Bolos, chuchos, and mangoes are three integral parts of the Guatemalan culture. “Bolos” are essentially drunk men who stumble their way around town and usually ending up passing out in the street somewhere along the way. “Chuchos” are the Guatemalan term for dogs, or more appropriately, street dogs. And mangoes are mangoes, a delicious fruit that grows in tropical and semi-tropical climates. Although they seem unrelated, bolos, chuchos, and mangoes have a common thread and, in my eyes, they have come to symbolize the heart of Guatemala.
At first thought, bolos seem like they would be a bad thing and “drunk men passed out on the street” usually renders a negative connotation in many people’s minds. In Guatemala, however, bolos are so much a part of the daily life that hardly anyone even notices them or pays any mind to them if they do see them.
There are several Spanish words to describe being drunk or being a drunkard, however, bolos have become more than just “a drunk guy;” they are, in fact, their own character now in Guatemalan society because they are so prevalent. One might suspect that many problems may arise from a bunch of drunk men roaming the streets. However, the bolo character has passed well beyond the state of belligerence and has drunk his way into a stupor, either stumbling along back and forth and side to side along the streets or sleeping peacefully on the cold, hard concrete, snuggling up to it as if it were his very own bed.
Bolos are actually pretty harmless. I realize that drunks are usually associated with violence and stupidity around the world, but these guys can’t even walk straight, let alone see straight, so there isn’t much damage they can do once they reach “state of bolo.” Most of the time they are asleep anyway. Every Guatemalan woman knows that if ever a bolo stumbles toward her all she has to do is give him a little nudge and he’ll lose his balance, or she can just move out of the way and he’ll probably just run into a wall or trip on a curb anyway.
Among the Peace Corps population, we girls used to swap similar stories of how the bolos didn’t really harass us beyond reverting to their second nature upon seeing a foreigner and immediately asking for money: “Gringa, dáme un quetzal!” (Hey, white girl, give me some coins!) Of course, there was also the drunk-Spanish-accented English phrases like, “I love you, Baby!” that they would shout after us as we walked on by. Inevitably, these meaningless love confessions would illicit covert giggles from us at the sheer ridiculousness. From a certain perspective, bolos could be so endearing sometimes…
Taking a deeper look at rural Guatemalan society, the roots of “bolo-ism” can be revealed. I don’t want to limit this situation to only Guatemala as it is a trend in many small communities in underdeveloped nations. Where work is hard to find in farming societies and often only abundant seasonally, many men wait for their opportunity to make some money by tending the crops. During harvest season when there is a huge demand for extra hands, boys will likely be taken out of school to go help their fathers in the field and also to take advantage of the opportunity to contribute to the family income while there is a lot of work. Education is not the priority when there are many mouths to feed and there are able-bodied men in the household to earn a little extra cash. The lack of educated men in town limits their work opportunities, but I won’t dig into that here.
In small towns, entertainment options are few and far between and many shops and markets close up shortly after sunset. Most families retreat to their own small dwellings in the evenings, narrowing primary activity options pretty much down to baby-making and watching TV within the home. (But even baby-making could be difficult when there are so many people sleeping in the same room!) Where I lived in Guatemala, it was more likely that a home was equipped with a television set than a proper toilet or refrigerator. And when people learned that I did NOT own a TV, they couldn’t imagine what I could possibly do in the evenings to keep from getting bored. Reading books, writing, or doing yoga were not exactly appealing activities to most Guatemalans.
While the women usually stay in the homes, watching the children, cleaning up, or relaxing after a long day, the men will leave the house in the evenings. After a long day of grueling physical labor in the fields–which equates to providing for his family and thus fulfilling his purpose for the day, a man wants to relax as well so he will meet up with his friends and spend his money on alcohol and/or gambling. His full day of work in the field equates to money for the family so how can his wife tell him that he cannot go out? And of course he is allowed to do whatever he wants with his money because his time and energy earned it! Drinking beer with his buddies or taking shots of cheap hard liquor becomes the automatic past time of a rural-living man. And the young ones are recruited into this as well because being able to pound down a couple straight shots of hard liquor is a demonstration of manliness, of course. (Please note that not all men are like this–there are many who are home with their families in the evenings. I am just exploring how the bolo mentality has come to exist here.)
Unlike in the United States and other developed countries, there are no laws against being drunk in public. Or if there are, they are not enforced. This can be viewed as a negative thing or a positive thing, depending on one’s opinions of the definitions of freedom and security. (I suppose it is nice that we don’t have so many drunk dudes sprawled out over public sidewalks all the time in the USA!) Rural Guatemala could be considered a lawless land where things are not monitored and people can do whatever they want. But the beauty of this is that people are actually living without having someone else dictating rules to them about their schedules, habits, do’s, and don’ts. Perhaps this means that things aren’t so safe and security measures are absent. In some cases, this can lead to devastating effects; in others, it exemplifies freedom in its purest form.
I made it a project of mine to take photos of bolos to see which were the best ones I could find. I always photographed discreetly, trying not to disturb them. I used to show all of my bolo photos to my friend, Acisclo, who lived across the street and has a passion for photography and we would joke that I should print out all the bolo photos and make a poster, then anonymously hang it up around town as a game to “Name That Bolo!” It would have also been meant as a social message to shed light on the effects drinking had both physically and in regard to family and social relations. We never actually did it, but we still talk about it so the joke continues…
During my time in Guatemala, I developed a certain fondness for bolos, not only as a silly character and object for photography and entertainment, but also as a representation of the freedom that still exists in Guatemala. While I know Guatemala is on a development track and there will be many social changes in the coming years, it is difficult to imagine a Guatemala without its bolos. I am an advocate for progressive change, however I will always cherish bolos for their contribution to Guatemala’s pulse.
Most Guatemalans view and treat dogs a lot differently than how people in developed countries treat dogs. It is rare that Guatemalans have dogs as pets and if they do, it is typically for a practical purpose like guarding the territory. And, man, do Guatemalan dogs know how to be guard dogs?! Protectors of the house, they snarl and bark at any stranger who passes by in front of the home, whether the person is being aggressive/suspicious or not. If a Guatemalan family does have a dog as a pet, it is likely that they live in an urban area like Guatemala City, Antigua, or Xela where western influences are prevalent.
In rural parts of Guatemala, most families hardly have enough money or food to properly feed the people in their own households so any thought of spending money to feed a dog is unheard of. If there is a dog in a home, it usually just gets the leftover table scraps or some torn up corn tortillas because dog food is expensive. Most dogs are treated like the animals they are, banned to the streets to fend for themselves and survive on whatever food or nourishment they can find, which usually entails digging through trash and even ingesting plastic bags to get whatever food is inside. (Plastic bags are often seen as part of dog poop in the street–I know, that’s gross, but it’s a reality.) And so the chucho has been born into Guatemalan society.
Chuchos, just like bolos, are so common in Guatemala that it seems like something is missing when they are not around. They are literally wild dogs, doing as they please whenever it suits them–also like bolos in that manner. Unfortunately, the consequence of not having anyone to take responsibility of them means that the chucho population is riddled with hunger, infection, and disease–its own kind of poverty. It is common to spot chuchos with mange, a type of skin infection that causes dogs to lose their hair in patches. Chuchos are often seen limping around with broken hips or missing limbs, or simply appearing as if they are just skin and bones. Wild dogs are known to be extra susceptible to rabies; this issue, however, is one that the health centers in Guatemala try to curb by regularly going out to vaccinate stray chuchos because rabies poses a threat to human populations.
Chucho populations are out of control. No one goes around “fixing” street dogs so nature runs its course. Until I lived in Guatemala, I had never seen so many sets of dog balls; pet owners in the States usually have their dog’s reproductive organs removed so I had grown accustomed to not seeing male dog parts and was a little surprised initially. The female dogs aren’t “fixed” either so when a female dog goes into heat, the pheromones that her body is emitting attract male dogs far and wide. I can’t even count the number of times I saw a female chucho being chased around by seven or eight males at a time all trying to hump her. She would run away from them and tuck her tail between her legs in an attempt to block herself, but there was little protection and they all just followed her around until one of them was successful. I could go on and on about the parallels between this aspect of chucho culture and rural Guatemalan society; for now, I’ll just say that it is common that females do not have much power or protection and usually the males dominate and have their way when they choose. (I’ll dig deeper into that topic in the next chapter.)
I used to joke with my host family and some of my Guatemalan friends that we needed to teach family planning to the dogs and cats in town because it seemed that every time we turned our heads, there would be another pregnant dog or a cat with fresh kittens. The physical effect it had on the animals was that their undersides would get droopy, their nipples would hang low like udders from continuous nursing, and in some cases, their uteri would become prolapsed–not unlike Guatemalan women who have spent their lives having and raising 8, 9, or 11 babies or more. Bodies can only handle a certain amount of stress so the likelihood of bodies “bouncing back” if they haven’t had a chance to rest and recover is low.
But there is no Sex Ed for chuchos so they act consistently with the underlying forces of nature, which urge that evolutionary success is determined by having offspring that will survive to reproduce. Perhaps the lack of education and training in both the chucho world and other “third world” societies may be considered “uncivilized” when looking through the lens of a “developed” country, but in considering nature vs. conditioning/manipulation, it seems that there will always be a debate over where the line is and which side of the line is better. All mammals are capable of learning and yet the animal instinct is always present, no matter how trained or civilized any human or other mammal ever becomes.
Chuchos have their own special kind of conditioning as they attempt to survive among humans who have little regard for the animals’ lives. Some Guatemalans treat the dogs like crap, kicking them, throwing rocks at them, or even running into them if they’re in the road–and chuchos unexpectedly jump out in the middle of the road all the time. Consequently, the chuchos are skittish and, having very little trust in how anyone will treat them, they are jumpy at every little movement or hand gesture in their direction. All a person has to do is say, “Chucho!” and the dog perks its ears and jumps back simultaneously. Accustomed to a culture of intimidation, these pups are used to living in a constant state of anxiety–one look in their hungry, wild eyes reveals their world in an instant.
The fear in a chucho’s eyes is reflective of how the entire country lives and runs. The government-initiated genocide that began in the 60s planted a deep seed of mistrust on the part of the people toward the government. While the genocide has stopped, the corruption remains prevalent and Guatemala continues to be plagued by violence and poverty. As the government tries to manipulate its people through fear, threats, and other intimidation tactics, the people have learned to smile, nod, and fend for themselves. This widespread insecurity has resulted in a game of survival–people worry about themselves first because there isn’t anyone else there to take care of them. Trust rarely extends beyond the family in Guatemala, similar to how the chuchos roam in packs. And just as a human is not part of a pack of dogs, a chucho is not usually part of a family.
From most Guatemalans’ eyes, it is completely unreasonable and silly that people would treat dogs as if they were humans. It doesn’t make sense that the dog has a soul and feelings (feelings don’t really matter when not having enough to eat is a primary concern in a household). It baffled and amused my Guatemalan friends that I would actually hold the cats and be affectionate toward them; to them, the cats were just mischievous animals whose only purpose in a house was rodent control. It took me awhile to get used to the seemingly insensitive attitude toward animals, but eventually I became immune to it. I remember one of the first times I witnessed a tuk tuk hit a dog in the street; the chucho yelped out in pain, whimpering and whining, before he hobbled off with his freshly-broken hip. I broke down in tears. And while there were some other contributing factors to my emotional state that day, the poor pup was the tipping point. I learned quickly that I couldn’t cry or get upset every time I saw an animal get hurt, and I couldn’t possibly protect every one of them–there were just too many. In essence, I had to adopt the Guatemalan mindset toward chuchos as a means of self-preservation; there were even times when I had to chuck a rock at a dog (or pretend to) just to get him off my back. (The intimidating “stare down” also worked.)
A handful of PC Volunteers contributed to putting a little more love in the world by adopting a dog as a pet and raising it as his or her own. They trained their dogs, fed them nourishing food (more than just soggy tortillas), and took their dogs with them everywhere they went–even if it meant a long trip on a chicken bus. (If I hadn’t moved into a house filled with cats, I would have had a dog as a companion as well.) Janece adopted “Nala” from a dog shelter early on in service, trained her very well, and ended up taking her back to the States at the end of service. Kathy inherited “Suki” from the PCV who lived in her house prior to her moving in. Suki was this gangly young pup that kind of looked like an old man and he would play with another neighborhood chucho named “Pulgoso,” which translates to “flea bag.” When Kathy left, she passed Suki on to Kelly. (Pulgoso probably would have gotten lonely without Suki around!) And Lauren inherited “Moi” from a former PCV, but Moi had some serious abandonment issues and wasn’t the nicest; he also got hit by a car one time, but he survived. Lauren brought him home to New York when she left and now he’s plump and happy. Despite the training and love, these dogs will always be Guatemalan at heart. Lauren and I like to say, “You can take the chucho out of Guatemala, but you can never take Guatemala out of the chucho.”
In the world in which they exist where the name of the game is “survival of the fittest,” chuchos have to figure out how to live off the land. They are scrappy and tough, sometimes even savage-like in their natural state. These street dogs are not well-mannered and polite, they aren’t ever told what they should or shouldn’t do, and they are not conditioned or trained to behave in a particular manner. They simply are. I admire chuchos for their authenticity. In a world where they can only exist moment by moment, these pups openly express every emotion from growling, barking, or just being alert when they experience fear, anxiety, or aggression to whimpering in pain, sadness, or loneliness to tail-wagging and bouncing around when they are feeling playful and happy. Chuchos are not primped and pampered by any means, but they are not the least bit wimpy either. Chuchos are resilient–a beautiful reflection of Guatemala and its people.
Aw. Mangoes. The juiciest part of this chapter. While any type of seasonal fruit or vegetable would be a suitable example for this section, there is something extra special about mangoes that has me completely obsessed with them. Mangoes come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. All young mangoes have a green skin, but as they mature, the skin color can range from different shades of green to yellow, orange, pinkish, and even red. Many mangoes are oblong in shape, but there are some varieties that are roundish; some mangoes are small enough to cup in the palm of a hand while others can be as long as a person’s forearm, but the juicy yellow-orange meat inside is the same. There are many varieties of mangoes (300+) and the flavor differences from one variety to the next can actually be quite distinct. Because of the odd shape and slippery texture of the meat inside as well as the large pit insdie, peeling a mango can be very tricky. It is an art in itself.
Mango season in Guatemala is highly anticipated by everyone. The earliest signs of the season come in late February and some varieties ripen up until early June, but March and April bring the best selection, hands down. The country is practically swimming in mangoes for two to three months so the prices go down and people buy bags and bags of them. Children and adults alike are seen sucking on mangoes as they walk down the streets in town, trying to get every last bit of mango meat off both the pit and the peel. It can get very messy with juice running down people’s chins and it is likely that the fibrous mango strings will get stuck in people’s teeth, but those are small costs for the satisfaction of such a delicious treat.
Peace Corps Volunteers quickly caught on to the mango craze and we, too, would excitedly await mango season. We stocked up on recipes and planned to put mangoes in everything we could from our smoothies to guacamole, salsa, curry, or any number of things. We had to make the most of it while we had that small window of opportunity. One of my PCV friends, Jenny, loved mangoes so much that she would eat them throughout the day and consequently, she occasionally broke out in a rash from eating too many mangoes (and having exposure to a particular oil in mango skin)!
In agrarian societies, or places where farming is an important part of a community and the economy, many fruits, vegetables, and grains are seasonal and therefore only available during certain parts of the year. Most grains like corn and beans have a particular harvest season, but they can be dried and stored throughout the year so people have access to them at all times; corn and black beans are staple foods in the Guatemalan diet. In contrast to grains, most fruits and vegetables cannot be kept year-round and must be eaten while they are fresh. This results in people literally living off of the land, eating and cooking only what is available at any given time. And when mangoes or any other seasonal ingredient are not available, the people will just make use of what they have which usually means they will get creative with recipes and substitute an unavaiable ingredient with what they have access to.
This rural lifestyle is a stark contrast from how westernized societies function now. In the developed world, people are so spoiled. We have access to just about any type of food we want year-round. There are so many options and everything is at our fingertips. At a grocery store, not only are there at least 50 different types of cheese available, but there are options to buy those cheeses shredded, grated, crumbled, in a block, etc. Sure, there are times of the year when certain fruits and vegetables are abundant and the prices for them drop which means people usually consume handfuls of “cuties” (a type of tangerine) in wintertime, buckets of watermelon in summertime, and tasty pumpkins and other squashes in autumn, but if they really wanted to eat these foods at any time of the year, there is a high probability that they could find them somewhere–usually grown in a greenhouse or imported from another part of the world.
The unfortunate effect that these spectacular technological developments have had on advanced societies is that they condition the people to a lifestyle based on instant gratification. When things come too easy, people quickly discount the value of what they have. When people don’t have to wait and are not required to put in the work, they easily stray from a sense of appreciation. This applies to many aspects of life, not just fruits and vegetables. The trend in the developed world these days–especially with access to technological devices, the Internet, and social media–is that the people are no longer trained in having patience and often take things for granted. Things move too fast so people just don’t seem to have time to wait for anything anymore. Speed seems to be what is favored over quality, and that can breed shortcuts and a lack of integrity and depth within a society.
Mangoes are the representation of so much more than a juicy fruit. They are a symbol of societies that function in the raw and a reminder of the ebb and flow of the the seasons. People who live “in the raw”–just like chuchos–understand struggle, are willing to put effort into things, and have a lot of patience and faith. When things get too easy, we tend to lose touch with all of those characteristics.
I rarely buy mangoes in the States despite my obsession with them because I know they are imported and that somehow takes the magic out of them and makes them lifeless, in a sense. Fresh mangoes are another story. When I travel to places with mango-conducive climates, I can’t get enough of them and they are my top choice for smoothies, snacks, and toppings whenever they are available. Mangoes are and always will be a gift.
While I am no longer in Guatemala, bolos, chuchos, and mangoes still stand as a solid reminder to be balanced, alert, and flexible, to be proactive and not get lazy, and to protect the freedoms that we exercise while being appreciative of all the options that we, in developed societies, have at our fingertips. We are so fortunate.
Slightly nostalgically yours,