PLP Passport Project: Documenting Stories of the Santiago Atitlán Massacre

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Looking across the lake toward Santiago Atitlán

It was early in the morning when we arrived at Andrea’s house. The roosters were still crowing all over town, ensuring that nobody would miss out on the beautiful weather, and the sound of hands slapping the corn masa to prepare the tortillas for breakfast was only drowned out by the occasional passing of a truck carrying the workers off to the fields. Andrea came out front to welcome us and we exchanged greetings. We gave her the bag of corn that we had picked up at the market along the way, a gift for welcoming us into her home. She led us through her kitchen and into a small room that doubled as a bedroom and a living room. I followed behind Andrea and my friend Elias, feeling somewhat out of place, a feeling that I had become very accustomed to after having spent this past summer living in the town. As the tall gringo living in an indigenous Mayan town, you get a few looks walking down the street.

She took some plastic chairs from the corner of the room and invited us to sit. She then took a seat herself. Behind her was an old dresser, the wood peeling off in various places from the years of use, and next to the dresser, a box full of colorful scarves that she had woven. Above the box there were photos of her family in wooden frames adorning the walls. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that we were lucky that she had chosen to sit there, as this would make the perfect background for the interview. I began the set up, making sure that the tripod was at the right height and that the sunlight shining through the windows was not creating any glares on Andrea’s face. Andrea watched me as I set up and I smiled at her in an effort to break some of the uncomfortableness I was feeling. Recognizing this, Elias began chatting with her in Tz’utujil, the native Mayan language of Santiago Atitlán. Tz’utujil is the primary language of the town, and much of the older generation does not speak any Spanish.

I finished the final adjustments on the tripod and the camera and retrieved the microphone from my backpack. I turned to Elias to have him ask her if she would feel comfortable using the microphone. He uttered a few words that I did not comprehend to which she smiled and nodded. I pinned the microphone to the collar of her huipil, the traditional blouse worn by the majority of the women in Santiago Atitlán and checked to make sure that the audio was working.

I took my seat and Elias asked her if she was ready. She then began to tell her story of December 2nd, 1990. Seated behind the camera, I listened to the rhythmic flow of the indigenous language. I could not understand her words, but I could understand her emotions. And when tears began to well up in her eyes and her voice grew fainter, this I could comprehend. For in this moment, she was remembering the horrible events of that night. She was remembering her pain when she learned what had happened. She was remembering her despair upon discovering that her son had been killed.

Santiago Atitlán is a beautiful town with a rich culture. However, it is also a town with a troubled history. From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was engulfed in a civil war between the government forces and leftist rebel groups that were largely comprised of indigenous populations. In its effort to crush the rebels, the Guatemalan government committed genocide against its indigenous people. As part of its overarching Cold War policy of containing communism, for many years the U.S. supported the Guatemalan government against the rebels, turning a blind eye to the many atrocities that were committed. The Guatemalan Civil War was infamous for campaigns of mass repression, disappearances, and massacres. Santiago Atitlán was a victim of all of this.

In 1980, government forces set up in Santiago Atitlán to combat rebel groups that were waging guerrilla warfare from the jungles in the surrounding area. For the next ten years, the people of Santiago Atitlán lived in a constant state of fear. If one was suspected of being involved with the rebels, he or she would face the punishment of the military forces. If one was suspected of helping the military, he or she would face the punishment of the rebels. In addition, children were often taken from their homes and the streets and forced to join the military forces. The government forces would often punish people in the town as retribution for guerilla activity in the area, even though they were not involved with the rebels in any way. During these ten years, many people disappeared, many people were tortured, and many people were killed. Yet, amongst this brutal campaign of repression, the people of Santiago Atitlán, many of whom were living in poverty, had to continue on with their lives, working everyday so that their families wouldn’t go hungry.

Then, on the night of Dec. 1st, 1990, word spread that the military forces were planning on kidnapping a local resident. The people of Santiago Atitlán had had enough. Late that night, people congregated in the city square and went to the military barracks in protest. When the crowd reached the barracks it was already past midnight. They went to the barracks for discourse, to assert to the military that this man was innocent, to plea with the military to stop the kidnappings. However, their words were met with bullets. The military forces opened fire on the crowd in the dark. The massacre resulted in the death of 13 people and left many more injured. Among the 13 killed was Pedro Cristal Mendoza, Andrea’s son.

picture2The resting place of Andrea’s son Pedro Cristal Mendoza. The site of the massacre has been converted into Parque de la Paz (Park of Peace) to commemorate those who lost their lives

Andrea’s story is powerful, and she is not the only one with a story like this in Santiago Atitlán. Many people were directly impacted by the massacre. I believe that it is important that these stories are shared, that these testimonies of injustice and human rights violations are not forgotten. As a recipient of the PLP Passport Fund, this was my goal. Working with my friend Elias, we set out to document these testimonies through video interviews. We documented testimonies from five different individuals and are now in the process of developing these video interviews into a short documentary that tells the story of the 1990 massacre through the eyes of those who were directly impacted by it.

The PLP Passport Fund provided me with an experience that I will never forget and one that will have a lasting impact on me moving forward. Through the PLP Passport Fund, I was able to return to Santiago Atitlán where I had been living and working as an intern with a non-profit organization this past summer. I was able to reunite with my friends. I was able to play in Santiago Atitlán’s end of the year basketball tournament. I was also able to work alongside my friend Elias. Elias, who I had met this past summer, is the recipient of a scholarship from the non-profit organization with which I was interning during the summer. Elias is among the most determined and hard working people I have ever met. He and a group of other scholarship recipients are currently in the process of creating a Spanish immersion school in Santiago Atitlán for travelers. I learned a great deal while working with Elias, and without his help, I do not know if the project would have been possible. And finally, I was able to hear stories, stories like Andrea’s. As a dual International Studies and Spanish major, for 4 years I have studied conflicts such as the one that plagued Guatemala for 36 years. I have read a great deal of literature about the human rights abuses, the coups, the invasions, the wars, the killings, the desaparecidos that have happened all over the world. But this experience gave me the opportunity to learn about it in a direct setting, to converse with those who were directly impacted, and to record their testimonies. I heard stories of immense pain, stories of immeasurable suffering, but also stories of great resilience.

José was 16 years old when just after midnight on December 2nd, 1990, two bullets hit him from behind and left him unable to move. He remembers laying there and listening to the screams of the people around him. He remembers pretending to be dead as the soldiers shined flashlights over the victims laying on the ground. And he remembers thinking about his mother and his father, and what would happen to them when they found out that he had been shot and killed.

Luckily, José survived. His cousin, who was also at the scene when the shooting began, but was able to escape uninjured, found José and carried him to safety after the soldiers had retreated back inside of the barracks. They were able to make it to the hospital; José was operated on, and his life was saved. However, José was left paralyzed from the waist down.

For a long time after the massacre, José kept asking himself, “Why me?” In our conversations, he told Elias and I how difficult it was for him to carry on. He had to completely relearn how to live. However, he eventually learned to accept it. He told us that this was the moment when he began to overcome his injuries, when he began to start to live again.

Today, 26 years after the massacre, José has become a leader in the community. He is the director of a collective that helps people with disabilities gain a source of employment and income. And he also serves as a motivation for others with disabilities. José was the first person in Santiago Atitlán to utilize a wheelchair. At the time, disabilities were still highly stigmatized in the town. However, when José learned to accept his injury, he began to find an answer to the question “Why me?” He realized that he could help others who were also disabled, he realized that he could be an example. José’s efforts have helped to destigmatize disabilities in Santiago Atitlán, allowing those with disability to become a part of the community. His efforts have also helped to create more accessibility in the town for people in wheelchairs. But most importantly, José’s ability to carry on, his ability to develop his life despite his injury, has been motivation for others with disabilities. José’s struggle is evidence that one can overcome his or her disability, that one’s disability does not define him or her.

At the end of our conversation, José told us that he no longer holds any hate or contempt for those who put him in a wheelchair. He told us that the massacre is something that happened, and that while it was not fair, he cannot change it. Thus, he has chosen to view the tragedy that befell him instead as an opportunity, an opportunity to help others. While José’s testimony shows the cruelty and the malice that has been far too present in the history of human kind, it also shows the great capacity for generosity and empathy that we as humans possess. José’s journey demonstrates a level of courage, determination, and compassion for which we should all strive.

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             José sharing his testimony                                                  Elias and I in the town square

Post written by: David Feuerbach

This project was made possible through the awarding of a Passport Grant made possible by the generous contributions of PLP Alumni and Friends. Thank you to all who empower PLPers to do amazing things!

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