Friday, April 27, 2007

An Infinity of Things: Don Jose Participates in the Global Marketplace

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.