Saturday, April 14, 2007

From Aid Economy to Transnational Capitalism: Don Gabriel Fernando Chub Makes the Leap

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.