Each morning, Guatemala sets ablaze with color. The sun fights its way through the fog to wake up the budding gardens and relieve the dew from its duty. The city shops open their doors, all festively adorned, as the buses crank their engines, mobile museums of art unto themselves. Women return to their looms, masterfully crafting traditional huipil dresses for their growing daughters while young men rifle through their drawers to select their soccer jersey for the day. Each morning, as I wake up at my painstaking pace, drink my tea and dust off my jeans, I anticipate seeing my favorite color of Guatemala: The Grey.
On the weekends, I live with the Matriarch of Monte Cristo and her husband, Miky and Mario. They are both astoundingly beautiful, so much so that I am sometimes convinced they are a King and Queen of a different Mayan era. They both speak with soul-startling beauty, Miky with assured power and Mario with discerning wisdom. Last Sunday, during breakfast with them, I asked Mario when he started his farming cooperative, the place he still works now. Two hours later, I left the table a man more humble than when I had started my empanada.
He told me the story of how it started in the 70’s, an initiative to enable poor farmers to pool resources and get approved for credit so they could buy land to support their families. It grew, rapidly, and soon was convicted, along with the rest of its kind, as a communist plot to disrupt national peace. In 1980, the Cooperative became a clandestine operation, always working with the mission to help farmers rise out of poverty. In the same year, a friend contacted Mario to let him know the government had put him on the Black List, and soon would be kidnapped, tortured, and killed like many others if he didn’t somehow intervene.
A priest offered to move Mario to Oklahoma, where he could work under asylum and send money back to his family. Mario agreed and asked how the priest would finance his wife and three children to get to the states as well; with solemn eyes the priest confessed that the church could only afford a single one-way ticket, the only assured path for Mario to escape his certain fate. Mario declined, unwilling to leave his family in danger. He bought a new plot of land on the edge of town, a tall cornfield that he could hide a house in. The family buried their Bible and anything else that the government could use to convict them of subversion, and lived out of sight for 2 years, always working to help others out of poverty. Mario told me of others that weren’t as lucky, including American citizens, that weren’t able to hide from those looking and most of whom were last seen being thrown in the back of a military vehicle- no body, no record, no admittance of guilt in years to come.
When Mario told me of his American friends that lost their lives because they worked in economic development, he gave Hilary and I a look- not of worry for our safety, for those times have passed. I think he was looking at a new generation, one that has the freedom to make the difference that was forbidden to generations past. I think he was hoping to see the work of his friends vindicated. Hilary and I are so far underqualified to meet the expectations of our gracious hosts, but we are here to try, and if possible, fulfill some of the work started by braver generations before.
Guatemala’s history is marred by armed conflict, bankrolled by an America trying to save a country from communism that was ultimately devoid of communists. The atrocities committed by the government were horrific and extensive, kept mostly hidden from the world as it burned itself to the ground. Indigenous Mayans, once the overwhelming majority of the population, were considered collateral damage as guerrilla revolutionaries challenged their dictators and army generals, who remained unphased by the desecration of human dignity. A peace agreement was signed in 1996, but still kidnappings continue and the impunity rate remains of the highest in the world. When I leave my door in the morning, timid about facing my challenges of the day, and I see the grandmothers and grandfathers of Guatemala marching, adorned in wrinkles and crowned with locks of flowing grey, I am witnessing the survival of a strangled nation, parading triumphant to see the earth turn their country towards the sun once more.