Mentors, Muses & Massacres

There are people in our lives who see us with eyes of unconditional love and support. They see the best version of us, the clearest vision of who we are, and who we can become.

These people are our mentors and muses. To be seen through their eyes is to feel inspired, motivated, and challenged.

I am blessed to have many such people in my life: my family and friends, coworkers and communities. They are artists and activists, people of faith, people of commitment, and people of compassion.

Julio Serrano EcheverriaOne such friend is Guatemalan poet Julio Serrano Echeverría. Julio was intriqued by my stories about working with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG).

I had told him about the exhumations of the mass graves from the internal armed conflict, and the process of identifying the remains of the massacred innocents.

“One of the most heartbreakingly poignant moments” I added, “was returning the bodies to the families for proper burial.”

This process included the ‘dressing of the bones’… placing the remains of the victims into brand new clothes as we laid the bodies out in rustic wooden coffins. These clothes were gifts of love and remembrance from the family members: painfully expensive, gorgeously elaborate huipiles (woven blouses), colorful skirts, and bandanas to carefully cover the skulls. Mementos, such as photos, toys, jewelry, or cacao beans (considered to be currency in the afterlife) were also added.

These stories moved Julio to write a poem –powerful in its simplicity– that I want to share with you.  Julio thanked me for helping to inspire the poem… but the opposite is equally true. I am thankful to him for finding beauty and meaning in the work that I do.

A un cuerpo que se viste para su entierro

Caerá tu falda sobre la tierra
como cayó alguna vez
junto a tu cama.

Te ves igual de hermosa
vestida de colores,
aunque solo seas
y hueso.

– Julio Serrano Echeverría,  Actos de Magia

To a body that is dressed for its burial

Your skirt will fall to the earth
as it once fell
by your bedside.

You look just as beautiful
dressed all in colors,
even if you are only
and bone.

– Julio Serrano Echeverría, Acts de Magic
 (my unofficial translation)


I have just returned from a visit to the village of Ixquisis, where community members are in peaceful resistance to the imposition of a massive hydroelectric project that threatens to divert their river and dry up their farmlands.

The Human Rights Defenders Project participated as part of a caravan in solidarity with the brave people of Ixquisis. I was well-accompanied by other human rights defenders, environmental activists, community leaders, spiritual guides, artists, and indigenous authorities.

Ixquisis is the very definition of remote. We were on the road (and I use that term loosely) for nearly 18 hours before reaching the village. Forging rivers, crossing mudslides, climbing rock-strewn mountains, traversing dense forest…. we finally arrived in an area so intensely green that it soothed me to my soul.

(Ironically, I’ve found that many of the worst atrocities and grave human rights violations in Guatemala occur in the most unimaginably beautiful places.)

All through the day we met, shared stories, and ate together in an open field. A sense of mutual support and shared struggle united those of us gathered on the grass.

The cooking fires of Ixquisis

As night fell, I wandered far from the cooking fires, songs and dancing.

Alone, I looked up.

In a place so free from overdevelopment and light pollution, the night sky was breathtakingly brilliant. It had been years, if not decades, since I saw a sky so iridescent with countless shimmering stars. I stood in silent awe.

Maybe you’ve had that same feeling? Of belonging. Of purpose. That perfect moment when you know (not feel, not sense, but know) that you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.

A prayer of gratitude slipped unbidden from my lips: thank-you.

I lowered my sight to the darkness of the night and searched for the light of the cooking fires. Following the flames, and the sounds of laughter and music, I returned to my people.

A Midnight Thing

As the Fuego Volcano near Antigua continues erupting with beautiful violence, I am reminded of a passage from White Teeth, the captivating novel by Zadie Smith. It describes the life of immigrants in a foreign land and the inevitable clash of cultures. In one section, the main character divides the world’s citizens into two very different groups: those who live at the mercy of the earth’s capricious quirks, and those who do not.

Guatemala’s volcanoes, mudslides, earthquakes and hurricanes  serve as a constant reminder of how fragile and precarious existence can be. Life here is, indeed, a midnight thing.

From White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not color. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins.

The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:

(a)  Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?

(b)  Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?

(c)  Is there a chance (and please check the box, no matter how small that chance seems) that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?

Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a key ring or a hair clip.

And it is lethargy: why not sit all morning, all day, all year, under the same cypress tree drawing the figure of eight in the dust?

More than that, it is disaster, it is chaos: why not overthrow a government on a whim, why not blind the man you hate, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair?

There’s nothing to stop you—or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute. That feeling. That’s the real difference in a life. People who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this.

Dedicated to three amazing Js:

Jennifer Trowbridge: For first sharing this with me.

Julia Pimentel: This is the text I promised to send so long ago.

Stephanie Jolluck: For allowing me to share her gorgeous photograph of the Volcan de Fuego!

Paura & the Good Stuff

Una Metafora

I’m trying to learn Italian. In my studies I’m using a myriad of books and apps (DuoLingo, Mango, Babbel, etc.) But one of the most enjoyable ways of improving pronunciation and picking up new vocabulary is by listening to songs in Italian.

I already have my favorite pop stars… Arisa! Giorgia! Irene Grandi!

One of the words that kept popping up constantly in the lyrics was “paura”. It was such a oft-repeated word that I had to look it up. Turns out that “paura” means “fear”. What an odd sentiment, I thought, to appear so frequently in so many Italian love songs.

Hadn’t Italians mastered the art of love?  After all, they’re the ones who musically defined it: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…. that’s amore!” So, why the paura? What’s so scary about love?

The answer came to me last night while watching an action series on Netflix. The episode included an all-too-common plot device. You’ve probably seen it in a movie or on tv:

A driver and her passenger have just escaped some terrible danger: maybe a bomb, a chase, or a nasty villain. The background music becomes calm and soothing. As the car passes through an intersection, the driver turns to the passenger, smiles warmly, and says: “I think we’re going to be ok.” Or words to that effect.

But no.

There, in the window behind the smiling driver, you see it. Blurry at first, perhaps. But all too soon it becomes clear: a van, a bus, or a truck hurdling through the traffic light. It blindsides the car… there is a sound of squealing metal and shattering glass. The scene fades to black.

They never know what hit them. One moment it’s safety, smiles, and soothing music, and then suddenly everything is spinning out of control.

Fade to black. Paura.

On a Brighter Note

Not every Italian song is about fear. (Thankfully.)

One of the most unique and heartwarming songs I’ve encountered is “Roba Bella” or “The Good Stuff”. It started as an art project of two brothers, collectively known as Pastis, who put Italian street scenes to music. One of the most captivating videos was of Pasquale, a vendor in a public market, whose sing-song selling of his wares was music in and of itself.

Irene Grandi, a gifted singer, added lyrics to the video. Her words, with Pasquale’s voice in the background, are pure beauty:

It is the voice of Pasquale
his voice
it arrives in May
by the road
fragrant of the past
of laundry

it’s a beautiful morning
a beautiful aria
a beautiful aria
and Pasquale sings the good stuff
good stuff

he comes from the mountains
with summer in his pockets
good stuff

This day like no other

When the mist of the possible dissipates you are left with the clarity of what is, and what never will be.

A poem, in order to remember and refocus

For Pablo Neruda
by Maketa Groves

This day
like no other
will soon pass.

But now
the glamorous sea
flaunts her diamond surfaced brilliance.

The sun traverses the sky awakening other
worlds of sleepers

The moon will climb
its silken laddered perch
and embrace us in its
milky attraction
and a little sadness.

Soon, this day
like no other
will be gone.

Deep in the night
I feel the kiss of the sun
the murmured seduction of the wind
the tingling feeling of sand on skin:

The results of this day unlike the morrow
or the morrow, or the morrow.

This day when we are alive.

A Day at the Opera

Over the weekend I attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The best part? I didn’t even have to leave Guatemala City.

I was invited by Julia Pimentel, lawyer & soprano extraordinaire, to attend the live simulcast transmission of the new opera Marnie at the Dick Smith Theater of the Instituto Guatemalteco Americano (IGA).

Me, with the lovely & talented Julia

It was part of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” program, where operas are broadcast live from the Met to over 2,200 cinemas in over 70 countries!

It was a thrilling experience… the screen at the IGA theater showed folks arriving at the Met, and the sound of the orchestra warming up filled the room. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt instantly transported to Lincoln Center.

I confess that watching the opera on a screen isn’t quite as magical as being there in person, awash in the electricity of the audience and immersed in the majesty of the Met. There were, however, some unexpected benefits to watching a performance close-up, especially this one.

Marnie is modern opera, incorporating many of the best elements of stage theater. The music is sparsely beautiful, and the sets minimalistic, relying on graphic projections to add texture, color and content to the scenery.

The acting was simply outstanding. The marvelous vocal performances were enhanced by the facial expressions of the cast, especially the opera’s troubled heroine, Isabel Leonard. Her eyes often conveyed as much feeling and meaning as the lyrics themselves.

Marnie © The Metropolitan Opera

The story is based on a novel by Winston Graham, which was also made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock (starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.)

It is a psychological thriller, telling the tale of Marnie, a woman so haunted by her past that she cannot fully live in the present. Instead she escapes from place to place, from face to face, changing identities as easily as she changes the color of her hair. Her exhausting existence is reduced to routine of thievery and deceit. When her past –finally and inevitably– catches up with her present, it becomes a moment of liberation. “I am finally free,” she sings … as the police escort her away.

(For those of you screaming “spoilers!,” I disagree. I would argue that church and the opera are two places where knowing the ending of the story beforehand actually enhances your experience.)

The next opera to be broadcast will be La Traviata on December 15th. For more information on watching an HD simulcast near you, use the Met’s theater finder!

Weekend reading

It’s Friday. It’s been a long week.

So, as gift to you, I’d like to share some excellent reading material for the weekend. The following articles have been written by respected friends and colleagues who really know their stuff!

There’s also some dismal and dispiriting news at the end of the post. Breaking news of yet another human rights defender who is paying the price for protecting the environment in Guatemala.

Please read on…

U.S. Gave Military Jeeps to Guatemala to Fight Drug Trafficking. Instead, They Were Used to Intimidate an Anti-Corruption Commission by Sandra Cuffe

The armored jeeps were lined up single file along a Guatemala City street on August 31 in an ominous queue. By mid-morning, images began circulating of the jeeps outside the offices of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission that has played a key role in bringing down corrupt officials. More jeeps were spotted in the vicinity of the National Palace, along with military personnel. In a country with a not-so-distant past of military coups and massacres, the photographs and videos spread like wildfire, raising alarm as people scrambled to find out what was going on. […]

Regardless of the shifting rationales, one thing is now clear:  The Guatemalan government violated an agreement with the United States regarding the latter’s donation of Jeep J8s. Both the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Defense confirmed to The Intercept that the vehicles were donated for use by specific Guatemalan interagency task forces for counternarcotics operations in border regions. Their transfer or use outside of those parameters would constitute a violation of the donation agreement.

Read the entire article at The Intercept


Guatemala: War, Continued by Pamela Yates

The Guatemalan state was slaughtering tens of thousands of people in the 1980s. To this day, few people have heard about the Guatemalan genocide because it was just too damn hard to get any real information then: it was dangerous; journalists were targeted; the army’s scorched earth actions were mostly relegated to remote mountainous areas; the civilians there spoke Indigenous languages; and those who took up arms to resist were deeply clandestine. It took time, patience, and persistence. […]

We know now that attacks against unarmed civilians intensified and that acts of genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Maya people were intentionally ordered by Ríos Montt and carried out by soldiers and civilian patrols, who reported back up the chain of command to him. Ríos Montt claimed in 1982 and during his trial that he was unaware of what his officers were doing in the field. He lied then, and he lied in 2013. Guatemala’s highest court promptly overturned the genocide ruling, but its symbolic weight on the historic verdict remained. Ríos Montt died a convicted genocidaire still under house arrest in April of this year.

Read the entire article at NACLA


Why are so many people fleeing Honduras? by Jackie McVicar

“We are living in calamity, a humanitarian crisis in Honduras,” said Bartolo Fuentes, a well-known Honduran journalist and former member of its Congress, arriving at the Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 19 after being detained in Guatemala where he tried to report on the caravan. “Today they left,” he said. “Tomorrow they will leave…. Three hundred people leave Honduras every day.”

“It is the duty of the Honduran State to provide its citizens with the means to satisfy their basic needs,” the Honduran conference of Catholic bishops said, “such as decent, stable and well-paid work, health, education and housing.”

“When these conditions do not exist, people are forced to live in tragedy and many of them hope to undertake a path that leads to development and improvement, finding themselves in the shameful and painful need to leave their families, their friends, their community, their culture, their environment and their land.”

Read the entire article at America Magazine


Bernardo Caal Xol
Bernardo Caal Xol – indigenous leader, community activist, and environmental defender in Guatemala (photo by Tercera Informacion)

And finally, in breaking news… actually, heartbreaking news: community leader and environmental activist Bernardo Caal Xol today was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for helping to organize a peaceful resistance to a highly-criticized hydroelectric project in Guatemala.

Pat Davis shared an article (in Spanish) about the well-respected indigenous leader. On her Facebook page she comments:

We visited this man in prison in Guatemala during our recent trip there. He has been detained since January, awaiting trial on trumped-up charges. He had filed a case with the Supreme Court of Guatemala contesting the licenses granted to a company that has been building two hydroelectric dams on the river that provides more than 100 communities with drinking water.

The dams have diverted the river, and the traditional way of the life of the community members, as well as their health, is threatened. The Court ruled in the communities’ favor. And so, of course there was retaliation.

Bernardo’s sentencing hearing is tomorrow. He could face more than ten years for a crime that never occurred.

Bernardo Caal Xol: “Mi único delito es promover una consulta en base al Convenio 169 de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo”

Son muchos, demasiados, los y las defensoras de los Derechos humanos que sufren la persecución, el hostigamiento, las amenazas y las agresiones de las empresas trasnacionales, las cuales, amparadas por los propios Estados, promueven proyectos que dañan el medioambiente, destruyen el territorio y terminan con la forma de vida de las comunidades locales.

Según los registros de la Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos – Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), se han registrado solo entre enero y julio del 2018 un total de 137 agresiones y 21 asesinatos a personas defensoras de derechos humanos solo en Guatemala.

Hidroeléctricas, minerías, plantaciones… Según el Convenio 169 de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo (OIT), antes de ejecutar un proyecto en territorio de pueblos indígenas y tribales debe realizar antes una consulta libre, previa e informada a las comunidades locales, un trámite que se incumple sistemáticamente. Esto es precisamente lo que el líder indígena maya q’echi’ Bernardo Caal Xol, miembro de la Resistencia Pacífica de Cahabón, exigía cuando se produjo su detención. También denunciaba irregularidades a la hora de otorgar las licencias de construcción.

Fue encarcelado el 30 de enero bajo acusaciones infundadas y mañana viernes se conocerá la sentencia.

Read the entire article at Tercera Informacion