Extreme Guatemala: it hooks you but doesn’t let you love it
Living here teaches you about survival in the face of repression, struggle in the face of injustice and love in the face of suffering
Aisling Walsh: is it even possible to uphold the principles of solidarity with the Guatemalan people?
Depending on who you are in Guatemala, June 30th is either a day to celebrate the victories of the national army or a day to remember the victims of Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict: 45,000 disappeared, 200,000 murdered and more than a million displaced.
Standing beneath the national flag in the main square of the capital, Guatemala City, listening to the sons and daughters of Guatemala’s disappeared denounce the genocidal crimes of their state, it occurred to me that perhaps no other day of the year better sums up this country of contradictions.
In the two and a half years I have been here I have learned that Guatemala is a country of extremes: it has the world’s second-highest rate of helicopter ownership per capita, but 45 per cent of its children are malnourished. It is a country where the truth often surpasses fiction, and the conspiracy theory generally falls short of reality; a country that can ignore the president’s genocidal record, then lock him up on corruption charges; where in 2015 we apparently witnessed a “democratic spring” yet the same democratic regime keeps murdering human-rights defenders (six so far in 2016, two in the past month); where the ancient Mayan civilisation is the nation’s greatest tourist ticket yet the “Indians” of today are regarded as lazy, illiterate drunks who have chosen to remain poor and ignorant.
A friend who has been here 10 years once told me, “Guatemala hooks you but doesn’t let you love it.” I am finally beginning to understand. Living here teaches you about survival in the face of repression, struggle in the face of injustice, love in the face of suffering, laughter in the face of adversity and hope in the face of destruction. Guatemala teaches you to never underestimate the depths of human kindness even when it shows you the depths of cruelty. It teaches you humility and gratitude.
I find myself questioning my role, my purpose, even my right to be here almost daily. When I stepped off the plane in January 2014 I was an eager but naive NGO worker hoping to save the world. Still fresh from my master’s degree in international human-rights law, followed by an internship with the UN, I was eager to do some “real work” in Latin America, the continent that had stolen my heart 10 years earlier, when I was an even more naive and impressionable 19-year-old from the village of Carrigaline, in Co Cork.
At 31, with three years of field work under my belt, I am not so naive. But perhaps there is still a bit of the white saviour in me. I would like to say I uphold the principles of partnership and solidarity with the Guatemalan people both personally and through my work, but I often wonder if this is even possible, given the inherent power imbalances between the “international set” and local communities.
On a personal level, living as a white woman in a society marked by institutional racism and discrimination of people of colour – particular indigenous peoples and Afro descendants – where whiteness is dearly coveted, has meant confronting very uncomfortable questions of power and privilege. I enjoy the freedom to travel and cross borders that my European passport allows, when thousands of Guatemalans risk violence, extortion, trafficking and death trying to make it to the north each year to escape the crushing poverty, lack of opportunities and increasing violence.
I often benefit from unearned privileges and positive discrimination, sometimes without even realising it. It can manifest as preferential treatment in shops and restaurants, or unnecessary and unearned deference in the work environment, in talking more than my share in meetings, or being regarded as an expert solely because I was born and educated in Europe.
Life here is intense, but my daily experience is marked more by routine than by adventure. The poverty and insecurity are ever present, but they fade into the background until something joltingly reminds you where you are: a friend is murdered senselessly, a community is evicted from its land, human-rights defenders are attacked or killed. And the weight of all the violence and injustice comes crashing down on you once again in a sudden dose of reality. You wonder, How can these things be allowed to happen?
But just before you begin to completely despair, and wonder for the thousandth time what the hell you’re doing here, you hear about the mining licence that was finally revoked after four years of peaceful protest by the local community. Or you’re present when 15 indigenous women receive justice more than 30 years after they were raped and sexually and domestically enslaved by the Guatemalan army.
I do miss Ireland, the home comforts and the luxury of walking through the streets unburdened by the persistent anxieties about being robbed, harassed or worse. That is priceless. Even so, I am still here and, more importantly, happy to be here. After two years as a communications officer for an international NGO I have decided to leave the world of objectives, results and logical frameworks and to become a midwife.
I am starting a diploma at a Guatemalan university in “professional midwifery with an intercultural approach”, which favours the natural physiological process of birth. It means at least another three years in Guatemala. And after that, who knows?
Do I feel part of Generation Emigration? No, not really. I knew from an early age that I wanted to travel and live abroad. I never felt forced to leave Ireland; it was always going to be part of my career, and my family have always been encouraging. I have one brother in Brussels and another in Thailand. Moving to Guatemala just happened to coincide with the most recent wave of Irish emigration.
What I do feel is the burden of tremendous privilege, which comes with having the freedom to be able to pack up and head off to live pretty much anywhere I want, with few visa restrictions and relatively mild financial concerns. Migration has meant adventure, challenge and learning about myself and the world around me.