Perspectives from those too often ignored.
Photo by Flickr/npatterson
The Cuchumatanes in Guatemala.
It’s 11:09 pm. In seven hours, a taxi will take me to the airport. I listen to “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and let my mind drift to all the people I will hold and hug and fall into tomorrow. My sister, her son. We’ll cuddle-up on the couch. My best friend, her wife. My baby brother and his baby. We will eat Ethiopian food on the floor without silverware. Mom will cry instantly. And dad, when he sees me, will wrestle his tears and probably lose. And this will let loose in me a careless joy.
Yesterday, I bounced along in the front seat of a mini-van through the dirt roads of the Cuchumatan Mountains in Guatemala. As we drove, dust curled up and around the body of the van. We stopped; I pressed my hand against the dashboard. The ayudante, who collects passengers and their money and makes sure everyone has a seat if any seats are left, hopped out of the sliding door behind me, swooped around to the front, and tossed a large rock out of the road. As we continued, he stuck the top half of his body out the window and called out “Nebaj! Nebaj! Nebaj!” — our destination. We stopped again and a gaggle of kids on their way to school piled in.
The driver, like so many, had lived in the United States. In Los Angeles. He, too, had worked in construction. The van was clean. No rips or holes in the fabric, no thread holding upholstery together. “This one’s mine,” he said, patting the light brown steering wheel cover. They have three other vans in their family, all used for public transportation and all paid for with money he made in the U.S.
“Did you come back because you had to or because you wanted to?”
“Yo quería regresar,” he said. He wanted to come back.
“And do you want to go back? To the U.S.?”
“No, I’m home now,” he said. And he gave the names and ages of his children.
The “Home” I’m watching, repetitively, on YouTube is a cover by father and daughter Jorge and Alexa Narvaez. The son and the granddaughter of Esther Alvarado. In 1987, Ester traveled, undocumented, to the U.S., where her son and granddaughter now sing songs on YouTube.
How Alexa belts out the beginning “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa….” Her dad whistles without pursing his lips and she moves her face around, as if searching for her own whistle, then suddenly: “One day I’m gonna whistle?” she asks, right in the middle of it. How he looks at her and she understands and keeps singing. How she rests her arm on his elbow as he’s strumming. How she seems to be yawning huge at the end when she belts out “Ho-oh-ome.” And then she lays her head down on his arm.
As a human rights accompanier in Guatemala, I pass my days with people who might be threatened, harassed, arrested without cause, beaten, or murdered by those in power or by those sent by those in power. On the day we elected Donald J. Trump, I was traveling the mountain highlands of Ixil in northern Guatemala.
On that day, anyone who talked to me talked about the elections. The kids talked about it, the bus driver, the two men at one of those little front-of-the-house-tiendas where I stopped to buy agua pura. Water in hand, I ran to catch another bus. The local radio station was on, in the Ixil language, which I didn’t understand, but abruptly, “Trump” popped out, right after “Los Estados Unidos.” I thought everyone was looking at me with side-eyes. I kept my head down.
If I’m not on a bus here, I’m usually sitting in someone’s kitchen. In one kitchen, an Ixil woman handed me a bowl of water to wash my hands while tortillas cooked on the stove. As usual, I poured water over one hand, then another, letting it splash onto the dirt floor. She put more wood in the stove. A red bandana kept her hair out of her face. She didn’t look at me directly, at least not much, at least not by my cultural standards, but I was getting used to that.
She asked how long I was staying. “Maybe a year,” I said, “but I’m going home next week to visit. It’s hard,” I added, “being so far from my family, you know.” And she looked straight at me. Of course she knew. Of course she understood. They all understand.
Their fathers were taken by the army in the night. Their daughter’s body never found. The scar on the top of the head. The ones that fled, lived on the move in the jungle.
“And we have to rent our land now,” she said. “Work for plantations during harvest — if we’re lucky. It’s hard to find work,” she told me. Everyone tells me.
So, they flee. Like her two oldest have done. Like they did during the war. To my country.
I like how all I can see in the video is the bed they are sitting on, with a black notebook on it and, in the background, drawn curtains and a yellow wall and how that is enough to remind me of my favorite aunt. To feel myself again in her one-story house with a front yard of half-green grass in the suburbs of L.A. I wonder if they too are in southern California when they sing: “Take me home.”
“How long did it take to get here?” asked a friend of mine when I returned to Guatemala. We had met on my first visit five years ago. She lives in the countryside, raises cows, has never seen the ocean.
“A long time,” I said. “Like twelve hours, overnight.”
The only people she knows that move between countries, move between them in the desert, in the night. And in the days, thirsty, they sleep.
I’m drinking tea as I sit listening: “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I bite my lip and bounce my knees, anxious to see my dear friend who is like a sister, and her son, my adopted nephew, who is like a godson. At the same time, Daniel Ramirez Medina is in a detention center that is like a prison that is a business run for profit in Tacoma, Washington. One of hundreds of immigrants detained in the recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. He is a student, with legal permission to live and work in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA.
When Daniel arrived in the U.S., via the desert I suppose, he was the same age as my nephew. When I arrive in Los Angeles tomorrow, I will swing him, my nephew, in my arms. Two days later, I will fly to Tacoma, where Daniel is detained, to see the rest of my family: my parents and my little brother and my dear friend and her son. We will ride public transportation and when the bus turns right, my adopted nephew will lean into me hard, trying to knock me down. I will laugh and let him push me over.
Last week, someone suggested I was a terrorist. Through a bullhorn. I was in line for the security check to observe the trial of a man who, in a different trial, had already been convicted of genocide. I was there for the trial of the Dos Erres massacre. The accused was Efraín Ríos Montt, trained by the U.S. in “counter-insurgency techniques.” The man in charge during the seventy-seven massacres in Ixil. The man responsible for the deaths of the family members of those who drive me through their mountains and feed me in their kitchens.
It made me sweat. The yelling. The bullhorn. “We want you here as tourists, not terrorists.” But afterwards, I calmed down. It didn’t stick. It’s not uncommon for people to shout at witnesses or their observers when ex-military officers are brought to trial. The words, I believe, were not meant to harm me so much as to discredit those I was there to observe, those who survived crimes committed, in part, with U.S. dollars. In my time in Guatemala, I’ve come to understand the power elite as an interlocking web rather than as separate competing groups of so-called legitimate and illegitimate powers.
Currently, thousands of Guatemalans attempt to migrate to the U.S. They flee joblessness, poverty, and violence. In La Libertad, for example, in 2011, narcotics traffickers massacred twenty-seven people. The killers included former members of Guatemala’s most elite military unit: The Kaibiles. Those who can perform surgeries on themselves in the middle of the jungle, whose training includes biting the heads off chickens. Some of whom were trained by the United States at The School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC).
Throughout the Internal Armed Conflict (1960–1996), thousands of Guatemalans fled the violence and sought asylum in the U.S. According to intelligence documents, the U.S. knew about the human rights abuses and continued to give Guatemala’s military millions of dollars. The U.S. knew, for example, about another massacre, near La Libertad, twenty-nine years earlier. In 1982, the Kaibiles, still in uniform then, murdered two hundred and fifty-one civilians. One hundred and thirteen of them children. They were the best Kaibiles. The elite of the elite. What they did to the girls, they did in front of their families. That massacre is known as Dos Erres.
The powerful are still the powerful. They are not giving up their power. And they do what they can to stop those who threaten it. As I waited outside the courthouse to hear the case for the massacre of Dos Erres, I looked at the man with the bullhorn. He looked calm. He looked well-fed. Like me, his skin was light.
The struggles of rural Guatemalans are different now. Some fight for land (often taken during the conflict) or against dams on their land (frequently dams built during the conflict or built on land “bought” during the conflict); some fight in court (cases of genocide, sexual slavery, torture during the conflict) and some fight to find the bodies of their loved ones (secretly kidnapped, tortured, and buried during the conflict).
Things are different since the Peace Accords were signed. Survivors bring military officials to trial for war crimes. The U.S. gives less money directly to the Guatemalan military. Most of the Kaibiles have stepped out of their uniforms. The School of the Americas is called by another name. Indeed, the river of power that threads through Guatemala has changed. But it still runs strong.
The people I stand with here are defending their human rights, the ones set out by the United Nation’s International Declaration on Human Rights and by basic morality. For example, you should not be killed for protesting.
Two months ago, during a protest against hydro-electric dams in his region, Sebastián Alonso Juan, seventy-two-years-old, was shot. On hearing the shots, the other protesters fled. Sebastián was not killed instantly, but was left. The company’s private security forces were there. And the police. And he was left. The firefighters were called and did not come.
Four hours later, he would die. In the weeks after his murder — before observers went to the scene, interviewed witnesses, and spoke with authorities — I’d thought Sebastián was just left to die. It is a sick sensation to wish someone had been merely left to die. Even in that short time he had between life and death, those who do the bidding of the powerful did not let him be. I wish I didn’t know. I rub my hand hard along my cheek, trying to make my body forget.
“No one should be forced to live away from their loved ones,” Jorge Narvaez wrote when he made a second “Home” YouTube video. This time he sang with both his daughters, hoping to move viewers to sign a petition to bring home his mother Esther. She had been deported.
In this newer video, the “as you come home” tells a different story. The words are the same, but the resonance, here in my chest, has changed. Do we have a responsibility to let in everyone who has suffered? I don’t know. But when we are responsible, in part, for the conditions from which they flee? That, I think, is a different story.
What happens to all those men, the Kaibiles and others, trained to bite the heads off chickens, to kill their pets? What happens to all the torturers — some of whom we trained — once the Peace Accords are signed? How can they put their hands to use?
Want to know what happened to me that day at the court house? What stuck? I remember it like it is today. After we go in, another man enters. He was outside when we were harassed. He is a friend, perhaps a family member, of the plaintiffs. I hear him tell them what was said to us outside: “Terrorists…blah, blah, blah,” he repeats.
“But,” he says. “Well, I mean…there is the U.S. What they did with the conflict here, the genocide. Their money, their weapons. The training. I mean that part, that part is true.”
The woman I’m traveling with knows I’m a U.S. citizen. She smiles at me, sympathetically. The man talking doesn’t know me, doesn’t know where I’m from. His tone is not accusatory, but informative. He’s just saying what happened. I try to smile at him like I’m okay with it. I try to be okay with it.
It’s not like I don’t know. It’s not like that’s not why I’m here. I know what we did. What we’re doing. It’s why I’m here. But I can’t look at him anymore. It’s too much. I turn away, lean against a wall. I keep my back to him so I don’t have to see.
Every day, being here becomes more uncomfortable. In that van in the mountains with the driver who had lived in L.A., I was with a woman from Germany. She sat between me and the driver and it was her, not me, that answered his questions. He asked first where we were from.
She knows what people say when I tell them I am from the U.S. When she tells people she’s German, they sometimes whip their arms out straight or say “Heil Hitler.” And I let her answer the driver’s questions. I let him think I was from Germany. I would rather he think I am from Germany.
My dad tells me that when I was little, I pretty much skipped learning to walk and went straight to run. “A speed racer,” he says, making quick motions with his arms. And I talked to everyone, he tells me. And was filled with light. And light fills his face when he says this.
My dad is just over seventy, Sebastián’s age. He walks slow, hunched forward just a bit on his right side from a fall he took a few years back. But whenever he tells me how I was at age two, at age five, at age nine, he embodies me at that age. As he remembers, I glimpse a child-self I could not know without him; I am there in his arms, his walk, his unself-conscious smile that is mine, and in his eyes that shine with pride.
As I watch Jorge’s video, the one before his mother was deported, I think of returning to my family as I think of those who will never be returned. I imagine my short stay at the airport and I imagine the stays of those caught in the administration’s travel ban. Look at them on the bed in that room of light. Look how Alexa looks at her father in that first chorus. Like she has everything. Like she always will.