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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Benchmarks: Guatemala and GIS
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2008

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Source: Benchmarks: Guatemala and GIS
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 11, no. 2, August 2008
Article Type: Benchmark

Benchmarks: Guatemala and GIS

Deborah Lines Andersen

August 2008

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged. [1]

Living in Guatemala

I write this Benchmarks, my last as the executive editor for the journal, sitting on the roof of an artisan cooperative/clinic/bakery/soy dairy/school in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I have been living on this roof for a month. If a benchmark is a standard by which to judge other situations, then this experience marks an extreme measuring point—a benchmark—for how I think about history and computing. I am writing this editorial using my laptop on the roof of a building that has wireless access, cold water for washing dishes, and numerous power failures. This cooperative was founded in the midst of the Guatemalan civil war and the extreme poverty of the inhabitants of La Esperanza, a community built at the edge of reclaimed garbage dumps. I can see the new garbage dumps from the roof and on most days see the vultures circling above them.

This has been a month of contrasts which only partially explain what it is like to be here.

I live in a shared space on the roof with international volunteers and the women of UPAVIM.  [2] My office at the University at Albany is bigger than the bedroom I share with my daughter who works here. By community standards our space is grand with cement floors and cinder block walls. We have the same corrugated tin roof over the living spaces as do all the houses in this community.

We eat communally with food purchased from the local shops within view of our building, the tallest one around at three stories plus this roof habitat of laundry lines, garden, bedrooms, bathroom and pila (a cement cold water sink we use for washing dishes, teeth and clothes). Women come up each day to hand wash laundry from the kitchen and baby nursery downstairs. Children and teachers are served both breakfast and lunch from the communal kitchen each weekday—tortillas, and usually rice with beans, or vegetable and meat stew. The food is plentiful, filling, and gives the children the nutrition they need for studying.

I have read both The Omnivore’s Dilemma [3] and Coming Home to Eat [4] while here. I chose these two books to bring with me since I wanted to think more about what I eat and what people eat here. They both present a fascinating study of food history and science. Both books also discuss corn as a critical crop in the U.S. diet. Because of government-policy-induced surpluses, we have more corn than we need and now, as a result of technology and food science, use it in an astonishingly large portion of the foodstuffs that U.S. residents eat. A McDonald’s chicken McNugget is made of chicken and an amazing number of corn products. I contrast this with a meal I helped prepare last Saturday. We walked dried corn cooked in lime water to the local corn mill where it was ground into a dough. (This is also the stuff of the tortillas which we eat daily.) We added a variety of ingredients including local cheese and herbs, wrapped small balls of this in soaked corn husks, steamed them, and in three hours had a wonderful meal of tamales. This is a traditional meal. I contrast it here with the fast foods that are starting to creep into the Guatemalan diet (including McDonald’s in the center of Guatemala City).

I awake at 4 a.m. to the local roosters crowing and firecrackers in the street. Firecrackers are the local tradition for waking up individuals on their birthdays—very early and very loud if they are just outside one’s window. At 4 a.m. I can smell bread baking in the panadería on the first floor. The bakery window opens at 5:30 a.m. to cater to the people lined up to buy breads, rolls and cookies for breakfast. I can just start to see the volcanoes that surround the city. Only one of them is active. The egg truck driver (huevos limpios—clean eggs) and chili vendor have not yet started to call out their products at this hour, nor has the ice cream vendor set up his wagon to the tune of Für Elise. The three largest, local churches are quiet although their loudspeaker sermons and songs will fill the air starting at 10 a.m.

A teacher at the UPAVIM school makes around 1,300 Quetzales (about $US190) a month. I eat for $US13 a week. A teacher’s salary might seem like enough here but most teachers are supporting a whole network of children, grandchildren, and other relatives, as well as paying for living spaces and transportation. It is not unusual for some women to have four, five, or six children. Family planning is just starting to make inroads in the community’s size.

There is wireless access on this roof so I can contact colleagues and friends through email and Skype. Almost every volunteer arrives with a laptop. Up the street there is a youth center where students can learn to use computers. They have at least 30 of them acquired through grants. Youth work on general typing skills and résumés that they will use in school and work. Computing is seen not only as fun but as an important life skill. The center has been packed with students every time I have visited to teach English or knitting.

Unlike the children and women here, I can live in a world of contrasts between a US university and a women’s artisan cooperative. I will leave after a month. This is their life.

This life is full of taking care of each other and the children who are everywhere. Men have moved on to jobs elsewhere or to places unknown so very strong women work hard to make a living and create scholarships so that the children here will be educated. Their wealth is in the desire to work hard, to be creative, to give to everyone whatever is needed and available, to stop on the stairs and listen to each other, to laugh or cry together, to have a cup of coffee with us on the roof and discuss the politics and culture of the community.

This Issue of the Journal

For me it is an almost impossible transition from here, in Guatemala, to an issue of the Journal of the Association for History and Computing—an issue devoted to geographic information systems that I expect no one in this community will have access to during his or her life. The contrast is overwhelming.

Nonetheless, this issue does allow others to “go” places that would otherwise not be accessible to them and to experience history of which they have not been a part. As such this special issue, edited by Philip Brown, Associate Professor of History, The Ohio State University, brings together his editorial plus four articles as the first of a two-part series. These articles and editorial all speak to using geographic information systems for teaching history.

Three of the papers in this issue concern themselves with teaching history with geographic information systems at the undergraduate level. Wendy Plotkin, Stephanie Stegman, and Christopher Miller present their article, “Americans on the Move: Geography and Society in the Post舒World War II Period, 1950舒2000,” that looks at curriculum development in history at the undergraduate level at Arizona State University. Jim Brown’s contribution, “Using GIS to Drive Research in Undergraduate History Classes 舒 A Report on Five Years of Experimentation with the Modern World History Survey Course,” continues the discussion using geographic information systems to make history come alive to students in his undergraduate classroom. Finally, Josh Radinsky, Ben Loh, and Jason Lukasik discuss their experiences in “GIS Tools for Historical Inquiry: Issues for Classroom舒centered Design.”

Rounding out this issue, Steven D. Branting’s “Hic Sunt Dracones—Filling in the GIS Map for the K-12 Classroom” looks to students before they enter the college classroom. This article is critical to our understanding of how today’s younger students are being exposed to geographic information systems before they get to college. As with many aspects of computing, students are coming to college classes with more and more expertise. It is evident that their level of sophistication in computing will cause all instructors to rethink curriculum on a regular basis, upgrading assignments and lectures as students show up with more and more skills already in their collection of intellectual tools.


With this issue I step down as executive editor to make way for Michelle Harper who will be taking over with the next issue, also on geographic information systems, in December. I will work with Michelle over the next months for a smooth transition between us. To that end I wish to acknowledge the work of several editors who have come on board to not only help with this transition, but also to take on assignments that will strengthen the journal and the materials it offers to our readers.

Steven Hoffman will continue on as Associate Editor—Columns, working with those individuals who present new materials of interest to history and computing issue after issue.

Jessica Lacher-Feldman will continue in her role of Associate Editor—Feature Articles, working with Michelle to fine tune the feature articles we present in each issue.

Jeremy Boggs will also continue as our markup editor, doing the markup for all pieces that appear in the journal and serving as an apt consultant to our authors when they have questions about any aspect of technology and journal production.

Additionally, I wish to acknowledge the hard work of those column editors who have provided us with critical information for the journal and to thank them all for the work that they have done and will continue to do for the journal and the field of history and computing.

Jeremy Boggs not only works on markup for the journal, but will continue to present his column on electronic resources for historians.

Lynn Westney, column editor for E-Journals—Inside and Out, continues to provide us with her fine-tuned research on what is new in history and computing, and available online through e-journals in our field.

Julie Holcomb, column editor for print resources in history and computing, is stepping down from this position as her career path changes. All of us at the journal wish to thank her for the work that she has done over the years. She will continue on for a bit longer as she helps Brad Eden (Associate University Librarian for Technical Services and Scholarly Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara) transition into his new role as our new print resources column editor. We welcome Brad to the editorial staff of JAHC.

I started working on the journal in 1998. After ten years of moving from co-editor to executive editor I will now move back to the position of co-editor during the transition. I am proud of what we have accomplished in these ten years, and certain that I leave the journal in capable hands.


1. “Benchmark,” American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. See the UPAVIM (Unidas Para Vivir Mejor) website at

3. Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. NY: Penguin Books, 2006.

4. Gary Paul Nabhan. Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002.