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From the Editor

Tamales for Dollars: Survival Guatemalan

Reprinted from the Spring 2013 MLA Newsletter

“Why did you stay away from Guatemala for forty years?” “Why did you decide to return now?” These are questions that friends, family members, and colleagues asked me in the weeks preceding my travel back to the country where I completed the final year of the bachillerato. In truth, I had always intended to revisit the people and places that meant so much to me when I was a teenager. But the seemingly endless military and paramilitary conflicts of the late seventies, eighties, and early nineties served as a major deterrent to returning. I studied and taught Guatemalan literature and culture, and I did not want to go while the political situation was atrocious. I had also shifted my linguistic alliances to the Spanish spoken in Spain as decades of family travel to Galicia kept me distant from la tierra chapina of my youth.

So why visit now, sixteen years after the historic peace accords? In a word: Facebook. My Guatemalan school has a page, where I found several of my good friends, which gave me a tangible reason to travel back. I planned most of the trip to take place away from the capital city, despite my having lived there for eleven of the twelve months I resided in Guatemala. I wanted to see the country as the tourist I know myself to be today. In Antigua, the colonial capital destroyed by earthquakes, I rediscovered what I had glimpsed on a day trip in 1972, but it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site transformed into a lively destination for language learners, community volunteers, and wealthy Guatemala City dwellers with second homes.

The spoken Spanish was more standard than I remembered, so I was grateful when familiar regionalisms cropped up. Some expressions I may never have known in the first place: when I was asked if I wanted to “cancelar” at the hotel, I reacted with surprise, since I was checking out (it means “to pay your bill”). I was touched to hear the age-old lines of the women inviting me to buy their wares: “No he vendido nada hoy.” “Aunque solo sea para el autobus.” (“I’ve sold nothing today.” “Even if it’s just to cover my bus fare.”) Most of all, I felt the soul rattling of the familiar rendered foreign, of things remembered as if dissipated into the clouds shrouding the volcano Agua that towers over Antigua to the south. This was the country of my second birth, and it had been lost to me. On the ruins of Antigua I stand, with surprising calm and contentment, mentally putting together the pieces of my life.

The driver who took me from the airport to Antigua talked about a woman who sells the town’s best tamales on Saturday evening near the church of La Merced. The plaza by the church was filled with food stands of all kinds, but the tamal vendor was a few blocks away (everyone knew where when asked). The old indigenous woman had special holiday tamales that smelled amazing. The only problem was I didn’t yet have quetzales, the national currency. “Acepta dólares?” I asked. She didn’t answer right away: there was some consultation with the younger woman who was helping. I named my desired exchange rate, and the transaction began. A twenty dollar bill became 150 quetzales, and 30 quetzales bought the tamales to be enjoyed with a fresh-squeezed limonada (made of limes) back at the hotel. I tipped her. I later found out she had added a quetzal or two to the price of the tamales, a custom in the country whereby locals pay one price and tourists pay more (this happened on boat rides across Lake Atitlán). It’s how poor Guatemalans survive in a brutal economic and social system. The entire exchange with the seller could not have happened if I didn’t know Guatemalan Spanish: the language, the customs, the food. But it also wouldn’t have transpired in the way it did had I not been a dollar-toting foreigner, aware of her place in a globalized Guatemala where indigenous women carry food in baskets on their heads while chatting on cell phones. Nothing unheimlich about it.

The sight I did find uncanny was the twelve pillars outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City. Inscribed on them are the names of those who were disappeared, tortured, massacred, and assassinated during the decades of what is often called a civil war (but more appropriately named, as it was in Argentina, a dirty war). According to Amnesty International, some 200,000 civilian lives were lost. Organized by departments (the geopolitical divisions of the country), the alphabetized lists read like a history of the Spanish viceroyalty: Castilian names, indigenous names, hybrid names like Canil Mendoza. From the highland department of Quiché come the Menchú family names. Towering above one pillar is the name of Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, beaten to death two years after the peace accords were signed. (For more on the bishop’s murder, read Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder [New York: Grove, 2008]).

I used to come to this cathedral often, since it’s only two blocks from my former school. Standing near these engraved pillars, having just seen the sculpture commemorating the peace accords in the National Palace next door, I felt a sense of hope for Guatemala’s future. Then I remembered the name of the vast urban slum that dominates a central ravine in Guatemala City with its metal shacks and persistent, abysmal poverty and violence: La Limonada. “Is it still there?” I asked my driver on the way to the airport on the last day. “Yes,” he said, “bigger than ever.” And still somehow they survive, I think, as I prepare to become a returnee once again.

Rosemary G. Feal


Read more about my trip to Guatemala and view photos on MLA Commons.

Read earlier columns in Feal’s “survival” series: “Survival Spanish” (Summer 2007), “‘Tan cerca de Dios’: Survival Poqomchi” (Spring 2008), and “Return of the Pensative Daughter: Survival English” (Spring 2011).
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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
2013 Posts
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.