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Laura McDonald

CCGAP Human Rights Accompanier

Laura grew up in New York state, attended high school and Onondaga Community College in Syracuse and the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. As an activist, she has contributed to many efforts to promote social justice. In answer to the GAP Accompaniment Application question, "What values and beliefs motivate you towards action?" Laura responded,

Because to resist is the only way to live that feels good in a world with so much potential for beauty, for love, for creativity, and a reality of so much desolation, so much anguish, so much injustice…

Because I want to give more than I take…

Because I want to live a life that is authentic, because I believe in a human right to dignity, because the American Dream makes me sick, because I have visited the sites of massacres and that gives you an obligation if you want to be anything other than an atrocity tourist…

Because I love fertile soil, and real people, and stories, and the mountains and the wide blue sky, and because to fail to act would be to betray them all…


Laura's Friends & Family Letters

February 2006    December 2005   September 2005         

February 2006

Dear Friends and Family,

I want to tell you the truth.

It’s something I’ve just realized. It’s something I’ve always known.

The truth is, I didn't’t come here to do good, I didn’t come here to help. I didn’t even come here to support the struggles for justice of the Guatemalan people, at least not first and foremost.

The truth is, I came here for myself.

Not that that’s a ‘bad’ thing, per se. Within that truth, that I came here for myself, my motivations were varied. I came to learn. I came because I knew I would grow. I came because I thought it would show me what to do next. I came to learn Spanish. I came because some of my personal heroes were accompaniers. I’m sure I came, at least in part, because it seemed exciting and adventurous. A way to see the world without feeling guilty because I would be ‘giving something back.’

So I came here for myself.

What would it mean to truly act out of a love for others?

There are some people who say that we can never be truly selfless, that we can never be free from our own selfishness, that even what appear to be truly selfless acts are really just motivated by a sense of personal gratification. That if, in any way the doer benefits by her act, be it physically, emotionally, whatever, the act itself is somehow negated. And that only by accident would anyone ever act in a way that does not benefit herself somehow.

I don’t believe that being selfless means that one gets nothing from the act. I think that to be selfless means that you are motivated by love. That it is not desire for things, or respect, or power that motivates you, or even desire for love, but that the love itself is at the root of your actions.

I met a man the other day, in passing, who I think knows a lot about that kind of love. His name is Ricardo Falla, and he is a Catholic priest. He is in the Ixcán region for six months, and he comes to Cuarto Pueblo pretty regularly these days. I almost hesitate to write anything about a priest because I think so often in movements of solidarity with Latin Americans there is a tendency to glorify those who we can most relate to, those few outsiders, often priests or nuns, who went in and were killed or tortured or took risks, when the thousands of local people, without title or foreign connection or whiteness or privilege die and are tortured and take risks all the while remaining, to those of us outside, faceless. Nonetheless, it is the priest I want to write about, because he, unlike the people of this community, he, like me, chose to be here.

I heard about Padre Falla’s imminent arrival in the region weeks before he got here. Falla is much-loved by those in the community who lived in the CPRs during the war. After the massacre in 1982, the community shattered like glass and scattered like seeds in the wind. Many eventually made their way to Mexican refugee camps. Others stayed, living in small communities in the jungle, furtively planting their corn, hunted by the soldiers. These communities came to be known as Communities of Population in Resistance, or CPRs.

Falla was beloved by those who lived in the CPRs because he, too, lived there. ‘He suffered with us,’ I have heard more than one person say. ‘I remember one day, he was giving a mass, and the planes came to drop their bombs. We could hear them coming, and we could hear the bombs exploding. We ran into the river to get away, and he was there in the water with us.’

What courage is it that gives someone the strength to stay in such conditions, to face such fear, when they, unlike those around them, have every means of escape available?

The other morning, just after my alarm woke me from a dream, I heard the sound of a low-flying plane passing overhead. A sound I might not even notice in the noise of a city back home, but in stark contrast to the muffled bark of dogs, the eery echoing of roosters crowing in the hills that mark a Cuarto Pueblo morning. Lying beneath my mosquito net in the growing light of dawn, I found myself imagining that it was during the war, that the plane was coming to drop bombs. As the drone of the engine grew louder and closer, just laying there imaging this, I felt a muted terror rise up in my chest. I felt like I wanted to run like hell and get away. And I knew right then that if I were in such a situation and I had any possible means of escape, I would take it. I felt that no way could I face that fear. And if I were ever forced to be in such a situation, I would be consumed by it. How could it be possible to face such fear, and to stay? How could anyone choose to stay, when they had the means to leave?

Tonight we were eating in the house of a young woman, Juana. There are two children. The kitchen is darkening in the growing night, the small wooden room lit only by the cooking fire, and later a candle. The little boy is six. He was very sick when he was born, and nearly died, and now is very developmentally delayed. He only recently learned to walk, and he falls all the time. He has perfected the art of falling, however, and rarely injures himself. We watched him earlier as he struggled to put on his T-shirt. It was agonizing to watch him struggle and not reach out to help him, but of course there are times when ‘helping’ doesn’t really help, and when he finally succeeded, the sense of triumph was palpable.

The little girl is three. She is sick. She has worms, her young father told us this morning. She is crying. She is lying on a sack on the dirt floor and she is crying, now whimpering, now wailing, trying to find a way to be comfortable. She is suffering, and my anxiety rises at the impotence I feel to help. ‘Have you taken her to the doctor?’ I want to say, but don’t. The doctor isn’t here this week, and anyway the health promoter just told us that the clinic is out of medicine. It costs money to go to the clinic in Cantabal, money I’m sure they don’t have.

Juana is pregnant. I asked when the baby was due, making conversation. March, she said. And how was her pregnancy going. She says fine, I talk about the nausea suffered by a friend, she talks about her own pregnancy hardships. A dumb question, her face says. I imagined I saw myself reflected in her eyes, this big, rich, white foreigner, 26 years old with no children, essentially clueless to the realities of life.

‘But you, you don’t suffer anything.’ She said this. The words floated in the air between us, then settled on the dirt floor. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I thought, ‘She’s right.’ I thought, ‘She’s wrong.’ But somehow neither of these was true. I thought of trumpet lessons, science fair projects, check-ups with the pediatrician. I thought of living in the CPR, married at fourteen, daughter crying from the pain in her belly and powerless to kiss it and make it better.

We are two human beings. How can there be such a gulf between us?

There is a temptation to take what I have learned here and transform it, make it less of a challenge to my own way of life. To abstract it, to theorize, to take myself out of the equation. I won’t think about what it means that I own twenty sweaters, of varying materials and fashions. Everyone should be able to keep warm in the cold. No one needs twenty sweaters.

I have so much more than I need. I take so much more than I give. I act so much more for myself than for others. This is not ‘liberal guilt.’ These are facts, and if I ever want them to change, I must face them.

What would it mean to truly take responsibility for who I am, for what I have? To let myself feel this weight?

‘But getting rid of your sweaters doesn’t change the fact that others don’t have access to what they need,’ says a little voice in my head. ‘The problem is an unjust system. The problem isn’t you.’ As if I can be separated from the context in which I exist. As if it is somehow good for me to have more than what I need.

A couple days later…

Things come in waves here, Lindsey and I have often noted to each other. Yesterday we stopped by the house of Doña Teresa to pay a visit. She is a lovely older woman, with a radiant smile that lights up her whole face. She was weaving on her front porch when we arrived, immaculately dressed as always in traditional traje, grandmotherly reading glasses set low on her nose.

We had hardly begun to chat when she looked up sharply and said, an edge of bitterness in her voice, ‘You, you have lots of education, yes? Years and years of school. When you were little children you started, and then you have studied as long as you wanted, yes?’

Yes, we admitted, we had.

‘I have never been to school, not even for one day. I don’t know how to read or write. I would like to read, I would like to read the newspapers. And there are many books. I can look at them, but I can’t know what they say.’

‘There are also many things that you can do that we can’t,’ I said. ‘Like this weaving,’ pointing to the beautiful silky rays of colored thread, worked into intricate and ancient patterns, a skill taught by her mother, taught in turn to her own daughters.

‘Yes,’ she laughed. ‘It’s true. But the things we know are worth less than the things you know. They have less value.’

What is the value of the things we know? In my last job, I was paid $12 for each hour of my time. If Doña Teresa manages to sell one of her woven bags, it will go for around Q60, less than $10. Who knows how many hours of work went into its creation. She is right, of course, as sick as it makes me feel. The world we live in places a higher value on my time than hers, on my knowledge than her knowledge, on my life than her life.

When those of us who are white think back to the days of legalized apartheid in the Southern US, who among us thinks we would choose to drink from a fountain marked ‘Whites Only?’ By participating in that system we would condone it, by condoning it we would be dishonoring the humanity not only of people of color, but of ourselves as well. We would drink from the other fountain, all of us, rather than dishonor ourselves and others in this way, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?

How, then, do we honor our own humanity and the humanity of others in this global apartheid, where our schools and jobs and hospitals, our very lives, all bear the unspoken mark, ‘Privileged Only?’

How do I say no to a world order that values my health over that of Juana and her daughter, my work over Doña Teresa’s? How do I open myself to a love that can help me answer these questions?

How, in other words, do I learn to truly act out of a love for others, and in so doing, finally be myself?

It is a journey, one that will continue long after my time in Guatemala is done.

With love,

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.....
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
then let us work together.

—Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Australian educator and activist

December 2005

Average number of East Germans who died each year trying to cross to West Germany: 18
Average number of Mexicans who have died each year since 2000 trying to cross to the United States: 407

Harper’s Magazine, May 2005

Dear friends and family,

Greetings from Guatemala! I’m sorry that it has been so long since many of you have heard from me. I hope everyone is doing really well, as winter settles in. I thought of you all this weekend as I played in the waves at the sun-soaked black sand beach of Monterico (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Our little weekend meeting at the beach was actually a welcome opportunity to step back a little bit from my experiences in the community and think about what it all means, both personally and politically.

One thing that I have been grappling with a great deal lately stems from the impending visit of my mom and Clara. (Two weeks from today! Yay!!) I am so happy that they are coming, so excited to share a little piece of Guatemala with them. However, it can’t help but drive home to me the huge amount of privilege I have in relation to the people who welcome me, day after day, into their homes. How many of them have loved ones in my country that they haven’t seen for months, for years? And even if they could afford the trip, they would never be allowed in. I think about the ease with which I entered this country, the kindness with which I have been treated. I think of the many people from the community where I work who are now making the journey north, and I wonder how it is for them.

El norte looms large in the collective psyche of the people of Cuarto Pueblo. There is something almost biblical about it. You have to cross the desert to reach the promised land, you must face serpents and hunger and thirst and exhaustion and fear. Some do not make it. But if you survive, then you are in Los Estados. You have a chance to make some money. Maybe when you return, you will be able to build a house for your family. Maybe if you had made it to el norte two years ago you could have paid the 30,000 Quetzales for the surgery, and the cancer would not have taken your mother. (I don’t mean to be melodramatic. All of this is true.) Maybe your children will go to school.

Doña Lucilla talked about the desert, about her 16-year-old son crossing the desert, not enough to eat, to drink. What little water there is, sucio (dirty). She talked about the days Before.

The days Before: Before, there was cardamom that grew up to here, and it gave a good price, and the coffee plants exploded with berries, and it gave a good price. The pigs grew fat and the chicken multiplied, and you could sell them all for a price that made worth it all the work that went into raising them.
But then there was the war, and the terror. And then there was that day, that day, that day in March 1982 when the army came and tried its damndest to erase all memory of Cuarto Pueblo from the face of this earth. And some people left to be refugees in Mexico and some people tried to survive in the jungle, hiding from the army and sneaking out to sow their crops in between the bombings.
And now the chickens grow but they get wiped out by disease, and sometimes the pigs eat but sometimes they won’t and the price for cardamom is so low it’s not worth growing, and the coffee’s the same. And the soil isn’t as good as it used to be, it is tired. It is also contaminated by the hundreds and hundreds of bombs the army pummeled it with during the war. (There are still unexploded bombs around. The de-mining squad showed up last week and exploded six, and they have already found another.) And now, they have land, but they don’t have money.

“And that’s why my boys have left me to go up north, up through the desert with no food and dirty water. To find a job that is heavy and hard.” Her voice catches.
“How old is he?” I ask, envisioning a young man.
“Sixteen.” She speaks softly.
“Maybe… maybe he will find one that is not so hard.” We sit in silence for a moment before she turns the talk to other things.

When I first got here, I always made a point to talk about the horrors of the journey, the hardships and dangers upon arrival and throughout one’s time as an undocumented worker, when people brought up their desire to make the journey to my country. I believed that people had a romanticized view of the States and I didn’t want to be a part of spreading this mythology.
“But it is very hard, the work there, the type of jobs you can get without papers,” I found myself saying one day, to a man who had probably woken before dawn to walk two hours to his parcela, where he chopped weeds with a machete beneath the hot sun for hours and hours. I heard myself, talking about hardships to someone whose parents were massacred, who spent thirteen years of his childhood living in the jungle, hunted by the army. In my naivete I had believed on some level that people were making a choice to go to the States because they didn’t fully understand the realities of that path. If the journey northward is a choice, it is not a free choice. It is a decision coerced by necessity, by poverty, by an unsustainable Guatemalan economy utterly dependent on the whims of international capital. Last week, we talked with a woman who works for a migrants’ organization. “Guatemala’s largest export is people,” she said.

There are bones in el desierto, one woman tells me. Human bones. Some died of thirst, or hunger, or exposure. Some were killed, whether by thieves or by inmigracíon she didn’t know. Bones that will never be buried except by wind and time. I think of all the clandestine cemeteries from the war, yet to be exhumed. Skulls shattered by machetes and rocks, fragments of twenty-year-old rope still wrapped around cervical spine. Bits of woven cloth, or jewelry. A tiny huipil (Mayan blouse). There is a military base in Playa Grande, a nearby municipality. Largely decommissioned, it once functioned as the central command of the Ixcán region. It was here that the massacres were planned out and coordinated. It was here that unknown numbers of people were taken, it was here where they never again passed through its doors back to the land of the living. The base is largely deserted now, but if there are such things as ghosts, it is certain they are restless here. How many anonymous bones lie buried in its shadowy corners no one knows.

Another woman says that her daughter had to go $15,000 in debt for a fake US identification (yes, that’s dollars). She is working the night shift in a chicken factory, making $60 a night. She lives in a building packed full with others in the same situation. All of them give over the bulk of their wages to the owners to pay for their debt, and their daily keep. It’s a racket, all right. The woman from the migrants’ organization described to us what she called the “commercialization of migration,” the myriad of ways, legal and otherwise, that people are profiting from the movement of people across borders.

The coyote takes them through the desert. Travel at night, wait during the day because there are helicopters looking for them. The idea of U.S. helicopters searching for the children of people who were massacred by (U.S.-made) helicopters one generation earlier is sickening. When the helicopter with the de-mining squad landed a couple weeks ago, many people were scared. The sounds of the chopper blade they know all too well…

Flash back to one day, that day, 24 years ago. A little boy is out in the fields with his father. They hear helicopters coming…

“Six young people left three days ago for El Norte,” the mother of the girl working in the chicken factory tells me. “Right now, they are probably crossing the desert.” The room is gently lit by the orange light of her cooking fire. She rises to flip the tortillas so they don’t burn. I think of them walking, these young people of Cuarto Pueblo. I think of thirst and of hiding, of rattlesnakes, and the gun of the coyote.
“Have you noticed that there aren’t many young men here?” Lindsey, my partner, asked me one day as we walked to dinner. I think of Joél, the son of one of the families we visit often. He left my first month into community. His mother was so worried. She told us his friend who he had left with collapsed in the desert from the heat and the hunger and thirst, and Joél had to carry him for the last day. I think about Joél and his easy smile and his two young daughters. How he and his friend nearly died, and how cold and heartless statistics of such deaths are. Over 400 people from Mexico alone died last year trying to cross the border to my country. Each one of them had a face, a name, a story, a family.

What am I trying to do here, what am I trying to say? There was the war, and now there is migration. I am not trying to equate migration to genocide, but neither can I ignore the connections. Some of the effects are similar, but the true connections lie in the roots of marginalization, poverty, and racism that lie beneath both phenomena. The questions are big, the answers are bigger. I sure haven’t even begun to ‘figure it out.’ I guess all I really wanted to do was to share with you maybe another side to the story. I think we always hear about migration from the perspective of how it plays out back home. I wanted to share a little bit of what it looks like from here.

Anyway, I love you all very much, and miss you more than I can say.

Love, Laura

P.S. Happy holidays to all those who are celebrating them, and a wonderful winter to all (assuming there is such a thing.)

September 2005

Dear Everyone,

It didn’t really hit me until the other day.

I mean, I understood intellectually what had happened in the place where I will be living for the next five months, but somehow it wasn’t until then that things slipped into focus.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I just completed my first month in the Ixcan region of Guatemala. This area is in the north, the community where I work being only a two hour walk from the border of Chiapas, Mexico. It is hot, it is deforested jungle, one of the few parts of Guatemala whose terrain is not defined by dream-like volcanic mountain ranges. This is the low-lands, its climate, its flora and fauna new to me.

There used to be tigers here. And jaguars. Monkeys. Alligators. I guess there still are, in the more remote areas, although of these (to me) exotic and mysterious creatures I have seen no trace. I suppose as their habitat disappears, they flee further into those bits that (for now) are just too damn hard, too damn far to be worth planting.

The community where I work is a farming community. There are about 360 families, and nearly everyone farms. Those few, such as teachers, who work for wages generally pay someone else to work their parcela (fields). They still need to eat, and although food from the parcela is supplemented by things from the stores, it is still directly from the earth that people get what they need to survive. The biggest crop is maize (corn), and this forms the staple of people’s diets.

The community where I work was not formed by chance. It was settled by a Catholic priest from the U.S., Padre Guillermo Woods, and a group of landless campesinos (rural subsistence farmers) during the 1970s. They worked their asses off, sweating in the jungle to build their farming cooperative. Houses were put up, fields were cleared and planted, a school, clinic, and cooperative store were created. The community was doing pretty well for itself at this point. Cardomom was selling at a decent price. All their hard work was paying off.

But there was a war on. The war was supposedly against the various guerilla armies that had sprung out of Guatemala’s viscously inequitable land distribution. But in reality, it was a war against the Mayan population, against anyone who dared to challenge the system where Mayans were essentially an expendable rural labor force working on the big fincas (farms) for slave wages. And although the community was probably started more from a desperate need for land than a desire to challenge the Guatemalan elite, by being successful, by being independent, challenging this system is exactly what they were doing.

One day in 1980, the entire leadership of the cooperative was murdered by the Guatemalan army.

One year later, the army came back.

And what happened next is what didn’t really hit me until the other day. What still probably hasn’t really hit me.

One year later, the army came back. They came back and they slaughtered at least 360 women, children, and men. I say at least, because I have been told that there were likely entire families killed, such that there was no one left to remember their names. No one left who even remembered their names.

The survivors fled into the mountains to form Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) or to Mexico to the refugee camps. Many more died in these places from disease and malnutrition, and in the CPRs they were constantly fleeing the army. People lived for thirteen years being hunted like animals. In 1994, two years before the signing of the Peace Accords, the refugees negotiated their return to their communities, and began the work of rebuilding what was lost.

If you walk down the hill from the little wooden building where my partner and I live, you will cross the center of town. If you walk past the little general stores, past the community meeting space, and take a right at the pasture, you will come to a little area fenced off and shaded by tall trees. Inside, you will find a memorial to the hundreds who were murdered the day the army came back.

I ventured into this space for the first time the other day. There is a hole in the chain link fence that you duck through. Inside, it is quiet and still. Benches surround the memorial, shaded by trees, covered with dead leaves and the occasional candy wrapper. Nothing moves but the silent battalions of leafcutter ants, stoically dissembling the trees.

The paint on the memorial is chipped and peeling. My head is full of thoughts about home, about dinner, about letters I need to write. I casually walk to the side of the memorial and begin to read the names of the people who were killed.

And that is when it begins to hit me. The names are the names of people I know. This must have been his father, because the name is his. Or her mother. Or the entire family of the man I ate with last night. Some of them are listed only as “daughter of #227,” or “Maria XXX, wife of #114,” because this was all that could be remembered by those who survived. “I remember he took his three daughters to market with him that day, but I don’t remember their names.” And that is all that is left of them.

What do you do with this? What does a community do with the ghosts of 400 murdered mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters?

I think people respond in different ways. Some try to forget. Some never return. Others try to pick things up, keep going, try again. A few try to seek some sort of justice. One way people are attempting to do this is through a legal case accusing former dictators Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Rios Montt of war crimes and genocide. And, as you may recall, this is why I am here in Guatemala. I’m working as part of an international team of human rights accompaniers, who work to provide safety and support to the individuals who have chosen to participate in these cases as witnesses.

In terms of what we actually do, it can be as concrete as accompanying people to meetings about the cases in other cities, or as amorphous as simply being there, in the community. I am still learning. I have a lot to learn.

For the time being, I am mainly trying to get to know the community, the people, the history. To understand where different people stand, who is opposed to the human rights crowd, who is a supporter. And to do this without judgment, for who the hell am I to say what is the “right” way to react to your community being raped, tortured, and massacred?

This has been a hard month for me in many ways. I have been really homesick, struggling with my spanish, with all I have to learn. But despite these challenges, I remain extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate in this work, to learn from this experience, to get to know this place and these people. I am grateful for the love and support of everyone back home.

Thank you for everything! I miss you all so much!


P.S. For more information about Guatemala, and the accompaniment project, please check out NISGUA (my organization)’s website at http://www.nisgua.org/.

P.P.S. Also, feel free to email me! I occasionally have the chance to check my email, and it is always nice to hear from people back home. Also, next month I will be able to send a few pictures from the community, but I am attaching one now from when I was in language school in Xela. Much love!!!