It is tough to begin this blog as the day has been one of most intense days as of yet. We hope we are able to reduce such a day into words for you all.
The day began bright and early with a tour of the local organic coffee cooperative. Not unexpectedly, our pickup trucks, the local form of transportation, were nearly an hour and half late. (Amazingly, it may be difficult to go back to Quaker time after Guatemala time!) At the cooperative, 16 members, showed us around, leading us through each stage of coffee production – from seeding to fermentation to sampling fresh coffee. They are very much dedicated to the organic farming philosophy, as it is in concordance with Mayan traditions of working in harmony with the land; environmental protection concerns; and efforts to increase profits selling abroad. They are socially as well as environmentally conscience. Both men and women work here. The pay is Q40 per day ($5.33 per day). The established minimum wage by the government is Q42. But you cannot blame the cooperative for paying its workers Q2 below minimum wage. Other farms pay Q20. And considering that the cooperative is selling 100lbs of coffee for $20 to middlemen—i.e. 20 cents per pound—it is clear there is very little choice in the matter. Recalling a 1lb bag of Starbucks coffee costs $15 sure makes the mind whirl.
We piled back into our trucks and took off to visit a battleground of the armed internal conflict. We wove up the mountain, past small coffee fincas, noxious trash dumps, before we met the fragrance of flowers. We pulled up to a spectacular scenic view that overlooked Santiago de Atitlan, the lake, and the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. We settled down in a grassy area around a picnic bench after getting our fill of the view. It was then that we discovered that this gorgeous and peaceful spot was not a sidestop on our way to the battleground. We were AT the battleground. There were no plaques, no statues, no graves. There was nothing to give away this spot’s past until our guide—an ex-guerrilla who fought here, hid here, lost companeros here—began to speak. As he began to talk about his life as a guerrilla, we were better introduced to the history of this site and of Guatemala as a country. Pedro, who had to change his name to Andres during the war to protect himself, spoke of those comrades who “used to live as family.” In his native language, Tzutujil, Pedro recounted memories of training and his comrades, but also told us about the realities of living as a former guerrilla now. Pedro was not welcomed back to his community as a hero and does not feel any pride for what he did. Although he cannot find work, Pedro thanks God he is alive and that he can eat, “not much, but something.” To hear this man speak so frankly about his experience and to see the struggle he encounters daily to survive was humbling. To watch him touch his belly and speak of hunger was profoundly overwhelming, especially after our breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs. And suddenly he was done speaking and we were sitting overlooking the natural beauty of Guatemala, reflecting upon what we had just heard and seen. And then before we knew it, we were wooshing down the road in the back of our taxi-trucks off to our hotel for lunch.
Later, Jorge talked to us about his time as a guerrilla. He spoke of his first lesson in injustice, given to him by his uncle: “(My uncle) took the tortilla like it was the earth. This small piece feeds 7 million indigenous. And this great portion, feeds less than a hundred families. This is injustice, he told me.” On May 9, 1981, Jorge’s uncle was disappeared. On the tenth, Jorge was walking to school, and found a body along the side of the road. It was his uncle. His eyes were gouged, his tongue cut, his arms bound – the message was clear – don’t talk, don’t look, don’t act. Jorge was 9 years old when he found him.
Jorge witnessed the kidnapping of another uncle. In his words, death followed him everywhere. He decided to join the guerillas, because if he was going to die, he wanted to die struggling. In his words, “The people who have hugged death, death has hugged them, you have a different view of life….you must live life intensely, struggle for what you want. I continue to see injustice, inequality, racism, so I continue to struggle, this is why I continue to fight.” He sees himself as a pacifist now. He continues to struggle, but struggle non-violently. He believes firmly that no one wins in war, we all lose. You can see results just from looking around Guatemala. He doesn’t not regret his time as a guerrilla, he had no choice. But now he struggles politically “Every human being has a responsibility to life. If we were all conscious to defend life there wouldn’t be death, there wouldn’t be destruction.”
From Jorge’s talk, we went to play soccer with some folks in the local youth group followed by a BBQ with the mayor, the youth group, and Jorge’s family. It was a surreal transition, but it made sense too. This is what Guatemala is like — So much intensity and sadness intimately bound to so much hope and life. The result is a vivid and human purpose. The result is a gift that I know we will carry with us forever.
We know this is a rather long and difficult entry. We hope we did the day justice.
Jane and Becky