On the edge of Guatemala city , Guatemala ‘s capital of two million people, one-quarter of the nation’s population, stands a monument to poverty. A luscious green valley has been filled with miles of garbage. Black vultures fly overhead while thousands of people, mostly children, pick through the trash, looking for something to sell, hoping to find some food to eat. Every week, bodies are discovered in the heap, the latest victims of government death squads.
Welcome to Guatemala . The poverty, the hunger, the war, the repression against the indigenous peoples, the reality of death which forces a day to day struggle to survive–all continue to plague the suffering peoples of Guatemala .
The government estimates between 20,000 to 40,000 people live and work in this garbage dump, looking for food, plastics, and anything that they can sell. The average Guatemalan earns one dollar a day for his or her work. Those who live and work in the garbage dump often earn up to three dollars a day. They are the lucky ones. Indeed, that is why so many people crowd the edge of the dump, fighting with the vultures and dogs over some piece of trash. Entire families get by in cardboard huts on top of the trash. Their “homes” are literally made of garbage.
I was overwhelmed as I stood in that garbage dump, meeting the children and women. What can one do in the face of such desperate poverty? How can these people be helped? How can the global nightmare of third world destitution be eradicated so that no child ever has to live in garbage, so that every child can have food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and dignity?
At the entrance to one garbage shack, I met a woman who introduced me to two of her five kids. I asked her how long she has lived at the dump. “Seven years,” she replied. Further along, I met a pregnant woman sorting through the garbage. She had survived nine years in the dump. Everywhere, I saw hoards of kids, children who have lost their families due in the war who literally ended up in the garbage heap.
Guatemala ‘s poverty and misery, not to mention the brutal government repression, are staggering. The government admits that over eighty-percent of the people live in desperate poverty while a handful of families (less than two percent of the population) own some seventy percent of the nation’s land and resources. For these people, like the people of Haiti , Somalia , Malawi and India , there is no plumbing, electricity, water, heat, air conditioning, telephone, or television. They endure a sea of problems: disease, hunger, unemployment, war, misery, and insecurity. On top of all this, the U.S. is threatening to dump its nuclear waste in the beautiful Guatemalan highlands where the indigenous peoples live.
Neighboring El Salvador is just recovering for its decade of horror and death squads. The military presence has diminished and the Salvadorans are beginning to breathe easier. They are entering a new struggle, the struggle for food and basic civil rights as they rebuild their country, which was ruined from war, U.S. military aid and oppression. But in Guatemala , the basic struggle for life continues.
Guatemala is a human rights nightmare. Since 1980, over 100,000 people, primarily poor, indigenous peoples from the countryside have been tortured and killed by the government and its death squads. An estimated 200,000 were killed over the last thirty years. Over 40,000 people are missing; 50,000 are widowed; 250,000 children have lost one or both parents; and half the rural population (at least 1.5 million people) have been displaced by the Guatemalan army. Political killings regularly occur at the rate of one or two a day, according to Archbishop Prospero Penados’ Human Rights Office. In August, the first prosecution of the military for the last decade of killing took place and six members of the armed forces were acquitted of the 1991 massacre of eleven people. Meanwhile, guerrillas attempt to carry out a violent revolution.
The poverty and the war combine to make Guatemala a land of violence and death. But it need not be this way. Guatemala is one of the most beautiful places in the Americas . The rich land, the magnificent green volcanoes and mountains, the lush trees and ocean coasts make Guatemala look like Hawaii . Unlike El Salvador , Honduras , or Nicaragua , over half the Guatemalan population is comprised of indigenous peoples with their roots in the Mayan culture. These beautiful, simple people continue the humble, hard-working, spirit-filled way of life that their ancestors lived for generations.
In all of Central America, the region that has suffered more massacres, assassinations, and torture than anywhere else is the beautiful province of Quiche in the northwest part of Guatemala . The rampage against the indigenous peoples was so vicious between 1980 and 1982 (with thousands murdered, including many priests and nuns) that, for a while, the Catholic church officially pulled out of the entire province–one of the few times it has ever done so in Roman Catholic history. Only one priest remained with the people during that time, and he continues there today among the people, as do the death squads.
I spent two weeks traveling through Guatemala in the summer of 1985, at the height of the war, but return to live and study there three months during the summer of 1992. One day, I took a broken down blue bus for a long trip into the mountains of Quiche to the village of Santa Cruz del Quiche where the people wear traditional, brightly colored, hand-made clothing that marks their Mayan ancestry. Nowhere else in Central America can you see such living history. I recalled the Gospel teaching how Jesus promises that God will take care of his faithful ones, that just as the lilies of the field were tended, so too the clothing of these poor people out shown Solomon “in all his splendor” (Luke 12:27).
In Chichicastenango, I walked through the weekly, public market which flourishes exactly the same as it has for the past eight hundred years. The only difference today is the occasional presence of a gringo like me.
In the center of the town, standing over the market plaza is a large, white, old Catholic church. Twenty steep steps take you up to the entrance of the church. Along those steps sit a few campesinos from the countryside, offering their prayers. They each hold large containers of incense. Columns of smoke can be seen from around the town. They do not speak Spanish, but one of the twenty indigenous dialects, such as Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi or Mam. They pray for food, health, their children, and their people. They are very poor, very faithful, and very holy. Their poverty and suffering is a crime which the first world has inflicted upon them.
It is Friday afternoon, yet inside the church, the long center aisle is filled with burning candles, hundreds maybe thousands of little fires. A cluster of women keep a permanent prayer vigil for peace. At the Sunday liturgy, the Mayan priest first offers prayers to the great Spirit. Sometimes he kills a chicken or an animal as part of the ancient ritual sacrifice. Then, the Catholic priest steps forward and offers the Eucharistic bread and wine, bringing together the prayers of the Mayan and Catholic peoples, to the God of the poor, the God of peace, the God of justice. Through the haze of smoke, I could see the blood stains from the dead chickens on the floor.
Santiago Atitlan sits on the edge of the deep blue waters of Lake Atitlan surrounded by tall green volcanoes and mountains. It was one of the most idyllic places I have ever been, and yet, one of the most deadly. In July 1981, the pastor, Fr. Stanley Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma , was assassinated because he spoke out so vehemently against the killings. He was killed by the same death squads who had killed hundreds of his parishioners. Today, the heart of Stanley Rother is buried at a side altar, under the words of the Gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls and dies, it bears no fruit. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Inside the rectory, the room where he was killed is preserved as a chapel. I prayed there at the site of this holy martyr for an end to all the killings in Guatemala and the resurrection and its suffering people.
On December 2, 1990, the tenth anniversary of the killings of Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in El Salvador , the village of Santiago Atitlan was struck by the Guatemalan military. When word spread that someone in the village had been captured by the government death squads, thousands of people spontaneously gathered in front of the church in a rare public, nonviolent demonstration, demanding his release. They then walked one mile directly to the gates of the military barracks where the man was being held. Suddenly, the military opened fire. They killed fourteen people and injured scores of others, mostly women and children. Afterwards, thousands of people gathered again in front of the church and demanded that the mayor to go to the Capitol to call for the removal of the military barracks. Two-thirds of the 45,000 people of Santiago Atitlan signed a petition demanding the removal of the military base. Since most of them never went to school and were illiterate, they put an “X” or a thumb print on the petition.
Shortly afterwards, because of international pressure, the Guatemalan president ordered the military to leave Santiago Atitlan. The steadfast nonviolent resistance of the faithful in the face of a brutal military establishment is one of the signs of hope in this beleaguered land. The stunning beauty of the land, the lake and the volcanoes of Atitlan contrast so sharply with the terrifying brutality of the government death squads that one is left confused, saddened and outraged.
Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Guatemalan government, the person who best represents the suffering people of Guatemala , is Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan woman from Quiche who saw her family and friends tortured and killed one by one in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her father, mother, and a brother were killed in the early 1980s by the Guatemalan military. She herself has been a constant target of the repression. Rigoberta Menchu has travelled the world speaking out on behalf of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala , calling for an end to military aid to Guatemala and for real peace and justice for the poor. With the help of a translator, she wrote a stunning autobiography, I, Rigoberta Manchu, which best tells the story of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala . Rigoberta has become a true voice for the voiceless on behalf of the suffering people of Guatemala , just like Archbishop Romero for the Salvadoran people.
In 1991, Rigoberta Menchu returned to Guatemala for the first time in a decade. In the summer of 1992, while I was there, she visited again for five days on a much publicized visit. At the airport, she told a crowd of supporters, “This earth gave us life. It belongs to us. The future of our homeland is ours.” That day, as millions rejoiced in her return and her daring words, Guatemala ‘s president publicly denounced her and defended the death squad soldiers who still roam the countryside. Rigoberta had just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he said that instead, the peace prize should be given to one of his military cronies.
The next day, as Rigoberta rode in a caravan to the town of Chimeltenango , a car with tinted windows rammed into her car in an attempt to kill her. No one was hurt, thank God, but she cancelled her tour and had to leave the country immediately. Her public demand for justice and peace is the greatest threat to this ruthless, U.S. backed military government. She remains a witness for peace, a sign of the determination of the Guatemalan people. Her spirit and the spirit of the people, I am convinced, will one day give birth to a new Guatemala .
“In the area of indigenous needs,” Rigoberta said, “after so many years in which we waited for a new dawn to appear, we hope that our voices will be heard, that we be given the chance to speak. Little by Little, we are moving forward.”
If one looks closely at Guatemala , one can see signs of hope. Most recently, the right-wing Guatemalan government signed an agreement with the guerrillas about honoring basic human rights as a first step toward peace. An estimated 150,000 Guatemalan refugees who live in southern Mexico plan to return home soon and repopulate their villages. Good people continue to work quietly to save, heal and serve the suffering peoples.
Yet there is a long way to go and international solidarity in support of the indigenous peoples in their nonviolent struggle for peace is critically needed. The war must end, the death squads must be abolished, and everyone in Guatemala must be assured food, healthcare, homes, jobs, and education. I believe it is the responsibility of the United States to serve and heal the suffering peoples of Guatemala , and throughout Latin America .
The church can play a key role in this resurrection, I believe, because the struggle for justice and peace in Guatemala is ultimately a spiritual struggle. As I stood in the garbage dump, walked through the mountains of Quiche, and visited the bloody stained ground of Santiago Atitlan, it occurred to me that God lives among the Guatemalan poor, that God’s presence is almost tangible, almost visible, that Christ is crucified again in these beautiful, humble people. In Guatemala , though one is surrounded by death on all sides, one meets Jesus everywhere. He walks among the poor, suffers with them, hopes with them, and accompanies them on their journey into the reign of God. One especially feels his presence among the indigenous peoples. The Jesus of Guatemala wears their brightly colored clothing, speaks their dialect, and suffers with them as they struggle nonviolently to create peace and justice because they share his paschal mystery. Just as they suffer crucifixion ultimately at the hands of U.S. military imperialism, so too they will rise.
The Jesus of Guatemala lives in the garbage dumps, walks the mountainsides of Quiche, swims with children in the waters of Lake Atitlan , and hopes that one day, the reign of God will become reality for the suffering peoples of Guatemala . I saw this Guatemalan Jesus with his great dignity, purity and compassion, present, alive, and active in the people of Guatemala . He offers them real hope for justice and peace. Indeed, he is there only hope.
But the Jesus of Guatemala offers me and the people of North America something as well. He invites us, indeed commands us, to turn our eyes to his suffering people to the South and to join their nonviolent struggle for justice and peace, to stand with the people of Guatemala and Latin America and do what we can so that they can live life to the fullest with not only the basic necessities of life, but with dignity, peace and joy.
As I remember the people of Guatemala, I take heart that the God of justice and peace is with them and calling us all to this new world of peace and nonviolence. The challenge remains to join them now in creating that new world.