How Beans Became a Symbol of Emancipation
Alba Cecilia Mérida Piedrasanta
It was probably 1997 when I held a copy of the international feminist magazine Lola Press for the first time—Issue 5 (May – October 1996)—and I’ve kept it with me ever since. In that moment I decided to hold onto it because I was starting to learn about feminism and its articles helped me to size up the path I was heading down. In the reader’s section I read a letter sent in by Gisela Ritcher. I liked what she said, and it made me understand that when we are indignant in the face of the impositions of the patriarchy, even the smallest act can cause a crack to form in favor of our rights and demands which we can then widen to make room for increased recognition, participation, and the inclusion of all.
I have reproduced the central argument of the letter below because it helps me to explain the motive of this article stemming from my anger at the comment made by Representative Esteban Rubén Barrios Galindo from the VALOR party, calling those of us who have rejected not only the corrupt policies of the government of Alejandro Giammattei but also the type of state that prevails in Guatemala “just simple beaneaters.”
How the tomato became a symbol of emancipation
Said letter is in memory of Sigrid Ruger, one of the main pioneers of the German feminist movement of 1968. It explains how a pregnant Sigrid attended a meeting of representatives of the socialist student federation in Frankfurt in mid-1968. The main topic of the talks given by a nearly completely male list of speakers were the differences between the traditionalists (close to the Communist Party), the spontaneous, the parliamentarians, and others. A woman from the Berlin group joined the debate and explained that it was much more important to discuss why women did not have a voice and were being oppressed at the conference in the same way that they were in all spheres of society. Neither their problems nor their demands were taken into consideration. The next speaker continued on topic as if nothing had happened. Sigrid got angry and threw one of the tomatoes that she was eating at the speaker’s head. It was the best thing she could have done with it at that moment. Shortly thereafter the women founded their own organizations.
Why does a reference to our favorite food spark creativity, rebelliousness, and happiness?
I bring the preceding to the table because it shows how, even from within our own resistance movements, we have historically had to face people who believe they can make decisions for us, judge us, deny us the right to speak, limit our ability to mobilize, take action, and be political. At the same time, they claim the right to use language full of contempt against us for who we are, devaluing our identities and trivializing popular expressions in hopes of being likeable, just like President Giammattei has done time and time again. This is an impossible goal: we’ve had enough of clowns. During his tour of Quetzaltenango in February 2020, Giammattei showed how rude and offensive he was by making jokes about people’s personal characteristics or assuming that they liked certain things, as documented by the virtual newspaper Metrópoli Altense.
Without losing my train of thought regarding throwing tomatoes at those who don’t want to listen to us, not just women but rather all of us political subjects who defend our rights, it would seem like what men who have unlawfully held some or all masculine powers, like Giammattei, have failed to understand is that we demand statesmen, but more than anything people with the social conscience to jump start the state apparatus in favor of those who, perhaps naïvely, placed their trust in them with their votes.
As for Representative Esteban Rubén Barrios Galindo, with his pejorative statement about what the majority of us eat on a daily basis, he fails to see how fed up thousands of us Guatemalans have become with the job performance of people like him, on whom public office is wasted. These positions have formally been designed to work for the common good, but of course this is only an illusion cast by a model of democracy in frank decadence that serves the clientelist interests of the political parties, their operators, financiers, and public officials used to getting rich illicitly through the use of public goods and money.
In my view, the disdainful expression used by Barrios Galindo also encapsulates how colonial discourse that discredits what we hold dear is internalized. Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul posted on Facebook that “After corn, we are made of beans (…) Beans are a part of the same milpa, the ancient agricultural system that uses earth to plant various crops, like corn, chile, etc.” With all due respect, we could ask Barrios Galindo what food he has grown up on and if he was born in a golden crib. Or did he too come from beanfields impoverished by the plunder of history our lands have been subjected to, yet is—unlike us—a man without a conscious or memory and thus in a position to sustain the master’s house.
What else can we expect from a politician who is from the ranks of a party on a militaristic and genocidal trajectory? It is not for nothing that the national press refers to him as the “representative of the VALOR Party of Zury Ríos” and this fact ought to give us a big hint as to where his contempt for that which has been a staple of people who were massacred under orders of Efraín Ríos Montt. In this country it is easy to find the roots of oppression.
All of gAZeta’s publications would not be enough to list the vulgarities expressed by representatives, ministers, and the entire constellation of public servants unable to bite their tongues before offending those who give them the chance to get rich. We just have to remember the ridicule of the former representative from Huehuetenango, Mirza Arreaga, who in July 2015, made fun of how she “scared” the former Minister of Social Development, Lucy Lainfiesta, with children. It is also important to reveal the patriarchal tone dripping from the language of public servants. For example, the statement by the current Finance Minister, Álvaro Gonzales Ricci, who affirmed that it didn’t matter how social programs created to support families during the COVID-19 lockdown and quarantine would be administered. This expression also led to citizen indignation, because in a strict sense those of us who are poor are indeed interested in knowing about and receiving what belongs to us, like social services that we have funded through our taxes.
Names like Mario Taracena, Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, Delia Bac, and Álvaro Arzú Jr. are examples of the types of people in whose hands the destiny of Guatemala rests. I say destiny because if we are unable to get them off the floor of Parliament, while we will watch ourselves age, they will be like Dorian Gray, forever youthful because their daily needs are well taken care of.
Political blindness and the lack of brains on the part of our politicians makes them repeatedly act irresponsibly. They never learn the lessons that the citizenry tries to teach them. The protests on Saturday, November 21 managed to bring about a reversal of course with regards to the 2021 budget. Yet incomprehensibly, on Friday the 27th, the Committee prescribed itself a colossal increase in subsistence allowances in addition to the perks they already receive. As Ana Cofiño wrote in a November 28 opinion column in elPeriódico, “The corrupt are immersed in a quest for power fueled by envy, rancor, cynicism, a lack of scruples, and violence. Without this structure they would be unable to deceive, rob, and kill.” Politicians who are happily reelected every four years continue to go unpunished.
Therefore, as we can plainly see, we find ourselves on the verge of an outburst of citizen outrage, and just like Sigrid we have found in a plant—for her a tomato and us beans—the energy to mobilize in every plaza throughout this country against this disastrous government, raising our voices out of the dignified bean.
However, though it is important and encouraging to take action, it’s urgent that we get out of this situation and delve into the structure. That is, we must get down to the roots of this economic and political model steeped in capitalism, militarism, the patriarchy, racism, and extractivism, all combined together into a system of oppression. This convergence is where we need to focus our efforts because it is the source of the problems we face as a country. My question is, how can we accelerate this urgent necessity to break down old structures? If we keep the status quo, then the next protests will certainly be suppressed because the abuse of force and repression are consubstantial with all current governments. Giammattei is not an exception, but rather the rule. This demands that we keep on the defensive. We need our energy to think and act beyond Saturday protests. We cannot repeat the errors of 2015.
Why did it anger us so that they called us beaneaters? Why does a reference to our favorite food spark creativity, rebelliousness, and happiness? It means that it is possible to find inflection points to grow our resistance. All of the responses seen on Facebook show how in all corners of this beautiful and vast land there are more things that unite us than separate us. In less than a week we have learned much about the milpa system; nutritional culture; food sovereignty; customs and traditions surrounding the planting, care, and harvest of food; and about the cosmogeny that guards this ancient crop. We have seen how, from the eastern plains to the wester fields and even the city balconies, beanstalks seek the sun. We have learned about the effort by mestiza women to get us to look deeper at family histories and connect with our Mayan abuelas and abuelos who sustained their families through the cultivation of the land.
All of this is thanks to a politician. Had he not taken the microphone to defend the old masters he serves, we wouldn’t have known what we now know. Thanks to him, we know more about our ability to rise up, our disposition to defend who we are and nourish our desire to rebel. We’re tired of supporting the mediocrity of the few who under the mold of the patriarchy see us as their spoiled children in need of discipline.
Like the creepers of a beanstalk, we will, in the immediate future, germinate and grow in number, as illustrated by Eduardo Wuqu’aj Saloj, so that together we will be able to form systems of resistance that take roots in the campo, grow in our communities, including the neighborhoods and suburbs of the cities, in public institutions, in the university system, in social movements, in just commerce, and in academia. I like to imagine us like colorful stars, like the piloyes that brighten up the plates of families in the countryside, workers, and all those of us who come from a history of transgression, because we are the face of resistance.
Cover photo by Alba Cecilia Mérida Piedrasanta
The previous article was originally published in gaZeta, a nonprofit, lay, nonpartisan digital media source open to all opinions. The original article can be read at this link: https://gazeta.gt/de-como-los-frijoles-se-volvieron-simbolo-de-emancipacion/