Letters From Guatemala
by Laura MacDonald

July 18, 2005
Laura learns the traditional method for cutting grass. Photo: Lindsey Engleman

"A very dangerous country"
When I was preparing to come to Guatemala, many people warned me of the various dangers I might face here. The food, the bugs, the violence, etc. As of yet, I have felt very safe here and very comfortable. Of course, I'm in the relative luxury of a city, in a middle class home (by Guatemalan standards)…

The other night I was talking to Eduardo…He was in the US sin documentos, or "illegally"…To get to the US, Eduardo had to take busses all the way through Mexico…He had to save up money to pay a coyote, or people smuggler, to rush him across the border in a truck in the middle of the night. He had to walk through the Arizona desert...he worked for 11 years at various jobs…making anywhere from $1-3 per hour. He had to sleep on a floor, and there was never much money for food. Medical care was beyond question….When he was mistreated, he couldn't complain to authorities for fear of being arrested and deported….I asked if he knew many people who died in the US. "Oh yes, many," he said. "They work the dangerous jobs and they don't have medical care. And then it is very hard to bring them home."

"I would never go back to the United States," he said. "It is a very dangerous country."

August 18, 2005
"War cannot be so neatly defined"
We are taught about wars as things that have definite beginnings and endings, things with titles…"WWII"…"Operation Iraqi Freedom"…War cannot be so neatly defined….Peace Accords were signed in 1996, but few of their provisions have been implemented. Violence in Guatemalan cities has reached new heights…fueled by desperate poverty….The political power structures enforced over Guatemala´s rural, largely Mayan, population during the war remain today. The war ended but its underlying causes are stronger than ever

I leave soon for a place where one of the largest massacres of the war took place. A community where widows live next door to their husband's killers, where the earth has been dishonored with the blood of children. Where the only people who have paid for the crimes that were committed are the victims...a place where many people work, sleep, eat, have families, live their lives.

It is a place I know nothing about.
It is a place I have dreamed about

September 24, 2005
"The day the army came back"

I just completed my first month in the Ixcan region of Guatemala, a two hour walk from the border of Chiapas, Mexico. It is hot; it is deforested jungle. There are about 360 families.

The community was settled by a Catholic priest from the US…and a group of landless campesinos (rural subsistance farmers) during the 1970s. But there was a war on. And although the community was probably started more from a desperate need for land than a desire to challenge the Guatemalan elite, by being successful, by being independent, challenging this system is exactly what they were doing.

One day in 1980, the entire leadership of the cooperative was murdered by the Guatemalan army.

One year later, the army came back, they slaughtered at least 360 women, children, and men - entire families killed, such that there was no one left to remember their names.

If you walk down the hill from the little wooden building where my partner and I live, you will come to a little area fenced off and shaded by tall trees. Inside…a memorial to the hundreds who were murdered…I casually walk to the side of the memorial and begin to read the names…The names are the names of people I know. This must have been his father, because the name is his. Or her mother. Or the entire family of the man I ate with last night. Some of them are listed only as "daughter of #227"…this was all that could be remembered by those who survived.

…Some try to forget. Some never return….A few try to seek some sort of justice. One way people are attempting to do this is through a legal case accusing former dictators Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Rios Montt of war crimes and genocide….I'm working as part of an international team of human rights accompaniers to provide safety and support to the individuals who have chosen to participate in these cases as witnesses.

December 14, 2005
"El Norte"

…Doña Lucilla talked…about her 16-year-old son crossing the desert…

Before…there was cardamom…and it gave a good price, and the coffee plants exploded with berries…The pigs grew fat and the chickens multiplied…But then there was the war, and the terror…And now the chickens grow but they get wiped out by disease, and sometimes the pigs eat but sometimes they won't and the price for cardamom is so low it's not worth growing, and the coffee's the same. And the soil is contaminated by the hundreds and hundreds of bombs the army pummeled it with…

"And that's why my boys have left me to go up north, up through the desert with no food and dirty water. To find a job that is heavy and hard." Her voice catches…"maybe he will find one that is not so hard."

When I first got here I believed that people had a romanticized view…that people were making a choice to go to the States because they didn't fully understand the realities. It is a decision coerced by necessity, by poverty, by an unsustainable Guatemalan economy utterly dependent on the whims of international capital.

…There was the war, and now there is migration.…the roots of marginalization, poverty, and racism lie beneath both phenomena.

February 13, 2006
"The truth"

…There is a temptation to take what I have learned here and transform it, make it less of a challenge to my own way of life….I won't think about what it means that I own 20 sweaters…Everyone should be able to keep warm…No one needs 20 sweaters.…'But getting rid of your sweaters doesn't change the fact that others don't have access to what they need,' says a little voice in my head. 'The problem is an unjust system…' As if I can be separated from the context in which I exist. As if it is somehow good for me to have more than what I need.

…Yesterday we stopped by the house of Doña Teresa…What is the value of the things we know? In my last job, I was paid $12 for each hour of my time. If Doña Teresa manages to sell one of her woven bags, it will go for around Q60 - less than $10. Who knows how many hours of work went into its creation.

…When those of us who are white think back to the days of legalized apartheid in the Southern US, who among us thinks we would choose to drink from a fountain marked 'Whites Only?' By participating in that system we would condone it…We would drink from the other fountain, all of us…wouldn't we? Wouldn't we?

How, then, do we honor our own humanity and the humanity of others in this global apartheid, where our schools and jobs and hospitals, our very lives, all bear the unspoken mark, 'Privileged Only?'

How do I say no to a world order that values…my work over Doña Teresa's?…It is a journey, one that will continue long after my time in Guatemala is done.

Laura, a Syracuse native and former SPC steering committee member, recently returned from providing accompaniment in Guatemala where she worked with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (www.nisgua.org).