I didn’t understand it, I only saw they were crying. Well, my grandfather had been murdered. He went out to buy something early in the morning, it was 4:00 in the morning, and it was at this hour that the army killed him. I was aware that during this time in my house we could not speak loudly or like we are speaking now, we laughed, but back then when I said something my mother would say: “Be quiet, don’t speak,” and I never understood why. And we were talking, and we learned to talk so slowly with my mother, with my father. And my little sister, the one that was born after me, she was so young and sometimes she didn’t obey. And sometimes we didn’t stay home during the night, we slept behind the macollos de banano, the banana trees that grow several trunks at the same time. Sometimes we had a good time because my mother would bring clothes, although in the south coast it isn’t cold, so we enjoyed the moment, but they told us “not to speak”. I didn’t understand. I remember that the other issue that surprised me a little bit because I was very young, was the time when my mother told me: “grab a tanate”– tanate is a piece of cloth like a shawl that you extend, put clothes on it and then wrap the clothes with it– “grab a tanate with your clothes because we’re leaving”. “Where to?”, I asked. “We are leaving because there are bad people here.” So we started walking. It was still dark. I don’t remember if it was dark because it was dawn or because it was late in the afternoon, and we went to live at the house of one of my mother’s aunts, but a distant aunt with whom we didn’t stay in touch. Now I understand we went there because the army would never know we would hide in that house. We stayed in that house for three days, shut in, nobody went out. Nobody went out. Food was brought to us, everything was brought to us. And we didn’t understand what was going on. Well, sometimes it wasn’t fun to be shut in, but my father used to tell great jokes, he also told tales and stories about the Llorona and so they entertained us. I really did not understand what was happening.
Another situation that made me very angry was when on one occasion I saw my mother take off running and crying, and I said “and where did she go?” My mother has a rather strong character, that is, sometimes if we were shouting, she would yell “don’t shout!” and so, but in that moment I saw her so weak, crying. And what happened? And I took off, too. She changed my sister’s clothes and we went out. And she said: “We are going to your grandmother’s house”. With the parents of my father. We got there and my aunt was crying. I thought, but what happened? Then I heard my mother as she told my father’s aunt: “Take Leiria, don’t let her go.” And I heard that, then I said, “no, I have to know what is going on”. Right. But I was so young, I was four years old. Then, my father’s aunt grabbed my sister and she told me: “Stay with me, sweetheart,” and I said “Ok,” and stayed there, but I saw my mother as she headed towards the cacaoatal, the cacao plantation, because there used to be a big cacao production, and I followed her. When I got there, some friends of my father’s and my mother were there, and they were looking inside a hole in the ground. I came closer and saw my father buried there. Well, not really buried, because he was wounded by the army on that day when he went fishing and his friends with whom he went fishing dug a hole in the ground, a hole like a tomb, and put him inside it and covered it with a piece of nylon and then they put a board on top and covered it with leaves of the cacao trees, as if there was nothing there, and they threw the dirt to the river close by, so nobody could tell what was there. If you looked at the ground, you couldn’t see that there was a person hiding. But my father was bleeding a lot. When I got there and saw my father, I jumped into the hole and hurt him because I landed on top of him and he had a wound in his chest, another in his leg and another in his arm, here, a bullet grazed his arm. But the one killing him was the one in his chest. And I saw him vomiting blood.
And my mother was so upset because my father’s aunt hadn’t watched me properly, so they didn’t do anything to me. My mother scolded me, she scolded me, she hugged me and all that, but she didn’t say a thing. After that, I stayed there. After a while one of my aunts came, in those days she worked as a nurse at the hospital. But she was carrying some chickens. And I thought “why the chickens?” But I didn’t understand. Back then I didn’t understand why she was carrying the chickens. But then she pulled out some syringes, injected my father, she gave him a lot of remedies. My father was then covered with dirt again and my mother walked away. They said: “Try not to cry” and she told me: “Don’t say a word about this” and we walked away. Now I understand my aunt carried the chickens because, when she left that place, she took the chickens pretending she was shopping for meat to make some kind of party at the house, so nobody would notice she was going to cure my father instead. Fortunately, my father endured the wounds. After that, he was taken someplace, I didn’t know where. Now my father tells me he was taken to a hospital, well, not really a hospital, but to a doctor who cured him, not in a hospital, but in his own house, because the wounds had caused him to lose a lot of blood and also some kind of infection because he didn’t receive the proper treatment from the beginning.
Well, and so everything started and I say now: “Why did they follow my father, why?” And according to my father, back in the ‘80s he and the CUC (Peasant Unity Committee) started to get organized because they harvested sugar cane for a living in the South Coast and they were paid only Q1.25 or Q1.50 per ton and they felt the money they earned was not enough. So they organized a strike in the South Coast, they told all the workers to stop working until they raised the pay. And they managed to go to all the farms and organize the people. They held a meeting, I don’t know exactly where, they only told me it was close to the coast plains. So, another compañero, who is now a friend of my father’s, and my father left.
The army came and followed them in a helicopter, but they could not be found because they were hiding under the leaves. It was after this event that they started to follow my father. It was a long time before I saw my father again. When I saw him again, he was healthy again. However, the situation of not speaking persisted in the house. We lived in a house that belonged to my mother, she inherited it from her father, my grandfather, because my mother’s family didn’t have a lot of money, but more or less enough to pass it on. My father’s family was extremely poor. So, we lived there.
But we lived there sometimes, and sometimes not. We used to go away and… One night, or late in the afternoon, my mother said, “We have to go because I have a very strong hunch. Something bad is going to happen here.” And my father said: “Well, you are always like that, having bad premonitions, you should better go to your mother’s place because something might happen.” But it was getting dark and my mother said: “We don’t have time to do anything.” She only grabbed my little sister and myself and we took off to my grandmother’s house. The next day, well, I only saw that my father showed up, but it was not dawn yet, it was still dark. My mother said that it was 5:00 in the morning and my father had said we should not go back to the house. That night, the army had come to the house, forced the doors open and took everything, everything, everything, everything we had in the house. They left us without clothes, we only had what we had on. They left some letters saying that we were in the list and they would kill us and they were bound to find us. So, we left my grandmother’s house and headed again towards the house of the lady where we spent those nights shut in. We spent that night there.
The next day a car came very early in the morning and we got in the car and left. During the journey, I only saw my mother praying for the army not to show up and, every time there was a policeman or someone, even us kids had a very strong fear that we didn’t even move. Then we were left in some kind of pasture and we walked and we walked and we walked. Finally we made it to a house, a champita as we call it, made out only of palm and nothing else inside. It was on a little mountain or hill and there were my grandfather and my grandmother, my father’s parents. They were happy to see us. We got there and we stayed for almost two years. My little brother was born there. We were so isolated from everything, family, people. We only ate shrimp, fish, crabs, iguanas that my father caught and other wild things, herbs, beans. And we never communicated with anyone.
For me and my sister it was kind of fun. It was fun, but sometimes it wasn’t, we only talked. Actually, I don’t complain, it was a nice life. We were all together. My father worked. But we were so isolated, so isolated. My mother taught us how to catch crabs or shrimp in the river. I still like doing that now, I still use my free time to do that, even though there is nothing to catch anymore. And my brother was born, and I was already seven years old. My father said: “Leiria has to go to school and read, because I can’t.” Only my mother knew how to read and write. My father was learning. Then he said: “Well, since the army is looking for me, I will apply for amnesty,” and he went to apply for amnesty. And my mother thought he would never come back, but he did. We went back to Santo Domingo and I started school.
However, until this day, it affects me a lot when they say “No, don’t talk”. I want to change and I think I have changed a lot. For example, when speaking for an audience or speaking with people, some say to me: “Ah, Leiria, you are so stuck-up” and it’s not that I’m stuck-up, it’s just that it is very hard for me to speak. Way too hard. I make my best effort and now that I have had, thank God, a lot of opportunities, I got the scholarship to attend university and the chance in the institution where I work, I have participated in young people’s movements.
I think it’s been good because I have learned to speak, because before my whole body would shake when I stood in front of an audience, and I couldn’t manage to talk. And it was hard for me to speak loudly. Sometimes, my teacher would say: “Speak louder because we can’t hear you.” I can’t speak. And it happens to me even today, I’m standing before an audience and… It’s not that now they ask me to shut up, sometimes I talk too much at home, I joke, but I can feel how the impact of not letting a person speak not only for one year, but for three years seriously affects the life of this person. I say, I would like to be able to express myself or to speak like this, without a problem. I can’t. And sometimes I talk about this with my friends, with my compañeros in the project and they tell me “Leiria you are stuck-up.” I am not stuck-up, I can speak, but it is difficult for me to express myself. That’s why I think this situation affects people’s lives.
We returned, when we went back home we didn’t have to hide anymore; however, the situation was very difficult. My mother was very sick. I always thought she was going to die. The same with my father. My other siblings were born. I used to go with my father to the field, we planted corn, we planted sesame. And my father used to tell me: “Leiria, study. I don’t want you to be like me.” And I did, I liked studying, but after a while he said: “Look Leiria, I don’t have any money to pay for your high school.” My mother cried that day and said: “Most likely not, because your siblings have to attend school, too.” There was nothing I could do to earn some money, I was only 13 years old. Then, my aunt who used to be a nurse, she was a seamstress, she made clothes, but my family was very conservative, they didn’t let me go out very often. So my father said: “If you wish, you can go with your aunt and learn how to sew and maybe you can make some money.”
And I went to learn how to sew. I more or less learned, but not very well. Since I live in the country, I still live far away, there are not many people around, so I sew one or two blouses now and then, but it was not enough. Then we thought with my mother about starting a business of selling, for example, meat, beets, cabbages, to other places where they didn’t have these things. And my mother said: “With this you can go to high school.” This is how I went to high school and diversificado (where you become a teacher, a secretary, an accountant, etc.); however, I didn’t go to school for two years because I didn’t have the money to pay for it.
When I finished, I decided I wanted to continue and go to San Carlos University, because you don’t pay if you go there. When I went to the San Carlos University to find out about the schedule, it turned out the courses were only at night and I lived far away, so it was impossible for me to attend classes during the night, every day, that required traveling, but I also had to walk long distances and needed the money for transportation. Later I was able to establish contact for the scholarship and, thank God, I could maintain it and completed university.
I can’t complain, thank God I have a job, I like what I do and I have enough to pursue my studies. After that I told the people from the scholarship project that I no longer required the total support the scholarship offered, because I had a paid job that helped me cover the costs of my studies, because I’m sure there are other people who, like me, need it and don’t have the support. But, actually, Santo Domingo, where I live, was seriously struck by war. There were whole communities massacred. In the organization where I work now, and I forgot to bring it, but I want to share with you a document similar to yours; we made one to compile the experiences of the families, of how they suffered because of the war, because we made two exhumations of clandestine cemeteries.
In the first one, it was located where the military detachment once was, and we only found 18 bodies. There were remains of women wearing their trajeand of men tied with wire from here to their feet who evidently had been tortured, and of children. And the other was a well where only four bodies were found, I don’t remember exactly. Well, there are other likely places, what happens is that, to make an exhumation, a long legal procedure is required and also funding to move, coordinate, but we are still working on that plan of how to exhume the other cemeteries, because there are a lot of people that are still missing.
There are other stories more dramatic of people who have seen their families die, who have seen… not die, but how they were tortured, how their children are killed. Thank God, nothing happened to my father, only to my grandfather, and uncles of my father. We had to flee, to stay a little isolated. They were experiences that I remember now and we remember with my family with a little sadness, but they have also been moments of life together, of unity, of enjoying nature, something not very common these days, of having a picnic by the side of a river.
When I have some spare time, which is rare, being close to a river brings me pleasant memories. A lot of memories come to my mind, when I was four, five years old. Those are some of the few things I remember, I can’t remember other nice things. A lot of women, now in university, school, a lot of girls remember how they played with their dolls, how they celebrated piñata parties. I say, I don’t remember any of that, I never had those things, because I always lived in isolation. I remember things of war, of my grandfather’s death.
For example, I remember many things that are a disturbing for me. However, such is life and what one also learns is how experience makes one more sensitive to the situation you are living. And, I wanted to share with you this experience, which I think it could help you add a little to your documents so that people know a little of the different situations, the different places, because I live in the South Coast, and how the armed conflict was lived there.
It was a rather complicated situation for the families due to the nature of the region, its characteristics and everything started because of that situation… that is, my father was accused of being a member of the guerrilla because he helped organized the strike almost all over the South Coast, which I know had a great impact in the sugar cane economy, but back then they were not being paid fair salaries and they went on strike. And that made them so upset and made them chase us so much. However, it didn’t go beyond that for us. Today, my father bears the scars of the wounds and my younger siblings ask: “Hey, Dad, and what is this?” My father only smiles, but I tell my older siblings about it. For the small ones it is like…
Student: As if nothing ever happened…
Yes, as if the scars were like moles or something like that. It is important to share sometimes. It helps a little and you think, you have to share your experiences. Sometimes you have certain traits and it is not because you are like that, but because sometimes things happen that leave a mark in your history, your life, but everything passes and, thank God, today we are…
I can’t say that there is peace in Guatemala, because there is no peace; poverty and hunger are problems that never give peace to the families. Currently, it is said that Guatemala is a country with peace, or in peace, or postwar, or whatever. Nevertheless, if we look at each family, there is unemployment, there is the never-ending search for food, because there is nothing. So, we are living a postwar when everybody killed each other with weapons, but now the people are dying not because they are being killed with weapons but because they don’t have food, because of some simple sickness, they are dying because they can’t go to the doctor.
Another serious problem resulting from all of this is the non-participation, the ignorance. I had the opportunity to go to school. A lot of people spent more time shut in and could not attend school. Today, they are illiterate, they don’t have i.d. documents. We are working in a documentation program for women because, in this case, when their houses were burned down, when a lot of terrible things took place, their clothes were taken away along with everything else and they were left without personal identifications. People, women in particular, didn’t get interested in starting a process to obtain their new documents mostly because of their poverty.
Now, if a woman gets paid with a check, she says: “Ah, I can’t go to the bank. I’ll ask my husband to cash it” and this generates a situation of dependency. And I don’t think I’m extremely feminist, but I believe that women have to be self-sufficient, but why is it that we don’t do it. It is not only because of the historical existence of male chauvinism, but also because war affected greatly women’s participation in things. There were some families that said: “No, men should go to school.” My grandparents, for example, always thought that way. When I started high school, they told my father: “The only thing Leiria will learn in school is to write letters to her boyfriends.” My father said: “Well, she is my daughter and I will decide what I will do about it, because I don’t want her to be like me.”
And so, these are the things that little by little effect us and now we see a problem of total dependency. Why are we caught in this dependency? For the same reason. Why are we caught in this poverty? For the same reason. War not only took lives, because the dead are dead, I don’t know if they are in heaven or in hell or wherever, but they are resting. Everyone is entitled to their own belief. However, it has generated several effects, negative effects for us still alive. Thank God, my only issue is not being able to speak, but I am overcoming it, I feel that I am overcoming it greatly. Nevertheless, there are people who live in extreme poverty because of that, because they didn’t have any opportunities, because they could not go to school, because today they are depending on someone to take care of them because they are now handicapped and can’t work, they are dependent, but it’s due to the same reason. And sometimes, I don’t know, a lot is said about orphans and widows, but not about other effects that war is still causing today and will continue to cause for some years in the future generations.
That’s all. I don’t know if you have any questions, because sometimes I forget to mention things.