Friday, May 11, 2007
Pedro stands in front of his great-grandfather's kiln.
Note the giant crack left behind by the earthquake of '76.
My name is Pedro Morales, and I am twenty-six years old. I started when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, but even when I was little, I would play in the mud and clay, making little toys, or little tiny tejas*. It was a way for me to learn the skill that was already in my blood. Every person has their art form, va? For me, making bricks and tejas is an art, and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.
*Teja is the Spanish name for the curved clay shingles used in traditional colonial architecture. A tejar is the yard where these shingles are formed and fired. Thus the name of the town is El Tejar.
My grandfather's father built the brick kiln we use today. It has been in use for more than one hundred years, which makes it the oldest kiln in El Tejar. It was built in an older style, with arches at the base and a brick platform to support the wet clay during firing. The design of our oven is the same as the design brought by the Spaniards when they arrived in El Tejar. We call it an arch kiln, to distinguish it from the new style that we all call American kilns. In an American kiln the chamber where the wood is burned is constructed out of the unfired bricks. We have seen that our kiln is more fuel-efficient, it fires more quickly, and its design allows us a longer working season. When most other brickyards can't make bricks due to the rain, we can still make other products and we don't need bricks to run our kiln.
A photo of the oldest kiln in El Tejar. It has been built into the ground
in order to buttress the arches that support the weight of the wet bricks.
One day my grandfather's father died, while working. My grandfather was only five years old when this happened, and my great-grandmother was the only person in the family who could work. In those days, women worked just like men. My great grandmother ran the kiln, and she could make everything out of clay--bricks, floor tiles, tejas, all of it. She would carry her work all of the way to Antigua, in the days when when everyone travelled in wagons, with oxen. My great-grandmother's name was Francisca. In her time, Antigua was already filled with churches and ruins, but they were also beginning to build a lot more houses for the growing population. The demand for materials was high enough that people from El Tejar kept going back with more bricks and tejas to sell.
When I was little, my grandmother told me about the trip her father and mother took to get to Antigua. They would leave El Tejar at two o'clock in the morning, travelling by wagon to San Miguel Morazán, then San Lorenzo, then Jocotenango and finally arriving in Antigua. It took a lot to make it through the journey, because in those days there were more divisions between different villages. The people who lived in San Lorenzo were a different race, and so there was no friendship between the two villages. When tejareños would pass by San Lorenzo, they carried clubs and machetes to protect themselves from those who would try to rob their products or the money they were carrying home. It was a long journey. Of course,in even older times the tejareños had to drive all the way to Ciudad Vieja, where the Spanish built their first capital. More or less, you could say that people here in El Tejar have been helping to build the houses of those who live in Antigua for more than three centuries.
We are still working this way, still making tejas and selling them in Antigua. Lots of people here are ashamed of this art form, but I am proud to be making tejas in the kiln my great-grandfather built. Tejas have a long history, and there are still many things we don't know. For me this craft is beautiful, and it is unique in all of Guatemala. There are other places where they work with clay, but it isn't the same as our work here. Sometimes people from elsewhere come here and say "That looks easy. I could make tejas." I always say, "Go ahead!" They realize that this work is a lot harder than it looks. I can do it, because I am from El Tejar , and ever since I was little I have been taught how to make a teja.
Two sizes of tejas, after firing.
Making a teja is similar to making bread, because you need to be able to see the point when everything is just right. You need to use a really sticky clay, the kind that feels almost like chocolate. Making bricks is really easy, because you can throw the clay in a mold and then let it lie out. So long as there is no rain the brick will dry perfectly. Tejas are different, because of their shape. You work at a tablero, putting the clay into a mold we call la gradilla. From there we move the clay to a piece of wood called el galapago, which is carved into the curved form of the teja. As we work, we press grooves into the wet clay to keep its curve from collapsing. With your own hands, you must build the teja so it stand up on the earth. Your hand knows where it must pass to preserve the final form, and how to make the clay shine.
Cuadradas drying in the yard before firing.
The tejas we make are everything from two centimeters up to forty-eight centimeters, and we have even made some as long as sixty centimeters. We usually sell our materials in very large quantities, at 1.25 Q apiece or 1,250 Q (165 USD)per thousand. The price is usually higher for those in Antigua, because the contractors add their own commission and transport costs to what we charge. We pay a five percent tax to SAT (Servicio de Administración Tributaria), and we pay an annual fee to the city to have a license for our oven. Every brickyard in town has its own price, and its own set of clients in Antigua. Here, we have also worked with some other builders in the capital, on the road to El Salvador, where there are other colonial-style neighborhoods.
Pedro took me into the mountains to see the pila where his grand-
mother bathed as a child. It is still used in the rainy season, more
than two hundred years after it was built.
I've heard some stories about the history of El Tejar, and sometimes it's hard for me to believe all of the things that have happened right here, in this little place. I always imagine that my grandparents and great-grandparents would have known more of these stories. In their time they were almost living close to the years when the Spanish were here. Still, in El Tejar we can remember some of the history.
It might sound crazy, but I think that this whole region was once covered by a lake. All around here you see mountains, and I believe they held the water. But something happened, and the lake flooded out to one side or the other. The land underneath El Tejar has more clay that anywhere else in Guatemala. I think the clay we have here was left behind when the lake flooded, just like the mud you see in the bottom of a well that's gone dry. Well, it might have been formed by the lake, or it might have been formed by God, in the Creation. The clay begins at the base of the mountains north of town, and it goes all the way to the edge of the canyon near Chuito. If you walk up towards Durazno you can find places where the clay is fifteen meters thick. To the south, past Parramos, the land turns to stones and pumice, because it is the base of a volcano called Acatenango.
The Mayas in this area knew how to work with clay long before the Spanish arrived. They were making pottery and figurines, and they knew how to fire the clay. I know, because sometimes when we are digging we will find places in the earth where there are lots of pieces of pottery and small figurines. There are lots of people who still make similar things out of clay. I know some kids who make all kinds of little animals, and sometimes when I have free time I like to make dinosaurs out of clay. Craftsmen come from Antigua to get our clay, and they make pots and butterflies and things to sell to tourists. The clay is just something you carry in your blood.
Some of the items Pedro has found in the clay, including figurines,
a stone ball, and a small pottery flute that still plays perfectly.
There are places in the woods where you find old things, and other places where there is nothing. I think that people would go into the woods and bury all of their possessions in a place where they hoped no one would ever find them. If we uncover one piece of pottery, we usually uncover a lot of other stuff at the same time. Near my aunt's house, I know people who have found coffins with little children inside, buried really deep. Once, on my uncle's property, we found a stack of six dishes with painted images on them, all buried beneath a layer of clay that is seven meters thick. Everything is in layers, and sometimes there will be a space of five meters between places where we find things. I have found objects that are buried even deeper than the clay, in a layer of sand. When we find things that deep, they must be from a race that existed before the people who buried things in the clay.
Once when we were digging for clay, we found a pot with a lid. When we looked inside we saw a knife made of stone. There was a handle, and it had a perfect shape, but when my brother touched the knife everything but the blade fell apart, like dust. It must have been so old! How many centuries had it survived? The owner of the land was from Chimaltenango, and he liked to sell the old things people found in his clay. When he saw us with the dish he took it, but we managed to hide the knife from him. When I look at it, I think the knife must have been a special weapon for the people who buried it. No one else in El Tejar has ever found anything like it at all. They haven't even found anything made from the same kind of stone. I believe this knife was used to kill someone who the Mayas believed was invincible. For them, it was a powerful weapon, like a bomb, so they stored it very carefully.
Above, the sacred knife in question.
I imagine there are a lot more things buried in the ground. Little by little they are discovered as we take away the clay. I think the Mayas lived in the mountains as well as on the plain where we live now. There might have been classes of Mayas, just like how in these days there are rich people, middle class people, and poor people. I think the wealthy Mayas lived up on the tops of the mountains, and the other people were living down below, on farms. I think there are tombs in the mountains, but a lot of them will stay buried, because now people are selling off their land so others have somewhere to build their houses. Many things will remain buried forever, but from what I have seen, there might be even kings buried around here.
When the Spanish came they took power over every one who lived here. They made the Mayas into slaves. They realized the region was a good place for working with clay, because they could see the pottery and art being made by the people who lived here. They taught the arts of brick making, and began the first brick-making operation up in the mountains north of town. Sometimes when we are digging we find Spanish nails left behind by their carts. You know they are old because they are a very strange, triangular shape.
Here many of us are still making money with the craft that was taught to us by the Spaniards. Neither tejas or the style of houses in Antigua existed before the Spanish came. They used people as slaves, but they taught them all how to produce tejas, and when the Spanish left the traditional craft remained.
Above, dry clay is mixed with water before being pressed into a mold.
Right now we are taking clay from a piece of land owned by another Chimalteco. Even though Chimaltenango is very close, our cultures are very different. They are farmers, and they have more weaving, and they raise cattle. They don't work like we do, in the art of clay. So, this Chimalteco realized he had clay on his land, and some of his neighbors told him he could sell it to brick-makers in El Tejar. He's sold off about six cuerdas* of his clay, and there are still another four cuerdas to take away. People here pay for clay by the truck-load, usually around 75 Q per trip. Some brick makers get clay from their own land, so they don't have to pay. Our family has a place like this in the woods below town, and there is some really good clay there. We don't take clay there, though, because we are planning for a time when people no longer want to sell the clay on their land.
*One cuerda is approximately equivalent to thirty square meters.
I've heard people in town say there isn't any clay left in El Tejar, but in truth there is so much clay here that it will be here long after all of the people are gone from this place. The reality is just that there are many landlords who aren't interested in selling the clay they have on their property. They plant vegetables on their land, or else they rent the land for someone else to use. Someday soon we will still see clay all around town, but the landlords won't sell or else they will charge really high prices.
I know a man named Daniel Carillo who owns some land north of town, with a really thick layer of good clay. He doesn't want to sell it off in truckloads; instead he wants to sell the entire piece of land in one unit. For people here, the price of the whole unit is a lot of money. He's talking about millions of quetzales. We might be able to buy a piece of his land, at we could never buy all of it at once.
We have talked about forming a cooperative here, to acquire lands and to sell our materials. Unfortunately, some people didn't support it, because they weren't thinking about the future, or the benefits a cooperative could bring to all of us. There are always great ideas, and if people don't agree with the ideas they can destroy them. Ten years ago, we were all working together to form a cooperative. We were planning a warehouse where we could sell all of our materials from a single source. We were also working out how we could start moving our products to places that are farther away. It was going to be really great, because then our art could have gone far away to places where people wanted it. In the end, the people who have power in El Tejar decided they weren't interested in the cooperative. They are wealthy, and they have lots of properties, and they didn't see how much the cooperative is needed by the smaller brickyards.
We're still working on distributing our products further abroad than Antigua. There is a demand for our products in other countries, because we have made a name for ourselves, here. If you go to Antigua, you'll notice that a house with a teja roof is cool, and it feels wonderful to be inside, even when the sun is at its highest, va? At night, the house doesn't feel cold, either. If you build a terrace house with a flat concrete roof, it will feel cold in the morning, and at night it will be so hot you don't want to stay inside. As a result, tejas are becoming more popular again, especially down closer to the coast where heat is more of a concern. And even with terrace houses, the builders use tejas for decoration.
Now, there are all kinds of new materials to be made out of our clay. We don't just make the bricks and tejas, we can make anything an architect from Antigua asks us to make. We make something called a Quetzal's Breast, to be used for windowsills and eaves on new houses. If someone comes with a new design, we test the mold and if it works in the oven we will go into production.
My grandfather spent twenty-five years making tiles for the salt ponds down in Sipacete, on the coast. There were businesses there making enormous shallow pools out of clay tiles from El Tejar. They would fill the pools with sea water, and the clay tiles would help absorb the water, along with the sun. When pool was dry, workers would sweep up all of the salt with palm-frond brooms. They needed clay from El Tejar for this, because it holds up against the salt. The problem was that it was really expensive to transport the tiles all the way from El Tejar, around the side of Acatenango, and down to the coast. They tried to lower costs by using clay from near Sipacete, but the bricks they made had so much salt in them they would erode really quickly in the salt ponds. They even tried bringing some Tejareños down to the coast, giving them a house and whatever they needed, but even with our craftsmen they couldn't get their clay to work as well as the stuff we have here. The bricks came out of the kiln looking the same, but after a little while they looked like they had been made out of sugar.
Now they are using nylon, which is more expensive, but it is shaped so it gather the salt as the water evaporates. Even so, they say that the old tile ponds produce three times as much salt as the new ones. If it weren't for the cost of transport, they would still be using our tiles in Sipacete.
There are new factories near here, like IMACO, where they are producing designs that are similar to the products we make here in El Tejar. But architects from Antigua say the mass-produced tejas aren't the same as ours. In factories everything is made with presses, and no one uses their hands. Our products are the original, and there is a demand in Antigua for the craft that was left to us by the Spanish. People want our tejas so their houses will be better made, and more beautiful.
One of the many areas outside of town where brick-makers come to
According to law, all houses in Antigua must be constructed in a colonial style. A while back people tried to remove this law, and if they had succeeded it really would have been too much of a change in our business. We could have continued, because we could sell our tejas in Xela, San Marcos, the capital, and to people building houses down by the coast. Still, Antigua is where we see the most demand for our products. If they changed the law, houses there would begin to look really different. The age of the houses, and the heritage they enjoy there would all be completely lost. Antigua would no longer be Antigua. It seems really stupid to want to change the law, because so many people benefit from the way Antigua is built. Tourists come to spend their money in places like that, and their money eventually comes to help all of us. People here often think only of their own benefit, rather than the benefit of their entire community. There were many supporting the change, and many against it, and in the end initiative failed and the law remained in place. Even if the house is new, it needs to be built in an old style. And now Antigua is a World Heritage Site, so it is illegal to destroy an existing structure. You can only make restorations.
Imagine, if I were to destroy my great-granfather's kiln, I could never build it the same way again. Everything about it is unique, as if it were an important ruin. The adobe and bricks, and the earth around it, all have found their form. If I decided to rebuild it I would be throwing away too many years, and too much history. This kiln is the source of all of our work, and our income. It is like the pot where our family cooks all of our food. Puchica, it's a grand history our kiln has.
Since I was born I have looked at these stones, here. My granfather told me they were put there by his mother, Francisca, before he was born. Now, my grandfather lived to ninety-four years old, so when I think about how long those stones have been here, I begin to admire them.
Bricks and tejas in front of a kiln.
Pedro Relates to the Vastness of History and Earth
Some people here aren't very concerned with our history. If they dig someting up, they just throw it aside. Once my uncle found a huge jar buried in the dirt, and he just tossed it so it broke into a thousand pieces. Sometimes people here follow religions that don't allow them to value the older beliefs of the Maya. I believe in God and all that, but I also believe in the past and the people who lived before me. Imagine, if we were all drowned in a flood, and someone many years later were to find all of our belongings, for them it would be a wonderful thing, va? For me, it is the same when I see things buried in the clay.
When I find something in the mud I look at it and wonder, "What hand made this?" Usually I clean it off and keep it, because every piece is wonderful to me. So many people don't value these things. It's such a loss, and I think we are losing so much history this way. For example, the coffins they've found over near my aunt's house, I bet you could really learn a lot from studying those bones. People aren't really interested in them and they toss such things aside. Sometimes I think about going to dig, and I've even made up some plans to show where I think things lie, more or less. But most of the land is owned by landlords, so it isn't like I can just go up into the hills and start digging wherever I want.
There have been many different races in El Tejar. First, there were the Mayas. When the Spanish came, the two races mixed together and produced a new race. Many Spanish families remained here, and in town there are families named Diaz, Torres, Morales, Carillo. My grandfather told me that in his time there were only about one hundred and forty people living in El Tejar. Before that, I imagine the whole place must have been one big plantation, with Mayas living all around it. Now we have Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and other religions. I imagine when there were Mayas here, they also had many different beliefs. I also believe the Mayas from Tecpan* were a different race from those who lived here.
I have seen the ruins at Tecpan, and I have been to the museum, but they don't have anything similar to the pieces I have at home, and like others in El Tejar have found. I imagine Tecpan was like a base, with soldiers living there. They had a leader there, and they protected their leader, because he was like the president of everyone nearby. People there were more dedicated to protecting their leader, and people here were more interested in developing their art. Some of the designs and figures we find are really incredible!
*Tecpan is a modern city sixty kilometers east of El Tejar. Pedro mentions it because it is near the ruins of Iximche, which was the sacred capital of the Kaqchikel Maya.
Pottery fragments and bottle caps lie in the dirt outside of El Tejar.
Friday, April 27, 2007
My name is Don Jorge Avila Morales, and I was born on the 19th of April in 1927. A few weeks ago I became eighty years old.
My experience, well, I believe God himself grabbed me when I was a child, and he made me realize that I loved the art of the marimba. At six years old I set up a row of wooden planks and pretended it was my marimba. I would have liked to have a little toy marimba, but my mother and father were very poor and they couldn't buy me anything. At my age I couldn't work, or make any money, so instead I set up my little row of planks. I even made a little stand to put them on. I looked at a big marimba, and I tried to make mine the same. With my little planks I was happy, and I would stand by them, sing and dance. That was how I made my first marimba, when I was six years old.
Around this time I got some of my cousins together. I said "Come with me, amigos, we'll get together like the groups that come to town to play concerts."
"Okay," they said.
We put together all of our imaginary marimbas, and we would play together almost every day. We didn't really know what we were doing, but in time we actually started to learn how to play songs. The years passed, but this same group of guys stayed together. By the time we were all about ten, we could play a little better. We played famous songs, like "Ferrocarril de Los Altos" and "Lagrima de Telma". By the time I was thirteen, I had made my first full size marimba. It didn't have a very good sound, but I loved playing it, va? As a group, we would perform little concerts. I made a violón out of an old bucket and a wooden pole, and we managed to get a sound out of it. We all liked playing, and we would get together every Sunday to play at some one's house. I loved it. By the time I was fifteen I had formed my first real group, with a lot of the same kids, except we were beginning to grow up. In those years I formalized my group, and when I turned twenty I got married. At my wedding I celebrated by playing my marimba. All of my friends came, and they made music as a gift to me. They didn't charge me anything for their time. It was beautiful.
I continued in the work that made me so happy, and I continued making marimbas, until I was finally making proper, concert-size marimbas to sell in Guatemala. I have even sent some of my marimbas abroad: eight marimbas to the United States, one to Canada, a few to Honduras and El Salvador. In this way I have passed through my eighty years, little by little, living a life of the marimba. I go to concerts, and I play wherever they take me to play. I have played at festivals where there are seven, eight, or even ten marimbas all playing at once. Once, they held a big competition in Tecpan. They brought us to play, and when we came home we had the first prize. My grandchildren also play the marimba, and they've been playing concerts in Antigua. This weekend I am going with some of my children and grandchildren to play marimba in the capital. for the Guatemalan Journalists' Association.
Don Jorge's son hold a photo of his father's band, taken some time in
the mid 1970's. Jorge is second from the right, behind the big marimba.
I keep making marimbas. I am a very poor man, but my beautiful God has given me the wealth of knowing how to do something special. For me, it isn't a bad job, but it certainly has taken a lot out of me over the years.
When I started to make marimbas, I just followed my own curiosity. Once, my parents held a cofraria*, and they hired a marimba to play for their guests. I went close to the marimba to hear how it made sound, and to see how the keys were registered. I got so close that the musician smacked me with his mallets. He thought I was trying to mess up his instrument.
*A cofraria is, in essence, a party held in honor of local patron saints. The responsibility for hosting the party is rotational, and each year a new group of families is both honored with the chance to host the party and burdened with the cost of the celebrations.
"Señor," I said, "I am simply looking at your marimba to see how it makes sound. I am building my own marimba. Why did you hit me?"
"No lies!" He said. "What do you really want, kid?"
I looked up and said, "Even though you are very big and I am still small, I would like to play marimba some day."
I took him to see the marimba I was making in my home, and when he saw it he begged my pardon for hitting me. That was my start. My father was a carpenter, and he gave me some advice about how I could work with wood, as well. So, that was how I began this art of the marimba. I'm very poor, but everything is how god wanted it, va?
We buy the wood in big pieces, we cut it, and then we go about making the keys in a range from contra tiple to el tiple, el centro, and el bajo. Beneath the keys you must make the sound chambers, bigger and bigger. You must look for wood that is beautiful, so that it will give a good sound. These days a lot of the best wood comes from very far away, and you need a lot of money because it is so expensive. There was a time when we harvested the wood here in Guatemala, but now it's mostly gone. There are five kinds of wood: el hormigo, rosul, granadillo, ebony, and rosewood. El hormigo is the most expensive, and you can only find it near the coast, close to the border with Mexico. All of the different woods have a beautiful sound. What matters most is the ability of the one making the marimba. If god is not helping me, then the wood will have a poor sound. If I do it right, and God is willing, then the wood will sing.
Marimba pieces in Jorge's workshop.
Click the button to hear Don Jorge play a song he
wrote about the town he lives in.
Public Office, Natural Disasters
Now, on the subject of serving my pueblo, I am proud to say I began my time in the military when I was eighteen years old. I am a veteran. I spent time living in the barracks. For most of my service I was with the air force, in Chimaltenango. I never earned anything in my time as a soldier, I was there by the force of my will alone. Later, I held several positions in the municipality, as regidor and syndico, because that was where the other politicians wanted me to be. When I entered my fiftieth year, I was elected mayor. In those days we weren't really paid for this work, either. As the leader of El Tejar, I was paid fifty quetzales per month.
In my life, I have made some sacrifices. I know how to plant beans and corn, and some other plants, so my family can eat when there isn't enough money.
When I was mayor there were no resources to work with. We had a hard time. Even so, we left a memory of ourselves in the municipality. We did a few things, we installed a mechanical well, we built a park. Today, it is a happy thing to serve as mayor, because you are paid well, and the city receives its 12% from the federal government in order to complete bigger projects.
One evening we were holding a meeting in a new high school. My secretary, my treasurer, and some other people were there with me. We were working into the night because the school was due to open in eight days. We had no idea what was coming. It was late, and so we said "Let's all go to bed, and get back to this tomorrow." We all left, and by the time I was lying down it must have been about two in the morning. Suddenly I felt a huge earthquake. "My god," I said, "Why are you punishing me?"
The walls of my house, and the roof, they fell down onto my sons and my babies. The beds were all destroyed, everything was destroyed. We were frightened, because we couldn't find one of my daughters. A friend of mine was helping me look for my girl; we were searching through the rubble and dust. Finally we found her, under some pieces of the roof. A rafter had fallen on her, and when we managed to lift it we could see her face was swollen and bleeding. We pulled her out from under the rubble, and took her to the hospital. Thanks to god she survived, and now she is thirty years old.
Don Jorge plays a song with his grandson, who he is teaching to play
the marimba. This child's mother is the daughter who was rescued
from beneath a rafter in the story above.
As the mayor, I was responsible for taking away the twenty six people who died in the earthquake. They were buried under walls, in their sleeping clothes. There were so many of them. The judge declared that we needed to go and take all of them away, so I went out with my secretary and we found others who could help. We had to clear away adobe, walls, furniture, to get to those who were still underneath. Little by little, we pulled them all out. I also gathered all of the injured people together, and we went to the hospital in a group. It was all very sad. They said I was in charge, but what could I do to help the entire town at one time? Or when a disaster had fallen on the entire republic?
Other countries tried to help, but really all of the aid went to the government. We had some assistance in our little town, but it wasn't much. We had a little milk, a little rice, beans--not much. We received no money. It seemed there were so many nations coming to help, but it didn't seem like the help really had that much of an effect. Some organizations came to help us build affordable houses. The walls were made of plaster and wood, the roofs were made of tin. This helped, but still we had to pay something in order to have one of these houses. Later, the Red Cross came and gave away some other houses made of boards and corrugated tin. To have one of these houses, you needed to work with them for fifteen days. This program helped. To tell the truth, there were so many groups coming and going, trying to accomplish different things that it got to be a little hard for me to keep all of them straight in my mind.
We began to build shelters out of nylon, and for a while we were all living in these champas on the municipal football field. Other cities and countries donated the materials we used for our shelters. A few times we had helicopters come and land in a field near town. They brought us blankets and sheets, and food for those of us who really had nothing at all. These gifts helped us very much.
For my part, I wouldn't ever like to have another earthquake here in El Tejar. It was as though absolutely everything came down in one blow. Here, and in Chimaltenango, Parramos, Itzapa, Comalapa, and in Patzicia. I believe it was worse here than in other parts of the republic.
Frankly, life has been pretty difficult. Some of us are living a hard life, and others among us are living even harder lives. Those who died in the earthquake are the saddest of all. Among the dead were some of those friends who would play marimba with me when we were children. Their walls fell down on top of them.
We must go on, until God says "This is where all the music and art must end." His law says that our bodies must die. That is how I will live my life.
Four years ago my family was living in Escuintla, where I was working for the Ministry of Culture and Sports. First I was transferred to Tecpan, and I decided to bring my family with me. In Guatemala the level of violence in the streets is really tremendous, and we thought it would be best to move from the bigger city to a smaller place like Tecpan. But when my contract with the Ministry came up for renewal, they decided to let me go. We hadn't been in Tecpan very long, so we decided to move to El Tejar, where the cost of living was lower. We rented a house, and started to talk about ways to earn some money. At first we were thinking of opening a tortilleria, but there were already several in town. I had a pick-up, so for a while I thought about starting a little delivery business here in town.
A person can work in any profession, even if it isn't exactly what they see as their career. The only requirement, for me, is that I can enjoy my work, and I like the people I work with. One result of globalization is that different kinds of people come to direct a business in Guatemala. Koreans, for example, can be real tyrants when it comes to management. I've heard about women being grabbed by their hair and beaten for not completing their work in the maquilas. There are people who put up with this out of necessity, but my character is different. I'm a friendly person, but if someone mistreats me I respond to them in the same manner. Knowing this about myself, I decided that I wouldn't be able to work in one of the factories that are here in El Tejar.
One day my wife and I were walking in Chimaltenango, and we saw someone with a lot of toys for sale. My wife thought it was a good idea. We already knew where to go to buy toys in quantity, and so we started doing some research to see what the costs were and how much we could sell the toys for in El Tejar. When we had all of the numbers, it looked like it could be a pretty decent business.
In the capital there are importers who sell clothes and toys by weight, in sealed boxes called pacas. The boxes come by container ship from the US, in really huge quantities. Some pacas weigh thirty of forty pounds, others come in really enormous weights. We buy seventy pound containers, because they are easiest to get back to El Tejar. Buying toys in paca is kind of a gamble. The products are sealed shut, and you don't really know what you are getting. You might get really good products, and make a lot of money. With other pacas you might break even, or lose money. The shipments come from different places like Houston or Los Angeles. The very best toys come from New York, and they cost more per pound than toys from anywhere else in the United States.
Above, an empty paca, humble vessel of the transnational economy.
Before Christmas we bought thrity-five pacas. We had electronic toys, machines, dolls, action figures, cars. It all comes in a big jumble. You don't get a whole case of Batman figures, you get big toys, small toys, broken toys, everything. The most popular toys are always those that represent famous characters: Men in Black, He-Man, Superman, Spider Man. Also, toy cars and trucks always sell out really quickly.
The warehouses selling these toys in the capital tell me they enter the country under a classification similar to the toys that are given to Latin America as dontations. If we said these toys were donations, we would be speaking in error, because that would mean that these toys were gifts for very poor children. Donated toys are brand new, and these toys are those that have been used as display models in stores and exhibitions. I imagine there are buyers in the United States who work with large toy suppliers to package up all of these used toys, and send them to Guatemala.
Once, inside of a paca, I found a business card with the address of the place that sends the pacas from New York. These companies probably also send the pacas of clothing, but we decided there were already too many used clothing stores in El Tejar.
We decided to open a shop selling toys and stuffed animals. We started to look for a location, and we bought some shelves we could use to display our products. Unfortunately, after investing in some toys, we didn't have enough money left to pay rent in any of the places that were available. Where we are now, in this shop, there was an elderly lady who sold chickens. She gave us permission to set our shelves up on the sidewalk in front of her shop, but only on the weekends. For four months we brought toys in from the capital and sold them on the sidewalk, here. Then one day she decided she was going to stop selling chickens, and she let us move into her old shop. With what we had already earned, we could pay rent, and buy some more display cases for inside, and set up the shop as it is now.
It took us a little while to learn the about the business. At first we sold our toys without knowing the real price of the toys. There are different qualities and some brands are better than others. Little Tykes, Fisher Price, Tomi, and many other brands are made in China, but they are built according to American quality standards. If you try to buy these brands new they are really expensive. In El Tejar we can't sell anything at really high prices, but at first we were selling at prices that were too low. We've gotten some practice, and we know more about the value of different kinds of toys and stuffed animals.
In time, we have managed to formalize our business. In the beginning we were informal, especially when we were out in the street. After we moved into the shop we continued informally, at first. We always paid twelve percent IVA (VAT) tax on the value of a paca. Then we began to pay five percent on our earnings to SAT (Servicio de Administración Tributaria), and we became a fully legal business. We pay bills in our name, we pay our taxes, and we pay to rent our building. In truth, it's a really easy business. We don't have any loans, and our products are the opposite of perishable, so we don't have to worry very much about our investments. Sometimes we lose money, but in the long term we make it all back.
There are a lot of toystores like ours in Chimaltenango, and here in El Tejar there is one other store. On the weekends a man comes in to sell toys out of the back of his truck at the market. In the capital, and all over Guatemala, there are an enormous number of stores like this, selling toys and clothes from paca. Even so, I don't think that those of use selling from paca could ever successfully organize, because the relationships between individuals would take an awful lot of work to maintain. Everyone in Guatemala is egoistic, looking out for their own interests. It's not like other places, like the US, where people have associations. People here don't understand how organization can make things better and bring benefits to everyone. Here, when we are walking we look out for a way to trip up the people walking next to us. This is the case with Latinos, or at least those of us here in Guatemala. Sadly, few of us see beyond this situation.
The power of labelling: that which leaves the US as "similar to a
donation" is eventually resold in El Tejar as "imported" clothing.
The difference between working in a maquila and working here in my store is that in maquilas you have a steady wage. In a month you never make more or less than 1200 Q. Me, sometimes I make more, sometimes less. Sometimes my business comes in a flood, and sometimes it is a trickle, nothing more. I prefer to work like this, because it gives me time to do other things I want to do, and I have more time for my fammily. I have rheumatic arthritis, and when it's bad i can't work. If I were at the maquilas, I wouldn't be able to miss work when I was sick. For a lot of reasons I prefer to work by my own account instead of in a big factory.
My daughter is twelve, and my son is three. The two of them get all of the broken toys from the pacas, and it's amazing how happy they are with them. My son collects all of the broken cars and puts them all in a line, and he'll pretend it is the highway. He'll have thirty or forty cars, all broken and smashed, but he likes it that way. Sometimes he pretends to be fixing them. My daughter keeps even the most rotten-looking Barbies, every single one. The kids get pretty excited when we open a new paca.
Obsolescent Quality, Effervescent Cheapness, and Pirateria
In all, we've been getting by here since we've moved from Escuintla. The climate is different here, the people are different, and the way of doing business is different as well. IN warm places there is always more business, and people are more active. Here the people are really passive, and they always expect a discount. I think it's part of the culture, here, that tejareños are very cautious when it comes to business. It's hard to get them to realize that if they want a quality product, they must pay for it.
Part of my business in Escuintla was selling bicycle parts. We would have liked to start this business here, but we saw that people here are more concerned with price than they are with quality. They only want to buy parts that come from China or India. Even those that come from Taiwan are too expensive for them. They would never pay the price for products from the US, or England, or Germany. They want poor quality, cheap goods, and in a small town this would never be profitable. To make money with Chinese products you need a really high volume of sales, and you have to be able to do so someting about all the products that fail after people buy them.
Back in the years before 1980, you could buy really good products here. For the most part, we all bought and sold American products, as well as some French and English products. We had clothing, machinery, and different parts for sale. The thing was, that all of this arrived late. I mean, if something was in syle in the US, it would take three or four years to arrive in Guatemala.
Way before computers, before cellphones, even before television, there was a moment here that was something like an industrial revolution. For the first time, goods began to come into our country that were of a really poor quality, but also a really low price. First, lots of things started to arrive from Japan, and we could tell that these products were of really good quality: Toyotas, Datsuns, Nissans, and some really good tools. But the price of Japanese goods was similar to the price of American goods.
Then products from Taiwan started to appear, and this changed everything. We had clothes, machine parts, tools, toys, music. Ay! We had an infinity of things! Also, since there was an increasing presence of Asian people in Guatemala, they began to open up a new kind of business. In the past, we'd never had these places called commercial centers. We had supermarkets, where people bought groceries. But there weren't places like Pradera, where you can buy groceries and shoes and clothes and everything. We call these places moles, like in English. They started to appear in Guatemala in the nineties.
Shoppers navigate the courtyard at the Pradera shopping center,
which is known locally as "el mol".
Before all of this, I think there was a kind of burgeoning globalization within our country. Gradually, newer and newer things were beginning to arrive. When I was a child, I never watched television. When I was ten or eleven, I saw TV for the first time, at someone else's house. Then, when I was fifteen, I bought my first television. The only shows you could watch, on every channel, were Mexican films. That was it, just Mexican men smoking and drinking at the cantina while their wives waited for them at home. When cable was introduced, in the late eigties, it was like the people were awakening to a whole new world of things. We watched American movies with big satellite dishes, so big they nearly pulled our house down. It used to be pretty rare to know someone who had an album of music from the US, and these records would be five years out of date. After a while, the records were only one year out of date, and then in maybe 1995 everything changed. At last, completely Chinese appeared in our markets.
The Chimaltenango Maxibodega, next door to Pradera, is part of the
vast Paiz/CARHCO retail conglomerate, which operates as Wal-Mart's
Central American subsidiary.
The first time I saw pirata was in the eighties, in Tapachula. You'd see some guys selling jeans, and ask "How much are those jeans? What brands do you have?" They'd say "Well, what brand do you want us to put on them?" They could fake the labels for Sergio Valente, Levis, Lee, Hang Ten, and everything. When you came back to Guatemala you could say you'd bought some chafa in Mexico. Before, you barely ever saw pirata. We had genuine things, original things. I guess thay hadn't figured out how to do this kind of work yet. Gradually we saw casettes, videos, all spreadng from the capital of Guatemala out ino the rest of the country. Then, when CDs were introduced, I can only imagine how many people made themselves into millionaires. A disc that would have originally cost 125 Q might have cost 40 Q on the street. Since then, competition has driven the price lower and lower, until now the same disc might cost five quetzales.
A selection of pirated media can be found at a small stand that sets
up every day in front of El Tejar's town library.
More or less, this is how globalization enveloped our country. New businesses, new services, and new producs have arrived, including many things we had never seen before. I see the impact of this change everywhere, not just in products but in our culture as well. Before, we were a much more communicative culture. You knew who lived on either side of you house, and you spoke with them. Now, no one really knows one another.* Everyone is accustomed to staying inside their house, watching televison. This is a North American custom that has been carried over into our culture, and I believe as a result we are losing some of our older social customs.
*It is curious that Jose feels this way. Our conversation took place on the steps in front of his store, and as you will notice when listening to the auio file, he exchanged warm greetings with many of the pedestrians passing by his store.
In all, I believe globalization is a good change for our culture. We are capable of attracting more international investors to compete with our national companies. Before, everything was monopolized: electricity; water; natural gas; telephones; even soda pop. If you wanted to have a phone installed in your house, you might spend ten years filling out applications and waiting for them to come install a phone. When other companies came to compete with TELGUA, everyone realized that the way to make money is not by restricting access to telephones, but by making them more and more available. Now, you can have a phone installed in your house the same day you ask for one. This is the way things should be, according to the laws of supply and demand.
So, globalization has broken the monopoly of many companies who once had complete control over Guatemala. With free enterpise we have a wider selection of things to buy, and they are cheaper than ever before. Before, a television was something onlñy wealthy people could have. I've seen Chinese televisions for sale for 800 Q, and even if they don't last all that long you'll still get a little use before they break down.
Bad things always come along with the good. One disadvantage of globalization has been the number of small producers who fail when they can no longer compete with big transnational companies. There doesn't seem to be much regulation in our country, and it's too bad that we can't protect small producers. Someone who cultivates a few manzanas of corn will have to sell their product for a high price, in order to cover the cost of labor, transport, harvesting, and all that goes into getting the corn to market. If they charge $1.25 for a pound of corn, and corn from the US or Brazil costs twenty-five cents, who do you think will get all of the business?
Inscrutable Messages Arrive from the Center
Once, in a paca, I found a really expensive piece of jewelry. It was a peacock made entirely outof perals and gold. There was writing on it that said it had been made in Austria. Someone threw it into the paca, either on accident or on purpose. Who knows? Sometimes when I open a paca I'll find toys that don't make any sense to me. Once I found this square thing, with bars sticking out of the sides, and reflectors stuck all over it. It would turn around and around, but you couldn't tell what it was really supposed to do. There was no sound, or music, or and light effects. The toys I sell just arrive, without any packaging or any explanation.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
My father, Virgilio Mendez, was once the mayor of El Tejar. He held office during the civil war, so there weren't really many resources. The city received 10% of federal taxes, as guaranteed by the constitution, but to complete his projects he also needed to go out in search of additional resources. You could say his style of governing was as a social promoter, but his work was pretty severely restricted by la violencia. In the years after my father was mayor, I began to become involved in politics. I felt it was something I was inheriting from my father. By profession I am a teacher, and this has taught me to become involved in places where there is a necessity. I am concerned with the problems we have that are the result of deeper problems in our society. I also like sports, and for a while now I've been working as an organizer to support the local indoor soccer associations.
Seven years ago I was part of the planning committee in the elections, and when we won I was given a position on the advisory council. At twenty-nine, I was the youngest person involved in local politics. During this term, we worked to pave the roads in some of the outlying communities in El Tejar, we built two bridges, and we made some pretty big improvements to the schools in the area. Also, we worked on improving the teaching contracts in the area, because the federal government doesn't give much support to teachers.
In El Tejar it is customary for local political parties to paint their
logos directly onto the houses in their constituency, and these pain-
tings remain for many years after the election. Above is one of
Manolo's murals from his 2004 campaign. Throughout the following
text I have included other examples of campaign murals.
In 2004 I ran for mayor at the head of a civic committee, with my father as my political advisor. The civic committee was a good way for us to develop our own strength, and to have room to think the way we wanted to. We ran without the assistance of any official parties, and we funded the campaign ourselves. We made local development the main focus of our campaign. We only lost the election by 87 votes. This time around, I didn't really want to run, but a group of people here asked me to participate. So far, we have no economic support from anyone, but I can surely say we have a unique vision about the work that needs to be done in our town. It's an adventure. No one is thinking for us.
In the US you have the Democrats and the Republicans. In Guatemala we have the left, the right, the center, the center-left and the center-right. More or less, our two countries are the same: politics is about ideologies and party-politics. Our civic committee aims for a more social program. We have all different sorts of people working together on our campaign, and we are talking a lot about what it means to seek the common good, rather than individual wealth. Our idea is to have a government that operates from below and addresses all sectors of the population. We are trying to make the reality of the people in El Tejar the foundation for our political work.
A mural for Partido Patriota, a hard-right candidate both locally
and in the coming national elections.
Right now we are in contact with three of the national political parties. Since we came so close to winning the last election, we have attracted their attention. In the next few days we will be discussing whether we should convert our committee into one of these legally established parties. We'll have to see which party most pertains to our form of thinking. We aren't just looking for help with publicity from a major party. We need to be sure they won't become an obstacle to our project once we arrive in office. People in town are tired of how corrupt some of these campaigns have become. The candidates from the major parties can throw a million quetzales into their campaign, and that is really a lot of money to people here.
Personally, I believe that the world moves according to the will of a supreme being. If it is His will, I will be mayor. Even the president operates in this way. What is the difference between the powerful and the weak, if we all have the same faith?
Concerning Life in the Space Between Factory Walls
Guatemala is known as a place of many distinct ethnic identities. However, our community roots are not purely indigenous, nor indigenista, but also are the result of mestizo culture and the mix between ladino and native cultures. El Tejar is a zona franca, a free trade zone, which means there are a number of factories here. The ethnicity in the area is kaqchikel. Before El Tejar was declared a zona franca, farmers here were growing corn, beans, squash, huisquil, and other vegetables. Artisans here were producing bricks and pottery, as well as small clay sculptures of different animals. Lots of people here also dedicated themselves to weaving textiles. There was a lot of work here in producing traje , the traditional clothing worn by women from other regions in Guatemala, like Escuintla and Sacatepequez. Women usually worked in the home, and helped produce various crafts. Children here have always attended schools, and we have a relatively high rate of literacy here in El Tejar, when compared to other parts of the country. A certain percentage of the town attended colleges and found work in town as teachers, secretaries, lawyers, and accountants.
We have somewhere around ten different factories here: Bimbo, Zeta Gas, Lamale, Nylontex, Dong Bang, Alianza Fashion, and Maseca. We also have Inapsa, where they grow broccoli, and for a long time there were industrial rose-growing operations outside of town. The maquilas and other industries began arriving about fifteen years ago. One result of these industries' arrival in town has been a change in the community so that very few people here identify themselves as Kaqchikel. When people started to work in the factories, they started to wear pants, jeans, and t-shirts. Women who wore huipiles and cortes are wearing modern clothes. They used to wear their hair in traditional braids, and now they have fancy new hairstyles, or they dye their hair. Some of this change is from the television, but really it has to do with where they work. You can't really expect to work for fifteen hours a day in an overheated factory wearing traditional clothing.
Liria, a tejareña who works at the market, is wearing
the heavily embroidered traje that was once the tradi-
tional outfit for all women in the community.
Roca and his family visit the market together before
Wendy goes to work at the University in Chimaltenango.
Doña Isabel, in front of the beauty shop she owns
beside the Panamericana.
People here would rather make bread at Bimbo, or flour at Maseca, rather than going to work in the fields. The problem, though, is that the factories are often directed by people from other parts of Guatemala, and when they are filling important positions in the company they hire people they know from their homes, rather than hiring people from El Tejar. This means that we have a lot of migration in town, from Retalhuleu, Suchatepequez, Coban, and Quiche. El Tejar is really becoming a mix of different cultures and identities.
There are some advantages to being a zona franca, but we have lost a lot as well in terms of our own culture and what we are capable of producing by ourselves. The weavers have all gone to work making jackets and pants, and the farmers all want to learn how to use a sewing machine. They've got the right idea, which is to look for a way to get a better position in the world. But when these jobs go away, or end up going to people from other towns, then the locals end up unemployed, and they're stuck. I'd say that this is somewhere the local authority could direct its efforts, to ensure that the majority of the jobs in the factories here are going to tejareños.
From my perspective it's a good thing for them to be bringing jobs to the community. That's where we begin our negotiation. But if the people don't have work, then what is the use in having the industries here? Instead of coming to help, they might be taking away part of our culture, and our heritage. We are in a zona franca, which means they don't contribute anything to our community. They don't pay taxes. If we ask them to participate in a project financially, we don't get any help. It's a challenge for us to find a way to negotiate with these businesses so they are making a contribution to our town.
We provide services to the factories. They use the same water as anyone else in El Tejar, and they pay exactly the same rates for their usage. We have eight pumps in town, and the water in my house comes from the same source as the water they use. They also have their own well, of course, but they use our water. They are using our drainage systems, our sewer lines. Perhaps all we need is someone who will devote themselves to working with these companies, who will ask them to make some changes. I say all of this depends on the local authorities.
The road past Inapsa and Maseca, behind Dong Bang, is an example of a place where we've had some problems. There is a new community back in that area, the Colonia Patricia Arzú. We had a project ready to pave the road, but when we started we were told by the management at Maseca that they weren't going to halt production while the road went in, and they would charge the city for all product lost as a result of the road closure. So, for the simple reason that they were up and running, we couldn't go ahead with our paving project. I believe there must be an alternative to this way of working. It's a question of conscience. We could hold some meetings, try to reach a consensus, and avoid a lot of these problems.
Above, the road past Inapsa and Maseca, behind Dong Bang.
In Patricia Arzú there are a lot of children who are suffering from intestinal problems, as well as throat and lung infections. They all live right behind these big industrial plants, where they use all sort of contaminants. For example, they are using ammonia gas as a fertilizer in their fields at Inapsa, and it is causing contamination. Maseca's waste water contains all of the material left from washing their grain, and their waste from making flour. They have settling ponds on the back of their property, and the water soaks down directly into the town's water table. If you go to Patricia Arzú around ten in the morning, the smell coming from the waste ponds is overpowering.
The other problem is that we don't really have too much control over the sort of people who come to work here. Sometimes they are coming here from places with a real violence problem, and they bring these problems with them. We have people working in the factories who have just come from prisons. A while back we had a problem with a group of men who were robbing gold, jewelry, and cellphones from people's lockers at the factories. For a while they had even started some extortion here, threatening people's lives. They weren't really from a gang, they were sort of a mix of different delinquents. We managed to get that situation under control, and the town's been fairly peaceful lately.
The people running these companies might be really big investors with a lot of money, but they need to make some allowances to the people here in town. They might threaten to leave, but I believe even so we should conduct some studies of the environment. There are some pretty serious problems, sometimes with crime, and sometimes with the allergies we are seeing in our children. We might also expect more from our central government. I believe it is right to provide the factories with certain guarantees to make sure they do not leave our country for somewhere else. I also think it is important for the government to ensure the safety of foreign investments. Our work, locally, is to find a way to live with the industries, work with them, and share with them so that we can all continue to do our jobs peacefully.
A mural supporting CASA, a conservative party led by the dean of
a local university.
Bootstraps and Handshakes: El Tejar's Future According to Manolo
Here in El Tejar we have a good location, geographically. We are three kilometers from Chimaltenango, which is the departmental capital. We are eighteen kilometers from Antigua, and only fifty-one kilometers from the national capital. With such a good location, it should be easy for us to find ways to bring more economy into our town. We should learn how to attract tourism, so instead of seeing them pass by in their vans, they are stopping here as well. I would like to see someone try to rescue the craft industry in town. The artisans in town make their products and take them to other markets, where the sell them for very low prices. The ones making the money are the wholesalers and middlemen, and I'd like to see some of that money come back here to El Tejar.
I've heard that in the US the schools are very focused on preparing their students for vocations, rather than solely focusing on their academic development. Also, they prepare their students psychologically, so they will later be more productive in the workplace. I would like to see some programs for carpentry, plumbing, and mechanics in our local schools. For the women, we could have baking classes, sewing classes, and develop other domestic skills. Here the students are well-prepared for an intellectual career, but if they can't find work in the right field it would be helpful for them to have more practical skills.
In Guatemala there are very few Industrial Technology Schools. People who would like to attend these schools must go all the way to the capital, or to Retalhuleu. I'd like to see an institute like that in El Tejar. Of course, to establish a school like this would require huge amounts of investment, but I think that the local authorities could contribute to the process by looking for outside resources as well as those we receive from the government. One example of this process is over at Dong Bang. The original owner has passed control of the factory over to his children, and they've divided up the facility amongst themselves. They've shut down one of the factory lines, and the workers are all on vacation, or suspension, or else they have actually been laid off. People say "Oh, Dong Bang is finished in El Tejar," but actually they are in a development phase, and they are investing a lot more money here. Where the closed factory is, they are going to build a high-tech school that operates in a Korean style. They are looking for personnel and teachers, so they can start to provide a higher quality education to people here in Guatemala. Of course, it will be a private school, and it will probably be pretty expensive, but even so I think if we negotiate we can bring some benefit to our community.
Sometimes I wonder why we aren't making more shoes in town. Guatemala has this huge shoe industry that is growing annually, and I think we should say "Hey! We have lots of space for another factory! Let's go to work!" We could bring in some people to teach us what we need to know about making shoes, and we could start making components. We probably wouldn't make the whole shoe, but we could start making some pieces. Similarly, I think that we should be setting up workshops so that people here learn how to make more automotive parts. There are a few guys in town who have their own lathes. They are machining parts on demand and making a pretty good living doing it. It would be good if we could get a group of people together to do this work, instead of a just a few individuals.
We also face a wide variety of social problems. In this part of Guatemala we are working to reduce domestic violence. The high death dates for adults means we have a correspondingly high number of orphans who need assistance. We need to improve health education, especially around the issues of maternal health, and post-partum care. We had a study recently in town that showed inadequate health care for pregnant women. Many young mothers, even though they are pregnant, are only eating tortillas, beans, and salt. Sometimes the father of the child is no longer in contact with the mother, or else the family already has many other children, and their incomes are stretched too far to provide more to the mother. The average family has seven children, here, and those numbers are hard to support on a small income.
The local headuarters for GANA, the center-right party led by
Guatemala's president Óscar Berger.
On the municipal level, we don't really have any good figures for the number of tejareños who are in jail, or for what reasons they are in jail. Sometimes they get drunk and get into trouble, or they try to steal something, or they are in jail for murder. We don't have any information about any of this. If someone commits a crime, they need to be punished, but we need to ask whether the father ended up in this situation because he didn't have a job. With a father in prison, it seems likely his children will have a harder time in school, and will end up being more likely to become involved in maras and gangs. I'd like to bring in some social workers to get a better understanding of these issues. I find it hard to believe in the phrase "integral development", because this sort of thing is really hard to accomplish. However, with this goal in mind, I would like to see a team of workers get together here to start to address the deeper social problems that exist in our community.
I have seen some communities in the region make real progress in all of these fields. The mayor of San martin Jilotepeque is an example of someone who has had a lot of success finding support for his work. Primarily, he has managed to find a lot of support from the international aid community, and he has a lot of NGOs working for his community. This means he is sharing the responsibility of working for the environment, in health and education. He has help finding financial support for projects in his region. I think we should try to bring in similar help in order to identify and solve problems in El Tejar. As I see it, NGOs are playing an important role in the development of Guatemala. I don't want to say too much about those groups who have used the NGO model as a way of laundering money. From what I've seen, in San Martin, I don't really care if they are getting rich at the same time, as long as they are bringing support to the community. They have some high-profile organizations there like Caritas, World Vision, and Intervida*. The question I think is important to ask about NGOs, is how to integrate them into municipal funding structures. They are officially private enterprises, so it remains difficult for us to provide funding directly from the municipality. I think we need to better integrate the NGOs we already have working in El Tejar, so they are supported by our city administration.
*It is worth mentioning here that in recent weeks the director of Intervida, a Spanish children's charity, has come under invesitgation for the misappropriation of approximately sixty million dollars in donated funds over the past decade.
Guatemala is a very paternalist society, and as a result it seems we are always waiting to see what we will be given, and we are waiting for someone to arrive and solve our problems. This culture is a product of the earthquake, in '76, and the civil war years. These both really had an enormous impact on our society, and at the same time we learned to depend on the aid that was coming from all over the world. The economic powers in Guatemala became a very small group during these disasters, and they are protective of their wealth. The governments in the past fifteen years, since the peace accords, have been organized around accepting large quantities of international funds, but not really investing those funds. And, of course, when the term of each government is ending, they have usually devoted themselves to plundering the state's financial resources.
When the Inter-American Development Bank comes to loan more money to Guatemala, we all say "Ah!" but we aren't thinking about the fact that the next three generations will be burdened with paying back this debt. Will we use this money to educate our communities and increase our technologies? I think, as usual, this money will not be invested. If you think about it, there is an awful lot of money in Guatemala already, in the hands of a very small number of wealthy people. We need to direct our attention to getting this money into use, and not taking on more loans.
I don't really believe the current government is doing a good job in its role as moderator between the welathy and the poor. When Alfonso Portillo was president, there was a lot of money coming into the country, and we know he was stealing a pretty large amount of that money. But even so, there was also a lot of work to be had, and at least some of the money coming in was being invested in our country. The current president, Berger, is only bringing in opportunities for the rich. For example, they are building a bridge on the edge of the capital, so that commuters can get to the denter without driving through the poor parts on the edge of town. How is this project helping me? The money from this project is going directly to financial institutions and upper-level contracting firms. Why couldn't we invest those hundreds of millions of quetzales in projects that bring more benefit to the community? National construction companies use lots of machines, they come through and leave behind a poor-quality project, and then they disappear. On the local level, we have the capacity to do these projects ourselves, and the money coming into the project would remain in our community.
An advertisement for UNE, the party of Miguel Ruíz who is currently the mayor of El Tejar.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
I was born in Poptun, on one side of the Petén. My mother worked in a comedor, and she raised me without my ever knowing my true father. My step-father met my mother, and we all lived together in the village of Santa Cruz Ixiti, in Izabal. We were very far away from the nearest town, and I couldn't study in a school. When I learned to read it was my step-father who taught me, giving my sisters and I classes in our home. We had a little piece of chalkboard, and in the evenings he showed us all how to read and write as best he could.
My mother worked a lot at the comedor, and so she neglected me when I was young. When I was six months old I got the measles, and I was really sick with a cough and a fever and spots all over. My mother told me that one of my eyes had spots in it as well, and when the measles were gone my eye turned white, even the part of my eye where the black thing usually is. I was so young, I don't really know what it is like to see with two eyes. Later, when I was twelve years old, one side of my face started to hurt, because the bad eye was beginning to swell. My step-dad took me to a children's hospital in Guatemala City, and they did an operation to remove my eye. This all happened in about 1975.
My father knew some people working in Izabal through the Ministry of Health, and he enrolled me in a training program being given by the Instituto Transformación Agraria (INTA), which is now called MAGA*, I think. There were forty of us in my group, studying to become "local health promoters". They taught us some health outreach strategies, some traditional medicine, and they showed us how to cure a patient using first-aid. While I was studying at INTA I met a woman named Seño Chuz, who was a nurse and an instructor, and later she was one of my supervisors.
*Gabriel is right. MAGA stands for the "Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganaderia y Alimentacion".
This was the life I had before, in Izabal. I was working for my aldea, and some small communities nearby. I lived with my parents, because I wasn't married yet. Every month I would fill out a form describing where I had gone, what sort of situations I had encountered, what sort of help I had given, and how much I had charged for my assistance. Most of the time my work was to go into a small community in the countryside with a partner, and we would administer first aid, then carry the victim in a hammock through the woods until we go to a road, where we could catch a ride to the nearest health clinic. We could only do first-response. After a while, I had learned how to give injections and even how to resuscitate a victim of drowning. We didn't do anything to treat really grave illnesses, or anything that had to do with deciding to give chemical medicines.
Sometimes I would also go to local communities to give talks about health, hygiene, and cooking. Seño Chuz only spoke Spanish, and many of the people we were working with only spoke Q'eqchi'. I worked as her translator. For example, I would say "If you are raising children and they are going to eat lunch, or brush their teeth, please, we beg of you, if they are going to eat they need to wash their hand with water and soap."
I'd been working in this job for a year when, in 1986, my supervisors offered me a chance to go to an international health seminar in the United States. They had seen that I did a careful job with my reports, and so they recommended me for a travel grant through the Agencia Internacional para el Desarollo (AID). I flew from Guatemala City to Mexico City, then to Dallas, and then to Washington DC. The main seminars talked about strategies for organizing a community, and how to establish and meet various goals for development. I was very happy to be there, and they gave me several certificates and diplomas to take home. I still have them all. However, I didn't feel like we received very much real training. I would have liked to study more, because I really wanted to put myself into a full career in health. Instead, we spent a lot of our time being taken from one place to another, just to look and not for any other reason. We were like tourists. We went to Massachusetts, and then we travelled in a bus to see the Hopi in Arizona, which is a place that is pretty close to Massachusetts. We visited a celebration the tribe was having, and everything about them was very different--their language, their music, their clothing. I also went to the White House, but we could only look from far away because no one is allowed to go in or get very close to it. We went to the George Washington Monument, and it took us five full minutes to get to the top in the elevator. We saw the Supreme Court, and we went into the capital building, where they have portraits of the presidents and important scientists, from the past. We also went to the museum where they have all of the old machines, and we saw there the first man to ever walk on the moon, but he is dead now. We had some good experiences there.
Asparagus and Lithography in El Tejar, Chimaltenango
After I was married to Margarita, Seño Chuz invited us to come and live in her home in El Tejar. Her children were younger, and she needed adults to care for the house while she was away working in Semox. My wife did the cooking and cleaning, and I took care of maintenance around the house. That was how we came to live in El Tejar, and it was good here, with the kids growing up and all.
Seño Chuz retired, and she came home to live permanently. I decided it was time for me to go out and look for a way to live by my own account, and to have a home of my own. For five years we lived in rented homes, waiting for a chance to establish ourselves in El Tejar. I didn't want to go back to Izabal, because the work there is scarce and doesn't really lead to better things. We arrived in El Tejar in 1987, and all of our children were born here. Now they are studying here.
In the first years of living here, I worked in several different companies. My first job was with Siesa, a company that transports fruits and vegetables to Europe. We handled asparagus, lettuce, green beans, blackberries and raspberries, all shipped frozen to stores in Europe. In Parramos they have a farm for the green beans and berries, but the farm is almost like a giant factory. They have many different rooms for various operations like growing, cleaning, and classifying the produce. When everything was ready for shipment, we would carry it all to the capital in trucks called "Thermo King". I was always the copilot when we drove. If we weren't carrying products from Parramos then we would drive to an aldea called Chilarcito, outside of San Juan Chamelco, in Coban. That was where our company was growing all of its asparagus for export.
We worked all night, first getting the trucks loaded and then transferring everything to an airplane in the capital. My work would usually start at one or two in the morning, and then we would drive to meet the airplane on its way to Europe, usually around three or four in the morning. But I was working too late, and I was having trouble getting any rest during the day. I felt like I was neglecting my family, so after five year working there I offered my notice and started to look for other work.
I found work in a lithography shop in Chimaltenango, preparing portraits and images to send with other documents to a printer in the capital. I was working with lots of naturals, Mayas, who all spoke to each other in Kaqchikel. The company was called Nujitza, which in their language means "wisdom". I worked there for two years, learning how to handle the materials, and how to create different colors. Then they started to talk about moving the shop to the capital in search of more business. I didn't want to work in the capital, like I had with Siesa. I'd been renting a house the whole time I worked for them, but the pay was really low. I had enjoyed learning the trade, but thank God there are other ways to earn a living, and more jobs here in town.
Even though we are blessed by God we must continue to work. The first thing they always ask you in a job interview is what level of schooling you have reached. Many jobs require you to have a diploma for tercero basico, but if you haven't even completed sexta primaria, then you really will have a hard time finding work.* I had very little formal education, apart from the diplomas I'd received studying with the Ministry of Health. When I came to El Tejar, the first thing I did was to evaluate myself to know how I felt about finding work here. In short, I didn't think I knew enough about writing and reading, and I thought that I needed to have at least a diploma for sexta primaria. In my other jobs, occasionally I would need to fill out forms, and it was really difficult for me. I enrolled at an institution called CONALFA, an adult education program, and they helped me get organized and confident about improving my abilities. So, while I worked during the day, I would also study at night to get my diploma. My first daughter was very young, and I was struggling for myself and my family, so in the future I would have a better job to get us by.
*Approximately, the tercero basico is equivalent to a high school diploma, the sexta primaria to a sixth grade education, and tercera primaria to a third grade education.
During this same time, when Don Elvidio Sulecio was mayor, he let us know that the city was going to buy some land outside of San Miguel, to make a new colonia for families in the town who didn't have anywhere to build a home. We needed to make an application for a loan, and for a permit to buy land in the new colonia, which was named after Don Sulecio. Thanks to him, and his family, we have been treated well in town and we have a reason to stay here in El Tejar. When we were approved, the city sold us a lot, without public water, for 2000 quetzales ($260). We made a down payment of 300 Q ($40), and we pay 150 Q every month towards our loan. This payment is really low, considering how little we could put in as a down payment. The mayor did all of this for our family. Without him, there would have been nowhere for us to stay.
On the right, the community store in Colonia Elvidio Sulecio.
Gabriel and his family live a bit further down the road to the left.
By the time I left work at the lithography shop, I had my diploma, and I was feeling better about my chances for finding a good job with one of the factories here in El Tejar. I heard there were two openings for workers at Maseca, the big mill in town, so I went to fill out an application and try for an interview. I brought all of my papers, and diplomas with me, and proof that I'd never been committed of a crime. They gave me a very long questionnaire to fill out, asking how much I hoped to earn and what my past work experiences had been like, as well as some psychological questions. If I hadn't studied in CONALFA I don't think I would have been able to answer all of the questions. Also, I think, my diplomas from my work in health helped get me into an interview. When I was in the office, they asked me to tell them how I felt about my own abilities, because they could see that I only have one eye. I told them about how I lost my eye, but I was afraid they were going to decide not to give me the job, because Maseca is a very famous company and there is plenty of competition for work. I told them I could do the job, and that they shouldn't consider my eye a real physical problem. Thanks to God, they decided to give me the job.
Note: Don Gabriel suggested that I use some of his many photographs
of Maseca as illustrations for my writing about the factory where he
is proud to work. After our interview we went through all of his photos
and decided on several that he thought would be informative, and sev-
eral others he thought had some pretty colors. I re-photographed all of
his selections and have included them in the following portion of this
Maseca employees enjoying the sunshine on one the company's
scheduled "cleaning days", when everyone works together to clean
the factory grounds and make minor improvements, like painting
the curb and cleaning the ditch.
By coincidence, a good friend of mine was hired at the same time that I was. We worked as groundskeepers, looking after the lawn and the flowers in front of the factory. Back then, they didn't have a machine to cut the lawn, so I would do it all by hand, with a machete. After a few years, they bought a tractor so you could drive around and cut grass at the same time. That was my job.
After I'd been working for a while, my managers saw that I was intelligent and had a will to do a good job, so they decided to give me a promotion. My friend stayed in his old job, but they moved me up to the position of technical assistant in the granary, working on the silo where we store our shipments of corn. We get some corn from Guatemala, but we produce so much that me need to have corn shipped to us from the United States. The corn comes to us every few months in a huge boat that can carry thousands of tons of corn. The boat comes to Puerto Quetzal, and the corn is brought to our factory by a trucking company called Awat, after the owner who is named Carlos Awat. He is an Arab, but he's lived in Guatemala for a long time. My job is to supervise the transfer of the corn from the trucks into the three silos we have at the factory. The other part of my job is maintaining the silo where the grain is stored, and cleaning it so that the corn isn't contaminated by plague or pests.
Gabriel chose this set of photos to illustrate the path taken by the
corn on its way to his silo. From top to bottom: the corn arrives at
Puerto Quetzal in a container ship, where it is loaded into Awat's
trucks, brought to Maseca and loaded into the main silos, then
sent by pressurized pipes into the washing tank where production
of the flour begins.
As workers, we are required to come to work in a presentable fashion. We must be very clean, and we all wear a clean uniform provided to us by Maseca. We wear earplugs, face masks, and hair nets, and we can't go into the factory wearing and jewelry, not even a wedding ring. Inspectors come to our factory pretty regularly, because here in Guatemala there are a lot of rules about how to properly store corn. There are laws that say that if a business is not in accordance with health or security measures, the law will close the company down so that no one goes in and nothing comes out. There are other rules that we follow, as well, because we need to meet the regulations for all of North and Central America. We have factories in Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico. The only place we don't have a factory is in Panama. There is also a factory in Texas, in the USA, and it operates under the name of GruMa, which is short for Grupo MAseca. Occasionally we get visits from the managers of different factories, and from the central management, to make sure everything is in order. At the end of this month, our factory is going to have a visit from the oldest son of the former owner of Maseca. The owner died in an accident of some kind in 1995, and his children took charge of the company along with some other businessmen. I don't really know much about these owners. I don't know where they live, or if they own other companies, or anything. One thing I know that the general director for all of Central America is named Carlos Ambreu. He talks to all of the employees and personnel at Maseca, to tell them when their factory is going to receive a visit.
Gabriel Makes the Most of His 30%
As far as I understand politics, there are a lot of people who want to be the president or the mayor, and when they offer something good to the people of Guatemala I don't actually believe them or trust their promises. As far as the upcoming elections, I've been thinking about voting for Alvaro Colom, from the UNE, from my angle he looks like someone who might do what needs to be done. But, you know, the president from ten years ago (Portillo) went out into the most distant villages with promises to bring help, and when he won he did nothing. His interest was in those people con vienes, with land transport and their own businesses. He was working for the people in Guatemala who didn't need his help. By my calculation, about 30% of what he did was in service to the poor.
Looking at the costs of life from an economic perspective, there are many people here who live in extreme poverty, maybe without any job, and the have no money coming into their home. There are many single mothers in Guatemala, from the war years. If I were going to help, I would put my energies in health and in providing better places for people to live. Some here are living in very humble houses. To give them something better would be to provide them with a prinicipal base for health, and education. Sometimes kids don't go to school because their parents don't have the capacity to provide notebooks, pens and pencils.
When I was young my father enrolled me in the education program through the Ministry of Health and MAGA, but in my time here in El Tejar I've never seen MAGA come here to help the people who need it. No one talks about doing anything unless it is the election season, and then we hear about all sorts of new projects, and some resources become available for local initiatives. All of this is an attempt to win a few votes for mayor, or president. But once they win, they forget about where they have been and with whom they were speaking. They forget about the poor.
You know, some politicians offered to help me build my house, after we bought the land from Don Sulecio. They said they were going to get the funds to build the house for me, and they invited me to join a campesino organization. They was making an application to FOGUAVI (Fondo Guatemalteco de la Vivienda), which is a fund maintained by the office of the president of our republic, working to build houses for those who need them most. I put myself into the project, but everything turned out pretty badly in the end. They never really got me the support I needed, and they kept asking me for more "collaboration and aid in the economics of our association", which really meant paying them lots of money so they could make trips to the capital to establish our application with the government. I got upset with the whole project, and I stopped going to the meetings because I could see that the whole thing was a scam. They cheated me out of my money, and I got no results. Unless I'm mistaken, my neighbors had their house built by participating in the housing committee. But they had to fight for two whole years to make sure the project fulfilled all of its promises.
Years ago, I told my family I needed to have a house, and have a piece of land, in the name of God, so that we could continue forward. I built my house with my own money, by my own efforts, and I myself hired the man who raised the walls. It's really thanks to Maseca that I've been able to build my house. We have an employee's association, and an employee store that sells groceries and other items at a slight discount. At the end of the year, all of the members of the association get a small percentage of the annual sales from our store. Also, as part of the association, we can choose to have an amount of money automatically taken out of our paychecks and put into savings. I save 385.40 Q every month ($50), and this money generates interest in my savings account. I've been saving for several years, and by the end of this year I will have saved more than 10,000 Q ($1300). It is really because of this support that I have been able to build my home. The entire association at Maseca is part of a larger organization called Associaciones Solidaristas Guatemaltecas. They are the ones who support us so we can have our own organization within the business we work for, so we can have a good income and good benefits, and our families can live a little bit better.
Citizenship and Penalty Kicks, Loosely Defined
To touch the theme that is the word of our Lord, I feel proud that we are a humble family who believes in God. We are content, and happy, and we believe deeply that we are His children. I am also pleased to consider myself a citizen of Central America, and of Guatemala. We are near to our brothers in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. As I see it, though, they don't want to see chapines in Mexico. There is no love for us there. This I have heard, and on the television I have seen that Guatemalans don't do well in Mexico. The Mexicans grab us an punish us in really harsh ways, as if we weren't even humans. This hurts me, to see that the Mexicans treat Central Americans this way, as if there were no firendship beween our countries. A friend of mine from Parramos, who has spent time in the United States, was driving through a part of Mexico called La Ventosa. The brakes on his car failed him, and and he crashed into a wall after going through several flower beds beside the road. He said they treated him really badly, and they made him pay for everything, including the lawns that he damaged. They charge you for everything in Mexico. If it is ever my time to go, I will feel afraid and uncomfortable in that country.
A few weeks ago I got the chance to go to Nicaragua, and I saw that they are really friendly people. The police and government officials we met were really relaxed, and they didn't really bother us at all. A group of us from Maseca all went together to Managua, and we stayed in the Hotel Princess. We went there for a soccer championship between a bunch of teams from all of the different factories in Central America. I got to go along as a medic, because I have experience in first-aid.
Like I say, I have more confidence in the other countries from Central America than I do with Mexico. But at the end of our Maseca tournament Costa Rica took first place, because there was a lot of cheating. One of our goals was disqualified, because the referee was from Nicaragua. Also, there was a foul that was obviously inside the goal box, but he didn't give us a penalty shot. He said "Why don't you guys call Carlos Batres* to come down here and see if it was a penalty or not? Maybe you think you can bicker with the referee up in Guatemala, but not down here in Nicaragua." It was obviously a penalty shot. We were let down by the fault committed by the Nicaraguenses, and for their failure to respect our rights. Because of this error we came in third place at the tournament.
*Carlos Batres is a famous Guatemalan who has worked as a referee for several World Cup qualifiers and Olympic matches.