Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Martha Pierce's Work in Guatemala

First, this community was different from the one that I visit every year in several ways. For one thing, it’s much smaller; although it’s kind of divided into two sections (one higher up the mountain than the other) the group I was with has a stronger relationship with the smaller/higher section because most of the people there are related to one family, the Vicentes, who came to Chicago through the sanctuary movement in the 1980’s and still live there and participate in the activities of their host church (University Church UCC) and also of the Sanctuary Alliance. The father of this family, Virgilio, is a wise elder, and accompanied us on the trip, which for him was a visit to his brother and numerous other family members. It wasn’t his first trip back; he and other members of the group had been there 5 or 6 times before. This village was one of the 660 or so that were completely destroyed by the Guatemalan army in the 1980’s; Virgilio’s parents, grandparents, and about 30 other relatives were massacred at that time, along with the rest of the people in the village. Those who were able to flee survived by hiding in the mountains, fleeing from army bombardments and patrols, for several years; others fled into refugee camps in Mexico or to other parts of Guatemala; Virgilio and his family went to the U.S. So the folk from University Church are helping them to rebuild their village, by providing support for a water system, helping to build the school, and giving scholarships to students who want to study beyond 9th grade (they have to leave the community and live in the nearest large town for this). Most of the people now have houses made of wood, with laminated tin roofs, instead of just sticks and plastic as when they began, but there’s still no electricity in the village and of course no indoor plumbing. It’s not really a village in the sense of having streets and stores and stuff like that; the 10 or 12 houses are scattered around on the hills, each with its own small fields (or “milpa”), and there is one small community building, which is where we spent most of our time. The women of the village cooked meals for us there, and we all ate together; some of our group slept in tents which they had brought. It gets quite cold at night there, and the stars are unbelievably brilliant, and roosters don’t crow only at dawn. All of the people speak the language K’iche, and most also speak Spanish; our meetings involved lots of translations from one language to another to another, and back again (Spanish-English was my department), and I’m sorry to say I didn’t learn any K’iche words except “maltiox” which means “thank you.” In addition to arts & crafts projects to do with the kids, and a couple of soccer balls, and some yarn for the women who wanted to learn to knit, the group brought a small solar-powered camping lantern for each family, which thrilled the women a great deal. These will enable them to see their way home in the dark at night, and provide more light for their cooking; they’ll also mean the people don’t have to spend so much money on candles, and perhaps help avoid burning the children or houses with the candles. For many people of this group it was a great reunion to see their village friends again, and we were greeted with hugs and smiles, and everybody on both sides cried when we left.

Before we went up to the village we spent a couple of days in Guatemala City, where we had meetings with various people and organizations who work on human rights and social justice issues. One of these was the Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which carries out exhumations of clandestine burial grounds left from the internal conflict. They carefully exhume the bodies, examine them and document the evidence of how they died, etc. and then return the remains to the families for a proper burial. The point of this is both to provide dignity to the victims, and also to develop the proof needed to prosecute those who are responsible. Needless to say, this is dangerous work, and the people who do it are constantly threatened. We saw a video about their work, and then went to see the actual lab: 6 or 8 tables with skeletons, or partial skeletons, laid out on them, with lab workers carefully documenting every detail. It was quite moving to see the tiny bones of a 2-year-old child, and the skull of an old woman with only 1 tooth left in her jaw. Before we went I was concerned that our friend Virgilio might be disturbed by this experience, since his own parents were killed and buried somewhere on the mountainside, but he was very interested and even asked for a copy of the video. He brought it to the village – Saqa Ja is its name – and one afternoon while we were there we all gathered, men, women, children, visitors and villagers, at Virgilio’s brother Guadalupe’s house, where they have a solar panel that powers a tv with a video player, and we watched the video together. Most of the people and all of the visitors wept during the movie, and afterwards many of them spoke quite movingly about their own experiences. Most of that was in K’iche, but it wasn’t hard to get the point of their stories, especially as occasionally there would be a word in Spanish: “army” or “helicopter” or “massacre” or “suffering.” The next day they decided to have a Mayan ceremony to remember their murdered family members. Everyone gathered in a circle, sitting on the grass, and the spiritual leader created a traditional Mayan ceremonial altar in the middle. This is a circle marked out by flower petals and pine needles, with flowers and candles of different colors at the 4 cardinal points, and two candles in the middle – blue and green to symbolize earth and sky. Various kinds of incense, spices, sugar, chocolate, and seeds are sprinkled around in a mound, and more candles are placed on the mound, and the whole thing is set on fire while the priest waves incense over it and prays. Various people gave him lists of names of their loved ones who had been killed, and as he chanted and prayed for each one, three women kneeling upright by the edge of the circle sang/told the story of each person, while holding offerings of bread in their hands. After this ceremony, which went on for quite a while, they also had a celebration for the 10th anniversary of partnership with our group. They had made a welcome poster, and another poster with photos from previous years (including one that was taken several years ago when our Chicago group brought a man from the community, German, to the U.S. for a speaking tour – he stayed here at our house, and I took him and his traveling partner, Mateo, to the top of the John Hancock Building, and we had a souvenir picture taken!) Then we all shared a corn drink, and Virgilio gave candy to all the kids, and it was quite festive.

What else? Lots more, of course. Yes, the hike was difficult – rocky, steep, and narrow – but with spectacular views at every turn; I was grateful for the people and mules who helped to carry my packs. The village is quite hard to get to, but they are all very excited that the local government has promised that this time, for sure, they will build a road to them. We’ll see. It could be a mixed blessing in some ways, but they would like to be able to get their crops to market more easily, and also to bring materials to the village.

What work did we do there? Just the work of accompaniment, I guess. It is such an honor and a privilege to be with people like that – to “encounter God at the margins,” as one woman puts it, and to find that “slowly our centers of gravity move outside of ourselves and we find ourselves suddenly dancing with friends in unknown places and with great joy.” Yes, we did dance!

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