Project 52: My Town – The Pila and The One Thing in Guatemala that Drives Me Crazy

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{Week 10: The Pila}

I posted this picture yesterday as part of my year long photo project to document my town. It’s a small way for me to practice noticing, appreciating and being thankful for where I live.

 . . .

Now, if f you live in Guatemala or have visited than you probably have seen these public washing basins before. Every town in Guatemala has one, sometimes a few. It’s called a pila. /pronounced: pea-luh/ Earlier this week I was doing a tour of Santa Maria de Jesus with a group of high school students from Canada. We usually ask some of the girls who have recently graduated from Proximos Pasos, our girls school, to be the tour guides. We believe that since they live there, they really are the experts of their town. As we walked by one of the many pilas in Santa Maria  one of the Canadian students asked out of curiosity, “Do boys ever wash clothes at the pila?” I translated the question for Roxana, our local student tour guide. She shook her head without thinking. No, only women and girls. Her response was has matter of fact as if has asked, “Is the sky blue?

 . . .

Now I realize for Roxana, and for most of the Guatemalans who live in towns like Santa Maria, this is just a way of life. The way it’s always been. A division of labor based on gender. Men work in the fields. Women cook. Boys play soccer. Girls carry their younger siblings on their backs. Men pull horses carrying piles of wood. Women wash clothes at the pila. And you see how it goes. This goes against everything I believe and understand about equality and sharing responsibility and dividing household roles based on skills and abilities, not gender. However, maybe this has always worked here. Or maybe it works because it’s how you survive. I am aware how dangerously easy it is to critique a culture that is not my own. I bet if someone from a majority world country came to the US for the first time they may be shocked how we throw food and electronics in the trash. And they would probably critique us for how we consume 40% of the world’s resources without even blinking an eye. And maybe rightfully so. Maybe sometimes it’s good to have an outsiders perspective. Someone to say, ya know there is another way to do this? If know me well or have read along on this blog, then you know that there are numerous things that I absolutely love about Guatemala:

the resilience and beauty of people who know how to work hard

the friendly way you greet one another

how the community matters more than the individual

the color of the fresh fruits and vegetables

how nothing is wasted and everything is re-used

how people live with less and yet, are so generous.

And how every-time I hear a Guatemalan pray they start with, “Thank you God for another day of life” because nothing is taken for granted.

  . . .

But the one thing, probably more than anything else, that drives me crazy about life here in Guatemala is the deeply machismo (or machista) culture. I could rant for days about this, but I won’t. I have accepted that part of living here means I have to accept how things are. A s a women, I hate it. As a mother raising a daughter here, it angers me. As a human, I will never fully understand this patriarchal tradition of giving power and division and privilege to men. I know I am over simplifying a very complex idea and way of life. Of course, not all Guatemalans are machista. Sometimes men are actually more open to equal opportunities and it’s the grandmothers or the suegros who keep women in the kitchen and men out. The truth us I will never like it, but I know I can’t change an entire culture. All I can do is work toward changing the next generation. That’s why I want to teach my daughter how to wash clothes. And one day if we have a son. I will teach him, too. Although let’s be honest, it will probably be in a washing machine, not at the pila. I want my daughter to know that when she grows up she can be a doctor or engineer or teacher, and one day if we have a son, I want him to know the same. I want my little girl to learn how to make pasta and pancakes and really good banana bread, and I would want my little boy to learn the same. I hope my daughter learns how to take out the trash and mop a floor and was a car because those are such good life skills, and the same would go for our son. If my daughter wants to play soccer on a team, I will work to form a girls league, because a most teams are reserved only for boys. I know for most of you, these ideas for probably just a given, but in Guatemala sometimes I feel like they are radical. Some days I get discouraged and frustrated. I worry about the girls at the school where I used to teach and my own daughter. What kind of message are we sending them? What happens when a little girl grows up and only sees women cooking or only boys playing soccer? How will she know something different? Sometimes I lose hope. And then sometimes I notice; something is changing. Slowly.

  . . .

As Elena and I took our afternoon walk yesterday, we walked by the pila in our town. We stopped to look at the water, which we often do. There were the usual group of women. Women of all ages standing, scrubbing, hunched over, arms engaged in a rapid back-and-forth motion. Dipping their plastic buckets into the water, rinsing off the suds. Working their way through the pile of wet clothes, methodically, calmly. And then I saw something I have never seen before. Two men. Probably in their 30s or 40s. Washing clothes. At the Pila. Men! My little heart applauded. Now I don’t know if they were brothers, or husbands, or fathers, but they were washing clothes. They were helping to take care of their households. I smiled and kissed the top of Elena’s head. A small step in the right direction. A small step toward a society where men and women will be given equal opportunities. And where both women and men will wash clothes at the pila.

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{Week 11: It’s Spring…Bougainvillea}
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One thought on “Project 52: My Town – The Pila and The One Thing in Guatemala that Drives Me Crazy

  1. I love this post. So sensitive and wise. Makes me want to teach my boys – this Spring Break – to do laundry and to make scrambled eggs as well as their dad does. And they need to learn to wash the cars. They think we just pay others to do that work, which is usually the case.

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