Monday, March 31, 2008

Las China

Me llaman el desaparecido
Cuando llega ya se ha ido
Volando vengo, volando voy
Deprisa deprisa a rumbo perdido

Cuando me buscan nunca estoy
Cuando me encuentran yo
no soy
El que está enfrente porque ya
Me fui corriendo más allá

Me dicen el
Fantasma que nunca está
Me dicen el desagradecido
Pero esa no es la verdad

-Manu Chao, "Desaparecido"

Among the surprises we encountered in Guatemala City the week before last, one we should have expected: the Semana Santa processions and their associated ephemeral grandeur. None of us had been tuned in enough to the religious calendar to note, even in passing, that our arrival in Guatemala City would coincide with the eve of Palm Sunday; much less that we'd find ourselves -- staying in the heart of zone 1 in the center of the capital city -- right in the middle of some of the most elaborate and crowded processions in the country.

The processions are familiar enough, I think, to folks who know something about the celebration of Semana Santa in Spain and parts of Latin America: that photo above is of an unfinished alfombra, or
tapete -- an elaborate, temporary street carpet made of stenciled, colored sawdust. This one was made by a group of young students from the school across the street from the Guatemala City Casa del Migrante, and the low light does no justice to the careful coordination of its color and design. But you get the idea.

After alfombras have been created along the route -- a fairly complicated schedule of the processions, which happen day and night throughout the week -- the thing proper begins:

guys dressed as Roman Soldiers (the elaborateness of their outfits a direct correlation to the social status of the neighborhood) are followed through the streets by the andas themselves -- big, elaborate Holy Week-oriented floats -- carried collectively along the route.

They're followed by a band. And then a bulldozer, a dumptruck, and a small army of city streetsweepers; working efficiently, they erase, in a matter of a few minutes, any sign of the recently-trampled alfombras.

On the evening of the first picture, above, several of the migrants staying at the Casa had come out to take part in the creation of an alfombra on the theme of migration, directly in front of the shelter. Among them were a young pair of Chinese women who, as far as anyone could ascertain, had been brought to Guatemala to work in the sex trade. They spoke no Spanish, and very, very little English. No one knew for certain if they had chosen to come to Guatemala, but it seemed unlikely that they had arrived with an understanding of the use they would be put to, there. They wound up at the Casa in between being discovered -- by someone -- in Guatemala City and being deported.

That's one of them, in fact, in that first picture -- that blur in the bottom right-hand corner. In the few days we spent there, inexplicably popping in from the States, with our cameras and tripods and digital recording equipment, we had managed only to achieve a kind of friendly non-verbal rapport. When they jumped playfully into the frame of my evening photo of the alfombra, and when they pressed in on each side of me to see the resulting picture, they crossed all kinds of figurative borders, of course. But their closeness was also just warm and human and happy. It felt good.

It felt a lot better than not being able to explain -- they probably knew? -- why they weren't in the picture after all, how I had been trying to avoid using the flash, how they moved too quickly through the frame for me to record them at all. It was with a kind of frustrating desperation that I smiled at them, and shrugged. And they walked away to find another photographer. And then, a few nights later, they disappeared.

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