Posted by William Ramirez – MA Candidate at CLACS
This past winter break I visited Guatemala for the second time in a year. Prior to that, it had been 10 years since I travelled to the country my parents migrated from in the early 1980’s. This last trip, as the one a year before, proved tremendously fascinating as I was able to directly experience and relate everything I learned about the country and its diaspora throughout my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis, and currently within the wider context of Latin America and the Caribbean as a graduate student at NYU. As an undergraduate, I embarked on an honors thesis project regarding Guatemalan literature, identity, and globalization in the 21st century. However, despite this devoted research, I came to realize that there are things that can only be experienced first-hand that cannot be necessarily captured on paper.
There was an array of observances that I made during my trip that I found endlessly intriguing, but two that stood out in particular to me were the consumerist behavior of the people and the neighborhood divisions within Guatemala City. To try to explain these, I’ll start by telling an anecdote of my experience visiting different neighborhoods in the capital.
Near the area, or zona (zones; as they are referred to in Guatemala) where my grandma lives in the capital, there is a secluded neighborhood that I noticed people coming in and out of. From the outside, I saw that the neighborhood is gated and had its own entrance road equipped with a kiosk and security guards. Curious about this place, I asked my cousins if they knew what was inside and whether it was possible for regular Guatemalans to enter. They said they were not sure, but that it might be possible. We went. We saw. We walked our grandma’s dog.
Obviously, the neighborhood was of a more economically privileged status and the people inhabiting it were of a lighter complexion and visible European descent. My cousins and I must have stood out a little bit, especially when walking through a commercial area that was located inside. Houses were more well-constructed compared to the many slums that make up the city. Many were made up of bricks rather than concrete blocks, they had red tile roofs, with driveways and cars, as opposed to metal or fiberglass sheets. All of this was not all that surprising to my cousins or I. As we continued walking, we crossed an empty street, and I noticed something laying on the floor. It was a McDonald’s french-fry container flattened onto the pavement. This is when it hit me, “Only in this neighborhood will you see McDonald’s products littered on the floor.”
I still have lots of family in Guatemala, and during my visits the status of being born in the United States, I feel, is always something that becomes readily apparent to both the visitor and the family. Many issues, feelings, or reactions are likely to arise. Dr. Leisy Ábrego from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Cecilia Menjívar from the University of Arizona, have written a relevant and compelling chapter titled “Parents and Children across Borders: Legal Instability and Intergenerational Relations in Guatemalan and Salvadoran Families” in Across Generations: Immigrant Families in America (2009) by Nancy Foner. This short piece of scholarship presents a snapshot of the various issues and dynamics that may arise and do develop within Guatemalan and Salvadoran transnational families. I figure much of this research would resonate in many Latin American contexts.
I went to Guatemala with the mindset that, because American Dollars are much stronger economically than Guatemalan quetzales, I was in the position to and was almost obligated to invite my family out to eat. However, out of respect for me, for having made the trip, and for wanting to provide an adequate accommodation, it was one of my uncle’s who invited me. Argh, the privilege! And so, we were off to McDonald’s.
In Guatemala, one may find “fancy” or higher-end restaurants in typically touristic areas such as Antigua or Lake Atitlán, but for the average Guatemalan, a high-end restaurant worth visiting would be one like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, or even Taco Bell. There is a certain prestige that these restaurants possess for being American and, moreover, their treatment of customers is much the same as that of formal, higher-end restaurants in the United States. One waits in line to be seated, and then has a server come and take their order and cater to their needs throughout their stay. They also deliver. The meals’ presentation is still very much the same, however: pizza in a box, or the typical McDonald’s or Taco Bell food tray. It is the customer experience and treatment that is different.
Even if I dislike McDonald’s and the idea of going repulsed me a little bit, I still appreciated my family’s effort in treating me to it. But, let’s be real, I’m in Guatemala: I want tamales, chuchitos, dobladas, and all that good stuff!
There is a social division that exists in Guatemala City made evident by different housing arrangements. Yet, this division is not one based solely on class but one that also includes race. Those who live in the gated community are visibly lighter as opposed those who live in the outskirts like my cousins. This division also reflected within the different consumerist behaviors of people of different class and race in the capital. It would be rare to see anything with a McDonald’s logo littered on the floor, given its status value, in the community just outside the gated one.