Friday, August 26, 2011

The Guatemalan Feria

What happens when Guatemalans get together to celebrate their patron saints? Fireworks lit off within 10 meters of their 450-year-old church, that's what happens. (As an aside, when the first shell went off, I nearly hit the ground, certain that some sort of gang warfare had just broken out. The man next to me commented, "Don't worry! It's just fireworks." I might have pointed out that in New York, we rarely light fireworks 30 feet away from a crowd of 400 people. But no need to get into all the complexities of cultural differences in risk perception, or we'll be here all night.)

My reaction to feria last year might be chalked up to cultural differences. The whole thing struck me as crowded, uninteresting, and mildly grungy. The streets were filled with rigged carnival games, marimba bands, "costume dances" where grown men gyrate their hips for hours on end while dressed as Xena Princess Warrior, ladies selling peanuts and bland biscuits in ring shapes. Impromptu cantinas covered in Gallo beer advertisements, food stands selling lots of exotic stuff that scream trouble for the digestive tract, strange drunk men, carnival rides ready to break apart in mid-air and throw their riders to certain death. In case you don't get the idea, space is rented to the vendors in units of 1 square meter. A Guatemalan feria is a US county fair or street festival on steroids.

Now that I've come to know the feria, I could talk about it from the perspective of the town and its significance in local culture, for better or for worse. I could talk about the human need for community and collective ritual and holidays centered around those things. I could... But instead, feria comes to mind this year more from own perspective. This year I realized my need for community; my need for collective ritual; my need for a holiday I could participate in. This year the feria struck me differently.

It might be that this was my first feria living in the center of town, away from my Evangelical host family, my first feria free to experience the Catholic culture here. My first feria since I've made good friends here. My first feria where there were people I was excited to run into on the street and pass time with. My first feria where I had someone to drink a beer with, watch fireworks with, eat cheese-filled tortillas with.

It might be that this was my first feria where rather than being surrounded by strangers, rather than feeling isolated by fright or indignation or indifference, rather than being the unwanted foreigner, I was finally invited to participate among friends.

It might be that this was my first feria where it felt like my town, and not just someplace I was living.

It might be that I was finally home.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gender and identity in highlands Guatemala

One of the gals?
One of the guys?

I sometimes forget that I am a light-skinned, grotesquely tall alien. Then someone takes my picture in a group with local people and I’m reminded why small children usually either react to me with fascination or abject fright.

Yet beyond that, I put up these two pictures to illustrate an issue of identity that has been central to my experience here – gender.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York wanting to think that my gender didn’t matter, that being female didn’t make me significantly different from any of my male peers. I distinctly remember the first week of third grade, when my teacher asked for some strong boys to help her hand out the math textbooks. The comment struck a strong chord – placed by whom and when, who knows – but I put my hand up and volunteered; and later that year I went on to beat all but two of the boys in my class in arm wrestling. I still remember so clearly those early affirmations that gender in itself is not a limitation.

So I guess it was odd for me to experience, coming here, that local attitudes surrounding my gender really did limit me, much more so than in the US. Having always wanted to be “gender-blind”, I didn’t really perceive it a lot at first. Yet over time I became more aware of the general inflexibility of gender roles - and accompanying attitudes. I also became more aware of my place as a pant-wearing female, smack dab in the middle of the two gender worlds, seemingly receiving the worst of both of them, especially as a foreigner to boot.

In a place where identity is assessed principally on two axes (first, foreigner or local; and later, female or male), I felt especially out of place, since locals – once having identified me as a foreigner - could not confidently place me on the female/male axis. I felt unwanted in either camp: uninvited to go work in the woods, even when I asked; uncomfortable walking alone at night; heckled by drunks in certain neighborhoods; plagued by the sense that my counterpart was frequently ignoring my comments and proposals; questioned by everyone whether I was afraid to live on my own. Yet neither was I invited to chit-chat with my female counterparts, or asked to help them at events, and am still met with skepticism that I can do my own cooking and cleaning.

It seems like I ought to offer some sort of breakthrough, a turning point to all of this; but there hasn’t been one, really. I’ve simply gone about figuring my identity here by getting to know more and more people, trying to prove that there are things I am capable of even if I can't fold 100 tamalitos in an hour or plant an acre of potatoes by hand in half a day. Overall, my experience hasn't been tough as some have it out in the really remote villages, and being female has given me a distinct advantage with the wonderful women's groups here.

And I've had the numerous little rebellions: taking joy in carrying heavy things in front of and with my counterpart and the park guards, wielding a machete, hiking fast with open enjoyment; fixing technology; wearing corte when it's appropriate; and always requesting in a quiet but firm way the respect I feel I deserve - not as a foreigner or a woman, but as a person.

[Note: 4/22/2013: As I remained longer in my community, I realized that like in many cultures, age was another important aspect of identity and social hierarchy. Being male would not have automatically brought me respect.  I still think that being a foreigner, first, and of ambiguous-but-female gender was more principal to the way I was perceived than age.]

Friday, August 12, 2011

Staying vegetarian in the Peace Corps

Former volunteers told me before I went that it would be impossible to stay vegetarian in Guatemala. I had also heard there would be an enormity of fresh vegetables available. Coming from the school of “eat what works for you”, I wasn't put off by the idea of meat-eating culture, but I was definitely wondering how I would get along as an omnivore.

It turns out Guatemala does offer a beautiful variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as legumes and ground nuts and grains. You can thrive here on a vegetarian and even vegan diet for a fraction of what it would cost in the US. Imagine buying a weeks' worth of fresh fruits and veggies - a head of broccoli, 2 lbs of tomatoes, 2 lbs of onion, garlic, two avocadoes, two bunches of fresh greens, a lb. of potatoes, squash, a half dozen carrots, a half dozen bananas and a pineapple - for less than $7. Yup. That happens to me pretty much every week.

At the same time, I’ve eaten more meat in the past 16 months than I had in the 12 years preceding Peace Corps. Hmm. So, why the curious contradiction?

The first months were easiest. I was living in a training town near the capital with a family that had hosted vegetarians before. The first visit to my permanent placement also seemed to portend great things when we stopped on the road with my counterpart at a restaurant that had black-bean burgers. Black-bean burgers, I tell you! That seemed the perfect moment to frontload to my counterpart I didn’t eat meat, before he could offer me any. Phew, good to get that one out of the way.

OK. Right. Fast forward two weeks, Good Friday, my counterpart invites me up to the park with him and a friend for a little picnic. It’s our first bonding opportunity, and let’s just say they didn’t bring black-bean burgers. Some people might not understand this, but at that moment, preserving my counterpart’s ego was way way way more important than preserving my vegetarian diet.

That was the gateway meal. After that, I quickly learned that avoiding meat was not worth the social discomfort for me. First of all, it is very rude here to refuse food without a culturally-appropriate rationale. Another thing is that most people (like my counterpart) just don’t understand the phrase “I don’t eat meat” the way I do. Most families consume meat infrequently – at most twice a week. It’s the special food to break up dietary monotony and celebrate occasions. It’s also expensive. A pound of chicken costs about the same in my town as it does in the US, while unadjusted average family income here is roughly 1/27 of what it is in the US.

So, it sort of makes sense vegetarians are scant here. Why would you avoid eating something that is rarely eaten and only to celebrate special occasions? There's a cultural divide there that can be tough to cross, and when I don’t know the person well, I definitely accept the meat. If no one’s watching and my body feels like meat is just not preferable at the moment, I sometimes squirrel it away for Oliver and my favorite street dogs. Fundamentally what it comes down to is that my desire to maintain social harmony is stronger than my belief in strict vegetarianism.

Objectively speaking I think accepting meat has helped me build confidence with people here, but it was really a personal choice. No one absolutely forced me, and I'll admit I am quite a push-over sometimes. My advice to vegetarian future PCVs is not to stress out about it. Peace Corps is unlikely to put you in one of the few countries where you’ve got to eat lots of meat to survive, and if you’re like me it will be a time when you have more fresh, cheap vegetables than you know what to do with. And if a little chicken has to slip in there occasionally, well, at least it’s probably free range!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Immigration Stories: Money, Borders, and Tuna Fish Sandwiches

Immigration is a central force of life in my town. Everyone I know has a family member who has lived in the US. What’s more the municipality estimates some 5,000 to 7,000 people from my town still reside in the United States, some with legal residency and others not. Some have been as long as 15 or 20 years without returning to see family, without seeing the sons they conceived. Some will never return, due to dangers in the crossing, trouble with gangs or drugs in the US, fear or distaste for returning here. Many are children, US citizens, who have never seen Guatemala and rarely have heard their parents’ mother tongue.

If you can even imagine the scale of this migration, at one point there were over 700 men from my town working in the same turkey slaughterhouse in North Carolina. There are few families here now without a big US-style house, improved-wood-burning stove, electricity and running water. Many have much more: a television, a computer, a video-camera, a car, a gas stove, a hot-water heater, money to send the kids to high school.

If life has improved significantly in my town since 1990, I would argue it is not for the major part due to the work of NGOs or the central government or well-intentioned Peace Corps Volunteers. It is because thousands of people – completely outside of any formal system - risked their lives, sacrificed their families, their children, and comfort, worked 60 hours a week for years, with little recognition or benefit, save for the knowledge of an exchange rate that would favor their savings back home.

There are real people behind these stats, some of whom you may know over there, and many others that I know here- still trying to calculate the balance of the gambit they made years ago.

Take my friend Elida for instance. Life has not been easy for her since she returned to Guatemala after 12 years away. Her eldest son was 4 when she and her husband left him with his grandmother and took off. He won't talk to her anymore. Like other young men in town, the memory of the betrayal has all but poisoned him, and he grows his hair long, wanders around with a local “gang”, has quit school, drinks heavily. He openly detests his younger siblings, ages 8 and 10, both US citizens– and recently provoked a serious fistfight with his mother. Meanwhile the guilt sits on his mother's back, unmoving as she quietly goes about reconciling reality with the dreams that pushed her to cross two borders and leave behind her child.

Her youngest kids had a tough time at first on returning to Guatemala. They were picky about local food (tamales, herbs, boiled potatoes), teased at school for not speaking Mam, struggled to read Spanish. They acted out, missing their father and their old lives. The most animated I saw them was when we made tunafish sandwiches once, for the first time since they'd returned to Guatemala. They ate happily, chatting on and on about the US, asking for seconds and even thirds. Such a simple thing with so much memory, meaning, comfort behind it.

Months later, they’re adjusting somewhat and doing alright in school. Their mother is heavily involved in the Catholic church and weaves to make extra income and pass the time. And perhaps their father will finally come home this Christmas. But they're haunted by their older brother, who has physically hit their mother on various occasions. Their mother, for her part, is not sure she believes herself anymore when she says her husband will be coming soon.

Given the wide the effects of immigration - greater financial security and material comfort, loss of cultural and social identity, familial disintegration, and increased consumerism – it would be impossible to say that immigration has been all good or all bad for my town. It has been both. It is both. It is the people’s solution, and one that they will always try to employ so long as it is so difficult to make a good, steady living here. It turns out that economic desperation is something you can't legislate away.