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Guatemala Dateline: ‘Pent up by a world whose walls are no longer tolerable’
by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register
(From the Aug. 1, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
The coincidental lecture at a June 1969 White House meeting of Latin American ministers by Chile’s foreign minister Gabriel Valdes on North South trade and financial inequities left Nixon in a rage. When the minister explained that Latin America was sending back to the United States $3.80 for every dollar it received in U.S. aid, Nixon interrupted. The statistic must be wrong, the president said. The minister answered that his source was a study by a major American bank...
The next day Kissinger was staring Valdes down at the Chilean embassy. “Mr. Minister, you made a strange speech,” Kissinger opined. “Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance. You’re wasting your time.”
Valdez was astonished. “Mr. Kissinger, you know nothing of the South.”
“No,” Kissinger responded, “and I don’t care.”
A member of my family used to say that poverty in the United States - even though less severe than Third World countries - is yet psychologically more devastating, given the material wealth that surrounds us.
What would she say about Guatemala today, when the two parts of the equation coincide, when the stray kid in the last mountain hamlet could with 50 percent probability tell you that Ronaldo scored the two goals that beat Germany in the World Cup championships – when the nucleus of kids in Ixtahuacan know the names of the protagonists in the latest U.S.-styled sitcom and (more importantly) the attendant advertisements? When the kids are becoming practically as immersed in Western culture as a person at Monroe and Wall in Spokane?
Twenty-five years ago a Spokane priest used the Spanish world inquietude to describe the chronic disquiet that he diagnosed in the youth of his area.
What word would he use to describe his parish today when the referred-to “restlessness” has undergone a kind of Dec. 25 – that is to say, has taken flesh, and (quite different from dwelling among us) has up and left?
The kids have left. It is not just that they have abjured hoeing the cornfields that their ancestors hoed and harvested. It is not that they are out playing soccer when tradition would have them with their fathers bent over with sweat, the leather mecapal band cutting into their foreheads, hauling their 150 pounds of firewood back.
It is not just that they (their Nike-emblemed caps turned backwards after the style of the U.S.) are taunting their elders with rhetorical questions about the way they dress: “that’s an odd shape,” says one, pointing to the uncle’s work hat; “what’s that for?” says his companion, signaling the hand towel-sized, embroidered sut that he carries on his shoulders, and which he uses occasionally to wipe off sweat.
That was the situation several years ago. It isn’t even that they have left the old Ixtahuacán to live in Chwi Patan. That was yesterday. It is not even that they have left their fathers and mothers in some metaphorical or symbolic sense.
Today, the situation is far more dramatic than that.
The kids, in various towns and hamlets in our mission area, have actually, literally, left.
Despite obstacles that would have daunted the most intrepid of our frontier ancestors, the kids have heard the voice of the voluptuous Siren of the West – the culture that the Robert Redford look-alike American vice-president called the “envy of the world” – and followed her singing to where she lives. No matter that Dame America of the village television set would, if she had her way, simply entice them thither with images of wealth and glitter, take what she can from these nickel and dime consumers, and then – like a girl whom boys describe as a “tease” – slam the border door on their faces when they knock at it. Her rejection simply makes them more determined. They will give up their lives to win her, as at least two in our mission already have.
I was talking with Catarina Tulul Tzep and Juana Quiche this afternoon while driving the two teachers back from the American embassy in Guatemala City. Catarina is a diminutive young woman, as sincere as redistilled glacier water, who hopes to join some order of Sisters in El Salvador, and Juana is her companion youth leader in the community of Tzucubal, who is going with her on the bus that is taking Spokane youth to Toronto for the World Youth Day and the Holy Father’s visit.
The conversation drifted from the U.S. visas that they had obtained a few hours earlier to a subject closely related.
Seventy young men and a few women from Tzucubal have also gone to the States, she informed me – except that they went to stay, and without the blessing that the embassy bestows upon those it feels certain are coming back. One of them, Cruz Mas Tzep, who used to sit in front of me at Mass, died in the attempt, drowned somewhere in Mexico in a stream called Rio Bravo, or Mad River. Just like the K’iche’ youth in the movie El Norte, he had knelt before the Blessed Sacrament on the day that he left.
If the 70 represent 20 to 25 percent total of the youth from her community, she continued, that was considerably less than the number in other communities that surround her. Perhaps 90 percent of the young men in Pamazabal (Santa Lucia) have gone, 100 percent from the adjacent Nahualá community of Chwi Sak’ap, and 100 percent of the Pa’aj (Santa Lucia) community of more than 100 families called Pa Tz’a’m.
The coastal communities of Ixtahuacan are also affected. Perhaps one third of the unmarried men in San Miguelito and the very populated center of Guineales have taken up United States residence.
Further, in the coastal section of Ixtahuacán, as in Tzucubal, there have occurred several agonizing incidents. One boy, Diego Tulul of Patzite (Nahuala), was left behind to die by his companions when crossing a desert that borders the U.S., and another, Manuel Balux of San Miguelito, lost a leg to a moving train that his group was attempting to board, en masse.
The traditional center of Ixtahuacan has yet to be affected, she suggested, because of the educational opportunities offered by the (Our Lady of Fatima) parish program, and because of the town’s partial relocation to Chwi Patan, which has served, for those who would have been most likely to migrate, as a temporary distraction or promised land.
As I heard Catarina and Juana talking about this, I recalled that there exists a phenomenon spoken of in certain sociological circles called the “return to the source” effect.
The nomenclature describes a situation in which poverty and landlessness are seen as returning to the location of the wealth that uprooted them.
It is a rather compelling explanation. It explains the swelling that occurred in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo in the late 1960s and ’70s when the Lincoln Gorton embassy of the U.S. bequeathed a series of military governments to the masses, and which gave Western industries unprecedented control over the Northeast and states such as Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso, where millions of peasants lived, and which drove the more socially and ethnically conscious Brazilian nationalists (whether they were left-leaning like Goulart or right-leaning like Lacerda) from the positions of power that they occupied before then. It explains the demographic constituency of the town of Iquitas, Peru, where Amazonian Indian refugees subsist, driven from their forests by the oil companies who polluted their streams and possessed their lands. It explains why Mexico City, in the middle of the last century, became the largest city in the world, and why, during the violence of the early ’80s, people from the interior of Guatemala migrated to the capital city, and turned it from a still transitable city of less than a 900,000 to a 20-percent-employed, filled-with-child beggars, one-kilometer-an-hour, 50-automobiles-a-day car-jacking megapolis of more than three million. (President Clinton, in Guatemala, apologized for the U.S.’s considerable role in the violence.)
An argument that “return to the source” acts in a way suggestive of natural law can be made from the way that the shift in source target began to happen towards the latter part of the last century – in spite of the participants’ ignorance of the global village and transnational forces that was impelling them.
No people in Ixtahuacán are aware that national boundaries for the wealthy basically disappeared at that epoch in history. None certainly, were aware of the meeting arranged by David Rockefeller at his family’s home estate in Pocontico in 1972 (out of which emerged the famous – famous, that is, if you regularly consort with billionaires – Tri-Lateral Commission) at which time he assured the visiting European and Japanese leaders that while President Nixon’s dollar-deregulating protectionism was lamentable, etc., it was simply (the real leaders in the U.S. would see to this) a temporary aberration.
No, none of the youth – many of them grade-school educated or less – are going to talk about things like that. They just go because they are poor and feel pent up by a world whose walls are no longer tolerable to them, and because a nucleus of youth started to go (the phenomenon was unknown here as recently as 10 years ago), and that started a chain effect that (unless some unforeseen event happens) will continue exploding outwards until virtually every family in the area will be affected.
Who wants to be carrying firewood when you can be with Sabrina in Paris?
Who wants to be hanging corn cobs from your soot-circled ceiling when even Jethro looks elegant?
Their fathers may have kept time by listening for the regular cries (qutz’najik) of the burrowing animals; they may have cured toothaches by thrusting a red-hot nail into the offending molar. Not these young men.
They will continue going to the loan sharks in Pamezab’al and Nahualá who, with young men’s father’s ancestral land as security in hand, will continue doling out the $5,000 at 20 percent monthly interest to them so that they can pay the coyotes who will take them through the mad rivers that drown Catarina’s and Juana’s friends, on the backs of angry trains that lurch and jerk as you board them, across the pitiless deserts that offer not a weed in recompense, past border guards who shoot down children, and put the captured into cattle cells for months without legal representation –past all that, and eventually, if they are lucky, into the U.S.
(Father Baronti, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane, has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)
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