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 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.  


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

Life in the 1970s

Domingo Boche Estrada, 61 years of age, grew up in Antigua, Guatemala during the country’s civil war (1962-1996) and lives just outside of town today.  While he did not participate in the war, Domingo lived in fear of being dragooned into the Guatemalan Military when he was young, which was a common concern among men living in Guatemala around the age of 18.  He describes the process of forced recruitment and how he was able to avoid it in his youth. I interviewed him on September 29, 2018. Below are excerpts from his testimony, edited and translated.

There was a man, they called him Chita, like in Tarzan, and he shined shoes in the central square and had a permanent place there.  He was always at his workshop, and there were always people around him talking to him.  But when he wasn’t there, that was the signal that soldiers would soon arrive to Antigua and work with the local comisionados militares (military commissioners) to capture people for the army.

[These comisionados militares originally formed in 1938 to recruit people into the military.  Prominent members of a particular community would usually be chosen to perform this role, and they later aided in gathering counterinsurgency intelligence during the war.]

Chita was part of it, part of the recruiting.  Generally, we always monitored Chita, because when he wasn’t there that was the indication that the military was coming to grab guys, so we all communicated among each other, among us young guys, to inform each other so as not to leave our homes, because if we went out we might have back luck and be captured.

No one wanted to go into the army because there was a lot of bad talk about military service.  There was a fear of it.  There were so many stories of guys being taken to the military encampment and beaten.  They would be denigrated.  For example, the army would take a guy, strip him down and throw him into freezing water, or they would make him eat bad things, to degrade him.  If a soldier of a higher rank wanted to punish his subordinate for not doing his job well, the punishment would be severe.  I never experienced it, but the stories were legion.  So many things that were not correct.  Maybe it was a way to harden them, so when they went into the field of battle, they would apply the same attitude that had been applied to them.

In reality, there was nothing in the mind of the people about the conflict, they just heard of the suffering that the soldiers had to endure, so they tried to avoid the military.  The people had no concept of communism or capitalism.  They heard about it but did not understand what the ideas represented.  It was only when I went to the university in Guatemala City that I came into contact with these ideas.  But the people did not have any interest in being part of any one group.  They really did not know why they were fighting.

The military commissioners in town were part of the military, or close to it.  They had a lot of privileges, benefits like access to the comisiariato, a store for the military, exclusively for them, where they could go and buy boots, shoes, clothes, whiskey, a lot of imported goods at really cheap prices.

The military commissioners did the recruiting in their own pickup trucks, and they would usually operate with one or two soldiers that came from the city.  There would be as many as ten commissioners total, and they would take up strategic positions in town, where young men would pass, so when they saw potential recruits, they would attack them.  Maybe they would place themselves in the central square, or at other strategic areas, and usually they would come around the time when people went to work, because they knew people would have to go to their jobs.  The recruiters would hide, chase the young guys, and capture them.  And then they would take them to the pick-up, and there would be an armed soldier waiting.  And if the recruits tried to get away, they would pursue them and beat them with hoses that had blades tied to them.

All of my life that was happening, but when I was almost 18, I really had to hide from the military commissioners, so as not to go into the army, because that was a fear we all had, as a youth, to be captured and taken away to the barracks.

There once was a procession [a parade with strong community involvement, most often carried out for religious purposes].  Usually processions would be respected, but one day we were going along with the procession and the commissioners appeared behind it, so, because I was with two older brothers and some friends who also could be recruited, we started to walk little by little away from the procession, and then we started to run.  Unfortunately, one of our friends was captured.

But that turned out to be a funny situation.  At that time, our friend lived near the recruiting office, the office of military reserves.  It was at this office that they would take and look at the recruits, review their documents and everything, and then see if there was some defect to them, or if they could be exempted because they were married, or if they were butchers, worked in hospitals or health clinics.  Because he lived close to him, my friend knew the official there and was a friend of his.  So the official invited him to sit down and have some coffee, and then let him go.  The soldiers were mad but the official said, “ah, he’s my friend.”

Domingo’s Background

Domingo was part of a large family, being one of ten children, with three sisters and six brothers.  His father ran a bakery with his mother’s assistance.

My mom never studied.  She was from a very poor family that worked on a coffee plantation.  Later, she left, but my grandparents continued working there.  My mother, when she was playing with other children, got struck in the eye with a branch, and after that accident, she didn’t go back to school, so she could not read or write.  Also, my grandmother had trouble taking her to the school on time, and would get scolded by the teacher and my mother didn’t like it.

My father’s parents worked on a coffee plantation also, but they had a piece of land and had some cows.  My father would help his dad and take them out to pasture.

When my father was like seven or eight years of age, he was in the street playing when the police passed and asked where his parents were, and then they took him and some others to school.  The police told the teacher that they had found these kids playing in the street, so they asked the teacher to take them in and teach them, so my father learned to read and write and learned how to add and subtract.

My father stopped school when he burned his hand around the age of nine.  Because his family was poor, they cooked over the floor on stones, and he was sitting near the fire at night, and he began to nod off, and all of a sudden, he started to fall forward and burned part of his hand.  That’s when he stopped studying.

I never knew my grandparents because they died when my parents were young.  I think my dad’s parents spoke Kachiquel, because we had an aunt who spoke Kachiquel.  But since my dad moved from his home in Chimaltenango to Antigua early in life, he changed part of his customs because the culture here is different.  We really all have indigenous roots, but we lost contact with the culture.

Domingo went on to study at the University of San Carlos in architecture, but later took up the humanities to teach high school.  His brother also studied at the university, in economics. 

At the university you learned about capitalism and marxism.  We could not completely embrace marxism because of our catholicism. I was in the middle.  I was what they call a radish, red on the outside but white on the inside.  I used to argue with my brother at home because he studied economics and tended to defend capitalism more.  My mother got worried about the arguments and thought we were going to come to blows, so we had to convince her that we were not going to attack each other, that we were just having a discussion.  But most people had no idea about these ideologies.  The guys who were recruited into the military were just told that communists were bent on destroying  democracy, so they would go out and kill the guerrillas.


The Journey Begins

I am an historian currently living in Antigua, Guatemala and New Haven, Connecticut.  This site is designed to offer insight into the lives of Guatemalans and others who live in the country through a compilation of oral testimony accrued from personal interviews.  By publishing excerpts from a number of my conversations (and in most cases translating them to English), I hope to highlight the varied experiences of individuals under particular historical conditions: their challenges, struggles, and forms of perseverance.

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton


At the Cantina

Joe, who works at a cantina in Tiquisate on the South Coast of Guatemala, spoke to me on the night of Feb. 20, 2018,  along with his friend, James Jason.  Both were eager to speak in English.

I don’t know who I am. My parents were killed in Guatemala when I was a baby, so some people brought me to the United Stats and I grew up as a chicano. I lived in Tucson. I still have no papers from anywhere, not from the United States, not from Guatemala. I got deported from the US and now I am here in Tiquisate, working in this cantina.  We only have one girl here because a bunch of the others left. There were like five here. You never know when the money comes in. There is always money around, but who knows when it comes your way.

I got deported after serving 15 years in prison in the US. It was about drugs. I originally got 30 years but served 15. This all happened when I was 13 years old.  I served in the minors (a juvenile detention center) and then in the majors (a federal penitentiary). I also spent time in jail in Guatemala because I got into a fight. In Guatemala, you have to pay to be in jail. It’s not that way in the US. There is no pressure to pay anyone.  But it’s different in Guatemala.  And if you’ve got money, you don’t even go to jail. People with money can buy their way out, because it’s all about the money.

The hardest thing when I got here was the language. I didn’t speak Spanish so I had to learn it. But now it’s fine. And I have settled down.  I am not like what I used to be. That’s all done. I’m 40 years old and don’t want to go back to those places. I stay out of trouble.  I have a two-year old daughter and I am a very good father. But still, I have no idea what to do.  I’m just here.  I may try to get back into the United States in a few months.

James Jason, a young Guatemalan man who was hanging out at the cantina where Joe works.

I lived in Texas, but I was thrown in jail here in Guatemala not long ago, and I spent six months there.  A friend of mine murdered a woman not too far from where we are sitting.  She was a lesbian and my friend thought she was too involved with his wife.  The police know he killed her, but they dragged me into it because I was his friend and I had been with him that night.  I had nothing to do with it.  It was bullshit.  I told them I wasn’t even there.  Anyway, I spent time in a Guatemalan jail.  That sucked.