A piece by Simone Dalmasso accompanies some great photographs and was published recently in Plaza Pública.
In 1957, the mayor of Nebaj described the socioeconomic situation of the people in the area, “..the majority of the indigenous people of this municipality need to go to the coast in search of work in order to be able to satisfy their basic needs, owing to the scarcity of basic goods, primarily maize. Their lands, by the time they cultivate them, do not meet their needs; that is to say, besides being insufficient, the land is not productive and the increase in the population has been too great. The result has been that many indigenous people do not even have land to cultivate, and the move to the coast in search of subsistence is seen as necessary, which they do with increasing frequency”.
Juan is thirty years old and lives in a village ten minutes from Nebaj by microbus. With his wife, Juana and their three children of 11, 9 and 3 years, they live in a humble house made of wood and laminate, without electric light, that little by little they are fixing up. From when he was a child, an orphan, he had to seek out work opportunities to make a life and ‘to move forward’.
He cultivates maize in a leased field of 10 cuerdas, spread along a 50 metre vertical drop on a mountain slope. He rents each cuerda for Q25 per year. The last harvest provided sufficient maize for the family needs, to pay the rent of the field, and for some household expenses. In addition, he grows peas on other land, closer to the community, which he rents for Q3,000 per year. The harvest is delivered to intermediaries who happen to pass through the village and who sell directly in the capital. The price to buy peas is not proportional to the quality of the product and the return from the sale is minimal.
Without an alternative source of income in his village, Juan leaves the cold land of the altiplano and goes down to the coast where, since the age of 17, he spends six months working as a sugar cane cutter. During the last harvest, he remained working at Christmas and New Year to earn double his salary that the mill pays for working holidays: he gets Q30 per ton instead of Q15. Hence, the work at the finca knows no rest. To endure this, there is nothing other than to inject drugs so as not to feel the pain, to continue cutting and to increase earnings by the end of the month. In the fincas, all the cane cutters know a list of at least 5 or 6 easily obtainable drugs within the sugar mills: Tramal, Venofer, Artan, Tramadol, Acefan, Ractivan, Neurotropas, Neurobion, Biodirdiecta, Compleben are taken like sweets.
Through this, many cutters can overcome the physical limits of the daily cut. Juan, for example, claims to be a champion: able to cut 12 tons daily. For this he is prized each year among the model employees, among the best workers to the company. Three seasons ago, he won a bicycle, then a stove and last year a television. However, nobody in his family could enjoy them as he had to sell everything to cover the daily expenses and to ‘move forward’.
Proudly, Juan claims that he is able to endure anything through necessity: “I kill myself for my children and my wife”, he says. He was on the point of dying last year through a health problem that was not fully resolved. Since then, his stomach hurts, at times so bad that he cannot eat or move. But he carries on, “so that my children do not have to do what I do, so they can study, to have better opportunities and not to kill themselves working on the coast as I do”.
In a 1960 research on the dualism between the Ixiles and the Ladinos, Benjamin Colby and Pierre Van den Berghe claimed: “the climate and the working conditions in the commercial plantations vary from bad to abominable. Mortality and morbidity rates are high, and the Ixiles consider work in the plantations undesirable. Even more, the majority of the indigenous obtain little or no economic benefit from the migratory work, and the region becomes more and more dependent on the world of the Ladino, without many prospects of significant economic improvement within the present system of production. In reality, the power dynamics continue as they were: for a landed oligarchy, an indigenous population leaves the altiplano each year to fatten the earnings of the few: “As in almost all the world where a commercial agriculture has replaced an economy based on subsistence cultivation, those gradually fall to a level of sub-subsistence, and a growing number of peasants swell the ranks of the agricultural sub-proletariat, unorganised, mobile, easily exploited and badly paid”. Yet, at a distance of fifty years from these accounts, “to move forward” like Juan, continues being the only form of survival for the majority of indigenous people in the country.
You can read the original in Spanish with references here and this is translated into English by Kevin O’Dell.