The Revolutionary

Yolanda Aguilar grew up in Guatemala City during the 1960s and ‘70s in a politically active family; both her parents advocated for peasant and worker rights.  In an interview in 2015 at the age of 51, Aguilar discussed her upbringing and her own involvement in politics during Guatemala’s civil conflict.  In the following narrative, she reveals her motivations for activism and discusses her resistance to the political and social system, her arrest and torture, and how she re-constructed her life in the wake of intense trauma.

                                                                     Childhood

Both my parents and the nuns at school gave me a profound social sensibility. My parents were very Catholic, ardent believers — my mother would do penance in the processions, and when I was young, I went to a school taught by nuns.  They talked about poverty and the inequality within the society, and that had an effect on me.  It was a pretty advanced school for the time. We are talking about the late ’60s to about 1975, ’76. I had a lot of friends and that community was important to me.  

My mother worked as a bilingual secretary but over time her Christian impulse led to a feeling of indignation, and she began to conduct workshops in front of unions and peasant organizations.  I would travel with my mother when she spoke to workers and campesinos (small farmers or peasants) and I became very conscious of their problems. 

As a child, I read a lot of novels from the Soviet Union, books published in the 1970s that were very well known, books that discussed what they were constructing in that part of that world.  I remember the first one I read was Mother, by Maxim Gorky. (This novel was actually written in pre-Soviet Russia in 1906, and portrays the hardships of a woman factory worker.) These books had an important impact on me.  They emphasized the importance of simplicity and rejected luxury and the grandiosity of riches. 

I had a very happy childhood and received a lot of love.  I was the first child of my parents’ marriage and the first grandchild on both sides, so I was indulged.  My grandmother was also an important person for me; she took care of me when my parents worked.  I think having a childhood with so much love provided me a foundation that strengthened me throughout my later years. 

My parents went to the university and studied law.  They both were committed to working to improve the political system, which was corrupt and created an unequal society.  My father was a teacher and a very happy man.  He actually played the guitar and sang  — his father, my grandfather, was a well known marimba composer.  

I would say my childhood ended in 1975 when I was eleven years old.  Both my brother and father were killed in that year. 

My father had begun living in Costa Rica in exile, but he would come back on weekends to see us.  Once when he was home, he was taking my brother, who was four years younger than I, to his soccer game.  The two of them went in my mother’s car, but someone had taken the breaks out, so they had an accident in zone 9 in Guatemala City.  My brother went through the window and died instantly, and my father lived for about an hour.  We found out when some people from the funeral parlor knocked on our door and I answered, and they gave me the news so they could offer their services.  I was the one who had to tell my mother.

After that I think my mother went insane with grief. The murders made her more determined than ever to involve herself in the struggle against the system.  I think her work in politics helped her to survive the pain.  First, she got involved in the PGT (Partido de Guatemalteco de Trabajadores – the Guatemalan Workers Party) and then started participating in the FAR (las Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, an armed revolutionary organization). From that point on our lives changed completely.

My mother began living clandestinely and would sleep in different homes, so my grandparents ended up taking care of me in their house. I saw my mother very little after that.  When I did see her it wasn’t really a parent-child relationship any more.  It was more like we were compañeras in the struggle. 

When my mother became more militant, she transferred me from a private school that was very middle class to a public one, since we were fighting for the people.  It was a radical change in my life.  As an adolescent I soon began to participate in the student movement. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I needed to help the workers, and of course I assumed this responsibility because it was the work of my family, like a duty.  

I was recruited by the FAR at 13 years of age. I was the youngest but very enthusiastic.  We were all studying Marxism. What I did most was post bulletins and communications around my school to help recruit people.  

Studying became much less important than my revolutionary activity, which involved organizing and participating in marches with peasants and workers.  If the police tried to disrupt our protests or grab us, we were ready with molotov cocktail bombs.  They were made of gasoline and we would light them and throw them, but only when the police and the repressive forces arrived. We threw rocks too.

That was our life, that was my life. I was in it one hundred percent.  But you now, I was barely a teenager supporting my mother, doing it because of what had happened to my father and brother.  

In 1976 I entered high school, and soon after, in ’77 and ’78, we experienced some of the harshest repression in Guatemala city, because there was a huge increase in organizing activity by workers and campesinos.  There was really a strong outcry against the injustices being committed.  

We were of course affected by changes going on in the world. The Cold War was raging and there was the block of socialist countries and other places where people were constructing a more equitable future. Cuba was right next to us and what they were doing there was an important influence. There were other strong leftist movements in many parts of Latin America: there was the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran Revolution, so we really had profound hope. The protest music of that time was becoming popular, and it energized and encouraged us to keep struggling. We really thought we could change humanity and the world. We thought that the workers and peasants would take power, and we fought for that. 

Sometimes I would come home at one, two, three in the morning after helping workers learn to read. My poor grandmother suffered in fear for me.

                                                          Torture and Recovery

Warning: The following section is sexually violent and graphic. It is intended for adults only.

One day we were trying to get some campesinos out of prison, handing out fliers to people.  I gave one out to a guy who made a call, and the police arrived.  I could feel my adrenaline.  We knew we were in danger, but we also were confident in our cause. They took us all in a large blue bus and I didn’t really know what was happening to me; I was 15-years old.  

They forced me out of the bus and into a smaller vehicle, and they tied my hands and feet and began to take off my clothes.  It didn’t seem real. They took me to a place called la judicial (a police station), and that was in August of 1979.  That place had a bad reputation; it was known for its torture and violence, and people often didn’t leave from there.  

I remember the entrance, like a large gate that opened like a wolf’s mouth.  They put a hood on me and started to beat me.  I have diffused memories of all of this, but I remember that they took me to an office where people were typing on type-writers, and inside there was a chair, a desk with a radio on it, and I sat in a seat, naked.  A lot of people appeared dressed like bureaucrats.

Then they took me to a room where there was nobody, just a device that played ranchero music at a high volume.  A lot of men began to kick me. They put hot cigarettes on my breasts, and began to ask me questions. For instance, if I knew América Urízar, my own mother, which was silly, but I denied knowing anyone. 

Of course I knew them all and they knew that I knew everyone, so why were they asking me these questions? I wasn’t in a position of power, I was just 15. Every time I would deny it they would beat me and threaten me, and tell me that if I wouldn’t talk, the treatment was going to get worse. It was blow after blow. 

I had the idea that we the tortured were more powerful than those who were torturing us, that we could withstand them and defeat them, like heroes or martyrs.

In that place where they beat and kicked me, there was a cold floor, and I remember being on the floor.  The only thing I could see was that there was a man on top of me every time I opened my eyes.  I was there lying down and feeling that cold tension on my back, with my eyes closed, and returning to see someone else.  I remember that there was a long bar along the wall of the room, like for ballet dancers, and around the bar various men were waiting their turn.  

There was a moment when I felt very wet.  I had never had sexual relations before; there was semen, blood all around.  I think I fainted a lot, and then I would come back awake.  

When it stopped they put a plastic hood on me.  I couldn’t breathe. There was something in it like an insecticide and it was strong.  I felt like I was being asphyxiated, that I was going to die.  They would take off the hood, then put it back on me, then take it off again.  I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue to live.  

They finally removed the hood and took me to a room to ask me more questions.  At that point, I wasn’t very rational, I was just feeling pain all over my body.  The only thing I could say was that I didn’t know anyone they were asking me about.

I went to some small rooms, and somebody was there hanging, like in a crucifixion, and he was dying, bleeding.  They cut off his penis in front of me.  It was a terrible thing. And many years later, that would stay in my memory, that guy shouting.

My mother and family were of course looking for me.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, Augusto Urízar, was a military man, and he knew the chief of police, Valiente Tellez.  For some reason, perhaps because of the search they conducted and the resources they put into it, my grandfather was able to talk to him.  

My grandfather went and asked him if he knew anything about me, and I could hear them because I was in the back as they were talking.  My grandfather described me, and Valiente Tellez said, “no sorry, we don’t know anything about her,” and I was there listening and I could not say anything.  My grandfather left, and I realized he had denied I was there.

Then Valiente Tellez talked to me and told me, “we are going to let you go, but you are not going to say anything about what happened to you here, because if you do, we will kill you.”  They took me out of there, and I was really bad physically; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk.

I was then brought to a detention center for children and there were kids there who had prostituted themselves.  When I arrived, the woman in charge was a child abuser and had been violating the children, and she had that intention with me.  But I arrived in such bad shape that she couldn’t rape me. 

I stayed there for two weeks.  There was a community of kids who were imprisoned for different reasons.  Some wanted to defend me, others wanted to abuse me. There was a sense of protection among many of the girls. 

My mother finally arrived, found me, and we left. 

After that I went to my aunt’s house in complete secrecy.  It was traumatic, I had trouble sleeping. At one point I stopped talking, but in about a day I started to talk again. 

What I did lose was my sight.  At first it was one eye, then a little later it was both. I couldn’t see for three months.  One reason was because of the inflammation from the beatings, but the other was that my body and brain were shutting down and didn’t want to see anything.  That was a new experience and very difficult, but I managed it as much as possible. Maybe I didn’t want to see because it would remind me of what had happened in some way.  But I would see everything again when I was dreaming. 

It was difficult for me to be in Guatemala because of the repression and terror that had been developing in the country. I left for Mexico on the 31st of January, 1980, the exact day the Spanish embassy was taken over in Guatemala.  (A group of Maya farmers from Quiché occupied the Spanish Embassy to protest various assassinations and disappearances in their communities. In response, security forces stormed and attacked those inside the embassy, causing the burning of the building and the deaths of over 30 people, including Spanish diplomats.) 

When I went to Mexico, I immediately regained my eyesight and saw the embassy take-over on television.  That says a lot about how the body and mind experience and deal with the trauma of violence. I regained my sight because I wasn’t in Guatemala anymore.

After staying in Mexico I went to Cuba, where I lived for 2 years.  There the doctors told me I needed peace and tranquility, not all the pills I was taking for the injuries to my eyes.  I stopped taking all medicine (which included medicine for epilepsy) and I went to live with a Guatemalan family in Cuba.  I began to live a new life.  I dressed like them, talked like them, and I started to experience tranquility.  I was looked after by doctors and I started to process everything. 

Also, it turned out that I was pregnant and I didn’t realize it.  I got an abortion — I did not tell anyone, and went through it alone. 

                                                              The Return

  I came back to Guatemala by 1983, and went to the Petén with the rebels. It was an extraordinary experience. There were no social classes or hierarchies — we were just who we were and all the same. There was a profound solidarity.  We were constructing another type of society, another world, with shared responsibilities.

I was in the Petén five years and I was able to see my mother there.  Later, my mother was coming back to the Petén from Mexico. A lot of people, including myself, told her not to return because of the danger.  

She was captured on the border of Guatemala and we don’t know anything more about her.  We don’t know exactly what happened. 

Aguilar traveled to Europe where she campaigned to raise awareness of her mother’s disappearance, and received an award in Vienna on her mother’s behalf, the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights. Eventually, Aguilar broke with the revolutionary group in the Petén, went back to Mexico, and began living in exile with a compañero whom she had met earlier.  She became pregnant and bore a daughter in 1989.  

With the birth of my child, I rediscovered my ability to laugh.  It changed me. I realized that I wanted to return to my house in Guatemala because my grandmother was still living and I wanted my daughter to have family around.  At that time, my grandmother knew I was alive but did not know where.  

In 1992, when my daughter was 2 years old, I came back to the house I had left years ago. The furniture was in the exact same place; my grandmother had not moved anything, but she had photos on the walls of everyone who had died: my brother, my father, my mother, my grandfather.

Once back in Guatemala, I went to work at a legal office for human rights, examining cases of violence towards women.  There was so much sexual violence, it was a universal problem. From 1992 to 1996, I began to receive formal complaints from women who had been raped. They would arrive, tell their story, cry, but that was it.  There really was no mechanism for them to receive justice.

I don’t know in what moment, but after hearing all those stories, I knew I had to tell what had happened to me.  When I did, I was offered work at REMHI though the Catholic Church, a job where I would document the testimony of other women. 

REMHI was an organization formed to collect the testimony of human rights victims during the Guatemalan Civil War. (It was known as the Historical Memory Project of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office)

As I became familiar with testimonials from the armed conflict, I felt the pain of all of them because my story is the story of all these women.  I never thought that my experiences would be so connected to others, especially with respect to the war and the violation. It was a monumental revelation.  I would read the testimonials and I would stay in bed for two weeks afterwards; I was inheriting their pain, and that pain was mine also.

My job was to read the testimonials, systematize the most important elements, and write a report about it.  I realized that it was important for these women to have others value their stories, and no one had really done that.

At REMHI, there was a Japanese woman who translated the report, and she told me that there was going to be a large event in Japan concerning the sexual violations committed against women in Asia during WWII.  She pressed me to go and to give a talk, and after a lot of hesitation, I agreed to do it.  When I finally spoke, I told the audience that I was not there to talk about cruelty, which they already knew about, but rather about how we could overcome the effects of the violence.  

I didn’t want people to see me as a victim. I only wanted to discuss the strength of women, the power within our beings. That’s what I saw in my grandmother, my mother, and in myself.  That strength is what has allowed us to survive.  

I remember that there were three or four days of discussions on the rapes occurring during the Second World War. These women were so old, many in their 90s, and they were discussing what had happened to them for the first time.  They were called “comfort women.” 

This phenomenon was essentially a form of sexual slavery carried out by the Japanese military. In December, 2000, activists held The Women’s International Tribunal in Tokyo, a public conference to denounce sexual crimes and to promote the adoption of international laws prohibiting violence against women in wartime.

What moved me so much was that there were so many women from all over the world willing to discuss their violations, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, in whatever part of the world. I remember thinking, “wow, these women have waited 50 years to talk about this.”  And I thought, “we can’t wait that much time.” 

I came back to Guatemala with a friend and we talked about how inspired we were to do something in Guatemala like they had done in Japan. We began to work with women who had been victims of violence, and we spoke with up to 100 survivors, who talked about their personal losses, about being raped, their healing and everything they had done to survive.  These women came from different areas of the country and spoke different languages, like Quiche, Cachiquel, Maam.  There were also women who had been displaced, who spoke Spanish.   

It took us more time to document these narratives because the wounds were still raw and it was difficult for women to go public.  We ultimately translated and transcribed the accounts and synthesized them into a single work.  The whole effort took about eight years. I directed it for four. 

The book that emerged is titled: “Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado.” After working on the project, Aguilar moved to London in 2006 and then to Spain to study for a masters in “self-understanding, sexuality, and human relations.”

It was a degree that led to doing therapy and to working with other people. 

I realized, though, that I wasn’t only studying the subject matter, but I was also working on myself.  I had so much pain in my life but no idea how to process it. I lived in Spain nine months alone studying.  During that time, I performed rituals, like symbolically burying my mother, to heal. I cried more than I ever had in my life.

I finished my masters, returned to Guatemala and began to work with groups of women, to help alleviate their suffering. I believe that even in the most difficult situations, in the most terrible chaos, and in the deepest crises, we can leave our pain behind and move forward.  

I would say to the following generations of women that wherever you are, we are capable of building another world, in our daily lives, in the relationships with people around us, in spite of the conditions that have come to us. 

The world was not born to make war and to kill.

This narrative was based on a videotaped interview with Yolanda de la Luz Aguilar Urízar conducted by Katia Orantes, 26 Feb. 2015, in Guatemala City.  The above entry represents my translation and editorial abridgment of the interview, done to promote awareness of recent Guatemalan history, a non-profit endeavor.  It is presented with Aguilar’s permission. 

I researched this interview in April and May, 2020, at the online archive of the Guatemalan Genocide produced by the USC Shoah Foundation in partnership with the Fundación de antropología forense de Guatemala.  Interview segments included: 2-5, 26, 30, 33, 38, 49, 51, 55, 57, 66, 70, 75, 79, 83, 87, 88, 91, 92, 98, 102, 106, 110, 113, 125, 130, 133, 135, 139, 157.  Excerpts can only be reproduced or used under “fair use” and “fair practice” principles.

The Texan

Thirty-five year old Carlos Cordero grew up in Dallas, Texas, where he was working and raising a family, when one night authorities discovered that he had been born elsewhere.  Six months later, after spending time in a detention center, he was flown to the country of his birth, Guatemala, where he is currently setting up a new life. 

My daughter was actually inside my apartment when I got arrested.  It was during her spring break and I was going to take her back to her mom the next day, but I never got the chance. 

I had been working as a bartender at a restaurant called Lava Cantina, which also serves as a concert hall in North Dallas, and I had come home from work late at night. I was actually in the parking lot of my own apartment complex in my car, listening to music, when an officer approached me.  He was trying to figure out what I was doing, and I told him that I was just sitting there listening to music before going up to bed.  At the time I had a grinder on me, which cuts up marijuana.  He asked what it was and I told him that it was something to grind up herbs, and then he started to ask me more questions, and he asked for my driver’s license. 

But I don’t have a driver’s license.  I can’t obtain one.  

My mother decided to go to the United States from Guatemala when I was four years old — I think she saw an opportunity to come to the States because most of my family, like my grandmother and uncles, were already living there.  So that’s when I came.  When you come to a place when you are four, it’s basically like being born there, but in my case without any other rights.

I was always worried about driving without a license ever since I was young.  Of course, I had gotten stopped before but they would just write me a ticket for no license.  I even had insurance on the car I was driving, but I couldn’t get a license.  I couldn’t even get a Texas ID with my passport or my consulate card.  So, that was always in the back of my mind, thinking that maybe something might happen one day, but since I grew up in Texas and it was my home, it never completely dawned on me that it was gonna’ happen like it did.

So I gave the officer my consulate ID, which is from Guatemala, the only form of identification I had at the time, and that’s when he proceeded to ask me if I was a US citizen, so I had to tell him I wasn’t because I didn’t want to lie to him. 

After his arrest, Cordero would be shuttled through a number of local detention centers by police and officials from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. 

I was first taken to the Lewisville jail in Denton county (north of Dallas) where they put the ICE hold on me so I could not leave.  That’s where it all started.  I talked to the judge the next day: immigration had 48 hours to come get me from the Lewisville jail, and if not, they were gonna’ let me go.  

There was actually a guy in there that ICE never came to get and he left after the 48 hours had passed, so I was thinking I might be able to get out. They came 47 hours later.

They eventually took me to the Bedford jail where I talked to immigration again, and they asked me if I wanted to sign my paperwork to be deported, and I said that I didn’t want to sign anything.

After that, they proceeded to take me to a holding facility in Cleburne, Texas in Johnson County.  There was a jail there, but in another area they kept detainees like me.

The only clothes I had were those I was wearing the night I got arrested, but when they booked me in they gave me the jail uniform.  For me, I had a beige brownish outfit, but they also had green ones and red ones, which were for people charged with more serious crimes.  They also had four different holding tanks to separate people. They separated the greens and the reds from the browns.

It wasn’t the cleanest place for sure, and they actually had us in a holding facility with like 70 other people, all of us in one room, in bunk beds.  It was a crazy experience for sure.  They kept me there for six months.  

Carlos Cordero, Antigua, Guatemala, October 22, 2019.

One of the worst things was trying to get sleep; there are so many people in there, and not everybody goes to sleep at the same time.  At all moments of the day and night there is always somebody awake, some noise going on. Some people sleep during the day because they are up all night, either talking or playing cards or doing whatever, and then they sleep during the day while the people trying to sleep at night are awake and making noise.  

They would wake us up around 5:00 for breakfast, then at 11:00, and then dinner was at 5:00.  I think the most I ever slept was three or four hours at a time, and that was only when I was really tired. 

For beds, they just give you a little mat to place on top of a metal frame. They do give you a blanket and a plastic pillow, but the beds themselves are really thin, so sometimes you have to wait for another person to be released and ask them to give you their blanket so you can stuff the bed to make it more comfortable.  There were a lot of people who got severe back pain from those beds because they were just too hard on their backs.  

The hardest part, though, was not knowing what was going to happen with the rest of my life. You’re just waiting there, basically to see the judge so she can determine what is going on with your case.

They have a courtesy officer in the tank at all times but they never gave you any information.  The ICE officers for the most part came in maybe once a week and I would try asking them what was going to happen, what the process was, and they just basically said I had to wait until I got to see the judge.   It wasn’t very useful information.

I was detained three months before going to my first court hearing, to find out what my options were, so those first three months were really hard.

Communication with your family is also very limited. You’re not allowed to have a cell phone or any possessions.  No computer, no internet. The cheapest way to talk to your family is to buy phone cards through the commissary and use their system, but they only sold you ten-dollar phone cards and each phone card only lasted 16 minutes. 

Cordero has a 14-year-old daughter through his first marriage, and a 5-year-old son through his current relationship of 8 years. 

When I was detained, my family was able to come visit me only on the weekends, either Saturday or Sunday, and if they showed up at any time after one o’clock, they wouldn’t let ’em in, so the hours of visitation were from like 9:00 am to about 3:00 or 4:00 pm, but my family had to get there at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning to be able to actually get in to the detention center to come see me. They would have to wait at least three or four hours each time, so a couple of times, you know, they didn’t quite make it.  My son was with them, and, if you have a five-year old, you know they can’t stay three or four hours in one place without crying, and not knowing what’s going on.

During visitation, it’s kind of like jail. We are not in the same room and we have to talk on the phones.  You can see your family through the glass, but you can’t touch them, you just have to talk to them through the phone system that they have.

How did your family adapt to your absence?

My family did not take the whole ordeal very well.

During the time I was detained, my mother actually had a small break-down at work.  She had to go to the hospital because her blood pressure was too high, and she had a minor stroke.  Luckily she was at work, and they took her to the hospital where she was taken care of.

My spouse had been taking it really hard as well.  She wasn’t used to raising my son by herself, and not having my income to help her out, she had to move in with her aunt because she couldn’t afford the place by herself.  

She was working as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office, but they gave her short-term disability because she was getting a lot of anxiety attacks, and a lot of depression from the situation that we had been going through.  She was having a lot of chest pains and trouble breathing. Her doctor told her she needed to go on short-term disability to be able to get better, to get healthy.  Hopefully soon, within the next month or so, she can start working again.

My son was just crying and asking where I was and wanting to see me.  There was a lot of stuff that I really don’t think a five-year old could handle. They don’t really understand what is going on.

So my son had to go to play therapy, which actually helped him out a lot.  It’s basically a way for kids to express themselves, their anger and sadness, to talk to someone besides their mom.  Me being personally raised by a Guatemalan mother, we don’t really think therapy is good for anything (laughs), but you know I was like, “let’s see how it goes and see if it is good for him,” and I think it helped him out tremendously, because he definitely had a lot of things to let out.  

Then my daughter, whom I have with my ex-wife, I think she got pretty depressed.  She started failing in school. She started not even turning in her work. I couldn’t really talk to her unless I bought a phone card and spent a substantial amount of money. I think it was hard for her, just a sad phase in her life. 

It wasn’t until I got to Guatemala and was able to talk to her every day, to tell her that everything was going to be OK, to cheer up, and that she still had to live her life, then she started to do better in school.  

But my family generally really didn’t take it too well.  Of course, when someone is missing in your life, you don’t realize how important they are to you until they’re gone.  I think a lot of that happened when I was away. 

What happened with your case?

I had a lawyer that I contracted and we were gonna’ try to fight for me to stay.  There is a thing called “cancellation of deportation” that I could have qualified for because I met many of the conditions:  I had to be in the United States for at least 10 years and would have to have US citizen children or someone who could vouch for me saying that I was their father and that they need me in the country. I had all of that.

The only problem was that I had gotten arrested and convicted seven years before for possession of marijuana, a gram, and because I had that on my record I didn’t qualify for the “regular cancellation of removal.”

So we then decided to go a different route, to fight for the NACARA cancellation instead, which was a special type of cancellation of deportation that is rarely being used today.  

Under NACARA, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, certain Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Eastern Europeans can still apply for a “Suspension of Deportation,” a form of relief from removal that existed until 1996.  It allows people to avoid deportation by showing a continual presence in the US for seven years, good moral character, and the prospect of extreme hardship upon removal. If granted, the NACARA Suspension of Deportation gives the applicant a green card, and with it permanent resident status in the United States.  You may not have a felony conviction on your record, which Cordero did not have, having been arrested on a misdemeanor.

My lawyer didn’t find anything in the laws that would disqualify me from the NACARA petition.  The judge didn’t know much about it, and allowed for a final court date to be held in Dallas. 

Unfortunately, the US government had found a similar petition to mine, which was denied on the grounds of a felony conviction for cocaine possession, but mine was only a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession.  The cases were completely different in that regard, but the judge determined that they were similar enough to rule against me. 

That’s when the government gave me the option of “voluntary departure.”  It’s better than actually getting deported because if you are deported you can’t legally return to the US for several years, and it’s a federal crime if you do so before the given time.

Either way I had to leave the country, and if I wouldn’t have taken the voluntary departure, they would have deported me anyway.

My mom is the one who motivated me to fight my case and see if there was any opportunity to stay in the United States. After the first there months of being detained, I was just ready to throw in the towel and let them deport me, ’cause I wanted to get out of that place.  So, for that part, I thank her because at least I know that even though my petition got denied, I didn’t just give up, that I fought to stay.

After the judge made the ruling against me I went back to the detention center for another three weeks.  If I had been from Mexico, they would have had me on a bus the next day, because a bus goes to Mexico every day, but since I was from Guatemala, I had to wait to actually talk to the Guatemalan Consulate for them to give me a travel document, so it took more time. 

They finally transferred me to Louisiana where all the flights were going out to Guatemala.  We got there by bus, a six-hour ride in handcuffs.  It was the worst. Your legs are shackled, and your arms also. The bus had a bathroom in it, but If you had to use it, you had to use it with handcuffs on.  You can’t just take that stuff off.  The entire bus smelled like pee the whole time.

After my time in detention, I was just ready to finally get to Louisiana and get on the flight to Guatemala. I don’t know if I was just glad to know what was going to happen with the rest of my life, but it’s more like I just finally got through it to be able to be free again — to start to do something to be able to see my family again, eventually.

The flights come out of a military base in Louisiana and are filled with people who are being sent back, either voluntarily or by forced deportation. I met all kinds of different people from all over the United States in that place where we were getting flown out. But I was just there one night, and we flew out the next day.

Can you describe how it was to be out of detention?  

It was a good moment, I was finally free, but I have to say that it was good and bad: I was no longer detained, but at the same time I was being sent to Guatemala, where I don’t know anything.  It’s like going to a brand new country that I have never been to and starting all over again from nothing.  I didn’t really know where to begin and I had to figure out what I was going to do. Luckily, my family in the United States is helping me out here and there with some money. And luckily, I still have an uncle who lives near Guatemala City, in Villa Nueva, who was gracious enough to let me stay with him. So, at least I had somewhere to be, somewhere to stay. 

I’ve only been in Guatemala now for about a month and a half, and the plan is, since I’m not married to my spouse (a US citizen), to get married here in Guatemala so we can start the process of getting me legalized to go back to the States. She has to get her passport and my son has to get his passport too to come over here.  The whole thing is very money consuming; I didn’t realize how expensive US passports were.  

Luckily I’ve found a job bartending here in Antigua (a town outside of Guatemala City famous for its tourism and colonial architecture).  I’m just trying to get on my feet, find an apartment to rent and save enough money to be able to start my life over. 

When I was living with my aunt and uncle in Villa Nueva, they were letting me stay there for free, but there wasn’t really that much opportunity to find a job nearby, unless I decided to get a job in the heart of Guatemala City, which was probably an hour bus ride away each day, and I think the only jobs that were offered me were at a call center. Since I really didn’t have that much experience doing that, I decided to come visit Antigua to see how everything was over here, and I decided that there was more opportunity to find the kind of job that I had been doing in the States than to actually work at a call center.  So, by bartending here in Antigua, I’m hoping to pay my bills doing what I have been doing throughout my life.

What is your view of what is going on with respect to immigration in the US right now?

I think just recently law enforcement has really been cracking down. I’ve been stopped before by police, and they’ve always asked me questions about the license and registration, but I think not until recently was I asked if I was a US citizen, and now it just seems like that’s one of the questions they’re asking every time they see someone like me, an hispanic person.  They immediately start asking if we are citizens, if we have papers, and I think nowadays, it’s just getting worse.  Cops are trying to pull you over for anything.

I’ve met a few people who were just catching a ride to work, and the police pulled them over and interrogated everybody in the car, and found out that none of them had papers, and immediately they arrested all of them and took them to immigration.  Eventually they got deported, just because they were catching a ride to work.  They weren’t doing anything wrong.  I also know a guy who got pulled over for a burned-out light on his license plate, and they ended up arresting him and didn’t care that his daughter was with him, and he had to stay in jail for ten months, and eventually they ended up deporting him too.  So I think they are finding any excuse to deport somebody nowadays, and I don’t think it was like that before.  

In my case, for instance, I used cannabis, I would say because it helps me with anxiety and to relax, and I do not consider it an every-day thing.  It was illegal in Texas, but, say, if you go to Colorado or Washington, it’s legal.  So if I had been there, maybe I never would have gotten deported, but just because I lived in Texas, they denied my petition.  I just think they are looking for any little reason to deport anybody now.  It’s kind of scary.

It makes me wonder what is going to happen next, if it’s going to get worse.  No one really knows what’s going on right now in the United States. It’s a different mentality, especially with the current president putting so much emphasis on stopping immigration, and even saying he’s going to build a wall.  That causes a lot of people to have that mindset, like “hey, deport everybody,” or “he looks Hispanic, ask him for papers.”

There are even people who have papers, who have a visa, they have a green card and their rights are getting taken away, and they are being deported as well.  

It just doesn’t really feel safe to be an immigrant, to look different or talk like somebody who is not from the United States.  It’s difficult not to be afraid because you feel like you’re going to get questioned — that’s how it is over there right now.

My entire life has been in Texas and I consider myself a Texan.  I grew up in north Dallas and went to school in Richardson where I graduated from Richardson High.  (The exact area was a little poorer and more run down than other parts.  There were a lot of Mexican people there, Latinos generally, black people.  We actually had a lot of Kurdish people there also.) 

During high school I did a work program and that’s when I got into the restaurant industry.  My first job ever was at Jack-in-the-Box, and I was there for a few years and became a shift leader, like a supervisor.  After that, I worked at a restaurant named Chucks.  I don’t know if they are all still open, but I did everything there; I was a cook, a dishwasher, a cashier, a manager.  That’s pretty much the industry I’ve been in my whole life.  Later, I started serving and bartending.  

Before I got arrested, everything was good with the family.  We were in the process of buying a house and had plans to actually move in together with my mom, so she could have a room, and that way we could stop renting like we’ve always done. 

Then I got detained.  In my case, they just didn’t care that I didn’t have a choice of being in the United States when I was four;  I was there my whole life and graduated high school and have children. 

To them that didn’t matter.

Our discussion took place on October 22, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. Cordero is currently working as a bartender at La Sala in Antigua.

The Weaver


Hilma Florentina Sagché Ordoñez, 49, is a resident of Santa Catarina Barahona, an indigenous village in Sacatepéquez.  She is an experienced tejedora, a weaver who hand-makes huipils, a traditional one-piece dress. She also makes servietas, an embroidered cloth that can serve as a napkin, a table setting, or a covering for freshly cooked tortillas.  All of the woven materials are known as “tejidos.”  

The wearing of the huipil is a proud pronouncement of a local tradition as well as a marker of an indigenous identity, and patterns and designs vary from community to community.  A characteristic that additionally highlights this more traditional style of life is the ability to speak a Mayan language. There are 23 Amerindian languages spoken in Guatemala, 21 of which are said to be descendants of proto-Mayan, the language of the inhabitants of the Mayan empire a thousand years ago. In Hilma’s village, Kachiquel Maya is widely spoken.

Both my mother and father spoke Kachiquel so we grew up speaking it. We speak Kachiquel with family and friends or on the street.  I spoke Kachiquel to my three children so they speak it, but there are some parents who don’t speak Kachiquel to their children, and you can see the difference.  We also learned Spanish in school, but that was easy because we hear it all the time. Thank goodness we speak both Kachiquel and Spanish.

It was my mother who taught me originally to weave.  The most difficult is to do the main drawing on the blouse, the main picture, that is the hardest, and when I wasn’t understanding it, my aunt would come and help me.  She taught me a lot. I eventually learned how to do everything and I have the designs in my head.

It takes about two months to make a huipil.  One feels happy after it’s completed, because then you can receive money and buy what you need. A servieta will go for 100 quetzales (about 13.5 US dollars), and a huipil will sell for 1,500 quetzales  (a little over 200 US dollars).

Hilma Florentina Sagché Ordoñez, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 5, 2019.

Thanks to God, life is tranquil and we have everything in this town.  My husband works in carpentry and sometimes helps haul trash for the municipality.  There is also demand for the weaving. I sell what I weave here in town, but I used to sell through my aunt, who would market the materials in other places. Unfortunately, she died two years ago of cirrhosis at the age of 54.

Some young women like to weave and will carry on the tradition, but others don’t.  My daughter, for instance, she is a teacher, and she was never interested in it.  I would try to show her and she would be indifferent, and I would ask her what she would do if she were out of work without knowing the craft.  She would just say, “Hey, I don’t like to weave.”  She would ask me, “Who invented this stuff?” (Laughs)

But later she went and worked selling the huipils at artisan shops.  Weavers would bring their wares to her for her to sell them, and how she could sell those clothes!  She would get contracts with store owners in Antigua and Puerto Quetzal (on the Pacific Coast) to sell the tejidos, and thank God she was so good at it.  She would just put on her pants and t-shirt, or her blouse (non-traditional dress), and do business. Everybody wondered how she did it.  She now lives in the United States, in Los Angeles.

There have been people or companies that are producing huipils and other articles that are made from a machine, and we don’t really know who they are.  About a half year ago people began to buy these clothes because they were cheaper.  They were very tough, very hard.  The people making them were not from here and all of the local weavers were being undermined. Fortunately, the government enacted a law of protection to help us, to prevent the mass manufacturing of the huipil.  Otherwise a lot of people would have no source of income.

Woman dressed in traditional style, Antigua, Guatemala, October 27, 2019.

I know a woman who was in a bad situation, she had children and no way to make money.  She asked me to teach her how to weave, and I taught her, and within a few months she began to make a huipil.  She now knows how to do it, and thank God that woman is now working.  She was so appreciative and told me that because of it she is eating, and that without learning it she would not have been able to feed her children.  She wanted to pay me back somehow, but I am Evangelical and know the word of God, and I told her that she did not have to do that.

Hilma Sagché at her loom, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 5, 2019.

I interviewed Hilma Sagché in Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala on July 5, 2019.  My translation.

Running from Gangs

Forty-five year old Silvia Menéndez and her family recently fled their home in El Salvador to escape the country’s gang violence, which has become ubiquitous throughout the country. Now living in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, Menéndez is struggling to find ways to carve out an independent life — to find the means to clothe and feed her family. 

The gang presence is deeply rooted and inescapable for most of El Salvador’s population, and the very poor are especially vulnerable. Bands of marauding youth emerged in El Salvador during the country’s civil war (fought from 1979 to 1992) and have gradually expanded since that time. While their original formation developed in part from groups operating in the United States decades ago, the gangs in El Salvador today reflect a purely home-grown phenomenon. 

Mostly young men and teenagers from the poorest areas of El Salvador dominate these organizations, called pandillas in Spanish, and frequently come from broken homes or abusive families. Most have dropped out before completing middle school and have very limited opportunities in the mainstream economy. 

A sense of excitement has been cited as a reason for their participation, but many factors contribute to their motivation for joining, such as the ability to acquire jobs and resources, find protection, form friendships, improve self-esteem, and avoid family conflict.

Most gang members have faced criminal charges, with murder and extortion being the most common, in that order. In fact, a requirement for membership often involves committing homicide. Assaults, armed robberies, kidnappings, and rapes are other acts often carried out by these criminal bands. Participation in such activity can incur profound personal risk, as police and security forces pursue the pandilleros in response to their criminal behavior.  Most gang members have spent time in prison, and, in fact, a good portion of the leadership actually operates behind prison walls.  

The largest of these organizations is the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), followed by the 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18), which has become divided into two rival groups: The Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries) and the Sureños (Southerners).  These gangs are enemies of each other and are responsible for much of the violence in El Salvador, as they struggle over territory and control of illicit enterprises. Also operating are smaller groups like the Mirada Loco, Mara Máquina and Mao-Mao.  

The MS-13 is thought to be the largest and most organized, with a well developed hierarchy and chain of command. Over the last two decades, the MS-13 has assumed authority over many of the neighborhoods in El Salvador and, in equal measure, has expanded its control over the lives of its members.  It has done so largely through the threat of murder, or murder itself. 

Menéndez, born and raised in the municipality of Coatepeque, is originally from the western part of El Salvador, just east of Guatemala. She has two sons, ages 25 and 10, and a daughter, age 19. Her story is one of terror, escape and deprivation.

We began escaping threats when I was living in a municipality they call El Congo, within the department of Santa Ana. I was there because I once met a lady who had a business there and needed somebody to work for her, and I told her that I would go with her, but I was only nine-years old when I started. While working, I was able to keep going to a school until I was in eighth grade. The woman who employed me had a restaurant and I helped her cook and clean.  I also took care of her children.

Later I had children of my own and have three.  In that time, the area wasn’t so dangerous. Over the years, about 10 or 11 years ago, it became very bad in El Salvador generally. The gangs started to arm themselves in all parts of the country. To raise adolescents became very difficult. The Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs were fighting over their territories, in all the neighborhoods.  So from the Congo, we left for Ciudad Real (about 15 miles away). But there it was also very dangerous, so we were escaping one place for another and could not find a secure neighborhood where I could protect my children.  There is no safe place in El Salvador.  

When the gangs see teenagers, they try to convince them to join their group.  They surround them in the street and even wait for them at the exits of the schools. They sometimes follow them and assault them if they refuse to join. As a consequence, many teenagers are not able to leave their homes because they find gang members wherever they go.  On every corner there were groups of gang members, so it was very hard for my kids to leave the house.

The father of my first two children died at the age of 26, so I had to be the sole provider, and would have to leave my elder son alone closed up at home when I went to work. To lessen the risk, my mother would take him and the other kids to school, and my two oldest children have managed to get their bachillerato (similar to a high school diploma).  But their lives were nothing more than going to school, going home and staying inside. 

That’s how it had to be because a lot of times when my elder son would go out of the house, the gangs would surround him and beat him up.  Recently, he came to me  and said, “those guys want me to go with them,” and they wanted him to go to places to smoke marijuana, and because he didn’t want to go, they would wait to attack him. He said sometimes the gangs killed people and expected new gang members to do the same, and at other times the police would be chasing them down. He did not want that life.  

My son said that the gangs were going to kill him for sure, and me as well.  In fact, the gangs left a note under our door saying that if we didn’t leave the country, they would kill my son and everyone in his family. They would kill all of us.

Thank God, I had a sister living in Guatemala, and I managed to communicate with her and she told me that if we wanted, we could come to her place. So we went.

We left the country only with some clothes so no one would suspect that we were fleeing the country. We would have to start from zero.

When we left, we took a bus to the border at San Cristóbal (a town along the Pan-American Highway between El Salvador and Guatemala), but I had a problem: I did not have the documentation I needed to take my younger son out of the country since I needed his father’s permission. I did not say anything because he may not have granted permission. I could not leave my son behind and of course we could not stay. That has been the hardest part, that my younger son cannot see his father.

When we arrived at the border and got off the bus, I started talking to a man who by chance was out shopping on market day, and I told him the problem. This man said that if it were discovered, the authorities could take my child away and arrest me, so I asked him if he could help me get my son across the border.  He said that there were people where they exchanged currency who could do it. These people, well, they call them coyotes, and they help in cases like this. I was introduced to one and he said, “pay this much and I’ll get the child across the border so you don’t have problems with immigration.” The coyote told me that that was his job. 

So, I gave him the money (about 50 dollars), but I did not have confidence in just one man with my son.  My daughter said, “Mami, you cross the border and I will go with my brother so he doesn’t go alone,” and that’s how we did it.  

I passed through immigration with my elder son and we waited on the other side of the border. I felt desperate because I did not know this guy.  I was very fearful and had many bad thoughts, and I sat there wondering what I would do if he didn’t come.  I asked God to bring them soon, and thankfully in about an hour this coyote got them over the border, and they were fine.

Afterwards we got on another bus to go to Guatemala City. But even there, the ayudante del bus (the bus assistant who charges the passengers) told me that I might have problems without papers for my son, and to give him a certain amount of money so he could convince the police not to do anything if they stopped the bus.  He told me that further up there was a retén (a place where police randomly pull vehicles aside to check papers like a driver’s license and registration, a common practice in Guatemala). He said there the police might take the child away. 

Others told me not to give him anything, that he was a coyote also and just out for the money. But I paid him to avoid problems, 200 quetzals (about 26 dollars). I was very worried about what could happen.

Thank God we were never stopped and we managed to arrive at the capital.  The guy who charged me never returned my money.  He only said that we were lucky that we weren’t pulled over. When we got to Guatemala City my brother-in-law was there waiting for me with his family, to take us to Ciudad Vieja.

Silvia Menéndez, Antigua, Guatemala, October 23, 2019.

The problem in Guatemala, though, is that it is very difficult for us to find work. No one wants to give you a job if you are not from here.  You are considered undocumented.  You don’t have past working experience here in this country, you don’t have recommendations, you don’t have connections. You knock on doors and the only thing they tell you is that you have to present papers. Thank God for my sister’s help, but the situation is hard because she and her husband are also people of scarce resources.   

About the only thing I can do here is work for myself and open a small business in front of my sister’s house.  I began selling pupasas and beer, but the male customers wanted something more from me and it became abusive, so my older son and I agreed to shut the business down.

Recently I talked to an owner of a clothing store and she said, “Oh, I can get you work here and I’ll pay you so much,” and I was so grateful.  It wasn’t a lot: 1,000 quetzals a month (about 130 dollars), but it was something.  Well, I worked a month for her, but she did not pay me the money she owed me.  So, I ended up working for nothing. She just said her costs were too high to pay me. Obviously, I was working because I needed to earn money, not just because I wanted to be there. (Laughs) 

It is very sad, though, when your children ask you for something to eat and you don’t have anything to give them, and I can only ask God if he can help me find work. When I was at the clothing shop and wasn’t paid, my children understood the situation and accustomed themselves to eating once a day.  It is very difficult.  

Menéndez has recently opened a small clothing shop in front of her home in Ciudad Vieja — in hopes of providing for her children.

This interview was conducted on October 23, 2019, and represents the author’s translation.

My introduction owes much to Kimberly Green of the Latin American and Caribbean Center and Jack D. Gordon of the Institute for Public Policy at Florida international University, whose fine research is presented in “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” https://lacc.fiu.edu/research/the-new-face-of-street-gangs_final-report_eng.pdf

From Kachiquel to English: One Man’s Vision

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, 39, grew up in a family of 8 children in Santa Catarina Barahona, a town of about 3,500 residents in the department of Sacatepéquez. Most of the community’s inhabitants speak Kachiquel Maya and maintain a culture somewhat distinct from Guatemala’s Ladino population. In this narrative, Sagché speaks of the particularities of having an indigenous identity, his involvement in local politics, and why he plans to start a school to teach English to local youths. He begins by reflecting on his father’s migration to the US, and how that event has impacted his life. 

When my father was young he had land but no more than to grow maize and beans for the family. He needed more money so he left for the Guatemalan military when he was 22 years old, and there he began to study and learn music.  Because of his aptitude, he learned to play many instruments, but particularly the marimba, and he became a music instructor within the armed forces.  He also earned money from playing in bands, but it was still not that much.  My mother weaved clothes in the traditional style to bring in more income, but it was just not enough.

When I was eight, the military offered my father an opportunity to perform music in San Francisco, California.  He agreed and accompanied former soldiers to represent Guatemala in the Guatemalan embassy.  At the beginning he thought it was just a trip, a temporary opportunity to play, but one of the representatives told him he could stay in the United States if he wanted, and he would get a visa.  Obviously, he wanted to be with his family, but at the same time, financial necessity was bearing down on him.  He could provide for us much better in the US, so he stayed in the States.  We always communicated with him, but that was the last I saw him.

My father settled in San Rafael, CA and was there for 25 years.  At the beginning, I think it was hard for him because he did not speak English and that limited the work he could get.  And of course, the rent was high and the food expensive, he had to buy clothes, and he had to go study English, which he learned eventually. Along with playing in a marimba band, he worked in a hotel doing different jobs.  He worked in the kitchen or as a waiter, or in pubic relations.  

My father died in the US seventeen years ago of stomach cancer.  We could not afford to bring his body back, only his ashes. Later, when my mother died, we put her body in a nicho (a small edifice with spaces for the remains of the dead), and put her with my father’s ashes. We could say that they were finally rejoined.

Hector Sagché Ordoñez, Antigua, Guatemala, July 1, 2019.

If my father had stayed here in Guatemala, the truth, I don’t know what would have happened, but with such a large family to support, I doubt it would have been anything positive. As it was, we never lacked for the basics, thank God, because my father sent money to us.  We were even able to buy a lot of property.  In fact, we all received a piece of land and I live on it today alongside my brothers and sisters.  There were other pieces of land that were bought as well. 

But growing up that way was tough for me.  Imagine a ten-year-old without his father.  It was even harder for my mother because, well, let’s just say she was not only a mother but had to be a father also. She had to discipline us, and there were a lot of us children.

I was a little bit restless at school, and that was just part of my character.  I fought with some of my classmates, but I managed to get through and I finished high school. I didn’t go to university for economic reasons, but what really helped me was English. I was able to study English in the capital and in the town of Antigua, and I later got work because of it.  Learning English opened doors for me: to know more people and to communicate better is a very important part of life, and that is the case in politics also.  

Sagché became active politically some ten years ago and recently worked in the mayoral race in Santa Catarina Barahona.

I first participated in a campaign because, truthfully, politics always brings opportunities.  It’s like a bridge to some type of work in the government or elsewhere.  In the last campaign, I was an organizer, and I have to say, this time it was different.  Perhaps because I have matured a little bit, I saw it

Hector at Santa Catarina
Hector Sagché on his family’s land. Santa Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

not as a way to gain something, but to get to know people and to get to know them well.  Through organizing, I could get closer to people in the community and to exchange ideas, and to think about how to make life better.  

The social part is very important in politics. There are many candidates with good academic preparation, licenciados (college educated), but at times they don’t win because they don’t manage to get to know people.  In contrast, there are some in my town that are not as well educated, but they win because they are able to meet and form relationships with so many in the community.  You have to have a lot of friendships.

Unfortunately, many people don’t believe in politics because there is so much corruption in it, and that’s why its reputation is so bad.  Some of the leaders take advantage of their position and are just there to enrich themselves.  In the last campaign, it was clear that it was not clean.  Not only in my community, but in the country as a whole, there are politicians who profit from those who are most in need; the candidates  give them a bit of money in exchange for their votes.  These people really need the money so they accept it, and that money is corrupt to begin with.  It’s extra money that has come in to someone already in office, perhaps as part of a construction contract between a firm and the government. In that last campaign, there was a lot of corruption, but, as I say, it’s not only in my community, but in Guatemala generally.  The national hospitals are an example.  Sometimes there aren’t enough doctors, and they say they don’t have the funds to supply them, but it is generally known that that is because people in high positions have taken the money. 

Having said that, I believe politics itself is good. You can change things in the community because through interacting with people, you become aware of people’s needs.  If you manage to get into power, and your commitment comes from the heart, you can help people.

Sagché reflects on the distinct characteristics of his community, and how coming from his town has affected his experiences and shaped his identity.

My parents always communicated in Kachiquel so I grew up speaking it.  Also, in primary school, they gave us classes in Kachiquel, and they would go over the writing and the correct pronunciation of the language. Different communities have their own pronunciations for certain words, but the Ministry of Education has a standard one, and it is slightly different from ours, at least for some words like “to walk,” which we pronounce, “P’in.” Our neighbors say, “p’en” and the Ministry of Education says, “P’enon.”

Our town is right next to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where they also speak Kachiquel. Despite the fact that we are neighbors, there are variations in the language. In my opinion, the differences mark the communities’ identity.  It’s a way we distinguish ourselves.  If someone pronounces something differently, you know where they are from, you can identify that difference very rapidly. Also, there is a change in the culture and style as you move throughout different communities.

One of the features of my town that we are proud of is that we have clean, natural water in our houses and in public washing areas and it is free to our residents.  There is even a fountain in the park that people can drink from.  They say we are blessed because of it.   We have enough water not only for us but for our neighbors, who pay us to supply them our water. So this is part of our identity.

I would also say that many people from other places have chosen to live here because they like the atmosphere, including the good water and fertile land. The people are peaceful and we normally don’t have problems with violence.  There may be small crimes or arguments, but it’s not a dangerous place to live. It’s nice to be here in this town.

Town square with the fountain, Santa Catarina Barahona, July 1, 2019.

Unfortunately, because of the long-term consequences of the Spanish conquest, many of our customs have diminished.  Right now, frankly, more Spanish is spoken than Kachiquel.  The majority of the people in my town of course can speak Kachiquel, but the number is going down.  

Still, in my community, some of our customs have been maintained, like the creation of tejidos  (garments made from weaving threads) and there are many tejedoras (weavers).  They make the huipil (a one-piece slipover dress decorated with embroidery) and sell it or wear it.  It’s one custom that comes from our ancestors, and it has been maintained.  Another is the food dish, pepian, which we still eat.  (Pepian is a meaty spicy stew thought to have been fused from Mayan and Spanish cuisines.)

Other Guatemalans might know something of my background because I identify myself from the community I’m from, Sta. Catarina Barahona, and people might know that that is an indigenous community.  Also, my last name might sound strange to them because it is Sagché, so there again they might know that I am indigenous. 

On one hand it’s fine because I can identify where I am from and everyone can identify themselves.  The sad and negative part is that in my country there exists a lot of discrimination.  For example, when I worked in a call center in Guatemala City, some who were from the capital believed themselves to be better.  They call themselves ladino or urban mestizo, sometimes as if to say that it is superior to someone who is indigenous.  

But there are several types of discrimination. If you are poorer, they discriminate against you, if you haven’t studied, they discriminate against you, if you are indigenous, they discriminate. This hinders us from advancing as a country because people need to be united. Discrimination is always going to exist and it still exists, but the best way to eradicate it is for the people to change from within, because many say they want a better country, but what are they doing?  No one says that they are going to change their own attitude. 

I would like people in general to be broader minded, to be a little more visionary. Even in my town, If someone starts a new project, say a new business, it can be very difficult.  Some will support it, but others will ask: “what are you doing?” A few people don’t want others to get ahead or they don’t want anyone to do things differently. 

 If we lack for something it’s education.  Some kids end up going to school only up to the 6th grade because of economic necessity. Many large families with limited resources can’t afford the materials needed for their children’s schooling, like supplies, uniforms and lunch money.  As a consequence, several children leave school to go work and contribute to the family. So we need to promote more sources of employment in the community, to give people the opportunity to send their kids to school for longer periods of time.

I would really like to help kids with scarce resources, to help them learn a little bit of English.  In my community, many people find it very expensive to learn English so they don’t have that possibility.  For that reason, I am working on a project to give classes in English, and to give scholarships to students, principally children and adolescents, because they are the future.  English is important in graduating from high school, but the kids here are not going to be able to study it because they don’t have the opportunities here in this location.  Neither do they have the money to travel somewhere to study it.  So I think it would help a lot to establish a school and subsidize their learning of English in this town, so they wouldn’t have to travel outside.  All of that money for transportation is an expense.  

Santa Catarina Barahona is only a few miles from the town of Antigua, a popular tourist site with throngs of foreign visitors as well as foreign residents influential in the community. This milieu has led to a number of vending opportunities for indigenous people in the area as well as a connection to a broader world.

I feel that language study is so important because within it you study a culture, the mind changes, one is more open.  For example, the youth here, by learning English, could speak to someone from Europe and through that interaction they would hear new ideas.  But they are not going to be able to achieve that if they don’t know the language.  The school I am starting is called Escuela de Inglés de Comunicación Excepcional (Outstanding Communication English School). We need instruction to make our youth more capable, but we need the funds to do it. I am hoping to raise money to offer scholarships.

There are many people without a lot of education who have a lot of children, and there are a lot of single mothers, so their own resources become diffused, making it harder for them to maintain their children’s education. I think that helping them to study English is going to induce them to think in different ways and more positively.  To think in terms of potential.  This is what we lack.  

Perhaps in the past it was different because there was so much land then, so having 10 kids, you could still give them a plot of land.  But actually, now, in the community, the residences are getting smaller and many people now rent, so everything has changed.  This educational part is vital and one of the reasons I am forming this project.  I could connect with other educators who could come and give talks to women, to parents who are studying here, so they could become exposed to new ways of thinking.  That is how I want to help the community.

School children in the central square. Sta. Catarina Barahona, Guatemala, July 5, 2019.

This narrative was produced from an interview carried out in Antigua on July 1, 2019, and reflects the author’s translation.

Studying Abroad

Claudette Silva, 23, was born and raised in Guatemala and speaks four languages: Russian, Turkish, English and Spanish. (She hopes to one day learn German and Hebrew as well.) Below is her story, which reveals an unusual childhood and how, as a young adult, violence and a lack of resources affected her experience as a student. 

 When I was born, my father was schizophrenic and was unable to get loose from his detention.  My mother bore me alone at home, and later that day they took us to the hospital. 

For the first three years of my life, though, I lived with both my parents in zone 1 in Guatemala City.  Then my mother separated from my father and left him.  She met my step-father later and had two children with him.  

We were continually moving because my father was perpetually looking for me so he could be with me, but my mother did not want him to have custody. I went to nine different elementary schools in different parts of Guatemala. Just when I made friends I would have to go somewhere else, so it was complicated. We lived in places like San Antonio Suchitepéquez, San Benito in Petén, and in Santa Rosa Oratorio, where my family is from on my mother’s side.  My mother is the daughter of Brazilian immigrants, who migrated there in a big group. There are a lot of Silvas there.

Later we returned to Guatemala City when my father had calmed down and wasn’t looking for me any more.  When I was sixteen, though, I looked for him, and I found him, but it wasn’t a normal situation.  He was constantly changing personalities.  

I believe that I had a happy childhood despite all of that.  Not to have your parents together happens a lot in Guatemala.  The majority of children go through that, so it did not feel out of the ordinary.  In fact, when we lived in Petén, we lived on a farm and I had horses, and everything was great. 

I spent middle school and high school in the capital in a school run by nuns.  Then I went to the University of San Carlos, having managed to enter there to study medicine, and I studied there a year.   

To get around, I had to take a lot of camionetas (a flatbed truck used for transport), and one day in one of them I was assaulted.  A guy, backed by two others, asked everyone for their cell phones.  I hid mine in my shoe and told him “no.”   It makes me angry when I think about it because it’s not like I had a lot of money to buy one.  It cost me a lot.  I did not want to give up my phone so this guy jabbed me with his fist.  He hit me in the chest and they grabbed my backpack, but they did not get my cell phone.

Also, one time, when I was coming back home on a bus from the university through a new route through Villa Nueva, some people started shooting at the bus I was in, just when I was about home. And someone was killed right behind me.  It was horrible.  I think the shooting may have been because some of the cab drivers were upset that a bus was starting to operate in that area in competition with them.  It’s not clear why, but the bus took these gunshots.  

After that I made the decision to find a way to get out of this country. I wanted to leave.  I wanted to find a new way to live, I wanted peace.  I wanted to be able to walk in a country where I did not have to worry about getting robbed.

I went to various embassies and knocked on their doors, trying to figure out how I could get a scholarship abroad to keep studying.  They do have scholarships for Guatemalan students at these embassies, but the scholarships are not easy to get because they are usually given to people with influence, say, to a politician’s son or daughter.  

Russia opened the doors for me.  It was the only country that guided me through the application process and then accepted me. You do have to have good grades and I always had them, but the people at the consul supported me a lot. The process took about a year and I got my scholarship to go to Moscow in 2015.

I think these scholarships represent a way to unite the two countries, to promote good will between the people on both sides.  For example, there are two Russians in Antigua (a town in Guatemala where she currently lives), and I help them in any way I can.  If they want to go the market, I go with them so they feel comfortable here.  I do this because there were many Russians who treated me well, who helped me when I was in Moscow.  

I was in Russia almost two years studying medicine.  For someone who is Latino, it is difficult because of the snow and the extreme cold they have there. I had never experienced snow and those types of temperatures.  I would ask them, “why do you live here? It’s freezing.”  In January, you can’t even leave your house. 

I lived in a very small apartment that was just one room, along with three other women who were from different countries: Albania, the Ivory Coast, and Kazakhstan.  We had bunk beds under which we would put our luggage, and there were four closets and a stand to put dishes on.  There were just two desks and they were almost on top of the beds, because they really didn’t fit. I always grabbed half of a desk to study. It was tough. The woman from the Ivory Coast would make food, these giant soups, for all of her African friends, and they would all come to our place to eat on the weekends, in that little room of ours.  I had to be careful what I wore around the apartment since they would all be there, from Friday to Sunday.  We had to be very tolerant of each other.

Over there it was really important to speak Russian, because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t respect you, and learning it was difficult. You open the books and you begin to read, and you don’t understand anything.  You had to grab a dictionary or an app on your phone to translate it to Spanish. You constantly had to be getting the translation to understand what the book was saying.  All of us foreigners had to study twice as much as everyone else. But these things change you and make you stronger.

In the first six months, they teach you grammar and writing, and the next six months you learn subjects like math, chemistry, and biology.  Although the professors were good, it was hard. I was able to understand and speak Russian within 6 months, but it took me a full year to master it.

I remember that one Russian professor in anatomy would make you feel so bad if you made a mistake, and in that class, there were so many things to memorize.  There are so many cavities in the skull, the bones in the temporal, all the connections, what vein is there and what organ communicates with it, and we had to learn all of it in Russian and Latin.  The professor would arrive, give us a bone and say, “what is this?” If you made one mistake, she would not forgive you, she would just say “well, just come back next week and do the exam all over again.” It was horrible, really.  She made a student cry for one error.  She said, “you are not fit to be a doctor.  Go back to your country. You can’t speak Russian well enough.”

I tried to avoid all of that. I would study and then make drawings of everything I studied, and when the exam arrived, I would put the drawings in front of the professor so she would know that I knew the material.  You had to find a way to win them over. (laughs)

Silva had to stop studying when she was no longer able to cover her expenses.

My parents started to have economic problems, more so than usual, and they began to send me just 250 dollars a month. With this I had to eat, and in a city so expensive like Moscow, I really had to spend money only on food, and it had to be the most basic type of food.  At times, I just didn’t have enough. The scholarship paid for academics, the courses, the labs, but it did not pay for your housing or your food. They may have provided you the books, but not the notebooks or pens. I stopped my studies in the second semester of my second year.

I would have stayed if I had the money.  The scholarship would have taken me through the program to become a doctor, but I couldn’t get the work in Russia that would have allowed me to afford living there.  There were, however, allowances for time off. You could take a year off and still come back and study, so I decided to go to Turkey to earn enough money to return. But if you don’t return within a year, you lose your scholarship.  

I went to Turkey with a guy I got engaged to who was Muslim, and I earned 1,500 dollars a month in tourism. First, though, I went to the Ukraine to study massage, relaxing forms of massage, like Thai, Balinese, shiatsu, styles from India.  I did this so I could go back to Turkey and implement what I had learned.  My fiancé had a business to sell massages to tourists at a hotel, and my job was to explain the types he provided, and to sell customers the massages, I would give a small demonstration and explain how the technique was.  If they liked it, they would buy some and we would assign them a masseuse.  

We had local clients, but 80 percent of them at that hotel were Russians.  Since I could speak their language, I could sell to them.  All the time, I thought I would go back to the university in Moscow.  And while I was there I learned Turkish. It wasn’t hard like Russian. 

When the time came to go back, my husband-to-be told me to stay.  He said, “you are my woman.  Stay with me.” Since I believed that I was gong to make my life with him, I didn’t return to Moscow.  We continued to see each other for another year, but I found out he had been married to another woman and hadn’t told me.  I found pictures of them together in India after he told me he was going there alone on a business trip.  How can I marry someone who already has a wife, and didn’t tell me?  How stupid. He wanted me to be his second woman.  After that I didn’t want to be with him any more, and I returned to my country.  

When you go back, everything is different, the traffic, the people, and the climate, nothing is the same.  But you remember who you are and where you are from, because sometimes you forget, no?  So much time passes when you are abroad and you begin to think in another language, you forget to think in Spanish.  But you also change.  You don’t see things the same, you don’t see things like your culture has taught you.  You open your mind.

People work very hard over there.  In Turkey, you only have three days of rest during an entire month, just three. And that is very tiring.  And in Russia, we studied from Monday to Saturday. We only had Sundays off, and on that day you had to buy things, go to the market, clean the apartment, everything had to be taken care of.  So you can’t do anything else.  It’s not like that here in Guatemala.

If I had the chance, I would return to Russia to study but I would have to have the capital to do it.  I would have to apply for a scholarship all over again, and I would have to have a job over there to sustain me, and that is something I don’t have.  It’s just not possible now.  I can’t have my parents maintain me either, and they haven’t since I was 20. So I’m never going to go back and study there.

I want to be here in Antigua a year, because maybe I will have a future here and could put up a business.   I want to study and understand how everything works and start something. I have to work, I have to eat, and no one is going to rain money down on me.  I have to think about my future.

I feel like Antigua is a very happy place, more so than in Moscow, more so than in Turkey, more so than in Guatemala City.  Here I don’t feel judged, the people are nice and sociable, and I feel supported by my friends. I also like the architecture. 

And it is peaceful here. It’s my country and it isn’t so dangerous in this part of it. 

That’s what I like the most.  

The above story was told in our interview on June 25, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. The translation is my own.

Claudette Silva, Antigua, Guatemala, June 25, 2019.

 

A PhD with Dyslexia

In the second and final part of his testimony, 40-year old Edwin Román-Ramírez talks about his dyslexia and the problems it posed for him, and his personal journey toward becoming an archeologist. 

In his narrative, he refers to Antigua, one of Spain’s early colonial settlements in the New world, known today for its remaining colonial structures, as well as to Iximché, the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 to 1524 and later a Spanish colonial capital. He also talks of Tikal, a Mayan archeological site which lies in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, one of the largest and most well known.   

How did I become an archeologist? First, I had very supportive parents and they were able to see the things I was good at and that I was interested in, and they always encouraged me to pursue those interests.  Growing up in Chimaltenango, we went very often to Iximché. We also came to Antigua almost every Sunday and we always went to mass there.  These places represent so much.  For instance, for the indigenous people, Iximché represents a place of resistance.  For the state, it represents the first capital.  Memories are in conflict and you have a different view of what happened based on who you are.  But getting exposed to these places early in life really ignited my desire to know more.  Many archeologists say, “well as a kid I saw “Indiana Jones” (the movie) and that’s why I started thinking about archeology.”  For me, I grew up in all this history.

My mom had a picture that she showed me of her at Tikal in the 1970s and that fascinated me.  I was a really bad kid for traveling, but my dad brought my oldest brother to Tikal, and they came back with all their stories of the experience, and I became very interested in what they were saying. It was a process but it started to grow on me, this interest in the past, and my parents started to recognize my fascination with it and supported me. I always  wanted to know why we were doing something.  I always wanted to know, “why do we eat this food, why do we use the words we do?”

I think my parents were really smart to encourage me, but it wasn’t easy for me because at that time I had dyslexia and did not know it. I was terrible in school, like really bad, and I really hated it. I was a terrible student.  

I did not believe I was good enough in anything I did. Books were hard to read, my spelling was atrocious, and everybody was making fun of me.  I couldn’t write, either.  I always had to have someone check on my writing, so my mom and dad would often read the stuff I wrote and monitor it.  They were middle school teachers.

I did not know that I had this condition, and my parents did not even know what dyslexia was.  In Guatemala in the 1980s, in my hometown, nobody talked about dyslexia. So everything I did was not good enough.  I always felt like, “oh man, I spent the entire year trying hard, and it didn’t work out.”  And here, at that time, the schools were very militaristic.  It was a time of war in the 1980s and ’90s, and the authorities were strict and would place a great deal of emphasis on memorization, and that didn’t work for me.  

But I always liked adventure, and something I also had was that I actually get crazy when I don’t know something, because if I don’t know something I’m going to go and research it and figure it out.  And I think now, I was able to pursue archeology because people along the way discovered that about me.  Professors would say, “we don’t know this or that,” and I would go nuts and put together a lot of data about whatever it was.  But expressing my findings was hard. 

Here in Guatemala, before you finish high school, you have to go and work for a company for a month, to give you some experience.  My field in this regard was in hotels and tourism, and most of my teachers thought I would go to Antigua, which was close by, but I said no, I wanted to go far away.  My parents made an effort to send me to Panajachel (a town on the edge of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala), and for us it was really far in 1995, and we were at the end of the war.

Over there I loved it.  I spent two months there working in a hotel, and when I came back I told my mom and dad that I was going to travel around the world because I met all of these foreign people who were traveling.  My plan was to go by bus to Argentina, that was my dream. But my parents said, “come on, try one year of archeology, and you will be fine.”  And I told them I would try. 

Román-Ramírez attended the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, the largest and oldest university in Guatemala.

I went for a year, and I did really bad at the university  The second year went really really bad (laughs).  Finally, my parents asked me what I was going to do and I told them that maybe I needed some responsibilities outside of studying and my mom and dad agreed. My parents said, “Maybe you need a structure and that will help you at the university.”  

My mom found out that they had created a TV news show in town and suggested I go there to see if there was something I could do. I said “sure” and I got an interview with this guy, and he was wearing all these gold rings; he was really exotic. I said that I was interested in being a camera man because there was an opening for it, and after the interview, he said, “you’ve got the job.”  He told me to come the next day wearing a formal, long sleeve shirt.   “But you are not a camerman,” he said.  “You are going to interview guests.” I told him I could not do it because I was too shy.  I was a really shy kid.  But he said, “I’m your boss,” so I agreed to do it. 

My dad gave me a formal shirt and when I got to work I realized that I was going to interview the president of Guatemala, Álvaro Arzú!  This was in 1998, two days after Girardi had been shot. (Roman Catholic Archbishop and human rights advocate Juan José Gerardi was murdered in his home following an effort to expose those responsible for atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year old civil conflict. The murder caused public outrage.) 

I was 18 years old, imagine that.  I had no training and there I was with my long hair, I was so intimidated.  I knew the president was really hard on journalists, and I never sweated more in my life, but I interviewed Arzú for 10 minutes.

Since then, I started not to have any fear of talking to people.  I went back to the university and my grades got better, and then I met José Paredes, the director of the Proyecto Arqueologico del Motagua Medio and a ceramics professor.  He told me to apply to work with a group of archeologists, which would be my first field experience.  They just accept the best students into this program, but my grades, they sucked (laughs), you know.  I had terrible grades.  I told him about that but he said, “I know that, but I see something in you that I don’t see in the rest. Please apply.” Again, he saw that I had this thirst for knowledge.  A passion for it. I was accepted.

When I am curious about something or I start to think about ancient times, everything around me disappears, I have nothing to do with the present-day material world. I don’t know how to describe it.  The tomb of a king, a murial, but sometimes the tiny things are even more important. There is nothing like discovery and having an idea about it.

We went to a site in Zacapa called La Vega del Cobán with a small team of archeologists from my university on a small project.  After I went there, I started to do better at the university. I still had problems with exams, writing and all of that, but I think I started to push myself a little bit farther without knowing that I had dyslexia yet.  But these professors began to see that I had something different, and began to take me to excavations.  

I didn’t know much about it but in the first years of this program you had to go do reconnaissance, you had to go and look for new sites.  That was my first job, but during that time, one of our friends who was excavating got sick, and they told me to fill in for him and excavate, and I said “yeah sure.” I went there and told my friend, a Guatemalan student at San Carlos, that I was terrified, because I knew nothing about excavations, but she had more experience and told me not to worry and that she would help me.  I remember that we got lost on our way there, and arrived late, and that most of the workers that we needed were gone, all but a couple.  And the other people had left, so, oh man, I had to excavate on my own quite a bit.  Zacapa is really dry and hot, and there was not a single tree there, and we had to excavate.  But we did it.

While I did my excavations, I once found a very small piece of obsidian, and I knew obsidian did not come from that area.  It could’ve been trash, but when I found it, my brain was exploding; I was wondering what was going on.  It is the same feeling I get today.  

The last year at my university in Guatemala, I remember reading the newspaper and I saw an article that was talking about dyslexia and I read it. I told my parents about it and they said “yeah, we think you have that.”  So I started to read more about it, to see what the problem was.  

Before graduating, Edwin was invited to the US by a peace corps volunteer and stayed with his family while learning English.  He spent six months there before returning to Guatemala.

I had been trying to learn English in Guatemala and it was hard. I understood that for dyslexic people, there are certain languages that are difficult, and English was one of them. This family paid a tutor for me, so, with that help, and from talking to people and watching movies, I learned English.  

While I was there, one of the directors back in Guatemala told me that I should finish my thesis and graduate, and he offered to fund me while I worked on it.  He gave me a month to write my thesis.  For four years I didn’t want to do it, but he pushed me to do it, and I finished it.  I wrote the entire thesis in 1 month: 116 pages.  I finished it and I graduated.  

Edwin was able to meet PhD students and professors from the US and elsewhere through his archeological studies and research, and he received help and encouragement from them to keep going and pursue his studies.  He made his way to the University of Texas, where he received a PhD.

One of the problems with dyslexia is that it destroys your confidence.   I have to say that everything goes back to this dyslexia and I am still trying to understand my life in this context.

There was this PhD student and she told me then that I was a really good leader and she told me that I should pursue a PhD.  And of course she was really good looking, so I was like, “yeah.”  Two years before I had met a prominent archeologist from the US and I talked with him and told him I would like to study with him, and he said, finish your degree and you can come.  So I already had the idea. But In 2008, this PhD student really made me believe that I could do it. Also, when I was on a project and I didn’t have my licenciatura (bachelors) yet, I would be working with people with a PhD, and then I thought “well I could do that.”

My score for the GRE, the examination taken for graduate school, wasn’t any good, it was terrible, but they kept encouraging me. They saw something in me.  I applied, and they accepted me.  When I arrived I was able to read more about dyslexia and I started to take notes on how I could improve, and I started to have more confidence that I could get the PhD. 

I think being in the USA, in higher education, they never asked me specific questions about information.  They would ask me, “what do you think?”  Since then, I was the nerdiest person you could meet. I was in the library working, working, working.  I knew I had to work harder, but also I think the professors there gave me the opportunity to think and show my ideas.  That’s what really helped.  It was a great experience. You know, PhD programs can be terrible.  They are hard and can destroy a lot of your heart.   But when I look back, many people helped me.

I think getting the PhD more than anything was a way to prove to myself that I wasn’t dumb.  Since I was a kid, I thought that when I was born, the cables in my brain weren’t connected because I had all of these good ideas that I could not express.  I would dream of having an accident that would re-unite those cables in my mind so I could prove that I was smart.  So I was driven to prove myself.   Also, people believed in me and gave me opportunities, and this country (Guatemala) does not give you a lot of opportunities.  But when there is a wall there, if the wall has a small crack, I will try to pass through that crack.  I think that’s how I got to the University of Texas and to this day, I really still don’t believe I have a PhD.  You know, I tell people that I have a PhD and am from a home town that doesn’t even have a library (laughs).  That is crazy, you know.   

And now I can enjoy life.  I can enjoy archeology.  Now I think I am back to that kid who finds a small piece of obsidian on his first excavation.  I am still that kid, with more experience, more knowledge, and am more secure.  I don’t have to prove anything to that old Edwin.  And I still can’t believe I went to such a top university.  I was really lucky.  I had a lot of people who believed in me.  We never had money in my family, but I had encouragement.  

I don’t know the statistics, but I think we are between 2000 and 3000 people with a PhD in Guatemala. People don’t realize how difficult it is to get this. I met a lot of Guatemalans that come from really difficult backgrounds, and I am lucky.  My parents, being teachers, had secure money coming in. I know people who have parents who are poor, small farmers, indigenous, and I have friends who are female and indigenous and they had it much harder, a million times more difficult, than I did.  It inspires me a lot to see that they were able to get a PhD with everything against them. 

I appeared in a documentary produced by National Geographic regarding the new discoveries on the Maya. There were four episodes, and I was in two of them.  People from here were so happy, they were saying how great it was that I, a Guatemalan, was in the documentary speaking on these findings.  I was happy also because in my opinion they don’t like to put people in these documentaries who have an accent.  In terms of public attention, this documentary put me on the same level as experts in the USA.  I didn’t expect it because I was not looking for it. But what I like most is that I don’t have to prove myself to anybody anymore.  It feels weird because most of my life I felt like I was dumb and now everyone is complimenting me on my work and I just say, “well, thank you” (laughs). I’m just not used to it.  

Dr. Edwin Román-Ramírez at an excavation site in New Mexico.

 

The Archeologist

Forty-year old Edwin Román-Ramírez is an archeologist who grew up in Chimaltenango, a town of about 75,000 people that lies 30 miles west of the capital, Guatemala City.  In the first part of this two-part series, Dr. Román-Ramirez discusses his ideas on Mesoamerican archeology: his work in Zacapa, the public’s impressions of the Maya and his own, and the new technology that is being used to uncover gigantic settlements here-to-fore unknown. He also comments on how funding is difficult to come by for the enormous excavation projects he and others carry out.

Working in Zacapa

Zacapa has a lot of archeological sites, but this area is not well known to many people. We call the people who lived there the Motagua people since the society was near the Motagua River.  They are not Mayas, and that is something really interesting to us because when people talk about jade they only talk about Mayas, but these people were extracting jade.  They were from another culture apart from the Mayas and they had huge communities, like La Vega del Cobán, which has 800 sites.  The Motagua people seem to have been insulated, and they were able to survive for so long.  We need to know the relationship between these places, how this culture was able to sustain itself without any interference from the Mayas.  We need to think more about which strategies they deployed to communicate and negotiate the politics with the rest of the Maya region.

The earliest evidence we have of the Motagua culture is from 800 BC, and they were there until 900 AD, a really long occupation.  When I finished my thesis in 2006, we had discovered 100 sites, and I wrote on the sociopolitical organization that these sites reflected. For me, it was the first experience as an archeologist, being in the field.  

I think that now that we have more time and there are more people researching different sites, we can start to understand how complex this society was, but it’s hard to know everything about a culture; there are many unanswered questions.  

Impressions of ancient Maya culture

As a culture in general, I love it.  Every time I look at some of the pieces of art that they were able to create, I am amazed.  From the past to the present, I think they were unusual in their creativity.  The way they secured food was so smart also. Many of the things that we enjoy today came from their efforts, like chocolate. Other foods can be associated with Maya innovation in agriculture: tamales, avocados, maiz, tomatoes.

They also were able to adapt to a very difficult environment.  I work more in the lowlands, in the Petén region, but all the regions were difficult to live in. When you read a lot of history about Egypt, why were they so successful?  Where did they place their cities?  They are next to rivers where they can get water to drink and grow crops. But the Maya had to sustain their big cities depending only on the rain during the rainy season.  

We have different types of jungles, and in them there are some small islands where the cities were, and there are swamps around the cities we call “bajos” and for some communities, lakes were nearby.  So there was water in these bajos during the rainy season, and we know that they were able to create channels in those bajos, and that’s where they were farming.  And that’s where they could get their water to sustain the larger communities.  

The problem is that for four months you are going to have the dry season, and the rain goes not to the swamps or lakes, it goes to those places that are driest.  So it is fascinating to research how they managed to secure water for such large populations during those times.

Take El Mirador, which was one of the largest cities around 300 BC to 200 AD; it’s huge.  We don’t see a city that big again during the ancient Maya period.  It is so grand and ostentatious. This city had maybe between 60,000 to 100,000 people living there during the year.  Tikal is small compared to it.  We can see from our measurements of the lakes, how the climate became drier in the year 100 AD, and that is when you see a decline.  You see a lot of wars between cities.  Maybe it’s harder to get water, and there is fighting.  The problem with this period of time is that we don’t have a lot of writing, and the writing that exists doesn’t have those types of narratives about war.  The writing we have is “tagging,” tagging people, deities, or objects. They started to write about it later.

The public portrayal of the ancient Maya

Of course, there are a lot of things wrong about how people see Maya culture. We can talk about movies, which will always reflect what the director wants to show.  For example, Apocalypto, a film on the ancient Maya.  Much of the history was wrong, but I think some of it was cool.  You have this huge movie, a Hollywood production, where you can hear Yucatec Maya throughout the entire film.  I think that’s good.  When we look at some of the ways that the movie portrayed the kings, they are how we imagine them. I liked that part; the director did that well.  And there are also documentaries that are good.

What I don’t like is that a lot of the movie (and other productions) focused on the theme of sacrifice, and every culture has had some type of sacrifice.  Even Christian cultures did.  For Mayas, we know a lot of sacrifices happened, but the problem is that sometimes we only show that.  It’s discouraging because it will reinforce the stereotype that some people are less civilized and people will use that feeling to continue to discriminate against indigenous people today.  But the popular media are never going to show that western cultures engaged in sacrifices.  It has been part of human evolution, the history of mankind.

Archeologists have to be careful about this subject.  For example, once we were working  and we found the tomb of the founder of the dynasty at my site, and seven children had been sacrificed beside the king.  We had to issue this press release in the National Palace, and we had to report it because it was true, but we were trying to be careful about how we were going to say it.  I remember the directors (like myself), we were trying to position the information so that it would not get the attention. We did the press release and we didn’t mention a lot about it.  Some of the news came on an hour later — and we have social media now that makes the news even more immediate — and the media reported that seven kids were scarified with the royal king!  We tried to play it down so the media would not go there, but they went there.

Innovations in Mesoamerican archeology

Our understanding of these civilizations is constantly evolving.  We thought we knew a lot, but there are always developments that create a new paradigm and shifts our understanding of what happened.  For example, there was a big break in archeology when we were able to date people and events using carbon 14.  That was a big change around the world.

In Maya history, there was a great shift in the 1980s, when, after a long process, we were able to read glyphs. Now we could read the history and were able to make new assumptions.  That changed a lot of our understanding of Maya culture. 

Carbon-14 dating is a technique that provides age estimates for carbon-based material that originated from living organisms.  First developed in the late 1940s, the method revolutionized knowledge of the past.  The glyphs, or Mayan writing, are made up of symbols that represent syllables and words.  These glyphs are often found on walls, bark paper, and ceramics, and they were sometimes carved into wood and stone.

Today there is a new change: the technology to map sites. Now we have LiDAR (short for Light Detection and Ranging), a system of deploying lasers from an airplane to create images of what is below the jungle.  It’s like an MRI, when you go to a doctor and they can scan your entire body to see what is inside. That is what is happening with LiDAR.

In the Petén, the jungle is really thick and structures that are 10 meters tall can be lost.  Before LiDAR, we were not able to see everything because the jungle masked it, like areas where they were farming.  We know that the Maya were farmers, and at some sites we can see the areas where they engaged in agriculture, but we only knew that because we were excavating there.  It was by luck.

With LiDAR we can penetrate the different layers of the jungle: the top, middle and bottom. We  are able to recognize two phenomena that we were unable to see previously.  First, we can hone in and view the smallest structures and modifications and the exact locations of where they were farming. We can see terraces and things like that. Second, we can scope out and see really large structures.  Maybe we could see a part of something before, but we could not see the whole.  The area would be so large that we could not see it from our perspective on the ground. Now we can see structures like defensive walls or channels to conduct water that can be two kilometers long.  

What LiDAR can do is to remove digitally all the jungle, and then you have all the surface and any and every change that occurred. And this technology is still being developed.  In the future we will have better LiDAR.  But it is a very important technology because we can see entire cities.  We can see not just monuments or some group of houses. Now we can see some 60 structures at once.  Where I work at El Palmar on the Yucatán peninsula, findings from LiDAR made us change a lot in a book we were writing.  For instance, we used to say this site was very small compared to Tikal, but now we know that El Palmar has 920 more structures to it than we thought.  It was about the same size as Tikal, but we were not able to see it before. 

The funding challenge

Archeology is really expensive.  It cannot be done by one person, like in other fields, say history.  It requires a greater investment.  We need to pay workers for the excavation process.  We need excavators, helpers, cooks, drivers, and the number we need changes year to year.  Sometimes we need 45 to 50 people.

We know funding has to come from the government, something that we don’t have much of here. There is a Ministry of Sports and Culture that receives less than one percent of the national budget, and that one percent has to be divided among dance, painting, the symphony, everything that is culturally related, and sports as well, which takes up 60 percent of that amount that is already less than 1 percent.  

We do have money coming in from private donors in Guatemala as well as international sources.  We have private donors from the USA and others parts of the world, and also you have people that get grants from foundations.  In the USA you can get grants from the NEH (the National Endowment of the Humanities), and the NSF (National Science Foundation), and from Europe they have their own places to get money. 

The Guatemalan state does help, but it is not very much.  I think the institution in charge of archeology is doing everything it can, but it has to pay a lot of guards to protect the sites. So most of the money does not go to research, but rather to pay the salaries of people who are taking care of the archeological locations in different regions of Guatemala. I think the president should raise the budget to maybe two percent.    

The archeology being carried out by Guatemalans is very new; we started in the 1970s.  Here in Guatemala we have two universities dedicated to archeological research: San Carlos and Del Valle.  Before that, there were archeologists, but they were from the outside. Actually, most Guatemalans think archeologists come only from a foreign country and they cannot conceive of a Guatemalan archeologist.  They simply cannot believe it.  But now there are about 250 of us, and we are learning more and more about our ancient past.

Edwin
Edwin Román Ramirez, Antigua, Guatemala, June 10, 2019.

The Legacy of Pesticides

In the 1950s and ’60s, the South Coast of Central America experienced a boom in the cotton industry.  The climate and soil of the area was highly favorable for growing copious amounts of cotton, and world demand for the crop to make textiles and other products like cotton seed oil had expanded tremendously since the end of World War II.  The town of Tiquisate, Guatemala lies along the South Coast and previously had been known for its prodigious banana plantations that dotted the landscape in the 1930s and ’40s.  In fact the United Fruit Company set up a large division there called the Compañía Agrícola, which established a vast network of large banana farms.  As the company’s preeminence declined in the early 1960s, and the cotton boom was raging, much of Tiquisate’s fields and woods were converted to cotton plantations.  Along with this transition to a new and warmly welcomed export commodity came an era in which plantation owners deployed large doses of pesticides to protect their valuable crops.   This craze in the use of chemicals was caused by a plague of “chinchonas,” an insect similar to boll weevils that threatened cotton cultivation and the attractive profits it could garner.  While reports of the hazardous effects of cotton production trickled in and a number of illnesses were reported, concerns over the environment and worker health were largely ignored.  In fact, in the 1960s, it became dangerous to express objections to cotton cultivation, as the Guatemalan government, a major proponent of export agriculture and supported by landowners, became mired in a civil war against leftist rebels, and viewed reform movements of all types with suspicion.  

Today in Tiquisate, the effects of this chemical deluge is showing up in the ill health of a number of small children, who are beset by a variety of physical ailments. 

Forty-five year old Marvin Giovanni Peña, a former city planner in Tiquisate, pointed out this connection to me in an interview on February 20, 2018.  Peña’s own daughter had been suffering from a renal disease that Peña believed was linked to activities from the cotton era.  Peña himself founded an organization to help the local community deal with kidney ailments, and his efforts included helping more than 150 families from the municipality of Tiquisate transport loved ones to a hospital where they could receive dialysis.  

As he recently began campaigning for the mayoralty of Tiquisate, Peña was assassinated.  Upon leaving an evening political meeting, held by his party, La Fuerza, Peña was shot in the back while driving away on his motorcycle.  

Peña was known for his “don,” a willingness to help others, and he extended this graciousness to me by granting this interview, and through spending the day introducing me to other people who could help me understand the town’s rich history. Peña himself had extensive knowledge of Tiquisate, having worked in city planning and having access to the municipality’s archives and records. He also had a lifetime of listening to the stories of earlier generations; his own father had worked at Tiquisate both in the banana and cotton eras.   

 

The chemicals that were made during the cotton era were very strong.  In those times they fumigated by air: they would use planes to apply the pesticides. The chemicals they dropped were too powerful, and those who prepared or sprayed them can tell you that, and their children can relay the stories about it that their fathers told them.  The chemicals they dumped would completely contaminate the ground below. Cotton had pests, insects that would damage the cotton plant, and they were trying to kill those pests. They used the chemicals in such fierce doses to preserve the cotton. It was the only way they believed they could do it. 

When they sprayed the chemicals onto the cotton they would say that no one was down below, but on the farms there were always workers and employees there.  In any case, the soil would absorb  the chemicals and the chemicals would get trapped there.  The pesticides would start to sink into the subsoil.   What we can see today in this region, not only in Tiquisate but other towns nearby like Nueva Concepción and Río Bravo, is that certain illnesses like kidney disease have become common.  These illnesses are here and not in other places. 

Kidney disease is normally related to diabetes and aging, in people over 60 years old.  But in this region, the majority of cases are children or young people. They are not elderly people nor diabetics. They are born with this disease.  Some would think it might be genetic, but when they do studies on the patient’s family history, there is no precedent for it, not in the mother nor the father.  They’re clean for some 3 or 4 generations. But the cases do have something in common.  And what is common to the patients is that their fathers, grandfathers, or great grandfathers worked in the cotton era: they cut cotton or were in some way connected to cotton. Now you see the problems three generations afterwards, principally with kidney disease, in all its phases.  Also, you see children with an expanded heart and high blood pressure. Then you see encephalitic problems, problems with the brain. Kids have a brain that is very large.  They sometimes have hydrocephalus, another type of complication (a condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain, enlarging the head and sometimes causing brain damage). And you also see problems with the lungs.  Babies are born with a lung that doesn’t function. 

So three generations afterwards, we get these problems. So, why is it that the only connection is to cotton?  Academics have done studies on this and research shows that there is much more contamination in the air, in the water, and in the soil here than they have in other places in Guatemala or even in the department capital of Esquintla  (about 90 kilometers away).  It shouldn’t be like that, but they’ve demonstrated this.  

We have an aquifer here and should have enough water to supply massive populations, but it hasn’t been easy to make our water potable (drinkable). There is contamination in the water, and the rivers are also polluted. When they extract water from the subsoil, there is contamination and it’s not that easy to cleanse.  

This is the most powerful theory about why our children are afflicted with chronic illnesses: the contamination of the subsoil.  Over time, the chemicals have formed into elements that are now harming our children. The only way for the body to filtrate the chemicals is in the blood through the kidneys.  So it damages the kidneys.  The contamination gets captured in the kidneys and it degrades them. It generates a bodily deformity, and the deformity is chronic.  

And remember, the majority of the cases, unlike in other places, are made up of children and teenagers.  And we don’t have the funds necessary from the state to be able to investigate this further.  And if the money is raised, it is spent on the patients, but we need money to understand more about the causes of this problem and its source, to be able to combat it.  

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The late Marvin Giovanni Peña, Feb. 20, 2018.

Poverty and Racism

“Kike” Yantuche is a 30-year old man who hails from Mixco, Guatemala, a municipality of close to 500,000 people some 10 miles from the country’s capital, Guatemala City.  Its indigenous past is long and rich, as Spanish colonists were only figure heads in nominal government positions.  Today, Mixco is densely populated, absorbed by the capital and residents there face the travails of modernization and contemporary Guatemalan life.  Kike works as a sales executive for Banco Industrial, one of the largest banks in Central America, selling products like credit cards to bank customers.  He spoke to me on May 11, 2019.

My life in Guatemala was a little difficult because I come from a very poor family.  I know a lot of people who grew up in a house with a living room and a kitchen and everything else.  I did not have any of that.  Everyone in my family lived in the exact same space. It was really crazy; we were six persons in one small room: my parents, my brother and two sisters, and myself.  It had nothing, it was just a room with a stove in the middle, and we slept in three beds near it that took up half of the room.  We made one part of it into a kitchen near the stove, and on the other side there was a table.  The bathroom was outside.  The whole room was only 10 by 5 meters.  It was really small. I don’t know why, but this is the first time I have talked about this because there are many things that I don’t like to remember.  It’s really hard for me to talk about it.  Everyone assumes I have had everything, and it’s not true.

Even in such conditions, I did not go hungry. My parents were able to bring us food, but taking a shower was really difficult because we had no water in our place, so all the time we used water from community washing areas (called Tanques).  It was pretty tough from December through February because it could get really cold, and we did not have water heaters.

Luckily, I received money from a nun, like 50 US dollars a month, which was a lot of money for me because I was a student and it was a great help. But I stopped going to school after high school. In Guatemala, you can get a job if you have a high school degree, and if you have a good aptitude you can earn some money, so I was able to get a job at the bank, where I have been working for ten years.

At work my colleagues refer to me as an “Indian,” because my last name  (Yantuche) is probably Mayan.  I don’t really care.  It’s just their ignorance. I consider myself mestizo. I speak only Spanish, no other language. I dress in a western way and I am Catholic.  I don’t carry the religious beliefs of some of the Mayan people. In the beginning it was really hard for me because I don’t have their tradition and I don’t know why my friends and colleagues, my people, called me “Indian.” I just don’t know.  They would call it to me right to my face. It’s like a nickname, you know.  For example, they call me “Tatita,” which is a way for a Mayan person to refer to his or her grandfather.  “Pech,” “Indio,” and they also say “Jacinto,” “Chino,” everything like that. In Guatemala, it’s really offensive, it’s an insult. But it’s part of the culture because everyone here wants to come from families that are European or American; they want to be white.

For example, when you buy something in a store, if you go buy like a beer in a local store, they call the people working there Chinos. “Chino, give me a beer.” Everybody thinks you can call them Chinos.  “Indio” is the most common.  If someone says the beer is good, and I say it’s not, and I keep insisting on my point of view, they say “you are an Indian.”  This is code for someone who is stubborn, who won’t change their mind.

We don’t have national pride.  For example, I went to Peru two years ago and they are very proud because they are Incan.  In the central park of Cuzco, they have dances and music about Incan culture.  Here, there is nothing.  The presidents’ names are from Europe.  The names are Berger, Arzu, names from Germany, Austria, Spain.  We don’t have our own president.

Once I had these friends from Spain who were here in Guatemala doing volunteer work, I met them at a bar because I can talk with the girls, and the other guys don’t have the same ability, you know? I know them because they wanted to speak to a girl, and they couldn’t so I arranged things for them to talk to her and they became my friends. So once I was giving them a ride and they started calling me “Indio,” and it was really offensive. They thought they were better than me, and so they started calling me those names. But after this guy called me an “Indio” I told him to fuck off. I told them all to get out of my car.   I told them to “fucking get out right now” and they said “no way,” and I said “get out.” Everyone has a limit.  They call you those names because of how you appear.  I am small, my skin is dark, I don’t have a lot of hair on my face.  I don’t care.  But they can’t mess with me because of it. and I am pretty good in mathematics, in writing.  I know where I’m good. They can’t tell me they are better because I know it’s not true. I’ve been looking for new job opportunities where I can put my writing skills to use, and I think I am good enough, but the racism works against me. There is an author who has written about racism and how everybody here in Guatemala wants to belong to a rich family from Spain.  It’s really weird, but it’s a part of our culture. I know I can’t change anything.

Kike plans to leave Guatemala to find a better life.  He intends to go to Europe, perhaps France, perhaps Poland, where he has friends, and eventually emigrate to Australia, find work and write a novel.

Right now I live in a town (Mixco) where it’s really dangerous. I live with my parents there and rent a house. Even though my job is boring, I thought that with the money I made at the bank my family could be better off, but it’s not completely true. Some two years ago three men entered my home and robbed me of everything.  So from that time on, I’ve been thinking that it’s just not possible to have anything here.  I bought everything for the house, and right now I have nothing.  But it’s my town, my grandparents and parents grew up there, and they don’t want to leave Mixco.

We have our demons, like violence and indifference. For example, where I live, last weekend, a man was murdered in the central park in my town.  It was really ugly. The most incredible thing is the indifference of the people, because next to the murder there was a party being thrown for the public in the town square, to celebrate the conclusion of some elections.  But just next to the party, one man was killed, he was murdered, and no one cared.  The party kept going until one a.m., and nobody said “stop the music, we have a guy murdered here.”  You know, the indifference, It’s amazing.  You can’t believe it. The deep indifference, it’s incredible.

Five months ago I was sleeping, maybe six in the morning, when I heard “pah pah pah pah” (bullet sounds).  So I said to myself, “shit, that was a shooting.”  But when I got up my mom came into my room and said “stop, don’t go out,” but I needed to go out and see, and I went out and found a woman maybe 20 or 25 years old, she was still alive but she was dying, and her mother was trying to revive her and she was pleading for people to help.

But this is our reality and our government does nothing.  They say that there comes a time here when it becomes too much.  “We can’t take it any more.  When will I be next?”  In any moment, it can be you who is shot.  So you ask yourself, “when will I be taken out?”

I do believe I could learn another language like French.  I  could stay in France for two or three years and then go to Australia.  I have friends in Poland also.  As for the US, I think for Latin people there are better destinations.  In the US there is racism and the only work I would find would be at a farm or in construction.  I’m looking for something else.  My dream really is to go to Australia.  I am going to turn 31 years old and one of my goals is to meet a girl, get married and have children.  I am sure in Guatemala it is not possible to support a family the way I want, but in Australia and other places there are so many more opportunities.

But you never know what is waiting for you.

Juan-Enrique Yantuche at the Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland. June 23, 2019