The War

Introduction

This narrative is taken from an interview that I conducted with a successful Guatemalan businessman named Francisco. Some content was edited for clarity and certain facts about his life were changed to protect his identity, but the order in which Francisco told his story was not changed. The questions from the interview were omitted to let Francisco’s train of thought and words speak for themselves. While this may be disorienting at times for the reader, I believed it was important for Francisco to tell his story in the way that he remembered it, in the way he processed it. 

Francisco is Mayan and he grew up in a K’iche’ speaking household. He is originally from the Quiche region of Guatemala, one of the areas that was the hardest hit by the Guatemalan Civil War. He was fifteen in 1980, during the peak of the violence in Quiche and witnessed things that no person, let alone a fifteen-year-old should witness. This is his story. These are his memories. 

The Story

I am from a small town called San Pablo in the northern part of Quiche. It’s a mountainous region, well, it used to be a mountainous region. It’s changed a lot in recent years. There has been a lot of deforestation in the past few years. I also suspect that a lot of mining licenses have been given out, and there’s a hydroelectric plant now too. They’re always building something new. The hydroelectric company recently built a highway. It was interesting because the highway passes through a property of ours, and when they asked my father for permission to build the highway, he immediately signed! We didn’t want the highway to be built on our property, but he didn’t listen to us. I asked him, “Why did you do that Dad?”. He said, “So I can go get firewood, with a road built, I can carry firewood in my pickup instead of on my back” [laughing]. I was so angry. It made me so sad to see a hydroelectric company build the highway because they knocked down some of the mountains that I had grown up seeing and admiring.

I actually grew up in a village outside of San Pablo, it’s 8 kilometers away from the main town center. My village was beautiful, it was a real paradise—until the war hit. During the war, the military thought that if they cut down all of the trees they would be able to see the guerrilleros better. One day, I remember, a bunch of men with axes knocked down all of the trees in the village and on the mountainside. So the village was really deforested after that. It was never the same. 

We were nine siblings. One died of alcoholism. The other was kidnapped during the war. Now we are seven. Three brothers, three sisters, and myself. That’s just one family. Our families are big. There are a lot of aunts and uncles, cousins too. I have some really interesting cousins. One of my cousins is an economist, and he teaches at a university in Guatemala. He’s really interesting. His father was kidnapped, his sister was kidnapped, and his brother was assassinated. My entire family was really hit by the war. One branch of my family was actually very pro-military. One of my uncles had a high post in the military. Them being pro-military was due to someone being conscripted by the military and everyone in that branch continued to be a part of it.  That branch of my family always had this vision, this inclination towards the military.

San Pablo is very beautiful and it is very interesting for me. Everyone who lives there is a merchant. There’s something about San Pablo that I’ve always found very interesting, it has to do with migration. There’s a town close by where a lot of ladinos[i] live. They were the first migrants. We the indigenous, were not. We have only recently started to immigrate to the United States. Another thing that I always have found interesting is that everyone from San Pablo is a merchant. I believe it’s because indigenous people are very gifted at business, at selling things. Why? It’s because the ladinos were given more opportunities to study, to educate themselves, that’s why they are the ones that get the jobs in the offices, in the hospitals, in the health centers, and in the municipality. Indigenous people don’t get those jobs. That’s why they all work as merchants in my town, those are the only jobs they can do.

When I was two years old, we left my village and moved to a coffee plantation. It either belonged to an Italian family or descendants of Italians. My dad worked there for fourteen years. It was also a really beautiful place. There were fields of coffee everywhere. Our entire childhood was spent there. But my dad never got it out of his head that we were going to go back to our village. My siblings and I would always play make believe, and we would pretend that we were packing our bags to go back to San Pablo. We always imagined that when we left that’s what it would be like. But it wasn’t like that, the war changed everything. 

The guerrilla stated to appear at the beginning of the 1970s. The owners of the plantation were six brothers, and if I remember correctly, one of them was killed by a guerrilla in the early 70s. By 1978, we started to hear that there were guerrilla groups in the area. One of my first memories of the war, was when a priest came to my house for dinner. When the priests came to officiate mass at the plantation, my mother would invite them to our house for dinner. That night I heard one of the priests speaking to my father. I was young, but I remember that there was something mysterious about that conversation. They were talking about these groups that were organizing. I later found out what they were talking about. They were talking about people who were organizing against the owners of the plantation, the people with the white skin. I never thought the plantation owners were bad people, because you know that when you are a kid, everything is a paradise, everything is good. I just remember that when we would see the owners of the plantation, we thought they looked foreign. They weren’t like the ladinos, they were foreign, they were white. We always associated white skin with the owners of the plantation.  

At the beginning of the 70s, we started to hear that in a town close by there was a movement. I remember when we saw a group of soldiers marching by the side of the road and seeing them set something on fire. At the time, we felt pity for them, because we thought that they must have been cold. We didn’t understand what they were doing. Those are some of my early memories of the war. After that my brother and I left the plantation. We went back to live in San Pablo. My older brother was studying and we had to go back to our town so he could go to school.

One day, two of my sisters came to visit us, and they told us that the plantation was in trouble. They told us that the guerrilla had killed one of the owners, Don Pedro. Many of the employees went to his funeral in Nebaj, but the people who worked the fields were left behind. While they were gone two or three police officers who were guarding the plantation were killed by the guerrilla. The guerrilla then took over the plantation and they didn’t let the people work, but the owners of the plantation were telling them to work. It was complete chaos.

After we heard what had happened, we went to the visit my parents at the plantation. My father didn’t want to leave the plantation. We had gone to take them back to San Pablo. We told him, “Let’s go,” and my father said “No”. He said, “We are not leaving, we will die here. We don’t owe anyone anything. We’ve never done anything”. But the thing was two of my brothers had gone to Nebaj to borrow a pickup and when they came with the truck, a man carrying wood on his back told us that he had bumped into a group of guerrilleros and that the situation was hitting a breaking point. He said that the guerrilla was going to come to the plantation to kill people.

That really scared my father, and he agreed to come with us. I don’t remember how many of us rode the pickup, but we took some of our belongings, and left. Who knows what happened to the rest of our belongings? We left the plantation at eight at night, and we got to San Pablo at three in the morning. That’s how we left our home, the place where we spent our childhood, the place where we played. It hurt me a lot, because it was an abrupt flight.  We had played games pretending that we were going to leave, but it didn’t play out in the way we’d planned. We didn’t have time to pack. We didn’t have time to say goodbye.

[i] Ladinos are people of mixed European and Mayan descent. 

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When we moved back to San Pablo the situation was still very calm. My dad got a job as a nurse. My dad wasn’t an actual nurse. My dad laughs at his life, because he never went to school. He was conscripted into the military in the 40s, during the democratic era. My dad always tells us stories about his life in the military. My father didn’t study to be a nurse, but in the military he learned how to inject, and they gave him the title of nurse. One day the people at the plantation found out that he knew how to inject and they asked him if he could work as a nurse, so my dad worked as a nurse [laughing]. My father worked as a farmworker and as a nurse. He laughs because he never studied. My father struggled when he was in the military because he didn’t know how to read or write, but he eventually learned, and when we were living on the plantation he worked as a nurse again.

My father was a really hard worker and he learned a lot from the owners of the plantation. One of the owners, Don Fernando used to say “I am grateful to my parents for putting me on this Earth, but I’ll take care of the rest,” my father used to repeat that phrase a lot to us. He was a very hard worker and when we moved back to San Pablo, my father was really sad because he had lost his job and he didn’t know what he was going to do. But it was incredible, that same day, some people approached him and asked him if he could help their sick mother. He went to help her and he ended up opening his own pharmacy. So that was our flight from the plantation and our arrival in San Pablo.

My father started working, and I remember that one Sunday, my father ran into the house to say something to my mother. They ran out of the house and we followed them. I saw a group of guerrilleros marching. We didn’t know who they were, they were wearing an olive green uniform. The military used to wear that same uniform, but they later changed it to a camouflage color. We went to the park and there was a meeting there, the entire town was there. I recognized some of the guerrilleros because they used to work at the plantation. I was really surprised. Another thing that surprised me was that there were women carrying guns. I had never seen that before. I was even more surprised when I heard that they were speaking an indigenous language called Ixil. After the meeting and the speeches, they took a pickup truck and left. Later that afternoon, the military came. That was the start of the war in San Pablo.  

A week later, the military established itself in San Pablo. That’s when they started to kidnap and disappear people. One day my uncle had to go to a nearby village. He stopped by my house, and I told him that I would go with him. I told him that I had seen a group of soldiers. He stood in front of me, thinking and thinking. Then he started to ask me questions, like where I had seen them and at what time. That was the last time I saw him. Days later, the military killed him in his home, and they took his son. Those are some of my early memories from the beginning of the war.

We were all very active in the Catholic church. My oldest brother, the one that was kidnapped, was especially involved. My brother was a member of the group for young adults. I was a member of the children’s group. We used to meet up at these large general assemblies where there were teenagers and children. I always remember a speech that was given by a young man at one of the assemblies. He was studying to be a teacher and he went to the same school that my brother went to–the one that was kidnapped. His speech was about the state of land ownership in Guatemala. He talked about how the rich had everything, how they had the land, and how indigenous people worked the land. He stressed how unfair that was. There was something about that speech that really impacted me. Shortly after that man gave that speech, the kidnapping started.

The kidnapping soon become a disaster. I don’t see the difference between those that were kidnapped and disappeared. To me it’s the same thing. The one thing I do know is that the military was responsible for the kidnappings. They were responsible for my older brother's kidnapping. My brother worked at a farming cooperative, and I would sometimes visit him to listen to some of his speeches. I always remember one point that he made, he said “if we work alone it will be difficult, if we work together it will be easier”. He talked about the history of cooperatives in England, and he wanted to strengthen farming cooperatives in Guatemala. I wasn’t worried about his beliefs and activities, but things changed when my uncle was killed.  

My mom and dad told us that we could not associate with him. They decided not to go to my uncle's funeral. They faked a trip to Santa Cruz del Quiche, but my brother went to the funeral. [Begins to sob] I don’t know why, but that’s how I remember him. There are moments when I think shoot…[sobbing] my brother was my hero. He was my hero. They told us, I remember, it was Christmas, and someone came to the house. My father was also being threatened. It was my father’s friend, who was a commissioner, and he told my father, “They are looking for you, run”. Soon afterwards, one of the woman from the youth group who used to wash the soldier’s clothing told us that she found a piece of paper in the pocket of one of the uniforms that had my brother’s name written on it.

She sent her brother to tell my brother to run, but he didn’t leave. I think about this all of the time, why didn’t he leave? Why didn’t he leave? But when I think about it, I realize that if he had left, they would have killed or kidnapped all of us. He stayed to protect us. He stayed, and then he disappeared. There were so many kidnappings. It’s difficult, because when I look back I think about all of my neighbors who had family members kidnapped. I think of Doña Carmen who lived across the street whose son was taken, I think about Don Pancho, and of my friend who was also killed. When I walk in San Pablo, I think, this is where they killed Arturo, this is where they kidnapped Uriel, and where they killed Guillermo and Uncle Tito. It’s very hard to find someone, or any family that wasn't hit by the violence. The majority of the violence was carried out by the military, but the guerrilla was responsible for some of it too.

Those speeches that I remember about social consciousness took place inside the Catholic Church, inside of the convent. When we were still living at the plantation, Father Rodrigo took a lot of people to colonize the Ixcan, it was a jungle region that has now been converted into a place for pastoral farming. A lot of people who didn’t have land in Quiche, decided to move there. Father Rodrigo encouraged a lot of people to move there, and he brought trucks full of livestock which he handed out to them. The people who moved there soon started to plant food, and because the region was so remote, the priests had these vans that they used to transport people from Ixcan to Quiche. The priests were really close to the people. They understood our reality, our struggle.

I remember that some of the priests would bring young rich women from the capital to see our reality, to have compassion for us. The truth is, we were poor, but we didn’t perceive our poverty. It was normal for us not to have things or to go places. We would see people who had more things than we did, but that was foreign to us, the concept of owning things didn’t belong to us. I never saw a candy or a cookie, or anything that I wanted to buy, that concept was foreign to me. But the priests started to make us realize that that life was wrong. It didn’t make sense that we were working for the plantation owners and that they had all of the land.

But my family was different. We were different. We didn’t work in the fields; my father was a nurse. He planted corn and made candles, but we worked and lived in the house. I don’t know what the life of the farmworkers was like. It was for that reason that as a kid I didn’t think that the situation was so difficult. But as a kid there is no reason to question things. The Catholic Church changed everything. The Catholic Church started to raise awareness. They taught us to question things and to organize. The Church really helped.

My uncle, my father’s brother used to always tell a story that I remember. He recounted how the plantation owners first came, and how they started to measure territory. They went on our property and yelled at my uncle and told him that our property was now theirs. They didn’t take all of our land, but they took some of it. We used to ask my uncle what they did when that happened, and he told us, “We followed them, but we couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t complain, we couldn’t discuss. They couldn’t understand us because we spoke different languages. All we could say was very good. We tried, but nothing worked. All we could do was watch them build a fence around their new land”. That was the big question, a lot of people were displaced from their lands. I think that’s why, the Catholic Church started to get involved, to question the situation, and to make people aware of the injustice. Even I remember how some people lost their lands. 

I always remember this little book about the five priests that were killed in the Quiche. Before he died, one of the priests gave a speech at a seminary in Spain, and he talked about my plantation and how the situation there broke his heart. That’s what the priests did, they built consciousness among us. They broke with everything that had been taught to us. This was what they were witnessing, what they were living, and they knew they had to act.

The plantation that we lived on was made up of land that had been taken from other people, from the farmworkers, from the indigenous people. They tried to reclaim those lands, but they couldn’t. Then some of the people that lived on the plantation protested and they were forced to leave their homes. The workers from the newly formed plantation took their things and left them on the street. I assume they left after that. It was for that reason that people like my uncle founded organizations to fight the displacement. The plantation owners took the campesinos’ land. All of this took place before the Agrarian Reform in 1952. That affected the northern and southern part of Guatemala. It didn’t affect the highlands. The guerrilla appeared soon afterwards. 

Well, the story about the guerrilla is that they were a part of the military. At some point one part of the military started to conflict with another part of the military. There was a faction of the military that was very pro-CIA, and they began to fight against other parts of the military. One group expelled the other, and they fled into the mountains, well they went north, but the military followed them and pushed them into the mountains. There they found people who helped them, and they saw that the people there were very solidary, hospitable, and open, but they were also very poor. So among themselves they had an ideological awakening. Before it used to be just a fight between factions of the military, but after that they took on the cause of poor people. With that as their justification, they started their struggle.

Little by little, the indigenous people got involved because in the beginning there were no indigenous people in the guerrilla. The elite of the guerrilla, the people in charge, were always ladinos. There were some indigenous people who held medium rankings, but most of them were just ground troops. After that they started to move into the Quiche region, into the mountainous regions because people there helped them and they were safer there. In the 1970s the guerrilla grew stronger, and in 1978 they appeared in San Pablo. The military’s brutality started in 1980 and 1981. 

My father was a soldier in the 40s. He always talked about how they encouraged his intellectual and personal development. He learned how to inject, read, and write in the military. My father had a lot of respect for the military, but this military was different. At the beginning we felt pity for the soldiers when we saw them eat cold food, but we soon found that they were different from the military that my father knew, they were brutal. Whenever we saw people wearing camouflage uniforms, it inspired a lot of terror in us.

I saw them various time carrying people in plastic bags, and others with their hands tied. We used to have a pharmacy, and I remember one time they came in and they took a man. At the time I was living in Chichicastenango. I lived there for a year between 1980 and 81, but I couldn’t escape the violence. I remember one day, in front of the flag pole, where we hung our flags in school, they left three naked corpses there, their hands were tied, and you could tell that they had been dragged there. The military came and knocked on the door of the boarding school we were living in. The school belonged to the Catholic Church, to a Spanish priest. They knocked down the door and made us go and look at the bodies. That meant they were going to take over Chichicastenango soon.

At first the military established themselves on the outskirts of Chichastenango, but they eventually took the convent. It was in the city center, and the nuns were forced to leave. They then took the Catholic church, and they began to live in the building. In Chichicastenango, a lot of people became evangelical Christians for security, for protection. I found it interesting, because when the war was over a lot of people came back to the Catholic Church.

I always remember that in the early 70s, we used to always play on the streets. After 1978, there was nobody on the streets after six. After six, everyone would pray. At one moment in my life I became anti-God. But I feel a burden on my consciousness and I get disappointed in myself because in those moments God helped me. God helped me, because every night we would pray. That was our only consolation. My father was being threatened and we knew that we were not a part of the guerrilla, but we sympathized with their ideas. Our sympathy is what made us a threat.

We were especially terrified of the kaibiles. They had an interesting training regimen. People used to say that a part of their training was being dropped on a mountain in Petén with some provisions. With those provisions they had to find a way to civilization, whoever died died, anyone who managed to get out of there became a kaibil. Other said that they ate dog, raw dog. The military was brutal. One of our family friends was a doctor, and in our communities’ doctors were very respected. They had a different standing than everyone else. One night a captain in the military, Captain Gutierrez, invited him to his house for whiskey. The captain had just captured a guerrillero and he was keeping him in his house. He gave the doctor a knife and made him cut off the guerrillero’s ear. Can you imagine?

I was lucky, because I left San Pablo for a year in 81. My father told me to leave, he was scared I would be captured or threatened. So I left. I went to Santa Cruz for a year. My siblings and parents saw more than I did. My dad always tells me one story, of the time that there was a massacre. They killed 54 people. My dad recounts that he saw the body of a little boy clenching his fists. He was probably terrified. All of their heads had been chopped off. That was what the military did. They slaughtered us. We were terrified of them during those years.

We almost never talked about the violence, or the guerrilla, or the war. We tried to talk about our daily lives, about insignificant things. We didn’t talk to other people much, not even with our own family members. When we found people we could trust, we would talk about the war in secret. We would talk about who had been kidnapped and killed. We were terrified. Every morning and afternoon we would pray. That was what saved us. That was our salvation. There’s a part in the Bible that says that “lilies in the fields do not live without God’s intervention, that no hair falls without God’s will, that no leaf falls without God’s permission” and believing that consoled us. If something happened to us, at the end of the day God wanted it to be that way. Feeling that things happened for a reason comforted us. We can kept on telling ourselves that if it was God’s will, nothing was going to happen to us. That kept us going.

We thought about leaving, especially my siblings. But my father said no. He said, “We don’t owe anyone anything, so we are not leaving”. We are always trying to find out what was happening and we were terrified. My mom tells stories about how at night when the dogs would bark, my father would put on his clothing. He would say that if the military was going to take him, they would at least take him with his clothing on. That was a daily thing.

When it comes to sexual violence, I’m not sure what happened. I’ve never asked myself that. I am not conscious of that. But I do remember thinking that it may have happened to my aunt because they took her too. My mind is centered on men, but I do remember hearing that it happened, I was just never very conscious about it. I never worried about it, or maybe it was a secret. There were some women who went out with some of the soldiers, but we would always make jokes about that. We would say that they were confused because money is green and the military wore green [laughing].

We lived in constant fear. My father always talked about this list, and when we would travel, they would stop us, and ask us for papers. We would all carry our identity cards, and we would hand it to them. They would compare them to a form they had. One time I saw that when my father gave them his identity card, the soldier looked at it intensely. He looked at his partner, and I don’t know what happened, but my father was really scared. We were able to leave. No one said anything until afterwards, but I knew. My father knew that he was on the list like my sister.

My sister was on the list of people who were going to be kidnapped. But there is something that I still do not understand. There was a breaking point, and I’ve never understood what it was. I believe my father is alive because of Rios Montt. When Lucas Garcia was in power it was the most violent time. When Rios Montt came, things were different, things calmed down. When Rios Montt came, things changed. They no longer persecuted us in the same way. But I know things were different in Cotzal, Nebaj, and Chajun. After Rios Montt, came Mejia’s victory, and things got calmer.

I had an uncle, who had a really interesting story. He was a very happy person. He was a part of the town’s cooperative, there was a really interesting cooperative there. There was one that made the school and the highway at the time. The cooperative opened a store, and it kept on funding things to improve life in the village. All of the people at the cooperative, were merchants, and I always remember them as very happy people, making jokes all of the time. One day, they kidnapped my uncle and they surrounded his house. He escaped through the back door and left. We didn’t hear from him for a long time. One day my sister was working with my aunt in the fields, when they realized that they were surrounded by guerilleros. One of them was my uncle. He asked them how they were doing and everything. My sister was so happy [laughing] to see my uncle, he was a guerrillero! He was in the guerrilla for some years, and then when they demobilized, my uncle moved back and lived a normal life.

 We were also a part of the auto-defensa civil. We were a part of the auto-defensa civil patrol. One day the military called up all of the men who were fifteen years or older to form militia groups. Each group was led by a general commander, then there were intermediate commanders, and then there were platoons made up of thirty people. Each platoon was then divided into squads of ten. The structure was very clear. Our job was to patrol the areas around San Pablo against the guerrilla. We were an extension of the military.

When they recruited everyone, my family was left out. We weren’t the only ones, but if you were left out it meant that you were clearly suspected of sympathizing with the guerrilla. My father called one of his friends who was a commissioner, and he begged him to include us. They included me and my younger brother in a platoon. I was seventeen, my brother was fifteen. My brother was a part of the platoon for young adults. They would always go fish and into the mountains [laughing] carrying their weapons on their backs. I joined the platoon for adults with my father. I was with all of the old members of the military, those that had been a part of it during the democratic revolution. They were all grown men. They knew all of the military protocol, and they taught me how to carry a gun.

We couldn’t talk at night because we had to pay attention, it was very intense. But during the day we could rest a little bit, and we would take turns. We would have long conversations. I wasn’t very interested in what they had to say, but I remember some of them talking about communism. Some of them had been to Russia and China, and they would describe how people lived in Cuba. They said that people there didn’t have property and that when communism came, people who had homes would lose them, and how land would then be divided. They talked about communism as if they knew it, and the rest of us were very ignorant when it came to that.

That was my experience with the autodefensa civil. They used to be voluntary, but they later got rid of the voluntary part because they were naturally never voluntary. For the entire time I was in the autodefensa civil I felt very threatened. I was terrified when I had to go and pick up my gun. We would show up at the military encampment at four in the afternoon to receive our guns. They would give us M1 guns, that at the time were very old, and they would teach us how to shoot and clean them. I became very good at that. But I hated when that time came, because when the soldiers gave us the guns, I felt like they were reading my mind. I wanted to prove that I was with them, that I sympathized with them. That time was interesting for me, because by that time they had already kidnapped my brother, and I knew who the people responsible were. I naturally hated them, but for my security, I wanted to show them sympathy.

One of the men who killed my brother is still alive. He is a military commissioner. You know what hurts me? Never having done anything to look for my brother. I still admire what my parents did after his disappearance. They exposed themselves. They went to the Defense Ministry and to the military encampment, and they talked to the military and the police to look for my brother. I never did that, and until this day we don’t know what happened to my brother. We don’t know what happened. We do know who did it. He was kidnapped in the town he was working in. They took him on October 4, 1981. It was a Sunday at nine in the morning, so people saw when he was taken. The military took him, and everyone saw the military commissioner take my brother. That was brutal.

The thing with my brother was that he was a teacher, and he had a motorcycle to go to work. He was very successful and well established. It went against everything we had been taught. The ladinos were supposed to be above indigenous people. My brother was an irreverence, an abomination, he was breaking with everything that society had said was right. The fact that he had studied was a threat, well, a lot of my family members were threats because they were studying. Another one of my cousins, who studied teaching with my brother, was also kidnapped. But we found him. All of us wanted to do more than just study, we wanted to change our situation, to better ourselves. One of the commissioners once threatened by father with his gun, and he said “I don’t like that your son is on that motorcycle”. It was like my brother was threatening his pride because he was riding that motorcycle so freely. Motorcycles weren’t meant for people like us.

I thought the motorcycle was intransient, insignificant, but I understand it now. There are certain places for everyone, and we as indigenous people were defying what corresponded to us. We had to be careful because what we were doing was frowned upon, and we were a threat. I understand this now, but back then I did not. I remember one December, I don’t remember which day, I cried. I cried in my bed, and asked “Why us? Why is there so much persecution towards indigenous people? Why are the ladinos fine, and we’re not?" Because we were sure hit hard. I later asked myself that, and now I understand. I don’t think I am the only one who thought about these things. People always used to say “Those indios are involved in things that don’t correspond to them”. But the truth was we sympathized with the movement and we were studying, because we were trying to change our situation, our condition, our access to opportunities.

I became conscious of racism because I lived it and I asked a lot of questions. There was so much brutality towards indigenous people. When I was a part of the auto-defensa, I was a part of a platoon that was made up entirely of indigenous people, we had to patrol five times a month, the ladinos only patrolled three times a month. Racism was everywhere. Racism is conscious and unconscious and I always asked myself why that person had that position and why that other person had that position, and so on. I always asked myself why the ladinos had all of these privileges and why they were positioned differently.

There were no set rules when we interacted with ladinos, we just absorbed them. I always remember my father’s behavior towards ladinos, it was one of submission. My mom used to tell us stories about how in mass, they were instructed to give up their seats and sit on the ground, so the ladino could sit. There were a lot of different rules. In subtle and direct ways, we were taught to believe that our culture was inferior, that we had to adopt new customs and traditions. Even today, a lot of expressions in Guatemala are very derogatory towards indigenous people.  The word that I find the most hurtful is the word “indito”. It a word that carries all of the negative connotations that come with being indigenous. The word indigenous is neutral. We prefer the word Maya.

At least the discourse on Guatemala has changed. Before the Mayan shamans could not perform ceremonies in public, it was too risky. Now you can perform them anywhere. I feel like Mayan languages are more present now too. But I will admit that I feel safe because I wear western clothing, I have a credit card, and a telephone, if I have a problem I can just show them my credit card, and that gives me security. But I wonder how my mother feels, she still wears her traditional garb, she doesn’t speak Spanish well, and she doesn’t have a lot of money. I wonder how she feels, she is so close to me, but I don’t know. I look at her, and I always try to infuse security into her. With my success I have always tried to help my parents. One day I decided to do something special. 

I’ve traveled to many places and stayed at many five star hotels. One day I decided to give a present to my parents. I took them to a nice hotel in Petén. I was very happy there because I didn’t feel any real discrimination. We went to the restaurant, and we were the only indigenous family there, and they served us. They took good care of my father, they put a chair for my mom, and when they asked for tortillas instead of bread, they brought tortillas [laughing]. I really liked that. It makes me think that things aren’t so bad. Maybe it was just because we were paying, and a client is a client, but it was one of the few moments that I remember where I didn’t feel like there was any sense of rejection, or disdain towards us. I was nervous because my mom was wearing her traditional clothing, but we had a great time. In general I still think that racism and discrimination persists, and lives on.  However, there are good people everywhere.

In spite of everything I lived, I love visiting my parents in San Pablo. It's my home.