Monday, March 26, 2007
The factories bring us work, and for that they are an important part of El Tejar. If it weren't for the maquilas, no one would have a job. They have been a great help to Guatemala. Even the first, small factory was a special thing, because it brought 200 jobs to El Tejar. Still, the factories have brought with them some changes. You don't see young men walking out to their field with a pick over their shoulder, going to plant and care for the corn. Most people don't like to get dirty, they'd rather work at the factories. Before, a father would take even his youngest sons out to the field with him, to work. Now when you look you only see the fathers, and they are getting older. My father is seventy, and he still farms corn and beans every year, but my brothers don't go with him.
The factories have helped us, but they have also allowed us to forget about our land, and our parents couldn't show us how to care for it. Now that they are closing the maquilas, we can't go back to working the land, not after getting used to working with a machine. Now the money doesn't reach as far. Like my father says, wood doesn't burn by itself. You have to work if you want something.
Dong Bang Fashion was the first factory to open in our area, and they started hiring workers when I was sixteen. I'd been working in the house with my mother for a few years, and I thought I'd try to get a job on the production line. I was too young, and they were hesitant to give me a job, but they needed workers and I needed work. They were hiring lots of us younger girls. It was a big chance for all of us, to get started with something like that. I worked all day, and at night I went to school. I had special permission from the owners of Dong Bang to leave work at six and go to school. I would get home around ten-thirty, and then I would study until late at night. The next morning, I would start all over again.
When I started, twelve years ago, I was making 140 quetzales for two weeks work. Over the years my salary grew, and the factory grew, and at the end I was making 850 quetzales every two weeks. The regular working schedule is from 7:30 until 4:30, and if you work after 4:30 you get paid for extra hours. They aren't supposed to be obligatory, it is supposed to be your choice to work or not. These extra hours can really help increase your salary. When I left, we were being paid 6.50 Q per hour (approx. 90 cents).
At Dong Bang, now, there are two whole factories, each with twelve production lines, and on each line there are about sixty people working. Dong Bang's main business is in making suits for men and women. We made coats and trousers, in a few different styles. Other parts of the factory make shorts, skirts, and overcoats. We worked with different contracts, but the one really famous brand we worked for was called Sag Harbor, making blazers. Each line makes one article, starting with marking and cutting the material and producing at the other end a finished garment. Since the very beginning, I worked as an "operator", finishing the sleeves, the collar, the lapels. Legalmente, I was building an entire jacket every few minutes. Later on, I was also working as an assistant supervisor on my production line. The managers would show me how to do a job, and I was in charge of teaching everyone else in my group. I liked this part of my job, because I think it's beautiful to teach someone else how to do something new.
What I liked about Dong Bang is they always had respect for what was really Guatemalan. On Monday we would start work at seven, and all of the workers and managers would meet together, and we would do exercise and then sing the Guatemalan national anthem. I don't think all factories in Guatemala have the same respect for our country. They gave us most national holidays to rest. On Mother's Day they paid double wage to all of the mothers working at the factory, and sometimes they would put on a little lunch table for all of us, because we are working and raising children. For Christmas and All Saints Day they would have activities for all of us. I would say there was a real friendship between the management and the workers.
Dong Bang is always one of the highest-ranked export manufacturers in Guatemala, in terms of cleanliness, orderliness, and safety. There is a clinic there for the workers. The bathrooms are always clean, and there is a place for you to wash your hands with soap. Whenever they came to inspect the factory, we'd get top marks.
Let's be clear about something, though. The owner of the maquilas are Korean, not Guatemalan. It's rare that you find otherwise here. Which is to say that they are working for themselves, not for us. Among Koreans there are really angry managers, and there are also some very good people. I had a manager named Mr. Kang. He said to us "If you need anything, or if you want to say anything, I will do everything I can to help you." When one of my daughters got sick, I needed two days off work to take her to the hospital. He gave me the time off, and offered to lend me money to help cure my girl. Thanks to God, he treated us all well. But two years ago he left, and a woman named Mrs. Taka took over. She was really angry. She wanted us to meet all of our production goals, and if we didn't meet them she would make us stay on until they were complete. Some Koreans are very demanding, and in different ways they humiliate the Guatemalans who work for them. Sometimes they shout at you, "Get to work!" or they yell at you in their language, and you have no idea what they are saying. Sometimes they grab a piece you are working on and throw it away, although this never happened to me. We Guatemalans are just trying to do our work, and we ask God to help us understand, or explain what the problem is.
On the line there is always a Guatemalan and a Korean supervisor, to help prevent really big misunderstandings. We have every right to go to the manager's office to make a complaint, or to ask to be moved to different line. We might say "This manager hit me, or cheated, or embarrassed me, and I don't think it's right." But, really, it's rare that they take your side in an event like that. I don't know if it's because they want to keep their job, or if they want to stay on one another's good sides, or what. But you always have a right to complain. If it doesn't work at the office you can go to the labor supervision office in Chimaltenango to make a complaint, and if they ignore you there you can go to the main bureau in Guatemala City. It's a lot of work, but if something happens there are things you can do to defend yourself.
My job, attaching collars and sleeves, was one of the most difficult jobs on the line, and I was using a really heavy machine to do my work all day. I was getting tired, but I knew it would be hard to find someone else to do my job on the line. The managers didn't want to move me, they said "If we put someone else on your machine it won't be the same." But I was tired, so when I went on maternity leave for my fourth time, I decided I would look for work at another maquila when it was time to get back to work. Later, I went back to Dong Bang, because I found out that working in other factories around here can be a really different experience. First I spent almost four years working at Manzanales, another Korean maquila farther away from here. I wasn't doing sleeves, but they didn't have automatic machines, so I was spending a lot more time cutting thread and clearing the piece. I had to pay a lot more money to ride the bus to Manzanales, because it isn't in town like Dong Bang. There were a lot less Koreans working at Manzanales, so when we needed to talk to a managers we would have to spend a lot of time looking around. The bathrooms and the workroom was really different from Dong Bang, too. Less clean. The machines were older. Those were some of the reasons I went back to my old job, on the huge machine.
I met my husband the same year I started working at Dong Bang, when I was sixteen. Two years after we met we went on our first date. We were both studying in escuela basica at night, and working at factories during the day. After three years, we signed a civil union, and moved in together. We only really had our wedding two years ago. My husband worked at Dong Bang for several years, and then he changed jobs and went over to Alianza Fashion, south of town. He was working the second shift, until eleven at night. Sometimes, when they were behind on a shipment he would have to work all night, and he would only have time to come home for some breakfast before going back to work. When they weren't behind the extra hours weren't obligatory, but I don't think they should ever be obligatory. If you've worked your regular day, you should have a choice whether to keep working, or to go home.
Just recently they closed one of the factories at Dong Bang. The oldest factory has been running for sixteen years, and the one they just closed had been running for seven years. They say there is are less orders than before, and that they can do more of the manufacturing there in Korea. It costs less to hire labor in Korea than before, materials are cheaper in country, and export tariffs are dropping.*
*It is possible to speculate that this drop in costs has been achieved domestically through the ongoing creation of tax-free manufacturing zones along the border between South and North Korea, where employees are brought from the North to work for wages that would be illegal in the rest of South Korea.
Work started dropping off at Alianza Fashion as well, and my husband lost his job. He was without work for two months, and for a lot of the time I wasn't working either. For years he'd been saying, "I should go to the United States, we should try our luck up there." This time, when he asked me, I felt it was my duty as his wife to support his decision, because it was the right one for our children. We got a loan from the bank for Q25,000 ($3,300), and members of my family lent us another Q20,000, and with this money he managed to get to Dallas. From there he used another Q8,000 to travel on to Waterloo, Iowa, which is pretty close to New Jersey. So, the whole voyage turned out to be really expensive, especially when you take into account the extra loans we had to take out to support ourselves in El Tejar during his first few months up north, looking for work.
Things haven't been easy for him, up there. He told me about crossing the desert, suffering from cold and hunger. Legalmente, it was only God in heaven taking care of my husband. He left without knowing where he would find work, or what he would do, but a friend who he was travelling with helped him find a job. He's been working in Waterloo for the last eight months, at night, cleaning a meat-processing factory with really big hoses. He says the work is pretty heavy, and with all the stress of life there he hasn't been able to start a second job. He's only working eight hours a day, so we still have most of our debt to pay off. He's working hard to get out of debt, because he say he wants to build a house for his children, and to save enough money to send them to good schools. He wants things he wouldn't be able to get if he stayed here.
He spent a while getting settled, finding work. He lives with a group of men from his work, all in the same house. He says they are all friends, that they have extended a hand to him there. After two months of work he started sending remittances. They come every two weeks, more or less, to pay for our expenses here and to pay down our debt. I think it will take us two years to pay off the debt, at this rate, unless he gets a raise or finds a second job. When we are clear of payments, things will be different. When we talked about this trip, at first, we thought he would stay north for three or four years. Now, talking with him, and considering our debt, we are thinking it will be more like five years.
Now that my husband is gone, working in the United States, there are changes to our lives here. I am staying at home with my children, doing work in the house to help pay for his debt. I do ironing and laundry for other families in town. He was the head of the household, and we are all missing him. My children ask me when he will come home, and I say "God is the only one who really knows." Before, if we had a problem, we could talk to each other to find out what we were going to do. If one of our children was sick, we would look at each other and wonder if we should take them to the hospital. Now I am alone, and if I have a problem I need to be able to solve it without his advice. Calling him will make him worry, and besides, what can he do? As an illegal, he can't come home, even if he wants to.
Today is my son's first birthday without his father here, and you can see in his eyes that even though it's a happy day he is also feeling a little sad. He said "Mom, I miss my dad today." He's completely right, you know? My husband has always been really kind, very loving with his family. He stays close, calling us a few times every week. Even with the distance between us he is attentive to us. As his wife, I am raising our children and taking care of problems down here. If God is willing, one day he will come home and I will say to him "Here are your children, and what I could do I have done for them."
From what my husband has told me, the US is very different from Guatemala. Here we have beautiful landscapes, and the freedom to go wherever we want to go. In the US there are only buildings, everywhere, and no freedom. People with their papers have freedom, but my husband goes out every day with the fear that he will be grabbed and deported. He told me "Everyone thinks the United States is so beautiful, but it isn't like that at all. People are suffering here, too. It's hard to find work, and to meet other people. Here I am alone, without my family. Life is better in Guatemala. Let God help me reach my goals, and help me return home to everyone in my family." I don't think the US will ever, ever, be a home for my husband. It isn't his country. He's able to earn a little more up there, but even when he returns to our family it won't be the same as before.
Now that the elections are coming, the politicians are coming through town making thousands of promises. Sadly, when you promise something to someone poor you don't usually have to follow through with what you've said. They say "We're going to lower the cost of electricity in town!" But when they are in office they forget about us here. In my mind, one day we need a president who is treats rich people and poor people equally. I don't mean someone who gives us everything for free, just someone who gives us a chance to earn a salary instead of humiliating us and taking away our jobs. Governments should support the people, but instead the price of everything just goes up, and our lives get worse.
If there were better opportunities here it would be harder to get young people to leave their home country, but people all around the world will take a big risk to go somewhere to find good work. Immigration is the people's answer to their situation. People don't wait for a solution, they go out and find one for themselves. We have families here, and if we wait for the government there will never be any changes in our situation. Many make the decision to leave for the US, while their families stay behind and suffer in their absence.
When President Bush came the other week, to sign some agreements with President Berger, I thought "How beautiful would it be if those two were working to help both of our countries. When Bush left, we would be able to salute him, and thank him for his visit." But now in the US they are deporting so many men and women, even refugees who have been there since the war years. They are sending mothers home without their children. Those chapines are just there because they want to earn something with their sweat, they aren't asking for gifts. If you go to Antigua you see lots of people from the United States, all walking around without any hassle. I think it would be better if things were a little easier for Guatemalans in the US, if they didn't have to do things like run through the desert and hide in the cities all of the time. But this is how the governments say it should be.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Rational Actors, Irrational Stage
After I left the army, I was working as a schoolteacher here in Itzapa. My wife and I met when we were both studying to be teachers. She is still a teacher, at a school in El Tejar. We were living together in one of the houses built by Canadians after the big earthquake. Our first daughter was born, and sometimes she would get sick. Even though we were both working hard, our wages were low and we didn't feel satisfied with what we had. I'd heard about how good the wages can be in the US, and I started to feel restless. One of my hunting buddies, who'd already been to the US, offered to loan me the money I would need to pay a pollero, and I decided to do it. I borrowed $4500 US to travel from my doorstep in Itzapa all the way to New Jersey. In November of 1996, after being married for one year and four months, I left for the United States.
Above is an example of the prefabricated houses built in Itzapa
by Canadian aid organizations after the earthquake of 1976.
We rode north inside of a tanker truck. There were one hundred of us all sitting inside the tank, older people, younger people, and one little girl who was seven or eight years old. There were two lights inside, one red and one green, controlled by the drivers up front. When the green light was on we could move around, shout, whatever. When the red light was on we had to stay very still and quiet, in the middle of the tank without touching the sides, so when the immigration officers beat on the tank it would sound empty. I didn't like being in the tank, because there's no way to run away from the migra if they catch you. The doors are closed with padlocks, and it gets really hot in the middle of the day. For the whole ride I only saw the sun through little holes in the lid of the tank. They gave us water to drink and plastic bags to piss in. We were all seated, back to front, between each other's legs, one hundred of us. I don't know where we went, or on which roads. We got into the tank before sunrise, we drove through the day into night, another day, another night, another day, and then in the middle of the night we all piled out in Mexico City. After all that time, some of us could barely walk.
From Mexico City we travelled north in a first-class tourist bus. Those of us who were well dressed sat up in the seats, and those who were poorly dressed hid down between the seats, or on the floor between someone else's legs. The whole trip was really well organized. When we drove, the guides were in contact by radio with scouts in the hills. Your would hear the drivers saying "How's it look up ahead? Is it clear?" Every caravan has a few scouts, keeping everyone along the route informed. They called us pollos. They'd say "How many pollos are you carrying? Okay, andale, buey!" After a long day's drive we arrived at a ranch outside of Ciudad Juarez. There, at around three o'clock in afternoon, we all split up into groups of fifteen. Each group had two coyotes who were going to take us across the desert into Arizona. They gave us some cookies and a gallon of water, and we left everything else we had in Juarez. We were each wearing two pairs of jeans, two pairs of underwear, two t-shirts and two shirts. When we crossed, the idea was that we could take off the clothes that were dirty, so we could enter the United States in clean clothes.
When you cross the desert, in the scrub lands, you see the skeletons of other immigrants who might have died of thirst, or from snakebite. You don't have time to find out what happened, you just look at them and keep moving, because if you lose the rest of your group you are dead. No one will find you out there. We walked from three in the afternoon until two in the morning, when we met up with a big truck that took us the rest of the way to a safe-house in Phoenix.
The first time I crossed, I barely even saw the migra. We were all covered with blankets and coats in the back of the truck, and in the distance we could see the headlights of a patrol as we drove away. But every year there are more migra, pushing polleros further and further out into the desert, to where it is really dangerous, to ranches that are four or five hours outside of the city. The second time, in 2003, I crossed near Laredo in a group of twenty-five, and when the patrol showed up we all took off running in different directions. They're pretty good, and they caught thirteen of us. They were looking for the rest of us. I was hidden in the bushes less than four feet from two stocky guys who were speaking to us in Spanish through a megaphone, saying "Okay, amigos, come out, you're going to die out here, we've already caught your guides, there are a lot of snakes here. We've got water for you." They looked for all of us, but they didn't get me.
In Phoenix we had a few days to rest, take showers. We started to make calls to our families and friends to send money, and then we started to spread out. Those chapines in my group who were headed to the East Coast were taken to California, where we were given chafas, false driver's licenses, so we could get onto an airplane. None of us knew what to do, but the coyotes did all of it for us. They bought tickets, paid someone to take us to the airport, and soon we were all on our way to New Jersey.
On the plane, I was really nervous. I felt like my hands here tied. The stewardess passed by and asked if I wanted a soda, and I just shook my head, because I was too scared to say anything. Everything has a beginning, and that was mine. Leaving Guatemala for the US is like a change from night to day. The culture is advanced, civilized, and to come from a village to such a place is a pretty big shock. You have to adapt to this culture, not the other way around.
Don Werner Walks in the Strange Lands of Destiny
The first thing that grabs your attention in the US is how the apartments and houses are built. The construction of everything is prefabricated, and really orderly. They ask you to take off your shoes before you go into a house, and then you go in an the entire house is carpeted. In Guatemala, I would never ask a friend to take their shoes off. In my house, my friends do what they want to do, they come as they are.
When there are a bunch of single guys from Mexico and Guatemala all living together, they are all working for themselves. I might leave the house at six in the morning, and someone else leaves at seven, and when we get home we have enough time to shower, change our clothes, and go back to work again. No one has any free time to do much for one another, only for themselves. Here, after you're married, you eat what your wife serves you, but there is no one to serve you in the United States. If you want to eat, you have to cook, and no one will wash your clothes for you. Women wash clothing in the pila here, and in the US you use a machine. These are all pretty rough shocks for someone when they first arrive in the US.
When I started working in the US it was really hard, because I was used to working in a Guatemalan way. Here we get paid a set amount per day, or every two weeks, no matter how many hours we've worked. There it's by the hour, really regular.
During my first time working in the United States, I suffered a lot in order to build the house I have for my family here. Every day I woke up at four in the morning to deliver newspapers. I threw something like three hundred newspapers every morning, as fast as I could, because my second job started at seven. I would do roofing work on a crew until six in the evening. Then at seven I would start my last job, working as a janitor at a public school until ten-thirty. With all of these jobs together I was still only getting paychecks for six or seven hundred dollars a week. Someone like me, with an degree and a career, doesn't expect to work in construction or cutting grass. But I didn't speak English and I was illegal, so when I found work cleaning bathrooms I was glad to have it, even though it only paid seven dollars an hour.
My willingness to work for so little, back then, is a good example of what causes a lot of the friction between citizens and mojados*, regardless of whether they are white, Mexican, or Central American. If you have papers, or citizenship, you don't want a job that pays six or seven an hour. You want a job that pays at least twelve, and you aim to go up from there, right? When someone comes and takes a job for five dollars an hour, they are taking money away from a citizen who could expect make ten or eleven doing the same job. You start to see why someone who is in the US legally would try to make life impossible for illegal workers. This is a problem, that there is some really bad blood at times between Latin-Americans who are there with papers and those who are illegal. They've worked to find their jobs, to learn the language, and they lose their jobs to illegals who are desperate enough to work for lower wages. Sometimes they would mess with me, threaten to call the migra, the police. Here in Itzapa there are times when people who have been deported come to town looking for revenge against someone's family for something that happened up in the US, because those sorts of things shouldn't be happening there.
*Mojado literally means "wet," and is a common Guatemalan term for illegal immigrants in the United States.
At the roofing job I realized that I needed to learn English fast. Someone would ask me for a hammer and I would bring them a screwdriver, and they'd think I was an idiot. To talk to my boss I needed an interpreter, and if the interpreter didn't like me he could say anything he wanted to either one of us. My boss might be saying "Tell Jorge I'm going to give him a raise," and the guy interpreting could tell me "The boss isn't going to give you a raise and says you can leave if you don't like it." Because of the rivalry between me and my interpreter, everyone would get confused and my boss would get angry and start treating me like a bad employee.
To get past this, I had a little notebook, and I would write down every word I heard that was new to me. At night I would sit down with all of these words and ask my cousins what they meant. I didn't know how to spell, I'd just write it down like I heard it. I would write down "Fáchu" and go home, and my cousin would say "Look, they're insulting you." So the next day I would go to work and say "Hey, look, you can't say that to me." Every word I heard, I would file it away. That was how I learned to speak English. It was pretty tough.
While home, Werner is managing the construction
of a house for his cousin, who has worked for five ye-
ars in the United States as a janitor and dishwasher
at a hotel in Boston. He is unmarried, and soon he
will return to Itzapa to live in a three-story luxury
house. However, with low wages and scarce opport-
unities in Itzapa, it is quite likely that after a short
stay the cousin will return to his work in Boston.
The second time I went to the US, I went straight to my old job and found my boss, and I could talk directly to him. He said "You've worked for me before, come back tomorrow and you've got a job." After a week, he came to me and said "Okay Jorge, we're all glad to have you back in the US, but how much should we pay you? I want to give you the wage you had when you left last time to go home." I didn't really care what they paid, I was just happy to have a job. I could tell them whatever! But I think it was a test, because in the US everyone is really cabron, and I knew they'd have my old wage written down somewhere, so I decided to tell the truth. They started me at my old wage, fourteen and hour, and they started giving me raises from there. They gave me lots of responsibility right away, and then eventually they started me with my own work crew, a truck and a trailer. They would tell me where a job was, and what needed to be done, and we'd go over and get the job done. We did siding, paint, roofing, shingles, drywall, landscaping, whatever. In the summers I was eventually making twenty dollars an hour on al of our construction jobs. In the winters, when work was slower, my boss helped me find temporary work driving a snowplow for twenty-five an hour.
It isn't illegal to send remittances. If I save a thousand dollars, I can pay fifteen dollars and send the whole amount to Guatemala. I sent my money really often, because in the position I was in I never knew when I might be deported. When the migra grabs you, they don't give you time to go to the bank and send some money home. They throw you in jail for a few months, and then they ship you home with the clothes on your back. I was keeping money in cash at my home, thousands of dollars, because I didn't want to lose it if I got caught. But my housemates were freaked out, because I'd have five thousand dollars in the house, and they didn't want that much money around. I managed to get a bank account, and I was keeping money there as well. At first they didn't give me one, because I had no social security number, but eventually, with my Guatemalan ID, my passport, and my US tax receipts I managed to get an account open. It's still open, with a couple hundred dollars in it, for when I go back to work again in the US.
Local albañiles at work on the house Werner's cousin is building.
So, during my second stay I was earning more, but working much less than before. When I had time off, I liked to go deer hunting with my friend Jim. I couldn't have a gun, because I didn't have papers, but Jim was a citizen so he'd let me shoot one of his guns, and we'd put all of the deer on his hunting license. I hunt in Guatemala, too, up in the Petén on the border with Mexico. My friend has a little piece of land, and a group of us will go up there to hunt together. We stay in a cabin, and go out at night with really bright lights that stun the deer so we can shoot them. They hunt deer the same way in the US, but up there the animals are much bigger. I sent Jim a picture of a really nice catch down here, maybe the size of a goat, and he just laughed. Down here the animals are all endangered, and it's illegal to hunt them, so we have a system of sending our meat home with the help of some friends from the army. They carry it in in their supply convoys from the Petén to the capital, and then I go pick it up there. That way we don't get thrown in jail for poaching.
I like soccer, too. The only things I like to do are hunt and to play soccer, or watch soccer. I don't drink. If you ask me to go hiking I will, but I'd rather go hunting. In the US, on the weekends I would play soccer in a city league with teams of Mexicans, Hondureños, Salvadoreños, and chapines. The league had sixteen teams, and some teams were single'nationality teams. I lived with a bunch of Mexicans, and they convinced me to play on their team. We lived together, and ate together, so I thought I should help them out. Sometimes Americans would come and play on our teams, if we invited them, but mostly it was just a bunch of guys from Mexico and Central America. We were always in trouble with the police, or the people who cared for the fields, because when you get a bunch of us together we have a really big impact on a playing field. The fields there are really well maintained, with planting and watering and mowing.* Even though we aren't stupid, sometimes we are unfair to others, and when we played on the field we'd leave a lot of garbage behind. If you go to a football field here you throw your trash everywhere, but Americans like to keep their garbage in one place, and not all of us would imitate Americans when we were living there. When the police or the city hall got called after we'd been using a field, we couldn't go back to the same field. Sometimes our different way of seeing things was an obstacle, but we never gave up. We were saying "Well, even if we are in the US, we're going to play. We'll make teams and leagues, because we want to keep playing soccer."
*In Itzapa there are three municipal football fields. All are made of packed-dirt, which is more economical during the dry season. Jorge told me that one of Itzapa's fields was once covered with grass, but so many farmers used the field for pasture that the field became bare earth again. See photos below
When I was ready to leave, after my second stay, my boss tried to keep me in the US. He said "You're going to be really hard to replace," and offered me three thousand dollars extra, and a two dollar hourly raise, to stay on for another six months. This second trip had been really good. The first time I went, I saved enough to build a house for my family. But the second time I saved enough to buy three trucks, a piece of land south of Itzapa, and to support my family. I wanted to stay, but I told my boss I'd promised my family I would be home in time for my daughter's birthday, two days before Christmas. He really liked me. He'd given me work in his own house, fixing the floors, and he'd just given me the keys to his house and said "Jorge, I trust you. Just come and go as you need to." When I left my boss hugged me and we both cried a little, because I think I'd really started to look at him as if he were my father. He had two sons, one named Bobby Johnny and the other named Brian.
Leaving the United States is easy. They're practically shoving you out of the country. Both times, I flew home in an airplane, and I never had any trouble. They check your bags and say "Okay, all aboard!" If you have any little problem they'll help you solve it, because they all want Hispanics out of the country. When we're ready to leave, we stroll out nice and easy.
A Brief Interlude on the Volcano
A few months ago my entire extended family climbed the Volcan de Agua . About halfway to the top we passed two Americans who were looking really exhausted, red in the face, sweaty, sick. They started trying to talk with one of my coursins, but he couldn't speak any English and they couldn't speak Spanish. My cousin laughed a little because he didn't understand, but the Americans were asking him if he could give them some water to drink, because they were sick from the heat. I was sitting down, but when I heard what they were asking I went over and introduced myself, and told them I could speak a little English. "We are really tired," they said, "And we need water." I gave them my canteen to drink from, and we talked about how much further they would need to go if they wanted to reach the top of the volcano. They thanked me, and we kept going.
See, different languages can be a real barrier. Those tourists ran into the barrier when they needed help from my cousins, and the little English I speak was suddenly really valuable to them. If someone walks up to a Guatemalan living in the US, and he doesn't have a job, and he's hungry, then to speak English to him is like pulling on his feet while he's hanging by his neck. If they say "¿Oye, amigo, estas cansado?" then you can only imagine how happy he will feel. When you ask him a question he'll give you a real answer, because he trusts you.
Alla, Todos Somos Mojados:The Question of Neoliberal Citizenship
Werner's new house, complete with a dalmatian on the roof.
Before I left, I was a schoolteacher. Everyone knew I was on my way north, and my students really looked up to me. When I came back to build my house, they all came to visit. "Profe, How was it, living up there?" They asked.
"You need a little push," I said, "And away you go. Just believe it can be done, and you'll do it. Put your faith in God and he'll come through for you. If I can do it, so can all of you. If you speak a little bit more English, if you have a little more ambition, or a little more experience than me, there you will be my boss, regardless of how much you've studied. It doesn't matter if you are a doctor, a lawyer or a priest, no one there matters any more than anyone else. There, we are all mojados."
One by one, those students of mine have gone north, and they're building their houses here in town. I say, if out of four friends one goes north, the others will go too, one by one. I can take you to villages around Itzapa where one person immigrating has pulled the entire town to go north, so that now there is hardly a house in town that hasn't been built with money from the United States.
Lots of people here talk bad about the United States, like the other week when George Bush came to Tecpan, and there were protests everywhere. I don't think the protesters were thinking very hard, because the tiny improvements Guatemala has made are all thanks to the United States. People only know of the US from the papers, and from the television, but I believe that I can make a comparison because I have lived in both places. I believe that everything really depends on the experiences one has while working in the US. If you get arrested for driving without a license, or the migra finds you and treats you really badly, then you'll come away hating the United States. Or, by extension, if you live in Guatemala and even a really distant aquaintance gets deported to Guatemala, then you'll start to have a bad impression of the US. Now that they are deporting so many immigrants, breaking up families and sending mothers home without their children, you can see the resentment growing in Guatemala. But if you show up, find work, and the Americans you meet and work with are good to you, then you'll feel like you are part of the culture. I have family in the US, and friends in the US, and everything I have in my life in Guatemala I have thanks to the United States. When I hear about a lot of the problems people encounter there, I think it is mostly just a question of getting used to things, and preserving your ambition. The US is like a huge gateway--all of us can go in, but that doesn't mean we will all have the same good fortune. Even good workers have bad luck when they are looking for a job. If they can't find a job they might go to the bar, and then they're screwing themselves up. Once you're drinking in the US, you won't get anything done.
Once, in the US, I was watching a soccer game on the fourth of July, and everyone was singing the national anthem. I sang too, and I really felt something in my heart, like I was part of the US, and part of this big group of people. I didn't know what had happened, but after being in a country that was giving me work, and giving me a life, I know that what I was feeling was real. But you never stop thinking about your own culture. When you are on a roof at work you don't think about anything, for fear that you might fall off. But when I got home at night my mind would float back to Itzapa. I would look at pictures, read letters, watch videos of my children as they grew up. All of this is normal. Life is long, and it's good that things change, and change again. Now that we are talking, my mind is racing through happy memories, thinking about when I will return to the US, and see my friends there. I'm repeating myself, but it is thanks to God and the United States that I have my life here in Itzapa, and my home.
This young chapin was recently asked to come to school in a costume representing the United States. He decided to dress as a mochilero, a backpacker, complete with stupid sunglasses, sun hat, sandals, a sleeping bag, and a camera. He is proudly displaying an artisanal souvenir from Quetzaltenango which was quite likely manufactured by a Korean maquila in San Marcos, or even (we could hope) by a larger factory in Guangdong. The American flag tucked into his jeans helps us to recall images of Neil Armstrong and Iwo Jima, while it might also happily serve Santiago as beach towel when he visits the turtle nurseries at Monterrico.
The sound of laughter increases as we proceed to the fringe of our Empire.
Heading East on the Panamerican Highway out of El Tejar, trucks roar past brickyards, mechanics' shops, used car lots, hourly-rate hotels, cheap restaurants and wood-sided cantinas. After passing Burger King on the right, zooming under the pedestrian walkway in front of the Dong Bang Industrial maquila the road continues into the shade of a rapidly dwindling municipal forest, then emerges to cut cleanly through the small town of San Miguel Morazan. The turn to the right under the town's only pasarella is the new cutoff road that leads to the coastal highway, Pastores, and Antigua. To the right of the cutoff sits the Colonia Elvidio Sucelio, as well as the grounds of an environmental project called Tecnología Para la Salud.
Tecnología Para la Salud is an integrated program addressing rural health concerns through environmentally sound solutions. The two primary areas of focus are the cultivation of medicinal herbs and the manufacture of sustainably designed domestic appliances. The property contains a workshop, a greenhouse, a demonstration garden, a large orchard, and facilities for making herbal shampoo and soap. I spent a morning with Julio Cesar Coroy, who leads the workshop and specializes in water quality and sanitation issues. He walked me around the facility, explaining the various projects that are underway, and talked with me about some of the larger challenges of operating an NGO in Guatemala today. Through the players below you can listen to Julio as he gives me a tour of his facilities.
Tecnología Para la Salud maintains a large area of plants and trees, all considered to have medicinal values within Guatemalan traditions. One of the primary activities within TPS is the cultivation of starts in a greenhouse, which will in time be brought out into the surrounding communities to become part of small medicinal gardens, as well as a source of income when the herbs are dried and sold at weekly markets. While two Mayan nurses are employed in caring for the garden and instructing others in the uses of these plants, both women were down with the flu when I visited. Although his own specialities lie elsewhere, Julio made a valiant attempt to explain the medicinal values of a few of the seventy varieties cultivated on the grounds at TPS. For fun, I have decided to provide the Spanish names, followed in parentheses by an English translation. I would also urge you to do your own research before using any of the below information to treat your own illnesses.
Té de Limón (Lemongrass): Used widely in Guatemala as a tea to soothe an upset stomach, lemongrass can also be used to make a concentrated oil that functions as an insect repellent or fungicide.
Orosus (Lantana): Used to cure dysentery and amoebic infections, diarrhea, and other stomach ailments. The leaves, soaked in alcohol, are used as a compress to alleviate rheumatism. There are a number of other uses, from treating muscles and menstrual cramps to treating epilepsy. Interestingly, this plant is considered an invasive weed in Florida.
Sábila (Aloe Vera): TPS uses aloe mostly in the production of shampoo, but it has a large variety of uses, from treating gastritis to sunburn.
Ruda (Rue): According to long-held beliefs in Guatemala, rue is used to cure newborn babies of colic. It is made into a paste, which is rubbed on the child's back. Julio also suggests that it might be used as a pleasant substitute for cologne or perfume.
Epazote (Epazote): The panacea of Latin America, epazote is traditionally added to beans when they are cooking for its ability to reduce their flatulence quotient. Additionally, epazote (along with papaya seeds) is used traditionally to cure parasitic infections of the intestine.
Albahaca (Sweet Basil): Used to treat stomach pain.
Ajenco (Wormwood): An alternative to rue for curing colic, but it has a really bitter flavor.
Romero(Rosemary): This herb is used in Mayan rituals as an incense.
Aguacate (Avocado): Adding avocado leaves to your bath is a traditional cure for rheumatism and backaches. Liquid obtained from boiling an avocado seed can be used to help close a wound that is slow to heal.
Ixbut(Ixbut): According to Mayan tradition, mothers drink tea made from the leaves of this plant to increase lactation.
Macadamia: Macadamia trees bear fruit after six or seven years of growth. To avoid the long wait, many commercial growers use grafts from mature trees instead of growing them from seedlings, but trees grown in this fashion have a shorter lifespan and are more susceptible to disease. The three macadamias at TPS are pure trees that were planted five years ago, and will probably bear fruit in the coming year. Their yield increases annually thereafter, and is of high value in global markets.
Yerba Buena (Mint): Milk that has been cooked with either cinnamon or mint is a regular part of breakfast in Guatemala, usually served over cereal. Kellogg's Cornflakes are so popular here that the box is often painted on the walls of small grocery stores alongside other contemporary staples--beans, cornmeal, canned milk and Coca-Cola.
Solar Powered Dehydrator
The ability to dehydrate herbs allows small farms to package and sell their products at regional markets (Antigua, Chimaltenango) through out the year, reducing individual risk and stabilizing monthly income. As part of its integrated model for self-sustaining rural farms, TPS manufactures solar-powered dehydrators for use in outlying communities. A wooden frame supports a black skin made of sheet metal, and the tapered base contains to metal grills which heat the air and force it upwards into the body of the dehydrator. As an added benefit, the area beneath the grills at the base of the dehydrator remains cooler than the outside air temperature, thus creating simultaneously a cold-storage and a drying area. The dehydrator at TPS was filled with quilete (mulberry), berro (watercress), and lemongrass in preparation for a batch of herbal shampoos.
A shot of the greenhouse (left) and dehydrating unit (center).
Drying racks inside the dehydrating unit.
My visit, in early March, fell within the hottest and driest season in Guatemala. Without its own well, Tecnología Para la Salud uses the same water that supplies the town of San Miguel and its surrounding colonias. Julio told me that during the dry months it is a struggle to provide enough water to support the large number of plants on the grounds. While larger trees and bushes are able to take advantage of natural aquifers, many of the project's seedlings, destined for outlying areas, are particularly sensitive to the heat and drought of the highland summers. According to Julio, there are often times when the water cuts off, and while TPS could store water in tanks on the property they choose not to because to do so would have a huge impact on the water available to neighboring farms and homes. Julio, who orchestrates the installation of wells and pumps around the region, is also currently negotiating municipal bureaucracy top attain a permit to install a well on the property. He has not yet been able to acquire permission, or to find a way to meet the costs of the project.
Ten minutes away, in the free-trade zone of El Tejar, the maquilas, factories and flour mills enjoy a federally subsidized water supply, consuming tens of thousands of gallons of water annually to wash machinery and corn during production. At Dong Bang, the price of unlimited annual water usage for an entire twelve-line clothing factory is about $1,000. For a family of four in the Colonia Elvidio Sulecio, beside TPS, water access is provided after payment of a one-time fee of approximately $500 and an annual maintenance fee of $40. This family, even if employed by one the nearby factories, will most likely never install anything more than a single faucet in their home. I would speculate that the entire annual water usage of TPS and its neighbors is equal to the monthly water usage at MASECA (a mill) or Dong Bang.
Human waste remains one the greatest challenges in rural communities around the world. Traditions often provide insufficient means for safely containing and processing raw waste. Contaminated surface water and airborne fecal matter both become vectors for disease, leading to endemic infections, especially among infants and the elderly. I was once told by a UN ecologist who was installing latrines in rural Yunnan, China, that diarrheal diseases are by far the greatest cause of death worldwide. Changing weather patterns and the advance of deforestation lead to greater annual flooding, which only further increases the contamination caused by the improper storage of human waste.
Tecnología Para la Salud fills orders from local communities for both pit toilets and composting toilets. While pit toilets address the issue of surface-water contamination, they carry the likelihood that in time the water table will become contaminated, halting the use of wells for drinking and irrigation. However, the higher initial cost and greater amount of maintenance make composting toilets an unpopular alternative despite the effort expended by environmental agencies around the world to increase their use.
The composting toilet is essentially two tanks for solid waste and one tank for urine, which is kept separate and mixed with water for direct use as a fertilizer. Ash and plant matter are regularly added to solids tank until it is filled. The tank is then switched with an empty tank while the full one is given time to decompose into harmless fertilizer, which can then be added to soil without risk of contamination. Both aging tank and fresh tanks need to be stirred weekly, and this added (unsavory) task is the greatest cause for the composting toilet's unpopularity around the world. TPS processes all of its sewage this way, producing enough fertilizer for its extensive gardens.
Bomba de Lazos
During the rainy season, Tecnología Para la Salud harvests rainwater through a collection system attached to the roofs of the project's offices and buildings, storing the water in a large cistern. Attached to the cistern is a demonstration of an incredibly simple device called the bomba de lazos (rope pump). The pump is built from two cinder blocks, an old tire, three length of PVC pipe, a length of nylon rope, and a handful of rubber beads tied onto the rope at regular lengths. The passage of the beads through a pipe generates enough suction to draw water from great depth (up to 30 bars of pressure), and by adjusting the width of the beads in proportion to the diameter of the PVC pipe it is possible to control the load borne by the entire system.
Turn your head sideways to enjoy a performance by Julio's tiny working model of the pump he has modified for use in rural communities around San Miguel Morazan.
A view of the cistern, with larger versions of the pump visible on top. The bicycle-powered upgrade offers, according to Julio, "a good chance for some exercise".
TPS also produces cooking/heating stoves built from cinder blocks and prefabricated metal fittings, engineered for greater fuel efficiency and the elimination of smoke within the home. Many highland families burn wood in open hearths, producing indoor smoke pollution that is a leading cause of blindness, cancer, respiratory illnesses and premature death, especially among women and children who spend much of their time inside the home. The redesigned stoves offered by TPS (and many other NGOs) are designed with a smaller, more efficient burning chamber and a chimney that carries smoke outside of the home (while also serving as a radiant heating element for the home). The material cost per unit is approximately $100, plus the day of labor required to install the unit in the home. TPS manufactures the parts required to construct the stoves, selling them unassembled to other organizations who transport and install them in communities in the Chimaltenango region.
Concerning Idealism, Entropy, Pick-up Trucks, and Irrigation
TPS emerged thirteen years ago, in a decade that saw in Guatemala the signing of the 1994 Peace Accords, the United Nations' extensive documentation of human rights abuses during thirty years of civil war, the dramatic reduction in troop sizes, and an apparent re-structuring of the federal government. Non-governmental aid organizations from around the world matched or surpassed the funding that was offered by national and regional governments in the push to improve living conditions among the rural poor and farming classes. Thirty years of grass-roots activism and independent media work finally attained critical mass in the nineties, and Guatemala was briefly able to enjoy a position in the center of the world's human-rights discourse. If an aid organization could attain legal status it could quite reasonably expect to find a source of funding and the favor of both local and public opinion. Jacob Schive, a Dutch activist who had been living in Guatemala since the mid-eighties, began investigating and interviewing rural communities in the mountains around Chimaltenango to better determine what sort of aid would be most effective in the region. After much research, a team of planners and workers had begun to take shape, and working relationships had been established with several villages. A board of directors was assembled, and Schive began to work on creating an administrative platform for his work, which in time became the non-profit organization called Tecnología Para la Salud. The various elements of the program (stoves, latrines, gardens) began to take shape at this time, as well as a system for making these resources available to their target communities. Contact was established with Ayuda Popular Noruega (APN), an expansive and well-funded NGO with projects throughout Central and South America. APN put its full support into Tecnología Para la Salud, and with this assistance the organization was able to buy land, to create paid positions for technicians and directors, to begin manufacturing stoves, latrines, and cisterns, and to initiate the program's garden.
After several good years, the organization began to lose its momentum, and as founding members moved on to other organizations it became clear that funding from APN was being misappropriated by several of the program's new directors.
"When something is given as a gift," Julio said, "people don't always appreciate it fully. They don't push themselves to improve, to refine their practices. They become content with the abundance provided by other people's hard work. There is a life-cycle in these organizations, from idealism to corruption. It happens so often it almost seems normal, but I don't know why this is. So, money began to run out, and many employees just left for different jobs. It was a mess. But the organization didn't collapse, because the board took the right position, fired the members who were lining their pockets, and they saw everything as a learning experience. The system has begun to change, so there are no longer donations. Instead, the funding structures in development organizations is based on exchanges--we get materials or funds in exchange for our own products, not because we asked for them."
In 2001, after eight years of support, APN withdrew its support from Tecnología Para la Salud, partly in response to the organization's internal problems and partially as part of APN's larger interest in shifting its interests from Central to South America. This departure was not wholly antagonistic. In support of what TPS had done to correct its own problems, and further to support those few workers were continuing work in the region, as a parting gift APN bought the program a new Toyota pick-up to enable them to transport people and materials to outlying communities.
"Currently, much of our funding comes from the sale of pit toilets and the herbal shampoo we make. I am trying to promote discussion about how we can attract outside funding and donations. Our salaries are all determined by the costs of administration and by TPS's income, and they are pretty slim. We work a lot here, and we have to move a lot of capital through the organization in order to aquire materials for what we make. We are surviving on what we are able to sell, but we don't have much room to maneuver. We believe in what we are doing, and that our ideal is to fight for the environment and for public health. But we are making a sacrifice, as well. If things remain the way they are, our work might come to an end, because we can't pull everything we need for food and shelter out of the air. We are continuing, in the hope that we can find more support, so we can continue our work."
I recently had the chance to sit down with Elder Hall and Elder West, two young men who came to Chimaltenango as missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We drank some mint tea and had a great chat. We talked about their own personal experiences as missionaries, what it felt like to make the transition from high school to Guatemala, and what they feel they are learning about their own faith and their own individuality. We also talked about the role of the Church of LDS here in El Tejar, its larger structure within the country and abroad, and some administrative techniques the church uses to maintain uniform pedagogy throughout the world. Lastly, I invited them both to talk about how they see themselves in relation to their communities, both here and at home, and to consider the role of active citizenship within everyday life. I've written out some excerpts from our conversation below, but I would like to encourage everyone to sit back and listen to our whole conversation, which is available through the audio links below.
Sometimes I get a thought, like, "Wow, I'm in Guatemala and I won't be home for two more years."
As missionaries we have a pretty strict schedule. We wake up at six-thirty in the morning and we do half an hour of exercise. Seven to eight is our time to eat breakfast, get ready. From eight to nine we do a personal study of the scriptures, and from nine to ten we do a study as a companionship, so that we are on the same page throughout the day. From ten to eleven we do a language study, where we can get better in Spanish, or if we are with Guatemalans they might study English with us. From eleven to one we are out on the street. It's called proselytizing time. If we have an appointment we'll go to someone's house and teach, if we don't have anything we'll just walk down the street and talk with random people. If we see someone who needs help, we help chopping wood, or whatever we need to do. We go home from one to two and we eat. From two until nine, or nine-thirty, we're out in the street doing the same for the rest of the day.
As missionaries we have a goal to contact and talk to twenty people a day, twenty random people, so about one hundred and forty throughout the week. With this, after two years you go home having talked to thousands and thousands of people. A lot of the people who you talk to, well, the conversations get pretty exciting.
It's always out there: when you're nineteen you go on a mission. It's not obligatory, but growing up I always thought I would go on a mission. Then, in ninth or tenth grade, with all of my friends in my life, I kind of lost my desire. I said, "I want to go on a mission, I'm going to lose so much time, you know?" I thought, "So many more people are on a higher spiritual level than me, I'm not going to be able to go out and do that." Finally, in my senior year, I started investigating the mission, weighing my options, and I decided to go. The last summer I worked my butt off to make enough mone, because as missionaries you pay your own way. The church doesn't pay for anything. For two years, it works out to be about ten thousand dollars per missionary. It's cheaper for me to be here, but the money we pay is distributed to support missionaries in other parts of the world, as well, and it wouldn't be fair if I paid less than they did.
All day long we just wear white shirts and slacks, so you have to get your wardrobe of ten white shirts, your ties, your shoes that are going to last you for two years.
I knew that the mission would change me, but I didn't know in what ways. A lot of times people will ask me a spiritual question in their house, and I'll be dumbfounded. We say "I have no idea, but let me go home, I'll study it, let us come back in two or three days and I'll tell you what I've studied, what answer I get." I keep a little book of questions people have asked me that I didn't know how to answer. Then I go home and study it.
The best thing for me has been to come and to learn from other people. A lot of people think we (Mormons) come here knowing everything...but I learn so much everyday from people who think they don't know anything.
It helps a lot, being a more friendly person, going out and experiencing things--kind of taking things into your own hand and making them happen yourself, rather than sitting around waiting for other things to happen.
We have a scripture that says "Don't seek to declare my word. First seek to obtain my word. Then, if you want, your tongue will be loose, unto the convincing of men."
In Guatemala they are much more open to the idea of religion, and they're much more loud about it...In the states, if you saw a church with a speaker on the roof and you heard their whole session, people screaming and bands playing, other people would get angry. You don't hear about people making complaints. Here there's more freedom.
We do activities in the church where we get together and we eat a bunch of food. We'll do hamburgers, hotdogs, barbecue in the states. Here, they call it a churrasco. You get together, you get your meat, your tortillas, your rice and beans, and that's your basic meal. I love it. It's delicious. Whenever you have a group activity there's always food. Without food there's no fun. Food, I think, brings together the worst of enemies.
A lot of people think that missionary work is just full-on teaching the gospel, non-stop. You do teach, but also through your example, Being part of your community, walking around the streets is fun. Helping people build a fence, helping people carry wood, being active in the community makes you feel good about yourself. I would say I'm more active here in Guatemala than I was in my own home.
Sometimes I think, "Man, I would never have guessed, three years ago, that I would be walking down a Guatemalan street and ten people would yell my name, because they know me,and not just as a missionary, but by name.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
La Violencia, Chickens, Basketball
I was born in Parramos, between Chimaltenango and Antigua. My family is ladino, but most of the population there is indigenous, and a lot of people from the aldeas come in for the weekend markets. If you go into a church on Sunday, almost everyone there is Maya. There was a lot of violence in Parramos in the 80s, and eventually they built an army base right outside of town. For many years there was fighting, and I knew many people who were killed, or abused, by both sides.
My mother was still pregnant when my father died. She gave birth to my baby brother eight days later, and with my baby brother she was a widow with five children. I was the oldest, so I worked with her to take care of my siblings. There was a Peace Corps volunteer in town, named Jimmy Milton, from St. Luis. He taught us how to raise chickens, so my mother could go to Antigua to sell eggs on market days. Thanks to Jimmy we got through the hardest years. He did a lot of this work in Parramos, with other families as well. I'd really like to find out if he's still alive, but I don't know how. He sent my mother a card after thhe big earthquake, but she lost it after a few years.
There were festivals in town, including the annual festival titular to honor Los Santos Niños Innocentes. Sometimes there were formal dances, they'd rent out a hall and bring marimbas, and everything. Those were special times, because we were allowed to stay out at the dance, even when it was the middle of the night. In those days everyone was well dressed and very decent with one another, and we would dance together. We say the youth of today are very different, with gangs, violence, drugs, and wickedness. When I was young we lived with humility and caution. We thought hard about the company we would keep and the friends we made, and we didn't keep our lives hidden from our parents.
I was friends with other ladino girls in town. When I was fifteen I started playing basketball on a team. We were called "Oasis", and we were really good. We travelled out to Chimaltenango, Antigua to play against other teams. The best was when we would go to some city far away, then come back as the winners. I'm still in touch with some of those girls. We get together for dinner and we tell stories about the basketball years.
One of my aunts immigrated to Oregon with her husband when they were both really young. She had four children there, and all of them survived to become adults. I don't know what she and her husband did for work, because my family had no connection with her at all after she left Guatemala. When she was getting ready to leave, and my father was dead, she wanted to take my baby brother with her to Oregon, and my mother wouldn't agree. They fought about this, and finally my mother became so upset that they stopped speaking. My aunt died a few years ago, and they burned her body. That's what they do with the bodies of the dead in the United States.
When my oldest son was thirteen, his father took him to the United States because there was some work there. I haven't seen either of them in twenty-five years. My son lives in Cleveland now. For a long time he worked in a plant packing ham. One day there was an accident. His friend flipped on a sawblade as a joke, but it caught my son and took away three of the fingers on his left hand. While he was recovering, I wanted to go and see him. I wanted to, but I didn't have enough money, and my husband here wouldn't let me go. The children I had with my husband were very young. I thought I could ask for help from a church or aid organization, but I was afraid that my son's papers weren't in order and I would bring trouble to him. His employers paid him $70,000 in injury compensation, but losing part of his hand was a really immense blow to his self-esteem. He still lives in the United States, but he is struggling with depression. He doesn't want to come home because he says he would be embarrassed to return to town with his disability.
I would still like to go and visit him, because I don't want to die without seeing his face again. I'm his mother, it's how I should feel. I haven't applied for a passport, or a visa. I just pray to God to let me see my son in Cleveland or in El Tejar. If my prayers don't succeed, so be it.
I have another son who lives in Chicago. He's been gone for two and a half years, because he wanted to build a house here, above the house I live in. The old house is made of adobe, and we didn't want to use any more because of the earthquake.* We wanted to use cinder blocks. My son was a mechanic, but he was making very little money and he needed to support his wife and two children. He realized is he stayed here and worked as hard as he could, he would still never have the kind of house he wanted for himself.
*Note: The poorer side of El Tejar was once built entirely of adobe, a cheap substitute for brick-and-mortar construction. Nearly all such houses were levelled in the 1976 earthquake, and many died there. On the other side of town, where the houses were built with better materials, there were only three fatalities.
One of my son's friends came back from the United States and built a really nice two-story house, and he painted it yellow. My son said, "I'm going to do that, too. I'm going to have a house just like that." This happens a lot with young people here--they see the success of one man, and they decide they want to do it, too.
I took a loan from the bank for 40,000 quetzales ($5200). That's how much I paid to get my son to the north safely. I owe all of this money, and I don't know how I'll pay, but he is safe. Still, something that really frightens me about the US is that you have tornadoes there. You never know when they come, but then suddenly they appear and destroy every one's houses!
My son joined an evangelical church in Chicago* They asked him what sort of work he wanted to do, and found him a job working in a mechanic's shop. His employers love him, because he's got no vicios (vices). He doesn't smoke, and he doesn't drink, and if he sees that someone likes to drink liquor he distances himself from them. In the last two years, as the lord is good, my son has been able to build his house, here.
*Note: This term is used in Guatemala to describe a any non-catholic denomination.
Celia gave me a tour of her son's house. It has been built on the property the family owns alongside the Panamerican Highway, rising three stories above the family's old single-level house. The entire structure has been constructed in in the absence of its owner, funded through remittances sent piece by piece though Western union. There is no furniture n the house, and the plumbing is still waiting to be finished. In the afternoon the rooms fill with a ghostly light. The walls are built with reinforced cinder blocks that have been stuccoed and painted white. The living area is on the second story, over a garage that is currently being rented to another mechanic until Celia's son returns to open his own business. The house has two bedrooms, a dining room, a spacious landing for a kitchen, a large bathroom, and a balcony looking out onto the highway. In the bathroom are rare items: a large bathtub and a showerhead attached to a "real" water-heater, both are items of luxury in a town where everyone showers under frighteningly informal electric water heating systems. Above the living area is a third level, currently unfinished, that will contain a small bedroom and an open terrace for hanging laundry. From the site of this future terrace it is possible to see the house that inspired Celia's son to undertake his own trip to the United States.
My son tells me he will be coming home at the end of this year. In the winters it is very cold in Chicago, and it snows a lot. He says the ice is starting to get into his bones. When he goes to work in the shop, he says his hands and legs ache. He doesn't want to come home with sickness, so before the next winter begins he will return to Guatemala. People love him here, because he's an honest worker. Even though he is in Chicago, they come here looking for him. When he opens his shop he will already have many clients. He should come home to his wife and children, before he loses their hearts. He's already built his home, what more does he need?
Notes from the Periphery
One of my sisters lives in Encino, where all of the artists come from. She's been there for almost twenty years, taking care of other people's children. She's already a citizen, and all of her children are citizens as well. They come down to Guatemala every Christmas, but in the US she says she mostly socializes with North Americans*. She says there aren't really very many Guatemalans there.
*Note: In Guatemala this phrase is ordinarily used to describe Caucasians with US Citizenship.
Look, every place has its advantages, but I think the major difference is that people in the United States feel more comfortable, they feel they are personally valued. Here you can work and work and never see the reward for your trouble. We are paid by the day, and the day can be pretty long. In the US you work hourly and your time is transformed into money for you to see. I take care of kids in my house, I feed them and bathe them and wash their clothes. One girl's parents work in the courts in the capital. One girl was adopted from an indigenous woman in Panajachel. Their parents are wealthy, but I am paid 200 Quetzales ($25) per month to care for these children. In the US the wages are higher and the gains are greater, because one's labor is valued by society.
My son tells me everything up north is very legal, by the hour, orderly. Here, someone can kill someone else with impunity. In the US they solve murders, right? These three Salvadoran members of parliament who were murdered by the police last week, in the capital--why were they killed? No one knows what happened, who really did it, what they wanted. Saber? The saddest part, for me, is that no one will ever come to justice for this, not really. Everyone is saying these murders are a disgrace for our country.
Now George Bush is coming to Chimaltenango to see the agricultural projects in Zaragoza and Patzicía. There they have huge fields full of vegetables for export, vegetables we don't eat in Guatemala. He's coming because he wants to show how free trade is good for development, how it brings jobs and money. But he can't even get there, an hour from the capital, without riding in a helicopter. The roads aren't safe enough for him. And they are closing down half of Guatemala City just so he can come here for a few days and visit these fields.
My husband was the mayor here for four years, and recently some people in town were asking him to be mayor again. He started to get a campaign ready, but some others started threatening us. They would pound on the door of our home, and call late at night to tell us they were going to kidnap my sons, that would hurt our family. It was pretty terrible. My husband isn't going to run for mayor. It's a bad time for politics in Guatemala.
Post script: Doña Celia requested that if I was going to put something about her on the internet she would appreciate it if I also invited anyone who will be visiting Antigua for Semana Santa to stay in her home, where she will provide square meals and good conversation for a reasonable fee. Please write to me if you would like to discuss this possiblity, and I will help put you in touch with Celia herself.