Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Return to Barillas

In the several months since I was last in Guatemala, one of the leaders of the peaceful resistance in Barillas, a man named Mynor López, was arrested. Mynor and I had first met a year ago, on my first trip to Barillas, the only one I made with my own car. My friend Lorenzo from Santa Eulalia had accompanied me - in part because his mother and sister live in Barillas and it was a chance to see family, and also because I needed to have someone vouch for me and introduce me to people in the resistance. With good reason, people involved in political struggles, and indigenous communities in general are wary of well-meaning outsiders. Too many times, a journalist or anthropologist or other researcher comes, takes stories, makes sympathetic noises, goes back to wherever he or she came from and is never heard from again. In the worst cases, the person turns what he or she learned or extracted into some personal profit.  So, Lorenzo went with me, and then on the way back, I was having trouble getting the car up a particularly muddy and narrow stretch of the road, and we kept on backing it up and trying to get some momentum but we couldn't get it past a certain point in the curve, and two men who were walking along the road helped us out. I never found out either of their names, but when I went to visit Barillas in August, and visited the site of the peaceful resistance in Poza Verde, the second day I visited, a man came up to me and said we had met earlier that year, and described the situation, and then I recognized him. We talked for a while; he had lived in the U.S. and told me about his life there and his decision to return to Guatemala and his involvement with the resistance. He asked me if I had seen the waterfalls and I jumped at the opportunity -- I had wanted to walk to the second waterfall (the day before I had walked to the first one, which was fairly close) but wasn't sure quite how to get there. We invited two young people to join us, and set off. 

It was a clear, warm, sunny day and along the way we visited a cave and Mynor pointed out plants and places where the company had wanted to do some excavations, and talked enthusiastically about wanting to preserve the land and the natural resources for the benefit of the community.  We chatted on the phone a few times before I left Guatemala, but I didn't get an email for him, and then next thing I heard, a few weeks later, was that he had been arrested on some trumped up charges -- criminalization of the leadership of the resistance is a pretty common tactic of the authorities. The photograph in the newspaper of Mynor after his arrest was disturbing, as his face was swollen and bruised, clearly signs that he had been worked over by the police.

 While in Guatemala in August, I also met another leader of the resistance in Barillas, a lovely, quiet man, Don Esteban, a teacher for 25 years, who had spent seven months in jail after the army had declared martial law and went on a hunt for community leaders. Don Esteban told me that the charged against him and the other leaders who had been arrested at the same time were things like drug trafficking and terrorism.  I had first learned of him through his daughter, Maria C., who had been in New York as part of a delegation that participated in the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.

To return to Don Esteban: he was in Guatemalan City when I met him in August, together with his wife and children. As a result of his arrest, he had lost his teaching license and so he was in the capital trying to see how he could get reinstalled and return to his profession. Don Esteban, his wife and their youngest child -- a two or three month old baby -- met me in the Zona 1, the historic center of the capital, and we talked over lunch in a café while the skies opened and the rain gushed down, briefly flooding the streets and sidewalks. Maria C. and I spoke on the phone but she wasn't able to come meet with us that day.

We hadn't had much contact since then. Maria C. and I had exchanged a few messages on Facebook but I haven't been as good about staying in touch with everyone as I might. I hadn't called when I arrived, and so didn't know whether they were in the capital or back in Barillas.

So, this morning as I stood in the cold morning air outside Lorenzo's home waiting for the bus, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had called one of the resistance leaders whom I had met on both my first and second trips here, a man also named Lorenzo (nickname Lencho -- the same nickname as my friend Lorenzo from Santa Eulalia, although that one's complete nickname is Lencho Pez -- Lencho the fish). It took a little while to remind him who I was and what my interests were, and he had said he would be around during the days I was going to be here. But beyond that I hadn't made any specific arrangements.

The bus showed up about 40 minutes later than I had been told, but that's Guatemala. Bus schedules are often fictions or suggestions. There are a lot of small companies -- maybe not even companies, just people who own a few mini-vans. Some do seem to be established companies with fleets of vehicles and others are much more informal operations. Therefore, drivers' earnings are based on how many passengers they take. So, a driver will not usually leave until he has enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile, which is probably what happened here. I was told that there was a bus that normally came by at 7 a.m.; that there was one at 6, but it was a camioneta, a converted school bus, and then then one at 7 was a mini-van (generally more comfortable seating). I decided I would go for the 7 a.m. bus and was outside at 6:55, but the bus didn't come until sometime between 7:30 and 7:45.  It let me off at the terminal, which I had never been to before, which is a little bit away from the "center" -- the park, the municipal building, the commercial area, and the location of the hotel where I had planned to stay. Its owner is a supporter of the resistance - a relatively wealthy Ladino landowner, but nonetheless sympathetic to the resistance. He and some other businesspeople in the center provide material support (food and supplies).  I asked directions (the town isn't that big but I wasn't sure of the best way to walk). People in Guatemala use the word "caminar" which technically means "to walk" to refer to traveling -- whether on foot or in a vehicle. So when I asked for directions, "Como puedo caminar hasta el parque?", I kept on getting told about the microbus. Eventually someone understood that I actually meant to walk with my feet and pointed me in the right direction. I came to the park (really just the town square, but here people use the term "parque", even though the parque is usually only one square block and might have a few trees) but arrived catty-corner from the hotel. I stopped for a moment, deciding whether to walk around the perimeter of the square or through the square, and opted to walk through. I hadn't walked more than about 10 feet when I came upon a woman with several children in tow, and she beamed up at me. It was Don Esteban's wife. We embraced, both of us delighted and surprised (well, I can't speak for her but I think the expression of pleasure on her face was genuine). I checked into the hotel and then we went off to look for her husband in the Municipal building, while I called her daughter, Maria C., who was also back here in Barillas, and made plans to see each other this evening at their house. So, even though it's pouring rain and cloudy, I am hopeful that my day and a half here will be somewhat productive.

1 comment:

  1. nice story thanks WOW you are really up there that area i do NOT know, but have always wanted to do some hiking up in there, was close in Nebaj, I wish you well and Viva Guatemala