Great Dark meets the Great Light…a few stories about life Rabinal, Guatemala.
Here are some stories about what it means to live in the ever vibrant, exciting, wounded town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. In this ‘post’ war, indigenous, third world extroverted town of friendly folk the ancient history and recent past come alive in so many of the details and stories of daily life. I want to share a few of some that have impacted me and although there are many sad details, I have seen experienced so much joy here and I will be sad to leave it when my town is up.
One story begins at a local bakery where every morning I’m greeted young Mayan woman all of 17 years old. Any day of the week, any time between the hours of 6:30 am to 7:30 pm- that is 13 hours a day, 90 hours a week I can be guaranteed to find her smiling albeit exhausted face to greet me. Each day I ask myself how much more she can bear the intensity of this work, it’s draining the vitality of her youth and vibrancies but her fantasies of quitting are always met with the same daunting questions- where will she go? How will the family compensate for that Q1000, even if it is considerably below the national minimum monthly wages? What worries me most, is what she whispers into my ear as her boss disappears into the back ‘they have threaten to kill me if I quit.’ This of course I think to myself, how is this allowed? I tell this story to other Rabinalero friends to try and figure how I could be of use to her, but none of them look remotely shocked or surprised; its just what happens here. It’s all part of business. Her story touches me and I wish I could say it was exceptional, but she represents a kind of archetypal workers here in Guatemala. This never dawned on me until I realized that many people sell, clean, plant, harvest, and drive pickup trucks and herd cattle all the time. You will find them working, Christmas day, New Years day, Sundays; every day bring its pending needs. You will see the economically poorest people wake up before dawn to carry their corn, to cut wood, get the children up, bring water, cook, others work 7 days a week. Even the middle class aren’t exempt. appease their boss; they unconsciously forming the army of the poor- if they refuse this treatment we know there are ten people behind them ready to work. from extremely long hours, great instability, little time off which characterizes so much of Guatemalan life. In any case, I’m worried her brightness and vivaciousness stifled by this virtual slavery because if there is anything this town needs, its this bright, positive people like her.
Akin to her experience, one joke counts that Q: What are the only three problems of Guatemalans have? A: what to eat for breakfast, what to eat for lunch and what to eat for dinner. These basic problems aren’t always obvious if your passing through Guatemala sticking to the ´Gringo Trail’ in places that are comfortable and sanitized enough to accommodate tourists and upper class Guatemalans. It’s even harder to see, let alone believe that in this ecologically vibrant, agriculturally rich country 67% of Indigenous children are malnourished. One face of this statistic: a school director of one of the communities outside of Rabinal tells me he has a hard time keeping the attention of his students because many of them are sent with only tortillas and salt for lunch. I know these children aren’t so small just because of their genetics.
The invisibility of these issues in Guatemala hits me one day in particular. Driving in Guatemala city, I am with my friend and all and a few of her friends, all of whom are born are 100% Chapina- born and raised Guatemalans. We strategically navigate the chaos of the capital one night, carefully calculating the time and space between each stop to avoid all the potential dangers of just being out and about in the city. The body and mind is up regulated into a kind of chronic semi-anxious state that I can feel on many of the people and certainly on these friends. As I’m explaining to her them a little bit about the situation in Rabinal my friend stops me in the middle of a sentence… “I know it may seem strange, but I think you might more about Guatemala than we do”. Since than so many other situations have shown me just how true this statement often is. Guatemala is famous for forgetting these stories and realities, and in fact in many cases never even learning them in the first place. The fact of knowing and telling the stories in order to integrate the broken pieces of history being able to see a larger system at play is a kind of revolutionary act. My friend Virgilio tells us that his 11 year nephews once asked him to tell them a scary story; as he began to tell them about Rabinal during the armed conflict the kids refused to believe this was anything more than a legend. A tragic yet comical emblem of this dissasociative reality is the fact that former military dictator Rios Montt actually ordered the suspension teaching of history classes throughout the Guatemalan education system during his presidential campaign of 2003. I think he was right to be afraid of what could happen as more and more people woke up to the whole of this reality. In the meantime, enough people will continue to do things like vote for the ‘Hard Hand’ (Mano Dura)’ even if the presidential candidate is a former military leader of the notorious1980’s who claims to ‘stamp out’ the very delinquency he has had a big part in creating. Being here has made me appreciate so much how important it is to be able to see and integrate a bigger picture as it relates to your life; the tyranny that exist here is kept alive by our unawareness, both as Canadians and Guatemala. It is this time pressure just to get by that is combined with an enforced, cultivated; conspicuous ignorance that pierces a calm a place of contemplation that would otherwise make room for people to take a step back to view the political, mental, economic, spiritual blocks that keep so much of that keep us running on this treadmill of survival.
This leads me to think that this constant need, instability, and fragmenting of truth are probably the most insidious yet unspoken strategy of war used. Constant pending needs to survive keep many distracted from a place of being and healing where these wounds of war, racism can be seen, let go of, transformed and reworked. I have fantasies of a world-wide strike. What if people stopped participating in this suicidal cycle as consumers, workers and producers; whether we have been cast as a 3rd world Indigenous, 1st world traveler, middle class ladino, blue collar, white collar- I feel like this immense monster of the military-industrial complex could deflate like a massive balloon with a hole in it- of our fear and participation didn’t keep it erect. This is not to undermine the necessary, courageous efforts of proactively challenging this tyranny, but I feel like it is fear that keeps us going. This change, or ‘Great Turning’ ending I think will be propelled forward when enough of us decide that our fear of not having enough and our territorial fears that activate our survival instincts are no greater than our desire to be part of a world where the main story line where life and the world aren´t mere battlegrounds, but a place celebration of what is possible and impossible, of creation and experience. I know this is bold, most details of Guatemalan history spell out how victimized the people of been, but is it possible from this long history of outside imposed tyranny could be dismantled powered by a revolution from the inside. This isn’t confined to Guatemalan borders; it is the challenge of all people.
In the midst of the darkness, all the elements of transformation are as there are many intelligent, caring, independent, rooted people here. 50% of the Guatemalan population is under the age of 15 and in them I have seen tremendous brightness and possibility, not having fully absorbed the burdening energy. I just went to the annual general meeting of a growing organic agriculture collective headed almost entirely by rural indigenous women. This is unfortunately still rare, most NGOs and political bodies still have their hierarchical, patriarchal, ways of deliberately and unconsciously eliminating this type of participation. They opened this meeting with a ceremony to Mother Earth and they spent the day learning and teaching each other about Monsanto seeds, organic compost and the revival of native seeds and plants to the region. They are selling their products to wean themselves off dependence from international funding. They have taken into account social, economic, spiritual realities to create something integral, self-sustaining and inclusive. Even the poorest people in their community will contribute their $0.50 monthly to maintain this organization and have ownership. If this movement is any indication, this transformation could happen so much more deeply and quickly than what all those dire newspaper editorials and books have suggested. There are many folks tapping into their power and creating something from the bottom up. They are not waiting on the big institutions to save or direct them in any way. I admire them tremendously!
Another theme that strikes me is how much abundance and generosity are extended in the midst of the deepest poverty. I meet an ancient tiny woman one early morning, she was walking up the mountain side carrying a gallon of water in each hand; seems like half her frail, small framed body weight. She tells me that the little flowers in her house were dying and needed water. Yet another moment here when I’m left touched by the something that is so beautiful and sad at once. How is it that a few steps out of town people don’t have access to water, not even dirty water? How beautiful to see someone even in their need and vulnerability still taking care of other forms of life. As much as this country is about survival, the great majority of people will offer abundance without measure like this old woman I meet. People sew elaborate, detailed, colorful clothing, they throw fantastic celebrations frequently, they share great quantities of food; money and time is invested to make life fun, beautiful and so their rich history spanning 1000s of years here is honored. The whole Maslowvian hierarchy of need idea concept where utilitarian demands eclipse life’s pleasure or celebration, is simply not true here. I have never seen or imagined a place that celebrates more occasions than Rabinal. Its feels like practically a weekly affair. This semana santa the entire town has been working and pooling their resources together to make ‘alfombras’ or carpets on the street outside of their homes. These careful designs made of colored sawdust adorned with candles and flowers are worked on for hours only to be walked on and destroyed soon after by the passing Easter processions. If such a thing were to happen in Canada I always imagine big signs posted around ‘sponsored by Enmax-Coca Cola-Telus-Bell”. At another ceremony celebration I go to a huge bag of tamales is served to all people who make an offering large or small to the Mayan deity Toj who is doubling as Catholic figure Saint Sebastian. Mayan traditions have been kept alive throughout the assaults of these centuries by using mainline Catholicism as a disguise and a complementary figure. It is on the many days like this that this country strays so far from the its ´third world´ profile because of the richness it exudes.. It reminds me of the feeling of walking into my friend Avelina’s house in a very poor, dusty dessert community outside of Rabinal. Even though on every monetary index her family would have fallen into the category of ‘extreme poverty’, the warmth of her home, the abundant plants that her mother waters every night at 11pm when the taps comes on and the trees that have been carefully cut to provide sustainable firewood all make it rich and beautiful. Here, little money doesn’t translate into poverty, their care and imagination has made this place into a little palace.
I had the honor of being part of a vigil for the remains of bodies that had been tossed into clandestine graves during the war that were now being exhumed and returned to their families. The sister of the man whose bones have been recovered serves meets my eyes to hand me chicken soup and coffee as I sit in silence next to the small coffin and say a prayer. I feel taken aback by her generosity and humility; I haven’t offered her anything material in exchange and I know she could really use it. I see the old plastic shows that are cracking underneath her feet in the dirt floor of this room in her home. I have offered my prayers and a fleeting moment of my presence, which on one level seems very small considering that her journey of mourning and awaiting the return of these bones has spanned more than 2 decades. She doesn’t mind at all; I see in her eyes how freely she shares this with me. Even though people worry and talk so much about ‘pisto’ (money), so many exchanges aren’t translated into monetary terms. In spite of the massive exploitation the fact that the grandparents of these people worked as slaves to build the highways around here and so many migrate to costal plantations every year to make a despicable wage, there is somehow a trust that guides the sharing, giving and receiving in relationships.
An equally touching, unforgettable image resonates in my mind from the massacre commemoration ceremony for the community of Panacal. The last part of the ceremony some of the monetarily poorest people I have ever met made an offering of money to the ceremonial fire. On this blustery day, almost all middle aged and elderly mayan-achí women who are widows of the armed conflict dropped bills of five and ten quetzals into the fire. It strikes me: it seems that no matter how poor or rich someone may be in Guatemala, so many people actively engage in give and take relationships. Everyone has something to offer. By chance this very same day I carry a one-dollar American bill in my pocket. My friend and I laugh, pretending to be anti-capitalists anarchists burning American currency even though we know this isn’t the intention of the ceremony. People invest however little or much that they have to celebrate life in it’s joy and sorrow. They will give to make meaningful offerings to one another and to the spirits and ancestors which they say- have been the unconditional presence to the people during all these hard times.
Like this abundance in poverty, fear and freedom make a stark contrast. You can experience both of them here quite profoundly. There is a lightness, an unmistakable freedom that pervades the central plaza in the late afternoon as people walk, eat, joke around and converse with their families. People sit on their steps in talk to one another. Bands of kids play in the streets. People acrobatically move around on bikes in pairs on with an air of free spiritness. One Rabinalero proudly tells me that no matter what has happened and what goes on, this ambiance has never been stolen from this town. It’s so true. This lightness of this scene of the central plaza is juxtaposed with the streets that are mostly eerily empty by 7:30pm. Even my boss, who is a bright, thoughtful and progressive woman from Rabinal tells me she is contemplating buying a gun for the nights that she has to walk home from buying tortillas in the plaza. People are afraid of the Maras, or gangs. The media calls this problem common violence or delinquency- supposedly a product of poor, frustrated youth. But others have a far more macabre theory of this phenomenon; it’s said that this terror is the front line in the chain of paid criminals that can be traced back to old military and oligarchic forces that have held this country in the throes of control and fear for many years. Either way, this danger sits heavy on the consciousness of most people I talk to; they are quick to warn me that any of my expeditions on bike and by foot in and around Rabinal are dangerous. There is truth in their advice- violence is very tangible and visceral here. Everyone here has had someone close to them, family or otherwise- that has been killed by the violence during or after the war. A few examples from the recent last few weeks: the house of the director of one of partner organizations is shot at with special metal penetrating bullets. The man at the two doors down from me is killed in the middle of the night by some break and enters assailants. Everyday women come into the Office of the Achí Woman to tell stories of rape, family violence and threats that can jade you and break your heart if you’re not careful. Just outside of Rabinal, a small memorial of burning candles and cut flowers sits like a small alter on the side of a dusty pot holed road. A well-known and respected elder was shot dead the night before 40 meters from his house. There are no suspects known. Hundreds of somber people show up to his coffin the next day to offer flowers, maize, firewood to his family. I know it is precisely this type killing that can paralyze a community: seemingly random act against a community seemingly innocent leader, suspects roam freely and there is almost no talk of rectifying this injustice in any way. Impunity is not just a problem of the national government; it often governs relationships between people. It’s almost expected and even allowed in many cases. Sitting at the vigil for this older man my mind begins to wander into dangerous territory as I wonder if the killing of 12 bus drivers and another handful of bus assistants during a week of terror last month in Guatemala city also part of this systematic implementation of fear on the population, and not just a question of some common criminals wanting money? Its not always easy to know and its not useful to engage too much paranoia however I also realize that we can’t be fooled by the seemingly random and informal style by which this country operates; the old police records being dug up from a moldy basement in the Guatemala City reveal a very systematic, detailed, deliberate execution of violence during the armed conflict. To what extent does this level of deliberate planning still go on? Either way I know this fear is an absolutely key strategy that keeps the people from reclaiming and enjoying the full beauty of what is theirs.
Still, the town is caught in a conundrum because there is a point where excessive precaution fuels the violence and intimidation of this place. This is the fear keeps people down, afraid, suspicious, psychologically imprisoned and inadvertently inviting more of the same. When I’m here in the many beautiful late evenings watching a most incredible dessert sunset I ask, how does the light of Central Square during this semana santa, the incredible participation and presence of people creating beautiful events and laughter live along side and even within the same people and town who live such terror? How does it exist in the same place where a great spray of bullets was rained on the people in central plaza here in this very place on September 15th, 1981. It makes me think of Tiananmen square, but instead of a city of millions, it’s a small indigenous town tucked away in the Guatemalan mountains. An old woman selling tortillas in the market, in her wise laughter she tells me that crying is so much easier than laughing, so its important we at least try and laugh. I think she’s got it. I try to laugh as I go about my days here, and usually its easy I can, I have lots of inspiration. I go to one of the local comedors and let the 13 years deaf waitress recharge me with her fierce, joyous laughter. Her life circumstance as a young, poor indigenous girl not being able to directly speak to people objectively make her life circumstance look horrendous- but in essence she is living on top of the world as she is vivacious and joyful to no measure. To quote my fellow intern Jeff…´´I think its weird that Guatemala might actually inspire me to become an optimist.´´ I ask him why… ´´because, through all they’ve been through, they still know how to have such a good time in this country.´´ I couldn’t agree more!
An Afternoon at Work …
In a tiny indigenous community outside of Rabinal called Chuaperol, my work compañera and are delivering a workshop to a group of women. She is a young achí woman. Her extroverted nature and loud animated voice make her stand out in a place where so many women can barely state their name loud so I can take their attendance. Here, the dust is thick and the dryness in the air causes cracks in the land. This disappearance of trees for cooking firewood is drying up the land even faster because there are fewer roots to hold the water. Every drop of water counts, albeit dirty or amoebae laden; every drop is precious. In this workshop on self-esteem, part of the success of the entire event is just gathering the people together to sit, talk and generate ideas. This is a feat in a place where the women are very busy fulfilling their tremendous responsibilities of keeping their home and feeding their children. Plus many people have become frustrated with workshops or meetings that don’t relate directly to their imminent economic need. It’s an even greater feat here considering group cohesion has been so deeply damaged by the divide and conquer strategies that have rendered people suspicious and separated from one another. In fact, the first people targeted and murdered during the war were known leaders and elders of the community. Chuaperol is a community where the vast majority of men were either killed or they have simply left to the greener pastures of Guatemala City or the States. In this tiny town without a sign marking its existence, we find a microcosm of this worldwide phenomenon of rural women bearing a hugely disproportionate burden of working for their community’s survival. There is no government taking a lead in maintaining infrastructure or running programs. I am convinced if it weren’t for the unconditional presence of the women, this place would no longer exist. Even development NGOs make only patchwork contributions that can never be guaranteed beyond one year of funding and donors are often alienated from the community’s reality and rigid in how the funds are spent.
Sitting here with this group of women, in a very dusty shabby little building, broken windowed, cinder blocked community centre of sorts- the strength of the women I am gathered with hits me deep. Even after a long night, a war and many in the absence of financial or emotional support of a husband they do what it takes to get up and feed their children. In a way life seems like walking in a pitch-black night without seeing anything ahead. You move forward with small steps in faith, but not ever knowing the form of what awaits. This is evidenced by the staggering birth and death rates of places; the fragility of life stares you in the face everyday. Babies dying of dehydration because their little bodies couldn’t take the contaminated water, frequent accidents, even killings are all stories that have touched the people here. In the blackness of this uncertainty, many can’t even see ahead to the next meal; the fact that you can buy everything here in laughably small quantities- one egg, one cigarette, one tiny packet of salt reflects this reality. But as they walk through this darkness step by step I think many of them have chosen to accept this uncertainty with a deep trust, a trust that `Qa`Choo Aloom` or Mother Earth will provide. I can’t otherwise explain the relative peace and cohesion they exude today. I see these women like rocks. They have confronted pain that has been orchestrated to break their community cohesion, their land, their bodies, sexuality, spirit, traditional knowledge and economic well being. Just like most every community around Rabinal, Chuaperol also suffered a massacre during the toughest moments of violence. The deep lines of age marking their faces tell this story. So all things considered feels like a bit of a small miracle. The introverted and mildly sullen ambiance is punctuated by loud laughter. Their hearts and minds leave the pending burdens work and wounds for even a moment to let out huge laughs, deep, unabashed laughter that moves me to laugh even though I haven’t a clue about what they speak of in achí. It’s been just one short afternoon in this little place, but it leaves a deep impression.
I sit on the steps of the massive church, with my friend Lourdes- we watch spectacular display of deep pinks and oranges highlight the sky. These arid and clear skies make for almost guaranteed beautiful skies every morning and evening. She turns to me and says, ¨you know, i´m not really sure about development, give or six years ago when you sat here, there were no cars and motorbikes. It was so quiet, peaceful. Now we have a little more but our lives aren’t better because of it.`` Her observation is simple, yet so important that needs to guide all this process of transformation. Development can inadvertently sacrifice so many things that make this place brilliant. It would be tragic in a way if this place was set on its course to becoming a little Calgary, Halifax or Vancouver. It takes such intelligence, wisdom awareness to do it. This vision can only come from the people. At best outsiders can play a supporting role with encouragement or ideas, however this presence can an incredible degree of unintended effects of which undermine the creativity, intelligence and potential of the people it is supposedly serving. This is evidenced by the fact that in and around Rabinal, some of the communities that have received the most charity and projects initiated by international institutions continue to live in some of the most difficult social and economic conditions. Even though communities like Pacux have been the recipients of many of the projects that are emblematic of development, the hurt of the massacre that took 177 of the community’s women and children persist in a way that isn’t addressed by mere attempts at economic improvements. It comes from a deeper place.
I know there are many tangible things to be done and I feel grateful to be apart of a network like Breaking the Silence that creates this awareness and dedicates itself to change on all of these levels- but being in Guatemala has made one thing very clear. Social justice and development is a process that reaches out into the world but must stay close to the heart. It doesn’t start with bargaining tables and courthouses far away. This transformation or ‘development’ is born from the inside and is born from those who have a clean enough slate to be a medium and source of integral, positive movements. It works in tandem with our personal development and reintegration.
We as Canadians, Guatemalans, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, NGO´s, community groups and governments alike need to continue recovering enough of our own vision so our work actually render peace, social justice and unity in respect for our oneness and our distinctiveness. Cleaning this slate might be the biggest challenge after all the major external tyrants survive more and more as a reflection of our self-victimization and the fear we fuel it with. This takes courage to do, whether your poor or rich- the system can be powerful and convincing. Without enough of this recovered presence and vision, we become our own internal captors and the lines between victim & victimizer good & evil become blurred. So many stories from Rabinal have further awoken me to this reality and have made it difficult for me to locate the ‘enemy’ of the immense challenges this town and country face. The contradictions are all here in our very midst: the humble man who is a leader in environmentally friendly agriculture in his community is also the father of a known rapist. The ex. para-military leader is now a well known community leader. One of the community’s bravest and most persistent defenders of human rights is object of much suspicion and disrespect from the majority of his home community he seeks to defend. The soft-spoken father of my friend was a solider during the 1981-1982 reign in Guatemala. These observations don’t intend to blame the victims in any way. The facts of the conflict are overwhelmingly one-sided: a UN Rights Commission analysis says that 93% of the human rights violations were committed by the CIA backed military and paramilitaries that were beaten, brainwashed, tortured and rewarded for turning on their own people. But even given this history, the echoes of the words of a wise friend come to me…hurt people, hurt people. Without this process of recovery and transforming these old wounds, we as people are vulnerable to repeating. Working at the women’s office in the Community Legal clinic here in Rabinal these words resound everyday as woman after woman share their stories that show terror at national and international levels is backseat to the war and colonization practiced at the most local and personal levels. I know as more and more people cease their participation in these cycles of violence and take the time, space and courage to recover more of this vision, this country will transform so much faster and more deeply than anyone might have imagined. It is as much a personal, spiritual, and psychological task as it is a political and economic one.
The dark is very dark here, but the light is also very light. The perfect metaphor: great springs of flowers, other plants and trees exuberantly spill onto the street, dramatic in their colors, healthy and abundant in their forms all throughout Guatemala. This potent life, anxious to grow and unfold, intertwines with barriers of tall walls, broken glass and barbed wire security contraptions that make homes and businesses look like army barracks. This life doesn’t need to be manipulated and constructed it is already here and intrinsic to the people and land of Guate. It’s more a matter of dissolving, dismantling and reworking these huge old walls of resistance.