I will never forget my 1988 introduction to Pacas. I refer not to women named Francisca (Paca, for short), although I have met those, too. Fewer all the time, however, since my wife disdains Pacas in any form, capital P or small P.
In downtown Guatemala, during siesta hour (still observed in the city back then), I spotted this sign on a persiana: HOY SE ABRE PACA a las 3:00 (persianas are those roll-up aluminum walls that seal storefronts).
Being new to both the country and the language, I resolved to finish my errand and drift back at 3 to learn what pacas were, and also what happened whenever one se abrió. Two plumpish middle-aged women were already waiting, and it was only 2:40. I was not expecting anything on the order of the Second Coming, an earthquake or a coup d’état, but I was curious.
At a quarter after three (right on time, in other words), someone came and raised the persiana. The half-dozen women now present rushed in with such startling urgency that something in me said, “Follow them!” But I was there to observe.
What I saw resembled a flock of hens, freshly uncooped, getting their Wheaties —or should I say “meaties”—by darting at anything moving in the grass. You can buy “chicken feed” for domestic foul, but cluckers with free-range privileges prefer beetles and worms.
The women, like the chickens, were competing. But instead of beetles, their prey were woolen caps, T-shirts, socks, skirts and other attire, all used. I thought, “OK, this is how they do thrift shops in Guatemala.”
Thrift shops in the old country were still, for me, something novel. As a black sheep raised in a manicured suburb, I discovered them as an adult. My grandparents, who had been poor, knew them well enough. But my parents, who had escaped poverty, made a point of buying only new clothes for us kids.
In college, while homeless (but dating one of my professors), I discovered the Goodwill, the Salvation Army and numerous wildcatter thrift shops. I habitually haberdashed at such places, along with other down-and-outers, but also with folks who were destined (or so I imagined) to become wealthy because they practiced frugality without shame. So my observations that day in downtown Guatemala were almost sociological.
Well, some were. The first mystery to be solved was etymological. What, exactly, was a paca? Compared to the man in charge of the place, I was white and towering. But when I asked him ¿Qué es una paca? he eyed me as if I were diminutive and green, and begging, “Take me to your leader.” It was one of those moments—we all have them —when culture shock is sparked by the painfully mundane.
The paca turned out to be a king-size bedsheet stuffed with used clothing. Maybe what Santa bundled his toys in before Mrs. Claus knit him a proper sack. It could as easily have been a stuffed cargo net.
I soon discovered that thrift shops existed in Central America, but they were called bazares. It was a relief to find one while I set up house in the city. But what a disappointment to find that bazares were none too cheap. In the old country, you could pick up, say, an oldie-but-goodie toaster for a tenth the cost of a new one. But a used appliance at the Bazar de Kiwanis cost nearly what a new one did.
This has all changed, since used clothing, appliances, toys and knickknacks have, in the years since, become a buyer’s market. Now those six women do not have to run in and pick over the goods. And the label “paca” is today symbolic. These days, the thing que se abre is ingress, not a sheet.
The aging populations of the United States and Canada are the wellsprings. As baby boomers prosper (or fatten) and their parents expire, tidal waves of fine clothes are discarded and shipped down here. Now pacas sit on every corner in some neighborhoods—almost literally. There is even a chain of Megapacas set up to corral and channel the deluge.
The downside is that Spuds Mackenzie T-shirts threaten to displace embroidered finery, simply because they are affordable. This cultural erosion is being exacerbated as I write, and is a topic worthy of its own Lake Views column. So I will stick with the upside of pacas, or, at least, what they do for me.
The wife despises them perhaps for the same reasons my parents did. But since I find like-new stuff there, I pretend that it is new. Good thing she does not read this column!
My son Isaac (who does read it) and I are members of the Panajachel Theatre Company. We recently enacted supporting roles to Billy Mumford, a versatile performing genius who played Arnold Dumpit, a skinflint vaudevillian. Arnold describes himself as “not cheap but frugal, and knowing the value of a quetzal.” In The Red Suitcase, his troupe goes on the road in chicken buses. Over the manic objections of Flossy (Mrs. Dumpit), he secures “free lodging” in the form of his father’s nursing home room in La Antigua. Not surprisingly, the Dumpits build their costume wardrobe with “nice paca finds.”
Yet these days, nice paca finds are not dramatic fiction, nor are they pricey. Isaac and I were told to find spotless white shirts in pacas, since real tuxedo shirts could not, presumably, be found in such places. But found they were; Isaac got one for Q10. My own mint tux shirt was in the reject pile for—are you ready?—Q3. (I also found a pair of cherry tap-dance shoes for a paltry Q17.50).
Billy Mumford told me a shirt like that could cost $60, new. He could not believe I got it so cheap—less than a penny on the dollar.
I told him that, like Arnold, I knew the value of a quetzal.
Category: Lake Atitlán