Tuesday, September 05, 2006

5. Life and Death

Life and Death

Below the ruins of the great cathedral of Santiago in Antigua, once the center of Catholicism in all of Central America, we entered a series of catacombs. In the central chamber, bodies were laid to decompose. When the body was reduced to a skeleton, the bones would be removed to one of the adjoining ossuaries. Our guide pointed out holes in the end wall through which air could escape. These were placed beneath the steps of the side entrance of the cathedral, near the street, so that the smell of putrefaction would remind passers-by and those entering to worship of their mortality. .

Guatemala is a spectacularly beautiful country. Volcanoes, Sheer mountains. Great, crystalline blue and jade green lakes. Coffee fincas, where leafy shade trees protect the compact, shiny coffee bushes. Huge Mayan temples rearing their heads above rainforest where parrots and toucans scream and fly from branch to branch and troops of spider and howler monkeys play freely.

The traditional clothing worn by many of the Mayan women is also spectacular. The Maya love color, and weave vivid textiles on backstrap looms. Some are embroidered with beautiful birds and flowers.

The power of the cycle of life and death is everywhere before your eyes. The Mayans occupied the monumental city of Tikal for about 1800 years. At its height, the population of Tikal was about 200,000, and it is though that it was abandoned when persistant drought made it impossible for local agriculture to support the population. When you walk among the vast temples and buildings it is hard to imagine that even the memory of its existence had been lost. The burgeoning life of the tropical rainforest covered it with feet of soil and a jungle canopy. Eighteen hundred years of human civilization, simply erased. Such is the power of nature in Guatemala.

One of the most striking things about the country is the constant presence of Mayan culture. Not only in dress, but in decorative elements crafted into the facades of major churches and municipal buildings dating back almost to the conquest. In the ruins of the great cathedral in Antigua, apertures admit light to a crypt below where the main altar once stood, apertures placed in accord with the position of the sun at various times of the year. Did the church knowingly allow this, or was it incorporated by the Mayan workers without their knowledge? In Tikal, temples were placed in such a way that the shadows they threw intersected perfectly on the days of equinox or solstice. Today, the great cathedral has fallen, Tikal is abandoned, but Mayans still perform their sacred rites in the crypt below the altar.

We found it fascinating that the Spanish Conquistadores apparently encouraged this intertwining of Mayan religion and Catholicism. Their goal may well have be the conversion of the populace, but it seems to have resulted in the preservation of some of the ancient Mayan culture rather than its eradication. Imagine if the Europeans who conquered North America had woven elements of Native American religion and culture into their churches: both the buildings and the practices. How different might our society be today? This is not to say that Spanish rule was benign. There were massacres, almost all Mayan texts were burned, and perhaps even more damaging, there were great inequities in landholding and the institution of a kind of serfdom that persisted until recent years.

Here is a little background on the involvement of the US Government in Guatemala. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Guatemala had for the first time two reform-minded presidents who were actually elected by the populace: Arevalho and his successor Arbenz. Arevalho, a teacher, was a great admirer of Franklin Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms. Both attempted to institute land reform and other reform measures, such as doing away with the serf system that required rural people to work for landowners—including the Boston-based United Fruit Company, which was the largest landowner in the country—for free for several months each year. At that time, Guatemala was importing food because almost all of its arable land was owned by agribusinesses, which kept much of it lying fallow and the rest in export crops. Arbenz had a plan to buy some of the fallow land from large landowners using eminent domain, and distribute it to the people, who could farm it and raise food and support themselves. Arbenz offered United Fruit the amount that they claimed their land was worth for tax purposes: about $600,000. But United Fruit wanted $16 million. The head of United Fruit hired Edward Bernays, known as “the father of public relations,” who conducted a brilliant campaign to convince the US Congress and citizenry that the Arbenz government was riddled with communists. Henry Cabot Lodge made speeches to that effect in Congress, and even the New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Nation parrotted these distortions. Eventually, a CIA-backed force invaded Guatemala from Honduras, overthrew Arbenz, and installed the first in a long line of military or military-dominated rulers, setting in motion a civil war that would smolder and flare for decades and claim at least 200,000 lives.

Everywhere here one is reminded that the very land is unstable, that life and death are close. Every day, from the windows of the chicken bus as it lumbers over the mountain, we see a patchwork of tiny cornfields on undulating slopes of 45 degrees or more. Clearly these are fields that must be tended by hand. Often the fields end abruptly with a drop of 20 feet or so where the land, eroded by the rainy season, suddenly gave way. “Was someone hoeing when it happened?” one of the volunteers wonders aloud. Driving through the mountains to Panajachel, on the shore of Lake Atitlan, I see what look to my northern New England eyes like ski trails etched on the precipitous slopes. Suddenly I realize that they are not ski runs, but the trails of landslides. Later, the long term Camino Seguro volunteer who is our guide on this trip will tell me about taking a group of donors to the site of a town in the region after Hurricane Stanley last year. The rains triggered a massive landslide that engulfed the town, burying 600 of its inhabitants under 12 feet of mud and rock as they slept. He told me about how a man, explaining that they stood on the mass grave of his family, began to cry, how he cried too, and so did the donors.

We visit the town of Santiago Atitlan, one of the largest in the Mayan Highlands. Here hundreds died in La Violencia, the civil war. About 130,000 Guatemalans are believed to have been killed just in the years 1980 through 83, when Ronald Reagan’s administration restored funding and support for the right-wing government in its allegedly anti-Marxist efforts. Throughout the country, mayors, teachers, clergy, professors, trade unionists, students, agrarian reformers--in short, anyone who represented a potential threat to the power structure—were tortured and murdered. In Santiago, people disappeared and were never seen again. Sometimes their tortured and mutilated bodies were found and buried.

Santiago is built on a slope rising from Atitlan, an enormous, crystalline blue crater lake surrounded by dramatic volcanic mountains. At the top of the hill stands a 500-year-old church. To the right, as you enter, is a shrine to an American priest, Father Stanley Rother of Oklahoma. The local people have created a display that explains who Stanley Rother was, what his did, how he died, and how they felt about him. Because they found his name difficult to pronounce, and because they loved him, they gave him a Mayan name: Apla’s.

What were the crimes that earned Stanley Rother a place on the death list? (Yes, our government’s allies actually did keep death lists.) He supported the poor. He encouraged Guatemalans to become lay readers and teachers in his church. He taught people to read. He built a small hospital. He was warned, and fled the country for a while, but he felt compelled to return to his flock. “The shepherd cannot run” was how he put it. He paid with his life. Our tax dollars helped to murder him, and thousands more. Stanley Rother’s body was returned to Oklahoma for burial, but at the request of his parishioners, his heart lies buried beneath his church in Santiago.

Caught between the two sides in the civil war, the Mayans in isolated mountain villages bore the brunt of this campaign. At least 90% of the atrocities were committed by the US-backed and trained government forces and right-wing death squads, who carried out a scorched earth policy aimed at denying local support to the guerrillas. Many highland villages were destroyed and the people buried in mass graves.

Some people fleeing this violence came to Guatemala City, where they and successive generations live and work in the garbage dump. Camino Seguro represents the best hope that many of them have for rising from this squalor, poverty, and indignity.

As an American, knowing what had been done there in our name, with our money, I felt deeply ashamed before I went. I wondered if people would see us and think only of blame. What I found was that people seemed to concentrate on appreciating what we were there to do. It is complicated for them too. One man, the owner of our home away from home, the Café No Se, told me that one of his Guatemalan friends was a torturer during the war. Nothing is simple. Yes, there are some people who are clear instigators of evil, but there are also common people caught up in a struggle and simply trying to survive as best they can.

We cannot change the past, but I believe we can and must do these things: we must acknowledge the truth of the past, we must do something to help build a better future, we must be aware of what is being done in our name and with our resources, and perhaps most difficult of all, we must take responsibility for trying to stop it when it is wrong.

4. Fredy's Story

Fredy’s Story

I tell Fredy that we live in Maine. He’s only been there for one day, but he knows it’s cold in the winter. He worked in North Dakota for another project one winter, and finally asked to be reassigned because he couldn’t take it anymore.

Fredy tells me that he spent 14 months in Cambridge, Massachusetts many years ago. “What were you doing there?” I ask, expecting to hear that he was a student, or maybe working. “Hiding,” he says. .

I was not a victim or a hero, he says. I came from a poor family with nine children. When I was young, I was a professional soccer player. (Not any more, he adds. Now I’m too old. He laughs. Fredy is a about 40, a good-humored, articulate, and charming guy. He works for Safe Passage, before that for other projects helping the poor of his country.) Because of this, I had a little extra money. I had the idea of going to the Mayan Highlands to help people out. This was the early eighties. Bad idea, I say. Bad idea, he agrees.

I went with friends. There were five of us. We went into some villages and started helping people fix their floors and roofs and such things. After a couple of weeks, some soldiers came looking for us. They said, “You aren’t Indios. This isn’t your business. You should leave.” While this was happening, one of my friends was talking with the youngest of the soldiers. I don’t know what they said, but suddenly the boy shot him right here. Fredy pats the middle of his chest, just below his throat. He was just nineteen years old, studying to be an engineer. Dead.

We got to Santiago Atitlan. While we were there, another of my friends disappeared. We never saw him again. There were three of us left. We all left the country. I lived in Cambridge, and then in California, and in other places for years. Finally, I came back. My two other friends, one lives on Long Island, in New York. The other lives in Switzerland.

The boy who killed my friend was probably from a poor family. Even boys from the highland villages joined the Army. At that time, the Army would pay a family 350Q if their son joined up. That was a lot of money to them. So some poor families with many children would send their sons.

Life, death, economics again.

3. El Mirador

El Mirador

Back in the car, we are driven to El Mirador. This is a cemetery of white mausoleums. As we drive by rows of conventional rectangular structures, we suddenly come upon a pyramid, probably 20 or 30 feet high, easily four times the size of the tin shanties that shelter families of 6 or 7 in the neighborhoods outside. A uniformed security guard armed with a shotgun stands at attention in front. This magnificent structure—and the man with a shotgun—guard the remains of the Gallo family. Until recently, the Gallo beer company had held a nationwide monopoly on beer production, and as a result the family is immensely wealthy. Is it too obvious to point out that even in death the Gallo family is housed and cared for better than the living poor?

As we reach the edge of the cemetery, the reason for our visit becomes clear. .
We get out of the van and walk to the edge of a bluff. We overlook an immense ravine—a valley, really. The vista is immense. This is the source of the pervasive sweetish stink of rotting garbage that fills the air, and mixes with the characteristic Guatemalan stench of diesel fumes and burning into a polluted soup that is the air we breathe in Guatemala City. Later, I will find that when I hold one of the children on my lap this smell, often mixed with stale urine, fills my nostrils. This is the Guatemala City garbage dump Far below, tiny figures chase toy trucks as they drive in, striving to get the first crack at burrowing through the load of refuse in search of treasure: a glass or plastic bottle, a sheet of tin roofing without too many holes, a not-too-badly broken chair or table, or perhaps even some not-too-rotten food. Sometimes they find money or jewelry. Sometimes they find dead bodies. A tiny toy earth mover lumbers up and down, pushing the garbage further out and down, slowly but surely filling the valley with garbage.

In the newspaper one day, there is an article about how the effluvia that washes out of the dump is polluting other neighborhoods in the city. This seems to be an issue of increasing concern. There is no mention of the shantytowns that are actually built on top of the dump, or of the people who make their living there.

Suddenly I realize that the trees edging the bluff upon which we stand are filled with hundreds of vultures. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more flap and stalk about down in the dump, competing with the humans for garbage.

I have never seen a vulture before. The sight of the enormous, black, hooded birds perched among the mausoleums is unimaginably Gothic. It’s a scene straight out of an Edmund Gorey illustration, except that here there is no humorous ironic distance. This is real. Almost anywhere you go in that part of the city, you can see a circling column of black dots, vultures wheeling in the sky over the dump. You orient yourself by it. Here we are. There is the dump.

As we return to the van, we pass a place where the cemetery is eroding down into the valley, and the slope is strewn with bits of anonymous junk. Here, we learn, is where they dispose of funerary deadbeats. Elsewhere in the cemetery there are public burial walls with slots for coffins for those who cannot afford a private mausolem. If your relatives fail to pay the fee of 350Q every other year, the cemetery owner will remove your coffin from its slot and shove it down this slope toward the dump. Like the cats, dogs, and occasional murder victim, your body will be eternally joined with the decomposing remains of Guatemala City.
Is there some reason why people aren’t cremated instead, I ask? The gas for cremation costs 10,000 Q, Fredy answers. It’s a matter of economics and dignity, he says. Almost everything is.

2. The Social Work Tour

The Social Work Tour

Monday morning in our second week in Guatemala, we are driven to the neighborhood in Guatemala City where Camino Seguro works by Oscar and Fredy. Accompanied by the Camino Seguro social worker, we walk down a street of small, squalid cinderblock houses, where people look at us incuriously. They are undoubtedly accustomed to seeing the foreigners who come to Camino Seguro pick their way gingerly down their smelly, garbage-strewn street. This place looks pretty bad. A youngish man, probably drunk, lies on the curb. His face is dotted with buzzing flies that he doesn’t seem to have the energy to brush away. He has a lot in common with the miserable-looking, mangy, scarred dogs that lie in the meager shade next to the houses.

But suddenly we come to the end of the cinderblock row, and the real shantytown lies before us. The cinderblock row we just left looks immeasurably better in comparison. Strings of huts made entirely from pieces of salvaged tin roofing wind up and down alleys among small rises and dips, the alleys little more than narrow concrete gutters, maybe three feet wide. Since it is the rainy season, the alleys are washed by occasional downpours, so it doesn’t smell as bad as it probably does in the dry season. There are no windows, and the doors are hung with a ragged piece of cloth. The tin roofs bake in the sun. There is no apparent running water, although there are electrical hookups. They steal the electricity, says Fredy. There seems to be no plumbing at all. What they do with human waste one can only imagine. Every now and then we’ll pass an outcropping of dirt. The dirt is layered with the shredded ghosts of plastic bags, and you realize that all of this is built on top of the dump. The toxins and methane that exude from the ground they live on account for the high rate of asthma, upper respiratory infection, and cancer among the dump workers and their families.

We stop to greet an affable grey-haired couple, who say hola and want to shake hands. Doing so with a smile is a major act of will. Even I, who am not a clean freak by any means, have to fight the urge to whip out a Wet Wipe immediately afterwards. As they talk with the social worker, Fredy tells us in an undertone that they are habitual drunks, who several years ago took their son to the hospital in an emergency and forgot to go back for him. By the time they showed up, a couple of months later, the hospital had placed him in an orphanage. It took them quite a while to get him back.

Each shack, maybe 6 feet by 12 feet at most, houses families of 5 or more. Usually, everyone sleeps on one rancid mattress. There is no way to keep clean here. The smell of rotting garbage and cooking fires is pervasive. Sick-looking dogs are everywhere.

None of the people we visit today give us permission to enter their home. That’s okay. I can imagine.
How can people maintain any dignity and self-respect living in a place like this? How can a mother care for her children? How can they hope to be integrated into the rest of Guatemalan society? I understand what drove Hanley Denning to create Camino Seguro. I marvel at the resilience of the people who find the strength to take advantage of the hope for a better life that it offers.

1. Antigua


Antigua Guatemala is a lovely little city, about a mile square, cupped in a valley ringed by extinct and active volcanoes. In the 500 or so years since it was founded by Spanish Conquistadores, it has been partially destroyed several times by earthquakes. Now, no structure in the city can be taller than two stories. Most are one.

Once, the Spanish ruled all of Central America from Antigua. Its square mile contained 42 churches, as well as convents and monasteries. Every major order had a presence there. When a lone bell is rung on Sunday morning at San Francisco, once of the few churches now standing and in use, one can imagine how the Sunday morning air was once rent by a cacophony of bells from those 42 churches within a square mile.

After one of the more devastating earthquakes, the government packed up and moved to a new Guatemala City, where they thought they would be safer. The churches and cathedral were stripped of their most elaborate interior decorations. Those who stayed behind abandoned the ruined churches, or moved their services into the portions left standing. In the ruins of the great Cathedral of Santiago, you can see where they built walls that redefined the space to exclude the ruins of the once-great nave, the side chapels, and the shady cloisters.

Antigua became a charming backwater. The once-vibrant Mayan colors of the cathedral and the oldest buildings were gradually covered with whitewash. The cobblestone streets remained unpaved. The great houses of the wealthy, with their lush interior patios, fountains, and shady colonnades, each occupying a quarter of a block were gradually broken up into smaller units.

Antigua presents a charming, yet subtly mysterious face to the world. As you walk down its cobblestone streets in the early morning, the stucco façade on both sides is seamless, punctuated by heavily shuttered windows protected by ornamental yet effective wrought iron grilles, or sets of doors, some narrow, some large enough to admit a carriage—or nowadays, a car. These doors present a metaphor that is almost too obvious to use: in the right of each set of carriage doors is set a smaller door, wide enough only to admit a person. In that smaller door is a yet smaller panel at face height that can be opened to talk through. In that small panel is a peephole. To gain entrance, one must pass the peephole, the panel, the door.

You can tell where one property ends and another begins sometimes only when the color changes. The colors are beautiful: peach, ochre, lavender, cream, pink, pale yellow. The high sidewalks are so narrow that two people must sometimes adjust their shoulders to pass, and often someone must step down into the street. Here and there are remnants of decorative paving stones or patterns pressed into the concrete in the 1920s. In many places the sidewalk is crumbling. The curbs can be a foot or more high, and in some places there is a single stone placed as a step to help you up. The way is broken by inclines that admit cars to interior courtyards. Walking is a mindful act in Antigua

Behind those shuttered facades lies the private life of Antigua. Bougainvillea or some other gorgeous flowering vine that I can’t identify creeps over the wall from an interior patio. Charming little domes and turrets peep above the roof. The tops of trees can be glimpsed here and there.

There are tiendas, bakeries, lavanderias, language schools, and internet cafés everywhere, although they very rarely post such a thing as hours of business. Later in the morning, perhaps by 10 o’clock, some of the narrow, unmarked doors on the side streets will be set open to reveal a small shop in the shadowy interior. Nearer the Park Central, wide doors will be thrown open to reveal interior courtyards surrounded by shops selling textiles and jewelry and art, internet cafes, and restaurants.
One would expect Antigua to be quiet, and on the side streets it can be. But on the main streets, such as the Septima Calle Oriente where we live, the noise is deafening. Chicken buses begin roaring by at four o’clock in the morning, spewing clouds of black exhaust and honking their horns with apparently random abandon, as the ayudante shouts, “Guate, Guate, Guate!” and my bedroom shakes. When a bus stops to pick up passengers, the driver of a car behind it will often begin futilely blasting his horn in frustration. Tuk-tuk drivers gun their lawnmower-sized engines and bang and rattle over the cobbles. Walking to our bus stop on the other side of town, we have to shout to be heard. A few times I lose it and scream “Shut UP!” at a blaring bus or particularly obnoxious driver, but no one can hear me. At any time, but particularly at night, there are outbreaks of what sounds like gunfire, but is only someone setting off a handful of bombas. For some people, apparently, there just isn’t enough noise.