Guatemala stands out little in the greater scheme of world politics. It is not a particularly large country, nor does it contribute much to the world economy, but within this tiny Central American country exists a long and bloody history of violence, corruption, and indifference. It is therefore no surprise that Che Guevara received much of his inspiration from the 1954 coup that began one of the longest civil wars in Latin America. Scholars have conducted extensive research on the rural factions of this struggle, as they typify the common methods of guerrilla warfare and state response, but little exists on the urban movement that went along with the war in Guatemala.
This summer, I spent a month in Guatemala, gathering information and interviewing several people who were involved in the revolutionary movement during the 1970s and 1980s. My first interview was with Cesar Montes, a guerrilla leader in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras who now resides in a lakeside house in Amatitlan, Guatemala. His interview allowed me to acquire a firsthand account of the guerrilla movement in rural Guatemala, which was further enhanced by an interview with Gustavo Meoño, ex-leader of the EGP (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, or the Guerrilla Army of the Poor) and ex-chairman of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation.
Mr. Meoño now works alongside a human rights group that has recently uncovered an archive of police files dating back to 1892. These archives contain an infinite amount of classified information that is helping the organization prosecute violators of human rights during the civil war in Guatemala. At this stage in the recovery process, the archives are being cured, classified, and scanned and should be released as soon as the entire recovery process is complete. I was fortunate enough to gain access to the center where the archives are being handled and Mr. Meoño granted me a tour of the multiple buildings, a high privilege considering that the interiors of those buildings remain closed to the public.
What struck me the most about my interviews with these ex-guerrilla leaders and other student activists was how normal they seemed in the present day. Mr. Meoño, for instance, is a tall, strong and silent man who articulates his point intelligently and effectively and does not seek to brag about previous exploits. Rene de Flores and Teresita Stiles, two women I also had the pleasure of interviewing, spoke freely of their days in the struggle- where they would flee from prosecutors, attempting to carry out their work as effectively as possible- and yet they served me coffee with the same hospitality characteristic of every Guatemalan woman. This strength and resolve attributed to the women, not only amongst each other but by the men they fought alongside continued to resurface in my thoughts, which led me to change the focus of my research from simply urban resistance during the war to the role that women played in that urban resistance in contrast to that of the stereotypical male rural guerrilla fighter.
What makes this locus so much more interesting is the personal relationship I have with many individuals who had to struggle through the bloodiest years of the war. This relationship allowed for horrendous stories to simply surface over dinner, such as one about a public all-girl’s middle school located in Zona 1, or downtown Guatemala. During the 70’s and 80’s, the girls attending this school withstood a plethora of military attacks; they found ways to remain inside despite tear gas being thrown at them, and even fought off an ambush with stones and books. This story began with my questioning of the role that women played in the urban movement. That the state would target such a young group of women suggests that there was reason to believe that these women were involved in the urban resistance from as early as the age of 11 or 12. Different people coped with repression in different ways, some choosing to fight, others to ignore, and even others to escape. My citizenship in the U.S. is a product of that war as my parents left the country hoping for a safer and better life for me. Any middle-aged person that lived in Guatemala during the war years will recount their personal worries during that time- their faces will darken and they will dig up memories that they sought so long to repress, but I have been told that this is the best possible time for me to gather interviews, as people are slowly beginning to lose the fear that the repressive measures during the 1980’s in particular had instilled in them.
I plan on completing an honors project that studies the role of women in the urban resistance, and hope to return to Guatemala in December for follow-up interviews and further research.