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Cesar Chelala

An Extraordinary Woman

Guatemala is a land of suffering. As waves of Guatemalan immigrants are coming into the United States, many people don’t remember the U.S. historical responsibility towards them. They escape their dreadful living conditions in their native country.

During the 20th century, Guatemala’s most democratic government was that of Jacobo Arbenz. He had been democratically elected in 1950, but was later overthrown by the military. The highest levels of the United States government, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) actively supported the coup.

Arbenz had raised fear in the U.S. because of a series of new policies, including the expropriation of unused, unfarmed land belonging to private corporations such as the United Fruit Company (UFC). Arbenz’s policy of land redistribution was strongly opposed by local and foreign landowners. The government’s policies triggered the U.S.-supported response.

The fall of Arbenz instigated a civil war in 1960. The war pitted peasants and other civilian groups against the government and the military. More than 250,000 people were killed, many of whom were indigenous Mayan peasants. During this regime of terror more than 100,000 women were raped, over one and a half million people were displaced from their homes, and Guatemala’s infrastructure was destroyed. The war ended with peace accords in 1996, but most of those guilty of crimes against humanity have gone unpunished. The coup against Arbenz not only toppled a democratic government. It caused serious damage to Guatemala’s democracy and for the country’s chances for sustained development.

In 1999, Bill Clinton took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the U.S. role in supporting the war that caused havoc in Guatemala’s social structure. His apology came shortly after an independent Historical Clarification Commission concluded that the U.S. was largely responsible for most of the human rights abuses committed during that bloody war.

President Clinton said, “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong. And the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

One of the most forceful voices defending the rights of the Guatemalan indigenous population has been Rigoberta Menchú. Born to a poor indigenous family from El Quiché, a rural area in north-central Guatemala, her activism won her international recognition.

In 1992, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person to receive the award at the time and the first indigenous person to do so. In 1998, she received Spain’s prestigious Prince of Asturias award and in 2010 she received Mexico’s Order of the Aztec Eagle, among many other honors.

At the beginning of the 1980s, I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation she gave World Council of Churches in New York about the dire situation of the indigenous Mayans in Guatemala. When she finished, I asked to interview her and she accepted. Her testimony helps to understand what her suffering country went through. This is what she told me:

“I am Rigoberta Menchú. I am of the Q’iche’ people of Guatemala. My life has been a long one. Things have happened to me as if in a movie. My parents were killed in the repression. I have hardly any relatives living, or if I have, I don’t know about them. It has been my lot to live what has been the lot for many, many Guatemalans.

We were a very poor family. All their lives my parents worked cutting cotton, cutting coffee. We lived about four months of the year on the high plains of Guatemala, where my father had a small piece of land; but that only supported us a short time, and then we had to go down to the plantations to get food.

During the whole time my mother was pregnant with me, she was on the plantation cutting coffee and cotton. I was paid twenty cents, many years ago, when I started to work in my town in Guatemala. There, the poor, the children, didn’t have the opportunity to achieve any other life but working for food and to help our parents buy medicine for our little brothers and sisters. Two of my brothers died in the plantation cutting coffee. One of them got sick, couldn’t be cured, and died. The other one died when the landowner ordered the cotton to be sprayed with chemicals while we were in the field. My brother was poisoned. There was no way to cure him and he died on the plantation, where we buried him.

We didn’t know why those things happened to us. It’s a miracle that we were saved several times. When we got sick, our mother looked for plants to cure us. The natives in Guatemala depend very much on nature. My mother cured us many times with the leaves of plants, with roots. That is how we managed to grow up. When I was ten-years-old, I started to work more in collaboration with my community where my father, a local Mayan leader, was known by all the Indians in the region.

My father got us involved in the concerns of the community. And we grew up with that consciousness. My father was a catechist, and in Guatemala a catechist is a leader of the community, and what he does is preach the Gospel. We, his children, began to evolve in the Catholic religion, and became catechists ourselves.

Little by little we grew up –and really you can’t say we started fighting only a short time ago, because it has been twenty-two years since my father fought over the land. The landowners wanted to take away our land, our little bit of land, and so my father fought for it. He went to speak with the mayors and with the judges in various parts of Guatemala.

Afterwards, my father joined INTA, the land reform institution in Guatemala. For many years, my father was tricked because he didn’t speak Spanish. None of us spoke Spanish. They made my father travel all over Guatemala to sign papers, letters, telegrams, which meant that not only he, but the whole community had to sacrifice to pay travel expenses. All this created an awareness in us from a very young age.

In the last years, my father was imprisoned many times, the first of those in 1954. My father landed in jail when he was accused of causing unrest among the population. When our father was in jail, the army kicked us out of our houses. They burned our clay pots. In our community we don’t use iron or steel; we use clay pots, which we make ourselves with earth. But the army broke everything, and it was really hard for us to understand this situation.

Then my father was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, but he didn’t serve them because we were able to work with lawyers to get him released. After a year and two months, my father got out of prison and returned home with more courage to go on fighting and much angrier because of what had happened. When that was over, my mother had to go right to work as a maid in the city of Santa Cruz del Quiche, and all of us children had to go down to work on the plantations.

A short time later, my father was caught and tortured by the landowners’ bodyguards. We got the community together and found my father lying on the road, far away, about two kilometers from our home. My father was badly beaten and barely alive. The priests of the region had to come out to take my father to the hospital. He had been in the hospital for six months when we heard he was going to be taken out and killed. The landowners had been discussing it loudly, and the information came to us by way of their servants, who are also natives of the region, and with whom we were very close. And we had to find another place for him so he would heal. But my father could no longer do hard work like he did before. A little later my father dedicated himself exclusively to working for the community, traveling, living off the land.

Several years passed and in 1977 my father was sentenced to death. He landed again in jail. When we went to see him in the Pantan jail, the military told us they didn’t want us to see my father, because he had committed many crimes. My mother went to Santa Cruz to find lawyers, and from them we learnt that my father was going to be executed. When the time for the execution came, many union workers, students, peasants and some priests demonstrated for my father’s freedom. My father was set free, but before he left, he was threatened again; he was told that he was going to be killed anyway for being a communist. From that moment on, my father had to carry out his activities in secret. He had to change the rhythm of his life. He lived hidden in several houses in Quiche, and then he went to the capital city. He became a leader of the peasants’ struggle. It was then that my father said, “We must fight as Christians,” and from there came the idea, along with other catechists, of forming Christian organizations which would participate in the struggle.

For us it was always a mystery how my father could carry out all those activities, which were very important, despite being illiterate. He never learned to read or write in his life. All his children were persecuted because of his activities, and our poverty didn’t really help us to defend ourselves.

All my father’s activities had created a resentment in us because we couldn’t have our parents’ affection, because there were a lot of us children and a bigger worry was how to survive. On top of this there were the problems of the land, which upset my father very much. Many years before, rocks had fallen from the mountains and we had to go down from where we lived.

When we went down and cultivated new land, the landowners appeared with documents and told us that the land was theirs before we came. But we knew very well that the land had no owner before we got there.

The military couldn’t catch my father but in 1979 they kidnapped one of my little brothers. He was sixteen-years-old. We didn’t know who did it. We only knew that they were five armed men with their faces covered. Since my father couldn’t go out, we went with my mother and members of our community to make a complaint to the army, but they told us that they didn’t know anything about what had happened to my brother. We went to City Hall; we went to many jails in Guatemala but we didn’t find him. After many trips trying to find him, my mother was very upset. It had taken a lot for my brother to survive, so for my mother it was very hard to accept his disappearance.

At that time, the army published a bulletin saying there was going to be a guerrilla council. They said they had some guerrillas in their custody, and that they were going to punish them in public. My mother said, ‘I hope to God my son shows up. I hope to God my son is there. I want to know what has happened to him.’ So, we went to see what was happening. We walked for one day and almost the whole night to get there. There were hundreds of soldiers who had taken over almost the whole town, and who had gathered the people to witness what they were going to do. There were people from other areas as well as natives from that town. After a while, an army truck arrived with twenty people who had been tortured in different ways. Among them we recognized my little brother who, along with other prisoners, had been tortured for fifteen days. When my mother saw my brother, she almost gave herself up but we had to calm her down, telling her that if she gave herself up, she was going to be killed right there for being family of a guerrilla. We were crying, as were almost all the people watching the tortured people. They had pulled my brother’s fingernails, they had cut off parts of his ears and other parts of his body, his lips, and he was covered with scars and swollen all over. Among the prisoners there was a woman and they had cut off parts of her breasts…

An army captain gave us a long speech of almost three hours, in which he constantly threatened the people, saying that if we got involved with communism the same thing was going to happen to us. Then he told us the various types of torture they had applied to the prisoners. After three hours, the officer ordered the troops to strip the prisoners and said, ‘part of the punishment is still to come.’ He ordered that the prisoners be tied to some posts. The people watching didn’t know what to do, and my mother was overcome with despair. None of us knew how we could bear the situation. The officer ordered that the prisoners be covered with gasoline, and they set fire to them, one by one.”

As she said those words, Ms. Menchú broke down and I decided to stop my interview. The memory of her words remains with me. A few years later, during one of her trips to New York, I run into her on the street. She was trying to withdraw cash out of an ATM. She wasn’t able to and was frustrated. Trying to make light of the situation, I said, “Rigoberta, it must be witchcraft.” She looked at me and said, “No, César, this is the doing of the white man.”

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