Poverty and Racism

“Kike” Yantuche is a 30-year old man who hails from Mixco, Guatemala, a municipality of close to 500,000 people some 10 miles from the country’s capital, Guatemala City.  Its indigenous past is long and rich, as Spanish colonists were only figure heads in nominal government positions.  Today, Mixco is densely populated, absorbed by the capital and residents there face the travails of modernization and contemporary Guatemalan life.  Kike works as a sales executive for Banco Industrial, one of the largest banks in Central America, selling products like credit cards to bank customers.  He spoke to me on May 11, 2019.

My life in Guatemala was a little difficult because I come from a very poor family.  I know a lot of people who grew up in a house with a living room and a kitchen and everything else.  I did not have any of that.  Everyone in my family lived in the exact same space. It was really crazy; we were six persons in one small room: my parents, my brother and two sisters, and myself.  It had nothing, it was just a room with a stove in the middle, and we slept in three beds near it that took up half of the room.  We made one part of it into a kitchen near the stove, and on the other side there was a table.  The bathroom was outside.  The whole room was only 10 by 5 meters.  It was really small. I don’t know why, but this is the first time I have talked about this because there are many things that I don’t like to remember.  It’s really hard for me to talk about it.  Everyone assumes I have had everything, and it’s not true.

Even in such conditions, I did not go hungry. My parents were able to bring us food, but taking a shower was really difficult because we had no water in our place, so all the time we used water from community washing areas (called Tanques).  It was pretty tough from December through February because it could get really cold, and we did not have water heaters.

Luckily, I received money from a nun, like 50 US dollars a month, which was a lot of money for me because I was a student and it was a great help. But I stopped going to school after high school. In Guatemala, you can get a job if you have a high school degree, and if you have a good aptitude you can earn some money, so I was able to get a job at the bank, where I have been working for ten years.

At work my colleagues refer to me as an “Indian,” because my last name  (Yantuche) is probably Mayan.  I don’t really care.  It’s just their ignorance. I consider myself mestizo. I speak only Spanish, no other language. I dress in a western way and I am Catholic.  I don’t carry the religious beliefs of some of the Mayan people. In the beginning it was really hard for me because I don’t have their tradition and I don’t know why my friends and colleagues, my people, called me “Indian.” I just don’t know.  They would call it to me right to my face. It’s like a nickname, you know.  For example, they call me “Tatita,” which is a way for a Mayan person to refer to his or her grandfather.  “Pech,” “Indio,” and they also say “Jacinto,” “Chino,” everything like that. In Guatemala, it’s really offensive, it’s an insult. But it’s part of the culture because everyone here wants to come from families that are European or American; they want to be white.

For example, when you buy something in a store, if you go buy like a beer in a local store, they call the people working there Chinos. “Chino, give me a beer.” Everybody thinks you can call them Chinos.  “Indio” is the most common.  If someone says the beer is good, and I say it’s not, and I keep insisting on my point of view, they say “you are an Indian.”  This is code for someone who is stubborn, who won’t change their mind.

We don’t have national pride.  For example, I went to Peru two years ago and they are very proud because they are Incan.  In the central park of Cuzco, they have dances and music about Incan culture.  Here, there is nothing.  The presidents’ names are from Europe.  The names are Berger, Arzu, names from Germany, Austria, Spain.  We don’t have our own president.

Once I had these friends from Spain who were here in Guatemala doing volunteer work, I met them at a bar because I can talk with the girls, and the other guys don’t have the same ability, you know? I know them because they wanted to speak to a girl, and they couldn’t so I arranged things for them to talk to her and they became my friends. So once I was giving them a ride and they started calling me “Indio,” and it was really offensive. They thought they were better than me, and so they started calling me those names. But after this guy called me an “Indio” I told him to fuck off. I told them all to get out of my car.   I told them to “fucking get out right now” and they said “no way,” and I said “get out.” Everyone has a limit.  They call you those names because of how you appear.  I am small, my skin is dark, I don’t have a lot of hair on my face.  I don’t care.  But they can’t mess with me because of it. and I am pretty good in mathematics, in writing.  I know where I’m good. They can’t tell me they are better because I know it’s not true. I’ve been looking for new job opportunities where I can put my writing skills to use, and I think I am good enough, but the racism works against me. There is an author who has written about racism and how everybody here in Guatemala wants to belong to a rich family from Spain.  It’s really weird, but it’s a part of our culture. I know I can’t change anything.

Kike plans to leave Guatemala to find a better life.  He intends to go to Europe, perhaps France, perhaps Poland, where he has friends, and eventually emigrate to Australia, find work and write a novel.

Right now I live in a town (Mixco) where it’s really dangerous. I live with my parents there and rent a house. Even though my job is boring, I thought that with the money I made at the bank my family could be better off, but it’s not completely true. Some two years ago three men entered my home and robbed me of everything.  So from that time on, I’ve been thinking that it’s just not possible to have anything here.  I bought everything for the house, and right now I have nothing.  But it’s my town, my grandparents and parents grew up there, and they don’t want to leave Mixco.

We have our demons, like violence and indifference. For example, where I live, last weekend, a man was murdered in the central park in my town.  It was really ugly. The most incredible thing is the indifference of the people, because next to the murder there was a party being thrown for the public in the town square, to celebrate the conclusion of some elections.  But just next to the party, one man was killed, he was murdered, and no one cared.  The party kept going until one a.m., and nobody said “stop the music, we have a guy murdered here.”  You know, the indifference, It’s amazing.  You can’t believe it. The deep indifference, it’s incredible.

Five months ago I was sleeping, maybe six in the morning, when I heard “pah pah pah pah” (bullet sounds).  So I said to myself, “shit, that was a shooting.”  But when I got up my mom came into my room and said “stop, don’t go out,” but I needed to go out and see, and I went out and found a woman maybe 20 or 25 years old, she was still alive but she was dying, and her mother was trying to revive her and she was pleading for people to help.

But this is our reality and our government does nothing.  They say that there comes a time here when it becomes too much.  “We can’t take it any more.  When will I be next?”  In any moment, it can be you who is shot.  So you ask yourself, “when will I be taken out?”

I do believe I could learn another language like French.  I  could stay in France for two or three years and then go to Australia.  I have friends in Poland also.  As for the US, I think for Latin people there are better destinations.  In the US there is racism and the only work I would find would be at a farm or in construction.  I’m looking for something else.  My dream really is to go to Australia.  I am going to turn 31 years old and one of my goals is to meet a girl, get married and have children.  I am sure in Guatemala it is not possible to support a family the way I want, but in Australia and other places there are so many more opportunities.

But you never know what is waiting for you.

Juan-Enrique Yantuche at the Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland. June 23, 2019

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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