CHRISTMAS EVE IN LA PUYA

This is a letter from almost four years ago . . . I republish it in memory of Aracely, who died a year ago. In love and fond memory.

December 25, 2012

 

I stumble down the hill, dry, rocky path, eerie moonlight making strange, blue shadows in the smoky night. Down, trip, stumble. “Careful!” cries Aracely, and we giggle like two girls out making trouble. Only this morning did I meet Aracely, at the Christmas party with the Independent Life for People with Disabilities Collective. What a gang! What fun! And a few hours later, here I am, in the middle of God-knows-where, way past my bedtime, with no idea at all, none what-so-ever, about where I will lay my head this night. I planned, sort of, to be here, or near here, at some point or another — so why not now? La Puya, la Resistencia, where the camp has gone up to protect our beloved Mother, and her precious water, from the rapists and greed-mongers that lust for her body.

Aracely is blind. She lives here, in El Carrizál, San Pedro Ayampúc, four kilometres up from the peaceful blockade.   She is one of the pillars of the camp, one of the many women, and men, who make up the six shifts that rotate to look after the access road into the proposed mine site. They have been here, through thick and thin, through violence, bullets and attempted assassinations, tear gas attacks, provocation, let alone freezing cold, rain, hail, earthquakes, and the completion of the 13th B’aktun of the sacred Mayan calendar. Hell no, they won’t go.

Since March 2nd, 2012, community members from San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc , a short 45-minute drive north from Guatemala City, have blockaded the access road to the Tambor mine site, owned originally by Vancouver-based Radius Gold, Inc. After unidentified armed men on a motorcycle shot and wounded community leader Yoli Oqueli on June 13th, the Canadian company quickly sold most of its interests to US-based KCA (Kappes, Cassiday and Associates). Despite the horrific attack on Yoli — which left her critically wounded, a bullet perilously near her spine, which doctors have chosen not to remove, too delicate to risk an operation — the camp remained, and the community determined to continue their defense. In November provocations and attacks picked up again, culminating to an all-out attack on December 7th, when a whole army of police in anti-riot gear destroyed the protest shacks, arresting four people, and throwing tear gas and pepper spray, while threatening to arrest hundreds more.

After the initial assault, Yoli, and other community leaders lay down on the road, and began to sing hymns and to pray. Bibles were produced, as were candles and images of the Virgin Mary, and the Divine Infant Jesus. The police retreated for the time being, unwilling to openly attack grandmothers and children (four people were injured and required medical attention, two of them girls, aged ten and four). That very day the then Minister of the Interior, Maurico Lopez Bonilla (now facing corruption charges, along with his jailed boss, former president Otto Perez Molino), made a statement on national television where he equated all peaceful protesters with terrorists, threatening holy private property and claimed that the government would not permit any interruption to the march of progress through the country.

Aracely and I slid perilously down the dry ravine, and after some serious interior prayer on my part, and good guidance on hers, we arrived at our destination: the ‘tamal factory’, the house belonging to don Amado de Jesus or to his wife’s sister doña Juanita — I never quite figured out who was who. It was past ten, a dark and windy night, we arrived shivering and relieved. Operations were in full swing. In every corner of the yard, in the kitchen, and the adjoining room, men and women were busy. Two elders were chopping a pig into a thousand pieces — its little hoofers all stood at attention in a basket beside the fire – other men and women were steaming banana leaves, stirring a recado (a paste made from tomato, toasted sesame and pumpkin seed and dried chillies), and most important, at a massive bonfire out back, taking turns with a ladle the size of an oar, moving the masa — an enormous vat of ground corn and lard – the main stuff of the Christmas tamal.

About twenty people were working away, and I circulated, chatting, trying to make myself useful, and more than anything, listening hard to understand this community, and their relationship with the hovering mining monster waiting to pounce, just down the road. Doña Juanita told me about the day the riot police came, the 7th of December. She made it down to the camp, but others were stuck in their villages, as police swept through the region, and blocked movement in every community. There was no way to get to the site, except the villagers knew the back paths, and they came, and supported those who had been on watch duty when the armed men arrived. It was a long and terrible morning, full of fear and determination.

“Only God was there to help us at first,” says doña Juanita. “And then, at last, more people came, some with cameras, and the people that work with human rights. But at first we didn’t know what to do, except pray. I’ve never prayed so hard in all my life.”

One of the girls takes a break from the stirring and she brings out an old ghetto blaster, and a new CD. She smiles, shyly, and sings along. “I wrote this one. And that is my sister’s singing on that one,” she says. I know the tune, everyone does. It’s Cielito Lindo, but the words are changed.

Ay, ay, ay, ay, lucha y no lloras,

Asi luchando ganamos la vida, cielito lindo,

Y se van los invasores . . .

 

Ay, ay, ay, ay, fight back and don’t cry,

because by fighting we will win our lives, beloved,

and we will chase away the invaders . . .

 

Don Amado de Jesus sits beside me, taking a break from the pig-chopping, and I get a full examination: Are there mines in Canada? Are they near where people live? Has anything good come out of mining in Canada? What happens to the land? The water? The people? I answer as truthfully as I can, and I feel, again, a deep shame. What is happening in the world in our name? The earth taken and destroyed, water poisoned, communities divided in hatred . . .progress? I tell the people of Carrizal: I love Guatemala. I’ve loved Guatemala for 29 years, since I was 19 years old. I’d be the first in line with a trumpet, if mining meant that things would get better for the poor and the desperate in this country. But it’s not true.

Mining companies do not exist for the betterment of humanity, least of all of the poor. Their sole purpose is to make themselves richer. Maybe a few local people will get jobs, for a little while. Some of the already rich in Guatemala probably stand to get richer. But the costs are huge in environmental damage, in detriments to human, animal and plant health, the total and eternal destruction of the earth, all of this so that a few men, who worship the god of money, can get out the shiny metal. Doña Juanita understands perfectly well, as does don Amado, and the young people, every one. They know the value of land, which produces life, and water, which nourishes all being. They are no fools, though the companies seem to think so.

The land, says the company, was fairly bought. But no one asked the people here if they were in favour of the mine. They knew nothing about it, until the monster trucks started to roll in. We talk, and chop and wash our sticky hands. The water almost runs out, and we are very, very careful. Doña Juanita says: water only comes twice a week, on Tuesdays and on Saturdays, for about two hours each time. I wonder, out loud, if the foreign mining companies will face such restrictions: only allowed to use so much water, Tuesdays and Saturdays. We all laugh, an aching troubled laugh.

We talk and chop, stir and talk some more, until I am literally sagging. I think I will sleep right here, fall to the dirt floor. Someone says to me, come. I follow, sleep walking, to a room, with two big beds. She hands me a blanket. I smile gratefully, and fall into a bed. At some point, later on, someone tucks another blanket around me. It’s a cold night. And later still, one of the girls slips in beside me, and we sleep, warmly, back to back, until dawn.

Now we work! The wrapping of the tamales begins. A banana leaf, a plop of cooked corn masa, a sliver of red pepper, a tablespoon of pork, another of cooked tomato sauce, and all folded, expertly, with nothing squishing out. Little packages, tied with a little rope string. One thousand and two of them. We work from seven until noon. And at last we’re done, and off to the camp along the road. Five bonfires are raging and the tamales go on and the party begins. Music, theatre, poetry, more music, a lovely Eucharist in the middle of the afternoon. Padre Margarito reminds us, that the little baby Jesus was God come here to us, to renew our hearts, to turn ourselves back to one another in love. To renew our commitment to Peace and to Friendship, to Right Living with all of Creation. We line up for communion with one another.

Yoli is here, and doña Berta, the grandmother who lay down on the road with her picture of the Virgin, sure of its power and might, stronger a thousand times, than the government thugs, wearing helmets and full body armour. Yoli’s every step is followed by the security detail ordered for her protection by a grumpy, reluctant government, after an international campaign of significant proportion, supported by Amnesty International, and others. Yoli carries the hot tamales down the road like no one’s business. She works and hauls her share, in triple defiance to the power of death that sought her blood, and got it, but not enough to kill her.

The afternoon passes into evening. I move close Yoli in the twilight. We are chatting, about children and things, when an announcement covers over the loud speaker. There is a pickup truck coming down the road. The driver is behaving erratically; it could be an attack, or just a Christmas drunk. The festive air vanishes, while everyone goes on high alert. We wait for the truck. Yoli sinks to the floor, behind a table. Her security men stand tall, hands ready on their own weapons. I am frozen and I don’t move. The truck arrives. It stops. A man gets out. He’s obviously very drunk, and he is obviously very armed. His waving gun glistens in the light. I watch him furiously. I can’t hear him, but others have gone over, and they are talking. I look to Yoli on the floor, and then at her men. I stand beside them, as if I too were a shield, a barrier, any kind of protection at all. I’m too stupid to be afraid, to believe that anything could happen, that bullets could fly. I don’t care anyway.

The man is ushered back into his truck, and it roars off up the hill, seems to almost careen into the ravine, straightens itself out, and is gone. Everyone, we’ve all been holding our breath, collectively sighs in relief. The party is over, and the camp on the road, those who are on tonight’s shift make ready. Those of us who are just visitors prepare to leave. We gather our things, pass handshakes and kisses and, just like that, so easily, we are gone. Yoli, doña Berta, doña Juanita, don Chus, Aracely — they stand, and wave, and watch as we drive off into the night.

Christmas Eve, a night of expectation, waiting — still — for the deep quiet to come.

 

 

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