Women in Resistance–Meeting Lolita Chavez

During dinner at the Pizza Parlor, Lolita Chavez introduced herself in her fast-paced expressive voice as “Aura Lolita Chavez, a Maya K’iche woman who loves life.” Lolita’s proclamation of her K’iche identity refers to her ancestry as part of the largest ethnic subgroup of the Maya people, the majority of whom live in Guatemala’s Northwestern municipality, Santa Cruz del Quiché.

After such a vivacious introduction, I could not wait to hear more from this woman whose story I had been following from afar, and following the dinner, our delegation had a conversation with Lolita Chavez, where she spoke about her activism with the K’iche People’s Council, and a recent attack against her. She began her talk with the explanation that in the Mayan calendar, the day of our conversation August 4, 2012, was “Imox” a day representing rain and rebirth.

Many years prior, Lolita had co-founded the K’iche People’s Council, when she, along with members of her community realized that almost the entire country of Guatemala was mapped out for development by international corporations. These development projects–hydroelectric dams, high voltage electric cables, and mono-crop agriculture, would have a devastating impact on the land that the Guatemala’s many indigenous communities traced a strong ancestral connection to and depended on for their livelihood. An example of this deep ancestral connection to the land is embedded in the very word “K’iche” which comes from two words–“K’i” meaning “many” and “che” meaning “trees.”

Lolita explained that the newly formed K’iche People’s Council began reaching out to different communities to inform them about how the transnational development projects would impact their lands before the Council fully understood the effects that development would have on their own community. This concept of reciprocity, rooted in K’iche language and culture, is called tzcat, meaning “I am you, and you are me.”

The K’iche People’s Council garnered support from 87 rural and urban communities, and also reached out to Ladino people, who are of mixed indigenous and European ancestry, and many of whom have a long-standing prejudice against indigenous Guatemalans. Lolita described how at first, the Ladino community had asked, “why should we work with you?” But the K’iche People’s Council’s response–“don’t you care about the trees? don’t you care about the mountains? don’t you care about the air?”–overcame the longstanding prejudice, and many Ladinos allied with K’iche People’s Council.

Despite the growing cross-community mobilization against the transnational development projects, the Guatemalan government consistently threatened the K’iche People’s Council, and undermined its leaders through intimidation and rumor spreading. Lolita mimicked an example of harmful gossip, her expressive voice rising,”oh Lolita Chavez, she must be related to Hugo Chavez, that’s why she’s such a troublemaker.”   

In October 2010, the K’iche People’s Council mobilized communities throughout the department of Santa Cruz del Quiché to participate in a process called “the Community Consultation of Good Faith for the municipality of Santa Cruz del Quiché,” in which community members would cast votes for or against allowing transnational corporations to develop in their municipality. This process is captured in the compelling photographic essay “K’iche’ People in Guatemala Reject Exploitation of their Natural Resources,” and is linked below. At this community consultation, more than 27,000 residents of Santa Cruz del Quiche voted against allowing transnational corporations to develop on their lands.

But despite this victory, the local mayor, Estuardo Castro ignored the 2010 community consultation. Furthermore, the election of Otto Perez Molina as president in 2012 ushered in a slew of  development projects, including a plan for high tension electric cabling in Santa Cruz del Quiche. The new presidential administration also launched a slander campaign against the K’iche People’s Council, and council members began receiving death threats. On June 12, 2012, K’iche People’s Council member José Tavico Tzunun was found murdered in his home, with what Lolita and the Council believed was a police gun.

After José’s murder, Lolita compared the mounting tension and increased threats against the K’iche People’s Council to “a blister popping.” This blister popping reached a scary explosion when Lolita was attacked during a peaceful protest against the mayor. Information regarding the specifics of the attack against Lolita on July 4, 2012 is linked below. Rather than reiterating the facts, I wish to convey the emotional impact the attack had on Lolita. She was truly terrified and feared she was going to die. This fear was not just present in her words, but in her tears, tremulous voice, and anxious gestures. Moreover the weapons the attackers threatened her with–sticks, machetes, knives, and a large spit for roasting meat–retraumatized her, rekindling memories of objects used to rape women during Guatemala’s 36-year Armed Conflict.

The July 4th attack on Lolita drew international attention, and messages of support for Lolita and the K’iche People’s Council poured in from around the world. These messages of support sometimes came in languages Lolita and the K’iche People’s Council did not understand, but nevertheless, they had fun puzzling out letters from France, Italy, and other countries around the globe. These signs of international solidarity were a bolster from the ongoing local opposition against the K’iche People’s Council. Recently, the mayor Estuardo Castro was killed when he was struck by a high voltage electric cable, and Lolita has been accused of witchcraft causing his demise. Furthermore, the threat of President Molina’s goals for widespread development is ever looming.

Balancing these issues, is The K’iche People’s Council’s own momentum. The Council has grown to include 92 communities, and is focusing on increasing representation of these communities within the Council, and organizing meetings with the Human Rights Office in the Capital. Fortunately, thus far the newly elected mayor is more receptive to hearing from the K’iche People’s Council. Lolita concluded her talk with a positive message of resistance. In her rolling voice, she declared, “our path through strength is our work as a community. Our efforts are not about me, but about us as brothers and sisters, and we will carry on. If we don’t have a place to meet, we will meet under the trees.”

Learn more about the attack on Lolita Chavez  on July 4, 2012

1. Rodriguez, James. MiMundo. “Another Guatemalan Female Community Leader, Lolita Chavez, Suffers Lynching Attempt.” July 6, 2012.   http://www.mimundo.org/2012/07/06/2012-07-another-guatemalan-female-community-leader-lolita-chavez-suffers-lynching-attempt/  Independent documentary photographer and photojournalist James Rodríguez use his personal platform MiMundo.org to show social justice issues involving land tenure, human rights abuses, post-war processes, and negative effects of globalization. In this photoessay, James Rodriguez describes the July 4, 2012 attack on Lolita Chavez, and links to Lolita’s testimony in Spanish as well as an article about the attack written by the Guatemala Independent Media (CMI).

2. Avila, Renata. Global Voices. “Guatemala: Wave of Attacks Against Female Activists.” July 7, 2012. http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/07/07/guatemala-wave-of-attacks-against-female-activists/ This article was how I first learned about Lolita Chavez and the K’iche People’s Council. I am a huge fan of Global Voices, a community of more than 500 bloggers and translators around the world who publish global news with emphasis on voices not ordinarily heard in mainstream media. I first learned about Global Voices at a technology conference from keynote speaker Andy Carvin, National Public Radio (NPR’s) Senior Manager for online communities. Andy Carvin has been instrumental in monitoring the Arab Spring via Twitter, and described Global Voices as a valuable example of citizen journalism.

Learn more about the K’iche People’s Council’s work and reaction to the attack on Lolita Chavez

1.  Rodriguez, James. Upside Down World. “Photo Essay: K’iche’ People in Guatemala Reject Exploitation of their Natural Resources.” October 27, 2010. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/2751-photo-essay-kiche-people-in-guatemala-reject-exploitation-of-their-natural-resources This article is nearly two years old, but gives vivid photographic examples of “tzcat” and the community organizing processes Lolita described during her talk. Moreover, the article is a powerful visual “walk-through” of the 2010 Community Consultation in Santa Cruz del Quiche.

2. Counsejo del Pueblo Maya de Occidente. “Llamado de unidad al pueblo quiche.” http://consejodepueblosdeoccidente.blogspot.com.ar/2012/07/llamado-de-unidad-al-pueblo-quiche.html The website for the Maya People’s Council is written in Spanish, and if you do not read Spanish, translation should be available on your browser with the “translate this page” button, which pops up on the screen if you are using Google Chrome. I have cited a page where the K’iche People’s Council denounces the attack on Lolita Chavez. The Maya People’s Council is an umbrella organization for indigenous peoples of many municipalities.

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