Yolanda Aguilar grew up in Guatemala City during the 1960s and ‘70s in a politically active family; both her parents advocated for peasant and worker rights. In an interview in 2015 at the age of 51, Aguilar discussed her upbringing and her own involvement in politics during Guatemala’s civil conflict. In the following narrative, she reveals her motivations for activism and discusses her resistance to the political and social system, her arrest and torture, and how she re-constructed her life in the wake of intense trauma.
Both my parents and the nuns at school gave me a profound social sensibility. My parents were very Catholic, ardent believers — my mother would do penance in the processions, and when I was young, I went to a school taught by nuns. They talked about poverty and the inequality within the society, and that had an effect on me. It was a pretty advanced school for the time. We are talking about the late ’60s to about 1975, ’76. I had a lot of friends and that community was important to me.
My mother worked as a bilingual secretary but over time her Christian impulse led to a feeling of indignation, and she began to conduct workshops in front of unions and peasant organizations. I would travel with my mother when she spoke to workers and campesinos (small farmers or peasants) and I became very conscious of their problems.
As a child, I read a lot of novels from the Soviet Union, books published in the 1970s that were very well known, books that discussed what they were constructing in that part of that world. I remember the first one I read was Mother, by Maxim Gorky. (This novel was actually written in pre-Soviet Russia in 1906, and portrays the hardships of a woman factory worker.) These books had an important impact on me. They emphasized the importance of simplicity and rejected luxury and the grandiosity of riches.
I had a very happy childhood and received a lot of love. I was the first child of my parents’ marriage and the first grandchild on both sides, so I was indulged. My grandmother was also an important person for me; she took care of me when my parents worked. I think having a childhood with so much love provided me a foundation that strengthened me throughout my later years.
My parents went to the university and studied law. They both were committed to working to improve the political system, which was corrupt and created an unequal society. My father was a teacher and a very happy man. He actually played the guitar and sang — his father, my grandfather, was a well known marimba composer.
I would say my childhood ended in 1975 when I was eleven years old. Both my brother and father were killed in that year.
My father had begun living in Costa Rica in exile, but he would come back on weekends to see us. Once when he was home, he was taking my brother, who was four years younger than I, to his soccer game. The two of them went in my mother’s car, but someone had taken the breaks out, so they had an accident in zone 9 in Guatemala City. My brother went through the window and died instantly, and my father lived for about an hour. We found out when some people from the funeral parlor knocked on our door and I answered, and they gave me the news so they could offer their services. I was the one who had to tell my mother.
After that I think my mother went insane with grief. The murders made her more determined than ever to involve herself in the struggle against the system. I think her work in politics helped her to survive the pain. First, she got involved in the PGT (Partido de Guatemalteco de Trabajadores – the Guatemalan Workers Party) and then started participating in the FAR (las Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, an armed revolutionary organization). From that point on our lives changed completely.
My mother began living clandestinely and would sleep in different homes, so my grandparents ended up taking care of me in their house. I saw my mother very little after that. When I did see her it wasn’t really a parent-child relationship any more. It was more like we were compañeras in the struggle.
When my mother became more militant, she transferred me from a private school that was very middle class to a public one, since we were fighting for the people. It was a radical change in my life. As an adolescent I soon began to participate in the student movement. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I needed to help the workers, and of course I assumed this responsibility because it was the work of my family, like a duty.
I was recruited by the FAR at 13 years of age. I was the youngest but very enthusiastic. We were all studying Marxism. What I did most was post bulletins and communications around my school to help recruit people.
Studying became much less important than my revolutionary activity, which involved organizing and participating in marches with peasants and workers. If the police tried to disrupt our protests or grab us, we were ready with molotov cocktail bombs. They were made of gasoline and we would light them and throw them, but only when the police and the repressive forces arrived. We threw rocks too.
That was our life, that was my life. I was in it one hundred percent. But you now, I was barely a teenager supporting my mother, doing it because of what had happened to my father and brother.
In 1976 I entered high school, and soon after, in ’77 and ’78, we experienced some of the harshest repression in Guatemala city, because there was a huge increase in organizing activity by workers and campesinos. There was really a strong outcry against the injustices being committed.
We were of course affected by changes going on in the world. The Cold War was raging and there was the block of socialist countries and other places where people were constructing a more equitable future. Cuba was right next to us and what they were doing there was an important influence. There were other strong leftist movements in many parts of Latin America: there was the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran Revolution, so we really had profound hope. The protest music of that time was becoming popular, and it energized and encouraged us to keep struggling. We really thought we could change humanity and the world. We thought that the workers and peasants would take power, and we fought for that.
Sometimes I would come home at one, two, three in the morning after helping workers learn to read. My poor grandmother suffered in fear for me.
Torture and Recovery
Warning: The following section is sexually violent and graphic. It is intended for adults only.
One day we were trying to get some campesinos out of prison, handing out fliers to people. I gave one out to a guy who made a call, and the police arrived. I could feel my adrenaline. We knew we were in danger, but we also were confident in our cause. They took us all in a large blue bus and I didn’t really know what was happening to me; I was 15-years old.
They forced me out of the bus and into a smaller vehicle, and they tied my hands and feet and began to take off my clothes. It didn’t seem real. They took me to a place called la judicial (a police station), and that was in August of 1979. That place had a bad reputation; it was known for its torture and violence, and people often didn’t leave from there.
I remember the entrance, like a large gate that opened like a wolf’s mouth. They put a hood on me and started to beat me. I have diffused memories of all of this, but I remember that they took me to an office where people were typing on type-writers, and inside there was a chair, a desk with a radio on it, and I sat in a seat, naked. A lot of people appeared dressed like bureaucrats.
Then they took me to a room where there was nobody, just a device that played ranchero music at a high volume. A lot of men began to kick me. They put hot cigarettes on my breasts, and began to ask me questions. For instance, if I knew América Urízar, my own mother, which was silly, but I denied knowing anyone.
Of course I knew them all and they knew that I knew everyone, so why were they asking me these questions? I wasn’t in a position of power, I was just 15. Every time I would deny it they would beat me and threaten me, and tell me that if I wouldn’t talk, the treatment was going to get worse. It was blow after blow.
I had the idea that we the tortured were more powerful than those who were torturing us, that we could withstand them and defeat them, like heroes or martyrs.
In that place where they beat and kicked me, there was a cold floor, and I remember being on the floor. The only thing I could see was that there was a man on top of me every time I opened my eyes. I was there lying down and feeling that cold tension on my back, with my eyes closed, and returning to see someone else. I remember that there was a long bar along the wall of the room, like for ballet dancers, and around the bar various men were waiting their turn.
There was a moment when I felt very wet. I had never had sexual relations before; there was semen, blood all around. I think I fainted a lot, and then I would come back awake.
When it stopped they put a plastic hood on me. I couldn’t breathe. There was something in it like an insecticide and it was strong. I felt like I was being asphyxiated, that I was going to die. They would take off the hood, then put it back on me, then take it off again. I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue to live.
They finally removed the hood and took me to a room to ask me more questions. At that point, I wasn’t very rational, I was just feeling pain all over my body. The only thing I could say was that I didn’t know anyone they were asking me about.
I went to some small rooms, and somebody was there hanging, like in a crucifixion, and he was dying, bleeding. They cut off his penis in front of me. It was a terrible thing. And many years later, that would stay in my memory, that guy shouting.
My mother and family were of course looking for me. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Augusto Urízar, was a military man, and he knew the chief of police, Valiente Tellez. For some reason, perhaps because of the search they conducted and the resources they put into it, my grandfather was able to talk to him.
My grandfather went and asked him if he knew anything about me, and I could hear them because I was in the back as they were talking. My grandfather described me, and Valiente Tellez said, “no sorry, we don’t know anything about her,” and I was there listening and I could not say anything. My grandfather left, and I realized he had denied I was there.
Then Valiente Tellez talked to me and told me, “we are going to let you go, but you are not going to say anything about what happened to you here, because if you do, we will kill you.” They took me out of there, and I was really bad physically; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t talk.
I was then brought to a detention center for children and there were kids there who had prostituted themselves. When I arrived, the woman in charge was a child abuser and had been violating the children, and she had that intention with me. But I arrived in such bad shape that she couldn’t rape me.
I stayed there for two weeks. There was a community of kids who were imprisoned for different reasons. Some wanted to defend me, others wanted to abuse me. There was a sense of protection among many of the girls.
My mother finally arrived, found me, and we left.
After that I went to my aunt’s house in complete secrecy. It was traumatic, I had trouble sleeping. At one point I stopped talking, but in about a day I started to talk again.
What I did lose was my sight. At first it was one eye, then a little later it was both. I couldn’t see for three months. One reason was because of the inflammation from the beatings, but the other was that my body and brain were shutting down and didn’t want to see anything. That was a new experience and very difficult, but I managed it as much as possible. Maybe I didn’t want to see because it would remind me of what had happened in some way. But I would see everything again when I was dreaming.
It was difficult for me to be in Guatemala because of the repression and terror that had been developing in the country. I left for Mexico on the 31st of January, 1980, the exact day the Spanish embassy was taken over in Guatemala. (A group of Maya farmers from Quiché occupied the Spanish Embassy to protest various assassinations and disappearances in their communities. In response, security forces stormed and attacked those inside the embassy, causing the burning of the building and the deaths of over 30 people, including Spanish diplomats.)
When I went to Mexico, I immediately regained my eyesight and saw the embassy take-over on television. That says a lot about how the body and mind experience and deal with the trauma of violence. I regained my sight because I wasn’t in Guatemala anymore.
After staying in Mexico I went to Cuba, where I lived for 2 years. There the doctors told me I needed peace and tranquility, not all the pills I was taking for the injuries to my eyes. I stopped taking all medicine (which included medicine for epilepsy) and I went to live with a Guatemalan family in Cuba. I began to live a new life. I dressed like them, talked like them, and I started to experience tranquility. I was looked after by doctors and I started to process everything.
Also, it turned out that I was pregnant and I didn’t realize it. I got an abortion — I did not tell anyone, and went through it alone.
I came back to Guatemala by 1983, and went to the Petén with the rebels. It was an extraordinary experience. There were no social classes or hierarchies — we were just who we were and all the same. There was a profound solidarity. We were constructing another type of society, another world, with shared responsibilities.
I was in the Petén five years and I was able to see my mother there. Later, my mother was coming back to the Petén from Mexico. A lot of people, including myself, told her not to return because of the danger.
She was captured on the border of Guatemala and we don’t know anything more about her. We don’t know exactly what happened.
Aguilar traveled to Europe where she campaigned to raise awareness of her mother’s disappearance, and received an award in Vienna on her mother’s behalf, the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights. Eventually, Aguilar broke with the revolutionary group in the Petén, went back to Mexico, and began living in exile with a compañero whom she had met earlier. She became pregnant and bore a daughter in 1989.
With the birth of my child, I rediscovered my ability to laugh. It changed me. I realized that I wanted to return to my house in Guatemala because my grandmother was still living and I wanted my daughter to have family around. At that time, my grandmother knew I was alive but did not know where.
In 1992, when my daughter was 2 years old, I came back to the house I had left years ago. The furniture was in the exact same place; my grandmother had not moved anything, but she had photos on the walls of everyone who had died: my brother, my father, my mother, my grandfather.
Once back in Guatemala, I went to work at a legal office for human rights, examining cases of violence towards women. There was so much sexual violence, it was a universal problem. From 1992 to 1996, I began to receive formal complaints from women who had been raped. They would arrive, tell their story, cry, but that was it. There really was no mechanism for them to receive justice.
I don’t know in what moment, but after hearing all those stories, I knew I had to tell what had happened to me. When I did, I was offered work at REMHI though the Catholic Church, a job where I would document the testimony of other women.
REMHI was an organization formed to collect the testimony of human rights victims during the Guatemalan Civil War. (It was known as the Historical Memory Project of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office)
As I became familiar with testimonials from the armed conflict, I felt the pain of all of them because my story is the story of all these women. I never thought that my experiences would be so connected to others, especially with respect to the war and the violation. It was a monumental revelation. I would read the testimonials and I would stay in bed for two weeks afterwards; I was inheriting their pain, and that pain was mine also.
My job was to read the testimonials, systematize the most important elements, and write a report about it. I realized that it was important for these women to have others value their stories, and no one had really done that.
At REMHI, there was a Japanese woman who translated the report, and she told me that there was going to be a large event in Japan concerning the sexual violations committed against women in Asia during WWII. She pressed me to go and to give a talk, and after a lot of hesitation, I agreed to do it. When I finally spoke, I told the audience that I was not there to talk about cruelty, which they already knew about, but rather about how we could overcome the effects of the violence.
I didn’t want people to see me as a victim. I only wanted to discuss the strength of women, the power within our beings. That’s what I saw in my grandmother, my mother, and in myself. That strength is what has allowed us to survive.
I remember that there were three or four days of discussions on the rapes occurring during the Second World War. These women were so old, many in their 90s, and they were discussing what had happened to them for the first time. They were called “comfort women.”
This phenomenon was essentially a form of sexual slavery carried out by the Japanese military. In December, 2000, activists held The Women’s International Tribunal in Tokyo, a public conference to denounce sexual crimes and to promote the adoption of international laws prohibiting violence against women in wartime.
What moved me so much was that there were so many women from all over the world willing to discuss their violations, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, in whatever part of the world. I remember thinking, “wow, these women have waited 50 years to talk about this.” And I thought, “we can’t wait that much time.”
I came back to Guatemala with a friend and we talked about how inspired we were to do something in Guatemala like they had done in Japan. We began to work with women who had been victims of violence, and we spoke with up to 100 survivors, who talked about their personal losses, about being raped, their healing and everything they had done to survive. These women came from different areas of the country and spoke different languages, like Quiche, Cachiquel, Maam. There were also women who had been displaced, who spoke Spanish.
It took us more time to document these narratives because the wounds were still raw and it was difficult for women to go public. We ultimately translated and transcribed the accounts and synthesized them into a single work. The whole effort took about eight years. I directed it for four.
The book that emerged is titled: “Tejidos que lleva el alma: Memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado.” After working on the project, Aguilar moved to London in 2006 and then to Spain to study for a masters in “self-understanding, sexuality, and human relations.”
It was a degree that led to doing therapy and to working with other people.
I realized, though, that I wasn’t only studying the subject matter, but I was also working on myself. I had so much pain in my life but no idea how to process it. I lived in Spain nine months alone studying. During that time, I performed rituals, like symbolically burying my mother, to heal. I cried more than I ever had in my life.
I finished my masters, returned to Guatemala and began to work with groups of women, to help alleviate their suffering. I believe that even in the most difficult situations, in the most terrible chaos, and in the deepest crises, we can leave our pain behind and move forward.
I would say to the following generations of women that wherever you are, we are capable of building another world, in our daily lives, in the relationships with people around us, in spite of the conditions that have come to us.
The world was not born to make war and to kill.
This narrative was based on a videotaped interview with Yolanda de la Luz Aguilar Urízar conducted by Katia Orantes, 26 Feb. 2015, in Guatemala City. The above entry represents my translation and editorial abridgment of the interview, done to promote awareness of recent Guatemalan history, a non-profit endeavor. It is presented with Aguilar’s permission.
I researched this interview in April and May, 2020, at the online archive of the Guatemalan Genocide produced by the USC Shoah Foundation in partnership with the Fundación de antropología forense de Guatemala. Interview segments included: 2-5, 26, 30, 33, 38, 49, 51, 55, 57, 66, 70, 75, 79, 83, 87, 88, 91, 92, 98, 102, 106, 110, 113, 125, 130, 133, 135, 139, 157. Excerpts can only be reproduced or used under “fair use” and “fair practice” principles.