Lindsey Engelman comes
from Austin Texas. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in
Legal Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Before
coming to the GAP
program, Lindsey worked in a needle
exchange program in Santa Cruz...
Friends & Family Letters
April 26th, 2007
tierra es la vida: Land is Life
La tierra, the ground or Earth, provides life for the people
of the Ixcan. Food is grown both on house plots and farm plots on
the outskirts of town. Corn is harvested twice every year, providing
families with enough tortilla to last their families for the entire
year, and beans, squash, and a host of other foods are harvested to
go along with it. During many seasons, a child can run out his front
door and pick a banana and orange or climb to the top of a coconut
tree to stave off his hunger until the next meal. Wood is collected
to fuel the fires that cook the food, special branches are picked
out to carve out special spoons to mix atol (a traditional drink)
and dirt is dug up and repacked to serve as the foundation of a new
The streams and creaks stemming from the Ixcan’s major rivers,
part of la tierra, twist and turn through the jungle hills and find
their way to Cuarto Pueblo, providing the town with life and sustenance.
The countless smaller creeks wrap themselves around houses and along
the town's paths. In different corners and curves of the running water
throughout town, women hunch over cement slabs washing their family's
laundry, young children splash around in the pockets of the stream’s
deeper waters, and large jugs of water are carried tens of times a
day to their homes to provide the water to cook and clean.
The people of Cuarto Pueblo have worked for this land with the sweat
of their brow, and the blood in their veins. Not only do they work
day after day and year after year tilling and harvesting the land,
investing in the future growth of its trees, but they have suffered
for it through their lives. They came barely 40 years ago to this
uninhabited land, forcing their way through the thick jungle forest
filled with the unknown to create better lives for themselves. When
the army came and massacred 400 of its members and burned down all
they had worked for, many continued to live nomadically in the nearby
jungles hiding and fleeing from the attacks of the army, but refusing
to cross over to nearby Mexico, partly to keep one eye on their land.
Still more returned to reclaim their rightful land after years of
living as refugees in Mexico.
The people have fought hard for this land because in a place like
Guatemala, land means everything: it is life and it is survival. It
is not simply a place to live. Through the abundant water and relatively
fertile land, the community survives despite its adversities and neglect
by the government. There is no electricity or potable water. Education
is limited, and health care is even scarcer. A family has few options
in a time of crisis, as methods of income are limited at best. But
the community survives and perseveres despite these problems. They
do so because they own land and water.
If the water was to dry up or be contaminated, if the land was to
be poisoned or drained of its nutrients, the community of Cuarto Pueblo
could not exist. Accordingly, any attack on water or the land is an
attack on the people themselves. And in the Ixcan as in many indigenous
lands throughout Guatemala and the world, this attack has already
begun. It is the latest war in Guatemala.
The Attack on the Ixcan
Guatemalan history has clearly demonstrated the calamitous results
of megaprojects and natural resource exploitation, labeled "development",
for its indigenous people. With little or no environmental regulations,
megaprojects and resource exploitation have been detrimental to the
land and the people who live there. Protests and organizing to protect
communities have been consistently met with violent and often deadly
In the late 1970s, when Guatemala's largest dam was built on the Chixoy
river, 444 people were massacred when they protested the dam that
would flood their communities. In the end, over 3,500 people were
displaced and 6,000 were negatively affected by the dam. Adequate
compensation for their relocation and reparations for the massacre
have yet to be received by those affected. More recently, this past
January several communities in the state of Alta Verapaz were forcibly
removed from their land when a Canadian mining company renewed its
interest in mining copper. Truckloads of soldiers and policeman arrived
in caravans behind men in suits who read the legal document announcing
the land eviction. The indigenous Q'eckchi watched as their homes
were dismantled or burned to the ground.
Devastatingly, the people of the Ixcan are likely to be next.
Late last fall, I watched as a man drew a map of the Ixcan on a blackboard
in front of a room full of other Guatemalan activists from across
the country. He drew on "development" projects the government
had planned for the region: hydroelectric dams, oil drilling, road
construction and various plantations. Soon the map was filled with
little symbols of things such as oil rigs and dams. It was hard to
believe that all these projects could fit in the tiny region in which
I was living. I could see fear begin to build in people's eyes and
the anger rise in their voices. I fought back my own building tears
as I thought, "Where are these people going to live?"
Specifically, three major projects are presently in the works in the
Ixcan. First, there are plans to construct a 390 megawatt dam on the
Xalala River, making it the second largest dam in Guatemala after
the Chixoy dam mentioned above. The flooding that the dam will cause
is predicted to displace 20 plus communities and countless more will
be affected through the change in water flow and quality. Next, plans
are being made to build a major highway between Belize and the westernmost
part of Guatemala to transport goods, not people, which will cut directly
through the region. Additional plans would put sugarcane and African-palm
(used for biodiesel) plantations along the highway. Finally, a British
oil company, Petrolatina, has oil exploration plans. Oil rigs will
be placed directly in Cuarto Pueblo.
While the costs of this exploitation of natural resources or development
are catastrophic, no real benefits exist for the people who live there.
The power generated from the electric dam will serve only urban areas,
in or outside the country. Oil will be exported to foreign countries,
likely the U.S. Additionally, the highway will not provide the local
people faster transportation from their communities to the municipality,
nor will it get them to the capital or the closest hospital any faster.
Instead, the majority of people will be left with nowhere to live
or in harsher, unhealthy living environments.
Though plans for the projects are fairly concrete, a popular referendum
(consulta popular) was held this week to put the popular opinion of
the Ixcan regarding the dam and oil drilling on the books. Despite
hardcore propaganda by the commonly listened to conservative radio
station which has ties to the army and other elites, 91% of the voters,
and almost all eligible voters voted, said "no". Though
this "No" vote should ban these projects according to Guatemalan
constitutional law and international law, the Guatemalan government
is notorious for not following through with legal provisions meant
to protect people. The Guatemalan federal government has already signed
agreements and given licenses to international companies, including
Petrolatina. The people will be left with the choice to leave the
land they worked so hard to obtain or risk their lives in a struggle--of
what ever kind--to keep it.
Our Hands in
Their Blood: Then and Now
In my time in Guatemala, I have continually grappled with learning
the extent of the role the U.S. has played in the suffering of the
Guatemalan people, both historically and presently. It is widely known
that the U.S. funded and designed the 1954 coup that overthrew the
democratically elected President Arbenz, who was the first president
to begin land reform, redistributing unused land owned by large plantation
owners, often American, to the poor majority. Moreover, the U.S. provided
military training and financial aid for the civil war that spun out
of the coup and resulted in the genocide of hundreds of thousands
of people. In fact, at the School of the Americas, it trained the
high command of both military governments being prosecuted for the
genocide, including Rios Montt.
The U.S. has also played a large role in the holdings of global corporations
in Guatemala and the shaping of Guatemalan law regarding international
interests in natural resources. Since the early decades of the twentieth
century, U.S. corporations and government representatives have actively
influenced Guatemalan law, including limiting the ability of people
to organize around land or workers rights and reducing the amount
of loyalties paid by international companies. From the Rockefellers
to the Cheneys, U.S. players have been involved in the ownership and
management of oil, electric and mining companies.
The U.S. continues to play an integral role in Guatemala's environmental
exploitation and destruction in a myriad of ways, in addition to the
continued military support distributed under the name of anti-drug
and terrorism efforts. The U.S., along with other western countries,
own oil, mining and electric companies throughout the country and
are continually making deals to create more projects. The U.S. receives
all of Guatemala's oil exports. Additionally, the U.S. expends much
energy and resources pushing free trade policies that call for such
projects. Namely, the North and Central Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA
and CAFTA) have prompted Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), which is a regional
integration project to connect and power industry throughout Southern
Mexico and Central America that put development projects such as dams
and roads into fast drive.
The U.S. and other international companies are not innocent or naïve
about the human rights abuses that routinely go along with these projects.
Rather, they are actively involved in such abuses. In a rather visual
example of this, 1,000 North American troops were deployed in the
Guatemalan state, San Marcos, last January. It is understood that
their presence was a warning of the repercussions that would follow
strong protests to the many megaprojects that are now being built
there. This brute demonstration has many believing that the next U.S.
backed war is on its way.
Reflections from Home: Stark Contrasts and Hard Realities
With just a short few weeks in the States, the distance between my
life at home and my life in Guatemala is already beginning to set
in. My life here, and U.S. culture and lifestyle in general, seems
to have little to do with the modest lifestyle of rural Guatemala.
I have quickly adjusted to having an array of food and entertainment
options at my disposal each day, constant access to the internet and
news and no longer sit in amazement at the ease of getting in a car
and driving down the smooth, paved roads. I find myself concerned
with the more typical "crises" of my own society; I don't
have a car, my clothes are out of style, and I am panicking at finding
the first few grey hairs on my head. None of this was even an option
or issue in my life just 2 weeks ago.
But, simultaneously, an hour does not pass where my mind does not
drift back to Guatemala and I think of all I learned there. Though
I rarely hear Guatemala mentioned if not in reference to my return,
its image is conjured up in my mind by small references and signs
that do not always make a direct connection for people here. I know
my ritual morning coffee and banana were both likely grown in Guatemala,
and wonder which of the many latino migrant workers I see each day
from restaurant help to construction crews are from there. I fill
up a tank of gas and question if the fuel I put in will ever be the
same fuel stolen, for all intensive purposes, from under the ground
of Cuarto Pueblo, a place I hold so dear to me belonging to good friends
and some of the most courageous people I've ever met.
It is easy to miss the connection between our lives and Guatemala.
We simply do not speak of it here, and we have the luxury of choosing
if we want to know about it. But when in Guatemala, you cannot escape
the intertwinement of the two countries. Additionally, we have the
privilege of being removed from the damage our way of life has on
the environment. The threat of global warming looms uncertainly in
the future for us; no one is tearing the land from beneath us today.
Perhaps more than anything this is what I learned during my time in
Guatemala: really seeing how our actions can affect another country,
and the juxtaposition of how this looks and feels there versus here.
Our country has been intimately involved in Guatemala's history and
is directly implicated in the atrocities committed there over the
last century and we continue to play a vital role in its present horrors.
Blood has been spilled on our design and dollar before, and this shame
in our history has by no means been left in the past.
But what does that mean for our lives here? What does it mean for
us that, though we may not be the direct decision makers that decide
to throw a coup or kick someone off their land, our lives are implicated
because our society is based upon the exploitation of the same people?
I would be lying if I tried to pretend I had any clue of the answers
to these questions. Big changes would have to happen to have a prompt
or significant impact, and big changes are slow and scarce in coming.
The fight for such radical changes seems overwhelming, and often pointless.
It seems easier to just go on living the only way we know how here
in the U.S., without the constant upward battle and just try to be
happy. It is tempting to forget about places like Guatemala.
But I know I can no longer continue to pretend that my life, because
of the resources and economics required to live my life as I know
it, is not connected to or affect the rest of the peoples in the world
and the environment. Even if the only actions I can take right now
are to do those little things like ride my bike more often, use energy
efficient appliances and politically advocate through emails and calls
to senators regarding more environmentally conscious and globally
humane policies, the little things are better than continuing to ignore
my role in our world's intertwined existence.
I thank all of you for reading these letters and sharing them with
others you know. I have tried hard over the past months to make the
struggle in Guatemala seem more human and relevant. It will be a long
time in coming to process my experience there, and to understand how
to carry these lessons into the rest of my life. I look forward to
speaking with you all, catching up and continuing the discussion started
in these letters.
With much love,
The past few months I have been spending most
of my time at Francisco's house, which is always full of activity.
His wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law, all of whom have young children,
live with him, and at least one of them can be found standing in front
of the fire at any given moment. Doing their continual chores, the
women talk amongst themselves in their indigenous language, Mam, while
my partner and I play outside with the handful of kids. They call
me the nuera, or daughter-in-law, as I am promised to marry the youngest
of the children, if not all. I have spent some of my happiest nights
filled with laughter and stories with them.
Francisco himself is a hard person to catch.
Sometimes it seems that he is the busiest man in town. Despite the
considerable amount of time I have spent in his home, I am almost
never able to catch him as he flitters in and out of the kitchen quickly,
getting ready to attend to one of his many responsibilities, if I
see him at all. He has a warmness that reminds me of my own father
and I treasure the nights that I do catch him, and can see him act
as such a loving father and grandfather, and when we can sit and chat
for long stretches of time.
Lately, Francisco has been extra tired. In
addition to his normal duties, he has made long trips to the pueblo
in which he was born to visit his dying mother and across the border
to Mexico with his wife in the arduous process of diagnosing her chronic,
daily headaches that are so painful they blur her vision. More than
tired, he is frustrated. They finally diagnosed her illness, but Francisco
does not have the 80,000 pesos it would cost to buy the medicine to
For the second time this month after discussing
his inability to find the loans for her treatment, he tells me certain
parts of his past. "Antes, it wasn't like this," he begins
to tell me as we sit down to eat. Before, things were different.
Before The Ixcán
Like many others who moved to the Ixcán
in the early 1970s, Francisco was the perfect triumph-out of- adversity
story we all latch onto for inspiration and hope. He was one of many
children in his family. Having always struggled to make ends meet,
the family's situation became far graver when Francisco's father died
when he only was 6 years old. He remembers times when there was barely
anything to eat, and hunger became a routine feeling. "We had
to deal with hunger. Sometimes we only had tortillas to eat, sometimes
not even that." Accordingly, Francisco started working on the
banana plantations by the time he reached 7 years old.
He was born in Guatemala Huehuetenango, a department
in the highlands where many of the Ixcan's eventual inhabitants would
come from. The population of the highlands was made up of several
of Guatemala's 22 indigenous groups, each with their own language
and customs. A combination of lack of land and possibilities for paid
work forced most highland campesinos to work seasonally on coffee
and banana plantations on the southern coast, where conditions were
horrendous. People suffered from unbearable heat, little pay and unsanitary
living conditions, while under the ever watchful eye of a patron.
"How we suffered!" begin many elders
who remember the time in the plantations. "You think the Ixcán
is hot, well, at least there is shade! This is nothing," a woman
tells me as we are sitting under a tin roof, sweat glimmering off
of each of our faces, dripping down our backs. "And the patrons,"
she goes on, "they were watching you every minute. One could
not take a rest if one wanted to."
Conditions in the Highlands got worse and worse,
and there were less and less options for young people starting new
families. Though Francisco always managed to get by, when he married
his wife they had no land to buy and no money to buy it with. So when
the church announced an opportunity to receive land in the Ixcán,
Francisco jumped at the chance. Picking up and moving to the Ixcán
would be no easy task, however. Despite that life in the highlands
was growing increasingly more difficult, they were tied to the land
through history and culture, and people would have to leave the comfort
of their families and the pueblos they had known their whole lives.
Nonetheless, Francisco left the highlands and started the long path
to the Ixcán.
Before The Army Came
Early settlers literally carved their path
to arrive in the Ixcán, cutting through the thick vegetation
of the jungle with their machetes, carrying their few necessary items
on their backs. Upon arrival in the Ixcán, all were met with
sweltering heat, in contrast to the cool highlands, and swarming insects.
Many people fell sick adjusting to the new terrain. "There were
no roads," a woman tells me. "And there were no stores,
either. If you wanted to buy salt, for example, you had to go all
the way to Barillas (the closest town back in the highlands."
An additional burden was the language barrier
with which people were often confronted. Francisco had grown up in
a town where he did not need to speak anything but the most minimal
Spanish as everyone spoke Mam. The necessity to learn Spanish came
with the decision to move to the Ixcán, and Francisco and his
wife had to grapple with the language amidst worlds of other changes.
Many people could not adjust to life in the Ixcán and returned
to their pueblos from which they came. Those who stayed demonstrated
their strength and dedication, persevering the harsh circumstances
to eventually reap the benefits.
The church had set up cooperatives in each
founding town. (Incidentally, Cuarto Pueblo was the fourth of these
towns, giving it its name.) Each family was, for the most part, donated
a large plot of land to start out with. People were required to work
together to clear community areas and build community buildings. Slowly
but surely, the Ixcán became a more inhabitable place as a
refuge was created from the ever plaguing mosquitoes and threat of
snakes through the sweat and diligence of its new inhabitants.
The campesinos were encouraged to grow cardamom
and coffee, both which sold at a "good price," particularly
the former. Though roads were slow in coming, the priest in charge
of the coop program carried the produce of all the various coop towns
in a small plane to larger towns where the produce could be sold in
addition to the Sunday market. Francisco had 50 cuerdas growing of
each, and was able to sell his crops to invest in other endeavors.
In the main centro (downtown), there were stores,
including one owned by Francisco, comedors (small, family restaurants)
and a market was held there each Sunday. "You could get anything
at the market!" Francisco tells me. "Vegetables, pigs, tamales
or elote (sweet corn) – anything." Moreover, the Sunday
market provided a chance for people to get together and socialize.
Hundreds of people arrived, both from Cuarto Pueblo and nearby towns,
to meet up on market day.
Francisco thrived in the Ixcán. After
just a few years, he was able to buy three parcelas, and put a house
on each one, he boasts to me. In addition to his store in the center,
he had a small store in his neighborhood and from these profits and
the profits and the profits from his crops he had hidden away Q25,000,
(a much more significant amount of money at the time.) He learned
and practiced dentistry, and even had a pharmacy for a while. In terms
of in Guatemala, Francisco, like many others, was prospering.
The First Massacre
Then one day, Francisco was sitting at his
home when he heard someone frantically yelling his name. He looked
and saw his neighbor, who owned a store next to his in the centro,
running with her two small children in tow. With tears running down
her face she told him, "The army came and burned down our stores.
They killed my husband and my son."
The next day Francisco and some other men from
town went to see the damage. All the stores in the center had been
burned down, along with the coop building. "There was nothing
left, and all the money I had saved was gone, too." Fifteen men
were murdered, including six coop leaders, a teacher and a health
promoter, a clear attack on leadership in Cuarto Pueblo.
The army did not leave right away. For months
they lived in the pueblo, torturing the people. They would go to the
houses and kill people's livestock to feed themselves and rape women
and girls while the men went to work on the parcelas. As he tells
me this, Francisco's eyes rest on the floor momentarily, and then
he looks up and tells me in his soft voice, "But what were we
to do? We had to eat, so we had to keep going to the parcelas. Life
had to continue." When the army finally left a few months later,
the people of Cuarto Pueblo were relieved and hoped the worst was
behind them. But the army's entry represented an end of an era of
hope and prosperity, and a warning of what was to come.
The next year the army returned and massacred
around 350 people on market Sunday. Like all other survivors of the
massacre, Francisco lost the remainder of what he had as he and his
family fled first into the jungle and then took refuge across the
border in Mexico.
Cuarto Pueblo: The Return and Now
After spending nearly 12 years of being unable
to live on their land, many people began to return to Cuarto Pueblo
to reclaim it around 1994. Uninhabited for the whole of this time,
and because almost all structures were burned to the ground, the jungle
had once again taken over the area and the returned had to start all
The people of Cuarto Pueblo also changed. Not
everyone came back, of course, some returning to other parts of the
country but most staying in Mexico, causing families to be split apart.
The largest number of people had lived as refugees in Mexico. Many
also lived nomadically in the jungle in small communities, literally
fleeing and hiding as they were constantly being pursued by the army.
Some joined the guerilla after the atrocity and others still became
involved with the army in some shape or form. Once returned, the people
had to deal with their marked differences in consciousness created
through their varied experiences throughout the war. No longer strongly
unified with a common past and shared vision of the future, conflict
seeped into community life.
Perhaps most devastatingly, the market had
fallen in the years spent in Mexico and the jungle. The price of coffee
and particularly cardamom had fallen so drastically that most stopped
growing it. There was no longer a coop plane or pilot to fly produce
into the cities to be sold, and the large market in the Ixcán
was then held in Playa Grande where a military base had been set up
and subsequently became the center of Ixcán activity and its
municipality. Additionally, people repeatedly insist that the land
is not as fertile as it once was, and speculate that it is due from
the effects of bombs, or blood, that ruined the soil.
Francisco has managed to make a life for himself
and his family again, but no longer has means to make significant
amounts of money, and he struggles to provide his family with its
basic needs. His wife, meanwhile, will likely spend years in pain,
waiting to receive a simple treatment that the family cannot afford.
Francisco sighs deeply and says, "Esta
dura. It is hard, but that is life. The last tortillas are already
on the table, and the women have finally sat down to eat mostly from
the leftovers of their children, while the smallest of the kids are
already falling asleep on the benches at their mothers' sides. The
smoke from the burning out fire circles around the room before finding
its way out in the space between the wooden board walls and the tin
roof. "Eat well," Francisco tells us, before excusing himself
from the room, off to do some end-of-the-day chore.
As my partner and I walk
home, the details of Francisco's story race through my head. I try
to picture Cuarto Pueblo as something other than that I know. I wonder
what his life would be like if the massacre had not happened, if the
resources he had built had not been destroyed or there was an opportunity
to rebuild them in the return. Would he have been able to continue
to prosper and be able to have taken care of his wife the way he wishes
he could? Would his 16 year old son be crossing the border this week
to meet his other brothers this week in the U.S.?
Sometimes it is easy to forget how the past connects to the present,
and how our present actions will affect the future. Just this month,
the ten year anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that
ended Guatemala's civil war passed and the 25 year anniversary of
the Cuarto Pueblo massacre will be celebrated this March. Though Guatemala's
war and genocide have long been out of international attention, it
is very recent history when you are here and its residue permeates
almost every aspect of life. Guatemala is not alone in this, and some
days it is overwhelming to think about the number of places and people
that are dealing with the lasting effects of violence throughout the