In November of 2015, my husband and I flew to Guatemala, the land my daughter loves and the land of my Compassion kids, Juana and Wilmer. Pumped up about a new culture, I’d read extensively, including news about recent landslides. Was Guatemala as beautiful as the pictures? Llegamos a la una de la tarde en la cuidad de Guatemala. (We arrived at 1:00 p.m. in Guatemala City, or Guate, as locals call it). Yep, I’d “Rosetta Stoned” to augment 60s and 70s high school and college Spanish and chatted with bilingual friends till my brain jumbled and I yelled, “Caramba!”
After a nod through Customs, my daughter escaped the crush of humanity outside the airport—women dressed in gorgeous wrap-around skirts and embroidered blouses, waving trinkets like beads; people sitting on the road or leaning on canes, crying out for quetzales (the local money); raggedly dressed children, extending cupped hands, big brown eyes pleading silently.
“Don’t respond.” My daughter led us into a nearby snack shop. Outside, many continued to beg. “Lesson #1,” she said. “Don’t encourage them, especially the kids. They skip school to do that.”
“But they’re hungry.”
Frowning, our daughter described NGOs that her local friends thought a better solution. “Plus,” she said, “there’s pickpockets…and worse.” The pages of When Helping Hurts came to life, as did the constant state of alertness our daughter lived in to survive here. We’d just begun Guatemala 101 and had much to learn. At least we recognized our ignorance…or did we?
Our daughter’s rapid-fire fluency smoothed us into the hired car. We left the airport bedlam, bound for Antigua, our vacation base. When a teeny gap opened in jammed traffic, cyclists vroomed past and cut gaspingly close to our car hood. Amid a cacophony of horns and ginormous billboards, people of a hundred shades of brown trudged along the road, some wearing the bright colors we saw at the airport (traje, or traditional clothing of indigenous people, our daughter explained). Imagine 24 Maya people groups, each with distinctive language, traje, and customs. Would I meet the Ixil, Juana’s people, or the Kaqchikel, Wilmer’s people, over the course of our two-week adventure? I wanted in this way to connect with my Compassion kids and dig beyond the surface of pen-pal letters to know their life.
Our daughter pointed to her left. “That’s La Limonada, where the landslide hit hardest.”
I’d read about Lemonade International, a ministry based in Latin America’s largest slum. “Can we visit?”
“It’s a designated red zone,” she said, “as in don’t set foot there if you don’t know it like the back of your hand.”
Out the window, hundreds of roofs, some painted in cheery pastels, checkerboarded rolling hills. Statistics tell a bleaker story: In La Limonada, home to 60,000 to 100,000, “gangs hold residents hostage, as does a lack of fresh water and electricity” (www.lemonadeinternational.org/about/la-limonada). La Limonada’s population mushroomed after the 1954 CIA-aided overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s democratically-elected president, sent the nation into a “36-year-long civil war” (ibid). Thousands fled the countryside and resettled in places like the slum now in our rearview mirror (ibid).
I remembered the shock I felt upon reading historian David M. Barrett’s “Sterilizing a ‘Red Infection,’” which blamed U.S. action on fear of Communism (www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol44no5/html/v44i5a03p.htm). The United States government, also frowned upon President Arbenz’s aim to free “peasants from feudalism” and improve “workers’ rights” (“The Culture of Terror and Cold War in Guatemala,” Ibarra 2006). U.S. action, as an all-powerful, punishing type of deity that saw Guatemala as their puppet, epitomized the God-complexes and poisonous paternalism I’d learned about pre-Compassion sponsorship. Juana’s and Wilmer’s fathers were farmers. Did their ancestors lose a chance to own property because the U.S. meddled ruthlessly in their future? Did any of Juana’s or Wilmer’s relatives or village folk thus wind up in La Limonada?
To further empower his country, Arbenz also vowed to reduce utility monopolies, a perk for American-owned United Fruit Company (Guatemalan Journey, Benz 187). That didn’t sit well with John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, who, among other power brokers, owned a slab of United Fruit’s pie (ibid). Thus “the Eisenhower administration tended to conflate the interests of UFC with that of U.S. national security interests and made it more willing to overthrow the Guatemalan government” (Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999).
On June 18, 1954, the CIA helped agitators topple Arbenz. Even the usually pro-U.S. newspapers of West Germany objected. “Kate Doyle, the Director of the Mexico Project of the National Security Archives, described the coup as the definitive deathblow to democracy in Guatemala” (“CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents,” Kombluh and Kate, eds., 1997).
Traffic had thinned out, so our driver accelerated out of Guate's clattery urban sprawl. A cone-shaped mountain, ringed in wispy clouds, rose to the heavens. Our first volcano sighting! Bougainvillea and orchids grew in outcroppings along the highway, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about my country’s awful deeds.
For decades, Guatemala experienced civil unrest. Then I learned the most shocking thing of all.
In June 1982, General Jose Efrain Rios Montt became “Guatemala’s first Pentecostal chief of state, an enigmatic and paradoxical figure who simultaneously spoke of bringing God’s love and scorched earth to the countryside without apparent contradiction” (Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit, Garrard-Burnett). A visit to the Reagan administration in December brought about the sale of helicopter parts to Montt’s army (ibid). Then Montt appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and was “lauded…as an anointed man of God for whom Americans should pray ‘day and night without ceasing’” (ibid). To rising Religious Right leaders like Robertson and Falwell, “Rios Montt seemed a literal godsend… a ‘Christian soldier’ who would both vanquish communism and…bring a godly era of peace, justice, and tranquility” (ibid).
War exacerbated a long-simmering hatred of Mayan people, who were targeted in a slaughter called “la violencia.” Only 17 months after Montt’s inauguration, Natalie Kitroeff of the New York Times estimates “roughly 200,000 indigenous” lay dead, murdered by his henchmen (www.quora.com/How-many-people-were-killed-under-the-rule-of-Rios-Montt-in-Guatemala. Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, of Quich’e heritage, believes racism fueled the “terrible things done to the Mayan people” (https://nobelwomensinitiative.org/menchu-tum-rios-montt-trial-key-to-peace.) Menchu’s brother was burned alive in his village; her father was murdered during a peaceful protest at Guatemala’s Spanish embassy (I, Rigoberta Menchu, Menchu). Again, I thought of my Compassion kids, particularly Juana’s Ixil family, because the Ixil Triangle experienced such violence that “between 70 and 90% of Ixil Villages were razed (and) an estimated 5.5% of the entire Ixil population was massacred” (www.ghrc-usa.org/our-work/important-cases/genocide-cases/genocide-in-the-ixil-triangle). Ixil suffering continues to this day as the “scorched earth” strategy implemented by Montt has led to lingering deforestation (https://gsp.yale.edu/case-studies/guatemala/maps-satellite-images/deforestation-ixil-triangle). According to my daughter, this region is still unsafe and unstable.
Years later, Presidents Carter and Clinton acknowledged U.S. complicity in la Violencia, but bloodstains can’t be so easily whitewashed. The grieving, the historians, the poets, the activists, the humane, called for justice. An American nun, Alice Zachmann, founded the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in 1982 (Wikipedia.org). Finally, on May 10, 2013, they ruled: “This trial marks the first time in world history that a former head of state has been tried (and found guilty) of genocide by a nation’s own justice system” (www.ghrc-usa.org). Still, Montt avoided prison after his “historic conviction…was thrown out on a technicality and he was deemed “mentally unfit for genocide retrial” (The Guardian, U.S. Edition, 7-7-15).
I blinked…and another volcano rose from undulating hills, yet the blood of 250,000 souls cried out. In my letters to Juana and Wilmer, I’d shared Bible verses. Prayers for peace. Why would they believe that I meant it…this time? Did other Compassion sponsors or employees know about our complicity in atrocities? Did they even care? My stomach roiled, and not from travel on bumpy roads. We Americans helped unseat a leader who wanted a democratic Guatemala. Perhaps Juana and Wilmer and the other children on those Compassion cards needed help because for decades, our government hurt them. Maybe even killed their forefathers…
“We’re here!” my daughter cried. Our driver veered onto a cobblestone street lined with stucco buildings painted mustard, turquoise, and currant. With the help of a cell phone app, we found our Airbnb and made plans for coffee at Fat Cat’s, a local cafe. I breathed deep and vowed to move forward with this trip despite my angst over the past…with one caveat. Forget being a naïve, clueless American tourist. If I got the chance to meaningfully engage with locals, I would apologize on behalf of my country’s involvement in La Violencia. I would ask forgiveness. I also vowed, somehow, some way, some day, to share this burden with others who loved Guatemala, who truly wanted to help, not hurt.
Our driver unloaded our bags, his eyes briefly lighting on my face. Did he think of me as a hypocrite…or worse? I nodded, smiled, then grabbed my things and headed to the Airbnb entrance. Lord, I need you to show me how to approach this whole thing from Your perspective.
A journey had begun across a great chasm that would transform my thoughts on mission, on fellowship, on what it means to be poor, on what it means to be a compadre. I had so much more to learn.