Day 3 of the International Exchange: Landscapes of Memory
The defining event in Guatemala’s modern history is the brutal 36-year internal armed conflict that ended in 1996, sparked by a CIA-sponsored coup of Guatemala’s democratically elected president because the agrarian reforms he was promoting threatened the business interests of U.S. companies, namely the United Fruit Company (owner of Chiquita bananas). Over 200,000 people died as the U.S.-supported and trained military acted out a policy of genocide against Mayan communities.
Even in the face of such pervasive U.S. imperialism, cross-border solidarity between resistance and revolutionary movements in Mesoamerica and U.S. peace and justice advocates has thrived since the late 1970s. Students, labor, progressive church groups, political activists, and academics created solidarity networks to pressure U.S. policymakers. Indeed, JASS, our local partner on the Intercambio, grew out of deep political and personal connections between Central American and U.S. activists who worked side by side during this period; JASS formed to continue cross-border organizing and movement-building in the region and beyond.
Within this context, it was extremely humbling to be invited by the National Commission of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA) to visit their memorial for victims of the forced disappeared and to take part in a ritual and invocation. Called “Landscapes of Memory”, it is located on the plot of land where 53 mass graves were found. It is a beautiful monument to the thousands of people that were disappeared and their families’ relentless wish to find them.
The ritual was led by two of the most prominent Indigenous human rights leaders in the country – Rosalina Tuyuc, co-founder of CONAVIGUA, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum. Along with over 30 women and children from the community, Rosalina and Rigoberta led us to a small clearing among the pine trees just steps away from the memorial. We encircled a fire pit surrounded by flowers and petals, as they called out prayers and reflections in Kaqchiquel Maya and Spanish.
It was a profoundly generous process that reinforced the connections between us regardless of where we come from, what languages we speak, or how the country we call home has violently impacted theirs. They would add to the fire every time they invoked a part of the land, a plant, or a spirit, and amidst this naming of things that they are intimately tied to, they invoked each of our family names (we had over 45 people in our group),and would add a small candle to the fire after each name. It was deeply moving to be included in that way. Several times, everyone taking part in this ceremony were invited to come up one by one to the fire to add an item, whether it was seeds, a candle, or raw cacao. Indigenous people in our cohort brought tobacco that was also shared and added to the fire.
Rigoberta and Rosalina reflected frequently on our collective need to restore equilibrium to the world – equilibrium between each other and between people and the earth. In the presence of that place and of the power in these two women leaders, it was impossible to ignore the devastating consequences of being out of balance. Thousands of parents, siblings, and children were killed or disappeared. Thousands ofwomen and girls were raped and tortured. Thousands of Mayans were and continue to be forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for large-scale resource extraction projects (often dams and mines owned by U.S. companies). And, together, these atrocities have led to a rupture in Indigenous culture, knowledge, and practices being passed down to future generations.
It is clear that our charge is to repair and heal this disconnection not only within ourselves and our own communities, but also in solidarity with other communities. We are intimately connected, whether we realize it or not, and our actions can have profound impact on others. We will be reflecting on this powerful experience in the days to come as we decide whether and how to answer that call.