Boing Boing on GOOD: A Mayan Village Reacts to Obama

The folks at GOOD Magazine invited each of the Boing Boing editors to contribute essays to their online edition, and my first submission is now up. I wrote about reactions in a remote K'iche Maya village in Guatemala to the election of Barack Obama.

So, despite many years visiting their homes and sharing their difficult life experiences, we were surprised by their reaction to the Obama election. It was of great symbolic importance. That sudden jolt of aspiration felt around the world? It struck here. Hard. It meant hope. It meant a renewed belief in change, for a people who have survived natural disasters, racism, and 36 years of civil war that many describe as the Mayan genocide. If a black man can enter the Casa Blanca, they are saying, maybe a Mayan person can one day become president of Guatemala. Maybe we will live to see a true democracy here, the thinking goes–a government that represents the rights of Guatemala’s First People, instead of representing their destruction.

There are no landline phones in this village. Some heads of households have cellphones (the inexpensive kind, called “frijoles,” because they’re cheap and bean-shaped), but not everyone has even this basic connectivity. Don Victoriano, the local leader of the international nonprofit, travels to the one nearby internet cafe once a week or so, and pays a few quetzales to correspond with us over a Hotmail account. On November 3, we received an email which read (I’ll translate from the Spanish and K’iche here):

“We are preoccupied with concern over the elections in your country. We are praying for you, so that your country doesn’t suffer such a horrible depresiòn caused by bad governments. We hope in Ajaw [the Mayan creator god] that Obama wins. I don’t know how you feel, but that’s how we feel.”

To understand why Don Victoriano and others felt such intense preoccupation with what happens in America, all you need to do is look at the walls in their homes. They are covered with snapshots of sons who left.

In the Highlands, Hope (GOOD)



  1. I’d be curious if Guatemalans had the same observation folks from other countries have but we take for granted: McCain conceded. All too many countries are cursed with elections leading to civil war. While celebrating Obama as a great example of American potential, we should also celebrate the great example, and 200+ year tradition, of McCain conceding defeat and shaking Obama’s hand. The historical nature of Obama’s election threw an international spotlight on the process like never before. American partisanship without gunfire is a powerful message many are seeing for the first time.

  2. When I look at Barack Obama, I see a run of the mill neo-liberal along the same lines of Bill Clinton. If anything, I think he is probably more moderate than Billy. I also see an extremely competent organizer. Out of Obama I basically expect nice dull, competent, moderate president.

    Despite being rather boring in terms of policy (I personally consider boring good), he does have one advantage that I think will make his term somewhat more exceptional than most. The guy is absolutely loved. I don’t expect Putin to roll over, Pakistan to suddenly get a grip on their extremist problem, Afghanistan to become a shinny and happy democracy, or Israel and the Palestinians to suddenly kiss and make up. I do expect a sudden surge in goodwill towards America that is going to have subtle but very important and tangible benefits.

    I expect that the number of quality immigrants headed to the US is going to spike (providing the economic woes don’t turn the US xenophobic) and for policy leaders around the world to find it easier to “go along” with the US. Even when Bush by some stroke of insanity offered up good international policy, it was basically impossible to implement unless foreign leaders were willing to get their ass kicked by the public. I don’t think the benefits off a likable American president will be extreme and obvious, but I think in the aggregate they will be important.

    As a side bonus, it makes traveling internationally as an American a hell of a lot more fun. Americans abroad can once again revert to their natural state of smug absolute belief in their own exceptionalism, instead of looking like Star Wars fans who have just suffered watching Episode 1 being ambushed by and beaten over the head by Trekkies screaming “MIDICHLORIANS! MIDICHLORIANS! MIDICHLORIANS!”

  3. XENI! you speak fluent K’iche? Can you just take a holiday from being amazing?

    sorry. It’s my own fault for trying to learn Nahuatl from a book.

    gorgeous article.

    1. @malpertuis, I absolutely do not speak fluent K’iche, but I can understand and speak bits and pieces, enough for basic respectful greetings, and have access to folks who can help me with the rest of it. I speak way less K’iche than the average 3-year-old in the village, though. I’ve studied a little Nahuatl, too, that’s cool that you’re trying to teach yourself from a book!

  4. The bright woven textiles the people are wearing in this photograph and the video on Good are just heartbreakingly beautiful- especially in light of the hunger and malnutrition you describe. I guess textile manufacture and export is not enough to sustain a whole economy? I think I will have to seek out some fair trade fabric from Guatamala…

    1. @wolfiesma, a lot more benefit could come from that trade to the indigenous communities — it’s not that there’s no value in their resources, or craft. It;s that the economic systems are set up to provide great benefit to the middlemen and exporters, and the people at the core of the value chain remain impoverished. Fair trade programs are good, and we’re working on a small project there, to try and provide some micro-economic opportunities for this one community.

  5. I just wanted to thank you, Xeni, for an amazing story and video. Very moving. As a union organizer who spent the election working in Cleveland, I remember quite vividly the moment Obama was announced the winner. I remember watching Obama’s speech along with a couple hundred union members, mostly African-American, who probably never thought they would see the day something like this would happen. Something really hits me hard about the idea of a Mayan listening along on a tiny radio, hundreds of miles away, feeling what we were all feeling. And of course, thank you for helping these kids to tell their story. Great work!

  6. Xeni just curious, but how are you able to afford all of this travel….Central America, Africa, Europe, etc. Does BB pay you? I always thought “blogging” was a low-paying gig….

    1. Yes, Boing Boing is my job, and I receive income from it, but travel costs can be modest. We typically stay in homes or very modest accommodations, and I am very skilled at finding cheap ways to get from point a to point b. I’m not exactly flying the Boing Boing private jet to these villages, Mojave.

      1. I’m not exactly flying the Boing Boing private jet to these villages

        You’d think that Gadgets could find you a transporter.

  7. The man’s comments on technology touched me. We take so much for granted.

    What a wonderful look into their lives. Thank you~

  8. I wonder how many have the same impression of BoingBoing head office that generations of kids did of the offices of Mad Magazine?

    1. @Mojave, yeah. Mark’s using it to move his chickens around right now, thought. They outgrew that coop he blogged about last week, and they wanted to spend some time in the Bahamas. Did I mention our private island?

  9. My girlfriend spent 4 months in Guatemala studying the traditional dress for her master’s thesis. She’s not a regular BB reader, but I forward to her every article written by Xeni about Guatemala.

    The thought of “maybe a Mayan person can one day become president of Guatemala” got me to thinking that the equivalent would be if a Native American person could one day become the US President.

  10. @Takuan, did you get that photo from Google Earth? I thought our anti-surveillance gaydar was turned on, but perhaps not.

  11. @Kurtmac, that’s really great, and I’d love to hear more about your girlfriend’s research work — that’s a topic truly near to my heart. Please share more, whether here or offline (xeni at xeni dot net). I think your idea about a “first peoples” president here captures the zeitgeist there.

  12. stock image from my files. Did you notice the teeny, platinum topped figure held above the tree line by the huge, furry hand?

    1. (squints). Ah, there I am. I was trying to keep the fact that this is a Furry colony discreet for now, but, well, screw it. Now the whole internet knows.

  13. I just had the great good fortune to spend about two weeks in Panajachel beside Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, visiting friends who work with a nonprofit organization that assists the Mayan people, and I visited the town in this video.

    It was a life experience. The beauty of the place, and the general warmth and shyness and dignity and charm of the people, is something difficult to describe… as are the conditions that some must live in. It both humbles and inspires you.

    The first three things you think of when you come home are 1) I have by comparison absolutely NO problems… 2) Americans are indeed the most spoiled human beings on the face of the planet, and we ARE whiners… and 3) How do I move back to Guatemala for good?

    I was there about six weeks before the US election but friends wrote to tell me that the indigenous people were very vocal and full of joy in their praise of Obama the day after the election… they were approaching gringos and thanking and congratulating them. On election night dozens and sometimes hundreds of people gathered together in village centers to listen to the radio…

    We as Americans bear a deep and serious responsibility for the conditions under which many Guatemalans live, and for their 36 year civil war during which thousands of Mayan Indians were slaughtered… and if you don’t believe that, Google two things – United Fruit Company and the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz.

    Thank you for the video.

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