Kaibil Balam

I opened the book I’d been reading for the past few days at the page I’d left off. The next section was entitled “La masacre de Kaibil Balam (27 de febrero)”. I was taken aback because I, in fact, was laying on the concrete floor of a one room cinder block house in Kaibil Balam, a tiny town in the wet forest of Ixcán, el Quiché, Guatemala.

Two of the girls from my host family (ages 10 and 12 perhaps) asked me what I was reading and laid down to read with me. I asked their mother if it was OK for them to read the true story of the terrible violence and she said yes, that it was important for them to know. Soon their mother and father sat down as well and we read together about the day the Guatemalan army came to Kaibil Balam. They burned down every building and murdered the 13 people who couldn’t get away into the forest fast enough. One woman and her 5 children were thrown alive into the cardamom oven. When the girls read the list of names of the victims aloud, their parents recognized the name of that woman. Her sister lives right around the corner.

Hugo, the father, was 8 years old on February 27, 1982. The mother, whose name I’ve forgotten, was 7. Hugo recounted his experience that day. When the army arrived, he and his parents and siblings sprinted into the forest. They didn’t carry anything with them. They’d already heard about the massacres in other villages the previous weeks. Neither they nor any of the other villagers would return to live in Kaibil Balam for 8 years, when the violence had dissipated significantly.

At some point, relatively soon after fleeing Kaibil Balam, Hugo’s family was in Barrillas, Huehuetenango, Guatemala, when the army came again. His parents pushed hard on the door and everyone was silent, so the soldiers who tried to barge in would think the house was locked and empty. It worked. The soldiers didn’t shoot through the door and moved on. From there, Hugo’s family was able to move on and spent the next 8 years living semi-nomadically in safer parts of the country, finding work where they could picking fruit for US supermarkets or on coffee plantations owned by the wealthy. His family (and his wife’s) came back to Kaibil Balam in 1990 to rebuild and make a new life.. Most of those who escaped never returned. A large number fled to refugee camps in Mexico, while others lived or died with the “Communities of People in Resistance” who scraped out an existence for years in the mountains,barely eating and occassionally falling victim to murederous army raids.

What the hell happened in Guatemala? Briefly, and I know this history only partially: There was a resurgent guerrilla movement in Guatemala beginning in 1965 (an earlier guerrilla movement had been crushed in ’66), opposed to the military/civilian dictatorship, the oppression of the large indigenous population, and the incredible economic inequality and exploitation. As in other countries, the guerrilla concentrated its efforts in the remote parts of the country where it could hide and grow, and where the ethnically discriminated and marginalized population would be most likely to support its efforts, whether by joining the guerrillas, giving them food, or providing them with information about the army’s activities. This, combined with the deeply engrained racism and distrust toward the indigenous population, was enough for the army to treat these entire ethnic groups as enemy combatants. The army’s strategy changed several times from 1975-81, with kidnappings, torture, building of schools and hospitals, and assassinations of suspected supporters (and a US missionary). In 1982, however, the guerrillas were gaining ground in much of the country, their ranks buffeted by optimism after the successful Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979. In 1982, then, the army switched tactics. They began to murder the entire population of various indigenous regions, mostly in the north of the country. The death toll of the massacres is difficult to calculate, but 50,000-100,000 massacred civilians seems like a common estimate. In the Ixcán region (where Kaibil Balam is), it seems clear that the policy of massacring and forcing out the population had another goal as well. The land there is particularly fertile, and the army’s higher-ups and the country’s ruling class wanted it for themselves. Today, indeed, they own a great part of it. The war would down in the early 90’s, with peace accords signed in 1996. The guerrilla certainly didn’t achieve the victory and just society they risked their lives and their families’ lives for, but the peace accords ended the military’s complete, brutal control over the country and brought free (though certainly not fair) elections. Noble Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú helped negotiate an end to the conflict with at least some positive effects for the population.

The book I was reading is called “Massacres in the Jungle” by Ricardo Falla.

I can’t leave out a particularly salient part of the book for me. One morning, before a massacre, the troops were feeling apprehensive, more about the possibility of the guerrillas coming to the defense of the village than about the mass murder they were about to committ. The lieutenant gave them a speech to ease their fears. In this speech he reiterated several times, “Don’t worry, boys, the USA’s got our backs.” According to the witness, this affirmation of imperial support for ethnic cleansing succeeded at buoying the morale of the troops.

Now, the US government cut off official support for the Guatemalan army during the Carter administration (77-81), so the US has less obvious culpability here than in El Salvador or Nicaragua, where the US directly trained, funded, and strategized with right-wing, civilian-murdering death squads. (Much of the training happened at the eerily-named “School of the Americas” in Georgia.) I don’t know how much, if any, covert support the US gave the Guatemalan military during the time of the massacres, but the lieutenant’s speech clearly wasn’t misinterpreting the general position of the Reagan administration towards Central America.

Now, in 2014, Guatemala has a president who was a general in the murdering armies of the 80s. People in other parts of the country, and especially young people, don’t know much about the massacres. The army claimed that many of its actions, from massacres to blowing up radio towers, were committed by the guerrillas. Mostly only the people who were there and those whose army friends admitted things know the truth. The media had no access to these regions and, as usual, functioned as an echo chamber for government functionaries. How familiar is the reporting structure, “A spokesman for President Lucas claimed guerrilla forces massacred hundreds of villagers last week in the northern part of the department of el Quiché,” without further comment? (Note: that’s a hypothetical example; I don’t have any news reports from the 80s at my disposal.)

After we were done reading, Hugo asked me where I got the book, which he’d never heard of, and asked me passionately to make sure I got the word out in the US about what happened there. So here’s this blog. I gave the book to a middle-class white Guatemalan software designer my age in the capital who has progressive views but knew almost nothing about the massacres.

Now, in 2014, Hugo’s family has a better life. The kids go to 6 years of school before they start working full-time. The school is bilingual in Mam, their first language, and Spanish, their second. Hugo walks 2 hours through the rain forest with his machete to the land he rents from a large landowner to tend his corn, for subsistence, and cardamom, to sell to provide a small income. Prices and yields vary, and it seems like he averages about $3,000 a year between the cardamom and occasional sidework in other people’s fields where he makes 40 quetzales (about $6) a day. Of that, he has to pay 2,000 quetzales per harvest (6,000 qetzales, $1,000 a year) in rent to his do-nothing, deed-holding landowner, who is very likely a beneficiary of the land theft that accompanied the massacres in the 80s. His wife does all the work around the house and also joins him for parts of many days in the fields (also requiring the 4-hour round trip walk). The biggest issue in their lives is that she has a disease (maybe cancer?) that leaves her sick and weak often. The hospital in Playa Grande is far away and low quality.

In the dark, they return, bathe in the brook that runs behind the house, and go to sleep in beds protected from mosquitos and malaria by colorful bed nets given to them by an NGO.

– Adam
posted from Managua, Nicaragua

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Yup, That’s Racist

We’re eight miles from the Atlantic shoreline on US-192 eastbound through Melbourne from St. Cloud, a half hour into our ride with *Glenda. I’m taking the last sips of a Black Cherry IBC that she gave me; it’s her favorite. Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual is playing at low volume. The mid-afternoon sun is shining. This should be our last ride without ocean waves in sight before we finally re-enter Latin America and she’s been wonderfully kind to us in a motherly and friendly way. As the light changes to red and we ease to a safe stop, I’m thinking, “it doesn’t get much better than this.”

Out my window, the left window, the driver’s side window, a big purple Cadillac idles with two men in the front seat. A mural of their resting-in-peace friend is painted on the trunk which is lifted off the ground at an unnatural height above shiny waxed chrome rims. The woofers are thumping hip hop. If this were a movie scene, the beat would’ve stopped abruptly with the sound of a record scratching.

“Fuckin’ niggers, “ Glenda says with casual, lighthearted disdain.

Uh-oh.

We’ve been here before. Too many people pick us up and then, somewhere along the road, reveal their discriminatory underbelly. Sometimes they’re saying something vaguely anti-Semitic. In Canada the racism typically targeted Asian and First Nations people. Wherever ya go, the minority group (usually immigrants or descendants of a marginalized native population) varies, but the general problem is the same.

Our usual approach to the situation is a combination of asking Socratic questions and expressing our anti-racist sentiments while trying to understand what makes people continue to think and act this way.

“What?”

“Look at ‘em,” she continued. “It’s disgusting.”

What was disgusting remained unclear to us. They preferred a different aesthetic, sure. But their car certainly guzzled no more gas than Glenda’s truck. We tried our usual incredulous approach. Asking what she meant, why she would say that, why she thought those were appropriate words and thoughts. She explained that there’s a difference between black people and niggers. That white people can be niggers too. Some halfhearted apologies were mixed in, citing her age and how she grew up and how she isn’t really racist. I’m sure she has a black friend. Or at least there’s a dark-skinned cashier with whom she exchanges routine pleasantries at the grocery store where she buys her IBC.

We’ve all heard the Chris Rock spiel and we’ve all witnessed its painful regurgitation by white non-comedians as if all of history and culture can be altered and such a term rendered a-ok because a black celebrity said that thing that one time.

We were nearing our destination drop-off point and our question-asking wasn’t going as productively as we’d hoped. She had, with some amount of consistency, stuck to the explanation that people can be niggers regardless of their skin color and that being a nigger was about how you presented yourself… you know, like a black does. And, oh boy, she loved saying that word.

“Okay then,” Adam finally replied with resignation. I don’t think any of us knew exactly where to go from there. Her argument wasn’t sound, but it was unclear how we could say anything that would truly stick. And hey, maybe her explanation was sufficient.

Except that it’s not.

Why? Because when she pulls up to a light with white people blaring Metallica in their Jeep, I doubt she says to herself, “those fuckin’ niggers.” And even if she does, it wouldn’t mean the same thing.

Why not? Because white people haven’t been referred to as niggers for centuries while being enslaved and then systematically oppressed – to this day – by a visibly different group of people with lighter skin who continue to benefit from, maintain, and promote white supremacy.

Sorry, but calling people niggers is racist. The word is racist. Using it as a joke is racist. When you say something you think might be racist and then follow it up with, “but I’m not racist,” you are, in fact, being racist.

When you start a statement with, “I’m not racist but…” you should probably cut yourself off because the second half of your statement will contradict its introduction.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Am I racist?” then the answer is almost certainly yes.

We’re all products of a racist culture. We are all, to some degree, racist, try as we might to not be. It’s ingrained in our media, our economic and social structures, our geography – all aspects of our daily lives. We must work actively to fight the culturally rooted, institutionally promoted racism that leads to the aforementioned scenario – one which is, unfortunately, quite common for us on this trip. And in order to work actively to fight racism – something we must do personally, socially, and politically – we must understand how it is part of our lives.

It makes me sad that hitchhiking around North America is so much easier for me simply because I’m white. It’s no accident that a majority of the backpacking adventurers we meet and read about are white. White folks like us can do unusual things and be praised more and bothered less than our black and brown comrades. People don’t see three white people and reflexively react suspiciously the way they do with black people. Cops don’t arrest white people as often. And they don’t assault white people as often. White people are less likely to go to prison. White people are not profiled by border patrol and airport security as often. White people get paid more and harassed less.

Calling black people niggers is not okay. It’s not okay in public and it’s not okay in private. Please wake up and grow up. It’s 2014. You are not Chris Rock. You are racist.

– Jesse
from Indialantic, FL

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I get rides easier because I’m white. No, I don’t agree with your racist statements.

*I changed her name for this story.

Let’s Hear It for New York

We were all born and spent a majority of our lives in Massachusetts. So it only made sense to depart from the Bay State together and consider that day, January 13, 2013, as the beginning of this trip, though arguably it started some months earlier for each of us separately. Leaving our worried parents behind in Sturbridge, we set forth into the world, wherever the winds (or fossil fuels) may carry us. In the week since Sunday, we’ve thus far made it to the city of Washington in the District of Columbia, our empire’s densely populated and Congressionally unrepresented capital. Today begins a series of posts playing catch-up.

We’ve been operating under a couple of self-imposed guidelines beyond our usual kindness and curiosity: no interstates and no spending of money that pre-exists the beginning of the trip. Both of these have required some flexibility in our living experiment, some evaluation of their validity and viability, and indeed have led to some refreshing surprises about the abundant goodness in people’s hearts.

A week ago, our first dose of road magic was sprinkled upon us by the gracious pixies fluttering from above no further than Shelton, CT as we passed the glorious Wiffle HQ off Route 8. Like obese toddlers outside the Wonka factory, we gaped and gushed about the machinery: pallets and pallets of Wiffles, tubs of Wiffle powder, window-strings anchored by Wiffle balls. Disappointingly, no one was home. Our initial plan was to look sketchy all about the building for long enough to elicit an incredulous employee (maybe Old Man Wiffle himself?) or a bemused cop. When this didn’t yield any results we wrote them a reverential letter, packed with sincerity and naïve optimism about the future of the world, and moved along.

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It’s hustle, it’s bustle, it’s New York, bitches! And behold! Castle Braid, an artists’ haven nestled in Brooklyn complete with an epic tower (as is required of all castles) and a plethora of aesthetically stunning sculptures assembled from repurposed societal waste, more often than not doubling as functional furniture and fixtures. We spent two nights there with the theatrically-centered, intellectually-grounded, and sarcasm-challenged Rebecca and our new robot-sympathizing comrades, Jay and Zac, overflowing with similarly artistic dispositions and rife with rock/roll. Our first night set the tone for what we anticipate to be a recurring theme in our wanderings: an engaged, exciting, and, of course, lengthy discussion about humanity and the universe which, in this instance, dealt an awful lot with the potential of artificial intelligence.

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While our pals toiled the next day at their various day-jobs, we trekked over the Manhattan bridge to its eponymous island and picked up a game of basketball with some local kids in Columbus Square, next to Chinatown. Games were four-on-four, so we snagged a kid named Armando to better our team, and faced off against some exceptionally talented Chinese boys who could sink threes like it was baby Skee Ball at Chuck-E-Cheese. After an invigorating loss and an elaborate series of clumsy fist bumps and coded handshakes, the language of which Jesse and Mark deciphered about as well as Basque, we left with the satisfaction not only of having been active, but also of having bridged what we initially perceived as a gap between self-segregating groups of Asian kids and black kids on the courts. What’s funny about all this is that while the games before us were seemingly divided by race, no one seemed to think even half of twice about the fact that we were the only white kids and that ours was the first game incorporating all races present. It’s unclear whether this was a divine example of people simply not even noticing race (I mean why should we anyway? Biologically, there isn’t even such a thing), or people doing a really good job of deliberately acting as if they didn’t notice. Either way it was refreshing.

Shortly thereafter, we met up with Jay in the looming shadow of his Zuccotti Park-adjacent place of wage labor, aka Wayne Enterprises. He had particularly interesting insights on Occupy Wall Street by virtue not only of his insuperable proximity to the movement’s primary encampment, but also by working in one of the very industries targeted by the protests. Jay does IT for a corporate law firm. While agreeing that his job in the ebony tower facilitates the continuance of societal structures that make the world worse more often than they make it better, he does this arguably bad thing in order to afford the good things of living in a place like Castle Braid and, especially, creating his art, currently a rock musical version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Rebecca, too, performs actions that she herself considers an undesirable means to an end: working in private equity to finance acting. Such difficult decisions define us, and it would be lazy to argue in favor of or against such choices without a whole lot of reflection and a whole lot of words. But we can’t escape the necessity of considering the consequences of our actions, whether it be working questionable jobs or not working jobs at all. For their part, Jay seems more or less settled in his acceptance of the current arrangement, while Rebecca seems more to be seeking the courage to quit.

As far as OWS itself, Jay struggled daily with the irony of sympathizing with the protestors philosophically, while working for his company concretely. He spoke of occasionally visiting the friends he had at the camp during lunch or after work, while also having to walk by it every day to go to work. When threatened with arrest for not using the designated entrance to the Batman building in the lead-up to the police attack on the camp, he found himself frustrated with… everything. He came to see the protests as a kind of ineffectual mockery of what he was doing, even as he views much of his own behavior as a quiet mockery of our society.

And then the camp was gone.

Jay described going to work past the suddenly empty park as feeling “creepy”  and found himself regretting ever having wanted it to be over. He still works in that tower. Occupy- as a physical presence- no longer exists.

Overall, we were left with the impression that Occupy, for many, lingers mostly as a ghost– a charming memory in the minds of progressives resigned to continued compromise in the face of an apparent lack of better options. No one we talked to seemed content with the status quo, but ideas on how to move forward seem tentative and incomplete at best.

Rebecca came to meet us after work and we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, talking, taking in the skyline (including the Orwellian horror that is the Verizon building… who sits on a planning committee and actually approves this crap?), and enjoying and adding to the popular art. Después de una cena vegetariana deliciosa por cortesía de Rebecca, otras cuantas discusiones, una sesión de improvisación musical, otra carrera de Adam, unos juegos en el cuarto de juegos y una buena noche de sueño, cruzamos Manhattan y seguimos con nuestra exploración mundial a través del paisaje bonito de New Jersey.

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