A Local Activist Writes from Guatemala

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Dear Friends and Family,
I hope this letter finds
you well. I have just finished
my third month of
human rights accompaniment
here in
Guatemala and I feel
myself full of stories and
thankful for this space to
reflect on my experiences…
For those who have not heard, none of
the candidates for the presidency of
Guatemala received a majority of votes on
November 9th and so there was a “segunda
vuelta” or “second round” on December
28th between Oscar Berger (of
GANA) and Alvaro Colom (of UNE).
Reports I read in the international press
presented Colom as the more liberal of
the two, while admitting that both favored
free trade and included former military
officials in their proposed cabinets.
On the ground, community support
for candidates was based on more tangible
issues. In Ilom, all of the witnesses in
the genocide case supported Oscar Berger
and were elated, yet cautious, when
news came that he had won. Given that
only two parties actively campaigned in
Ilom (FRG party of Rios Montt and
GANA of Berger) one can understand
why people had chosen the lesser of two
evils… [T]hey also held no illusions that
the government would make drastic
changes to improve their lives in the
future.Witnesses were definitely relieved
when Rios Montt was defeated but, like
Berger’s victory, this event seemed to
reinvigorate, rather than lessen, their
participation in organizations like
CALDH (Center for Human Rights Legal
Action) as a means to pressure and hold
accountable a government structure still
deeply distrusted.
And what about news from the holidays?
For the first time I spent Christmas
and New Years away from friends and
family but was not lonely since I felt welcomed
into the lives of those I live with in
Xix and Ilom.Many of you may be familiar
with the Catholic tradition of holding
“posadas” during the nine evenings prior
to Christmas Day. After years of being
overwhelmed by the excessive consumerism
of the holidays in the United
States, I found myself, for the first time,
able to relate to the Christian message of
this season. On Christmas Eve Brad (my
new partner) and I hiked into Xix in the
pouring rain to arrive (cold, wet and
seeking refuge) at the house of one of the
witnesses, Don Crecencio. As Mary and
Joseph had done, we asked for a place to
stay the night and were immediately welcomed,
given food, and allowed to warm
ourselves by the fire. Later that evening
there was a posada in Don Crecencio’s
house where two groups re-enacted the
story of Mary and Joseph. While one
group gathered outside and asked for
refuge (in the form of a song) those inside
first denied, and then granted, their
entrance. No presents were exchanged,
but warm drinks and a discussion about
how to engage young people in community
organizing was shared. That night I
was left thinking about how great Don
Crecencio’s hospitality for accompaniers
from around the world has been and how
enriched all of our lives become when we
open ourselves to providing and receiving
assistance from others.
And who is this Don Crecencio? Don
Crecencio is a small farmer, a harvester of
corn and beans, a tender of three cows,
and a flock of sheep. He is also an organizer
who cares deeply for his community
and has been working to improve the
schools and roads of his town for many
years. In the early 1980s Don Crecencio
was persecuted by the Guatemalan Army
for his involvement with Catholic Action.
He tells us that soldiers came looking for
him during the night, but the barking of
his dogs afforded him enough time to
escape with his wife and two small children.
He returned home only to be persecuted
again, and then on the third time
the soldiers came he decided to flee for
good to the mountains of Santa Clara
where he lived in a Community of Population
in Resistance (CPR) for fourteen
One day, as he was looking for food,
Don Crecencio was captured by the
Army and accused of being a guerilla
leader. He was ruthlessly tortured and at
one point forced to live for months in a
hole without enough food or water. He
finally escaped by convincing his captors
he would return to his CPR community
and bring family members to live in an
Army-controlled model village.He says it
was only by a miracle he survived and
was able to find his family again in the
CPRs. Finally he was able to return to
Xix, reclaim his land, and is now a witness
in the case of genocide against Lucas
Garcia for the massacre that happened in
Xix on February 16, 1982.
Last time we visited Don Crecencio he
took us to cut dried corn stalks with his
machete. As we helped him weave the
stalks into a fence that would protect his
squash from being eaten by wandering
sheep, he pointed to rocks nearby that
marked the foundation where his parent’s
home once stood. “The army came
and burned their house with everything
inside, but my parents were able to flee,”
he tells us. Further down the hill he
points to another patch where his own
house had once stood, telling us, “This is
where the army came to search for me
three times during the night.”As the sunlight
mixed with the calm breeze it was
hard for me to grasp the horror of what occurred on this site, but Don Crecencio lives these
memories and walks among their markers everyday.
Given the unspeakable suffering of the past it is no wonder
his commitment to the slow, tedious, and potentially
dangerous search for justice runs so deep.
Overall it feels good to have “returned” to both communities
several times and still have three months
stretching out before me. It has been important to get to
know people and places well enough to be able to notice
when things change or remain the same. The corn and
coffee harvest has been collected and those in Ilom are
replanting again, the school year has started and children
now run up the dirt roads with notebooks in their
hands. The holidays have passed and new mayors have
taken their positions. I notice scars healing on the faces
and arms of young children and am aware that the pig
at Domingo’s has given birth and that the runt did not
survive past the first week. Juana has weaved two new
morrals (shoulder bags) for her younger brother to
carry their notebooks to school and after a long period
of decline her grandfather, perhaps the oldest living
man in Ilom, passed away. Time flows and I slowly feel
myself being accepted and making connections.
And then on other days I find myself introspective
and quiet. Thinking of forces that continue to threaten
the well-being of our world or simply feeling helpless in
the face of ongoing sicknesses that plague the children
around me. For several months now, and despite taking
the free medicine from the Cuban doctors, Juana and
Magdalena’s deep chest colds persist as I see them grow
tired and weary. I also come to honor the patience of
Mario, who has been working for decades to recover
land stolen from those in Ilom from the nearby Finca La
Perla. I am amazed at his persistence despite repeated
setbacks (divisions within the community, election of
conservative mayors, threats from Finca owners) and
my respect for him deepens as he extends great efforts
(walking for hours over the mountains just to make one
phone call). In all, I have developed much patience with
regards to the time it takes to effect social change and
have come to see small steps forward as victories definitely
worth celebrating.
I have also been challenged in the last two months to
think differently about international development projects.
In what seemed like rapid succession, my conversations
with witnesses revealed a series of misdirected
and ultimately harmful projects that, despite their best
intentions, only furthered divisions within already conflictive
communities. From organic coffee beneficios to
projects funded by the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation,
from a program of the European Union to help those
wounded in the war to the creation of a Bio-reserve on
communally-owned land without local consultation —
nothing was black or white, nothing was without complication,
nothing seemed easy, reliable, or to be blindly
trusted anymore. Suddenly, what I would have accepted
at face value in the United States as a worthy project
towards which to donate money (organic coffee cooperatives,
environmental reserves, etc) began to raise a
whole host of questions in my mind. Did the idea for
the project come from the community? What part of
the community did those asking for the project represent?
Will there be follow-up once the project is put in
place? Is the project sustainable and will it promote selfsufficiency?
I acknowledge that finding answers to these questions
is not easy, but taking the time to build relationships
and hear many sides is essential. In rural
Guatemalan communities recovering from war, international
aid projects are highly sought after and unfortunately
often meet their end due to corruption and internal
conflict among local administering groups. This is
not to say that international aid should cease, but only
to stress that the giving of aid is rife with potential complications
which must be seriously considered. And so,
although I am sometimes frustrated by my inability to
meet immediate needs in my role as an accompanier, it
is conversations like those I have been recently having
with the witnesses that reinforce the importance of creating
space for Guatemalans to determine their own
goals, organize from the grassroots, and be carefully
included in any effort to administer international aid.
As I step back from my life here and wonder from
what standpoint many of you are reading my letter I
remember that what concerns most Guatemalans is far
from that which occupies the minds of many living
comfortably in the United States. Families I live with
spend most of their energy meeting basic needs (getting
enough food to eat, taking care of animals, worrying
about how the weather or fluctuating prices will affect
their future). Along this line, most of my interactions
with young men involve inquires about how to get to
the United States, where they could find jobs, if Los
Angeles is close to Florida, if I have heard if things are
any safer after several immigrants died crossing the
desert. These men are desperate and full of energy to
make something of their life. Yet everywhere they look
they are faced with a lack of opportunity. So they leave
many things behind, wives and children and the rural
highland mountains, and pay a coyote $1,000-2,000 to
take them to the Mexican border. From here their families
wire another $1,000-$2,000 to the coyote to complete
the deal and “boom,” if they are lucky they cross
over into the “promised land”– ready to work unwanted
jobs for slave wages without any security. Some stay
for several years, wiring money home and calling their
family on Sundays (like Juan), others have only short
term plans for 6-months in order to raise enough
money to pay for continued schooling in Guatemala
(like Jesus). I have only peripherally followed George
Bush’s proposed changes to U.S. immigration policy but
from here it is clear that without more sustainable work
opportunities in Guatemala those looking to provide
for their families will find it hard to resist the pull of the
“land of riches.” In so many ways I sense the divide
between the United States and Guatemala is growing
wider, not only in terms of financial wealth but also in
terms of daily lived realities. How can it be that so many
in the United States remain unaware of how the majority
of the world’s population struggle daily to survive?
I thank you all for taking the time to read and reflect
on the issues that have challenged and continue to push
me during my time here in Guatemala…
So, best wishes as the month of [March] begins. Brad
and I head into community tomorrow and I find myself
looking forward to picking up my weaving on the back
strap loom, helping bring in the last of the coffee cherries,
and hearing updates from Don Crecencio and
Mario about their latest organizing efforts. While the
pickup rides continue to be long and adventurous (radiators
breaking and batteries dying to leave us using
flashlights at 4am to guide the truck around steep
mountain curves), I realize that even these moments
have much to teach me! In the midst of an incredibly
challenging and complicated environment the witnesses
I accompany continue their struggle. I know that their
work is just and I continue to feel honored to be a part
of this effort.
Thanks again to all of you who have monetarily or
otherwise supported me in my work… You are all
amazing and I look forward to spending time with
many of you in person when I return this May.
In peace,

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