Xela stories of transformation: A commons perspectives on (peri-)urban resource use, territoriality, and cultural representation

  • 12/07/18 CEDLA goes Xela!

  • This Thursday afternoon we had the opportunity to observe a meeting of the Comité Municipal de Desarrollo of Quetzaltenango. This Committee brings together representatives of city neighborhoods and rural communities with municipal authorities, including the mayor. The proceedings gave us a sense of the often strenuous relationships between citizens and the local state. Citizens vent their dissatisfaction about the lack of infrastructural projects while the authorities defend themselves by pointing at the complexity of Xela’s problems, the tough task of setting priorities, and bureaucratic obstacles.

    This divide between residents and authorities is perhaps most tangible when it comes to crime and public security. Guatemala seems to be in the grip of petty and organized crime, ranging from ordinary street robbery and burglary to extortion by urban youth gangs and the operations of large scale drug cartels. This situation has been generating moral panics and largely ineffective responses. My endeavor is to search for examples of ‘commoning’ in this minefield. Bottom-up initiatives from urban residents try to counter the crime wave and the widespread sense of insecurity. After the municipal meeting I talked to a small assembly of concerned middle class citizens living in Zona 1, the historical center of Quetzaltenango. Their aim is to establish a formal Community Development Committee to deal with the security problem. The coordinator of the group, a senior citizen and journalist, evoked memories of the city’s past when Xela was safe and peaceful and the town center home to quiet cantinas, poets and bohemians. In contrast, he told me, Xela today is the stage for crime. In particular, the rise of gangs (maras, pandillas) troubles the residents.

    Encroaching from the poor periphery upon the city center, the gangs’ main ‘business’ is extortion of local shops and residents. Only through unity and joint efforts the residents feel that they stand a chance to turn the tide. What struck me as positive was that this group of decent citizens abhorred the methods of many so-called ‘neighbors organized against crime’ who put up banners to warn criminals and gangsters (mareros) to stay away or face the ‘popular justice’ of lynching (see picture). While this practice can be seen as a perverse form of ‘commoning’, my spokespersons rejected it as futile: it is immoral and only provokes the reprisal of the criminals. You cannot fight fire with fire, they seem to imply. But peaceful neighbors by themselves are unlikely to put out the fire just by themselves. To them, it ultimately comes down to the state which brings me to the sticky question of policing in Quetzaltenango. To be continued…

    Kees Koonings

  • 11/07/18 CEDLA goes Xela!

    Located at 21 Avenida in Zona 3, a huge hangar represents the dark history of Guatemala. Built as a tramway depot in 1930, it became a military base in 1945. During the armed conflict, it served as a counterinsurgent detention and torture centre. As recently as last May, four military were sentenced to imprisonment of between 33 and 58 years for their involvement in the torture and rape of a young woman at the base in 1981 and the disappearance of her 14-year old brother. Since the military left in 2004, the hangar and its surroundings are the location of the Intercultural Centre with two museums and an art workshop. Even with this transformation, it remains a contested place. In 2012, the government wanted to turn it into a regional police academy which provoked heavy protests from civic society and artists. In January of this year, the Historic Museum of Quetzaltenango was opened. It received severe criticism for its (mis)representation of Xela’s contemporary history, Mayan culture and the armed conflict.

    An important component of the Intercultural Centre is the Museum Ixkik’ which was established in 2006 and is dedicated to Mayan clothing. Last Monday, its director Raquel Garcia showed us around. She opened room after room filled with weaving utensils, pottery and Mayan costumes in a wide variety. The museum intends to revive Mayan values and practices. Identifying as a Maya herself, she regrets that she only has a basic knowledge of the K’iche language and the art of weaving. In her endeavour to promote Mayan culture she doesn’t stand alone. In Xela, several textile associations intend to revive Mayan culture and to recuperate from the armed conflict that hit the Maya population particularly hard. The efforts of all these women I see as a process of cultural commoning.
    The women benefit from the steadily growing number of tourists in Xela who come to study Spanish at one of its many language schools or sign up as volunteers to work in a development project. Yesterday, I went back to the Ixkik’ museum to interview Raquel Garcia. In the middle of her story, we had to stop because a language teacher and two students entered. Raquel invited them to take a seat. While I left, she started her exposé, explaining how she and her colleagues studied the Mayan Codices to conclude that the Mayan culture is both age-old and very much alive.

    Annelou Ypeij

    Photo courtesy of Amparo de Leon and Charlotte Middleton, teacher and student at Trama Textiles

  • 10/07/18
    CEDLA goes Xela!

    Before I go to bed after a long Xela day, I eat a banana which I bought at the Mercado Minerva this afternoon. Xela has two big city markets. Minerva is the biggest. Its name comes from a structure that looks like a Greek temple towering over the entrance. It is also called El Terminal because of a noisy and bustling bus station at the other end. In between you find a labyrinth of alleys, small buildings and stalls, that make up the market. It is in many ways a typical Latin American market but its chaotic make-up and variety of activities gives it a unique character: Something between a North African zouk and a Brazilian favela!
    Indigenous women sell all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Some of the fruits come from farther away, but most of the vegetables are produced at the outskirts of the city. The enormous radish and broccoli testify to the region’s fame of harbouring some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. The small alleys are filled with customers and boys with wheel barrows who bring and take products. The inside part of the market is solidly covered. Outside vendors protect themselves against the rain and the sun by makeshift plastic covers that blow in the wind.

    Despite the chaotic and unregulated appearance it is easy to see an ‘order’. Some stalls are almost like little shops or are located on the best spots. Towards the periphery, poor women sit on the cement to sell small quantities of tomatoes or lychee. In between, young people walk around selling odd products like ice cream or computer cables.
    There is no doubt about the economic importance of the market, both for the city, the consumers and the vendedores. The absence of any form of visible regulation is therefore remarkable. The office that regulates the market has four paid officials. The order is mostly ‘informal’ - some people say ‘illegal’ - based on informal agreements between sindicatos of market vendors and officials.
    The local press, shop owners, residents and local entrepreneurs regularly complain about the informality of the markets. Some of their complaints are real. A deadly fire inside the Minerva market last year testifies to that, just as the dangerous traffic situations everyone can see. But they ignore the informal organization within the markets, the varied ways in which it allows the market to keep functioning every day. Can we understand these processes through the concept of the commons? That is the question we try to answer!

    Michiel Baud

  • 09/07/18 CEDLA goes Xela!

    What? Today we start an exciting experiment: joint fieldwork on commons in Latin America. For the first time in CEDLA’s history, we are doing fieldwork with a team of seven researchers (two of them are still on the plane as we speak). By doing so we will practice multidisciplinary research ‘on the spot’, in order to learn from each other’s approaches and insights. The project’s working title is ‘Xela stories of transformation: A commons perspectives on (peri-)urban resource use, territoriality, and cultural representation’. Through this collective endeavour, we hope to better understand the reshaping of society, and contribute to key social science and humanities debates on the region’s particular trajectory of development.

    We are based in the country’s second city: Quetzaltenango – locally known as Xela (short for Xelajú Noj, its K’iche name). It is located in the Western highlands of Guatemala. While the commons and processes of commoning and decommoning can be studied almost anywhere, we opted for Central America because in recent years CEDLA has worked less on this part of Latin America. Among the reasons to select Xela was that this medium-sized city holds an interesting mix of urban and rural areas in its territory, and also social and ethnical (indigenous and rural) diversity. At this first day walking around Xela we have indeed witnessed the diversity of this lively city.

    Why? This experimental joint fieldwork aims to jump start CEDLA’s new research programme ‘Reshaping society and the commons in Latin America’. The commons approach has become a vibrant interdisciplinary field, and we use it as a connecting analytical perspective. We will analyze social processes around traditional commons - natural resources such as water, land and forest - as well as so-called new commons - identities, urban public spaces, collective practices and knowledge. Territory and identity are key concepts in our understanding of the commons and (de-)commoning in Latin America.

    How? We will do research on commoning around ‘Maya’ tourism, cemetries and security, as well as around agriculture, water and markets. These themes evidently flow from each one’s research interests, but in Xela we will also join one another in activities and have group visits and interviews. As with any experiment, some methods of doing joint research and connecting themes and insights have to be developed while doing. Last night over pizza, for instance, we ended up discussing if commons and commoning require a fixed group of people, or if may also be transitory (to be continued).

    Over the next 12 days we will share our Xela experiences through a series of blogs.
    Annelou Ypeij, Barbara Hogenboom, Christien Klaufus, Fabio de Castro, Kees Koonings, Michiel Baud and Rutgerd Boelens