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my dance among Guatemala's cultural/racial groups

marybellefrey's picture

When I began to think about where I would settle down in Guatemala, most people assumed I would go to Lake Atitlán.  In the town on the lake there is a large community of foreigners who speak English;  there is the basic community of indigenous peole who have a traditional culture and dress and their own language;  there is the community of monied Guatemalans who have vacation houses on the lake;  and there is the community of 'ladinos' who are permanent residents in the town.  'Ladinos' speak Spanish and dress in the international style.  They are mixed blood, European and indigenous American, and identify with the European side.  I grew up in the segregated part of the US and recognized the same dynamics between 'ladinos' and 'indigena' as existed between white and black in my childhood.  In the communities that are largely indigenous the few ladinos stand out for their grotesquely rude behavior toward the indigenous people.  In communities where ladinos are the majority the natural Guatemalan courtesy comes to the fore and their behavior is much less aggressive.  I did not come to Guatemala to live with my compatriots and I knew I was incapable of walking that social tightrope between the various Guatemalan groups.

Quezaltenango has basically two communities, ladino and indigenous.  The indigenous community attends the cathedral and makes up the religious groups there.  The ladinos attend another church.  The indigenous community appears to be the wealthier.  I ruled it out also.

I needed to hear only one language and be in a reasonably homogeneous community where I would not always be tripping over invisible boundary lines.  I settled down in Antigua Guatemala, the Spanish capital of Central America and eventually in a rural community nearby on the slopes of the volcano Agua.  In San Pedro I found another group of Guatemalans.  My ladino friends in Quezaltenango after close questioning pronounced them "gente ladina".  But they are genetically indistinguishable from their indigenous neighbors.  An old man born about 1910 told me that his grandparents spoke Cakchiquel, his parents understood it, but his generation was not taught it.  When I moved here there were still a few old women who wore the wraparound skirt of indigenous women.  The few people in San Pedro who speak an idigenous tongue today have had to study it at the normal school in Chimaltenango.  I only occasionally hear someone put indigenous people on a lower level.

But whether someone is 'blanco' or 'moreno' is heard every day.  Who is working in my house now?  Cristi, daughter of Don Fidel.  "Ah, una bien morena."  The latest scandal: Doña Ana is cuckoldling her husband.  We have to admit that her lover is lucky: she is "bien blanca,bien hermosa".  And on and on.

As a painter I am very strong in color and very weak in chiaroscuro.  I can distinguish dark/light at a half block or more.  Closer I see only colors.  Cristi says she is 'bien morena'.  I see a lovely golden medium brown.  A neighbor whose nickname is Juan Negro has a lot of blue in his ruddy brown.  I always intend to check out his dark/light value and I always forget.  Guatemalans are very generous;  they put up with my idiosincracy with a smile.     (to be continued)