A Month in Xela
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.