Guatemala: Day 5

Monday: Lake Atitlan, the largest lake in Central America. Atitlan is a crater lake reaching depths of 1000 feet in places, and while I’m a little clear on the story of its geologic formation, the most badass version I’ve heard is that this massive lake was once the crater at the center of a megavolcano, which, as you might imagine, is a REALLY REALLY BIG VOLCANO. Like, the lake is still ringed by volcanoes of considerable size, so to imagine the lake as the crater at the top of a volcano…my brain does not compute.

Lake Atitlan is also a region that was and is deeply affected by the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996). I’m going to be getting a little more of the history of the conflict later this week, but for now, here are some of the peices of the puzzle that pertain to the Atitlan area especially:

  • The Guatemalan government’s apparent goal was to wipe out communism. The population that lives around Atitlan is predominantly Maya. Mayan culture promotes the sharing of goods and land in common, so the government assumed that the local population either was communist or would be universally supportive of the opposing guerrilla forces. Reading firsthand accounts of the conflict, many people described travelling between villages or into the mountains during military occupation carrying a few tortillas for their midday meal, because if they carried any more, the soldiers assumed they were giving food to the guerrillas. If they thought that, then the best-case scenario was that they took away your food. The worst was that they’d kill you.
  • Entire villages were burned to the ground during the civil war in obedience to the military’s scorched-earth policy.
  • The guerrillas were not innocent of the killings of civilians. But the Commission for Historical Clarification estimates that 93% of the human rights violations (including random killings, disappearances, tortures, dismemberments, and rapes) that occured during the war were committed by the military and paramilitary groups. In total, over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the war.
  • 25% of the people killed were women and children.

Though the peace accord was signed in 1996, according to David and Jenn, there hasn’t been recognition of the depth and breadth of the atrocities. But in places like Santiago Atitlan, the town were David and I spent most of Monday, you can begin to skim the surface.

We went to Santiago Atitlan, a town on the shore of the lake, to visit an Elder Center there. The Center started as a ministry to the abuelitos of the area, many of whom had lost family in the civil war and were living by themselves. The Center provides them with hot meals, the chance to get out of isolation, and the opportunity to do beadwork that can be sold to support themselves.

Jenn gave me a book to read before going to Atitlan called Stories of Survival: Mayan Elders Share their Memories, which is a photojournal of interviews given by the abuelitos who go to the Center. The stories are powerful and tragic, full of a great deal of pain and loss. It’s also the first source I had that really got into the Civil War stories, so a lot of my sense of that time comes through the lens of the interviews in that book.

The Center was unfortunately closed, so our next stop was the big church: Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol. It’s a beautiful church, but the most striking thing about it were the tributes throughout the church compound to a man named Stanley Rother.

Fr. Stanley was a priest who came to Guatemala at his own request as a missionary to the Mayan people around Atitan in 1968. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, and almost didn’t graduate from seminary–according to Jenn and David, because he was so terrible at Greek and Hebrew. Despite this ineptitude in ancient languages, Father Stanley took pains to learn not only Spanish, but also the Tz’utujil language of the local Mayan population. Then he learned to preach in it. Then he translated the freakin’ New Testament into it. Just as a reminder, this guy was advised to drop out of seminary.

Father Stanley, who was Padre Apla’s to his parishioners, did a whole awful lot both to understand and serve his Maya parishioners, even as the violence of the war escalated into the 1980s and that work became a hell of a lot more difficult: his parishioners kept disappearing, only to be found later–if at all–bearing signs of torture. At the beginning of 1981, Padre Apla’s was warned that his name was on the government’s short list of targets, and he needed to leave if he wanted to live. He left…for a few months. And then came back in April.

On July 28th, 1981, gunmen broke into the rectory just after midnight and shot Padre Apla’s twice in the head.

His body was returned to Oklahoma, but at the request of his parishioners, his heart remains in Guatemala. It’s buried under the altar in the iglesia. The rectory where he died is half-museum, half-chapel, and in the displays along the side you can see everything from his 1st level Spanish textbook to the New Testament he translated into Tz’utujil. There are bloodstains on the floor near the front of the room that have been enclosed in a glass box to preserve them. Prayers for his beatification still litter the church–Pope Francis granted this in 2017.

The love for Fr. Stanley is palpable throughout the church, so tangible that it takes on a significance greater than its own self. It’s like Fr. Stanley’s death was tragic enough on its own, but it’s also emblematic of the innocent suffering of the people he served, and they grieve and honor that even as they grieve and honor him.

Amazingly, Fr. Stanley’s presence was not the most emotional piece of the day.

At the same church there are bells hanging. Those bells are the same ones, I believe, that were rung on the night of December 2nd, 1990, after five soldiers stumbled out of a local cantina and shot a man dead. It was the last straw for the townspeople, who woke up the mayor and the mayor-elect and rang the church bells to wake everyone up. Thousands of men, women, and children gathered and marched to the local military encampment waving white flags to ask the soldiers for a peaceful meeting. Instead of listening, the soldiers opened fire. 13 more people died.

The community left the bodies of the dead where they had fallen, but the next morning, 15,000 community members signed or made their mark on a letter demanding that the government remove the soldiers immediately. For the first time in the bloody history of the war, this worked. The soldiers left. They’ve never come back, not permanently.

And in the place where the townspeople fell, in exactly those 13 places, memorials were placed, and the Peace Park grew up around it. Part of that park is an altar and a lectern, because on every single second day of every single month, mass is held there in memory of the victims of that massacre.

One of the elders who was interviewed by the authors of the book I mentioned is the mother of one of the men who died. This is her story:

On December 2nd, 1990, at about nine o’clock in the evening, I found out that one of my sons had been killed. He received about 10 bullets. That night, the whole town went to see the men lying on the ground, covered in blood, and the church bell rang and rang. I went crazy, screaming that my son could not be dead. When I saw his face full of blood, I wanted to wake him, but it was impossible. The next day, we went to bury the thirteen men who died for the pieace of Santiago Atitlan. Since that time we have lived in peace, but I am alone, because I lost a great being [crying]. All this time, every second day of each month, we celebrate mass as the place [where my son was killed]. I bring flowers, because I can no longer give him my love. He is no longer at my side. I hope that God will forgive the soldiers who killed him. (Concepcion Sosof)

Yeah. Standing on that ground was the hardest part of our visit.

Santiago Atitlan and environs is a place of great sorrow (oh my gosh, I haven’t even TOLD you about the mudslide in 2005 that took out an entire village…), but despite that, even entertwined with that, it’s a place of profound hope, and it blazed with a message about the power of resistance.

It’s also a village that’s well-known for its weaving, and so I got a stole there for myself. It’s pink. There’s exactly one Sunday during the year when it’s liturgically appropriate to wear pink (though you can bet your bonnet that I will find some other opportunities), and that is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of joy, when the scripture readings always include Mary’s Magnificat:

“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior; for you have looked wih favor on the lowliness of your servant, and from now on, all generations will call me blessed…You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

Mary was an indigenous Palestinian living under Roman occupation when she sang those words. She sang as the not-yet mother of a Son destined to heal many and die young. Her song is a song of resistance. Its joy isn’t shallow, but rooted deep in a knowledge of suffering and a hope for the future. And when I wear that stole, now I get to think not only of her, but of Concepcion, and her son, and of Santiago Atitlan. And I will sing her song again, for as long as it needs to be sung.


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