A reflection on culture differences, particularly as affect children.
THE CHILDREN OF GUATEMALA
As I sat in the park in Antigua Guatemala, during my first week as a Spanish student, a boy of about six came up to me with a shy expression and a wooden box to put my shoe on so he could shine it. He said something I didn’t understand and gestured at my shoes.I shook my head and indicated that they weren’t made to be shined. He looked at them dubiously for a moment and then wandered away, eyeing the shoes of each person sitting on the stone benches (old men, family groups, couples, and the occasional single person like me) as he passed.
A young boy about his age caught his eye. This boy was dressed in suit-pants and a white buttoned shirt; his hair combed back. He was in the center of a circle of adoring adults, and his father was blowing bubbles for him from a small bottle in his hand. The boy was shouting with delight and rushing back and forth to chase each new bubble. The shoe-shine boy paused for 4-5 minutes--watching the boy’s pleasure, perhaps; noting the interaction between father and child. Then he hitched the strap of his box up higher on his shoulder, as if suddenly remembering his responsibilities, and moved on down the path.
That was one of the first things that struck me about Guatemala: the old people working—firewood or bags of rocks strapped to their backs; pushing huge vending carts up the cobblestone streets; and children working--selling newspapers, picture cards, and fountain pens with your name on them, or shining shoes. Some children are working with or for their mothers, vending textiles, or begging with a bowl on one side of the street while mom sits on the other. But many are by themselves at 5, 6, 7 years old in a reasonably big city.
Children working became even more evident when I moved to a rural pueblo at the side of Lake Atitlan. But I saw them more often with the family and not necessarily for money (though at the dock in Santiago you will be set upon by dozens of children vending bracelets, key rings, and other crafts items...and occasionally begging.) In both San Pedro, where I’ve lived for three years, and San Pablo, where I volunteer in the school, the children work for family – carrying corn to be ground, food purchases from the store, holding skeins of yarn while mama winds them, or holding the homemade wooden tool which twists the maguey twine made in San Pablo while mom plaits the plant fibre into the rope from her position five yards up the street. In San Pablo I saw two boys, perhaps 8 and 10, pulling a huge bull on a rope to tether him in another grassy spot. In slightly more sophisticated San Pedro, I often see 13 year olds with a man-size bundle of firewood strapped to their backs via the mecapal across their foreheads, and know well a 14 year old who helps his father get a pig on a table to slit its throat. The families I know think nothing of asking their children of all ages to drop whatever they’re doing and run to the store for them, and I never hear a “thank you” for their efforts. It is simply accepted that children help their parents as part of being in a family…just as their parents once did.
Another immediately-notable thing about Guatemalan children is the respect and affection they evidence for their parents and their elders in general. Fifteen-year-old young men walk with their arms around the shoulders of their much smaller mothers. And when I first arrived in San Pedro, I noticed a line of 3-4 adolescent boys lined up to kiss the hand of an old man - an elder - sitting on a step the side of the cobblestone street. There is also enormous familial affection, evidenced everywhere: young brothers and sisters walk holding hands; a teen-age boy cares for his much younger brother, holding him on his shoulders, or by the hand. All of this is almost too common to mention, but not so common in the U.S. Perhaps this caring is part of the net that makes working with family not only tolerable but enjoyable.
Guatemalan children, especially the poor ones I know, share a bed with brothers and sisters and sometimes parents. Hand-me-downs from older sibs is the norm. Few have toys, certainly not more than one or two, and these are also shared. If you give a poor child some food, they will invariably tuck a part of it in some crevice in their clothing for their brother or sister.
In most other respects, of course, they are like children everywhere: curious, inventive, full of energy, fun, and teasing.
I asked a young man of 20--who told me he worked side-by-side with his father in the fields, hoeing corn and whatever else needed doing, from the time he was six or so—how that felt. Was it like drudgery? Did he resent it? Was it in any way fun? (Showing my bias by my questions, of course.) He said no, he never resented it; he was proud to work beside his dad. “And there were no diversions or distractions in those days (a mere 14 years ago or less),” he said. “No TV, no video games. We were happy to have something to do and proud to help. It’s a little different, now.”
In this slightly more modern town, affected by much tourism over the past 30 years, things are changing…for children, perhaps more quickly than for anyone else.
Plastic toys have arrived in cheap droves….sold in the flung-up booths along the street during the week of the towns’ fair (Feria), and now even at Sunday market. They break quickly. Many children have at least rudimentary TV channels available in their homes or that of a friend; Hannah Montana items (a lunchbox, backpack, or actual toy!) suggest that you are “in the know,” one of the chosen ones (we can all remember this from our own childhoods.) Envy asserts it’s head. Many young girls have begun to wear sports clothing, instead of the traditional wrapped skirt, belt and woven blouse. And will young girls carry something on their heads, in the old graceful way, if their wearing Nike sweat pants?(There’s a pickup truck that arrives several days a week with “ropa Americana” in the back for $1-2.)
These changes are not bad things in themselves, but as young people begin to want things from the wider world (in particular the U.S.) more than they want what their parents have to make or teach them, as cellphones and IPODs and gameboys become the desirable items and their grandparents know nothing about them, a measure of respect is lost. The newly-sculpted hair of the boys and the makeup that the young girls want separate them even more from their befuddled grandparents…still immersed in centuries of tradition, and a generation gap ensues. And of course once families can afford to send their children to university in the Capital, the children grow away from home. Just as ours have done.Some measure of family unity and sharing is lost.
I think that the family net is strong enough here to hold against the stretching of the bonds.Guatemala is a country the size of Tennessee; unless college students or workers move to the U.S., it’s relatively easy to get home for Semana Santa, Feria, Navidad. Family means so much to them; people cannot believe that I live alone, here.“Where are your grandchildren?”(Why am I not home taking care of them so my children can work?) They can’t imagine this – nor not sharing a house or room with others.I asked a young woman of 22 to watch my house while I took a short trip, and she had to have her sister come with her; she had never slept alone.The Guatemalans I know also can’t imagine children leaving home until several years after they are married.So the family net is still strong, here.
I hope it’s strong enough…and that the children of this generation gain more than they lose from all these changes.
Miranda Pope works with preschool children in San Pablo in her project (www.letsbeready.org) and with 5 to 13-year-old children of single mothers in a project in San Pedro la Laguna (www.paintmyfuture.org.) Half of the proceeds from her book go to support her projects.