by Margaret Randall
I lean over the developing tray, agitating a print with bamboo tongs. Slowly, two figures darken on the paper. A woman, her back to me, walks towards the door of a church. Behind the woman walks a small girl.
They are mother and daughter. Both are wearing the wrap-around hand woven corte of the Guatemalan Indian woman. Their heavily embroidered huipiles are tucked into the skirt’s waist beneath a woven sash. Long double braids hang down both backs. The mother’s are plaited with ribbons ending in bows just above her hips. Mother and daughter wear western shoes: Imitation leather with low heels. Twenty or 30 years ago they would have walked barefoot.
This is about Guatemalan women, who, like this mother and daughter, are mostly Indian; some are Ladina. The Indians are of Mayan heritage and both men and women are of short stature—often under five feet tall. Some speak Spanish as a second or third language, others tell their stories in Quiche or Kekchi or Mam. These women still live much as their ancestors did in a complex Mayan culture (which, by the way, first introduced to the world the concept of zero).
These days, poverty, terror, and loss are central facts of these women’s lives. The government has forced them to become resisters. In numerous, indigenous languages, words like “torture,” “disappearance,” “strategic hamlet” and “hunger,” have become new mainstays of their vocabularies.
This is also about 10 women from the United States, most of whom had never met before this trip. It happened in August, 1990 and we traveled together to visit the Guatemalan women. We, not the Guatemalans, set the terms of these encounters. Few of the Guatemalan women with whom we met could conceive of traveling the great distance to our terrain.
We went under the sponsorship of the Washington-based Guatemala Health Rights Support Project, a non-governmental organization that channels funding to community projects there and does educational work in the U.S. How we were chosen to participate, whom we would speak to when we got to Guatemala, and what kind of information we would share, was worked out from a feminist—and new—agenda for what we hoped would be a positive experience for both the Guatemalan and the American women.
Gretchen Noll, the tall, slender young woman who heads the Project, and Marie Moore, a red-haired, freckled Maryknoll nun who has worked for the past 20 years with Guatemalan women (often in exile), originated the idea of experimenting with a different type of visit. They no longer believed that the standard fact-finding mission—where presumed experts arrive, ask questions, fill notebooks, and leave— was the most useful. Women, Gretchen and Marie knew, could talk to one another; even women as foreign to each other as feminists from the U.S. and Indian women from Guatemala could share our stories.
The qualities they looked for in participants were: An active interest in popular struggle in Guatemala; a frustration at our government’s role in perpetuating a terrorist state in that country; a feminist consciousness; the sense that we have something to give as well as learn; and a respect for women’s stories—our collective memory.
We would travel and meet with women engaged in resistance. We would use public transportation wherever possible. And we would bring our own lives as offerings.
Along with Gretchen and Marie, we were Beth Brant, a grandmother and lesbian who calls herself a Bay of Quinte [in Eastern Canada] Mohawk and is a community worker in Detroit; Annette Finestone, at 73 a grandmother as well as the oldest in the group, who, with her husband, owns a small resort in upstate New York; white pony-tailed Harvard Professor Emerita of Biology, Ruth Hubbard, who lives in Cambridge and writes about feminist science and women’s health issues; Sister Carmen Lazo, a Latina member of the Missionary Catechists of the Divine Providence, an educational order in San Antonio, Texas; Lauretta Rivera, a young Seneca woman who lives with her son and works with battered women and children in Minneapolis; Sunny Robinson, 40ish, a tall, capable, sophisticated geriatrics nurse in Boston who has long been involved with Central American solidarity work; Lisa Diane White, a handsome African-American freelance journalist, at 30 the youngest, who represented the National Black Women’s Health Project in Atlanta, and me—age 54, photographer, poet, professor of women’s studies and American literature, feminist, socialist, lesbian, mother and grandmother.
I lived most of my adult life in Latin America, first in Mexico, then in Cuba, and finally in Nicaragua. I am fluent in Spanish and, though I had never been to Guatemala, in 1969 I translated a book called Let’s Go! by Guatemalan revolutionary poet Otto-Rene Castillo. Two years earlier, he and a woman named Nora Pais had been captured and burned alive by government forces.
Upon our arrival in Guatemala City, a grimy old colonial town, we are immediately aware of the violence that pervades the earth, the air, and is reflected in people’s eyes. We are struck by how close it is to the surface when our taxi gets stuck in a tangle of traffic en route to our hotel. This is no ordinary traffic jam. It’s a demonstration. Crowds of people hold up their arms in Vs for victory and chant in a mammoth show of support for Efrain Rios Montt, a demogogic, right wing general who was the country’s president during one of its most violent periods. Although Guatemala’s constitution prohibits an ex-president from running again, these demonstrators don’t look like they’ll take no for an answer.
Rios Montt is a hard core member of the Church of the Word, one of several politically right-wing fundamentalist sects that claim 30 percent —some say 50 percent — of Guatemala’s once solidly Catholic population. As is true elsewhere in the world, religious fundamentalism spearheads the far right’s repressive thrust. The General puts forth a rabid line of “law and order.” It is depressing that many of the peasants and working poor who suffered most during his regime have been won over by his promises of an end to corruption, misery, fear.
Not surprisingly, political violence and that of ordinary crime seem to mesh here. We settle into our hotel and go to a street fair. Returning on the city bus, we are absorbed in recalling the smells of roast corn and herbs, children laughing on the ferris wheel. It is not until we are back at the hotel that Beth realizes that deft fingers have unzipped her small fanny pack, and taken all her money and prescription sun glasses. Then Lisa discovers that her cloth shoulder bag, worn inside her jeans jacket, has been slit and some of its contents stolen. We had been warned: Life in Guatemala is desperate; such thefts are common.
We are in Chimaltenango in the central part of the country. Women sit on tired wooden benches and folding chairs in a Presbyterian Church. The church is a three-walled structure with a dirt floor and a tin roof. “La invasion” The Invasion—says Margarita, an Indian woman. She is not talking about 1944 or ’54, when the C.I.A. backed invasions against the only democratically elected governments in this country’s modern history. Neither is she remembering the Guatemalan government-sponsored scorched-earth and strategic-hamlet invasions of the early ’80s that claimed 442 rural villages and resulted in 38,000 disappeared (almost half of the total disappeared in Latin America).
La Invasion refers to 1492. Margarita knows we are on a mission of solidarity, and she is trying to bridge the distance between us by describing some well intentioned, if ignorant, Spanish women on a similar mission. They were talking about “re-enacting Columbus’ voyage after 500 years,” she says as her voice grows hoarse with emotion. “A celebration, or maybe a commemoration of some kind. They even mentioned three ships modeled after the Nina, the Pinta, and the j Santa Maria. So she asked me again. Finally I told her, ‘I am not going to be able to be gracious about your commemoration, because for us these 500 years have brought nothing but abuse, rape, genocide. The death of our cultures.'”
Back briefly in Guate, as those who live there call Guatemala City, we meet with a group of Indian women at the headquarters of an ecumenical Christian group called Confregua. Increasingly, the women who work through this organization run programs that address consciousness-raising, popular mobilization and the struggle for basic social needs. The conversation turns to the women’s richly-embroidered dress. One of them is Josefina, whose fingers smooth the complex weave that is her corte, three yards of dark fabric wound and wrapped about her lower body. The corte and particularly the huipil, the richly embroidered over-blouse, proclaim her region and village of origin and her civil status among other things. Two hundred-fifty different trajes (traditional dress) are worn throughout this country.
“I was eight years old,” Josefina says, “when my mother taught me how to weave the cloth. And then the embroidery.” Her syllables are soft and clipped, the accent of an indigenous woman speaking in Spanish, her second language. “I was allowed to choose the colors that would give me joy. My traje is a part of who I am.
In another part of the country, unnamed to protect the people with whom we spoke, we spend an afternoon with a woman I will call Sara. In one corner of her room is a small altar upon which the blessed corn and Christian cross share equal space; the faint fragrance of copal incense is also present. A lone rooster crows, a counterpoint to the incessant noise of large trucks and low-flying planes.
Sara studied for a time to become a priestess in the Mayan tradition; then decided to become a nurse. “At the college there were four of us who insisted upon wearing our trajes,” she tells us. “The administration tried to get us to westernize our dress the whole time we were there.” She says that insidious racism, through belittling remarks and attitudes, is meted out to Quiche, Kechchi or Mam women who appear in traditional dress at government offices or other official institutions. Sara adds that in her work in hospitals her traje often paves the way for valuable healing connections with Indian patients.
Sara is Kekchi. She works among her people as a community nurse, and is involved in cataloging the herbs, roots and other plants cultivated for medicinal use by the old people. Indian women, Sara tells us, have different attitudes toward menstruation and menopause. From what she says we realize that long-term menstruation is a fairly recent western phenomenon. In Guatemala, between pregnancies followed by long periods of nursing, women live their fertile years without bleeding every month. Menopause marks the end of childbearing rather than of menstruation.
Our group learns more about the importance of language when we return to the capitol city and visit a modest colonial house. The house has been leased for a year by CENTROCAP, an advocacy organization. Two energetic Ladinas from wealthy families, Gloria and Eugenia, have been organizing women who work in private homes. This characterization— women who work in private homes—is one increasingly adopted by domestic servants in several Latin American countries.
In Guatemala, Indian women may work as maids from the age of eight and we see several women whose labor-lined faces suggest that they are 60 or older and have lived lives of constant toil. Some of the women study basic first aid, some read, others cut dressmaking patterns. But the shared experience grabs and holds us most profoundly when we gather in the open interior courtyard. Here, after brief formal introductions, one after another of these women step forward, eager to tell their stories.
They come fast, breathlessly and full of rage: I came to the city as a child; I did not know what awaited me here; my patron raped me; his sons think they have a right to my body. My patrona did not believe me when I told her what was going on. She accused my baby girl of wetting the bed. They accused me of stealing money I ; didn’t take and threw me out at night; I had nowhere to go. It’s hard to find work when you have a small child. My other children are in my village; I haven’t seen them in four months.
Women who live in the homes of their employers, who are on call 24 hours a day for an average $20 a month salary, women who are lucky to get one day off out of 15 and who enjoy no job security or benefits of any kind, have found a place at CENTROCAP where they get support and advocacy. A meeting programmed for one hour turns into two hours of testimonial sharing.
Gloria and Eugenia who run the center, will not be co-opted by the Guatemalan government agencies that falsely claim to address the needs of poor and working women. They know they have taken their stand on the side of danger. Both beg us to publicize the work they are doing “so that when the repression comes, and we know it will, we may be able to garner support from people on the outside.” Eugenia adds “We know we’re not going to get any help from our own class; we’re organizing the very women they treat as slaves.”
Virginia is my old friend. She is in her late 40s, Chilean by birth and Guatemalan by marriage and the fact that she raised her children there. We met 10 years ago when I lived in Havana and she arrived there from Guatemala in search of medical help for her oldest son who had been found dead, with his eyes gouged out. His crime? He belonged to a basketball team that had just returned from a tournament in Cuba.
Now divorced from the exiled former editor of an important literary magazine at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos, Virginia lives alone, manages an import/export firm, and occasionally writes. This month marks the 10th anniversary of her son’s death. She is tired, alone and dispirited. “We had a mass,” Virginia says. “That’s all you can do here now; have a mass.”
We have come by bus from the capital to Santa Cruz del Quiche. Through the vibrant countryside, a patchwork of cultivated crops runs up steep mountain slopes. Along the highway Indians walk, carrying enormous loads on their backs.
Our meeting is at the Catholic Action House on the outskirts of town with a group of Quiche women. Donna and Mary Jane, two Maryknoll nuns have arranged the meeting. Most of the Indian women walked from their villages, one to two day’s distance, to the nuns’ house. Next day they traveled by jeep 50 miles over hard roads—a four hour trip—to Santa Cruz. After our meeting, the women would reverse this journey. To travel away from home means they had to leave enough cornmeal prepared to supply five days of tortillas for their families. It means arranging care for their children. Two of these women have brought their infants on their backs. Another has her young son, perhaps eight or 10 years old, in tow. They will have spent five days away from their families in order to spend three or four hours with us. Why?
Xionona nurses a two-year-old baby girl who looks no more than a year. The child, a twin, was given away by her natural mother who couldn’t care for both infants. Xionona had just lost a child of her own and her breasts were full. The other twin was a boy and was stronger; his sister was “intended for death,” Xionona explains. “But now she is healthy.” And now the birth mother wants her back. “But,” says Xionona smiling down at the little girl, “I gave her her name. She is mine.”
Maria is a midwife. I mention that I, too, have been a midwife. The women smile; language and experience are linking us. Lucia tells us about some goats she once had. As Mary Jane translates from Quiche into Spanish, and I turn the Spanish into English, Lucia begins to sob and her body shakes. Her wonderful female goat gave birth to twins. The twins were female too. “Yes, a promise of many future goats!” she said. But her father one day forbade her to keep them. Why, we ask? He drinks. And some of us speak of the alcoholism so common in our own communities.
We eat together, join them in singing hymns. I feel a communication independent of words. But suddenly something shifts slightly. Before we part, Lucia asks me for money “to buy some fruit.” Xenia approaches Annette, the oldest member of our group, and asks for her watch. Later, when we try to process our feelings about the destitution of these women’s lives, we are troubled by the two women’s requests. Neither Annette nor I responded positively to them. We are unsure how we feel about making gifts to some and not all. Beth says it seems reasonable to her that these women asked us for things. She wonders why it surprised us. We take a moment to wonder as well.
We ride a packed second-class bus down the mountain from Chichicastenango to Chimaltenango west of the capitol. Fixed seats built for two carry three in this nation of small people. We American women, large by their standards, take twice the room they do. Parcels, chickens and an occasional pig accompany us. In the narrow aisle, more riders are wedged in between the overlapping thighs of passengers with seats. A boom box blares in the back.
The driver is all composure, maneuvering the top-heavy vehicle around hairpin curves through the breathtaking lushness of this country. His helper climbs and pushes his way back and forth through the aisle collecting fares and reminding passengers when they should get off. Courtesy and hospitality are basic values in Latin culture. I have squeezed in beside a young woman wearing the western clothes of the Ladina. Her young son sleeps by the window while she shifts an infant on her lap. I smile and ask if she can make a bit more room for me? She informs me flatly that she can’t. Or won’t. Her anger is barely masked, her body rigid. From behind us, a male voice booms, “Hey, move over for the foreigner. There’s room enough…” But she cuts him off: “I hate every last one of them.”
This trip takes four-and-a-half hours. Half of me is literally sitting on air. Though logic says that the bodies in the aisle will prevent my slipping to the baseboards, my sense of imminent unbalance makes me try to claim a bit more territory. Each time the bus careens around a curve, passengers and baggage slide with it and my adversary—for that is how she has defined herself—intentionally jabs my ribs. I try not to lose my precarious perch. Unwillingly, my eyes fill with tears. In a quiet voice I try to reason with my seat mate. But I cannot. She will not even address me directly. I am reminded of a scene which has inhabited my inner landscape since 1974.
Back then, I traveled with another North American woman through what was still North Vietnam. Everywhere we were greeted with that special tenderness only the most dignified of nations under attack can offer to visitors from the country trying to wipe them from the map.
But one morning we stood beside our jeep as a ferry brought us across a river whose bridge had been bombed out for the 20th time. A peasant woman asked our translator where the tall women were from. I recognized the response: “America.” For an instant the woman’s eyes held the deepest hatred I had ever seen. Then, the instant controlled, she smiled, all courtesy once more, and turned away. I have never forgotten the look of that woman’s eyes, nor my feeling of helplessness and frustration. Now, I struggle to deal with the same utter frustration.
The elbow war continues. Then, 15 minutes before we reach Chimaltenango, a place opens up one row behind me. An elderly man who has witnessed the situation literally lifts me up and pulls me back to the space. “Most Guatemalans aren’t like that,” he tells me. His next statement, so rich in unintended irony from one who is himself the target of racist hate, surprises me. “If she had been an Indian woman she wouldn’t have acted like she did. Only Ladinas are so crude.”
Once again in Guatemala we are crowded into a small, smoky, meeting room whose walls are papered with political posters, familiar images of resistance and struggle. The place is the executive office of a male-dominated labor union with characteristic noise and agitation levels. The air is thick with cigarette smoke. Our meeting is frequently interrupted by men who ask the women to answer a question, make a call, type a letter. The six Ladina activists seem accustomed to such interruptions.
Guatemala’s women’s movement is the least developed in Central America. One reason is the economic and cultural gap between the Indian and Ladina women. Also responsible are four decades of brutal repression that have affected women and children in special ways.
Feminism. What does the term mean in a culture where ancient traditions fuel many women’s lives? Guatemalan women won the vote in 1945. The vote, however, has rarely meant much in the political life of this country. Strong female organization took root with the Guatemalan Women’s Alliance, a group of teachers and working women who organized during the brief decade of democracy from 1944-54. Later feminist groups were mostly limited to upper-class and professional women, until the Christian Democratic government of Vinicio Cerezo made it possible for peasant and working women to organize in greater numbers. Two human rights groups, the Mutual Support Group, led by women and made up of the family members of the disappeared, and the National Coordinating Council of Guatemalan Widows, have now placed women squarely at the center of the country’s resistance struggle.
Our meeting heats up as we women open up. Our community health workers compare notes with theirs. Alcoholism, rape, battery and child sexual abuse are common threads. Homelessness, freedom of choice, incest and drugs are special concerns of us North Americans. In Guatemala, rampant illiteracy, high infant mortality, desperate poverty, and violence which is on the rise, are problems. “Death,” “disappearance,” “displacement,” “refugee” are household words.
Then one of the women, a member of Tierra Viva, a feminist organization, says to me, “Margaret, nine years ago an Argentinean friend gave me one of your books. I couldn’t have said I was a feminist then. But history and experience have taught us. Today I proudly call myself a feminist.” I think: The women who speak on the pages of my books are still speaking to each other.
It is almost the end of our trip. At a restaurant we ask ourselves what we can do about these lives, this place, this misery and violence, so much of which is fostered and sustained by our own government’s policies.
Most of us are involved in solidarity work at home. Those who haven’t been will be now. We have seen and heard about so many of our Guatemalan sisters’ projects: Weaving cooperatives, a health clinic in a shanty town where nothing will change until a sewage system is installed (and only the Guatemalan government can do that), the nuns’ goats in San Andres, a widows’ sewing project in Coban. Here in Guatemala City, the women of Tierra Viva have asked us to read and criticize their literature. We will keep in touch with these women.
But our real job is to work to expose and change our government’s relationship with the government of Guatemala.
Since 1983, the United States has cynically backed the brutal Guatemalan attempt to improve its international image so it can get multi-lateral funding. We have injected the country with a large dose of economic assistance in the form of special balance-of-payments consideration. In counterinsurgency areas, euphemistically called the “conflict areas,” we have given development assistance and local currency funding to support the military-controlled pacification campaign. People of the resistance movement call it “la violencia.” Our support of export crops, like the sesame seeds for our Big Mac buns, has undermined the people’s traditional planting and made their hunger worse. And our military aid, which has increased in spite of complaints from Congress, heavily underwrites the Guatemalan government’s counterinsurgency efforts, making the country more dependent upon the U.S.
I watch a woman in traje and with stoic face make corn tortillas over an open fire. I think of the vast differences in our relationships to what is happening here, the living of it, the assignment of responsibility. And I long for a different language, brand new words with which to say what must be said.
Margaret Randall is the author of more than 50 books including Sandino’s Daughters, This is About Incest and Walking to the Edge: Essays of Resistance. She lives in the foothills of Albuquerque, NM.
Guatamala: Some Basics Guatemala is the third largest country in Central America, roughly the size of Kentucky. Population: 8.6 million people, about 65 percent of whom are Mayan Indians. Basic exports: Coffee, cotton, sugar, beef, cardamom, bananas, oil, and all the sesame seeds for McDonald’s Big Mac buns. Spanish is the official language, although there are 22 Indian languages with more than 120 dialects. Average life expectancy is 63 years, though it is much less for Indians than for Ladinos. Sixty-five percent of the population lacks health services. Only 45 percent of the adult population can read (compared to 77.4 percent for the rest of Central America). Five percent of Guatemalans receive 60 percent of the national income. The poorest 50 percent receive seven percent. More than three-quarters of the population lives below the poverty line. With the most unequal distribution in all of Latin America, 61.8 percent of arable land is owned by 4.28 percent of the land-holders. Eighty-five percent of rural households are landless. According to Amnesty International, Guatemala has one of the hemisphere’s worst records for human rights. Between 1966 and 1986, more than 100,000 civilians were murdered and 38,000 people disappeared, notably by Guatemalan military and paramilitary groups. Between 1978 and 1983, the army razed 440 rural villages; government sources estimate 100,000 children were orphaned by the political violence in the early 1980s.