Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Terremoto, Bulldozers, and Don Alberto Muñoz

Well, I don't really know what it is you want me to tell you. I have just entered into my fifty-ninth year. I was born on the eighth of April, 1949, right here on this same piece of land where we are talking now. When I was a child, all of the houses were made of adobe, with tejas (clay tiles) for a roof. That's how they were.

Since the earthquake happened, they've started to build better houses around here, with cinder blocks, iron, and bricks. We call our town El Tejar, which means "Roofing Tile Factory", because here the earth is good for making tiles, bricks--everything you can make with mud. Many people here make their floors with paving stones, because before you didn't see as many floors made of cement, and all of that stuff. The house were adobe, tejas, and pavement. That's how it was in El Tejar.

Before, well, life was really tranquilo, you didn't see much violence, you could just walk along, easy. Okay, in my life there has been a bit of suffering, too. In the end, I think life has gotten really screwed up.

I don't really know much about my grandparents. They didn't live on this piece of land, but they had another house near to here. After a while my father was born, and later he went looking for a companion, who was my mother, and it was the pair of them who came to live on the land here. And after a while we were all born. I have sisters, three of them, and there are four of us who are brothers.

My Grandfather had his little piece of land near here where he planted corn and beans. My father, as well, dedicated himself to agriculture. He would sell his own crops at the market. Back then, you never really saw a vehicle. They all had carts with cattle for bringing their crops into market. There were no machines, everything was done by hand, with an azadón (big hoe). I would help my father in the field, from when I was very little. I would help him make bricks, which was my first working experience.

We would wake up around five in the morning, and we would bring breakfast with us on our way to the field. A little coffee, some beans and tortillas, that's what breakfast was. We'd walk out to the field, and the women would all work at home, making lunch. From there, they'd bring our food out to us where we were working. We would eat different things, like vegetables, or chicken, or beef, or pork. All of this was our life.

Don Muñoz and I rode bicycles out to see a piece of land he rents in
order to grow corn and beans. The corn has been in the ground for
about a month and half. When the corn is waist high, he will plant
beans at the base of each group, so that the beanstalks will be able
to climb up onto the corn as they grow. First he will harvest the corn,
and then a month later he will harvest the beans.

Back then, there wasn't really any entertainment. There were no televisions, or only very rich people had them. We would come home from a day of work, we'd bathe, and we'd go right to bed. We might chat about simple things, like "Today we did all of this work. Tomorrow we'll see what we can do." That's how we'd chat, before we went to get some rest in order to continue our task the next day. One Sundays we would take a break, put on some nice clothes and go for a walk, or eat something sweet. That's how it was, before.

A number of the prefabricated houses brought by a German aid
organization in 1976 are still standing around El Tejar. The walls
are panels of 2x4 and poured plaster, and the roof is made with sheets
of corrugated tin. Several examples are included, both above and in
the following text.

I don't remember the date exactly, but it happened one day in February, in the early morning. I was sleeping when it happened, and everyone else in town was sleeping, which is why so many people died. When I woke up, everything was lying everywhere, all of the houses in town were destroyed and scattered on the ground. After everything fell, we started through some really hard times. There was no food, nowhere to sleep, nothing. While we waited, we ate the little food we had left, and when we ran out we suffered. After several days other countries started to send help. Thanks to God for the help that arrived, because then at least we had a little. They brought us some food, and some clothing, because everything we had to wear was buried. It wasn't much, though, because so many people were going through the same hardships. There was sickness, too, and it was awfully hard work going through all of the rubble finding all of the dead people in order to bury them properly and prevent more disease.

All of the adobe that had fallen down needed to be cleared away, and some machines came to help move it all into the canyons around town. We built champas to sleep under, just a nylon sheet for a roof suspended over four poles. I slept under my champa for five years, right here on the land under our feet right now. It got pretty cold at night, but that's how it was.

I couldn't have one of the pre-fabricated houses brought by the Germans. There was a committee formed to distribute the houses, and as always there were certain preferences. There weren't enough houses for everyone to get a house. As for who got one, and why, I imagine only the committee really knows the reasons. Probably those who got the houses could pay a little. I can say that here I slept under a champa, just like my neighbors on both sides.

It was really hard. It took us more than five years to rise up again. We went back to farming our corn and beans, working, but we'd really been knocked down. We hardly had the will to do anything, you know? After a while we started to forget about the earthquake, and we started to improve our homes again, little by little. I don't know if I feel more comfortable in my new home, but I feel safer because I know the walls aren't all going to come down in an earthquake. The building materials are better now.

I met my wife one day while I was playing football. When I was young we played more football than we do now. We had city teams, and every year the teams changed. I was twenty five when I had my first child.

By this time I had a new job, weaving, working for what they call natural or indigenous people, you know? That was my second job. We were weaving a fabric called morga, using hand looms, making the traditional fabrics for pants and skirts, mostly products we could send to the United States. This was back in 1980. Also, we were producing a lot of hand-embroidered outfits. They would bring traditional costumes here, from Antigua, and we would make more of them and send them north. It was a Guatemalan business, and I worked there for five or six years. Now it's closed.

From there I went to work for the company where I was operating machines. When I started I wasn't operating machines, I was doing something different, and I climbed and climbed up, until I was an assistant, and from there I was driving machines. And by machines I mean the machinery we used to repair roads.

Don Muñoz moves a small part of the earth.

I started at the bottom, working with my azadón, cleaning drains, and pipes. I started to earn better positions. First I was working as a painter, making signs on the side of the road. Then I spent a while working as as assistant to those operating the machinery. For two years I watched the, and learned how they did their work, while I would help by clearing rocks and trees out of my way. Then I was in charge of the machine itself, and I wasn't just pulling roots out of the way. I started with my azadón, the same kind we used in the field.

During la violencia we never felt like there was any danger here in El Tejar. Some of us from town would go out on patrol from eight in the evening until one in the morning. We were never afraid, and nothing happened here. All of the violence happened up north a little ways, in places like San Martin, Comalapa, Patzun, and Tecpan. I was never in the army, and I felt very neutral during the war. When I was working on the road crews, sometimes we would go and work up towards San Martin, and I was more afraid to go there. We didn't have any military protection, but we would see things going on in the woods, and most often we would hear gunshots up in the hillsides.

Don Muñoz and an associate working on a road during the civil war
years, outside of El Tejar.

There sure are a lot more factories here, in town. When I was young there weren't any, but I don't really remember when the first factory opened. None of my friends have ever worked in a factory, but most of our kids have worked there at some time. They're a good thing, though, because they are a source of employment, right? The kids don't have to go off in search of work elsewhere, they can stay here and keep working right here on our land.

I'm not very interested in politics, because all of it is just a lot of liars telling lies. When they come here on their campaigns, what won't they offer me? They'll talk, and say "Look, vos, if I win I will make your life better. I'll even help your kids." They try to make friends with me, but its a friendship with a pretty obvious motive. The worst part, to me, is that they always grab hold of the poorest people, and with their arm around them they'll say "Poor people always come first." But they never actually do anything for the poor. At least, I've never gotten anything from them. All of my life has been this way: If I don't work, I don't eat.

Yes, my job on the roads was working for the government, but I've always had to work for my wages. I've lost my confidence in the government, because everything around here stays the same. They offer us one thing or another, but all they ever really do is put more taxes on everything. Who is getting screwed? We are, because with every new tax it gets harder for us to survive. And if we have any success, we just have to pay more taxes. Our wages stay the same, and the price of everything goes up. I think there will come a day when our wages won't cover the cost of food, let alone the cost of sending our kids to school.

I'd like to see my grandchildren find work in the capital, where there are better jobs. I was a machine operator, you could say, because that was the last job I had. I wouldn't like to see my grandchildren in this job, because it was actually pretty dangerous. I'd like to see them have an easier life than I had. In the fields you really suffer. In the summer you suffer from the sun and the dust, in the winter you suffer from the mud, and the rain soaking your back. If my grandchildren can get through their studies, they might work in an office, with a better wage and a better life. They might go to work in nice clothes, and spend their day under a roof, away from the sun and the rain.

I can't tell you too much about other places in the world, because if you've never been, if you've never lived there, then you can't really know. My son-in-law left a while ago for the United States, and this to me is a very sad thing. He's far way, and his family waits for him here. If you love your children, then your children will love you in return. Up there, you never really know what sort of hardships you might endure. You don't know when, if ever, you will return to see your children again. All of this is very sad. Necessity forces you to make these decisions. For example, if I have enough here in my country to live, to put a roof over my head, and to give food to my family, I will feel happy to be here. Why would I go away? Up there, you don't know anything, you don't even know how to start communicating with other people. It's hard, and sad, but you need drives you to leave your family behind.

The most beautiful thing in my life has been to spend time with my family, together, finding a way to live without difficulties, without worries, tranquilo. You can't always live like this, though, because something always comes along to screw you up a little, and so you almost never really get a chance to enjoy something so beautiful.