It is hard to find specific, anecdotal things to write about Loma Linda, because life there has a pleasingly repetitive character and the days too easily slip together. So instead of anecdote, some statements. It is fortunate to be surrounded by large areas of very beautiful cloud forest, home to the elusive Quetzal, and there is a decent trail network connecting a fairly sizeable portion of the jungle and leading to at least three waterfalls. I didn’t manage to see a Quetzal, and not for want of looking, but I was pleased to observe well and up close for a good period of time several of a smallish, dark coloured specie of Toucan, recognisable as such by their outsize beaks. When it rains, as it does most afternoons, it rains hard and is finished quickly; afterwards a dense vapour rises off the many rivers, cloaking the trees and the village, and for this it has its evocative name (in Spanish it’s even better – bosque nuboso).
Around 1200 people live there, although there are only about 100 families, which provides some idea of the size of each, which tend to be interconnected by a perplexing series of ties. The main crop is organically produced coffee, but more interesting is the community’s second cash crop, pacayina, a green plant grown and harvested for its very regular arrangement of leaves, which makes it the ideal neutral element in flower arranging. There’s not much of a market for that in Guatemala, and the leaves are sold to the USA, as is the best of the region’s coffee. It is a community with a central association that is effectively the professional and social core of the village, especially in relation to tourism and agriculture. It is for this association, ASODILL (Asociacion Desarrollo Integral de Loma Linda), that I worked on organic agricultural projects and taught English in the school.
One tangential point: it was in Loma Linda that I first saw for myself a phenomenon I had been told about several times, that of the rural family with relatives that make it to the USA, find work there, and are able to send money back to their village. That money sometimes goes into public works projects like community school or church repairs, but more usually it allows the family to modify their house, normally garishly, in such a way that it stands out in every conceivable way from the tin-walled and roofed structures in the rest of the village.
Also interesting and sort of related is the way that poverty is indexed in a community such as this. Loma Linda is undoubtedly poor, but nonetheless a family that doesn’t have proper brick walls and instead uses a tarpaulin sheet will have a widescreen TV; a DVD player is a more important necessity than hot water. Judith Adler Hellman makes a similar point in an essay entitled ‘Give or Take Ten Million,’ collected in the book Latin America after Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century? She is writing about migration to the USA, but her point is a more general one, that ‘such products as televisions, computers, cordless phones, cell phones, DVD players, and a variety of consumer goods that, in very recent memory, would have been seen as luxuries…have come to be redefined as “meeting basic needs.”’
After a month spent in a community where it’s obligatory to wish everyone you see good morning/afternoon/night each day – a surprisingly exhausting task, the shirking of which is interpreted as lack of communal spirit, and after which I could understand the economy of effort that leads most people to shorten the greetings, so that ‘buenas noches’ becomes either ‘buenas’ or ‘noches,’ but rarely both – I was craving some anonymity, and set off for some villages in the Cuchumatane mountains, first reaching Santa Eulalia. My book said there’s only one hotel, and that it’s directly below the church. Reasoning that that ought to be simple, I began to look around the central square, but a few circulations revealed only a building site containing lots of rubble and what might be pieces of church tower in it. I asked a fruit seller the obvious question, and am told that the whole thing was moved – traslada – and is now five minutes down the hill. This astonishing piece of information led me to ask everyone who stopped me to ask what part of the United States I was from (many people here refuse to accept that England is a separate country) or swap sombreros how such a technical feat is possible in a village like this, where all the streets are far narrower than the space left by the church. I received no satisfactory answers.
Next, and the real object of this short trip, was Todos Santos, a Mam-speaking village known for being one of the few places in Guatemala where the men also adhere to traditional dress, wearing red and white-striped trousers, blue and white-striped shirts and small sombreros with a coloured band. It looks fantastic, as does the whole village, ringed by mountains. Climbing up the ridge side on an exhausting switch-back dirt track that leads out of Todos Santos, I could hear marimba notes very clearly because of the valley sides, drifting up from the Saturday market.
Spanish is the second language for most people here, and is rarely heard in the street. I am reminded that there are twenty four active languages in Guatemala (including Garifuna in Livingstone on the Caribbean coast), of which Spanish is only the official one. The impression is of a life relatively undisturbed by Hispanic culture, deeply traditional that is in some unthought way reassuring. As with Mexico there are really (at least) two Guatemalas; one found in the urban areas, striving to be more North American in dress, food, culture, and the other in the country, more or less able to continue as always, depending on the political situation in the nation more generally, which they have no means of effecting.
Indeed, the Spanish never wholly succeeded in controlling this harsh part of the Western Highlands, bare, mountainous and frosty. Large dark grey boulders litter the valleys, interspersed with maguey cacti and cypress trees. Because it was difficult to access and didn’t contain mineral wealth, it was largely ignored by colonial authorities, and the tradition of dissident separatism and resistance to the capital’s central authority continued into the mid-Twentieth Century, as its remoteness also made it a location favoured by guerrilla groups during the internal armed conflict (1960 – 1996).
I heard a female ex-Guerrilla speak when I visited Santa Anita, a coffee fincha owned and run by ex-guerrillas, who gave up their arms and re-entered society after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. She spoke of the equality between genders in their mountain camps, where men and women would both spend the time when they weren’t fighting, or walking all day, reading political philosophy, and all cooking and washing of clothes was shared equally. Guatemala was then and is now an extremely traditional society with regard to gender roles, and the position of female guerrillas was extremely radical, as of course it was intended to be. How easy can the process of re-integration have been after the conflict ended, I wondered. I suspect not very. And more generally, how disappointing must have been the years following the Peace Accords for the ex-guerrillas, as successive governments failed to implement the agreed changes, especially concerning land ownership and campesino rights. The transition from a free and equal community of people sharing a common aim to an at least partial regression to the problems and engrained prejudices of life before the conflict must have been extremely difficult. And the difficulty is exacerbated by the current powerlessness of the Guatemalan left. The four main guerrilla groups, after giving up their guns, elected to continue the struggle politically rather than militarily, forming the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria National Guatemalteca), the current left party. But it has always been poor, and vote-winning in Guatemala is a matter of institutionalised bribery. Consequently there is no real hope of legitimate representation for the rural poor, and no way to alter the system by operating within its legal limits.