June 30, 2010

Testimonio: Don Pablo. Capture and Torture, Guatemala, 1982

We had an incredible conference yesterday, featuring the firsthand testimony of Don Pedro's experience of capture and torture in 1982, during the worst years of the 36 yr war in Guatemala. To share this experience with a room full of people was to be very vulnerable, again. Don Pedro shed tears through much of this brave discussion. I shed tears as well, and hope that I can make a positive difference somehow in my short lifetime. I begin by sharing his story with you. He spoke in Spanish, and there was an English translator. I wrote this as I listened to him and the translator. It is, therefore, not verbatim, but very close to what he said. I included the question/answer session at the end.

This picture is from a photo exhibition I saw yesterday afternoon, from the same time period. These are corpses with the soldiers; Don Pedro looked much like these men after being tortured, but naked, and somehow alive.

Conferencia: Testimonio de Don Pedro

I talk today to give pause and to think about why we live in a world with such disequilibrium So many people are very poor and there is so much impunity. Why?

The Campesino Movement was an idea of sharing and helping with work; of cooperation. For example, if I make a bunch of food, people will come and eat it and help me build a house. This system used to be very strong, but it has been eroded by the war. Now people are more involved in caring about money than about cooperation.

With the help of some Canadian friends 35 or 40 years ago, our community began to concentrate the Campesino Movement by creating a savings and loans organization as well as teaching Guatemalan history and livestock care, etc. Before this, I only had a 2nd grade education. Through the cooperative, I began to understand why there were so many kidnappings and murders going on in our country around us. The military used the word “communism” to explain or describe what we were doing, but we were just trying to learn, to help each other thrive under difficult circumstances.

Due to my involvement in the cooperative, I began to be labeled a guerrilla, because the revolutionaries, the real guerrillas were also organizing, but they were organizing for resistance. April 19th 1982, I was captured. Sixty people captured me. The chief of this patrol was a friend of mine, but he was just doing what he was ordered to do. But I admired that he had the courage to speak up and admit he didn't know what would happen to me, if I'd ever come back, that he felt badly because he knew I wasn't a criminal.

I was stripped and interrogated and tortured, my hands bound. I spent the day like that, they wanted me to tell them who my compañeros were in the supposed guerrilla movement. Three days before, a 13 or 14 year old boy had been captured and tortured. He had heard rumors that I was associated with the guerrilla movement. He was young, frightened, didn't understand anything about what was going on in the country, and the soldiers promised him money and better treatment if he told them the names of people from his community that were involved with the guerrilla movement. Similarly another boy earlier did the same, so I had two strikes against me, two false testimonials against me.

I was in the jail of San Jose. The next day I was put in a car and they told these soldiers, “treat this guy however you like.” As soon as we were out of city limits, they surrounded me and grabbed me from every direction. Biting my ears, pulling my arms behind me, beating me with machetes into my back, grabbing me, twisting, hacking, ringing me in every direction. I prayed to God to give me the strength to resist the blows. “Who are your compañeros!?” they kept demanding. Blood ran all over my head, my body. “Wow,” they said, “this guerrilla is really well trained to resist our blows like this.”

I was thrown in a clandestine secret prison 5 meters deep and 3 meters wide. There were two of us thrown in there, but there was one in there already, tied up. The tied up man agreed that he'd seen me and that I was indeed a guerrilla. I don't know if he was hallucinating from the torture and thought I was someone else, or just thought that agreeing would lessen his future torture. So it was with great pride that the military men threw me in prison, for having caught a guerrilla.

During the whole ride from the city, I was smashed in many places with the rifle butt. I was bruised and so hurt, painful. I arrived to the prison in pain, but the man tied up continued beating me. In this situation you just wonder what is going on. Will I be killed later? What is going on?

I was there for eight days. Every day they would torture and interrogate me. They hung me by my neck with a lasso. They hung me until I had no oxygen. Then they would lower me. They did this three times. My neck is damaged from that lasso. They tortured me in my most sensitive parts. They did tests on me. I would be hung up, flat, from my feet and hands, and they would drop boulders on my abdomen. Once. Twice. I thought they would not do it again, but they did. “How am I going to live?” I wondered, “They've destroyed my liver, my intestines, my internal organs.”

Another time they came in with a gas can and fire wood. They said, “We're going to burn you if you don't tell us who your compañeros are.” And I said, “Just do it, burn me,” because how could I live with all my injuries? All my pain? I just wanted them to end it for me. The next day they shot at me, to scare me, barely missing me, or catching the edges of my body with the bullets. Three warning shots, but I wanted them to just shoot me for real, to end the torment.

After eight days, more military came. Several times before, when they asked if I was thirsty or hungry, and I said yes, they urinated on me. So after three times, I stopped answering. But one day someone asked if I wanted just a bit of water. After not answering, I finally said, “If you'd be so kind,” and he offered me a bottle. “Hurry,” he said, “if they see me offering you water, they'll beat me,” but my hands were tied so I couldn't drink. Then he asked if I wanted a bit of tamal. I said yes and thought maybe it was poisoned and I hoped it was so I would die. But it wasn't. The whole day there were no more beatings. They took us, naked, dirty, injured, starving and put us in a truck, covered us with sponges and the soldiers sat on top of us.

The car went and went, but very slowly. Years later when I revisited the places they took us, I saw that these places were not very far from each other. But it took a long time to get to the next station. When they took the sponges off, they told me to get out but I couldn't move because of the pain. So they helped me out. There was a man with a hose and I requested it. I didn't know if it was clean or dirty water and I didn't care. I drank and drank and was so happy to have some water. But there I was, we were tied up, naked, covered in blood and urine. They sprayed us with the hoses repeatedly and gave me a shirt and a pair of pants. One man asked if I'd been treated well at the other place. I didn't answer. He said, “I don't know if you will be killed or not, but as long as you're here you will be treated well. You must tell me if you are not.” He pointed to a photo of Jesus on a crucifix and said, “that is why you are alive.”

For six days I was there. They tied me up again and threw me to the floor. I grew tired of them constantly interrogating me. They called me 'dirty guerrillero' and kept torturing me. The man from the first day came back once and said, “you just have to say who your friends are, then you will be left alone,” but I grew fearless from the pain. Instead of staying silent, since it didn't matter if I lived or died, I said, “How can I accuse innocent people? Why would I name random names when there is no reason? I am not a guerrillero, I know none, how could I make false accusations?” They continued biting and torturing me.

They told me I could leave. I couldn't move. They told me I could leave, but you think it is another trick of theirs. From the pain, I couldn't move, anyway. “GO!” they yelled and kicked me. I tried to move. I just wanted the very definition of my life to end. But I somehow got up and moved. I was naked and they forced me out of the compound. They made me sign something so I could be free. It was so difficult for me to move. But when I exited I found I was in the parrish of San Ignacio (?). They had been assassinating priests there because they considered them to be helping the people, the guerrilla forces.

So leaving there, I had only 12 km to walk to come to my house. I walked, but only for about 26 meters at a time, then I would collapse or faint. I was so close to my house but I was so painful. I passed a military post and begged the soldier for the use of a horse because I couldn't walk. He looked at me like a flea bitten thing and screamed at me, “No you can't use my horse, you filthy nasty thing!” Then I saw a campesino, an acquaintance of mine and I'll never forget his kindness, he said, “how can I help you?” I wanted to be taken to my house. He had a horse, but I couldn't get on it because I couldn't sustain my weight, I was so broken. He made me wait while he got two blankets from his house to put on the horse and he laid me over the horse's back as we went to my house. They sent word that I had returned and I was received by my neighbors and a priest. They all exclaimed, “how can you be alive? How can you have endured this? You are so broken, you have so many open wounds...” The priest cared for me and tended my wounds for several days. A soldier came through and said, “why would we shoot you when you already look dead.”

Back at home, they insisted I stay at the patrulla (patrol office staffed by civilian men forced to work for the military). For 20 days, people kept watch over me, in shifts, because they thought I would die. Eventually they thought I would have to either face accusations again and go through the same situation again, or flee. I was so injured I decided to leave and go to Mexico as a refugee. My first two years there it was horrible. I couldn't work, I had no one, I was miserable. But that is another story.

This is Don Pedro today, in Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), a community of returned refugees. He is showing us the process of harvesting honey.

--What happened to your land when you left Guatemala?

Well, when you're screwed, even the dogs piss on you. My mom and sisters still work on that land now, but during that time, the house was blown up so they had to leave too.

--Where was your family when you came back from being captured and tortured?

My family was so worried about me, but the military captured all the catechists (including my brothers and a brother in law and an uncle) and they suffered similar torture during the same time as well. The military considered all the catechists to be supportive of the guerrillas. I didn't know this at the time. It was a bitter situation for my family. When my family found out I'd been released, they were elated because no one escaped. No one escaped. In the town, there was an idea that if they caught you, you were fucked. Some people thought, “Well they got all the catechists and guerrillas, finally they're cleaning up the town.” But when I returned, ideas changed. They saw what they did to us, and they found they were actually really happy I hadn't died. That I was back.

--What made you come back to Guatemala from Mexico since all the atrocity happened here?

I had a dream in my mind to return. I knew I was not guilty. I dream that you who hear our stories might be inspired to help us. Long live the indigenous people, the women the men that fight to make our country a better place. I hope so fiercely that you students will be inspired to collaborate and elevate the mindset of those in power.

--How can there be reconciliation if there has been no conciliation (request for understanding)? And do you know where or who your torturers are? What about that?

When you have savage people, you can't have reconciliation. But with education, people can grow to change the organization of power. We are the majority here, we the poor people. But awareness must be raised so the majority can claim their strength. With awareness, the evil or savage people in power now, would lose the might of their strength.

I can't identify the people who tortured me. There were so many. They all dressed in military uniform, and some had their faces painted or masked.

--How are you able to go on today?

The thing is, as one reads, you become aware of things. I am not mad at the soldiers, they were just following orders. The boy who accused me in the 1st place went to Mexico the day after I got back because he was so scared I would come after him, but I have never held anger against the small people who have been under control of the large powers. But I AM angry at the people who ordered such atrocities and at our government for allowing it to happen. It is the responsibility of EVERYONE who does know the truth to help allow and support other means of more people learning. It is necessary that social and political history be taught here or nothing will be changed. The left-leaning political parties here have no strength. We want to support learning and welfare of the people. I want to thank this school (PLQ), it is wonderful because it benefits the communities and social projects. It pays the salary of the preschool teacher in my community, otherwise there would be no preschool. I thank you for finding THIS school to study in. There are other spanish schools that only benefit the owner, but this school gives a lot to communities. You can help by telling more people to use this school.

I ask your forgiveness for my presentation. Maybe it was a bit rough, but I don't have a university training. Everything I know comes from the school of hard knocks (double entendre; “beatings”). I thank you for listening to my story. I hope to see you again, and to those I won't see again, I bid you Ojala Adios (“Goodbye, Go with God.”)

June 21, 2010

Mi Vida en Xela ( Quetzaltenango )

Quetzaltenango (the place of the quetzal), Guatemala is more commonly called Xela ("Shayla") by the locals, which is a Mayan name for place below 10 peaks. Here is how I spend my days.

6:30am--Wake up, do any lingering homework, review Spanish flashcards from the day before. Or sometimes I read a little bit.
6:45am--Shower. The showers here are heated by an electrical contraption attached to the showerhead, so the less water pressure you use, the more time the water has to heat up, the hotter the water. This of course means that the warmer your shower, the thinner the stream of water. A literal "shower" (as opposed to a trickle) is always cold.
7am--Breakfast. Almost always this is a bowl of corn flakes with warm milk and 2 pancakes. I told them we usually use cold milk on our cereal, but they said, "We use warm milk here because it´s cold". Like 65 degrees. I´ve gotten used to it.
7:45am--Walk to school. It´s only 3 blocks away!
8am--Study with Luis. He always starts the day by asking me what I did the day before and what I plan to do this afternoon, to get me to practice using my past and future tenses. He is always correcting my articles. Los/El/Las/La...whatever, you know what I mean. He´s a very patient, interesting man, who always knows whether I need to take a break, whether I need practice speaking or writing, or reading. He´s always a step ahead. It´s really a wonderful learning situation.
10:30am--Pausa. We take a break for te, pan y galletas (tea, bread & cookies). It´s nice to catch up with other students during the break. The other students here are totally awesome. Everyone is doing something awesome with their lives: socially, environmentally, justice-wise, communications-wise... They are all inspiring.
11am--More study.
1pm--Lunchtime! I walk home and have lunch. So my house is a boarding house. I´m the only foreigner there, but there are somewhere between 10 and 15 people living there.
  1. There´s Doña Patty who runs everything and has the best sense of humor.
  2. Her husband Romero who just came back from working in the States (I think)
  3. Their youngest son Mynor who just celebrated his 9th b´day while I was here.
  4. Their older son, Cesar who is in his 20s
  5. Cesar´s wife Sophia who is pregnant and helps around the house
  6. Cesar and Sophia´s 6 yr old son Rayan.
  7. Me
  8. Beatriz, an 18 yr old boarder who is going to law school at the nearby university, who talks really really fast and a lot and gets teased for only keeping boyfriends for a few days at a time.
  9. David, a boarder who is virtually silent
  10. Mahlisa, a boarder who I´ve only seen a few times.
  11. A mustached man who I´ve only seen once.
  12. A boarder who is virtually silent, whose name I forget.
  13. Another boarder who is virtually silent, whose name I also forget.
  14. others??? entirely possible.
Merced is the maid at my house. She works on weekdays to help prepare lunches and dinner. She wears traje tipica (Guatemalan costume), as do very many of the women in Xela and surrounding areas. That means a colorful woven skirt, an embroidered huipil (blouse) that is very colorful, and an apron on top of it all. Many women also braid satin into their hair, or wear their hair wrapped around their heads in special woven ribbons. Anyway, I always enjoy seeing Merced at lunchtimes. Lunchtime also means watching terrible soap operas ("Filled with Love" or "Ranch of Love" or something) or Judge Judy type shows ("Caso Cerrado"). Which is surprisingly good for practicing my listening skills, though very silly.

Afternoon--There is usually something planned with the school most afternoons. This is usually a little excursion to a nearby town with something interesting to offer. Like a natural hot spring, a colorful church or "saint", a special artisanal occupation, market, etc. They also offer documentaries, a movie on Wed nights, several lectures per week. Most of them have to do with the political or social injustice situations in Guatemala, Central and South America, and the world. It´s really wonderful to have this sort of information it so accessible, personal (they bring eyewitness speakers in regularly), and specific. I am learning lots. Lots and lots.

Evening--I have been enjoying regular yoga classes at The Yoga House several times per week. Each class is Q15 ($2.40) or a month´s access for Q100 ($16). There are 4 classes per day and 2 per day on weekends, so I can pretty much go whenever I want. Super rad. It feels very decadent and I have to convince myself regularly that it is okay to "indulge" in this right now. I took Cesar from my house to yoga class the other day, dress pants and all. It was his first time and he was into it. He talked a long time about his experience to the other curious members of the household when he came back.

7pm--Dinnertime! Most meals are eggs, beans, and tamales (or tortillas). Doña Patty is a really good cook and because she cooks for so many people, there are always random other people eating with us, taking advantage of her good cooking. That´s another reason I don´t know EXACTLY how many people actually live at my house. It gets confusing. Foodwise, we also have spaghetti, soups, squashes, or other Guatemalan faire (usually rice, beans, tortillas, chicken with some sort of sauce. Since I´m vegetarian they give me the sauce over potatoes). My favorite treat so far was a rellenito. It´s mooshed plantain wrapped around smooshed black beans and milk, deepfried lightly and sprinkled with sugar. OMG, so good.
Dinner is when I talk to my family the most.

After dinner, I usually just go to my room and read or do homework. I´m usually falling asleep by 10 or so. Sometimes I go to join other students for a meal, but I´m not out past dark most nights.

[looks like I can´t upload photos. Dang. Well, I´ll update with photos later. There are plenty on Facebook in the meantime.]

June 7, 2010

Una Historia de Guatemala

During our orientation today, they talked about the history of Guatemala, almost all of which i was ignorant. A much condensed version of that history:
In the 1800s a Boston based man "discovered" bananas and commenced to start the United Fruit Company which soon made alliances with the dictator of Guatemala and soon owned over 40% of Guatemala´s land (WTF!! a US company owning nearly half a country!?!). Alliances passed from one dictator to the next because the dictator would enjoy a percent of the fruit company´s profits. Also, the local people here were forced to work 90 days per year, unpaid, on the land (!!). So in 1944 when a real democracy overthrew the dictatorship, there were 10 years when people had healthcare and education and things were going the right way. Of course, the fruit company executives were buddy-buddy with the head of the CIA, the secretary of state and some other high-up figures in America, and all they had to do was cry "communism!" to the Eisenhower administration (even though it was not communism, and in fact was a legitimate democracy for once), and that´s when America supported the coup (1955) to install a new president that would maintain some of the ties that were held with American companies before the "Democratic Spring". Civil war broke out in 1960, and peace accords were signed (but legally non-binding) in 1996, so many people still feel that the country may still as well be at war.

No wonder I´m confused at the security of the area.

June 2, 2010

See you later, compy!

I'm headed to Guatemala via Belize tomorrow. Leaving the computer and phone behind. I am bringing my camera and a sd card to USB converter so I'll be able to update my posts with pictures from internet cafes down there. But basically it'll just be me and my journal for six weeks!

Boulder is beautiful right now, I'm sad to be leaving it right when it's SO green and lovely,

and I will miss my nieces (Tiger even loves me now,

and Phoenix is so frickin' cute. Little nugget.)

and Chelsea and Vinny. I've made some good friends at Snarfs, I've enjoyed hanging out with old friends a bit,

and had a great visit with Dad in town this past week.

But mostly, I am overjoyed to be moving on to the next phase, one step closer to being with Ben and the kitties again, one step closer to my new school and our new life in California.
This episode's purpose is to (re)learn as much Spanish as possible. I'll be doing 5 weeks of immersive intensive study. 5 days/wk; 4-5 hrs/day; Quetzaltenango (aka Xela "shayla") for 3 weeks, then 2 weeks on a coffee plantation.
Because of Volcan Pacaya's recent eruption and the sinkhole/hurricanes, Guatemala City is in a state of emergency and my flight (scheduled for right now, actually) was cancelled. So I opted to fly into Belize City instead. I'm entering the country of Guatemala through the backdoor (Belize). Belize City is closer to Tikal, the Mayan ruins I wanted to visit before my program starts, anyway. So it's all good. I just have a long stint of traveling ahead of me. Planes for >24 hrs (dang layovers), then 6 hrs of bussing.

I'll let you know how it goes soon!

June 1, 2010


I once shaved my eyebrows off in order to be Marlene Dietrich for a costume party.

People knew something was different, but they couldn't figure out exactly what it was.

Girls Night Out

During my 2.5 months here, my sister and I went out by our selves together exactly once. We went to watch a movie with her girl friends the other night. Rode the scooter there. Fun.

Boulder Creek Festival

Dad was in town visiting this past week. It was a really great visit. We went to the Boulder Creek Festival, just me and Dad and the girls, one day. Giving Chelsea and Vinny a break. All that fun wore us all out.