Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Historical memory 2: Cuarto de las Ausencias

When I started to plan out visiting memory sites in the capital, I wanted to go back to a small museum that I had visited about 3 years ago when I was starting to plan a study abroad program. Friends here had told me about a museum that had been established by the families of people who had been forcibly disappeared and whose names had appeared in the Diario Military -- the military archives that were made public in 1999, detailing the arrest and in many cases the ultimate fate of thousands of Guatemalans. The military kept records of many of these disappearances and extrajudicial killings, sometimes using code to indicate that they had killed someone. In most cases family members have not been able to recover the bodies, but the archives at least provide some degree of closure.

The museum was devoted to one man whose family had donated artifacts that they had kept -- clothing, books -- and I wanted to see it again. It was located in a small set of rooms just off the entrance of the headquarters of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation  (known as FAFG). FAFG are the people who have been documenting and exhuming the sites of mass graves and executions from the armed conflict. It is worth remembering that in Guatemala, being an anthropologist is often a hazardous occupation, especially if one's work relates to the armed conflict. Just ask the family of Myrna Mack Chang, assassinated by a military death squad in 1990 for her human rights advocacy. The staff of FAFG regularly receive death threats and there are armed guards at their headquarters (just for a reality check, there are armed guards at Café Barista, a chain of coffee shops). 

I asked a friend in Guatemala if she knew how to get in touch with the people running the museum. My recollection was that it was an all-volunteer operation. She couldn't recall the names but put me in touch with someone at FAFG. However, I decided to search through my emails, and it turns out one of the benefits of having tens of thousands of saved messages  is that occasionally I can find important information by trolling through my email. I couldn't remember the name of the museum or the name of the person who was staffing the museum and had given me a tour, but I eventually found an email exchange that included his phone number. I called Don Salomon but, like many Guatemalans, he was no longer using the same phone number that he had given me in 2014, and so after apologizing to the person who answered that number, I sent an email. I wasn't very hopeful because although it seems over half the country has smart phones now, but Don Salomon answered very quickly, gave me his new number, but sadly told me that the Museum had closed because of lack of resources. It was privately funded through contributions and was run primarily by volunteer labor -- principally the family members of people who had appeared in the Diario Militar, like Don Salomon himself. Both of his brothers were disappeared by the military, at different times during the conflict.

However, he told me, there was another small museum that was in Zona 1, called "El Cuarto de las Ausencias" (the room of absences), and he would be happy to meet me there. Some time back, the folks from Prensa Comunitaria had arranged an exhibit at the Museo de Ferrocarril (the Railway Museum) based on the case of one of the victims of a forced disappearance, Marco Antonio Molina Thiessen. This sounded like it was something similar, but I was eager to see it. So, we arranged a time and he gave me the address, and at the appointed hour I made my way there.  It's just one room, in a building that was purchased by a Christian-sponsored network of radio schools and community-oriented radio stations, FGER, to be used as a "centro capacitación" -- a training center, where different groups can hold classes and workshops. 

The one-room museum, Don Salomon told me, was devoted to Luis de Lión, a Guatemalan poet and teacher who was disappeared by the military in the 1980s, but also to the memory of Daniel Pedro Mateo, a Q'anjob'al leader who was a friend of mine, and assassinated in 2013 for his opposition to the hydroelectric and other extractivist projects.

The room contained objects and furniture that had been provided by Luis de Lion's family -- some of which were his, and others were donations that were meant to be representative. A manual typewriter; books; clothing; a modest bedstead covered with a woven blanket. Clothes hung on a hook. A graduation certificate. Fragments of a life that evoke, as the title of the exhibit indicates, both presences and absences.

On the desk, photocopies of pages from the Diario Militar that confirmed the military's role in Luis de Lion's forced disappearance. A life interrupted. A poet who would never publish another verse. A teacher whose students were robbed. A brother, son, cousin. 

There are over 40,000 cases of forced disappearance.  This was the tactic used by the military in cities like the capital. In rural villages, the scorched earth campaign articulated in Plan Sofia and other places involved large-scale massacres and in many cases eliminating the entire village from the map (burning all the houses and crops, forcing any survivors into resettlement villages). This obviously couldn't work in the cities, and so the tactic was to pick off individuals -- such as leaders of student organizations or unions, or those who had spoken out publicly. Very few of them have been adjudicated in the courts. 

Not everyone who was disappeared was a poet or a leader, but who knows what would have become of those 40,000 if they had not been disappeared and killed? What kinds of engineers, agronomists, artists, laborers, teachers, leaders, cooks, union organizers, did Guatemala lose? 

The challenge for small museums like this is lack of support --as the experience of the Amancio Samuel Villatoro Foundation Museum demonstrates. I made a donation to the Cuarto de las Ausencias, but obviously one donation doesn't provide a budget. But if you're in Guatemala City, it's worth arranging a visit. I'll be happy to provide contact information (I'm a little hesitant about publishing it here, and there is no webpage for the Cuarto de las Ausencias).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hace un año/One year ago

On July 24, 2016, after nearly two years of being unjustly imprisoned, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazár were freed from the "preventive detention" center. They had been held captive by the state since March 2015. I had gone to visit them that morning as it was a Saturday and that was the only day visitors (other than attorneys and special dignitaries) were allowed. We'd gotten the news the night before that they would be released but it wasn't clear exactly when, so I made the trip out to see them, as I usually did when I was in Guatemala during the months of their captivity. Then that night we heard that they were to be released -- I was literally in a car with their wives and some human rights workers, en route to the prison, when we heard that they'd already arrived. It was a gleeful night, and I've written about it earlier. 

I never got to write about the caravan that was organized for their return -- theirs, and the other leaders from Barillas who had also been imprisoned. It took some days for the details to be worked out, and so last summer I cooled my heels in the capital until the caravan was ready to go. The caravan was exhilarating and exhausting -- we made stops in Chimaltenango, in Los Encuentros (where the highway splits off for Quiché, and the Panamericana continues on towards the Mexican border). We then stopped again in Sololá, at the Cumbre de Alaska, the spot where leaders from the 48 cantones of Totonicapán were killed by army bullets in 2012, and then at one other location along the highway leading towards Huehuetenango (I don't remember the name of the town offhand), and finally ending up in the Parque Central of Huehuetenango in the afternoon. At each site there was a formal welcome, a rally or speech-making of some sort, sometimes music, food at a few places. I could look at the photographs and try to recount the journey, and maybe at another time I will.  We spent the night in Huehuetenango -- I was traveling with several of the young people who were handling the logistics, and we were all crowded into a few rooms at a hotel, and then took off very early in the morning since we were supposed to be in San Juan Ixcoy -- the first stop in Q'anjob'al territory -- for breakfast. In between San Juan and San Pedro Soloma, the next town along the way, a microbus coming the other way was waiting for us on the highway near Kab'tzin, the huge rock formation along the side of the highway that are a local landmark. It was a delegation from Santa Eulalia, including Domingo's daughter Maria (a daughter from his first marriage), who was eager to see her father. Everyone spilled out of the cars and pickups and microbuses and embraced and took photos, and then we resumed our journey to Soloma, where there was a rally in the center of town that blocked traffic all around, and then finally to Santa Eulalia.  Before entering the town proper the elders of the Casa de los Abuelos (the spiritual leaders of the community) met us and conducted a brief ceremony at a roadside shrine. Rigoberto was part of the group of elders, and so it was fitting that they would do so.

Once we entered the town, the caravan was met by a brigade of motorcycles, bands, balloons.  People got out the vehicles and started to walk, as it was nearly impossible for the vehicles to progress. We finally ended up at the town square, in an emotional rally.

Now, a year later, there is about to be a documentary film released about the situation in northern Huehuetenango. I was getting ready to head to Santa Eulalia and would have left this afternoon (July 25) but saw news of this film screening yesterday, with an announcement that some of the protagonists would be there. I checked with one of my friends in Santa Eulalia today, who confirmed that Rigoberto and several of the leaders from Barillas were going to be coming to the city for the screening, so I stayed, since I'd like to see the film but also to hear how these men (and maybe some of their families) are viewing the situation a year later.

While they are no longer in jail or facing charges, the repression has not stopped. Another leader from Alta Verapaz was arrested a few months ago, and the story seems to be repeating itself.

Death at the border

Next to headlines about a dead body being found somewhere, and another government official sentenced for money laundering, today's Prensa Libre (one of the leading daily newspapers in Guatemala) had an article titled "Three Dead Guatemalans Drowned in the Rio Bravo" (the Rio Bravo is the river that we in the U.S. call the Rio Grande, but Latin Americans calls the Rio Bravo). The story goes on to say that the bodies of two women, ages 15 and 37 and one young man, age 16, were pulled from the river which they were trying to cross in order to get into the U.S. Apparently a young Guatemalan woman who was  part of the same group that was  trying to cross to the U.S. told authorities that some people had gotten carried away by the currents. 

These are everyday tragedies that rarely get reported in the U.S. Hundreds if not thousands die each year trying to enter the country -- either drowned or, probably more often, dying in the desert. Or, like the tragedy last week, suffocating in the back of an airless trailer, abandoned by the coyotes.

The names weren't given in the story about the three bodies pulled from the river; perhaps they are waiting to inform the families. All three were from the western highlands, according to the article. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Memoria histórica/historical memory

The last decade or so has seen a huge battle over the history and memory of the armed conflict. Well, maybe the battle has gone on since the conflict ended nearly 20 years ago. But undoubtedly it has heated up with the genocide trial, and the other high profile cases such as Sepur Zarco (sexual slavery of Q'eqchi women) and Cremopaz -- a military encampment in Alta Verapaz. How is that history to be remember and represented throughout Guatemala is an open question, and this is the subject of a new mini-project I am starting now.

It's been simmering in the back of my mind for some time. During my first trip, or maybe my second, to Guatemala, a friend asked me to find a plaque that had been installed in the town square of San Andrés Sajcabajá in Quiché, his hometown, that had been placed to commemorate the victims of a massacre there, and to photograph his father's name - his father was a community leader killed in the massacre, which was what had prompted my friend to flee Guatemala as a young boy and seek refuge in the U.S. I found the plaque and photographed it. Later, still on one of my early trips, a nun in Zacualpa showed me a chapel in the parish house at the church. The chapel had been used as a torture chamber and there were brass handles (like drawer pulls) on the ceiling beams that had been used to suspend people by their arms while they were tortured. After the war ended, the church had made a decision to keep the room as a reminder. The handles were left on the wooden beams, and parishoners had made small crosses bearing the names of their loved ones who  had been killed or disappeared, hanging from the ceiling. A few years later, on another trip to Zacualpa - this might have been in 2011 -- there was a large monument in the outdoor courtyard of the parish, a space where people frequently came to rest and escape the sun on market days (as the church is right on the main market square). 

On another occasion, prior to 2011, I visited the family of a friend whose mother had been burned alive, along with her two young siblings. There was no formal marker or plaque but we went to the spot in the cornfields where their house had been, which the sister said was the site, and lit a candle and left some flowers.

About a year ago, just walking along La Sexta (Sixth Avenue), one of the main thoroughfares of Zona 1, the historic district, which is where I usually stay, I noticed a small museum on the eastern side of the street. Kaji Tulam, Casa de la Memory -- house of memory. I went in, viewed the exhibit, and didn't think much more about it.

There are other forms of historical marking -- graffiti on the walls, the 8-1/2x11 photocopied leaflets that the group H.I.J.O.S. posts around Zona 1 -- each bearing a photograph of a person who was disappeared, with the date of disappearance or date of death (if know) and the name, under the slogan "Donde están?" (Where are they?). After the disappearances of the 43 Mexican students in Ayotzinapa, there was a lot of graffiti about the 43. About two years ago, during the anti-government protests, I noticed that someone had made a series of stencils all around the Zona 1. The pattern at the center was the same, but each one bore the name of one of the students, and a number:  18/43 (18 out of 43), 16/43 (16 out of 43). I photographed the ones I saw but I don't think I photographed all 43.

History is written on the walls -- and not only in heavily populated areas like the capital. But I started to get interested in how the history of the armed conflict was represented and marked in more permanent ways in public space.

So, as I was planning this trip, I decided that I wanted to start looking at memory sites in Guatemala. I've spent part of the last two days doing this in the capital.. and will be posting some of my photos and thoughts.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Another death unforeseen

A little over a week ago, I received a message on Facebook from Sandra, one of the women I'd befriended six years ago when I was in Guatemala and working with the women's organization Ixmukané. Sandra was on staff of Ixmukané back then, and although she has long since left the organization, we stayed in touch intermittently. She is married to the son of Doña Matilde, one of the women whose political campaign I had helped with back in 2011, and Doña Mati's daughter Yanet also became a good friend, so on the occasions that I've visited Quiché since then, I've nearly always stopped to visit Doña Mati and her family. 

But I hadn't heard from Sandra for a long time and nothing prepared me for the message she was sending. I was standing on the sidewalk outside a Sri Lankan restaurant in Staten Island, and a message popped up on my phone. "Liza murió Kan." (Lisa, Kan died). I started at the screen in disbelief, and then typed back, "Qué pasó? No lo creo," I replied (What happened? I don't believe it). 

Kan was one of several young people who worked for the organization during the year I spent in Guatemala. He was bright, funny, and we became good friends. He was technically adept, and so he was often helping out at the radio station that the organization had set up, making sure that equipment was connected properly, helping soundproof the studio, and so forth. We spent a lot of time together, since I volunteered at the station, and often wound up talking about music. We exchanged a lot of MP3s; he turned me on to Guatemalan reggae groups like Barrio Candela and Mexican rock groups like Molotov, and I gave him American music. Rancheras -- a kind of traditional Mexican ballad, often with very sentimental lyrics about love, betrayal and despair -- are popular in Guatemala and most community radio stations have at least one show devoted to rancheras. Kan and I used to improvise our own lyrics, and imitate the "grito mexicano" (a kind of howl that is done during the breaks in the song). We joked and teased and laughed and were often very, very silly, but also had some serious conversations about Guatemala and Mayan culture, among other things.

But like many young Maya I met in Guatemala, Kan was both conversant with and a fan of global popular culture, and at the same time deeply committed to traditional Maya culture. He was a member of a men's dance group that performed the "Baile de los Toritos" (the dance of the little bulls), a traditional dance that is performed at the patron-saint feast in Chichicastenango, his home town. He invited me to attend a rehearsal for the dance. But it was hardly what most of us would consider a "rehearsal." It was actually a performance, although the dancers were not costumed. It was a huge event, held in a large house with an open patio, which was used as a dance floor. There were over a hundred guests, seated around the performance space, and the Guatemalan version of valet parking (a few guys helping people maneuver their cars into very limited space). 

The event was broadcast on one of the local radio stations, and there were many visiting dignitaries, such as elders from some of the cofradías (cofraternities -- nominally Christian brotherhoods but in the Mayan highlands they have been a way of keeping Mayan spirituality and traditions alive). Most of the dancers appeared to be in their 30s, 40s or even older, so Kan was one of the younger participants. During breaks he introduced me to his parents, and an aunt and uncle who were sponsoring him in the dance group, and made sure that I got moved inside into the room with the dignitaries so I could eat lunch at a table (and not balancing a bowl and plate on my lap). At one point he pulled me out onto the floor to dance with him, handing me a rattle and instructing me in the steps. I asked him if he was sure it was okay, since it is a men's dance and no other women were out on the dance floor; he assured me it was. 

On another occasion, I invited Kan and a slew of the other young people from Ixmukané to Antigua, where I was renting a room in a lovely, large house. They actually invited themselves, and I consented (I later paid the price as my housemates were not thrilled at having 8 or 9 young Guatemalans sprawled on the living room floor, and at least one was intoxicated to the point of silliness). The next day we wandered the streets and came upon a marimba group playing on Fifth Avenue, which is closed off to vehicular traffic on the weekends. Kan started to dance and again pulled me out to dance with him. Those are some of my fondest memories of him.

Later, he ended up leaving Ixmukané -- the director of the organization (who happened to be his aunt) was somewhat exigent, and there was a fair amount of turnover. I don't actually know whether his departure was his idea or hers, but he told me he was going to work in his family's business, which was dyeing threads for weaving. 

After I returned to the U.S., although I have returned to Guatemala at least twice a year since I haven't been to Quiché that often, and I'd only kept in touch with Kan very sporadically. He had become quite interested in photography and so I would see some of his work, but we didn't have much direct contact. 

But Kan had always seemed -- at least in my memories -- lively and full of life, so I was shocked to learn that he had died. According to Sandra, he had been drinking for several days, and then authorities found his body in a car parked on the street somewhere in Chichicastenango.. She sent me a link to a news article from a local source, confirming that Kan's body had been found. Within an hour, at least two other people whom I had befriended during that year in Guatemala wrote to me to tell me about Kan's death. When I got home, I went through my photographs and found a few of Kan -- one at the inauguration of the radio station, and another at the dance rehearsal that I described above, and posted them on his Facebook page, which had by then become a memorial page. I wrote short notes to his sister Ixchel, and his cousin Lucero, both of whom were friends of mine.

When I got to Guatemala, I determined that I wanted to go to Chichi to see Kan's parents and express my condolences in person. Since I was spending several days in Antigua, I decided that the best thing would be to take one of the many tourist shuttles that leave Antigua and make the round trip to Chichicastenango on market days, since I didn't have other plans to be in Quiché and I didn't want to schlep my suitcase around or have to find a place to stay, and the tourist shuttles are usually more comfortable than inter-city Guatemalan buses, which are most often converted school buses. So I checked with Ixchel to see if her parents would be able to see me on Thursday (which is one of the market days) and then I booked a ride through my guesthouse and set off for Chichi. 

Unfortunately the transport workers in Quiché had blocked the highways for a couple of hours and so we were held up for about 45 minutes, which cut my time short, but I was able to find Kan's parents and spend just a few minutes with them; they were busy with errands, so we stood in the lobby of a small shopping center and talked for a little while. For the first time since I'd learned of Kan's death I was able to cry for him, looking at the faces of his parents. He was the oldest of five. "Se nos adelantó" was how they expressed it. "He went on before us" or "He went ahead of us." The grief was clearly inscribed on their faces. They told me that they had learned how much he had been loved and how many lives he had touched through his photography -- since there weren't many professional photographs in Chichicastenango, he had been able to earn some money by going to weddings, parties, birthdays, and taking photographs for people. 

I only had a few hours before getting on the bus back to Antigua, but I was able to spend a little time with another of my friends from 2011, a woman named Sebastiana, who was leading a workshop on community organizing. And I had tea with Kan's sister Ixchel, who still seemed deeply shaken by what had happened. They had a close relationship - he was the oldest, and she was the second child. 

Although it's been some years since I've seen him, it's still hard to believe that he's gone. As I walked through the crowded market of Chichi, or as I walk through Antigua, I see a young man who for a moment reminds me of Kan.