Eating breakfast at Casa Emaus is a colorful experience. Right outside the kitchen area is an enclosed patio. Flower bushes line three sides of the patio, and the fourth side opens out into the central garden. The trellises with the hanging red-and-yellow tumbergia flowers provide a perfect attraction for quick-winged hummingbirds to feast. It’s hard to think of a better way to begin the day…until you add in a wonderful a cappella performance of a morning prayer by a choral group from Philadelphia. It was absolutely lovely!
Hector’s View of Guatemala
After breakfast, we all went upstairs to meet with Hector, a pastor and seminary professor who came to share his experience of religion in Guatemala.
During the civil war, which lasted for 36 years and ended in 1996 when the Peace Accords were signed, the church in Guatemala was beginning to wake up, and it encouraged its pastors to get politically involved in the 1970s and 80s. For many years, missionaries had been telling the indigenous peoples that they were not “qualified” to do theology; instead, European theology was imposed upon them.
One of Hector’s quotes really struck me. He said, “Prejudice and disdain come naturally to powerful people.” I invite you, dear reader, to ponder that statement. I know it stung me a bit. What could it mean for you?
Hector also shared some statistics with us. The numbers are vastly different from what we’re accustomed to experiencing in the United States.
Half of all Guatemalans are living in poverty, which Hector defined as earning the equivalent of $2US per day. Twenty per cent are living in extreme poverty, earning only $1US per day. That means that only 30% of Guatemalans are “doing well” by Guatemalan standards, but are still defined as earning more than $2US per day.
Hector said, “Is there enough wealth in this country for everyone to live well? Yes! And that is the heart of liberation theology—that’s all there is to it! Everyone should have enough to live. Right now, 70% of Guatemalans don’t have that. It is not fair. It is not a true Christian attitude.”
He also pointed out that it is the indigenous Mayan peoples who have a deep understanding of the earth; their religion helps them to form a holy relationship with it. And yet the Maya are the landless ones who aren’t able to grow crops.
“It is easy,” said Hector, “to be confused between economic growth and human development. So watch out! Displays of wealth are deceiving. Look at where the less fortunate are made to live. That is the true mark of progress.” He encouraged us to judge a nation by how it treats its poor—the least among us.
He told us about the political climate in Guatemala and the upcoming elections. The Guatemalan constitution is obsolete, yet no one will reform it. The media are allowed to slander people indiscriminately. Posters of candidates are frequently covered with graffiti, or have the political symbols crossed out.
“We are having elections this year,” Hector explained. “We call this the ‘democratic process,’ but really it is a facade. We go and cast a ballot, but it makes no difference to the people—no matter who wins, they do nothing to help us. The politicians have become very corrupt, and the US has been an accomplice in this. If we speak out against the process, we are called communists. Before the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, if you were labeled a communist, you were killed.”
He described some of the horrors that happened before the Peace Accords. “Over 60,000 citizens went missing. People were thrown, alive, into volcanoes, or the ocean, or the jungle, out of army helicopters. Today, the people forget about that, because it is unthinkable. The majority of Guatemalans today are under 30, and they do not remember those times.” The ones who would remember have mostly been killed or disappeared by the government. There are many families who still don’t know whether their loved ones are alive or dead.
As a result, 64% of all Guatemalans are between the ages of 0 and 34.
Hector’s brother was a 31-year-old journalist. He had two small children. Because of what he was writing, he was tortured, murdered, and his remains were left on the ground until his family found them. His mother said the following prayer over his grave:
Lord, thank you for having the remains of my dear son here. I ask you to comfort and guide the mothers who do not have that privilege.
“It took me a long time,” Hector said, “to understand that prayer.” I know that we are only just beginning to understand it ourselves.
The Peace Accords
After our visit with Hector, we went to the Secretary of Peace Office, a branch of the government that is doing its best to see that the Peace Accords are being carried out and keeping track of the progress that is being made implementing them.
The Peace Accords, signed into law in 1996, are a series of twelve agreements between the Guatemalan government and the leaders of the guerilla revolution. It took 13 years for the Accords to be negotiated. It was an important process, because the Guatemalan people were involved and given a voice. The whole of civil society took part, and they are the best peace agreements that have been achieved in the world.
This is why it is a shame that the majority of Guatemalans today don’t know about the Accords, or the rights they were granted as a result.
The Peace Accords agree:
- To reach peace through political actions (dialogue and respect)
- To respect the human rights of every woman and man
- To re-establish communities that were forced to flee from their homeland because of the war
- To establish a commission for historical enlightenment and memory
- To recognize the identities and rights of native populations
- To solve socio-economic problems and land ownership issues
- To strengthen civil empowerment and the army’s role in a democratic society
- To cease fire
- To make constitutional reforms and establish an electoral system
- To incorporate URNG (the guerilla revolutionaries) into the legal system
- To schedule an implementation and verification of the Peace Agreements
- To sign the Agreements for a stable and long-lasting peace
Thanks to the Secretary of Peace Office, there is a record of the progress being made in implementing these Peace Accords, but there is still a very long way to go. Politicians and other leaders with political pull are able to act with impunity and get away with anything. True justice is still a long way off.
In general, Guatemalans don’t know about the Peace Accords. The younger generation, in many cases, isn’t even aware there was a war. It isn’t that they are apathetic, so much as simply unaware. When they are aware, they do tend towards apathy though, similarly to the way they do in the US, because when they are included in the process, it is usually because they are being exploited by someone with power.
We were encouraged to strengthen our youth, and also do what we can to help those Guatemalans who are in the United States. The young people of any nation are our future, and they are the only true path to peace. When they grow up, they will treat the world they way they were raised, so it is our task to make sure they are raised with their feet on the path to peace.
A Spanglish Miscommunication
At lunch, we were reunited with Karen and Patrick! They had arrived while we were learning about the Peace Accords, so they explored Central Plaza while they were waiting for us to be done.
Patrick was mentioning a few Spanish phrases he had picked up (the “important” ones), and when lunch was over, he excused himself to use the restroom, which in Spanish is el baño.
However, I managed to mishear him, and I thought he said, “I’m going to visit the albino.” For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who “the albino” was, or how Patrick had managed to meet someone so quickly after arriving! So now there are a few of us on the trip who occasionally excuse ourselves to go “visit the albino.”
UPAVIM: Unidas Para Vivir Mejor (United To Live Better)
After lunch, which was our first time being together as a complete group, we went to visit UPAVIM, a cooperative non-profit women’s community dedicated to the sale of fair trade crafts. Their products are sold all over the world, including St. Paul, Minnesota! You can find UPAVIM products at Ten Thousand Villages on Grand Avenue.
We were greeted by Gloria, a boardmember of UPAVIM, as well as several of the workers who were seamstresses, handcraft artisans, and childcare providers. They explained that the organization was founded 18 years ago. They started by making hairpins, and slowly evolved to make more products. Now they have an entire storeroom full of bins of handmade items!
They have now expanded to five programs:
- Business program (bakery, soymilk shop)
- Scholarship program
- Medical clinics
The handcrafts program is the backbone of UPAVIM; the profits support their school and nursery, going to pay salaries for daycare workers and teachers. Much is required of the women of UPAVIM, but the artisans are allowed to work whatever hours they want, since they are paid according to how much they produce, and the flexibility allows them to work another job or be at home with their families. Most of the women are single mothers, since their men were all killed or disappeared during the war.
When asked if they speak to each other of the war, one woman answered, “We used to, but we don’t anymore.” That was all she said; we were left to wonder why they stopped talking about it.
Professor Chris first visited UPAVIM 22 years ago; she had to drive far out of town on a dirt road to a tiny village. Murals on the walls had begged for just a few more inches just to do their work and survive in the world. Today, we were seated on the third floor, the newest addition to their large building, which houses their daycare, workshops, storerooms, and warehouse. They hope to use this newest addition to start a sixth program taking care of the elders of the community.
As far as any of us know, UPAVIM is a completely unique organization in Guatemala. No other organizations are modeled in the same way.
So when we go to Ten Thousand Villages, or other stores that sell UPAVIM products, our money is financially supporting a group of about 75 dedicated, courageous, hardworking single mothers who have completely re-envisioned what it means to be a woman in Guatemala. We found them deserving of our deepest respect, and I know I look forward to purchasing their products whenever I have gift-giving occasions or the need for some new jewelry.