For years, I’ve helped White folks recognize and understand the social and economic advantage they have over people of color in the U.S. This task isn’t always successful. This type of advantage, or what many call “White privilege”, often distorts one’s perspective on the world. It tends to set the White person’s values, standards, and experiences as the central point of reference to which he or she assesses other peoples’ realities. More importantly, this privilege often blinds a person from seeing how their privilege contributes to social inequity and how their own liberation from shame and guilt can be found in re-purposing their privilege.
I am Latino. I grew up in poverty. But I am educated, especially in critical theories to analyze class and race differences. If you would have asked me months ago if I considered myself privileged, I would have said, “No. I’m not White.” But after living in Guatemala for a few months, I have come to understand that privilege is not just something that comes with a lighter skin tone or a history of political and economic advantage. Privilege also comes in other forms. For me, it comes in the form of U.S. citizenship, the currency I am accustomed to, and the sense of entitlement that comes with both. I, nevertheless, could not see these things until I chose to live in Antigua, Guatemala. Here are 13 ways that Guatemala exposed my privilege and helped me take my blinders off. Please keep in mind that this is a reflection, not a scholarly take on the matter.
1. Salary. When I first started working as a tutor here, I was discouraged that I was started at $10.65 an hour. I had grown used to working jobs in the U.S. that paid me over $20 an hour. One day, in a discussion with a neighbor, I discovered many locals would do anything for a $10 per hour income. My neighbor shared that he made about $2 an hour, and he was happy because the minimum wage in Guatemala is about $1 an hour. Boom! Just like that, my American Privilege was exposed! Immediately after that, I stopped complaining about my pay rate.
2. Cost of Living. Initially, I was paying about $500 a month for an Airbnb, which I thought was pretty cheap, compared to cheap housing in the U.S., which ranges from $800 to $1,500 p/month, depending on the city. I then found another apartment that cost me $235 per month. Yes, $235 per month! This seemed pretty cheap to me, until I was reminded of how much the average person makes. Many of the locals here in Antigua live in shacks near the foot of the hills and not in apartments like the ones I’ve lived in. I was excited, but then I realized that even my excitement was rooted in privilege.
3. Customer Service. There’s nothing that pleases the American ego more than good customer service. In the States, we say, “The customer is always right.” Businesses go above and beyond to calibrate their customer service in order to make customers happy. It’s big business. No so in Guatemala. The restaurant ran out of that item on the menu that you wanted so you ask for a deal on another item. Nope, not happening. You paid the shop to get your headphones fixed but they still don’t work, so you demand a refund. Sorry, we tried. The service was 25 minutes late, so you ask for a discount. Nothing. You can argue, push, and quote the great customer service law, but in Guatemala, you get what you get. Privilege does not like this at all.
4. Napkins and Toilet Paper. In the U.S., you will usually have a stack of napkins on the table at whatever restaurant you choose to eat. Need to go to the restroom? No worries. There’s plenty of toilet paper there for all of your needs. Not so in Guatemala! Here you get one napkin with your order of food, and if you need to use the restroom, there’s a lady right outside of it who you have to pay to use it. She will give you a few squares of toilet paper. Now, this contrast may make it seem like we’re better off in the U.S. But for me, it reveals that abundance (a U.S. tendency) often predicates wastefulness, whereas scarcity, which is sometimes looked at with pity, often results in responsible stewardship. This clearly taught me that my privilege, and its proclivity toward convenience, is wasteful.
5. Phone Use. I used to critique the dominant phone companies in Guatemala (Tigo and Claro) for the way their system is arranged. Basically, if you want phone service, you have to buy minutes/bytes for your phone, which come in a limited amount that you have to use within a period of time. If you use up your bytes/minutes before the period of time, there’s nothing you can do but buy more. And if your period of time arrives before you finish your bytes/minutes, again, there’s nothing you can do. I thought this was all a scam to make money. So I stuck to my U.S. service (T-Mobile). Then my phone got stolen. I soon realized I had no choice but to purchase a local phone. What I quickly discovered was that I was spending way more on my U.S. phone (c. $80 p/month) than on my Guatemalan phone (c. $16 p/mo). I then began to see how much the Guatemalan system discourages folks from becoming “phone heads” while the U.S system, with its abundance of unlimited services, encourages folks to constantly be on their phones. While the Guatemalan system has reduced my phone use and saved me lots of money, my neighbors have a hard time buying a phone or having service at all. This is something I’ve never had to experience. Now, when I pull up my phone, all I see is privilege.
6. Communal Living. My apartment complex has a shared kitchen, so I bought my own pan and knife. None of the knives in the kitchen were sharp and all of the pans were worn out. Everything gets stuck on them. If I tried cutting a tomato, the knives would just smash them. If I tried cooking eggs on the pan, they would just get stuck to the bottom of the pan. So I was very happy to have my own knife and pan … that is, until I realized my neighbors did also. Everyday, neighbors would pull my pan or knife out of my kitchen cubby without permission, and they didn’t always put them back. More frustratingly, when I would see them using my supplies, they’d greet me without any ounce of guilt. This annoyed me. One night, my neighbors, having used my supplies, treated each other with meals. My reaction was, “First my supplies. Then, they will want my food.” So I avoided participating, until one day, in an effort to be polite, I gave in. I ate the food, we laughed, and shared stories. What I learned was that sharing my cooking supplies was more than just about the supplies … It was about living together, knowing each other, and helping one another. I came to discover that I was the only one with my own pan and knife. Others didn’t have the financial capacity to buy their own. And to hoard these supplies for myself and hide myself from my neighbors was to rob myself of an enriching experience in communal culture. Without words, my neighbors who wanted to borrow my things taught me that my things, and the privilege that makes it possible to possess these things, can isolate me from the things that ultimately matter, like human connection and reciprocity.
7. Drinking Water. “Don’t drink the water,” they told me, “it will give you diarrhea for days.” But this didn’t scare me at all. I saw it as an opportunity to share in the struggle of locals, buying water daily to stay hydrated. This cost me a dollar-fifty a day for a gallon of water. But after one week, two weeks, a month and so forth, water started becoming expensive. Before I knew it, it wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. I realized that what I had considered a fun challenge was a burdensome reality for locals, and that even this attitude of mine — “an opportunity” — was born out of privilege. Only a privileged person can take other people’s struggle and turn it into a fun activity. Privilege deceived me. Time corrected me. So I decided to stop looking at this as a fun thing to experience. I also wanted to put an end to my water expenditure, so I bought a water filter. Then I realized that this too was an option for a privileged person like me.
8. Personal Space. Whether it’s walking down the sidewalk, lining up to make an order at a restaurant, or riding the bus, there seems to be no sense of personal space here. The sidewalks are narrow, so if you find yourself crossing another person’s path, you might bump into each other and locals don’t take offense. If you line up at a restaurant, you might feel the other person’s shoulder rub against you, if not, you may encounter them yelling out the order before you get to make your order, and it’s perfectly fine. The bus is epic — two seats doesn’t mean two seats. It means “fit as many as the seats can hold.” Initially, this frustrated me. I wondered if people even had manners. Then I realized that was my privilege reacting and that in this context, my need for personal space is selfish.
9. Right of Way. In Guatemala, cars have the right of way. It’s not like in the U.S. where people have the right of way. It doesn’t matter how many times a car or vehicle almost hits me, the truth is if I don’t move fast but take my precious time to walk my privileged self across the street, I can become Guatemalan roadkill. And the only thing the cops will say, if I was hit by a car, is, “Well, he should have moved faster.” My privilege tempts me to take my time to cross; the cars compel me relinquish my privileged attitude and run.
10. Laundry. Washer and dryers are generally for the elite in Guatemala. Most of the common folk either wash clothes by hand in a traditional stone washer called a “pila”, or they turn in their laundry to a hired washer who doesn’t always return all your clothes. I decided to wash my own clothes by hand because I didn’t want to lose them, but my privilege caused me to complain because this method wasn’t convenient, like a washer and dryer would be. Here, there is no easy solution: either I have someone wash my clothes, risking some of it being lost, or I wash my own clothes which is a task I don’t want to engage in. My privilege was stuck between two options I do not like, and in both cases, my privilege doesn’t allow me to be in peace. I have yet to find peace with this issue, but what this issue has taught me is that my privilege pushes me toward a lifestyle of convenience.
11. Crossing Borders. Foreigners are allowed to stay in Guatemala for 90 days. Then they have to either renew their permit at the immigration office in the capitol or exit the country and return. When my permit expired, I chose the second option. So I went for a journey to El Salvador, and what do you know? The renewal policy didn’t apply to this exit. If I wanted to renew my stay in Guatemala, I had to exit and return through Mexico. So after several hundred dollars in fees to exit and re-enter Guatemala at the Salvadoran border, I headed the opposite way to the Mexican border. In both trips, I was surrounded by Central Americans who were crossing the border both legally and illegally. And while I may have complained about the fees, my Central American neighbors, who couldn’t afford paying the fees, were being deterred, detained, or sent back to their country. Many of them couldn’t afford paying fees or didn’t pass the scrutiny the Mexican border patrol applies to Central Americans. I, on the other hand, had the privilege of possessing the right amount of money and because I am a U.S. citizen, they didn’t feel the need to scrutinize me for details. So I renewed my stay and as I returned to my Guatemalan home, I kept thinking: if I wanted to travel back to the U.S., which is where most of these migrants were heading, I could have easily arranged that. But not my migrant friends could never make these kinds of arrangements. They don’t have the kind of privilege that can more easily pass them through borders. They don’t have U.S. citizenship.
12. Coronavirus. With the spread of the Coronovirus, many nations have gone on lockdown, shutting their doors to foreign visitors. In that process, I had to cancel my trip to the UK because Ireland went on lock down. I was so upset! Then, in a conversation with my Guatemalan neighbor, I realized that while I was panicked about a trip, many of my neighbors were worried about food and the possible collapse of their livelihood. Only privilege can make you cry about a trip rather than cry over the collapse of the world that others are experiencing. I’m still getting over the loss of this trip.
13. Police Stops. During this week of coronavirus lockdown, I have been pulled over twice by officers, not having a passport with me (It’s illegal to not carry an ID). I believe the problem was my tattoos — I have two sleeves and a large chest tattoo. I was wearing a tank top. This may seem out of line, but in Guatemala, tattoos are generally associated with criminal street gangs. While the officers may have felt like they scored by catching what seemed to be a gang member, my citizenship crashed their party. In both cases, they approached me with an authoritarian complex, and in both cases, they left me alone and treated me with respect, once they verified my identity. Locals, like my friend Negro who was thrown into jail for not having his ID, aren’t usually as privileged. U.S. citizenship goes a long way. Officers do tend to treat Americans differently. It’s a privilege.
Conclusion. I am thankful for Guatemala and my Guatemalan neighbors. They taught me things I would have never learned on my own. This may be an off topic way to finish but I think it’s important to state: Diversity is important; it helps us see things that we would otherwise not be capable of seeing.