By Gillian Locascio
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the selective violence and political repression that had been a part of life in Guatemala since the CIA-backed military coup in 1954 erupted into a wave of massacres of the rural indigenous population in which nearly a quarter-million were killed or disappeared. Today, 17 years after the signing of the Peace Accords which ended the armed conflict, the Accords have still not been completely implemented. The structures which kept rural indigenous populations in poverty before the conflict are still in place—racism, unjust land tenancy, a government policy aimed at exports and resource extraction.
The same communities that suffered great losses during the conflict remain in deep poverty, pushing many of their members to risk their lives to work in the United States, where they confront different but nonetheless challenging human rights issues.
In Jewish tradition it is written that when you kill a person, you are responsible not only for that person’s life but that of all of her unborn heirs.
It’s a radical concept: every person in this world is not just one person, but their whole potential—the sum of everything they might bring to this world in the normal course of their lifespan.
When I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, I felt for the first time the weight of that idea.
It was the commemoration of my grandparents’ anniversary and we had gone with them to Friday night services at their temple. That night, however, there were special guests: a pair of musicians who performed pieces composed by the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. As the night thickened outside, they took their places in front of the big glass windows and began to play. The violin sung hauntingly, beautifully, the voice of a composer long gone, a call of beauty created in the most desolate of places.
As music filled the space, the melodies seemed to multiply, and I felt a deep ache for what we had lost—not just those musicians, but all who would have followed, and all of the culture and art and stories and daily elements that colored the lives of Jewish communities in Western Europe that was shattered into pieces and blown into faraway lands. For the unborn grandsons and granddaughters of those musicians and the music they would have played.
It was not just 6 million lives. It was a piece of society, and an infinitely large piece of the future.
When you kill a man, you are responsible not only for him but for all of the descendants he would have had. And if each person is a world. . . well, then, the void left by so many deaths is terrifying.
In November, here in Guatemala, communities all over the country gather in graveyards to spend time with their deceased for the Day of the Dead. The tradition varies by region. In some areas there are great parties, in others it is a quiet family affair, cleaning the grave sites and bringing food for those living and also those who have passed on. In some places, there are special ceremonies for those who have no graves, especially the many people who were “disappeared” during the violent years of the military dictatorships and internal armed conflict.
I spent the holiday in Santa Maria Tzejá, a community founded in the late 1960s. With the hope of having enough land to feed their families, groups of peasants had left their homes in the highlands and come to the hot, humid jungles of the Ixcán to carve out a new life. . .
Sitting in their breezy patio and surrounded by a cornucopia of chickens, ducks, flowers, and vegetables, an older couple switch off telling us of those early days. Candles are lit in front of the image of lady of Guadalupe on the small family shrine. It was a decade of hard work, the couple explains, before the community was somewhat established.
“We were very far away from town and there were no roads. Our supplies were dropped off by a small plane, for the cooperative, not much but a little bit for each member. Still, sometimes there was no sugar, oil, soap. It was hard to make money, but we would fatten pigs, earn some small change,” the older man recounted. The woman explained, “We had some cattle, not many but each family had managed to raise a few.”
“Then the army came, and we had to flee to the mountains or lose our lives. They thought we were part of the guerrilla, take the fish out of the water, scorched earth. . .” he lists the policies that the then government had used to justify the idea that thousands of poor rural communities posed a threat to national security. His wife adds, “We had to leave the cattle, everything we owned.” They pause. “It was that or our lives.”
On February 13, 1982, the army had marched into Santa Maria Tzejá but found the town nearly deserted. Warned by a system they had installed, almost the entire population had fled into the jungle. Still, over the next two days 17 people who were found in the area by patrols were brutally massacred, animals were slaughtered, crops were destroyed, and the entire town was burnt to the ground. Many survivors fled to Mexico, where refugee camps eventually formed; others returned voluntarily or as captives to a militarized “model village” built on the foundations of the burnt town. It was twelve years before the families who had fled to Mexico returned.
As my accompaniment partner and I walk back from the old couples’ house to the room where we stay, I try to imagine Santa Maria Tzejá throughout its history. How much has been lost in those decades of war, when communities were scattered and people lost forever, when a man with long hair or a woman in traditional dress could face violence from the government because anyone indigenous was suspected of supporting the guerrilla? How much has been recovered since that time? Are children still interested in learning to make traditional music with the marimba?
I think about other towns where residents had not managed to escape, and hundreds had been slaughtered with terrible brutality. The residents of Santa Maria Tzejá have not forgotten what happened in 1982. Small crosses are still visible in parts of town, commemorating those who were assassinated, and the memory flickers in the flames of small candles lit for the Day of the Dead. Some members of the community fight tirelessly to bring the architects of the massacre to justice in the court system. Others have moved on to new struggles, organizing locally to build schools, empower women, or to create a fair market for their agricultural produce. Life is still hard. Children grow up and start their own families.
As we walk, the late afternoon sun filters down through the forest canopy and streams rush across the path. A flock of green parakeets make their noisy way back across town to sleep. Children run down the streets, still holding balloons from the previous days’ school graduation ceremonies. Young men and women walk back from the computer lab. Family members attend customers at the small stores in town and smoke rises from kitchens as women pat ground corn masa into tortillas for dinner. Others gather on the hilltops to call relatives in the United States.
My partner and I will be welcomed into a household to share dinner, perhaps playing with the children, exchanging languages, or listening to the stories of the older family members. After dinner, we will light the candles, read for a few hours, and then retire early to our beds. The quiet buzz of the insects and night birds will lull us to sleep.
Every person carries with them their whole potential—the sum of everything they might bring into this world over the course of their lifetime. Despite the genocide of nearly a quarter million of the indigenous population during the height of the Internal Armed Conflict in Guatemala, the people have survived to light candles, to fill the schools with laughing children and hold Mayan ceremonies for school graduations.
AVODAH New Orleans alumna Gillian Locascio, currently works as a human rights accompanier in Guatemala with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).