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.