Friday, April 13, 2012

Revisiting Guatemala 21 Years Later

Posters on the Guatemala City walls are reminder of those who "disappeared" during the civil war

Going back to Guatemala 21 years after my first visit brought back a lot of memories.

In 1991, me, a college student specializing in Central American human rights, went off to study Spanish in language school in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala's 2nd largest city.  At that time the country was deep in an ongoing civil way that began in 1960 and tore the country apart with opposition guerrilla fighters trying to take down a brutal military regime. Death squads killed "more than 200,000 people died and nearly 50,000 went missing." (  After having visited 6 months before Nicaragua and seeing their post-revolutionary society I had studied so much, I once again realized how much one can learn first hand in travel and headed to this other country that I was also learning so much about.

What I remember seeing was a shocking amount of military and security and guns everywhere.  I was there during a major election and election day the military brought in truck loads of indigenous people from the countryside to vote and then soldiers stood over the open voting tables with big guns pointed at the people as they voted to make sure they knew who to vote for.  It was a powerful image for me.  It changed my view about elections and just what fair and free actually means.

My teacher in language school who I spent 6 hours a day privately speaking conversational Spanish with was also a guerrilla who fought in the mountains most of the time and came down to the city to teach Spanish as a way to make a living.  Her reflections were so poignant and vivid and her passion was amazing.  It was experiential learning at its best and they fired me up for a career fighting for change in US policy and fighting for better human rights policy.  

And that worked out for about 6 months until "democracy" took over Central America and much of the funding dried up and I got lured away to a life in politics and then to explore the rest of the world. (Guatemala's civil war was officially over in 1996) But being here brings it all back.  The Latin American zest for political protest and imaging a better more equitable country even if things haven't changed that much.  The powerful history of Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church, where priests and nuns played an active role in fighting for the rights of the poor and were killed for it.  And the sweet, wonderful smiles and colorful traditional dress of the people.

Central America forgive me for straying and falling for other countries.  You'll always be my first love.

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