Women in Resistance–The Story of the Scholarship

On the final night of the “Women in Resistance” delegation, our leaders gathered us together in a coffee shop in Antigua’s parque central for a brainstorming session. We strategized and shared ideas about how we would raise awareness about Guatemala’s land and women’s rights issues while carrying all the voices we heard forward in international solidarity, once we returned to our individual lives in the United States.

Many of my fellow delegates used their unique talents to advocate for land and women’s rights issues in Guatemala in special ways. In Georgia, Courtney collected art supplies and raised funds to support Casa Artesana’s painting program for incarcerated women. In Wisconsin, Agnes shared her experiences with her church, continued to actively volunteer with Racine’s latino community, and collected Spanish children’s books for the Alliance of Rural Women, which I delivered to Guatemala in November, 2012. Alma, who has continued living in Guatemala, used her ties to Nevada, where gold mining company Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates is headquartered, to advocate against the destructive environmental and social effects the gold mining project would have on San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc. Recently, she create an opportunity for Don Alvaro from San Pedro Ayampuc to  protest at Comstock Mining Inc.’s shareholder’s meeting in the United States.

I sought to be “the librarian” of the delegation, writing a record of each meeting as a way to honor the Guatemalans who were so kind to meet with us and share their stories, and also to inspire others to learn about land and women’s rights struggles in Guatemala. In the middle of transcribing the handwritten notes I took during the delegation into posts illustrated with beautiful photographs taken by Paola, Alma, and Courtney, I returned to Guatemala. I studied Spanish with a new teacher each week, and when asked six different times what brought me to Guatemala, I always explained the delegation. My teachers were intrigued, and many expressed a wish to participate in such a delegation as way of building international solidarity, and also learning more about on-the-ground issues in their own country.

When I returned to the United States in January 2013, I reflected on how meaningful participating in the delegation had been for me and that many Guatemalans may want to participate but lack the funds to do so. I decided to fundraise for a full scholarship so that a person with Guatemalan heritage who could not otherwise afford the delegation could participate in what was for me and my fellow delegates, a transformative experience. I solicited donations from friends and family, and sold Guatemalan textiles and jewelry that GHRC has stored in their office. It gave me so much positive energy to fundraise for this scholarship, and thanks to many generous donations and purchases, the scholarship was complete by the time that GHRC was accepting applications.  I plan to fundraise for this scholarship annually, and look forward to applying what I learned to fundraise next year. In the meantime, I sincerely wish all the 2013 delegates the best, and I can’t wait to learn about their experience this coming August!

Learn More about GHRC’s Women in Resistance Delegation and the Scholarship

1. “Delegations to Guatemala. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/get-involved/delegations/

2. “‘Women in Resistance’ Delegation Scholarship.” Causes. http://www.causes.com/actions/1734250-women-in-resistance-delegation-scholarship

3. Kramer, Ilyse. 2012 “Women in Resistance” Delegation an Event to Remember.  El Quetzal. Issue 13, December 2012. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/El-Quetzal-final-with-WN-note.pdf

Reflecting on the Rios Montt ruling & introducing reflections on Judaism and Guatemalan Human Rights

On January 28, 2013, judge Angel Galvez ruled that former Guatemalan general Efraín Rios Montt and intelligence officer José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez would stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. This announcement, which according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s News Roundup, “drew a large crowd which included many survivors of the armed conflict as well as journalists, retired military personnel, and human rights activists” fell one day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th.

When I think about these two dates and how they connect in my mind, I also mull over what Judaism means to me. I think about how Judaism taught me empathy. In learning the story of the Holocaust, it was not only 6 million of my own people who were massacred, it was all people perceived as different and less than–political activists, people with disabilities, the Romani (Gypsies), gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

As a conclusion to my delegation with GHRC, my fellow delegates and I had talked about next steps for outreach and activism around Guatemalan land rights and women’s rights. During the delegation, I had observed many parallels to the historical oppression that Jewish people had experienced and Guatemala’s past and present day struggles.

Having recently returned from Guatemala and Israel, I wish to pursue this connection. More specifically, I will explore the intersection and commonalities that exist in the histories of Guatemala and the Jewish people. These explorations written here on my blog will address history, culture, society, art, and politics, with a focus on how both peoples’ have suffered oppression for belonging to ethnic minority grops.

One goal of these explorations is to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the rich history of our own people as well as the complexities of the human rights situation in Guatemala. My goal is that through learning about these intertwining histories, the Jewish community will become engaged in promoting and protecting human rights in Guatemala.

Learn More about Efraín Rios Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez’s Trial

1. Mychalejko, Cyril. “Ríos Montt and the Need for International Accountability for War Crimes in Guatemala.” Guatemala Human Rights Updates. February 13, 2013. http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/rios-montt-and-the-need-for-international-accountability-for-war-crimes-in-guatemala/ Cyril Mychalejko, an editor for Upside Down World, online magazine addressing politics in Latin America, has written an article that gives valuable historical context of the genocide that occurred during Ríos Montt’s administration as well as the support he received from United States President Ronald Reagan.

2. Malkin, Elizabeth. “Ex-dictator is ordered to trial in Guatemala for War Crimes.” New York Times. January 28, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/world/americas/ex-dictator-is-ordered-to-trial-in-guatemala-for-war-crimes.html?ref=efrainriosmontt This article provides a clear explanation of the trial.

Learn More about Holocaust Remembrance 

1. Gera, Vanessa. “International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013: Victims Mourned At Auschwitz And Beyond.” The Huffington Post. January 27, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/27/international-holocaust-remembrance-day-2013_n_2561839.html This article describes how Poland and other European countries honor January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The article concludes with a quote from President Obama that also illustrates why the ruling against Efraín Rios Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez is an important step forward in enabling Guatemalans to commemorate the lives lost in genocide: “”Many brutal crimes have been left without punishment, redemption and commemoration….I want to believe that by remembering the death and suffering of the victims the new generations will be obliged to fight any form of prejudice, racism and chauvinism, anti-Semitism and hatred.”

Community in Resistance San Jose del Golfo

In our conversation at the Embassy, GHRC Director Kelsey Alford Jones had encouraged officials to meet with indigenous communities to hear their perspectives regarding development. It was fitting then, that our last delegation meeting brought us to San Jose del Golfo, where we met with community members who had established a peaceful roadblock to prevent Kappes, Cassiday & Associates from setting up a gold mining project in their community. At the time of our meeting in August 11, 2012, San Jose del Golfo’s protest had been going on 5 months.

As we drove up the long winding path on the way to San Jose’s roadblock, delegation co-leader Rob Mercantante pointed to a spot on the pavement and said, “that was where Yolanda was shot.” Yolanda Oqueli was a resident of San Jose, who had an active role in leading protests against the gold mine. When I had applied to participate in the delegation back in June, Yolanda was included in the roster of activists we had planned to meet. But on June 13, she was shot at three times by two men on motorcycles while leaving the roadblock at 6:30 pm.  One bullet entered above her right kidney. Yolanda has since recovered, but watching the spot on the road recede made my stomach churn, and was a powerful reminder of how violence looms over and so easily threatens San Jose’s peaceful resistance.

When we arrived at the roadblock, which was arrayed with colorful banners protesting the mine and expressing solidarity with the people of San Jose, we were welcomed by many men and women of the community. Antonio “Tono” Reyes introduced himself as a leader. He gestured to show us that the community has set up a stage and sound system for gatherings, and people bring their guitars to play. He explained that community members are present at the roadblock 24 hours each day in rotating shifts, and they have also set up a bathroom, kitchen, and enclosure for people to sleep.

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We listen to San Jose del Golfo explain their peaceful resistance against Canadian gold mining company Kappes, Cassidy, and Associates

We joined the community in a circle, and an American nun named Sister Danni translated Tono’s words into English. After learning our delegation’s theme “Women in Resistance,” Tono commented on the valuable role that women have played in San Jose’s peaceful protest. Sister Danni added, in fact, this protest was started by a women. She elaborated: On March 2, 2012, a San Jose resident named Estella was working at a bank when she saw people driving mining equipment toward San Jose, and overheard officials at the bank discussing that the mining project was on its way to their community. Aware of the harmful environmental and health effects of gold mines, which use toxic chemicals to extract the gold from the rocks, Estella immediately left the bank, and drove her car into the road at the point where the construction trucks were poised to enter.

The drivers honked, and after Estella refused to move, the drivers came out and yelled at her. They called “stupid,” and threatened run her over unless she got out of their way, but Estella remained in the road. Soon, two women from the community showed up alongside her, and Estella was nervous, unsure her neighbors would react to her one-woman blockade. But the women got out of their cars and told her, “we are here, Estella. We are here with you.”  Thirty minutes later, 1,000 people joined Estella’s blockade, now in its fifth month.

Tono explained that so many members of the community were motivated to join Estella in the roadblock because the people of San Jose “view all life in a holistic way.” This perspective gives them an understanding of how the mine will harm community and environmental health, even though Kappes, Cassidy and Associates claims the mine will bring economic benefits. Tono reported that the process of separating gold from rocks requires toxic chemicals that end up in the water supply. In San Marcos, where the Goldcorp company established the Marlin Mine, residents have suffered from outbreaks of cancer, skin rashes, and eye aliments.

Tono continued to share that although many members of the community have joined the peaceful protest, some members of the community support the mining project. The mining company has taken advantage of these diverging views to spread conflict. One way the mining company tries to divide the community is through gossip, and the mining company has spread a rumor that women participating in the protest are prostitutes who go to the roadblock to solicit men.

But, Tono noted, the women who participate in the protest are “armed with peace, truth and justice.” He acknowledged that the mining company’s efforts to tear San Jose’s community fabric, have united the people participating in the protest. He added that they are “only rebelling against injustice” and committed to continuing nonviolent resistance. “If there are deaths and flowing blood, it will be ours.” His heartfelt words provided a fitting opportunity for GHRC to honor San Jose del Golfo for their peaceful resistance with the Sister Alice Zachmann Human Rights Defender Award. Tono accepted the award, named for GHRC’s founder at GHRC’s 30th Anniversary Celebration in September, 2012.

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Our delegation stands with San Jose del Golfo

Learn more about San Jose del Golfo’s peaceful resistance

1. Guatemala Human Rights Commission. “One year of resistance against mine in San Jose del Golfo.” March 5, 2013. http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/weekly-news-round-up-8/#more-1905 GHRC’s news update describes and links to a Prensa Libre article regarding San Jose del Golfo’s celebration of one year of resistance against the mine on March 3, 2013.

2.  Guatemala Human Rights Commission. “La licencia de la mina El Tambor debería ser suspendida.” February 15, 2013. http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/la-licencia-de-la-mina-progreso-vii-derivada-el-tambor-deberia-ser-suspendida/ Robert Robinson and Steve Laudeman conducted an Environmental Impact Assement of the land in San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc slated for gold mines. The photoessay from GHRC documents the men’s visit to the roadblock to share the assessment’s results. The essay is written in Spanish, but is easily translated with the browser Google Chrome.

On December 7 2012, anti-riot police disrupted San Jose’s peaceful resistance

1. Guatemala Human Rights Commission. “Communities in Resistance in San Jose del Golfo Under Attack.” December 8, 2012. http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/communities-in-resistance-in-san-jose-del-golfo-under-attack/ GHRC’s photoessay provides detailed documentation of December 7th’s attack.

2. Waqib’ Kej Convergencia. “La Puya, viernes 7 de diciembre de 2012, intento de desalojo.” December 7, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiGM7M9q9TM. This 1 minute video, in Spanish without subtitles, features Yolanda Oqueli denouncing the attack.

Learn more about harmful health, environmental, & social impacts of mining in Guatemala

1. CucGuatemala. “Otra Vez la Mina.”  May 10, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gq5wA0XGrEg. This seven minute film, in Spanish without subtitles, provides an informative overview of the situation regarding the mine. The film also features powerful footage of Yolanda Oqueli speaking about the mine and blockade.

Learn more about anti-mining activist Yolanda Oqueli

1. Waqib’ Kej Convergencia. “Yolanda Oquelí esta resistencia se fortalece con los ataques de la minera.” November 12, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGElSaKgx8k  This four-minute film, in Spanish without subtitles, shows Yolanda speaking to the people of San Jose. Community leader Don Alvaro, from San Pedro Ayampuc who plays a key role in speaking out against the Tambour mine in his community, is in the audience, visible at :38. San Pedro Ayampuc was also honored with the Sister Alice Zachmann Human Rights Defender Award, which Don Alvaro accepted at GHRC’s 30th Anniversary Celebration.

2. Paley, Dawn. “Guatemala: Peaceful Resistance in the Face of Violence.” Upside Down World. October, 24, 2012. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/3934-guatemala-peaceful-resistance-in-the-face-of-violence Journalist Dawn Paley describes Yolanda’s first public speech since she was attacked in June. This essay provides a valuable written complement to the film linked above.

Women in Resistance–Meeting Sandra Moran

After our meeting with ISMU, we traveled to Casa Artesana for a conversation and dinner with artist-activist Sandra Moran at Casa Aretsana. Casa Artesana is an artists’ collective, that includes an open-house and cafe, and is part of the umbrella organization Women’s Sector.

The name “Casa Artesana” is a wordplay on “artisan” and its Spanish meaning of (arte sana) “art heals.” After introducing herself, Sandra explained that Casa Artesana provides an important  outlet for Guatemalans’ energy and creativity, which will disappear if it is not channeled.

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The wall at Casa Artesana’s entrance reads: “Casa Artesana: House of Women. The house is open to diverse people for sharing life, the creative act, and transgression.”

Like so many of the activists we met, Sandra’s demeanor spoke to a deep inner wisdom stemming from her lived experience. Setting her apart though, was her emotive artistic energy, ever-present as she gave us a tour of Casa Artesana, and explained that the vibrant paintings adorning the walls were created by women incarcerated in Guatemala’s prison system. Many of these paintings had the common theme of maternity and pregnancy in prison.

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This painting on the wall of Casa Aretesana is a powerful visual testament to the experience of the painter as a woman pregnant in prison.

Sandra added that although there are organizations in Guatemala that aim to reform the prison system, which is controlled by current and former members of the military, Casa Artesana is the only organization that works with incarcerated women. Casa Artesana introduced art programs to incarcerated women in 2008.

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I love this painting, and seeing it on the walls of Casa Artesana felt like a special message linking disability and Guatemalan women’s rights. Mermaids are popular symbols for women with spinal cord injury, who feel like “landlocked mermaids.”

Casa Artesana also provides services to promote the economic self-sufficiency and wellbeing of the 1,2000 women in Guatemala’s 9 prisons. One such program is clothing donations, which give women materials to sew and sell handcrafts to other inmates and visitors.  Casa Artesana also advocates for improved living conditions in the prisons, and does political education trainings so that women will understand their rights, how the system works, and how to press charges for inhumane treatment. Casa Artesana has also established a phone line that women can use to call for help or make denouncements if they have been attacked or tortured.

Sandra continued that Casa Artesana is also working to establish separate prisons for women and men. She shared that many women of the women are from countries outside Guatemala, such as Venezuela and Colombia, and are charged with drug trafficking and organized crime. Although they participated in the crimes for which they are incarcerated, many times women were unwilling or unwitting victims who had been kidnapped or extorted.

In Guatemala’s prison system, some women wait for as long as six years to be sentenced. Children between the ages of 0-4 years old are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison. Casa Artesana takes care of children 4 years and older, identifying scholarships so that children are not sent to a “third-party” because most extended families of the incarcerated women are too poor support the children.

Following our tour of Casa Artesana, we sat with Sandra as she shared her own story with us. She is from Guatemala City, and joined the human rights movement at age fourteen. She attended the University of San Carlos in the 1980s, when violence against students was on the rise. She went into exile in Mexico and Canada to escape the violence. During her years in exile, she participated in solidarity work, developed her musical talents, and joined Canada’s women’s movement. After the signing of the Peace Accords, she returned to Guatemala City. Upon her return, she came out as a lesbian, and has been victimized because of her sexuality.

She has emerged as a leader in Guatemala’s women’s movement, and explained to us that she is “committed to understanding systems of oppression from different points of view.” She stated that, to create positive social change, activists must confront internalized beliefs of racism, homophobia, and other prejudices before addressing external systems of oppression. She insightfully commented that indigenous people are trying to re-value themselves against this external system, and are faced with an additional assault of structural violence that prevents them from valuing who they are.

Then, she opened the conversation up to us for questions, and we continued onto a dynamic conversation that spanned from the history of feminism to life for people with disabilities in Guatemala. Listening to Sandra share her breadth of knowledge regarding Guatemala’s history of social justice and observing the engaged flow of conversation from my fellow delegates, was immensely invigorating.

Sandra concluded our talk with the statement, “women are finding ways to confront the struggle, and we need to learn from the history of resistance.” She then abruptly grabbed her drum and sang a song titled “Mujer” (Woman).

Her rhythmic words and drumbeats reverberated in a profound way for each of us delegates. One delegate, a drummer, was deeply moved by Sandra’s performance, and told me she “had never heard anything like that before.” For me, Sandra’s song set to music our special week of “Women in Resistance.”

Sandra Moran drumming “Mujer”

Learn more about Sandra Moran and Casa Artesana

1. Moran, Sandra. “Mujer Maiz Mujer.” March 14, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9no4r1NIXI This youtube video of Sandra Moran singing and drumming “Mujer Maiz Mujer” is a dynamic performance, but does not give justice to the vital energy that comes across in her real-life performance.

2. Moran, Sandra. “Sandra Moran about Casa Artesana.” June 14, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huNjSAP3XOc This youtube video shows Sandra Moran speaking in English about Casa Artesana’s founding.

3. Gonzalez, Elma. “Activist Shares Turbulent Past.” The Ithacan. April 4, 2011. http://theithacan.org/12009 This interview between Sandra Moran and a staff writer from Ithaca College’s newspaper the “Ithacan” gives a more detailed glimpse into the varied stages of Sandra’s life.

4. Alford-Jones, Kelsey. “A Grassroots Activist on the Frontlines of the Women’s Movement.” Peace x Peace Blog. March 23, 2011. http://www.peacexpeace.org/2011/03/a-grassroots-activist-on-the-frontlines-of-the-women-movement/ GHRC Director Kelsey Alford-Jones’s blog post describes Sandra Moran’s inspiring role as leader in Guatemala’s women’s movement.

GHRC Delegation–Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty

On Friday morning, our delegation traveled to the American Embassy in Guatemala City to relay our concerns regarding women’s and land rights at the American Embassy. We met with: Political Sector and attaché for Labor and Human Rights; representatives of USAID; the Deputy Director of Narcotics Law Enforcement; and staff from the Department of Immigration, Customs, and Trafficking. 

It was very meaningful to listen to my fellow delegates share how they were affected by the individuals and organizations we had met. Our delegation co-leader, GHRC Director Kelsey Alford-Jones spoke eloquently, imploring the representatives to seek out ways to “advance sustainable and culturally appropriate development that allows for local efforts to flourish.”

After our meeting and lunch at Casa Cervantes, we had a discussion with the Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty (ISMU), a community group made of residents who live in Zones 5 and 6, which are shantytowns situated on ravines. The residents of Zones 5 and 6 formed ISMU to advocate for improved living conditions in their neighborhoods.

Throughout our week, we had often seen these shantytowns from our van window as we drove through Guatemala City. One delegate had asked our driver Carlos if the shantytowns had a name, because in Brazil, such shantytowns were called “favelas.” Carlos told us that Guatemalans call the neighborhoods “limonada” (translated as lemonade) “because lemonade is strong.”

On Friday afternoon, we arrived at ISMU feeling drained from our conversation at the Embassy, but we were soon revived by the warm welcome we received from families of ISMU, many of whose children were present as well. We sat in a circle with the families, and as we ate the generous snack they served us–coffee and tamales made with cheese and a vegetable called lorocco, which had a similar flavor to rhubarb–we learned about the living situation in Zones 5 and 6 that motivated the residents to organize and form ISMU.

ISMU reported that many neighborhoods lacked vital services such as sewage systems and potable water, and as a result children in the community commonly suffer from diarrhea and respitory illnesses. Another member explained that the neighborhoods also lack access to public services. For example, firefighters refuse to come to Zones 5 and 6, if a home caught on fire, residents “would have to use public transit.” Police only come to the neighborhoods “when there is a death,” pharmacies and food delivery services will not come either.

The culmination of these factors prompted the families to come together “in pursuit of dignity and solidarity.” ISMU has a presence in 22 communities, and members focus on helping residents negotiate and mobilize as a collective to ensure their rights are recognized and respected. In the past, ISMU has led a protest in front of the National Palace. Members also had to overcome internal barriers to persist in their community organizing efforts.  Most women in the neighborhoods work from 6:00 am until 7:00 pm, which makes scheduling meetings difficult.  Another barrier is childcare because as mixed gender community group, neither the husband or wife from a family is available to stay with the children during meetings.

The families’ support for one another from within their community is especially valuable, because as one father, who worked as a volunteer fireman, explained, a strong residential prejudice against the people who live in Zones 5 or 6 exists. If residents put their addresses in Zones 5 or 6 on job applications, they are sure to be rejected.  Another ISMU member shared a popular joke that characterized the residents of Zones 5 and 6 as the people who “make stiff tortillas.”

ISMU perseveres, and continues advocating for the passage of a law that would recognize that residents of Zones 5 and 6 possess rights to fair and dignified housing.  Additionally, ISMU provides leadership and training on income-generating skills for women. One such effort is selling handcrafts made from recyclables. Displayed on a nearby table were colorful baskets made from plastic trash bags, funky jewelry made from soda tabs, and many other items that bespoke to ISMU’s capacity for transforming what many see as waste into unique sources of beauty and strength.

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Handcrafts made by ISMU from recyclables

After our conversation, our delegation delighted in having “down time” to chat with ISMU and play with the children, and also peruse and purchase handcrafts.

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Our delegation and members of ISMU

Learn more about ISMU

1. Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty. International Development Exchange: IDEX Partners. http://www.idex.org/what-we-do/partners-ismu.php The International Development Exchange, which forms partnerships with community leaders and organizations in developing countries to alleviate poverty, has written a profile for ISMU.

2.  Notes From the Field: IDEX Partner ISMU in Guatemala City. IDEX Blog. 2012. http://www.idex.org/blog/tag/ismu This link is to the IDEX Blog post about ISMU.

Women in Resistance–Meeting the Alianza de Mujeres Rurales por la Vida, Tierra, y Dignidad

Thursday afternoon following our tour of The Survivors’ Foundation, we traveled to another part of Guatemala City to meet with members from the Alliance of Rural Women for Life, Earth, and Dignity (La Alianza de Mujeres Rurales por la Vida, Tierra, y Dignidad). The Alliance is a coalition of three organizations formed by women forced to flee to Mexico as refugees during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict.

These three organizations–Mama Maquin, Madre Tierra, and Ixmucané–formed a coalition in 2000, under the common goal of defending their rights to land as rural and indigenous people. As we had learned earlier in the week from our talk with land rights activist Lolita Chavez, the Guatemalan government’s promotion of transnational development projects (such as hydroelectric dams, gold and nickel mines, and mono-crop agriculture) are undertaken without the consent of the indigenous communities who live in the rural localities primed for development. These communities do not merely live on their land, they depend on its natural resources for their livelihoods, and feel a strong ancestral tie to the earth and all aspects of the natural world in accordance with their Cosmo-vision.

These development projects use processes forbidden in many countries because they introduce harmful effects to the environment and people’s health. For example, the Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán uses cyanide to extract gold from the rocks. Members of the Alliance educate their respective communities about these issues through trainings that teach political awareness and people’s rights to land and health.

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The banner for the Alliance of Rural Women

On Thursday, the Alliance divided the members of our delegation into two groups so that we could talk more intimately. Afterward, our delegation leaders commented that our conversation was a “window” for us to meet rural Maya Mam women in Guatemala’s capital. The women in my discussion group came from many areas, including Alta Verapaz, Santa Cruz Barillas, and Huehuetenango.

I and my fellow delegates observed how the women listened attentively to one another and shared turns speaking during our conversation. Their genuine ability to honor the voices of all members truly showed their intention to cultivate female leadership. In our conversation, the women elaborated on the reason the coalition came together to address development from a rural and indigenous perspective.

They emphasized the spiritual connection they feel to “Mother Earth,” whom they believe lives in the land. The women explained, “the government’s vision of development is not the vision of our communities. Our development comes from us and from a vision from our ancestors.” Aware that the chemical fertilizers used in mono-crop agricultural projects are “killing the land,” the Alliance works with health promoters to educate communities about the environmental dangers of chemical fertilizers, and encourages them to use natural fertilizers instead.

The women also spoke about how their experiences as landless refugees in Mexico made them feel weak and humiliated, and that they returned to Guatemala to pursue “dignified land and life.” The Alliance has presented 58 community referendums to the government to try to recuperate their land, which was damaged from the Armed Conflict. Although the Alliance has a strong goal of promoting female empowerment, and members are training young women “to speak without fear,” the increased militarization of President Molina’s administration has rekindled fears and traumas experienced in the Internal Armed Conflict.

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Our delegation listens to members of the Alliance for Rural Women explain their vision for development

Learn more about La Alianza de Mujeres Rurales por la Vida, Tierra, y Dignidad and the beliefs informing their activism

1. “Alianza de mujeres rurales de Guatemala.” YouTube. June 8, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwVVav7a9pc This interview in Spanish without subtitles on Cubainformación TV features two members of the Alliance–Dalila Vásquez and María Mateo speaking about the environmental and social factors in Guatemala surrounding development that led to the Alliance’s formation.

2. Alianza de Mujeres Rurales. http://alianzamujeresrurales.un-mundo.net/ This official website has not been updated since 2010.

3. Black,  Eric and Frauke Sandig. Heart of Sky, Heart of Earthhttp://www.heart-of-sky.com/ This visually stunning documentary, in Spanish and Mam with English subtitles, addresses the impacts of transnational development projects on indigenous Guatemalan communities. The film also weaves together historical information regarding the Armed Conflict with discussion of the Mayan Cosmo-vision and the deep connection indigenous communities feel to their land and one another.

In March 2013, I had the honor of seeing this film, which made me deeply nostalgic for Guatemala. I was also tremendously moved by the courage demonstrated in the film of many indigenous Guatemalan communities. After the film, I listened to indigenous environmental rights activist Juanita Cabrera Lopez give a talk filled with the potent collective wisdom that I heard from the members of the Alliance of Rural Women back in August. Juanita described how she and her fellow activists, who are speaking out to defend their land and human rights in an environment that seeks to silence them, draw strength from the ongoing Rios Montt trial; she added that the recent increased militarization, threats and acts of violence against human rights defenders “gives us fire to keep fighting.”

Women in Resistance–Learning about Femicide from the Survivors’ Foundation

Our delegation spent Wednesday night relaxing at the Fuentes Georginas hot springs in Xela. Early Thursday morning, we departed for Guatemala City. En route to the capital, we met with the Survivors’ Foundation (Fundación Sobrevivientes), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that aims to eradicate all forms of violence and impunity in crimes against women.

Survivors’ Foundation has extensive programs: psycho-social support for victims’ families and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, legal services that include representation for survivors and denouncements for victims of femicides (the official term for killing a woman). The Foundation also operates a 24-hour shelter, and conducts political advocacy on behalf of victims and family members.

Survivors’ Foundation has an intriguing origins story. Norma Cruz, whose daughter was a victim of sexual violence, founded Survivors’ Foundation in 2001 following her struggles to hold her daughter’s abuser accountable in Guatemala’s legal system. On Thursday, Norma Cruz and a member of the legal staff spoke with our delegation about the femicides in Guatemala, the Foundations legal advocacy work, and ongoing challenges involved in trying to eliminate violence against women. The Foundation, which is larger than many of the organizations we met with, has a staff of twelve including two lawyers. Norma Cruz and the lawyer were fascinating to listen to, and I enjoyed observing the excitement and engagement of my fellow delegates, many of whom have backgrounds in issues involving gender, Latin America, and international law.

Norma revealed that many women and families who are victims or survivors do not come forward for many years after the crime, or come forward at all. The goal of their denouncements is to increase access to justice, yet this advocacy sometimes places staff’s safety at risk. Norma addressed the breadth of impunity in Guatemala’s legal system through sad and disturbing examples of the Foundation’s cases. One such example involving a man who committed violent acts against a woman’s body, was of young woman whose uncle repeatedly molested her. After some years, the woman, who was in a new relationship, told her uncle to stop abusing her because she had a boyfriend. Her uncle then lured her to a hotel, where raped and murdered her. He mutilated her body,  disposing her vagina in the hotel sink. Yet when this horrific fact was revealed in the court room, the legal defense argued that this murder was not a femicide, the uncle had mutilated the young woman’s body because he was simply “disposing the evidence.”

Survivors’ Foundation works closely with survivors and victims’ families. Norma pointed out that “we see violence in different ways,” which is why services are integrated and address the psycho-social process of breaking relationships with the oppressor. Norma and the member of the legal team both emphasized how each case they work with has unique complexities. Our visit concluded with a tour of the Foundation, which let us explore the Foundations comprehensive services.

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Our delegation listens to Norma Cruz discuss femicides and impunity in their prosecution

Learn more about The Survivors’ Foundation and Femicide in Guatemala 

1. Fundación Sobrevivientes. http://sobrevivientes.org/ This is the official website for The Survivors’ Foundation. To translate the website into English, I recommend using the Google Chrome Browser’s translation feature.

2. Bautista, Kimberly. Justice for my Sister. http://www.justiceformysister.com/ Kimberly Bautista’s documentary film “Justice for my Sister” Rebecca’s quest for justice for her sister Adela’s death at the hands of her ex-boyfriend. The trailer features a scene in the Survivors’ Foundation office.

Women in Resistance–Meeting Juanita Lopez

After  Jenny and Jhonathan gave our delegation a tour of Cafe RED, we returned to the room where we ate lunch for a meeting with Juanita Lopez. Juanita Lopez shared her remarkable personal journey: She is a Mayan Mam woman from the small community of San Martin, Sacatepéquez, near Xela, who was married at age thirteen. By the age of seventeen, she had three children, and she realized her life with her husband, who sexually abused her, was not the life she wanted. She separated from him, defying deeply ingrained social norms to live as a single mother. Since her separation from her husband, she has become a community leader, and is currently studying to become a social worker.

As Juanita shared her story, she returned to a reoccurring thread of how depressed her abusive marriage made her feel, including moments of intense suicidal despair. Yet in sharing her suffering, she showed tremendous equanimity, calmly repeating the phrase, “but you never know how life is going to work out.”

She compared separating from her husband to “dreaming while awake.” Although this decision was a positive one for her as an individual, defying social norms for women shocked her community. Rumors spread that she was now a “street woman.” In order to financially support herself and her children, Juanita began learning how to use as sewing machine so that she could earn money as a seamstress. While she was taking sewing classes, the community gossiped that she was spending time with her lover. Aware of the rumors, Juanita showed a mischievous sense of humor, bringing her sewing machine home one day, she displayed it to her family declaring, “See, here is my man.”

Juanita’s life as a single mother had many obstacles–she lived with her parents, who provided some financial support, but she also had to wake up every morning at one a.m. to weave and sew to cover the expenses for her children’s education.  However, she thrived emotionally, becoming a leader for women in her community. She is on the board for a local development council, and recently was elected secretary for a women’s commission that works with 52 communities. She also works with a Mayan-Mam indigenous association that promotes local economic development by selling crafts and produce.

Currently, she is studying to be a social worker. Through all these accomplishments, she humbly stated that she wants “her children to live a better life and accomplish more than she has.” Pointing out that one of her daughters is now the age she was when she was married, she considers it very important to support females. She participates in local women’s groups and shares her story with young women to encourage them to pursue education and develop positive self-esteem.

She added that a few years ago, she created a 15-minute documentary film (linked below) about her life. She stated that creating the film enabled her to heal from the emotional traumas wrought by her marriage. One moment that deeply affected her was when she interviewed her father, asking, “why did you marry me off at age thirteen?” Her father asked for her forgiveness, stating that he though he was doing the right thing at the time.

She wrapped up her story by stating that although her life has many challenges,  “it is my challenge…and although my life has included many obstacles, I get back up and continue.”

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Our delegation poses with Juanita Lopez at Cafe RED

Learn more about Juanita Lopez

1. “‘For Women’s Right to Live’: A Delegate’s Reflection” El Quetzal. October 2010. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/El-Quetzal-Issue-8.pdf This issue of GHRC’s publication El Quetzal has an article about Juanita Lopez, and a translation in Spanish is also available.

2. “Juanita: Documental.” DESGUA. January 28, 2013.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rb-5sH2DxW8 Juanita tells the story of her life and family in this 15 minute documentary, which is in Spanish without subtitles. Seeing and listening to her tell the story of her life is incredibly powerful, as is the glimpse into rural Guatemalan life.