August 17, 2009

My first Sunday in Guatemala City: Globetrotters, Barbecue, and Church

My third full day in Guatemala turned out to be my first day of research. Miguel Ugalde, a university professor who lives close to us, invited my family to his house for a barbecue. After a small lunch at home, I marinated some steaks, and got the kids ready. Miguel came to pick us up at 2pm, right on time.

It is quite a coincidence that just yesterday I was musing about how much of the rest of my career as an academic I would be able to spend abroad, as today I learned that Miguel has spent most of his career traveling from one country to the next. Originally from Mexico, he has lived for extended periods of time in the US, Germany, Kenya, Nigeria, Italy, Israel, Belize, and Guatemala. Those are only the countries I can remember; I am sure he mentioned more. Some of this time, he was working as an academic. At other points, he worked for non-governmental organizations such as Save the Children and UNICEF. At any rate, he has had a very interesting life, and Nando and I greatly enjoyed listening to his stories.

I am very lucky to have found Miguel Ugalde. He has been immensely helpful with me getting set up in Guatemala, even though I had never met him before coming to Guatemala. I found his contact information online, and emailed him out of the blue asking for his support for my project. He readily agreed, and sent me a letter of support for my Fulbright-Hays application. Meeting him in person, I think that perhaps the facts that Miguel is an expatriate himself, and has benefited from the kindness of others in his travels are what leads him to be so generous with his time, expertise, and connections. I only hope I can find some way to repay him.

After a delicious meal and fascinating conversation with Miguel, I came home with Fernando, Tatiana, Soraya, and Raymi. Not too long after, Miguel came to pick me up to take me to a church in the Zona 2. Miguel knows the priest at this church, and suggested that we go there and announce to the parishioners that I am doing a study on people who have been deported, in the event that they would be willing to give their name and phone number such that I could contact them.

We arrived at the church just before 7pm. We had hoped to arrive before the mass ended, but got there just as parishioners were leaving. Luckily, there was another mass at 7pm. It was less crowded than the 6pm mass, yet still had a substantial number of attendees. The church was quite large, with a very high ceiling and about twenty-five rows of pews.

When the mass started, Miguel and I chatted outside for a bit about his family. He has two sons living in Guatemala, and another in the US. I don’t recall where his fourth son lives. Miguel also told me that the state where Guatemala City is located is one of the top three migrant-sending states in Guatemala. Of course, that has to do with the fact that it is the state with the largest population, but, nevertheless, a useful piece of information.

When the mass had gone on for a bit, we entered into the church and sat in the last pew. The priest was talking about poverty, and how the right thing for each of us to do is to make sure that we provide food for others when they are hungry. I did not do an exact count, but I was struck by the number of men in the church. There even were two young men seated near me who had come together. For some reason, I expected there to be more women than men at the service. Instead, it was about half and half. There were quite a few young families, as well as people who appeared to have come alone. A few of the women were dressed in the typical Mayan costume. Most, however, wore western clothes.

I am still trying to get a sense of Guatemala, of what is unique about this country. The prevalence of people wearing indigenous costumes in the capital city certainly would be one thing that differentiates Guatemala from other countries. In some rural areas, almost all of the women wear huipiles – the typical dress. In the capital, most people wear Western clothes, but huipiles are not uncommon. Most conversations I overhear are in Spanish, but I did hear a family speaking one of the Mayan languages to each other as I was walking to the grocery store.

Another thing I have noticed is that people don’t stare at me when I walk down the street. Where I live is close to the zone where all of the hotels are. So, perhaps there are a lot of foreigners in this area. And, at the church, it may be the case that American or other missionaries frequently come to the church, so people just figured I was a missionary. Or, it could be the case that Guatemalans just don’t stare. Well, I have only been here three days, so there is still a lot to figure out.

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