A Man with Three Demons That This Country Wants to Burn
In Guatemala, being poor, Indigenous, and gay is a punishable offense. Building an identity across those worlds and trying to live up to this country’s ideal of “being a man,” just trying to survive, means walking on a road strewn with stones. It has not, however, meant walking alone, but rather walking in the company of people who know how to use those stones to make fire.
I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Guatemala City. One of those neighborhoods that’s next to a bridge and classified as a “zona roja,” or red light district. A place where your masculinity is based on how many street fights you’ve been in, on your ability to climb a transmission tower, or on how often you use “hueco,” “marica,” “mierda,” “hijueputa,” or “cerote” [“gay,” “fag,” “shit,” “son-of-a-bitch,” or “piece of shit”] in everyday conversation with your friends, or by hanging out on the corner with your crew even though it’s past curfew.
None of that took root in me. One day, my mom and dad decided that we would no longer leave our house. Not my brother, not my sister, and least of all me, the oldest son who was just entering adolescence. It was their way of protecting us from the violence, and of making us concentrate on our studies without distraction.
A radical decision. With its advantages and disadvantages. I never learned to whistle with the other kids, and when I started riding the bus, I had to bang on the door to be let off. Asking nicely wasn’t an option. Men aren’t supposed to do that. It’s a sign of weakness. Not going out in the streets also meant that I never took any punches, and never learned how to throw them—something that I think could have helped me out later on as a teenager.
I went to public schools for preschool and elementary, and then attended a public university. But for high school, I was enrolled in two private schools. My dad was able to afford this after a foreign company bought up the Guatemalan business where he had worked as a mechanic. Before that, his salary was barely enough for us to eat. Not enough to buy us a computer or pay for Internet service. The new foreign owners immediately increased his salary without making him change positions.
This new work situation made it so my mother didn’t need to find a formal job, but could stay at home and continue her work as a seamstress and care provider for her sons and daughter. At the time, my family wasn’t like other poor families where both parents have to work under conditions of indignity.
My father was not like the others who abuse their wives. And my mother was not like the others who refuse to teach their sons how to cook. This helped me to avoid learning two harmful patterns: that of the man who subordinates his wife by beating her, and the one that makes you believe some jobs should only be done by women.
I began understanding more about the complex nature of machismo and the way it has been embedded into our identity when I started working as a journalist.
In 2013, I was selected as the new junior reporter for Plaza Publica’s training program. I had always dreamed of working at Plaza Pública, and when I was told I had been chosen for the training program, I found myself at a crossroads. I had been working as a data-entry specialist at the National Registry of Persons. Leaving my position there would mean losing the salary that paid for my university expenses, my English classes, and my food. My mom and dad were worried, but they were willing to support me.
“You have to make do with what we can afford,” my dad said.
At Plaza Pública, they were offering a stipend, but it was going to be less than my current salary. But I wanted to become a journalist.
Becoming part of Plaza Pública was like being given the serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America. But instead of expanding my pecs, it expanded my mind. Our weekly Friday meetings would occasionally erupt into full-blown battles, with discussions on Guatemalan social dynamics, rulings and decisions related to mining, the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169, African palm, water law, legal pluralism, the judicial proceedings on the Ixil genocide, the cacicazgos [large land holdings that are remnants of colonial rule], or the judicial nominating commissions. My only contribution, of course, was to make the coffee.
In our free time, the discussions would continue. We would talk about literature, music, film, television. I would hear the names of countless writers, movies, and artists I didn’t know. At the time, my knowledge of literature was limited to works by Gabriel García Márquez and Agatha Christie, as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Truman Capote, and a few other authors. It was only thanks to the university library that I had read even these, since I never had enough money to buy books for myself. Regarding music, I listened to indie bands that I found on my own, and some new wave artists I learned about from my great friend and the most cultured and intelligent man in my class. That was the only kind of music he ever talked about. I never told him that I liked listening to RBD or Katy Perry, let alone that I was a huge fan of Shakira. And it wasn’t because that kind of music was “shallow,” like the kids at school or the coworkers at my first job said, but because I thought it wouldn’t meet the standards of my friends and classmates.
If someone were to have asked me if I ever felt excluded because my intellectual level wasn’t on par with the other students, my answer would have been no. I think back on that time and my mind turns to the feeling of tranquility that comes from drinking coffee with bread as the afternoon is almost at its end. If I didn't know something, my friends—none of whom work at that news outlet anymore—would go to great lengths to explain it to me. Especially one journalist who studied physics and then politics. If I told him I didn't know what he was talking about, without wasting time he’d start mentioning dates, names, and all the details he knew about the book, comic, or musical genre he had mentioned.
In that space, I didn’t have to worry about pretending to be tough or serious to avoid being harassed or bullied. I also didn’t have to waste any time justifying why I wasn’t a fan of any particular soccer team—things you have to deal with in a group of traditional men.
At Pláza Pública, where I had to read all our content, since it was my job to publish it on social media, I came across a debate about The Hunger Games. A person came out in defense of the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, arguing that she was a disruptive character: the book isn’t about a woman being rescued by a man—instead, it’s about a woman who saves the life of the other main character, a man portrayed as sensitive, in contrast to Katniss, who is described as tough—the opposite of the personality traits typically assigned to men and women. And I gained an even broader understanding of these historically imposed behavior traits when I came across an article titled “Desmontando al macho guatemalteco,” or “Deconstructing the Guatemalan male,” which describes a workshop series in which a group of men are questioned about the patterns that structure masculinity in Guatemala.
After my stint at Plaza Pública, I went on to work in the editorial offices of elPeriódico and Soy502. But life goes round and round, and now I’m publishing this piece with Agencia Ocote, an outlet under the direction of the journalist who chose me to be junior reporter and who helped me get started in the field.
Throughout this journey, journalism has reminded me that despite what we have been led to believe, courage is not a quality exclusive to men. Journalism has also endowed me with strong friends, both women and men, who ask tough questions of public officials, and who expose acts of corruption, report on the illicit drug trade, bring hidden information to light, and who make this country face the issues that it continues to ignore or oppose: feminism, sexual diversity, and racism.
“I knew I was an Indian the moment I stepped foot in Antigua; before, I was a person,” wrote Luis De Lión. I knew it when I started third grade at a school in a different neighborhood—a public school in Guatemala City’s historic downtown center. There, the girls were mocked and insulted for wearing their traditional clothes. And so, too, was a boy with a strong accent, or whose parents had a strong accent.
It was painful to learn that I wasn’t equal in the eyes of others. They belittled me. But all that started to change when the report cards came out. Sandra, Ardany and myself were at the top of the honor roll—all three of us the children of K’iche’ families. I felt proud, not just of myself, but of my two friends. That helped me to no longer feel any less than the others. And though I would face other racist acts in the future, it wouldn’t take me as long to put myself back together afterwards. Now I understand that it was easier for me to deal with racism because of the privileges we have as men. The system is crueler to Indigenous women, who simply because they wear their traditional clothing are more likely to face discrimination.
This is just one of the differences, however, in the way that Indigenous men and women approach life. In our culture, the behaviour of women and men is also governed by norms based in a binary system. Women can only do this and men can only do that. As a child, I transgressed one of these norms. And while my maternal grandmother had no problem teaching me how to make tortillas, my paternal grandmother was appalled that I could. That's not how things work in my family’s community in Uspantán, Quiché. And although I never cared whether they approved of me or not, I still felt the pressure of not having mastered some traditionally masculine activity. That's why I decided to learn how to chop wood. It wasn't hard at all. I mastered the axe with ease.
And it’s true that I’ve expressed my nonconformity in certain ways, but it’s also true that in other cases I’ve chosen restraint and silence. For example, with the fact that during community celebrations, men are given the best cuts of meat. But there are other ingrained behaviors that perpetuate inequality between men and women, like how the best plots of land are always inherited by sons and not daughters.
This in no way justifies the racist system that has excluded us as Indigenous people, that has left us out of political decisions, that prevents us from accessing a multicultural education system, that denies us access to work opportunities, that annihilates our languages and stigmatizes our spirituality.
“¡Ya habló la florecita!” “The little flower has spoken!”
I was the little flower, for saying that I thought cooking could be considered a form of art. I was fourteen, and was in third grade at one of those small schools that you see everywhere in the center of the city. I felt like I’d been found out. I was in shop class, and all the other students were men.
It had been one year since I had become conscious of my homosexuality and had stopped trying to fight it. But I had already spent two years trying to avoid making any gesture or exhibiting any behavior that might be associated with the stereotype of a gay man. I didn’t want to be rejected or assaulted. All of this, in that one moment during shop class, started crumbling apart. At what point did I decide it was a good idea to speak up in defense of cooking, something that we had all been taught only women love to do? At what point did I decide I should say this in shop class? At what point did I think it was a good idea to say it in front of the Christian shop teacher who had students bring him porn magazines in exchange for letting them do whatever they wanted?
The classmate who shouted those words that left me paralyzed decided to continue harassing me from that movement on. He was nineteen, and the tallest boy in the class. He lived in one of the violent parts of the city. A “zona roja” even more roja than mine. At first, it was jokes about homosexuality. Then it was sexual assault. Confronting him wasn’t an option. I didn’t have the height or the physical strength to face him down. Nor did I have friends who could help me with such a task. The only violence my friends and I were any good at was on the screen, playing Counter-Strike. I didn’t have anyone in my neighborhood who would back me up, either. Telling my parents was not an option. They would ask questions, which would mean confessing that the root of it all was my sexual orientation. I wasn't ready to embrace that part of my life, which I had worked so hard to hide. Plus, if that guy had found out that I complained, it would have made the whole situation more hostile. I was able to transfer to a different classroom thanks to a teacher who thought I was asking to change classes because we weren't moving as fast as the others. The teacher knew that my classroom was a lost cause and agreed.
I felt liberated, but not for long. The harassment built up until I eventually had a full-blown anxiety disorder. I was constantly afraid that I would run into that boy during recess or after school. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s how the year ended. At the start of the following year, a new idea began growing uncontrollably in my mind: at my new school, I would have to deal with someone just like him. So I decided I would limit how much I spoke up, and would interact with my new classmates only when necessary. I kept up this attitude for a few months, until I saw that some of the other students were organizing a kind of school play. It was a comedy, and two of the main characters were played by boys but wore skirts, heels, and wigs. They didn't care if they were maligned for being “queers.” They made everyone laugh, and they won the school competition.
The fact that I liked playing soccer—though I didn’t like watching it and wasn’t a fan of any particular team—also helped me feel less vulnerable during those two years of high school. I didn’t sign up because I wanted to be a star player—I just needed the credit. I always played defense. My body was strong then, which gave me the confidence I needed to stop the rival team’s forwards. They let me on the team because so many of the “alpha” students wouldn’t play defense. Playing that position prevented the others from calling me a “fag.”
Unlike my previous school, this one was a much safer and more open space, in which, for example, a classmate who everyone held in high esteem could pose the following question about his identity as a gay man to a group of other students:
“If I get a blowjob from a ‘fag,’ does that make me one too?”
“Yes, that definitely makes you a fag.”
There were few responses, a lot of silence, and no conclusion. No one mentioned bisexuality, much less fluid sexuality. We were just a couple of teenagers, and although the space wasn’t hostile, I didn’t dare speak up about my sexual orientation. I was still afraid.
The anxiety disorder that grew out of all the harassment, and from my fear of being found out, was also what made me come out of the closet. In the midst of a panic attack, which overcame me while riding in a plane, I confessed to my family that I was gay. In that moment, the promises I had made to myself as a teenager didn’t matter—promises about keeping my mom and dad from going down the tortuous road of questioning the religious dogmas that shaped their very beings, and about keeping them from feeling forced to explain my life to others. For a long time, I thought I would be able to keep those promises if I avoided any attraction or emotional connection. But I couldn’t.
As I was beginning my new job as a reporter covering the judicial system, I met a young man who I found attractive. Muscular, a soccer player, a little rough: the archetype we’re bombarded with from childhood and which we then seek to become. We’ve been taught that a man should look strong, should play sports that emphasize brute force, and should never show emotion. This is even more important for a gay man who is trying to hide it. My attraction to that person and the illusion that something might happen also played a role in my decision to come out to my parents. And even though in the end nothing happened between us, I’m grateful for the empathy he showed, and that our paths crossed. All this helped me to find the courage I needed on the day I spoke to my family. On that night my mom and dad hugged me.
Perhaps that moment in my life seems straightforward and simple, but it's actually more complex. Privileges allow some people to be freer than others. I was in my last semester of college, earning a salary not easily available to most young people from poor neighborhoods, and I had a circle of friends. I was twenty two years old and in a couple of weeks I would be an independent adult. If everything went wrong and my family rejected me, I could leave.
That’s how I began publicly embracing my sexual orientation. It has been a road full of questions about the identity I built, about the way I express myself, about how I confront my fears. A journey that started slowly, but that picked up speed the day I met Fernando/a, with his fierce and overwhelming spirit. A spirit that lets him talk without reservation about his sexual orientation, that moves him to express himself with gestures normally seen as feminine, that has him dancing and singing songs by women. That spirit inspires him to change the gender of his friends' names, whether they’re straight, bi, or gay. I’m one of them, one of those lucky enough to be his friend. And I won't lie. It was uncomfortable at first to hear him referring to me that way. One letter was enough to make me feel vulnerable and to feel first-hand the fragility of my own masculinity. And although I found it embarrassing at first, I never asked him to stop. The disruptive force of his spirit has helped me let go of my fears—that spirit that refuses to bend to a country that hates, insults, beats, and kills those who deviate from the norm.
I am the product of two worlds colliding—not “two worlds meeting,” because the word “meeting” doesn’t express the violence of a word like “collide.” This is how my identity was formed.
Today, I’m a man who no longer cares if he gets emotional while watching a show or a movie. A man who quivers with excitement from experiencing a science fiction story from Christopher Nolan, Dennis Villeneuve, or George Miller. A man who cries uncontrollably each time he watches scenes from The Impossible, Lion, or Call Me By Your Name. I’m someone who doesn’t want to make the same mistakes as Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man (1973), a man who clung to, and refused to question, the ideas dictated by his society; the same man who was later burned alive by the darker side of his town.
I’m a man who doesn’t care anymore whether his dance moves are feminine or masculine, but just wants to throw down on the dance floor when Selena or Celso Piña comes on. A man who little by little has learned to sing Shakira’s Las de la Intuición without shame. A man who cries when he realizes that Gustavo Cerati is dead and that I won’t be able to see him live in concert.
I am a man who is moved by the tenderness he finds in books, like the tenderness in the works of Eduardo Galeano, that author who, in a brief story titled The Dignity of Art, says that his words are written for those who cannot read them: “los de abajo, those at the bottom, those who have spent centuries in the waiting line of history, who don’t know how to read or can’t afford to.” In this short text, Galeano betrays how disheartened he is that his words won’t reach these people, but also, that in spite of this disillusionment, he still believes in the importance of continuing the work, and of “surrendering his whole self, everything, soul and life,” because he still held out hope of reaching them, even if it was only one, two, three, or four. Today I can say that I am one of those people. I am one of the ones Galeano helped to see the real world in all its vast diversity, to understand that love and tenderness are synonymous with courage—that they are weapons we can wage against the suffering of people, and of the peoples.
*Translated by Max Granger
FI name: July 2020