Whether They Want To or Not, Guatemalans Embrace the Elephant to the North

“America,” the taxi driver confides in me with the shit-grin of a child who is just about to get away with stealing from the candy jar. “I’m going to America. I don’t care if I have to get mojado (wet) or not.”

We are driving through Zone 10 in Guatemala City, an area so wealthy and clean that it could easily be Beverly Hills. Lush, green trees line the boulevards and the sleek vehicles passing us in the left lane are all Swedish and German sports cars, presumably owned by Guatemala’s ruling elite — the Ladinos: whites of Spanish descent who will always have the upper hand over the poor and downtrodden Mayan Indians who make up the majority of this country. Our taxi is the only clunker on the road.

José, as I’ll call him in this story to protect his identity from United States border guards, has had me in the passenger seat of his rusty red and yellow cab for all of five minutes, and hearing that I come from “El Norte,” he can’t help but confide in me that in two weeks he will ditch the vehicle, leave his wife and four children behind, and pay a coyote human trafficker approximately $4,000 to transport him, secretly but safely, up through Mexico and into southern California, where if all goes well he will meet his brother, another illegal immigrant from Guatemala, who now lives and works in New England.

The prospect of hunger and dehydration, and even death, in the back of a windowless van abandoned in the desert somewhere south of Tijuana doesn’t faze him. Neither does leaving his teenage kids behind in the prime of their adolescence.

“I’ll work there for two or three years and then come back,” José assures me. “When I return I’ll buy my wife a nice new house here in the city, and we’ll be able to send our youngest daughter to dance school.”

José’s story is not unique. Thousands of Guatemalans brave the treacherous journey to the land of opportunity every year. Many of them make it. In fact, says José, crossing into Mexico is considered tougher than navigating the Rio Grande, because the Mexican border guards shoot first and ask questions later.

But what strikes me as ironic about José’s upcoming journey and throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude is that on this day, in this week in Guatemala, his countrymen are rioting in the streets and blocking highways, questioning their very relationship with the United States. “No more subjugation at the hands of the Yankees!” they yell through bandanas as smoke bombs fly between them and the police.

Today, Tuesday, March 15, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger, a member of the white, land-owning oligarchy and a descendent of German coffee plantation owners, officially signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (known here as the TLC), which will remove almost all trade barriers between the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica once ratified by the US Congress. To add insult to injury, Berger published his signature in bold letters in an advertisement that ran in today’s national newspaper, the Prensa Libre.

The student and teacher activists demonstrating in front of the national palace in the capital see this treaty as a turn of the page toward another chapter of corporate imperialism in their country’s long, sober history. First the Spanish busted down the gates with their Catholicism, then the Germans came and seized all the coffee plantations, followed by the Americans, who went for the bananas and later supplied the weapons for Guatemala’s nasty 36-year civil war. Now the government is opening the door to everyone else to come and plunder her natural resources.

Meanwhile, many of the campesino peasant farmers blocking the country’s main highways with boulders, felled trees, burned out busses, and their own bodies aren’t exactly sure what “free trade with the gringos” means for them, but they are pretty sure that if the Ladinos and the Americans are pushing for it, then trouble is certainly on the way.

“Is this good for Guatemala?” I ask José, as we pass a McDonald’s drive thru and pull into the sleek, new office of the United Parcel Service, so I can pick up my new bankcard, which was sent, overnight delivery, from the United States.

He shakes his head. “Of course it is. Those delinquents out there stopping people from going to work don’t know what’s good for them. They want to stop the Americans from coming here and building new highways and infrastructure because they cling to some romantic notion of singing songs and working in the fields.

“The entire world is heading in one direction, and we would be fools not to join them.”

José is right. The entire world is heading for America, whether they get wet, or not, in the process.

“I work very hard … I want to please him.”

From the view of a private helicopter, Francisco’s backyard looks like a rolling desert of white sands that almost bumps into Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala’s western highlands. But unless you work in the coffee exporting industry, you’ll pass right over his café beneficio, located up the hill from the village of Santiago, and touch down in one of the more touristy destinations like Panajachel, if not your own private estate on the north side of the lake.

Aldous Huxley called Atitlan “the most beautiful lake in the world,” and the hundreds who visit here each week, as well as the Mayan Indians fortunate enough to live around its perimeter, would certainly agree — provided that they have the time to stop their daily work and glance down at its azure, volcanic waters.

“The coffee beans need to be stirred constantly,” says Francisco, the overseer of the processing plant. “The sun needs to touch them from every angle, and dry them out.” This explains why the boy of about 15 hasn’t stopped pushing the flat, wooden rake over the desert of white beans, or even looked up to gawk at us curious visitors since we arrived. (Correction: Francisco swears that all of his workers here are of legal age – 18 – so it must be the malnutrition common in these parts that makes the boy raking coffee look like a tyke to us.)

It takes him approximately 45 seconds to rake one row of beans as they lay flat on a huge 200 ft. by 200 ft. concrete surface. Then he turns around and goes the other way, plowing a path parallel to the first one. After 45 minutes he has raked the entire square so that, from above, they look like rolling white crests. Without even breaking for water, he begins again, this time raking in a perpendicular direction, across the waves of coffee.

“How much money does this guy make in a day?” asks my friend Waleed, who manages a gourmet deli and coffee bar in Ann Arbor. I translate into Spanish, weary of lighting a moral fire under Francisco’s belly and giving him false hope. That’s because Francisco is an overseer only in the sense that he manages the processing plant. Like the 12-15 workers, his two sons included, Francisco is a Mayan Indian with calloused hands as tough as the shells on the sun-dried coffee beans. His face, though smiling for the two American guests at the moment, shows 65 years of wear and tear.

“Thirty-five Quetzales (just over $4) per day, for an eight-hour shift,” Francisco replies after an uncomfortable pause. “The eight months a year when there is no coffee to harvest, we will all have to find other work … But Don Max always makes sure we have enough to do this time of year.”

“Health benefits? Food? Educational stipends for your kids?” I ask in rapid-fire succession. Francisco answers with a blank stare as if I were speaking in a foreign language.

All around us the workers trudge along, through miles and miles of coffee beans, with the diligence of donkeys, paying no attention to us white foreigners as we scribble in our notepads and shoot pictures with a hand-size digital camera. Can they hear our pointed, if not leading, questions? Maybe not. Some of the workers wear old tattered baseball caps with strings of cloth hanging out the back that protect their ears and necks from the hot Mesoamerican sun.

“What does the overseer make?” is the logical follow-up question.

Don Max gives me 2 Quetzales for every 100 pounds of coffee we bag and ship out,” he replies, though this time with a hint of pride in his voice. “I have worked for him for nine years, and I have never missed a quota.”

Waleed is crunching numbers in his head now, and one can almost see the frustration bulging through his temples. He has come down here on a self-appointed mission to learn whether the middlemen who export the high-quality coffee that ends up at places like Zingerman’s Deli actually pay the grunts fair wages. Waleed utters a few numbers to me, camouflaged in a strong Midwestern dialect just in case Francisco understands rudimentary English:

“The market in New York usually pays around $1.25 per pound for coffee from the Guatemalan highlands, and they sell it to us for anywhere between $2 and $10, depending on the quality. 2 Quetzales is about 25 cents, so Francisco makes about 0.2 percent of the total gross. In other words, his workers have to bag four pounds of export-quality coffee for him to make a single penny.”

“And what would a law school student pay for a pastrami sandwich and a double espresso at the deli? … About $20,” I answer my own question.

“Shit,” our expressions seem to echo one another.

Francisco’s son Jorge dips a shovel into the vat of yellow and green coffee beans fermenting in water to soften up their hides. “This is the end of the harvest,” he explains. “This is not good coffee. So it will stay in Guatemala.

Then he points to the white desert of beans drying in the sun and being worked over by the rakes. “Esos son buenos. Those are for Don Max. El Norte, Europa, Nueva York; allá se van.”

“Who is this Don Max,” I wonder out loud. “Does he treat you fair. Are you satisfied with your pay?” Now I am asking questions that will only lead to trouble.

“Fair, oh yes.” To my relief, Francisco refuses to take the bait. “He pays us, as long as we deliver.”

“Is he a wealthy man?” I can’t stop myself now. “What kind of car does he drive? And how often does he visit the processing plant?”

“Oh, he is a very busy man,” Francisco says, almost obediently. “We don’t see him more than once a harvest season.

“He doesn’t have a car. He arrives from the capital in a helicopter …”

Waleed gives me a nudge and shows me his watch. The last ferryboat is leaving Santiago for the opposite side of the lake in 15 minutes, and we have to go. Jorge offers to drive us.

Goodbyes and thanks are exchanged. Francisco poses for a photo with Waleed. And though it doesn’t show up in the digital image later on, one can almost see a tear in the old man’s eye.

“If you speak to Don Max,” he says as we drive away, Please tell him that I work very hard here, and that I make everything run smoothly. More than anything, I want to please him.”

We arrive at the dock just as the ferry is pulling away. But someone alerts the captain, and he dutifully turns around to pick up the gringos.

These days, they prefer the Pope over Maximón

A month earlier, on my last visit to Santiago with my parents and sister and two friends, I had encountered a completely different experience — not one of numbing white guilt, but one of utter confusion and near abomination.

For centuries the Tz’utuhil Mayan Indians have come to Santiago in flocks to visit Maximón, their god of consumption. They have offered candles, cigarettes, food, beer and cheap rum in exchange for him helping with their crops, raising their kids, harming their enemies, or improving their business prospects.

It is unclear to me whether Maximón has always taken the shape of a masked doll, propped up in a chair by his host and fed cheap smokes and bottles of wretched Agua Diente rum while a Mayan shaman squats at his feet and chants for hours, or whether those are more recent traits.

In any case, we paid our 10 Quetzales, each, to enter Maximón’s current dwelling. (Local families take turns opening up their living rooms to the god, and the worshippers he brings, for six months at a time). The shaman burned incense that wafted through the tiny, cramped space, dumped half the rum into the doll’s open mouth and took the rest himself. The owner of the house stood behind the Dios, periodically ash-ing Maximón’s cigarette by flicking the butt with one of the three fingers he still had left on his right hand. Meanwhile, the half-dozen Americans and perhaps 10 Frenchmen stood and stared in total bewilderment as the woman of the house moved over to a dark corner and turned on Christmas lights revealing a man-sized aquarium with another doll lying inside — Maximón’s father. Other than our guide, the shaman and the two hosts, there were no other Mayans in the room.

“That was interesting but … what the hell did we just see?” my father broke a long silence after we all left Maximón’s cave.

A moment later our guide, Nelton, caught up to us and, noticing the proud glow in his face, we all covered up our bewilderment with superficial smiles. “That’s the sacred heart of the Tz’utuhil culture,” he beamed. “Unfortunately, not many Mayans visit Maximón these days, or at least they wait until after dark when no one can see them.

“The local Catholic church has convinced the townspeople that Maximón is the devil, and that God will punish them if they don’t make their offerings between the pews. No one wants to be seen around town as a devil worshiper, so those who still visit Maximón do so in secret.

“But the numbers are way down. That’s why we have to rely on you gringos to pay entrance fees.”

Hoping for another revolution, but divided and conquered from the start

An effective road blockade would be a pack of barrel-chested warriors, standing across the highway five men deep, who shoot, bludgeon or bite to death anyone who tries to cross their line. But that’s not a spectacle the campesino peasant farmers were able to muster during the week they tried to stop President Oscar Berger from signing CAFTA with the United States.

The government had already infiltrated their ranks, long before these heady days of March. Long before US ambassador John Hamilton all but told Berger, “sign, or else,” the campesinos and activists were doomed. They were doomed by the catch phrase “Nunca Mas” (Never Again), which emerged from the bloody civil war and scared most of this population into complacency. They were doomed for trusting their own government and believing that the 1996 Peace Accords actually represented something concrete and sincere. (Sure there were Mayan Indians serving in government advisory councils. But who were President Berger’s paymasters when it came time for him to pen his signature? The workers, or the multinational mining companies?) Most of all, they were doomed by the allure of the American dream.

Every mixed-blood Guatemalan has a family member or friend living in the United States, and whether or not they like George W. Bush’s politics, they live for those glamorous stories of slam dunks, prom nights, Nascar rallies, clean streets and, most of all, paychecks worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

José the taxi driver has a good shot at becoming one of those Yankee-Guatemalans, as long as the border control doesn’t see him crawling through the mud between Tijuana and San Diego and send him back. Like most Guatemalans — like most Latin Americans — he would give his left hand for the chance to cross the Rio Grande, as long he thought there was somebody on the other side waiting to grab his right hand and pull him to shore.

Most purely indigenous Guatemalans, on the other hand, don’t have the educational and organizational skills necessary to succeed in the revolution they so desperately need. They are spread out all over the country, in villages where they don’t learn to read or write, and where the biggest lesson from the civil war is “we don’t want it to happen again.”

For instance, when I volunteered to accompany rural Mayan widows to the polls for the first time in the fall of 2003 — the national election that put Oscar Berger and his business-first politics in the driver’s seat — the biggest problem our group encountered was not “fear of repression for speaking out,” nor was it “in which box should I mark an X.” What made the dozen women nervous was leaving for the voting booths so early in the morning that they wouldn’t have time to make their corn tortillas and feed their chickens.

The language of our oppressors

The day before Waleed was to leave Guatemala and return to Michigan to enlighten his bosses about the state of “fair trade” coffee imports, our tourist bus encountered one of the aforementioned roadblocks, on the Pan-American Highway at the junction called “Los Encuentros.” This should have stopped us in our tracks, and had it been organized effectively, he would have had to remain in Guatemala another week, or until CAFTA was reconsidered.

But, seeing a sieve instead of a fortress, we threw on our backpacks and begin hiking down the highway toward Lake Atitlan. The road-blockers were divided into three parts. At the first encounter, enthusiastic young men, a mix of machete-wielding peasants and book-toting students, were gathered around one crackly radio, listening to the news for any sign that Berger would sit down at the negotiating table before kissing up to the Americans. They hardly noticed us as we walked peacefully by. The second group we met about ten miles down the road after paying for a lift in a pickup. These were mostly teenage boys with spray cans in their hands and looks of longing in their eyes. I uttered a few slogans of solidarity (“El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido” … “Together, the people, will never be defeated”) and paused to read a few of their expressions written on the pavement (“La Patria No Se Vende / Se Defiende” … “The Fatherland Isn’t To Be Sold / But To Be Defended”) before we passed.

Only the third group caused us to flinch. Guarding the burned-out corpse of the school bus that they had set ablaze two months previous to stop the transportation of a cylinder owned by the Canadian-American mining corporation called Montana, these campesinos were riled up and looking for action. They had no radio to give them false hope, and no spray cans to poeticize their cause. They knew this was a lost battle, and out streamed the frustration. One small Mayan farmer ran up to me yelling “Fuck You Gringos!” I put a calm hand on his shoulder and said, in Spanish, that I supported their cause, both as a tourist and as a writer.

Then his friend intervened and inadvertently set the tone for the day. “Here we speak Tz’utuhil, and not the languages of our oppressors,” he said firmly, in clear and concise Español. Everyone present seemed to pause, I think, at the unintentional irony of the statement. And nothing more was said.

Waleed and I walked down the hill toward the resort town of Panajachel, so he could get his luggage, and fly back to the United States the next day.

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