Childhood in Guatemala

December 19, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I would be foolish, after just a week in Guatemala, to pretend that I have any but superficial insights into the state of childhood in this Central American nation. But mid-December, it turns out, is an excellent time to photograph Guatemalan children. School is out for the equivalent of an American child's summer vacation. (I won't try to explain why Guatemalans, who are in the Northern Hemisphere, consider November and December to be summer.) And though their seasons are not the same as those in Los Estados Unidos, for Guatemalans, Christmas comes on December 25. There are lots of parties, pageants and performances showcasing kids in December. So I've seen a lot of kids, and I have my impressions.


I know that the way kids are raised has a lot to do with the money and education their parents have. Couples with ample amounts of both tend to raise their kids in ways that give them the skills to eventually join the parents in the middle or upper classes. The kids get tutoring, a rich smorgasbord of extracurricular activities, and enough parental attention that they will someday be able to afford to pay a psychiatrist to listen to them complain about how neurotic and smothering mom and dad were. That's true in the United States and it's probably true in Guatemala. The big difference is likely to be that a larger share of the population in the United States has the resources to give kids that sort of childhood. (Though at the rate income inequality is growing in the U.S.A., Americans and Guatemalans may soon have more in common than we do now.)


Parents who struggle to make it can't give their kids as much. Their kids spend more time on the streets and less time in supervised learning activities. They may well be smart; they learn skills that will help them survive the rigors of poverty. But they don't often enough learn the skills needed to complete an education, compete in the marketplace or rise above their parents' class. That's also true in both the United States and Guatemala.


Viewed in that way, the Guatemalan boy playing the violin in the photo at right probably has more in common with middle-class kids in the United States than he has with the boy in the photo at left, even though the boy on the left is also Guatemalan and was photographed within a few hundred meters of the spot in Antigua where the young violinist was performing. The violinist is a member of an orchestra trained at a school of the arts in Antigua. The orchestra was performing Christmas songs late one afternoon in the city's central plaza when I made the picture. The kid on the right was hanging out in the street not far away and asked me to take his picture. He seemed happy just to have an adult pay some attention to him.


It can be particularly tough if a Guatemalan kid has disabilities. The boy with his chin pressed against a window pane, at right, has autism, his grandmother told me. He can't cope with the classes in the public school he might otherwise attend. The public school has 50 kids in a classroom, and the teacher has no time to give him any special help. He attends a private school with smaller classes, but his grandmother says he needs individual help with a tutor trained to work with autistic children. The family has no hope of paying for that.


There are cultural differences at work as well as economic ones, and my impression is that these cultural differences are especially influential for girls. The girl with the little sisters in the picture at the top of this post looked to be about seven or eight years old. She was carrying an infant sister in a sling fashioned from a blanket. And she was supervising a middle child, the sister on the right in the picture, who appeared to be about four.


It turned out that the girls' mother was not far away, trying to sell ice cream from a cart. So it would be incorrect to say that the big sister alone was looking after the two littler girls. But it would still be hard to imagine an American girl of the same age being given even part of the care of an infant.


This, however, is a common sight on the streets in Antigua. And it's not like Guatemalan girls have to be coerced into taking on the care of an infant. I attended a Christmas party for children associated with the teachers and administrators of the school where I was taking Spanish classes. These were all kids from a higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder than the girls I photographed in the plaza. But throughout the Christmas party, the favorite activity of girls from the age of roughly eight to roughly thirteen seemed to be to search out one of the many babies in attendance and persuade the baby's mother to let her hold the baby, sling the baby on her hip, and practice being maternal. They seemed to find this more entertaining than watching either Santa or the clown at the party.

There is, I think, a discernible tendency to push Guatemalan girls into being beauty queens. I can see it in the breathless coverage that the Spanish version of Yahoo, which I get down here, is giving to the appearance and dress of Latin American contestants in the Miss World pageant. I can see it in the way little girls are carefully made up when they act as angels in a Christmas pageant.


This tendency exists in America, too. But it's less pronounced. I don't remember the American girls in my daughter's generation competing to dandle infants when they were young. They rode horses, or they kicked soccer balls, but they displayed only the most fitful interest in being maternal. Not many of them, in my recollection, ever earned spending money by baby-sitting. And none of them, as far as I know, ever entered a beauty pageant.


That was behavior more typical of American girls of my generation, baby-boomers who are now in or approaching retirement. The Miss America contest got massive TV ratings in those days. The most coveted dolls at Christmas were the ones that cried just like a real baby. Getting work as a baby-sitter was a rite of passage. That's all changed. Miss America is on cable somewhere, if it's on TV at all. Now Barbie is a scientist, and if anyone in an American girl's play room these days is going to pretend to soothe a crying infant, it's probably Ken.


I talked to a couple of Guatemalan university students, young women in their early 20s, and they both said that they feel social pressure to get married and have children earlier than they would like. One of them told me she thinks she might have to leave Guatemala and move to another country to find a husband who could accommodate a different concept of adult life, one with a higher priority for education and work.


Still, there is a certain sweetness about Guatemalan culture, perhaps an innocence that I don't sense much any more in the U.S.A. At the Christmas party, the games the kids played were games I remembered from my own childhood, games like musical chairs and a local variant of bobbing for apples in which the girls held an apple on a string and the boys tried to eat it. (Religious and Freudian symbologists, have at it.) The kids were excited to have a chance to get a lollipop or a plastic whistle out of a ruptured pinata.


It wasn't better or worse than America. It was just different.


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