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Morning in Chimaltenango

A turkey gobbles a weird good morning, and over on the Pan American the thick snog of traffic is impossible already, audible from here, buses and trucks blowing their horns. Dogs bark, roosters still crow, though dawn was a while ago. I am coming down to the last days in this place: Ixim Ulew. Tortured, Holy, 500 years at war, and always filled with acute beauty. The corn is high, three in a hill, and the beans snake up the stalks, and coffee thickens on the branch, ready for the November harvest. My heart is full to bursting. My head is too stuffed to think anything at all straight. A whole soul fog. I only know that I love this place, and I especially love a lot of people here. I know that I have work to do, that I will forever – and that Guatemala is not my home. We are linked now, and forever, Canada and Guatemala, through the rapacious and ugly mines ripping up the countryside, while waving a maple leaf. My shame, and my promise.

Four days ago, my beloved Margis and I roar out the door and on to a slower chicken bus (the really fast ones come and go from the Quiché) and three buses later find our way up to the lake. On the first bus we both fall asleep, and my little travel bag with not THAT important stuff goes walkies. Lost my camera/phone and bifocals (rats) my toothbrush and my travel supply of black licorice. Nothing that was irreplaceable, not like poor Luis whose house was just broken into. They made off with his life means – all of his carpentry tools – and a guitar that Margarita particularly mourns, that had travelled with them, broken, all the way into exile in Nicaragua, where Luis repaired it one impoverished Christmas as the family present.

The rain is erasing the world, the way it does in the rainy season here, and we slither down the cliffs to Pana – Gringotenango –  where we eat hamburgers the size of dinner plates, and buy me some cheapo reading glasses. Then to find the lancha, the right boat, and across the choppy afternoon water. Soon we are at Gerardo’s place in San Marcos la Laguna. Gerardo and Margis have been friends for forty years, but since Margis lived here at the lake, in the late 70s they haven’t seen each other that regularly. So they catch up, endlessly, and then Gerardo and his son throw together the best pizzas I have ever had. We retire stuffed with word, wine and that perfect combination of bread, tomato, garlic, basil and cheese.  It is pouring again, and we go to our little cabin, to sleep with water from above, and the waves of the lake.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 

Next day is a workday for us. Since 1992 we have been collaborators on all things literary, and Margis is my official and only translator. Last spring I gave her my Colombia pilgrimage book: Blessed are the Peacemakers. She has waved her hands, and done the magic, and now we are brushing up the final revision, readying for publication. Above us three volcanoes stand guard across the lake: San Lucas, Atitlan, and San Pedro. We sit in the sun, until I am charred, and then in the grass in the shade of a papaya tree.

 

Margarita reads aloud, while I make small braids in my hair, and we stop every sentence or two to check in. My book sounds better in Spanish! I am amazed –  and rather surprised to find that Margis and I hotly disagree on a number of things, and this comes up and out, and we fight, and I cower, and then stand my ground, and we patch everything up. And we keep eating all day, and cloud watching, as the clouds spin around the tops of the volcanoes, and then into the valleys, out across the lake, and the rains come, and Margis and Gerardo keep catching up, and I disappear to nap, and to think and wonder.

 

And the next day we’re gone. We take two boats that dot in and out to different villages around the lake, and at last we arrive in Santiago Atitlan, sacred ground of the holy Tzutujil people. Margis used to live here in a different life, decades ago, and for some reason, this visit, she sees new things, and I think we are at the brink of a big shift for her, and I am delighted. Something to do with mountains, and Australian sheep dogs, and horses, and land. Hallelujah.

 

After lunch and a quick walk around town, with a greeting to where Padre Aplas, Fr. Stanley Rother, was martyred in 1981, we go down the hill, and then part ways. Margis back to Guatemala City, and me on an adventure right around the lake. I stop first at the CCDA Beneficio (the Café Justicia coffee processing plant) where I see things finished that were just started, and new things. What a amazing place, now up and running, rural training centre, guest cabins, bigger processing machines, more worm composters. The gardener gives me a handful of achiote pods, ready to burst red. Then it starts to rain.

And just on cue Maco from the Coast appears out of nowhere, in a pickup truck, and he drives me to the next town, San Lucas Toliman, where he finds another pickup truck that will take me up the shredded mountain road high up and around the eastern shore of the lake to Godinez. The next strip Godinez to Las Trampas was famous during the war, says Margis, for traps and murders and assaults. I catch a bus. to Las Trampas. There on the very edge of the roaring highway, I stand, hopefully, looking for a giant chicken bus. A nice woman tells me I’m in the right place, and she’s going my way. A snorting Aracely bus straight from the Quiche appears, rears its head, and screeches to a halt. In one second we are all on. My formerly broken foot still hates me. The bus is packed to the rafters, and I’ve no choice but to sit on the edge of the first row. The nice man beside me grabs my bag, as I settle down, and then he looks at the hat I have on my head.

Nice hat.

Thanks, I just bought it.

How much?

100 quetzals. (whistle)

They’d charge us 125 quetzals for it in the Quiché.

I’ll let you have it for 110. Everyone laughs. Juan, his wife, Ana, the bus assistant who is crawling horizontally over me.

Juan takes the hat. Takes off his grey felt hat. Tries it on. Perfect fit, he says. Rats, I really don’t want to lose the hat. I bought it for my beloved.

We are having a grand old time, and we laugh, and squish into each other in alternating waves of the highway curves, first I squish him, then he and Ana both squish me. There is a landslide in the rain, and we have to wait, and it is rather alarming to watch the pile of the dirt on the highway grow. Breaking a chicken bus rule by sitting in the first row where you can see out. By the time we get to Tecpan, my leg muscles are caving. Don Juan and Dona Ana get ready to get off, and he hands me back the hat, with another laugh, another blessing. Matiox. I scuttle now to the window, ready for a nap (holding tight to my backpack and hat), when the nice woman at Las Trampas moves to sit down beside me.

She’s going to Zaragoza. Actually to Comalapa.

I have friends in Comalapa, Berta, I say.

Berta! says the nice woman, my dear friend. My daughter is in her theatre group.

No way, I say.

Yes way, si pues, she says.

So Gloria and I talk all the way to Zaragoza. At last I get a quick nap in before we steam into smelly Chimaltenango. It’s raining again, and which little street is Rosenda’s? I wander around for a while, and then find it, and ring the bell. Who’s visiting this afternoon but Rosalina Tuyuc, formerly head of the Guatemalan Widow’s Association, Conavigua. We talk and visit at the kitchen table, until it’s time to take her home.

Back at Rosenda’s we cook together, work together, pray together, and talk. We talk almost all night, with a few sleep breaks, and a long three hour prayer. Rosenda is an Aj k’ij, a day keeper, and I am learning. In the morning we keep talking and we cry together, as Rosenda remembers the genocide, her family, and the dead.

Rosenda and Rosalina are working on a project of healing, working with spiritual practice, mostly with women who are survivors of sexual violence during the war, and in the long non-declared war ever since. As we pray, I promise the fire that I will help, and I will. And now I sleep on a sofa for a while, waiting to go into the city, and my last day here.

“We Will Win This Fight, the River Told Me So”

 

Every once in a while the Holy Spirit moves in a particular way, and breathes a particular life energy into a particular person. Then a child is born with a measure of fire, a weight of love and the determination to use that holy power to defend the little ones of the Earth, and the Earth herself. Bertha Caceres was such a person.

I am heading to La Esperanza. Before dawn in Azacualpa I say goodbye to my new friends and slip out to catch a little bus. Below us the morning sun breaks upon the red earth of the hideous goldmine. On the bus everyone stares at me and they start to talk about my interview on the local television station last night. I smile and wish I could disappear. In Santa Rosa Copan I wander around, find good coffee, and a little bench to enjoy the morning, and then rush off to catch another bus, and another bus, and travel further into the heart of Honduras. I am going into Lenca territory, into the conflicted lands where the fight is thick between communities and the violent invasive heavy powers of big business, with their mega-earth destroying projects, always with the backing of a compliant, complicit state.

I am hardly the one to write about Berta Caceres, or her group, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras — COPINH. I never knew her. Several of my beloved friends knew her, loved her, worked closely with her, but this is my first time in Honduras.  My friends and colleagues have given me a sense of Berta’s power, and what she has done. I know I must go to La Esperanza. The rivers Berta loved snake along beside us, and the hills shine green. Sailing in to La Esperanza I notice fresh murals on the walls, not yet finished, with her face.

Berta was murdered on the 2nd of March when armed men burst into her home and shot her. The world shook and cried. The Rio Gualcarque shuddered, and stopped running just for a second to catch her breath. The men in the Agua Zarco offices, planning the dam, danced and laughed and clapped their hands.

I arrive and take a taxi to the park. And phone the COPINH offices. Someone is coming to get me. I find my way to a little family pension, and Lilian, of the women’s commission of COPINH , comes to rescue me. We walk through town, and she begins to tell me her stories, her Berta stories, and at the offices, others gather, and I hear testimony after testimony of what Berta had done. How she set people on fire, drew people in, challenged them, healed them, overturned centuries of insanity, of patriarchy, of racism of colonialism and hetero-normalism, of violence and of destruction. They show me her office, untouched, left as it was the day she died, except for a small altar, to her, to the martyrs.

I never knew Berta, but here I am knowing her and loving her, and seeing her and hearing her. The grief is unbearable, fierce longing for the return to life of this woman, the agony and fury at her loss, the shock, the frozen hearts, the disbelief. Three men have been picked up and charged, army men, related to the Agua Zarco hydroelectric dam that COPINH is resisting, but none of the higher ups. None of the men who ordered this murder have anything to worry about, it seems.

After Berta and others founded COPINH in 1992, the fight was on to protect her people’s forests, the ancestral inheritance of the Lenca.  After initial successes in driving the forest companies out, COPINH turned towards bigger monsters.

In the mid 1990s renewed predatory economic practices were spreading all over the globe. Mega-mines and mega-dams — projects with no interest what-so-ever in communities or people, and even less in the Earth herself.  COPINH, and Berta, took on company and state, in defense of the rivers, and earth.

It was to be a tremendous fight. Over 100 environmental protectors and community activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010. And now, of course Berta. After her death Padre Melo, a long time ally, said they simply had to kill her. There was no way to make her turn away from her path. She was the company’s greatest enemy. People listened to her.

We talk all afternoon and into the evening and then the women walk me home.  We pass by Berta’s dream, a huge house with seven apartments, and three big meeting rooms. It is the Women’s Centre for Healing and Justice. It is as yet unfinished, Berta’s pickup  is still parked in the drive. We walk up the hill in the dark to go home. There isn’t much more to say, but to know that between us, between our organizations, there are bonds of friendship, strengthened now, and that we will continue along this way together.

In the morning, a friend takes me out to visit the cemetery. Berta rests over by the wall, in an unfinished tomb, covered in flowers. I arrange mine in a shared vase, and sit for a while, talking to Berta, praying, promising myself never to surrender.

Tearing Up Holy Land

 

The earth down below me is carved and murdered forever. Raped and left there exposed for all the world to see. And, it seems, no one in the world gives a damn. And guess what? The rapists and murderers of this land live in Toronto. And we are them, too. We’re in bed with them, sucking out the life energy of this place and leaving nothing but grief. Making money out of murder. Here I am, again, looking into the maw of hell, the layers and layers of hell, that laugh, harshly,  and burn in pools of fire and dust like Dante’s Inferno.

Another damn gold mine. Another pack of lies. Another community, divided and destroyed. People intimidated, jailed, threatened. But fighting still. And, dare we hope.

I have come to Honduras because we from SICSAL (Servicios internacionales cristianos de solidaridad con America Latina – Oscar Romero) decided that we needed to come here and even in a minimal way offer an expression of love and support to this suffering, murderous and murdered land, and to its people.

So three in the morning I hug Margarita goodbye, and await beneath a clear sky and Orion, for a yellow taxi, to take me to the comfy bus, which will take me across the border, to another bus, which will leave me in the parque of Santa Rosa Copan, where I will be rescued by Genaro and Orlando, and we drive, and drive, across hill, and dale, through the most beautiful country, corn fields and forests, green and green on green. We stop to buy a papaya, and then we see it, still from across the valley, rising up: the San Andres goldmine, owned by Aura Minerals in Toronto. Across the valley we go, and then up and up and up, circling. And then we are here, in Azacualpa, a town of 400 – 500 famiies.

The town council is out to meet me and I hear, in the flesh, the story I had read in excellent reports (see: https://www.google.com/#q=mining+in+a+state+of+impunity ). The mine is there, just a stone’s throw or two down the hill, past the green soccer field. Three Canadian mining companies have been making a mess of things here since 1998. Two communities have already been forcibly displaced. Now Aura Minerals wants to grow more, and eat more towns, and – shockingly – a 200 year old cemetery used by five communities has now been found to sit on vulnerable come-‘n-get-it gold-rich earth. Now even the bones of the dead are not safe. The Azacualpa community leaders believe that the plan is to keep moving up the hill, to their town, and that the destruction of the cemetery is just the first step.

Since a shoddy agreement was pressured on the community in 2012 between the company and a weak local government– a pact which has only been fulfilled 5% by the company—the fight has been on.  In April, 2014, protests began and in 2015 blockades went up, resulting in 19 arrests, in a first round of criminalization of leaders, with an additional 10 people charged last November. A new town council was just elected this June (Orlando is the president), and the Azacualpa Environmental Committee is working in full gear. The company has responded with divisive tactics, continued criminalization and army/police threats, visiting community members individually, and offering them large cash settlements or a new pre-fab house if they agree to have the remains of their family members moved. The Canadian government is, as usual, in business-first mode, ‘driving the Canadian advantage’, as it has been since the Harper government supported the 2009 criminal coup which ousted a moderate president, and installed a regime more amenable to the outright and outrageous For Sale signs going up all over the country.

It is late, we part with plans to visit the mine, and the cemetery tomorrow.  I crawl into a bed cleared out for me, and snooze. Just as I drift off a horse sets off neighing right outside the window. My heart leaps out of my chest, and then I laugh, and then can’t sleep but toss and turn, thinking of the carved in body of Our Mother, just below me.

Morning comes, and I am collected by women from the town council, and we walk around the community. We visit a family who is rushing to build a sustaining wall, as explosions from the mine (18,000 kilos of dynamite a day – did I hear that right?) have caused severe earth damage to the hill behind and two houses above are ready to cave down. We visit other houses with terrible cracks, through walls and along seams, and even the floor. One house is only five years old, with an irreparable wall just about to fall down — nothing like this has been seen here before. I hear stories of sickness, and despair. The mine washes its hands of all problems, but pays six women to daily sweep up the mining dust off the streets.

This is the eternal promise of every mine in every country I have visited as the co-President of SICSAL: the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and now Honduras. Canadian mining companies sprinkling promises of shared riches and development, jobs and prosperity. And the reality: sickness, communities divided and at war with one another, as some hold out hope for a new life, and eternal contamination. The destruction of the Earth and her waters from this kind of open pit mine can never be repaired. Just outside Yellowknife the Giant Mine, a gold digging project that operated for more than half a century, has left a toxic pool of arsenic so deadly it is going to cost our government, us that is, over a billion dollars to contain the mess. Contain it. It can never be cleaned up. In Azacualpa 48 people are employed by the mine, and these sporadically. And no royalties or trinkets have been left in the hands of the population.

We stop for lunch, caldo de gallina, a chicken soup with big chunks of veggies and a high stack of tortillas, and then Claudia, and her crew, arrive. She is from a sensationalist Honduran TV station, nothing but blood and guts, a lot of that is available in this country declared among the most violent in the world. But she explains to me that she always has a message beneath, and works hard to slip it in. Everyone watches this channel, and it’s a chance to inform the whole country about what is happening. Grimly she tells me, 39 journalists have been killed since the 2009 coup.

After lunch we pile into a fleet of pickup trucks and zip just down the hill to the cemetery, on one side, gaping mine pit on the other. We go to the cemetery first. I’m shown where parents are buried, and brothers, and up the hill, Juanita points to where her infant daughter lies. No, it makes her too sad, she doesn’t want to go up there. The teenagers discuss what would be left in the ground, after 10 or 20 years.

Genaro and I sit on a heap of dirt. We just want the mining company to stop, he says. End of story, no more expansions. And an end to the criminalization of community leaders engaged in rightful protest. We don’t care about money. We don’t have money, and we don’t want money. They cannot touch this sacred place.

We leave the cemetery and head to the very precipice of the mine. I look down, astonished, just flabbergasted about how big the damn thing is. After more than ten years supporting communities resisting in-coming mines, or trying to contain already up and running ones, studying the problem, reading, writing, campaigning, visiting, I have never stood this close to the very act itself. I am flooded, again, with shame. And fury.

Juanita brings me back to her house, it is dusk now. We make cafe de palo, from her own coffee beans, and we talk until way into the night. Ordinary things: children, grandchildren, work, dreams, hope and fear. We laugh, she is the ‘First Lady’ of Azacualpa, her husband Orlando, is the new president of the town council. As night settles on the city, her large living room fills up, people slip in by ones, twos, threes. Everyone is gathering here. Figuring things out. The mine is not going to take the camposanto, this holy ground. Over our dead bodies. The night is quiet, the people are solemn and determined.

Canadians, this is our problem. So here is some of what we can do.

Write to:

Aura Minerals

Jim Bannantine, President and CEO
William Monti Reed, Honduras mine manager
155 University Avenue, Suite 1240
Toronto, ON, M5H 3B7
T: 416-649-1033info@auraminerals.comwww.auraminerals.com

With copies to:

*******

Funding for Azacualpa Environmental Committee

Since early 2015, the group Rights Action has been funding the community development and environmental defense work of the Azacualpa Environmental Committee.  Make cheque payable to “Rights Action” and mail to:

  • U.S.:  Box 50887, Washington DC, 20091-0887
  • Canada:  (Box 552) 351 Queen St. E, Toronto ON, M5A-1T8

Credit-Card Donations

Donations of stock? Write to: info@rightsaction.org

The Drunk Lutheran Who Almost Stole My Favourite Underpants, and the near-loss of Pattibear

 

It’s a long story that started early in the day at Margarita’s, batting off mosquitoes and warming up coffee, and eating my daily papaya. Yesterday I fired my Guatemalan driver, the extremely nice man who drove me to La Puya and back. It wasn’t his fault. I just didn’t want to talk, and he wanted to talk all the time. I couldn’t bear to have him chatting to me all the way to Comalapa, so I called in sick, and then took a chicken bus.

I actually really like the bus, and not just because I’m cheap, which I am. I can be completely alone on the bus, and no one will talk to me very much. And I can think, though I can’t write what with the curves and rushes of every Guatemalan road, through the ravines , the tumbling barrancos. Being Sunday, I have to take a few buses, and transfer in Chimaltenango, and sit on a bus in the hot Chimal market not buying ice cream for an hour or more, but in the end I make it to Comalapa to the house of the astonishing, wonderful, brilliant and on-fire Chirix sisters. There are six of them, and I know three pretty well, and Berta best of all. Berta came with a group of Comalapan artists to Peace House in Quiché for seven Saturdays and transformed the walls of our courtyard into a tapestry of testimony and prayer. Emma and Ofelia are feminists, sociologists and anthropologists, and former members of various groups I love including Bishop Gerardi’s Nunca Mas Truth Commission and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Association.

The sisters, and their friends, are artists, intellectuals, out challenging the foundational structures of oppression in Guatemala: deep hideous historical racism and rampant sexism. Nothing beats eating more papaya in their kitchen as they flap out tortillas, or a long drawn out lunch with a lot of flashing conversation. I have three more readers confirmed for the section of my book on Canadian mining in Guatemala that speaks about resistance built on Mayan cosmology.

And then before I know it we’re off, walking through the dusty winding streets of Comalapa to the other side of town to the house which is serving as rehearsal space. Berta’s theatre troupe Ix Saqil Iq (Woman, Light of the Moon) is preparing a new production after the wide success of their last one, the Tapestry of my Body. Ix Saqil Iq are seven Kaqchiquel women, and this time they are working on The Unravelling of Our Shame, a play they created, critically looking at Mayan concepts of shame and sin, and the power relations between women and men. Sadly, my Kaqchiquel is mostly non-existent, but I can see how this production is going to dig into the heart of Mayan women’s identity. It is going to be controversial, and despised by some.

But eventually somehow I snooze while sitting on a petate (straw woven mat used in traditional Mayan households for sitting or –conveniently – sleeping.) Edwin arrives, and after a while we head out, back across town, chilly now, dodging motorcycles and trucks and dogs, until we get back to Berta’s house. There after using the facilities, I find that my pack, which I had been told to leave in a front entry room, seemed to have been rifled through. First sign, distressingly, bits of my poetry, my scraps of writing tucked into books, is all over the floor. A dog? I think, and I hurriedly slip them back into my notebook. Or a child? Edwin doesn’t say anything, so I tuck everything into the pack. I am confused, embarrassed, I don’t want to cause a fuss, or become the centre of a scene. (Edwin later says he thought it was odd that I had left my stuff scattered around.)

My heart wails when I notice that my Canadian Guard Grizzly is missing. A child, I decide, though no children that I know of live here. Edwin is waiting at the door, so I stand up. That’s when I see, hanging from the edge of a chair, my favourite MEC purple underwear, the ones that so faithfully accompanied me on the Colombian pilgrimage, getting washed in the river, while I was wearing them. In they go to the pack, and out we go to the street. Pattibear is nowhere to be seen! Sniff!

Edwin. Mural artist, still travelling the country leading mural making workshops, living now in Guatemala City, in a desperate neighbourhood, working with youth on the recovery of identity. And on a commission to transform the national university’s curriculum to include indigenous and afrodescendant ways of learning. In his spare time.

Edwin’s niece is turning two, so we cross town to the north, to the remnants of the party. I receive a brick of birthday cake, and bag of candies from the piñata and then a huge plate of food, which I dutifully eat. Edwin’s family is massive and multigenerational, and we talk for hours, and Edwin fills me in later. The scars of the war and the genocide touch every Guatemalan family along with the ordinary human stories of joy and woe. Comalapa was hit especially hard by the 1976 earthquake, the adobe houses crumbed to dust, and thousands died. And then during the genocide, a military base was centred in town, and was the head of operations against the Kaqchiquel. Rosalina Tuyuc, founder of the Guatemalan Widow’s Network, which during the height of the war numbered 40,000 women and was one of the only groups to stick their head above ground, is from Comalapa. Five hundred years ago the artists and writers who survived the Spanish destruction of the Kaqchiquel capital Iximché moved to San Juan Comalapa.

Rain is threatening harder, and we head back to Berta’s. Arriving we find sitting in the front room: Berta, her sister, and her twin nieces. They are filled with sorrow and shame. Your bag, they say. We’re so sorry. Mr. Someone came over, and he was skunk-drunk to the top. We put him in here for a while, and after he left, we saw your bag. Is anything missing? I check more carefully, everything was opened, everything sprinkled about, but nothing seems to be gone. Except Pattibear.

The search is on. And then a twin comes running. Down by the dog den, Pattibear had gone for a little visit on her own. He would have paid, say the sisters, if anything had gone missing. Humph! — he’s supposed to be such a nice man, they say, an evangelico, a Lutheran. Thank God the bear is back, I say, and we all laugh. And I get presents for no reason. We go out, again(!) this time to a neighbourhood feria. It is really raining, and we’ve missed most of the fun, but stop to drink atole and to catch up with old friends. At last we gather our things, and head across town another way to Edwin’s parent’s house. We drink coffee in the old kitchen, and I am given more presents just because, and then I am ushered upstairs to the best room and the best bed. Mayans could have taught old Abraham a thing or two about hospitality. I sleep like a log until the shockingly late hour of 8 o’clock.

The morning I spend learning how to weave with a back strap loom. The afternoon I spend with my beloved Rosenda in the hideous town of Chimaltenango. It rains all day, except for a special time in the afternoon, and the volcanoes appeared in the streams of sunlight on Rosenda’s roof.

Last chicken bus back to the city, in the pouring rain. Home to Margarita. Honduras tomorrow. Now I slip into the totally unknown.

love,

em

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.

 

 

An ordinary night and day

They kill the fatted calf. And we eat it with chirmol. It was delicious. Steak the way I like it, thin, and burnt over an open fire. Tortillas, avocado, and salsa. Then as we women are laughing in the kitchen shack, and burning our fingers flipping and re-flipping the meat, the men come serenading up the black road. Three guitars and a bandilon. Wow, was somebody asking somebody else to get married? How delightful. The men settle in on the other side, and play and sing for five hours, breaking just to line up for dinner. Ranchera after ranchera. Son after son. All songs about broken hearts and boozing. What else is new?

What a night. I have already written, and written again on this subject (Sojourners: The Thorn Tree Resistance, and elsewhere) the Camp at La Puya, fighting off the US/Canadian gold and silver mine. What’s new? It is so confusing. Milton comes, and sits and tries to explain it to me. The camp has been here for four and a half years now, and parallel has been a legal process. The highest court in the country, the Supreme Court, ruled that the mine was indeed illegal, and shut it down, after it had had a shaky two years of digging. Apparently it was just a temporary ruling and the Constitutional Court is looking at the whole thing. What is clear is that the miners have NOT given up. Neither have the people. They are here blockading the access road to the mine in six rotating groups, taking a 24-hour turn each.

What else is new? The tailings pond that can be seen up the road, and the beginning of the digging. Ugly scars, just waiting to destroy this land forever. Milton’s animals keep getting mysteriously killed, his sheep and calves. Alvaro caught thieves on his land. And some former formidable leaders have given up totally, and moved away. Heartbreaking and infuriating. Families have been destroyed, more than one couple divorced in the midst of the conflict, parents against children, neighbours against neighbours. It is the opposite of community well-being. And the mineros chingando. Aracely died. My heart flips, and I sit quietly on a stump for a while. (I’ll attach an older piece of writing to this . . .) Don Chavelo died too, and they brought his body here, to the camp, for his wake.

Not new is the people’s determination and their faith-based totally non-violent actions. Doña Berta, Doña Juana, Sara, Yoanna, and the rest. My friends. Tonight, for the first time, I am going to stay with them on the turno. I have come here more than half a dozen times, but other than the night in Carrizal when I spent a few hours sleeping, after helping to make 1000 tamales one Christmas Eve, I’ve always left before sundown.

We eat our burnt meat and even the camp kitties are satisfied. A lot of people have come, even if it isn’t their turno. A party! No one has forgotten that I declared my commitment before hundreds at a microphone to buy $500 worth of firecrackers when the mining license is definitively cancelled. Sigh. We all laugh at the same old jokes. The men play another tune, the women pile the dishes at the pila for tomorrow. And then in twos and threes we dance! My ankle hates this, on the broken road, but we dance, moving aside for the countless motorbikes, buses and pick ups that pass through. A bottle of tequila appears. I have one gasping snot-clearing shot, but that’s enough.

Everyone is happy enough, and the men play, and then say, Last One! And play a few more. At last people drift home, or to the wake for a young man who died in Carrizal. The turno stays, Doña Juana, Sara, and me on the women’s side. There is a small, small sheltered room, with two rough beds, each with a thin mattress. I am steered to one, and the lights from the solar panel are snuffed. And in a second Doña Juana snores gently from the other bed. I become I giant pink mosquito target, but then use the crickets’ hum as a kind of prayer, and I too sleep. In the morning I wake to the sound of the women washing a million dishes.

What else to report? We spend the day, making tortillas and other food, sitting and talking, walking up and down the camp. Counting butterflies, filling the piñatas with candy. It is an ordinary day. For a minute the men are gone, don’t know where, and Wendy (8) and I sneak over to the men’s side, and each claim a hammock. I sleep again, in a drifty way, and wake up surrounded by cowboys. The men are back, and politely take the hard plastic chairs. This is not the big meeting house, and nothing important is going on. I would be bored, but my brain is incapable of that. So I listen. The men discuss crops, and land, loss and inheritance, going north to the States, who’s died, mostly crops and land. I drift back across the road to the kitchen. The women are resting now, black beans on the boil, dishes done, camp swept, huge basket of tortillas flapped out. The women discuss children, parents, land, loss, who’s gone north, and hasn’t come back in a decade or more. The butterflies float up and around. The blue birds fill the corn fields around. Just over the hills and down in the city lawyers are meeting and negotiating and fighting. Over this Holy Land.

Facing Quiché, While Leaving

Don Juan stares at me. He does not smile. He wants to know. What have you been doing? What have the churches been doing? I take a deep breath. Well, I am working as hard as I can, I explain, and I have not forgotten. The churches? That is a slower process. We still have investments in mining companies. Ones here in Guatemala. I’m sorry. My sense of ajmaq, sin, shame, is overwhelming. It is my culpa. And that is why I am here. To check in.

About four years ago or so don Juan, an esteemed elder and K’iche aj k’ij (day-keeper), took me to the mountains outside of town, and we had a sacred burning, and I kneeled as he prayed over me, so that I could write the book. I’m still working on it, I say. So much has changed. Don Juan does not smile, there is no relenting. I explain where I am, and what I have done. I have a compromiso, a deep commitment to these people and to this place. I am not going to forget.

I arrive in the pouring rain. And woe is me. I forgot that August 18 is the feria in Santa Cruz del Quiché, the yearly festival. When I lived here I used to leave town for these days. Ear-cracking music, drunks — belligerent or passed out — barf and garbage everywhere, and always someone or another getting killed. Whoops. But here I am, and my beloved Isabel has gathered my best friends from those days, when this was my home: Herlinda, and her twin children, Selvin and Iris, don Lorenzo, my unfortunate K’iche teacher, and his wife, don Juan, the elder and spiritual director of the Mayan rights organization, Chilam Balam. Herlinda has taken the day off from her nursing job at the national hospital, and we meet at her house because Selvin, 15 now, has severe cerebral palsy, and can’t walk, and can no longer be carried. There is a wheelchair, but the streets outside are rocky and muddy. No vehicle. So we gather, and they make food, and drinks, and we talk.

The mining problem in Guatemala is as bad as ever. Four Canadian-related mining projects creating hell and misery: the massive, nasty Marlin gold and silver mine in San Marcos; the wily, now declared illegal Tambor gold and silver mine in La Puya, near Guatemala City; the nasty El Escobal silver mine, in eastern Guatemala; and the old Inco Fenix nickel mine, on Lake Izabal. And of course, as co-president of SICSAL, I know first-hand about the Canadian mining invasions up and down Abya Yala (South and Central America) and the Caribbean.

I am working on the book, I tell don Juan and the others, and that is one of the reasons I am here. I need your help.

This part is so delicate and so easy to do badly. But here I go:

I, of course, am not Mayan. But I have lived in relationship with Guatemala, and the Mayan people of Guatemala, for more than 32 years now. Especially important were the years I lived right here, in Santa Cruz del Quiché. I learned many, many things from the Mayan people, especially cosmology, which is what I care about most. I have been shaped by this way of being in the world, I have knelt at more sacred burnings than I can remember, dozens of times with don Juan. I can say very little about the Mayan cosmology, but I know a few things. My argument in the book against Canadian mining on Mayan land has as its backbone the conflict in cosmologies, or understandings of land, of creation.

A mountain, in a mining executive’s mind, is a product to be exploited, in order to be made valuable.

A mountain, in a Mayan mind, is a holy being, with soul, memory and life. She must not be disturbed, except with the utmost caution and care.

In my book, I dare to talk about Mayan cosmology. But I need these people to review my writing, and to correct it, or approve it, or prohibit it (hopefully not the latter). Nothing at all can be done by phone, and no one here, except Isabel, uses the internet. So I am here. And so we talk at length and in detail, and we make further arrangements: I will send the relevant chapters to Isabel, and she will check it with them, and get back to me. Oh dear, this could take some time.

We are also planning to publish the book in Spanish. Margarita will work on that. So much to do.

My role in all of this, beyond the eternally-unfinished mining book? To talk with my own people. To seek and rediscover our own sacred teachings on the nature of land and creation. To build alliances. That is what we are up to, SICSAL, and beyond.

Whew. Don Juan cracks a joke and smiles. I am still a friend. Mostly reliable, though noted for my absence. Trusted? We’ll see, say his eyes. But he remembers all that we did together in my years here, and that still matters.

Then we move to other topics: the Catholic Church in the Quiché has become ever narrower, they have tried to shut down some ceremonies in public places. And failed.

The sacred mountain, Tohil, has been purchased by the community, to hold off the privateers, and keep it holy ground.

A child martyr from Zacualpa is to be recognized by the Vatican. But we don’t care — like SICSAL didn’t really care if the Vatican recognized San Romero as a saint. The people are the ones who make saints. None of our martyrs need a stamp from Rome. But we do need to continue to raise them up, in prayer and in public memory. Both don Juan and don Lorenzo’s fathers were renowned Catholic catequistas, laymen, and they were both brutally and publicaly murdered by the army during the genocide.

We have our afternoon tea and snack, and plan for further communication: 2018 will be the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Bishop Gerardi. Don Juan led the Mayan ceremonies that were part of the 10th anniversary. And 2018 will be the 50th anniversary of the Medellin conference of bishops, and the wide launching of liberation theology. Three important networks: SICSAL, Mineria y Iglesias, and Fe y Territorios, all gathering for one great Assembly in Colombia.

And then 2024. It will be the 500th anniversary of the Spanish invasion of Guatemala. Time to begin the organization of the celebration of a successful half millennia of resistance. So much work to do.

Suddenly the sky is black. It’s going to pour. And I am miles from home. We kiss and hug and cry. Herlinda slips me a small black bag. Look at it later, she whispers, it is the huipil that I was wearing when you came, the one you liked, with the deer. Dear Lord. I cannot say no, but how can I receive this treasure, imprinted with her love? We thought we would never see you again, she says, and we hold each other, Iris, Herlinda and me. Iris, being 15, of course has Facebook. So we smile, and exchange FB names. Ah . . . now we will not lose you again, Iris says. Our eyes are all shining. I dash for the bus.

But heavens, here is Irma and Ingrid’s father’s house. I cannot not say hello. Don Venancio is very old, and very sick. I hug him, kiss his gathered children, dash again. It is 6 o’clock. The last microbus for Chichi leaves around 6:30. Busy busy busy. Damn, the bus isn’t picking up in the park, because of the feria. Run for the terminal. It’s going to rain. The streets are absolutely packed. Stop short, walk by the soldiers, then run, Emilie, run! At the terminal, in the wet garbage and dirt, a few men stand around kicking tires. The micro, the micro to Chichi? I gasp. No, not here, they say, a few blocks over, pushing me back toward the feria. A chicken bus? I ask, to Guate? That would leave me in Chichi. Not now, they snort. No fool drives at night. Crazy. So I throw myself back into the feria, tip my head at the soldaditos, and then see a giant crowd, and a blue micro in the throng. The last one. There are 30 people in line. Thirty one with me. Never. Oh no. I’ll sleep on the floor back at Herlinda’s, but then the whole day tomorrow goes sideways. Damn. Everyone squashed in, there’s one tiny breathing spot, I throw myself into it. And inside, the ayudante says, la señora, la señora, let her sit. Where? It’s fine I say. My former broken foot hates me. So three boys move aside, and I am inserted into a 15 centimetre slot. People are in and on and around every corner of the bus, horizontal, vertical, on top of each other. Sardines in a tin would have more room. But we’re laughing. And then it rains.

It turns out that my slot is on the back of the driver’s seat, so I am facing Quiché, as we pull away, passed the massive army base, the ravines, the down, the up, the down the up, the plunging curves that I have also memorized. Isa, Herlinda, don Juan. I face them, as I pull away. My chest tears and my heart splits, and there I leave a part of me, bloody, in their hands.

This is not over. I will finish the book. . . and the next one, and the next. And I will kneel with you at the fire, and pray. We will not give up.

Cerbatanera.

At last in Chichi we gasp — it is like the clown bus at the circus. One after another after another after another after another we pour out.20160622_105500

The Story of Nicolas Castro

The Story of Nicolas Castro

Catechist and Minister of Holy Communion

Beloved Martyr in the Church on Pilgrimage in Guatemala

 

Nicolas Castro

Born: Chola, El Quiché, Guatemala

Died: at about the age of 35, Chicamán, El Quiché

Date of Death: September 29, 1980

 

Nicolas was a catechist and minister of Holy Communion for 20 years. He was also a health promoter, and he worked for the cooperative movement. He was a quiet man, friendly, honest and hard-working, who chatted with anyone that passed by. He had friends and acquaintances all over the place.

Halfway through the year 1980 the army prohibited gatherings in the village oratories and chapels throughout most of the Diocese of Quiché. No one dared to go into them – they were afraid of being reported as guerrillas. Yet in some of the little villages in Chicamán with great effort faithful catechists carried on doing pastoral work.

Nicolas, always good natured and ready to take on the most difficult tasks, encouraged the community to stay together doing the work of the church. “If they don’t let us meet in the chapel, we will meet in the countryside, or in the caves, or at night in our homes. In these times of persecution, we need the Body of Christ even more to give us strength,” he said. Everyone in the community loved him, and they sought him out, because of his example and sacrifice. This is why he had a lot of godsons.

The events of 1980 were really hard for the people of Quiché, and above all for the Church. Remember, the Spanish Embassy on January 31, then the systematic attack on different catechists and lay workers, and priests, sisters and brothers, and also Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The violent events in Nebaj, the machine gunning of the Convent in Uspantán, in May, the murder on July 4th of Fr. Jose Maria Gran and his sacristan, Domingo del Barrio Batz, the murder of Fr. Faustino Villanueva in the parish house of Joyabaj, the uncovering of the plan to kill the Bishop, Monseñor Juan Gerardi.

As a result of these events in July and August the Diocese temporarily removed all of its clergy and religious. The Bishop himself thought that this act would end further persecution of Christians, and to give them time to get the word out to the whole world about the tragedies lived by the people of Quiché. Reality unfolded differently. The persecution of the church continued so strongly that people began to hide all their religious objects and mementos, even their Bibles, anything that could show that they were catechists. The army, the secret informers, when someone said “catechist”, they heard “guerrilla”. That’s why the catechists lived every moment in terror.

After July, 1980, there were no more priests in Quiche. They killed Frs. Jose Maria and Faustino, and those who remained – catechists and members of Catholic Action – ran serious risks. But the faithful to the Word of God, as they have always done, decided to continue serving the people in the church. They decided that at least the Eucharist should stay as the centre of the community celebration. Something had to be done then, to get the bread for Holy Communion.

Taking his life into his hands, Nicolas would go as far as Cobán, looking for Communion, sometimes to San Cristobal Verapaz. He would bring back the hosts carefully hidden among some tortillas that were a little dry, all carefully wrapped in a cloth napkin that he stored in his woven bag. Peasants usually carry a wool bag– who would have guessed that his was a precious bag – really a Holy Sacrarium! Other times he hid the Communion in a sack of dried corn, and with a tump-line he carried it to his village.

There were other catechists who after July and August 1980, traveled to the parishes closest to Cobán to keep up their meetings of lay workers, and to receive as well the encouragement from priests that had been able to stay with their people. And like Nicolas, many of them also carried Communion to their villages to distribute at the community celebrations. They all took precautions in order not to be discovered, and a number of them hid the sacred hosts among the corn that they carried to their villages.

There is a priest who was witness to Nicolas, and tells this story of when he came to his parish seeking Communion. Nicolas said to him: “Forgive me Father, you know we are suffering in our community. We long for Communion, but if the army or the informers find me, they’ll kill me. That’s why I brought these tortillas, so if you could possibly hide the sacred hosts among them.

” When I saw the faith and devotion of this man a knot rose in my throat,” says the priest, “and I couldn’t answer. I received the corn tortillas and I took them to the altar. After Mass I went and hid eight or ten hosts between tortilla and tortilla. I wrapped them in the big napkin, and I gave it to him. With deep respect and veneration that good man took the Body of Christ, and slipped it into his woven bag.”

Betrayed

Someone betrayed him and on September 29th, 1980, late at night, some men arrived and pounded on his door. No one opened, so they knocked the door down, and burst into the humble house. It was after 11pm, say the witnesses.

These strangers tried to frighten Nicolas with their heavy weaponry. He hung on with all his might to the stove which was in the middle of the house, keeping the night’s embers and he yelled at them, “Kill me here, but do not take me!” He knew that they could torture him to get more names of other catechists, well, that’s what they always did. So, say the witnesses, he redoubled his efforts, but they grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him like as if he were a child out of the house.

They killed him out in the yard of his own house, with seven bullet holes in his spinal column, destroying his back.

While they were beating him, he cried out, “Oh, little ones, don’t do this to me”, as if they would pay attention to his pleas, and change their minds. He still believed in the humanity of his attackers.

When the soldiers left, he was still alive, and in the middle of the tragedy and the helplessness, he wanted to give hope to his wife, Maria Hernandez, and his children. He spoke to his wife: “Look after the children, I was never able to build them a very nice house. What will they say of me!” He also begged them, “Don’t cry for me, I’m going to die, but I know that I’m going to be resurrected. Look after the little ones.” The extreme pain at last broke his strength, he cried out and sank to the earth in tears and blood.

His generous heart, full of faith that was always prepared to answer to God’s desires, just like Stephen in the Book of Acts, brought him strength one last time and he was able to recite with faith and confidence in God the prayer, Our Father. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come”. Nicolas wasn’t able to finish the prayer that he had said so often in his life. Surrounded by his wife and children, overcome with pain, he died.

Those who knew him declare: “We can say that he died, gazing on the Glory of God, he never abandoned his faith in Jesus when he was under threat.”

Nicolas is a witness to Jesus, a witness to His life and His truth. We could say that he died defenseless and poor, but as a courageous witness of his faith, whose depth reminds us of those first Christians, the martyrs of the first century. With Nicolas, as with no other, one could say: “the righteous and the wise, their deeds are in the hands of God” (Eccle.9.1).

Martyr’s Story, collected by Brother Santiago Otero

translated by the Reverend Emilie Smith

Chicken bus to the Holy Land

Hermano Santiago has a new model of pacemaker. His live ticker gave out after Monseñor Gerardi was murdered. It was just too much. They had worked together on the Nunca Mas report on the war and genocide, and then in 1998 Gerardi was killed. H. Santiago had spent years with Gerardi, and then spent years afterwards, collecting the stories of the martyrs. The ones everyone knew about, and the others, like Nicolas Castro, whose name, like his body, disappeared into the earth somewhere in the Quiché. H. Santiago’s new ticker, inserted last week, is ticking along like a Swiss watch.

We have breakfast: cornflakes, hotdogs and eggs, and talk like old war veterans. The dead (my beloved SICSAL presidenta predecessor, Sister Raquel Saravia); the watch list, but doing much better, thank God (our beloved mentor, poet and theologian, Julia Esquivel), and on and on. We set the plough furrowing for the 20th anniversary celebration of Gerardi. Phone calls and messages, and cake and coffee, further meetings set, and then the brothers’ driver takes me to the chicken-bus-to-Quiché street.

I get a seat, second back, window. Perfect for sleeping. Black hoodie, hood up, ready. And we sail off. A young, small policewoman with a nice ferocious face and a gun, guards our bus. Not sure how many drivers have been killed this year. Dear Mother of God. I close my eyes, and rest. I know these curves, every one of them, by heart. Roll out of the city, and start the climb up the ridge of the ravines, through the carved countryside, stuck in El Telar/Chimaltenango forever, brick makers, squashing the mud with their feet, and laying out the squares to dry, an endless row of car parts and mechanic shops, through the thick of the city, then the absolutely saddest row of brothels I’ve ever seen, with big chichied blond girls on vinyl banners, and standing at the door, covered with a half sheet red cloth, the most despised women of all.

And then, bursting out at last into the country and the flat fertile valley, my first volcano – never ceases to seize my breath — and then the curves, higher and higher and higher, Chupól, where the army offensive really begin, 1980? 1982? I forget. And then all to the north of us, my beloved Quiché. A baggie of papaya comes into my hands. I make friends with Manuel, my seatmate, he’s circling the country carrying fruit and selling. Now he has 120 papayas making their way to Uspantán. He’s young. Fifteen. Maybe. But as soon as he’s asleep, as we go higher along the pencil road, and he sleeps, he’s like a sack of potatoes, heavy, drools on my shoulder, adorably, and we are all squished into every corner of the bus. I am a pro. Watch me sleep too, and wake up in Los Encuentros.

Chichi is the too much it always is, and I drop my things, and rush down to the church, San Juan, at the bottom of the big hill. And there they are, my beloved family. Reverenda Pascuala and I — well we have been subversive teammates now, wherever possible. We sit down and cry together, a few years of tears to catch up. And then her lovely daughter, Susana, and my co-madre, Natalia, and my beloved, my dear, my darling Peter/Pedrito, my godson, who is so big and seven, and a chatterer, and so so happy to see me. I hold him for about an hour, and hear who has died (tragically, Rev. Pascuala’s granddaughter, at aged two), who is retiring (the Bishop!), and who is still around, who is sick, who was ordained, who is married. Irma has a two year old now. Yikes. The community at Sepela is still linked to the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, something we instigated together. They have goats now. We drink pop and eat cookies, and then they take me up to my hotel room. Peter’s eyes, and mine fill with tears. And then they’re gone.

I sit, alone, of course, and feel cheated. How can it be that three hours is supposed to fill up three years of absence? I will never live here again, I know I won’t and I can’t reconcile my love, and my almost eternal away-ness. Because I am Peter’s godmother, I am now inside the family: they are mine, I am theirs. And then I’m not, and I’m gone. Left with occasional notes on Facebook from the older kids. How are you? Fine. How are you? Sigh. I think my visit has made us all sadder.

Left with a heavy heart, I wander through the late afternoon streets to the Iglesia Santo Tomas. As everyone knows, this is holy ground. Maya sacred ground. Aj k’ij come and kindle new fire on the embers on the platform in front of the church. Inside is dark, and smoky. The Holy Spirit lived fiercely in this place, long before the Spaniards arrived. Never left. Who cares what name we give to the Holy One, Creator, Former, Bearer, Begetter, three times a modeller, three times a midwife?

I sit at the foot of the church steps, on a little plastic chair, and together with teachers leaving school, and vendors done for the day, share a meal. Arroz en leche, cuchitos, tostadas con salsa. The bells of the church ring out for the six o’clock mass. Marimba music drifts out. I think of climbing the stairs again, but stay, then pick my way through the cobbled streets home. To sleep. Perchance to dream.

Tomorrow I return to the Quiché (Santa Cruz). Dear Lord.

The Photo

And so, here I am. I peel away from summer in Vancouver, from the sun, at last, the green gardens, the church, my beloveds and my love, my boys, my dog. I leave the sun and the summer, and — miracle — by paying one day’s worth of annoyance, lines, and border officials, and squashed planes that ungenerously sell cardboard for bread and no longer give you lunch, here I am. This is my thick place, Xilbalba and Ixim Ulew, woven irredeemably into one, Life and Death. Heaven and Earth and Hell. My beloved. My one place on Earth. My Guatemala. We make a water landing because it is invierno, and the rains drown the plane, and into the terminal, and here I am.

And then the waiting for my beloved Margarita begins. I know she will arrive, but one by one the happy families find each other and dribble away, a few taxi drivers circle me like vultures, and outside we all stand, shivering and damp. At last, her white hair flying here she is. Hobbit, her old car, just died. But Luis and Jose came to the rescue in a car so old that it is tied together with string, and leaks exhaust straight into the back seats, but the windows are open, because the wipers don’t work, and it is still pissing down. I sit with Margis, and we cuddle, say nothing for a while, as we rush and splash through the late, haunted streets of the city. To home.

Here at Margis’ table, we eat cream of wheat, and fill in the gaps of two years. The plays, the poems, the loves, the politics. Who has been killed. And Holy Fuck, can you believe it? And we talk about the murder in jail of the murderer of our beloved Bishop Gerardi, murdered, murdered, murdered three days after delivering the church’s massive study of the war and genocide, Nunca Mas. And then, I fall into some sort of stunned sleep.

And it was evening and it was morning, the next day. All my plans shift, and I spend the day on the phone, and on line, trying to sort everything out. My next few weeks here. What am I doing, you may ask. SICSAL is the official story. This is a visita co-presidencial. I am visiting these places, Guatemala, and then Honduras, as an act of love and solidarity, as the co-president of SICSAL. To be continued . . .

 

The photo.

There is one photo that is in my life the beginning and the end. There is one event, which though I can barely talk about it without choking, that finally defines me. This is who I am, and why I do what I do. It is the photo that tells me about the world, about the caving power of death, of the possibility of the totality of human cruelty, mad, violence. It is iconic of all the war. And it is very personal. My sister-in-law. My nephew’s mother. Her name was Beatriz.

And it wasn’t the worst one, says Jean Marie. I took a worse photo, where the worms were crawling out of her face that had been cut right off.

“We were waiting with the 60-minutes CBS camera-crew, there to film the presidencial election (1985). We got the call and we drove down, the curving road to Esquintla, (past the giant hideous painted quetzal) to the morgue, where it was hot. And the morgue was a little shack, and there was a boy attending. We went in, and there was a motorcycle in one corner.

He opened, what do you call that? . . . the tray, the drawers. The first one had assorted body parts, unattached. The second drawer held her. When we said we wanted to take photos, he said, wait, wait, and he went back to drawer one, and took out a pair of hands, and laid them on her chest.”

That photo. Jean Marie and I look at each other, older women now, traumatized and frozen in shared horror, and we talk, as if we could make understanding clearer by talking. That photo shattered the lives of my family. That photo, says Margis, is necessary. It is the truth.

Jean Marie and I are whispering now. The book event in the book store has sunk into a blur, only we two are here, and Margis standing beside me, tall and unshaken. “I have other photos,” says Jean Marie, and I shake, no, I don’t want to see them, one is enough. “I don’t know how I got them. They are of Beatriz alive. I have one where she is nursing her son. I will send them to you.”

Margarita and Nati and I slip out, and arm in arm, we walk home, a strange and unusual thing to do in Guatemala City. It is not raining this night and we look straight up, through the ragged clouds into the full moon.