March 14, 2010

A Month in Xela

After having lived in Mexico for nearly three years, and still speaking bad Spanish, I decided it was time to do something about this sorry state of affairs. The problem, I realized, was that it was difficult for me to get an "immersion experience" in Mexico: I simply had too many bilingual friends here. I would have to go to a place where there was no escaping the Spanish language, twenty-four hours a day; a place like Guatemala.

I had been to Guatemala two years before, mainly following the tourist route: Antigua, Lago Atitlán, and the villages that surround the lake. Antigua was soaking in language schools, I remembered; but when I consulted the guidebooks on the subject, they all said the same thing: you won't learn Spanish in Antigua. The place is crawling with gringos; you'll just wind up socializing with them and speaking your native tongue. Quetzaltenango--or Xela, as it is popularly known--is where you want to go. Americans don't know about it; it's off the beaten track. So, encouraged by this "tip," I got on the Internet and enrolled in a language school in Xela for four weeks. I flew into Guatemala City two weeks later, and arrived in Xela the next day. (As it turned out, everybody else had apparently read the same guidebooks and had taken the same advice. There were more Americans in Xela than in all of Houston; or so it seemed.)

I don't know what I had expected of the physical environment--something like Antigua, perhaps--but Xela was not it. It soon became clear to me that Antigua was a "showcase" city, the exception rather than the rule. With a population of 200,000, Xela claims to be the second-largest city in Guatemala; yet its infrastructure is completely shot. The streets are riddled with cracks and potholes; sidewalks, when they exist, are typically broken. More often than not, you are walking on dirt or trekking through mud. Riding the buses is not to be undertaken on a full stomach, as they are old and decrepit, and jerk you up and down as though you were in a milkshake machine. The cause of all this is not hard to ascertain: Guatemala is, in effect, ruled by an oligarchy, and a large fraction of the national budget is earmarked for the military (which the country needs like a hole in the head). There is very little left over for roads, bridges, transportation, education, and public health. Truth be told, Guatemala is a lot like the United States, only a bit more strung out.

Of course, the United States has no excuse, whereas after thirty-six years of civil war (1960-96) Guatemala had the stuffing kicked out of it. Nearly half the population is illiterate, and half the country's children suffer from malnutrition. With heavy American support, the Guatemalan military undertook a scorched-earth campaign, complete with U.S.-trained torture and death squads, that destroyed any possibility of social justice. The result? After 626 massacres there were something like 150,000 dead, 100,000 desaparecidos, 1 million persons who had gone into hiding, and 1 million refugees (most of them fleeing to Mexico and the United States). More than 440 indígena pueblos were wiped out, 200,000 children were orphaned, and 40,000 women became widows. The urban population is understandably demoralized and cynical, living in a strange kind of spiritual vacuum. What Gertrude Stein once remarked about Oakland, California, applies to Xela a hundred times over: There is no "there" there.

The odd thing is that this huge void at the center has been filled by a purely consumer culture, one very much based on the U.S. model of the "good life." In fact, Xela comes across as a bad version of a bad American city--Sacramento, Dallas, Little Rock, Indianapolis, etc. "Culture" consists of cell phones and Internet cafés, which are always crowded; there doesn't seem to be much else. Whatever happened to the Maya?, I thought to myself. To an outsider, the whole thing made for a strange sight: elderly indígena women on broken-down buses clutching cell phones, and nine-year-old Mayan girls tottering around on high-heeled shoes. And as in the majority of U.S. cities, the people are basically unfriendly. The staff in stores consists mostly of adolescents, who won't make eye contact and can barely grunt out "para servirle." It is as though what the United States was not able to destroy by means of "hard power," it was now finishing off by means of "soft power"--electronic toys, blockbuster films, Coca-Cola, and neoliberal economics.*

These impressions were largely confirmed by conversations I had with people born and raised in the town. One woman, a social worker in her early forties, agreed with me about American electronic gadgetry being the focus of Xela culture. "It's quite amazing," she told me; "I work with families who go to bed hungry, who literally go without food, so that they can buy and maintain a cell phone. It enables them to say, 'yo soy alguien' (I am somebody), because in truth, they have no other identity or source of self-esteem. It's pretty pathetic, but that’s what Guatemala has come to." (I subsequently learned that Guatemala is No. 1 in Central America in cell phone consumption, and No. 3 in all of Latin America.)

"When did all this start?", I asked her, "and how?"

"I think in the sixties," she replied, "around the time that I was born. The greatest single influence was American television. Those images of the wealthy consumer life had a big impact on the Guatemalan population. Most of us still believe the images are real."

"But what did Guatemalan culture consist of before the CIA overthrew the Arbenz government in 1954, and before the invasion of American TV?", I continued.

She shrugged her shoulders. "I honestly don't know. What you see in Xela today–McDonald’s, Wendy's, shopping malls and all the rest–is all I've ever known. It's who we are now. I don't know who we were before that."

I confess, I found this really chilling. It reminded me of that town in One Hundred Years of Solitude that lost its identity because the inhabitants forgot the names of things.

The language instruction I received in Xela, in any case, was first-rate: one-on-one classes, four to five hours per day, until I felt my head was going to explode. That aspect of my time in Xela was very positive, and in fact I became good friends with the director of the school, who was also a professor of economics at the local university. All of this made the trip very worthwhile. But I couldn't--can't--shake the image of a city without purpose, without meaning, and of a country which, having been largely destroyed by U.S. politics, now seeks to emulate the American economy and American culture, both of which are dying. If the sources of vitality can no longer be found in traditional Mayan culture, then it's not clear where they can be found, or what the future holds for a nation that became a pawn in the Cold War through no fault of its own and was subsequently hung out to dry.

My four weeks in Xela having come to an end, I decided to clear my head by spending a couple of days in Antigua before returning to Mexico. Yes, I thought, it's a tourist trap and a showcase town, but two days of sitting in the central square drinking that exquisite Guatemalan coffee and reading newspapers may be good for the soul. Which proved to be the case. And then, during one of those days, I ran across something that caught me completely off guard: a gallery crammed with Guatemalan art, art that was absolutely dazzling. Oils, acrylics, ceramics, you name it--the colors were truly vibrant.

"Where is all this from?", I asked the curator. "Who did all this?"

"It's all Guatemalan," he told me, "artists from 25 to 80 years of age. From all over the country," he added. A few of them, it turned out, actually lived in Xela.

I stood there and gaped. After four weeks of living in a spiritless environment, I was now confronted by this marvelous concentration of spirit, of art as fine as I had seen in galleries in Mexico City or New York. "Your country wasn't able to destroy us completely," the paintings seemed to be saying. "Not with guns, and not with gadgets. There are still a few of us who know what life is about."

Of course, I wound up buying a small painting and hanging it on the wall of my study back home, along with some photos I took of the Guatemalan countryside. I look at it every day. And if I listen closely, I can still hear it whispering, from time to time, telling me about a life that refuses to be extinguished. It reminds me of a graffito I once saw on a wall in Chiapas, addressed to the ruling class: "Nuestros sueños no caben en sus urnas"–Our dreams do not fit into your ballot boxes. Would that that were true of all of Latin America.

©Morris Berman, 2010

*What I am describing here, however, may not apply to rural Mayan culture, and there is some literature pointing to native resistance to Americanization and consumerism. Anthropologist Robert Hinshaw, who lives in the Mayan village of Tzununá, says that his neighbors are proud of their traditional culture and not interested in having it altered in any significant way--although they all seem to own cell phones(!). Edward Fischer, who lived in Patzún and Tecpán for twenty-eight months during the 1990s, claims that globalization has galvanized a resurgence of Mayan identity politics. His work, however, has been questioned by other anthropologists. The jury, in short, is still out on this matter. See Jack Houston, "Robert Hinshaw," Revue (Guatemala City), Vol. 18 No. 6(August 2009), pp. 18-19 and 106; Edward F. Fischer, Cultural Logics and Global Economics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001); and the review of the latter by Charles R. Hale in the Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 59 No. 2 (Summer 2003), pp. 296-98.


Blogger ryan kloostra said...

Professor Berman,

Thank you for your post. It is always wonderful to find a little water in the desert.

My question is this: Is it our fault? Our government's fault? "The system?" it simplistic to assign "blame" in this situation? Is it inevitable in the empire cycle? Has the export of empty culture been seen in all/most empires?

Sorry that one question turned into many, that's the way it goes sometimes.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Dave here. I think McLuhan said "when the first tin can hits the beach, it's all over." I disagree with any anthro who thinks the Mayans can maintain what is left of their culture. It's one thing to save the artifacts of a culture and another to actually maintain the culture and its old ways. The irony, it seems to me, is the constant connection via cellular tech results in more isolation of individuals and more centralized control.

Here in this budding police state judges are allowing cellular triangulation (if they're even asked) without a warrant. Just part of normal police work. Use your cell phone and they can find you.

I hope everyone read Chris Hedges "Calling all Rebels," a week ago. I loved the Camus quotes.

My time in Guatemala, long before cell phones, was magical. The women walking at daylight to the mill with bowls of corn on their heads, the cooking smoke, the light and colors. I wanted to stay.

There was a lull in the killing and my Nicaraguan friend, escaping her connection to Somoza, insisted that Rios Mott was a good man because he was a christian. (??)

Your post was saddening, but that is the pattern all over the globe, is it not? I'm glad some art is being saved. Wade Davis writes that thousands of languages will disappear before we even know them, or how their speakers thought.

Lastly, Passover approaches and this old gentile always gets tears in his eyes when we say "if anyone is oppressed, we are all oppressed."

Be well.


3:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dave,

Well, Reagan was telling Americans that "Rios Montt got a bum rap" while our pres was supporting death squads there and across Central America. Every time that clown appeared on TV, I had the image of blood dripping off his teeth. And polls taken of "your favorite president" in the US consistently have him near the top. America!


5:09 PM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

i think i have at least part of my answer...


5:56 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Sorry the url got truncated. Try again?


6:15 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear friends,

Check out this on-line gallery and archive of paintings by Mayan artists from Guatemala:

These works depicting village life are exquisite. They probably appear "quaint" to a modern sensibility; to me they evoke the feeling of "home".

6:59 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thanks for this website. This is really great!


11:37 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Ryan-I think this shd do it; your last message was truncated again.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I remember my Dad telling me about the cultural heritage his parents brought with them to America. They emigrated as teenagers at the turn of the last century and settled in a community of newly arrived Poles, Greeks and Italians. Each had their own haphazard "community center" and when there was a celebration, the women of the parish would cook, anyone who could play an instrument would be part of the orchestra and weddings could go on for three days at a time. As the elderly died off, so did the traditions and --- in our great haste to participate in progress -- we don't, for the most part, even realize what we lost. My sister, brother and I occassioanlly get together and cook some of the dishes Dad taught us but our small amount of knowlegdge will die with us. I haven't been back to the Ohio Valley in almost forty years but even then it had no real personality or feeling of place. I hope the rural people of Guatemala can hang on to what they have left and the young see through the lure of materialism. It doesn't take long to destroy a community when there's no continuity from generation to generation.

6:20 PM  
Blogger heather said...

It is all over and at the age of thirty I'm beginning to think that there is nothing that can be done about. In my teens and twenties I always thought that if you can get enough people together to fight and rebel against cultural decline you could reverse it. Alas my youthful innocence has been squandered. There aren't enough people and never will be. Playing stupid, or just plain being stupid, is the easy way to go these days. Try telling other thirty somethings that you prefer spending your time reading, sewing, or something else creative. You get treated like a loon and are told that something is wring with you.
Reagan and Bush completely screwed us over in a big way, and yet they both got re - elected. Which was as absolute mystery to me, because they certainly didn't hit my g - spot. One was barely literate and the other one had the tendency to confuse his movies with reality. Yet they still made it. After viewing Glenn Beck on the the t.v. while at the gym yesterday, it really would surprise me at all if Palin got in 2012. The sound was off but I was able to read the closed captioning. The man has a show called "We the People", the amount of people in his audience was staggering, they clapped at every idiotic thing he said. What was really appalling, was the fact that they took his opinion for fact. I will agree with him on one thing, that is, people have the tendency to ignore facts and twist them into what they want, but yet that is exactly what he does and then some. He as well as his cohorts yell their opinions louder than anybody else and tell people just what they want to him and people fall for it.

Your post made me feel even more hopeless. People all over the world it seems just want a life of convenience, which to be honest does, at times feel nice. But with that convenience things get lost, like jobs, humanity, culture, anything of substance.

Community is the biggest thing that seems to get lost. When I was a little girl growing up in the eighties, I remember my mom actually talking to the cashiers in our grocery stores. She even knew their names, as they did hers. They were friendly and actually cared about what you got. They were like that to everybody. It hadn't actually occurred to me until any years later, all of those cashiers, bankers, mechanics had actually grown up in the 40's, 50's, and 60's at a time when friendliness came more naturally to people and a time when there wasn't a television in every home.

All of our neighbors knew each other. I now live far away from all of that and I'm not just talking about distance measured in miles either. The only thing I know a bout my neighbors is that their dog barks loudly at night and the neighbor swears to much. When we moved in there weren't any introductions. I don't think they care and I'm half afraid to find out.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, I wdn't suggest moving to Guatemala. But I *wd* suggest moving. You're young, there's a whole world out there. What awaits you as you age in America is pretty grim--don't kid yourself. Our values are wrong, and you'll feel worse then than you do now. Add to that endless meaningless wars, the absence of Soc Security, Medicare, or any social safety net, zombified neighbors--who needs it? Glenn Beck, who has ground chuck in his head, is the future; no doubt about it. Every day the OB-GYN wards of American hospitals turn out thousands of future chucksters. So get up every morning, look in the mirror, and say: "I deserve better than this, and I'm going to find it!"


1:06 AM  
Blogger Neb said...

Destruction of culture? Disabled infrastructure? Why don't you take a look at this,

and this:

Folks, globalism may not be done with them yet. They've got banned, barbaric, genetically modified corn. One type specifically modified for sterility.
That plus elsewhere I read the dumping of untested, unused H1N1 vaccines on the 3rd world.

I sense global blowback for these monstrous actions. I'm not sure one could be hyperbolic in what the possible outcomes of these actions are.

2:43 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Heather, Neb, Prof. Berman,

I'm interested in the nuts and bolts of a new monasticism more than how stupid Americans are or how good it is in Europe or elsewhere. America may lead the way in stupidity but collapse is global.

If I was thinking about moving again I would attempt to focus on energy, biology and community rather than state boundaries. There are small groups of smart people creating something worth considering both in America and elsewhere.

For example, in the Llanos of eastern Colombia there is a fascinating collective. There are a few communities in the U.S.A., leftovers from the hippie "back to the land" movement that have survived and are doing quite well.

There are international directories of rural intentional communities that are worth looking at. (cities are death traps)

We don't need a lot to survive and have a decent life but there are essential elements in that. We must have a sense of place and be rooted there, (this can take years) a more or less agrarian lifestyle that is sustainable with minimal inputs of energy, a cohesive, small community of intellectual and skilled friends around us, good art, music, and love.

In a future short of nuclear war, these things can survive as states decay. The downside (upside?)is your loss of some individuality, some comfort and lots of technology.

Hit the road and start looking!

12:08 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dave,

Yeah, a friend of mine keeps urging me to write a bk on the new monasticism etc., but I suspect such surveys of The Farm and other groups already exist. But I'm not convinced that the collapse is global. Sure, what happens on the NYSE affects the Nikkei and whatever they call it in Brazil, but in my experience, other countries really are diff from the US, and in the recent crash not all were affected to the same degree. Keep in mind that the rural agrarian life is not for everybody. And as for lots of tech: I'm convinced that had a lot to do with what put us in a ditch, to be honest. So it's a complicated picture. Regarding stupidity: you need to remember how entertaining it can be. As Gore Vidal said in an interview a few yrs ago, "Stupidity excites me." When I get letters from profs telling me how this newly graduated student told them "I'm so glad we defeated the Russians in WW2," I really do get a strange frisson of joy. In an inverse way, it seems like a kind of 'triumph' for the US, that it is able to produce millions upon millions of people who believe what they believe. Palin in '12, amigo! You'll be in yer cozy agrarian community, and I'll be at her rallies.


1:28 PM  
Blogger Andy Smith said...

Professor Berman,

As your good friend who is doing a "life-time sentence in Xela", I couldn't agree more with your thougts and comments. Kevin, however, felt differently.

We are both eagerly awaiting your return to our little "paradise".


2:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Hi Andy-

How nice to hear from you. Don' ferget, u can always write me at my email address.

Well, I'm sorry the essay may have tweaked Kevin's nose a bit; at least he knows it's nothing personal. And of course his experience of Xela is probably different from my own. I didn't send it to Julio because I don't yet have the Spanish translation, altho it's coming out in Spanish in Mexico City this month in the "SP Revista de Libros" (quite simply, "Un mes en Xela"). It will also appear in my essay collection, "Cuestion de valores," this spring or summer; at which pt I'll be sure to send Julio a copy (tell him this, eh?). (I'm currently trying to land a US publisher for the Eng. edn, but that's another story.)

As for coming back to Xela, I sure wd love to return for a couple of wks and see all of you guys (be sure to tell this to Julio as well), but I'm simply inundated with work. I'll spare u all the gory details rt now, but trust me, this 'retirement' of mine is something of a joke, work-wise. I'll soon be needing to take a clock into the toilet. Nevertheless, sooner or later I'll make it back, and we can pass some time in cafes and hit the hot springs outside of town. (Tell Julio etc.)

So regards to everybody--Kevin, Julio (again), Birgitte, Gladys, Byron, etc etc. I'm down, but not out.

abrazos, amigo-

4:01 PM  

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