Securing the City
Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
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Living Guatemala City, 1930s–2000s
Deborah T. Levenson
Today Guatemala City is infamous as one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in Latin America. Older residents remember lovely neighborhoods and better times under clear skies, but today few would deny that the city edges on uninhabitable. Infrastructure deteriorates, the city has deindustrialized, and crime is everywhere, every day. The working poor are Guatemala City's majority, and the family wage economy that constitutes their time-honored strategy currently depends on the emigration of relatives who send money (now in rapidly decreasing amounts); the "informal economy" of goods and services; and the illegal economy of drugs and black-market clothing, cars, appliances, and other commodities. The last of these sources, however risky, appears to be the most reliable urban employer of youth, an age group that represents the city's future, the greater part of its population, and one half of those designated as poor (see Offit, this volume, for discussion of youth in the informal economy). Unlike Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, there are few myths or colorful narratives about this capital city; it is a literary subject only in Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias's chilling 1930s novel El señor Presidente, where it makes an appearance as the setting for a police state replete with beggars, night prowlers, dark alleys, traps, lies, cells, spies, and corrupt politicians. It is easy to envision Guatemala City as a complete disaster, another rapidly decaying slum on the "planet of slums" (Davis 2006).
My point of departure in this essay, however, is that the city is not dead. Popular culture and the intersections, relationships, and varied activities of the over 2.5 million people who live in the capital make Guatemala City more than a static embodiment of inequalities wherein the rich live in gated communities and the poor in shantytowns of misery. Politics and economics have informed the possibilities available to people as they have moved in and given shape to their surroundings; people are part of the city's infrastructure (Simone 2004). In the 1970s, a large urban movement gave qualities of democracy and popular power to neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and the streets—despite, because of, and in the face of state terrorism. In the 2000s, however, "peace" time, neoliberalism, global financial disaster, unemployment, corruption, and violence frame how people live, with perhaps greater difficulties for viable national life than they have ever experienced.
This essay looks at city life from the late 1930s to the 2000s through the coming-of-age narratives of four people from three generations of the Cruz-López family: its founder, María Cruz, an indigenous woman who arrived in Guatemala City alone at age twelve in 1938; her daughter Isabel; and Isabel's two sons, René and Andrés. All four have been modern protagonists, making their lives in the manners they thought best while still being aware of other options. When they told me their stories, each drew on different yet overlapping aspects of the rich urban repertoire offered by, among other things, Mexican movies and "world" youth culture, progressive movements of workers and women, liberal discourses of success and failure, and Christianity.
This family and the city are both studies in diversity and connections. I once sat in María's small apartment with kin that included a college graduate who works in finance for a multinational company, an unemployed truck driver with a certificate in computer skills, an organizer for a peasant organization, an unschooled vendor whose son works in the Sudan for the United Nations, a domestic worker, and a former guerrilla struggling to start a motorcycle repair shop. Most are Catholics or Evangelicals and one is a nonbeliever. The family is presumably ladino (nonindigenous), as are the majority of the city's residents; however, María is of indigenous descent. In kind with many others in the city, their zone, Zone 7, is heterogeneous. Most of its residents are poor (as are the majority in the López-Cruz family), but middle-class families also live there, and so do the absolutely impoverished who make their homes in and their living from an enormous garbage dump. Although the upper class resides in guarded compounds in Zones 10 and 14–16 of the city's twenty-two zones, there are few demarcated spaces that belong solely to the middle class, lower classes, or extremely poor. More often, they commingle throughout the rest of the city. Zone 12 offers an extreme case in which one of the city's wealthiest private schools borders one of its largest shantytowns. Hardly the result of planning, this variety, like that within the López-Cruz family, speaks to the broader histories of modern change and conflict in and beyond Guatemala City.
María's early years unfolded under a liberal dictatorship that maintained a low-wage rural export-oriented economy and used forced Maya labor to build national infrastructure. The Liberal Party dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) had brought his version of modern times to María's hometown of Salamá in Baja Verapaz by financing a bridge over the Río Salamá, a prison, and public schools. By the mid-1930s, under the liberal dictator Jorge Ubico (1931–44), Salamá had telegraph service; a middle class; a hospital; and, in 1934, a paved road connecting it to the capital (Conde Prera 1989). María's mother was of Maya descent, but she knows little else of her history. Her father's relatives, whom she has met here and there, were ladino. However, "mixed" people like María went unrecognized as such, and she learned to use the pejoratives inditos/inditas to refer to indigenous people, without claiming to be ladina or indigenous herself. María's family was poor, Catholic, and kept small by high infant morality rates; only María and her older sister survived her mother's many pregnancies. Her father worked breaking horses, and her mother made tamales to sell. From an early age, María helped her mother with this; she did not attend school, which was not available in any case. When María was six, someone—she suspects her father's ladina lover—murdered her mother. Deeply saddened, María recollects only that she sold the bread that her sister baked in order to support both of them over the next six years.
Her memories of leaving Salamá are vivid. When María turned twelve, her sister sent her to work in a middle-class household. Soon after she arrived, she was blamed when the child she tended was injured in a fall. María recalls:
The mother beat me, the father beat me, and then my sister beat me until I was black and blue ... I ran to the cemetery. I screamed to my mother, "Why did you abandon me!?" and wept and wept; ... the bus owner saw me all black and blue and asked what happened. I explained. I said I wanted to run away to the capital. He said he would pass at three in the morning driving the Salamá-Guate bus and honk three times and I should run out [and] get on and he would take me. I put on my dress, shawl, and slip but I had no shoes. I watched the clock. I was proud that I knew how to read the clock: 1—2—3! He honked! I went out barefoot with my hair so long and the ayudante [driver's assistant] swooped me up and off I went into the night.
A new road, bus, and friend—not ethnic, religious, or kin community—offered a way for María to move on, and she eagerly took it. Fortunately the driver took good care of young María while the bus wound down the road. He bought her refreshments, and when the bus arrived in Guatemala City, she recollects: "He took me to his aunt who ran a comedor [small restaurant or lunch counter], 'look, this is a good girl, she can work.' So I went to work for her; ... she gave me a place to sleep in the back with some boarders and the bus driver; ... she brushed my hair. She was affectionate; ... she loved me, she brought me sandals and an apron. The family took me out on Sundays, we went everywhere, La Sexta, Cerro de Carmen." Thus, twelve-year-old María stepped off a bus into a city of 166,456 people in order to immediately become a servant. Never to be homeless, she recalled the street people, "los indios and other poor people," rounded up to do forced labor. Controlled by laws that prohibited whatever threatened Ubico's rule, the city was subdued, and for María, safe. She had no knowledge of the clandestine activities of those who would overthrow the liberal dictatorship, and they said nothing about the plight of domestic servants. A major event in Guatemalan history, the revolution of 1944 is not part of her memory.
The city delighted María. El Centro housed nearly half of the city's population—wealthy, middle class, and poor, including thousands of domestics. For years she never went into the barrios where the other half lived in constructions of adobe, leaves, and, as she puts it, cualquiera (whatever) without water or sewage (Gellert 1995; A. Solow 1950). With a lovely acoustic shell in the gardened Parque Central, electricity, trolleys, traffic lights, paved streets and new government buildings, El Centro was the city at its most citified. The city's glamour, the "sparkling modernity" noted by period writers and by María, was located on several blocks of El Centro, where María walked with her employers on Sundays (Caplow 1949; see Véliz and O'Neill, this volume). There were pharmacies; well-to-do dress, shoe, and paper goods stores; banks; restaurants; the Hotel Palace; and the electric company. Guatemala's new department stores, such as La Perla on Sexta Avenida, known as the "Tiffany's of Guatemala City," offered stunning imports such as cashmere sweaters and Max Factor cosmetics. Nearby on La Sexta stood the Art Deco palacio del cine, Teatro Lux, which advertised parquet floors and the era's famed Hollywood and Mexican movies.
In kind with many domestics, María lived in El Centro with different employers. The streets were safer than some of their households. After the aunt died, María explains:
Her son sold the restaurant and a compa [coworker] told me about a family on the street that needed a servant; ... turned out they were from Salamá and godparents of one of my father's children ... My father turns up one day with a woman and children. "¡Mi hija! What are you doing here?" He offered to take me to Tiquisate, where he was going to work. I got mad. I knew he only wanted me to watch his kids. I was very rebellious. Listen, one house where I was had boarders, military men and one was the owner's son and one night he slipped nude into the corner where I slept ... I had never seen a nude man and he threw himself on top of me and I grabbed a stick ... and hit him hard and screamed for help, loudly! His parents came and grabbed him and there was a lot of yelling ... and I left. I went around the corner to the Jefe de Policía's house. I knocked. I explained. They took me in and I stayed there for a while.
Barely an adolescent, María defended herself alone. Savvy about her father's notion of incorporating her into the family, she refused to go with him. Later, she fled to the streets in order to escape rape and found comfort from the chief of police, who sent her to work as a domestic for a German couple. After they left the city, she made her way to a Chinese restaurant, where she worked for its owners, the Lee family, and there she met Miguel, a sixteen-year-old tailor. María remembers: "That's where [at the Lees'] I bought my first possessions ... shoes and a Victrola. We [she and other young female employees] had our room and we'd practice dance steps! I was always happy listening to the radio in the kitchen. I liked Guatemalan music, no Mexican music, only marimba—12 Calle, Los Altos! I loved marimba! That's where I met my first boyfriend, Miguel. We'd go dancing at the Porvenir de los Obreros. I sent to get a dress made. I bought a matching handbag, shoes and a pair of imported stockings."
Although the terms of her occupation separated her somewhat from the cash nexus, she cheerfully used her small earnings for the material culture of the middle-class "New Look" female style—matching clothes and accessories—and a Victrola record player. María also loved the king of urban culture: radio. Aired were Eng lish, German, and hygiene lessons; BBC news; and the music of swing, opera, and marimba doble, the national favorite. Marimbistas played at the Teatro Lux, at state events, and at places such as El Porvenir, where María and Miguel danced to smart, lively waltzes (Taracena 1983). Despite her problems, the city became her anchor and pleasure, a place where she generally felt loved until Miguel betrayed her:
Miguel and I were in love, he took me to Lake Amatitlán, to his mother's, but one day I saw him kissing another girl ... I told him if he wanted respect, he had to respect me. I grabbed the other girl ... by the hair and pulled; ... I pushed her to the floor ... that's how mad I was ... It was terrible;.... his mother had already told me it was all right to marry Miguel even if I didn't have family because she loved me and would make me my wedding dress, a white dress not with very expensive cloth, a nice white cotton cloth. I couldn't love him so I went to Coatepeque with a lawyer's family that moved there.
By the 1940s, success had fattened Coatepeque, a southern coastal town. Mechanized export agriculture made it a prosperous ladino commercial center of three thousand inhabitants. Coatepeque had a hotel named La Europa, a movie theater, restaurants, schools, an electric company, and the Boy Scouts. There, however, María had more problems with sexual harassment, and she finally left domestic work and found another job and a social life with young Salvadoran women workers, whom she found "lively and independent." It was in their company that she met her future husband. She explains:
The lawyer wanted to, you know, have ... sex with me and I said no; I fled the house in the night. I ran to the Hotel Europa! I told the doorman Mingo what happened and asked to sleep in the doorway; ... [The next day] he got me work there. Everyone [in Coatepeque] knew I was a good worker and a cook. One day the wife of Teófilo says, "I need a cook." So I went with her; ... she liked me, but I got a better job cooking at the electric company. That was when I met Tono [Antonio López, who became her common law husband]. We [she and the Salvadorans] went to the movies on Sundays. I loved, love, Pedro Infante [Mexico's beloved twentieth-century movie idol]. We saw all his movies. He was the man of my dreams ... handsome, sweet-blooded. One day I saw this man there, a cop, but good looking. He looked exactly like Pedro. To look at my husband was to look at Pedro. He wanted to talk to me; ... he had fallen in love with me ... He swore I had to be his; he sent flowers and one Sunday he caught up with me. I was walking ... as always accompanied by friends.
Tono walked up to María and introduced himself. She replied: "Policemen have a bad reputation, just like soldiers they make fun of women, abuse them and leave them. I don't want to hurt you or be hurt, so I am not interested in you. Don't bother me ... I don't want to be unhappy. I just want to work in peace, so don't cross my path." He persisted, of course, and María concluded the story of her youth, the end of which she judged to be her unity with Tono and the start of "troubles."
Young María epitomized much about Guatemala City—child labor, sexual abuse of servants, lineages of mixed indigenous and ladino descent—but nowhere in the urban cultural and social configuration were she and her counterparts represented or legitimized. Girls labored without recognition as members of the urban working class and without acknowledgment as child workers or as children. The only modern culture that reflected her life was in Mexican cinema. She especially recalls Nosotros, los pobres, the tale of a humble carpenter, played by the handsome Pedro Infante, who honors and defends poor mestizos by challenging wealth, power, and the sexual abuse of women. In the movie, justice is served in an urban space defined by rural-to-urban migration, the poor are noble and resourceful individuals, poverty is dignified, and the rich are predators. She embraced this world on film. It is not hard to see María's shifting and sexually dangerous adolescent life in a film in which disorder is given form by modest people who resembled her physically. Like them, she could escape catastrophe and persist. The movie version was superb: a girl finds romance with a handsome, caring Infante, the sort of man María would have loved to marry.
From the time that María came to the city, unfamiliar people became the friends and allies who composed her world. A resilient and daring child with a gift for being found and finding, she met the bus driver, his aunt, the Lee family, Miguel, the police chief, and Mingo, among others. María turned strangers into friends who helped her achieve a kind of personal autonomy. María surely kept her strength and independence within certain bounds of customary female behavior and deferred to males, but only if that met her needs. Feathers might have stuck to her, but she lived a modern life in a modern city, the capital, and a modern town, Coatepeque. Instead of staying put, she fought for joy for herself and safety from male abuse, without certainty about the results.
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