Traveling out of Guatemala City to the North and West, we drove through four or five different ecosystems on our way to Santa Maria Tzeja—a village in the midst of the rain forest jungle that is our home for six days. Our trek began in the highlands which morphed into cactus dessert. The cloud mountains were next, reminding me of the Eastern Tennessee Smokies. Just at the top, as dusk was upon us, our resident astronomer spotted dos planets–Venus and Jupiter–only a foot apart in the sky. The next morning we saw farmland cut against the steep hills: corn, pineapple, coffee, some groves of fruit trees terraced row after row. Men in these hillside farms use machetes to fight the weeds. Women walk along the roads carrying grain and water on their heads. There is no fair trade for the goods that come from Guatemala, I think. Farmers in Boone County never work this hard. Finally we arrive in la selva, thick jungle with the noises of birds, the colors of butterflies and hibiscus, the smell of stoves burning wood for cooking lunchtime tortillas.
This is the same jungle where villagers hid as they fled their homes when the army came through 33 years ago, burning all the buildings to the ground. At dinner, Tomasa tells her story of that time. She and her husband, Emilio, and three children lived in the jungle for a while before getting separated. Emilio and one daughter kept running into Mexico where they remained for twelve years. Tomasa gave birth to their fourth child while in hiding and sheltered her five and two year olds, along with the baby, until they were all captured by the army.
Thirty-three years later, Tomasa shakes a little as she tells us about how frightened she was in the prison camp where she was taken. She tells us that her milk dried up because of her fear. She couldn’t eat, though she made sure that her children ate the food available. Daily, new families would come into the camp. They would be interrogated and then taken to a building with no windows. The soldiers dragged out the corpses by their limbs and tossed them into trucks; a sometimes hourly genocidal ritual for all women, men, and children to see. Seeing this horror everyday kept Tomasa terrified as she wondered when she would be next.
But after three months, the army let her and her children leave because Emilio had served in the army previously prior to civil war. Tomasa came back to Santa Maria Tzeja—about an hour by car from the army camp that still exists as a base, but which Tomasa is reluctant to revisit. For twelve years she planted and harvested the corn and beans that kept the family alive. Then remarkably a Chilean anthropologist who was working to reunite families found Emilio and their daughter in Mexico where Emilio had gone to work. They came home and were able to claim some land for farming, get to know each other again and help move the village toward a reconciliation between those coming home from Mexico and those who were spared refugee camps because of seeming loyalty to the army.
None of us around the table can begin to imagine the experience of literally running for life, crawling under barbed wire fences with gashes cut into the face of our children, getting separated from people we love, giving birth in a jungle cave. Yet we are reminded that the hatred and greed that propel such horrors have been inflicted again and again throughout five hundred years of genocide and land removal, throughout a history of burned native villages and massacres of people in the Americas. Walking home we talk about the historic death marches brought on by colonial and neocolonial expansion.But this history is so close; it is alive in the wrinkles of Tomasa’s face and the still shaking voice. It is right her in the one who cooks and feeds us dinner.