Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Cultured Masses

It seems like everyone agrees that culture is a good thing. Culture should be preserved. Traditional cultures should be respected. We enjoy visiting countries that have interesting cultures. But is culture really all that it is made out to be? When we attempt to preserve traditional cultures, are we doing it becaue we really want to help people? Or are we doing it because we like the pretty clothes.

In Guatemala there are many different groups of Mayan indians. Each of them has their own unique language and style of dress. Tourists love it. The indians are very colorful, and the mix of indigenous languages lends an exotic soundtrack to the street markets. Yet the same culture that gives us the clothes and the languages that we enjoy so much, also has a dark side. Women are second class citizens. Traditional slash and burn agriculture destroys the rainforest. The traditional diet of corn and beans is low in nutrients. The traditional languages of Mam and Quiche aren´t very useful in a country where all major activities are carried out in Spanish.

Some elements of traditional culture have no place in a modern world. Women should have equal rights. The environment can no longer afford traditional subsitence farming techniques. People need to learn the dominant languages of their countries if they want to have a voice. Yet each of these things destroys traditional culture.

Given real freedom, most women wouldn´t choose to spend their lives at home sewing and cleaning traditional clothing. Given decent tools and proper training in agriculture, most men wouldn´t choose to spend several months cutting down virgin rainforest with a machette. Given a choice, most parents wouldn´t choose to educate their children in a language that few people speak.

It´s hard not to feel a little sad when we go into traditional areas and see people wearing modern clothes and talking on cell phones. It seems like something precious and beautiful is being lost. Yet when I see a little indian boy wearing jeans and speaking Spanish, I feel hope. What other modern ideas is this boy being exposed to? Maybe this boy will treat his wife with respect. Maybe this boy will have a voice in politics. Maybe this boy will learn how to farm his land better. Maybe this boy won´t have ten children. The traditional clothes may be beautiful, but they come at far too great a cost.

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