Flashback: 1937

Where am I? As you read on, see if you can decipher
which part of Guatemala is being written about.

The year is 1937, just when Hollywood first used Guatemala as the setting for a full-length 1938 feature film, Tarzan and the Green Goddess. Tourists from the United States had no difficulty figuring out what things cost because the currency was on par with the U.S. dollar, 1:1, and remained so for almost 45 more years, truly one of the world’s strongest currencies.

So, where am I?
Excerpts from Penny Capitalism—A Guatemalan Indian Economy:
“The community has only 800 people…it is an insignificant place in a rural area which (the country) thinks of as its backwoods.” “The social institutions and cosmology, strange as they may be to us, are as separated from the processes of making a living as are our own.” “The hills are mysterious and dangerous, in native belief, inhabited by supernatural beings.”
The following were average prices in 1936: “Corn is one cent a pound; avocados are three for a penny; a 24-ounce bottle of liquor is 50 cents, a beer is 15 cents, a shotgun will set you back exactly a dollar and a coffin (full size) costs $5.”
Wages: “Among the highest in Guatemala, at 16 ½ cents a day. Every man between the ages of 18 and 60 is required to work on the highway for two weeks (12 days) each year; instead of working he may pay the sum of $2.”
Housing prices: “Labor is usually provided by the family, and the construction cost of a bare cane house with a thatched roof is $5.96, while at the middle range an adobe house with a tile roof costs $27, and at the top end an adobe house with galvanized zinc roof costs $68.50. The total tax base of the town’s 590 structures is $3,870.11, including six “dog houses, pigpens and rabbit houses” valued at $1.65.”
Here is the scene as described from inside a house: “Except for chests and a few chairs and tables and occasional beds, house furnishings are homemade. Beds, for example, consist of stagings built out from a wall, the legs implanted in the floor, the surface consisting of canes or bought boards laid transversally…Utensils and clothing are hung from nails or wooden pegs or branches…the fireplace consists of three large stones used as they are found…”
Marriage: “From 1922 to 1937 there were 15 cases of Indian marriage in the legal religious sense. There was none in 1936…”
Real Estate: “Steep and hilly land sells for from $2.50 an acre to $8.50 an acre. Land more useful for farming in the delta costs from $50 to $150 an acre. Coffee-producing land is even more valuable at $175 per acre.” Anyone reading these passages must be impressed by how little things have changed in Guatemala’s indigenous villages in the 71 years since 1937 (except for the prices).

If you still haven’t figured out where you, here is another hint: “In 1935 a ladino offered me (the author) a hillock (8 acres) on the lake shore between Santa Catarina and San Antonio for $90. Eventually a German in Panajachel bought it for $80…”
The town was Panajachel and the author cited was Sol Tax, the social scientist who performed field work in Panajachel for the years prior to 1937 and published it in Penny Capitalism—A Guatemalan Indian Economy in 1953 through the Smithsonian Institution of Social Anthropology. The riveting work, replete with tables and maps, covers the economy of Panajachel, and the reader must be struck by the application of the French expression as applied to today’s Guatemala, Plus ça change, plus ça reste le même (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Except maybe for land prices.
One other change? The 1953 Smithsonian publication, 230 pages plus maps, cost $1.75.

Author’s note: With grateful acknowledgement to David E. Lindwall, whose generosity with Penny Capitalism has made it possible to share this fascinating work.

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