Books have been written about race mixture in Latin America. After the Spanish conquest, Europeans established a caste system that ensured that “whites” would remain firmly in control of power. Vestiges of that system still remain today.
Even whites were categorized. A Spaniard born in Spain had higher status than a Spaniard born of Spanish parents in the New World. It was not uncommon for the parents of a pregnant Spanish woman to send their daughter across the ocean to give birth so that her child, when he or she returned to the Americas, would be at the top of the pecking order.
Spaniards were called “gachupines” which meant “they who wear spurs” which translates to “caballeros” which translates to “one mounted on a horse” which today translates to “gentlemen.”
Native Americans or Indians were at the bottom of the totem pole—at least until black slaves were introduced into the Americas. In the meantime, Indians were sold into slavery by their conquerors. They were stripped of their native religion, forced to work in the mines and the fields, did domestic chores for their masters and were sent off to Europe in chains. Literally millions died of disease, exposure and abuse—and millions of Indian women gave birth to the sons and daughters of their captors.
A child of mixed Spanish and Indian blood was called a “Mestizo.” Today, throughout many parts of Latin America, the Mestizo is the dominant race. They have become a proud and independent people. In Mexico, the day we celebrate as Columbus Day is called “Dia de la Raza” wherein Mexicans celebrate their Spanish and Indian origins.
In Guatemala, most teachers in the public schools are Mestizos (they are also called “Ladinos” in that country). Most Mestizos who aspire to be teachers prefer to work in Mestizo towns and cities. Few seek work in areas where the dominant population is Indian and where the natives speak the ancient language of the Mayans. For this reason, the government instituted a program that would ensure a supply of teachers in the rural, mostly highland Indian areas of the country. If one wanted to become a certified teacher, he or she would have to first give several years of public service in the schools located in those areas of the country.
As a graduate student in Latin-American Studies and Sociology in 1969, I went to Guatemala to study the interaction in elementary school classrooms where Indian children were being taught by Mestizo teachers. The hypothesis was that I would find a great deal of prejudice on the part of the teachers toward the children they taught. I used an instrument called “Interaction Analysis” to help identify and quantify the kinds of verbal and non-verbal interaction taking place between teachers and students. Much to my surprise, I found that most Mestizo teachers enjoyed teaching their Indian wards and that many chose to remain in those areas to live and to work. I also found out a few things about myself.
I worked primarily in two Indians towns—Momostenango and Cunen. In the latter, I lived for a month in the home where the Guatemalan Ambassador to the United Nations had been born. It was a substantial house built of adobe with a tile roof. It had no plumbing and no electricity. It opened directly onto a cobblestone street. Water entered the house via a clay pipe that filled a font in the patio located in the center of the house. All the water used for cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry had to be dipped from that font. Each room of the house opened on the little patio or garden in which the font was located.
I occupied a room to myself that had a small cot, a wooden box for a bed stand, a kerosene lantern and a rope in one corner where I could hang my clothes. I purchased a handmade woolen blanket from some natives that I used to repel the nighttime chill. The kitchen had a wood-burning stove, a large table with benches where everyone gathered to eat and few other amenities. The dishes and utensils were very utilitarian—nothing fancy.
One night, lying in bed after setting aside the scriptures and turning down the wick in the lantern, I began to think about my situation. Here I was in the middle of nowhere, in a poor third world country, with practically nothing but the clothes on my back and very little in the way of material things—and I was gloriously happy!
The realization came to me that “things” don’t amount to a hill of beans. I was warm, I had a roof over my head, I had food and water enough, I had the scriptures, and I was surrounded by a humble people whom I had come to respect and to appreciate. I remember thinking, “I have everything I need!” All I really lacked was to be surrounded by my family and I knew they would be there upon my return to “civilization”.
I think that that experience, along with serving two years as a missionary in South America, has given me a perspective on life that requires little in the way of material things. After all, “we ain’t gonna take none of those things with us” when our sojourn in this life is through. Why do we struggle so hard to acquire that which we cannot keep?
My great grandmother, Almeda Day, who lived to be 101 used to say, “If youth could know what age would crave, Full many a penny youth would save…”