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I thought I knew everything about Latin America until I met two small boys at the foot of a Guatemalan volcano.
Ever since I can remember, I have been strangely obsessed with Latin America. Strange because, as a thoroughly WASPy boy from a thoroughly boring suburb of Vancouver, there is really no explanation for it; obsessed to the point that I learned Spanish as an adult and my shelves overflow with books about the Aztecs and the Maya, Cortes and Pizarro, even Pinochet and Chavez. I would spend hours as a boy devouring photos of the wide avenues of Buenos Aires, the central plaza in Mexico City and the faded splendor of Quito.
I knew I needed to see these places. To be in them, feel them, experience them. For many years, that’s exactly what I’ve done, crossing places off my bucket list. For many North Americans, the phrase “Latin America” conjures juxtaposed images of beaches and violence. Maybe it means Cancun or the Dominican. Or Colombian drug wars. But not to me. I’m different, I would tell myself. I know some cool spots in Mexico City, San Juan and Bogota. I speak the language.
Armed with this self-assurance, I recently went to Guatemala with my husband and four friends (the Maya ruins at Tikal being, of course, on my list). Our trip included a four-day trek deep in the Guatemalan countryside, an area seldom seen by tourists. We marched through the tiniest villages (pueblos), up and down the side of mountains, and through small farms growing coffee, chocolate and beans.
We stopped one night to camp near a pueblo perched among a few of Guatemala’s active volcanoes. The local children came out to observe us, curious to see what these tall, strangely dressed gringos who had invaded their quiet pueblo for the night were doing. Two little boys took a particular liking to us, their curiosity inching them closer to the patch of grass on which we were sprawled. They stared at us intently from behind a little knoll.
“What’s your name?” I asked one of them in Spanish. He looked me for a second, playfully, and then his eyes darted to his friend. They whispered to each other and giggled.
“I’m Orlando,” the other boy answered.
“And you?” I said to the first one.
“He’s… ,” the other boy said his name. I couldn’t hope to pronounce it.
They giggled again and spoke quickly to each other in the local Mayan dialect, Kaqchikel.
After a few more questions back and forth, I realized that the first boy did not speak Spanish at all. How marvellous, I thought – a direct link to the ancient Maya civilization that had so fascinated me as a boy.
We chatted for a few more minutes this way, with my friends asking questions in English for me to translate to Spanish for Orlando, who answered for himself and then translated to the other boy in Kaqchikel. I relished my temporary role as a kind of modern-day Malinche, the Aztec woman who became Hernan Cortes’s interpreter for her linguistic prowess. Some of our group played soccer with the children as the sunset glowed brilliantly pink and orange.
The next day, I mentioned enthusiastically to our guide Mario that I had met a local boy who did not speak Spanish.
“Yes, it still happens sometimes out here in the countryside,” he said. “His parents probably cannot afford to send him to school. It’s really a shame.”
I flushed. I had thought it was a novelty. That somehow it was “authentic,” a buzzword for a kind of experience upper middle class white millennials seem to constantly chase. Mario knew it was a sign of his country’s long struggle with poverty and lack of education, born out of the colonial violence of the conquistadors on my bookshelves. There absolutely is pride and beauty in speaking Mayan, but the reality is that the inability to speak Spanish curtails this boy’s already limited opportunities.
As we continued on, I noticed that the villages we passed through had numerous convenience stores and churches, but no schools. Mario lamented this fact as well. More than a few children tended the terraced fields of crops marching relentlessly up the mountainsides. It certainly wasn’t prime agricultural land. Way up here, Mario told me, is one of the few places the powerful elite families of Guatemala don’t own everything. We stopped by one coffee farm collective doing its best to sell locally to avoid being quite so much at the mercy of prices set by New York commodities traders.
Awoken by crowing roosters early the next morning, I sipped my local coffee and surveyed the indescribably beautiful sunrise. And then I thought about the extent to which I had been consuming Latin American history and culture in the abstract. When I go to Mexico City, for example, I stay in a posh neighbourhood such as Roma or Condesa, in a short-term rental that depletes the city’s housing stock, and eat in restaurants the average local could never afford. Maybe I thought I was cultured and cool because I know a thing or two about the Aztecs or mezcal or Mexican pop music, but was I consuming culture as a commodity just the same?
For the rest of the trip, I bought fruit from the Maya women on the street instead of from the supermarket. I stopped negotiating prices. I looked for handmade goods, especially those made by women. I listened to Mario’s stories, instead of using him to practise my Spanish. When we got home, I started donating to a charity that supports education in Latin America.
I knew these were small gestures, and would certainly do little to improve the prospects for Orlando and his friend, but I also knew that I couldn’t just simply consume any longer. For decades, I had focused on Latin America as a place for me to experience rather than a culture to learn from. The next time I go, it won’t be to cross another entry off my list, or in search of an “authentic” experience. It will be with open eyes, continuing to learn from the people who inhabit it. After all, there’s only so much education you can get from a shelf full of books.
David Andrews lives in Toronto.
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