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…
& Family Letters
2005 September 2005
Dear Friends and Family,
I want to tell you the
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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.
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
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.
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.
Aboriginal Australian educator and activist
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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,”
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
“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.
P.S. Happy holidays to
all those who are celebrating them, and a wonderful winter to all
(assuming there is such a thing.)
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
One year later, the army
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
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
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