In Guatemala the concept of “presente” is important. You often see it on banners in demonstrations. Being there. Making a statement through presence alone.
Director, Guatemala Project, Seva Foundation
Seva Foundation has promised to maintain an international presence—two volunteers at a time—in a threatened community of returned refugees in the Ixcan, Northern Quiche, Guatemala. Seva is a service organization best known for its eye clinics in Nepal and its support from Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy and the Grateful Dead. In September and October of this year, I worked for the second time as a Seva volunteer providing “accompaniment” in a community of Mayan people called La Victoria. The residents feel that an attentive international presence will protect them from human rights abuses and keep the eyes of the world on their situation. Another part of “accompaniment” is to be present to witness human rights violations should they occur and to tell the world.
La Victoria is one of several communities of refugees who have returned to Guatemala in the past three years after more than a decade in camps in Mexico to which they were driven by the violence of the early ’80s. The thirty-year civil war in Guatemala, characterized by savage military repression and abuse of human rights, has only recently shown signs of coming to an end. The violence reached a crescendo during the “scorched earth” campaigns of the early ’80s when hundreds of villages were razed and thousands of people were murdered, tortured and “disappeared.” The recently-elected democratic government has failed to overcome the powerful military that has ruled for decades. The danger from which the indigenous people of La Victoria originally fled still exists. La Victoria is one of the most organized communities in Guatemala and, being a model, is a potential target for repression.
By their presence alone it is hoped that acompañantes will deter incursions by the Guatemalan army, provide moral support, and help people feel safer. During my first stay in La Victoria I worked as a nurse, visiting patients in their huts and helping with a food distribution program. On this recent trip I had no assigned duties, and I began to experience my presence in a new way. Simply walking through the village was a vital service. I was contributing something of value just by being there. I discovered that without the burden of guilt—“am I doing enough?”—there was more space to let things unfold in their own way and to be open to the unexpected and the unknown.
In my first weeks back in La Victoria I discovered the joys of the hammock and visited with families. I was especially delighted to make a new friend—Mario Alberto Ramiriz Hernandez—a bright-eyed ten-year-old. Smart, outgoing, eager to learn—he quickly made friends with foreign acompañantes. I taught him English words like “scorpion” and he corrected my Spanish. He taught me how to say dog in Mam, his Mayan dialect—ch’ean. I love to say it.
Mario’s family was one of the first families I came to know in La Victoria. Mario’s parents, Atilana and Abel, invited us for lunch one day to their champa—a hut with dirt floor and walls of sticks. Atilana cooked tortillas over an open fire while Mario’s father, Abel, played with the children. Abel was a teacher in the elementary school. He was thirty-three years old, confident, charismatic, and well-groomed, with a bright, white smile. Abel taught me about the crops. At this time of year the people bend the dry stalks of corn so that the rains run down and soak the roots.
Mario is the oldest of seven children, all born in a refugee camp in Mexico. I asked Mario what they brought with them when they returned to Guatemala three years ago. He answered precisely, “We brought a mule, ten chickens, a corn grinder, fourteen machetes, three hatchets, two tools for cleaning the milpa (corn fields), three tables, two benches, three tortilla cooking pans, twenty-five glasses, twenty-one plates, clothes and Mexican books.”
The Seva “job description” of accompaniment work says, “Volunteers will need to be extremely flexible, open to ‘service’ in the sense of ‘doing whatever is needed.’” I began to get a sense of this when I was asked to accompany a group of returning refugees from the Mexican border to their new village. I thought it might take half a day; we would just drive to the border, meet the refugee group and accompany them home. The journey lasted four days. We pulled and pushed trucks through giant mudholes, up slippery hills and over dubious bridges; we rode in the backs of loaded pickup trucks and trekked for hours through the steamy jungle.
I always travel with at least one or two “spiritual” books to help me stay connected to the dharma. A tiny travel-sized book called The Training of the Heart by venerable Ajahn Chah fit neatly into my backpack. Ajahn Chah writes,
“There were many wild and fierce animals living in the jungle and there were many hardships for body and mind in the ascetic practice of the forest-dwelling monk. Indeed, the patience and endurance of the monks in those days was excellent because the circumstances compelled them to be so.”
Ajahn Chah’s forest monks accompanied me during my time in La Victoria, reminding me of the virtues of patience, endurance, equanimity and compassion.
From my journal: “It’s my turn to accompany la gente to Alta Verapaz. Reflections on fear, perched on a top-heavy pick-up loaded with carga—people’s stuff—chickens, turkeys, a dog, dug-up herbs, a school desk, an old bicycle. A frightened pig squeals shrilly the whole way to the boat. At first people laugh and then it’s ignored.
“People at home always ask me, ‘Is it dangerous?’ The Seva trainer from Peace Brigades calls it dramatic danger. He says the real dangers are health dangers. His words echoed in my head in Alta Verapaz last week—no medicine, no road, very isolated. The rain made the river swell so that I couldn’t leave in the boat for a couple of days. Besides hemorrhagic dengue fever (spontaneous bleeding), my biggest fear is that a pick-up will roll over and crush me. A great time to meditate—rocking and rolling through the ruts, cool wind in a big empty sky, nothing to do except hold on and feel the waves of fear rise and fall.”
Many years of Buddhist meditation practice—riding the ups and downs on my cushion—helped prepare me for the ups and downs of accompaniment work.
One of the more difficult mental states acompañantes encounter is boredom. I watched myself invent projects to “keep busy,” to fill the expanse of the day. I would do yoga, meditate, exercise, walk, study Spanish, write in my journal. But the sweltering heat was mi amigo. By noon it was too hot and humid to think. I melted into moments of being. Or perhaps it was the mud that helped me to take my time less seriously. Mud that “sucks the boots right off you” as my fellow acompañante Jack Fahey says. Buenos dias—mucho lodo (lots of mud), was the standard greeting of people on the paths of La Victoria.
I walked the same paths every day so that people would know that there was an international presence and feel more secure. I usually began my walks by stepping over Mario and his buddies wildly playing canicas (marbles) on the cement porch of the acompañante house. His mother, Atilana, said it was his work.
One day on my rounds a woman ran towards me from her champa with a beaming smile. She placed in my hands two warm elote (young ears of corn in their husks). They were from the first harvest in La Victoria. Even now that I have returned home to Oakland, California, sometimes before I begin a meal I think of the smiling woman running towards me with her steaming corn.
Philip, another Seva volunteer, and I took turns accompanying groups of five or six families at a time to their remote new land on the Rio Chixoy in Alta Verapaz. I accompanied the first group of ancianos (elders). The younger families would come when the school year ended. Ninety families of returned refugees had been living temporarily in La Victoria for two years. After a protest march in the capital, the government finally gave them their own land.
We rode in a lancha (a long narrow wooden boat) along with turkeys with their curious heads sticking out of bags, squealing pigs, bolsas (bags), and boards. The old ladies, Ana and Aurelia, huddled down in the boat. They were afraid because a few weeks before there had been an accident on the river. I looked at their beautiful, lined faces and thought that they have suffered too much.
The next day I saw old Tomas, Ana’s husband, slogging up a slippery hill with lamina (big metal sheets used for roofing) on his back and strapped to his forehead. He looked like an airplane. In his two hands he cradled a pollito (a little chicken). “Terry, Terry!” he yelled. “Take this to Ana.” He thrust a warm trembling little bird into my hands. A little unnerved, I carried this precious cargo across streams and up slippery hills to his wife. I watched Ana and Tomas build their house in a day.
There was very little food in this new community in Alta Verapaz. The people shared whatever little beans and tortillas they had. I ate three meals a day of beans and tortillas. I thought of my Thai forest monk walking several miles from dawn to dusk on almsrounds and getting some glutenous rice and salt or a few chilis. He helped me to settle back into contentment, more able to appreciate the simplicity of the meals and the generosity of my hosts.
La Victoria is situated in a zone which has been more consistently at “war” than any other in Guatemala for the last twenty years. The army believes that the guerillas operate in the region and that the returned refugees are cooperating with them. But to me La Victoria now felt peaceful and settled. Unlighted helicopters no longer flew low over the community at night as they did during my first stay, and we heard fewer bombas in the distance. Now I woke to the sound of roosters, hammers echoing, children playing, ranchero songs on a distant radio, and the loudspeaker announcing the meetings for the day. The new school and community center were almost finished, and childcare was being organized so that the women could take part in meetings. It warmed my heart to see these people settling on their own land, growing corn, beans, hibiscus hedges and marigolds.
One day my young friend Mario excitedly told me that his whole family was going to Xaman, a nearby community of returned refugees, to celebrate that settlement’s first anniversary. His father Abel was going to attend a meeting which had been planned to coincide with the festivities. Teachers from all the return communities in the area were invited.
A few days later we were stunned by the terrible news that the army had entered Xaman and had opened fire on a group of people, killing men, women and children. Abel had been killed.
The shocking details of the massacre filtered slowly into La Victoria. It was difficult to figure out exactly what had happened. My Spanish was just adequate, and I had to strain my ears to sift through all the different stories I was hearing. I wanted to communicate with Seva but the one phone in the area was not working for four days before and after the massacre. Philip was in Guatemala City, and I felt quite alone.
There was a shadowy fear in the back of my mind about my own safety. I’m not sure why I didn’t feel more afraid. Perhaps it was denial, or maybe just the business of collecting information kept the shadow in the distance. I sensed that the fear was partly overshadowed by my recognition of the value of my presence in La Victoria. The teachings of dharma were also a valuable resource at this time, as the limits of my equanimity were tested. Ajahn Chah reminded me to listen deeply and to be calm and clear.
Abel’s body was flown back to La Victoria by helicopter, the casket was unloaded, and a huge crowd followed it to the church with bells ringing. A couple of days later I ran up the stairs to shoo the kids off my porch. There was Mario. I held him and he cried. He had a scratch on his temple where he had fallen as he ran into the brush when the shooting started.
Suddenly our presence in La Victoria felt very important. There had been three acompañantes in Xaman but two had left a few days before the massacre and the third had gone to another village to pick up a marimba for the festivities. That left the community without an international presence when the massacre occurred.
In La Victoria people were grieving and the fear was palpable. Mario asked, “What will happen when all the acompañantes leave?” I told him about Seva’s promise to stay in La Victoria as long as people were in danger. Those words seemed to ease his fear.
The weekend after the massacre, the Festival of Health proceeded as planned. At the big outdoor dance on the last night of the festival, someone started a rumor that the army had entered La Victoria. The rumor was not true, but a large group of people panicked and ran off into the dark. One of the musicians grabbed the microphone and told the crowd that they didn’t need to be afraid because there were several acompañantes present. I stood there among the sea of dark faces, many of them my friends now, and I felt the power of my presence. I felt privileged to know that I was easing their fear by being there.
One day, shortly after the massacre, Philip and I were stopped on the road outside La Victoria by five very young, armed guerillas. They wore ski masks and tattered khaki clothing with branches and leaves attached to their backs for camouflage. A young boy, maybe fifteen years old, gave a long speech in a soft-spoken voice about the need to fight violence with violence. A young, attractive woman without a mask handed me some literature. We looked into each others eyes and we smiled. That look went right to my heart. Perhaps I felt connected to her because I knew that in our very different ways we were both committed to lessening suffering in the world. She had choosen the path of violence because she could see no other way. I was thankful that I was able to be of help without following that road.
Adios, rooster’s crow, pig’s grunt.
Buenas noches, night sky with fireflies and helicopters,
crickets, frogs, and bombas in the night,
smell of earth, woodsmoke, and marigolds.
Adios, milpa—elote, ejote, echote.
Gracias, smiling woman for your steaming ears of corn.
Study hard mi muy amigo Mario.
Nos vemos—we will see each other again.
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be happy
May all beings be presente for each other
Presence is love.