Santa Elena Project of Accompaniament

Letter from Alice Gates
Santa Elena, 20 de Octubre
Coban, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala
January 1998

Alice Gates with a sheaf of ojas (leaves) on her head. Dona Katarina cut these ojas to sell to a neighboring community for tamales.


Dear Friends,

It is now summer in the Ixcan jungle, which means warm days, cooler nights, and less rain. As I sit down to write, the once strange night sounds are now familiar: the heavy sighs of howler monkeys, gatos de monte (wild cats) climbing around the trees near my house, live marimba music coming from the galeras.

On the one hand, it feels like not much has happened in the three months I've been in Santa Elena. Families continue to harvest the corn, beans, chile and rice that they planted last year, and last month they began planting more corn and beans. I continue to spend my days paseando: visiting families, shelling corn, hulling beans, picking chile, harvesting cacao. Despite this continuity, the details of my daily life here continue to be a source of amazement, reflection, or laughter. And the smallest of tasks--like building a fire to make oatmeal and coffee in the mornings, and learning to wash my clothes on the flat rocks on the edge of the River Chixoy--can feel like major accomplishments. There is so much that I want to share with you about my life here and how much I am learning every day. I realize that it's impossible for you to experience Guatemala and Santa Elena in the same way that I do, but I hope that through my experiences and reflections, you can get a glimpse of life here.

November 30, 1997 - Food continues to be a learning experience. There's nothing like hearing from Dona Juana "All of my chickens are dying, Alicia, and I don't know what to do. One after another after another... they're all getting sick and dying," and then being served a a bowl of broth with a little piece of chicken--for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yesterday I ate armadillo (!) for lunch with Ram6n and Olivia. At breakfast Ram6n asked me, "Comes este animal?" as he gestured to the net bag hanging from the ceiling. I'm sure that he couldn't have anticipated my reaction: I gasped when I saw the dead armadillo, thinking the whole time of the stuffed armadillo in A Prayer for Owen Meany. We laughed and I responded, "No, I've never eaten that animal before," knowing full well that I was looking at lunch. Despite my misgivings, it wasn't so bad. And I definitely prefer armadillo to pigtails.

January 10, 1998 - It makes sense that amusement parks and rollercoasters would be a first world phenomenon--because in the so-called third world, the kind of psuedo-danger and thrills we seek are a part of everyday life. This thought came to me when I was crammed into the back of a pick-up truck at 4 a.m. to go the market in Cantabal-a pick-up lacking the customary metal frame that exists on most pick-ups in this area to give the passengers something to hold on to. I held to the one bar and to my neighbors as we whipped past the trees on both sides of the narrow road, the driver swerving maniacally to avoid the largest of the holes. Still dark, it began to mist and I laughed out loud as I thought about the fact that in the U.S. one could pay $25 a day to experience these kinds of thrills. Cedar Point might experience some real competition from rural Guatemala. My hands tired after only a few minutes but I had no choice but to hold on tight or to be thrown off the truck. These travel experiences breed a strange sort of intimacy that I've never experienced with fellow travelers in the U.S. Our bodies smashed together in contorted positions, we have to be friends by the end of the trip. It's like solidarity work on a small scale, since at times your survival does depend on your neighbor's feet being firmly planted, someone to hold on to.

January 16, 1998 - After my lunch of scrambled eggs and tortillas, I was asking Tomasa about the sesame seeds that she had just harvested "Alicia, I've got sugar," she said."Let's make sesame candy!" So we began by cleaning the sesame, rinsing it over and over in a bowl of water until the water ran clear. Then she poured it in a skillet and started to stir it over the fire. When the water had evaporated, she dumped about half a pound of sugar-all the sugar she had-into the pan and stirred it until it was ready. She sent me to her neighbor, Dona Angelina, to get two ojas. We spread the carmelly mixture on the broad leaves used to wrap tamales. After it cooled, we each tried a little bite, and Tomasa then wrapped up half of the sesame candy for me to take home.

Tomasa is 22 years old, the same age as I. I love to spend the morning at her house, playing with her two young kids, Isabela and Ilarto, and just talking. I feel so completely at home with Tomasa that our differences sometimes take me by surprise. She married her husband Antonio when she was 14 --"Because my father died and I was an orphan," she explained to me. I try to imagine where I was at 14, and I know that she has experienced more in her 22 years than I may experience in my lifetime.

Last month I sat in her house as she and wove the huge canasta (basket) that they would use to dry chile over the fire in their home. As she wove, she recounted some of her experiences during the six months of living in the mountains after fleeing the community of San ta Maria Dolores in 1982. Tomasa would have been seven years old when she and her family, along with the rest of their community, left Guatemala to seek refuge in Mexico. "Yo era chiquita," she says, almost qualifying her story: "I was small when we left, but I still have strong memories." I asked her if the army had arrived before they left Stanta Maria Dolores, or if they had left in anticipation of the army's arrival "Oh yes, [the army] was there. They burned our homes, they killed our animals and threatened us, and we had
to leave." And so they fled, first into the mountains, where they lived with only what they could carry with them out of the community, and they ate what they could find, often wild greens and roots. "We slept in the daytime," she said, "We could only build fires at night because the army would have seen us. And the mosquitoes!" she laughs as she says this, and I'm not sure why Perhaps because she knows that I will never fully understand the physical and emotional suffering they experienced We come from different worlds, maybe she is thinking this too.

"Hemos sufrido bastante."

Many days I ask myself, "What is my job here? What is it that I do?" I sometimes hesitate to call what I do "work"; more than anything, it is education. I am learning how to live simply, how to appreciate the little things. But what does it mean to be an accompanier? Reading Ricardo Falla's book, Historia de un gran amor (1993), has helped me think more about the many purposes of accompaniment. Falla writes about his experiences as a Guatemalan priest in the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs) in the Ixcan during the 1980s. Although his work in the CPRs differs substantially from my work as a human rights accompanier in a community of returned refugees, I can relate to many of his experiences and reflections. Falla writes about his amazement at the complete generosity of the people of the CPRs, their eagerness to give all of what they have to him when they have next to nothing. I see this same trend, this "amor inobjetivado" or unconditional love, in Santa Elena. I often wonder why it has taken living with the poorest of the poor to learn what true giving is.

Accompaniment literally means to walk with or alongside people. Walking with the people of Santa Elena is my attempt to understand their struggle as Mayan campesinos. Theirs has been a sixteen-year struggle for physical survival, and also a struggle to maintain some level of human dignity in a society and world that tells them they are expendable. Accompaniment is also an act of friendship, and ultimately, a mechanism for building solidarity. "We are happier when there are accompaniers in the community," I have been told many times by different people. And I can see that people appreciate the opportunity to tell their stories and share their luchas cotidianas (daily struggles) with me. Will their struggle ever be entirely my own? Probably not, but I can begin to appreciate the amount of work it takes for them just to survive, just to grow and prepare enough food to eat for the family.

Accompaniers also can play an important role in listening to and transmitting the stories of those voices who might not otherwise be heard. When Don Lucas first told me the story of their struggle to organize and their tumultuous return to Guatemala, he punctuated each episode: "Hemos sufrido bastante." "We have suffered a lot," he repeated. "We have suffered enough. But we must continue to struggle, to fight for our rights and what is owed us." I continue to be impressed with their willingness to keep fighting. They are tired, but their vision of a new community is too strong and too present for them to give up the struggle.

Of course, a primary purpose of human rights accompaniment is to provide a measure of security to at-risk populations, and accompaniers fulfill this purpose in their role as international observers and witnesses. I often wonder whether accompaniment is still a valuable and necessary thing in "post-war" Guatemala. One night as I sat with Don Dionicio after eating dinner with him and his family, he asked me rather abruptly, "And you, what will you do if the war starts again? Will you be here with us or will you go back to your country?" I was taken by surprise, but after a moment I responded that I was here to accompany the community, and that we would provide accompaniment for as long as the community requested it, declared war or not. I was reminded of an episode in Falla's history when he was asked by members of the community, "?Estas dispuesto a morir aqu' con nosotros?"--"Are you prepared to die here with us?" In reflecting on and answering this question, Falla affirms his own commitment to accompany the people of the CPRs, and to die with them, as they mobilized to defend themselves against direct army attacks. I don't begin to pretend that Falla and I are answering the same questions, but thinking about this question in the context of Falla's history and the history of Santa Elena has helped me understand my own relationship to the community.

I'll never know exactly what inspired Don Dionicio's question, but I suspect that it has to do with his own uncertainty about the future of Guatemala and the possibility of realizing peace in his and his children's lifetime. The community of Santa Elena was named in memory of Magdalena Caal, Dionicio's daughter, who was shot and killed on December 16, 1995 when the community was camped just outside of Cantabal. They had moved there after trying unsuccessfully to recover their original lands in Santa Maria Dolores. There were no international accompaniers with them when the shots were fired into the area where there provisional homes were set up. The army was implicated in the shooting, although there has been no resolution to the case; the investigation seems to be permanently on hold. Magdalena would have been 11 years old this year.

This incident horribly captures the culture of impunity that has characterized the last three decades of Guatemalan history. It's no wonder that Don Dionicio, among others, questions the stability of the political and social situation in Guatemala. As I reflect on his question to me, I am grateful to him for asking me so pointedly exactly what I am willing risk. His question has brought to light one of the greatest lessons I have learned from walking with the people of Santa Elena: that you can grow to love a community, a people, so much that you feel incapable of abandoning them.

...No basta rezar,
Hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguir Ia paz
-Ali Primera

... Praying is not enough
We are still a long way from achieving peace.

Guatemala City, Guatemala
January 26, 1998

Coming back to the city is always such a shock to the system. I learned yesterday that five U.S. women were assaulted while traveling on the road to Escuintla. I am so frightened, angry, and confused. This should not have happened. Filled with thoughts about what it means for a country to move away from military dictatorship and war toward peace. ?Vamos ganando Ia paz? It seems doubtful. There are so many layers of injustice here, and everywhere--it is difficult to feel hopeful about the future. The roots of war in Guatemala run deep. What a long, slow process it is to recover. In a tragic way, this incident has reminded me of just how connected we all are, why we must continue to work for peace and justice around the world. Simply put, if Guatemalans are suffering, we too will suffer.

This morning I ate breakfast with a friend from Santa Elena who is beginning his first year at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. There he will study law and political science. I shared my current frustrations with him, surrounding the issue of violence and what I see as an unwillingness on the part of the Guatemalan government to assist in the redistribution of land and resources. I asked him what he thinks about the political situation in Guatemala, specifically with respect to the question of peace. He agreed that true peace is unlikely when there is such great need among the population. There was a pause in the conversation, and he added, "We will not achieve peace until we hunger for peace." So I leave you with that charge: that we all might hunger for peace. That we continue to feel inspired to work for change and justice.


Alice Gates (through mid-April '98)
P.O. BOX 591828
Miami, FL 33159-1828 email: