Back to Guatemala, Back to Some Radical Reading…

It’s winter break for me, and we’re spending all of it in Guatemala with Glendi’s family. In addition to celebrating Christmas and the New Year with her siblings, we’re also here for the first step of getting Guatemalan legal custody of her four youngest brothers, so we can start trying to bring them to live with us in the U.S. It’s going to be a long and expensive road. For this reason, Glendi and Amanecer—our 6-month old baby, for those who don’t know—are going to be here indefinitely, until the court process is finished and we’ve procured Guatemalan passports for each of the boys.

In the free moments here, I’ve been reading a good number of books—some about teaching, some fantasy novels, and a good number about politics. It’s a rare opportunity to reconnect with some anarchist reading, so I’ve been diving into In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary by Ngo Van, Building Utopia: The Spanish Revolution 1936-1937 by Stuart Christie, and Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle by Maia Ramnath. For some reason, I’ve developed a habit of reading 5 or 6 books simultaneously, so all this reading has been extra enriching.

However, because all three of these books discuss peasants’ struggles and peasants’ realities quite a bit, reading has been a depressing reminder of the current state of things in Guatemala and beyond. Reading Ngo Van’s accounts of his peasant childhood from 1912 to the 1920’s, I was taken aback by how similar his life and cultural experiences were to Glendi’s—some 60 year’s later in the 1980’s. After finishing Building Utopia, I described for Glendi’s family how anarchist militia columns marched across the Spanish countryside and attempted to help liberate peasant communities and collectivize land as they passed. The response from her siblings—who had just returned from picking coffee—was a predictable, resigned silence. In his old age, someone asked Ngo Van why he kept so active in politics and struggle, and he responded, “Because the world hasn’t changed.” He’s so right. One only need to look at the peasantry to see how the fundamentals of capitalism and oppression have stayed intact.

Actually, the fundamentals have gotten a lot worse. Because while peasants traditionally lived in a social contract that at least offered stable employment and income—exploitative though it was—in Guatemala, they are now no longer peasants, but farmworkers. They have been proletarianized by having their homes kicked off the land, where they have to be rehired as essentially temp workers. Where once they got a pittance of a salary but also a finquero-owned house, a school, a church, and a communal water source, now they just get the pittance of a salary, and they have to fend for themselves for all the rest.

It’s summer here, and my family members have been going to the finca to pick coffee every day. As a group of 6-8 people working 6 hours together, they collectively make about $12 a day—after picking about 250-300 pounds of coffee. Their two week salary was just enough to pay for yesterday’s meal of little beef patties and elbow macaroni salad. Seriously. One day’s meal—plus some extra kitchen ingredients—cost two week’s salary for 6-8 people. Without outside income sent from the United States, how do Guatemalans survive?

Can the world be changed?

I think I still believe it’s possible. With a new baby, a new place to live, and a new job, I’ve been far away from my own organizing spaces in Seattle, but I’ve been watching some of it from afar, with a certain grumpy old man attitude. I’ve been annoyed at the rhetoric radicals use, the decontextualized escalations of militancy, the often simplistic framing of issues into “revolutionary” and “reformist,” and the overheated and frantic responses to repression. I’ve been especially dismayed by the cultural, political, intellectual, and tactical effects that insurrectionist anarchism has had on Seattle. Silently complaining to myself and making no positive contributions whatsoever, I’ve watched myself get more conservative. But now, with some space to think, read, and write, I think there’s a healthier approach. I hope there is, at least.

When I read about revolutionaries of the past, my hope refills and I feel motivated to keep pushing, but when I think about the present, both in the movement and in my own family’s reality, my energy vanishes. Luckily, I still have two weeks of reflection time here in Guatemala to improve on this dynamic.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi