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The quincentennial - a gift of life: a message from the indigenous people of Guatemala.

The Quincentennial of the "Discovery of the Americas" by Columbus is a very complex subject, so much so that we are just now beginning to discover all its facets. For these last 500 years we have known only one face, one version of history, the version considered valid, important, grandiose. But this version is from the vantage point of an observer of history, not an actor in it. And who are the actors? They are the millions of children of Latin America, who have experienced misery, poverty, hunger, and almost absolute marginalization from the advances and development of humankind. To speak of these last 500 years is to speak of the oppressed of America, of women, of indigenous peoples; to speak of the Third World, of life's depth of meaning and the experiences of all the peoples who inhabit the so-called Discovery. Above all, it is to speak of those experiences in grand and significant struggles that have taken place over the years, struggles that differ in their actors and particularities, such as in El Salvador and Guatemala, but that are the struggles of all the peoples of America.

We also need to think of the enormous cultural diversity in America, a cultural diversity that we hadn't bargained for, didn't recognize, didn't know, and we probably still do not know. This diversity is so profound and so mysterious that we can't begin to answer all the question about it. However, unless there is a more legitimate process of participation for the people who represent this diversity, we will never know the answers to these questions.

When we speak about democracy in most of the countries of Latin America, we speak of fictitious democracy. Democracy for whom? Who determines what democracy is, how it is defined for the lives of people who day after day plant the coffee, do the hardest work and receive disdain rather than a proper salary befitting his or her effort?

In a large part of Latin America, democracy has many qualifiers: limited democracy, restricted democracy, conflictive democracy. Regrettably, some people also say, "the fragile democracy of the dictatorship." One wonders, what language is this? What is the basis of all these adjectives about democracy?

Actually, what has taken place is the imposition of norms and laws that have ruled the lives, the culture, the dignity of the peoples of Latin America. Granted this was all determined by men and women, but from a very reduced perspective, for the very few. So, yes, you can say democracy exists in Latin America, but for whom? This is what we need to define.

It is for this reason that the Quincentennial should produce not only a questioning of the past, but also a positive redefining of the past; so that the present and the future can be located properly within it. The problems we face on continentwide, regional and national levels are so great that we cannot fail to undertake this process at the present social conjuncture.

In particular, in the last three or four decades, Latin America experienced major struggles that involved indigenous people, criollos, Chicanos, and many others. This produced a blending of experiences, values, and consciousness which, in my opinion, signifies something new, a concept that has framed a vibrant desire for democracy and nurtures all these people's aspirations for the future.

Why am I talking about the countries from the so-called Third World, particularly those countries on the other side of the puddle, as we are called? Because much of what we had, they already took, destroyed, annihilated. Yet Latin America has again become a beacon, with many curious things about it, a place the scientists don't know how to interpret because they don't know it.

Until recently, the technocrats, social science researchers and analysts, i.e., people who have a good head for analysis, had functioned very well. There were many conditions that allowed their analyses to play a role. But this is no longer so, because the elite in this failed analysis has no understanding of, or connection to, the popular organizations. They have lost contact with the meaning of popular organizations, Christian organizations, social groups, peasant groups. What remains is a very elitist world, which in my opinion represents a very real crisis for the analysis itself, not only for European governments, but also for the government of the United States.

Most of the real demands and aspirations of the people have been kept in the people's hearts and minds. Now they are being let loose through the popular organizations. At this important point in history, we are demanding participation in democracy and control over our lives. In Latin America, the sense of pride in the organizations, of being actors in the struggle, is growing, and this can have an impact nationally and internationally.

What does the Quincentennial have to do with Guatemala? Not only is Guatemala located in the middle of a culturally fragmented Indigenous America, but indigenous people are also the majority, and racism is a fact. It isn't legal, but it's a fact nonetheless. And in Guatemala the process of struggle has been very difficult, because it has been repressed for decades by a sophisticated counterinsurgency plan. In the late 1960s, Guatemala was the crucible for early experiments in the militarization of civil society in the last decades. This plan later was extended to El Salvador, Peru, and Colombia, it was exported beyond Guatemala, but Guatemala was the center of experimentation.

Our struggles have cost us a lot. They require a great deal of intelligence, experimentation, a lot of wisdom on the part of people living there, who were born there and hold the secrets. Basically, the world knows of our struggle and our people through our marches, our demonstrations, and our strikes. But behind all that there is something greater -- a patrimony that we have vis-a-vis Latin America and its countries, and the new world order.

However, the fact that we have been through a lot does not mean this is a completely mature process. No. The process develops daily, based on people's realities. What model of the state do the people foresee for Guatemala? It is a model that will emerge from the very dynamic of the daily experiences of all the people's struggles, the indigenous groups, Ladinos, even some foreigners. We can't say that Guatemala today has a blueprint for what our democratic society is going to look like. No one has the exact model of the parliament, what participatory democracy is going to be like, or how it's going to be institutionalized. This is a process that will reform Parliament and the regional and local governments. How is Guatemalan society going to implement justice? The day-to-day nature of this process has been difficult for us to begin to understand and to accept. We don't know these things yet.

Let me give an example. Even in the struggle in organized sectors, students, labor unions, the middle class in Guatemala, there is little understanding of the cultural diversity of Guatemala, that a combining of Indian and Ladino cultures -- a Chapin culture -- has emerged. The formation of this Chapin culture has not come cheaply; Indians and Ladinos have paid their dues in struggle, in awareness, in daily work to forge this culture. There is no general awareness of this. We are still in the process of learning what really exists in our country.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore the fact that power in our country is dominated by one group of people. Mestizo, Ladino, call it what you will, it is not indigenous. In fact, the system has fostered discrimination and disrespect toward indigenous people. Most resources are concentrated in the urban centers, while the countryside's needs are ignored. Conditions in Guatemala are comparable to apartheid in South Africa, although it is not a question of color here, it is more a question of race. Who has made the laws? Has there been a referendum among people in their own languages about these issues, where people can participate in the creation of laws? How is indigenous participation in law making going to come about? How will indigenous interests be represented in the constitutions of political parties? In the media? Ironically, one contribution of the evangelical sects has been the radio transmission of catechism programs in indigenous languages, so we can thank them for some things. Up to now, indigenous people have been completely excluded from these areas of life.

We face very profound problems created by the system. We weren't born this way. The system has left its stamp on us. The current political climate has cultivated the seeds of mutual respect and understanding between Ladinos and indigenous people, the city and the countryside. But when we focus on the specifically indigenous aspect of our struggle, we are accused of being "indigenist" in the same pejorative way that women's perspectives are dismissed as "feminist." This analytical narrowness is unacceptable. We need to create an environment for discussion and political debate. On the other hand, ghettoization occurs, by which others are content to "let her talk about it. She's the indigenous person." This is unacceptable also. We have to broaden the discussion to include all sectors of society. Not many people know that 75% of Guatemala is indigenous. The idea of "let her speak, she knows more," is outmoded. We all need to take on these issues. I looked at the Constitution of Guatemala and it says that the indigenous people of Guatemala need protection. Interesting! But don't the Ladino people of Guatemala need protection, too? That's why we approach it from the point of view of a Chapin culture.

Therefore, the national mass movement for the Quincentennial has great significance, not only for the Continental campaign and conference, but also as a seed of unity between indigenous people and Ladinos. If unity is not forged between indigenous people and Ladinos, a racist struggle may develop and racial confrontations could begin to take place in the country.

What is the significance of the Quincentennial in Guatemala? It has a very important meaning. The Second Continental Meeting on 500 Years of Popular and Indigenous Resistance took place at the same time as the dialogue between the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG, Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity), the government, and the army was getting underway.(1) The third point in these negotiations concerned the identity of the indigenous peoples. While indigenous people began to say, ah, yes, finally we are going to be included in the dialogue, the question also arose as to who is going to speak for us? What will the process of dialogue be like? This has sparked new reflection among us. It is beginning to generate an enormous concern with identity, culture, autonomy. In this renovated Guatemala we are thinking about, this new democracy we are hoping to create, what kind of future will there be for the people, what kind of participation in decision making will there be regarding the destiny of Guatemala? I am talking about at the economic level, the social and cultural levels, and the educational level. It goes beyond just a demand for land. Yes, land is important, but we need to redefine the concept of agrarian reform for Guatemala, among other things.

There are new perspectives on creating the instruments we need. There have been enough debates regarding representation and enough study of the indigenous Guatemalan people to fill volumes. Enough of that! Now we have to cultivate the seeds of democratic and representative participation in the country. And what does this mean? It means that some city lawyer does not represent us. It means we have to develop instruments for that representation. We have some ideas, but I am sure that there are going to be many events taking place in Guatemala, particularly when the first steps in the accords are implemented. Dialogue cannot take place just with the signing of an accord, but in the application of the accords, in the solution of everyday problems.

The main goal of the 500 Years Indigenous Committee is to disseminate a corrected version of the history of the last 500 years, the meaning of the Conquest; to create lasting structures and formats to carry this forward. The campaign began in Colombia, then spread to Guatemala and other countries. It has not just been an indigenous campaign. There is great economic, political, and cultural diversity within this campaign and it differs from country to country. For example, in Guatemala, it's not just indigenous, it's Ladinos and indigenous together. Our process differs from that of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama. Sure, there are some common threads in Central America, but our realities are different.

So, while we are of the continent, it doesn't mean anything at that level unless we focus on our national reality and forge it into our commitment. If each nation makes this commitment, then we all contribute on the continental level and move forward as a whole.

Here in Guatemala, the National Movement for 500 Years is a big organization, a veritable grass-roots alliance, composed of all kinds of popular organizations (i.e., people struggling over wage issues, human-rights issues), and indigenous organizations. Among the indigenous organizations is a group of indigenous intellectuals struggling to make a contribution with their ideas, uniting people at the national level in academic, political, and labor sectors in an organization that has given strength to the movement as a whole.

There is also a small organization, called "New Dawn," that is the seed of indigenous representation. It includes the widows, Mayan priests, refugees, and other already-existing groups that are coming together and developing structures, under the concept of general unity. Why are they coming together only now? Because in the past, they perhaps feared doing so and the Quincentennial has provided them an opening. Or, for example, if their purpose had been strictly cultural, they now see the importance of moving into other arenas. They are working to bring a greater focus to the national movement.

Indigenous people of Guatemala need protection. We need to create more unity and protection for each other. There is a wave of unity in response to the wave of violence. Here in Guatemala this is very concrete. The continental gathering for the Quincentennial forms a ring of security around us, a moral force and recognition of our people. We have much international support from churches, agencies, parliaments, international leaders such as Mrs. Mitterand [who accompanied Ms. Menchu when she returned to Guatemala for the 500 Years conference in 1991 -- eds.].

This next point is a critical issue. The popular organizations that represent the interests of the indigenous people and embody the experience and conscience of the past, the present, and the future, have a very large role to play. The participation, the assistance, the struggle that these organizations have unleashed flow from the indigenous people and make the organizations truly representative of their interests. However, as you know, we still don't have the recipe, although we may have some of the ingredients.

I will now speak on the topic of refugees in our country within the framework of those sacrificed to violence, impunity,(2) and repression. People have lived through a conflict of 36 or 37 years. They have felt the violence in their own skins for these 36 years. You have the Communities of People in Resistance (CPR),(3) the refugees, the widows, the truly displaced; a whole series of groups and institutions has grown up out of the repression, the impunity, and the violence in Guatemala.

The just cause of those damaged by the violence, repression, and impunity will certainly be historic and has a high moral and political significance. You can't wipe out the footsteps of this struggle. Even if there were democracy in Guatemala, even if there were a new society tomorrow where there are no killings, no assassins loose in the streets, no terror; even so, the legacy of the cause of those sacrificed to violence and impunity will not go away. It is something that has fermented, grown. It exists, it is a voice, a witness, a testimony. And I hope that this testimony is what closes the 20th century, giving it a deep moral and political significance. So, as you can see, the issue of impunity has a lot to do with the Quincentennial because, after 500 years, people are still living the experience of this impunity, they are live witnesses to the repression.

Today the problem of impunity gets in the way of dialogue and peace. The dialogue cannot lead to peace if the problem of impunity is not resolved. The meaning of impunity is not a myth, and we need to understand it much more. For example, we know that impunity is a problem not only in Guatemala but throughout Latin America and other parts of the world. It is a worldwide issue. Therefore, Guatemala is part of a much larger problem in this regard.

You can't speak of impunity without speaking of an enormous number of clandestine cemeteries and common graves where the military, the death squads, and other repressive bodies dumped people after having tortured them. Our people have found many common graves, but not only that, they also know who is responsible for this violence. In fact, they know the first and last names of many violators of human rights. What do we do to connect these violators with their crime and be able to give our relatives a dignified burial? It is a considerable problem, perhaps the most significant of all, the right to the truth. This right is deeply linked to impunity.

In other words, there is a problem with justice in Guatemala. Who is going to bring about justice and when? Who is going to administer it? This issue is not going to be ignored by the people. When a violation or a disappearance occurs, it is no longer enough to say, "Well, maybe the constitution or the law weren't followed, but..." No. The living witnesses of the daily violence are demanding more.

The most beautiful aspect of all this is how the people affected by repression and impunity have always managed to maintain a degree of organization. If they had to go to a refugee location, they organized among themselves. Suddenly there is a women's organization, or the community is organized in the mountains. The CPR has a 10-year history, but it seems like there is a history of a hundred, a thousand years among them, not just 10. It is such a live, new, different, and rich experience.

The Communities of the Peoples in Resistance survived 10 years of bombings and chemical warfare in the area where they lived. During this time they were experimenting with a new society, generating a new concept of democracy, a new concept of freedom. Above all, they were discovering the true meaning of the eternal values they possess -- not merely to identify the roots of these values, but also to regenerate them, cultivate them, rescue these values. This is a much broader concept than can be embraced by people who have not experienced the war in the same way. When they return to the communities they left 10 years ago, they will return full of new ideas for the struggle, full of awareness and desire for real democracy.

People organized themselves in every possible setting -- widows, refugees, etc. Women are playing a new role in the struggles in Guatemala. Ten years ago, many widows were stuck inside their homes, alone, not knowing that they were going to play a role and even be at the forefront of a struggle. But today, these women. are brave and outstanding, sometimes even braver than the men! So, the role of women, and in particular indigenous women, is growing, and is an important example for everyone.

All these struggles took place, even inside the Civil Defense Patrols(4) and the fundamentalist sects. Several years ago, the fundamentalist sects converted many of our people, supposedly to change them from a struggle mode into a passive mode. At that time, much was learned about the fundamentalist sects and some of us were able to convert the new project back into our own project, based on our own awareness, our own concept of work and religion, of the need for struggle. This shows how powerful our people are, how deep their values run.

So, what is our biggest hope for Guatemala? The hope is that conditions will exist for every one of us to become part of these experiences. This is why I emphasize the victims of the violence. There is an increasingly problematic situation created by the conditions of the refugees in Mexico, similar to what is taking place with other communities of resistance, the CPR, the CONAVIGUA (the organization of widows in Guatemala), and others inside Guatemala. There is a new injection of energy, of dignity into all these struggles. The people are intelligent, just waiting for the right moment to release a flood of demands. What are the refugees going to demand? What about their abandoned lands that the military probably burned or sold to someone else or converted into farms for themselves? This represents a lot of land. What will be the nature of the commission that struggles to rescue the refugees' property in Guatemala? This is a heartfelt, legitimate demand of many people.

One recent development in Guatemala, which represents a very important stand, I think, is the resurgence of the Mayan priests. For 500 years, the Mayan priests supposedly did not exist (although, of course, they did). Among religious people, they were the most severely attacked by institutionalized religion, especially the Catholics and the Protestants. Our priests were called witches and all kinds of other names. But in the last two years there has been a resurgence of these priests because of the awareness brought about by the Quincentennial. They represent a cycle of our lives that is sprouting anew with vigor and strength into our consciousness. They have an active role to play.

The Mayan priests have played different roles in Guatemala. Some are careful guardians of the faith: the ceremony, the meaning of the cycles of time, searching for the meaning of the changes in life. They have been doing this for a long time. Today people are paying attention to and giving homage to many of the memories held by these priests. Others have been very important social actors, especially in struggles over the land, because for them the land is not just an economic matter, but it has a real, spiritual meaning. It is our heritage, it is the root and fountain of our cultural life, the culture that we cherish and that is part of our history.

One of the Mayan priest's roles is to give a lot of advice. He advises caution, be careful, don't do this or that. He may not understand much about the new world order, or trade between the U.S. and Central America, and other such matters, but he understands the essence of the changes that the world is undergoing today. However, I think some aspects of this situation are problematic. We know that Guatemala needs a very profound transformation, and people have to be respectful of the necessary changes. Even if we don't understand the world, we must respect its diversity. We also don't want our indigenous people to idealize their past and present, thereby jeopardizing their future -- a future, as I mentioned initially, of a Chapin culture that is so lacking in Guatemala; where the indigenous peoples and the Ladinos alike are proud of our roots, proud of creating a new culture together, where mutual respect can prevail.

In conclusion, to understand this whole process, we must learn how to locate the struggle of the popular movement within the appropriate contexts. The struggle does not easily fit within traditional models and analyses. When many people think of the popular movement, they think of a particular strike or a demonstration, nothing else. But it is more than that. It is what we are forging daily in thousands of ways. And in the process, many curious things take place. For example, there are places at the grass roots where Catholics and Evangelicals are working together on projects, although the church hierarchy probably does not condone it. There are new developments every day.

The indigenous peoples of the world are sending a strong message: We are a people who refuse to be annihilated. Around the world there are efforts to wipe out indigenous peoples. Our job is to say that our people's lives have value and we struggle for dignity and hope for indigenous people throughout the world. The celebration of 500 years is a favorable conjuncture for us, a gift of life. We have been maligned in so many ways, but we know our struggle is just -- it's the only reason we still exist.

It is my hope that the encounter for the Quincentennial will be the true, historic self-rediscovery of our people.

Notes from the Editors

(1.) Historic negotiations are taking place in Guatemala involving the government, the military, and the opposition, represented by the URNG. The URNG, formed in 1982 when three political-military organizations and the Communist Party agreed to unite, represents a force with broad popular support. This unity was significant because it had taken so long to achieve. The URNG continued to carry out guerrilla activity in Guatemala, but has been pressing for negotiations since 1986. In 1990, when it became clear that neither side could "win" militarily, the conditions were created for discussions to begin about ending the war. The process of dialogue was conducted first with all sectors of society. In 1991, the military agreed, for the first time, to pa While these complex negotiations continue, there is no immediate end to the war in sight.

For more information on this and the following issues, see Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1991). (2.) The victims of human-rights violations have demanded that military officials be held responsibl for their crimes. This issue, while brought up at the United Nations, has not been addressed by the Guatemalan government. (3.) The Communities of People in Resistance (CPR) were formed by thousands of Indians who resisted the army's relocation/control programs in the 1980s by fleeing to remote areas. They issued their first public statements in 1990. (4.) The Civil Defense Patrols (or PACs) were established as part of the counterinsurgency apparatus (which also included forced resettlement camps, known as "model villages") to pacify the rural population in Guatemala. They are designed to gain civilian collaboration in the eradicati of the guerrilla movement and to eliminate political activity in opposition to the government. People have been forced to join the PACs and are threatened, tortured, or killed if they refuse to join. The PACs have forced people to carry out repressive acts against their own fellow villagers and to turn people against each other. At one point, one million peasants were involved in the PACs, one-fourth of the adult population. The people and their organizations have continued to demand the dissolution of the PACs.

Rigoberta Menchu is one of the foremost representatives of the indigenous movement in Latin America. She is a Guatemalan Maya/Quiche woman who has been living in exile since 1981, after the murder and torture of her mother and two brothers, and the death of her father, who was killed when the Guatemalan army assaulted the Spanish Embassy after it had been taken over by a group of campesinos. Ms. Menchu represents two organizations, the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) and the Unified Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). She is renowned for her extensive human rights work at the United Nations and in 1991, she became an Honorable Member of the Continental Board of the "500 Years of Resistance" Campaign. In nominating Rigoberta Menchu for the Nobel Peace Prize, past Nobel Laureate and member of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, stated that "it is through Rigoberta, through her voice, that the cry of the people rises up." Ms. Menchu delivered the following talk before a group of activists in San Francisco on November 23, 199 1. The author can be reached at Aptdo Postal 20-475, Codigo Postal 01000, Colonia San Angel, Mexico 20, D.F.
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Author:Menchu, Rigoberta
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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