Camionetas, or school buses resurrected as public transportation across Central America, are not only a point of practicality, but also one of pride.
In Guatemala, many buses bear names like “Esmeralda,” chosen by the fathers and grandfathers of a company’s present-day owners. At Taller San Miguel in Dueñas, a twenty-minute ride from Antigua that costs just four Quetzales, workers transform Blue Bird school buses from their sterile, uniform pasts into custom, colorful vehicles able to withstand rough Guatemalan roads.
Once the buses roll into the work station in San Miguel, the renovations take place in just a matter of weeks. According to José Jimenez, 22, whose family owns Taller San Miguel, most buses need just one month or less to “pimp”. This process includes adding seats to total ten rows, installing manual transmissions, wiring new lights both for safety and decoration, and hand-painting “Esmeralda” on the ridged metal siding to remind riders of the company’s high reputation.
Most days, mechanics sprawl out in the open-air workshop, using retired seat cushions to slide underneath the steel skeletons. During their mid-morning breaks, workers pop into the corner store to grab Tortrix chips and bottles of Coke, taking a load off in whichever “old” vehicles have yet to be stripped of their seats. In reality, most of the buses Taller San Miguel purchases were born after the year 2000. If the bus was built from 2001 to 2002, it costs the company around 80,000 to 100,000 Quetzales – a hefty investment in itself – but that’s before factoring in costs to drive the buses south from the United States, pay off import taxes plus the pimping process.
The costs associated with these transformations have created a hierarchy within Guatemala’s transportation system. Wealthy families own the companies that buy the buses from hubs in the United States such as New York, Chicago and Atlanta. Trade workers fix them up in just a matter of weeks so they’re ready for the road as soon as possible after crossing the Guatemalan border. Drivers cooperate with these companies to make sure the buses stay on schedule, utilizing the skills of ayudantes, or helpers, to solicit customers, navigate traffic and collect payment. In all of these jobs, the Guatemalan government has a hand, setting route prices and levying taxes that burden the camioneta companies.
In recent years the government has continued to raise taxes on the companies and as a result, the workers in between bear that pressure, Luis Ramirez, 35, a manager of Taller San Miguel said. If the government raises company taxes but won’t raise riders’ rates, how can the companies keep up?
Ramirez and his coworkers cope with fluctuating costs by continuing to place a high value on quality. From the inside out, these machines are rebuilt to last. Even the intricate, hand-painted designs, one of the most striking features of camionetas, are made with high-quality gloss paint so they don’t need touch-ups. It’s this pride and focus on company reputation that bring bus owners from other Central American countries such as El Salvador to have their rides remodeled in workshops like Taller San Miguel.
Although a camioneta ride can often feel cramped or drowned out by reggaeton beats, these buses have come to symbolize the “colors of the country, the family and the culture of Guatemala,” Ramirez said. Boarding a camioneta reminds riders not only of the company’s pride in its work and the driver’s individual identity, but also the inherently Guatemalan ability to take what’s available and create something special.