Surviving a Massacre

During the country’s civil war (1960-1996), military occupations and mass executions of entire villages became widespread, occurring most often in the department of Quiché in the early 1980s.  In the stories that follow, survivors bear witness to the personal loss and devastation that these atrocities wrought.

While innocents were killed by both sides in the conflict, the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) reported that the Guatemalan government, through its plan to suppress and eradicate the guerrilla movement, carried out the preponderance of civilian executions. After extensive research, the CEH found that units of the Guatemalan army had destroyed over 600 villages. Many of these mass murders took place in the Western Highlands where rebel activity was most acute, but also where peaceful Mayan communities subsisted through agricultural pursuits, leaving one to ponder how racism played a role in this regional holocaust.  The CEH concluded that the Guatemalan government had committed acts of genocide, sparking a national debate on whether such a term should be used.

Critics of the commission (known as the Truth Commission) have accused it of a left-wing bias, but all parties to the peace agreement agreed to its composition.  

The memories of the victims presented here derive from their testimony at the trial of the late and former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in March 2013, in which he was accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The entries tend to be brief due to the court’s limitations on admissible subject matter, but, taken together, they provide a clear picture of the trauma suffered by Ixil-speaking villagers during Guatemala’s internal war.  

In the first testimonial, 54-year-old Jacinta Rivera Brito recounts her personal travail following an army attack on her village in February, 1983. At the time, she was residing in the Nebaj region of Guatemala, where many massacres occurred.

I was living in the town of Vicalamá.  The soldiers came and chased us out of our homes, and they burned down our houses and cut down our fields. We hid and then fled to the mountains.  They came looking for us, and they surrounded us up there. 

The soldiers were on the mountain’s perimeter.  We tried to run, but because they were on the mountainside they could see us below and they shot at us.  So many shots were fired. They did not hit me, but they hit and killed my husband.  A bullet entered through his right eye and went out through the back of his head.  One of my children was a baby at the time, and my husband was carrying her.  A shot went through her hand. 

My husband was carrying all of our things so I had to leave my clothes where he was killed: my poncho, everything.  I was with my four children and my father-in-law.  I stayed hidden in a small mountain while the army came down and looked at my husband’s corpse.  I spent three days not eating, and I fainted for the lack of food.

So I stayed there in that small mountain like that, without a blanket and without a poncho. I was afraid to leave and see my husband’s body because I heard that they would leave grenades next to the dead, next to the ones they killed.  I finally left the mountain in an attempt to see my husband, but friends of his had already buried him so the dogs would not eat his remains.  

I did not have food nor clothing and I did not know what to do. I did not even have a machete to work with.  Our companions said, “let’s go elsewhere,” so I went with them to a place where they thought we could find something to eat.

I barely had any water, but after eight days we arrived at Amakchel and there, when I arrived, there was no food, so we only ate wild plants, but we did find a small plot of land to seed.

Ultimately, I got a little bit of food but still had no clothes, so I got a piece of a rag and I covered myself with that … and same with my children.  They got some thread and we sowed it and they put that on.   We had a little food then, but I would still get very tired.

Jacinta Rivera Brito entering the courtroom, March, 2013.

Jacinta Rivera spent about a year trying to survive away from her village, either in the mountains or in other towns.  She and her children were eventually taken out of the wilds and relocated to a military controlled area by army helicopter. 

To combat subversion, the government set up a number of military controlled zones where residents would be moved, called “destacamentos” (military detachments).  They could also be relocated to more elaborate settlement camps known as “model villages.”  These areas were formed to make sure members of the local communities did not become guerrilla recruits.  Refugees found in the woods would often be transported to such places.

We were happy when they (the soldiers) arrived, but we were sick and continued on with our illness. Even now, I don’t feel well. I am still sick.  

What I am asking is that they pay me for the blood they extracted from my husband and daughter.  What we want is that he (Ríos Montt) go to jail, because we did not steal anything. What I want now is never to see this again. One day I will die, but I have children, and this will stay with them.  

Jacinta Rivera Brito testifying at the genocide trial of Ríos Montt.


During her testimony in the same trial on March 21, 2013, 66-year-old Catarina Sánchez Solís discussed her escape to the mountains after the army occupied her village, Vajilá, in Acul, Nebaj on April 20, 1982. During her testimony, Sánchez Solís could not elaborate on the death of her husband due to procedural restrictions.  A fuller story is therefore left untold.

The soldiers arrived —— we don’t know why they came, but they came and got my husband, Francisco Kalel. 

The army took him to the church and threw him face down on the floor and told him not to move, and not only he was there, but there were a lot of other people there and a lot of people died there.  When my husband arrived, they had said that hell was on the left, and heaven was on the right.

We left for the mountains because the soldiers wanted to kill us.  That’s why we spent so much time there.  I don’t remember how long but we were there for quite some time. My parents, brothers and sisters all went.  I eventually left the group with my father to find another location.

My sister later told me that my mother had died in the mountains when she was lying down near a large rock and was very hungry.  A bomb landed near her and she fell and got warm. I don’t know really why she died. I only know what my sister told me, that a bomb was dropped and she died startled.

Back home we had sheep and pigs that stayed there when we went into the mountains.  I only went back once to get a hen and some chicks, and then I went back into the mountains out of fear of staying in town.  Those chicks did not last long. We brought some maize with us also but it did not last long either. I had two daughters die of hunger out there, as we were in the mountains so long.  I had a two-year old and a 14-year old die that way. 

My clothes got very old and wore out, so after a while I wasn’t wearing any clothes. We didn’t have any clothes when we came back.  We also had run out of food.

Our life was greatly affected by this.  Today we suffer from illnesses.  My throat hurts.  I am sick. We want justice, and we do not want any more war. We may die some day, but we ask for justice for our children.

Former President and General, José Efraín Ríos Montt, walking to the courtroom.


Tomás Chávez Brito, 45 years of age at the time of his testimony, recalled events surrounding the military’s massacre of his village, Sacsiguan, Santa María Nebaj, in the department of El Quiché on November 4, 1982.

The army beat my mother in the face — they made me an orphan.  The military also burned my brothers and sisters to death and killed two of my sister’s children — they were babies.  According to my uncle, the killers of my mother were wearing the uniforms of the Kaibiles. 

The Kaibiles were the Guatemalan military’s elite combat forces specializing in counter-insurgency and jungle warfare. 

We were out working in the fields and my uncle said we had to go. There were other villagers who went with us into the mountains.  I lived with my uncle out in the woods for about a year and we ate plants to survive.   

After a year we got together with some companions and we went to Cabá. And then we entered the CPR. 

Cabá is a large area of subtropical forest within Ixil communal lands. CPRs, or Communities of People in Resistance, were isolated clusters of individuals who had fled the violence of war. They were mostly unarmed civilians who eked out a living from planting corn, beans and raising livestock.

We went to Cabá and built a little house of palm leaves. There were no guerrillas there, only regular people. Later, soldiers arrived and ran after us again.  They got us and took us to the plantation. 

Chávez Brito was transported to the Perla farm, one of the largest and most extensive haciendas in the Ixil region, known today for its cultivation of prize winning gourmet coffee.  At the time of Brito’s capture, the Guatemalan government was using part of the property for a military detachment, taking advantage of the farm’s infrastructure (electricity, water, and drainage).  Such a practice, in which a military detachment was established on private property, became common during the war.  The Perla farm was also in an area that was particularly vulnerable to rebel activity. The Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP) had been active nearby and a few years earlier had assassinated the property’s owner, a former founder of the Anti-Communist Unification Party.

Once on the farm, Chávez Brito was forced to provide free labor.

We went to the plantation at the request of the soldiers and were there for about five months.  While we were there we worked and didn’t receive any money, only a little bit of food.  They gave us a schedule and they commanded us to follow it. They said that if we left, they would kill us.  


The Ixil region in the department of Quiché, Guatemala.

Another witness, Inés Gómez López, testified to the trauma she experienced when she was 11 back in September, 1982, in the Ixil community of San Juan Cotzal.  At the age of 41, she publicly recounted her childhood ordeal.

The army killed my father. They shot him in the head ——  I saw it.  The soldiers came and grabbed a lot of people.  Maybe 40 to 50. They burned all our things to the ground, including our grinding stone.  Everything.

They were coming after us and I remember running.  I don’t know why exactly because I was young, but my father had told us to get going into the mountains.

We had to go fast so we only took the clothes on our back.  We had no time.

We went and hid in the mountains but the army chased us and they were shooting at us.  I was with my father’s sister, and there were about 25 people with us, including children. 

We would spend time in one place in the woods, maybe a week, then another week in another part.  We had just a few tortillas, and we ate sugar cane.  It looked like I was going to die of hunger. I was very undernourished and weak.  It was difficult for everyone.  Once, people wanted to give away their child to us, but we had my brothers and sisters to take care of, so we couldn’t help.    

We were there about a year. My little sister was born in those mountains.

Ines Gómez López and her aunt were eventually brought out of the mountains and into a military detachment.


Nicolás Bernal Brito was 22-years-old in March of 1982, when the Guatemalan army terrorized his village, Canaquil, in the municipality of Santa María Nebaj.  In the following testimony, he recounts the events leading to his escape into the mountains, his return to the authority of the armed forces, and his recruitment into the Civil Defense Patrols.

The soldiers would come to our village every two or three days.  Once we were working in the fields when they appeared.  We know it was them because they had their uniforms on: green and black camouflage. We realized they were there and we were frightened.  There were a lot of them and they began killing people and burning all the houses. We had no idea why they killed our people, we were confused, we did not have anything, nor had we done anything.  They went everywhere, into the forest areas and around the houses, grabbing people. They would have killed us if we hadn’t fled.

A lot of women were killed because many were sewing or making masa (corn dough to make tortillas) and were unable to run like the men. I would say there were about 35 people who died, young and old.  My woman’s sister was killed, and her sister’s children also. They were 12, ten and eight years of age.  The rest were younger or babies.  

The soldiers took out the hearts of the people they killed and piled them up in a hut and set fire to it.  When we went there later we saw our family members who had been killed. We put out the fire. We took all of the bodies that had been burned, made a large hole and buried them there. 

They left us destitute. The army destroyed all our homes and set ablaze all of our belongings, so we only had the clothes on our backs. They razed our fields. They killed our sheep, our horses, our cows.  The dogs ate the dead livestock that hadn’t rotted. 

We fled to a place called Chichel (a wilderness area to the east)…. There we hid because of our fear from seeing our companions being killed.  A lot of people from our area went there to hide.  This place is mountainous and we didn’t think they could find us there.  I was out there about seven months.  We were very weak because we had no food.  We only ate edible plants.  Some people died of hunger. 

One day, they scattered pamphlets in our area, and there were some kids with us who could read, and they said that they were offering amnesty to us and that we could return.  I said I would go back because I did not owe anything to anybody and I thought I might die staying out there.  We had no food or clothes.  So I decided to hand myself in. 

When I arrived to town with my companions we received clothes and a poncho, and some food.  They also integrated us into the Civil Defense Patrols.  The idea was to prevent any outsiders from coming in.

It was not voluntary.  We had to join if we wanted to or not.  If you did not participate in these patrols, they would take you away.  All of a sudden we’d realize that some of the men were gone. 

The army said that they were the ultimate law, and if we did what we were told, nothing bad would happen to us. On the patrols, we would go out and survey the outskirts of the town with the soldiers.  The guys who patrolled were of different ages, from 12 years of age to the elderly. 

The army would grab people who were out in the woods or shoot them.  For the soldiers they were guerrillas … but they were just ordinary people. 


Jacinto Brito Corio, our last subject, spoke of his experience in the town of Tujolóm, Nebaj in December, 1982, when the Guatemalan military brought death and destruction to his friends and family.  

I don’t know my age exactly —— I cannot read or write —— but I am maybe 60 years old.  I am here to say what happened to us in the town of my birth.  

I cultivate the milpa (a small area of crops, often maize) and was in the fields when the government sent people to kill us.  They burned down our houses and cut down our crops. We are now demanding justice.  

I remember ’82.  The soldiers took away people and killed them, and they chased others who hid.  There were about 10 families whose lives they ended.  They killed my own father with their hands and feet, and they buried him without a casket. 

There were soldiers here and there.   There were a lot of them, but there was no soldier who was Ixil because they did not understand what we were saying.  They were speaking Spanish and they could not comprehend us. 

They killed our sheep, pigs and cows, and they lit a fire and they ate them. 

After the soldiers came we had nothing, not even clothes. Everybody’s house was burned to the ground. 

We fled to the mountains, where we ate only wild plants. We slept under trees or next to large rocks. We would find ourselves in different places and joined up with other people out there who spoke a different language from our Ixil. We found ourselves together in the wilds, and we disguised ourselves and hid from the bombardments of a helicopter.  When we were in the woods, this vehicle that carried the soldiers chased us and surrounded us from above. There were children with us and older people.  They were trying to kill everyone. 

We hid there but they were always pursuing us to kill us.  If we made a small fire we would have to hide it because if they saw the smoke they would find us and destroy us.   Never could we go into a town and buy anything for fear of being discovered.  We couldn’t leave that place. Many people died of hunger in the mountains, many.  Now we want justice for them, through the law, so that this doesn’t happen again.  I want justice for those who were killed. We don’t want others to experience the sadness that we endure. 

The witnesses primarily spoke in Ixil Mayan, using a translator to make their statements in Spanish at trial.  The dates of their testimony range from March 18 to March 21, 2013.   The above rendering of their accounts represents my own abridgment and English translation.  To hear a recording of these testimonies, along with many others, see Plaza Pública:

For a visual record of the court proceedings, see “Dictator in the Dock,” a 23-episode documentary film series by Pamela Yates (and a Skylight production directed by Paco de Onis). It can be found on Kanopy, an educational website.

At the conclusion of the trial, Ríos Montt was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, and sentenced to 50 years in prison.  The conviction was later overturned.

The late former president, Efraín Ríos Montt, at trial in Guatemala City for Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, March, 2013.

The Generals, Part 2


José Efraín Ríos Montt (16 June 1926 – 1 April 2018) has inspired the most controversy of any of Guatemala’s generals. Assuming power in March, 1982, (following a coup d’état that removed then president Fernando Romeo Lucas García, the brother of our previous subject) Ríos Montt himself would be overthrown the following year. During his short tenure as head of the Guatemalan government, Rios Montt continued the state’s counterinsurgency strategy that resulted in the deaths of thousands of indigenous villagers, most of whom were politically neutral or uninvolved in Guatemala’s Civil War.  Estimates of the deaths of non-combatants have run into the tens of thousands with over 100,000 having to flee their homes, particularly in the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango. Rios Montt would later be held responsible for the policy that led to this tragic outcome, and was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. The Guatemalan government convicted him in 2013, but the case was overturned on procedural grounds.  Years later, another trial against him ensued, but Rios Montt would die before its conclusion.  

In an interview on June 2, 1982, while president, Ríos Montt discussed the allegations that the army was massacring villages under a secret government policy to wipe out the rebels.  Ironically, in the following dialogue, Ríos Montt commented on the important presence of indigenous communities within various regions of the country, the same communities he was later accused of trying to destroy in hopes of creating a more uniform national identity. He also analyzed the causes of the guerrilla movement.

We are 7.5 million Guatemalans in total. Only about 500,000 enjoy certain freedoms and rights, or privileges, but the rest of the people don’t have them. So many people don’t have a source of permanent employment.  They don’t have a school that is permanent, they don’t have a doctor, a medical center, they don’t have a highway.  So then what has happened is that those who govern have overlooked them.  They pursue ways to penetrate those areas in ways that promote their own interests, to extract whatever.  They forget about the rest of the people there.

José Efraín Ríos Montt as president, June, 1982.

The problem is sickness, poverty, ignorance, unemployment, all of it, but there is another serious problem: we are a collection of nations, with different characteristics, with different languages, with different customs.  That’s to say that we are not integrated into one family. We are a complex of different nations.  We want to create one nationality, one national identity, but that is a fantasy, that is false. We have lost our vision. We are not a transplant of Europe here in America.  We are a hybrid, we are a large mix of exploiters on one hand who continue to exploit the rest on the other.  

The Petén is a very large territory, which is still full of forests, where we could put a lot of people [to help with land shortages elsewhere], and set up reservations.  But we can’t because we would be invading other nations. Really, we are a region of different nations.  El Quiche is a nation. Huehuetenango is an area of three nations.  San Marcos two nations. Chimaltenango is a place of five nations.  They have their own languages and dialects.

There shouldn’t be any repression.  I have not ordered it.  As president, I assure you that the army is not doing that [massacring peasants in the countryside], but if you want to believe the guerrillas, then there is nothing I can do. I have permanently prohibited operations in the natural areas, and if I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?

There is no repression, there is only reaction. 

We are pledged to following the law.  The subversives want us to withdraw our personnel who are there in the mountains (as part of a negotiation).  They want them to go back to their barracks, but with what objective? Instead of putting the flag of blue and white (the Guatemalan flag) they want a red one with a sickle and hammer on it.  What would someone sitting here in my position do, take troops out so they can put up a flag there that isn’t ours? Or, leave our troops there? So, I’m going to leave my troops there.  I’m going to say, this place is for Guatemalans, and to those who don’t adhere to Guatemalan laws, you have to be judged by those Guatemalan laws. And for those who don’t surrender, I am going to shoot you. 

The excerpts I have edited and translated are from footage of an interview conducted and produced on June 2, 1982 by Pamela Yates, whose work has been crucial in documenting events of the Rios Montt era.  The full interview can be found at: 

The Generals, Part 1

Beginning in the 1960s, the Guatemalan government began a campaign to subdue a leftist insurrection that would plunge the country into civil war for decades.  The effort to defeat the guerrillas involved a wide-sweeping campaign to root out all forms of political dissent, peaceful or otherwise.  As a consequence, a state of terror descended upon the Guatemalan population; many in favor of peaceful reforms feared for their life.  High school and university students in urban areas disappeared with frequency, and harsh counter-insurgency operations took a brutal toll on Guatemala’s indigenous populations in the countryside.  At times, government forces viewed villages as compromised by their contact with rebels, rationalizing a military attack. In the wake of numerous investigations that uncovered several massacres of innocent people by the army, military leaders have been put on trial for genocide, accused of implementing a scorched earth policy.  Several have been convicted and remain in jail. Debates over whether government policy during the Civil War constituted self-defense, politicide or a type of ethnic cleansing continue today.  

Benedicto Lucas García, a former chief of the General Staff of the Guatemalan Army (and the brother of then president, Fernando Romeo Lucas García ) presents his side of the story.  In an interview on November, 2015, when he was 83, Lucas García commented on the war and the strategy he deployed to crush the Revolution.  In the following dialogue, he vehemently defended his policies and actions.

All wars are terrible but no doubt God created them to diminish the number of people in the world.  If war hadn’t existed, there would have been a great overpopulation of the planet.   Like here in Guatemala, there is not enough land for everyone.  If it weren’t for war, we’d have to kill someone to get a little piece of land.  The wars, then, no doubt, create an equilibrium, and are carried out by the will of God.  If God wants it, there will be war. 

Sketch of Benedicto Lucas García in an interview in 2016, before his arrest and trial. (Cesar M.)
Benedicto Lucas García explaining military strategy, 2016.

The military maps you see around me have the topography and terrain of the country.   They were very important to us because through the maps we planned our operations. With the information we had, be it from campesinos, volunteers, or our infiltrators, we could identify the movement of the subversives and analyze those movements on the maps. We could then plan our strategy and tactics to attack and annihilate them. 

I formed special units to fight the guerrillas.  If the guerrillas moved unexpectedly, you’d have to know exactly where they went. That’s the reason we had informants, to know where to position our patrols.   What I did was to organize the land force and disseminate the troops, installing them in different areas. We formed groups of twelve men with rations for three days, located them through portable radios, and supplied them every three days by helicopter.  They would mobilize according to the information available and they would keep advancing.  They couldn’t be static like before. It was very successful.

In combat, sometimes you get the feeling that there could be an ambush where you are walking.  Therefore there is something called “reconocimiento por medio de fuego” (Recognition through fire). You shoot your guns off to see if there is a response, to ensure that no one is there. This happened in the mountains, not in towns or neighborhoods.  So you are trying to ensure your safety, but if somebody happens to be there?  I believe that God gives you the signal of where you need to go.  I really believe this.  There were times I could have been killed myself, but thanks to God I wasn’t. 

It became routine to be in combat, but it creates malice within one also.  If my fellow soldier has died, I would carry him and bury him with the honor he deserves.  But there are soldiers who get very angry, they get infuriated.  They have a need to vent, to do something about it.  But that’s when authorities have to step in.  It [violence towards civilians] happens if it’s permitted.  

If they were to tell me some soldier had brutalized and killed a civilian, I would execute him on the spot, without asking permission from anyone.  If  civilians were killed it happened without me knowing about it.  Because I controlled my people.   I kept them informed. I constantly warned them against committing errors. 

I never allowed any massacres.  A commander has to go out and control his people, and that’s why I went by helicopter to many parts of the country, to manage the situation. I had to know what was happening in Quiché, in Alta Verapaz, in Petén, Izabal, wherever the guerrilla infiltration was worse. 

I would arrive, check out what was happening, hold consultations, and then talk with soldiers away from their superiors.  And the soldiers are sincere, very truthful.  That’s why there couldn’t have been genocide.  Because these soldiers were campesinos from the villages and neighborhoods [this point is later contested by victims].  They were fighting against outsiders.  One time I heard that my soldiers had opened the belly of a pregnant woman.  How could that be? What a dirty thing for someone to say.   They should be put in jail for such lies.  Maybe a gang member could do that, someone with ink all over his body, but not decent people. 

In the army I was very well viewed upon, well respected, all my colleagues congratulate me today on facebook.  I feel honored by their compliments. 

During his time as chief military strategist, many alleged that the army was carrying out secret abductions and assassinations.

I’m not capable of killing a hen.  In combat yes, but body to body, face to face, not assassinating people. What happened in my time, I am responsible for.  But if massacres occurred, no doubt it could have happened, but they would have been done outside of my authority. I did not authorize them.  If someone did something illegal, they should be prosecuted and brought to justice.

Benedicto Lucas García being arrested. (Artistic rendition of a photo taken by La Prensa Libre, Jan. 6, 2016)

Benedicto Lucas García, along with other military officers, was condemned to twenty five years in prison in 2018 for crimes against humanity, and additional time for incidents involving sexual assault and forced disappearance.  Prosecutors have alleged that he and two other military officials designed an insurgency strategy that required the elimination of the civilian population in the Ixil region. Another trial against him for genocide is pending.

The above testimony represents my own edits and translation from an interview produced by Plaza Pública and directed by Alejandra Gutierrez and Julio Serrano. The interview, from which the excerpts are based, first appeared in Plaza Pública on August 26, 2016.  It can be found at:

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.