I awoke before dawn to the aria of an enthusiastic rooster. Most days in Guatemala begin this way, with roosters crowing from rooftops, feral cats engaging in unrestrained acts of coitus, and, depending upon the location, the thunder of gear-grinding vehicles, their mufflers long since rendered useless. My son lay in a neat lump on the bed opposite mine, his head buried beneath the pillow. At twenty-three, he still preferred to rise closer to a time most of us would consider to be afternoon. I knew better than to ask him to go with me to explore the village of Nebaj in the early light.
I followed a street uphill from our hotel to the central plaza. Hovering just above the eastern horizon, the sun refracted small rainbows in the broken glass of scattered Gallo beer bottles. Cigarette butts, discarded candy wrappers and crushed flowers littered the gutters. A few small tiendas, their grilles rolled up, prepared for breakfast. Plaintive love tunes squawked from CD’s and radios, while young women with bristly brooms swept the sidewalks out front, swaying to the music, yawning, teasing the muscular delivery boys who carried eggs and produce into the kitchens.
A white stucco church dominated the hill on one side of the plaza. The day before, between masses, my son and I had stopped for a visit. In the foyer near the front door we found a memorial niche for Monsignor Juan Gerardi, the Roman Catholic Bishop and defender of human rights, who was beaten to death by members of the Guatemalan military in 1998. His murder occurred just two years after the peace accord, and only a few days before the release of his report on the genocide that rocked this region, the Ixil Triangle, during the nation’s long civil war. An almost life-sized crucifix stood in the center. The three plaster walls surrounding it were paneled with wooden crosses so flat and thin they seemed to be made of balsa. Each bore a hand-lettered name – Ana Raymundo, Juan Bernal, Diego Lopez Ceto, and a date – all from the early 1980’s. There were hundreds of these crosses, and it was evident by the scars and gaps in the plaster that others had come unglued and fallen off in the years since their installation. The niche was protected by an iron grate, outside which, on the stone floor of the church, memorial candles burned, affixed into the melted stubs of prior offerings — supplications for remembrance, for peace.
On this morning, old women padded slowly toward the main door in anticipation of the early mass. Most of them wore traje — the traditional skirt and woven blouse of the Maya. In Nebaj, the ankle length skirt, or corte, is a two to three meter tube of lively red fabric, traditionally cotton, but now a practical polyester blend. It wraps around the body in a series of seemingly mysterious folds that allow for ease of movement despite the body-hugging fit The maroon, green or black hand loomed cotton huipil, the blouse, is richly festooned with contrasting geometric shapes and intricate animal motifs.
I didn’t want to disturb the ladies as they entered the church, but found myself drawn to their colors, to the contrasts between their outfits, the whitewashed façade of the church and the azurite morning sky. A thin mist began its slow ascent heavenward. Tuk tuks, those ubiquitous motorbike taxis, rattled along the pitted cobblestone street of the plaza. Behind me a pair of street dogs snarled warnings to each other, high-pitched and skittish. Dogs roam freely everywhere in Guatemala. Half-starved, mud-encrusted and often mangy, the males side-step their testicles in a continuous search for food, while the females, forever pregnant or lactating, bear successive litters until their teats practically drag on the ground. I turned toward the barking and found Gaspar.
Middle-aged like me, and dressed in neat khaki trousers, scuffed boots and a brown wind jacket, he touched the tip of his ball cap in greeting. “Would you like a tour?” he asked in Spanish. “I would be happy to guide you.”
Normally I don’t pick up strangers – not even guides, but for this man I made an instant exception. His lips maintained an air of linear reserve, but not his eyes. They betrayed such depth and emotion that I didn’t doubt for a moment the places he wanted to show me would leave me wiser.
He was from a nearby community called Santa Marta. An Ixil Maya, he neither owned land nor held a steady job, but instead offered his services, free of charge, as a guide to the area’s visitors. At the end of the tour I would be welcome to make a voluntary donation. All proceeds, he told me, help the homeless in Santa Marta, who build themselves solid houses – with walls and roofs – to replace the plastic tarps they have lived in for more than a decade.
“And you, señora. You are from the United States?” We headed toward the edge of town, dodging potholes and dog excrement in the rutted street. “You have come because you know about La Violencia?” He responded to my nod with one of his own. “Americans who travel this far from Antigua usually do.”
I had, of course, chosen this destination based on its history of suffering and perseverance during La Violencia, the intense period of unimaginable horror in the 1980’s. Thousands of men, women and children from the district of Nebaj were murdered, hundreds of others vanished – so many that a new transitive verb was added to the lexicon: Disappeared. As in, “He was disappeared.”
My purpose in making a pilgrimage to Nebaj had nothing to do with tragedy tourism, but a great deal to do with guilt. Guatemala was my son’s homeland.
International adoption was the obvious option for my husband and me in 1991. Placement for an infant through domestic adoption required several years, and time was against us. While we grew older, children waited for homes in countries all around the world. Korea, Peru, India, and several nations in the Middle East had programs to place children with families in the United States. Guatemala had recently become a hot spot for adoption, but despite my deep respect for the Maya culture, I hesitated to apply for a Guatemalan child. Adoption from Central America felt somehow exploitive, wrong. I desperately wanted a baby, but I didn’t want to satisfy my need at someone else’s expense, didn’t want to add suffering to parents already in pain. My reservation focused on the personal burden of responsibility I carried for my country’s role in Guatemala’s protracted civil war.
In 1954, the CIA masterminded the overthrow of democratically elected President Jácobo Arbenz. The United States was in the midst of anti-Communist fervor at that time, and determined to unseat any head of state interested in social reform – especially social reform designed to disempower international corporations profitable to American businesses. By the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the USA was committed to supporting the brutal right-wing government of Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt, with a view to eradicating what he referred to as “Marxist guerillas and their civilian support mechanisms.” In other words, the peasants of Ixil and other highland regions.
The Guatemalan military developed a campaign to intimidate and displace the indigenous Maya at any cost. Nebaj and the Ixil Triangle were among the hardest hit areas during the thirty-six years of civil war, with the worst atrocities committed between March 1982 and August 1983, while Ríos Montt was president. Reagan referred to him as a man of great personal integrity who wanted nothing more than “to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”
Ríos Montt’s methods for improving life and promoting social justice were grounded in barbarism. Mutilations, torture and public dumping of bodies were common events. Women were raped, fetuses were cut from the wombs of pregnant mothers, and babies were beaten, their heads slammed into trees. In some villages, the local church became a prison, and then a death chamber, for the men, women and children burned alive there. Before mass shootings, the army commanded the condemned to dig their own burial pits. Some four hundred indigenous highland villages were eradicated, and at least two hundred thousand indigenous farmers and guerilla sympathizers were disappeared, never seen or heard from again.
But when our adoption agency called with the news that a baby boy, born with medical concerns, was available for adoption in Guatemala City, we set our concerns aside. In adopting from Guatemala, I accepted that my son would one day learn that U.S. foreign policy in Latin America quite possibly contributed to the circumstances that rendered his family of origin unable to support him. For me, this was that time of reckoning. Our son had one foot in two worlds. Genetically, he was an indigenous Kakchiquel Maya, inextricably linked to those who gave their lives in Guatemala’s struggle for human rights. Culturally, he was a comfortably middle-class citizen of the United States, unintentionally allied with the power that sought for years to quash those rights. I couldn’t possibly have prepared him for the reality of Guatemala. That reality is richer, darker and more complex than self-respect or shame.
Arriving at a vast cemetery on a slope some distance from town, Gaspar and I stopped at the Martyr’s Tomb, a concrete monument set amid countless stubby concrete crosses, and surrounded by dew-damp grass and a rusting metal fence. “This is the tomb,” Gaspar said. “Some of the bodies are buried here,” he added, indicating obvious graves, “but not all. I will not find my father here, for example. He was disappeared. He has no tomb.”
With a beckoning motion he led me to an adjacent section of the cemetery, through an acre of tiny earthen mounds and their tiny, nameless cement head stones. “Los niños,” he said.
Stepping carefully through the tall, wet grass, we came to a pair of low buildings and stopped beside the nearest one. This was the Tomb of the Martyred Children – a rectangular cinder block shelter with open-air windows along one long wall, as well as an open doorway on one end. The rear was solid block, and inside, spanning the full length, stood scores of wooden crosses. One row had been propped up against the wall, with additional crosses settled randomly against them until they filled half of the enclosure. Row upon row, large and small, broken, elaborate and weathered, they huddled together, a protected community of memorials, grave markers without graves. Perched on top here and there were tattered bits of fabric – a scarf, a small bag. On the floor before them, an altar for incense and candles flickered in the packed earth. The sweet, earthy scent of copal wafted through the openings. I heard the low, droning chants of the guardians, a weekly rotation of volunteers, each offering prayers for these small souls who, had it not been for the war, would now have been parents to a new generation free to enjoy the childhoods they themselves had been so cruelly denied.
Gaspar motioned for me to sit on a bench opposite, against the wall of the adjacent windowless cinder block building, the Temple to Martyred Adults. He removed his cap and set it beside me on the bench, then stepped to the door of the Children’s Tomb to snap a couple photographs with my camera. After a respectful moment of quiet, he returned to the bench.
“I’ll show you now,” he whispered, indicating that I press the review button on the camera. As each image lit the LED screen, he pointed out the ragged artifacts adorning the crosses.
“That is all that was found of some of the children,” he said. “Their bones and the meat were taken by dogs, but when some fabric was found, a mother would know if it belonged to her child. A mother might say, ‘Yes, he had those shoes,’ or, ‘Ah, that is the blouse she wore.’”
Prayer vigils at these sites have been regular Sunday rituals for many years, because the people remember. They remember their families and their communities, now incontrovertibly transformed or, in some instances, gone. They remember their missing – the dead and the disappeared. They remember the confusion, terror and relentless darkness of La Violencia.
Far from the terrible beauty of the highlands, I had raised my son to be proud of his Maya heritage, while his peers in Guatemala had learned to reject their own. During La Violencia, fear and shame prompted some communities and many individuals to turn their backs on their indigenous languages, dress and culture and declare themselves Ladinos, westernized, non-Maya. In a single generation, a millennium of history and tradition had become endangered.
Over the course of two decades, I had read dozens of books about Guatemala – chilling accounts of barbarism and cruelty. Theoretically, I should have known what to expect at the cemetery in Nebaj, but I had not anticipated the power of the Children’s Tomb. That silent family of worn crosses and tattered garment embellishments sang silently to the desolate grief and the enduring dignity of the Maya.
Gaspar and I retraced our route to the village, back through the cemetery, past another monument to the martyred. On the gravel road we stepped around a wide pothole that had formed a puddle in the shape of a heart. We paused beside a highland field of ripening corn, a small sea of luminous green in the misty morning light – dynamic and hardy as the Maya themselves.
The Creation Story in the Popol Vuh teaches that maize is sacred because it connects the living with the ancestors. It feeds the spirit as well as the body. Xmucane and Xpiacoc, the Divine Grandparents, ground and shaped this humble, holy substance into the people of the corn.
Corn was used, along with the water [Xmucane] rinsed her hands with
for the creation of grease; it became human fat …
the modeling of our first mother-father,
with yellow corn, white corn alone for the flesh,
food alone for the human legs and arms…
The Divine Grandparents, practical and hopeful, breathed life into the future. They had no way of knowing what challenges lay in store for their children in the centuries to come. I could not imagine their vision included discrimination and subservience, grinding poverty and malnutrition, torture, burial pits and genocide. Does any sane society anticipate its own inhumanity or the evils its people will conceive and execute through their very nature?
The sun had risen above the church roof by the time Gaspar and I reached the street corner near my hotel. I offered him what little cash I had on hand – the equivalent of about twenty dollars. He could use it to support the homeless in his village, or he could buy groceries for himself. Perhaps we were both hungry. I knew I would be digesting the events of the morning for months to come.
Rumbling eight ton cargo trucks pulsed through the village heart on their way to neighboring communities with loads of bananas, cattle and vegetables. A trip of goats trotted along the narrow sidewalk on tip-toe hooves, tethered to a boy old enough to be in school. An elderly woman in traje stooped against an enormous fabric bundle on her back, a brow strap across her forehead supporting its weight. This was picturesque Guatemala, the basis of advertising campaigns depicting charming, bucolic tableaus to enchant and entice tourists to this land of contrasts.
In ineffectual Spanish, I thanked Gaspar. “There are no words for your gift,” I said.
“I gave you what I know,” he replied. “Now it’s yours. You must tell this story.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, humbled, completely unqualified for the task Gaspar set for me. Oral tradition and dedication to community values as old as the Divine Grandparents have kept Maya culture alive for a thousand years. This particular story, I felt, was not mine to tell.
When I returned the hotel, our room was scented with bath gel, and still damp from my son’s morning shower. His camera bag stood ready on the single rickety chair. Images of a generation of lost children clouded my vision, and my pulse quickened with a complicated blend of love and grief and hope. In another time, he might be dead, disappeared, his worn stuffed dog, perhaps, all that remained of my gentle, clever, compassionate boy. I saw it tucked into the mass of markers in the Children’s Tomb, and imagined myself keening before it with the other mothers. But the mothers, in their traje, small baskets of candles draped carefully with tzutes and stowed near the door, would not know me. I was “other.”
We joined our driver for breakfast, then returned to the cemetery, retracing our steps to the two memorials in the heat of late morning. Our driver, visibly moved, admitted he was too young to remember La Violencia, but had grown up hearing stories he would rather forget. My son was silent. When we arrived at the Children’s Tomb, I explained to him that we were not to enter or take photos. Our diver draped an arm across my son’s shoulders.
“You can’t go in,” he said, turning to me. “But this man – he’s one of us.”
This was the story of his people.
They are invisible now, unseen. History lauds the marvels and accomplishments of Ancient Maya Civilization, with the tacit implication that the Classic Maya inhabitants of Tikal and Quirigua were somehow unrelated to the indigenous peoples now living in Guatemala. Since the arrival of Pedro de Alvarado over five hundred years ago, the ruling elite of Guatemala have convinced themselves and the world that indigenous culture has no merit. Marginalized and scorned even in their own country, Maya descendants make up at least forty percent of Guatemala’s population. That number is open to debate, however, because so many indigenas pass as Ladino in order to improve their chances of success in Guatemala’s rigid social hierarchy.
My son is Maya. He comes with the Ladino trappings of America – Western dress, the English language, and an insatiable appetite for technological gadgets, but his DNA carries an indigenous heritage that spans centuries. I am a woman of privilege – educated, financially stable and properly European, but by virtue of motherhood, I claim kinship to a culture that has endured despite the best efforts of church, governments and public opinion to snuff it out.
A people must be recognized to be heard.
I am listening.