Writing about Guatemala

During my time in Guatemala in November and December 2012, I studied Spanish at La Esceuela de la Montana (the Mountain School), which partners with two local communities. Students at the Mountain School eat all their meals with members of these communities, and this practice is a valuable time to practice Spanish and gain insight into rural Guatemalan life. Over the course of my three weeks at the Mountain School, I came to learn how the two communities had come to reside in the area after struggling for their right to wages on coffee plantations. I thought that these stories were incredible testaments to the communities’ deep reserves of persistence in the face of oppression. I wanted to document these testimonies in writing so that the communities could have a written record of their history.

Aiming to be a “librarian” for their stories, I also wanted to translate the communities’ testimonies in English, and share the stories with English speakers who would be interested in studying at the Mountain School and/or learning about Guatemalan labor rights issues. When I first heard these testimonies in November, I had transcribed the stories in English, and with help from my Spanish teacher, I re-translated the testimonies into Spanish. My Spanish teacher, whose family was from the larger nearby town Columba, was eager to help me. Her enthusiasm gave me an additional idea–I could share the Spanish version of the testimonies with other Spanish teachers at the Mountain School and its sister school Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ), who wanted to learn the history of the communities. I also thought that the teachers could read the Spanish translations with their students as a comprehension exercise.

When I returned to the United States, I sought further guidance regarding the content and grammar of the testimonies from the Mountain School’s co-founder, and I implemented her suggestions and published the testimonies at the end of May. Soon afterwards, my friend and Coordinator of the Mountain School contacted me and explained that although members of these communities wanted foreigners to learn their stories, they did not want their stories published online because they were afraid that making their stories accessible to all would put them at risk of threats and attacks from the coffee plantation owners who had exploited them.

I quickly deleted these testimonies from my blog. I realized that although I had given meticulous attention to the details of the testimonies in English and Spanish, I had failed to hear the communities. I had failed to comprehend the meaning of the risks they had taken to defend their right to work–risks that still loom in their lives over 20 years later.

To reflect on words from my blog post about the Genocide Trials for Efrain Rios Montt, I wrote that “I aspire to be a bridge” in sharing stories about Guatemalan human rights struggles. This incident reminded me of how conscious I need to be in my efforts to build and traverse this bridge. Without careful consideration and consultation with Guatemalans themselves, the information that I wish to share can have grave consequences.

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