Last year, as the genocide trial of former General Efraín Rios Montt unfolded in Guatemala, I was glued to the proceedings. I live streamed enough hours of the trial that the witness of the indigenous Ixil and K’iche’ people who testified will be seared in my consciousness probably for the rest of my life. When I wasn’t watching live stream, I was reading analysis of the trial written by observers from across the world; following the tweets about it from the dozens of Guatemalans I followed even before the trial started, and adding another dozen or so Guatemalan tweeple after #sihubogenocidio became my default hashtag search. I reached out to have a Guatemalan journalist write an opinion piece in AL DÍA, and gave one of our staff reporters some contacts of Guatemalans in diaspora, in Philadelphia and nationally, for her to interview for the cover story we ran.
When Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years, I cried. When the trial was retroactively deemed unconstitutional and annulled, I cried again. Different tears, same heart filled with the country I’ve always loved, that I’ve lost and will never be able to fully reclaim again.
I shared much of this with my friends and family on Facebook, as is my wont. One of my cousins, who lives in Guatemala, commented — in a caring way — that I was completely and utterly wrong. About the trial, the witnesses, the meaning I was attributing to actions and counteractions. I argued. She argued. We went back and forth for bit, and then eventually dropped it and went back to sharing photos of our loved ones and updates about the work that we each feel passionately about.
But before I post anything about Guatemala these days, I think about her.
The thing is, I haven’t changed my mind, nor my politics, nor one sentiment or belief about the fundamental injustice, ruthless repression and endemic racism that drove 30+ years of horrific undeclared civil war into an even more unbearable and horrific genocide. But the country that haunts my memories and my dreams and my stories, doesn’t haunt my days — and it hasn’t for almost 40 years now.
My cousin, on the other hand, lives there. Always has. That’s where her children were born, and recently, a grandchild. It’s where her mother and grandmother are buried. Her life is there — during the worst days and the best — in what is still one of the most violent countries of the western hemisphere.
And I live in the country whose policy toward Guatemala historically included deposing a popularly-elected president, shoring up a series of dictators and repressive military governments with arms and counterinsurgency experts that, as documents released through the freedom of information act show, came this close to participation in the genocide. Guatemala’s current violence is in large part the result of narcotraffic and organized crime but grew directly from the history of impunity for crimes our American government facilitated from the mid 1950s through the early 1990s.
No matter how just the cause we Americans espouse when raising our individual voices about international issues these days, we need to keep our arrogance in check. Too often when we have these conversations (informally or formally) we accord ultimate authority to organizations and voices from outside the country in question, instead of those working to draw attention to the matter from within. We too often adopt strategies for activism that seem brave and audacious in our own cultural context but that bulldoze the far more complicated activism of those in whose name we’re presumably advocating. Femen is a good example of this, with their topless marches that insult and trivialize homegrown women’s rights activism in Muslim countries.
It’s not that we don’t do it with the best of intentions, but it is also an aspect of our American exceptionalism (and the European Union equivalent) that we believe we are “ripping the blinders off” those who are actually living through whatever we’re protesting. We need — really need — to understand how arrogant this seems to those who have more than just metaphoric skin in the game.
Years and years ago, at my college graduation, E. L. Doctorow spoke to the commencement crowd about the undeclared civil wars raging at that very moment in El Salvador and Guatemala. I remember being glad he was doing so, because I hated Ronald Reagan and hoped enough people would get riled and vote him out of office before a second term. But as Doctorow’s speech wore on my mother became more and more agitated.
Anyway, back to Doctorow and my mom ... after commencement was over, I remember asking her why she was upset — after all I had heard her go on and on about the brutality of what was happening in Guatemala in much more specific and heartfelt ways than Doctorow had.
“What time would you guess he’s actually spent in Central America?” she asked me, each word hard and clipped even as her eyes glittered with tears. “A week? Two? His speech was pure arrogance.”
And she was right. It was a white savior speech: easier to swallow, certainly, than the white savior propaganda that had “justified” the U.S meddling in Guatemala in the first place, but at heart it was the very same narrative. We — Americans — would fix it. We’d decry and hector and lecture and politic, and because of our focus on it the dysfunction would disappear ... because now we saw it.
Honestly, I don’t intend to stop advocating for human and civil rights anytime soon, but thinking about this has made me realize how readily I — not even really “white” nor wholly American culturally — put on the cape of savior when I write about the world's injustices in tweet, comment section, blog, column, editorial. I realize how often I choose to speak instead of listening to the homegrown voices that are already raised in discussion about it.
Some of those are voices I like hearing, others not. But all of them have earned their opinions by living in their own country, and nothing I say from the outside — no matter how righteous I think it — should carry the same weight.
Time for a little humility.