In December 2004, I traveled to La Antigua, Guatemala for two weeks with a group of volunteers affilitated with the Maya Educational Foundation to teach English to a group of 18 Maya college students.
While there I met Fernando and Bernie who mentioned only obliquely their experiences surviving the civil war in their country. I was remembering their stories when I got on the plane back to the States. Our flight was delayed so to pass the time I asked a young American girl sitting next to me what she was doing in Guatemala. “Oh, I’ve live in La Antigua my whole life.” Eager to learn more from a different perspective I asked, “What was it like growing up there during the war?”
She was well-brought up, I was a middle aged gray haired woman asking her a question. She turned to me politely, “What war?”
That’s the question I returned to Guatemala in March, 2005 to answer. This is the beginning of the story of what I learned.
I traveled with my friend Karen, one of the group of volunteers, also a retired psychotherapist. After extensive email correspondance with Irma Otzoy, the chairwoman of the Board of the Fundacion Para Estudios y Profesionalizacion Maya(Foundation for Maya Students for Academic Studies and Professional Training) I had a meeting scheduled with the students we’d met in December.
I sent Irma a list of nine questions designed to get the students talking about their experiences. These questions ranged from the most basic specific information: “Where were you living and how old were you during the civil war? Was anyone in your family killed or ‘disappeared’? (the euphemism used in Guatemala to describe individuals who were kidnapped and never seen again), What did your parents tell you about what was happening in your village or town?”
The final questions were more open-ended: “If you could tell one story that would best help other people understand your experiences and the experiences of your family, what would you tell them?” and looking to the future, “If you have children, what will you tell them about what happened in Guatemala and to you during the civil war?”
I thought these were good questions that would help the students open up. But, in fact, I had no idea how they would greet me, how they would feel about the opportunity to talk about what had undoubtedly been traumatic experiences, whether they would resent my asking.
Did I have any right to ask these questions? Maybe they’d talked their whole lives about these experiences, and were sick of it. Maybe it would be too traumatic to talk about. Maybe they wouldn’t trust a North American whose government had been involved in providing military aid to the Guatemalan government that killed more than 200,000 of their people, displacing another one and a half million.(Buried Secrets, Victoria Sanford, page 14).
Maybe they wouldn’t even come to the meeting.
I had offered to be available if any student wanted to meet with me individually, as well as in the group. Appointments had been scheduled, the first for 8:00 in the morning our second day there. When Giovani didn’t arrive at the designated time, I didn’t know what to think. Maybe he decided not to come?
When he came running in 15 minutes late, out of breath, apologizing, I understood more.
“Sorry, Laurie, I’m late. I caught the bus from my town at 5:30 this morning. So sorry.” He’d been on the bus for 2 1/2 hours to get to our appointment.
Four students came to talk individually, often talking two hours or more.
Let me interject a word here about language–not Spanish–but the way we assume we understand how to say something, or what it means.
When I’d gone on the first trip I had been naive and ignorant of the reality
of the 36 year civil war that ended when a peace agreement was signed between the military government and guerrilla fighters in 1996. But in preparation for this second trip I’d read a number of books about Guatemalan history and politics and felt much better prepared, not the uninformed North American I’d been.
Imagine my surprise when the first thing that happened is that the students informed me that they do not use the term “civil war”, although that’s the terminology used in many of the books I’d read. Guatemala is a country of euphemisms; the term used is “the internal armed conflict” or “la violencia’. One of the students said, “The people didn’t have weapons, so it wasn’t a civil war.”
Having gotten my language straight, I could begin. Irma had agreed to translate the interviews, since my Spanish is adequate for bargaining in the market, but not up to the challenge of hearing and responding to emotionally-charged stories.
It would be exciting to work with Irma. She is the first, and only, Maya woman PhD in the entire country, and speaks excellent English, having earned her doctorate in the US.
The final student to come for an individual interview was Robin. We’d talked for a couple of hours before the scheduled group meeting. We went for a quick walk so I could buy kleenex , then he left for lunch, before returning to escort Karen and I to the FEP Maya office in Zona 1, not a section of the city usually frequented by tourists. We didn’t know whether we would have felt unsafe, but once on the street with him we were grateful for his presence.
The FEP Maya office is on a nondescript street, without a sign. The steel door had double locks; Robin buzzed the bell, and we waited to be let into the dark entrance hall, which led to a big, open meeting room dominated by an enormous office table. The most striking thing was how plain and utilitarian everything was, no decorations except a bulletin board with announcements of upcoming events. A water cooler, plastic chairs and the bare table were the only furnishings.
Irma greeted us, and one by one the students straggled in. By the time we got started there were 9 of the original 18 students sitting around the table with Irma, Karen and I grouped together at one side. The room was dim, the bright sunlight muted by curtains that hung over the one window. Honking horns, screeching traffic and music drifted into the room as we sat facing each other.
I had prepared some opening comments to set the stage:
“Irma will translate for me, because as you all know, my Spanish isn’t very good.. First of all, thank you all for coming today to talk with us, I appreciate it very much. This morning, Robin asked me a good question:‘’Why did you come back to Guatemala?’ I’d like to start our discussion today by answering that question.
“When we were here in December to teach English some of you started to tell us stories about what happened to you and your people, during la violencia. I found what you were saying very touching, and wanted to come back to try to really hear and understand what your experiences had been.
“On a personal note, I wanted to tell you that when my older brother, Sam, came to Guatemala in 1965 as a volunteer when he was a college student. He lived in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. And my father Joe came here in 1993 with a group of international witnesses when Guatemalan refugees returned from Mexico. Bartolo, you told me that your family was in that first group of returnees. My father was here welcoming you and Rigoberta Menchu and the other refugees home.
“This is an invitation to have a certain kind of conversation, but if at any point you don’t want to talk, that’s fine, it’s not a requirement. If your turn comes and you want to pass, that’s okay. I sent this questionnaire, I think you’ve seen the questions. It’s really just a guide for our conversation, and you don’t have to stick to it. You can tell your story in whatever way works for you.”
I paused to let Irma translate. What a pleasure not to have to struggle to find the right words, I could just sit back and watch the students nod, as Irma brought my words to them.
When we were planning the trip Karen and I had worried about taping the interviews: would they feel inhibited, would they feel like we were treating them like clinical case studies?
Turns out this wasn’t worth worrying about. There would be other surprises.
There was a moment of silence where we all just sat there, waiting: Oh, God, what if no one says anything?
Then Fernando stood up, reached into the middle of the table, pulled the tape recorder and microphone in front of him, looked directly at me, and started to talk. After a couple of minutes, I gestured for him to stop, and nodded to Irma to translate.
I’d understood the essence of what he was saying, but wanted more, every word, every nuance, so I could respond appropriately, maybe ask questions to clarify.
Irma started translating, I nodded as it all came flooding in.
I could see how easy it was going to be to get into a rhythm: Spanish, then English translation, maybe a question or two translated back into Spanish.
But then Karen tapped me on my left shoulder. I’m deaf in my left ear, so I’d told her before we started, “Please, if you have to talk to me, tap me, otherwise I won’t be able to hear you”. But really, you can imagine, I didn’t want to be interrupted, I just wanted to sink into the moment of hearing and responding.
“What?” I turned to her, exasperated.
“Don’t have her translate,” she whispered. “It’s interrupting him, you need to just let him talk.”
Oh, no. She’s right.
I had to sit there, listening. Absorbing. No interrupting. No clarifying questions.
“The hardest part about the war is that we lost the process
of our lives, we lost our infancy, many things that will never be able to be repeated.”
(translated from Spanish)
“I was born on June 30, 1980. I was four months old when my father was killed by the soldiers…and my family, bueno,my mother said to me the truth of what was happening. That we were persecuted by the army, which we had to flee, and not tell the truth to anybody, because it would put our lives in danger. So always we invent a different history to tell people, because my mother says to us that it’s very dangerous to talk the truth with other people here in Guatemala City.
My father Reyes Us and my older brother Daniel were murdered by the soldiers in 1980 in our village, it’s in the Quiche in the north. Another of my brothers was kidnapped, and we found him 10 years later. My older sister, Bernadina, was kidnapped in 1983. Until now, she is still disappeared.
I want to say to you that for me, the war, is the most significant event in my life…we have problems, psychological problems. The hardest part about the war is that we lost the process of our lives, we lost our infancy, many things that will never be able to be repeated.
My family, yes, had a direct participation in the war. My father was a person who was convinced that in our country things needed to be changed. He believed that in Guatemala it’s necessary to change because the indigenous people had a hard life, people are very poor, and suffer much discrimination.
I have family that had to go to Mexico, and family that fled to Spain, who still live there. My mother never left, which is another part of the story, too. My uncles and everyone they think of all the men, but no one thinks of my mother with her children. The ones who were alone, those with few children, they could run away, but my mother was a woman with eight children, no one thought of her, she was practically abandoned, her luck, here in the Capital.
We are survivors. And although we are survivors, this doesn’t mean that they haven’t destroyed our lives. We lost the only thing we had–our family relationships, right? We lost a way of life, of our existence, that we will never be able to get back. Never.
The feeling of surviving came from my mother who protected us. Along the way , we met many good people that helped us. Even though our destiny was already marked–my mother couldn’t speak Spanish, we were in such a big city, a racist city, and with eight kids…However, we managed to survive.
We have had to fight a lot and suffer through this process to be able to get back our rights. A lot of time we were afraid, we were afraid because of our history, of what was going to happen to us. We thought of forgetting what had happened to us, but more than ever I think that we should not forget what happened. All of the people have to know, it’s necessary for the people to know, the history that has occurred here in Guatemala.
There are a lot of people who are still affected….we have to work to strengthen ourselves, as victims of the war, as survivors, because in the end, this is what we are.
Yes, it lasted a long time, the pain and the suffering, but I think that we can transfer all of this, or at least, what I have done is try to convert it into energy, that day by day allows me to contine. But during all of these problems I have had many crises–emotional, psychological–and I have had to go into treatment to be able to go on. Because, yes, sometimes, you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Fernando’s voice caught and he sobbed, so quietly you almost couldn’t hear him. But he couldn’t go on. Someone handed him a kleenex, someone else got him a cup of water. Maybe in that moment everyone was in that tunnel with him, the one where you couldn’t see the light.
“In the work that I have done, I can see people who are still very affected. In the cases of exhumations when people are searching for their disappeared family members. I know that I am still very affected, I haven’t overcome this and I don’t want to forget. Now more than ever, I want to have with me all that happened in the war, and I want to tell about it….I think all children should know
the truth of what happened, they have to know the history of their country. If not, the memory is lost. I think they should kow where they come from, who was their grandfather, who were their aunts and uncles. They should know the truth, because this is the only way they are going to become people who really give a damn, people who will be prepared to fight against all the horrible acts committed in the war, so that they don’t ever happen again.”
We sat in utter silence after Fernando stopped talking. I hadn’t understood every word, but the essence of what he was telling was completely clear. No one had looked at Fernando as he spoke across the table to me. But we were all his witnesses.
I will sit here as long as it takes, I told myself. I will not rush anyone, I will only say gracias.
Flor reached for the microphone.
“After everything returned to being calm and normal,
a huge fear, stayed with us always, that one day the same
thing would happen again.”
(translated from Spanish)
“My name is Flor. I was left astounded by what I heard from Fernando. He is one of my best friends, I already knew a bit of his story, and the truth is, thanks to God, not as much happened to my family as to his during the war.
“I was born in 1982 in a town near here. Well, my father suffered. He was
someone who was active in many communities and got together with people from other towns, and during the years ‘82 and ‘83, they wanted to kill him. As always, some people in my village hada list that contained the names of some people, among these names was the name of my father. Some cards arrived at our house that said that my father was going to die!
“My parents didn’t know what to do, with four kids, already, where were they going to go? We didn’t have money. My father thought for some time that we would go live in the Peten, a place very far from where we lived, to hide ourselves. But even so, he didn’t want to, he was very involved with the Church, doing lots of projects.
“One time he was hidden in the house, we lived in a very small house, including a part that had been excavated so that my father could hide. And my siblings and I never, ever could go out. We were always enclosed. All of this came to effect us very much.
“My mother is…she got sick from everything that happened. And after everything returned to being calm and normal, a huge fear stayed with us always, that one day, the same thing would happen again, but it never did.
When I finished primary school, my father didn’t want me to continue studying, and this was very hard for me, because I always liked to study. But he said, ‘’No, what for? Some day this fear could return, one day the same thing could happen. It’s better that you look at your mother, follow her example as a tranquil person, nothing ever happesn to her.’
“But, even so, I want to change, I want to move ahead, to rise about this and to be able to help if some day the same thing happens. I want to be a person that can defend our rights. That is what influenced me to study law. Now I am in the fifth year of the law program.
“If I could say something to my children, when I have them, I would tell them I’m Catholic. What I mean is I have God in my heart, and everything that happened here in Guatemala wasn’t just. But there is justice above, and I trust in this.
“All children should know what happened during this time. There are books that say this, but to hear it from someone is totally different. It’s not like something one can read.
“I want to salute my companions that experienced all of this, I am very
sorry for you all, but animate! (be strong!) Here we are, and we have to move forward.”
Victor, Giovani, Helida, Rigoberto, Bartolo, and Robin told their stories. Each of them had their own war, each talked as long as he or she wanted, some taking 5 minutes, some taking 20. When we were done, there was one student who hadn’t spoken: Julio.
He passed me a piece of paper with a note in Spanish: “No voy a poder hablar, prefiero escribirselo, gracias” (Since I won’t be able to speak, I’d prefer to write it down for you. Thank you.)
I thanked the students. Karen thanked them. Irma thanked them in Spanish. We all sat, not moving, waiting for what would happen next. What could that possibly be?
How will we ever get up from this table, leave this room?
You know how sometimes after you’ve said something, you think back on it and say to yourself, “Boy, did that sound dumb, couldn’t I have have figured out a better way to say that?”
Well, the dumb thing I said was, “I thank you for sharing your stories with us. After a difficult experience it’s important to take care of yourselves. In my culture, when we’ve shared painful times one of the things we do is share a meal. Food is good. Eating is good. So Karen and I would like to invite you to join us for dinner.”
Eating is good?
The students seemed thrilled with the invitation and it somehow broke the ice; everyone got up, started milling around, talking and hugging.
The testimonios were over. Bring on the food!
Our students invited some of the other students hanging around the office to come and we met an hour later in the touristy part of town. Irma knew her way around these fancy restaurants that obviously catered to gringos and wealthy Guatemalans. “Where would you like to eat?” she asked, and since Karen and I had no idea, we randomly selected a fine-looking Middle Eastern restaurant. Shish kabob and tabouli in Guatemala City.
“Order whatever you want,” I told the students as we all sat down at the long table which stretched along one entire wall, and they did, starting with margaritas, and appetizeres to share, main courses, desserts, fancy coffees. The eating went on and on, plates passed back and forth, more margaritas ordered to shouts of laughter.
Everyone had finished, except Julio who was methodically devouring any food within reach. “Hey, Julio is still hungry!” and everyone passed their plates with leftovers to him. He sat, grinning, as the stacks of plates piled up, towering beside him.
Time to pay the bill, and I had that split second of panic as the waiter rang it up, What does it cost to take 15 people out to dinner? I wonder if I have enough cash… what if they don’t take credit cards?
They did, and I walked out thinking, That meal could cost $1000 and it would be worth every penny.
I left Guatemala the next day with my tape recorder and stack of tapes. Karen stayed on for another week to study Spanish. The night before she was to leave, Julio came to say goodbye to her at the hotel. He gave her a large manila envelope, “Here is my story” he told her. “It’s 20 pages long, I hope you understand what I have written.”
The envelope was sealed and stapled. Across the top Julio had written in capital letters, DO NOT OPEN IN GUATEMALA.