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Strife and Sacrifice in Guatemala; or, Heading Out


So it's extremely difficult to visit Guatemala and not feel the creeping sense that one has led a comparatively entitled life. Being an American I can count on one hand the number of times I've arisen at three in the morning to make flour tortillas by hand. Then sold the tortillas door to door. Then headed off to work for the rest of the day in the fields, reaping sugar cane with a machete or picking coffee beans from plants growing on steep mountainsides or plowing unreasonably rocky soil with a hoe. Then bagged whatever harvest had been gotten and carted the bags into town in a bus alongside pigs and chickens, if I didn't ride on the top -- which I could if I had been born Guatemalan -- to sell the produce at a market and return home again that night on a similar bus and go to sleep only to do it once more the following morning. And so on, ad infinitum.

It's also extremely difficult to talk about the dire poverty in Guatemala as an American and not come off as a patronizing jackass, what with me getting on a plane tomorrow to head back to my cushy life. Simply discussing the disparity between life in Guatemala and in the U.S. smacks of disingenuousness, unless you live down here and are directly intervening to narrow that disparity. I haven't entirely lost my self awareness and I don't plan on moving here, so how about facts instead.

Not every Guatemalan is into the whole rise at three thing. There are jobs in construction and truck driving to be had which can allow a family to get by okay. Plus there's the professionals in Guatemala City that kind of skew the numbers, but the long and short of it is that a full 75 percent of the 14 million people in Guatemala live below the poverty level. About three million people live in Guatemala City, so pretty much the rest of the country lives in subpoverty conditions. And Guatemala's poverty line is well below the U.S.'s. A decent job in Guatemala harvesting crops yields about two dollars a day. For perspective, I'm drinking a beer right now that cost $2.50. Hence, the creeping sense of entitlement.

Why, one can't help but wonder, does Guatemala suffer so? How do these people not punch one another in the stomach as a greeting and step out in front of buses on purpose and generally mill about in the dirt waiting to die?

For some, the most rural, there is a simple lack of awareness of what they're missing out on, it is true. But that sentiment also has a dangerous subtext; it leads one to imagine that Guatemala wants what America has. One imagines that the maddeningly slow pace of life (except on the highway where those chicken buses overtake other cars around blind curves at high speeds) is evidence that the Guatemalan people have given up. From what I have seen, this is not the case.

Certainly, America has had its influence on the country. A joint venture between the CIA and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) lead to a coup that destabilized the left-leaning democratically-elected government in 1954. Six years later, the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted 36 years. 40,000 military troops of the right-wing government fought about 4,000 left-wing guerillas for the country and as a result, about 100,000 people were killed with another 100,000 disappeared, the vast majority civilians who protested against or were the target of the military's scorched earth policies. The U.S. covertly backed the government, while a UN truth commission report later concluded that 93 percent of the atrocities committed during the Guatemalan civil war, including genocide against the indigenous Maya, were carried out by the military.

So the U.S. has left a lasting impression on Guatemala. And yet, the people we've met are not bitter toward us. In the highlands we visited, where tourism is nonexistent, the people were gracious and happy, despite living in what has become for me the very definition of dirt poor. We're told that the rural poor are aware they are in a cycle of poverty, and we've seen evidence of this. Every kid in school represents a sacrifice for a poor family, as each hour they spend in the classroom is one they could be earning money for their family instead. And yet we saw kids in school.We saw evidence of an awareness among Guatemalans that there is a better life they can attain and the sacrifices they make to attain it.

I do not claim to understand this country. I do not claim to be enlightened. I do not assume that I have been fundamentally changed by my visit here; I am far too cynical a person for that. I am happy in my American life. I look forward to seeing my Home again. I can't wait to be able to shower with my mouth open, and to drop the extensive Purell habit I've developed. I want my iPhone to have service again and have Internet connections that aren't carried by donkey. And I can't say that the perspective I've been granted about the privilege of my own life that this tour has afforded me won't be eroded the next time my car breaks down.

I wil say, however, that I have learned down here. I've learned that it's not an unreasonable goal to lift an entire country out of poverty through education, but it's a long one. I've also learned that not everyone is interested in what I've got. But there is one thing that I feel comfortable extrapolating onto all people: No one, regardless of where you live, wants to get up at three in the morning to work once more. No one wants that life and no one should have it.

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