The Escuela Popular Sindical…

For me, Glendi’s uncle is kind of like the leftist, Guatemalan version of my Alaskan grandpa. During all of my adolescence, my grandpa would take me aside at the family gatherings and he would try to engage me in discussions of conservative ideas. I love him dearly for it. He was so concerned about me, and my descent into revolutionary socialism that he gave me a deep exposure to his perspectives and his intellectual heroes, like Rush Limbaugh. I learned a ton, including a respect for conservatives as people, even as their ideas repulse me. Glendi’s uncle gives me almost the exact same vibe that I remember from growing up, except the ideas that he’s trying to expose me to are on the other side of the political spectrum. At family gatherings we sit together and talk about Guatemala, the U.S., rich and poor, religion, and social struggle. He makes me feel so comfortable here.

In the hours before the church service that we had for Glendi’s dad here in the house, I sat with her uncle and talked with him about the upcoming elections. He told me that he had no hope for any changes, and then he proceeded to talk about the ongoing land occupation that he’s involved in, the organization, Plataforma Agraria (Agrarian Platform) that he participates in, and about the radical radio programs he listens to. When I talked to him about my upcoming studies, he started getting excited and told me that he too was taking classes at the university, and that’s when things got really interesting.

It turns out that Glendi’s uncle is taking these Saturday classes in Political Economy and Popular Education at the nearby university in Xela. The classes are free, and they are taught voluntarily by radical professors who aren’t otherwise free to share all of their perspectives. Glendi’s uncle loves the classes and how much they are opening up his mind about the way Guatemala works, the history of colonialism, and the necessity of struggle. He’s well into his fifties, but he looks like a teenager when he talks about these things.

Naturally, I wanted to see the classes for myself, so this morning at 6:30 he came by and we took the 1 ½ hour bus ride together to Xela. We had a quick cup of coffee sitting there at a stand at the bus terminal, we walked a brisk and winding path through the open market, and then arrived at the university at 9am.

There were multiple classes taking place at the same time, but the class we entered was political economy. The students were all indigenous, 5 of them men (ranging in age from late 20’s to mid 50’s) and 10 of them women (mostly in their mid-twenties, and almost all in traditional Mayan clothes). Many of the students seemed to speak an indigenous language in addition to Spanish, and the youngest man speaks Spanish, Mam, and English (he spent 7 years working in a chicken farm in North Carolina, and in a restaurant in Lousiana). The professor looked to be in his sixties.

When we entered, the class had already started, and the topic was gender roles and patriarchy, and their relationship to private property. The perspective was definitely Marxist, with a strong slant toward discussion of the specific history of colonialism and imperialism in Guatemala. It was very lecture-based, and the students were deeply attentive but quiet. I was fascinated, especially to see such concrete analysis and discussion of dynamics that I witness all the time here, but from a solidly Guatemalan perspective.

At one point, the professor had to step out, and the students started talking to me, naturally curious about who I was and why I was there. They asked for a quick English class and I obliged, teaching them typical greetings at the whiteboard (the classroom was old and dirty, as most Guatemalan classrooms are…like one would imagine a really old, poor elementary school classroom in the U.S….except the whiteboards looked relatively new and clean.). Then we discussed all sorts of politics. It was so fun!

To close the class, the professor played a CD of this kind of radio play (I’m thinking that it was from the guerrilla times, when they had a clandestine radio station) about the true story of the Spanish conquest. It was entertaining and informative, but I couldn’t get a sense of what others thought.

The second and final class was related to actual techniques of teaching and sharing political ideas. The focus today was on making a magazine, and the professor—a middle-aged lighter skinned woman—guided the students toward understanding how to select themes, analyze problems and conditions, and how to organize the theme into different articles. She was really smart, funny, and good at guiding student participation. By the end of the class, the students had voted on their magazine’s theme, which will be health and the political conditions surrounding it.

After the class, Glendi’s uncle introduced me to the professor. I asked if the classes were linked to any specific political organization, and she told me that, no, they are just extensions of the university, which the professors are fighting to get formalized into real courses. She continued to explain that she is a deeply committed revolutionary and that during the war, the university was a key base for the urban guerrilla (according to Glendi’s uncle, the professor actually spent time in the mountains). She told me that many students and teachers died because of their participation. I told her about the revolutionary study groups that I see around me and participate in in the U.S., she was very excited and we mutually acknowledged our international bond of struggle.

Just like the evangelicals here who always greet each other with “hermano” and “hermana,” there is something so deeply warming about greeting other leftists across international lines. I feel rejuvenated. Especially because of so many terrible things happening around us here in Guatemala all the time, it feels so good to be able to talk with Guatemalans using a language and perspective that can mostly share. While I’m not a Marxist, I very much appreciate the Marxist understanding of class and power, and it was really cool to see that applied to this specific country’s context. It just fits so much better for explaining all that’s happening to us than the religiously heavy language that I mostly hear.

Even cooler was to see the explicit expressions of hope from the students. They don’t expect anything from the upcoming elections, and they don’t expect any major changes soon, but there was an optimism about long-term change and movement building that I don’t usually see in Guatemala. Glendi’s uncle, for example, doesn’t believe that he’ll live to see the revolutionary changes that are necessary, but he says that he’s taking the classes so that he can help the next generation.

It’s that kind of attitude that hits me in the tear ducts every time.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi