This narrative was a taken from an interview that I conducted with a woman named Rufina. Rufina is indigenous and she is an important advocate for the rights of indigenous woman in her town. She is thirty-nine years old, and she is in charge of a women's weaving group in her community. She has eight children, she adopted four of them after their biological parents immigrated to the United States. She is an important figure in her community where she is also the first woman to be appointed the municipal president. She also lived during the Guatemalan Civil War and she is now fighting to keep her community safe from gangs. Her story is a story of bravery, hope, and determination, this is Rufina telling her story in her own words.
There aren’t jobs, there just aren’t jobs. There aren’t jobs, so when there aren’t jobs, young people join gangs, and now we are seeing gangs grow tremendously. I try to help as many people as I can. I always wish I had more money to help people. I have four kids in my charge, who were also abandoned, and they live with me. There are many things that happen here, but it’s all because there aren’t jobs. The coyotes come and say that they will cross you for 60,000, and it sounds great. They say it will be easy. They say you won’t suffer, that they will give you three meals a day, water and soda, and it sounds beautiful. Then you see people who are over there that have houses with two levels and cars, they have things, and you think that’s true, but I have spoken with many people who say they have suffered on the route, and women who have been raped.
There are many young people that want to start their own gangs, but the adults in this town have joined together and they have said they will lynch or burn anyone who joins a gang. If you see a place that is painted, that’s gang territory. We are in Mara Salvatrucha territory. In the town over there, it is very dangerous. This is new, before you didn’t hear anything about that. Before you could walk around at night, now you can’t do that.
There are also a lot of people who have abandoned their children, and they don’t care. They do it because they aren’t able to take care of them. There are so many kids that have been abandoned. There are women who get pregnant, and abandon their children. Sometimes those children are given as gifts, others are left to die. A lot of them immigrate. There are some women who get pregnant, and they leave for the United States. A lot of kids have left for the United States.
There are lots of single mothers who say they can’t pay for their children’s education, so their kids go to the States. There are other times, when the fathers find another woman and they abandon their children, they get desperate, and they leave for the United States. The only solution for them is going to the United States, that’s the solution! They have a problem, and they go to the United States, and that’s the solution for them. But there are many people who fail. They fail, and they get indebted. There are some people who pay 100,000 quetzales, plus interest because the coyote doesn’t just give you the money, he charges 10% in interest.
You see that house over there with the three levels, that man has a lot of money, he gives money to people who go to the United States. They have to sign a legal contract and he charges a lot of interest. He has good cars, four trucks, but people have to pay him. People who immigrate to the United States they just send money over and over again. Even after a year and half they still owe him.
I thankfully don’t have family in the United States. Well, actually I have one uncle, he’s been there for 20 years, but we don’t know where he is. The coyote took his home, because he never paid his debt, and his family now rents a home in Xela. My uncle has been trying to pay his debt for 15, 20 years. He left out of necessity.
There was a lot of armed conflict here too. There was a lot of that here. Here there are some clandestine graves, I was a girl, but I remember. There were two twins who lived right over there and they died, the woman was Christian, and we went to the wake, and when I heard, a shootout began. They yelled “everyone on the ground” so we all threw ourselves on the ground, it was 11 pm and we could hear some footsteps, but we couldn’t leave. All of the lights were turned off, but we couldn’t leave because if we left the military would say that we were accomplices of the guerrilla. And if the guerrilleros found us, they would say we were accomplices of the military. Lots of people had to flee to the United States, so they wouldn’t be killed.
A lot of people wouldn’t go out to work because they were afraid of the army and of the guerrilla. Because the soldiers would take people and kill them, they killed innocent people. I remember, there was a group of bakers, and the army accused them of giving bread to the guerrilla, and the soldiers kidnapped two of them and killed them. There was a soldier encampment in that mountain over there, like three kilometers away from here. The two men disappeared, we couldn’t work, we couldn’t negotiate, because the army would say that if we started a businesses our business was for the guerrilleros , and the guerrilleros would say our business was for the army. If we left to work in the fields, and if we were carrying fertilizers or a basket, the soldiers would say we were going to give food to the guerrilleros. You couldn’t do anything, so a lot of people left for the United States fleeing from the violence. I remember my father in law, he had a windmill for the maize, and many of his children fled, because the military said they were going to kidnap them and kill them. I had some family members who fled.
I had an uncle, who drank a lot, but he didn’t flee to the US, he fled to Mexico, so he wouldn’t be killed. I was 17, 18 years old when the Peace Accords were signed. There are many people here who were raped, the guerrilleros raped women. The soldiers would rape women too, and there were times where they would do it in front of people, without a single fear, without embarrassment. Many of those rapes produced children. I remember a family over there, and the son is a product of one of those rapes. That young man emigrated to the United States too. That time was horrible.
You couldn’t live during that time. One time I remember we were sleeping, our house was made out of wood, and our kitchen was made out of adobe, so my grandmother would wake up at 5 in the morning, and we would eat our food where we cooked. I heard a lot of noise, my grandmother woke up, but we didn’t let her go by herself, and when we got to the kitchen, it was full of soldiers. The soldiers were eating all of our tamales, so the soldiers would eat people’s food. They would eat people’s food, and because there wasn’t any food, people would get desperate and they would leave. There wasn’t any food, the soldiers, the guerrilleros, we were all really scared and we couldn’t work, and if you had food the guerrilleros or the soldiers would take your food, it was a nightmare.
The guerrilleros, the soldiers, they were all bad. I remember one time, my mom had sheep, and my younger brother had just died because we couldn’t go to the hospital because you either had to go with the soldiers or the guerrilleros, but I remember that my young brother died because he was really sick and we couldn’t take him to the doctor. He was dead, he was a year old. Time passed, and we didn’t have drinkable water, so we used to wash our clothing at the river. One day my mom told us to go wash our clothing at the river and to tend the sheep, and we did that. We got to a mountain that was 2 kilometers away, when we bumped into the guerrilleros. I was so scared, I was so scared, when I saw them, one of the guerrilleros said to me “girl don’t be afraid” and I remember my step father used to make liquor illegally, and he used to say to me “you need to carry this gallon, and this gallon you have to bring home”. Before it was illegal to sell liquor, and if you did you would get arrested, so my step father gave me a sack filled with potatoes where I was carrying the liquor. The guerrilleros asked me what I was carrying, and I was terrified, but they took my sack anyway, and I was really scared because the guerrilleros had raped my mother. That fear had always stuck with me. They asked me what I was carrying, and they saw what I was carrying. I remember they were smoking pipes, and they took the alcohol, and they left me to go, but it was a really difficult moment. A lot of women were raped.
There were a lot of massacres. When it was Hurricane Stan, there was a lot of rain, and all of the cadavers that the guerrilleros and the army had hidden came out. There were clandestine graves made by the guerrilleros and there were clandestine graves made by the army, the guerrilleros’ grave is in a village close by, and when the water came, they found bones, they found legs, they found arms, it was horrible. That’s where they used to throw the bodies of the people they killed.
I had family members who were killed. They killed my uncle’s father in law. He was killed because he worked in a bakery, and the soldiers said that he made bread for the guerrilleros. That wasn’t true, the guerrilleros said that if we worked, we were giving money to the soldiers. No one could work, because if you worked the guerrilleros would get jealous, and if you worked the soldiers would get jealous. You couldn’t go anywhere, you couldn’t even talk. There were moments where all you could do was look at the person in front of you.
I didn’t finish school, but I used to study close to the military encampment, the school was right next to it. It was traumatic for us, I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to go to school, we could hear bombs and gunshots all of the time. And they did come, they did come. I remember they used to come to school all of the time, to look for guerrilleros and soldiers. They used to come into the communities, the guerrilleros used to go into the communities, there were some guerrilleros who were very good and they used to leave food, there were some soldiers who would leave food for the kids too. But there came a moment when the kids no longer wanted to receive food from the soldiers or from the guerrilleros because there were times when they were bad. There was a lot of fear. A lot of people fled because of it. A lot of them.
As an indigenous woman it was particularly difficult. Thank God for the Peace Accords, because after that the situation got better. Before that the indigenous woman was never valued, I remember, I remember. I used to travel a lot, my mom bought fruit and avocados, and I would go to sell them from house to house because I too was also an abandoned child, so I would travel a lot with my mom. I remember when I would sit next to a ladina, and they would make weird noises and faces at me. I didn’t know, but there was a lot of discrimination, a lot of women were abused, that still exists in the community.
There are times when men in this community say “I am the one who rules, I am the one with the voice, you have no voice”. There are many women who have had their mouths shut, there are times when men don’t want their wives to go to the hospital when they are about to give birth, because they say it’s too expensive, and there is no money. Many women have died in childbirth because there are many times where men don’t want to take them to the hospital because there is no money. All of that has happened in this community.
There is a lot of domestic abuse. There are times when women aren’t allowed to go to reunions or special classes, the men say that they want the women to wash their clothing instead. There are women who suffer, and they get desperate and they just leave for the States. There are some women who are very brave, and they abandon five or six children, and they go to the States. There are many children who suffer. They suffer. In the case of the four children I adopted, the father no longer sent money, he abandoned four children, and the youngest was a year old. The mother left as a result. She went to the States. We don’t know if she is alive or dead. A lot of women do that.
There are a lot of women who do that, I saw that with a friend of mine. Her husband mistreated her, he would grab her by the hair and say “You’re good for nothing, you don’t work”, the woman was very poor, and she left for the States, and she got through fine. She now made her home with a second level, and her kids now live with her. The man wants to be forgiven, but she says no. There are women who make new lives over there, but there are women who fail. But there are so many abandoned children as a result. They go to the streets, they go to the streets, they get involved in gangs. They start to drink liquor. Many of the gangs are made up of abandoned children, because there isn’t anyone to take care of them or to tell them what to do. That’s why they get involved.
The situation is bad. I have seen a lot of abused women, and no matter how poor they are, they don’t want to see their children suffer. So, what they do is they immigrate. That is still a big issue. I sometimes sit and wonder, right now there aren’t any more guerrilleros, but there are gangs. The gangs substituted the guerrillas. Before the guerrilleros were in the mountains, they were over there raping women, they were harming people, and they said that it was for justice for indigenous people, but that wasn’t true. Now the guerrillas no longer exist, but now we have gangs instead. When they see a person who is successful and who has money, they start to extort them, I think that things didn’t change, because now we have gangs instead of the guerrillas. Before you didn’t hear about gangs. It’s very tough. Nothing really changed. Maybe the names of the groups changed, but the community hasn’t changed.
I guess what’s different is that the people have risen up, because institutions have trained us to stick up for ourselves. They have helped. There are women who now dare to denounce their husbands, but there also women who don’t, even if the men are hitting them. Today there is a group of organizers who fight for the needs of the community, and they have the phone number of everyone in the community, and if they hear that there is a criminal, they started to call everyone or with a siren they alert everyone. So people in the community know that something bad is happening and they all come out to check what is happening. There has always been violence in the community.
I remember, as a kid you are really energetic and you’re a troublemaker, so sometimes you would forget what was happening. I used to live next to the school, and the soldiers used to stay in the school and in that mountain over there, there were guerrilleros. One day, one of the guerrilleros asked me if I knew said person, and I said that I didn’t know him. Later that day, we heard them kicking that man’s door open, and the woman was screaming, and they took him. We were curious as kids, and we saw how they took them. They took him, and before we knew it he was dead.
There were also women from San Martin who were in the guerrilla. They got involved because they said that they were paid well, but once the Peace Accords were signed, many of them went to the States. I think a lot of them still had their weapons because now many of their family members are in gangs. That root stayed.
They gangs also recruit children, and they focus on abandoned children. They look at the kids that no one is fighting for, and they see them as a resource. I tell my children not to get involved, but the kids who don’t have parents, it’s very difficult. The gangs are always in the cemetery, smoking. They live off of what they steal. They kill a lot of people in public too. They use handmade weapons and knives. 5 or 6 months ago, they killed my cousin. People suspected that my cousin was going to be killed, because he owned a store that was pretty big and a lot of people have gone in to steal from him. Everyone knew he was going to be killed, and he was killed, and they guy who killed him was never found.
They killed another man here in the center, he had a store, and they went inside and killed him, and took all of his money. People saw who did it, but the law did nothing. There were some assaults in the community and it was the same person, but nothing happened to him. My cousin was in his house, he has his store, and it was 7 pm, and he saw that same guy, and he started to call people, and people were getting organized, but it was too late, he killed my cousin. The people grabbed him, and right now he is imprisoned, but he killed my cousin.
He took my cousin’s life. That is why people are scared. Sometimes I feel like you can’t live anymore, but God knows why this is happening in the community. Last year there was a huge drought too, and the maize dried up. Prices for maize went up like crazy, life has been difficult. There is a drought this year too. It’s not raining enough. Maize is really expensive right now too, it’s very expensive. Everything that president stole, she should have given it to the people who really need it. In this part of town, there are many kids who don’t have shoes. You might see homes that look nice, but there many people who live in them who don’t have shoes, who eat tamales with coffee, there are many people who only eat tamalitos with salt, which is why I sometimes ask myself God why? There are some of them who have never eaten an egg before, this is a really difficult situation.
I think the drought is also causing a lot of people to leave. There are times, most of the agricultural workers depend on agriculture, and they have a piece of land, and they see that it’s not raining, the harvest dries up, and sometimes they invest capital in that, and they see that they lost all of their investment, and they get desperate, and they leave.
I wanted to go to the States at one point in my life. I had a lot of issues with my husband, he is a womanizer, and he mistreated me. He sells vegetables in the east, and on one trip over there he was in a car accident, and we got in a huge debt to pay off his medical bills, but we couldn’t do it. I had two kids at that time, I kept on telling him that we should go to the state, but he refused. I wanted someone to support me, to give me money, to receive me over them. One time I went to look for money to go to the States, but I didn’t find money.
Society didn’t view me well, people said that I didn’t pay my debt, and I said I was going to the States to make a new life, to work. I said I am going to do that, but I never had that opportunity. I used to pray to God, and ask him to open a door, so that I could have a source of income, but I would see my children. I didn’t want to leave my children. I would cry. I remember one day, my son no longer had shoes, and I bought him some slippers that cost me 15 quetzales. I decided not to leave, and I got a job as a weaver. Now I am in charge of a group of women weavers from the community. I also have a son who is in the university, and he is in his third semester. Then my daughter is in high school and is on the path to become a doctor. My youngest son is in fourth grade. I am so grateful to God.
I later adopted four children. They had been abandoned by their mother, the oldest was 10 years old, and she took care of her siblings who were 1,3, and 4. I went to visit her home, and she had lice. They didn’t have a father or a mother, and the girl used to go and find herbs to feed her siblings. The godmother asked for someone to help her, to make them lunch. I said that I would give them food every day, and they would come to my house. In this town, we aren’t accustomed to eating one egg, we share it among each other, between three or four people, but we have learned that’s not a good idea. And they started to feel really at home with me, and one day they said they wanted to stay with me.
I didn’t know what to do, but their grandparents are alcoholics. When their grandparents saw that the kids were no longer living in the house, they sued me and said that I had kidnapped the children, but that wasn’t true. The children gave their testimonies, and they said I had given them a better life. I took a picture of them when they first came to my house, and they came with their clothing in tatters and they were dirty. But when I took them to the courthouse, they were well dressed and clean. They allowed me to adopt them, now I have adopted them. The four kids live with me. A social worker is supervising me. My husband is also helping me.
I couldn’t say no to them. Where were they going to go? And the oldest had been raped when she was ten years old. By some man, because they lived alone in the house, and we don’t know who did it, and she was already drinking. So when they asked me to adopt them, I said yes. We are Christian, and there is a verse in the bible that says:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
My husband said that Jesus was referring to those kids, and we decided to take them in. Now they have lived with us for many years, now the girl is going to become a teacher. The boy is traumatized, he is 14, and he is in fifth grade. The girl is in third grade. The youngest is in second grade.
At first my kids were very jealous. My daughter was jealous, but I told them they couldn’t act like that. I told them those kids had no mother and father, and that those kids they were going to be their siblings. Now my daughter is really close to the other girl, and I am thankful to God. I don’t want my daughters to get married, I prefer that they get good grades. They need to graduate first.
My mom never provided us with an education because my mother didn’t have money. I didn’t study, but I want my children to be professionals. My husband doesn’t like that I am always on the street doing things. I am the president of the municipality and everyone recognizes my leadership. People see my work, and they admire my patience. People are always impressed with how my children look, and with what they are doing.
I only got to sixth grade, I really wanted to be a teacher. I really wanted to be a teacher. My mom didn’t let me continue with my education, but I really wanted to continue with my education. I admire myself sometimes, and I think of all of the changes that I have made in my life. I used to not be able to speak in public and I love to participate in reunions or in special lessons. I used to only speak Mam, but now I speak Spanish too.
I am very proud of all of my accomplishments. If I hadn’t gotten that job as a weaver and met those four kids, I would be in the United States today. I recently separated from my husband because he hit me too much, he mistreated me too much, and we separated. But I believe I can do it. I live alone with my children and I am very hopeful. I just wish there was work. If only there was work. If you can’t read you can’t work. Even professionals can’t find jobs. You can only find jobs if you have connections. Without education or connections you can’t find jobs.
A lot of the women here weave, but we don’t have a place to sell them. But women here get desperate, they say I’m not worth anything, my husband abuses me, I don’t have a job, I’m not worth anything. Many women don’t know how to read, they don’t know how to write, they don’t know how to speak Spanish, so their self esteem is very low, and they say they aren’t worth anything, so a lot of women commit suicide. They say I’m not worth anything. We need people to value our work. I am so lucky, considering my own past. I wish women in this community had the luck I had.
My mother is sixty years old, but we have a complicated relationship and I don’t know if she is proud of me. I was the product of a rape, and when she felt like she was pregnant she told me that she wanted to abort me. But she wasn’t able to abort me, and she took a lot of herbs and concoctions to try and abort me, but she wasn’t able to do it. So I was mistreated by her a lot. She would say “Work! You don’t have a father, who is going to support you!”. Oh, she treated me poorly. Right now, I am very hurt by everything that she said to me, and when I visit her, she doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on me, at the same time I bring her things, but I think she always feesl bad when she sees me.
She doesn’t really support me, but it’s very difficult for me. I never had the love of a mother or the love of a father, and I tried to find protection in the love of a man, but I had a lot of bad luck. I had a lot of bad luck, my husband betrayed me, and I never said anything, but after so much, I couldn’t take it anymore and I denounced him. It was very sad, my life was very sad, but now I am seeing the fruits of it, and I know feel calmer and happier. I feel the support of my friends and of the work colleagues. I feel more motivated. I am hopeful.