Friday, May 11, 2007
Pedro stands in front of his great-grandfather's kiln.
Note the giant crack left behind by the earthquake of '76.
My name is Pedro Morales, and I am twenty-six years old. I started when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, but even when I was little, I would play in the mud and clay, making little toys, or little tiny tejas*. It was a way for me to learn the skill that was already in my blood. Every person has their art form, va? For me, making bricks and tejas is an art, and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.
*Teja is the Spanish name for the curved clay shingles used in traditional colonial architecture. A tejar is the yard where these shingles are formed and fired. Thus the name of the town is El Tejar.
My grandfather's father built the brick kiln we use today. It has been in use for more than one hundred years, which makes it the oldest kiln in El Tejar. It was built in an older style, with arches at the base and a brick platform to support the wet clay during firing. The design of our oven is the same as the design brought by the Spaniards when they arrived in El Tejar. We call it an arch kiln, to distinguish it from the new style that we all call American kilns. In an American kiln the chamber where the wood is burned is constructed out of the unfired bricks. We have seen that our kiln is more fuel-efficient, it fires more quickly, and its design allows us a longer working season. When most other brickyards can't make bricks due to the rain, we can still make other products and we don't need bricks to run our kiln.
A photo of the oldest kiln in El Tejar. It has been built into the ground
in order to buttress the arches that support the weight of the wet bricks.
One day my grandfather's father died, while working. My grandfather was only five years old when this happened, and my great-grandmother was the only person in the family who could work. In those days, women worked just like men. My great grandmother ran the kiln, and she could make everything out of clay--bricks, floor tiles, tejas, all of it. She would carry her work all of the way to Antigua, in the days when when everyone travelled in wagons, with oxen. My great-grandmother's name was Francisca. In her time, Antigua was already filled with churches and ruins, but they were also beginning to build a lot more houses for the growing population. The demand for materials was high enough that people from El Tejar kept going back with more bricks and tejas to sell.
When I was little, my grandmother told me about the trip her father and mother took to get to Antigua. They would leave El Tejar at two o'clock in the morning, travelling by wagon to San Miguel Morazán, then San Lorenzo, then Jocotenango and finally arriving in Antigua. It took a lot to make it through the journey, because in those days there were more divisions between different villages. The people who lived in San Lorenzo were a different race, and so there was no friendship between the two villages. When tejareños would pass by San Lorenzo, they carried clubs and machetes to protect themselves from those who would try to rob their products or the money they were carrying home. It was a long journey. Of course,in even older times the tejareños had to drive all the way to Ciudad Vieja, where the Spanish built their first capital. More or less, you could say that people here in El Tejar have been helping to build the houses of those who live in Antigua for more than three centuries.
We are still working this way, still making tejas and selling them in Antigua. Lots of people here are ashamed of this art form, but I am proud to be making tejas in the kiln my great-grandfather built. Tejas have a long history, and there are still many things we don't know. For me this craft is beautiful, and it is unique in all of Guatemala. There are other places where they work with clay, but it isn't the same as our work here. Sometimes people from elsewhere come here and say "That looks easy. I could make tejas." I always say, "Go ahead!" They realize that this work is a lot harder than it looks. I can do it, because I am from El Tejar , and ever since I was little I have been taught how to make a teja.
Two sizes of tejas, after firing.
Making a teja is similar to making bread, because you need to be able to see the point when everything is just right. You need to use a really sticky clay, the kind that feels almost like chocolate. Making bricks is really easy, because you can throw the clay in a mold and then let it lie out. So long as there is no rain the brick will dry perfectly. Tejas are different, because of their shape. You work at a tablero, putting the clay into a mold we call la gradilla. From there we move the clay to a piece of wood called el galapago, which is carved into the curved form of the teja. As we work, we press grooves into the wet clay to keep its curve from collapsing. With your own hands, you must build the teja so it stand up on the earth. Your hand knows where it must pass to preserve the final form, and how to make the clay shine.
Cuadradas drying in the yard before firing.
The tejas we make are everything from two centimeters up to forty-eight centimeters, and we have even made some as long as sixty centimeters. We usually sell our materials in very large quantities, at 1.25 Q apiece or 1,250 Q (165 USD)per thousand. The price is usually higher for those in Antigua, because the contractors add their own commission and transport costs to what we charge. We pay a five percent tax to SAT (Servicio de Administración Tributaria), and we pay an annual fee to the city to have a license for our oven. Every brickyard in town has its own price, and its own set of clients in Antigua. Here, we have also worked with some other builders in the capital, on the road to El Salvador, where there are other colonial-style neighborhoods.
Pedro took me into the mountains to see the pila where his grand-
mother bathed as a child. It is still used in the rainy season, more
than two hundred years after it was built.
I've heard some stories about the history of El Tejar, and sometimes it's hard for me to believe all of the things that have happened right here, in this little place. I always imagine that my grandparents and great-grandparents would have known more of these stories. In their time they were almost living close to the years when the Spanish were here. Still, in El Tejar we can remember some of the history.
It might sound crazy, but I think that this whole region was once covered by a lake. All around here you see mountains, and I believe they held the water. But something happened, and the lake flooded out to one side or the other. The land underneath El Tejar has more clay that anywhere else in Guatemala. I think the clay we have here was left behind when the lake flooded, just like the mud you see in the bottom of a well that's gone dry. Well, it might have been formed by the lake, or it might have been formed by God, in the Creation. The clay begins at the base of the mountains north of town, and it goes all the way to the edge of the canyon near Chuito. If you walk up towards Durazno you can find places where the clay is fifteen meters thick. To the south, past Parramos, the land turns to stones and pumice, because it is the base of a volcano called Acatenango.
The Mayas in this area knew how to work with clay long before the Spanish arrived. They were making pottery and figurines, and they knew how to fire the clay. I know, because sometimes when we are digging we will find places in the earth where there are lots of pieces of pottery and small figurines. There are lots of people who still make similar things out of clay. I know some kids who make all kinds of little animals, and sometimes when I have free time I like to make dinosaurs out of clay. Craftsmen come from Antigua to get our clay, and they make pots and butterflies and things to sell to tourists. The clay is just something you carry in your blood.
Some of the items Pedro has found in the clay, including figurines,
a stone ball, and a small pottery flute that still plays perfectly.
There are places in the woods where you find old things, and other places where there is nothing. I think that people would go into the woods and bury all of their possessions in a place where they hoped no one would ever find them. If we uncover one piece of pottery, we usually uncover a lot of other stuff at the same time. Near my aunt's house, I know people who have found coffins with little children inside, buried really deep. Once, on my uncle's property, we found a stack of six dishes with painted images on them, all buried beneath a layer of clay that is seven meters thick. Everything is in layers, and sometimes there will be a space of five meters between places where we find things. I have found objects that are buried even deeper than the clay, in a layer of sand. When we find things that deep, they must be from a race that existed before the people who buried things in the clay.
Once when we were digging for clay, we found a pot with a lid. When we looked inside we saw a knife made of stone. There was a handle, and it had a perfect shape, but when my brother touched the knife everything but the blade fell apart, like dust. It must have been so old! How many centuries had it survived? The owner of the land was from Chimaltenango, and he liked to sell the old things people found in his clay. When he saw us with the dish he took it, but we managed to hide the knife from him. When I look at it, I think the knife must have been a special weapon for the people who buried it. No one else in El Tejar has ever found anything like it at all. They haven't even found anything made from the same kind of stone. I believe this knife was used to kill someone who the Mayas believed was invincible. For them, it was a powerful weapon, like a bomb, so they stored it very carefully.
Above, the sacred knife in question.
I imagine there are a lot more things buried in the ground. Little by little they are discovered as we take away the clay. I think the Mayas lived in the mountains as well as on the plain where we live now. There might have been classes of Mayas, just like how in these days there are rich people, middle class people, and poor people. I think the wealthy Mayas lived up on the tops of the mountains, and the other people were living down below, on farms. I think there are tombs in the mountains, but a lot of them will stay buried, because now people are selling off their land so others have somewhere to build their houses. Many things will remain buried forever, but from what I have seen, there might be even kings buried around here.
When the Spanish came they took power over every one who lived here. They made the Mayas into slaves. They realized the region was a good place for working with clay, because they could see the pottery and art being made by the people who lived here. They taught the arts of brick making, and began the first brick-making operation up in the mountains north of town. Sometimes when we are digging we find Spanish nails left behind by their carts. You know they are old because they are a very strange, triangular shape.
Here many of us are still making money with the craft that was taught to us by the Spaniards. Neither tejas or the style of houses in Antigua existed before the Spanish came. They used people as slaves, but they taught them all how to produce tejas, and when the Spanish left the traditional craft remained.
Above, dry clay is mixed with water before being pressed into a mold.
Right now we are taking clay from a piece of land owned by another Chimalteco. Even though Chimaltenango is very close, our cultures are very different. They are farmers, and they have more weaving, and they raise cattle. They don't work like we do, in the art of clay. So, this Chimalteco realized he had clay on his land, and some of his neighbors told him he could sell it to brick-makers in El Tejar. He's sold off about six cuerdas* of his clay, and there are still another four cuerdas to take away. People here pay for clay by the truck-load, usually around 75 Q per trip. Some brick makers get clay from their own land, so they don't have to pay. Our family has a place like this in the woods below town, and there is some really good clay there. We don't take clay there, though, because we are planning for a time when people no longer want to sell the clay on their land.
*One cuerda is approximately equivalent to thirty square meters.
I've heard people in town say there isn't any clay left in El Tejar, but in truth there is so much clay here that it will be here long after all of the people are gone from this place. The reality is just that there are many landlords who aren't interested in selling the clay they have on their property. They plant vegetables on their land, or else they rent the land for someone else to use. Someday soon we will still see clay all around town, but the landlords won't sell or else they will charge really high prices.
I know a man named Daniel Carillo who owns some land north of town, with a really thick layer of good clay. He doesn't want to sell it off in truckloads; instead he wants to sell the entire piece of land in one unit. For people here, the price of the whole unit is a lot of money. He's talking about millions of quetzales. We might be able to buy a piece of his land, at we could never buy all of it at once.
We have talked about forming a cooperative here, to acquire lands and to sell our materials. Unfortunately, some people didn't support it, because they weren't thinking about the future, or the benefits a cooperative could bring to all of us. There are always great ideas, and if people don't agree with the ideas they can destroy them. Ten years ago, we were all working together to form a cooperative. We were planning a warehouse where we could sell all of our materials from a single source. We were also working out how we could start moving our products to places that are farther away. It was going to be really great, because then our art could have gone far away to places where people wanted it. In the end, the people who have power in El Tejar decided they weren't interested in the cooperative. They are wealthy, and they have lots of properties, and they didn't see how much the cooperative is needed by the smaller brickyards.
We're still working on distributing our products further abroad than Antigua. There is a demand for our products in other countries, because we have made a name for ourselves, here. If you go to Antigua, you'll notice that a house with a teja roof is cool, and it feels wonderful to be inside, even when the sun is at its highest, va? At night, the house doesn't feel cold, either. If you build a terrace house with a flat concrete roof, it will feel cold in the morning, and at night it will be so hot you don't want to stay inside. As a result, tejas are becoming more popular again, especially down closer to the coast where heat is more of a concern. And even with terrace houses, the builders use tejas for decoration.
Now, there are all kinds of new materials to be made out of our clay. We don't just make the bricks and tejas, we can make anything an architect from Antigua asks us to make. We make something called a Quetzal's Breast, to be used for windowsills and eaves on new houses. If someone comes with a new design, we test the mold and if it works in the oven we will go into production.
My grandfather spent twenty-five years making tiles for the salt ponds down in Sipacete, on the coast. There were businesses there making enormous shallow pools out of clay tiles from El Tejar. They would fill the pools with sea water, and the clay tiles would help absorb the water, along with the sun. When pool was dry, workers would sweep up all of the salt with palm-frond brooms. They needed clay from El Tejar for this, because it holds up against the salt. The problem was that it was really expensive to transport the tiles all the way from El Tejar, around the side of Acatenango, and down to the coast. They tried to lower costs by using clay from near Sipacete, but the bricks they made had so much salt in them they would erode really quickly in the salt ponds. They even tried bringing some Tejareños down to the coast, giving them a house and whatever they needed, but even with our craftsmen they couldn't get their clay to work as well as the stuff we have here. The bricks came out of the kiln looking the same, but after a little while they looked like they had been made out of sugar.
Now they are using nylon, which is more expensive, but it is shaped so it gather the salt as the water evaporates. Even so, they say that the old tile ponds produce three times as much salt as the new ones. If it weren't for the cost of transport, they would still be using our tiles in Sipacete.
There are new factories near here, like IMACO, where they are producing designs that are similar to the products we make here in El Tejar. But architects from Antigua say the mass-produced tejas aren't the same as ours. In factories everything is made with presses, and no one uses their hands. Our products are the original, and there is a demand in Antigua for the craft that was left to us by the Spanish. People want our tejas so their houses will be better made, and more beautiful.
One of the many areas outside of town where brick-makers come to
According to law, all houses in Antigua must be constructed in a colonial style. A while back people tried to remove this law, and if they had succeeded it really would have been too much of a change in our business. We could have continued, because we could sell our tejas in Xela, San Marcos, the capital, and to people building houses down by the coast. Still, Antigua is where we see the most demand for our products. If they changed the law, houses there would begin to look really different. The age of the houses, and the heritage they enjoy there would all be completely lost. Antigua would no longer be Antigua. It seems really stupid to want to change the law, because so many people benefit from the way Antigua is built. Tourists come to spend their money in places like that, and their money eventually comes to help all of us. People here often think only of their own benefit, rather than the benefit of their entire community. There were many supporting the change, and many against it, and in the end initiative failed and the law remained in place. Even if the house is new, it needs to be built in an old style. And now Antigua is a World Heritage Site, so it is illegal to destroy an existing structure. You can only make restorations.
Imagine, if I were to destroy my great-granfather's kiln, I could never build it the same way again. Everything about it is unique, as if it were an important ruin. The adobe and bricks, and the earth around it, all have found their form. If I decided to rebuild it I would be throwing away too many years, and too much history. This kiln is the source of all of our work, and our income. It is like the pot where our family cooks all of our food. Puchica, it's a grand history our kiln has.
Since I was born I have looked at these stones, here. My granfather told me they were put there by his mother, Francisca, before he was born. Now, my grandfather lived to ninety-four years old, so when I think about how long those stones have been here, I begin to admire them.
Bricks and tejas in front of a kiln.
Pedro Relates to the Vastness of History and Earth
Some people here aren't very concerned with our history. If they dig someting up, they just throw it aside. Once my uncle found a huge jar buried in the dirt, and he just tossed it so it broke into a thousand pieces. Sometimes people here follow religions that don't allow them to value the older beliefs of the Maya. I believe in God and all that, but I also believe in the past and the people who lived before me. Imagine, if we were all drowned in a flood, and someone many years later were to find all of our belongings, for them it would be a wonderful thing, va? For me, it is the same when I see things buried in the clay.
When I find something in the mud I look at it and wonder, "What hand made this?" Usually I clean it off and keep it, because every piece is wonderful to me. So many people don't value these things. It's such a loss, and I think we are losing so much history this way. For example, the coffins they've found over near my aunt's house, I bet you could really learn a lot from studying those bones. People aren't really interested in them and they toss such things aside. Sometimes I think about going to dig, and I've even made up some plans to show where I think things lie, more or less. But most of the land is owned by landlords, so it isn't like I can just go up into the hills and start digging wherever I want.
There have been many different races in El Tejar. First, there were the Mayas. When the Spanish came, the two races mixed together and produced a new race. Many Spanish families remained here, and in town there are families named Diaz, Torres, Morales, Carillo. My grandfather told me that in his time there were only about one hundred and forty people living in El Tejar. Before that, I imagine the whole place must have been one big plantation, with Mayas living all around it. Now we have Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and other religions. I imagine when there were Mayas here, they also had many different beliefs. I also believe the Mayas from Tecpan* were a different race from those who lived here.
I have seen the ruins at Tecpan, and I have been to the museum, but they don't have anything similar to the pieces I have at home, and like others in El Tejar have found. I imagine Tecpan was like a base, with soldiers living there. They had a leader there, and they protected their leader, because he was like the president of everyone nearby. People there were more dedicated to protecting their leader, and people here were more interested in developing their art. Some of the designs and figures we find are really incredible!
*Tecpan is a modern city sixty kilometers east of El Tejar. Pedro mentions it because it is near the ruins of Iximche, which was the sacred capital of the Kaqchikel Maya.
Pottery fragments and bottle caps lie in the dirt outside of El Tejar.
Friday, April 27, 2007
My name is Don Jorge Avila Morales, and I was born on the 19th of April in 1927. A few weeks ago I became eighty years old.
My experience, well, I believe God himself grabbed me when I was a child, and he made me realize that I loved the art of the marimba. At six years old I set up a row of wooden planks and pretended it was my marimba. I would have liked to have a little toy marimba, but my mother and father were very poor and they couldn't buy me anything. At my age I couldn't work, or make any money, so instead I set up my little row of planks. I even made a little stand to put them on. I looked at a big marimba, and I tried to make mine the same. With my little planks I was happy, and I would stand by them, sing and dance. That was how I made my first marimba, when I was six years old.
Around this time I got some of my cousins together. I said "Come with me, amigos, we'll get together like the groups that come to town to play concerts."
"Okay," they said.
We put together all of our imaginary marimbas, and we would play together almost every day. We didn't really know what we were doing, but in time we actually started to learn how to play songs. The years passed, but this same group of guys stayed together. By the time we were all about ten, we could play a little better. We played famous songs, like "Ferrocarril de Los Altos" and "Lagrima de Telma". By the time I was thirteen, I had made my first full size marimba. It didn't have a very good sound, but I loved playing it, va? As a group, we would perform little concerts. I made a violón out of an old bucket and a wooden pole, and we managed to get a sound out of it. We all liked playing, and we would get together every Sunday to play at some one's house. I loved it. By the time I was fifteen I had formed my first real group, with a lot of the same kids, except we were beginning to grow up. In those years I formalized my group, and when I turned twenty I got married. At my wedding I celebrated by playing my marimba. All of my friends came, and they made music as a gift to me. They didn't charge me anything for their time. It was beautiful.
I continued in the work that made me so happy, and I continued making marimbas, until I was finally making proper, concert-size marimbas to sell in Guatemala. I have even sent some of my marimbas abroad: eight marimbas to the United States, one to Canada, a few to Honduras and El Salvador. In this way I have passed through my eighty years, little by little, living a life of the marimba. I go to concerts, and I play wherever they take me to play. I have played at festivals where there are seven, eight, or even ten marimbas all playing at once. Once, they held a big competition in Tecpan. They brought us to play, and when we came home we had the first prize. My grandchildren also play the marimba, and they've been playing concerts in Antigua. This weekend I am going with some of my children and grandchildren to play marimba in the capital. for the Guatemalan Journalists' Association.
Don Jorge's son hold a photo of his father's band, taken some time in
the mid 1970's. Jorge is second from the right, behind the big marimba.
I keep making marimbas. I am a very poor man, but my beautiful God has given me the wealth of knowing how to do something special. For me, it isn't a bad job, but it certainly has taken a lot out of me over the years.
When I started to make marimbas, I just followed my own curiosity. Once, my parents held a cofraria*, and they hired a marimba to play for their guests. I went close to the marimba to hear how it made sound, and to see how the keys were registered. I got so close that the musician smacked me with his mallets. He thought I was trying to mess up his instrument.
*A cofraria is, in essence, a party held in honor of local patron saints. The responsibility for hosting the party is rotational, and each year a new group of families is both honored with the chance to host the party and burdened with the cost of the celebrations.
"Señor," I said, "I am simply looking at your marimba to see how it makes sound. I am building my own marimba. Why did you hit me?"
"No lies!" He said. "What do you really want, kid?"
I looked up and said, "Even though you are very big and I am still small, I would like to play marimba some day."
I took him to see the marimba I was making in my home, and when he saw it he begged my pardon for hitting me. That was my start. My father was a carpenter, and he gave me some advice about how I could work with wood, as well. So, that was how I began this art of the marimba. I'm very poor, but everything is how god wanted it, va?
We buy the wood in big pieces, we cut it, and then we go about making the keys in a range from contra tiple to el tiple, el centro, and el bajo. Beneath the keys you must make the sound chambers, bigger and bigger. You must look for wood that is beautiful, so that it will give a good sound. These days a lot of the best wood comes from very far away, and you need a lot of money because it is so expensive. There was a time when we harvested the wood here in Guatemala, but now it's mostly gone. There are five kinds of wood: el hormigo, rosul, granadillo, ebony, and rosewood. El hormigo is the most expensive, and you can only find it near the coast, close to the border with Mexico. All of the different woods have a beautiful sound. What matters most is the ability of the one making the marimba. If god is not helping me, then the wood will have a poor sound. If I do it right, and God is willing, then the wood will sing.
Marimba pieces in Jorge's workshop.
Click the button to hear Don Jorge play a song he
wrote about the town he lives in.
Public Office, Natural Disasters
Now, on the subject of serving my pueblo, I am proud to say I began my time in the military when I was eighteen years old. I am a veteran. I spent time living in the barracks. For most of my service I was with the air force, in Chimaltenango. I never earned anything in my time as a soldier, I was there by the force of my will alone. Later, I held several positions in the municipality, as regidor and syndico, because that was where the other politicians wanted me to be. When I entered my fiftieth year, I was elected mayor. In those days we weren't really paid for this work, either. As the leader of El Tejar, I was paid fifty quetzales per month.
In my life, I have made some sacrifices. I know how to plant beans and corn, and some other plants, so my family can eat when there isn't enough money.
When I was mayor there were no resources to work with. We had a hard time. Even so, we left a memory of ourselves in the municipality. We did a few things, we installed a mechanical well, we built a park. Today, it is a happy thing to serve as mayor, because you are paid well, and the city receives its 12% from the federal government in order to complete bigger projects.
One evening we were holding a meeting in a new high school. My secretary, my treasurer, and some other people were there with me. We were working into the night because the school was due to open in eight days. We had no idea what was coming. It was late, and so we said "Let's all go to bed, and get back to this tomorrow." We all left, and by the time I was lying down it must have been about two in the morning. Suddenly I felt a huge earthquake. "My god," I said, "Why are you punishing me?"
The walls of my house, and the roof, they fell down onto my sons and my babies. The beds were all destroyed, everything was destroyed. We were frightened, because we couldn't find one of my daughters. A friend of mine was helping me look for my girl; we were searching through the rubble and dust. Finally we found her, under some pieces of the roof. A rafter had fallen on her, and when we managed to lift it we could see her face was swollen and bleeding. We pulled her out from under the rubble, and took her to the hospital. Thanks to god she survived, and now she is thirty years old.
Don Jorge plays a song with his grandson, who he is teaching to play
the marimba. This child's mother is the daughter who was rescued
from beneath a rafter in the story above.
As the mayor, I was responsible for taking away the twenty six people who died in the earthquake. They were buried under walls, in their sleeping clothes. There were so many of them. The judge declared that we needed to go and take all of them away, so I went out with my secretary and we found others who could help. We had to clear away adobe, walls, furniture, to get to those who were still underneath. Little by little, we pulled them all out. I also gathered all of the injured people together, and we went to the hospital in a group. It was all very sad. They said I was in charge, but what could I do to help the entire town at one time? Or when a disaster had fallen on the entire republic?
Other countries tried to help, but really all of the aid went to the government. We had some assistance in our little town, but it wasn't much. We had a little milk, a little rice, beans--not much. We received no money. It seemed there were so many nations coming to help, but it didn't seem like the help really had that much of an effect. Some organizations came to help us build affordable houses. The walls were made of plaster and wood, the roofs were made of tin. This helped, but still we had to pay something in order to have one of these houses. Later, the Red Cross came and gave away some other houses made of boards and corrugated tin. To have one of these houses, you needed to work with them for fifteen days. This program helped. To tell the truth, there were so many groups coming and going, trying to accomplish different things that it got to be a little hard for me to keep all of them straight in my mind.
We began to build shelters out of nylon, and for a while we were all living in these champas on the municipal football field. Other cities and countries donated the materials we used for our shelters. A few times we had helicopters come and land in a field near town. They brought us blankets and sheets, and food for those of us who really had nothing at all. These gifts helped us very much.
For my part, I wouldn't ever like to have another earthquake here in El Tejar. It was as though absolutely everything came down in one blow. Here, and in Chimaltenango, Parramos, Itzapa, Comalapa, and in Patzicia. I believe it was worse here than in other parts of the republic.
Frankly, life has been pretty difficult. Some of us are living a hard life, and others among us are living even harder lives. Those who died in the earthquake are the saddest of all. Among the dead were some of those friends who would play marimba with me when we were children. Their walls fell down on top of them.
We must go on, until God says "This is where all the music and art must end." His law says that our bodies must die. That is how I will live my life.
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.