From the depths I call to you, Yahweh. Lord listen to my cry for help! Listen compassionately to my pleading. (Psalm 130)
The next station on our pilgrimage was the church and grounds of the parish of Espiritu Santo in the town of Zacualpa in the Department of Quiché. Here we experienced remnants of the war which killed 200,000 people, mostly indigenous. A companion commented, “We were innocent of the story and it is graphic and startling; they walked us through.”
Next to the church is a large white cross about twenty feet high. The crossbar displays the word ‘MARTYRES.’ The church grounds, the equivalent of a convent cloister, were the site of massive killings of indigenous people by the military. Prisoners were tied to trees – tortured and murdered. The ‘Santa Cruz,’ the holy cross, became real.
Some were murdered and tortured in the church itself. Statues and all symbols of Christianity were destroyed.
Photos framed on the wall of the ‘cloister’ passageways showed the project of exhuming the bodies for proper burial after the peace accords.
We were led to a small room off the ‘cloister.’ This was another site for torture and murder. Torture instruments were displayed on the wall. The horror of the place came home when we were told that the black stains on the wall were blood stains. At a corner of the room was a life size wooden statue of a Mayan woman on one knee lamenting the desecration of humanity. She is a contemporary ‘mater dolorosa.’
We then went to a small building with a dirt floor for a prayer service. Attention was directed to a topped well now functioning as a ceremonial fire pit. A Mayan woman as official spiritual guide conducted the prayer ceremony at the side and over the fire pit.
The well itself is significant. The guide explained that not only were people murdered and tortured, but the bodies thrown into this well and two other wells. She gave us wax candles of different colors representing the diversity of the universe; our candles were lit and eventually placed in the center of the fire. The wax melting together symbolized the unity of the universe. We prayed. After the ceremony, our guide thanked us for listening and understanding that the civil war was not war, but genocide – a revelation for most of us.
I asked a Guatemalan colleague - member of Voces de La Frontera - if the killing of the indigenous was really racism. Couldn’t war on the indigenous be simply economic? After all, the indigenous are diametrically opposed to some neo-liberal policies. He said, “Racism is ‘infundido’ (inherent) in the Guatemalan upper class.” In the U.S., to the extent we don’t care to know or care what happened to the indigenous in Guatemala, we internationalize our own inherent racism. Survival of the fittest capitalism is an excuse for racism and genocide.
Despite war, the parish of Santo Espiritu flourishes. The building was filled with people preparing for Holy Week. The church has been repaired and replenished with sacred images. The trees where prisoners were tortured and murdered have been cut down and replaced, but the stumps serve as a reminder. We talked to students taking classes in hopes of entering high school and college. It seemed to me that the Christian myth survived the onslaught at Espiritu Santo, and now has a new respected partner in Mayan spirituality to build a just society.
Ch ‘ilom kolonton – my heart is a warrior*
*Laughlin, Robert, with woodblock prints by Naul Ojeda, Diccionario del Corazon, from a Mayan dictionary compiled in 1599 by a Dominican Friar - metaphors of the heart with the Spanish medieval translation and the modern Spanish version. Taller Lenateros, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico 2003.