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 polvo 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 dust and bone.
– Julio Serrano Echeverría, Acts de Magic (my unofficial translation)
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.
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!
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
It’s an unusually drizzly and gray day here in Guatemala City.
Which, upon further reflection, seems right. We’re at a crossroads, a time of change. The rainy season is coming to a slow end. The next six months will be almost completely free of rain. No need to lug around the umbrella anymore.
Since Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday (bonus points for remembering that it is also celebrated in Canada, albeit in October), in Guatemala there is no break between the All Saint’s Day celebrations and Christmas. It’s one quick, slippery slope to Santa Claus.
Do I exaggerate? Yesterday, while sitting in my favorite Guatemalan coffee shop, Roque Rosito, the playlist abruptly transitioned from Dean Martin singing “Volare” (oh oh oh oh) to Dean Martin singing “White Christmas” (oh no no no!)
When I gestured to one of the waiters about the choice of holiday tunes, he simply rolled his eyes as if to say “yes, this will be my personal hell… having to listen to two months straight of geographically-inappropriate songs about snow in Guatemala.”
The year is quickly coming to a close.
Immigrants are made in the image and likeness of God and deserve to be treated with respect grounded in the dignity of our shared humanity. Words against immigrants matter, and hate speech has dangerous consequences. They stir the darkest forces of nativism, white supremacy and prejudice — often times masquerading as patriotism.
The greater danger for our country is the normalization of this hate, which reinforces an “us vs. them” mentality that further polarizes communities.
Immigrants are not the problem, and the caravan does not present a crisis or a national emergency. Root causes for contemporary responses deserve deeper exploration. Unjust and unequal trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA are detrimental to the survival of those who are impoverished.
Decades of U.S. interventions in Central American countries supporting oppressive regimes and corrupt governments helped foster ongoing cycles of violence. Migrants and refugees flee their homelands in search of a sustainable life for their families beyond the reach of drug cartels, poverty and the negative effects of climate change.
On March 7, 2017 a group of teenage girls attempted to escape from a state-run shelter near Guatemala City. The shelter, ironically-named Hogar Seguro (“Safe Home”), was actually an overcrowded, prison-like place where the girls suffered verbal and physical abuse, as well as rape and forced prostitution.
After being rounded up by the National Police, 56 teenage girls were caged like animals for nearly 7 hours in a tiny room, no larger than 23ft x 23ft. There was no bathroom.
At 8:45am the following morning a fire broke out in the confined space. Despite the screams and pleas of the girls, the police officers refused to unlock the door. 41 girls died nightmarish deaths in the flames; only 15 survived. Of those, many suffered terrible burns resulting in emotional and physical scarring, as well as the loss of fingers, toes, ears, and limbs.
The tragedy occurred on March 8th : International Women’s Day.
The families of the dead, as well as the girls who survived, now face the interminable task of healing and trying to rebuild their lives. Bringing to justice those responsible for this heinous crime is part of that process.
But Guatemala can be a cruel and unforgiving place. This past week served as a reminder that the Hogar Seguro tragedy occurred in a context of poverty, marginalization, crime, and violence.
On October 26th Carlota Paz Siquin, the sister Yemmi, of one of the victims of the “Safe Home” fire, disappeared from her home. Her body was found shortly thereafter. She had been stabbed to death and left in a sewage ditch. She was 13 years old.
The Paz Siquin family, still reeling from Yemmi’s brutal death, now must cope with another unimaginable loss. (The Human Rights Defenders Project helped cover Carlota’s funeral costs, in solidarity with the suffering family.)
A Note to Donald Trump
When the families in the migrant caravan say they are fleeing from conditions of terrible inequality and insecurity in their countries of origin… they are not exaggerating.
Poor communities have been battered by crime for so long that many are past the breaking point. Extortion and kidnapping by gangs are gouging the economy, while fragile justice systems are overwhelmed as reports of violence continue to pour in. According to the Wilson Center, some 95 percent of reported crimes currently go unpunished in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
These countries need more assistance, more courtrooms, more judges, more prosecutors, more vetted and trained police, more child welfare authorities, more rape crisis centers, more witness protection, and more community assistance for victims.
These migrants are so desperate that they are willing to leave their own countries to walk more than a thousand miles for safety.
These mass caravans are going to be the future of Central America if the justice systems there are not reformed to more effectively protect citizens and restrain and deter predators.
Yesterday Guatemala City seemed like a scene from a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. The streets where I live were completely deserted… well, except for the house-to-house shoe repairman and myself.
The rest of the residents were visiting departed family members in cemeteries throughout the country in celebration of All Saints Day, or the Day of the Dead. Or perhaps they had returned home to enjoy a plate of fiambre, a national plate consisting of a thousand ingredients (slight exaggeration) including: cold cuts, sausages, chicken, baby corn, cheese, olives, beets, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, onions, peas, capers, asparagus, etc.
A subtle flavor? No, not remotely. Delicious? Oh my, yes.
Today should be another quiet day. (I wince as write those easily-cursed words.) Since yesterday’s holiday fell on a Thursday, many businesses are offering Friday off as a “puente” day… literally, a bridge to the weekend. Those of us without the bridge will wade through the day like so many migrants crossing the border rivers in their trek northward.
Speaking of Which
Donald Trump’s latest threats against immigrants include:
Denying any possibility of asylum to migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally.
Sending between 5,200 and 15,000 troops to the border
Detaining migrants in tent cities indefinitely
Denying citizenship a right to those born in the United States
Someone should read “The New Colossus” poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty to Trump. (Probably while explaining the big words to him.)
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
If I were France, I would request the return of Lady Liberty. “if you’re not using it, you might as well send it back.”
If you dare
If you’ve read this far, there’s a chance you might have a more nuanced and critical assessment of the push/pull factors which drive Central American immigration to the United States. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that U.S. policy, politics, and actions have greatly impaired the growth of real democracy and genuine development in the region. If you’re nodding yes, then you’ll be richly rewarded by reading this fantastic article:
“The only thing that is constant is change.”
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
― Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Change is scary. No, wait… ghosts are scary. Change is terrifying. Like “Trump as a babysitter” terrifying. Forget butterflies in the tummy, change is like hairy bats in your belly.
Yet change can also be exciting, inspiring, and invigorating. Especially if you’re lucky enough to be the agent of that change. To design it, build it, help it grow. In those circumstances change can even be fun. Fun and terrifying.
Over the past few months I’ve begun the process of creating a new nonprofit organization to support human rights defenders in Guatemala. The official name is The Human Rights Defenders Project, but I imagine that we’ll end up calling it the Defenders Project informally. (For the bilingual among you, we opted for “Proyecto Defensores” instead of “El Proyecto de Apoyo para las y los Defensores de los Derechos Humanos” for reasons that should be immediately apparent.)
It has been a fascinating and exhausting experience so far: the paperwork, the research, the fundraising, the brainstorming, the paperwork. (Yes, I know. It warranted repeating.) Thanks to the help of generous donors and our super-savvy lawyer, Mollie, we are now a legally-incorporated nonprofit organization awaiting 501c3 tax-exempt status from the IRS!
It’s spring, and change is in the air. For me, this means:
Changing from NY to Guatemala: I’ll be returning to Guatemala City on May 2.
Changing from planning to doing: we will soon be “going public” with the Defender’s Project, and opening the doors of our new office.
Changing the focus of this website: from now on, news and analysis about Guatemala will be on the Defender’s Project website. This site will focus more on my personal stories about work and life in Guatemala, as well as other non-Guatemalany (yes, I made that word up) topics like leadership, meditation, time management, photography, productivity, etc.
I look forward to sharing this journey of change with all of you!
PS: If anyone knows how to rid a belly of hairy bats, I welcome your suggestions.