Photo: Upper row: family portrait, Bottom: Atenojenes (my grandfather); Gregoria (my grandmother).
When you are new to a country, it is easy to generalize about the people based on your personal experiences. But what happens to you might be different from what happens to another traveler (and another and another). I cringe when I hear someone generalize about Guatemalans. I often refute what I hear and offer my own experiences and suggest that there are as many variations as there are people. For instance, someone said that Guatemalans think of tortillas as sacred and would never throw them on the ground. That’s a very innocent statement and maybe that person was told that by her host family. But tortillas are not sacred in my home because there are three of them in the dirt just outside the back door. That innocent example did not cast a judgement. But I am sensitive to generalizations because as a Chicana and I’ve been struggling against them all of my life.
Yesterday I met a North American man visiting Guatemala. As we ended our conversation, he asked me where I was from. He knew I was from the U.S. so I answered, “California and New York.” He looked slightly disappointed in my answer, paused and then said goodbye. I figured, though I could be wrong, that he wanted to know my ethnicity, because I get that question every single day. I don’t mind it when Guatemalan’s ask me because I understand the curiosity—I’m a foreigner here in this pueblo. But I flinch when questioned by North Americans because it insinuates that I am different from everyone else or that I don’t belong. I’m proud of my cultural heritage and once I know someone I’m happy to swap information about our cultural heritage.
[I’m thinking of my friend, Barbara, and all our shared stories in coffeshops around New York City, especially The Blue Stove in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Wait up, Barbara, we’ll resume when I get back there. We have a lot of catching up to do!]
During our pre-service training in the Peace Corps, we had a few classes on cross cultural understanding. In one of those sessions we were treated to a screening of a Ted Talk by Nigerian writer and Mac Arthur Genius Grant recipient, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, titled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her brilliant talk, she warns, “Show a people as one thing and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” I might add, that it is not what they become, but it is what they become in the eyes of others. She continues to describe the power of the storyteller to shape attitudes towards a person or a people. This is especially evident today, politics being what they are. I keep hearing people defend the new immigration policies, because they want to be protected by the “bad people,” despite research that shows that there is no link between immigration and crime in forty years of data.
But national narratives that have been bred for generations are hard to overturn. Read: There’s an Intriguing Sociological Reason So Many Americans are Ignoring Facts Lately Business Insider, Feb. 27, 2017
Back in the 1990s I remember seeing the hilarious theatre productions by Culture Clash in San Diego. Those of us in the audience from the Chicano community laughed loud and long, because the humor was medicinal or our pain over how we’d been stereotyped negatively or simply rendered invisible. Culture Clash used stereotypes to construct their characters. These were not only stereotypes that were fed by media but also stereotypes, icons, and heroes that Chicanos/Latinos had bonded to, to form personal and group identities. Cultural Clash explored them all and sometimes it was like looking through a mirror so we could see how we were framing ourselves and laugh (or cry, or cry with laughter) and sometimes it felt painful to see the ways that we, as a people, were pegged, limited and held back in society. Another theater group, Chicano Secret Service, did the same type of work and both groups helped many of us realize that while we had many things in common, we are also unbound in who we could be as individuals.
So, now that I’m in Guatemala, every time I think or start to say, “Guatemalans seem to….” and I stop myself from uttering a single story about this diverse culture.