retreat and come to San Pedro la Laguna, which has an unfortunate reputation of being the hippie, pot-smoking town of all the communities that surround Lake Atitlán, surely one of the most beautiful places in this country. On the other side of the lake is Panajachel, swarming with tourists and fair-trade stores. San Pedro has an area down by the docks where the boats from Panajachel (colloquially, Pana) arrive that caters to tourists; many of the businesses have signs in English, there are cafés serving espresso drinks and restaurants advertising wifi, and a few stores featuring long flowing gauze skirts made in India. And walking through the streets of the town center, one sees a lot of blond hair and expensive walking shoes. There are several Spanish schools in the area -- the sister of my friend Brenda works at one -- that offer "Antigua-style" one-on-one classes, and some also advertise home stays or have their own hotel facilities. 

But I can easily overlook all of that, and the women circulating in the lakeside restaurant where I went to have a large late lunch yesterday, because of the beauty of the lake and the volcanoes and mountains that surround it. And beyond the tourist facade, there is the San Pedro of the people who live here, the Kaqchikel and Tzutujil and Ladino residents, who plant their milpa or harvest their coffee. Right now as I write, someone is working in the milpa that is part of the hotel property, hoeing between the rows of tender young plants. A bit farther along the lake shore there are some young boys bathing in the water. Butterflies flit over the bean and potato plants, the yerba buena and cabbages. Somewhere more distant, the thump a-thump-a, thump a-thump-a of reggaetón on someone's radio. One of the men who works on this property, Diego, told me that I was welcome to take some yerba buena (there is an entire patch of it growing here; they sell it in the market) and some cabbage leaves for my dinner.

The surface of the lake ripples with the wake of the small ferries that traverse the lake, bringing tourists and residents from Pana to the other lakeside towns, and that bring people from one town to the other. The ferries aren't that frequent and don't make a lot of noise. There are a few rowboats and canoes out on the lake, undoubtedly belonging to local residents, perhaps some of whom are fishing.  Amid this beauty are some serious environmental problems. The lake waters were very contaminated, I think from the dyes from textile industries in the surrounding areas, and the lake waters have been rising for several years. Just next to this property stands an unfinished two or three story house, the white skeleton standing "knee deep" as it were in the lake -- it apparently was started when the lake shore was several feet farther away, but now the lake has come to surround the house. When I was here in January, we took a walk along the lake side one day, and passed a basketball court that will soon be a swimming pool, it seems. The center of the town, with the heaviest density of population, is very hilly and steep, but most of the lakeside is ringed with fields and houses, and entire areas have had to be abandoned and homes and fields moved upwards.

I arrived in the afternoon, after a harrowing ride down the very steep and winding road that frequently threatens to plunge one and one's vehicle into the shining blue waters of the lake. No exaggeration. I thought about leaving my car in Pana and taking the ferry across but decided against it; not sure if that was an entirely wise move, but.. in any case, I'm here. The battery had been a bit cranky for the few days and had conked out on me a few times when we were making the rounds from community to community during the consulta on Sunday.  The battery does not sit properly inside the engine; it is the right voltage, but not the right size. And so it does not sit squarely inside the housing. Therefore, we have had to do some "chapuses" (the word "chapús" has many meanings; it can be a form of word play, but in this context it means a makeshift solution or repair -- what Cubans would call "un invento"), finding some wires and cords and cables to more or less tie the battery into place. But since the roads are rocky, rutted, irregular, winding, and the paved ones are full of potholes, it gets dislodged easily. 

So, about halfway down to San Pedro (and I do mean literally down -- the first part of the road has some flat areas and some ascents and descents, but after Santa Clara it is pretty much all downhill), the battery died when I stopped to give some men a ride. I couldn't get it to start again, although I opened the hood and tried to see if the terminals were tightly fastened (I didn't have tools with me but I tried tightening the bolts manually). Still no luck. A passing pickup stopped and we got the car started again with "un empujon" (a push) -- the men pushed it backwards and, with the ignition turned, I let out the clutch and pumped the accelerator like mad. It coughed to a start and I took off, with the man's admonition to try and not take my foot off the accelerator. But with steep downhill curves, it was hard to do, as I had to brake and downshift and I only have two feet. The engine conked out again, and I managed to start it again as I slid downhill, but eventually the battery punked out again and I basically made it down to the more or less flat area in San Pablo in neutral. Where I came to a stop. Luckily some local police (and that is a true anomaly) stopped, and then they radioed their chief, who also came (must have been a slow crime day in San Pablo). He called a mechanic. I had found a wonderful mechanic in San Juan de la Laguna when one of my brake shoes needed to be replaced when I was here in January -- although he didn't have the right replacement part (Mazdas are not so common and so few garages outside of major cities stock their replacement parts  - I have a couple of extra lug nuts because I figured if I ever need one out in the middle of nowhere, it won't be easy to get the right size), he and his sons basically made a new brake shoe, soldering it together from scratch. My friends, both of whom know a lot more about cars and mechanics than I do, were extremely impressed. But I didn't remember his name and could only say to the police that the garage was on a curve on the road that leads out of San Juan towards San Pedro. So, the chief called his mechanic. But meanwhile we (mostly he) cleaned off the battery terminals and tightened the bolts (he had some tools). And then it started again, quite easily. 

I decided to stop in and see the mechanic in San Juan, which is on the way to San Pedro. He opened the hood, had me start the car again and looked at and listened to the engine. He told me that he thought that the battery itself was fine, but that the problem was that it wasn't properly housed and it was the constantly jiggling and dislocation that caused most of the problems. So he will build a new platform for the battery, and meanwhile take a look at the accelerator, fuel injectors and so forth to see if there's anything else that is going awry.

So, I felt more confident as I slid into San Pedro. I have learned to not get freaked out when something goes wrong with the car -- a friend who was with me in January remarked at my calmness in the face of small disasters.  Getting upset doesn't fix the brake shoe or the battery, and it certainly doesn't help one get safely down a very narrow, winding and sketchy (to say the least) mountain road. 

The hotel is about 2 km outside of town, but I was easily able to find the "Camino a la Finca" (road to the plantation or farm: a finca can be a large landholding, or a small property) and the hotel, and the guardian came out to let me into the garage and lead me to my room overlooking the lake. Maybe they are at low occupancy, but they are only charging me Q60 ($7.68 at yesterday's exchange rates) for a small suite -- a bedroom nook, a small kitchen (stove, sink, and refrigerator), and down a step, a semi-circular study with bay windows, outfitted with a wooden table, a wood and metal baker's rack, one wooden and one plastic chair.  OUtside, a tiled terrace (with an overhead light), with a small round table and curved bench built in.  The path from the upper rooms goes past my door and leads down to the lake. 

I unloaded my things and then took off for town, as there are no eateries nearby. I noted a few stores nearby -- there is a pretty spare, small one right next to the hotel, but they only have a very sparse selection of dried and canned goods and beverages, and some eggs. The next one is about half a mile away. So I walked back into town (I could have driven but wanted to stretch my legs) and found the market, which was almost closing up for the day, and purchased some salad fixings: avocado, limes, tomatoes, garlic, an onion and a cucumber. I figured I'd go back today and get more of a selection (beans, for example, and rice, and maybe cheese and eggs).  Then I made my way to the radio station, Radio Sembrador, to see my friend Brenda and her family.  I had called Brenda when I arrived, saying "Guess where I am now?" but I had to cut short the call since the owner of the hotel was calling on the other line to say that he had called the guardian to let me in. I decided not to call her back again but to just show up as I was certain to find at least some of her family at the house.  One of her sisters was there, and then Brenda's mother and father and Brenda herself came out to greet me and made me sit down and drink some water. 

They filled me in on what was going on with the radio station. A few weeks ago, during the middle of a weekly radio program hosted by the vice president of the Association of Community Radio Stations of Lake Atitlán, the Ministerio Público arrived and raided the station, so it is now off the air. They told me that several other local radio stations had been raided, but that the vice president of the Association had gotten a lawyer and they were working on redressing the matter and they thought that they would soon be back on the air. They decided strategically to stop broadcasting while the lawyer and the Association worked  on the case.

After chatting a bit I told them I needed to eat something as I had only eaten some oatmeal at around 7 a.m. (and it was now nearly 4), so I went down to a lakeside restaurant where I had eaten last January when my friend Babette had come to visit me in Guatemala (we had taken Brenda out for lunch). There were few other patrons, and I chose to sit inside instead of right over the dock outside, and after dithering for a few minute about whether to have a pizza or a mojarra (a tropical fish that is bony but has very sweet and tender flesh), opted for the mojarra, as it came with salad (in this case a mixture of broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and carrots) and guacamole, and splurged on a white wine.

Fortified, I headed back, stocking up on some sparkling water (a 2 liter bottle), wine, and milk at a store close to the dock since although it meant carrying all of this back over a 2 km walk, I wasn't sure what I'd be able to find in the stores closer to the hotel (as it turns out, I could have gotten most of this, but a much smaller selection of wine; however, I didn't know that then). Although I had asked the hotel if they could lend me some utenslls (pot, pan, a few dishes, fork and spoon), I bought an enameled cup for heating water or milk, and a sharp knife (figuring I would gift these to friends when I leave) and headed back. Then at the store right next to the hotel, oil and salt -- enough supplies for dinner and breakfast.

I was exhausted, and only did a little work last night on one of my syllabi, and caught up on some correspondence. A little domestic drama back in New York -- my subtenants, a young couple, both students at Columbia, just broke up and so I needed to make sure that there would be someone at the apartment and taking care of the cats. The original plan was that the woman would stay there alone for the first few weeks (she moved in the night before I left) and then her now-former-boyfriend would join her on July 24. Yesterday morning as I was preparing to leave Olintepeque, I got a note from her saying that they had decided to go their separate ways and that she was relieving herself of responsibility for the apartment and the cats as of this Wednesday. I was a bit concerned, although I knew there was not much I could do from a distance other than to see if my daughter could fill in if there was a gap between the woman's departure and the man's arrival. But after sending a few quick emails to both of them, saying I was sorry and I wished them both the best and could the man (who is currently in Shanghai, 15 hours ahead) contact me as soon as possible so that I could rest easily. By the time I arrived in San Pedro in the afternoon, he had replied and it seems everything should go smoothly (I guess the woman is staying around to hand off the keys and my wonderful daughter will stop by to go over cat care and answer any questions).  

So, I puttered around, as it were, on my syllabus and some reading, after stepping out onto the terrace to marvel at the lake. 

Last night the darkness fell swiftly and softly over the lake, deep blue and purple shadows moving down from the mountains and gradually obscuring the light. I could make out the cluster of lights from Panajachel and one or two other lakeside settlements --the shoreline is very jagged with a lot of coves and inlets, so from any given point along the shore, there are always communities and mountains that are not visible. 

This morning one of the men came down very early to start working in the milpa, and then as the morning has worn on two of the other hotel guests came down to the water -- one, a woman who looks to be in her 70s, sat with her watercolors and worked for a bit.  I hauled myself out for a run -- usually if I can convince my brain to tell my hands to put on socks and tie the laces of my running shoes, I will go running. That is, it is a psychic battle between the part of my brain that says, Yes, you should run, and the part of my brain that says, Eh, maybe, maybe not.  Occasionally the legs and lungs have their say -- yesterday, for example,  I took a steep walk instead of running, since I had run the two previous days and was feeling the elevation, and my legs were a bit rubbery.  I ran farther along the road, away from the town -- we had come for a walk along this road in January, the day after we'd climbed the volcano and realized that we were not up to climbing a second volcano right away. I ran past men tramping along with machetes and hoes, luxurious homes and more modest dwellings, past a sign reading "Santa María del Lago" (not sure if that is a settlement or simply an estate) until the pavement ended, and then just about 200 yards more and turned back.

Now situated again looking over the lake, the garden, listening to the sounds of birds and the scrape of the hoe, the rustle of wind in the cornstalks and the gentle ripple of lake water.... time to buckle down to work.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Consulta de Buena Fé de San Carlos Sija

I barely have the energy to type out a couple of words, as we spent the day participating in the community consultation about mining in San Carlos Sija, a municipality in the department of Quetzaltenango, about an hour from my friends' home in Olintepeque. My friend J.L. is  a member of the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (CPO), the group that has been organizing most of the consults, and so he had invited me to come with him. He has been advising the people in Sija over the last six or seven months and was going as an observer, so I decided to tag along. I knew that I would be allowed to be an observer, as there is always a need for observers since the organizers want to ensure that the process is above any suspicion. 

If I am tired, I can only imagine what the organizers must feel like, as they are still tallying up the votes. There are over 30 communities -- aldeas and caserios, plus the town center itself -- in the municipality of Sija, and there were 35 voting centers, which were open from 8 a.m. until 4 (some stayed open later to accommodate latecomers). Each community voting station had to tally up their votes (paper ballots) and then the local authorities had to prepare an "acta" (a formal declaration, written out in their official "libro de actas") written out in longhand, that certified the results, which had to be signed and sealed, and then the authorities had to travel to the town hall. Sija is a large municipality, and some of the communities are more than 15 kilometers away over rutted, steep, rocky dirt roads.  And the results had to be reviewed and certified, one at a time (I will go into more detail about the process, which is kind of fascinating in its own laborious way).  And this all has to be done in person. No phoning or faxing or otherwise sending in the results. They have to be delivered in person, along with a photocopy of the relevant pages of the libro de actas.  

So, when we were finally ready to leave at around 6:30, only 10 of the 35 communities had showed up, and it doesn't seem likely that they will finish the count until late tonight. From what we could see, the results are pretty strongly against mining. We watched the first several sets of results being tabulated and there were literally only a handful of people who had voted YES -- in favor of mining.

We didn't spend the day at a single voting location. Instead, J.L. and I, along with two people from the office of the Attorney General for Human Rights (not quite sure how to translate Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos: the dictionary translates "procuraduria" as "lawyer's office" or "attorney general's office"), visited about six different voting stations. Each station had observers who spent the entire day there and signed the libro de actas and filled out forms with their observations. We were just trying to get an overview of how things were going, more of a series of quick snapshots.  It was exhausting, as the roads were often narrow, rutted and steep, and a few times I wasn't sure we'd be able to make it up a curve. Oh, did I forget to mention the curves? The roads are steep, winding, rutted, narrow... and we did have to cut out one of the communities we were going to visit as J.L. was pretty sure that the car wouldn't make it up the hill.

So, full of reflections and thoughts and observations.. which will mostly have to wait until tomorrow or later.

Reflections on daily life

As I interviewed one of my friends, a young Maya K'iche' woman activist, on the balcony of her family's home in Olintepeque, the conversation turned to the issue of women's involvement, or the lack of women's involvement, in community affairs or politics. We looked down at the street below, where day after day, several women, mostly middle aged or elderly, spread out their vegetables, flowers and fruits, and try to earn a few quetzales. My friend commented, "This town has a lot of these small merchants. And so this is why Cristina's mother (pointing at one of the women) can't come to the meetings. She has to be here selling every day for hours. And they do this to have something to eat today. They aren't working for savings. They are trying to sell things so they can buy food, shoes, clothes. So it's very hard for these women to participate. And then it creates a cycle. They don't come to participate, so no one takes them into account, and then they say that the women don't participate, so they don't have to make accommodations for them.  Women who want to be involved have to do three things: they are housewives, so they have to take care of domestic chores. They work to earn a living. And then if they do something for the community that is a third task on top of the other two."

Two of the vendors have their selling spot on the driveway of the bakery and so they have an arrangement with my friends to store their goods overnight. I didn't quite understand that when I arrived here on Friday night and saw bags and bunches of vegetables stacked inside the patio, but the mystery was revealed early Saturday morning when two women walked through the door and started to haul out their wares, and one very politely asked if I could move the truck up because it was blocking access to their spot. I readily complied. And then in the late afternoon they started to pack up and bring everything back inside. 

As Eunice and I sat on the balcony, we watched the vendors as a few customers stopped, fingered fruits, asked prices, perhaps bargained a bit, and then walked off, with purchases or without.  It's a small town, not a lot of job opportunities here. Xela is nearby, with a somewhat more expansive economy, but one has to get there.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

With the resistance-1

Sunday, I changed plans -- climbing a volcano -- in order to participate in a peaceful activity (acción pacífica) in a community in the department of Guatemala (i.e. the area around the capital city) in one of several "communities in resistance" to mining and mega-projects. Some months back, in the community of San José del Golfo, about 25 minutes east of Guatemala City, where a company had received a license for mining exploration, one day some heavy machinery showed up.. and a woman who lived there saw it coming and decided to park her pick up in the road so that the machinery couldn't be moved in, and then called some neighbors and since then, there has been a round the clock resistance in that stretch of road, about 2 kilometers outside of the town center of San José del Golfo, now called La Puya. People from the community take turns doing 24-hour shifts, once a week, to keep the occupation going. We heard about it in a workshop on mining at the Guatemala Scholars' Network Conference -- one of the young scholars there, a Canadian graduate student named Alexandra, has been doing her fieldwork there. She and others spoke about some of the consequences -- family divisions, for example. A woman who participates in the occupation, whose children no longer speak to her although she is doing it for them, she says, so that they will have land and clean water. 

The resistance has been going on for a while, and last week, on Tuesday, the day I left for Guatemala, security guards for the company killed one of the community leaders. There have been many attacks on the leadership, but this was the most serious. So, there was a call for an action on Sunday afternoon, not at the site of resistance, but in the town center. I decided that I wanted to go, and so offered to see if anyone else wanted to come. One person from the conference, another Canadian graduate student who wrote her master's thesis about the resistance in San Juan Sacatepéquez, asked to come along. So, we set out on Sunday afternoon - which meant a long, leisurely morning and early afternoon in Antigua. Two of my friends from Xela (actually Olintepeque, a small town just outside of Xela), had brought my car the night before, and since it was raining hard, they decided to stay the night in Antigua so I paid for their hotel and dinner, and then wanted to meet up with them in the morning before they left, to give them some money for gas (but I had to go to the bank first; there is a new rule that banks will only change $200 at a time, once a week, even in a tourist location like Antigua, so that means that if one needs more cash one has to go around from bank to bank). 

I had started the morning with a couple of meetings with a senior colleague who has been working on the impact of immigration raids. She had done some work in New Bedford right after the 2007 raid, and then was comparing it with two other raids -- Postville, Iowa and some place in the South (I don't remember the name now). And then another colleague who was staying at the same hotel stopped by and wanted to know my impressions of the community consultation against mining that I had attended in Chinique last spring. I had mentioned something about the consultation the previous day at lunch and she had told me I should write about it, and I guess I should. The conference, in that regard, was both affirming and a little frightening or intimidating. Intimidating in the realization that I haven't written a lot. Affirming, in the realization that I do actually have a lot to say -- and I should start getting my stuff out there. It was a bit flattering to be interviewed, basically, by two senior colleagues, as a fount of information. 

Then I went to find my friends, get money, and then run some errands and get some gifts for people -- I always like to have a few things with me in case I end up staying with someone or meeting someone to whom it would be appropriate to give a gift. And anything left I will take home and give to friends or people at school. I wanted to get in one last swim -- one day I had gone to a hotel on the southwestern side of town that I had remembered from a year ago, where you can pay Q30 and use the pool. And then I had visited another colleague whose sister had paid for a room in a very luxurious hotel with two or three swimming pools -- none huge but fine for laps as few people used them -- and she had invited me to come and swim there. So I got in another swim, and then retrieved my car, met up with my passenger and took off.  

I don't know much of Guatemala City: the historic center, the area in Zona 10 around the U.S. Embassy and a few bookstores, and the kind of fancy area in Zona 15 where the university at which I taught during my Fulbright was located. It's very confusing to me; there are parts where the streets follow a grid pattern and are numbered, and then there are avenues that dip down and around and make some wild curves, where if you make a wrong turn there aren't any corners nearby so that you can straighten yourself out. I had one wild night on one of my early trips when I took a wrong turn leaving the university -- this was before I came for the Fulbright -- and spent half an hour driving around in the twilight and darkness, all the while on the phone with someone at the guesthouse where I was staying, trying to get back to some place familiar. 

I managed to find my way to the Ruta al Atlántico (the highway to the Atlantic) and follow the directions I had been sent and we made our way through the rolling hills and into the town of San José del Golfo. We had been told to go to the "new market" which turned out to be a multi-story centro commercial (shopping center) with a plaza in front. There were a lot of cars parked on the cement square in front of the building and people sitting on low concrete walls, so it looked as though we might be in the right place, but we didn't know anyone. There were a few people from the conference who were going to be there: Emilie Smith, a Canadian Anglican minister whom I met the year I lived in el Quiché, Catharine Nolin, another Canadian scholar who is active in anti-mining, and the graduate student Alexandra. They weren't anywhere we could see, but a vibrant, smiling woman came up to us and asked if we were there for the concentration. She was Yolanda, one of the leaders, and she greeted us warmly and told us that the others had gone to visit the resistance but would be back. We said hello to people around us and introduced ourselves, and looked around to see what was going on. There were several dozen people -- middle aged men in sombreros and jeans, young families, older women with aprons over their dresses, and everything in between. 

After a while our friends returned and chairs were set up, marking out a "stage" area in front of the door of the building. The program started a little after six, and included only a few speeches -- greetings, really, from Emilie and a French pastor who was also visiting Guatemala, and one or two of the resistance leaders -- and some singing. It gets dark very quickly in Guatemala, and a bit earlier than in the U.S. so I didn't want to stay too late. They announced that they were going to show a video of the meeting they had had with the president, and I suggested that we go to visit the site of the resistance, so we got directions and took off. I was very conscious, as I often am in small towns, of being a woman driver in a country where that is somewhat of an anomaly, at least in rural areas.

We drove along a bumpy dirt road, only seeing a few people walking, until we arrived at the site of the occupation, marked by banners across the road. We parked and cautiously walked over. Although we had been assured that it was okay for us to just show up unannounced we are both conscious that as foreigners, sometimes our presence isn't welcomed. Just showing up to say, "Hey, we're with you, good luck with the struggle" isn't always an appreciated gesture (we often expect that simply being present is enough, or that we will be welcomed with open arms). But we were greeted cordially. There was an area that was lit; a group of men sat in chairs along one side of the road next to a small wooden platform, behind which were strung a lot of banners and signs. Across the road, a shed had been erected and a kitchen and eating and sleeping area constructed. We didn't poke around but it looked as though an outhouse and bathing and washing area had also been built.  

There was one woman, resting in a hammock on the left-hand side of the road as we walked in, in the kitchen area, along with four or five men, and about four or five on the right hand side, sitting in chairs. We introduced ourselves and said that we had been at the concentration but wanted to come and say hello. We explained who we were and what we were doing in Guatemala. They offered us some coffee and we spent about 10 or 15 minutes chatting, and then we got ready to leave. One or two other cars passed through but didn't slow down or stop to say hello (we had been told that the people who oppose the resistance -- that is, who support the mining exploration -- just drive through and those who are supportive usually stop or at least slow down and greet the people in the resistance.

We had spotted a place in the next town up, Fiscal, that offered pupusas (one of my favorite foods) and decided that if it were open we would stop since we hadn't eaten and since it was a Sunday night I wasn't sure what would be open in Antigua other than Domino's pizza and a couple of bars that might not have much in the way of food.  Luckily it was still open, and inside we found some women to whom we had spoken at the rally earlier, self-identified feminists from Guatemala City. It was fortuitous because while we had talked quite a bit at the rally, we hadn't exchanged phone numbers or emails, so now we had a chance. We squeezed into their table and continued our conversation while waiting for our pupusas and then devouring them, slathered with a lot of spicy curtido. And then back to Antigua... where I got a bit of rest before packing up the next morning and heading out to another site of resistance in San Miguel Ixtahuacán... but that will be another blog post.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The good, the bad and the unexpected

This should actually be "the bad, the good and the unexpected." As most travelers and most researchers know, one can only plan so much, and then one has to leave things to chance. In places like Guatemala -- like most of the Latin American countries I have visited -- one has to be patient, creative and resilient, since there are so many circumstances that can change or impede even the most carefully laid plans. The person with whom one has scheduled a meeting needs to go to the nearest big town or to Guatemala City because of some household, family or work emergency. One needs to have not only a plan B but a plan C and a plan D, at minimum, or at least one needs to be able to make up one's agenda on very short notice. And sometimes a very unfortunate occurrence -- in this case, my discovery this morning, when I was up in pretty remote area, that I had left my camera battery charger in Antigua, about 6 hours away and not where I was planning to go -- can lead to something more positive.

The past few days I have been in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the only fully operational gold mine, the Marlin Mine (or Mina Marlin), is located. The Mina Marlin is operated by Montana, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company Gold Corp; Montana's slogan is "Montana exploradora de Guatemala" (Montana the explorer of Guatemala). It should be "explotadora" (exploiter), but I'll leave the full discussion of mining and the havoc it has wrought in the local communities for another blog.  I was accompanying a  human rights attorney who has brought several cases on behalf of local residents who oppose mining (we'll call them "la resistencia" -- the resistance) and won important judgments from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I had been to San Miguel Ixtahuacán before, but this time had a more specific mission. There were a couple of projects that the attorney, Carlos, and I had been discussing via internet, in the months since we last met up in January, involving an important woman resistance leader, Doña Crisanta, and this would be an opportunity for me to meet her and vice versa, and perhaps actually make some progress. Carlos and I had been in touch pretty regularly during the last few weeks before my trip trying to coordinate when we could go to SMI. First we were going to go on Sunday, because there was going to be a concentración (a rally), and would stay for a couple of days. Then the situation was too difficult because there was a blockade in one of the communities, Siete Platos, and the concentración was postponed until the 28th. So then I tried to figure out what I would do instead. And then Carlos said that there was a meeting on Tuesday the 16th that he needed to attend and that it would be good for me to observe, and we could stay for a few days. So we were back on. He would leave on Thursday, and I would probably stay for another day or two. Or so we thought. 

I will leave the details of the meetings for another entry as the point of this blog post is to look at unpredictability and serendipity.  We met with Doña Crisanta, and were hoping to have some time to discuss things in depth with her, but it turned out that she had made other plans and was leaving SMI to go to Chimaltenango, which is about 50 km outside of Guatemala City (and not far from Antigua, which will be relevant later on). So we couldn't have a follow up meeting with her. I was actually prepared to stay another couple of days to do some work with her, but since that wasn't going to happen, I decided to leave SMI with Carlos on Thursday. I thought that I would stop in Xela for a couple of reasons. The friend who had been taking care of my car, who lives in Olintepeque on the outskirts of  Xela, had forgotten to give me the spare rim and my cross-shaft lug wrench (never travel in Guatemala without a lug wrench) when he brought me the car on Saturday. So I needed to stop by his house and pick up the rim and the wrench. The Cultural Survival representative who works with community radio is based in Xela, and I thought I'd try to meet with her. And then I would figure out where to go next.

However, the universe had other plans for me. When packing up this morning at the parish house in San Miguel Ixtahuacán -- the Belgian priest who has held the position for 20 years is sympathetic to the resistance movement, and so it would be a safe place to stay -- I realized that I couldn't find the charger for my camera battery. As most of us know, traveling anywhere -- even from home to office -- involves making sure one has all the necessary cables and chargers for phones, computers, tablets, cameras and all of the other electronic paraphernalia. I checked all the pockets of all my bags and couldn't find it. I wracked my brain to try and remember when I had last used the charger -- in Antigua on Sunday night so that my camera battery would be charged for the trip to SMI. I got online and found the phone number for the hotel where I'd stayed in Antigua, and called the proprietor, Don Mario, to see if my charger had turned up. He went to look and didn't find it but then called the woman who comes in to clean and she said she had found it. So I knew that regardless of how long I spent in Xela I would have to pass through Antigua again to get the charger.

Carlos and I had intended to set off at 8:30 so I could make a meeting in Xela that had to finish up before 1:30 as the person had another appointment. However, it took him longer to get some papers he needed from the city hall and then one of the resistance leaders showed up at the parish and they needed to talk some matters over (when someone travels from a rural community into the town center to see you, you don't just rush out the door). So, we left over an hour later than we had intended, which meant that I probably wouldn't be able to make my appointment in Xela. I therefore decided I would just pick up the rim and the wrench (remember them?) and then head to Antigua, dropping Carlos off in Chimaltenango (Chimaltenango is along the main highway and therefore lots of buses to Guatemala City; Antigua is off on a side road and therefore less regular bus service to the capital).  I made a few calls in Xela and set up some appointments for tomorrow, and we stopped along the road to get a sandwich at Xelapan (a local chain bakery/restaurant), swung by Olintepeque to pick up the rim and the wrench and then set off for Chimaltenango and Antigua. However, as luck would have it, Doña Crisanta called us while we were on the highway heading southward, and said that she would have some time that afternoon, if we were going to be passing by Chimaltenango, where she was going to be for a few days. Carlos asked if I were available and interested; I said sure, I had no plans for the evening in Antigua; I was just going to stay over since I didn't want to drive all the way to Antigua and then back to Xela on the same day (I had made plans to visit CIRMA, the Center for Regional Research on Mesoamerica, an important research institution, which I have managed to never really visit in all my trips to Guatemala, but that would be tomorrow morning). 

So, we found our way to the place where Doña Crisanta was attending a meeting in Chimaltenango, and then I was able to sit down with her and spend a couple of hours recording some of her life story - mostly about her involvement in the anti-mining movement. I am very honored that she felt comfortable enough to talk with me, since we had only met once before. I will share some of her story separately, as it is very compelling. She is a mother of 7 children, who has a 4th grade education, and lives from cultivating the land (corn, some vegetables, and coffee on some land she owns on the coast), who found herself confronting the mining company because she removed some posts that the mining company had illegally installed on her land (she had agreed to allow them to run some cables but not to install posts).  We spent a couple of hours talking, and made plans to follow up via phone over the next week and then meet again when I go to SMI for the concentración on the 28th, 

So sometimes something that seems like a stupid mistake and a waste of time can have unexpectedly positive consequences.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ironies of activist anthropology

So, here I am in a session on collaborations and activist scholarship, but only half paying attention to the presentations because I am in the middle of doing some activist scholarship myself. There are some funds available through an organization called Guatemala Human Rights Commission, for people who do human rights work -- Guatemalans living in the U.S., and also people in Guatemala. The deadline for this fund, called Voiceless Speak Fund, is July 31. I was aware of it but it wasn't clear from their website whether the applicants had to have some kind of legal status in the U.S. -- and it wasn't clear whether they only accepted applications from Guatemalans living in the U.S. I have in mind a couple of people -- two in Guatemala and one in the U.S. -- and decided that I really needed to find out so we know whether we can pull together the applications in the next few weeks (they are not that detailed but still, one has to have a plan). So, luckily people from GHRC answered their email very rapidly, informing me that U.S.-based applicants did not have to have any particular legal status, and that they did accept applications from Guatemala. So, that clarifies a little bit of what I will be doing in the next few weeks. I had already planned to spend a day with one of the women in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, a leader of the mining resistance, developing an application on her behalf. And there is a young man in New York, whom I had met in Guatemala two years ago through my work in community radio. He was a volunteer at a radio station called Nojibal Estereo in the Boca Costa, and then came to the U.S. without documents because his family was in a desperate situation. We reconnected in New York (he lives in Brooklyn, ironically, not far from me) and has been eager to find a way to continue doing socially meaningful work of some sort -- doing something for "the community" broadly defined. It's been hard for me to help him a lot, because I don't really know the immigrant justice organizations in New York, but I've recently connected him with folks in a community coalition in Sunset Park that I've been part of (an offshoot of the work I've done with Occupy Sunset Park), and I've been in touch with the folks from Cultural Survival, which works with the community radio movement in Guatemala, to see if there is some way that he can help do advocacy work for Guatemalan community radio in the U.S. Ironically, of course, I am in Guatemala and not in Brooklyn, but hopefully via email and Skype and Facebook we can work this out.

And then I thought of another person, someone I just met here at the conference, who is from a K'iche' community in Santa Lucia Utatlán, and has done a book called Voces Rompiendo el Silencio, containing oral histories about the war in that community. Here is a link to a free download of the book. Voces Rompiendo el Silenco download

He already travels to the U.S. at least once a year to talk about this process, and I suggested that he think about applying for this fund to do work specifically with Guatemalan Maya migrant communities in the U.S.  So, we'll see where this all leads, but it looks like I'll be extra busy these next few weeks... 

But unfortunately sending these emails and chats distracted me from paying sufficient attention to the panel on activist scholarship and collaboration.

Mining reform (2)

Just reading some other commentaries about the mining reform, a few points that I didn't make or didn't make clearly enough. The moratorium is on NEW mining concessions. The government agreed to not grant 337 requests for new explorations in the next two years. There are already many concessions that have been granted in the past few years, and the moratorium does not cover those. There are 92 concessions for exploration that are active -- 7 of these were granted by the current administration. There are 32 active licenses for exploitation (i.e. extraction) -- that is, companies that could, if they wanted to, start mining activities. Three of these were granted under the current administration. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the moratorium is just window-dressing, just a show to quiet some of the dissent internally or, perhaps more importantly, to satisfy some of the foreign and international critics who have been trying to pressure the government to halt or slow down the pace of granting licenses.

Mining reform

I am rapidly realizing that in order to do the current research on radios in the context of indigenous resistance, I need to understand more profoundly the issues and controversies surrounding mining. Guatemala is a weak state in terms of its internal regulatory infrastructure: weak or non-existent regulation. The highway system is a good example of lack of oversight. Lack of oversight on health and safety issues, lack of oversight on budgets and cost overruns. Perfect for neoliberal strategies, since the private sector - whether national or foreign capital -- can do pretty much what it wants. Minimum wages laws exist but there is little to lose by flouting them. This is why semi-feudal conditions persist in many rural areas, where landless peasants pay the rent on their lands by doing unpaid work for the landowner on his coastal finca (virtually unpaid: some nominal wages, but they charge for room and board, and often the peasants have to pay their own transportation to the coast).  This sets up good conditions for the exploitation of natural resources by foreign companies, since  Guatemala does not have native corporations with the capacity to do that kind of exploration and extraction, although it does have a wealth of natural resources.

So the government grants concessions to these companies, against the wishes of the community since the government doesn't respect the process of community consultations - which are called for under the international conventions governing the rights of indigenous people. Specifically, it goes against the provisions of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which guarantees certain rights for tribal and indigenous people. Convention 169 states that no projects that affect the lands of indigenous communities can be implemented without prior and informed consent. Since the Guatemalan government has not established any procedures of its own, indigenous rights groups have set up a process of "consultas de buena fé" (consultations in good faith), mostly around mining but also around other proposed projects. All of the ones carried out thus far have gone against the mining projects -- in most cases by over 90% (and in many cases around 99%). But the exploration concessions have been granted nonetheless, and this has stepped up under the current government (although the last several were also in favor of extractive industries and foreign capital). 

This sets up a situation ripe for conflict (a point made by Mike Doherty in his presentation yesterday), as the community opposes the project before it starts and the government apparently pays no heed to the community. Very often the local government sides with the company and the national government, and so people get angry not only at the company, its security guards, and the national government, but also local leaders. In Barillas, many of the protests were directed at the municipal building. In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the only fully functional gold mine is located, residents have blockaded the highway and are angry at the town mayor for siding with the company against his constituents. There was supposed to be a meeting on Wednesday but I haven't yet heard about the outcome.

So, on Wednesday, the president announced that he was calling for a 2-year moratorium on mining concessions. This is, I think, a good sign -- not that I want to hold out too much hope that the leopard will change his spots. But it is at least a respite. There are a lot of legal cases pending both in Guatemalan courts and international tribunals, and the international tribunals and commissions have mostly declared against the Guatemalan government, calling for a halt to mining and a halt to granting new concessions.  In a few days I will be on my way to San Miguel Ixtahuacan Ihereinafter SMI), and will hopefully have a clearer perspetive.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hatching plans

Working out a plan for this month has been an exercise in patience. My work has shifted, somewhat, to looking at radio in the context of the indigenous movement -- or rather, radio in the context of several dialectically related trends: intensification of neoliberal policies and projects (mining, other mega-projects), indigenous resistance, and government repression. So, I am going to be focusing in part on radio projects in zones of conflict -- of which there are many. In part the subject has chosen me. I had already visited the radio station in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango and developed a close friendship with its director, Lorenzo, before the situation in Barillas erupted last year.  In my last visit between the end of 2012 and the beginning of this year, I was able to visit Barillas briefly and at least get some preliminary introductions to community leaders there, and also had the privilege of talking with one of the station's founders, Daniel Pedro, who a few short months later was assassinated because of his involvement in the resistance movement in Barillas. 

I had also been to one of the mining communities, where there had been a radio station that had played an important role in allowing the resistance movement to have a voice. The station is no longer active for a complex of reasons -- some equipment failures, the suicide of the principal announcer, but most significantly, the desire of the director of the host organization (the radio station was housed in the headquarters of a community development organization) to control the station. A human rights attorney who works with the resistance movement and some other friends there and I had started to talk about restarting the radio station, but the attorney, who has become a good friend, has been working with a group of women who are very key players in the resistance movement (although not always acknowledged as such by the male leaders) and we hatched the idea, over emails and Facebook chats, of working with the women and helping them start a radio station of their own. 

However, because of the conflictual situation in the area (San Miguel Ixtahuacán) it has been hard to plan when we would go up there. I haven't met the women directly, and while my role is only accompaniment, we will need to have a fair amount of time to talk, so that they can understand what having a radio station entails, and then hopefully we (mostly me) can put together some fundraising ideas (so, readers of this blog, expect to get some kind of crowd-sourcing solicitation from me in the near future, just saying..) and plans. I also wanted to nominate one of the most outspoken women for an annual award by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, which means helping her write up her narrative for the application. So I would need a few days there at least.

However, about 10 days ago -- actually, two weeks ago as of tomorrow -- residents of one of the communities have blockaded the highways leading to the mine, because the mine had failed to implement some health and safety measures (I think that's the best translation of "medidas cautelares") that had been agreed to, and the municipal mayor was siding with the company. So, it wasn't clear that it would be possible to travel if the blockade were still in place. However, then my attorney friend told me there was a demonstration planned for Sunday the 14th, so we would go up for that and stay a few days.  That was good, because it gave me at least one starting point around which I could arrange the rest of my schedule. By the time I got to Guatemala City Tuesday night, however, the demonstration had been postponed until the 28th. But before I had time to rearrange things, it seems that it is necessary for the attorney to go up there on Monday through Thursday, so we are back on. Now just to figure out what to do from Saturday afternoon when the conference ends and Monday morning -- the temptation is to cram something else in, like a visit to a radio station, or a trip to Quiché to see friends. My attorney friend suggested that I just hang out in Antigua and relax -- not a likely scenario. I could spend the day sitting in cafés and the hotel writing, or I could see if someone wants to climb a volcano. Another idea is to visit a new friend who lives in another of Lake Atitlán's communities, where there is also a volcano to climb. Stay tuned.