Before we left Guatemala City, we visited the city dump. It is located in a ravine just below the city cemetery. We viewed the dump from the cemetery. The stench is immediate. There are many mausoleums in the cemetery and many in disrepair – wide open shelf spaces. Some are truly grand, built by wealthy families.
Below the cemetery in a deep ravine is the city garbage dump. Garbage trucks run in and out over broken glass. Children and families search for leftover food and for objects they might use or sell. The U.N. estimates that roughly 50% of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished – the fourth highest rate in the world. High overhead vultures circle ready to dive on a quick dinner. I asked a Guatemalan woman about the cemetery. “My mother is in a mausoleum there; I don’t visit – I don’t feel her presence there.”
Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23)
Photo by Joan Bleidorn
We stopped at a gas station where an entrance was being prepared. I talked to one of the workers who were loading cinder blocks into a wheelbarrow. I asked him if he belonged to a union; he said, “no - only skilled workers belonged to unions.” He may have been mistaken; he probably meant that day laborers had no union and he was a day laborer- his day rate was 75 quetzales, about $10.
Guatemalan labor opposes the U.S. sponsored neoliberal trade agreement called DR-CAFTA as well as other injustices. Labor has had little influence in Guatemala since the overthrow of the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 by the CIA and directed by the Eisenhower administration.
Since 2007, 64 trade unionists have been murdered. Luis Antonio Alpirez Guzman secretary of the Health Workers Union said;
If the bloodshed continues, the entire labor movement will be irrevocably weakened….it is reminiscent of the chaotic 1980’s and 1990’s era when student and labor activists were murdered on a mass scale…(Chen, Michelle, “Unions Under Siege in Guatemala,” In These Times, 8-24-2013.)
The next station I’ll report on was a water project at Chutzoropi in the province of Quiché, a Province so devastated by the military that it was once left by Bishop Gerardi under threat. The project was sponsored by the Caritas Pastoral Social del Quiche. Gerardi was later murdered by the military in Guatemala City in 1998. A report issued by the Historical Clarification Commission claimed 200,000 people were slaughtered in the 80’s; the Army committed 165 massacres against Mayan Villages.
We went into the highlands on unpaved roads and we were grateful for our very skillful Salvadoran driver, Cristobal. We were warmly greeted by the community and sat down to meet each other. The men introduced themselves. They hung around in little groups along with the boys. As visitors we introduced ourselves – our names, where we were from, and why we came to visit. All had to be translated into their indigenous language. Sister Jan, obviously well known and loved, suggested that the women introduce themselves. The women and girls sat on benches on one side, beautifully dressed in their native costumes - Guipils. With some shyness and through interpreters the women courageously stated their names and something about their family.
Photo by Sister Jan Gregorich
Sister Jan asked what the water project meant to them. They explained in their native language with a couple women speaking in Spanish. Without the water project they had to go two or three times a day to the river to bring back buckets of water with their children helping. Washing of clothes had to be done at the river. Thirty-three families received water in the immediate area of their homes. Sanctions were levied for improper use. Each family paid 10 quetzales, $1.35 per month, to create a fund to be kept in reserve for emergencies.
I was not able to discern a ‘communidad autónomo’ as in the Mayan communities just north of Guatemala in Chiapas, Mexico. The Mayan people at the water project are not completely independent of the government in Guatemala City.
I commented to Joanne how beautiful these people are – I don’t usually say that anywhere else we travel. Joanne responded, “They make their own clothes with beautiful colors and wear them humbly without embarrassment. They celebrate who they are.” Joanne talked to a young man who had just returned from Texas for a visit; he planned to return to Texas to make his way in life. His legal status was not questioned.
I asked the leader of the project if there was hope for Guatemala; he said, “no!” but then paused and said – “maybe.” Why maybe? He said, “…if progressive leaders arise in Guatemala.” Is this just ‘Waiting for Godot?’
But for me, this is a reminder of Postville, Iowa in May of 2012. Federal agents in helicopters and patrol cars swooped into a small Iowa farm town to raid a food processing plant where most of the workers were Guatemalans. Three hundred eighty-nine workers were detained, most of them from Guatemala. Families were separated – children had no idea what happened to their parents. Sr. Mary McCauley B.V.M. set up a refuge for the families in the local parish Church – St. Bridget’s. (N.Y. Times, “Postville,” July 11, 2012.)
Postville protestor, 2008
A colleague talked to one of the Guatemalan men who lost his family in the ‘80’s during one of the U.S. funded military massacres. The man had obviously not recovered from the devastation of his family. The three mental health professionals who took the trip with us asked how these people survive the trauma of the genocide of their villages? I wondered about the re-enacted Holy Week story,… is this pageantry,…therapy?... or both?