Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sexual violence and migration

Although the Rios Montt genocide trial has not succeeded, to date, in bring the general to justice, it performed an important historic task. Not only was it the first time a former head of state had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in a tribunal in his own country, but it brought into public view the role of sexual violence in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The public sat transfixed for days as several Maya Ixil women described how they had been raped and brutalized by the Guatemalan military -- crimes that few had spoken about during or after the conflict. Sexual violence was clearly a tactic of the Guatemalan military, intended not only to humiliate and degrade the women who were its immediate targets but also to humiliate their male relatives, who were powerless to stop the assaults.  It also established a new model of brutalist masculinity, and helped normalize violence and particularly violence against women, which has reached epidemic proportions in the so-called post-war. 

Gender violence is a contributing factor in the migration of Maya women to the U.S., and it is also a part of many women's migration experiences, both during the journey north and once they arrive here. This was hammered home today in what started out as a casual conversation, on my part, not an interview. I sat down with a Guatemalan woman whom I will call Alejandra, in her late 20s, whom I met because she was part of a workplace action at a seafood processing company in New Bedford a few weeks ago. I knew that she had been through a training program on issues of domestic violence sponsored by the New Bedford Women's Center, and I wanted to talk with her about how we could create a space for women to talk about sexual violence and domestic violence. A few days ago I read the affidavit of another young woman in whose immigration case I am serving as an expert witness, and she detailed being raped in Guatemala and also by the coyotes on her journey north. 

I approached Alejandra just to see if she might be interested in helping organize an encounter or dialogue, and wasn't quite prepared when, with few preliminaries, she launched into her life story.  The youngest of nine children, she had been virtually abandoned by her mother as a young child; her father had been murdered when she was an infant, and her mother left her home alone when she went out to work. Alejandra was raped at age 12, and was taunted and scorned by people in her community for being a rape victim. She escaped from this by running away with a man when she was 13; she bore him two children, but their relationship was marked by violence as he constantly beat her, and her children were always trying to keep their father from killing their mother. After 7 years she decided she couldn't stand it any longer and set off for the United States. She went to her mother and said, "You weren't a good mother to me, you didn't take care of me, but I need you to take care of my children," and her mother agreed.

She came to the U.S. and specifically to North Carolina where one of her brothers was living but, Alejandra confided in me, her brother wanted her to become a prostitute. So to escape that, she wound up in a relationship with another man, who didn't bother to tell her that he was married until after she was pregnant. He was never concerned about his child, and so she went back to Guatemala with her young daughter and reunited with the two children she had left with her mother. But it was hard to support the family on the wages she could earn in Guatemala and so she left for the U.S. again after only five or six months at home. 

This time she came to New Bedford, where she had other relatives but again ended up in a relationship with a man who abused her. She put up with it, and then reached the breaking point. As she told me, "I began to value myself".  Her partner threatened to kill her if she left, and attacked her with a knife. She detailed her attempts to leave, and a time that he found her when she was sitting in her car after a doctor's appointment, and took out a bat and tried to break all the windows of her car. At this point she finally decided to call the authorities, and he was arrested and eventually sent to jail. She cooperated with the authorities and is now in the process of getting a U-visa (a special visa category for victims of certain types of crimes who cooperate with criminal investigations). 

I was honored and humbled by the trust she showed in telling me her story, as we have only met a few times in public events. But hearing Alejandra's story and reading the testimony of the young woman who detailed being raped by men who were threatening her family made me determined to find a way -- in addition to this blog -- to write about the experiences of women migrants.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Day of the Migrant

Just got word from the Catholic Parish in Zacualpa, Quiché, that today they are celebrating the Day of the Migrant. One of the Franciscan nuns who has worked at the parish for many years, Sister Ana Maria, is my friend on Facebook, and when she communicates with me via that medium, it's usually something interesting, and so when she messaged me today I paid attention.

Zacualpa is a town that was the site of many atrocities during the armed conflict. The church was used as a torture and killing chamber, and the church community has resisted efforts to erase that history.  It is also a municipality that has had a large outmigration to the U.S.  Probably about a third of the Guatemalans in New Bedford are from the Zacualpa area, and throughout the municipality one can see signs of migra-dollars: new construction, houses with two or three stories and all sorts of ornate architectural curlicues. Some years back, on my first trip to Guatemala, I met Sr. Ana Maria and she took me to a "Misa del Migrante" (mass for the migrants) that was being held in the home of a lay religious leader.

Apparently, this has become more institutionalized, and now it has moved to the church proper. According to Sr. Ana Maria, yesterday a representative of the Papal Nuncio visited Zacualpa, and they performed the "stations of the cross" of the migrant. I assume that this a version of the stations of the cross that marks the hardships of the journey north - -we did something similar in New Bedford one year for the commemoration of the anniversary of the Michael Bianco raid.  Several men took turns carrying a large wooden cross from the church,and as we walked through the streets of New Bedford, we marked stations that had to do with migration, but also the experience of migrants in the U.S. It would be interesting to compare notes on what exactly were the "stations".

Today they are going to be having music and messages in the atrium of the church, then a mass, and afterwards they will set loose balloons with a message of peace and blessings for everyone. The offerings from today's service will be sent to the "House of the Migrant" in the parish in San Marcos -- another municipality from which there has been substantial outmigration.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Random snippet

I've been pretty good about running while I have been in Guatemala (I figured I'd take a brief break from writing about racism and violence). The only places I didn't go running were Santa Eulalia (streets are extremely steep, and the second time I was there I had to get up at 1:30 a.m. to catch a 2:15 bus), Barillas (flatter, but because of the controversies and divisions in town, I didn't want to call even more attention to myself as a foreigner by traipsing around in tight, brightly colored running gear), and Alta Verapaz. The first morning we had been sleeping out of doors after failing to be allowed through the roadblock at Raxruhá, and while I woke up early, there was no place to change, and the person in charge of our group kept on saying, every fifteen minutes or so, that they were going to give us breakfast and then the buses were leaving right away. Breakfast never came, and about 2 hours passed before we actually left but I didn't want to take any chances. The next morning we had to catch a 4 a.m. bus, so again no time to run (I did want to get a few hours' sleep, and since the aldea where we were staying had a pretty rutted and rocky dirt road, I wouldn't have trusted myself to run along it in the pitch dark (it was temptingly flat, however; the only place other than la Sexta and the town center of Barillas that have been pretty much completely flat). 

However, here is something you will never see me do: running at night alongside a heavily trafficked stretch of the Panamerican highway, on the outskirts of Guatemala City.  When I saw a man doing just this, two days ago as I drove in, I was both admiring of his dedication and amazed at his recklessness. It seemed to me that the potential benefit of cardiovascular exercise was outweighed by the risks that some obnoxiously aggressive driver would decide to use the skimpy shoulder in order to pass on the right, or make a third lane where there wasn't one.

Running along La Sexta in Guatemalan City in the early morning on a weekday exposes a slightly different side of the city and the Centro Histórico: workers, schoolgirls in the obligatory plaid kilts and sweaters or sweatshirts, some with their boyfriends nearly draped around their shoulders, others walking alone or in pairs. About a dozen street sweepers, outfitted in fluorescent green municipality-issued vests, pushing water along the edge of the street; cheaper to hire dark-skinned people to do it by hand than purchase machinery.  Other joggers, a mixture of men and women, chugged their way up and down the pedestrian strip. A few ambulatory vendors stood at intersections holding out plastic trays of individually wrapped hard candies or gums.

Driving down here two nights ago I passed through Chimaltenango just after dark, which gave me a more complete view of the red light district just before the newly-constructed overpass that takes you over the turn-off for Antigua. Within one block, I saw three young women displaying three very different forms of vestment. All were phenotypically indigenous (it is hard to tell from skin, eye and hair color alone how a person would choose to identify herself). All were standing in or in front of doorways covered with flimsy curtains and the rooms behind - as much as I could see from a moving car which I was driving -- did actually seem to have red lights, or the walls or curtains were somewhere in the red family. One wore something tight and skimpy. The second wore a corte and huipil. The third wore a schoolgirl's kilt. Whether or not she actually was a schoolgirl or simply dressed as one to satisfy customers' fantasies remains unknown to me. At the end of the block, a small Pentecostal church. 

More snippets later. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Neoliberal Strategies, Indigenous Resistance and State-Sponsored Violence, part 3: chronologies and geographies

Time, history and memory filter through these reflections, and they are important elements in Maya culture, politics and everyday life. These are complementary to the concepts of tierra and territorio, and what I will try to do here is suggest some of the ways that chronologies and geographies shape (and are shaped by) the current cycle of neoliberal incursions, protests and repression.  This entry is a little more abstract and breaks the historical flow of the first two, but I will try to regain that narrative in the next entry. 

The larger historical frames that I have traced earlier -- the Spanish conquest, the 1954 coup, the civil war and particularly the years when the highlands were turned into "killing fields", the Peace Accords of 1996 -- are part of the "commonsense" of many people in Maya communities, not just professionals and professional activists. Gramsci's writings are relevant here, for Maya communities are full of organic intellectuals, ranging from Maya priests to school teachers, and many young people  Of course, because of my linguistic limitations (I don't speak any Maya languages fluently; I recognize several dozen words in K'iche' and maybe a dozen in Q'anjob'al), I can only attest to those organic intellectuals who speak enough Spanish for us to communicate in a lingua franca. 

The significance of time, and the many ways it can be imagined, reckoned and projected, in highland Maya culture, has been well discussed by scholars such as Barbara Tedlock, whose Time and the Highland Maya delves into the complex, multiple and overlapping calendrical systems. Among the various types of Maya priests, there are those who specialize in interpreting the calendrical systems, often called "day keepers". One whom I interviewed in Xela referred to this work as "counting time"; he said that as a young person who had little sense of his Maya identity, learning to "count time" was something that changed his life. People keep track of multiple chronologies simultaneously -- important dates in Guatemalan national history (these are enforced through schools, national media, and government and civil society institutions -- the Day of the Armed Forces, Flag Day, Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords), the calendar of patron saint festivals in neighboring towns (nearly everyone in El Quiché knows the dates of the patron saint feasts in other towns in the department, including ones they have never visited -- the media play a role here, as well, as local cable stations often show hours upon hours of live or taped coverage of parades, concerts and other components of the feasts). And then there are personal histories, also marked in time: the dates of the disappearances or murders of relatives who were victims of the armed conflict.  Most migrants I interviewed (and returned migrants I have spoken to informally) remember the date they left Guatemala, the date they crossed the border, and the date they arrived (if they did) at their final destination.

There are other collective historical markers, not as broadly national as the official holidays, but more localized, and perhaps limited to those who want or need to remember. These include the dates of massacres (and these may overlap, to a degree, with the dates of the deaths of specific individuals -- although not everyone who died or disappeared during the war was a victim of a large-scale massacre). Among these are the nationally significant ones -- Panzós, the Spanish Embassy -- that are often commemorated with public ceremonies or actions. They also include the anniversaries of assassinations or disappearances of important leaders, such as Msgr. Juan Gerardi, key figure in the Recuperation of Historical Memory initiative that gathered survivor testimonies, and one of the compilers/authors of the massive collection Guatemala Nunca Mas. (Guatemala Never Again). 

During the past three years, there is another series of dates that are etched in the minds and hearts of indigenous activists throughout Guatemala. These include May 1, 2012, when a peasant leader was killed by company security guards in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango; October 4, 2012, when 8 community leaders from Totonicapán were killed when the army opened fire on a peaceful protest along the Panamerican Highway; April 16, 2013, when the murdered and tortured body of Q'anjob'al leader Daniel Pedro Mateo was discovered in the aldea of Quetzál, Santa Cruz Barillas.  

And again, these are accompanied by more locally significant ones: the dates of the "consultas comunitarias de buena fé" -- the "community consultations in good faith" -- a form of popular referendum that has been carried out in several dozen municipalities throughout Guatemala, in which community members of all ages (at least those old enough to hold a pencil, read a ballot and mark a box) are invited to express their opinions about whether or not their community should accept mining, hydroelectrics or any other mega projects. In nearly every consultation that has been carried out, over 90% have voted NO, and in many cases the figure is closer to 100%. Although these consultations are not binding (that is why they are labeled "in good faith" as that is a legal construct; if they were binding they would be labeled "vinculante"), they carry tremendous symbolic weight in indigenous communities throughout Guatemala and are widely accepted as an authentic and legitimate expression of  community opinion.  In many municipalities, the anniversary of the consultation - including in municipalities where there has been state repression, company and state intimidation, and social conflict -- is celebrated as a civic holiday.

Moving from time to space, the events that I have indicated above, and others, are also part of a new cartography of Guatemala, one that is marked by the sites where there have been resistance movements, state or company-sponsored repression, violence, and deaths.  In light of the recent events, in the last few days someone published a map of Guatemala online with an image of a black bow (a nationally recognized symbol of mourning: at the home where someone has died, the family will place a black bow, sometimes made of recycled plastic bags, over the doorway to indicate that it is a house of mourning), and then the points that were highlighted on the map with the name of the municipality and a black bow were the places where there have been conflicts, peaceful resistances (occupations) and murders: San Juan Sacatepéquez, Monte Olivo in Alta Verapáz, Santa Cruz Barillas, and so forth. This new geography of postwar conflict, repression, resistance and violence, can be overlaid on the map of massacres and other violent events from the armed internal conflict. Not all the sites where there are proposed or functioning mines, hydroelectric dams, African palm plantations and other mega-projects were the site of wartime massacres, but many are, and so the historical memory of the wartime violence -- and the mostly indigenous population's memory of the behavior of the state security forces (military, police, civilian patrols and paramilitary death squads) -- are important pieces of the puzzle.

Neoliberal Strategies, Indigenous Resistance and State-Sponsored Violence, part 2

The Panzós massacre was the first large-scale slaughter of what ended up being a 36-year long armed conflict --a conflict that pitted a relatively small guerrilla force against a much larger and better-equipped army, many of whose generals were trained at the infamous School of the Americas. On May 29, 1978, a few hundred Q'eqchi subsistence farmers peacefully assembled in front of the municipal building in the town of Panzós, in Alta Verapaz, a remote, largely rural department with a predominantly indigenous population, to present a set of demands to the mayor. They were protesting moves by large landowners to oust them from land they had occupied and worked for over 100 years, although like many Maya and poor Ladino subsistence farmers, they lacked legal title to the land.  They were led by a forceful woman known as Ma Maquín. Soldiers opened fire and killed between 50 and 100 people, including women and children. Ma Maquín was reportedly one of the first to be hit by the army's bullets. Her granddaughter, who was at her side, is one of about 200 people who survived the massacre; I was fortunate to hear her speak at an event commemorating the 43rd anniversary of the massacre in 2011.

Panzós is an important historical antecedent of today's state-sponsored violence, and not only for the use of force. While the land that was in dispute in 1978 had been considered of little value, by the 1970s, substantial deposits of nickel and petroleum had been discovered, and local elites were eager to obtain the land in order to profit from the exploitation of its natural resources.Not incidentally, the outgoing President of Guatemalan, General Kjell Langerud, had substantial landholdings in Alta Verapaz. The President-Elect of Guatemala at the time of the massacre, General Romeo Lucas García and his defense minister, were both from Alta Verapaz and owned large properties there, and were likely to benefit handsomely from the extraction of nickel and petroleum.  Also presaging today's conflicts over land and resources, foreign multinational capital was also involved: the Guatemalan government had granted the oil concession in Alta Verapaz to the Basic Resources - Shenandoah oil consortium. Basic Resources was an international conglomerate based in Luxembourg, and Shenandoah Oil Corporation, based in the U.S. (the sources on Panzós simply refer to Basic Oil-Shenandoah; in some quick research I was able to find a Shenadoah Oil Corporation based in Oklahoma, and a Shenandoah Petroleum Corporation headquartered in Texas; I didn't dig deeply enough to see if the two companies are related or which one was involved in Guatemala). The right to work the nickel deposits was granted to EXIMBAL, a corporation established by the Canadian International Nickel Company in partnership with a U.S. multinational, the Hanna Mining Company.  These concessions reflected a decision by the Guatemalan government to actively court foreign investment (at the same time that army and paramilitary groups were regularly murdering student, peasant, union and other community leaders).  

To place these policy shifts in context, it is important to note the deep structural inequalities in Guatemala at the time of the armed conflict -- inequalities that persist to this day. An extremely small fraction of the population -- around 2% -- owned 70% of the land. This in a country where the majority of the population made its living (so to speak) through agriculture. In many ways, land distribution was at the heart of the peasant organizing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that brought down the heavy hand of the state. 

To return to the historical thread I was tracing, the Panzós and Spanish Embassy massacres ushered in the bloodiest years of the armed conflict. After a massive guerrilla campaign in 1981, the Lucas Garcia regime launched a counterinsurgency campaign that directly targeted civilians; the intent was to separate the guerrilla from their civilian (largely indigenous) base. In 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt took power in a coup d'etat and continued (and expanded) the scorched earth campaign that left somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people dead or disappeared. While the war did not officially end until 1996, most of the killings took place in the early 1980s. 200,000 is the ballpark figure contained in the U.N. and Catholic church-sponsored truth commission reports issued a few years after the war's end, although some scholars dispute that figure.  Some argue the death toll was substantially higher; others say it was probably somewhat lower.  Over 80% of those killed were indigenous (mostly Maya, and smaller numbers of Xinka and Garifuna). According to the U.N. sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification, 93% of the deaths were at the hands of the armed forces, 3% were attributed to the guerrilla, and the remainder were unknown. And clearly the numbers are important in the post-war "reckoning" (the title of another excellent book by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who delves into the significance of the numbers, what gets counted, and by whom -- and again I am grossly oversimplifying a very complex and elegant analysis). The figures give lie to the often repeated arguments that the army and the guerrilla were equally culpable. These arguments have been stated so often and in so many forms that even survivors of what were clearly government massacres have internalized them. "There were killings on both sides; both the army and the guerrilla did a lot of bad things."  But I will leave that aside for now.

There are several ways in which the armed conflict helped set the stage for what is happening now. The bulk of the army's operations were concentrated in the largely indigenous western highlands. The department of Quiché, where I have done much of my research, was the site of over half of the 644 recorded massacres. In addition to the 200,000 dead or disappeared, close to a million Guatemalans were displaced by the war. Some sought refuge in other parts of Guatemala less affected by the conflict. Others fled to Mexico, Belize or the United States. Some made multiple moves. This past weekend I met a man who was originally from Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango, who now lives in the Ixcán -- a large and sparsely populated municipality (township) in the department of El Quiché, bordering Alta Verapaz. He and his wife had originally fled to the Ixcán, then sought refuge in Mexico, where they lived for 13 years, and returned to the Ixcán after the Peace Accords. 

The large number of internally displaced and refugees, however, needs to be teased apart for a deeper meaning. These massive movements of people away from their native villages and towns meant that people abandoned their homes and modest landholdings (those who actually owned land; debt-peonage systems were still in place in many highland communities. The family of one of my New Bedford Maya friends paid "rent" on the land they farmed by working for several months of the year on the coastal plantations owned by the landlord. The land, of course, had originally belonged to Maya farmers but since they had no legal papers proving their "ownership", a wealthy landowner was able to claim ownership). While many of the IDPs and refugees stayed where they had fled, others returned after the war, only to find that their homes and landholdings had been taken over by the military, or handed over to local elite supporters of the military as a reward (or otherwise appropriated by local elites). Returnees were sometimes able to re-purchase their own land from those who had usurped it (often at inflated prices and usurious interest rates), but often forced back into debt peonage or renting lands to farm. Or they became internal migrants, moving to Guatemala City and the outlying areas to find work in maquiladoras, or as market or ambulatory vendors, or domestic servants. Or to the regions where there was large-scale export-oriented plantation agriculture. Or they migrated out of the country. In other words, the war resulted in a substantial redistribution of land that further exacerbated the already extremely unequal pattern of land ownership.

In addition, it is worth noting that the scorched earth policy literally wiped many villages off the map. According to Father Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit priest who is also a noted anthropologist and one of the earliest eyewitness documentarians of the armed conflict, and other writers, the army's massacres acquired a predictable pattern, that included the systematic torture and killing of townspeople (including gang rape of women and girls), accompanied by the destruction of crops and livestock, plus burning homes. In several hundred instances (many sources give the figure of 626), the villages were completely obliterated and most have never been rebuilt.

The war also created a culture of impunity, as all of the civilian institutions of government were subservient to the military, and most civilian institutions of civil society as well. Catholic church leaders, including lay catechists, were persecuted and many killed; to further weaken people's faith in the church (Rios Montt and some of the other military presidents were born-again Christians), churches were taken over and turned into torture, rape and killing centers.  The war normalized violence and since there was really no way to speak out against the slaughters without risking being slaughtered or disappeared oneself, it seemed as though the military could do what it wanted with no consequences. Many of those who spoke up were forced into exile, or suffered worse, often gruesome fates (with tortured and mutilated bodies, or body parts such as heads left in highly visible places as a warning).

The war thus normalized violence and also eroded faith in governmental institutions, as neither the police nor the legal system provided any shield or recourse. To underscore the lack of any autonomous state institutions, the police force was renamed the Military Police, and functioned as another arm of the military.  Although one of the provisions of the 1996 Peace Accords was the reorganization of the police as a civilian police force, many of the higher-ranking police officers have military backgrounds. This has been borne out by my personal experience with local police in El Quiché (I've been able to confirm that several of the captains and other officers -- most of whom are middle-aged and Ladino -- have military backgrounds).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Neoliberal strategies, indigenous resistance, and state-sponsored violence: part 1

As news reached me of the bloody events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, evoking the long history of racist violence against Black men and other people of color, often at the hands of those sworn to uphold the law, it was refracted by the chain of events that has unfolded during the same time period in Guatemala -- police attacks on indigenous leaders, leading to several deaths and many injured. I was struck by the parallels and also the differences. Since my writing about the resistance movement has been somewhat sporadic, I will try in this blog entry (or series of entries) to address this in a more systematic manner, for friends in the U.S. The chain of violent attacks by the police, army and also security guards hired by the capitalist enterprises whose projects indigenous communities have rejected, has deep historical roots -- we could locate the starting point with the Spanish invasion of 1524, and follow through the state-sponsored violence against indigenous communities under the so-called liberal republic of the 19th century, up through the 1954 coup and the 36-year long armed internal conflict. The climate of insecurity, also the underlying neoliberal economic projects that the government of Guatemala has supported and promoted, are also connected in important ways to the current crisis of unaccompanied minors who have been arriving in the United States in recent years -- at least the Guatemalan contingent. I do not think I will be able to fully explicate all of this in a blog entry -- that would require a more carefully researched and much lengthier article, of which this is perhaps a trial run or extremely rough draft (without footnotes or citations). 

So, in what follows, I will give some historical context to struggles over land; the history of violent repression of campesino/indigenous organizing; neoliberal development strategies; and the current wave of state and corporate-sponsored violence (if I had more time I could probably tease out some interesting connections to the rise of private security in Guatemala as well).

Guatemala's history as a colony and then an independent nation has been marked by struggles over land -- in Maya-activist discourse, "tierra y territorio". Tierra has a more literal meaning, as the Spanish word can mean the earth (the planet), but also the very substance of the soil that nurtures and houses human (and animal) existence -- la madre tierra is a phrase that abounds in conversation among activists, spiritual leaders and ordinary Maya. By this I mean people who are not necessarily involved in any political movement but who have some sense of Maya identity; several decades of Maya cultural politics have worked their way into everyday life, and while much of Guatemalan revolutionary left was defanged, disheartened or cooped, in the genocidal armed conflict and the peace process (that has not lived up to its promise of a "firm" and "enduring" peace), it seems that some of the vision and politics of both the Maya movement and the revolutionary left have taken root (and this is not to say that elements of the left are not still evident -- the ranks of the current-day resistance movements are sprinkled with Maya veterans of the armed struggle). 

Territorio has a more collective and historical meaning: it refers to the large areas of land that historically belonged to Maya communities, or even to the Maya and other indigenous groups as a whole. In some register, this would actually mean the entirety of Guatemala, and even beyond the current national boundaries. 

The struggles over tierra y territorio, as I noted above, with the Spanish invasion and the wars against the Spanish, in which the colonists were sometimes able to pit one Maya group against another (for example, the K'iche's at one moment allied with the Spanish against the Kaqchikeles). Spain rewarded its colonists with encomiendas -- plots of land that of course had originally been used by the original inhabitants, including the labor of the Maya whose land it had been (forced labor regimes for Maya men existed until the 1970s, and were arguably re-established by force of arms during the 1980s, as the army obliged the Maya men whom they did not massacre to work for the army, serving in armed civilian patrols and often participating in massacres).  

As wealthy elites and foreign capital helped themselves to even the land that had been designated by either the Spanish or the liberal republican government as belonging to the Maya, there were periods of organizing around the need for land, and land reform (I am here vastly oversimplifying decades of Guatemalan history, and my apologies to anyone who is familiar with this history). It was Jacobo Arbenz' very modest land reform proposals, threatening the vast landholdings of United Fruit Company, that led to the CIA-backed coup that toppled his government and ushered in the return to military rule (after a brief period of democratic government). While during the early years of the war the military killed student and peasant leaders, what really marked a turning point in the war were two events: the massacre at Panzós, Alta Verapaz, in 1978, of Q'eqchi peasants protesting their dispossession, and the brutal assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, when it was occupied by members of the Comite de Unidad Campesina or CUC (Peasant Unity Committee), demanding among other things, agrarian reform.

Historian Greg Grandin refers to Panzós as "the last colonial massacre" -- and also the starting point for an escalation of military attacks against Maya communities, starting with those who had dared to organize and raise their voices, and including wholesale obliteration of entire towns.

From the Centro Ceremonial to the Cruz Maya

It is fitting, in a way, that my week in northern Huehuetenango was bracketed by visits to ceremonial sites. The day I arrived in Santa Eulalia, last Monday, August 4, I was invited to accompany leaders of the "movimiento social" (social movement) in a ceremony at a ceremonial center in the middle of the town. And then on the morning that I left for San Pedro la Laguna, the brother in law of my friend Lorenzo took me to another ceremonial site, a Maya cross up on one of the hillsides overlooking the town.

I set out for Santa Eulalia last Monday morning, leaving from Chinique de la Flores in El Quiché. There is a relatively new, well paved highway that goes from Quiché to the outskirts of the city of Huehuetenango, where it connects with another highway that takes you into the town of Chiantla, where you find the "Ruta de Barillas", (route to Barillas), which climbs (quite literally) up into the Cuchumatanes, taking you around breathtaking (again literally) hairpin curves, before flattening out for a stretch. On that more or less level and straight part of the road, shortly before the turn off to Todos Santos, is a restaurant where I often stop and eat, the Comedor Cuchumatanes. Although I rarely eat meat when I am in the U.S., the area around Todos Santos is known for its mutton stew and that is invariably what I have at the Comedor.  There were a few other patrons there. One man, who gave off the vibe of a long-distance truck driver, ordered a small bottle of aguardiente (it was about 12:30 p.m.). As I was sopping up chile sauce with my tortillas, the phone rang: my friend Lorenzo, froth community radio station in Santa Eulalia. He asked where I was and I told him. "Ah, we are just about 20 minutes away." He explained that he was going to the city of Huehuetenango with his wife, and they would stay overnight as she had a doctor's appointment the next day, but they were planning to stop at the Comedor for lunch. So I waited, meanwhile arranging to stay with another friend in Santa Eulalia, and we got a chance to visit a little and then I took off in one direction, leaving them with their lunch and then presumably heading off in the opposite direction. 

After settled my bags and my pickup at the home of my friend Alfredo, one of the leaders of the local "movimiento social" and the regional Gobierno Plurinacional (we met when he came to New York for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in 2013), we chatted briefly in his office, and he suggested that I might want to attend a ceremony that was being held that afternoon at 5, at the Centro Ceremonial in the town. He explained that every week, the members of the "movimiento social" (social movement) in Santa Eulalia (the civil society organization that advocates for the community, and is one of the leading actors in the regional resistance movement) held a ceremony to restore their energies, renew their commitment and "clear the air" of negative forces.  By "ceremony", they mean a Maya ceremony, led by a "Maya priest" or "spiritual guide" or "abuelo" -- there isn't really a term in Spanish, much less in English, that is really adequate to describe the role of the people who lead ceremonies. The term used most often in Santa Eulalia is "abuelo" -- literally, grandfather or grandparent. This is another one of those polyvalent terms. It can mean a person's biological grandparents; it can mean "the elders" in a community, it can mean "the ancestors" -- specifically, the Maya ancestors whose legacy modern-day Maya activists see themselves as upholding. One of the lines of political/cultural discourse that I have heard in public events and meetings is that "our Maya ancestors, the abuelos and abuelas, gave us the legacy of their cosmovision and their wisdom, and we need to reclaim it and preserve it and practice it and pass it along to future generations." If I were a better ethnographer I would pay closer attention to the nuances of the discourse. While I was with Alfredo, a young man who was in the office came up to me and greeted me with a warm smile, reminding me that we had met previously. His name was Kaxho ("kasho"), and he was one of the leaders of the youth movement in the area.

 Alfredo also suggested that I might want to talk with Rigoberto Juárez, one of the leaders both locally and regionally. Rigoberto is someone I met a few years ago, and at the time he was living in Salcajá, outside Xela, which is where we had our first conversation. In the intervening years, as the situation in northern Huehuetenango has heated up, Rigoberto has been spending most of his time in his native Santa Eulalia. In January 2013, I was mildly surprised to encounter Rigoberto when a friend in Santa Eulalia invited me to be part of a "comisión" (task force) that was going to look into the disappearance of an elderly woman in a rural community. In the intervening months he has become one of the key figures in the resistance movement (or maybe he always was and I am just catching on). Rigoberto presents one of the sad examples of the criminalization of dissent in Guatemala. He is facing criminal charges for supposedly inciting the burning of machinery in San Mateo Ixtatán. He was in Guatemala City the day that the machinery was burned, but plausibility doesn't seem to be a strong point in what we might call "frivolous lawsuits". 

It was sheer luck that I was able to talk with Rigoberto, as he was headed for a visit to the Q'anjob'al community in the U.S. the following day. As I have mentioned in previous posts, nearly every family in Santa Eulalia has a relative who has been in the U.S. or who is currently there. As he dropped me off at Rigoberto's house, Alfredo reminded both of us that the ceremony would begin at 5, and so we only had a brief while to chat, over mugs of atol (basically some kind of grain mixed with water).  We were able to spend some time together later in my trip, but not under circumstances that lent themselves to conversation -- hours and hours in uncomfortable buses traveling to the Ixcán, but that and the content of my conversation with Rigoberto are subjects for future blog posts.

Shortly after five, we readied ourselves and walked to the Centro Ceremonial. The center is basically a modest building with an altar in the front courtyard, and then a structure that looks like a small concrete replica of an ancient Maya temple in the back. We entered the building and the first thing I saw was an array of candles in glass holders -- what we would call seven day candles -- on the floor. Dozens of candles. The room was otherwise dark except for the light that entered through the open back and front doors. On the right side of the candles, chairs in a circle and one elderly woman seated. On the other side, a table and a woman standing or sitting nearby. She seemed to be unwrapping or arranging things -- my assumption was that these were things that would be used in the ceremony. Rigoberto greeted the woman, and told me I could sit down, so I sat on a bench; it wasn't clear where the ceremony was taking place, and so I thought maybe it was going to be inside. Other people came in and greeted and talked with the woman who was on the left hand side. I was just waiting to find out what to do. After a while people went outside and so I followed, and the man who was leading the ceremony was sweeping out the area in front of the altar.  Gradually other people arrived; there were about 12 or 13 in all.  Kaxho was there, together with a young woman, Adaluz, and a few other young people, and several middle-aged men. Doña Reyna, the widow of Daniel Pedro Mateo, arrived and we embraced, and Alfredo; Alfredo's wife Juana arrived when the ceremony was well underway.

The leader built the sacred fire, using incense and candles, and started the ceremony.  We stood in a semi circle with the altar at the base, forming a bell shape. Since it was entirely in Q'anjob'al, I only gathered the barest sense of what was happening, but I have been to enough ceremonies to understand some of the basic dynamics. It started with prayers to the four cardinal points, and then we faced the altar. It was shorter than a lot of other ceremonies I have attended, and didn't involve the detailed naming and counting of the 20 nahuales. The fire was intense, and although I am not trained at all in reading the fire, I noticed that the flames seemed to move in spirals for most of the time, a spiral starting up and swirling, and then another one. They looked like small orange sandstorms or tornadoes. Someone with more background would have to interpret; I didn't ask for an interpretation, nor did I ask any other questions, but decided to just be part of the experience and not try to analyze or intellectualize too much.

The last full day of my stay in Huehuetango (in between I made a 2-1/2 day visit to Barillas), I took a walk up one of the hills behind where Lorenzo lives. A young man whom I had met at the radio station (and whose name then escaped me), told me how to find the path, and explained that there were two ways. One would take me to the "cruz Maya" (Maya cross) on the hillside and then to the summit, and the other would just take me to the summit. I had the impression that the Maya cross was somewhat farther down, and I made several false turns (there were a lot of paths splitting off, and of course I didn't know which was which) but didn't find the Maya cross, and so continued up to the top (or as far as there was a path). When I returned, I said that I hadn't been able to find the Maya cross because I didn't know which path was which, and hadn't seen many people on the path. Lorenzo's brother in law, Pedro, was visiting the house when I was there, and he said that he would take me there. As I was leaving the next morning, we agreed that we would meet around 5:45 (his wife said that the site was not unlocked until 6 so we couldn't go earlier). With some hesitation, I called him at 5:50 to find out when he was coming and he arrived about 20 minutes later and we set off. It turned out that the cross was very close to the top, right behind a house where I had seen some children the day before and had asked about the path to the summit (it hadn't occurred to me to ask the children about the cross, but in retrospect I realize that they were part of the family that have the keys to the gate that surrounds the cross). There was no one else there when we arrived, and Pedro explained that the gate was erected a few years ago because there were people who were using the cross for other purposes (young people coming up to drink and who knows what else), and that to preserve the sanctity of the site, they had to put up a gate.  He stood quietly in front of the cross and murmured what must have been some prayers or blessings.  A few minutes after we arrived, an older woman and young man came, bearing some bundles that were probably the candles, flowers and incense that they were going to offer. Pedro greeted them and explained that I was visiting from the U.S., that I was an anthropologist and that I had wanted to see the site.  I asked if I could take a few photographs, and Pedro said it was alright, so I did. The site was heavily shaded, and so not a lot to photograph; I mostly did it to record it for myself.

And then I realized, after we had walked back down, that this made a fitting close to the week I had spent in Santa.