Saturday, January 5, 2013

Getting to Barillas (via San Marcos y Huehue)

Last year, on May 1, during the fiesta patronal in the town of Santa Cruz Barillas, in Huehuetenango, security guards of Hidro Santa Cruz, a Spanish transnational that has a concession to construct a hydroelectric dam, attacked several leaders of the community resistance to the project, killing one. The community quickly reacted, and the government responded by declaring martial law and sending in troops. More recently, in late December, the community erupted again when word got around that the town's mayor was going to sign a pact with the company, and residents occupied the town square until the mayor backed down.  One of the things that was interesting about the May events was that within an hour or so of the declaration of martial law, people starting posting information about this on Facebook and Twitter, leading to a national and international campaign, "Todos Somos Barillas" (we are all Barillas). This was how I learned about the May events, and also the stand-off a few weeks ago. Additionally, the community radio stations had played an important role in getting the word out, since the mainstream media in Guatemala, and particularly a couple of right-wing television stations, have tended to portray those who have criticized or protested government policies. In my mind, Barillas stood out as one of the key communities in resistance against the neoliberal policies of the government (although there are others -- but I knew I couldn't try and visit all).

Barillas is in the northern part of Huehuetenango, not far from the town of Santa Eulalia, where one of the community radio stations that I have been following is located: Snuq Jolom Konob. So when I was planning this trip, I decided that I wanted to spend some time in Santa Eulalia (my previous visit was very brief; in March, I had accompanied a small delegation from Cultural Survival that was delivering some radio equipment to the station, but we really only spent a few hours in the station and then had dinner with some of the staff), and see the radio station functioning over a few days. And, I also wanted to try and visit Barillas, although with a bit of trepidation, since I knew there had been conflicts in the community because of the company and the opposition to it, and the continued presence of the military. I knew that I probably wouldn't be able to get a very complete picture, but I wanted to ... I guess "witness" would be the best term, or "bear witness", or both.  I had a suspicion that someone at the radio station probably knew people in Barillas, and so I contacted Lorenzo, one of the members of the junta directiva of the station, and the person who has been the station's main representative to the community radio movement nationally. Lorenzo and I met at the first workshop I attended at the end of June, 2011, and have kept up a friendship since then. He had lived in the U.S. for several years, and always sought me out to practice his somewhat rusty English when we would meet.  He's probably about my age -- he has grown children and some grandchildren -- and has been involved with the radio station since his return from the U.S. about 8 years ago. This is what I knew before my current visit.

I had contacted Lorenzo via email and Facebook before leaving the U.S., but of course that wasn't the same as talking to him in person, which I did as soon as I got to Guatemala, although I wasn't certain which days I might be coming to Santa Eulalia.  He told me that he had some contacts in Barillas (I didn't really know what kind and how many until today, but I will get to that). Last week I decided that I would come up to Santa Eulalia after the New Year, and so Lorenzo and I were in touch several times, so that he could arrange with folks in Barillas. As he explained and as I had suspected, people in the town are somewhat wary of outsiders, and often reluctant to give information, so he would have to make the contacts and vouch for me and also accompany me.

Thursday (January 3) was the day I originally planned to arrive in Santa Eulalia, but it was a kind of crazy plan, as I had been staying in Olintepeque (near Xela) and I wanted to interview a friend from the community radio movement who had been working with the communications commission of the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (one of the groups that had sponsored the "alternative" celebrations of the Oxlajuj B'aq'tun), who was in San Marcos (about an hour from Xela), and then there was another person from the CPO, Saturnino, whom I wanted to interview who lived in the town of San Juan Ixcoy in Huehuetenango, which is on the way to Santa Eulalia.  So, in a fit of insanity, perhaps, I thought I would leave Olintepeque and drive to San Marcos (an hour), interview Edvin (another hour or so), and then drive from San Marcos to Santa Eulalia, stopping in San Juan Ixcoy to interview Saturnino. The drive from San Marcos to Santa Eulalia would have been another 6 hours or so (since it meant back tracking to Xela, and then going from Xela up into Huehuetenango-- passing through the city of Huehuetenango, and then heading up north, into the heart of the Cuchumatán mountains).  But Saturnino was in Huehuetenango, and I didn't want to rush the interview with him, so after we finished up, around 6, I decided not to try and drive to Santa Eulalia by myself at night. 

That was one of the more intelligent decisions I have made; even in daylight, the road was difficult because it was foggy and lightly drizzling. I had traveled to Santa Eulalia before, but my car doesn't seem quite as peppy as it did in March, and one of the uphill ascents nearly defeated me, just after a small bridge outside the town of Soloma, the road climbs sharply, and the surface was slick, and because the treads on one of my back tires were quite worn down, and I had no weight in the back of the pick up (four or five passengers would have come in handy right about then), the car couldn't get any traction.  Eventually I was saved by a kind soul, a migrant who had returned home for the holidays and whose family lived nearby, and who took pity on me and drove my car up the treacherous part of the slope for me. So in retrospect I am extremely glad that I didn't venture out alone at night.

After I arrived in Santa Eulalia, Lorenzo contacted his people in Barillas again and we agreed that we would go today, as Lorenzo had time free and we would need several hours for the trip (at least 2-1/2 each way), since we were going to go and return the same day. We set out early, and the road climbed out of Santa Eulalia and through starkly beautiful pine forests shrouded in mist. We literally were driving through and above the clouds, or so it seemed. There was pavement for several kilometers, and we fairly zipped along as the sky brightened, but then the road turned to dirt and gravel, and it was heavily pocked with potholes, many filled with water, and studded with rocks. It was one of the more bone-shaking and anxiety-producing rides in all my time in Guatemala, but on the way out I was just struck by the beauty and isolation of the area. We could see into Mexico from the crest of the pine forest, and then road dipped and climbed around some steep and lush valleys. We passed through a few towns -- actually, one town and two aldeas. The town was San Mateo Ixtatán.  Houses perched on hillsides that were dizzyingly steep, and the road wound down and around and back up again.  Lorenzo explained that Santa Cruz Barillas was originally part of Santa Eulalia but broke away and become a municipality on its own, and that the towns were reachable by foot, in about an hour and a half of climbing, while the road wound around a much longer route and took at least two and a half hours. But they were, he said, almost identical culturally because of that shared history.

I learned only about halfway through our ride that Lorenzo has family in Barillas -- his mother and one of his sisters live there. He said, "I'm half from Santa Eulalia and half from Barillas",and he apparently travels there pretty frequently. I hadn't known this, and so it was very fortunate for me that I had reached out to him, because when we got to Barillas, it was clear that not only did he know the town, but that he was known there, which made all the difference in how I was received. 

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