Guatemala and Media Theory/Strategy
(crossposted at Orbis Mediologicus, photo by NY Times)
Today the apartment was bitter cold when I woke up – somedays the heater doesn’t quite cut it. Luckily I have a space-heater for just this reason, and place started to heat up nicely again, but with that bit of cold around the edges that are the lingering bits of draft. But as my newly warmed apartment starts to feel cozy again, and fully aware that its damn freezing outside, I start my computer to read the paper (ok, on a computer screen), and what do I see but an article in the New York Times called “In the Shadows, Day Laborers Left Homeless as Work Vanishes.”
The article tells the story of several men whose plight is indicative of larger problems in our society. With construction problems screeching to a halt due to the economic downturn, often there is no work. And that means being newly homeless. Here’s how the article starts:
Carlos Ruano was down to his last $50 when his landlord kicked him out in September because he could no longer pay rent. He sent the money to his wife and children in Guatemala and spent the night riding the E train, which has a nickname among his fellow day laborers in Woodside, Queens: “hotel ambulante,” Spanish for roving hotel.
Mr. Ruano, 38, who had drawn his living from 69th Street and Broadway for six years, has been on the streets since. He and other hard-luck day laborers have slept wherever they can: in the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital Center, in unfinished buildings abandoned by bankrupt developers and under bridges along the freight railroad tracks that slice through western Queens, where dirty mattresses and work boots lay on the rocky ground one recent morning. “The only reason we don’t go hungry is because there are people who offer us food,” . . .
To the day laborers clustered on and around 69th Street from Broadway to Queens Boulevard, the downturn came on suddenly: There was work one week, and then there was not.
And for what little work there is, they have more competition — from men who used to be steady hands on roofing, painting and other construction crews and men who lost their full-time jobs in restaurants, at landscaping companies and in garages.
With more people at the corners, day laborers said, contractors will hire whoever agrees to work for the lowest pay.
“We’ve all learned the meaning of the law of supply and demand the hard way,” said Roberto Meneses, 48, a day laborer from Mexico who has been trying to organize his peers under a fledgling group called United Day Laborers of Woodside.
Ignacio Sanchez, 50, who has a wife and three children in Mexico, said a week before Christmas that he had worked once since the beginning of the month. Rodrigo Saldaña, 41, who has a wife and five children in Ecuador, said he had not worked at all last month. Both said they had spent nights sleeping on the train or by the railroad tracks.
“Do you want to know what the worst part is?” Mr. Saldaña said. “My wife says I’m lying when I tell her there’s no more work in New York.”
. . . “There are a lot of practical issues that are very unique to the undocumented, to day laborers,” said Valeria Treves, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the groups that attended the meeting. “But these guys also have incredible emotional needs.”
Sipping coffee at a Colombian bakery on Roosevelt Avenue, Mr. Saldaña, Mr. Sanchez and Carlos Orellana, an Ecuadorean who has worked for 14 years as a day laborer, told of the sadness of being far from their children, whom they have watched grow in pictures that come with the occasional letter from home.
At least there was a sense of empowerment while they were able to provide for them, they said. “We were the men of the family,” said Mr. Orellana, 40. But now that they have no money, all they are left with is disappointment and shame, he said.
By the railroad tracks, the ground was sprinkled with the instruments of coping: empty beer bottles, a tattered Bible, a crumpled picture of a young boy.
. . . “That’s how we live,” Mr. Orellana said.
His eyes cast on the tracks beneath his feet, Mr. Sanchez interjected, “This is no life.”
“This is no life.”
I realize this is a blog about theory, but I am convinced that theory is useless unless, and perhaps irresponsible, if it forgets about these things. What use is there to theory unless it speaks to human suffering? Isn’t theory not only supposed to describe the world, but also imagine a better one? Unless theory can at least speak, in some way, to what is described above, it doesn’t deserve the name.
None of which is to be delusional about the limits of what can be accomplished by the written word in am era not of a dearth of information and opinion, but rather the opposite, a time in which protecting ourselves from overstimulation is a survival skill. And especially writing for those who like to read about theory, the audience is smaller still. But unless we can imagine ways in which what we do can speak to this issue, well, why else might we speak about things like ethics or politics?
But what can theory or theorists do? We can connect the dots. And then use these new models to raise an outcry. And work to out-think the powers that keep things the way they are.
Three Stories of Guatemala
When I was visiting Guatemala last summer, I met a guy named Hugo who had a big impact on me.My time in Guatemala, two weeks, was the first time I was outside the overdeveloped world (though since then I briefly visited Morocco). I was at a Spanish language school in the small city of Antigua, a few miles outside of Guatemala City. Hugo worked for a company that rented bikes, and he was our tour guide as we took a bike tour to the small villages around Antigua. He also worked as a teacher at the Spanish school, so his Spanish was slower and more comprehesible to us learners. I forget how, but as we took breaks in between spats on the bike and his description of local churches in the villages, the conversation turned to his time in the states.
Hugo couldn’t have been much older than forty. He spent nine years in New Jersey, not far from New York City. He went by van from Guatemala up north to Mexico, where was smuggled across the border by the Cuyotes, a gang famous for getting people across the border. He described being moved from van to van, then having to stand for hours on end in a train car full of immigrants, waiting for the signal that they could get out.
During his time in Dover, New Jersey, he worked in the back of an industrial bakery, making cakes. Often he would work so many hours on end, standing the whole time making the cakes, that he would hallucinate. He would talk to someone in the bakery, only to realize afterwards that they weren’t there. I forget how many hours he worked a week, he told me, but I’m sure to hallucinate it was an incredible amount.
Why did he leave? To get a larger house for his family, and to set them up for years to come. Did it happen? No, turns out. His parents got sick, and needed the money for medical bills. Then he lent some of the money to someone, and didn’t get it back. The typical unexpected things, it sounded like, that eat up temporary surplus money. So what did he have to show for his time up north? Very little, it seemed. Other than the story he told me. I told him he should write it down, people up north needed to hear these stories, and he said he agreed, he’d often thought about writing down his experiences. I told him there were many up north who needed to hear things, so that they make the conditions better for those travelling for work. He agreed.
It was clear to me that Hugo was a smart, thoughtful guy. He cared about his family, and put his life and health on the line for them. He also likely couldn’t afford to live in one of the nicer homes in town, like with the family I was staying with while I was there. He lived in the villages around Antigua, where all the Spanish teachers did. The houses there were mostly all of the same sort – cinder blocks and a corrugated tin roof. Granted, the weather is so wonderful in that part of Guatemala that most of year so long as you have a roof over your head to protect you from rain, the temperature never gets that bad. You can actually live without much in terms of shelter and get by – most of our classes were conducted outdoors in little huts to protect us from the daily yet short rains. And like the other teachers, Hugo looked nicely dressed, even though I found myself wondering how he was able to neatly fold and press his clothes if he lived in a cinderblock house. Many of the cinderblock houses had electricity, and I’m guessing some had running water. Did Hugo live in one of those? Could I? I’m sure, as many did. But what would it be like (and was I even showing my own privilege just by thinking such things)? Here was a guy who, based on his evident intelligence, clearly would’ve been running his own business and living a middle-class life had he been born in the States. Instead, he had to made cakes in New Jersey in conditions that made him hallucinate, had nothing to show for it, and might still be living in a house made of cinder-blocks, even though he’s a teacher. And he’s a nice guy on top of all that. And not that the cinder blocks looked all that bad (considering the weather), but still it was evident he deserved so much more, and certainly more than what he experienced up north.
But it could have been me, or any one of us.
We need to find ways to get the story of Hugo and those like him to the American public, most of whom who know about the plight of illegal immigrants as only anonymous faces. I can still see Hugo’s face, and hear his voice. Now the situation is concrete for me. It makes it personal. And that makes it different. Now everytime I think about this issue, I know who I’m fighting for.
Another moment while in Guatemala, I went with friends to a bar, and after the bars close there, people go to ‘after-parties,’ basically, a house which is converted into an after-hours quasi-legal bar. The place had a mix of tourists and locals, unlike many of the official bars. I started talking to this guy, this time in English, when he heard I was from New York, the starting point of many of my conversations there. He told me he’d recently returned from living and working in Brooklyn, and when I asked where, he said he knew the street I lived on, and the soccer fields nearby, and had actually lived quite close to my house. And I didn’t doubt him, the area I live in has a large immigrant community, and many of the immigrants use the soccer fields on their little time off. I told him to give me his email address, in case he was back in Brooklyn again, but he changed the subject. He looked like any college-aged kid in the States, with perfect English. Seemed like a fun guy to hang with, like the type of guy you meet at a party over beers in the States on any random weekend. Why wasn’t he studying rather than working?
The fact is that the US created the immigration situation in Guatemala, Mexico, and the rest of Central America. NAFTA decimated the local Mexican economy, for example. The US subsidizes its farmers, a legacy of the Cold War desire to make sure the US can supply its own food domestically in case of Soviet blockade, so we overproduce certain staples like corn. With NAFTA, this low-priced, subsidized corn was dumped on the Mexican market for the first time, leading to the fact that for the first time in hundreds of years, Mexican farmers couldn’t bring their corn to the local market and sell it, because the US corn was cheaper. And entire way of life vanished overnight, and entire villages vanished as people moved up north looking for work, or into the Mexican cities to work factories built by foreign capital to produce cheap goods for the North (but with no basic protections for workers).
Of course, there was immigration before that too, but the US produced that as well. Anyone who knows the history of Guatemala knows that after Spanish colonialism came a brief period of freedom, followed by the domination of the country by the United Fruit Company (a part of which survives today as Chichita Bananas). This company operated the country as a virtual colony, buying up all the large fincas, or plantations, from the local big-wigs who descended from the colonists. Often United Fruit kept huge tracts of land unused just so that its workers could own no more than vegetable gardens of their own land in the mountains, and would have to come work for them again come harvest time on the good land of the fertile plains. United Fruit kept the masses impoverished so it could drain the surpluses of the country, draining its human and mineral value, and send the booty up north. The company built the railroads, mail/telegraph system and ports, and then charged Guatemalans to use them.
When Americans think of a nightmare future, we conjure up dystopian societies, often in which government is a mere puppet and ‘the company’ owns everything, even having its own armies, as in the Alien series. But minus the techno-future, this is the past that American capital created in Guatemala. And this is what global capital has in store for all of us if it has its way.
In the 1950’s, the Guatemalan people elected their first Socialist president, who campaigned on the issue of land reform. He would nationalize some of the land owned by United Fruit and its puppets, and distribute it to the peasants so they could live, for the first time since the arrival of the Spanish, by farming their own land. The government was short-lived – Washington didn’t want ‘reds’ next door as it played chess with the Soviets, nor did it to see the ‘assets’ of a US corporation ‘confiscated.’ The CIA trained a small army in nearby Honduras to overthrow the government. When its puppet army seemed unable to take down the legally elected government of Guatemala, the CIA helped the ‘liberation’ effort by painting over the US flag on the sides of military jets which then proceeded to bomb Guatemala City.
Yes, in 1953 the United States bombed Guatemala City, and overthrew the duly elected government (for more see, among other sources, here). Afterwards, the rebels won, ushering in fifty years of right-wing dictatorships, and setting the stage for the anti-Mayan genocidal civil wars of the 1980’s and 90’s. Most of the weapons used to commit genocide were of US manufacture, and the dictator’s troops were trained by the US military to help defeat the Soviet backed guerrillas. Whole villages were wiped out by the government out of fear they harbored guerrillas (for more information on this and Rios Montt, see among other sources, here). None of which would’ve happened had the US not overthrown the government back in 1953.
Bringing it Back Home: Beyond the Bubble
What does all this have to do with theory? Firstly, there is a need to produce counter-history, to fill in the blanks in the dominant narratives. Secondly, there is the need to make things personal, to cut through all the ways in which the mass media of today paints immigrants as ‘other.’ Much of this is done via language. We don’t assume that people who speak differently, who cannot express themselves to us directly, can have the same hopes, dreams, and complex inner lives as we do. There is a need to show Americans the inner lives of people working as immigrants, to show that immigrants are the same as we are, at every level. Most Americans would think twice about sending their own uncle to work in a foreign country, but not think twice about sending Hugo. But once we see Hugo as an uncle, once we see his home and family, once it is all translated into our language, it all of a sudden becomes real, a non-abstraction. And thus, there is a need to learn Spanish. And to travel beyond the first-world, or beyond the first-world within our cities, so as to be able to meet Hugo and those like him, and bring his story home to those who can agitate for change in US policies. And this set of procedures goes not only for Hugo, but for all those people who the US bombs in the Afghanistan and Iraq right now, or elsewhere around the world. We need to create counter-history, we need to narrativize, humanize and personalize, so that the dehumanization of those who are hurt by US policies becomes harder and harder to ignore. This is work that theory and theorists can do.
But above all of this is the need to strategize. On a blog which thinks incessantly about the role of media in society, here is a task for theory. How does one get the story out? How does one break through the bubble of bullshit that saturates our airwaves? During the time in which the debate on the so-called ‘surge’ was underway in regard to Iraq, the story with the loudest voice on the US airwaves was that Britney Spears had shaved her head. Had she gone over the edge?!?
Unless we can compete with Britney Spears and American Idol and 24, all our media-theory is for nought. Avital Ronell has theorized in various works on how these days our media doesn’t black-out when there is a war, it creates a counter-story, a symptomatic screen to cover our trauma, both of which are disavowed afterwards. Ronell and Zizek are excellent at showing the need for a collective psychoanalysis of our airwaves.
But the dilemma remains, even if we debunk why Britney was there when the country needed her as a symptom-formation. Or why our country re-elected an idiot and a madman to do their dirty work for them, all so they could disavow afterwards the violence of what was done in their names. Our country has learned how to dissociate, split, and abject.
But can the cultural analyst help the country to remember? Only if we can get the word out to those who do not want to hear. And this is where I worry. For as theorists, our words often go out to others interested in theory, which is often ‘preaching to the choir,’ so to speak, or to students in our classrooms.
And it is to the students that most of my hopes lie. If the next generation learns the counter history of Guatemala, might they think twice about creating another one twenty years from now when they are electing a new president? And yet, those who go to universities in urban centers are likely a self-selecting group as well.
As media theorists, we need to think and strategize. How do we get beyond the bubble? How can we get the message out, about how we destroyed Hugo’s country, then steal his labor and send him back home with nothing to show for it? And then pretend that it was his fault for coming here and ‘taking jobs’?
Is there not some way to fight fire with fire, out Britney the system? I wish I knew. Can we truly have an impact, or rather is the situation only one in which long-term change is possible, and then it our action more ethical than tactical? That is, if we can’t change the system, at least we can act ethically by decrying its actions to whoever comes within our shouting range? But will that do any good, other than assuage our consciences? Surely this blog post attempts to be some sort of action to assuage mine, and it is hard not to feel self-righteous or inadequate or many other feelings by either writing or not writing such a post, or taking similar actions. There is never enough, the debt is near infinite, so to speak, when our entire way of life is supported by a system which is based on modern day serfhood for millions as the very condition of its survival. One cannot exist in nearly any country today without inheriting, whether you want it or not, the fruits of other’s stolen labor, life, and happiness. Understanding that is at least a start, and saying something about it to others is also a start – if everyone did that, our world would be a different place. But when is enough, and what sort of action is not disingenous at best?
Is there something more concrete that one can do, other than, as Jesus once advised, ‘sell one’s belongings and give it to the poor,’ give up one’s job, and spend one’s whole life fighting against the exploitation of immigrants? But then there are so many other plights which need attention as well, and I am not convinced that the ‘sell one’s possesions’ option (and granted, I don’t have many nor ever plan to), is necessarily the best or only way. I don’t think its unethical to lead a relatively modest life in the career of one’s choosing, and I think that everyone can find a way to fight back without having to devote one’s entire life to ‘the poor.’ Still, these remain issues that need to be though, and rethought, as we go, for there are times and places in which those of us with specific skills can perhaps intervene at critical junctures that truly make a difference. Being vigilant is at least trying to be aware of those times.
These are difficult, ethical questions. I do think, as Jacques Ranciere would say, that unless the philosopher thinks – and acts – in relation to ‘one’s poor,’ they are not a philosopher. ‘The poor’ – and the system that produces ‘our’ poor – is one of the most urgent things a philosopher needs to think. And much of what needs to be thought today is how to make it possible for change to happen today, today in the world in which Britney Spears and similar distractions dominate our media. How do we intervene in all this group fantasy? Can we learn to beat it at its own game, or is there another way? And in a country where the majority wants universal healthcare and yet the system won’t let it through, how can anything get done? Or, to frame this networkologically, how can we find the critical points in a network at which to intervene, to alter the fitness landscape whereby political discourse shapes real power in this country and the larger world?
Addressing these questions, it seems to me, is much of what needs to be thought by a media theorist in the world today. This is a large part of the ethical demand of what needs to be thought, of what, to quote a famous philosopher (who at this juncture I will not name), ‘we are not yet thinking.’ Or at least, have only begun to think.