Latino News and Opinion

Guatemala: The struggle of memory against forgetting
Por Sabrina Vourvoulias   
11:14 | 07/19/12
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You may wonder that our cover story (July 22,2012) is about an undeclared civil war and genocide nearly 30 years old. But the internal conflict in Guatemala that left 200,000 dead or disappeared, and which gave rise to almost inconceivably brutal massacres of the ethnic Maya population, has been in the news this year. 

Efraín Rios Montt, a military man and the leader of the Central American country from 1982-83, was charged in January with one count of genocide, and in May for another, and was ordered to stand trial in front of an international tribunal. Later in the year, ranking military men in the notorious Dos Erres massacre were found guilty and sentenced to more than 6,000 years as a count for each life taken in the village that was literally wiped out.

For Guatemalans in the diaspora because of the repression that started in 1960 and presumably ended with a 1996 peace accord, 2012 promised to be the year they had long been waiting for. They were beginning to see the justice so long deferred for the loved ones and friends lost in those years.

But soon enough the story started resetting.

The administration of president Otto Pérez Molina shut down the governmental offices that had been opened to investigate the extrajudicial killings, torture and massacres perpetrated during those years. In June, one of Pérez Molina’s officials argued before the international tribunal that Rios Montt could not be tried for genocide, because there had been no genocide. And most recently, one of the two men found guilty of killing Bishop Juan Gerardi days after the prelate released the massive report of the Archdiocese of Guatemala’s investigation into the atrocities committed during by military and paramilitary groups during those years, was released from prison. 

Those of us watching from the U.S. saw the promise of the actions from the beginning of the year unravel in the way they always had — with subterfuge, denial and impunity.

It is no exaggeration to say that I owe my life in the United States, my career in newspapers, and much of the matter I write about my novel, Ink, to the repressive actions of the Guatemalan government (and the U.S. policies that aided and shored them up) in those years of bloodshed. We came to the U.S. because my father was kidnapped and lived for several years after the kidnapping with the fearful, overwhelming knowledge of how vulnerable he — and we — were. 

Like so many who came to the U.S. from that time, we didn’t talk about what had happened. Keeping silent is one of the survival techniques we all learn when living under regimes that place more value on deterrents for some perceived threat than they do on human lives. And, of course, repressive regimes count on silence, and the enduring fear that feeds it.

In the research for the cover story, Al Día reporter Ana Gamboa found time and again that the Philadelphia-based Guatemalan survivors of that undeclared war were still afraid to speak about it publicly, even 30 years in. Except for one — Manuel Portillo — who has dedicated his life in the U.S. to ensuring that history doesn’t remain silent.

We talk often at Al Día about giving people voice. This week, we’re proud to highlight Portillo’s voice, and with his, the voices of so many of the dead and disappeared in Guatemala, who cannot, and will not, be forgotten.

Editor's note: the title of this piece comes from Czech writer Milan Kundera: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
 

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