I’m from Guatemala, but I’m really not from here. I was born in Bananera– the United Fruit Company’s very own labor town– and spent some time in Guatemala City until in 1982, at the age of five, I joined the immigration tide of thousands of people fleeing Guatemala’s civil war, poverty, gangs and corruption to enter the United States illegally.
Twenty-seven years later, I’m back to find out what it means to live in Guatemala and to do my work as an online journalist setting up a citizen news site. My family doesn’t quite understand why I’ve returned after they risked their lives to journey to the United States. They don’t get this in the same way as they’re confused by people in Beverly Hills paying more money to live in the hills, in el monte, when people in Guatemala pay more money to get out of the hills for lack of electricity, access to food and livelihood.
What they do know is now that I’m here, I’ve become their bridge back– if at least to ask the bus prices, coordinate airport pickups, or provide updates on the violence, weather reports, and my latest bureaucratic hell trying to get a lease for an a apartment, getting a DPI or bank account. I remind them that I don’t know what it means to live in Guatemala than any other extranjero, foreigner, and living in Antigua makes me an extranjero twice over. The most common question from my family: “Why are you living in Antigua? No Guatemalans actually live there!” Safety and small town values, I tell them.
Regardless, my “Americanisms” (que gringa eres!) are coming out because I have expectations such as:
- Things that are broken are fixed quickly or in a reasonable time frame. Why spend the time writing a sign for a broken door bell instead of spending the time to fix it?
- Reason and efficiency conquers most problems
- Internet is fast and steady and ubiquitous
- Web sites make sense and at least have a “Contact Us” section for emails
- People respond to emails within a few hours
- “Yes” means “Yes” and “No” means “No” unless otherwise indicated
- Prevention, prevention, prevention
- When and where is my recycling getting picked up?
- The information booth is clearly marked and evident
- Customer service is golden and the customer is always right
- I can just call or email to get my questions answered instead of waiting in line
- Vegetarian means I don’t want more vegetables with my meat
- When I order food I don’t expect two spoonfuls of sugar to be added
- People will be able to tell I’m Guatemalan
There are so many more, I’m almost ashamed to admit them. While there are things about my looks and my personality that provide me with a-ha! moments reflecting upon the importance of nurture and perhaps even nature if you believe in culture genes being inherited.
In the past week, however, my inner chapina has also surfaced in negotiating getting an apartment (with a lease notarized and written by a lawyer of course), figuring out Telgua’s 2-year contracts for bundled plans (why in a communications company no one answers the office phone is baffling), and figuring out how to get my national identification card which helps me get my first bank account in Guatemala (“Sorry ma’am, the issuing agency for your birth certificate has gone out of business, so your birth certificate is no longer valid”).
Here are the things that my family and I agree are indicators of being a chapin:
- Getting a “No” for a response means you’ve asked the wrong question or the wrong person
- If you want to know what you need to turn in for paperwork, just ask the person in front of you in line
- Why anybody does anything is a waste of time, just keep moving and do what you can do today and leave the rest for tomorrow
- Dichos are your everyday guiding wisdom. “No hay mal que por bien no venga.”
- Always smile, be cordial and very polite. Better to be nice and get what you need than be arrogant and get nothing
- If you have a problem with something, just tell the person behind you in line
- Just drop by, don’t worry about calling
- Get there when you get there, people will understand
- Ask a lot of questions and then ask more, someone will be able to help you
- Never tell people where you live because you just never know
- Just worry about it when it happens
- Why do you want people to know you’re Guatemalan, nobody cares about Guatemala
Broad strokes perhaps, but I think the essence and a certain seed of truth useful for reflecting upon cultural identity can be found in somewhere in there. At the very least, a moment of reflection for how these things express themselves in a more mundane way. Odyssean and metaphorical journeys aside, this is how I find my way back to where I started. But then again, como La India Maria, I am neither from here, nor there, that space in between is my home.