Saturday, March 3, 2007

Don Edgar, Tejareño

Houses, Earthquakes

My father moved from Totonicapan to El Tejar looking for work as a weaver. Here in town we used to have lots of people making traditional tablecloths, but there are only two people still doing it. He met my mother here, and when they decided to get married their parents were opposed. There was no wedding in a church, only a civil union, and because they were against the marriage my grandparents wouldn't let my father and mother live in their house. I was born, and for the first few years we all lived in a little rented room in the middle of town, next to the pharmacy. After five or six years, the municipality of El Tejar started selling some of it holdings on the south side of the Panamerican Highway, and my parents bought a small piece of land to put a house on. There was no electricity or running water. Next to the highway there was a fountain, and everyone from my neighborhood would walk to the fountain with buckets and jars to bring water back to their house. Our place wasn't very big, but it was built with adobe. In those days to have a house made of adobe was pretty deluxe. Usually houses were made of milpa (dried corn stalks), with tile roofs and a milpa fence around the yard. In our house, where we cooked was made of milpa and where we slept was made of adobe. When I was young I slept on the ground, on a piece of cardboard, and in the morning my back always felt crooked. When I was nine we added a room to the house, and I slept there.

One night my father pounded on my door, shouting "Get up, get out!" He'd been through earthquakes before, but I'd only ever known little shake-ups, not worth worrying about. I covered my head with my blanket and went back to sleep, and a few minutes later the entire houses fell down on top of me. I was covered in adobe bricks, dust, roofing tiles and lots of timber. I couldn't move my blanket, and I ran out of air. At first I was really afraid, but as I started to lose consciousness I felt okay. The next thing I remember was my neighbor's hand under my shoulder, pulling on me really hard. They'd all been digging and pushing stuff off of me, and thanks to God I came out alive.

After the earthquake, a German company started putting in factory-made houses to replace all of the adobe ones that had collapsed. My father asked for one, and since then my brothers and I have helped my parents improve their home. It's bigger, now, all of the walls are made of cement and cinder blocks, and the roof is lighter than the walls, which means it won't fall down in an earthquake. In the old days, we'd make rafters out of whole tree-trunks, then pile on the roofing tiles. Now there are laws about how to make a house earthquake-proof.

Watching Television during "The Reign of Terror"

Look, there have been some pretty tough times here, times when no one had any work, times when we'd work but no one had any money to may anyone else with, times when the clothes we wore were so covered with patches you could barely see the clothes underneath. In the early seventies I used to follow my dad everywhere. The Army had imposed curfews, sometimes we were supposed to in our houses by ten o'clock, sometimes by eight. My dad and I always used to go out after curfew, just like everyone else in town. The army would tell us what to do, and we would do it differently.

In El Tejar in those times there were four televisions, and the families who owned them would charge two centavos as admission to come in and watch. My dad and I would go out to watch TV, and those living rooms were always crowded with people from town, even when the nights were really dangerous.

Sindicato de Peltre

In the decade after the earthquake there was barely any money in town. We all had to go out, to the capital or somewhere else, to find a job that earned a little bit more. In '78 I was working n El Tejar, making bricks for six quetzales a week.When I found work in the capital I was making thirteen quetzales every week. I worked in a factory that made peltre (enamelware) pots and jugs and other kitchen stuff. The factory was owned by a Jewish family, and when I started the workers at the factory had all unionized because they didn't think the pay was high enough. I started out on a verbal contract for six months. After I'd worked six months, the owner said "Remember our contract? Well, here's your pay. Come back in three weeks to see if we have any work available." I stick to my word, so I put my money in my pocket and started to leave. The union leaders had seen me talking with the boss, and they came up to me to find out where I was going. "My contract is up, so I'm heading home," I said. "He can't fire you," they said, "You're emplazado(as opposed to temporary labor)." The guy I worked with liked me, because I pulled my weight and helped out with lots of stuff when I had the chance. The union decided they would go on strike, all 250 workers. The factory was completely frozen, and the owner was pissed. He said "Since they're on strike, I don't want you working here ever again. Get out, and don't come back."

"Okay," I said. I only made six quetzales a week in El Tejar, but at least it was a sure thing. I always think it's best to adapt. I remember a guy from my neighborhood, when I was little. He always had different jobs. He drove trucks, he made bricks, he worked as a chef, or as an albañil. I wanted to be like him, because someone like that never says "Oh, here there's no work for me to do."


Later on, I got hired by a Mexican company that had a big hydroelectric project going on the Rio Maria Linda, on the road towards El Salvador. The camp was set up, with barracks for sleeping, and a mess tent, and a mechanic shop, and we all lived and worked there together. I went because they were paying ten times what I was making at home, and I wanted to learn how to work with explosives. Once in a while they had me carry the dynamite, or help make the holes, but they never taught me how to place the charges. Most of the time I was working as a sweeper, carting away all the rock and gravel that came down after they blasted the mountain. Sometimes this was dangerous, when the rock would slide while we were working on it. Also, the had me working a lot at night. I can sit here and talk until two or three in the morning, but I'm no good at working those hours. I decided I needed a new job in the camp, and so in the mornings I would go straight from work to the shop to bug the mechanics for work. They'd say "Wait a while, maybe." Sometimes I would sleep in their doorway. Finally they offered me a day job that paid better than my old job. "Can you work as an assistant? Do you really know mechanics?" "Sure," I said, "Sixty percent." But I'd never worked in a shop that big, and I had to sweat to learn everything quickly. I asked everyone questions all of the time, and eventually I fit in.

I worked in the camp for two years. We worked from seven to noon, had lunch for an hour, then worked until seven, ate dinner, and went back to work until ten or midnight. We worked a lot of fifteen hour shifts. I was young, I could take it, and we were all working to earn as much money as we could. It wasn't like you could work your ten hours, and then say "That's enough for me." When the boss decided to work late, everyone worked late.

We didn't really do anything for fun, I guess because we worked so much. We all used to chat over our food, about where we'd come from. There were people from San Marcos, Quiche, Xela. I worked with a few guys from Honduras, who were engineers. Sometimes people would play card games, poker, dice, but I never learned the rules. They'd have all kinds of money on the table, but I didn't play. If we had free time, the thing to do was cook your own food to share. The food they gave us to eat was terrible, and they would put lots of iodine in it. We all said the iodine was to keep us all calm, because there weren't really women around. Iodine tastes horrible, and you can taste it in everything. We had a pan, oil, salt, eggs, beans, and Incaparina. Whenever we could, we'd cook our own food. Every eight days, or fifteen days, we could leave for a day or two, so I'd go home to fiestas and weddings to get some better food.

When the project was finished the Mexican company invited me to go with them to a project in Colombia. I thought "If I go, I'll have to work until I've made back the money they pay for my plane ticket." I decided to stay in Guatemala.

El Comisionado

In those days they didn't try to convince you to join the army. There were a lot of rumors about war with England over the sovereignty of Belize, and no one wanted anything to do with the army. They needed soldiers, so they had guys called comisionados who supposedly recruited, but really they would just go through small towns and grab all of the young men. They'd throw you in a pick-up, hit you over the head like thieves, and haul you away to training. I did a short stint in the army, and then I was back working in the capital. Friends of mine who were still in the army told me it was pretty ugly, with soldiers getting beaten up by officers, then beating each other up to get even. New arrivals got it the worst. I decided that if I got put back in the army I would wait till they gave me a gun, then I would just start shooting officers until they killed me, because I won't live to be beaten and ordered around, and denied food. The comisionado in town said to a group of people "I want to see Edgar doing more military service. That's my goal." When I was in town he would set up to try to grab me, so I would have to sneak around like I was a teenager. Friends would say, "Edgar, they're waiting for you down the street, next to your parents' house." My girlfriend's mother used to say "Edgar, I'll make a bed for you to stay here," but I'd say "No, I'm fine. I'm not afraid."

Once they did get me, not the local recruiter but some other soldiers who came through town with a big truck to fill with soldiers. I was walking wit a friend of mine who only had one leg, who got around with a special bike he'd built. He said "Why do you need Edgar? He helps me here, I think you should leave him." My dad went to the local office to try to buy me out, because he knew the comisionado was building a new house, but even when he offered a lot of money he couldn't get me out. They took the truck to Chimaltenango, and I was in the back with another guy. He said "Let's escape!" But we had to wait for the right chance. When the truck stopped to corral a group of farmers, I jumped out of the back and started running. The soldiers were busy with the other ten, and they couldn't chase me.

After that the comisionado really wanted to catch me, but I was spending most of my time at work in the capital and I didn't worry. Once, I was riding my bike and I saw him getting gas for his car. I waved, and he shouted something at me. That was the last time I ever saw him. He died a while back.

Dong Bang

I tried to get a mechanic's job in town, at Dong Bang, the Korean maquila, They make suits for men and women, shorts and skirts to sell in the US. They wouldn't give me a job as a mechanic, because they said I was too old. I said "I'm only thirty-seven!" They offered my a job as a plumber, and I took it because I thought I could get my foot in the door until I could get a mechanic's job. They gave me all kinds of little jobs to do. I took care of their guard dogs, I fixed pipes, and I worked as a handyman on their house when something went wrong. They had a garden with Kanchong, Korean radishes and watercress, and they had me work there as well as trimming their trees. I would ask whenever I could when I could work in the factory, but they would say "Relax, have a Coke, eat something. We'll never yell at you here, you can take a break. If you're bored, take a walk, or go buy the dogs some food." They liked me a lot. They trusted me to go into their bedrooms in their house, where they had wallets and stuff all around. When I would go into the boss's office he always had export-grade bananas on his desk. We never see export-grade bananas here, and he'd always offer me one to eat. But I was being paid a caretaker's salary, and so one day I went to his office and asked for a job as a mechanic. "You're very old to be starting that job," he said. I said I wasn't going to work as a caretaker, because I had other jobs I could do. I quit, but they just didn't get it. They followed me out, saying "Why are you leaving? Stay here."

Most of the people working at Dong Bang are eighteen years old. The mechanics are twenty-five, sometimes. They want young people who will work for low wages because they are trying to get ahead. They don't want guys who will look out for their own rights. They want kids who will just say "Yes" to everything. The guys my age in mechanics all have lots of experience. I wish we had an adult-education program here, because I feel like a lot of opportunities are hard to get without more experience. I would go to the classes in the capital, but it costs a lot in time and gas to get there a few times a week.


There is a well around the corner called "La Pila Colorada," because its always been painted different colors. It used to be yellow, I think now it's red. People say a spirit used to go there to wash her hair. They say you couldn't go out late at night because you might find her there, leaning over the water. Her body was so beautiful tat i men saw her they wouldn't be able to resist approaching her, to hear her voice, to see her face. She always washed in a silver bowl, and the light of the moon would reflect upwards, hinting at her beauty. Then, when they were close, she would sweep her hair aside to reveal that she had the face of a horse. In the dark, they say, people's entire bodies would swell their fear, they would vomit and lose their ability to speak.

Two views of La Pila Colorada

There was a ghost, called La Llorona, who was the spirit of a woman who lost her child and died from the grief. In the old days, you would hear La Llorona's cries in the night, and in the morning your would find yourself sick with fever.

But people aren't afraid of spirits anymore, they're afraid of being robbed in the streets by gangs, or being kidnapped for ransom money. Drugs are everywhere in town now, we've got addiction and problems. Kids are into drugs because the money is really good. You see them driving their new cars around, and wonder. I work twelve hour days in my shop, sometimes more, and I don't drive my own car. Here you can work for a month and only make 900 quetzales. I don't really know ow it works, but if you and me go get a kilo of cocaine we can probably make a whole bunch of money. Some young people only see this side, they don't see the risks they're taking.

El Norte

We used to go to the capital to look for work, now people go looking up north. In the capital we would go there, and sleep on the ground, under some cardboard, because there was a job there. If there was more work in town, people would stay here. They only leave because they have to.

My friend used to own a bakery here, but he closed it down and started getting ready to go north. "My brother called me," he said, "He's making a hundred dollars a day. The price of flour is too high, and I'm not making enough profits here. I'm going." He used to live in a pretty basic little house here in town, and after a year of work he came back and made it into a two-story place, with cinder-blocks.

A while later, his boss from up north called, and he just left two months ago. He told me he's going to save enough to open a little abarroteria (convenience store). "We can't eat on what I earn here," he told me. His wife worries that something will happen to him when he's crossing the borders. There are farmers in the US who have started killing immigrants when they cross over the farmers' lands. I heard about this from some other people who've made the journey.