“The problem we have is that these young people want to get money without any work.”
Don Arturo’s comment on the youth of his community came as part of a completely unrelated conversation about his community’s struggle with multi-national mining corporations, the National Police and the vicissitudes of state institutions in Guatemala. His lament over “kids these days” not working like they used to while still wanting money and all that it buys struck me as a bit more than just the usual intergenerational gripe fest given the context and history of this place. It’s similar to what we heard in the Ixil area; activists and development workers there have had to work hard in some cases to convince fathers to let their sons take possession of the family’s land because of fears that the sons will sell the land or use it as collateral for loans to migrate, neither of which are irrational fears given the debt driven migration from the Ixil region. And we heard the flip side of this “kids these days” discourse at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which works in some of the marginalized areas in and around Guatemala City in what we’d call an intensive youth workforce development program. When CRS had a graduation celebration with their first cohorts, government, business and non-profit leaders were “shocked” at how professional and capable these youth, many of whom hailed from neighborhoods where an address on top of a resume automatically disqualifies them in the eyes of employers, showed themselves to be.
What makes this situation extra-challenging is the story Deborah Levenson tells in Adios Nino. She traces the collapse of the (small l) liberal consensus of youth as the future technocratic and non-ideological elite in the face of the social movements of the 1970s and the brutal repression of the early 1980s. In Levenson’s estimation, youth went from exemplars of a glorious capitalist, reformist future to enemies of the state, and after the post-war rise in violence and crime, enemies of society and communities. Investment in youth, outside of the problematic education system, is minimal.
In some respects, this is similar to what happened in places like Chicago’s West Side. I heard many stories over the last four years of working in Austin about the (often violent) repression of social movements in African-American communities during the 1970s and how this suppression morphed into the criminalization of youth that laid the foundation for the rise of mass incarceration. The drying up of opportunities for youth and the withdrawal of investments in youth in the austerity waves that began in the 1980s cemented the hyper-criminalization of youth, fostering a kind of hopelessness and further violence in these communities.
The point here is not to stretch an analogy between two very different places. The point is that in both cases the violent or repressive response of the state to social movements and to the youth who participate in them has consequences that extend far beyond the moment in which they occur. What I think these experiences show is that counter-insurgency, whether the “frijoles y fusiles” of the Guatemalan army or the War on Drugs in the US, fosters a climate in which whole populations are written off as violent others (superpredators anyone?) unworthy of full participation in society; a population to be repressed and removed from society whenever possible.
As our students noted on this trip, education alone doesn’t seem like the panacea for all this, there needs to a shift in the way societies, communities, and even families view youth. The old liberal vision of a technocratic, reformist cadre of “the best and the brightest” youth leading society towards a well-ordered social democratic future may no longer be possible. But it seems to me that without concentrated and focused investment in youth, there aren’t many “futures” possible.