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The past and present in Guatemala

Posted on March 9th, 2011

Mexico/Guatemala 8Throughout our stay here in Guatemala, we’ve been learning about Guatemala’s violent history. This week we had a lecture about human rights in present-day Guatemala, and we’re learning how the past is affecting present-day Guatemala. I have had a hard time comprehending the extent and intensity of the violence, but one experience last week helped me to understand this violent history a little bit better. We had the chance to visit the Forensic Anthropologists Foundation, which works to exhume bodies of individuals or of mass graves. The bodies are identified when possible, examined for trauma, and returned to their families for a proper burial. We were able to see a few skeletons currently under examination. Then we went to a storage room filled with boxes. Rows and towers of boxes stretched from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, only leaving enough room for pathways to pass through the room. Each box had an identifying case number, a date, and a place. Each box contained a skeleton that was waiting to be examined. Walking through that room was a sobering experience, and somewhat unnerving. Knowing what was in the boxes, it was difficult to walk through the room. I would have rather been somewhere else, but it helped me to better understand how the past is affecting present time. Guatemalans cannot forget or escape from what happened in the past. Thousands of families whose loved ones disappeared or were killed still to this day do not know what happened or where the bodies of their loved ones are resting, waiting to be unearthed and given a proper burial.

As a citizen of the United States whose family long ago laid roots in the US, I can assume that my ancestors have not endured much persecution, if any, in the last several decades or centuries. As a US citizen, I was born with rights and access to medical care, security, education, housing, and so much more. I have the right to have a name. I have access to capital. I have opportunities to study and travel, to spend a semester in Mexico and Guatemala. I can live in relative freedom and peace. I take these things for granted. These are things that some Guatemalans do not have.

To my knowledge, none of my ancestors’ towns or villages have disappeared. Unarmed communities were not attacked or bombarded. No one had to flee to survive, and no one disappeared. None of my ancestors endured physical or psychological torture. My ancestors did not have members of their community turn against them. They may have had to fight for some rights, but future generations reap the benefits, and forget any struggles that their ancestors may have endured. My ancestors did not live in fear of violence. They may have faced hard times, but most likely their lives were nothing compared to the lives of Guatemalans here who have faced these atrocities in recent decades. My ancestors did not have to live through a genocide. Unfortunately, many Guatemalans today have.

In the past, some Guatemalans were afraid to stay, while others were afraid to leave. Many were afraid to say what was wrong, and those that did may have faced persecution, discrimination, or torture. Life was not easy. However, life here is improving. It’s a process, but Guatemalans are discovering and using their voices. The indigenous are no longer invisible, and they’re becoming active in a society where Ladinos, or those of European decent, are much more powerful. Programs have been implemented in school to help the younger generations become aware of what happened. Some people today still don’t realize or believe the extent of the war, but more are learning the true reality of everything that has happened in Guatemala’s history.

Through reading books, visiting places here in Guatemala, and hearing lectures, our group is also learning more about what happened here. Sometimes it’s not easy to hear what happened. Even after being here for several weeks, it’s hard to fully understand how the violent past has affected present-day Guatemala. As I’m learning about what happened here, I’m taking the time to think about my own life, my country’s history, what my family has or hasn’t endured, but most of all, how fortunate I am. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to live here for a few months, to study the language, but also for many more things including this country’s history. Most of all, I’m grateful for my rights, and I’m trying to figure out how to not take them for granted as I live in this country where many people are still fighting for their rights.

-Melanie Sherer