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".

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