Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sexual violence and migration

Although the Rios Montt genocide trial has not succeeded, to date, in bring the general to justice, it performed an important historic task. Not only was it the first time a former head of state had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in a tribunal in his own country, but it brought into public view the role of sexual violence in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The public sat transfixed for days as several Maya Ixil women described how they had been raped and brutalized by the Guatemalan military -- crimes that few had spoken about during or after the conflict. Sexual violence was clearly a tactic of the Guatemalan military, intended not only to humiliate and degrade the women who were its immediate targets but also to humiliate their male relatives, who were powerless to stop the assaults.  It also established a new model of brutalist masculinity, and helped normalize violence and particularly violence against women, which has reached epidemic proportions in the so-called post-war. 

Gender violence is a contributing factor in the migration of Maya women to the U.S., and it is also a part of many women's migration experiences, both during the journey north and once they arrive here. This was hammered home today in what started out as a casual conversation, on my part, not an interview. I sat down with a Guatemalan woman whom I will call Alejandra, in her late 20s, whom I met because she was part of a workplace action at a seafood processing company in New Bedford a few weeks ago. I knew that she had been through a training program on issues of domestic violence sponsored by the New Bedford Women's Center, and I wanted to talk with her about how we could create a space for women to talk about sexual violence and domestic violence. A few days ago I read the affidavit of another young woman in whose immigration case I am serving as an expert witness, and she detailed being raped in Guatemala and also by the coyotes on her journey north. 

I approached Alejandra just to see if she might be interested in helping organize an encounter or dialogue, and wasn't quite prepared when, with few preliminaries, she launched into her life story.  The youngest of nine children, she had been virtually abandoned by her mother as a young child; her father had been murdered when she was an infant, and her mother left her home alone when she went out to work. Alejandra was raped at age 12, and was taunted and scorned by people in her community for being a rape victim. She escaped from this by running away with a man when she was 13; she bore him two children, but their relationship was marked by violence as he constantly beat her, and her children were always trying to keep their father from killing their mother. After 7 years she decided she couldn't stand it any longer and set off for the United States. She went to her mother and said, "You weren't a good mother to me, you didn't take care of me, but I need you to take care of my children," and her mother agreed.

She came to the U.S. and specifically to North Carolina where one of her brothers was living but, Alejandra confided in me, her brother wanted her to become a prostitute. So to escape that, she wound up in a relationship with another man, who didn't bother to tell her that he was married until after she was pregnant. He was never concerned about his child, and so she went back to Guatemala with her young daughter and reunited with the two children she had left with her mother. But it was hard to support the family on the wages she could earn in Guatemala and so she left for the U.S. again after only five or six months at home. 

This time she came to New Bedford, where she had other relatives but again ended up in a relationship with a man who abused her. She put up with it, and then reached the breaking point. As she told me, "I began to value myself".  Her partner threatened to kill her if she left, and attacked her with a knife. She detailed her attempts to leave, and a time that he found her when she was sitting in her car after a doctor's appointment, and took out a bat and tried to break all the windows of her car. At this point she finally decided to call the authorities, and he was arrested and eventually sent to jail. She cooperated with the authorities and is now in the process of getting a U-visa (a special visa category for victims of certain types of crimes who cooperate with criminal investigations). 

I was honored and humbled by the trust she showed in telling me her story, as we have only met a few times in public events. But hearing Alejandra's story and reading the testimony of the young woman who detailed being raped by men who were threatening her family made me determined to find a way -- in addition to this blog -- to write about the experiences of women migrants.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Day of the Migrant

Just got word from the Catholic Parish in Zacualpa, Quiché, that today they are celebrating the Day of the Migrant. One of the Franciscan nuns who has worked at the parish for many years, Sister Ana Maria, is my friend on Facebook, and when she communicates with me via that medium, it's usually something interesting, and so when she messaged me today I paid attention.

Zacualpa is a town that was the site of many atrocities during the armed conflict. The church was used as a torture and killing chamber, and the church community has resisted efforts to erase that history.  It is also a municipality that has had a large outmigration to the U.S.  Probably about a third of the Guatemalans in New Bedford are from the Zacualpa area, and throughout the municipality one can see signs of migra-dollars: new construction, houses with two or three stories and all sorts of ornate architectural curlicues. Some years back, on my first trip to Guatemala, I met Sr. Ana Maria and she took me to a "Misa del Migrante" (mass for the migrants) that was being held in the home of a lay religious leader.

Apparently, this has become more institutionalized, and now it has moved to the church proper. According to Sr. Ana Maria, yesterday a representative of the Papal Nuncio visited Zacualpa, and they performed the "stations of the cross" of the migrant. I assume that this a version of the stations of the cross that marks the hardships of the journey north - -we did something similar in New Bedford one year for the commemoration of the anniversary of the Michael Bianco raid.  Several men took turns carrying a large wooden cross from the church,and as we walked through the streets of New Bedford, we marked stations that had to do with migration, but also the experience of migrants in the U.S. It would be interesting to compare notes on what exactly were the "stations".

Today they are going to be having music and messages in the atrium of the church, then a mass, and afterwards they will set loose balloons with a message of peace and blessings for everyone. The offerings from today's service will be sent to the "House of the Migrant" in the parish in San Marcos -- another municipality from which there has been substantial outmigration.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Random snippet

I've been pretty good about running while I have been in Guatemala (I figured I'd take a brief break from writing about racism and violence). The only places I didn't go running were Santa Eulalia (streets are extremely steep, and the second time I was there I had to get up at 1:30 a.m. to catch a 2:15 bus), Barillas (flatter, but because of the controversies and divisions in town, I didn't want to call even more attention to myself as a foreigner by traipsing around in tight, brightly colored running gear), and Alta Verapaz. The first morning we had been sleeping out of doors after failing to be allowed through the roadblock at Raxruhá, and while I woke up early, there was no place to change, and the person in charge of our group kept on saying, every fifteen minutes or so, that they were going to give us breakfast and then the buses were leaving right away. Breakfast never came, and about 2 hours passed before we actually left but I didn't want to take any chances. The next morning we had to catch a 4 a.m. bus, so again no time to run (I did want to get a few hours' sleep, and since the aldea where we were staying had a pretty rutted and rocky dirt road, I wouldn't have trusted myself to run along it in the pitch dark (it was temptingly flat, however; the only place other than la Sexta and the town center of Barillas that have been pretty much completely flat). 

However, here is something you will never see me do: running at night alongside a heavily trafficked stretch of the Panamerican highway, on the outskirts of Guatemala City.  When I saw a man doing just this, two days ago as I drove in, I was both admiring of his dedication and amazed at his recklessness. It seemed to me that the potential benefit of cardiovascular exercise was outweighed by the risks that some obnoxiously aggressive driver would decide to use the skimpy shoulder in order to pass on the right, or make a third lane where there wasn't one.

Running along La Sexta in Guatemalan City in the early morning on a weekday exposes a slightly different side of the city and the Centro Histórico: workers, schoolgirls in the obligatory plaid kilts and sweaters or sweatshirts, some with their boyfriends nearly draped around their shoulders, others walking alone or in pairs. About a dozen street sweepers, outfitted in fluorescent green municipality-issued vests, pushing water along the edge of the street; cheaper to hire dark-skinned people to do it by hand than purchase machinery.  Other joggers, a mixture of men and women, chugged their way up and down the pedestrian strip. A few ambulatory vendors stood at intersections holding out plastic trays of individually wrapped hard candies or gums.

Driving down here two nights ago I passed through Chimaltenango just after dark, which gave me a more complete view of the red light district just before the newly-constructed overpass that takes you over the turn-off for Antigua. Within one block, I saw three young women displaying three very different forms of vestment. All were phenotypically indigenous (it is hard to tell from skin, eye and hair color alone how a person would choose to identify herself). All were standing in or in front of doorways covered with flimsy curtains and the rooms behind - as much as I could see from a moving car which I was driving -- did actually seem to have red lights, or the walls or curtains were somewhere in the red family. One wore something tight and skimpy. The second wore a corte and huipil. The third wore a schoolgirl's kilt. Whether or not she actually was a schoolgirl or simply dressed as one to satisfy customers' fantasies remains unknown to me. At the end of the block, a small Pentecostal church. 

More snippets later. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Neoliberal Strategies, Indigenous Resistance and State-Sponsored Violence, part 3: chronologies and geographies

Time, history and memory filter through these reflections, and they are important elements in Maya culture, politics and everyday life. These are complementary to the concepts of tierra and territorio, and what I will try to do here is suggest some of the ways that chronologies and geographies shape (and are shaped by) the current cycle of neoliberal incursions, protests and repression.  This entry is a little more abstract and breaks the historical flow of the first two, but I will try to regain that narrative in the next entry. 

The larger historical frames that I have traced earlier -- the Spanish conquest, the 1954 coup, the civil war and particularly the years when the highlands were turned into "killing fields", the Peace Accords of 1996 -- are part of the "commonsense" of many people in Maya communities, not just professionals and professional activists. Gramsci's writings are relevant here, for Maya communities are full of organic intellectuals, ranging from Maya priests to school teachers, and many young people  Of course, because of my linguistic limitations (I don't speak any Maya languages fluently; I recognize several dozen words in K'iche' and maybe a dozen in Q'anjob'al), I can only attest to those organic intellectuals who speak enough Spanish for us to communicate in a lingua franca. 

The significance of time, and the many ways it can be imagined, reckoned and projected, in highland Maya culture, has been well discussed by scholars such as Barbara Tedlock, whose Time and the Highland Maya delves into the complex, multiple and overlapping calendrical systems. Among the various types of Maya priests, there are those who specialize in interpreting the calendrical systems, often called "day keepers". One whom I interviewed in Xela referred to this work as "counting time"; he said that as a young person who had little sense of his Maya identity, learning to "count time" was something that changed his life. People keep track of multiple chronologies simultaneously -- important dates in Guatemalan national history (these are enforced through schools, national media, and government and civil society institutions -- the Day of the Armed Forces, Flag Day, Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords), the calendar of patron saint festivals in neighboring towns (nearly everyone in El Quiché knows the dates of the patron saint feasts in other towns in the department, including ones they have never visited -- the media play a role here, as well, as local cable stations often show hours upon hours of live or taped coverage of parades, concerts and other components of the feasts). And then there are personal histories, also marked in time: the dates of the disappearances or murders of relatives who were victims of the armed conflict.  Most migrants I interviewed (and returned migrants I have spoken to informally) remember the date they left Guatemala, the date they crossed the border, and the date they arrived (if they did) at their final destination.

There are other collective historical markers, not as broadly national as the official holidays, but more localized, and perhaps limited to those who want or need to remember. These include the dates of massacres (and these may overlap, to a degree, with the dates of the deaths of specific individuals -- although not everyone who died or disappeared during the war was a victim of a large-scale massacre). Among these are the nationally significant ones -- Panzós, the Spanish Embassy -- that are often commemorated with public ceremonies or actions. They also include the anniversaries of assassinations or disappearances of important leaders, such as Msgr. Juan Gerardi, key figure in the Recuperation of Historical Memory initiative that gathered survivor testimonies, and one of the compilers/authors of the massive collection Guatemala Nunca Mas. (Guatemala Never Again). 

During the past three years, there is another series of dates that are etched in the minds and hearts of indigenous activists throughout Guatemala. These include May 1, 2012, when a peasant leader was killed by company security guards in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango; October 4, 2012, when 8 community leaders from Totonicapán were killed when the army opened fire on a peaceful protest along the Panamerican Highway; April 16, 2013, when the murdered and tortured body of Q'anjob'al leader Daniel Pedro Mateo was discovered in the aldea of Quetzál, Santa Cruz Barillas.  

And again, these are accompanied by more locally significant ones: the dates of the "consultas comunitarias de buena fé" -- the "community consultations in good faith" -- a form of popular referendum that has been carried out in several dozen municipalities throughout Guatemala, in which community members of all ages (at least those old enough to hold a pencil, read a ballot and mark a box) are invited to express their opinions about whether or not their community should accept mining, hydroelectrics or any other mega projects. In nearly every consultation that has been carried out, over 90% have voted NO, and in many cases the figure is closer to 100%. Although these consultations are not binding (that is why they are labeled "in good faith" as that is a legal construct; if they were binding they would be labeled "vinculante"), they carry tremendous symbolic weight in indigenous communities throughout Guatemala and are widely accepted as an authentic and legitimate expression of  community opinion.  In many municipalities, the anniversary of the consultation - including in municipalities where there has been state repression, company and state intimidation, and social conflict -- is celebrated as a civic holiday.

Moving from time to space, the events that I have indicated above, and others, are also part of a new cartography of Guatemala, one that is marked by the sites where there have been resistance movements, state or company-sponsored repression, violence, and deaths.  In light of the recent events, in the last few days someone published a map of Guatemala online with an image of a black bow (a nationally recognized symbol of mourning: at the home where someone has died, the family will place a black bow, sometimes made of recycled plastic bags, over the doorway to indicate that it is a house of mourning), and then the points that were highlighted on the map with the name of the municipality and a black bow were the places where there have been conflicts, peaceful resistances (occupations) and murders: San Juan Sacatepéquez, Monte Olivo in Alta Verapáz, Santa Cruz Barillas, and so forth. This new geography of postwar conflict, repression, resistance and violence, can be overlaid on the map of massacres and other violent events from the armed internal conflict. Not all the sites where there are proposed or functioning mines, hydroelectric dams, African palm plantations and other mega-projects were the site of wartime massacres, but many are, and so the historical memory of the wartime violence -- and the mostly indigenous population's memory of the behavior of the state security forces (military, police, civilian patrols and paramilitary death squads) -- are important pieces of the puzzle.

Neoliberal Strategies, Indigenous Resistance and State-Sponsored Violence, part 2

The Panzós massacre was the first large-scale slaughter of what ended up being a 36-year long armed conflict --a conflict that pitted a relatively small guerrilla force against a much larger and better-equipped army, many of whose generals were trained at the infamous School of the Americas. On May 29, 1978, a few hundred Q'eqchi subsistence farmers peacefully assembled in front of the municipal building in the town of Panzós, in Alta Verapaz, a remote, largely rural department with a predominantly indigenous population, to present a set of demands to the mayor. They were protesting moves by large landowners to oust them from land they had occupied and worked for over 100 years, although like many Maya and poor Ladino subsistence farmers, they lacked legal title to the land.  They were led by a forceful woman known as Ma Maquín. Soldiers opened fire and killed between 50 and 100 people, including women and children. Ma Maquín was reportedly one of the first to be hit by the army's bullets. Her granddaughter, who was at her side, is one of about 200 people who survived the massacre; I was fortunate to hear her speak at an event commemorating the 43rd anniversary of the massacre in 2011.

Panzós is an important historical antecedent of today's state-sponsored violence, and not only for the use of force. While the land that was in dispute in 1978 had been considered of little value, by the 1970s, substantial deposits of nickel and petroleum had been discovered, and local elites were eager to obtain the land in order to profit from the exploitation of its natural resources.Not incidentally, the outgoing President of Guatemalan, General Kjell Langerud, had substantial landholdings in Alta Verapaz. The President-Elect of Guatemala at the time of the massacre, General Romeo Lucas García and his defense minister, were both from Alta Verapaz and owned large properties there, and were likely to benefit handsomely from the extraction of nickel and petroleum.  Also presaging today's conflicts over land and resources, foreign multinational capital was also involved: the Guatemalan government had granted the oil concession in Alta Verapaz to the Basic Resources - Shenandoah oil consortium. Basic Resources was an international conglomerate based in Luxembourg, and Shenandoah Oil Corporation, based in the U.S. (the sources on Panzós simply refer to Basic Oil-Shenandoah; in some quick research I was able to find a Shenadoah Oil Corporation based in Oklahoma, and a Shenandoah Petroleum Corporation headquartered in Texas; I didn't dig deeply enough to see if the two companies are related or which one was involved in Guatemala). The right to work the nickel deposits was granted to EXIMBAL, a corporation established by the Canadian International Nickel Company in partnership with a U.S. multinational, the Hanna Mining Company.  These concessions reflected a decision by the Guatemalan government to actively court foreign investment (at the same time that army and paramilitary groups were regularly murdering student, peasant, union and other community leaders).  

To place these policy shifts in context, it is important to note the deep structural inequalities in Guatemala at the time of the armed conflict -- inequalities that persist to this day. An extremely small fraction of the population -- around 2% -- owned 70% of the land. This in a country where the majority of the population made its living (so to speak) through agriculture. In many ways, land distribution was at the heart of the peasant organizing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that brought down the heavy hand of the state. 

To return to the historical thread I was tracing, the Panzós and Spanish Embassy massacres ushered in the bloodiest years of the armed conflict. After a massive guerrilla campaign in 1981, the Lucas Garcia regime launched a counterinsurgency campaign that directly targeted civilians; the intent was to separate the guerrilla from their civilian (largely indigenous) base. In 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt took power in a coup d'etat and continued (and expanded) the scorched earth campaign that left somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people dead or disappeared. While the war did not officially end until 1996, most of the killings took place in the early 1980s. 200,000 is the ballpark figure contained in the U.N. and Catholic church-sponsored truth commission reports issued a few years after the war's end, although some scholars dispute that figure.  Some argue the death toll was substantially higher; others say it was probably somewhat lower.  Over 80% of those killed were indigenous (mostly Maya, and smaller numbers of Xinka and Garifuna). According to the U.N. sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, 93% of the deaths were at the hands of the armed forces, 3% were attributed to the guerrilla, and the remainder were unknown. And clearly the numbers are important in the post-war "reckoning" (the title of another excellent book by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who delves into the significance of the numbers, what gets counted, and by whom -- and again I am grossly oversimplifying a very complex and elegant analysis). The figures give lie to the often repeated arguments that the army and the guerrilla were equally culpable. These arguments have been stated so often and in so many forms that even survivors of what were clearly government massacres have internalized them. "There were killings on both sides; both the army and the guerrilla did a lot of bad things."  But I will leave that aside for now.

There are several ways in which the armed conflict helped set the stage for what is happening now. The bulk of the army's operations were concentrated in the largely indigenous western highlands. The department of Quiché, where I have done much of my research, was the site of over half of the 644 recorded massacres. In addition to the 200,000 dead or disappeared, close to a million Guatemalans were displaced by the war. Some sought refuge in other parts of Guatemala less affected by the conflict. Others fled to Mexico, Belize or the United States. Some made multiple moves. This past weekend I met a man who was originally from Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango, who now lives in the Ixcán -- a large and sparsely populated municipality (township) in the department of El Quiché, bordering Alta Verapaz. He and his wife had originally fled to the Ixcán, then sought refuge in Mexico, where they lived for 13 years, and returned to the Ixcán after the Peace Accords. 

The large number of internally displaced and refugees, however, needs to be teased apart for a deeper meaning. These massive movements of people away from their native villages and towns meant that people abandoned their homes and modest landholdings (those who actually owned land; debt-peonage systems were still in place in many highland communities. The family of one of my New Bedford Maya friends paid "rent" on the land they farmed by working for several months of the year on the coastal plantations owned by the landlord. The land, of course, had originally belonged to Maya farmers but since they had no legal papers proving their "ownership", a wealthy landowner was able to claim ownership). While many of the IDPs and refugees stayed where they had fled, others returned after the war, only to find that their homes and landholdings had been taken over by the military, or handed over to local elite supporters of the military as a reward (or otherwise appropriated by local elites). Returnees were sometimes able to re-purchase their own land from those who had usurped it (often at inflated prices and usurious interest rates), but often forced back into debt peonage or renting lands to farm. Or they became internal migrants, moving to Guatemala City and the outlying areas to find work in maquiladoras, or as market or ambulatory vendors, or domestic servants. Or to the regions where there was large-scale export-oriented plantation agriculture. Or they migrated out of the country. In other words, the war resulted in a substantial redistribution of land that further exacerbated the already extremely unequal pattern of land ownership.

In addition, it is worth noting that the scorched earth policy literally wiped many villages off the map. According to Father Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit priest who is also a noted anthropologist and one of the earliest eyewitness documentarians of the armed conflict, and other writers, the army's massacres acquired a predictable pattern, that included the systematic torture and killing of townspeople (including gang rape of women and girls), accompanied by the destruction of crops and livestock, plus burning homes. In several hundred instances (many sources give the figure of 626), the villages were completely obliterated and most have never been rebuilt.

The war also created a culture of impunity, as all of the civilian institutions of government were subservient to the military, and most civilian institutions of civil society as well. Catholic church leaders, including lay catechists, were persecuted and many killed; to further weaken people's faith in the church (Rios Montt and some of the other military presidents were born-again Christians), churches were taken over and turned into torture, rape and killing centers.  The war normalized violence and since there was really no way to speak out against the slaughters without risking being slaughtered or disappeared oneself, it seemed as though the military could do what it wanted with no consequences. Many of those who spoke up were forced into exile, or suffered worse, often gruesome fates (with tortured and mutilated bodies, or body parts such as heads left in highly visible places as a warning).

The war thus normalized violence and also eroded faith in governmental institutions, as neither the police nor the legal system provided any shield or recourse. To underscore the lack of any autonomous state institutions, the police force was renamed the Military Police, and functioned as another arm of the military.  Although one of the provisions of the 1996 Peace Accords was the reorganization of the police as a civilian police force, many of the higher-ranking police officers have military backgrounds. This has been borne out by my personal experience with local police in El Quiché (I've been able to confirm that several of the captains and other officers -- most of whom are middle-aged and Ladino -- have military backgrounds).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Neoliberal strategies, indigenous resistance, and state-sponsored violence: part 1

As news reached me of the bloody events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, evoking the long history of racist violence against Black men and other people of color, often at the hands of those sworn to uphold the law, it was refracted by the chain of events that has unfolded during the same time period in Guatemala -- police attacks on indigenous leaders, leading to several deaths and many injured. I was struck by the parallels and also the differences. Since my writing about the resistance movement has been somewhat sporadic, I will try in this blog entry (or series of entries) to address this in a more systematic manner, for friends in the U.S. The chain of violent attacks by the police, army and also security guards hired by the capitalist enterprises whose projects indigenous communities have rejected, has deep historical roots -- we could locate the starting point with the Spanish invasion of 1524, and follow through the state-sponsored violence against indigenous communities under the so-called liberal republic of the 19th century, up through the 1954 coup and the 36-year long armed internal conflict. The climate of insecurity, also the underlying neoliberal economic projects that the government of Guatemala has supported and promoted, are also connected in important ways to the current crisis of unaccompanied minors who have been arriving in the United States in recent years -- at least the Guatemalan contingent. I do not think I will be able to fully explicate all of this in a blog entry -- that would require a more carefully researched and much lengthier article, of which this is perhaps a trial run or extremely rough draft (without footnotes or citations). 

So, in what follows, I will give some historical context to struggles over land; the history of violent repression of campesino/indigenous organizing; neoliberal development strategies; and the current wave of state and corporate-sponsored violence (if I had more time I could probably tease out some interesting connections to the rise of private security in Guatemala as well).

Guatemala's history as a colony and then an independent nation has been marked by struggles over land -- in Maya-activist discourse, "tierra y territorio". Tierra has a more literal meaning, as the Spanish word can mean the earth (the planet), but also the very substance of the soil that nurtures and houses human (and animal) existence -- la madre tierra is a phrase that abounds in conversation among activists, spiritual leaders and ordinary Maya. By this I mean people who are not necessarily involved in any political movement but who have some sense of Maya identity; several decades of Maya cultural politics have worked their way into everyday life, and while much of Guatemalan revolutionary left was defanged, disheartened or cooped, in the genocidal armed conflict and the peace process (that has not lived up to its promise of a "firm" and "enduring" peace), it seems that some of the vision and politics of both the Maya movement and the revolutionary left have taken root (and this is not to say that elements of the left are not still evident -- the ranks of the current-day resistance movements are sprinkled with Maya veterans of the armed struggle). 

Territorio has a more collective and historical meaning: it refers to the large areas of land that historically belonged to Maya communities, or even to the Maya and other indigenous groups as a whole. In some register, this would actually mean the entirety of Guatemala, and even beyond the current national boundaries. 

The struggles over tierra y territorio, as I noted above, with the Spanish invasion and the wars against the Spanish, in which the colonists were sometimes able to pit one Maya group against another (for example, the K'iche's at one moment allied with the Spanish against the Kaqchikeles). Spain rewarded its colonists with encomiendas -- plots of land that of course had originally been used by the original inhabitants, including the labor of the Maya whose land it had been (forced labor regimes for Maya men existed until the 1970s, and were arguably re-established by force of arms during the 1980s, as the army obliged the Maya men whom they did not massacre to work for the army, serving in armed civilian patrols and often participating in massacres).  

As wealthy elites and foreign capital helped themselves to even the land that had been designated by either the Spanish or the liberal republican government as belonging to the Maya, there were periods of organizing around the need for land, and land reform (I am here vastly oversimplifying decades of Guatemalan history, and my apologies to anyone who is familiar with this history). It was Jacobo Arbenz' very modest land reform proposals, threatening the vast landholdings of United Fruit Company, that led to the CIA-backed coup that toppled his government and ushered in the return to military rule (after a brief period of democratic government). While during the early years of the war the military killed student and peasant leaders, what really marked a turning point in the war were two events: the massacre at Panzós, Alta Verapaz, in 1978, of Q'eqchi peasants protesting their dispossession, and the brutal assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, when it was occupied by members of the Comite de Unidad Campesina or CUC (Peasant Unity Committee), demanding among other things, agrarian reform.

Historian Greg Grandin refers to Panzós as "the last colonial massacre" -- and also the starting point for an escalation of military attacks against Maya communities, starting with those who had dared to organize and raise their voices, and including wholesale obliteration of entire towns.

From the Centro Ceremonial to the Cruz Maya

It is fitting, in a way, that my week in northern Huehuetenango was bracketed by visits to ceremonial sites. The day I arrived in Santa Eulalia, last Monday, August 4, I was invited to accompany leaders of the "movimiento social" (social movement) in a ceremony at a ceremonial center in the middle of the town. And then on the morning that I left for San Pedro la Laguna, the brother in law of my friend Lorenzo took me to another ceremonial site, a Maya cross up on one of the hillsides overlooking the town.

I set out for Santa Eulalia last Monday morning, leaving from Chinique de la Flores in El Quiché. There is a relatively new, well paved highway that goes from Quiché to the outskirts of the city of Huehuetenango, where it connects with another highway that takes you into the town of Chiantla, where you find the "Ruta de Barillas", (route to Barillas), which climbs (quite literally) up into the Cuchumatanes, taking you around breathtaking (again literally) hairpin curves, before flattening out for a stretch. On that more or less level and straight part of the road, shortly before the turn off to Todos Santos, is a restaurant where I often stop and eat, the Comedor Cuchumatanes. Although I rarely eat meat when I am in the U.S., the area around Todos Santos is known for its mutton stew and that is invariably what I have at the Comedor.  There were a few other patrons there. One man, who gave off the vibe of a long-distance truck driver, ordered a small bottle of aguardiente (it was about 12:30 p.m.). As I was sopping up chile sauce with my tortillas, the phone rang: my friend Lorenzo, froth community radio station in Santa Eulalia. He asked where I was and I told him. "Ah, we are just about 20 minutes away." He explained that he was going to the city of Huehuetenango with his wife, and they would stay overnight as she had a doctor's appointment the next day, but they were planning to stop at the Comedor for lunch. So I waited, meanwhile arranging to stay with another friend in Santa Eulalia, and we got a chance to visit a little and then I took off in one direction, leaving them with their lunch and then presumably heading off in the opposite direction. 

After settled my bags and my pickup at the home of my friend Alfredo, one of the leaders of the local "movimiento social" and the regional Gobierno Plurinacional (we met when he came to New York for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in 2013), we chatted briefly in his office, and he suggested that I might want to attend a ceremony that was being held that afternoon at 5, at the Centro Ceremonial in the town. He explained that every week, the members of the "movimiento social" (social movement) in Santa Eulalia (the civil society organization that advocates for the community, and is one of the leading actors in the regional resistance movement) held a ceremony to restore their energies, renew their commitment and "clear the air" of negative forces.  By "ceremony", they mean a Maya ceremony, led by a "Maya priest" or "spiritual guide" or "abuelo" -- there isn't really a term in Spanish, much less in English, that is really adequate to describe the role of the people who lead ceremonies. The term used most often in Santa Eulalia is "abuelo" -- literally, grandfather or grandparent. This is another one of those polyvalent terms. It can mean a person's biological grandparents; it can mean "the elders" in a community, it can mean "the ancestors" -- specifically, the Maya ancestors whose legacy modern-day Maya activists see themselves as upholding. One of the lines of political/cultural discourse that I have heard in public events and meetings is that "our Maya ancestors, the abuelos and abuelas, gave us the legacy of their cosmovision and their wisdom, and we need to reclaim it and preserve it and practice it and pass it along to future generations." If I were a better ethnographer I would pay closer attention to the nuances of the discourse. While I was with Alfredo, a young man who was in the office came up to me and greeted me with a warm smile, reminding me that we had met previously. His name was Kaxho ("kasho"), and he was one of the leaders of the youth movement in the area.

 Alfredo also suggested that I might want to talk with Rigoberto Juárez, one of the leaders both locally and regionally. Rigoberto is someone I met a few years ago, and at the time he was living in Salcajá, outside Xela, which is where we had our first conversation. In the intervening years, as the situation in northern Huehuetenango has heated up, Rigoberto has been spending most of his time in his native Santa Eulalia. In January 2013, I was mildly surprised to encounter Rigoberto when a friend in Santa Eulalia invited me to be part of a "comisión" (task force) that was going to look into the disappearance of an elderly woman in a rural community. In the intervening months he has become one of the key figures in the resistance movement (or maybe he always was and I am just catching on). Rigoberto presents one of the sad examples of the criminalization of dissent in Guatemala. He is facing criminal charges for supposedly inciting the burning of machinery in San Mateo Ixtatán. He was in Guatemala City the day that the machinery was burned, but plausibility doesn't seem to be a strong point in what we might call "frivolous lawsuits". 

It was sheer luck that I was able to talk with Rigoberto, as he was headed for a visit to the Q'anjob'al community in the U.S. the following day. As I have mentioned in previous posts, nearly every family in Santa Eulalia has a relative who has been in the U.S. or who is currently there. As he dropped me off at Rigoberto's house, Alfredo reminded both of us that the ceremony would begin at 5, and so we only had a brief while to chat, over mugs of atol (basically some kind of grain mixed with water).  We were able to spend some time together later in my trip, but not under circumstances that lent themselves to conversation -- hours and hours in uncomfortable buses traveling to the Ixcán, but that and the content of my conversation with Rigoberto are subjects for future blog posts.

Shortly after five, we readied ourselves and walked to the Centro Ceremonial. The center is basically a modest building with an altar in the front courtyard, and then a structure that looks like a small concrete replica of an ancient Maya temple in the back. We entered the building and the first thing I saw was an array of candles in glass holders -- what we would call seven day candles -- on the floor. Dozens of candles. The room was otherwise dark except for the light that entered through the open back and front doors. On the right side of the candles, chairs in a circle and one elderly woman seated. On the other side, a table and a woman standing or sitting nearby. She seemed to be unwrapping or arranging things -- my assumption was that these were things that would be used in the ceremony. Rigoberto greeted the woman, and told me I could sit down, so I sat on a bench; it wasn't clear where the ceremony was taking place, and so I thought maybe it was going to be inside. Other people came in and greeted and talked with the woman who was on the left hand side. I was just waiting to find out what to do. After a while people went outside and so I followed, and the man who was leading the ceremony was sweeping out the area in front of the altar.  Gradually other people arrived; there were about 12 or 13 in all.  Kaxho was there, together with a young woman, Adaluz, and a few other young people, and several middle-aged men. Doña Reyna, the widow of Daniel Pedro Mateo, arrived and we embraced, and Alfredo; Alfredo's wife Juana arrived when the ceremony was well underway.

The leader built the sacred fire, using incense and candles, and started the ceremony.  We stood in a semi circle with the altar at the base, forming a bell shape. Since it was entirely in Q'anjob'al, I only gathered the barest sense of what was happening, but I have been to enough ceremonies to understand some of the basic dynamics. It started with prayers to the four cardinal points, and then we faced the altar. It was shorter than a lot of other ceremonies I have attended, and didn't involve the detailed naming and counting of the 20 nahuales. The fire was intense, and although I am not trained at all in reading the fire, I noticed that the flames seemed to move in spirals for most of the time, a spiral starting up and swirling, and then another one. They looked like small orange sandstorms or tornadoes. Someone with more background would have to interpret; I didn't ask for an interpretation, nor did I ask any other questions, but decided to just be part of the experience and not try to analyze or intellectualize too much.

The last full day of my stay in Huehuetango (in between I made a 2-1/2 day visit to Barillas), I took a walk up one of the hills behind where Lorenzo lives. A young man whom I had met at the radio station (and whose name then escaped me), told me how to find the path, and explained that there were two ways. One would take me to the "cruz Maya" (Maya cross) on the hillside and then to the summit, and the other would just take me to the summit. I had the impression that the Maya cross was somewhat farther down, and I made several false turns (there were a lot of paths splitting off, and of course I didn't know which was which) but didn't find the Maya cross, and so continued up to the top (or as far as there was a path). When I returned, I said that I hadn't been able to find the Maya cross because I didn't know which path was which, and hadn't seen many people on the path. Lorenzo's brother in law, Pedro, was visiting the house when I was there, and he said that he would take me there. As I was leaving the next morning, we agreed that we would meet around 5:45 (his wife said that the site was not unlocked until 6 so we couldn't go earlier). With some hesitation, I called him at 5:50 to find out when he was coming and he arrived about 20 minutes later and we set off. It turned out that the cross was very close to the top, right behind a house where I had seen some children the day before and had asked about the path to the summit (it hadn't occurred to me to ask the children about the cross, but in retrospect I realize that they were part of the family that have the keys to the gate that surrounds the cross). There was no one else there when we arrived, and Pedro explained that the gate was erected a few years ago because there were people who were using the cross for other purposes (young people coming up to drink and who knows what else), and that to preserve the sanctity of the site, they had to put up a gate.  He stood quietly in front of the cross and murmured what must have been some prayers or blessings.  A few minutes after we arrived, an older woman and young man came, bearing some bundles that were probably the candles, flowers and incense that they were going to offer. Pedro greeted them and explained that I was visiting from the U.S., that I was an anthropologist and that I had wanted to see the site.  I asked if I could take a few photographs, and Pedro said it was alright, so I did. The site was heavily shaded, and so not a lot to photograph; I mostly did it to record it for myself.

And then I realized, after we had walked back down, that this made a fitting close to the week I had spent in Santa.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Just my luck...

I am not superstitious, but maybe I jinxed things when I was driving up the very steep and winding road from San Pedro la Laguna, and thinking that it was pretty miraculous that I hadn't had any car trouble in the last two weeks, not even a flat tire (my friend Jose Luis had a flat when he brought me the car but the car had been sitting in a garage for a while and who knows how long it had been flat). I made it up that road with no problems -- I had been nearly sleepless the night before with anxiety about that drive, since one very memorable time I had had to leave San Pedro LL at 4:30 in the morning to get to a meeting in Guatemala City and I was stuck behind a couple of buses and trucks, and my car does not do well if I have to come to a full stop on a steep sloping road with a lot of curves and then try to start it up again, or try to accelerate.  

I made it to Quiché last night in good time, was able to fit in a meeting with Lolita Chávez, one of the leaders of the movement in Quiché and nationally, and then made it to my friends' home and parked the car.  But this morning it wouldn't start. Not even a low growl. I didn't have much time to act. I had to go to Zacualpa this morning to meet with Sr. Ana María at the Catholic parish, to arrange things for a study trip to Guatemala next year. And then I had to somehow get to Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango, since I was invited to accompany people from the movimiento social here on a trip to the Ixcan, and we are leaving at 2 a.m., AND the last bus to Santa Eulalia leaves Huehuetanango's bus terminal at 4.

So I walked into Chinique (about 2 km.), stopped by my old garage, explained the problem, left the key to the car with Willy, the garage owner, and told him where the car was, then took a bus to Zacualpa, had my meeting, took the bus back (the buses don't run that frequently, about once every half hour, so I needed not to miss one). I stopped in Chinique because I realized that I needed to get things out of the car and Willy had the key. So I got the key back from him, walked the 2 km. back to my friends' home, got what I needed from the car, packed, walked back up the path to wait for the bus to Quiché, just as Willy and one of his assistants drove up. That's the nice thing about a small town -- even two and a half years after I left, I still have a mechanic who knows my car, and who does house calls!

I just had time to tell them who had the key as a bus came down the road (no bus stops, for the most part: you just stand on the road and flag a bus down). Got to Quiché, where I waited for nearly an hour where everyone told me the buses to Huehuetanngo stopped, until finally a moto-taxi driver told me because of the feria patronal, the buses were only stopping at the terminal. So I hopped in and we got to the terminal in time -- the anxiety was because I didn't want to miss the last bus to Santa; that would have made the whole trip in vain.  I had made a reservation on the 4:00 bus from Huehue to Santa, but as my bus from Quiché pulled in to the terminal, the 3:30 bus was getting ready to leave and there was space so I gave my suitcase to the assistant and asked if I had time to buy some water. He said yes, so I went to a stand right behind the bus... and then as I was about to pay I saw the bus pull off.. with my suitcase on it and without me. I ran like mad (I think I may have forgotten to pay the vendor for the water), and since the bus was going pretty slow (it was still in the parking lot that is called a bus terminal) I was able to grab it and jump on.

Enough drama for one day. Now to get a few hours' sleep before a LONG ride to Ixcán.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Paying tribute to the martyrs of Totonicapán

On October 4, 2012, a peaceful protest called by the leaders of the 48 cantones of Totonicapán, was attacked by the military. The predominantly indigenous marchers were blocking a strip of the Panamerican Highway, the CA-1, to protest, among other things, the government's decision to raise electrical rates -- a decision that disproportionately affects the rural poor, who are largely indigenous. 

A total of eight people were killed in what has become known as the "massacre of Totonicapán" or the "massacre of the Cumbre de Alaska" (which is the point int he highway at which the army attacked the protestors. The massacre became one of the emblematic events of the regime of President Otto Pérez Molina, following the declaration of martial law in Santa Cruz Barillas earlier that year following the killing of a resistance leader. 

Today as I was driving from Huehuetenango to take a little writing break in San Pedro la Laguna, I passed the spot on where the massacre occurred, now marked by a modest monument, erected by the popular movements. I pulled over (I was on the opposite side of the highway) and walked across to take a photograph.

The resistance movement in Barillas -- getting there

It's a pleasant walk from the center of Santa Cruz Barillas to the resistencia pacifica (peaceful resistance) that they call Poza Verde. You take the main road that passes along one side of the central plaza, past the shiny new buildings that house some bank branches, the hotel Villa Virginia (whose owner is part of the resistance movement), past the pastel-pink municipal building on your right, past the dozens of people who can be found at almost any hour of the day lining the edges of or walking through the Parque Central: shoe-shine boys or men, bent over the feet of their clients or looking out for anyone whose shoes look like they could use a shine (since I mostly wear sandals I am not an object of their attention), vendors setting up their stands, women hurrying children along to school, or bent under heavy burdens, and people of all ages and sexes sitting on the benches, waiting for something or someone or just passing the time of day. One of the town's two or three traffic signals is at the end of the square by the muni (pronounced "moonie" -- short for "municipal building"). After the traffic light, for a few blocks the street remains more or less level, although the pavement soon stops and the road surface is dirt and gravel. There are stores, a cantina (tavern) on one of the first corners after the square, and then the road starts to climb and dip, the houses and businesses are fewer and farther between, and fewer people or vehicles on the road. To the right is the river Kan Balam, which starts way up in the mountains somewhere, meanders its way along one edge of the town, and then curves to the left as the road bends to follow it, heading towards the resistencia pacifica at Posa Verde. For the last half kilometer or so, there are few dwellings, and the trees and plants nearly form a canopy over the road. There are a few paths heading off to the left hand side; one of them takes you past a school, a small store, along the edge of some fields and then to the kitchen area of the resistance, but I no longer remember what the landmark is, so I go the other way, which is to continue straight along the main road until it turns and takes you directly to the resistencia. There is not a lot of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise, once you get past the more populated part of the town.  It was sunny and warm as I walked, saying "Buenas tardes" and "adios" to people as I passed; some responded and some didn't.

It has been over a year since the residents of Santa Cruz Barillas who opposed the hydroelectric project and the militaristic and deadly response of the government and the Spanish transnational set up camp, and I have visited the encampment several times. Since different communities take turns staffing the encampment, it is only occasionally that I find someone whom I have met before, with the exception of the coordinators.  There are two rotations: one for the women, who come during the day, and prepare food, and the men, who take 24-hour turns. The women arrive in the morning, at around 8, and leave around 5. Some groups come once a week, it seems (although some told me every two weeks). One group of men arrives at 6 p.m. one day and leaves the next day at 6 (although judging from my visits in the afternoons, it does not seem that all of the men stay until the end of their time -- the second day I visited, arriving in the resistencia at about 1:45, there were only about 2 or 3 men present). I didn't get a unified answer about how frequently each group of came -- one man said every two weeks, one said once a month. Obviously not every individual comes every single time his or her group comes.

As a reflection of how the situation has changed, the first time I approached the resistance, on Wednesday, there were quite a few people there, including about two dozen men, and when I approached, calling out hello, and stopping before the entrance to the shelter, several men came out and asked me who I was, what institution I represented, and what I was doing. I explained that I had spoken to the coordinators Lencho and Micaela, and I showed them my passport.  One of the man decided that I should write down my information in a notebook he had, and I quickly complied. Of course it makes sense that the people in the resistance should be careful about who comes, and there is no reason to think that because I know that I am an extranjera solidaria (a "foreigner in solidarity"), anyone else would know that simply by looking at me. There has been a lot of talk lately in the mainstream Guatemalan media about foreign "companions" in the resistance movements. Acompañantes is a word that is used a lot in Guatemala -- those who accompany social movements, and I think it comes from the radical Christian tradition, but it doesn't really have an English equivalent. My dictionary translates it as "companion or escort", and possibly "escort" is closer to how it is used in Guatemala. "Escort" in a situation of conflict or potential danger. 

Once I have passed muster, I am invited to enter, and sit down. The atmosphere is relaxed and intimate. The women and girls chat with each other in Q'anjob'al as they pat out tortillas and flip them on two stoves. A few of the men are stretched out resting on the benches, others are sitting together and talking, others playing soccer (futbol) together with some of the boys, or watching.  Some of the girls are eager to talk with me and pepper me with questions. Where do I live? Am I married? How many children to do I have? What is New York like? Can I take them with me when I return? Nearly every time I am with a group of new acquaintances and they find out I am from the U.S., at least one person asks, laughingly but wistfully, if I can take him or her back with me in my suitcase. Then they want to hear me say things in English -- How do you say table? How do you say dog?  I ask them for the equivalents in Q'anjob'al, and take out my notebook to write down the translations, and then ask them to write the words, since I don't recognize all the sounds easily.  So, I have now expanded my Q'anjob'al vocabulary slightly:  ZET CHONEJ -- What are you doing?  CHEMTE -- cutting board. A'E -- water. And some animals: cow, horse, pig, cat, and rabbit. 

Then the girls want to walk across the creaky wooden bridge -- the wooden planks very cracked and rotted in places, and there are large gaps between some of the planks -- and take photos, so I oblige them (I think they are also curious to see if I will flinch at the bridge but I have crossed this one before, although it does provoke a moment or two of anxiety). They are all very pleased with the photos, which I show them on my camera (and I unfortunately didn't have a chance to make copies, but since this group only comes once a week, I knew that I would not likely see them again during my short stay). And then we troop back to the encampment, where I spend another half-hour or so just chatting with the people who are there, and then make my way back to town.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


It is hard to write about the human, emotional, interpersonal side of my time in Guatemala --and particularly in this remote corner of Huehuetenango -- without sounding sappy, like a stereotypical first world tourist gushing about the warmth, sincerity and genuineness of "the natives" or "the locals".  By emphasizing the political and social I run the risk of dehumanizing the people whom I have met and who have, for the most part, welcomed me into their communities and their movements, and some of whom have invited me into their homes.  To be sure, I cannot count the times that someone has approached me for help with raising money for a worthy project. But that is more than balanced out by the acts of generosity and kindness, the modest gestures of friendship and inclusion (I was going to write "simple gestures" but want to stay away from stereotyped representations of indigenous peoples).  When I stepped off the bus from Barillas, which is sunny and warm most of the time, and was not prepared for the colder climate in Santa Eulalia, a friend swiftly offered to lend me a warm jacket for a few days.  When I spent the night at the home of Alfredo, one of the leaders of the movimiento social here in Santa, and one of the leaders of the Gobierno Plurinacional, his younger daughters wanted me to read books to them, and begged me to walk them to school in the morning, and were adamant that I should stay another night with them. 

But I was especially touched by the reception from the family of Daniel Pedro Mateo, whom I met only once. As I sat and talked with his widow, Reyna, warming ourselves at the same stove where, a year and a half ago, I had interviewed her husband, one of her youngest daughters came over, and, a slight smile glimmering across her face, held out her hand to reveal four plump dark crimson globes -- late-season cherries from a tree on their modest property. The skins were a little wrinkled, but the flesh was firm and sweet. As I got ready to leave the house for my next appointment, Reyna's mother, who has lived with her since Daniel's assassination, handed me a small bag of mustard or turnip greens (as I had been admiring the fat, healthy leaves that she and one of the daughters had been trimming and readying to be cooked), and another daughter came in, proudly bearing two greenish apples that she had pulled from one of their trees. It started to rain hard, and Reyna and the children found an umbrella to loan me (my route home would take me past their house). "Thank you", while clearly appropriate, seems a woefully inadequate response. Here was a family whose lives had been torn apart by a brutal murder -- Reyna teared up when she talked about the empty space in their family unit and how they had been "complete" on my previous visit -- who was eagerly sharing the little they had with me. Reyna pressed me to stay with them the next time I came, and when I returned a couple of hours later, the youngest daughter ran over, and wrapped herself around my knees, and then raised her arms so I could pick her up, and threw her arms around me in the sweetest embrace I've had in a long time.

Talking resistance

Much of this trip has been devoted to the various resistance movements.  During the past year, there has been an increasing criminalization of the communities, individuals and organizations that have opposed neoliberal strategies such as hydroelectric dams and mining. This week I have spent in northern Huehuetenango, with people involved in the resistance movement, broadly speaking, first in Santa Eulalia, then in Santa Cruz de Barillas, and then back in Santa Eulalia. The situation has become more tense since the last time I visited. There has not been another assassination (Daniel Pedro Mateo, from Santa Eulalia, was kidnapped and then murdered on his way to a meeting in Barillas last April), but there are arrest warrants out for many community leaders; there was a military occupation of San Mateo Ixtatán, a town halfway in between Santa Eulalia and Barillas; and the national media tend to either ignore the resistance movements or portray their leaders as criminals. A few weeks before coming here, I saw an article in the Prensa Libre stating that there was an arrest warrant out for Rigoberto Juarez, one of the leaders of the "Social Movement" in Santa Eulalia (that's the term that is used here) -- and also a friend of mine -- for having set fire to equipment belonging to the company trying to install a hydroelectric project in San Mateo Ixtatán. Rigoberto happened to be in Guatemala City on the date that the equipment was burned, but veracity and plausibility does not seem to be the strong suit of these criminal charges.

All of this has led to a certain degree of mistrust of outsiders, and even mistrust within communities. I have experienced this to a degree -- for the first time in a long time, someone asked me not to record an interview (and this is a person I've known and to whom I've spoken several times). Leaders whom I've met previously have questioned me about my background -- where I'm from, what I do -- and what exactly my research is about, and what I plan to do with the information.  I don't take this personally; it signals the degree to which the government and the companies have succeeded in sowing discord. The term people here use is "disarticulate" -- the companies and the government have disarticulated the movements. The other day, one of the leaders of the Plurinational Government of the Acateco, Chuj, Q'anjob'al, Popti and Mestizo Peoples (more about that group later) told me that he and some other regional leaders had been called in to investigate a situation in a community that none of them had visited before, but not everyone had been informed that a delegation from the outside was coming. They did whatever they were supposed to do and when they returned to their car, it was surrounded by angry local residents, who thought they might be spies sent by the government or the company, and they were held for a couple of hours until someone arrived and identified them.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Just a little reflection on race

During my various visits in Guatemala, I've walked by dozens of schools, and have entered a few, as I have friends who have teachers. I have noticed that most of the visual images that appear in schools -- in posters on the walls, or murals painted on the outside of school buildings -- if there are children represented in those images, they are often white children.  In a few places there are murals that have indigenous themes -- one of the bilingual schools in Chichicastenango, for example. But many of the images look like they come from 1950s educational materials in the United States.  One can only imagine what the cumulative effect of this is on the predominantly indigenous student population -- to be surrounded of images of happy children who look nothing like you or anyone you know. The other day I was in the house of a friend, with several young girls -- her daughters and nieces. The dolls with which they were playing were all white Barbie-type dolls. I haven't made an examination of children's toys and whether there are any studies in Guatemala or elsewhere in Latin America that look at dolls and their impact on children's attitudes towards race, particularly children of color. There are indigenous dolls, but they are usually hand-made dolls that are not designed for children's play (and are priced for the tourist market, beyond the reach of local families, while the Barbie knockoffs, which are probably not exactly cheap for poor families, are at least somewhat within reach, and are sold at the places where ordinary people shop (regular stores, open-air markets). 

I write this because as I was walking back to the town center from the place where we had been meeting all day, I passed a school (which I had passed twice before), and was struck by the fact that although the population of Santa Eulalia is over 90% Q'anjob'al, all the children in the murals that decorated the outside wall of the school were white.

As I said, I haven't made any kind of scientific study of this, but my empirical experience tells me that many women and girls see "white" features as desirable. As I am often the only white person in many of the places I visit, whether people's homes or public gatherings, I am sometimes the object of attention from girls and other women because of my difference. Just the other day, at lunch with a friend's family, one of her sisters started to blush and giggle and said something in Q'anjob'al, which one of the other relatives translated for me. "She says she likes your eyes," I was told. "She wants to know if she can have eyes like yours."  I smiled and said that I wanted eyes like hers and we both laughed. When I lived her and went to a lot of meetings of Maya women's organizations, occasionally one of the women would comment about my hair or my skin, and would sometimes touch my hair or stroke my skin, commenting on the texture and/or color.

This reflection doesn't have an end point, as the question of race in Guatemala is nearly inexhaustible. Certainly in the mostly indigenous highland communities where I spend most of my time, the impact of centuries of displacement, war, discrimination and economic and political marginalization is evident nearly everywhere. One only has to compare roadways in  rural communities in the altiplano with those around cities where the non-indigenous elite live. Of course the subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle insinuation that white/foreign is better is not limited to murals on school buildings. Foreign brands are everywhere, and lately I've heard a lot of criticism of this. However, the criticism is pretty much contained among the ranks of "political Mayas".

The inescapable presence of migration

Although I did not come to Guatemala to work on the subject of migration, it is an almost unavoidable theme in many parts of the country. Here in the Q'anjob'al region of northern Huehuetnango, it seems nearly every family has a migration story. Early this morning, as the mist was still heavy over the hills and valleys, I was walking back to my friend Lorenzo's house from the house of another friend where I had spent the night in the company of members of a youth organization here in Santa Eulalia. I was walking along with one of the young men who had been part of our gathering last night, which started as a meeting followed by dinner and a sleep-over, and we were chatting about the meetings we were both attending later in the morning. I had wanted to go to Lorenzo's house before the all-day meeting I was attending to wash out clothes from my trip and make myself oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, and I said that I imagined Oscar was going home to give his mother a kiss and change clothes. "Actually, my grandmother", he said. So I asked him where his mother was. "In the United States." I asked how long his mother had been there; he said 16 and a half years. I asked if his father was there also, and he said his father had been there for 17 years. I didn't ask much more; we had just met the day before and I didn't want to press him about growing up with parents in the United States. He clearly is someone who has been able to succeed despite the odds: leader of a youth organization, involved in civil society organizations, studying, working. So, a reminder that so called "family disintegration" does not always lead to disaster.

Then later this morning, in talking with one of the women who was at the day-long meeting of the Plurinational Government of the Chuj, Akateko, Q'anjob'al, Popti and mestizo peoples, a woman from Santa Cruz Barillas, when I said that I was from the U.S., she mentioned that her husband was in the United States, and had been there for fourteen years. Again, this was someone I was meeting for the first time, and I didn't ask much -- especially as we were in the ladies' room, and the meeting was still going on. But she lamented that since he didn't have papers he wasn't able to return, because returning would mean that he couldn't go back to the U.S. except by making the same long, expensive overland trip, and there were no jobs.

In conversations with some of the leaders of the resistance movement here, they have made very clear what they see as the connection between mining, megaprojects - in other words, neoliberal development schemes that ravage natural resources and provide little in the way of real benefits to local populations -- and migration. Throughout my conversations with people at the resistance site in Barillas, I came across many people who had either been in the U.S. (men who approach me to try out the few words of English they remember), or had family members who were (or who had been) migrants.

The migration "surge" from the Guatemalan side

The crisis of the unaccompanied minors arriving on the U.S. border has been a hot subject in Guatemala as well as the U.S., and as someone who works with migrants, and has written several expert witness affidavits for migrants seeking asylum or withholding of removal, including a few who were unaccompanied minors, it has been interesting to discuss this with friends here, and also just to pick up on what some of the discourse has been, both official and popular. Last week a Guatemalan official made the overland journey that migrants take, to see for himself what the experience was.  The Guatemalan president has been railing about parents and how they are responsible for this. So, in his view, he government bears no responsibility for this, and he completely ignores systemic ills like poverty, lack of economic opportunity, lack of employment, violence, the culture of impunity, and the failure of his government to address these in any constructive way.

It was very interesting to accidentally come across a radio program yesterday morning as I set out from Quiché on the long drive to Santa Eulalia in the northern part of Huehuetanango, in which an Evangelical preacher spoke in a very moving and forceful way about migration, likening migrants to the Holy Family, whom he characterized as migrants. His discourse went on for about 20 minutes at least -- it might have gone on for longer but I lost the signal as I headed north from Santa Cruz del Quiché, and I don't know how long before I tuned in he had started. But he gave a very thoughtful and compassionate exegesis, arguing that young people migrated because they had no options, because there were no economic opportunities or jobs.  Migration made sense if the alternative was to die in Guatemala because there was no work, no money to buy food. And then he spent much of the time talking about Joseph and Mary, how they had had to migrate to Bethelem in order to find a place for Mary to give birth and then they had had to migrate again in order to save the life of the child. They had gone to Galilee, to Nazareth, which is why Jesus is called Jesus of Nazareth, although he was born in Bethlehem -- I am just recounting his reasoning, as best as I can recall without listening to the tape recording I made, somewhat intermittently. Unfortunately I came across this broadcast as I was preparing for the journey to Huehuetenango, and I had to stop and get cash from an ATM, and then get gasoline, check the tires, water, brake fluid, oil, and then another stop to get coffee for the drive. So I unfortunately had to dip in and out of the program, and then as I headed north out of Santa Cruz del Quiché, I lost the signal of this particular station after about 10 minutes. But it was extremely interesting. The pastor had lived outside of Guatemala for over 20 years, he said, but legally. However, he expressed a lot of compassion for the migrants who travelled without papers. It may have been a live broadcast, or a broadcast of a live sermon, because at least once he asked the audience for a response. He argued that migration could, in fact, be a bendición, a blessing. As in the case of Joseph and Mary, whose migration saved the life of the child. He asked the audience, "When Joseph and Mary migrated, was that a bad thing or was it a blessing?" They responded, as good parishioners should, "Blessing".

This, of course, only reflects one pastor on one radio station. But perhaps reflective of a more widespread popular sentiment in Guatemala. People lament the necessity of migration, and some worry about the future of the country, but almost no one blames the migrants or their families.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ixkik Uk'u'x K'iche' (reina or princesa maya del Quiché)

On Sunday morning, as I returned from my run, one of the local radio stations was broadcasting some speeches of the candidates for the Ixkik Uk'u'x K'iche' -- the young woman who represents the department of El Quiché. The announcers said that the selection and investiture would be that afternoon, starting at 3 p.m., and so we decided to go. My friend Sandy, her two children and I got ready after lunch; her husband said he would join us as he was going to play soccer for a while. We drove into Santa Cruz del Quiché and I decided to leave the car along the main road into town, coming from the east  -- I didn't know how crowded it would be near the central plaza, which is where the municipal salon is located, and so it seemed prudent to leave the car where there was not much activity, so that I wouldn't have to circle around a lot looking for parking, or have trouble getting my car out when it was time to leave. When we approached the hall, there were some women and children standing outside, and a small hand-lettered sign by the box-office window announcing that admission was Q5. There wasn't a lot of activity -- that is, there were the usual Sunday crowds, as there are a lot of vendors whose stands are right in front of the salon, and Sunday is one of the big market days in Santa Cruz. But we were the only people approaching the box office at that moment. We didn't have to pay for the children, and so tickets in hand, we filed in. Although it was around 2:45, not that long before the announced start time of 3 p.m., there was almost no one in the auditorium aside from technicians, media representatives, and the candidates and those who accompanied them. 

The stage had been built out so that there was a runway in the middle, extending out into the audience, like a T, reaching at least half the length of the auditorium, and in the middle of the runway, two "arms" extending out on either side, so the entire arrangement was in the shape of two capital Fs, back to back (or a T with a smaller bar cutting through the stem). Along the edge of the stage were cutout photographs of women and a few men dressed in "traditional attire" from different parts of the country. At the farthest point of the runway, there were stairs, and a carpet of pine needles had been spread for about 10 feet beyond the end of the stairs -- the candidates would make a grand entrance, walking (or dancing) up the stars and along the runway until they reached the stage. Some technicians were busy trying to stretch one long piece of woven fabric - the kind of fabric that is usually used for a woman's corte -- across three benches that were separated by parts of a marimba. The central bench, parallel to the edge of the stage, was shorter, and on each side of it, a longer bench, at a slight angle, so that the entire set up was a very shallow and wide U. Meanwhile, other technicians were fiddling with microphones and cables. 

But there was almost no one in the audience. The chairs were white plastic, the kind of "outdoor" chairs that are sold and used all over Guatemala. The backs of the first dozen or so rows of chairs were covered with pieces of gold cloth that were tied with elaborate bows; at first we sat down in the chairs with no cloth covering, since I thought maybe those seats were reserved for special guests, families of the candidates, and so forth. But there didn't seem to be any special protocol or anyone checking who was sitting where so we decided to move up. After we had been sitting for a while, I started to have doubts about when this was supposed to start, since the first announcement on the radio had said 6 p.m., but then there were several announcements of 3 p.m. Sandy went to check and she was told that it was going to start at 3, but it was nearly 3 when she went to ask. But there was nothing much to do: we weren't going to drive back to Chinique and then drive to Santa Cruz again.

I decided to take a walk around -- around the back and sides of the auditorium, there were groups of people who were accompanying the candidates. Part of the presentation is what is called an "estampa folclórica" -- literally, "a folkloric image" or a "folkloric representation". This is usually some kind of a tableau or dramatization, or a dance that represents -- in theory -- the culture of the specific municipality, or some aspect of "Maya culture and values". I use quotes here because these are, I think, highly idealized representations. This is an important part of the qualification, and some of the presentations were extremely elaborate, involving a dozen or more people. One could see the difference between the candidates who had some substantial support from their municipality or some other institution, and those who didn't. 
The group from Nebaj

The most elaborate estampas were the ones from San Andrés Sajcabajá and Chichicastenango. The candidate from San Andrés was accompanied by about 8 or 10 men, acting out a part of the procession that is done in that town during Holy Week, representing the via dolorosa and the via crucis. 
The candidate from
San Andres Sajcabajá.

First, a figure wearing a crown of thorns with his arms strapped to a cross that he carried on his back. Then, some men carrying a much larger cross, on its side. Two men on their knees, with crowns of thorns on their heads and a smaller crown of thorns strapped to their backs. These men were all wearing white pants rolled up to their knees and their faces were draped with cloths (there were a few men wearing regular clothes who guided the blindfolded ones). They also carried small rugs that they laid down for the blindfolded men to crawl over; once the person had passed, the "guide" picked up the rug and moved forward and laid it down again.
San Andres Sajcabajá
The candidate from Chichicastenango was accompanied by a crew of dancers representing the dance of the conquest as performed in Chichicastenango during the fiesta patronal, or some version thereof. Another candidate from Joyabaj had dancers who carried the famous "palo volador" -- literally "pole flyer". This is a tall pole that is erected in the town plaza during the fiesta patronal, and there are sturdy ropes attached to some kind of frame at the top, with a loop to hold onto. Brave souls climb the pole, grab one of the ropes and then spin around in the air until they reach the ground (this is done in several towns during the patron saint feasts). 

As we walked around before the event started, we saw groups posing for photographs, people arranging their costumes. There were a few reporters from national and local radio and television stations who were grabbing short interviews with the candidates.  Lots of activity all around. Finally, close to 4 p.m., someone got on stage and announced that it would begin, and introduced the two MCs. 

One was a woman I met briefly some years back, who was affiliated with the Academy of Maya Languages, the section for K'iche'. The man was from Chichicatenango. Both were given elaborate introductions with all of their professional qualifications. And then they introduced the local officials, the members of the judging panel, and then there were some musical numbers played by two different marimba groups. 

Then the outgoing Ixkik Uk'u'x entered, accompanied by a young girl, and they took their place on the center bench of the stage. After that, the candidates were announced one by one, and each group made its way up the stairs and onto the platform. There were 14 candidates; I don't know enough about how the selection process takes place to know why not all of the municipalities of Quiché were represented (there are 22). As I noted above, many of the presentations were highly choreographed. Several involved fireworks, which are an important features of most patron saint feasts and Holy Week processions in Guatemala. Others were mostly dramatizations: one candidate presented a sociodrama about interfamilial violence and two others presented dramatizations of idealized scenes of everyday life: women working together to prepare traditional foods, and carry out everyday tasks. The MC offered frequent commentaries and explanations of what we were seeing; it's not clear whether the candidates provided the script for her.

The candidate from Zacualpa clearly had no support from her municipality, as she came out alone, bearing a platter and a basket with some wrapped parcels, and an older woman, undoubtedly her mother, helped her load up the things. She went to the midpoint of the platform and laid down the ceramic platter and started to unwrap the items she was carrying -- flowers, candles, some incense -- to prepare a small altar on the platter, which she then lit. Unfortunately, as she was carrying it up the stage, the platter cracked or she lost hold of it (it was hard to tell what happened) and it crashed to the stage, still aflame. 

The entrances went on for a long time, as each of the 14 candidates took several minutes to  enter. Then when all were seated, each had a turn to give her "message", first in a Maya language and then in Spanish. There was one candidate from Santa Maria Nebaj, which is in the Ixil region of el Quiche, so hers was in Ixil and Spanish, and all the others in K'iche' and Spanish (for that reason, presumably, one of the three judges was an Ixil woman).  I was trying to position myself to take reasonably good photographs, which meant moving around a lot; there was no single good angle that worked, and my camera battery was dying so I didn't have the luxury of taking as many shots as I normally would (I had left the battery charger in the car the night before, but didn't know where it was, and only found it when we were on our way to Santa Cruz del Quiché).

The messages were on pretty predictable themes: respect for women, offering equal opportunity for girls' education; ending femicide; protecting the natural environment; maintaining pride in one's cultural identity; preserving Maya languages. The opening statement -- prefatory to the actual "message" -- is pretty formulaic. To the women and men, to the boys and girls, to the male elders and female elders, to the mayor of this municipality and his municipal corporation, to the selection committee and the qualifying judges, to my companions/fellow candidates, I wish you the best of this beautiful evening.  I am XXX, and I bring you this message from the beautiful municipality of YYY. 

 Or, as a variation, the opening could be calling to the ancestral powers: Heart of the sky, heart of the sky, and then naming the people.  This is usually accompanied by somewhat dramatic gestures skyward, earthward, and moving around the stage, microphone in hand. There is a kind of rhetorical and gestural similarity to all of these messages, regardless of content, including a similarity in cadence, pitch and tone of speech (that is, the literal presentation of self). 

Following the messages, some more music and thanking sponsors while the judges deliberated and then announced the three finalists. Then questions to each of the finalists: not the same question to each but a question that was specific to the message that each had presented. Then more music and small gifts to each of the participants who was not a finalist while a final decision was reached. By this time it was nearly 9:30 -- over 5 hours since this had started. The children were getting very restless (even though their parents had taken them outside and bought food for them). 

Finally, the judges announced their decision: the candidate from Patzité, whom we all agreed had given the best response to the question in the finalist round (she was actually the only one of the three who really addressed the specific question). Then the incoming and the outgoing Ixkik Uk'u'x each gave a little speech, and then some more awards (everyone involved thanks everyone else involved: the committee gave an award to the Mayor, the Mayor gave awards to the committee and the judges, and so forth). We were all pretty restless by that point so we didn't stay to watch the actual investiture, but picked up some tortillas at one of the stands that was still open, walked back to the car, and threw together a quick supper (mostly leftovers) when we got back home.