In Guatemala, I was fortunate enough to see Xepon, a remote/rural pueblo where I worked for two years, get luz(spanish for light) or electricity for the first time. Having had lived and worked in the village for about sixteen months before electricity and living there for a brief five month period after was truly eye-opening. The direct and indirect consequences of electricity were too numerous to ever really grasp, so I found myself focusing in on how the arrival of television impacted the lives and ebb/flow of the daily village life. Before electricity, the village shut down at dusk. Candles were the illumination method of choice and provided an inexpensive and easy way to light the kitchen for cooking, the eating area for eating, or the living room area for living. Stop and think about what we do in the US when the lights go out. For the most part, we light candles or turn on flashlights. Flashlights are a great way to shed some light on a dark situation, that is if the situation has a short shelf life. Using battery powered flashlights for long periods of time becomes expensive, so candles offer an economic and ideal solution for illuminating any place where there is never any electricity. Unless of course you have a brookstone flashlight that recharges itself but that’s another story for another day. Continuing on, the pueblo, back in the day of no luz, would slow down, as almost to come to a screeching halt, when the sun would go down. The pick-up soccer games would stop, the kite flying would loose its appeal, the men would come in from the fields, and the normal night routine would begin. (The photo above was taken in Bogotá. The American flag can only hint at the U.S.'s media stronghold on Latin America.)
The night routine was simple. It was based on three things. Candles, food, and chisme (spanish word for gossip). As the women would prepare the food, the men and children would congregate around the kitchen area so they could get in on the chisme and the light that came from the brick stove. Candles would be strategically placed around the kitchen area, so as to offer the maximum amount of light with the fewest amount of candles. Once the food was ready, the men, as in most parts of rural Latin America, were served first. As the men ate, the women would serve the children and more often than not serve themselves. Due to this cultural tendency of serving the men first, I hardly ever ate dinner with any women of the family. Once everyone had eaten, the plates, utensils, pots, and pans would be left in the pila to be washed the next day due to the lack of light, as candles were used sparingly. However, this whole pre-dusk and night time routine would change once luz arrived to the pueblo.
The arrival of luz to Xepon had too many, as I’ve already mentioned, indirect and direct consequences both good and bad, so I focused on how the simultaneous arrival of television changed the daily life and routine of the village. Instead of going to fly kites and play marbles, I noticed how many of the children, especially the younger kids ages 6-10, preferred to stay inside and watch cartoons. Children began to choose cartoons over time-less village activities like flying kites and playing marbles. The pick-up soccer games continued, although instead of coming to a halt at dusk the players simply relocated and continued playing in a different part of the village where street lamps were coincidentally placed in such a strategic manner that soccer, more specifically the art of the 5v5 pick-up, could be played all day long. Men in the fields came home to the evening news and heard about world issues, which was an international alternative to their old routine of listening to the chisme of the day around the kitchen area. Women indulged in the newest regional dramas of the day which more than likely came from the two telenovela capitals of the world; Mexico and Colombia. While the mothers in the village usually took their time washing clothes and doing daily chores, telenovelas were an unanticipated incentive from the arrival of electricity that had the women of Xepon working quickly to catch the drama of the day. In my twenty-six month service as a rural health promoter, the people’s beahvioral change due to the arrival of the TV/cable was the only overnight change I ever saw. This, without getting into it too much, was very frustrating. The arrival of TV and how it changed Xepon had been pushed to the side by new adventures and stories in Colombia; however, I was recently reminded of this whole day-night change by the installation of cable and a new TV in my host family's house.
Since the arrival of TV and cable, my younger host brothers, who use to spend all day playing soccer out in the alley or at the 5v5 court, now watch 10 hours a day of TV on average. While that may sound like a hyperbole, I assure you that it is not. School vacation coupled with the arrival of the box that talks has my host brothers watching upwards of 70+ hours of TV a week. Their favorite shows include Dragon Ball Z, Spongebob Square Pants, The Simpsons, or whatever else they find on Nick or the Disney channel. I would venture to say that my two host brothers, Nicolas and Daniel, watch more U.S. sitcoms and cartoons than any kid around their age group in the U.S. I probably wouldn’t be so bothered by their newest pastime if I didn’t feel so suffocated by it. For all intents and purposes, my host family’s house is made up of 4 different spaces: the bathroom, two bedrooms, and a dinning-living room that bleeds into the kitchen like any studio apartment. If we leave out the bathroom, two-thirds of the rest of the living spaces in the house are connected. My room is the only one that doesn’t have a TV present, although don’t worry there is a cable connection. Thus, I don't have to even leave my room to feel like I’m living in a television set. The two TV’s are turned on around 7AM for cartoons and the news. They usually don’t get turned off until 10pm when the nightly news ends. Although, maybe I’m just not, no pun intended, with the program. Am I missing something? Is this just how every household in Colombia is during school vacation?
TV, since it’s introduction into Colombian society, has served to make this country of countries a little more unified. The book Colombia: A Concise Contemporary History touches on this cultural phenomenon ;
Television- like the introduction of radio some twenty-five years earlier- changed the social dynamic of the Colombian household. According to Colombian journalist and social critic Oscar Collazos, “Colombian families placed the television first in the living room, then the bedroom- it offered the possibility of family unity without conversation, families could eat together without sitting at the table and become ‘informed’ without reading newspapers.” The new technology also forced social change within the household but also introduced images of other places to those Colombians who had never traveled outside of their city or region. . . . By 2008, it was estimated that about 85 percent of Colombian households had televisions. Thus, prominent Colombian historian and journalist Eduardo Lemaitre, who died in 1994, was not exaggerating when he wrote that “three things have given this country of countries a national with common principles and have given it a compact to exist as a singular unit: the Constitution of 1886, the Magdalena River, and the television.”
Television's seductive ways have changed society and molded daily life from Xepon to Barranquilla. So, am I just complaining over spilled milk when I get frustrated with my host mother for letting her two sons watch endless hours of garbage on TV? I truly don't know but I’d like to take this moment to thank my parents for only letting me watch an hour or two at most during the summer months as a kid. Playing street hockey, basketball, soccer, kickball, man-hunt, and every other childhood activity is what I remember most about growing up on Prospect hill. I’d also like to thank Ian Murphy, Mike Sydorko, and Jake Crandell for being some of the best childhood amigos anyone could have ever hoped for. Getting back to Colombia, it just kills me to watch my host brothers be so inactive and partake in such a passive activity during the most temperate months of the year. I want them to go outside, play soccer, run around, bruise their knees, and live up their childhood. Looking ahead, I’m not advocating that we throw away our television. Although, I hope that my host mother and I can steer my little hermanos towards more educational programming like shows on the travel or history channel. TV has played an interesting role in my life as a Volunteer and I'm interested to see what the new year will bring! Until next time, STAY TUNED IN.