Dear beloved friends, I am Emilie Teresa Smith, an Argentine-Canadian Anglican priest, theologian, mother, writer, and community member of the town, Santa Cruz del Quiché, in the western highlands of Guatemala. I have been a companion of Guatemala, since 1984, though I have lived in this particular town for only two years. Here with dear friends from the Quiché, we have set up Peace House, a place of rest and healing, for any who come through our door. Here we host the Christian Chapel of the Holy Innocents, and also, the Chilam Balam Council of the K’iche’ Peoples, a spiritual and cultural project of the Maya-K’iche’ peoples in this region. We are focused on creating alternative spaces for human and other relations, especially during these days when (popularly-elected, but ever horrifying) military power is returning to rule the country.
They went down to Xibalbá, quickly going down the face of a cliff, and they crossed over the bottom of a canyon with rapids. They passed right through the birds –the ones called throng birds– and they crossed Pus River and Blood River, intended as traps by Xibalbá. They did not step in, but simply crossed over on their blowguns, and then they went on over to the Crossroads. But they knew about the roads of Xibalbá: Black Road, White Road, Red Road, Green Road.
Popol Vuh, translated by Dennis Tedlock1
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene.
Outside the thunderous rain erases the world, and all who are able are under cover. The cat cowers, the dog barks at the lightening, as if only by making his voice heard will the world calm down again. Peace House is at rest, empty of all but me, and the furry ones who live here too — everyone else has gone home. The longer-term visitors done for this year of pilgrimage, and those who come here every day, Zoila, Mario, don Juan, their door clicks shut early, as the sky blackens, before the rains come down, and the world is gone, again. The courtyard stands guard, green and fresh, ready to shake its hair into the showering down, and be washed clean.
In one corner, closest to the entrance way through the house, that’s where I collapsed, when doña Maria and the other aj’kij’2 came and cleansed, and washed, and prayed, and named and remembered the things that these walls, that these doors saw. Terrible things, when the generals and colonels – their bloody hands – lived in this house, their sleeping quarters, away from the base, during the worst years of the genocide. Here the walls and doors remember things, says doña Maria, and I am overcome with an impulse to vomit, and to here lay down in defeated tears. She struck me with rue, and brought me back and we all came down, and we broke bread, and ate beans in bowls, and were quiet.
I am white, don Juan laughs at me, because he’s almost always laughing. We are on the opposite sides of the coloured circle, he says, I of the north, he, the yellow people of the central and the south. Don Juan, son of a Christian martyr,3 now an esteemed aj’kij’, draws me in, and we come together to worship, when we can. He doesn’t suffer questions though, so, of the Maya-K’iche’ practice, I can say very little. It is not something you learn in written words, but by shared life, and I kneel at his burning circles, and know that I am a child. Pastora Emilin, the people who care for this House call me, from the Lutheran church of Christ (close enough, Anglicans/Lutherans, we’re in full communion now). Don Juan says he loves me, and what I am in his eyes, an evangelica that doesn’t hate him, that doesn’t call him a practitioner of witchcraft.
I was born in the south, in Argentina, during an uprising, says my mother, which seems to explain everything about the rest of my life. My parents returned the family, eventually, to the north, but I came searching as soon as I was able, and here stopped, and now live in these rain-soaked mountains, after the war. I am not the colour of this earth, I am not exactly brown, or red – or yellow. I come from the north, in the Maya story, from where death originates, and death is thick on the ground in this land. The Spaniards and their strange yellow beards, in 1524, then the Germans, and their coffee plantations, wrenching away communal Maya land (1871), then the gringos, and their railroads, bananas, the CIA-invasion in 1954, destroying the only ever democratic experiment in Guatemala, then the evil refining of the practice of disappearance, tried out first in this country, with CIA council, in ’66. Then the full-out war, the genocide. No one knows, or remembers, there on the white road in the north, where death comes from, or here, except in how it carves into every heart and life – without being spoken about.
Her white, blood-drained hands, lie at an odd angle on her carved-up chest. Her face is only half-visible, smashed in and purple. A hanky covers her private bits. Her toenail is painted red. She is the death, that I walk into, down here, in Xibalbá, in the cavern of death, in the underworld, where the Lords of Death reside4. Beatríz, her name carved on my eyes, my sister, my sister-in-law.
What am I doing here? Who am I?
What are you, what’s a theologian, asks Maco the bus-driver, a devout Pentecostal Christian.
One charged, troubled, with thinking about God. All the time.
He shakes his head.
The war, no it didn’t touch me, he says. But his mother was a washerwoman for the army. She worked in this House and washed their filthy sheets. And his father was almost killed by the guerrillas, and his brothers were taken away, and forced into the army, and now they wander the streets, mad with half-remembrances of what they did . . .Maco, the bus-driver, remembers now, and he tells me, the dead, tripped over, while stealing ears of corn, in the cornfields, and his dog, crucified by a mad soldier (not his brother) to a tree.
So, I spend the days thinking about God, in this Holy Land:
— God, Ajaw, Señor, the great-father, star-sun, made all things, heated all things, and all things were shaped, by their hands in perfection. This earth is treasured and beyond telling in beauty.
— Corn is most Holy. Ground by Grandmother God and shaped into all flesh.
— First the Spaniards came and the blood of the Maya, the raping of the women. Their ladino5 children – the most despised, those who were no longer tied to their ancestors, and had no land.
— Cycles of violence carved these ravines and hills.
— Most recently, there were those who so loved God, who knew the God of Life, who treasured the Holy Bread, who knew the Word, and refused to leave Love strangled in the countryside. And they were killed, because finally, to die isn’t the worst that can happen — to learn to hate is endlessly-worse.
— This land was frozen in death, a quarter of a million died. Don Juan’s father, don Lencho’s father, Isabel’s father, Corita’s mother, the eight members of the Vasquez family down the road, in Río Blanco. Doña Carmen’s five children. Beatríz, oh Beatríz.
–The greatest shame of this day, is to be Canadian, and to know what is being done in our name. Recently, the great money-lovers came to these mountains, and found gold dust, and they ripped Our Mother in two, and ground her down and poisoned her, and shot her children and stole more water from the thirsty land than my mind can understand. All for gold, just like the yellow-bearded ones from before.6
I live here, I am not from here. I don’t understand very much, kneeling at the altar rail, or in the Holy Circle, around the fire. I am . . .lover, companion, friend. Sometimes the pain is too atrocious. Outside the door run rivers of hatred, of violence, justice is unknown, and no longer even longed for, by those who have lost heart. But sometimes, because I come in second-hand, I can reside in that pain, and not be undone. I don’t do much, I just live here, and hold this space, that once was so hurt, into its healing. Human hands, and God’s undying love serve to build a quiet place where all are welcome, a place where swallows can build their nesting place (while ever watching out for Lucho, the cat). Friends come and visit, and we plant a garden. Now the rain does its part, without our even asking.
1Dennis Tedlock. Popul Vuh, Touchstone Books, 1996
2Aj’kij: Maya holy person, keeper of the day.
3Christian martyr, as opposed to a ‘hero’ who may have died for a cause, is a category of murder victim, who chooses to remain in dangerous situations, knowing their lives could be in danger, but understanding the deep mystery, of the greater always power of the God of Life, over the human created systems of evil. There were tens of thousands of Guatemalans who died as Christian martyrs during the war and genocide and have been recognised by Roman Catholic church. Most of the 250,000 who died in the genocide could be classified as ‘Holy Innocents’, having nothing to do with the war, but by association, linked to those who threatened the state.
4Xibalbá. The underworld, according to the sacred book of the Maya-K’iche’, where two sets of twin heros, confront, and finally defeat the Lords of Death. See Popul Vuh: Dennis Tedlock.
5Ladino. Mixed race, Spanish and Maya, alsocalled mestizo. Can be a put-down.
6Vancouver-based Goldcorp Inc. and its Marlin Mine, an open-pit, cyanide-leaching gold and silver mine, went into operation in 2007. In 2010, the Interamerican Court of the Organization of American States, ordered the Guatemalan government to shut the mine down, due to a faulty consultation process, and other severe health and environmental concerns. The mine still churns away, and the huge profits (99%) are funnelled away to Canada.
Emilie Teresa Smith also wrote an article about the 9/11/2011 elections in Guatemala. You can read it at http://vimguatemala.wordpress.com/
And she wrote a wrote a piece for this journal’s section “Invisible Worlds, Untold Stories.” You can read it at http://postcolonialnetworks.com/2011/04/04/change-or-else/