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Hilly McGahan

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier



Hilly and Sue Ellen in San Lucas Sacatapequez, Guatemala, July 2007

Click here to read Hilly's article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, June 8th, 2008.

We received Hilly's last letter written at the beginning of June. And now we look forward to a visit from Hilly in the fall of this year, 2008.

Dear Friends and Family,

During the past 3 months my partner Phil and I have been visiting the remote, Q’eqchi community of Las Margaritas Copón, a village of some 300 people accessible only by boat or foot. The first time we hiked there, an elderly man and a 17 year-old boy with a severe stutter from Las Margaritas Copón met us in the nearest community accessible by car, and accompanied us (technically our job title) on the three and a half hour hike in the heat. We arrived in the quiet town in the early afternoon, sweat hanging off the tips of our noses, pink-and-white splotched faces, and fingers swollen as sausages.

On the trail leading into the community we met a man who was just setting off to walk to the nearest village of Xalalá for a church celebration. I could tell he had just bathed, although sweat already glittered above his upper lip. He held an unopened ice cream sandwich, the expensive kind, to make the hundred degree hike a bit more bearable. After shaking our hands and welcoming us to Las Margaritas Copón, he handed us the ice cream sandwich. We protested, saying he was the one with the hot walk ahead of him, but he insisted, and then set off into the thick, heavy heat.

The community of Las Margaritas Copón has requested accompaniment because it is one of 18 villages that would be flooded by the construction of the Xalalá dam, a hydroelectric project slated to be completed by 2013. The dam would be built near the confluence of the Chixoy and Copón rivers (Xalalá is Q’eqchi for “where waters cross”), some twenty minutes from Las Margaritas Copón, and would create a 7.5 square kilometer reservoir.

Although energy companies, including the Virgnia-based AES Corporation, are already bidding on the Xalalá dam, and licenses to build will be issued by the end of this year, the communities that would be flooded have had no contact with the government and have not been approached about resettlement plans or compensation. And many villagers say they are not leaving their land.

In April of 2007 communities of the Ixcán (the municipality where Las Margaritas Copón is located) held a referendum on whether to allow the construction of large-scale hydroelectric projects and nearly 90% of the population voted no. Although the referendum is a right under municipal, national, and international law, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court has ruled that referendums are not legally binding if the issue at hand (hydroelectric projects, in this case) is in the national interest. And the government has decided that the Xalalá dam is in Guatemala’s best interests.

I spent a good chunk of this past month working on an article about this dam, and specifically, about a young man named Alejandro from Las Margaritas Copón. Last week, about ten minutes after I sent off my final draft, I noticed the headline of Guatemala’s largest national newspaper: “Guatemala Looks to Reduce Use of Oil.” The two page article outlined the government’s plan to decrease the national oil dependency from 46% to 4% by building 5 large-scale hydroelectric dams and 3 carbon-generating plants. The Xalalá dam would be part of this national plan to replace oil dependency with clean energy.

I felt at a loss. I knew the issue was complicated from the get-go, but after reading that article I realized that if I didn’t know Alejandro, and hadn’t been to the community of Las Margaritas Copón, I would have read the article and thought, yeah, why not? Sounds good to me – less oil, clean energy…

I thought of a Howard Zinn quote I had written down:
"If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves?"

But I already know what Alejandro and his community would say, because they’ve already said it: they don’t want to sacrifice what they have, because it is what so few Guatemalans have anymore: fertile land, intact families, and two beautiful, fish-filled rivers. And although Alejandro and his family may be poor by western standards of plumbing and income and electricity, they do not consider this real poverty. They will be “really poor,” they say, if they lose their land to the Xalalá dam.

Not one person has left Las Margaritas Copón in search of work in the U.S., a statistic almost unheard of these days. But if families find themselves displaced and without the productive farmland of Las Margaritas Copón, they may be the next wave of undocumented workers trying to make their keep in el Norte.

So, I don’t have any answers. Guatemala needs energy (although a large percentage of the energy generated by the Xalalá dam would be exported) and Alejandro wants to raise his children on the land where he was born.

Before visiting Las Margaritas Copón, I didn’t know how to really care about this dam and had no tangible way of understanding the impacts of my own energy consumption. And now, I do, and feel even more at a loss.

But this is what Alejandro says he wants: “I just want people to know about us.”
My year here is about over. I leave for Montana on Tuesday, the 3rd. And, oh, how I will miss this place. Among so many other things, I will miss:

* Food. Everywhere. Not having to stand up and find it because it finds you; on buses, walking down the street, it even rings your doorbell or comes to your porch.
* 34-passenger vans, more commonly known in the U.S. as “15-passenger vans.”
* Small meals that disguise themselves as drinks (you can find anything from rice, chunks of plantains, corn meal, to oats at the bottom of your drink).
* Bus salesmen shouting the benefits of mini-hammers, fruit-scented magnets, ballpoint pens that are also flashlights, and powders derived from sarsaparilla and aloe vera that treat bronchitis and swollen prostates—which would usually run you about 50 quetzales a packet, but today, for you, 3 packets for 10 quetzales.
* Our neighbors in one of the Ixcán villages I lived in, and especially the father, a pretty-lipped, potbellied man who has endurance-not-allowed-to-take-a-breath-yelling contests with his 11-year-old daughter at 7 am, and who baby-talks his borderline obese 9-month old baby girl, Candelaria, with more gusto than anyone I’ve seen.
* Women balancing 20-foot roles of corrugated tin on their heads like a seesaw in equilibrium, who stop to ask how you are, to comment on how hot it is…
* The form of a warm, lumpy baby-body sleeping against a mama’s back.
* The custom of thanking everyone in the room, whether it is a home or a restaurant, after finishing a meal.
* Mangos.
* All of the incredible, and yet, so very human, people I have eaten with, lived with, worked with…

And thank you, my friends and family, for so much support, for being interested, for everything. I can’t wait to see you all.



Hilly wrote these reflections on motivations for migration in March of 2008.

Dear Friends and Family,

I’ve had the thought a number of times.

It’s usually when I see the incongruous flashing television screen in a one bedroom, dirt floor home, or hear the trill of a new cell phone, or any other telltale sign of the remittances sent home from family working in the states.
And I think, wouldn’t that money be better spent on Lupita’s education, or perhaps a sustainable community project? I hear it echoed, too; Adriana, a Brazilian woman working with an Ixcán NGO told me of favelas near her home in Brazil where families slept exposed to the rain, their only reasonable piece of roofing set aside to shelter their television; and of a homeless man awakened on the sidewalk by his ringing cell phone…all the ways poor people choose to spend what little money passes through their hands.
But then I realize, wait – I have all these things, and I like them, too. Am I justified in having a TV and a DVD player just because I have a nice stand to set them on and quality roofing to house them under? Are fancy fixtures reserved only for those who can make them look less conspicuous among other fancy fixtures?
When fifteen year-old Marta told me she was going to make the trek from Cuarto Pueblo up through the Sonoran Desert and ultimately to Atlanta, provided she didn’t get caught along the way, I asked her why she was leaving. I was already forming my own romantic ideas about Marta’s noble decision to migrate; that she felt obligated to find a way to pay for her mother’s medicine, that she was going to help put Yoli, her bright little sister, through school, that maybe there just wasn’t enough food to go around…
“I want to be able to buy my own stuff,” Marta answered. She wanted new jeans. She wanted cold sodas. She was born in Mexico in the refugee camps and had seen Cancun, the hotels, the refrigerators. And she wanted some.
Initially, I was disappointed and found myself wanting to tell her to stay. This wasn’t the story of a young woman risking her life to feed her family. Marta wanted cds and electricity. I wanted Marta to stay with her mother and grandmother, to know her Mayan language and how to make tortillas. But I have my refrigerator at home, my cd player, and my jeans and I don’t think I’m ready to give them up. So who am I to hope these things for Marta? I find myself pleased to see young girls speaking Q’anjobal and weaving, to hear young men explain the planting and harvesting of corn. But I am dropping in on this world, peering into these complicated and changing lives, making my judgments and hoping my hopes, all the while knowing I will return to the many comforts of my home. And I love my home.
So I have to catch myself, to ask myself if what I want for Marta is what I want for myself. And it’s not so simple, because we do come from vastly different worlds. But I have to be careful of this tendency to enjoy cultural preservation for my own sake, for my own viewing pleasures, only to slip comfortably back into my home in the U.S., where I will enjoy all the things that Marta wants too.


P.S. I am now working on a new regional team in the Ixcán, centered on natural resource issues. I will be working in communities where mainly Q´eqchi is spoken and little to no Spanish. I am studying Q’eqchi this week, trying to learn a third language using my second, which is, well, kind of hard. It is a beautiful, poetic language: ¨How are you? ¨ literally translates to ¨Do you have happiness in your heart? ¨, ¨Ma sa sa’ laach’ool laa’at?¨
I said goodbye to Cuarto Pueblo last month, after nine months there. On my last night we ate with Andrés, the carpenter I wrote about in my first letter. He told me, "Anita, now when you go home, you tell your family about what happened down here, what we lived through. But make sure you tell them that we are happy now. We are eating three meals a day of good food. We are no longer in the mountains, stuffing our babies' mouths with leaves to keep them from crying, cooking in the middle of the night so the army can't see our smoke, eating tortillas made from ground leaves...we're doing pretty good."
"No es el tiempo que anda cambiando el mundo; es la humanidad," he said to me as I was walking out of his house, something that just isn't quite as beautiful or translatable in English: "It's not time that changes our world - it is humanity."

I hope you all have happiness in your hearts

Hilly wrote us in February 2008.

Dear Friends and Family,

I visited a new community last month, an organized, hopeful place called Santa Maria Tzejá.
Twenty-six years ago today, one month before the army massacred the village of Cuarto Pueblo, soldiers marched into the nearby Ixcán town of Santa Maria Tzejá. Except for one woman, whom the soldiers raped and killed, all of the forewarned villagers had fled to the surrounding jungle, leaving the town deserted. Two days later, patrolling soldiers heard a dog bark in the jungle and came upon a pregnant mother, her baby, and two young boys. They opened fire on the family, and then threw a grenade on the remains. Soon after they came upon a second huddled family; another pregnant mother, her eight children, and their grandmother. The soldiers fired on the cowering group at point blank range, killing everyone except for the six-year old son, who witnessed the massacre from behind a fallen tree.
Artemio and Elena were hiding with their family in the rainforest when the patrolling army surrounded them. The terrified family fled and the military opened fire. Elena and her young children were captured; Artemio and the eldest daughter escaped and eventually made it to the refugee camps in Mexico.
In the weeks that followed, half of the village’s nearly 120 families fled across the border and into Mexico. Unlike Cuarto Pueblo, which was destroyed and completely deserted until the refugee return in 1994, forty families from Santa Maria Tzejá came under the control of the military and remained in the village. The town became a “model village”, a militarized community in which most males between the ages of 15 and 60 were forced to join civil self-defense patrols and daily life was tightly controlled.
After the military captured Elena, she was taken to the nearby military base and tortured. She would remain in the reorganized, army-controlled community of Santa Maria Tzejá for the next twelve years. She eventually remarried, believing her husband, Artemio, to be dead. Artemio, alive and in exile with the elder daughter, also thought his wife and children had died in the attack. An anthropologist traveling between the Maya Tecún refugee camps and Santa Maria Tzejá discovered that both had survived and carried tape recordings and photographs between the divided family.
After twelve years of separation and vastly different experiences, Artemio, along with the other refugee families, made the return home. He and Elena remarried. I don’t know what became of her second husband.
Today they have a young son and daughter and run a store in the reunified town’s center. Artemio keeps bees and Elena is active in the local women’s organization. An outsider, unfamiliar with Guatemala’s recent history, might never guess that this couple lived for over a decade believing that their fractured family and community would never be whole again. And in many ways, the community is still not whole; divisions and bitterness remain between those who fled to Mexico and those who remained under military control, the community cooperative is not the core it once was, and perpetrators of the massacre enjoy the impunity that reigns in Guatemala.
And yet, more than one hundred of Santa Maria Tzejá’s youth are studying at university, the elementary and high schools are completely staffed with local teachers, and Artemio and Elena laugh. A lot.
Once, after our meetings in Guatemala City, Kim and I accompanied Artemio on a buying trip for his store. We bused to what seemed like every market in the entire capital, loitering outside of storefronts and kiosks while Artemio smelled deodorants and held nail polish hues up to the light, two big sellers in the community. I stood in the bustling crowds and black clouds of bus exhaust, watching him haggle with the vendors, and felt hopeful.

I hope you are all well.


Hilly sent us this story at the end of November 2007.

Dear Friends and Family,

When the loudspeaker of Cuarto Pueblo’s main store crackles and blares the familiar Bolshevik-like carousel music, women washing clothes in the river pause, mid-scrub, to turn an ear towards the center of town. Usually it is a phone call; the music is cut short and Doña Elena’s sing-song voice breaks in: ¨Bueno. Bueno. Don Manuel Pérez, Don Manuel Pérez, present yourself here to receive your telephone call. Don Manuel Pérez, Don Manuel Pérez….¨ and then more carousel music while Don Manuel hurries from his home in zone 1 to the telephone at the center store. If the music is at 5:30 am, it’s more likely the news of a freshly slaughtered animal, ¨Bueno. Bueno. If you want to buy pork, Don Narciso killed a pig in zone 1! Pork at Don Narciso’s! ¨
One evening last week, the announcement was of a death. Javier Aguilar, a man in his late thirties with liver problems, had died. Within twenty minutes of the announcement, families carrying candles poured out onto the road leading to Javier’s family’s home. Men hauled wooden planks to the house and worked through the night, finishing a casket before dawn. In the early afternoon of the following day, the community gathered for a short service in the church on the hill. Below, like a procession of leaf-cutter ants, bleary-eyed men hauled cement and buckets of water on the path to the cemetery. Absent from the funeral were Javier’s two eldest sons. They left for the states when their father first got sick, working to send home remittances to cover hospital bills and travel expenses.
Javier was buried in Cuarto Pueblo’s cemetery, a twenty minute walk from the center of town, perched atop a hill in the outskirts of zone 2. Another hour and a half on the same trail leads one across the border and into Chiapas, Mexico.
Hannah and I visited the cemetery for the first time on November 2nd for the Day of the Dead. The graves were freshly painted; white, green, and blue, all adorned with flowers and draped with garlands fashioned from multi-colored plastic rain ponchos with intricately cut diamond patterns. Hannah and I sat in the sun with eleven-year-old Flori near her mother’s grave. Throughout the ceremony children ran over to drop sweet oranges and peanuts in our laps, and then rushed back to their mothers and grandmothers who nodded shyly when we looked up to find the sources of the gifts. A group of community members took turns reading the names of those killed in the massacre. They stood in front of a cement, one-room building that houses the ashes and exhumed bones of the massacred, the boxes and urns covered with nearly 400 popsicle-stick crosses bearing names written in black marker. An old man with a wandering eye borrowed the only writing tool I had with me (which happened to be a lime-green highlighter) to re-write his daughter’s name on the weathered box containing her bones.
Two days after the Day of the Dead, businessman Alvaro Colóm won Guatemala´s presidential elections. Few Cuarto Pueblo residents voted; some expressed no hope for change, others were deterred by the options of a three-hour walk or a boat and bus ride to arrive at the voting centers. Despite low turnout (I don’t know of a single woman in community who voted in the second round), Colóm´s victory was received with a sense of relief; his opponent, Otto Pérez Molina, is a former army general and the community of Cuarto Pueblo closely associates him with the massacres.
Hannah and I helped harvest corn, coffee, and cacao this month. We also ate our first armadillo and what I am fairly certain was the tongue of a cow.
I sure miss you all.



Here is Hilly's letter written at the beginning of October 2007:

Dear Friends and Family,
I first saw Doña Marina on the trail leading from the arroyo to her home. She was hauling firewood on her back and wielding a machete, her grandchildren trailing behind. She invited us into her smoky kitchen for a cup of hot milk and rice. Six spotted yellow and brown ducklings scurried underfoot, heading for a swim in the mud puddle in the center of the kitchen. Marina, a toothless, watery-eyed matriarch, has long thin arms that she waves around as she talks. She was the first of the three generations of Cuarto Pueblo women that I would meet in my first week in community. A survivor of the massacre of 1982, Doña Marina is a witness in the genocide cases.
Marina’s oldest daughter, Alejandra lives just up the hill. She is thirty-seven and a striking woman; short and strong with wide eyes that are alternately young and old. When the army massacred Cuarto Pueblo in March of 1982, Alejandra was twelve. She, along with her mother and sisters, joined a Community of Populations in Resistance (CPR), living in the jungles surrounding Cuarto Pueblo for a decade. Alejandra continued her studies in the CPRs, writing on wood tablets with pieces of charcoal in makeshift jungle classrooms. She married, and in Mexico in 1992, she and her husband gave birth to their first child, Marta. Today, Alejandra’s husband works in Georgia, USA at a chicken factory, but is looking for a different job. He has difficulty lifting the crates of chickens; one wrist has a gunshot wound from the war and the other was fractured.
Marta, their daughter, is fifteen now and determined to join her father in the States. I met her three days before she left for Mexico, where she is now staying with her aunt, waiting for a ¨coyote¨ to lead her across the Sonoran desert into Arizona. Marta has worked in Cancun; she has seen the hotels, the restaurants, the tourists flooding in and out. She was eager to leave Cuarto Pueblo; ready to work, to have electricity, running water, and ¨stuff¨. She doesn’t know if or when she will return to this remote, jungle community.
Alejandra is quiet when we visit her. When she talks about Marta she cries, silently, without wiping her wet face. ¨I’ve lived through everything; in the mountains, during the war, but I’m not strong.¨
Marta is one of nearly 300 people from Cuarto Pueblo to migrate in search of work, leaving this 1500-person village with a dwindling population of young people. She leaves behind her wood-chopping grandmother, her stoic mother, and a village with a yet-to-be reconciled history.

The overwhelming majority of those who have left Cuarto Pueblo are young men, and their absence is evident. A few weeks ago, my partner Hannah and I went to a birthday party for eleven-year-old Flori, a beanpole of a girl with sparkly eyes and two dimples on either side of her bottom lip. Hannah and I were playing a variation of ¨Ring around the Rosy¨ with the girls when a nephew burst in, shouting that Flori’s seventeen-year-old aunt had cut herself with a machete while trying to cut a branch for hanging a piñata. We found her about fifteen minutes into the jungle, and after wrapping her leg in towels, we hauled her home in a hammock. There were at least ten of us, all women, carrying this hammock down the trail. No men live in this household; the father died and the sons and sons-in-law are all working in the states.
This last month was ¨elote¨ (fresh corn) season and our corn intake increased one-million-fold; elote tamales, roasted elote with salt and lime, boiled elote, elote atol (a hot drink made of milled fresh corn and sugar), elote bread.. While Hannah and I were walking to dinner one evening, a head popped out of a kitchen window and shouted, ¨Wait right there!¨ and a little girl ran out with two steaming corn-on-the-cobs for us to eat as we walked.

I learned to knit this month, and to make wide, wool bracelets with designs, and play a bit of accordion, and make sesame seed candy.
One afternoon, while Hannah napped, I went to visit Pablo, a weathered, thin man in his eighties whose voice cracks when he speaks. He and his wife are moving to Mexico, returning to the state where they once lived as refugees. They will leave in January to be near their children who never returned after the massacre. Pablo is eager to begin working again; he has no land here in Cuarto Pueblo because he sold his plot to pay for hospital bills when he got sick. I asked Pablo if he was going to miss Cuarto Pueblo, this village where he raised his children and three of his sons still live. He pointed to a plant near his porch. ¨See how green this plant is? If I dig it up and plant it over there, ¨ he motioned to the other side of his yard, ¨the leaves will droop. After a bit, though, its roots will grab on and it will be green again.¨

Love to you all,


Hilly had been in Cuarto Pueblo for two months when she wrote this letter in July 2007.

Dear Friends and Family,

I met Andres the day after I arrived in Cuarto Pueblo. He was sanding a beautiful, golden wooden door he had built, standing in his front yard covered in a film of sawdust. We ate with his family a few days later. Andres is in his mid-thirties, a slight, strong man with a chipped front tooth. He had just bathed when we arrived at his home for dinner, and sat in a hammock holding his beautiful, feverishly sick eleven month-old daughter. He told us part of his story.
In 1980, Andres was ten years old and living in Cuarto Pueblo. His parents heard of the war going on and feared it would come to their village, so they, along with several other families, fled to Mexico. Once across the border, Mexican authorities found them and reported them to the Guatemalan military. The military arrived in Mexico in helicopters and told Andres and his family, “Leave all your things; bring only the clothes on your back. We’re taking you to Comitán, Mexico. We´ll give you houses, food, everything you need.” Andres remembers his father telling him, “Quick! Put on all the clothes you can, two pairs of pants! ´´ His mother wore layered skirts and two shirts.
The military loaded the families onto the helicopters. When they landed, Andres remembers feeling cold. The military left and Andres and his family learned they were in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, not Comitán, Mexico as the military had promised. They had nothing.
The families made their way back to Cuarto Pueblo, and two years later, in the spring of 1982, the military massacred their village, killing over 300 people. This time, twelve year-old Diego and his family chose to flee to the surrounding jungle rather than seeking refuge in Mexico with so many others. They became part of a Community of Population in Resistance (CPR), packing up and moving in a moment’s notice, while the military bombed and shot at them from helicopters. Andres’ wife was nearly killed during a bombing; she still suffers from knee and back injuries. They lived this way for twelve years.
I asked Andres why his family chose to live in a CPR rather than seeking refuge in Mexico with the majority of Cuarto Pueblo´s population. He said his family feared leaving their land again, feared being deceived and losing everything like they had three years before.
Today, Andres works as a carpenter, keeps bees, and grows coffee. His seventeen year old son is working in Florida as a landscaper. He left three months ago for the states, and was caught in Mexico before he reached the U.S. border. He was sent back to Guatemala. After borrowing money once again from uncles on each side of his family (it can cost $3000-$4000 to hire a “coyote” to illegally cross the border), Andres’ son tried again, and made it. He has paid back half of his debt.
Andres is trying to find a way to get to the states himself. He has been unsuccessful in buying false Mexican papers, which are necessary in order to get through Mexico to the U.S. border without being detained by Mexican authorities and sent back to Guatemala. He pointed to his carpentry table and told me, “I don´t want to go, but there is nobody to sell these doors to. I have seven children and selling coffee and honey is not enough.” Looking down at his sleeping daughter, he said “I have to be able to buy medicine when my kids are sick.”
After twelve years of hiding in the jungle and evading the military in order to stay near his land, Andres may soon leave his wife and young children to join his son and five other Guatemalans in a small apartment in Florida.
The population of Cuarto Pueblo is around 1,500. More than 250 people have left in search of work, mostly men between fifteen and thirty years old. There are signs of “remesas”, money sent from the states, all over town. Last week, Jeffrey and I crowded into a dark, dirt-floor bedroom. We watched “Tango and Cash”, an early 80´s action film starring Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. Good, quality acting. The new Sony television was plugged into what looked a car battery, charged by a solar panel.
Cuarto Pueblo is beautiful, tucked away in the jungle with red dirt paths snaking through mango, banana, and lime trees, connecting one zone to the next. We play basketball (sometimes with a soccer ball) on Tuesdays and Sundays in hundred degree heat on a pockmarked court with metal backboards and sagging rims. Jeffrey, my partner this month, is usually the only male on the court; the rest are twenty to forty year-old women in full length skirts who don´t mess around. I have a pretty good scratch on my face and Jeffrey has skinned up palms.
I´ve also got a sizeable bruise on my forehead. Yesterday, Jeffrey and I, and about three hundred others, piled into a fifteen passenger van at three in the morning. Jeffrey, halfway sitting on my lap, somehow managed to fall asleep for a couple minutes, jerked his head backwards, and slammed into my face. I am avoiding facial expressions that require eyebrow-raising.
I think of you all, and what you are doing, and how you would love this place. I hope you are well. Thank you, again, for being my friends and family.



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