Crossing borders

The famed Mayan activist whose mother and brother were tortured and killed reflects on the family -- and village -- she lost in Guatemala.

Published August 3, 1998 9:09AM (EDT)

The last time I had gone home to Laj Chimel, before going to other parts of Guatemala and finally into exile, was early in October 1979. I arrived without warning and I did not stay long. It was soon after my brother, Patrocinio, had been detained, tortured and killed. My mother was absolutely devastated by his death. When she saw me coming she began to weep bitterly. Not just for the joy of seeing me safe and sound, but to tell me of her terrible grief after the soldiers had killed one of her children -- by burning him alive. She was petrified, because she realised that I too was in great danger of being kidnapped. She feared she might lose another child. She was a mother, and her children were her whole life.

The situation in Chimel had become so bad that most families had begun fleeing to the mountains, to sleep in the ravines, to keep watch over the village day and night. Most families were living in terror, fearing that any minute the soldiers would come.

I was twenty years old in October 1979. A new counter-insurgency campaign had begun. Its main destructive effect was on the lives of indigenous peasants in the rural areas. The hardest things were the intimidation, the destruction of the land, the persecution of our community leaders, the use of torture, and the army's introduction of the Civil Defence Patrols (PACs) which gradually took over our communities. Soon the whole countryside was under the control of the military. My beloved father, Vicente Menchú Perez, was still alive then, though already, as a result of his thirty year struggle for our land in Chimel, he was being hounded and receiving death threats. At that time, he was in hiding in another part of Guatemala.

There is nothing worse than living under the constant threat of persecution. My mother's fears were shared by the whole community. I had so little time with her, yet those few hours in my own home made up for the years I was to spend away on the long path of experience. A strange, mysterious destiny awaited me and my mother seemed to sense it. I wanted to devote my whole life to Chimel, and I was committed to the struggle. "Find somewhere to go," my mother said. "You can't hide here." I felt powerless to ease my mother's pain. It was not possible, even by being there with her. I was so afraid of losing her.

I will never get over the trauma of having left my mother so shortly before her death. It was my last chance to feel a mother's warmth. If I had known, I would at least have paused to look at her, to gaze at her face for the last time. I would have tried, to the very last, to learn more about her. All I could think of in my misery was that I had to go away. There are no words to describe that moment.

I shall never forget Mama fetching a little jar and taking out a red necklace, a medallion of the sun and five quetzales. She dropped it all in my hands, looked towards the rising sun and closed her eyes. She wept as she prayed. Then I left. My little sister, Anita, ran after me, crying too. I did not turn back to look at her. I had a premonition I would never see my mother, my little sister or my entire community again. I was almost certain. Never again would I see the humble village where I was born and grew up, where the elders taught us the meaning of the different kinds of birdsong, the meaning of darkness, the place where I learned what it meant to be a descendant of the Mayans of Guatemala.

Some neighbours smuggled me out of Chimel and we set off towards Santa Cruz del Quiché, and walked all through the night. Going through Uspantán was difficult. The neighbours with me were afraid of the soldiers billeted in the village, and we had no choice but to head off for another village, called Cunén. It was raining, torrential rain, typical Chimel weather. It rains for nine months of the year. On some parts of the track, the mud was waist-deep. It poured all night and we were drenched. The cold was unbearable. It was hard to tell the difference between the pain of exhaustion and cold, and the pain of walking towards a wholly new destiny. It is one of the experiences engraved deepest in my memory.

Whenever I thought about my mother, and remembered that last evening together, I was filled with longing and pain. Yet at the same time I could feel the mud, the rain, the sadness. I breathed in the spirit of those thick clouds, the spirit of that wet earth, along with the ugly sensation of fear. Ever since that time, I have had a utopian vision, a determination to go home and live in that little hut in Chimel. I have seen it many times in my dreams, just as I left it. When I dream of my mother, I always have the same feeling. I can feel the fire, the wood, the atmosphere, the sense of a whole life that can never be recovered.

I wish I could have worked some kind of miracle to have my mother with me when Papa died. I felt an almost telepathic communication with her. I tried to guess whether my way of dealing with Papa's death would be the
same as hers. When my father was about to die, I dreamed of a little room full of light and heat. He was wearing strange clothes. He looked sad. He told me, "Take great care of yourself because I am no longer with your mother. We are no longer together." Then, weeping with sadness, I replied "But why, Papa? I believe in you and I believe in Mama. We shall only be happy if the two of you are together."

"You must trust me," he replied. It was only a dream. Three days later he was dead.

When my mother died, I had a similar dream. I dreamed that I was coming down the hill of Cholá, the crag on the hillside near our village. I saw my mother coming up the hill. She was carrying a heavy basket on her head. Suddenly I saw that the basket was full of rotten meat. I was terrified. About five days after my dream, I heard that my mother had been abducted and was being tortured at the army barracks in Xejul. I knew then that she would not come back.

I have discovered much more about my mother over the years since her death. Gradually I have begun to realise that she was far greater than the person that I had known. She was a wonderful woman with many most admirable qualities. She was a midwife and a healer, and possessed many of the virtues of our ancestors. She had brought us up well. I understand that now that she has gone. She was right when she said that her hands were large and invisible. With those hands, she brought babies into the world, naked and confused, and dragging a great umbilical cord. We are born into empty space, and our first contact with the world is with the hands of a midwife, and the umbilical cord passes from those hands to be buried in the earth so that it takes root. This is what Mama and our elders told me.

- - - - - - - - - -

My grandfather was from Chiquimula. In Guatemala, the Chiquimulas are like Gypsies in other parts of the world. They lost their land about 150 years ago. It was part of the province of Totonmcapan. Many of them still live in Santa Marma Chiquimula, but most of them wander around Guatemala. They speak their own language. They wear red-and-black clothes: a red-and-black huipil and a hand-woven corte with a multicoloured fringe round the middle. They wear lots of ribbons in their hair and a red necklace, like the red necklace that I have kept with me all these years, my only necklace that marks the passage of time. It's the red necklace of the Chiquimulas.

Their faces are much darker than other peoples'. They have dark skin and prominent cheekbones, so Chiquimulas never go unnoticed. They were the most despised ethnic group. They have no land, they have no place of their own. Everywhere they are treated with contempt, and people think they are lazy. They take over a patch of land to set up a market, to sell a few things. They always stay together. They have never given up their traditional dress, even though other ethnic groups discriminate against them.

When I say ethnic groups, I mean all the ones in Guatemala, both nonindigenous and indigenous peoples. We sort of wanted to hide our identity when we were little, and even when we were teenagers, because everybody used to laugh at us. When they wanted to insult us, they called us "Chiquimulas." It wasn't a serious insult, not like when a ladino tells his pet dog to "stop behaving like an Indian."

Our childhood was different from that of today's young. We learned to enjoy nature. It still fills me with a sense of wonderment and great strength. I remember the feeling of cold and the season when there are mushrooms everywhere. We used to go from one end of the forest to the other, searching for a special kind of mushroom, the most delicious kind, the one that tastes like chicken breast. Moo was our equivalent of meat. It was a delicacy we never missed when it was in season. Along the track we used to find slip, xik'in mam and ra'q masat, all the kinds of mushroom you can make into a delicious meal. It was so cold!

I also remember the tricks my brother Patrocinio and I used to get up to. We were very close. We learned to help each other when we were little. When he was born I was still being breast-fed and we shared Mama's milk. She would feed him first, and I would have what was left. I remember how we would steal panela from home and then go off into the hills to pick mulberries. We would spend all day eating them. Patrocinio is the one I remember most from my childhood. We were always together, we grew up together, we shared our fears.

Ancient cultures have always recognised the sources of energy from Mother Earth, sources we can never completely understand. We regard bees as sacred, because they are so fierce. They are creatures that sting, and no one could survive being stung by a hundred bees. Yet they are also as sweet as honey, for although they are fierce animals they also live together collectively, in a community.

Many myths surround bees. They say that bees that live in remote places where there are no chemicals are not domesticated, the rules of nature are unbroken, and they exist very much like a family, united, with the solidarity of a community. One day, when we were still living in Chimel, the queen bee, the one that never leaves her nest, came into our hut. My mother was scared stiff. She thought it might be a bad omen for the family. She was so worried that she prayed and burned some pom. She was trying to counteract the omen. We caught the queen bee, and Mama held her so gently as she put her back in her hive. Two days later four hives of bees flew away. Four queen bees left.

This was just a month or two before my brother Patrocinio fell into the hands of the army. My mother cried every time she went out. She went to the place where the bees had been, and she cried. Bees were very important to us during Holy Week. That was the time when we collected the honey. We always had plenty of honey at home. We got stomach ache from eating so much. We used to share it with our neighbours. We would exchange a little jar of honey for the friendship of the community. We would make a present of an eighth or a quarter of honey to people in the little villages roundabout. It was a custom. That's why it was so sad when the bees flew away. Most of all it was because my mother was very worried, although, like all mothers, she tried not to show it. When my brother was taken away, my mother interpreted it as a message from the bees telling us that the family was about to break up.

On the morning Patrocinio left home, my mother said that first she heard the xo'ch, the bat, singing, and then the tucur, the eagle owl. It sang at dawn, at three in the morning when Patrocinio went to get his horse to ride with my mother to town. When that bird sang, my mother said, "Don't come with me. Stay at home, son!" Mama thought he would be safer in the house. My brother wouldn't stay, perhaps because his fate was already sealed.

"I'm telling you to stay at home," my mother said, but Patrocinio would not listen. My mother wasn't really sure if he would be more at risk if he stayed at home or if he was on the road. Night after night she had dreamed of the shadow of evil. She had seen the signs. You never knew whom the message was for, although Mama was most afraid for Patrocinio. She just couldn't decide what to do. So they went to town.

There they sold all their stuff, and everything was fine until the moment they said goodbye. Patrocinio was going to see his girlfriend who lived near the town. My mother told him, "Be very careful and come home soon." She started climbing the Chola hill, the hill I remember so well, a really steep hill that takes two and a half hours to climb. As she went up the hill, my mother said she had a very strong feeling and she remembered how afraid she had been when she heard the tucur singing at daybreak.

Patrocinio never came back. He was kidnapped by the army. During all that time Mama and the family had terrible premonitions, they had many bad or strange messages that something dreadful would happen. The dogs howled and howled, the bees flew away, and other things happened. We knew there were bad times ahead, but nobody knew what that would mean.

When my mother was alive I never managed to understand her completely. I may have admired many things about her, but I didn't understand or imitate her. I didn't learn from her intuitively. Maybe her wisdom was hidden. All those mysteries she told us about came from her own life and experience.

Only in the last twelve years have I realised what she was. For me, she is a constant teacher. Every time things go wrong for me, I always ask myself how she would have coped. I know she would have dealt with things calmly, realistically, simply. She wouldn't have rushed about making a fuss. She is still my teacher today, in ways I can't really define. I can't explain it. I think she is my subconscious, and she solves problems I could never solve on my own.

When I dream of my mother, it's something very special. It makes be feel young again, full of energy and enthusiasm, all peaceful inside. I always remember her saying to me "You can't fool me, my girl. I'm your mother. I brought you into the world. You can fool your brother, your sister, your friends, but you can never fool your conscience. Your conscience knows the truth."

Perhaps I idealise my mother, but I believe it is important to idealise mothers because they are the ones who gave us life. It makes us much humbler.

When they killed her, they didn't just murder a woman, a mother; they also murdered a healer, a midwife, a woman of great knowledge, a carer. Whenever I think of the struggles and the history of my people, whenever I claim my physical and spiritual identity, I admire my mother more and more. I will never stop grieving for her.

By Rigoberta Menchz

Rigoberta Menchz was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She is the author of another book, "I, Rigoberta Menchz," the first volume of her autobiography. She currently lives in Guatemala City with her husband and son.

MORE FROM Rigoberta Menchz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Family Latin America Nobel Peace Prize