29 March 2021
Street dogs and armed security guards. When American friends or colleagues visited our home in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, these were invariably the first two things they would comment on or ask about. While shocking to gringo sensibilities, these pervasive images are just normal parts of life in Guatemala, and they tell a story about the structures and forces that shape life for its citizens. Local municipalities are chronically underfunded and animal control and welfare fall low on a list of urgent needs. Schools, churches, homes, and businesses of all sizes employ private security (seguridad privada) to protect against the crime, extortion, and gang violence that run rampant. In Guatemala, security guard is one of the most dangerous civilian occupations, and generally only the financially desperate heed the call.
I lived in Quetzaltenango for five years, where I worked for a non-profit organization. My colleagues and I consciously employed ethnographic methodology to better understand the communities in which we worked. One day, I was slowly observing and wandering through the streets of a neighborhood where we were beginning a new clean-water project. I was struck by a (relatively normal) image—a man on a motorcycle in a security guard’s outfit with a shotgun and lunchbox secured behind him. It was evening and I presumed that he was on his way for a night shift guarding some shop, restaurant, or hotel. The image had an impact, and I sat there for a few minutes considering the gravity of such a job. I sensed I was not alone and looked down to see a street dog sitting at my feet and also looking in the direction of the motorcycle. I was struck by the similarities between them—both facing daily risks in an environment where they had fallen through the cracks of poverty and failing bureaucracy. This is a poem I wrote to capture that moment, a moment of ethnographic empathy, a sacred moment of considering the lives of those who we observe.
Seguridad Privada With a shotgun and a lunchbox he makes his way to work On the back of a motorcycle, weaving through the cars, the animals, the people To guard the corner store, from the gangsters, the extortioners, the monsters in the night A bullet sponge1 , a magnet in a land with far too many strays He holds the shells to his ear, and hears the sounds of far-off waves, of any far-off place, where he doesn’t have to kiss daughter’s face for the last time, every night After pitch-black meals he gives his bones to another stray- noble, loyal They sit on the street and share the fear that when the times comes, they won’t be brave Not brave enough
1 Bullet sponge is slang for a member of the armed forces who is placed in a great deal of fire fights, wherein there’s a large possibility of getting shot.
Matthew Blanton is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include international migration and Latin America. Prior to his time at UT, Matthew lived and worked in Guatemala for several years, and worked with the National Immigration Forum as an organizer for immigration-reform campaigns.
Find him on twitter @Matthew_Blanton