Letters from Guatemala

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Hi parents and sis, Let me back up and let you know where I have been. We left Saturday morning around 7am for Santa Anita.
This is a community of former refugees. Many fled to Mexico during the war and many of their sons and daughters were involved in the guerilla movement. Renaldo, the guide for the school, lives here along with his father. We were to hear the testimony of his father and participate in the community celebrations around the construction of their new school.
Santa Anita is nestled deep in the mountainous jungle. After a long, packed bus ride, we squeezed into a pick-up and rode on bumpy, rock-laid erosion roads through garbage dumps and pristine wilderness and then walked into the village.When we arrived, the festivities were in full swing. There was a soccer game going on. It was a really hot, muggy day and only men were playing soccer. We mosied to the main plaza where an outdoor Catholic mass was underway. Under a blazing sun elderly people sat in school desks with umbrellas shielding their faces. Mothers nursed their children. A priest said mass. People came forward for communion. This was all in the plaza – really a basketball court – in the middle of their new school buildings. The school buildings were built of cinder blocks painted bright yellow and open air windows. After the service we went to Renaldo’s father’s house for lunch. It was a cinder block house with a latrine and a natural well in the backyard. As tradition would have it, on this hot day we had a hot, hot lunch of beans, papas fritas, eggs, and hot, sweet coffee.
After lunch a couple of the female students walked back to the plaza.We watched as some of the young girls in the community began playing basketball. I asked if we could join them and soon we were all playing full court. It was fun to play and get exercise and connect with these young women. Some played full court barefoot.
After about an hour, I remembered that we needed to return to Renaldo’s house for our meeting with his father. From Renaldo’s house we walked to an abandoned house. We would sleep there at night. We spread backpacks and blankets out on the concrete floor. Then Renaldo’s dad, Pedro, came to give his testimony. I then realized I was the student with the strongest Spanish so, with another student, I began translating his testimony.
This was the first testimony of a torture survivor that I had translated. It was intense and I worked hard to get all his words correct. It was such a challenge. I found that when you are translating, it is often not until afterwards that the profoundness of things hits you. The overview of his story is that he was part of a farming cooperative during the 1970s during the Lucas Garcia regime. This was enough to be accused of being with guerillas. He was tortured for 14 days and afterwards he was unable to work or support his family for many years. This caused immense hardship. He and his family fled to Mexico as refugees.
Renaldo joined the URNG (Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity) guerilla movement after talking and learning about justice issues from his father while they were refugees in Mexico. Now they still suffer as coffee prices have plummeted. Renaldo and Pedro are working now with the URNG political movement. Santa Anita was a special community. There was a dance that night – again on the plaza in the middle of the new school. They played marimba, and then disco music. I much preferred the marimba! I danced with lots of young children. It was really, really fun but sad too. All this life and hope in the midst of such desperate circumstances.
The next morning I headed to the mountain school –another very special place. This school began in 1996 as a counterpart to the school in Xela to give students a connection with rural communities in Guatemala. I was happy to have a change of pace. But people here are definitely suffering directly from the fall in coffee prices as well.
Each day I would eat my meals with Irma, who is 22, and her two young children, Glendi and Rodriguez. Her husband was working construction in Xela. He earned slightly more than his brother-in-law, who got 18Q a day for work on the finca. That is $2 a day.Most men were trying to support their families on $2 a day…impossible. Food. There is not enough food here for people to eat. I was given very small portions of boiled bananas, fried potatoes, and boiled egg. Some mornings I had pancakes or mosh, a runny but tasty oatmeal drink. I was often hungry after meals. I was never served fresh fruit and I had a vegetable one time all week. Fruits and vegetables are just too expensive here.
Nothing goes to waste. Here the dogs are so skinny. I threw my used newspaper into the trash in my room at school and immediately the woman cleaning asked me if she could have the paper. This will be used for many things I am sure. Toilet paper, to wrap food, other things….On Thursday night I translated a conference about the history of San Jose. This was an incredible story that helped me understand and put into place the abandoned finca buildings that I had seen on my walk the night before.
In the 1980s a group of 50 families worked on a coffee finca for a finca owner. The owner was a woman from Germany who, according to Aboleno, the man telling us the story, was a generous and fair boss. Then the woman died and her son inherited the finca. He was fair at first and continued to pay them every 15 days and maintained good communication. Then he began to have financial problems and they went a month without pay.When they asked him what was going on, he told them to be patient. And, as promised, after about two months, he did pay their salary. So things went on and they all thought they would work and die on that land. But soon the son had financial problems again but this time more severe. The community went two, three, four, five months without pay. But when the son promised to repay them, they thought of the time before.He had come through so they were patient. Soon, it had been one year without pay. People were desperate. Children began to die. Adults were very sick. They asked for their money but were denied. They decided to organize.
Twenty-five families joined together. Twenty-five others were too scared. This was mid-1990s in Guatemala when people were being disappeared and called guerillas for doing social justice work. So the 25 families began to meet, organize, and hold protests in Guatemala City. Finally the finca owner came to talk to them. He promised to repay them. But he never showed up as planned. At this point the community was very, very desperate. They did not know if they could continue in a peaceful way. Then they realized that there was a lot of valuable coffee that was going to be picked up soon. By stopping the pickup they could economically pressure for their wages.
Aboleno told us that the day the trucks arrived to pick up the coffee, they were ready with machetes and sticks. They threatened but did not hurt anyone. The coffee was not delivered and the finca owner caved in. He gave them back pay for the whole year.
It was a hard struggle. They had organized and finally gotten food and money. Plus the finca owner gave each family ten sheets of corrugated metal to construct houses. They decided to leave the finca, purchase their own land, and build their own houses. This is how the community of San Jose began. They are an amazing, very well-organized community. They are supporting Aboleno in his local campaign for mayor with the URNG party.
On the bus this morning I was explaining the Fourth of July to a funny old man. He asked me if I was from Germany since my eyes were so blue. I told him I was from the U.S. with grandparents from Germany. I also had to add that I wasn’t a very good citizen since I forgot Independence Day.We laughed. He asked me what year we got our independence and from whom. I explained 1776 from Britain. And then I had a funny thought about how messed up this world is.We did have an armed revolution to throw off a colonial power. But never mind that it was imperfect and only benefited rich, white men.And never mind all the indigenous people that we killed. It is an odd challenge every day to find my place here. I am the tall, white gringa on a bus with almost all indigenous Maya who wonder curiously who I am and why am I here. It is good. I need to be able to answer this. And I think I am coming into this better each day.

Meridith Kruse, a local activist from the Urbana community, just returned from Spanish Language School in Guatemala. She was the former Executive Director of the Illinois Disciples Foundation in Champaign and just completed a three month stay at Proyecto Linguistico Quezalteco de Espanol in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala Central America. Meridith is back in the Urbana area for a few weeks before returning to Guatemala with a human rights organization where she plans to assist with the documentation of human rights violations and the current political situation in Central America.

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