Reflections

29 09 2009

I held off on making another post for a while, until I might feel like I had something to say.  Now there’s too much to fit into one, I’m afraid.  Should I go with the “action” or narrative part, or the reflections?  I’m going to try to write my reflections right now, and see if I can get to the other part a little later on.

I should explain that last Friday and Saturday we went into Guatemala City.  So I saw a little more variety than I had lately.  It was the first time I had gone somewhere other than on my own two feet in the three weeks since that baptismal service.  I am pretty sure that’s a record in my life, but I hadn’t yet become anxious to shorten it.  But I’m trying to leave that gripe for another time …

I believe this weekend marked eight weeks in my life spent in Latin America.  I am aware that eight weeks seems a ridiculously short time to some who have had more opportunities to travel than I have, but on the other hand, when I come home I will have spent 25% of this year out of the country!  In Bolivia, I was able to brush the surface of the Inca culture; in Guatemala I am working on the Mayan; todavía me hace falta (I’m still lacking) the Aztec culture in Mexico.  As we were riding into town early Friday morning, I finally felt like I had united the many impressions I’ve received throughout this time.  I feel a little presumptuous in making such a pronouncement … but anyway, I need something to write before I lose all my readers.

The United States has proclaimed itself a melting pot, and now a tossed salad, for years.  Perhaps that is true.  I haven’t traveled much (warning: serious understatement) within the USA itself, but it seems to leave a pretty unified impression on me.  Yeah, people have a little different accent.  But I couldn’t always tell much difference between friends from California or from North Carolina; from Colorado or Virginia.  Immigrants?  They either assimilate into the mainstream, or they aren’t “included.”  Yes, we like Chinese food.  A Reader’s Digest article tells us we have made it pretty unrecognizable as Chinese, though.  And really … that’s something cultural?  I’m not commenting on this as good or bad, mind you.  Just trying to make some comparisons.  You, the reader, are welcome to state your opinions, in agreement or otherwise!

I love the way you get it all at once here ... city street, little boy fooling around on bicycle, flowers over an old-fashioned wall, satellite tower, and a mountain not far away!

I love the way you get it all at once here ... city street, little boy fooling around on bicycle, flowers over an old-fashioned wall, satellite tower, and a mountain not far away!

There’s been some instinct within me all the time down here that makes me want to back up as far as possible and try to get it all in one picture.  I know it isn’t artistic.   You saw it in the picture to the left when I posted it on Flickr with that caption.  The satellite tower simply doesn’t belong in that picture!

We were driving through Guatemala city.  (I don’t have good pictures and can’t upload them anyway, but just found this link that has some of what I’m talking about.)  Lots of people own cars.  Traffic is heavy … there is an “Oakland Mall” over there near the “Restaurante Español,” or if you prefer you can go the the “Restaurante Uruguayano.”  T-shirts in English – I hope that one boy doesn’t know what his means.  And over there to your left is a beautiful stone aqueduct.  It is called “colonial,” and probably has been there since about the 1700s.  In fact, it looks just like the famous aqueducts from of the age of the Roman Empire.  If my memory doesn’t fail me (I can’t access the book right now), I read that it was still being used in the 1960s to supply the city with water.  Now there are paved roads going under the arches.  It is overgrown with jungle foliage in places.  All along its base are pedestrian paths … and bus stops.

Something clicked.  Latin America is about contrasts like these.  It can’t be described in one paragraph.  Try to do so with America – you can throw in the American dream, free-enterprise capitalism, democracy, and the Bill of Rights, and most of us will be happy with it.  (I know I’m over-simplifying a little.)  The local newspaper here did a survey in August asking “Guatemaltecos” to describe themselves.  I can’t remember the top ten, but the top two were “trabajadores” and “chispudos.” “Trabajadores” just means “workers.”  “Chispudos” is tough to translate, but it comes from “chispa” (someone correct me if I’m wrong), meaning “flame” or “spark.” (Wow, I actually found the article, for those who can read Spanish.)  They have a spark of creativity, of ingenuity.  Refreshing my memory with the article, at the same time they see themselves as “luchadores” – people who are struggling against the odds.

But going beyond those traits (which Americans would probably like to appropriate themselves), as an outsider looking in, the mixing and blending runs far deeper and closer to the roots of the society.  Start with the religion – no, start with the people themselves.  Who are Latin Americans, as a whole?  They are a blend of two races.  Not many races, who mostly migrated here in search of similar dreams, but two races with entirely different origins, historically at enmity with one another.  On one side you have the “Indian,” native to the country.  On the other, you have the Spanish race, which arrived to conquer and enrich itself.  (Sorry, Manuel.  I’m glad you’re not nationalistic here …)  They made slaves of the Indians, yet they also intermingled, and the product today is a range of shades from nearly white to entirely dark.  The families who are mostly European are usually the upper class, and the mostly Indian families achieve varying degrees of success or poverty.  And there is a host of people in between.

What about the religion?  You have little towns, every one with the cathedral next to the plaza.  Inside the church, the priest does … whatever he does, in the presence of a Virgin who might be fair-skinned and might be dark.  Outside somewhere, in many places, the witch doctor still practices.  (A classic dance here – probably still performed in at least some places – involved erecting a pole in the plaza, and connecting it by a rope to the steeple, while the dancers, really actors in this culture, crossed that rope.)  The common people go inside the church to carry out the Christian rites, and on the steps in front, they burn incense to their native gods.  Of course Catholicism has been the consummate “mixer” and “blender” wherever it landed during its history, but it has found fertile ground for that approach here.

Technology?  There was the boy speaking English in the restaurant I visited, with his iPhone.  And the middle-class accountant’s wife who hosted a baby shower for Rachel last weekend, who didn’t have a sink in her kitchen – we presume she washed dishes out on the patio.

I can’t begin to really describe the contrasts in this culture.  They’re everywhere.  They were in the Burger King where I got scrambled eggs, tortillas, and beans for breakfast on Friday.  They’re in the church where the Mexican-style guitar player plugs into the same amp as the pastor on the Casio keyboard.  They’re in the hand-woven, multi-colored textiles sown into a woman’s suit jacket.  They’re in the democracy whose greasy-palmed former president bought himself an island in the Mediterranean on which to retire.  And I can’t help but feel that a large part of the identity of these people lies in their adaptation to live in this world of countless layers of incongruities.

I apologize that these thoughts are still half-baked and not entirely developed.  If I had more patience, I’d hold off on publishing them till tomorrow.  If you, as a reader, would like to agree or disagree in the comments, feel free to do so.  I know that some of my readers have a lot more experience in the matter than I do.  Some have traveled to multiple countries; some have much more extended experience living in Latin America; some are Hispanic and can approach it from that perspective.  Most, if not all, live in the USA, and know it from different angles than my own.  If you would like to clarify some point, or just add your own thoughts or reactions, I would welcome the discussion!  Probably I will do do some editing or commenting after I’ve had a little more time to sleep on these ideas.

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2 responses

29 09 2009
AmyR

I got my first response by email, and I have permission to share it with you. This is from one of my readers who is black (I think that is relevant to understanding it as I did). Although I thought I was “on top of” understanding the perspectives of my readers, I hadn’t even thought about this.

“Thanks, Amy. Welcome to the real world. Keep living, what you see over there is here only in different ways. “

13 10 2009
Tikal « Notes from Latin America

[…] and sincerity?  He left me thinking.  I really believe that it is another matter of the “living with incongruities” that one sees here.  He really does consider himself a Mayan priest.  And he really does […]

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