There are more greens in this world than the eye can see, and between Lake Izabal and the Gulf of Honduras they ascend the mountainsides unto the vaults of heaven above water that is gray and white and pristine, and it hurts to breathe there, because you cannot escape how small and fortunate and damned we all are: small before a world that swallows us whole; fortunate to behold it all and be cowed into some semblance of perspective; damned by our ability to destroy lives of which we are entirely unaware, through acts of commission and omission that no intensity of beauty can absolve.
The airline ticket one buys in order to gain passage into Guatemala is to my knowledge the sole form of heroin one can legally purchase in the United States. Everything vibrates there; the streets exude an energy that you feel as a physical sensation, electric and often violent such that the basic mechanics of bodily existence, one’s gait, for example, are deconstructed, and you no longer walk, but trip along the cobblestone streets of Antigua, along the cracked and cracking pavement at the outskirts of Guatemala City. Little is hidden. There is a degree of intimacy between Guatemaltecos and the atomic elements of which life and all its forms are composed. Excrement, the knife-sharp sweet odor of rotting garbage, and dust fill your nostrils, along with the tantalizing smells of a street vendor grilling meat on a makeshift grill, of fresh cut fruit perspiring beneath a pulsing sun. And then there are the sounds, the sights, thirty-year-old cars with thirty-year-old engines pounding away, shaking their chassis and the ground so forcefully you feel the vibrations through the soles of your shoes, people cursing and laughing and fighting and crying and kissing and holding hands, stray dogs scraping their uncut nails on broken sidewalks as they lope in no direction in particular, flies or worms or both writhing in open sores, and sometimes lesion-free, but emaciated. Flakes of paint fall from buildings riddled with widening cracks onto small piles of rubble, the crumbling carcass of a sidewalk that will never be buried or revived. To walk the streets is to be stalked by your dependence upon food and drink and shelter and others at a short distance, to know that such necessities bear down on you inexorably, and that your ambivalence to them is down to a cosmic accident, that nearly half of all Guatemaltecos are faltering beneath the weight of the chains of deprivation twisted round their neck, and that as such the ability to stroll through one’s days and years without concern for their gratification is unfathomable. Hope and despair, joy and sorrow, birth and death force themselves upon you with such ferocity that both rampart and palisade shatter, and you have no choice but to confront the fact that they are molecular.
Life in America is antiseptic by comparison, despite the fact that it is more prosperous, comfortable, easier, and, by and large, healthier. There is a truth we do not tell here: life degenerates into decay. It is not a secret, because it is not cherished as secrets are, both by those who keep them and those from whom they are kept. Yet while few would dispute this truth, none speak it, which is perhaps why Western society is so thoroughly engineered to conceal it, layer by layer, redundancy by redundancy, illusion upon illusion. Everyday America consists of the same basic elements and forces as Guatemala: birth, life, death, necessity, and privation; but they have been anesthetized, removed from our daily life, and entombed in hermetically sealed containers. The dead are whisked away within hours and frozen until such a time as they can be embalmed and made to look like wax statues. Hunger is managed, crowded into ghettos and ignored. We blush at such words as love and sex and passion, and consider ourselves somehow sophisticated for blotting them from our minds.
Of course there is much that is desirable and even preferable in our little enclave of relative wealth: healthcare, technology, security, yet it seems that more often than not we forget what it is that such capacities are guarding. Choking down fast food en route to the next stop on our bloated itinerary, drowning in alcohol, and bent over our solitary desks for hour upon hour, we struggle to articulate what it is we think we know about the good life. Who among us can remember the last time we encountered food as an experience, drank in celebration rather than flight from boredom or sorrow or solitude, traveled to a destination we chose for the sole reason that we wanted to exist in that space and savor all that was on offer?
And what of my indulgence? I like to drink, excessively in the minds of some, both in celebration and in retreat. Like most drinkers, I have a set of criteria that I use to choose my home drinking ground. Call me Hemingway, but I prefer a clean, well-lighted place, one that does not mistake noise for atmosphere. Variety is preferable when it comes to wine, spirits, and beer, but is frequently out of the question in Antigua, and thus one learns to appreciate an establishment that operates artfully within its niche. ¿Por Qué No? and La Casa del Ron make a sterling cocktail; Café No Sé is a candlelit dive bar done up in a bohemian funk and run with Parisian indifference; the ever-popular Mono Loco caters to Americans between the ages of 18-22 with a militant aversion to learning Spanish.
My favorite place to drink in Antigua is technically not a bar, but a hostel run by a married couple; she is American, and he is Guatemalan. Minimalist without falling into austerity, Maya Papaya is a concatenation of clean, elegant lines, light, and taste. The menu is hers, the cocktails his; the former limited, but lively; the latter, lacking in the bourbon and rye I generally prefer, but so sufficiently innovative that it hardly matters. The hostel is a passion project for proprietor and proprietress alike, and there are worse ways to spend your time than watching the sum and swerve of their quirks and efforts weave in and out of an evening and the crowd du jour. She is an artist with panini, and a bit the Cheshire Cat, too, possessed of a grin that speaks in her silence. He, acting every bit the professional he is by training, is all things to all tables. He is Oscar Alemán with a jigger; give him the chance to riff, and he will play you a cocktail worth savoring. When not behind the bar, he circulates, evaluating, ingratiating, lifting an empty plate, offering to refill a glass.
The hostel attracts an eclectic array of guests that mingle and stir and contribute to an understated cosmopolitan atmosphere, felicitous—pick your pleasure—to both conversation and observation. I shared drinks with a Senegalese Belgian who put obsidian to shame; she was seven feet tall and spoke Spanish in French. I spoke with a man whose childhood friend had been the nephew of a notorious drug lord, and had once thrown a grenade at a teacher in his posh boarding school. (A hollow one, as it turns out). I gave a cigarette to a Russian who’d been throwing back $250 shots for the better part of an hour; his speech was utterly unimpaired as he asked the proprietor if there was a piano he could play. I watched a stunningly beautiful, tragically under-confident Guatemalteca trying to be perfect for the most sublime of reasons: she wanted that for everyone around her. I met a whip-smart and acerbically comic Scot who has survived lethal trauma and hospitalization on nine of the world’s seven continents, including fending off an African doctor who wanted to drill a hole in her skull for medically dubious reasons.
Admittedly, Maya Papaya caters to the privileged, which, being an American in Guatemala, I most certainly was. The atmosphere, replete with fine spirits and haute cuisine, was one of understated affluence and sophistication. Contrast this with el Mercado, the market, and you will have your sketch of the third world, of Guatemala. There is more food in the market stalls of Antigua than I will eat in a lifetime, and to purchase it, you have to step over or around the hungry, to avert your eyes from theirs as they raise their face to beg for alms. The bright-colored berries, the lush vegetables, the melons swollen like gravid mothers; each releases its fragrance such that what you inhale is no longer air, but life itself, and to breathe is to float off into a warm, heady buzz. But some of the vegetables have turned, and some of the fruit, and they’ve begun to smell of vinegar. A few stalls farther on, some of the fish have begun to rot, and some of the pork, too, and the flies are thick, and the air rank, and you have to pull the collar of your shirt up over your nose. Three women perspire above a griddle, their sweat falling in droplets to sizzle and spit with the grease. An old woman is plucking a chicken; three or four others are working and nursing at one and the same time. A man is splayed out on the ground. People of every age pass by, some hurrying, others loitering. After the food are the goods, and after the goods, a sea of secondhand clothes. Farther on are the buses, the majority of which burn oil and gas in equal parts, each replete with a hawker calling out his destination. This is Guatemala: simultaneity. The old and the young, the living and the dying, poverty and plenty, all in the same place. One can see his past and his future, smell both growth and decay, hear the babble and mirth of a baby and the tubercular coughing of a man whose life seems to have run its course.
I met a man in Livingston who was covered in blood, and I was fortunate to speak with him for some time. He was a Garifuna, and I did not see the blood at first, only after he spoke about it, but then there it was, sliding over his wrists and down his arms, and dripping from the points of his elbows. Death was thrust upon him: a revolutionary, an exile, a mercenary, a gangster, and now, a man in pursuit of something else, redemption, maybe, but not merely his own. He spoke of rage, destruction, murder, and worse, and it was all vertiginous, because he was beautiful, even with blood dripping down his body, and where I come from men are not supposed to be beautiful. His eyes were alive with light, and the dancing flecks of flame caught and flickered in the angles of his face. His mood and mien soared with hope and passion and conviction in the coming to pass of eventualities that belied not only the history he was relating, but the present from which he spoke. He, too, is Guatemala: an optimist and a pessimist, damned by the things he has done and by actions taken long before his birth, saved on the strength of his conversion and subsequent pursuit of atonement, but saved also by something intrinsic and ineffable, some internal quality, like grace or beauty, only more so, that stands sentinel over the mad world of humanity, holding out an offer of renewal like the balm of Gilead, promising a future.
I clung to his hope for some time, though I eventually discarded it as impossible after walking into a tourist trap that sold photographs at gringo prices. In one, there were children, four of them. One, a little girl, has a hint of a smile playing on her lips, and I think: perhaps it would be different if she looked more abject, perhaps if their clothes weren’t so bright, or if their indigenous little eyes weren’t flecked with light, perhaps then people would be moved to do more, to give more. There is a rope of sputum making its way from one girl’s nose toward her lips, but it is not enough, nor is the fact that two of the children are gnawing on their fingers. Perhaps we are punishing them for daring to look hungry while they have fingers left to eat, because their skeletons aren’t yet trying to push their way through their skin and out of their gossamer-thin bodies. Maybe after they consume all ten fingers, and their toes, too, maybe then we will give them something to eat.
It is unlikely this is true; people are not so much calloused or cruel as they are overwhelmed, so beset by ever-proliferating images of suffering and pleas for help that they retreat into themselves. This is how it was for me. I passed quickly—more quickly than is comfortable for me to admit—from heartache to irritation to a sort of anger at the men and women and children begging me for money and trying to sell me nuts and trinkets and what have you. I felt hounded, and after that moment in which I hit my breaking point I went back to my room and hoped to sob with shame and self-recrimination, but I did not, and I think this is how it comes to pass that the faces of children fail to move us.
There is a photograph of another child—over half of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty, so there is always a photograph of another child. The shot is composed to kill, emotionally, so I can’t see much of her: part of her face, two blurry shoulders. It looks like dirt has been ground into her face, and her lips are chapped and cracked; she is eight, maybe nine years old. The trouble with this kind of photography is that it makes her beautiful, her flesh luminescent, her eyes aqueous and otherworldly. It is not a sexual beauty, but it is equally dangerous, because it seems untouchable, untarnishable, like no amount of hunger, disease, or sexual trafficking can touch her, like nutrition, medical care, and education are irrelevant.
But of course they are not. I simply knew I could never do enough, and so I did nothing.
Other times I am more altruistic. At least once a day in Antigua, depending upon where I am in the city, I come across a man in the latter stages of losing a limb. On one such occasion, my friend and I were on our way to the market to buy things we didn’t really need at cut-rate prices, and we stumbled upon a particularly gruesome example. The man’s leg was mucus-green and gangrenous from knee to foot, black at his toes, and weeping tears of blood and pus at its seams. Since there was a pharmacy nearby, I asked my friend if it would not make a difference—at least in the man’s short-term prospects—were he to apply an antibiotic ointment and bandage the wound. She did not answer right away, and I thought maybe it was because she is a bit taller than I am and was walking half a step ahead of me without even trying and so I accelerated and asked the question again. She explained, slowly, as if to a child, that in his world, the blood and pus and odor were assets, and that he would lose money if he covered them up. She said this without emotion, and though I knew her lack of affect was because she is Swiss, and a nurse, and thus both genetically and professionally phlegmatic, I was nonetheless unnerved, not by her, but by what she revealed, yet more evidence that human beings, even those with very little, are attracted to pain and suffering and will pay to see it.
The pitiable, the pathetic, the repugnant; the wreaking, unwashed masses whose hair is streaked with grease, whose inability to care for themselves sends us fleeing from our own weakness; is there anything quite so natural as despising those who despise themselves? I leave it to the theologians to decide whether God is to blame, or whether to drop the sum of Christianity’s failures on the well-worn shoulders of human iniquity, but one cannot help but wonder whether—in a country dominated by a religion in which the sole possibility of salvation issues from God’s willingness to sacrifice his son on behalf of a race of degenerate sinners—a grotesque man, his rotting leg, and the thousands that step over him day by day are not merely the elaboration of a profoundly violent logic imbricated within every cell, every ideological, social, and political structure within the country. The message, even if it is not received as such, is that it took the torture and subsequent slaughter of a man to make humanity worthy of love: the rotting man as modern day Christ-figure.
The idea is carcinogenic; translated as rot, podredumbre is a word used to refer to both biological disintegration, and ideological and behavioral corruption. The US has long been able to paper over its cancers; Guatemala, however, does not have the same resources at its disposal, and thus cannot remove, incarcerate, or otherwise conceal the symptoms of her podredumbre with the same efficacy. The inextricable link between corporate and physiological deterioration, the material effects of American criminality, Guatemaltecan politicians’ graft, and international theft are laid excruciatingly bare, and so those who walk the streets surrounding el Mercado in Antigua inhale air thick with festering wounds and excrement and the decay of human, animal, and architectural bodies, and its people are forced moment to moment to choose between blindness and fatalism.
Nothing is simple here. Perhaps, though, nothing is simple anywhere, and order and justice are merely illusions afforded by wealth. Yet despite such thoughts, I keep returning to the inescapable beauty and the way in which it transcends and dramatizes the human roil. The terrace atop Bella Vista is dominated by volcanos and ruins, surrounded by a sea of trash-strewn tile roofs. The volcanos—Agua, Fuego, Pacaya—tower over the city, each verdant and lush, and there are mountains, too, smallish, humpbacked formations that nonetheless loom over the city like sentinels. The buildings and structures below, straddling the line between edificio and ruina, resemble clusters of boys and girls tittering nervously at a middle school dance, eager to approach each other, but too beset to do so. This, too, is Guatemala, and at a greater intensity, Antigua. The foreign and the familiar, the good and the bad, pleasure and pain, life and death, affluence and abjection, and privation and gluttony walk the same streets, ever in each other’s sight. But if they speak to one another it is unintelligible to us, and we are afforded no insight into the terms of their agreement.
Her unintelligibility is only exacerbated by her silence. Caesar (not his real name) is in his mid-twenties, has three children, and works as a line cook in a restaurant no bigger than one hundred and fifty square feet. Born in El Salvador, he moved to Guatemala as a child, and from there to the United States, smuggled in by a coyote. He lived as an indocumentado in Los Angeles for a decade before the Immigration and Customs Enforcement had him deported, all information he volunteered freely. When I asked him about the experiential aspects of his journey, about the sights and smells and emotions involved, the instant soup he ate two meals a day, his weekly fleecing by Western Union, the cheap two-bedroom apartments he shared with four or five men in similar positions, he was less forthcoming, suddenly unable to understand my Spanish and to speak in English as he had only moments before.
As ever, Guatemala eludes me. The other day, I asked a cook to show me his city. Not the city in which he lives, and not his country, but the world into which he was born, and which he is largely unable to escape. He took me to a pueblo on the outskirts of Antigua, San Felipe de Jesús. A large church dominates the town, and there were no fewer than three dead Jesuses in the sanctuary, which strikes me as theologically astute in a heretical sort of way, as no one man, divine or otherwise, could atone for all that has been done in and to this country. I was surprised by the number of the faithful assembled and tried to read their faces; it was mid-afternoon on a pristine Monday and the windows were expansive and limpid and dominated the chancel in a manner uncommon in Catholic churches, so the light was remarkably good, and I thought I might have some success, but the faces proved inscrutable. Not wanting to be rude, I looked away.
This was as close as I would come to the Guatemala I was searching for. After passing through another Catholic church dating back to the colonial era, we ended our excursion at a macadamia finca that gave tours and had a restaurant and spa. On the whole, the day had the inescapably vacationist flavor that I had tried to avoid. It might have been that my guide misunderstood what I was after, which, considering that Google Translate was involved, is entirely possible. It might also have been that my guide was not entirely confident in his country’s ability to satisfy my curiosity without recourse to its more famous attractions, but I doubt this is the case, given his deep faith in realities that supersede the logic of men. Whatever the explanation, my tour began with a petition, and ended with its polite and generous refusal by my guide, and so my request and I walked home together in silent conversation.
In the interest of mercy, I will not recount the conversation, only its conclusions, which is to say the thoughts I had on the matter before something else, probably to do with food, crowded it from my mind. I decided my guide’s refusal was most likely subconscious. He gave of his time and knowledge, and provided me with a day of sparkling fun, and I am grateful. More importantly, I came to believe that even had his refusal been conscious and outright, he would have been justified. Though I meant no ill-will, my request perpetuated an eons-old tradition of regarding victims as curiosities, as conundrums to be solved or cautionary tales to be heeded in the interest of a justice sufficiently abstract and distant as to be non-threatening. To be a bit more on the nose, I asked my guide to remove his clothes and pose, and likewise to denude his country, not because I am especially calloused or depraved, or even lacking in good intentions, but because my hunger for story is rapacious.
It was this same insatiable appetite that drove me to ascend the ancient ruins at Tik’al, despite my near-crippling fear of heights. Located in the Petén Basin in northern Guatemala, Tik’al is one of the largest archeological sites of the pre-Colombian Mayan civilization. The city was at the height of its power between 200-900 C.E., and in flames by the end of the tenth century, and I’ll admit to feeling a perverse satisfaction in reporting Central American violence that cannot be tied, directly or indirectly, to Europe or “Western” civilization. Indeed the politics of the region appear to have been as blood-soaked and atavistic as those of America’s European forbearers, which, my moment of amoral monstrosity notwithstanding, leaves me sheathed in sorrow. I know the dangers of fetishizing another culture, but some childlike part of me was hoping for a new Eden, or barring that, a people who built their civilization with brick and mortar rather than blood and bones.
I admit, shame-faced, to having seen Apocalypto, a film that panders to the racist and sadistic, the script of which seems to have been written entirely around a mildly amusing prank involving sexual relations and a ghost pepper. Given this, I expected my imagination to be awash in images of human sacrifice, or at the very least, for it to recreate the throb and thrum of an urban metropolis that arose from the soil more than a thousand years before colonial settlers began to displace the indigenous populations of the Americas. Instead, I saw nothing. I pushed and strained and called out to the past, but no one answered, and no visions came. I climbed to the apex of one temple, and then another, to no avail. I was stunned by their silence, as, I imagine, are all well-meaning colonizers.
Why would they withhold their voices if I was willing to keep them alive, to tell their stories?
Of course, I could do neither. I know that now, and I knew it then. I climbed Temple IV in an act of desperation—they may have turned their backs and stilled their tongues, I thought, but they can’t stop me from seeing what they saw. I climbed, my hands like vice-grips on the wooden rails ascending into the sky as children and senior citizens passed me by, the colonizer’s hubris breaking forth from my pores along with the terror-sweat running down my chest and back and saturating my shirt and briefs. It is a hard to explain, irrational, pathological fear to someone who has never been seized by it, never had every last part of himself clamped and crushed and jerked and shook by something invisible, so I will not try. Suffice it to say that I was shaking when I reached the top, and even the gentle wind caressing face and flesh and rock seemed a threat.
The view from Temple IV is like a hand reaching through your skin, grabbing hold of your viscera, and twisting violently. Your heart seizes and your lungs deflate and your eyes feel like they’re being flayed; every fiber of your body aches with a staggering purity that is almost unbearable. I felt consumed, grateful, and, looking at the faces of those around me, utterly alone. There they were. There we were. And as I watched them luxuriate in the bosom of such unspeakable beauty, all I could think was that I wanted to throw myself from the height of the temple and feel the air running over my skin as I fell.
No wonder they denied me their secrets. Forget the language barrier, forget the centuries that lay between us, forget the cultural differences—I know Mayan priests shed blood atop the very rock on which I stood, and I cannot and will not defend their actions, but they did so in order to express their gratitude to their gods, and they did it in a place that could not fail to remind them of their smallness, and of all they had to be grateful for. I felt impelled to destroy something. For me, ultimately, the beauty did not exist at all.
The ghosts at Tik’al were mute and absent, but those that roam Antigua are with me constantly. There is little question that Antigua is haunted, even though it is among the few thriving cities in the country. The city is at one and the same time the country’s crown jewel, and a monument to the systemic barbarism and exploitation of a colonial project that continues to grind the bones and souls of the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters shackled by its dictums. Yes, millions of Guatemaltecos bear up under the violence and destitution maintained by the current government and the plutocracy that owns it; they find joy, love, exhibit courage, produce works of art; but their country and poverty are their cage, and few are able to escape them. You need only to watch the sixteenth-century streets masticating twenty-first-century tires to know that colonialism holds sway.
Antigua: city of ghosts. I have trouble sleeping, and when I am unable to sleep, at least here in Antigua, I walk, though it is ill-advised to do so in the dead of night. I walk, muttering to myself and cursing under my breath, and I find myself enveloped by ghosts, specters of rage knotted into an irresolvable gnarl; specters of people and places and buildings; specters of the systems that have spawned and maintained a society by hacking and chiseling and hewing and paring the bleeding bodies of those within it. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemaltecos have been raped and murdered and hunted and sold, and their blood and tears are why the soil in Guatemala is always wet, even in the cities. There are ghosts en las ruinas; ghosts en los edificios; ghosts in the celebrated colonial architecture. They flicker in the hunger-hollowed eyes and skeletal faces of the destitute, of the almost exterminated indigenous.
Empathy is quite often posed as an avenue to understanding, and not without reason: it is achieved at great strain and great risk to those who pursue it. But this is poorly put, because, ultimately, people live and die separated by an impermeable filament, forever incapable of knowing another or her pain. Try as I might, my understanding of a Guatemalteco’s suffering can be no more than a facsimile thereof, and herein lies the rub: sorrow and agony titillate in a manner not dissimilar to the sexual. Something in me is gratified when I peel back the layers of Guatemala’s suffering, and whether my doing so achieves anything of any significance remains an open question.
Guatemala’s struggles, unlike my own, are not entirely or even primarily self-inflicted. There is no other word than filmy for the experience of enjoying generosity and hospitality that you know wouldn’t be on offer if the individuals extending it had a sense of the history of your country’s intervention in theirs. Los politicos son corruptos, they say, shaking their heads, and you yearn for a shower because you know they are talking almost exclusively about their own, and while they are not wrong, what most Guatemaltecos do not seem to be aware of is the American involvement in the most decisive moments of Guatemalan political corruption, dating back to the 1950s and continuing today. Our initial intervention came on the heels of ten years of representative democracy. A student- and labor-led movement had ousted Jorge Ubico, a violent dictator, in 1944, and replaced him via a transparent and largely free election process. The newly elected president, Juan José Arévalo, began a program of moderate social and economic reform that was continued and extended by Jacobo Árbenz, his successor, who implemented an unprecedented program of land reform to redistribute uncultivated portions of large landholdings to the poverty-stricken, thereby reinvigorating his country. Unfortunately, these reforms were to be short lived, as the United States removed Árbenz from power in 1954 through a covert CIA operation dubbed PBSUCCESS, beginning Guatemala’s downslide into a civil war that would last for the next thirty-seven years and result in the death of approximately 200,000 Guatemaltecos. During this time, the US brought Latin American military officers to the US Army School of the Americas for training, where we encouraged the use of torture, blackmail, disappearances, and mass executions to achieve their purposes.
Chances are, you did not learn about these American interventions in Guatemala in your high school history classes. Few do. I did not. It does not fit with our self-image. We prefer Lincoln’s notion that we are a country “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We like to speak of ourselves as a nation “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Why, then, would we intervene in Guatemala just as she was taking her first steps towards equality and justice?
The answer lies in the United Fruit Company (UFCO), an American-based corporation that exercised extreme economic and political influence throughout Latin America for much of the twentieth century. UFCO was the largest land holder in Guatemala, and it had no intention of playing nice when Árbenz instituted his program of agrarian land reform, despite the fact that only currently unused land was targeted, and all landowners were fully compensated for the land at the value they had claimed for tax purposes. The CIA director at the time, Allen Dulles, had formerly been the president of UFCO, while his brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, had provided legal representation for the company. The previous CIA director and under-secretary of state, General Walter Bedell Smith, was on the company’s board of directors, and would later become the company’s president. Ultimately, UFCO held enough power in Washington to lobby successfully for the United States to intervene in Guatemala under the pretense of defending the Americas from the threat of communism.
It is often said that the line separating love from hate is made of the thinnest of filaments, a bromide best discarded with other remnants of humanity’s intellectual detritus. Love stems from contact with something exterior to us that drives us inward in order to find the best of ourselves and to make of it an offering. The movement of hate is the opposite: hatred is first and foremost a hatred of self, one we project onto another, enabling us to occlude our carcinogenic auto-revulsion. Though it is of no succor to the Guatemaltecos tortured and killed, to those still suffering amidst the destitution that America’s intervention in Central America has created and perpetuates, the actions of the United States are those of a country with little faith in itself or its ideals, a country which sneers at the notion that human life possesses any intrinsic value, its own and its citizens’ included.
George Bernard Shaw is purported to have said that Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it, which, while deliciously succinct and scathing to those of us who have an axe or six to grind with the church, is more flash than substance, and at any rate, apocryphal; one need not look hard to find Christians whose lives exhibit the best aspects of their faith. All have fallen short of the glory of the God I do not believe in, and so none are perfect, and it would be disingenuous and self-destructive to pretend that Christianity—or any faith—is anything but aspirational.
Likewise the United States of America.
America began as a clarion call to human beings to bind themselves together in hopes of realizing a set of ideals, but somewhere along the way we forgot this and allowed ourselves to believe that America exists in bricks and mortar, in money, and in military might rather than in the pursuit of our founding principles. It is not a matter of happenstance that a dollar is worth seven quetzales, but rather the direct result of our willingness to see hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children murdered or starved in order to procure cheaper produce, coffee, and what have you. Guatemala is known as the Land of Eternal Spring; with her ample rainfall and fertile volcanic soil, she yields spectacular harvests. But, because we feel little compunction to make our ostensible belief in equality and inalienable rights and life and liberty translate into our practices, we ensure that those harvests are exported to the United States at a cut-rate price, and that the crops that serve our needs be planted in lieu of food, leaving the majority of rural Guatemaltecos with little to eat.
How can my countrymen not see that we have grown strong eating food taken from the mouths of babes?
How can Christians fail to see that the dinner steaming on our tables was stolen from the least of these?
What sorrow awaits you who are fat and prosperous now, for a time of awful hunger awaits you. What sorrow awaits you who laugh now, for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
Once upon a time, I had a theology professor. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister and had a voice like Billie Holliday toward the end of her career, whiskey-soaked and coarse, wrecked, but pregnant. She told me I was going to hell because I had been baptized multiple times, and once remarked that my life was even more pointless and empty than her own. Coming from New England, where abuse and sarcasm are expressions of love, I, of course, I adored her. When she was not busy insulting me, she taught me a great deal. If you want to understand a society, she once said, pay attention to what the devil is doing.
Guatemalans will tell you that the devil is busy leading their politicians ever farther down the path of corruption, and so, with scant reason to hope in this world, they shift their concerns to the world to come. Growing up Evangelical, I had some experience with intense religious devotion, but there were no gray areas in the Christianity of my youth. One was either radically saved and covered in the blood of the Lamb, or set for an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Such binary, winner-take-all thinking is not uniquely American, but it is characteristically American; long before she became a nation, she envisioned herself as the city on the hill, a light unto the world, and she has repeated this story many times in the subsequent two and a half centuries, and believed it, girding herself in righteous certainty.
Guatemala does not cling so tightly to the black and the white. She cannot, at least not without sacrificing a part of herself. Enter Maximón. Both Catholic (San Simón) and Mayan (Mam), Maximón is the result of an arcane and multi-faceted syncretism that cannot be located in time. Yet despite the opacity of his origins, there is an established consensus concerning his character and function: he is a bringer of balance, both wise and wanton, dark and light, fair and capricious. He wears both modern and traditional Mayan garb. Legend has it that he was dismembered by a villageworth of men as revenge for sleeping with their wives, but the faithful ply his favor with liquor, cigarettes, and money, and believe him to be both a bestower of divine blessings, and a weapon to turn on their enemies. Maximón bridges cultures and realms, making it possible for people to honor their God and their ancestors simultaneously.
Books have been written about Christianity’s forays into Latin America and elsewhere, and while the syncretism that evolved in Guatemala is unique, the difference is a matter of degree rather than kind. By virtue of their extra-biblical existence and their satanic gods, European powers found the Mayans in need of a thorough smiting, and proceeded to act upon their convictions, endangering, evangelizing, stealing, and massacring as God and his representatives saw fit. Maximón offers Guatemaltecos a way to believe in a divine present, and the possibility of a prosperous future, in the face of a brutal past.
Gently heretical as I am, and perhaps a bit puckish, the figure of a holy hedonist appeals. He is the raconteur and scamp that I might have been in another life. But such fancy aside, Maximón is irreducible, which is to say that he is Maximón, San Simón, and Mam at one and the same time, and since he cannot be named with any precision, neither can he be pinned to a location in space or time, neither in Christianity nor in Tzutujil narratives. He exists in his own space, which is to say in multiple spaces, and is capable of opening doors that lead beyond the regulations of normative society.
Perhaps this is why Maximón is, literally, never left alone. He is flanked by two stewards at all times, and attended by countless statues of Jesus and the three wise men and a battalion of saints. Yet this raises the question of who is reforming whom: Maximón is vastly outnumbered, yes, but he continues to smoke and drink, and both figuratively and literally, he looms large over Christendom’s legions. Moreover, his stewards are almost perpetually drunk, as tends to happen when one keeps vigil with the god of debauchery.
Is Maximón meant to be reformed, or to reform? The question, I think, is characteristically American, and could be asked only from the vantage point of great privilege. Having sat atop the world for so long, American metaphysics divides reality into two realms: one in which her will is done, and another that belongs to the unspeakable. But Guatemala has not had the same experience. The world she knows is neither wonderful, nor terrible, but rather composed of gradients of wonder and terror, and of thousands of other qualities and contingencies America cannot acknowledge. A nation of absolutes and absolutists cannot brook the pagan-saint and Christ being carried in the same procession on Good Friday, can only set its teeth on edge when both are reverenced throughout Holy Week. We who are wed to a vision of our own certitude can neither bend nor flex, but those forced to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune time and again have saints that simultaneously flout and serve the preeminent religion of the land.
Tolstoy famously wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I do not find the remark to be especially insightful or even true, but there can be no question that he understood his readers and what they had come to expect in the course of carving out their survival amidst the turbulence of nineteenth-century Russia, a time in which the conflicts between czarist socialist reform and agrarian socialist reform were adjudicated in blood. The unhappiness of Tolstoy’s Russian families, while obviously manifest in a myriad of ways, could in all likelihood be traced back to a relatively uniform set of causes, but Tolstoy knew that even the notoriously fatalistic Russian consciousness could only accept so much predetermination, and so each family became uniquely despondent.
This, I think, is one of the great and terrible lessons of human reality, that what one says or does rarely matters as much as how and when one says or does it. Beset by poverty, hunger, crime, and corruption, and with their last two presidents now in prison, Guatemaltecos nonetheless refuse to be so thoroughly beat down and jaded as to be unlikely to stir for any conciliatory, optimistic, or promissory message; not a week passed in the eight I was there without at least one admirably non-violent protest being held. If one is so impertinent as to ask his Guatemaltecan hosts about the country’s troubles, he is told stories of corrupt politicians, military officers, and policemen, and these are no doubt contributing factors, but cannot hold a candle of the explanatory power possessed by the record of US intervention in Guatemala, and Central America more broadly.
Enter Tolstoy: no one wants to believe that her fate and that of her country hinges on factors that have little to do with her. Like the woman battered and detested by her faithless lover, Guatemala comes to believe that she is at fault, that each and every blow that falls upon her is warranted. Quickly, it is all but impossible to convince her that she deserves better, and so she faces a demon’s choice: forget the fact, or wither away slowly in view of an indifferent world. Guatemala’s suffering is indisputable and ongoing, and nothing is done, nothing risked on her behalf, and I can only imagine a lover weeping into her coupled hands, desperate to know where she went wrong. Betrayed, betrayed, betrayed: first by others, then by herself, and once and twice and three times again by others. All whose hearts have been mislaid by the careless or broken by the malicious should understand this, even if few expend the time or energy to do so. No amount or intensity of words can refute the consequences of actions that cut and torch and aggrieve. The United States of America has, since at least the late 1940s, been content to tell Guatemala that neither she nor her people are of any ultimate value, and to my knowledge very few people or governments have been willing to challenge that judgement.
But Guatemaltecos do, every day, and this is the part of the story that it is most important to tell. Despite the malevolent, inhuman privation crushing the larynxes of Guatemaltecos, the fires of their joy and hope and their conviction of their own significance yet burn, and going about the business of their quotidian days, they are seen to pulse with sensations we no longer recognize. Year by year, tourists descend upon Antigua’s sun-soaked cobblestone streets, largely, I think, because in Guatemala, the Westerner hears voices to which he has long been deaf, discovers sensations of which he had no knowledge. He is alive to death, decay, and rebirth, and through the tastes and smells and sounds that issue from them, rediscovers life.
I, of course, am part of this great white migration, desperate to feel as Guatemaltecos do, and unable to shed my American skin. Traveling to a foreign country, one imagines that the language he speaks will be the most obvious marker of his identity, an assumption, which, in my experience, does not bear out. I generally do not need to hear an American speak to know his or her country of origin for the simple reason that existence precedes speech. The American, with the possible exception of the Australian, consumes more space than any of the world’s other citizens. He is most frequently neither aggressive, nor demanding in his occupation thereof, so much as unreflective. He is used to having what he wants, and so he takes the gratification of his desires as his birthright, not because he is especially greedy, but because it is what he knows. In Antigua, Americans mass on the sidewalks and converse with each other, forcing pedestrians into the street; they shout, and laugh heartily in public places, unabashedly speaking English, standing with their feet shoulder-width apart, and stopping natives to ask for directions en voz alta. I am describing the tourists, of course, not the expatriates who, in my experience, have settled in Antigua for reasons that almost always include a strong preference for a mode, manner, and pace of life that is markedly unAmerican.
American corporatism is infecting Guatemala. Take up a position along the streets of Antigua fifteen or twenty minutes after school lets out and you’ll see students walking with pizza boxes. It took me a few days to recognize that I was watching the progeny of the affluent performing their social superiority. It was the way they carry the boxes that ultimately clued me in, lids tilted at odd angles to make the branding more visible. Most of the boxes were from Little Caesar’s, though the kids with the nicest clothes held Domino’s, which is all the evidence you need that there is no accounting for taste.
However bizarre the performance, the pizza box as class-marker is a microcosm of the corporatist consumer culture that (re)produces it, and operates similarly, is anesthetizing by design, because it is more efficient, and therefore more profitable, to produce and market a limited number of items, spaces, lifestyles, etc. than it is to permit the existence of environs wherein the heart is free to pine and throb, and the mind to dream. It creates an illusion of need tied to aesthetic campaign designed to blot out all else. Nonetheless, a soft, ineradicable static remains, produced by the sensations and thoughts you continue to have, and cannot process within this discourse.
This, then, is the source of the allure of the two-thirds world, its immediacy, and the way it forces us back into the bodies from which neoliberal consumer capitalism abstracts us; one gluts himself on the sights and smells, the incessant cacophony thick with the sound of biological and physiological functions hidden away in modern Western cultures.
Dominoes and Little Caesar’s are merely the beginning, oblique gestures toward a looming materialism of which Paseo Cayalá is its altar. The transition from third to first world is jarring despite its grace. It happens in such a short distance; the potholes vanish silently beneath the lights of the Pan-American Highway as exit after exit appears, beckoning you unto commerce. My driver drops me at a restaurant I know nothing about. I am there to meet a woman, whose family, I learn, owns the establishment. She is kind and confident, and, as luck would have it, beautiful. Her outfit is chic, flawlessly accessorized, and her car is gleaming and immaculate. She shows me a Guatemala I have yet to see: high rises emerge from the shadows as we drive, revealing an urban density and a diversity of heights and textures. We head downtown and take in the monuments through the car windows on our way to the cultural district, and from there to bars and microbreweries not unlike those in gentrified Brooklyn, and comparable in price. Then we make our way to Paseo Cayalá.
I am unprepared.
Paseo Cayalá is halfway between a mall and a city. It consists of thirty-four acres of high-end boutiques, posh restaurants, and upmarket condos, along with several nightclubs, parks, and a church. Theoretically open to all, the cheapest apartment costs about seventy times the average Guatemalan’s yearly wage. While some tout Cayalá as a haven from the violence that runs rampant in the country, others decry the complex as an illusion for sale at a high price. Neither position is easily refuted. On the one hand, Guatemala is marked by a staggering inequality that results in roughly half the nation living in extreme poverty; on the other hand, it is impossible to deny the violence that pervades the country, though a dearth of systemic studies means there is no consensus as to its underlying causes (gangs, guns, and drugs are among the most frequently-cited). It is not hard to see the appeal of the security and protection that Cayalá provides, but neither is it difficult to understand why those struggling to survive on less than $10 a day might recoil at the sight of this gleaming reminder of the riches that remain forever out of their reach.
Paseo Cayalá, then, is at once unpardonably crass and unrelentingly elegant, inarguably elitist, and commercially egalitarian. Designed by renowned architect Léon Krier, it is, aesthetically speaking, gorgeous, and almost entirely devoid of excess, instead exhibiting the clean lines and understated flair for which Krier is known, with capacious, well-lit spaces in which one feels entirely unencumbered by the density of urban life. While all are permitted to enter Cayalá, few Guatemaltecos could feel at home there, and Krier’s pedigree is an unambiguous indicator of the type of clientele the Cayalá Management Group is pursuing.
Perhaps the desire of the wealthy for protection from their economically disadvantaged countrymen is not novel, yet what interests me about Cayalá is not the security itself, but the manner in which the complex provides it. Cayalá does not just protect; it stages its protection in an intricate and contradictory way that serves the interests of both security and status simultaneously. The development is an enchantment as much as anything else, a multi-sensory construction, the interruption of which cannot be permitted lest it be revealed as witchery. Possessed only of a single gate, each client’s entrance constitutes a very specific kind of spectacle, a highly visible event in which one’s status is confirmed and celebrated by virtue of admission.
Neoliberal consumer capitalism—Guatemalan, American, or otherwise—conceives of the world as a collection of markets, and people as data points therein; it would have you believe that each man is an island, unrelated to the next, and it would have you believe that your primary purpose is to consume, to purchase. It would have you believe that, barring calculations of cost and quantity, it matters little what you purchase, that buying or selling ten thousand dollars’ worth of cigarettes is no better or worse than buying or selling ten thousand dollars’ worth of prenatal vitamins. Cayalá is both an incarnation and a celebration of these premises, which are themselves counterintuitive and empirically false, and thus must be bolstered through illusion, manipulation, and force.
Though it pains me to admit it, at no point during my two months in Guatemala did I feel more at ease than I did during my time in Cayalá, which, despite its location, is as American as apple pie, and, if we are honest with ourselves, more so. Consumer culture has always been highly voyeuristic, but technology has allowed marketing so thoroughly to pervade and aestheticize life that a product’s content and capacity are often ancillary to the clique to which its possession signals belonging. First-world consumerism is fundamentally incompatible with diversity and specificity, and thus entails a flattening of culture in the name of profit. Guatemala may have the highest GDP in Central America, but it remains, domestically, a limited, cash-strapped market, and thus any inroads Domino’s, McDonald’s, or other global corporations make come at the expense of smaller, local businesses, which must recede.
The recession in question is not merely a matter of quetzales, but of the cultural sinew that knits individuals together and forms community; it is a matter of aspiration, identity, and social currency. The shiny new McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell have not only displaced locally-owned businesses, but they are changing the speed and patterns of Guatemaltecos’ lives. I recognize that globalism has happened, and moreover that in many cases this isn’t a bad thing, but one does not have to condemn fast food or fast living to see that it poses a threat to a people and country that have long based their lives around family and relationships. As globalism extends and deepens its reach, and consumer capitalist culture bores its screws ever deeper into Guatemaltecos’ skulls, convincing them that they must run, run, run, and work, work, work, so they can buy, buy, buy, the fact that the most convenient tacos in Antigua are sold by Taco Bell will, in the long run, likely prove decisive.
The evening I spent at Cayalá was in some ways the easiest night of my stay in Guatemala. I ate good food, drank great beer, and had a few too many excellent cocktails with a woman who was wonderful company. All of it was overpriced, and I would have been ashamed of myself for spending as much as I did had I been back in Antigua, as indeed I had been ashamed many times. I know for a fact that my bar tab would have paid for a full semester of the English classes one of the Guatemaltecan women I met was taking. Cayalá made it easy, though; it stood between me and my morals, between me and any thoughts of the Guatemaltecan woman in question like a mountain, which, to be clear, absolves me of nothing, as I had to leave both my friend and my morals behind in order to put the mountain between us.
The voyeurism was delicious, but it was the sense of belonging that was intoxicating; we were a community consecrated in dollars, and each of us congratulated the others for being in the right place and wearing and drinking and wanting the right things as diamond necklaces and earrings and titanium watches caught and threw the neon light of the bar. Everything was spotless; if someone ate a peanut, it had been shelled and set in a polished steel bowl forged for precisely this purpose, and if he ordered a tapa, it was perfectly cooked and plated, and presented like a work of art. We were cosseted in the web of commerce, locked in, if you will, to the life chosen for us by quietism, avarice, and multinational corporations.
Guatemala is a cascade of incongruity refusing to sort itself out: the country is renowned for its ceviche, though the dish is so expensive the vast majority of Guatemaltecos will die never having tasted it. Parts of Guatemala City—Paseo Cayalá included—are as modern and as expensive as New York, London, or Paris, yet the majority of Guatemaltecos live in poverty, many lacking electricity and sanitation. Amid the deprivation, bombas explode almost hourly, a local version of a firecracker, but deafening. Much to the enjoyment of the locals, I jumped every time. I would like to think that it was the weight of the realization that people were choosing sound over food that threw me, but that is not even partway true. I startle easily. I always have. Still, the thought plagues me: what would have to be true for me to choose to emit a thunderous, but fleeting babel over eating? To make that choice for my child? I have never been truly hungry, and my guess is that those trying to scratch and crawl their way clear of starvation do not have the luxury of indulging in existential masturbation, but part of me wonders if those bellicose detonations aren’t a means of claiming an existence that transcends the prison of poverty. If a man’s knowledge of a faraway shimmering world is inextricable from the knowledge that he will never leave his pueblo, and that the best he will likely be able to do for those he loves is to keep them alive so that hunger and illness may gnaw at them, might he not, from time to time, be overcome by the desire to reach beyond his cage and seize one or two of the fat and happy by the neck?
Many of those who read this will accuse me of hating my country. They will sneer and throw rocks and tell me to leave if I find America so objectionable, and doing so, they will fail to recognize that I did leave her, and that I bore her on my back and in my heart, and that my thoughts never left her the whole time I was gone. I had fun in Guatemala: I traveled, ate sumptuous food, drank my body weight in cocktails, met people I will never forget, and found myself surrounded by more natural beauty than I had previously known. But I was never unaware of where I was, of all that the mountains and volcanoes around me had seen, of the blood my country had shed and the way the soil had gagged and choked as it poured down Guatemala’s throat.
I got several tattoos while I was in Guatemala: one is very good, and one is very bad, and the third is somewhere in between. The very good tattoo is a hummingbird—colibrí—which I got to remind myself that hope is the thing with feathers, and that every day, very small birds face down a large and violent world. The very bad tattoo is of a compass, and since both Guatemala and my family believe in signs, I hope that none of them reads it as a harbinger of things to come, despite the fact that it is hard to ignore a broken compass, and even more so when it is inscribed in the flesh of someone you love. With that said, it is hard to know how much good a compass could really do in Guatemala, where there is often little doubt as to the direction in which the country needs to travel, and very little the people can do about the fact that the country is veering off course.
In the end, all human lives are circumscribed, whether by poverty or practice. I am grateful for the advantages I have been granted, for my relative wealth, mobility, and security. I am an American. I am accustomed to the sanitary, the tidy. I am accustomed to eating meat without having to deal with blood, to fresh, soil-free vegetables selected from a display, to visiting the elderly and infirm in the buildings in which they are stashed. I am up at five, to the gym at five-thirty, and to work no later than eight; if I eat lunch, I do so hastily and alone while I work in my office. I try to make dinner for my family every night so that I can see them before I collapse into bed. I am often tired, soul-weary, and angry. I often feel hollow and adrift. I have too much to do. There are not enough hours in the day. There are too many bills to pay. I can never catch up. I compartmentalize. I manage. There is no other choice.
Guatemala has been my refuge. I struggle here, too, failing myself and my ideals and others with an unpardonable frequency, but I know why I am struggling: for beauty that makes you ache, for the recognition that relationships are life’s blood, for one more day in a place where you can see and hear and feel and smell life in every moment.
It would be immoral and appropriative of me to reduce Guatemala to a cautionary tale for Americans to learn from, but it would be equally offensive to pretend that she isn’t. People have compared the American empire to that of Rome, and one cannot argue against the fact that the conquests of both empires were every bit as much cultural and linguistic as they were military. But the greater kinship lies in the fact that the Visigoths came for the Romans, and are already coming for us. Yes, we have penetrated Guatemalan culture deeply, but the knockoff goods being hawked in el Mercado are not ours. We are being beaten at our own game.
Imagine a man in the last days of the empire; he lives at the periphery of the city, is in Rome, but not of Rome, a parochial, the son of a man who still tills the soil in the hinterlands of a westward province. He is bent over his small plot, savoring the sun’s caress upon the back of his neck, the rich aroma of his olives ripening on the vine, and of the soft loam he allows to slip between his fingers a few grains at a time. He turns: does he smell the city burning, or is it only that he can see the smoke rising from beyond the horizon? He realizes what is happening and his thought fractures: his family, mother, father, young son, their mother; his property: the horses and the silver and slaves, the vines and the grapes and the olives, the grain and melons gestating in the womb of the earth.
It is hard to say whether our Roman and his countrymen are villains or victims, but there is no doubt that sight and smell press themselves into his eyes and aquiline nose as he makes his frantic provisions, gathers his family, and barks orders at the slaves yoking horse to a cart heavy-laden with possessions and clothes and wine and foodstuffs.
I am all but certain that he never loved the gates until the moments before their breach when it seemed that they might yet save him. He had given them little thought and cherished them not at all, and as such they’d remained no more than an abstraction to him. And then they were thrown open, and tongues of flame lapped at his flesh.
Did he hate the rapacious barbarians frothing at the mouth as they forced themselves upon him? I doubt it. The whore-gate that spread herself wide and betrayed him? No. If hate came, it came later, after the fire had consumed his possessions and taken his son whose heart and lungs and bowels were reduced to embers and char. It came after those embers had turned cold and the father felt his pain and pulse and breath as a mockery.
I am the embodiment of the colonial machinery past and present: I come to Guatemala, and find Romans, which is to say, myself. On a human level this is unremarkable, tethered, as we ultimately are, to the circumstances and cultures we flee. Nonetheless, the systems of death and plunder are for the most part administered by people who bear no malice toward their victims, who are guilty of nothing more than failing to regard others as possessed of the same importance and intensity of experience they demand others recognize in them.
I called the gates of Rome whore-gates, but the truth is that it was not the gates that allowed the Visigoths to enter Rome, but the Romans. They had everything they needed to defend themselves at their disposal, but were too lost to make use of it. America is likewise lost. As insanity churns within the Republican Party, and President Trump leads both country and world toward nuclear war; as ice shelves more than a million years old shatter and fall into the sea; as our country’s bridges and infrastructure crumble while the wealthy cut their own taxes; as 2.5 million homeless children walk the streets, and 1 in 6 American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime; as more and more people cannot afford to pay for adequate healthcare; as all this and more happens, I find that an American in Guatemala in these times is more American than he or she has ever been, and perhaps more American than he or she will ever be. Guatemala cannot afford the trappings of false prosperity, does not have the money to hide her problems from the world, and so, while remaining herself, she becomes, also, a mirror, and in her, we can see ourselves, perhaps for the first time, and it is only then that we may know what it means to say that she has suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
People will tell you that Guatemala is lost. I disagree. Her leaders are corrupt, but her people live too close to the bone to be lost. They are intimate with every element of life, and they understand that it comes at a cost, one which American society prefers to sanitize. Life means blood, feces, and other viscous and unseemly fluids. It means some must toil and sow, labor and reap; it means someone must slaughter an animal if we are to have meat. It means that those we love will die, and one day, the same will happen to us. None of this is novel, of course, but it is real. Consumer culture manufactures need in order to create profit; buy this, it says, and you will be happy and whole. To visit Guatemala, though, to walk her streets and meet her people, is to see that life itself, bare life, can gratify. This isn’t hokum or fetishization; I am not forgetting all that is brutal and terrible and tragic in Guatemala. There is pain and privation, corruption and plunder, a thousand and one injustices that need to be righted. But life there has not been so thoroughly debased and aestheticized, so dismembered, sanitized, packaged, and pitched that Guatemaltecos have forgotten its taste and smell and sound and feel.
Beauty is a word of dubious value given how carelessly it has been deployed, but that does not change the fact that sometimes it is the right word. Zip-lining a mile above the earth, in a boat on Río Dulce, on a beach in Livingston, in a rooftop café in Antigua: at times Guatemala reaches into you and stirs your heart, and you can barely stand.
So much pain and suffering and wrong, and yet she remains as beautiful as she is broken, and looking at her, we realize that we are broken, too. Morning and night she pulses with life, and I know, because I have felt it, that there is something there, something which might contain the parts of ourselves that we have lost, the quantities that might allow people and nations to be made whole
Ciahnan Darrell is an adjunct professor in the English departments at King’s College (PA) and Wilkes University. He holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the University at Buffalo, an MA in philosophy from Stony Brook University, and an MDiv from the University of Chicago. An Africanist, he currently researches representations of racialized and gendered violence in Southern African fiction, and examines the implications of neoliberalism on depictions of subjectivity in Southern African fiction. A contributing editor at the Marginalia Review of Books, he has also published fiction in Gone Lawn, Rum Punch Press, The Legendary, and elsewhere.