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.

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