Monday, November 7, 2011

Guatemala elects new president - a reflection on memory and forgetting


Otto Perez Molina, a former general, won Guatemala's election Sunday. It is the first time since Vinizio Cerezo's election in 1986 that Guatemalan citizens have elected a member of the military to rule them. And there's a reason for that - the 30 years prior to the 1986 election had been years of repressive military rule in Guatemala - regimes with death squads, torturers and architects of genocide in their ranks.

Perez Molina was part of that military that waged undeclared war on its own people. And despite extensive documentation (see the Archdiocese of Guatemala's massive report with eyewitness accounts of massacres and government-led genocide of indigenous peoples here ) the new Guatemalan president denies that the massacres and genocide ever occurred.

An Associated Press report about the election (read it here) makes the point that most Guatemalans are young and don't remember the genocide years. What's more, the culturally rich but otherwise impoverished nation has been wracked by drug cartel and gang violence and, the report states, people voted in someone they hope can curb that violence.

And he probably can - after all, he's a representative of the most insidious gang that beleaguered nation has ever known, and the most pernicious and entrenched of cartels.

No one outside a country - no matter how much they remember and love it, or how many family ties they have to it - has the right to tell the people who live there how, or for whom, to vote.  But I worry this outcome.

See, unlike those young Guatemalans the AP report mentions, I do remember just exactly what it was like to live in the Guatemala of brutal military dictatorship. I do remember how a word - critical or compassionate - had the power to drive you and yours into exile, or worse, had the power to disappear you. I do remember people who lived in some of those indigenous villages where only a handful survived the massacres. Those were the years when people tried to avoid rivers and creeks because so many of them carried the body parts of the tortured and dismembered downstream. Those were the years when journalists and editors who dared print the truth of what was happening died, or were tortured, or were so grievously injured they'd never walk or write again. Those were the years when the first peoples of the nation came close to being wiped from its future.

I remember.

I was going through some of my mother's most treasured things today, thinking about the strange ways of memory. My mother was Guatemalan, and she owned many indigenous huipiles she wore even after we moved to the U.S. Those photos at the top of this blog post are traditional huipiles from a village called Nebaj. During the worst of the genocide and undeclared war in Guatemala, wearing the traditional garb in Nebaj was tantamount to wearing a bullseye. Paramilitary groups and a government-led scorched earth campaign turned Nebaj into a village of widows and orphans. Many of the Guatemalans who fled to refugee camps Mexico in the early 1980s were from Nebaj - and although the village still exists (a better fate than other villages completely erased by the genocide) it is probably impossible to tally the real human cost of those years.

Not so long ago I was discussing the undeclared civil war and genocide on Facebook with some of my classmates from Guatemala. I mentioned some of the people we had known who were killed in the violence and some of the incidents that had taken place before our eyes, just beyond the schoolyard. Some of my classmates have forgotten, others have vague recollections, but none have memories near as vivid and present as I have.

And that makes me wonder - are some of us born to be memory-keepers? To worry the shreds of history? To want to remember even when it is painful to do so?

In the 1980s the GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo) marched through Guatemala with the photos of their loved ones who had been disappeared. They placed humanitarian calls - with photos and descriptions - in the newspapers. Most of them understood their loved ones had probably died in extrajudicial killings, in massacres, at the hands of torturers. But they kept their names and faces present and in doing so they took part, to use poet writer Milan Kundera's words, in the struggle of memory against forgetting.

That struggle is clearly still taking place. Genocide is an ugly thing to remember, but it cannot be denied and its memory must be kept. I pray Guatemalans do so - because their new president has made it clear he will not - and forgetting is a dangerous invitation.

I pray for Guatemala, really, because I cannot stop loving it. And remembering it.


I wrote the following poem in the 1980s, shortly after hearing that one of the founders of GAM was killed under suspicious circumstances. She had long asked for an accounting of her husband's disappearance some years before and, by some odd quirk of fate, I had clipped and kept one of the humanitarian calls she had placed in the Guatemalan newspapers asking for his safe return. I suppose if I were to write it today it'd be a different poem, and perhaps I'd choose to make it less graphic. But the circumstance would be the same, and just as undeniable.

The poem first appeared in the Spring 1988 issue of Graham House Review.

Suite for Rosario Godoy de Cuevas

For this disappearance:
25 cents per line - minimum
two by two inches. Last three pages
of the dailies; last five
of the weekly. Humanitarian Call
to those holding Carlos Ernesto Cuevas Molina
that they respect his physical integrity
and that they set him free, so that he
can join his young son and distressed wife
Maria del Rosario Godoy de Cuevas
5th Avenue 2-30 Zone 13
Telephone #62188, Guatemala City
June 27, 1982.

One believes time alone kills them.
But for us, waiting real news
time breaks to bated breath of days,
hours, minutes. My child forgets
his father's face - only glimpses
offered by grainy black-and-white photographs
in El Grafico or Prensa Libre,
or marched with a dozen similar faces
on placards of the GAM. If any
of them reappeared my child would likely
avalanche himself on the returning dead
proclaiming him a parent. Know this:
he was tall, handsome, fond of plaid
flannel shirts, endlessly dancing
to the Alma Tuneca marimba.
I tire of marching, of leading
this band of gathered hopeless.
Each body that makes an appearance
dragging its weight through river
or sprouting from beneath undergrowth
in fields, precipitates
the rush of all these familiar faces.
We meet in morgues, trash dumps,
communal graves. It comes down to this:
they have stripped us of memories
and we are willing to claim all as our own.

Xibalba is the underworld of Mayan legend -
a person and a place -
peopled with 20,000 unburied voices,
built on a ground threaded with bodies.
The mythology is as follows:
at night, cars with no headlights
crawl through the city searching
for the marks of the furies. The white
hand-print that indicates no house
should be passed over. Doors open,
families are rewritten. In DIT centers
men perform reconstructive surgery
without scalpels or anaesthesia.
In our myths, none of the heroes survive.
The truth is as follows:
Zipacna was a legendary villain.
He carried one hundred men and a mountain
on his back, for the pleasure
in feats of strength. We invoke
him through the years, to cover
our crust of fossils. Yes,
even we admit it is archaeology
when the farmer plows his field
and arranges the rows into ribs,
or a spine.

Female, 29 years old.
Olive skin, brown hair and eyes.
Third degree burns over 50% of body.
Ribcage crushed. Mutiple
contusions. Human bitemarks
on breasts. Evidence of rape.
Victim was pulled from burning
wreckage of automobile:
Honda, 4-door, 1981, no license plates.

A primer for children.
Set the table in the following way:
salad fork, then dinner fork, on the left.
Knife (blade inward) tablespoon, soup spoon
on right. Teaspoon, dessert fork
above, arranged.

Do not serve yourself too much food,
or more than once. Balance your
implements delicately: the knife
between the fingers on the breath
of a feather. No coarse grasping
to indicate desperation or lack
of understanding for cutting edges.

Contemplate the ironed table linen:
a rectangular patch of material swished
ceremoniously onto the lap.
Knotting the cloth in anxious substitution
for speech. Each knot a thought,
each thought a disappeared person.
When you finish, show me the results -
I'll teach you to count.

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