Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Junkyard Flowers

     What kind of conditions must exist in order for a flower to flourish in a junkyard? Must the seed be planted deliberately and consciously, or will the wind deliver it to its home where it may soak the world up through its roots and blossom? Artist collective Taller Yonke’s Guadalupe Serrano Quinones and Luis Diego Amaya Taddei seem to know the answer. Named after the Mexican slang word for junkyard, this duo aims to use discarded materials and raw ideas and images to bring the experience along and across the border to the fore.  

For our final Critical Issues excursion, we had the privilege of returning to the U.S./Mexico border once more to speak with the artists of Taller Yonke about their use the Ambos Nogales border wall and urban landscapes as canvases to make statements about the nature of migration and the open wound that is the border. As we have learned over the past few months in the borderlands, countries like Mexico have been intentionally and systematically destroyed and disempowered by the United States, and the global systems of oppression that it expands into, both literally and figuratively. The city of Nogales, Mexico – a region of the country we’ve become considerably familiar with over the course of the program – almost feels particularly contaminated by our Northern ways with its dizzying proximity to our prisons of comfort, as revolutionary Simon Sedillo aptly described our beloved aula, or classroom. While we may have a grasp on the kinds of injustices that exist in the world and how they have been created and maintained over time, we too often forget the material consequences of these violences in the lives of people everyday. While we are all implicated in these violences, we must push ourselves to make sacrifices and choices that threaten the dominating systems that perpetuate them.

Our syllabus comes to life in Nogales as we are forced to negotiate and dissect our privilege and position in the transnational economy that we have grown so complacent with. Indeed, Nogales looks a lot like our greatest fears as comfortable and accustomed Norteños: working for 4 hours to be able to afford one gallon of milk, increasingly limited opportunities for advancement, and wanton abuse perpetrated within the community and even more intensely and obtrusively by forces emanating from outside the community. Before the construction and expansion of the U.S. – Mexico border there was a vibrant Ambos Nogales, in which bodies and culture flowed between the two countries like currency does today, cultivating a symbiotic and reciprocal relationship between the communities on other side of the imaginary divide. Though the imposition of a concrete and tangible border served to slow and nearly staunch the flow of cultural exchange and cast a bleak shadow over the Nogales area, there are reminders of a burgeoning and blossoming vitality where you’d least expect them to be.

Nestled in a courtyard on an isolated side street, propped against the iron fence on the border, and tucked away in sparsely trafficked underpasses, we are reminded of the life, beauty, and humanity of Nogales through the artwork of Taller Yonke. Their murals and sculptures are not only breathtakingly beautiful, they also pack a political punch and have received global recognition. Their choice to bring art to the commons, to reshape and mark their environment is one that breaks down the idea of who art is for, who is worthy of seeing it, and who should own it. And while some in the community have expressed that they would prefer more pleasant images, Lupe and Diego seek to create work that makes its viewers uncomfortable and pushes them to think about their surroundings in new ways. These artists humbly and bashfully present our group with their portfolios and a short documentary detailing their organizational history, but otherwise do not speak much to us – their message is already salient enough in their complex work, which features representations from indigenous, Mexican and U.S. culture and customs, as well as depicts humans as muscular entities without skin, “porque somos lo mismo debajo de la piel.”
All too often we forget and underestimate the resistance that comes in the shape of art. Our movements cannot be only populated with community organizers, folks calling shots on a megaphone, non-profit employees, social workers or other roles that are typically associated with activism. We need people who are willing to contribute to our cultural understandings. Cultural work is transformative. It allows us to flip and control our own narrative in a hostile political landscape. As prominent migrant rights artist and agitator Favianna Rodriguez describes “Culture is a space where we can introduce ideas, attach emotions to concrete change and win enthusiasm for our values. Art is where we can change the narrative, because it’s where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.” Her campaign “Migration is natural” which uses the symbol of the monarch butterfly and it’s journey across the U.S./Mexico and U.S./Canada border is a call to view movement as a part of survival and the people that do it as warriors. 
In order to have the resilience to keep working towards a more just future, we must develop our ability to dream and hope together. Let us ask, what does this border wall signify and indicate about our society? What barriers exist between individuals and communities that enable and secure physical borders? But let us also ask, how else can this and all geographical, political, social, cultural, environmental borders look and what steps can we take to get there? What would a world look like in which people could move freely to better their life circumstances? What would a world look like where people would not have to leave their homes? What would a world look like where we all had access to all of the goods, services, and opportunities that we need? 
These are the kinds of questions that Taller Yonke ask when they insert themselves in the narrative of the border which is continuously justified in the mainstream media and by government and state powers as a protection to our national security against terrorism and is used a tool to construct the legality and illegality of people. It is used to harbor fear of those who fit outside of the normative white upper-middle class America and to present them as a drain on the country, erasing and twisting their historical and current contributions and the U.S.’s role in creating conditions where people are forced to their homeland. The border serves to reinforce power. By pushing back against it’s physical, militarized form we also question the ideas that uphold it. Taller Yonke is more than just “junkyard” artwork; they inspire us to recognize our internal strength, beauty, and passion – indeed, become one with our inner flower – and root ourselves in the most desolate of junkyards. Surely someday a garden will flourish.

-- submitted by Megan Gisela Bautista & Ana Patricia Robelo

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spirituality, Collective Empowerment, and Everyday Resistance in Guatemala

I feel as though I’m in multiple places at once. On one hand, I very much feel back in Tucson—I’ve more-or-less readjusted to the daily routine of classes and internships, and am feeling the adrenaline/anxiety rush of finishing up the semester. On the other, I feel as though I am—or at least a part of me is—still in Mexico and Guatemala, although with each day comes a struggle to hold on to everything we learned and all the experiences we shared during our time there. It’s surprisingly easy to forget how connected these places are to one another. The dry, breezy air and bustling Fourth Avenue shadow the capital and corporeal flows between these gated territories. If I didn’t know that the border was only 45 minutes south, I’m not sure I would be able to tell. Being here after spending the month of March engaging with the communities and places we were privileged to have visited comes with the responsibility to continue to rethink and challenge the notion of borders as endemic to US imperialism abroad and racialization at home. It comes with the responsibility to do more than share the stories people shared with us with our communities here, to also make a constant effort to exude these lessons in our own daily praxis. But what does this actually look like? How can we struggle to hold on to experiences without simultaneously commoditizing them, as if they are count as some sort of cultural capital or surplus-value? How do we continue to treat the people we met with dignity and humility, when the privilege of a US passport serves as slip-and-slide upon which memories drift out of reach?
I think especially of our time in Guatemala, traversing from Guatemala City to Xela to La Florida to El Nuevo Amanecer, with myriad stops along the way. I think of DESGUA and Café RED and the excombatiente communities of Cajolá and Efraím Bámaca. I think of the way notions of collectivity—which I had only read about through theory in school—are practiced in these communities, and how such practices are understood as inextricable from their Mayan heritage, from cosmovisión. Here I want to focus especially on two events we partook in during our time in Guatemala: an eye-opening talk with Willy Barreno about a concept he called pos-capitalismo, and a traditional Mayan ceremony.
I feel that the practices of communal support and collective empowerment so characteristic of the communities we met in Guatemala were perhaps epitomized in the Mayan ceremony that we had the privilege of participating in during our time in La Florida. In thinking back on the ceremony, I hope to illustrate the way a sense of shared spirituality and inclusiveness interacts with DESGUA’s notion of pos-capitalismo to continue to struggle against the oligarchy’s oppressive policies towards rural populations by simply living, while also looking ahead to a shared, liberatory future.
When we first arrived at the ceremony I found myself thinking skeptically. We had just had our Nahuals read for us, an opportunity that barely anyone in the community has been able to have because of how much it costs. To boot, our sizeable group comprised the vast majority of ceremony participants. Within about fifteen minutes, however, the circle surrounding the fire (the centerpiece for the ritual) had grown to include what felt like close to 75 people, of all different ages. As Edgar, the ceremony leader, called on the crowd to take colored candles (each having its own significance) and eventually throw them into the fire along with various other paraphenelia such as seeds and rose water, I found myself feeling incredibly moved. Almost everyone had taken a black candle, representative of wishes for loved ones who had fallen ill.
As the ceremony progressed, we were called upon to throw our candles (representative of our Nahuals) into the fire. Some of us offered short prayers while we entered the circle to engage with the flames. Though my skepticism returned (why were we being made to be the center of a ceremony that we really know nothing about?), within minutes over half of the people in attendance had lined up to receive personal blessings from Edgar before he would toss a candle for them. As the fire waned, different members from the community took turns working the embers, grinding a staff around them in circle formation. Some members of our group participated as well. The amount of smoke emanating from the circle was intense, as Edgar vacillated between K’ich’e and Spanish incantations. Many asked for peace, for health, for forgiveness.
When the fire was down to its last embers Edgar walked slowly around the circle, flinging drops of rosewater at the bystanders in the wake of plumes of heavily-scented smoke. Just like that, the ceremony was over.
I still have many questions about the ceremony, and perhaps more so our own involvement in it as a group. Why were we able to have our Nahuals read so easily when almost no one in the community of La Floridad had been provided with this opportunity? What does it mean for me to have felt so affected and emotionally connected to this spiritual practice that I have no immediate relation to whatsoever? What did this event mean for the community of La Florida, and how did our presence as white US foreigners influence or undermine the beauty of the ceremony?
Though these are important questions to be asking regarding our own privileged positionalities as so-called activist-tourists involved in a (not so) subtle form of cultural appropriation, I think perhaps more importantly at this moment for me was having the tremendous opportunity to participate in something infinitely larger than myself, and to witness the ways in which spirituality and cultural heritage can work to bring communities together in times of sickness, poverty, and sometimes even despair. Though La Florida is a community whose history is rooted in struggle—occupying the coffee plantation they currently reside on in the early 2000s and having to deal with contentious negotiations from the government and threats from outside communities—the ceremony further showed that how resistance comes from an immense sense of communalism and love. It showed me that this kind of collectivity as a practice of living everyday life, in itself embodies a commitment to radical praxis and structural transformation.
Only a few nights before, Willy had talked to us extensively about a concept he called pos-capitalismo. Perhaps best represented by the traditional Mayan spiral symbol, pos-capitalismo is meant to posit a means of thinking past capitalism as the driving socioeconomic force in Guatemala. It signifies in many ways a return to a more traditional era while at the same time utilizing capitalistic resources, such as technology or various forms of cultural syncretism, to simultaneously head in this direction while engendering new forms of resistance, both materially and ideologically. Central to Guatemalan post-capitalist resistance, Willy argued, was a renewed sense of connectedness to Mayan cosmovisión.
Though La Florida could hardly be viewed as a technologically ‘advanced’ community, they also embody a fully post-capitalist praxis. For example, their occupation of the coffee plantation and subsequent ability to take control of the technology and trade markets available to them belies a significant—though in some ways minor and potentially even insufficient—engagement with new ways of subsisting that, despite participating in markets, are attempting to use the money garnered from their agricultural practices to invest in infrastructure for their land, and especially to work further to enhance the level of education they are able to offer.
It is still unclear to me to what extent the Mayan ceremony factors into La Florida’s sense of self. Given how expensive it is to contract any ceremony leader to conduct the ritual, I fear that to make a generalization about how La Florida recognizes its Mayan identity through the ceremony would be both factually incorrect and not fully encompassing of the various ways the community has come to resist.  I do, however, believe that the level of support for one another and collective participation evinced by the members of the community during the ceremony are representative of something much larger—a way of living that in and of itself is a form of resistance to capitalist hierarchy, however difficult and uphill that battle may be. And this is done in spiral format—maintaining tradition while also looking to develop in sustainable, non-colonizable ways. As I continue to reflect on our time in Guatemala and what it means for us to have been there, I must challenge myself to consistently think through moments such as this, in which the relationship between communal autonomy and sense of self is made clear. Perhaps in doing this I can begin to move past a contrived, capitalistic way of engaging with my surroundings, to see things for what they are.

-- submitted by Jacob Ertel

Monday, April 7, 2014

Migrants, Natives, Border Patrol, and Plants: Impossibly Complex Histories and Relationships

Image: O’odham symbol of the universal journey of life often referred to as the Path of Knowledge, the Path of Life, or the Man in the Maze.  Depicted at the top is I’itoi, the Creator.

 The interworkings of the minds of BSP this weekend (like most) probably look like a lot of overlapping and interplaying layers... or perhaps more appropriate is the spiral imagery that characterized so much of our travels during the last month or so.  An entire semester could easily be devoted to the issues we have been thinking about this weekend. Yesterday we visited the Tohono O’odham Nation and spoke with tribal member Bernard at the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum. We also visited one section of the U.S.–Mexico border that cuts through the reservation. Today, we visited the lovely home and garden of Laurie Melrood and Blake Gentry, where we learned from Laurie about desert plants and their many uses, and from Blake about the long, complicated, and contested history of the O’odham.

 During Bernard’s presentation, we learned that the term “O’odham people” is actually redundant – “O’odham” means “people” in the native language, and “Tohono” means desert, together forming “the desert people” or “people of the desert.” There are other groups of O’odham as well, including “river people” and “sand people.” He told us about how the Tohono O’odham, living in the desert, had historically been a semi-nomadic people, inhabiting a winter village in the mountains where there would be water, and a summer village in the lowlands, during the monsoon seasons that would help produce the harvest. He told us that pre 1800, this was the way of life, and that life was fairly harmonious.

 However, things began to change with the arrival of the Spanish and particularly in the mid-1800s with the Gadsen Purchase. Obelisks were placed along O’odham land to indicate the U.S.-Mexico border, and in 1917 the nation was established as is. With Spanish horses, the O’odham became a ranching society. As a result, a fence was placed along the border for the first time on O’odham land, which was understood by the Nation as a separation of livestock, to ease the friction between Mexican and O’odham ranchers, rather than a separation of people; there were always open gates for the passage of people.

 Then Bernard told us about how things were when he was a teenager, some 30 years ago. Immigrants started coming through Nation land in higher numbers, asking for food and water. They started bringing with them illegal substances. It became something of a business, with the emergence of paid coyote guides. The increase of migrants in this area is a direct result, as we’ve learned, of heightened border security, such as policies like Operation Gatekeeper, in highly crossed areas in Texas, New Mexico, and California. This is called a funnel effect: policies that do not deter migration, but rather funnel it into different areas, specifically those that are more dangerous, even lethal, and those that belong to indigenous peoples.

This had a great effect on the O’odham Nation. They began to contract customs agents to guard the border on the Nation; there were incidents of tribal members (Nation councilmen) killed by migrants smuggling drugs; trash and clutter began to accumulate on Nation land, left along the way by migrants. Following the events of 9/11, security became even tighter on the Nation.  Border Patrol agents were stationed on the land, and checkpoints were placed at every exit or entrance into Nation land. There is also evidence of violence between Border Patrol and O’odham. Bernard told us that this Monday, Border Patrol agents shot two tribal members.

However, there is not a clearly defined relationship between Border Patrol and O’odham, or between migrants and O’odham. While there is misunderstanding between Border Patrol and O’odham, and while the placement of the border interferes with traditional O’odham pilgrimages, many O’odham are glad to have the presence of Border Patrol on the reservation. For example, we learned from Bernard that recently, “on the other side of the fence,” 7 men were killed in a cartel confrontation. He told us, “the presence of Border Patrol is keeping that activity on the other side of the border,” keeping it from greatly affecting the Nation. Similarly, although O’odham, as indigenous and marginalized people, share a similar history with the migrants entering through their land, there is less empathy than one might expect (or, less than BSP might expect, coming from our specific experiences and learning his semester). For example, the Nation made an administrative decision not to allow humanitarian aid-like water stations on their land, because they did not want to aid illegal activity. There was also an emphasis during our visit of the presence of criminal migrants – those smuggling illegal substances. Due in part to the devastating levels of unemployment and poverty on the reservation, many youth are attracted to this potential (and dangerous) source of income – the business of migration. I’m afraid these relationships are so layered and nuanced that we could not grasp the full extent of them during our visit – and it would be impossible to fully convey them in a single blog post.

 We then made the short drive to the border, where we saw what is referred to as “the gate,” which is literally a gate in the border fence, staffed by Border Patrol 24/7. This gate is not an official port of entry, and only Tohono O’odham with specially made tribal I.D.s may pass through it. For years O’odham had disregarded the national boundary running through their land – it had no significance for them, and would prevent them from making the yearly pilgrimages that had always been a part of traditional O’odham life, for ceremonial purposes and to visit with family. Now, the border situation has been complicated to such an extent that, Bernard informed us, many O’odham elders have stopped making the pilgrimage each year, confused by the changing policies and requirements. The border has directly and significantly altered traditional O’odham life.

While at the border we had the opportunity to speak with the Border Patrol agent on duty at the gate. This was a much different experience than the one we had at the Tucson sector Border Patrol station. This agent had been working with Border Patrol for seven years, and was also involved with the Air Force, the Army, and the National Guard. He was also studying to become a Pastor. In contrast with what we hard at the station (“when I put on this uniform, I no longer have opinions or feelings”), the agent told us that he was always the same person, regardless of what role he may be performing or what uniform he may be wearing. He is the most compassionate Border Patrol agent we have met: “sometimes your heart kinda goes out” to the migrants, he said. I can only speak for myself, because I think others in the group were made uncomfortable by perceived contradictions between his more militaristic profession and his pastoral aspirations, but I felt it valuable to meet and speak with a Border Patrol agent who was willing to share with us a more compassionate and human side of himself. Of course, this makes it no less painful to see a militarized border placed within Native land and affecting Native life.

Today, we learned about a kingdom that pays no heed to such nation-state borders: the kingdom Plantae. We ate mesquite pancakes with eggs scrambled with cholla and nopalito and drank tea out of eco-product cups in Laurie’s beautiful garden while she shared with us her knowledge of medicinal desert plants. We learned that all desert plants are anti-diabetic, cholla fruit tastes like Kiwi, desert tobacco is toxic, rocks help water disperse to nourish plants, desert broom is good for stomach ailments and headaches, and 50-75 years is the time it takes for saguaros to begin growing a branch. Even beyond medicinal uses, we can learn a lot from plants – plants remind us that the world is greater than us, and greater than borders. The way Laurie phrased it, “we make mistakes, but plants don’t, at least not in the same ways.” Her personal philosophy in gardening is that “there are no weeds.” If only we all had the same philosophy about people.

After our breakfast and our garden tour, Blake spoke with us about O’odham history to fill in the gaps from yesterday. To attempt such a lecture is quite a challenge, because of the vastness, contention, and complicated nature of the traditionally oral native history.  Blake gave us a lot of information, and was barely able to scratch the surface. He told us about irrigation and different modalities of survival in the desert, and the risks associated with dependence on agriculture in such an environment. He told us about the treatment of land titles following the Treaty of Guadalupe, and the resulting loss of indigenous land.  He told us about the O’odham knowledge of baks (or waks), referring to what are called seeps in english: rivers that flow below the ground, often crucial for survival in desert terrain. He told us about the horrors of Nuñoz del Beltran, a Spanish conquistador. He told us that less than twenty percent of their aboriginal land has been left for the O’odham. And he explained to us the significance of the cultural evolution of Tohono O’odham as desert people – and that because of it, the culture imposed on them in today’s world makes no sense to the Nation, who do not accept it intellectually or politically. This final point made me think about other indigenous populations we learned from in Guatemala and Chiapas. For instance, it echoes the sentiments of el sueño guatemalteco and the Zapatistas that there is no place for them in today’s capitalist world.

I was also reminded of the dream for un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos (a world in which many worlds fit) during the last two days. In a human rights class that I took a couple semesters ago at Oberlin, one relativist dilemma that we discussed was that cultural interpretations of the meaning of “human” might vary. I thought about this when we learned that O’odham means “people,” and that the term that the Cherokee tribe refers to themselves as means “people” as well, or even “the real people.” We learned about similar terms in my class at Oberlin, and I remember finding it strange that certain cultures might so explicitly consider themselves to be more “people” or “human” than others (although it is clear that dehumanization is rampant in our own capitalist world). Now, equipped with the knowledge of otros mundos and a (limited) history of the O’odham, perhaps I can understand this as meaning different humans rather than more or less human, and I can more easily see that, for some, human rights refer not to a universal declaration of standards to uphold, but rather el derecho de ser como somos, or the right to be as we are, and to live autonomously, with sovereignty and dignity.

-- submitted by Nuria Alishio-Caballero

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Travel Seminar: Guatemala

Arriving in Guatemala City a day late due to airline troubles, we quickly met Santiago Boc Tay, Cesar Domingo, and Willy Barreno the founders of DESGUA (Sustainable Development for Guatemala) and owners of Café R.E.D (restaurante, escuela, despensa “Restaurant, school, and fair trade store.” Also RED in Spanish means network, they described their organization acting as a spider web spreading out to make connections and to strengthen other people and places in Guatemala) two organizations joined at the hip and committed to improving the lives of returned migrants and Mayan peoples of Guatemala. After briefly meeting them, they drove us four hours to Quetzaltenango (Xela), the second largest city in Guatemala, home to a quarter of a million people. Café R.E.D, located just blocks from the central plaza, was our home for the first five days of our trip, but set the tone for the rest of our time in Guatemala. The best way to unpack the experience is to share DESGUA’s mission statement because all of our days were spent meeting people and organizations that embodied it.


DESGUA: Is a grassroots organization and network of community groups in Guatemala and the United States working to create economic and educational development with, and for, returned immigrants and Mayan communities in Guatemala. DESGUA sees the promotion of cultural identity and historical memory as integral to a sustainable development process.
Through lectures and ‘field trips’ we were exposed to positive growth of local Guatemalan economics, educational opportunities, indigenous culture, difficult history, and sustainability that has been around for centuries.
From the very first day, the pursuit and the creation of the ‘Guatemalan dream’ (‘To live with dignity and to live well’) was large piece of our studies. For instance, our first morning in Xela was spent meeting with several Guatemalans who immigrated to the United States seeking opportunity.
The individual immigrant stories in the United States were different; for instance, Giovanni crossed the Californian border when he was a child. He studied music in school, but suffered from a racist school environment. While living in Denver in his 20s, he was deported. Claudia, who immigrated to the United States when she was young, took on parenting responsibilities for her little brother and sister when she was young because her mom died from cancer. While working at a beauty salon, her boss under paid her and attempted to get her deported. She found that the ‘American dream’ was not attainable for her or other undocumented immigrants. There are many reasons why people immigrate to the United States: poverty, debt, exploitation, a lack of dignity, and many more.

Café R.E.D

DESGUA wants to find ways to change this, but right now, neoliberal economics are making immigration one of the only options for Guatemalans. Immigration can show, among many things, that people are desperate and seeking options. A major economic force that contributes to immigration are megaprojects (foreign-owned mass scale factory farms, oil drilling, and mining). Professor Luis Recancoj at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala met with our group and dissected the history and effects of the Guatemalan oligarchy and foreign-owned industries that have destroyed indigenous land, contaminated the environment, and have kept Guatemala’s rich resources in the hands of the wealthy. The projects got their start from a variety of places. A big culprit of Guatemalan resource exploitation and elimination of rural Mayan and indigenous lands started with the Kissinger Report in 1960s (using military and political powers to make foreign countries favorable for United States corporations), followed by a list of free trade agreements from Canada and the United States that tapped into Guatemala’s oil wells, gold, silver, and bananas. The trade agreements, and consequently the redistribution of land led to, and prolonged, the 36 year-long Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996) where indigenous and Mayan farmers fought to keep their land from the CIA and School of the Americas-supported Guatemalan military (

The civil war’s history and its effects were illustrated in the small village of Nuevo Amanecer, a community of expatriates near the border of Mexico and Guatemala. We spent two days in the humid, and mosquito-saturated village that was established in the late 90s. Many of the young adult leaders were born in Mexico, but chose to return to start farms and to build a community of multigenerational families. Within the community, Spanish is the primary language, but there are some Mam speakers, an indigenous Mayan language. Like many indigenous communities in Guatemala, farming means survival and autonomy. Despite the end of the civil war, small farmers all across Guatemala are still suffering today. While in the village, we watched with community members, a short documentary about large factory farm agriculture.

We learned that foreign agricultural companies like Dole Fruits exhaust the flat Guatemalan lands, pump gallons of chemicals and pesticides into the land and subsequently into the rivers killing fish and vegetation and flooding nearby small farms with murky chemical ridden waters; they introduce invasive crops like African Palm, which demand excessive water (leaving little for the small farmers), cut through indigenous lands with highways, and redirect rivers to serve the corporation’s needs. The indigenous farmers cannot compete when floodwaters destroy their crops. Many have no choice but to buy pesticides and GMO seeds to compete, and in doing so, go into debt. For those who work for the Dole banana plantations, they earn pitiful wages and are constantly exposed to dangerous chemicals. Living in such a predicament, there is no wonder why people immigrate to feed and to house their families. For many Guatemalans, there are not many options.

Ceiba is also the national tree of Guatemala.

When we visited Nuevo Amanecer, the effects of remittances were obvious. The village was built on a long dead-end street, were the houses, the two schools, the church, and the community space lined the road. From the cobblestone street, several houses were brightly lit. They had flat screen television sets, computers, freshly painted walls, and new furniture, all of which were visible from the open windows and doors allowing the cooler, still humid, night air to flow through. This seemed to be a more fortunate village than other Guatemalan communities; they produced honey (although right now their honey production was down because their bees were struggling to produce substantial amounts. For what reason, it was unclear. It could be related to the global honeybee decline (See article following the post for more information on the honeybee struggle in the United States). The village also hosts dozens of plants and herbs used for medicines. Immigrants from Nuevo Amanecer and other Guatemalan villages have established an immigrant community in Morristown, New Jersey (See article following the blog post for more information).

Honeybees in Nuevo Amanecer

Nuevo Amanecer gained their land with the support of a local priest that helped them buy the village property and several outpost worksites; in fact, we were lucky and got to visit a coffee worksite. The community is not obviously in debt, which is a rare and fortunate circumstance among small farming communities in Guatemala.
Developing and supporting small projects, like beekeeping, seems to be a way to achieve financial security, to improve village resources, but also to trade with other villages. For example, the village of Cajolá, located near Xela, is home to a large Mayan indigenous population. Mayan Mam weavers, is a group of local women that built several looms to practice traditional Mayan cloth weaving that they sell at Café R.E.D, in Xela, and other nearby towns. Sharing the four story concrete building with the Mayan Mam looms was a ‘clandestine’ pre-school that taught not only Spanish but also Mam to the children. The bilingual school seeks to maintain Mayan culture through teaching their indigenous language. Unfortunately, after preschool, few if any schools continue to teach the language. Aside from the weavers, Cajolá had eggs collected from several large chicken coops, and a woodshopthat made furniture for the village. These small projects strengthened the communities, provided jobs, and especially in terms of the Mayan weaving, protected and passed on weaving traditions.

Another village we visited was unlike the others. La Florida, a small 50 family indigenous village deep in the green mountainous jungles of northern Guatemala was almost completely autonomous, achieved through decades of struggle. Prior to owning the land collectively, there was a plantation owner whose old house, “La casa grande,” provided our overnight shelter. The master was abusive, exploited the village, paid women only half of a man’s salary for the same work, and raped the women. In the mid-80s, the community unionized, wrote a constitution, and resisted the landowner. The civil war occurring at the same time could have motivated la Florida’s resistance. After some time the landowner abandoned the village, and the people of La Florida successfully became autonomous in the early 2000s, from my understanding.

La Florida – Coffee making…

Spending only a night in La Florida, we were unable to see the full extent of their lives, but what we did see was unbelievable. Within a stones throw of each wood plank and tin-roofed house, there were almost 35 different edible plants. The villagers do not use pesticides or chemicals. They still grow food like their ancestors did centuries before, and carry their harvest on their backs. They go out into ‘food jungles,’ not monoculture fields, to harvest their crops. Fruits, roots, and vegetables from their surroundings make up almost 90 percent of their diet. For many crops, there are multiple growing seasons because of the lush, nutrient rich soil and frequent rains.
To get to the village, there is one rocky cliff-hugging road that weaves its way up and through the tropical mountains. The closest town is nearly two hours away, but most La Florida inhabitants do not own cars. Asking them if they sold their wide variety of crops in the market, my lunch and dinner host family were a bit confused. Almost all their crops were for their community, not for quetzales (Guatemalan currency). In 2010, they began growing and processing organic coffee beans (Right now in Guatemala it is easier and cheaper for Guatemalans to buy instant coffee than organic Guatemalan coffee. Capitalism is to blame). Each a week a truck comes to the village selling sugar, wheat, and other staples. From my understanding, the same truck carries the La Florida’s coffee beans back into the nearby city where it is shipped elsewhere and sold at a fair price. The proceeds from the coffee went towards improving village infrastructure, the school, and to buy staples.

La Florida had problems though. Many of the older community members could neither read nor write, and only spoke Mayan. Over time the literacy rate has improved, but those challenges make it difficult to educate and to organize La Florida collectively. Moreover, when we visited, La Florida’s coffee production was struggling due to a rust plague (See Notes following the post). And finally, there were a few community members who immigrated to the United States, but it seemed like an uncommon practice. La Florida highlighted, DESGUA supported economics that lessen the need for immigration, and promote sustainable farming practices that have existed for generations.
Aside from building better economic systems for Guatemalans, efforts to maintain, and support cultural identity, and the sharing of historical memory with younger generations was epitomized in the 22 family village of Efraín Bamaca, located just outside Xela. Many community members were ex-combatants who fought for the URNG (Currently a political party, but initially started in 1982 as the party of the indigenous guerrillas resisting the Guatemalan government while fighting for land rights and autonomy during the long civil war). Although the fighting is over, the village leaders teach the youth about the war and what it meant. To commemorate the war, the community painted a mural as reminder. They also included images of their Mayan heritage, the coming of the conquistadors, the Ten Years of Spring (1944-1954, when the indigenous and small farmers benefited from pro-small farmer democratic period with land reform, transparent politics, and free speech), community heroes, and images of building community connections and working for a better future. These images unified and celebrated their cultural identity. Efraín Bamaca does not ignore or distort the past to serve. They keep all of the bad parts because historical ignorance could lead to the community’s destruction. If the youth are not connected to their past and are not given a chance to participate in meetings and community development, the leaders fear that the youth will leave when they come of age. The community painted a children’s mural to connect the youth to the community’s history. As the leaders said, “The youth are studying to build a new society.” Unfortunately right now, the community depends on pesticides and GMO seeds, but have no other choice if they want to feed their families and to support themselves in a monetary economy. Seemingly the environment dictates a lot on how Guatemalans participate in the capitalist economy. La Florida is deep in the jungles and is not reliant on food production to pay bills, to feed themselves, and to retain control of their land.

After entering all these unique spaces, it is difficult to conceptualize how they interacted to create a bigger picture of Guatemala. Generally speaking, one could treat each place as its own microcosm, acting and reacting to its own set of conditions. As a student of history, to design artificial ties between each place and to assign practical roles to each, misrepresents and neglects too much. Historians cannot be objective. DESGUA and Café R.E.D. exposed us to these places and people while showing us alternative economies, and to: the Guatemalan dream (of living sustainably and outside of the exploitive capitalist economy), to the dichotomy of the ‘good life’ versus ‘living well’, and of looking at time from the Mayan cyclical concept of time as opposed to a linear time progression (The Mayan civilization observed various natural cycles tied to death and birth, the astrological, agriculture, and nature); we were exposed to examples of viewing life in terms of “we” as opposed to “I,” and of seeking a harmonious balance between nature and technology.

 Some awesome compost made from discarded coffee bean shells and other great stuff.

One of the major topics of group discussion throughout Guatemala was planning how we would share stories and experiences with friends and family back home. How might we educate others and instigate change without systematically signing up everyone to next year’s fall and spring Border Studies Program sessions? We would need a couple of more vans? Clearly something needs to happen to insure our time studying the roots and reasons for immigration is not wasted.

Therefore, the way in which I am going to share my experiences and the stories that I have heard is through discussing the circumstances and the overarching systems that seem to encapsulate these stories. Considering my approach, a few trends have consistently appeared. Most of all the Guatemalan farmers, indigenous peoples, and returned immigrants we spoke to, wanted to own the land they worked on, to live autonomously and sustainably, to have dignity, to have rights, to be healthy, to have access to a better future, to maintain culture and customs, and to feel secure. However, in every village and group of Guatemalans we met with, desperation-driven immigration to the United States existed.
For desperate Guatemalans, immigration seems to be the only way to make their home in Guatemala a permanent and secure place via remittance money. It seems counterintuitive to leave home in order to ‘get home.’ However, for those who are driven into debt buying pesticides, GMO seeds, and farm equipment to support their families in a capitalist economy, and for those who are directly affected by foreign-owned megaprojects that chemically contaminate the soil and water, and deplete their local natural resources, immigration is a ‘release valve.’

A common sight in many rural areas (Picture taken in Chiapas).

There are two things that I believe summarizes our experience in Guatemala, first the ‘Guatemalan dream,’ and second, the concept of cyclical time versus linear time. The ‘Guatemalan dream’ has a cousin named the ‘American dream’ where the objective is to work hard towards an idealized image of success. Success in the ‘American dream’ seems to be a high-paying, white-collar job, a McMansion in the suburbs, several cars, and yearly visits to Disneyland. Moreover, the ‘American dream’ belief is that anyone can attain this regardless of race or socioeconomic status, akin to Horatio Alger, Jr.’s (1832-1899) literary classics of “rags to riches.”

The ‘American dream,’ in this form, relies on a consumer culture to survive. To maintain cheap goods, corporations take over countries’ resources, like Guatemala, to keep banana prices Walmart-low, to extract gasoline to power our cars, and to mine minerals to manufacture toaster ovens and wall-tile. Taking control, keeps the ‘good life’ dream alive for United States citizens who care to believe it.

 Different farming techniques and coffee plant preparation.

The ‘Guatemalan dream’ is all about ‘living well’ as opposed to achieving some ordained ideal life. To the Guatemalans we met and to DESGUA, living well meant autonomy, land ownership, security, pride, finding solutions in Guatemala, and dignity, all without needing foreign aid. The dream goes further than oneself; it connects others and works to uplifts everyone sustainably. The people we met in Nuevo Amanecer, La Florida, Efraín Bamaca, and Cajolá all wanted this kind of life.

Looking at time from a cyclical perspective, as opposed to a linear timeline, supports the ‘Guatemalan dream’ because there is no destination or ‘good life’ Promised Land. Furthermore, the time perspective can be viewed in terms of growth versus progress. First off,growth and progress are not the same. Progress in United States tends to mean westernization, modernization, and achieving monetary goals. Growth can be interpreted as meaning the same things.

Examining the terms through a cyclical time lens, the meanings change. As time passes, growth is simply the harmonization of new experiences and knowledge with tradition and customs. In cyclical time, things change and people evolve, but nothing ever dies. To clarify, labeling something as either old or new, and then saying one is better than the other, is a linear perspective. Cyclically, things are timeless.

The term Progress is almost obsolete in cyclical time. As defined in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “Progress” means “the process of improving or developing something over a period of time.” Developing or improving towards something suggests that whatever one had in past is inferior to the present. In cyclical time, it is all about adding to the collective human knowledge, with respect to the past.

One student in our group asked how technology related to the ‘Guatemalan dream,’ if technology is all about making things better, faster, and smarter than in the past. Willy, a member of DESGUA and the head Chef at Café R.E.D., explained that cyclical time and the ‘Guatemalan dream’ incorporates computers, phones, and other technologies not to take the place of anything, but to help their mission and to preserve the past.

The ‘Guatemalan dream’ is not available to all Guatemalans yet, as many still choose to immigrate. Instant coffee is still cheaper and more accessible than organic Guatemalan grown coffee in Guatemalan cities. Efraín Bamaca and countless other villages still rely on pesticides to grow their crops and to feed their families, and yet the capitalist linear perspective appears to be breaking as indigenous villages like La Florida and Cajolá find ways to live outside of the capitalist economy and to preserve their cultural identities.

So how do we help? I certainly do not have the answer, but I do have a couple of suggestions. To start, reconsider your life goals, and ask yourself if they harmonize the past with the present? Second, support local farmers, reject pesticides, GMOs, farm labor exploitation, and use less gasoline. I think change starts with what one eats and how one treats.

Taken while crossing the bridge from Guate to México.

Additional Information and useful links:
“Progress.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (accessed March 30th, 2014).

-- submitted by Kory Andersen