Trying to Understand
category: Newspaper Articles

Trying to Understand

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnist

I’m just under three months from finishing my Peace Corps service in Guatemala, and while my husband and I have had many good experiences here, we’ve also had our challenges. The fact that lots of the ladies think my husband needs to take a second wife because I don’t wash his pants for him isn’t really as bothersome to me as it is funny. Gender expectations are much greater for women than they are for men; women wash and cook and clean and work in the fields and take care of children. If they don’t do these things, they might suffer physical assaults, psychological abuse, or their husbands might just replace them with a new wife. The men, however, are rarely held accountable for anything. They generally work in the fields or otherwise occupy themselves to bring in money for their families, but if they don’t, no one really does anything about it. To all appearances, men tend to act more irresponsibly than women, which leads to what has been one of my biggest challenges as a volunteer.

Alcohol abuse is rampant in Guatemala, so much so that it’s the number one cause of death for Guatemalan men. Peace Corps volunteers are constantly confronted with it. Whether in the city or in the middle of the countryside, we’ve come across men passed out in public, sprawled in the middle of the road, draped in the city water fountain, soaked with mud in a roadside ditch, or nestled into a natural rock formation in the mountainside. The issue is so in your face here that it’s startling.

Personally, alcohol abuse and its effects on the community have been the hardest things for me to watch. In my work, I am constantly focused on prevention, and what could be more preventible than drinking yourself to death? Additionally, consumption of alcohol is a drain on already scarce resources. It exacerbates problems of malnutrition and lack of education, as family money goes to buy alcohol instead of purchasing food or paying school tuition. It increases incidences of domestic violence and infidelity, which in this machista culture that shuns the use of condoms, increases occurrences of sexually transmitted diseases. Alcohol abuse makes me angry, it makes me upset, and in the end it makes me feel helpless. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I strive to understand the culture I live in. For a long time I just wanted to dismiss this painful part of it, then I started to blame it on the men’s total lack of responsibility. But now realize it’s even more complex.

Last fall I was reading about Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man who was murdered in a famous hate crime case that was later turned into a popular play called The Laramie Project. I didn’t think Mathew Shepard’s death had a lot to do with alcohol abuse in Guatemala, but a September 1999 Harper’s article about Shepard’s murder helped me to see alcohol abuse in a different light. JoAnn Wypijewski’s article “A Boy’s Life: For Mathew Shepard’s Killers What does it Take to Be a Man?” is a thorough examination of the lives of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Shepard’s killers. It describes the cowboy culture in which these two were raised, as well as violent crime in sparsely populated Wyoming at the time of Matthew Shepard’s death. Wypijewski outlines the unspoken rules of this culture: men don’t show emotion, they must be physically tough and able to hold their own in a fist fight, and they can’t show outward signs of sentimentality towards the women they love. She even discussed their lives as construction workers and the emotional toll that doing hard physical labor day in and day out with no sign of upward mobility can have on young men. Drugs and alcohol become an escape for many people in these circumstances, and Shepard’s killers had been on a five day alcohol and speed binge leading up to the attack. Wypijewski does not blame Shepard’s death on socioeconomic conditions and cultural expectations; rather, she attempts to explain how and why such a tragedy happened. Without examining these questions, we can’t be confident that such a thing won’t happen again. She suggests the crime, as well as the other violent crimes in Wyoming around the time of this murder, was a crime of self loathing. This leads me back to alcohol abuse in Guatemala.

In Mayan memoirs such as I, Rigoberta Menchu by the Nobel prize laureate and the lesser-known A Mayan Life by Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez, the authors talk about alcohol consumption in their communities. Both of the authors attribute alcohol abuse to the desperation of the Mayan existence: racism, extreme poverty, hard physical labor, and the knowledge that no matter how hard they worked they would never be able to change their situation. Unexpectedly, a bit of cowboy culture is something Wyoming and Guatemala have in common. In rural Guatemala, most indigenous men have replaced their native garb with cowboy boots and hats. These agrarian workers, made strong by the hard physical labor, are expected to be unsentimental. In their lives, so many things are out of their control: where they will get clean water, how they’ll send their children to school, what they’ll do if their wife has a complicated pregnancy. That’s when I began to rethink the idea of men suffering no expectations in this culture. In fact, they are expected to be somewhat super-human, strong silent providers for their families. If a man should fail, he bears the burden of knowing he has failed everyone.

As I considered Wypijewski’s argument, I started paying more attention to cultural clues as to how men should act. It all began to make sense. The most popular movies shown on public transport are war films, tough guys with guns. The message coming from the popular Banda musicians and cultural icons like Vicente Fernandez, is that men can show emotion -and can even cry- just as long as they’re drinking. This message came home, quite literally, when the father of our host family felt the pressure of finding a way to send his kids to higher education. He’s a man we respect a lot, but we noticed he was drinking much more frequently as he struggled to put his two family members through college. He wants them to be able to get regular salaried employment some day, but school is expensive for subsistence farmers. One day my husband found him very intoxicated but talkative. “We drink to remember, and we drink to forget,” he said. He still hadn’t figured out how he was going to pay for school, but he wanted to forget about the stress and struggle. In the end he was successful, and on the night before his loved ones left for school, he once again got drunk to deal with the sadness of saying goodbye. This is the way he’s been taught to deal with things in his life. Once they were off to school, his drinking all but stopped.

Whether we’re at home or abroad, it can be easy to dismiss people who abuse alcohol or any other substance: they’re ignorant, they’re lazy, they’re selfish. But seeing an entire country affected by alcohol abuse, having it in your face all the time, means you can’t simply dismiss or demonize the abusers. This doesn’t mean that I pardon them for the harm they may do to others, but rather that I try to understand why they are doing this thing that is so harmful not only to their own health, but to the health and well-being of their entire family? Recognizing it as self loathing helps me to understand the pressures that affect alcohol abusers. Empathy helps me deal with the how difficult it is to witness such destructive habits. To alleviate a problem, we have to understand its origins. Thankfully in Guatemala, cultural predestination is changing for Mayans born into a life of bitter poverty. Opening up economic opportunities to relieve these pressures is a good way to start addressing the problem, but the cultural expectations of men and their acceptable behavior patterns need to change along with it. That second task is difficult. It will take generations for things to change here, but it’s a necessary course of action if we hope to improve the quality of life, in Guatemala or anywhere else, where substance abuse is a problem.

Posted by: emily