On our way out of the central church in Nebaj, a Mayan town cupped in the foothills of the Cuchumatane Mountains, Lacey and I stopped at a simple altar. Behind a metal grate were hundreds of crosses, each crudely inscribed with a name, an age, and a date. The sheer number of them, in such a small and remote town, row upon row of quiet painted wood memorials, tugged our breath. All the dead were lost to the country’s thirty-six year civil war. As we gazed a stooped, elderly woman approached to light a smoky candle and say a prayer before an unknown son, her tears already welling and spilling as we receded with thudding hearts.
The dead are a presence here in Guatemala, crowding the gates of memory, silently demanding admittance. This presence is all but written into the history of the recent civil war: a war whose two hundred thousand losses are still mourned by mothers and even grandmothers, a war that saw a long march of military dictatorships perform innumerable atrocities and turned remote towns like Nebaj in against themselves. About forty thousand of the civil war deaths were “disappearances,” leaving countless family and friends without peace, or in limbo as mass graves continue to be exhumed in an effort to account for Guatemala’s lost. Still, one of the war’s most notorious and violent dictators, Ríos Montt, just won a seat in Congress in September, making him immune to charges of crimes against humanity brought by the Spanish government in an attempt to extradite him. And Otto Perez Molina, who very narrowly lost the November fourth runoff election for President, presided over countless “disappearances” as a commander in the Guatemalan intelligence agency and the head of a highly covert governmental organization known as the EMP. Many of these “disappearances” were in Nebaj and the surrounding area, likely accounting for dozens of the crosses Lacey and I saw in the church that day.
So with the dead crowding in, how can the men who killed them be running for office? How can Guatemala’s peace accords, signed over ten years ago in 1996, still stand with key portions unimplemented? The answer begins close to home, literally. The civil war here had its roots in a US-led coup, carried out in 1954 against a Guatemalan government that had implemented liberal land reforms. These reforms were designed to redistribute uncultivated land held by the wealthy few to the repressed rural indigenous population, many of whom would come to own a piece of the plantations they had previously farmed under slavelike conditions. But before the land reform was fully implemented, the top-secret CIA operation PBSSUCCESS installed the first in a long line of Guatemala’s military dictators. The operation was presented to the world as a homegrown Democratic movement to oust communist leaders supported by the Soviet Union, but no evidence of such support has ever been found. As land was returned to the wealthy and the indigenous population forced to seek indentured-style labor once again, companies like the US-run Central American exporter United Fruit (now known, in part, as Dole), sighed relief at the resurgence of profits.
In the decades to come, disinformation became a hallmark of Guatemalan governments. In the early 1980s, as General Ríos Montt came to power, the twenty-year-old guerilla movement (made up of four loosely allied groups) was gaining serious momentum, having grown exponentially thanks to the terrible human rights abuses of successive military governments. The guerillas held key areas and, more importantly, had built an enormous network of support among the Guatemalan people. But Montt, also Guatemala’s first Evangelical Christian leader, instituted new systems of repression to fight this momentum. Instead of primarily targeting the guerillas, he targeted any civilians who might be seen as supporting them, while implementing public relations schemes at home and abroad to frame the guerillas as monsters who opposed the democratic will of the people.
Repression had been fierce for two decades, but under the new system entire villages were massacred. Thousands upon thousands were relocated and whole pueblos combined for ‘security’ reasons. Civilians were conscripted into patrols and forced to defend the new villages against the guerillas, putting many of the most innocent people directly and helplessly into the middle of the conflict. Lacey and I have heard firsthand accounts from villagers who witnessed massacres, who were conscripted into patrols, who had family members tortured by the army. Thousands died.
Montt, a staunch anticommunist, had the support of the United States thanks to the administration of Ronald Reagan, who in a 1982 visit said “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. … I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” Meanwhile, disinformation within Guatemala spread down to every level: army commanders and soldiers could kill civilians with relative impunity; some villagers denounced their neighbors as guerilla collaborators over petty grievances. In many cases these neighbors were never seen again.
The early 80s, then, saw civilian support for the guerillas undercut in many ways, as civilians themselves were targeted or used as buffers by the army. But the guerilla movement continued into the 1990s. Lacey and I heard a man speak who joined the guerillas in 1991 at the age of 21, ten years after his father had been tortured and left unable to walk. His father’s crime: organizing families in the community into cooperatives, so that they could sell their crops and other goods at competitive prices. Ten years later his son walked the slopes of volcanoes at night, eating one or two meals a day, sleeping without shelter or blankets as frost crusted the ground, and watching fellow guerillas die in regular skirmishes with the army. Ultimately, the movement won a set of reforms signed into the 1996 peace accords, including a reduced military role in internal affairs and increased rights for the indigenous population. Sadly, many of these reforms remain unimplemented today.
Disinformation and obfuscation at the highest levels remains an enormous problem today. Alberto Colom, the left-of-right candidate who won the November 4th runoff to become Guatemala’s next president, refused to disclose where his monumental campaign funds came from, prompting speculation that his third campaign for the presidency was funded in part either by narcotics money or by money embezzled from a previous government position. Despite a relatively free press, much of Guatemala’s rural, poorly educated population knew little or nothing of this background. Many voter’s decisions are based on logos and slogans with even less pretense than the spin that now characterizes politics in the United States. This may also explain how some of those who lost family members to the commands of General Otto Perez Molina in the 1980s and 1990s gave him nearly fifty percent of the vote in November. His relentless campaign strategy of exploiting Guatemalan’s fears about security and his staunch denials of past wrongdoing were simply enough to sway voters with little information or resources to make a decision. Political violence was also rife in the lead-up to the elections, leaving yet more victims of Guatemala’s power struggles to to be remembered in its cemeteries.
Still, Guatemala is an incredibly friendly place. Despite the enormous problems that remain, smiles and hellos are a regular part of walking down the street, and invitations to lunch are given regularly. Guatemalans are even open about the problems facing their country; along the entire scale from liberal to conservative, all agree that the country is facing a crisis due to poverty, lack of education, policital corruption, rampant crime and an ineffectual justice system. What remains hidden is the all-too-recent pain of loss, the mourning that many are still unable to do. With mass graves still being dug up and betrayal and mistrust ever present at the highest levels, there is a sense of something still bottled up, of a shared pain that has yet to be released.
A part of Guatemala’s hope, then, may still lie with its saints and its dead. And this hope is not ill-bestowed. Innumerable saints, models of truth and purity, are paraded around Guatemalan towns throughout the year on festival days. And with the approach of Dia de los Santos and Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day and Day of the Dead), Lacey and I saw signs everywhere of people preparing to commune with their departed. Graveyards were mowed and trimmed; graves were cleaned and painted. Children began flying homemade kites above the cemeteries, kites thought to rise with the spirits of the dead. In Guatemala there is a comfort with these resting-places that can make them feel like our public parks, a feeling of calm and of communion. And when Dia de los Santos and Dia de los Muertos arrived, families flocked to the gravesides of their deceased relatives, bringing with them enormous bouquets and wreaths, marimba bands, wine and liquor, hearty picnic lunches. Many shared food with their dead, drinking half a bottle or eating half an orange and leaving the other half by the graves. A century-old grave in Xela is famous for belonging to a seventeen-year old girl who died of heartbreak; lovesick young men and women still write their remembrances and plights on the grave in hopes of sympathy or assistance. Likewise, candles burn constantly in front of patron saints in churches from Guatemala City to the most remote and tiny pueblos.
So walking through Xela’s cemetery on the brilliantly sunny, flower-bedecked afternoon of November 2, I was overwhelmed by the presence of those who had passed. But far from the dark, lonely graveyard scenes I’m used to, the dead made themselves known here in bright colors, in food and music and celebration, in tears that flowed in the open and without shame. I have been moved every day that I think of this display. From the tiniest dirt graves of children to the remembrances of the dead bishop Juan José Gerardi, an activist slaughtered two days after giving an important human rights report in 1998, the saints and the dead are all still welcomed to join the living. And if they are allowed to teach us, too, then they may yet lift Guatemala’s future as their spirits lift the children’s kites, high and fluttering, prisms of light that dance down to the upturned faces below.
One thought on “The Saints and the Dead”
Demie, Josh and I just returned a few days ago from our first visit to Guatemala. We joined Ethan and Lacey (and for several days, Lacey’s mom and sister) for a week of travel in the western highlands of this beautiful country, including observing (and helping some) in the classes of young kids they teach, visits with people they’ve gotten to know, and many other adventures. It was one of the most memorable and moving travel experiences of my life. Part of it was Ethan and Lacey, and all of us being together. But another huge part of it were the wonderful Mayan people we met, and in some cases visited extensively with. They were so friendly, and in many cases so open to sharing their families and lives, and so welcoming, generous and friendly.
Ethan has captured so much of both the tragedies and the joys of these wonderful people in these two postings on the victims of Guatemala’s brutal civil war and his description of “magic moments (“Momentos”) with people and places around Xela. Thanks so much to you and Lacey.