pArt four. Life in the in the mOuntaiNs of guatEmala.
Structurally identical cinderblock homes line the three straight streets of Nuevo San Jose. Each house has a sala, two bedrooms, and a kitchen in the back. The kitchen stove is steadily stoked with wood that has been brought on somebody's back from miles away. Windows and doors are placed appropriately and modestly. Two windows and a door in the front, and one of each in the back. A corrugated tin roof is uniform in the community. These houses in Guatemala indicate privilege, but in the mildest sense of the word, for the families who inhabit them. Each yard is composed of worn soil, pressed by countless bare feet, decorated around the edges with bright and vibrant colors of trash; the pinks and blues of ArcoIris cookies or the shimmering yellow of Tortrix chips. Shining always, but fading slowly in the sun, going continuously unnoticed or simply accepted. Trash becomes part of the landscape.
Chickens wonder aimlessly, cocks fight, and children, with chicharrones in their hands, play tag on the street. Neighbors often pause to chat. Women and daughters walk away from home with corn kernels heaping out of a plastic bucket on their heads and walk back from the mill minutes later with masa for tortillas heaping out of the same bucket on their heads. The monotonous sound of tortillas smacking back and forth on worn hands resonates with precision and stands in place of a clock on the wall.
Never ending workdays seem to function as distraction here, as they often do. Religion flows through every home, sustaining faith, halting alcoholism, or saving people from hell. Smiles are ubiquitous. Laughter is continuous. A bus picks up all the working men at 4:30 in the morning. Once they leave, their wives go back to sleep after having prepared them food. The men pay 10 Quetzales ($1.25) to ride forty-five minutes to San Juan, where they must fight for day labor. If they are lucky, they will receive 50-60 Quetzales ($6.25-$7.50) for a days work. But typically they can only find work 3-4 days a week. Work is never secure. And every week their incomes are varied.
They have to go this far to work because they have no land of their own to cultivate. The small plot of land that they have is just enough for their small homes and a small street. The land that they live on is the result of a long labor struggle with their old farm. For generations these families of Nuevo San Jose had lived and worked on the San Jose banana and coffee farm. One day they didn’t get paid. The next day was the same. After a year and a half of working without salary, eating nothing but unripe bananas, watching their children die of malnutrition, and fighting through tireless legal struggles, this group of families agreed to a settlement with their employer and accepted this small plot of land in place of a year and a half of salary. In place of their lost children. In compensation for their suffering. That was sixteen years ago.
Angelina, a proud twin of the community, was born sixteen years ago too. Now she cooks with her mom, dreams of coming to the US, listens to music on her phone, waits for her hair to grow long and hopes she will find work to help support her family. Her father isn’t around anymore because one day he drank insecticide and puked until his death. That day ended his many years of abusive alcoholism.
The uncertainty of every single meal and the pressure of having to feed more mouths than just your own makes cheap liquor and a forgetting mind seem desirable in a desperate way. Some people in the community say that his wife, Angelina’s mother, is better off without him. She passes her days with the evangelical radio show while she cooks in the kitchen, and passes her nights with telenovelas in her bedroom. She buys phone cards when she can to call her mom and ask, “How are you?” She has fleeting memories of the labor struggle and even less of the revolution. She doesn’t speak of the man that was her husband. Angelina doesn’t speak of him either.
While eating eggs and peppers scrambled perfectly together, Angelina and I began discussing relationships as the afternoon rain played every inch of the roof like a drum. The rest of the family was at church. Earlier that day Angelina’s mom said I should marry Angelina and bring her to the US with me. In the dim light, sitting on the standard plastic stools, Angelina coughed up her casual question, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Naturally with my response of “no” she followed up, “Why not?” Feeling brave, I answered honestly, “Because I am gay.” After clarifying that it was not a joke, her face lit up, and she eagerly asked, “Will you cut my hair?” I laughed.
As I cut her hair the following night, kneeling on the concrete floor with mini scissors squeezed around my fingers, I responded to her mother that, “no I don’t not like cutting hair,” and that “no I am not good at it.” I was out of answers when she asked, “Then why does Angelina want you to cut it so badly?” Rumor in Guatemala will assure you that a gay-man-haircut will make your hair grow faster. I couldn’t fulfill Angelina’s dream of bringing her to the US, but at least her hair might flourish.
On the other end of the street Vilma lives with her husband and four kids, each one's name starts with the letter J (Juan, Jessica, Jacqueline, Jennifer). She told me that the current government is bad because now a pound of tomatoes costs four Quetzales, when it used to cost just two. She told me that the only difference between evangelicals and catholics was that catholics drink. Before her family joined the evangelical church her husband would drink every day, and scarcely go to work. Now he goes to work everyday, and never drinks.
For Vilma, the government—so complex, vast, corrupt, and tireless—comes to her in that simple way: the cost of tomatoes. The current government in Guatemala provides universal access to contraception and pays families to put their kids in school. But sometimes things like that don’t matter when the cost to feed a family doubles. And for Vilma, religion—equally complex, vast, corrupt, and tireless—comes to her in it's own simple way: whether or not her husband drinks. And that is real to her while much of the other ideological rhetoric is not. Stances on social issues are irrelevant. Afterlife, irrelevant. I find it amazing how much these impressive religious or governmental bodies go through working on images, beliefs, and intellectual nuances while for most people it is all simply irrelevant, and what really matter are tomatoes and alcohol (at least in the short term).
Vilma will vote against the current political party for tomatoes, or to be more accurate, for the price of food. And that is not necessarily wrong, but it makes me wonder how a government can function if they are taking hits from the side because the price of tomatoes went up after a storm came and damaged the crop.
Teresa lives halfway down the street and she is always proud to describe her happiness. Chickens will peck your feet in her house that is home to three generations, all under the same roof. One night in candle light, which is the only light in their home, she asked me to send a book to someone she knows in the US and when she gave me the address it read: George Castillo, Los Angeles, California. I smiled, and was worried, and explained that Los Angeles is too big for an address with just a name. After fifteen minutes of running around the village we secured a plan to get it to the right address.
In Nuevo San Jose the native Mayan language is almost all lost and Spanish is spoken with many errors. Literacy is a gift and disillusionment with the government seems as widespread as religion, or even as tortillas. It is beautiful everywhere and the people have joy. But the community represents the painful past of war and oppression while it also exudes the sense of passivity that has spread in the country since the civil war, and even more, existed since its colonization.
¡PART FIVE!: a sHortened histOry of guateMala, with digressivE thought.
The history of Guatemala is mind blowing, but it is not unique. It is the story of violent colonization and conquest, oppression, attempted uprisings, and then one more oppressive hand from the United States CIA, leaving the country vulnerable, hungry, and without social justice once again.
Current Guatemala is situated on what was, and is, the center of the Mayan world. Spanish invasion and conquest of Guatemala in 1542 reduced the Mayan population from 800,000 to 100,000. European diseases were spread, massacres prevailed, and the Mayan population was turned into the oppressed peoples under strict Spanish rule.
1821 is the year that Guatemala earned its independence from the Spanish crown. But it was not an idyllic independence as one might hope. A Mayan man described it to me as a shift in power from the elite class in Spain to the elite class in Guatemala, who were just descendents of those that came from Spain three hundred years earlier. And then he said the new ruling class of Guatemala turned to the indigenous population and said, “Hooray! We got independence,” while they continued living in poverty and oppression not noticing any difference, wondering what independence actually meant. I heard this and thought of my own country’s heroic and romantic revolution. Is it really just the same situation?
A break from the history: I found this idea of independence remarkable: just passage of power from one geographical power to the next, not the acquisition of power from within and from the ground. The essence of the term independence is to my sense when a country achieves autonomy, without foreign rule. In this way, Guatemala did get their independence. And so did the United States of America in 1776. But calling a passage of power from one foreign elite to other foreign elite who just happen to be living in the country itself is almost mockery. It is as if a father steals a car, puts the owner in the trunk, and then ten years later his son takes ownership of the car. He leaves the real owner in the trunk, and calls it independence. I admit, this is radically simplistic, but also painfully close.
What does it mean for the anglo Americans to fight a revolution for independence from their anglo ancestors—all of whom are not native to the land. And then nurturing a continuum of native oppression with the achieved independence. But in fact, the word independence is a simply product of colonization and imperialism. I cannot think of a native population that has ever won “independence” from their colonizers. If you can, let me know. We would instead call that successful resistance of colonization. Has that ever happened? But independence as we know it is not a successful resistance of colonial power, it is merely a passage from a far away geographical power to a more local power. The word independence in this way is imperial vernacular.
Anyway, it seems to me that the revolution and independence in the US is in fact very similar to the independence that was won in Guatemala. But when I learned of Guatemala’s independence I rolled my eyes in disgust, while when I learned of the american revolution I am sure that my eyes lit up with pride and passion. Both were simply a change in foreign power which led to continued oppression of native populations. A true independence in this U.S. land would have been if the native peoples kicked us out. But that still has not happened. The notable difference was that in Guatemala’s independence not a single person died. It was achieved diplomatically.
Back to the history. Independence didn’t change much of Guatemala's governing structure. The country was still ruled by dictators who were not elected by the people. A small group of elite owned the vast majority of the country. And the vast majority of the population owned only a sliver of the country. Anti-Maya culture was bred, and racism sailed on robustly. In these years of authoritarian rule, foreign businesses increasingly chewed the country up. One business in particular, the United Fruit Company, landed a monopoly on Guatemala’s economy, land, and labor force.
In the early 1900’s bananas were “discovered.” At least discovered by the US population. They were imported from Jamaica in a small quantity, but the market soon demanded more, and suddenly thousands were arriving every month to US shores. Eventually, our growing bellies surpassed the supply level, and Jamaica could no longer support our bananaffair. This was the seed that sprouted the United Fruit Company’s dominance in Guatemala.
Guatemala was not chosen for investment by chance. A United Fruit executive once explained the decision. He said, “Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.” Therefore, the business plan presumed that a weak government would equate to better business. The Fruit Company quickly bought up miles of land, hired thousands of workers, and exported thousands of bananas. They also monopolized railroad in Guatemala, were the owners of Guatemala’s only industrial port, and eventually they also controlled the postal service. It is widely recognized that the United Fruit Company, in an uneven partnership with the country of Guatemala, was integral in the exploitation of Guatemala’s people and the largest obstacle in the way of Guatemala finding land and labor equality.
Forty years later, in the 1940’s, a small group of middle class teachers and activists began to slowly change the popular mindset of the country. An acquiescent and compliant mass was inspired by the prospect of social change, in part exemplified by the New Deal, which was co-occurring in the US. In 1944 a swift uprising led by two ex-militants overthrew the shocked dictator Ubico. Shortly there after, Juan Arévalo, Guatemala’s first ever democratically elected president, took office. His inaugural address was bursting with US ideology and ideas as shown through FDR’s presidency. It was sprinkled with direct FDR quotes and also decorated with clear anti-communist rhetoric. The new constitution and government were carefully designed in the image of the US’s. All signs showed that the US government would support and rejoice in this new beacon of democratic strength in the struggling region to our south.
In short time, many of Guatemala’s dreams were indeed coming true. Among many other things, President Arévalo legalized trade unions, started literacy programs, made discrimination illegal and created a social security system. The country advanced socially in those years more than in all the other years of its history.
Arévalo’s successor, Jacobo Arbenz, appeared to be even more progressive and motivated then Arévalo, and his first project was the major one that Arévalo had left undone: land reform. Land distribution remained the greatest injustice in the country. When the new government took power in 1944 just 2.2 percent of the population owned over seventy percent of the country's land, while ninety percent of the population owned just ten percent of the land. Meanwhile, millions of peasants worked full days and received very little in return, many living lives in extreme poverty without an inch of land to call their own.
Unfortunately Arbenz’s impressive motivation and execution in land reform may have been the final straw and the reason for an end to the brief years of Guatemalan progress. His comprehensive land reform included buying back all fallow land from large landowners and companies at the price indicated by tax assessments. Unlucky for the United Fruit Company, they had been pulling deals for years to lower their tax assessment, so when the government expropriated their fallow land those harshly low values were used as the amount to repay them. It quickly became clear to the United Fruit Company that the new democracy in Guatemala stood between them and their colossal profits that they had become accustomed to. The weak government that initially attracted them to Guatemala no longer existed, and therein bore their motivation to weaken the Guatemalan government.
Meanwhile, and on another note, Guatemala promoted political freedom and did not prosecute any of the communists; who had formed a small political presence in the country. The country did have laws that prohibited political parties from having official foreign affiliation, and for this reason, communism was contested several times, and similar parties with different names filled the space.
The opportunistic United Fruit Company saw this communism as a means to entice the U.S. government to help them change the government of Guatemala. The Company funded a widespread publicity campaign to illuminate any and all communism in Guatemala to the US public. With time, ignorant articles were published all over, and the US public became informed of the “danger” that the democratic nation, founded on US ideals, presented. Direct connections with the US government amplified the Fruit Company’s plea for help. To mention a few, the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had represented United Fruit. Also, the director of the CIA was his brother Allen Dulles and was a board member of United Fruit. These governmental ties, in addition to the garnered support of the public, allowed for the authorization of the C.I.A. backed coup against Jacobo Arbenz, and put a halt to the mere nine years of progress that Guatemala had experienced.
It shakes me to think that after 400 years of suffering and struggle, when Guatemala had finally built a government that worked, that educated, that was fair, that provided land, and that even represented U.S. ideals, the C.I.A.—backed by corrupt money politics—turned the country once again to its history of oppression.
After multiple military attacks orchestrated by the CIA on land and in air, President Arbenz was forced to resign, giving way to years of struggle which continue today. From the overthrow until 1996 Guatemala went through four decades and 200,000 deaths of civil war. During the civil war the Guatemalan government often referred to a list of 70,000 "questionable individuals" made by the CIA during the coup. The civil war was marked by massacres, rapes, tortures, and destruction. This was all in hopes of restoring what the C.I.A. had dismantled: a government for the people, by the people.
In 1996 the Peace Accords were signed by the revolutionaries and the government, and the revolution came to an end, with no change in governing power. The Peace Accords outlined ideas and hopes for progress and equality in the country, but unfortunately, they carry no legal robustness, and every Guatemalan I asked said that there is little or no change in living conditions since the signing of the Peace Accords.
Coincidentally, the young Che Guevara was traveling in Guatemala when the U.S. overthrew Guatemala’s democracy. Based on letters he wrote, it is clear that this coup he witnessed played a heavy role in the formation of his communist and anti-US perspective. It is not uncommon that US imperialism and racism and arrogance breeds anti-US sentiment around the world. It is obvious that this occurs, but I think it interesting to consider what young activists witness the damage we sometimes do, and I wonder how long it takes until they make it onto our military radar. I wonder what US actions nurtured the views of the 9/11 attackers. I wonder who is watching our current anti-muslim acts, who is watching our protests and violence against mosques in our country.
It seems startling that in 1944 Guatemala’s revolution was inspired by ideals emanating from the US, and on their own will, they shaped their nation after ours. In just ten years, with the CIA backed coup, the US had changed course one hundred and eighty degrees and was then the target of popular and revolutionary energy.
The signing of the Peace Accords is the most recent major event in Guatemala’s history, as it terminated the civil war. With recent shadows and memories of war, the country is still haunted by the violence of conflict, and many suggest that silence and passivity are run of the mill because of widespread fear to resist. Gangs and organized crime, which formed in the wake of the civil war when guns and unemployed ex-militants were on the streets, are growing and gaining control of the country. The violence that was seen in the civil war is living a second life in the form of gangs. I often wonder what political change the energy, weapons, and organization of gangs could create if they focused on social justice.
But as I sit here, shocked by and critical of the actions and influence of the U.S. government, I note the role of the U.S. consumer. of myself. The CIA backed coup in Guatemala, aside from the corruption, greed, and fear involved, is a lot about good old bananas, and our monstrous consumption of them. Like the consumption of drugs which ignites violence and horror along our borders. Like the consumption of fuel, which melts our icecaps, and fuels war. Or like the consumption of plastic which might make our world explode (not based on science, but I would believe it), or which more accurately hastens global warning and disseminates toxic chemicals from sea to oily-shining sea.
Costly consumerism happens to be another mind blowing story, which is habitually involved with war, violence, and corruption. An employee at Shaw’s recently explained to me that one out of three people have bananas in their cart when they check out. I read on NYtimes.com that banana’s are the world’s fourth major food, following rice, wheat, and milk. It appears that our banana consumption has not slowed. You know what they always say..."good economy, bad economy, happy or said, bananas sell." They don’t actually say that. But they could. The point is that consumerism does have the power to kill.
The coup in Guatemala was marketed as ideological, as standing up for democracy in the face of communism. But in truth, it was a resource war, and we wanted the land and resources of Guatemala to keep the businessmen’s big, powerful, bananas coming. It screams out parallels to our most recent war (which just “ended”) in Iraq. It was initially marketed for the search of WMD’s, but has been promoted with ideological arguments. Really though, it also seems to be very much a resource war.
Guatemala’s history is remarkable, and in it there is a lot to learn, but as mentioned, it is not unique. Patterns of scary US behavior in developing nations like Guatemala are prevalent. If you can name a history of a nation like that of Guatemala, post it. And we can count how many times actions like this have occurred. What scares me the most, is if I am not educated enough to know what is actually occurring today. I presume that the US citizens in 1954 didn’t understand what their country was actually doing in Guatemala, for if they did, how could they have stood it.
For a much better history of Guatemala, read Bitter Fruit, an extraordinary book written from the Harvard Latin American Studies department about the US backed coup in Guatemala. If you want to borrow a copy, let me know and I will send you mine!
Thanks to http://www.mayaparadise.com/united_fruit_company.htm, Bitter Fruit, and many friendly Guatemalans for sharing information that helped this post.
Another conflict crop in Guatemala: COFFEE. Once these "fruits" turn red, they are ready to be harvested. Harvesting a 100 lb bag will earn around seven or eight dollars. Once harvested, the bean is extracted from the fruit, dried, roasted, and sold. If you don't already have too many things to do in this life, The Cafecito Story is a great, short, multi-lingual story about coffee, filled with beautiful artwork. It was written by Julia Alvarez.
Lastly, some names have been changed for confidentiality.