Thursday, July 31, 2014

Resistance and criminality

One of the key tactics of the Guatemalan state in response to the popular movements in opposition to mining, hydroelectric and other "mega projects" has been the criminalization of community leaders (well, outright lying is another important tactic). The leaders are harassed with trumped up or completely false criminal charges, and arrest orders. Last night I had the chance to talk with one of the leaders of the movement agains the cement plant in San Juan Sacatepéquez. She explained some of criminal charges that have been levied against community leaders, and they are so far-fetched as to be barely credible. But of course credibility has not been a strong point in Guatemala's legal system. The charges including assembly with criminal intent (that is, having a public meeting) and disturbing the peace; fabricating chemical and biological weapons; fabricating atomic bombs; terrorism. Those are just some of the charges. In Santa Eulalia, there is an arrest warrant out for one of the resistance leaders, Rigoberto Juarez, for setting fire to some of the machinery of the hydroelectric company in San Mateo Ixtatán (Rigoberto was in Guatemala City when the blaze was set).  The criminalization of resistance has ramifications on multiple levels. It clearly creates a degree of uncertainty and fear -- people who are involved with the resistance movements fear that once arrested, they will be taken to jail and never seen again. That no matter what the legal system supposedly guarantees in terms of due process, that once they are in the hands of the authorities, that is the end of the story. I was told that in the case of one leader for whom there was an arrest warrant, the resistance movement had gotten word that there were criminal gang members in the jail where he would have been sent who had been paid to kill him. 

So, bringing false charges against leaders clearly inconveniences people by making it hard, if not impossible, for them to go about their everyday business, planting crops, going to their jobs, what have you. The young San Juanera (person from San Juan) whom I met yesterday said that several of the leaders in that community were afraid to step outside of their homes, for fear that they would be arrested on some of these false charges and never seen again, so they weren't really able to go anywhere outside of a narrowly circumscribed area. 

But it also represents an effort to discredit he resistance movements among the general population -- no matter how absurd and far fetched the charges might be, the constant repetition in the news media that there is an arrest warrant out for such-and-such anti-mining activist, or that some resistance leaders have been hauled into court on criminal charges, creates the impression that these are criminal, delinquent, anti-social elements. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Representing urban poverty

To say that Guatemala is a poor country, or that a majority of the population live in poverty, is somewhat of an abstraction. We can look at U.N. Human Development Statistics, or data from various national research institutes, and gather percentages. In my peregrinations through the city, traveling to and from my guesthouse in the Zona 1 to the conference center in the Zona 10, and then visiting a colleague last night, I came across other faces of urban poverty. Faces in a literal sense: boys as young as 5 of 6 planted in the middle of lanes of traffic, at a point where the Boulevard de Próceres, an 8 or 10 lane roadway, dips down into a tunnel, selling sweets, plastic bags of fruit or nuts, plastic toys, and I'm not sure what else. There were a few older children or adults (hard to tell in the dusk; there are many adults here of very short stature), but the majority of the vendors whom I saw, literally walking among the cars, as traffic was crawling slowly towards the ramp that led onto the Boulevard Roosevelt, were young children. When traffic started to move, the boys moved toward the concrete median that separated the two directions of traffic. There were other vendors: disabled adults, wearing bright green vests of the type worn by the city employees who clean the streets and direct traffic. One man who had no legs had stationed himself in the middle of the roadway, between the two left-hand lanes of traffic. He had some flashing lights attached to either his vest or maybe he was seated on something (I couldn't see that well), and was carrying something in his hands that he waved to attract attention. It was in the shape of a hoe but again, I couldn't see it all that well - it seemed to be a stick or pole of some sort with a little sock or bag at the end to receive alms. I want to paint a verbal picture for you, because this does illustrate the depths of poverty. There are child vendors all across the city. I passed along Próceres around 7:30 in the evening, and as I traversed the roads heading to the Zona 21 where my friend lived, I saw other children at street corners. Some were selling things, others had painted their faces and were performing acrobatic feats (I've seen this more along Avenida 19 in Xela than I have in the capital).  Nearly every time one stops at a major intersection, there are a half dozen or more vendors -- women, men, children --who walk through the lanes of cars, brandishing bags of fruit, air fresheners, and other merchandise to sell.  I do not take photographs of these vendors; I don't know them, there isn't time to talk with them and ask permission, as their object is to earn enough to eat and I do not want to interfere with that. Further, I have no desire to represent people in a state of abjection, to perform a kind of tourism of poverty, A few years back I took some photographs of 2 boys who were shining shoes in a park in Zacualpa, but I was on foot and had a chance to talk with them, learn their names, ask permission, and then let them decide what the photograph would look like. I then made prints and brought them back to the boys.

There are other things that are hard - not impossible -- to photograph because there is not a single image that captures what I would want to communicate, or it would be hard to frame a photograph that expresses what I can observe. As I drove to Zona 21 last night, I drove along a long, long boulevard called Calzada Atanasio Tzul. On one side, as we got closer to Zona 21, I saw that the street was lined with a series of tiny buildings, clearly patched together with found materials, mostly with doors or gates of corrugated steel. There were a few walls and structures made of concrete but it looked like "self construction". There was no space between any of the dwellings, and some were shops and others clearly residences. Most did not have windows that opened onto the street. But the "lots" seemed to only go back an extremely short distance - -  because behind there was some larger structure that seemed to be an industrial establishment of some sort. So what it looked like to me was a more established squatter settlement:  people had simply claimed the space between where the industrial establishment ended and the roadway started and built homes and stores with scraps of wood and metal. Perhaps if I could climb a tree and take a photograph from above that showed the small space into which the dwellings were squeezed, I could make a photograph that was somewhat adequate.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bits and pieces

Driving down the Panamerican in pouring rain is one of the more harrowing experiences of my trips to Guatemala. Oh, I forgot to add: driving down the Panamerican in the pouring rain IN THE DARK. Guatemala has been enjoying an extended canícula -- a little break in the rainy season, which extends for several months. But there was a break in the break today - and so I was stuck driving in the rain. I was hoping that the weather reports were wrong, which they often are, and that it wouldn't rain, but it did. I had gone to Xela yesterday, and I had to leave today because I have an all-day meeting tomorrow in Guatemala City starting at 8 a.m., and there was no way I was going to leave Xela at 3 a.m. (it's not normally a 5-hour drive, but with morning rush hour traffic, you need to leave at least an extra hour to make it through the city -- the meeting is Zone 10, which is on the eastern side of the city, so getting there from Xela means driving the whole long miserable stretch of Calzada Roosevelt/Boulevard de Liberación). However, I couldn't leave Xela very early because the residents of the 48 cantons of Totonicapán had blocked several points along the Panamerican highway between Cuatro Caminos (where the highway that goes to Toto intersects with the Panamerican) and Los Encuentros (where the highway that goes through El Quiché splits off), and they were not supposed to lift the blockage until 6 pm.  The rain didn't start until I was near Los Encuentros -- about 1/3 of the distance from Xela to the capital. But the stretch of road between Los Encuentros and Tecpán (where the altiplano begins) has a lot of steep curves (although it is a 4-lane highway and relatively well paved), and the 20 kilometers or so immediately south of Los Encuentros is always very foggy when it rains (and sometimes when it is not raining) so visibility is extremely limited and I had to drive very, very slowly since the last thing I wanted was to end the night - or my life -- going over a guardrail or skidding into a truck.

But what preceded the drive made it worthwhile - going to Xela for one day seemed kind of crazy but I had a few meetings/interviews that I had previously scheduled, and they ended up being more than I had expected. I will give more details later: not only was the drive a bit nerve-wracking, but I took a wrong turn, something I rarely do. I got onto the Periférico in the wrong direction and there isn't any simple way to turn around. So I went farther than I've ever gone heading south, hoping there was some overpass or easily visible way to get back on in the other direction. There wasn't and so I got off, an exit that seemed to go onto another highway but luckily there was a gas station right at the exit, and the first person I approached begged a napkin and pen from the cashier and made me a little map. His directions were good with one important point wrong and I almost ended up back on the southbound Periférico, but luckily I was able to correct that one mistake and then got myself back in the right direction  and to the guesthouse where my host was awaiting me (I felt guilty because he doesn't live here; it's a house that he and his brother in law bought and fixed up, and his mother in law and 1 or 2 other relatives live here, but he is the one who manages it and he lives about 10 minutes away). 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

La Sexta

One of the main thoroughfares of the Zona 1, Guatemala City's historic center, is Sixth Avenue, or la  Sexta. It was renovated under a past city administration, undoubtedly in order to "clean up" the city. I don't know enough about the municipal improvement schemes in Guatemala City in particular, but I know enough about neoliberal urbanism and gentrification to imagine the reasoning behind this. For about a mile, in between Parque Central on one end, and the immense, sprawling central market,  it has been turned into a pedestrian-only walkway, lined with a combination of upscale and downscale and regular scale shops. I ran along it this morning, coming to the end of the pedestrian walkway and to the edge of the central market, and although I didn't go into the market (I was running, after all, and wanted to get my miles in), that end of La Sexta gives a pretty good idea of what it might have been like before the renovation -- small stands cheek-by-jowl, the street and sidewalk littered with broken plastic bags, discarded Tortrix (a favored national brand of corn chips) wrappers, wilted lettuce leaves. Apparently also it was a favored hangout of prostitutes, and other street denizens. The prostitutes have not been eliminated but moved to other, somewhat emptier locales (emptier in having fewer commercial establishments open at night). During the day La Sexta is crowded with pedestrians; on a weekend day like yesterday, there are the kinds of street performers one sees in cities throughout the world: living statues of historic figures or icons, completely covered in metallic paint; mimes; musicians. Yesterday there was someone in an elaborate spider costume, lying supine inside the shell, with huge hairy legs splayed out. An skinny elderly woman, dressed up as a beauty queen, with a sash across her chest and a glittery tiara perched on her graying braids, bent over to kiss the person inside the spider costume and then flitted away to applause and laughter. Young couples sit on benches with their lips glued together, limbs intertwined, groping and embracing for remarkably long stretches. 

In the early morning, it is not quite empty. Yesterday morning I went to the Tigo store a little after 8 to activate my modem, and saw that there were a lot of runners (there are not really open spaces for running in most of Guatemala City), and so this morning I decided to join their ranks.  Parque Central is pretty empty at 7 a.m., but there are always a small number of taxi drivers parked on the side of the Palacio Nacional, and a few vendors setting up along Sixth Street.  There was some big display being set up by Tigo, with huge inflated stick figures and music blaring.  Most of the larger commercial establishments were closed, and there were green-vested city employees on nearly every block, sweeping the street and sidewalk.  A few blocks down, in front of one of the larger churches (I didn't stop to see the name), there was a band playing, in full swing, with three female backup singers/dancers, outfitted in short-shorts, and knee high patent leather boots. A small crowd had gathered to watch and listen, but no one was dancing, although the music was fairly danceable salsa.

Cluster of two or three young women, dressed in what were undoubtedly work uniforms -- sharply creased dark colored pants, matching vests or jackets, and collared shirts, hurried down the avenue, holding their co-workers' arms or hands, and giggling as they made their way to their workplaces. A few people were slumped in doorways, evidently there since the night before, and one man, drunk or mentally disturbed or both, stood in the middle of the avenue with his arms outstretched and talking to himself.

It would be too simple to say that all classes of Guatemala City's population come together on La Sexta, but it is probably one of the places where you see this much diversity -- well heeled upper-middle class urbanites, tourists, stolid indigenous women in cortes and huipiles balancing baskets on their heads, gaggles of school children dressed up in band uniforms and carrying their instruments, heavily tattooed teenagers in skinny jeans and t-shirts on skateboards, fans of punk or metal or who knows what, older women in sensible shoes, young women in skintight dresses and tottering heels... At night the streets that cut across La Sexta are crowded with young people emerging from, or waiting to get into, bars and clubs, rows of taxis lined up waiting to take people home from a night out (the Zona 1 is one of the more dangerous parts of the city and anyone who can afford it will usually take a cab, even if just for 5-6 blocks).

Seven things that will complicate your life during a typical week in Guatemala

Here are some things that will undoubtedly happen during a week in Guatemala, that complicate your efforts to set up meetings, do interviews, or just see old friends:

1.  One of your friends will lose his or her phone, meaning that all of the urgent text messages you send end up in the ether, plans will go astray, and you will not know how to reach the person until he or she gets on line or you are able to communicate with one of his or her relatives. This person will not have YOUR number written down or saved anywhere and thus will not be able to get in touch with you.
2.  Most of your friends will not have any airtime on their phones, and so many of your text messages, which you send because they are cheaper than making phone calls, will go unanswered, making you think that maybe the person is ignoring you, has had some kind of disaster, or has lost his or her phone.
3.  At least one bus that someone you know is riding upon, in order to come to a meeting with you, will break down and strand its passengers, leaving your friend to scramble to find another bus. Since the buses will not refund the fare for the broken-down bus, this means your friend will have to pay a second fare, once he or she can find a working bus heading in the right direction. If this coincides with #1 or #2 above, you will not know what happened or where the person is.
4.  Someone's car or motorcycle will either break down or fail to start.
5.  Someone will either get sick or have a sick child or other relative.
6.  Someone will lose your telephone number, or the address where you are staying.
7.  At least one meeting or previously scheduled event will be canceled, or rescheduled, or the location will be switched.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

De regreso en Guatemala/Return to Guatemala

I'm not sure what happened to my brain, or my fingers, in the months since my last entry in January. I didn't even finish writing up my trip to Guatemala in January, let alone cover any of what has happened either here or in the immigrant community in the intervening months. Sometimes the blog just hangs over my head, or the back of my mind, or hangs around my neck like an unfulfilled obligation. But, self-recimination is not going to fill in the empty spaces, and so the best I can do is just start a new page now, and when I have the time, fill in some of the missing pieces -- like the immigration cases I worked on, the controversy about unaccompanied minors on the border, and other assorted things.

The journey always begins before I even fix dates or purchase a ticket; there is a long process of calculating and balancing obligations and schedule. This year I became chair of my department, and I was teaching a summer online class. But the most important factor that affected my departure date was the Marxist Intensive Summer School --something that had been carried out under the auspices of the Brecht Forum, which met an untimely and precipitous demise this past spring. It's not really relevant to the main themes of this blog, but since I have been part of the effort to keep some independent left educational activities going in the wake of the Brecht's disappearance, I had committed to teaching in this year's intensive -- hastily organized by a small ad-hoc committee. The intensive was scheduled for the weekend of July 18-20, and there was a follow-up meeting on July 22, to talk about "where do we go from here?", so I knew that the earliest I could leave was July 23, Wednesday.. and as I started to look for tickets and check out prices, it turned out that the cheapest fares were for a Friday, July 25 departure. So that settled it.

In the meantime, emails and Facebook messages to my various contacts and friends here. A month always seems like a long time when I try to make arrangements for keeping my life somewhat in order while I am away, but then when I try to figure out what I can accomplish in Guatemala in terms of research and other commitment, then it feels like it's way too short.   Since I live alone, and have cats and a car, leaving the country for a month means making arrangements for both (plus my plants - important but not as urgent as the kitties and the car). I've been lucky in the past and have found short-term subtenants who have taken care of the cats in exchange for reduced rent, and my daughter's father has often offered to take care of my car ("take care" means having a parking spot: while my building has a parking garage, it's an extra charge -- I don't even know how much -- and I'm not sure that they would accommodate me for a period of time that is not a calendar month). This time I messed up with the Craigslist ad for the apartment and forgot to "publish" it. When I realized why I hadn't gotten any queries I hastily published it and got some inquiries right away but the person who was going to take it told me the next day that she had gotten short-term gig out of New York and wouldn't need it; the next few prospects also fell through for various reasons.  Then I just needed someone to take care of the cats even if I couldn't find anyone who would help cover my costs, but thanks to my wonderful daughter, one of her friends agreed to cat- and house-sit.  My ex offered to drive to the airport with me and pick me up upon my return and deal with the car in the interim; that was an offer to good to turn down.

Lining up what I wanted to do in Guatemala is always hard to do. Since my research/other commitments are not in one single location (the writing on "multi-sited fieldwork" doesn't always address the logistical issues involved), I have to figure out what is a logical trajectory in terms of travel, and then also figuring various people's schedules. My plans this time included spending some time in northern Huehuetenango, where the situation has continued to be somewhat explosive. On the one hand the indigenous movement seems to have become more united on a regional level and has positioned itself nationally and internationally, and on the other the authorities have continued with militarized responses and criminalization of the opposition movements. Previously I've spent time in Santa Eulalia and Santa Cruz Barillas -- both Q'anjob'al towns. Barillas is where the proposed hydroelectric project is, and the "resistencia pacífica" (peaceful resistance --i.e. encampment) in Poza Verde. Santa Eulalia is where the community radio station Snuq Jolom Konob' is located, which has reported on resistance activities throughout the area. In the last few months, there has been a lot happening in the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán, located in between Santa and Barillas. I have only passed through San Mateo, but the community leaders there are allied with those in Barillas and Santa. It is a Chuj community (another one of the 22 Maya ethnic groups). There is another hydroelectric project in San Mateo -- imposed against the community's wishes -- and during the last several months there have been a series of "disturbances". Residents have blocked the highways; the government has sent in troops; and most recently there were some paramilitary units menacing folks.  And so that will now be part of my itinerary. So, I figured a week in Huehuetenango.

I did not visit Quiché at all the last time I was here, but this time I must. I am planning to bring a group of students in May of next year, 2014, and the idea behind the study tour is for students to make connections between the Maya immigrant community in New Bedford and the communities where these immigrants come from -- which means Quiché. I want students to understand something about the conditions that propel migration -- poverty, structural inequality, lack of economic alternatives, the armed conflict, racism - and also to engage in some service-learning activities that they would plan together with people from the immigrant community in New Bedford. So I need to figure out some of the logistics -- talk to one of the sisters at the Catholic parish in Zacualpa to see if we can stay in their dormitory rooms, and also to see if there are some community-based projects that students could visit or help out with during their short stay. I need to check whether there is any place we could stay in Chinique. I need to talk to people from the group Chilam Balam de los K'iche's -- a group devoted to maintaining cultural traditions and also sacred sites -- to see if they would be able to meet with the students and accompany them to Gumarkaaj. In addition, I have to accompany a woman who has been threatened, and who brought a legal case against the men who have been threatening her. The family feels that the attorney she had had, who is Ladino, was not the most effective counsel for her (especially as her command of Spanish is limited). So I am going to go with her to visit a Maya attorney who speaks K'iche'.  

Then, I want to expand my analysis of the resistance movements a bit to include one or two other case studies, and a friend put me in touch with people from San Juan Sacatepéquez, where there are 12 communities that have been resisting a cement plant.  This would mean a few days in San Juan; not sure how long since I haven't ever been there before.

And then San Miguel Ixtahuacán.  It turns out people from SMI and the neighboring municipality of Sipacapa, also threatened by the Marlin Mine, are coming to Guatemala City next week to meet with several groups of lawyers and human rights defenders to talk about and map out the various legal and political strategies. So I will attend that meeting, and then will make plans to visit SMI later on during my stay.

Finally -- I'm not sure there IS a "finally" -- I have a new project about the "reinas indígenas trans" ("trans" in the Guatemalan context does not mean people who have undergone sex-change surgery or who cross-dress in their everyday lives, but gay men who cross-dress on weekends, or special occasions; they may or may not refer to themselves or present themselves with the female pronoun when they are not in drag). A group called Kajib Kawoq put out a call for a beauty contest, Ali Gay Tinimit Re Xelajuj Noj -- "Ali" means "girl" in K'iche'. "Ali Tinimit" would be something like "the town's female representative" or "the girl of the people". "Tinimit" is one of those polyvalent words.  It can mean "country" or "place of origin"; it can mean "town"; it can also mean "the people" (as the word "pueblo" in Spanish can mean both "town" and "the people"). So, the pageant would be "The Gay Female Representative of Xela" (Xelajuj Noj is the original name for Quetzaltenango, shortened in everyday speech as Xela -- and in Maya languages, the X is pronounced "SH"). There was some controversy when Kajib Kawoq petitioned the city government to use the municipal theater for the pageant and rehearsals. The news reports last week were that the request was turned down, but someone told me yesterday that it was approved. 

In any case, I had started to talk with people in the gay/drag community the last time I was here and so I want to follow up on that and find about this pageant, and about the politics of drag more generally, and especially the interface between gender performance and racial performance.

Guatemala/New Bedford

This post was started in February -- several months before politicians and the media started to talk about the 'unaccompanied Central American child migrant crisis". 

From time to time I have dedicated this blog to the "other part" of my Guatemalan research, which focuses on the Maya K'iche' migrant community in New Bedford, Massachusetts. My involvement with this community, in the wake of the 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on the (now defunct) Michael Bianco textile factory, was the rabbit hole that I dropped into, that led me to Guatemala. And now the two "fields" are very closely intertwined, for a couple of reasons. One is that migration to New Bedford has not stopped, or even appreciably slowed down. Even now as I write this, three relatives of friends of mine in New Bedford (two younger brothers of one friend, and the son of another) are in immigration detention in Texas.  A younger sister of the friend whose younger brothers are in detention arrived in New Bedford last fall. She left Guatemala not long after I had seen her in August (she had said nothing to me of her plans, but I did not know her well, and only saw her at a celebration attended by several dozen people). Another acquaintance, who has lived here for many years -- the oldest son in a large family -- has been joined in the past year by two of his grandsons, who are in their late teens. Most of these recent arrivals are thus quite young, and most are coming to join relatives who are already here. So even the longtime residents (I use that term advisedly, as most do not have legal residency, and the older migrants, especially those who have wives, children and grandchildren in Guatemala, do plan to move back eventually), and older migrants who do not use social media, stay abreast of events in Guatemala -- at least events that affect their localized communities and families. For many, "Guatemala" is a kind of abstraction, and they are more concerned with how many bushels of corn their families' plots have yielded than they are about the government's approval of a new hydroelectric project in San Pedro Soloma in Huehuetenango.