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:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDFk5uMBf7U 

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: https://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/benedicto

A Garifuna Voyage


Tomas Sanchez, organizer and president of the Garifuna parliament in Guatemala, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Tomas Sanchez is a community activist in the town of Livingston, Guatemala, which lies at the mouth of the Dulce River and at the edge of the country’s lush Caribbean coast. This area makes for robust fishing, a common occupation among locals, and an astonishing natural beauty marked by a superabundance of migratory and native bird  life.  It is also home to the Garifuna people of Guatemala, who have maintained a distinct culture and language for centuries.

Garinagu (the plural term for Garifuna) have a remarkable history, yet few scholars have explored it with the attention it deserves, leaving many questions yet to be fully answered. What we do know is that the culture first formed on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in the 1600s, some 2,000 miles east of Livingston, when former African captives came to live amongst the area’s native communities. Indigenous settlements had developed years before from an interaction between Carib and Arawak people, who  were among the first groups the Spanish encountered when they landed in the Caribbean in the late 1400s.  How Africans mixed with these communities and adopted a language based largely on Arawak is a mystery.

Some believe the Garifuna community began when a slave ship went aground on Saint Vincent in 1635 (perhaps followed by another years later), with Africans escaping and living among indigenous settlements, forging their own independent society from that point on.  (Their community, it is believed, then became a refuge for future African fugitives.)  Others theorize that indigenous raids on European slaveholders resulted in African re-enslavement under indigenous authority.  The former scenario, in which captives escaped a slave ship (or two) and then resided among native people, is the one most internalized by people in the Garifuna community, who are proud of their independent heritage.   

Regardless of how the community formed originally,  documentation shows that the Garifuna by the 1700s were an independent people who, after years of warring with the English on Saint Vincent island, were forced to relocate to Central America’s Caribbean shore around 1802.  Garinagu then spread out through the coastal areas of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.  Today, the Garifuna make up a trans-national community whose language is spoken by 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras, 21,000 in Belize, 2,500 in Nicaragua, and about 23,000 in Guatemala, mostly in Livingston but also in nearby Puerto Barrios across the Amatique Bay. The community as a whole, including those living abroad, is believed to number about a million people.

Sanchez, a powerful defender of Garifuna rights, grew up in two different Garifuna locales, one in Belize and the other in Livingston (called Labuga in Garifuna).  His reflections offer a glimpse into the aspirations of the Garifuna people as well as his own quest to understand himself and his identity.  

I grew up with my grandmother and her companion, who was the father figure of my life. In my early years, until I was about seven, times were hard, harder than now — my children are not going through the same thing that I went through. Extreme poverty would be another way to put it. But it was also one of the most intriguing periods of my life because we were able to get by and live in a very wholesome way, without money.  We didn’t have any whatsoever.  I was raised with what we grew around the house. 

At the age of seven and a half I was first exposed to formal education, in Dangriga, Belize, which was then called Stan Creek. I went to school there from 1969 to 1976.  (Dangriga, home to a large Garifuna population, lies along the Caribbean coastline about a 120 miles north of Livingston.) 

You could travel from the port right here in Livingston to Dangriga every Friday.  I’m talking over forty years ago.  We took a small little canoe with a small engine, like 15 horsepower, a very risky trip between here and Punta Gorda (a town in Belize on the way to Dangriga), especially near the mouth of the Sarstoon River when it’s bubbling a little bit.  During those days it would take an hour and a half. Now, it’s a 45-minute trip.  

Going south on Main Street toward the port, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

I went there with my grandparents, the people who raised me, because, at that time, Garifuna hands from Livingston were hired to work in the citrus orchards in Belize, specifically in Dangriga. My grandfather first started as a reaper of oranges but also worked with other produce like grapefruits, tangerines and what have you.  Later on he was employed lifting boxes of oranges onto the trucks to take to the citrus company.  

On vacations, we would go back to Livingston from Dangriga, so then I would hang out with friends in my neighborhood in Livingston. This was the first 15 years of my life. Half of that was here in Livingston and half of that was in Belize, where I graduated from the only formal education I have had.

The foundation of my education was in Belize, but I came back here permanently to Livingston when I was 15 or 16.  When I was a teenager, I got involved in so many things. We are talking about 1976 to about 1980.  I was very aware of the civil war activities here in Guatemala, but I was really a rebel without a cause. 

Sanchez never joined the guerrillas, remaining neutral during Guatemala’s civil conflict.  He did, however, act to protect the local Garifuna community from abuses by military personnel. 

We were approaching 1980 then. We put our lives on the line by literally taking away guns from soldiers who were patrolling our town.  They would drink and get stupid on the streets of Livingston and just intimidate people with their guns, and I didn’t go for that.  I started organizing; I would talk with friends and we would agree to go on a rampage and take away weapons, to send a message to the others.  

I came with a rebellious spirit and something would tell me the soldier was against what was going on, and I would just follow that voice.  But first, we would investigate; if he’s on duty and not drinking, we would respect that, but if he was on duty and drinking, and after a couple of drinks he started intimidating people with his guns, then we would move in.  I was never armed, but I would instigate a fight just to take his guns away.

Sometimes a soldier would be on the streets and be going into a bar, bobbing and weaving, so I would just go and wait in a dark spot and knock him down and take away his gun.  I would make sure he didn’t wake up until I was gone.  I would just choke him to the point where he couldn’t breathe any more, to knock him out.

Usually, though, the soldier would be sitting at a bar and would put his gun down somewhere nearby.  We would sit watching him as he was drinking there, understanding that the first thing I would go for was his gun, so I’m gonna’ spot where it is. I would sit next to him and ask him what he was doing, knowing that could provoke a reaction. At this point I already had a few guys around me  — I wasn’t going to go by myself.  I knew that if I could hit him in the head with a bottle before he reached for the gun I could dominate the game, which is what I would do.  That was my way of fighting back with my group. 

Ok, I was stupid (laughing). 

I had to migrate to the United States because if I had been caught and doing all of this, I wouldn’t be here today telling you any of it. My mom was living in California and heard about what I was doing, so she accumulated four hundred dollars, sent it to me, and that’s what I used to leave Livingston to go to California.  I literally left on the second of February, 1980, and got there on the 18th of February, so I arrived in two weeks and two days, traveling by bus and by train.  I was able to catch a bus to Guatemala City, and from there you could go easily to Mexico City, and then on to the United States. 

You get to meet a lot of people going north, thinking about the same dream that people still have today, that the United States is a land of milk and honey, a promised land where dreams are met or can be achieved, where people have a white picket fence, a white house and a dog called Spot.

Part of my way of thinking was formed in the United States, not really here in Livingston. It’s during my time in the US that I became aware of my identify, as being from a culture that is unique in so many ways.  We’re still in the making, we’re not done yet as Garifuna.  We’re approaching a time, shall I say, for us to start sharing our story, to start writing, telling people what it’s like from the eyes of the Garifuna. 

Main Street, northward, a short walk to the Amatique Bay and the Caribbean Sea, Livingston, July 15, 2021.

I came back from the United States here to Livingston the 23rd of January, 2001, so I have been residing here for the past 20 years.  I’ve gotten myself involved in the community from the bottom, from the base.  I’m a community activist now. I don’t fight any more.  I don’t look for the soldiers.  I’m an indigenous leader who was once a part of this mess (The Guatemalan Civil Conflict), but along with others is now talking about building a new route where we can all travel together towards justice and peace.

In December of 1996,  following 35 years of armed conflict, the government of Guatemala and the revolutionary command (URNG) signed a peace accord under the auspices of the United Nations.  This agreement incorporated previous commitments to improve Guatemalan society and outlined a strategy for a longstanding peace.  

The treaty was renowned for recognizing the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, among them the Garifuna, and declaring them essential in the building of a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual country of national unity.  It also gave those uprooted by war the right to return and live freely in Guatemala.

You have to remember that there were 36 years of war in Guatemala and many of our people became scattered throughout the world, and some of them are coming back.  These are groups that have been part of our history, some of them have been in Peru, some of them in Mexico, I don’t know where, but they had to leave their land and run away or they would be killed.  Politically, we were caught in the middle.  If you didn’t obey what the government was saying, you were a Communist, you were killed, just because you had the guts to speak against the government.  I couldn’t speak then the way I do now.

In the 80s, there were at least 19 settlements in the name of the Garifuna people, on each side of the Amatique Bay (in particular, Livingston and Puerto Barrios.)  The military came at the time, wanting to buy their land, but only symbolically, because they weren’t giving them shit, and if you did not accept their symbolic gift then you and your family could end up floating in the ocean, in the Caribbean Sea. 

Corruption still exists and is in the spirit of our politics, and in other countries  where we live.  As we speak, our brothers and sisters in Honduras are fighting to preserve their land from the government and tourist companies, particularly from  Canada, that would like to make Cancuns out of the areas that belong to the Garifuna people.  They also want to convert Livingston into one of these touristic areas.  That’s a double edged sword. 

As an indigenous group, our land should be sacred to us.  It’s our territory.  That’s where we find the wild animals and trees to make the drums with.  We need the ocean for the turtle shells.  The Garifuna is a civilization.  

We also want to be part of the modern civilization but with everything that comes with autonomy.  We want to call the shots.

The peace treaty was signed the 29th of December, 1996, but there is nothing tangible in the hands of the Garifuna people from the state of Guatemala.  Most of the time we are just used as pawns.  What sells the most is the folkloric representations, like Garifuna dancing, the shaking of the ass.  But there is nothing that we have that is tangible.  

Under the peace agreement, public funds were to be channeled to social investment and to broaden opportunities for indigenous groups held back by discrimination, specifically the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna. The treaty also promised an economic policy that would optimize growth, prevent processes of economic exclusion, and attack unemployment and impoverishment. 

The document’s high hopes and dreams have not been realized.

We want equal decision-making, and we want financing from the resources of our territory.  I don’t know how many yachts and fancy boats go in to this bay every day, but are they using anything from that activity to educate the Garifuna people?  Let’s get back something from our resources and let’s put that into education, let’s put that into health.

We also need to work together to form our own institutions. We are beginning to talk about establishing an institution for the Garifuna people of Guatemala that would have a headquarters, a base to address any issue that regards the well-being and future of the Garifuna people. 

Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

We are also beginning to talk about an academy for the language of the Garifuna people in Guatemala.  We didn’t speak Spanish in my day. I learned Spanish along the way.  

When I was in Belize, people felt shame in speaking Garifuna, and when I came back to Livingston at 15 my identity had been torn completely into pieces. Some of us still have our language intact, but I think we are the last generation that is holding on.  That’s why it’s so important for me to go out there and spread the word. 

My third son was born a couple of houses from where I was born but he was not raised with the language.   Being an activist, I lost track and didn’t teach him Garifuna at home.  I want to be part of the team that is creating this new road where we have to leave it so clear that the language will be understood.

Children playing outside their homes on the Caribbean side of town, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Sanchez’ quest to revive the language, especially among the younger generation, is part of a greater effort to illuminate the richness of Garifuna culture and history.  Considerd the community’s first blogger, Sanchez has exposed readers to much of Garifuna society, its spiritual side as well as its daily reality.  What emerges from Sanchez’s writing is a belief that the Garifuna are on an historical journey, one in which the mission of past generations is carried on by those of the present and future.

I can speak on behalf of what the dreams of my ancestors were.  They were the ones who paved the way, and I am just a conduit.  In 1802, Marcos Sánchez Díaz came; he is the spiritual guide and founder of Livingston. There are articles on my blog where I state that Marcos Sánchez Díaz held my hand.  He held my hands tight when I would blog. I haven’t blogged since the 14th of August, 2019, and I don’t know if I will pick it back up. It depends on what he tells me, and what the spirits say.

When I was growing up, everything was spiritual at home, but I did not understand then what I do now. We have a mixture of different beliefs. We have beliefs about our ancestors from Africa, their connection with water or their connection with land, their connection with stars, connection with the dead.  In our culture the dead can manifest themselves through the body of a living person, and they can come to you in dreams.  They can come to you in different ways that you might not understand in the moment, but later you put the pieces together. 

I’m just part of this journey that began more than 224 years ago.  The fact remains that the Garifuna were here from 1802, and today we are still crying out against discrimination, injustice. We want to create a route towards justice and peace for the Garifuna people.

We don’t want to shed any more blood for land.  Over two hundred years ago they took our land and killed our people. We were on the verge of genocide.  They did this in Saint Vincent, and that’s why we came here.  There were Garifuna people fighting for their land, and the ones who didn’t succumb landed here. 

Our ancestors used to have knowledge so profound that they could travel these waters day and night just by looking at the stars. They were feared and revered people in canoes. We, whom you see today, are the current generation of these people.

Tomás Sanchez, speaking in front of the Amatique Bay, July 15, 2021, Livingston, Guatemala.

This narrative evolved from an interview I conducted with Sanchez on July 15, 2021.

For background on Garifuna history and culture, the following works are extremely enlightening:  Christopher Taylor, The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival, and the Making of the Garifuna  (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012); Michelle Ann Forbes, “Garifuna: The Birth and Rise of an Identity through Contact Language and Contact Culture” (PhD diss., Univ. of Missouri, 2011); Élmer Mauricio Enríquez Bermúdez and others, Discriminaciones (El Salvador: Fundación Heinrich Böll, 2020). Also noteworthy is a first-hand account of Livingston in the 19th century by Alfred de Valois, Mexique, Havane et Guatemala. Notes voyages (Paris, 1861), re-published in Spanish as México, Habana y Guatemala: Notas de Viaje (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2015). 

Sanchez’s blog can be found at: http://garifunareality.blogspot.com

From Kachiquel to English: One Man’s Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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