Guatemalan Human Rights

These posts are about human rights issues in Guatemala.

Commemorating genocide through art, museum and memory

During my recent trips to Guatemala and Israel, I had the opportunity to visit two very distinct museums that commemorated two different genocides. The museum in the collective farming community of Sant’Anita La Union honors the guerrillas who fought in Guatemala’s 36 year Internal Armed Conflict (from 1960-1996), in which approximately 200,000 Guatemalans were killed.  Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, commemorates the Shoah or Holocaust (from 1933-1945) in which 6 million Jews perished.

Visiting both museums led me to reflect on these devastating genocides, and ways that the two cultures memorialized such profound losses. The contrast of Sant’Anita and Yad Vashem had been percolating in my mind for a while, but emerged to the forefront following my recent participation in an activist art project called “One Million Bones,” which convened people to array one million paper-mache and cardboard bones on the lawn of the National Mall as a tribute to past and present genocide victims and survivors around the world.

I joined the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in placing bones to honor the Guatemalan victims killed in the Ixil Triangle region. I was surprised at how moved I felt placing the bones–which were made of cardboard, gauze, and paper mache–on the National Mall lawn.  Some bones were painted in rainbow colors and others were inscribed with messages such as: “stay strong” and “rest in peace” yet despite their cartoonish appearance, I felt overwhelmingly sad reading the names of the Ixiles as I placed one bone at a time in honor of each victim. Placing the bones on the National Capitol Lawn also felt like a complex gesture–acknowledging the United State’s past role in funding the Guatemalan military during the genocide, and asking the United States to pay attention now to Guatemala’s pursuit of justice in the genocide trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator in power when the massacres in the Ixil Triangle occurred.

This photography by Teru Kuwayama shows the One Million bones displayed on the National Mall Lawn as a tribute to genocide survivors past and present

This photography by Teru Kuwayama shows the One Million bones displayed on the National Mall Lawn as a tribute to genocide survivors past and present

My visit to Sant’Anita la Unión

Santa Anita la Unión is an organic coffee and banana growing community formed by ex-guerilla combatants. I visited Sant’Anita with my language school, PLQ, and in addition to touring the fields where the coffee grew and the facilities where it was roasted and packaged, the residents of Sant’Anita showed us their “guerrilla museum.” The one-room museum had a cracked wall from the recent earthquake, visible as our guide gestured to the framed photos of “our fallen comrades.” On the floor, a guerrilla’s camouflage uniform and radio were neatly displayed. Newspaper clippings explaining the unfolding history of the armed conflict hung on the other walls. I was most moved though by how our guide brought this room of artifacts to life with his sincere appreciation for his fellow ex-combatants and his community’s collective wish to preserve their memory.

This closeup of one of the main buildings at Sant'Anita was taken from an article about Guatemalan activist and Desgua co-founder Willy Barreno

This closeup of one of the main buildings at Sant’Anita was taken from an article about Guatemalan activist and Desgua co-founder Willy Barreno. The link to the article is included at the post’s conclusion.

My visit to Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem is physically imposing–built in the shape of an arrow to evoke how “the Shoah pierced our hearts,” our tour guide explained. The grounds are lavish, and surrounding the entrance are carob trees, planted in honor of the “righteous gentiles” who rescued Jews during the war. Inside, we walked a zigzag path from room to room, a route designed to mimic the unfolding years of 1933 until the establishment of Israel. What most moved me fell outside of tangible bounds, it was learning about how Jews used “trickster behavior” to help one another survive.

Trickster behavior can be explained as how people who are marginalized use their cleverness to subvert the rules that oppress them to attain power. Tricksters can span cultures, and examples of trickster figures can be found in Chinese mythology (the Monkey King), African American Folktales (Brer Rabbit), Brazilian Santeria (Eshu)–I could go on and on about representation of tricksters and how people can use trickster figures as metaphors to express and enact coded rebellion against the powers that oppress them.  Learning how Jews in Concentration Camps would subtly trick the Nazis to improve the living conditions for themselves and others so moved me because trickster behavior is a topic that deeply fascinates me. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on how Chinese and Latino immigrants  in three contemporary American works of fiction use “trickster language” to subvert the status quo and gain power. Because I have grown accustomed to thinking of myself as white and carrying around a knapsack of privilege whose contents I am oft ignorant of, I felt surprised and moved to consider trickster behavior in connection to myself and my own ethnic and religious identity.

Entrance way to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Entrance way to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Learn more about the exhibitions discussed above 

1. One Million Bones. June 8-10, 2013. http://www.onemillionbones.org/the-project/ This link is to the official website for One Million Bones, and explains about the project and includes a photo gallery of people who have made the bones.

2. After participating in laying the bones on the National Lawn with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), GHRC received hateful comments from genocide deniers. GHRC has written this response on their blog. “GHRC Target of Hate for Commemorating Genocide Victims. Guatemalan Human Rights Updates. June 11, 2013.  http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/ghrc-target-of-hate-for-commemorating-victims-of-genocide/

2. Sant’Anita. May 24, 2013. http://www.santaanitafinca.com/ This is the official website for Sant’Anita farming collective.

3.  Mychalejko, Cyril. “Resurrecting the ‘Guatemalan Dream.'” August 31, 2009. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/2084-resurrecting-the-qguatemalan-dreamq  This article from Upside Down World is about Guatemalan activist and co-founder of DESGUA Willy Barreno, and also describes Sant’Anita la Union and information regarding the documentary “Voices of a Mountain.”

4. “Genocide in the Ixil Triangle.” Guatemala Human Rights Commission. June 13, 2013. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/resources/important-cases/genocide-cases/genocide-in-the-ixil-triangle/ This webpage from GHRC provides historical information regarding the massacres in the Ixil Triangle region during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict.

5. Yad Vashem. May 24, 2013. http://www.yadvashem.org/ This is the official website for Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. The website contains a wealth of information about the Holocaust, including podcasts and a database to search for the names of victims and survivors as well as a virtual tour of the museum’s galleries.

 

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Reflections on Guatemala’s Genocide Trial from the words of Francisco Goldman

Since my post reflecting on the connection between my Jewish identity and the Genocide Trial for Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt and Maurcio Rodriguez Sanchez, I have not written about the trial.

My reasons for not writing about such a watershed event in Guatemala’s history are complicated.  Writing about the trial necessitates a keen understanding of Guatemala’s present-day judicial system and 36-year Civil War. My knowledge of both topics is limited, and I have preferred to listen to the expert analysis of Guatemalan survivors and Human Rights Advocates. Furthermore, the trial’s proceedings have many nuances, and I believe that I could do harm sharing information on such a public forum without cautious knowledge for how what I publish could affect Guatemalan survivors’ pursuit of justice.

In writing about Guatemala, I perceive Guatemalans and Human Rights Advocates as belonging to the inner rungs of a spiral, and I position myself on an outer rung, whereby I aim to reach outward to promote awareness and simultaneously inward to draw support to them. Yet April 18th and 19th brought about such surprising turns to the Genocide Trial that I have decided to briefly share my thoughts, and point readers to excellent sources of information that they can access to learn more about the trial. In addition to the sources linked below, I recommend following the blogs, facebook posts, and twitter feeds of NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala) and GHRC (the Guatemala Human Rights Commission) to receive up-to-date information of the trial’s proceedings.

On Thursday, April 18, 2013, Genocide Trial Judge Carol Patricia Flores declared testimonies from genocide survivors invalid, which would suspend the trial, and turn back progress to pre-trial proceedings of November, 2011.  According to journalist Allan Nairn, this shocking and confusing decision was politically motivated. Despite this heartbreaking setback, that very night hundreds of Guatemalans, led by a delegation of Ixil Mayan genocide survivors, marched on the Palacio de Justicia, chanting “We are all Ixiles”and held a candle light vigil praying for justice.

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Hundreds of people, lead by the Ixil Mayan delegation, chanting “We are all Ixiles”, marched on the Palacio de Justicia, and in a candle light vigil prayed for, demanded justice. (photo courtesy of Laurie Levinger via Facebook Page for “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” April 19, 2013)

The next day, Friday, April 19, 2013 brought even more twists and turns. Judge Jazmin Barrios reconvened the Genocide Trial, and the trial’s panel of three judges issued a statement that the trial would continue. However, the trial was temporarily suspended so that the court could resolve the legal issues that had caused Judge Flores to declare the trial illegal the day before.

While following April 19th’s updates on facebook, I was listening to Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language radio program showcasing compelling human stories from around Latin America and the United States. I was listening to an interview with Guatemalan American writer Francisco Goldman and Dominican American writer Junot Diaz regarding their experiences writing about Latinos in English and their relationships with Latin America.

The interview was incredibly interesting as I am a big fan of Francisco Goldman’s work, and have reviewed “The Art of Political Murder” on my blog. I also wrote my undergraduate thesis on “Drown,” Junot Diaz’s collection of intersecting vignettes about Dominican immigrants. Much of their conversation about language and identity fascinated me, and I plan to dedicate a future post to their interview addressing this topic.

Toward the end of the interview, Goldman shared a perspective that eerily resonated with Guatemala’s genocide trial proceedings. His recently published  novel “Say Her Name” is about his wife Aura Estrada, who tragically died in a surfing accident. He stated how he was “plunged into trauma” after her death, and his suffering gave him a newfound understanding of Guatemala “as a space filled with thousands of people who have lost their loved ones in a violent way.”

My reflection on the weight of Goldman’s words gave way to thinking about the waves of suffering Guatemalan genocide survivors feel–not just from the loss of their loved ones, but also from the re-traumatization of sharing their stories in a court room that denied them justice on April 18th. However, their refusal to accept this verdict, truly speaks to incredible abilities to yoke their trauma with resilience. As the trial proceedings continue to unfold, I am uncertain of the future portends save for my commitment to sharing information and expressing solidarity and support for justice in Guatemala.

Learn more about the Genocide Trial of Rios Montt and Maurcio Rodriguez Sanchez

1. The Open Society Justice Initiative. The Trial of Efrian Ríos Montt and Maurcio Rodriguez Sanchez. 2013. http://www.riosmontt-trial.org/ This excellent website, written in English and Spanish, contains detailed updates of trial proceedings written by International Human Rights Monitors, comprehensive historical background information, Glossary, and Timeline.

2. Rodriguez, James. “2013-04-19. On day 21, the Genocide Trial’s fate rests on the Constitutional Court.”  MiMundo. http://www.mimundo.org/2013/04/20/2013-04-19-on-day-21-the-genocide-trials-fate-rests-on-the-constitutional-court/ and “2013-04-18. On day 20, the Genocide Trial is Abruptly Cancelled.” http://www.mimundo.org/2013/04/19/2013-04-18-on-day-20-the-genocide-trial-is-abrubtly-cancelled/Photojournalist James Rodriguez’s evocative photoessays document the courtroom on April 18th and 19th.

3. Golman, Amy. “Genocide Trial of Former Dictator Ríos Montt Suspended After Intervention by Guatemalan President.” Democracy Now. April 19, 2013. http://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/19/genocide_trial_of_former_dictator_ros Democracy Now’s interview with journalist Allan Nairn is very helpful in illuminating the reasons that motivated the April 18th trial suspension.

Listen to Francisco Goldman and Junot Diaz on Radio Ambulante

1. Alarcón, Daniel. “Junot y Francisco : En vivo desde Nueva York.” Radio Ambulante. February, 2013. http://radioambulante.org/es/ I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this interview, and look forward to discussing many of the issues the authors discussed in a future post. I also highly recommend listening to Radio Ambulante, which I have compared to This American Life for Latin Americans and Latinos living in the United States.

 

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.”

My time in Guatemala

After returning from Guatemala, it feels difficult to find the suitable place to start describing my journey. Many shifts have occurred, both within my own journey, and in the world. A historic update that I will describe in my next post, Efrian Rios Montt and Jose Rodriguez Sanchez will stand trial for charges of  genocide.

Relating to the theme of hard-won justice, as I mentioned in my previous post, November 2012 also marked a journey for German Chub Choc. On November 23, 2012, German Chub Choc along with four other community members from El Estor traveled to Canada to seek justice in the Canadian Legal System for the harms HudBay Minerals committed against them. The other members of the delegation from El Estor were Community Leader Maria Cuc; Angelica Choc, who is the widow of murdered leader Adolfo Ich; Rosa Elbira and Margarita Caal, representing eleven women from the remote village of Lote 8. At the end of my post, I have linked to an article and two videos covering the delegation. These three sources all emphasize the great courage, patience, and persistence of the delegation for seeking justice in a foreign court.

My fellow students along with teachers, caretakers, and coordinators, standing in front of the Mountain School

My fellow students and I along with teachers, caretakers, and coordinators, standing in front of the Mountain School

To move onto my own journey to a foreign country, I studied at La Esceula de la Montaña/the Mountain School for three weeks. During those three weeks, I studied Spanish for four hours each day, and I ate all my meals with families who lived in two local communities, Fatima and Nuevo San Jose. The communities’ partnership with the School provides them with a stipend and gives us students an opportunity to learn about rural Guatemalan life. More than learn, I was tremendously humbled by the families’ hospitality and moved by their stories of how they came to live in the area. The residents of both Fatima and Nuevo San Jose originally lived and worked on coffee plantations where the plantation owners exploited them. After struggling for their rights to wages, both communities obtained hard-won victories whose terms required them to leave their homes and resettle elsewhere. I have written the full stories of Fatima and Nuevo San Jose as testimonies in English and Spanish.  The Spanish versions are in the process of being checked for accuracy by the communities, after which, I would be happy to share them on my blog.

I arrived at La Escuela de la Montana with a fifty pound tote bag, that one of the school’s caretakers, Ruben, generously carried from the Minerva Bus Terminal to the School’s Gate. The tote bag held 45 Spanish books, the majority of which were fiction and non fiction generously collected by my friend Agnes from the Racine Public Library in Wisconcin. I also brought books on the topics of Guatemalan and Latin American Human Rights donated by the Guatemalan Human Rights Collection, as well as Mayan story books and a Spanish translation of Louisa May Alcott´s ¨Little Women¨(Mujercitas), which my friend purchased from Guatemala City´s book fair in the Central Park (Parque Central).

I developed a plan to re-organize the various sections of the library in a classification system based on age level and Guatemala educational system. I chose this system after speaking with the library worker and Mountain School Coordinator and learning about the library’s goals to provide resources to help students with their homework and promote literacy among people of all ages.  The library implemented this classification plan in December, and books were easier for the community to locate and for the library worker to maintain. Now back in the United States, I am planning a fundraising and outreach campaign for the Community Library. I look forward to sharing updates on this project.

Learn more about The El Estor Delegation to Canada

1. The Canadian Channel CBC covered two news stories documenting the journey of the El Estor delegation to seek justice in Canada’s courts.  In addition to the five delegates, the story features Grahame Russell from Rights Action. CBC The National. “The Long Road.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0O2sJtLqiw and CBC The National.  “Seeking Justice” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fkT3vLA6qg

2. Russell, Grahame. Rights Action. “Clashing World Views at the Crossroads.” December 20, 2012. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4040-guatemala-canada-clashing-world-views-at-a-crossroads Grahame Russell accompanied the El Estor Delegation to Canada, and recounts the experience in this thoughtful article. 

Learn more about The Mountain School & Otto Renee Castillo Library

1. La Escuela de la Montana. “Community Library.” December 26, 2011. http://www.escuelamontana.org/our-projects/communitylibrary.html This is the official website for La Escuela de la Montana (the Mountain School)’s Otto Renee Castillo Community Library.

Mi tiempo en Guatemala

Después mi retorno a Guatemala, parece difícil encontrar el lugar para comenzar a describir mi travesía. Hay muchos cambios, en mi travesía y en el mundo. Un cambio histórico que describiré en mi próximo mensaje, es que Efraín Ríos Montt y José Rodríguez Sánchez tendrán un juicio por genocidio.

En el tema de justicia, como dije en mi mensaje anterior, en Noviembre de 2012, German Chub Choc se embarcó en una travesía. El y otras cuatro personas de El Estor fueron a Canadá para buscar la justicia en el sistema legal de Canadá por los abusos que la compañía de minería HudBay Minerales cometió. Los cuatros otros, Los otros cuatro de la delegación eran el líder María Cuc; Angélica Choc, la viuda del líder Adolfo Ich; Rosa Elbira y Margarita Caal, las ultimas dos representaban a las once mujeres del Lote 8 que los policías de HudBay violaron. Al final de mi artículo, hay enlaces a un artículo y dos documentales que describían la delegación. Los tres describen el coraje, persistencia, y paciencia de la delegación por el acto de buscar justicia en un tribunal extranjero.

Para describir mi travesía en un país extranjero, estudié en La Escuela de la Montaña por tres semanas. Durante las tres semanas, estudiaba español por cuatro horas cada día, y comía todas las comidas con las familias que viven en dos comunidades locales que se llaman Fátima y Nuevo San José. Las comunidades tienen una relación con la Escuela en que las familias reciben un estipendio  y los estudiantes reciben una oportunidad para aprender sobre la vida rural Guatemalteca. Además de, estaba conmovida por la hospitalidad de las familias y sus testimonios sobre cómo se mudaron a las aldeas. Las personas de Fátima y Nuevo San José eran trabajadores en las fincas de café donde el dueño los explotaba. Después de una lucha por sus derechos y dinero, las comunidades obtuvieron la victoria que necesitaban y como consecuencia tuvieron que irse sus casa y encontrar una nueva comunidad para vivir. Escribí los testimonios de Fátima y Nuevo San José en inglés y español. Las versiones en español están  en el proceso de validación por las comunidades. Después, quiero compartir los testimonios en mi blog.

Llegue a La Escuela de la Montaña con un bolsa de cincuenta libras, y Rubén, un seguridad de la escuela la llevó de la terminal Minerva a la puerta de la Escuela. La bolsa tenía cuarenta y cinco libros dentro, la mayoría eran las novelas y los libros educativos que mi amiga Agnes recogió de la biblioteca pública de Wisconsin. Hay libros de los temas de la historia y los derechos humanos de Guatemala, que fueron donados por la Comisión de los derechos humanos de Guatemala. Mi amiga Kathryn compró los cuentos Mayas y las novelas en la feria en la Ciudad de Guatemala.

Creé un plan para reorganizar las secciones de la biblioteca en un sistema basado de la edad y el sistema educativo en Guatemala. Elegí ese sistema después de hablar con la mujer que trabaja en la biblioteca y la coordinadora de la Escuela. Ellas me dijeron sobre la meta de la biblioteca para dar los libros que ayudan los estudiantes con su tarea. Ellas quieren promocionar la alfabetización con la gente de todas las edades. En diciembre, la biblioteca implementó ese plan, y después los libros eran más fáciles para que  la comunidad los encontrara y para que  la bibliotecaria mantuviera. Ahora, estoy planeando una campaña para aumentar los fondos para la biblioteca. Espero compartir ese plan pronto.

Para aprender más sobre la delegación El Estor a Canadá

1. Dos documentales en la noticia de Canadá.Los documentas son en Ingles.“The Long Road.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0O2sJtLqiw and CBC The National.  “Seeking Justice” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fkT3vLA6qg

2. Un artículo  en ingles por un director de Rights Action, Grame Russell, que acompañaba la delegación. Russell, Grahame. Rights Action. “Clashing World Views at the Crossroads.” Diciembre 20, 2012. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4040-guatemala-canada-clashing-world-views-at-a-crossroads

Para aprender más sobre la Escuela de la Montaña y la Biblioteca Comunitaria Otto Rene Castillo

1. La Escuela de la Montana. “Community Library.” Diciembre 26, 2011. http://www.escuelamontana.org/our-projects/communitylibrary.html

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.”