Saturday, September 17, 2011


My experience has matured somewhat since I last wrote about Independence Day celebrations here in Guatemala, but the outward festivities were basically the same this year: gymnastics contests, pre-schoolers in pageant evening gowns, plastic flags, talk of the "patria", young men left to make what they can out of their drums and trumpets. After a year here, the band practice seemed a lot less noisy, I have to admit, and the national and municipal elections certainly stole a lot of attention from the crepe-paper quetzal-bird and ceiba-tree confection. Yet all in all, I can't say the celebration was much different from last year.

What got me thinking this year was a talk I attended at a Spanish school in a nearby city on the morning of September 15, where a university professor spoke on the basic history of Guatemalan independence from Spain, and the subsequent dynamic between the Guatemalan-born full-blooded Spaniards (criollos) who primarily led the revolution, and the rest of the primarily Mayan and Ladino (of mixed heritage) population.

At the end he left open the question: "Is Guatemala really independent yet? From what, and to whose purpose?" It's an important, complex question- one that many people lost their lives to during the decades-long civil conflict; and one that few people seem to ask out loud that often, for a variety of reasons.

Later on, I went to the parade. To someone with my background, big parades with inflatable advertisements from large corporations, street vendors peddling tiny flags, and polished high school marching bands with chubby, unhappy sousaphone players, signal business as usual. What could be wrong in a country where the speakers blare pop music and advertising jingos from the back of slow-moving pick-up trucks, beautiful scantily-clad models pass out flyers advertising the latest deals from big box stores, sons sit on their fathers' shoulders, and mothers buy their children corn-on-the-cob?

That's to say, it was an easy atmosphere in which to forget the professor's final thoughts. But there was a moment, looking out over the marching young Ladino and Mayan men, proudly high-stepping in colonial Spanish uniforms, celebrating their independence from that very state, that jogged my memory. Floating past the happy families, children whining out the "gimmes", vendors hunched over their plastic wares, the questions lingered: Just whose independence are we celebrating? And just who has an interest that these questions don't get asked?