Hola Amigo! Back from Guatemala

no-butch-woud-wear-this-dressThe Guatemalan equivalent of “Can I help you sir?” is either “Hola amigo!” or “Señor?” I spent three weeks in Guatemala without using a gendered bathroom except in a few restaurants where the bathrooms were in the back and I could use them relatively unnoticed. Donna used many “servicios sanitarios” in the markets but I avoided them. I didn’t want to risk being challenged, and I don’t speak enough Spanish to respond appropriately.

I found it hard to balance being comfortable in my clothes and comfortable on the street. I opted for the basic butch t-shirt and jeans look. Donna wore purple and pink; loose linen tops and pants. She always looks slightly dressed up and put together.

In the western highland areas of Guatemala, most of the women wear traditional Mayan clothes (skirt, blouse, sash, apron, shawl). Most of the men wear contemporary western clothing (a lot of A&F and HCO knock-offs for sale in the markets). My jeans and t-shirt blended me in with the guys. They saw me first as a gringo; then they dealt with my gender presentation. I caused a lot of confusion.

A butch out of placeWe spent five days in Santiago Atitlan, a center of traditional weaving.  Women use a backstrap-loom to make the fabric for their blouses (huipils). Each town has a different background color/pattern and embroidery style. Donna wanted to photograph the women, but they did not want their pictures taken. She tried to take some on the sly, from a distance, in the market. While she took pictures, I wondered what it would be like to grow up butch and/or trans in a small town in Guatemala. How I would plot my escape.

butch-not-in-the-hot-springsI don’t have a good answer to “DId you have fun on your vacation?” We went to think, to learn, to look, and to shop for textiles. From that perspective, it was a success.  I liked visiting the Mayan ruins and the local markets, but my favorite part of the trip was a morning we spent in Fuentes Georginas, a small hot springs complex near Zunil. There were three hot pools and a little bar/restaurant in a clearing in the forest way up in the mountains. There were a handful of tourists and several Guatemalan families taking the waters. I let myself completely relax soaking in the hottest pool. I stopped feeling like a tourist and became a lobster. Donna’s lobster.

We felt the tension between indigenous Mayan, mestizo, ladino, and criollo. The tension between traditional and modern; between those who cater to tourists and those who do not. It is the traveler’s paradox. I change the place I visit just by being there. I bring an i-phone, a camera, an e-reader, and credit cards. I expect to travel on paved roads and stay in lodgings that have electricity, hot water, and cold beer. I try not to behave like a visitor at the zoo, but the similarities disturb me.

I was recently on the receiving end of this. A friend from out-of-town was visiting and I told her about my name change and identification as trans and butch. She looked at me as if I was a two-headed-dog and started aggressively questioning my queer-ness and my trans-ness. I do not know if she got past it to see me as a whole person again.

Towards the end of the trip, in the large open-air market in Totonicapan, I saw my Guatemalan counterpart. Short hair slicked back, HCO t-shirt, camouflage cargo pants, Adidas. We made eye contact. We checked each other out up-and-down. We nodded in recognition, and moved on.

12 thoughts on “Hola Amigo! Back from Guatemala

  1. middleagebutch

    Welcome back. It’s always nice to see another butch, even if it’s just at the Home Depot or the grocery store. I imagine it was a wonderful feeling to see a like-minded spirit so far away from home.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is always fun to see another butch, but I felt my gaydar was not quite working there – I’m sure I would have seen more if I knew what was I looking for (a little subtlety). The best part of it was feeling like I was being accurately seen for exactly who I am.

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  2. rmiles

    Glad the two of you made it back safe and sound. I do not pretend to have an artistic eye but I really like photos from this area of the world in which the colors are so vibrant. Cheers.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The colors are amazing- and the hand woven cloth is extremely complicated and time consuming for them to make. I bought some fabric and I may have a shirt made out of it, since the women’s clothing is not exactly my style. There were very few men wearing traditional clothing; a result of the Civil War in the 1990’s (the army went after indigenous men, so it was safer for them to dress in western clothes). It is a complicated country with a complicated history, but I’m glad we went. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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      1. rmiles

        A friend of mine from uni is married to one of the former Economic Minister’s (Maybe, maybe not. . .can’t quite remember the details right now.) daughters. They fled to Canada to escape the coup. . . very interesting history but warm people and wonderful food. Cool shirt idea too. Peace.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for asking! We bought some ikat type fabric made on a foot treadle loom to make a tablecloth with (it would normally be a skirt), some shawls that were too beautiful to pass up (two pieces from a backstap loom sewn together – used as all purpose sack, child carrier, shawl, or head covering), a piece of striped fabric that I intend to have a button-down shirt made from, a couple of sashes/belts, and two huiples.that are embriodered. Fortunately the total was under the US Customs max .

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  3. Xiomara

    I’m glad you enjoyed visiting my beautiful country. I am fearful of traveling there with my partner. I fear for her safety since she is very butch. Did you fear for your safety at some point? Threatened? Did you reserve double or single bed hotel rooms? My country is so beautiful, I’m dying to share it with her! I am so happy I found your blog. I’ll definitely start following it. Thank you!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Hi,
      I’m glad you found my post on Guatemala. Donna and I stayed in Antigua, Xela, and Santiago Atitlan. We always asked for one large bed, and only got funny looks in Xela where they showed us the room as in “this is what you want?” and we said yes. We did our booking online and stayed in mid-range places (we used Trip Advisor a lot) and the Moon Guide to Guatemala.
      We did our long distance travelling by “tourist van” and our short trips to markets via local “chicken” bus. We never felt threatened or unsafe – but we were warned away from Guatemala City because of the crime. I regret that we did not go to the textile or anthropology museums in Guatemala City – we could have done it as a day trip from Antigua with a car and driver.
      Antigua seemed pretty cosmopolitan with a heavy tourist police presence, and used to gay men and lesbians. We’ve been hassled more in conservative parts of the US than we were in Guatemala. We’ve also had no problems when we have traveled in southern Mexico.
      I would definitely recommend it.

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