Sometimes simplistic identity politics are just easier than actually thinking about the realities of power and relationships. Over the years, I have been served well by facing potential conflict by just bowing, acknowledging the depth and obscenity of my privileges, and asking for readmission to the good graces of my more marginalized friends or comrades. Not manipulatively either, I’m talking genuinely believing that my privileges simply make me more wrong than people who’ve faced more violence, or trauma, or exploitation. The formula that this approach provides can ravage one’s sense of agency and self-worth, but it eases tension, and it allows one into all sorts of spaces where one would not normally be invited.
The problem is, those kinds of politics aren’t just simplistic, they are dangerous. They are patronizing and flat. The truth…god!…the truth is just so much harder and messier.
I’ve been here in Guatemala for almost two months, which is actually one of my longest consecutive stretches yet. In that time, I’ve spent nearly every moment in this same house with my family. That much time in close quarters with between 12 and 23 people? You don’t need an MTV reality show to know that things are going to get real. Pet peeves. Petty and not so petty conflicts. Days without speaking to certain people. Sulking, simmering, then later singing together. Always, at least one person is having a bad day or is feeling sick, and on a good number of days that includes me.
This is to be expected from any extended family trip, I know. Especially with in-laws. But how does one manage that when the landscape of culture and power is as freaking weird as it is in our case? What does it mean when your in-laws feel comfortable teasing you all day long, playing with you, but when they are actually angry with you, they say nothing because they know that you are their sole provider? You have the power to cut them off at any level you want, from luxuries like cable and ice cream, all the way to electricity, health care, and food. How does that not just totally screw up the authenticity of a relationship? How do I handle, at the same time, that Glendi and I have all this power and responsibility, but I also feel like I’m never allowed to say “No” to anything, because then I will be a hoarding, cheap, privileged gringo? What happens when I know I’m being lied to or manipulated, as sometimes happens?
Tonight, I crossed the line from playful family banter to being a North American ogre, and I just don’t know how to process it cleanly. I don’t usually write about details like this, but this time I feel like I was sufficiently in the wrong that it won’t embarrass or shame my family to share it. I need to write this out, and maybe it can help some others in my life have a little window into the constant, exhausting complexities of our family situation.
Here’s the story.
In rural Guatemala, the word agua doesn’t mean water. In reference to beverages, it means soda. If you want to drink actual water, you need to ask for agua pura. The Guatemalans I know almost don’t drink plain water at all—usually only after playing an intense sport or if they are sick or something. With their three meals a day, they drink sugary coffee, sugary packaged juice (like Tang or Kool-Aid), sugary soda, sugary boiled water, or a sugary corn-flour water that they make. They think plain water is a very gringo (or canche, which literally means blonde-haired) thing to enjoy. They think it tastes bad, and they often make jokes that it’s more for animals to drink than people. I know this, I’m used to this, and I’ve been fine weathering 6 years of constant comments about how weird I am for what I prefer to drink at the table. I’ve always been a big water fan.
Fine. This has been fine for years, and mostly I’ve just been fine with boiled water from the family well.
Then comes the baby, and in consideration for her baby stomach and our decision to not give our baby coffee and sugared drinks, we started buying big jugs of pure water. The whole family could access them, but the family still made constant comments that they were for the baby and also for me, because I prefer water to coffee and other sugary stuff.
Two jugs a week, supposedly only being used by a few people, because no one else even likes the stuff.
Over time, I start realizing that the two jugs are being finished in 2-3 days, with me accessing a tiny portion of the water. I’m playing basketball with the family every day, and I’m drinking almost nothing. My pee is almost always yellow, often dark yellow. Some days I’m only drinking 2 or 3 coffee mugs of water in an entire day that includes almost 2 hours of intense basketball. I can’t find water because it’s being used for juice packets, or because everyone else is drinking pure water as well.
When the water is gone, few people even mention it. They go back to their sugared coffee and sugared boiled water etc. The baby doesn’t have pure water to drink and neither do I. Not until the next delivery in 3 days, or unless we go out and buy more from the local stores.
Okay, context set—from my perspective, at least. So, here’s what happened tonight.
It was dinner, just a few hours ago. Chile Rellenos. Delicious. The family, as usual, is drinking sugared coffee. I have my bag of pure water, which we had to buy earlier today because there wasn’t any water and no one had said anything for a few days—I don’t like to be demanding here. Suddenly, I see one of the teenaged boys asking for pure water instead. At lunch, I had noted that 4 other family members had drunk from the bags of pure water along with their coffee also.
In the sarcastic, even caustic style that I see my family tends to use, I said loudly to the whole table, “Ah, I see how it is. Whenever there’s no pure water here, no one cares, no one complains, and I just go without water for days. But when we finally have water, everyone suddenly wants it. You all finish it in two days and then I don’t have any water any more!”
I was smiling. For me, this was a family nit pick, not actually something that’s a huge deal for me. My family, however, was not smiling. The teenager pushed his pure water away in a “never mind” gesture. Glendi left the table, her food untouched, and sobbed in her bedroom. One of the twins later ran to his bed—which I share with him—and cried for 20 minutes.
Glendi told me that I was bitter and yelling and that I hugely insulted her family, claiming that pure water is only good enough for the gringo and that no one else should be able to have it, not even the young ones. The twin, crying and crying, told me that if he had millions he could buy all the water he wants, but since he’s poor, only the rich, proud gringo gets to have the water.
With one side of my mouth, I apologized for hurting feelings and being insensitive. With the other side of my mouth…immediate defenses. I explained that my tone was an attempt to use the family’s sarcastic style, and that I actually was mostly just ribbing on them for what I saw as hypocrisy. I told them that of course I’d actually prefer for them to drink pure water, but if they want to, then we should buy enough for everyone, or we should boil enough, and all it would require is spending less money on powdered drinks and sugar…that it was an issue of family priorities, and pure water is only a priority when it’s in the house—for me and the baby’s consideration—and when it’s not in the house it’s not even an afterthought.
Nothing. They went to bed angry and hurt. See, I crossed a line of class and culture that is so hard to uncross. I exposed myself as privileged and as an outsider, and that’s just how it goes. Here’s what I let slip from my mind: although I am one of their sole providers, it is highly humiliating and insulting for me to ever criticize their consumption decisions, especially with the kids and especially with life-affirming and healthy things like water. I understand how they read what they did into my words, and I understand how there were so many other ways that I could have broached the subject. I also understand my reasons. It feels so messy to me.
This particular situation will clearly wash over after a few days. The family will probably whisper and gossip about it for awhile when I’m not around. It will probably make it to some circles of aunts, uncles, and in-laws. Can you believe what Jeremias said?
That’s fine with me. I think it’s important for my family to be able to be mad at me. It’s healthy and authentic. However, I wish we could talk about it more openly, rather than either speaking in sarcasm or in broad class strokes.
That’s the thing, though. How do we talk about this stuff openly? Because the need for money is so constant, because Glendi and I are always giving so much, there are so many little screw ups or moments like this, so many reminders of the one-sided nature of our situation, so many examples of how the power dynamics distort the fullness of our relationships. I don’t know how to navigate to a place where we discuss this openly and healthily. For example, why didn’t I just use my abundance of conflict resolution and even teaching skills to just directly address my frustration about water weeks ago? (seriously, I sometimes don’t know where the hell so many of skills go when I’m down here!)
So hard, so sad, so confusing. And I just end up feeling really bad about myself, while still also feeling unheard.
I wish I knew more people with these same unique family dynamics, but I still haven’t had much luck. I could really use more people to talk to about this.