A Record of Resistance

— Dianne Feeley

Our Culture Is Our Resistance
Repression, Refuge, and Healing in Guatemala
Preface by Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Essays by Ricardo Falla, Francisco, Goldman and Susanne Jonas
Photographs by Jonathan Moller
powerHouse Books ( Lee Scott, “Letter from Lee Scott,” WalMartFacts.com <http://http://www.turnerlibros.com
Spanish edition http://www.turnerlibros.com). Large format,
208 pages, 147 tritone photographs, $45 hardcover.

HERE IS A stunning book, filled with photographs that record the suffering and strength of the indigenous population in the Guatemalan countryside over the past 15 years. In short essays and photos Our Culture Is Our Resistance records the harsh life of those who survived the army’s “scorched earth” of the early 1980s and fled to isolated areas of the country.

The majority of the 624 recorded massacres were in the department of Ixcan, a “frontier” area only settled in the 1960s. Some of the survivors fled to the areas where they were born. Others went over the border to Mexico, but approximately 20,000 lived in isolated areas in Ixcan or Peten.

This book focuses on the survivors in the mountains and rain forests, who organized themselves into the Committees of Population in Resistance (CPRs). During the same period the military organized model villages that were under army command, and some of those captured over the years ended up in these villages.

Witnesses

Many of the photos detail what it is like to live for years with the army in pursuit. Life continues even on the run, as a young girl walks home with a piece of firewood and wild greens to eat.

We see women cooking the corn that will later be ground into tortilla; a barber cutting a man’s hair in the middle of a field; structures going up, fields planted, women bathing in the river; children in a make-shift school, a community health promoter examining an infant in a clinic, a community operating a hand-powered mill to squeeze juice out of the sugarcane.

Another is the book’s stunning cover: a wedding party, walking along the road appropriately outfitted in boots, the young bride and groom carrying flowers in celebration. But if we see everyday life in a lush setting with very meager resources, the words of the participants tell the other side of the story: how they had to flee their new home because they were spotted by the army, how the military found their corn field  and burned it, how their relatives weren’t able to escape so they hid until the army left and then come back and hastily buried them.

At the end of 1990, three years before Moller came to Guatemala, the CPRs in the Sierra came together and decided they had to break out of their isolation. They issued a statement announcing their existence as a civilian population and demanded that the government protect their rights. The army issued a counterstatement stating that such a population didn’t exist and they were all guerrillas.

The CPR announcement opened up a new phase, with human rights workers from the Catholic Church and non-governmental agencies reaching out to these communities. Moller joined them as an “accompanier” — a human rights observer who acts as a witness. And as the CPRs were demanding their rights and receiving more publicity, army attacks decreased.

By the later half of the ‘90s different units of the CPRs were able to negotiate with the government to find land on which they could resettle. Moller documents several of the communities that were set up, including Primavera del Iaxcan in Quiche, the Salvador Fajardo community that settled on an old finca in Peten, and the Union Victoria and Nueva Esperanza communities that settled on old coffee plantations near the Pacific Coast. Others were able to return to their homes. Some communities have maintained collective work while others have settled in areas with poorer land and many have been forced to find work on nearby plantations.

Following the signing of the peace treaty (1996) that ended Guatemala’s civil war, both the Catholic Church and the UN-sponsored Truth Commission issued reports (1998 and 1999 respectively) that documented the death of over 200,000 people.

The Truth Commission found that 93% of the violence was committed by agents of the state, mostly by the army (3% by the guerrillas), and condemned Washington’s complicity. These reports have aided the survivors in their demand to reclaim the remains of those massacred or “disappeared.”

Moller worked with the forensic team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation in 2000-01. He records both the work of the forensic team as it carefully recovers the remains as well as of the community, observing as it gathers to watch the process. Several bring photographs of their relatives. In one a Mayan priest performs a ceremony as he prays over the bodies.

A series of photographs records the recovery of 120 people from 22 villages in the municipality of Nebaj. We see the watchful community gathered and waiting as the various clandestine cemeteries are unearthed. We see a procession of villagers at the end of a long day returning home with the dead in cardboard boxes. We see the former orphanage that served as the forensic team’s home and laboratory, lined with the labeled boxes.

During the months when the team cleaned, reconstructed and analyzed the dead we see the candles, crosses and flowers that indicate family members visiting. There are several forensic photographs: showing how bullets shattered a jawbone, the trajectory of a bullet as it went through a skull, hand bones that had been crushed by a heavy object at the time of death, a beautifully composed exhibit of an unidentified young male guerrilla fighter who was killed as he and six others attempted to disarm a grenade wired as a trap near the village of Tzalbal in 1983.

The section ends with eight photos showing how the families prepare the coffins, laying the bones out with new clothes and other objects. The main church is then filled with coffins and the town turns out to accompany the coffins through the streets of Nebaj and on to the cemetery.

Human Rights Meltdown

The very last section of the book, “Five Days in Nebaj,” is from 2002, with a final note from Moller dated September 2003 and an update from Susanne Jonas in March 2004. By 2002 Amnesty International stated the country is in a “human rights meltdown.” Three photos of an arson at a parish house in February 2002 demonstrate the level of intimidation the right exhorts against those they consider leaders in the struggle for human rights.

Since Moller’s book came out, the violence in Guatemala has only grown.

Violence against women has risen astronomically. According to the National Statistics Institute, between 2000-04, almost 1600 women were murdered. During the first five months of 2005, the Guatemalan Women’s Group reported another 381 additional deaths. It is difficult to understand the factors involved since at least 40% of the cases have never been investigated or the investigation was shelved.

The government is arresting grassroots leaders of indigenous, union and social justice organizations. At least 43 are under incitement with another 47 threatened with criminal investigations. Police harass demonstrators and authorities attempt to brand organizers as terrorists. This is then picked up and regurgitated by U.S. government officials.

I would strongly recommend Our Culture Is Our Resistance. I think it is particularly valuable for those who have some familiarity with the political situation in Guatemala during the war, but the photographs are so revealing that even someone unfamiliar would learn a great deal.

For the person just learning about Guatemala, I’d also recommend reading I…Rigoberta Menchí (Verso Books, 1987) and Ricardo Falla’s Massacres in the Jungle (Westview Press, 1994). Both of those authors are represented in Our Culture Is Our Resistance. The book also has a four-page chronology of Guatemalan events and a one-page list of resources.

ATC 121, March-April 2006