After a decent night’s sleep, day two began with a lovely walk around the area of the hotel in Guatemala City. I am surprised and a little bit saddened by how Americanized the city is. Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, and Papa John’s are everywhere. The only chain I haven’t seen is Starbucks, and for that I am grateful. I also realized how paralyzing the language barrier is for me.
Following my walk I enjoyed a DELICIOUS breakfast. The fruit is incredibly fresh. We then did some learning on what it means to have ethical community engagement and discussed what it is to look at versus look with. We need to engage in ethical community by CHIME: understanding Context, Health and wellbeing, Informed choices, Mutual benefit, and Ethics, as a process. Unfortunately this was the last part of the day that left me cheerful and hopeful.
Before lunch we met with an organization we’ll call the “Human Rights Defenders.” A quick side note on security: because of the political unrest and because the people we’re meeting with are often working against the corruption and impunity in government, we have been asked not to name them or their organizations while we are in the country. This organization works to provide safe passage for those who come under attack for protesting or working to end corruption. They protect civil society from attempts by the government to stifle fair land ownership, wages, etc.
We discussed how we can use our “whiteness” and American citizenship to defend the defenders. The men and women of this organization put their lives in danger every day fighting for justice and the underprivileged and poor. They engage in “accompaniment” which they define as face to face interaction with the persecuted and their families, encouragement and moral support, standing with others in court and informing them of the process, and sustaining the families of those who flee. The leaders of this organization started it in 2000 as a response to the rise in crime and violence four years after the Peace Accord was signed.
I walked away from that meeting with despair for the number of poor who simply want access to basic needs, but at the same time impressed with the work they do. This is moral courage. My question from this meeting: What does it mean to have “civil society”? I’d love you to help me answer this!
Lunch was followed by a bus ride to the Museum of Memory, the place that commemorates and teaches about the history of Guatemala from the Mayan people through today. On the way there we drove past the protests happening against the corruption of the government and the government attempts to shut down CICIG, the commission against impunity here.
We then heard from the human rights law firm in Guatemala and some of the people they work to support. This meeting left me in tears. The firm helps community leaders demand collective rights, when they are almost always criminalized for it. The land in Guatemala is important to the people, those who are indigenous and those who happened to land here. None of the speakers asked for a job or a home. They asked for the rights to work their land, to have a place to call their own, rather than be stripped of their rights and land by big corporations or the government. The head counsel for the firm shared that he has to dress in upscale suits because his skin color is so dark, he is seen as lower, other, and less than by officials and lighter skinned Guatemalans. White supremacy is not just an American issue. The common feelings in this session were fear, helplessness, despair, and suffering. It was devastating to sit in that room. They ended by asking us to fight on their behalf when we go to Congress in March.
So where does this leave me? Well, with a lot of questions. The genocide in Guatemala shares much in common with the Holocaust in Europe and the pillaging of the land in America. In the Museum of Memory they had a book entitled “Never Again,” vowing to teach people about the Guatemalan genocide and the “armed conflict” so that it won’t happen again. I stood there wondering if “Never Again” was possible. The similarities from genocide to genocide are striking. How do we break that pattern? How can we respect others and recognize as equal those who are “other” to us? Why do we fear difference?
How can we change a culture of corruption if the only thing the children see in their society is corruption? Can we raise a generation of children to be different, stronger, more just and fair than the “leaders” they see today?
We asked the leaders of the law firm how they sustained their mental health, knowing the deep despair and injustice they see daily. They responded, “Persistence and resistance.” Amen to that!
I was grateful after that session for the few minutes to regroup in my room before dinner, which, like all the meals so far, was delicious. Now it’s time to sleep and pack for tomorrow’s journey. This trip is at times humbling, heartbreaking, and inspiring.