Micaela Pelland :: Guatemala
February 1st, 2008
I have experienced first hand cultural differences in the nature of God and other religious beliefs, the roles of men and women, and how each should behave, and how open or guarded we are with information.
First of all, I live in a hostel with evangelical owners and a ¨gringo¨ missionary. Evangelism is a recent trend in Guatemala, and I have spotted various evangelical churches throughout the country and have heard of numerous missionaries from the United States. Protestant Evangelicals have gained in popularity due to their widespread use of mass media and their ability to connect to people with a more ¨charismatic, personal¨ religion compared to the Catholic Church. My experience with evangelicals here has not been positive. The mother that cares for us in the house constantly involves God in her conversations, is very controlling and strict in her beliefs and her ¨rules of the house,¨ and judges everyone who leaves at night to go eat or hang out with friends. She has made me feel very uncomfortable for having different beliefs and wanting to meet people and socialize. In addition, the ¨gringo¨ aggressively tried to convert me over dinner one night, and said that all non-believers or people of other religions are doomed to an eternity in hell and that my ideas were simply wrong. I do not appreciate the close-mindedness and aggressive nature of the evangelicals I have encountered here, whether they are from Guatemala or the United States. Nonetheless, I have learned to keep my ideas to myself and be patient and respectful to my housemates regardless of their beliefs/actions.
The roles of men and women here are very divided and unequal. For example, I have joined a gym and I go to exercise after work most days of the week. The men, only men, who work there as directors have treated me as if I have never worked out in my life and as if I am useless for programming machines. They continue to try to tell me everyday what exactly I should be doing and how to program the machines regardless of the fact that I have told them I am very accustomed to the gym environment. In addition, many men make cat-calls and sexual comments when I walk home from work. Women in Guatemalan society are seen as sex symbols and/or housewives.
I have also experienced large cultural differences between the indigenous population and the ladino population. I went to a small indigenous town to accompany an auditor who was reviewing a food aid distribution program. Because I am a ¨gringa¨, the people of the town were very hesitant to talk to me and gave me cold looks. The men warmed up to us later and were eager and curious to chat. However, the women were extremely difficult to talk to and acted very afraid and wary of us. Many Guatemalans have told me that this is due to a highly patriarchal society, the fear that women have of ¨speaking up,¨ especially to a foreigner, and the grave emotional damage that has been done to the indigenous population during the internal armed conflict.
I have not experienced shocking cultural differences in the work place because I work individually most of the time, Latin American society, especially the urban zones, is increasingly US influenced, and the head directors at this office are US citizens. However, there are definite differences. For example, the way people meet and greet each other everyday is very important to the culture and gives a friendlier and communal work culture. I have witnessed more socializing and ¨joking around¨ in general at the office. Lastly, during lunchtime it is polite to say ¨provecho¨ to everyone who is eating, finishing eating, or about to eat. I have enjoyed this more casual and warm work environment, and it has made me work to constantly think of others and the norms of politeness in ways very different from the US. I would classify Guatemala as a mid-range ¨we¨ culture, based on these observations. However, the smaller towns and villages are significantly more ¨we¨ centered, given the fact that their pace of life is slower, community and traditions are more important, and US culture has not influenced the rural areas as much.
March 4th, 2008
I went to lunch with my boss the other day, and we discussed the lack of responsibility in Guatemalan society. For example, the other day a public bus fell off a cliff and some thirty to forty people were killed due to high speed and an excessive number of passengers that caused the bus’s driving and breaking system to fail. The Guatemalan government lacks even the most basic monitoring system for public transportation, and nothing seems to change when tragedies like this happen. In addition, the public always blames the government, but hardly ever stands up in protest and action to demand change. The blame gets tossed around, and in the end, things go back to their dangerous and unregulated state. This culture of passivity originates from the long and horrendous violence and oppression that Guatemala has experienced. People are fearful of sticking their heads out and speaking up due to possible violent repercussions. This is very frustrating in the development sphere, because there is little urgency, motivation, and cooperation between the government and civil society in lifting Guatemala out of its poverty stricken state. Some NGOs are working very hard, but it is difficult to achieve great strides with a population that has been severely oppressed for generations and in some ways has become quite used to a life of injustice and suffering.
I have also witnessed other frustrating consequences of oppression. It has been difficult to relate and connect to other women here, because I find that they are more ¨feminine, ¨ self-conscious, and reserved than the North-American women I am used to having contact with. I have noticed that women here are very worried about the superficial impressions they make on other people that (clothing, beauty, wealth, etc.) Women do not speak up as much, especially when men are around. The overall content and feeling of conversations of the different sexes are very different. Men talk about politics, sports, among other things, and it is acceptable to joke aggressively, disagree among one another and be outspoken. Women seem to always have to be friendly, polite, more reserved, and supportive of each other’s opinions, and they rarely talk about the typical ¨male¨ topics. It has been difficult for me because I have found myself more interested in the conversations among men, and I become frustrated with the almost fake and overly courteous way women communicate with each other.
Another cultural difference is the way people relate to the environment. Garbage here is most likely burned, placed in rivers, and/or dumped wherever one pleases. The air pollution in Guatemala is horrible, as there are no regulations for emissions and most of the cars, semis, and buses belch fumes. The other day I was riding with my roommates in the car, and one of the girls threw her garbage out the window. This is seen as a normal and acceptable way to dispose of garbage. Many people complain of the trash on the streets and the contamination, at the same time they willingly litter and add to the problem. There is a huge gap in environmental education, government infrastructure, and social responsibility in Guatemala.
I have come to greatly appreciate the proactive and socially conscious nature of my family, community, and university; in addition to a few Guatemalans I have met working in CRS and in other NGOs. It is refreshing to see that there are people that have been educated about social ills and are motivated to act out against them. Guatemalan’s development problems are illuminated when one realizes that 60% of the population is the poverty stricken, historically marginalized and mostly illiterate indigenous population. For me, the most unsettling aspect of Guatemala is the lack of education. The majority of people in Guatemala lack the opportunity to think for themselves and question their situation because they continue to live on the fringes of society. After being here for two months, I have come to realize the complexity, immensity, and severity of this problem.