The reason for spending so long in Xela – almost six weeks – was the excellent Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco, where I studied for five weeks. The school and its maestros are committed to educating its students not only in the Spanish language, but also in the political and social reality of Guatemala, whose recent history and current situation are characterised by coercive repression on the part of the government, the monopolisation of business interests by USA firms and by the eight very wealthy Guatemalan families who allegedly run the country, and the continual marginalisation of the countryside and the indigenous people that live there.
It is difficult to sum up PLQ, and instead of trying, part of the lyrics from two songs, sung at the weekly graduation dinner by the staff, will serve. The first is ‘Bella Chao,’ a song originally written (in Italian) by and for the Italian Communist party in the early Twentieth Century. It goes like this:
Una mañana de sol radiante
Voy a buscar al invasor
Soy Comunista toda la vida
Y Comunista he de morir
Y si yo muero, en el combate
Toma en tus manos mi fusil
(‘One morning of radiant sun, I am going to search for the invader. I am a Communist all my life, Communist until I die. And If I die in combat, take in your hands my gun.’)
And the second, ‘No Basta Rezar’ (‘It’s not enough to pray’):
No, no no basta rezar – hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguir la paz
En el mundo no habría paz mientras haya explotación
Del hombre por el hombre y exista desigualdad
Nada se puede lograr si no hay revolución
(‘No, no no it’s not enough to pray – many things are lacking before peace can follow. In the world there won’t be peace while there is exploitation, man for man inequality exists. Nothing can be achieved if there is no revolution.’)
One pertinent thing about all this is the way that, as Annie pointed out, patriotism and radicalism are very much aligned in this context, and ‘la lucha por la tierra’ (‘the struggle for the land’) which is common parlance and a common concern in PLQ, is quite explicitly a patriotic struggle. My normal instinctive aversion to openly expressed patriotism doesn’t hold here. Being patriotic seems more imperative in Guatemala, a way of relating to one’s nation that stems directly from necessity and hope for social change.
Guatemala has had a troubled last sixty years, troubles that began with the 1954 CIA-backed military coup that led to the next thirty six years of internal conflict. The takeover occurred because then premier Arevelo’s moderate, socially liberal administration was pursuing a policy of expropriating land from United Fruit Company and returning it to the peasantry, who had farmed it for centuries before it was taken from them by the American fruit-producing giant, known as ‘El Pulpo’- ‘the octopus’ – in Latin America. UFC were only paying tax on a fraction of the land that comprised their vast plantations, and the government reduced their holdings to the amount they were paying tax on. Using Cold War era Communist scare-mongering, and a deliberate unwillingness to distinguish between Socialism and Communism, a right wing militaristic government was effectively placed in power with covert US support, beginning thirty six years of bloody repression and abuse of the countryside and eventually, in the 80s, civil war, as guerrillas organized to fight the government. The situation was only diffused in 1996, with the Peace Accords, most of the concessionary terms of which have still not been met.
There is still a lot of resentment, and the political atmosphere in Guatemala is currently very terse. In early January a camionetta was bombed by terrorists in the Capital, and most people seem to expect that the election will only increase the levels of violence as politicians use coercion in order to gain votes, and are themselves controlled by business interests. My maestro in PLQ told me of the need for an open higher education system, as most universities only teach neoliberal economics and political science, which favours the interests of the Capitalist elite and perpetuates the poverty of the majority of the population. And of course many children don’t go to school at all. The Catholic Church is a conservative presence at best, and the increased number of Evangelical congregations in recent years appears to be a fairly calculated move on the part of the US to retain purchase in Guatemala in the absence of UFC, which never returned.
Annie explained to me something of the history of ‘Vos,’ used informally in speech in various parts of Central and South America, including Guatemala, as either a very intimate or very offensive version of ‘you.’ A corruption of Vosotros (informal plural ‘you’ in Spain), it was introduced to Latin America by Colonialists who wanted a way to refer to and command their slave workers that would mark out the addressee as inferior. But the word began to be used by indigenous people amongst themselves, in their homes, and this appropriation of Conquistador linguistic territory is the historical antecedent of its function today as a colloquial and intimate substitution for ‘tu,’ though when used in certain ways it can retain its racially pejorative connotations. It began to be codified in written form between 1940 and 1960, and now in some places if a man uses ‘tu’ rather than ‘vos’ he might appear to be gay, and if a girl does likewise, she could be a ‘fresa,’ or yuppie. This is far from the only possible reading of the history of ‘Vos,’ as it is still relatively recent territory for linguistic historians and primarily an oral phenomenon, and there are presumably many other uses and meanings.
Also regarding linguistics, Spanish school has revealed some interesting ways in which Catholicism and Spanish are connection in a very integral way. The first and most intriguing is that when describing the death of a person, the correct verb ‘to be’ is ‘estar’, rather than ‘ser.’ ‘Estar’ is normally used to describe states, conditions or locations that are temporal and impermanent, implying that death too is only a temporary condition, which of course within the semantics of a Catholic worldview, it is. Similarly, though somewhat more tenuously, there may be similar reasons for the fact that ‘creo que’ (‘I think that’) doesn’t take the subjunctive form, despite being potentially open to doubt (i.e. the phrase could mean ‘I think that I am correct that,’ but could also be ‘I think but I am unsure that’). ‘Creo que’ having its semantic roots in belief – ‘creer’ is ‘to believe’ – might explain why the former interpretation, indicating fideistic certainty, is the one the language uses.