I have been debating writing about this topic for a while, but wasn’t really sure of how to begin. Race and gender is a pretty sensitive topic, and regardless of where I go in life, my race and gender have affected my experiences. At the same time, my race and gender have helped me formulate my identity.
Before coming to Guatemala, I expected that I would be called morenita or negrita on a near daily basis. I don’t find this to be racist, because if used with proper tone, it is used as a descriptor or as a term of endearment. When I got here, people did not do this. In fact, most people do not believe that I am full morena, or full black. I was shocked because for the first time in my life, I have not been seen as Black, even though I am visibly black and proud to be so. I knew people would assume that I wasn’t American, because Americans are seen as White and affluent people. I thought I would be seen as some other Black, such as Garifuna or Dominican/Nicaraguan/etc. It’s kind of isolating to have no central identity marker here since I’m not seen as American or Black. I’ve been read as mulatto, because of my coloring and physical features which is interesting because there are a large Black population in Guatemala called the Garifuna. Without going into too much detail, I have either heard or received a lot of comments about color and complexion.
The most common comment that I’ve heard is that Guatemalans are blanco but become moreno because they stand in the sun for too long. It’s hard to be silent because I don’t want to be culturally insensitive, but at the same time, that is complete erasure of African roots. You don’t get dark from just standing in the sun, your melanin levels and the extent to how dark your skin can become is predetermined by genetics. And there are strong African and Maya genes here…I believe you should take pride in your roots and in your culture! There are some people who take pride in being darker skin here and who actually do like dark skin. From what I’ve read, for a while, indigenous blood was also seem as something to be ashamed of, but now there is more recognition of Indigenous people and their rights. It’s sad because African and Maya culture have so strongly influenced the ladino culture. Ladino means non-indigenous. In fact, the word ladino comes from colonial times to distinguish between different castes.
The highest caste were Españoles (conquistadores/colonizers), then criollos (descendants of conquistadores/colonizers), mulattos (black and spanish), mestizos (spanish and indigenous), and zambos (black and indigenous). Then, indigenous, and finally Negros (Blacks) were the lowest rank. It’s interesting because mulattos, mestizos, and mambos were all considered to be free peoples while indigenous and Negros weren’t. Indigenous people were emancipated and seen as equals because of Barthelome De La Casas, who then advocated for using enslaved Africans for labor instead. Also, mulattos, metiszos, and zambos were treated better than full blooded Negro or Indigenous, even though some had darker phenotypes.
Ladinos were used to distinguish racial purity from mulattos as well as to reaffirm Spanish dominance. Women from Spain (traidas) and men from Germany were brought to Guatemala to mate with and whiten the population in order to “mejorar la raza” (better the race). However, today, Guatemala is a very diverse country with people of all colors and there are over 22 languages spoken here. So it’s not a surprise to see how remnants of colonialism helped reinforce racism and colorism in our current society.
I was having a lot of internal conflict about race, especially when hearing my home stay family make ignorant comments about other races. It got to the point where I felt so frustrated and unable to name the problem like we do in dialogue. However, something amazing happened: my home stay mom, dad, and I actually had a really great conversation about race. It came up one day at dinner because I told them I was staying with Habie, a Black volunteer for Field Based Training. They talked to me about their perception of her experience and asked me about mine. I saw this as an amazing teaching moment and expressed that I haven’t felt racism here so far, but more of a curiosity with me because I am Black (fishbowl effect).
I explained how it’s been frustrating to have people tell me I’m not black or not believe that I was Black. Then I also explained how when you are not accustomed to being around someone who looks different than you, you will hold beliefs or ideas about that group that are not necessarily correct. Then, my mom blew my mind and gave this wonderful race analysis. She explained about how gringas are treated differently, and how all gringos aren’t seen as equal. She also talked about experiencing racism within her own country because they are darker complexion and shorter, as well as other groups who are discriminated against such as the indigenous. She was open about her preconceptions of others based before being a home stay family and how living with people of different races has helped her learn more about other cultures. She also told me I was the first Black volunteer they have had, and they really have enjoyed me being here. I said I think its a beautiful thing that we can share our cultures and that we are teaching each other about where we come from. I felt so relieved to have had a really great, honest, and most importantly, non hostile conversation about race. I feel like that really brought us closer, and we have more respect for one another as people now.
At the same time, it’s been hard to process comments made about my appearance. For example, I was walking down the street one day and a group of men said “Hola cappuccino.” In Guatemala, when people saludar (or say hi), there are different ways to speak to someone.
¡Hola, Bueno/as Dias/Tardes/Noches! – Polite and enthusiastic way to greet people (in smaller towns, you usually do saludar everyone around you except the bolos or drunks — for safety reasons).
Buenaas – Could be because the person doesn’t really want to talk or for me, I forget when to differentiate what time you can say Buenos Dias vs Buenas Tardes
Hola – Way to catcall women on the street
Being sexualized because of my color is really annoying. I talked to my Spanish teacher about it, and she explained that some Guatemalans perceive people of color, especially black people to be better at sex. A lot of times, being catcalled amplifies the fishbowl effect, or people staring at me because I am literally one out of two Black people who live in a town of 13,000 people. When men do not properly saludar using Hola Buenos…. it is safe to say, it is being used in a sexual manner. Men will say Hola, and then Hello because they realize we may not speak Spanish.
I’ve noticed this has happened not just to me, but to a lot of women in our group. What works best for me is to just ignore them and keep walking. Sometimes I laugh, but other times, it’s just really disgusting. Catcalling here and in the States is just annoying to have to deal with, but I also understand it’s an unfortunate part of being a female. Thankfully, I have not witnessed or experienced more aggressive catcalling or sexual harassment. Machismo is strong here, as it is in all parts of the world (yes, even in the US!). So far, I’ve not really seen too much of that to an extreme, but I definitely notice how men and women are treated very differently here and it is generally not a good idea to deviate from traditional gender roles (side note: all families are not the same and do not hold the same values). For example, I was painting my nails with some of my friends, and painted my guy friend’s toenail. My little sister came in and was horrified that I had done that. She is only 3 years old and told me that it was not right to wear nail polish. At first, I thought it was for religious reasons, so I asked her if it was okay if I wore nail polish. She said yes, because I’m a woman but because he’s a man that’s wrong and not right. It’s really interesting to see how kids pick up on gender norms from a really early age.
Anyways, these are both themes that I am sure will come up again in this country. I am just writing from my perspective on the things that I have seen or experienced because of my race and gender. I’m excited to keep analyzing our roles as Volunteers and how our gender and race will help or hinder us in the field.