Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Countries

by Michael K. Smith

If happiness were measured by material consumption, people in the U.S. would be far more content than people in Guatemala, where the daily struggle to survive ranges from difficult to grim. But enjoyment is notoriously elusive and there is no evidence that higher superfluous consumption yields greater satisfaction, quite the contrary. The hectic pace consumerism requires makes the pursuit of happiness look like a dog chasing its own tail. As a Guatemalan weaver in Todos Santos Cuchumatan told the late author Victor Perera a generation ago:

"Here we have the violence, but most of the time we are tranquilo. Santa (the weaver's sister, then living in the U.S.) writes that she is surrounded by commotion all the time, and time slips through her fingers. There are dollars there, and many conveniences, but everything is expensive, and the people are not calm; they are running all the time, and never have time to sit and watch the sun set behind the mountains." (Perera, p. 142) Touche.

And then there is the perverse cruelty of the maldistribution of wealth in the U.S.. A different Mayan immigrant told Mr. Perera that for this reason the U.S. was far from realizing a superior way of life: "After visiting New York, I realize our Mayan communities have more culture than I thought. In spite of the city's great wealth and high technology, I found poor and broken people everywhere, most of whom did not appear to have a home. North American evangelicals come to tell us what to believe in, but their own people do not know what to believe in. Their anthropologists come to study our customs, but don't seem to pay any attention to the homeless people in their own cities. North Americans should work to save their own culture before they come down to Guatemala to save ours." (Perera, pp. 150-1)

Good advice. But evangelizers are notoriously deaf to good advice. And if the truth be known the Church of Consumerism is just as impervious to reason as any form of Protestant faith, with cars and consumer electronics having long since run off with the popular imagination. Indeed, if you really want to know how powerful a force American consumerism is, consider the comments of a young Tz'utujil guerrilla during Guatemala's war years. While U.S.-trained death squads were wiping out entire villages, Mayan recruits watched Rambo, the helicopter serial "Air Wolf," and other high-tech Hollywood war films. "We know they are counterrevolutionary propaganda," the man said, "but they're exciting." (Perera, p. 192)

Fortunately, some aspects of consumer culture - like disposable relationships - have not caught on in Guatemala. Institutional care for the elderly, for example, is very rare, and grandparents remain treasured family members as long as they live. Old age is not treated as a disease, nor regarded as something to be dreaded. It is a time, like all other times, to enjoy being surrounded by loved ones, caring and being cared for in return. The inescapable realities of illness, aging, and death do not become the morbid preoccupation of solitary individuals, but are confronted by the family as a whole. No one faces crisis alone.

The Guatemalan family, in fact, remains stubbornly resistant to the kind of division and break-down increasingly evident under rampant consumerism in the U.S. The goal of life is not to become "independent" of one's parents as soon as possible, but to mature properly under their loving guidance - and not only theirs. An army of aunts, uncles, and grandparents are far more than just a photograph in a dusty album; they are full participants in family life, actively loving, cherishing, and counseling the children at all stages of development. Whereas American teenagers are typically ashamed to be seen in public with their parents, Guatemalan young people regularly go off to parties with them. When they begin to have children themselves, this is not so much starting "their own" family as it is continuing the family from which they come and to which they always return.

This is not to say that Guatemalan family life is ideal. There's no utopia, and one can find any number of instances where parents mistreat their children and vice versa. Poverty takes a horrendous toll, and it would be naive to expect that love alone could overcome its relentless cruelty. Many children are put out to work before they have had any chance to acquire an education, and the country is plagued by young delinquents who fill the emotional void they experience at home by joining gangs. However, in many cases this is due to the fact that parents have had to abandon their children to go work and send back money from the United States.

This transmigration of workers is born of profound economic need. Poverty is endemic in Guatemala, where almost half the babies suffer from malnutrition, illiteracy is over thirty percent, and 40% live in extreme poverty. Only a tiny minority of Guatemalans make it to high school, while the percentage of college graduates is microscopic. Gang related violence is pervasive, unemployment is high and rising, and indigenous peoples - about sixty percent of the population - continue to be marginalized. Appalling levels of violent crime are fuelled by poverty, easy access to weapons, the legacy of colonial and imperial violence, and the absence of law enforcement and judicial integrity.

Nevertheless, economic need, no matter how dire, has not displaced central elements of indigenous Guatemalan culture. Even in spaces expressly reserved for economic exchange, for example, consumerism has nowhere near the hold it has on the U.S. It is true that supermarkets are increasingly popular, but Guatemalans still travel long distances to attend open-air marketplaces, where socializing is as much a part of the scene as buying and selling. In fact, for the many who still make the trip on foot, haggling over prices and selling handcrafts or crops are merely happy excuses for the social exchanges that lie at the heart of a communal way of life. Gossip is traded as readily as money, and typically with great theatricality and accompanied by regular outbursts of laughter.

This readiness to incorporate enjoyment into the productive day, as well as to dance and celebrate whenever an occasion to do so presents itself, is characteristic of Guatemalans. No doubt the roots of this predisposition go deep, but one can't help wondering if the terrible social violence that has long plagued the country, and plagues it still, doesn't instill in everyone a desire to express the joy of being alive whenever there is a chance to. For every Guatemalan knows, without having to say so, that life is tragically ephemeral and the next disaster is right around the corner. The unspoken logic seems to be that, since none of us can count on being here tomorrow, let the good times roll tonight!

It would be difficult to find a country of more stark contrasts than Guatemala. The abundance of love, affection, and tenderness expressed around hearth and home clash sharply with the savage violence in the world outside. While Guatemalans are sweet, modest, and kind, Guatemala is one of the most violent places in the world, with approximately 500 murders a month in a country the size of Ohio. Perhaps nowhere is there more emotional security and less physical security than in Guatemala.

According to human rights attorney Sergio Morales, 2008 was the most violent year in Guatemalan history, quite a claim in a country where 36-years of state terror killed 120,000 people (mostly civilians) between the early 1960s and the declaration of official peace in 1996, with another 46,000 disappeared and unaccounted for. The transitive verb, "to disappear," was born of this holocaust.

The war being officially over, the current level of lethal violence is now called "crime." The national newspaper "Prensa Libre" reported soberly at year's end that there were 5,834 murders between January 1 and the first days of December. Roberto Canton of the Chamber of Commerce declared that 20% of stores are assaulted daily. But nobody really knows how many robberies there are because victims often don't bother reporting them. The same goes for kidnappings. Many families prefer to pay ransom rather than risk the lives of the rest of the family by involving the police.

Clearly, the vast underlying conflicts of the war years remain unresolved, and often cannot even be faced. The killers have never been put on trial and the country's current democratic facade is rooted in a compulsory national amnesia about the perpetrators of a mass murder the Catholic Church called "genocide" in 1982. The past is "history," and history is by definition what no longer matters. As a young man in Santa Cruz de Quiche commented to Canadian author W. George Lovell some years ago: "It's strange. We know who killed my father. They are our neighbors. One lives right over there and two others just up here. When we meet them out walking, we still say hello. We talk with them, but not about my father. He's never mentioned. We talk about other things: animals, the price of food, how the corn is doing. They know we know. But we don't do anything. I don't know why." (Lovell, p. 42)

On the other hand, if the current world-wide economic crisis produces a 1929-style collapse, Guatemalans may prove themselves better able to ride out the disaster than middle class (North) Americans. Whereas most Americans have long forgotten self-reliance, Guatemalans retain important practical skills indispensable to survival: sewing, carpentry, working the land, cooking from scratch. For those with a practiced eye the vulnerability of the de-skilled American people to destruction at the hands of increasingly irrational leaders was apparent quite some time ago. At a seminar in Oregon in the 1980s, Mayan immigrant Calixta Canek warned former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Frederick Chapin that the U.S. was not immune to the catastrophe it was sowing in her native land: "I see the same forces building here that are destroying my country. Your great wealth and your culture will not protect you from the disintegration of this society, which is hastened by the greed and blindness of the people who lead you. The harm your State Department and your Pentagon and your presidents have done to our small, unprotected communities will also be done to you." (Perera, p. 322)

This is difficult to dismiss now that U.S. leaders have bankrupted the country, trashed major portions of the Constitution, and signed on to make permanent war against Israel's endless enemies.


Victor Perera, Unfinished Conquest - The Guatemalan Tragedy, (University of California, 1993) (This book is available online)

Trish O'Kane, Guatemala - A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture, (Interlink Books, 1999)

W. George Lovell, A Beauty That Hurts, (Between the Lines, 1995)

Lisa Vaughn, Guatemala, (Kuperard, 2007)

Leonardo Cereser, "Sin estrategia contra inseguridad," Prensa Libre, 27 de diciembre de 2008

-----Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George" (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), "Portraits of Empire," and "Rise to Empire" (forthcoming) from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted at

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