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Guatemalan Journey

Guatemalan Journey

In this vividly written travel narrative, Stephen Connely Benz explores the Guatemala that casual travelers miss.

March 1996
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224 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 map |

Guatemala draws some half million tourists each year, whose brief visits to the ruins of ancient Maya cities and contemporary highland Maya villages may give them only a partial and folkloric understanding of Guatemalan society. In this vividly written travel narrative, Stephen Connely Benz explores the Guatemala that casual travelers miss, using his encounters with ordinary Guatemalans at the mall, on the streets, at soccer games, and even at the funeral of massacre victims to illuminate the social reality of Guatemala today.

The book opens with an extended section on the capital, Guatemala City, and then moves out to the more remote parts of the country where the Guatemalan Indians predominate. Benz offers us a series of intelligent and sometimes humorous perspectives on Guatemala's political history and the role of the military, the country's environmental degradation, the influence of foreign missionaries, and especially the impact of the United States on Guatemala, from governmental programs to fast food franchises.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Los Encuentros
  • Prologue
  • Part 1: Guatemala City
    • Arrival
    • The Capital for Tourists
    • Walking around Town
    • Rainy Season in the Slums
    • The City Dump
    • Along the Railroad Tracks
    • A GAM Rally
    • Authority in Guatemala
    • Maquilas
    • El Churrasco
    • Ladino Attitudes
    • Soccer in Guatemala
    • Street Children
    • Buying a Scooter
    • Bureaucracy Revisited
    • The Post Office
    • " Fíjase"
    • Religion
    • Restaurants
    • USAID
    • The Gringo Presence
  • Part 2: Roads and Texts
    • Antigua
    • Lake Atitlán
    • Chichicastenango
    • Utatlán
    • The Ixil Triangle
    • The Biotopo del Quetzal
    • The Road to El Estor
    • The Oriente
    • The Last Road
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Stephen Connely Benz was a Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala from 1988 to 1990. A poet and essayist, he is Assistant Professor of English at Barry University in Miami.


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In late November of 1988—three months into my sojourn in Guatemala—two apparently unrelated events occurred on the same day. The coincidence helped me perceive the ambiguity inherent in Guatemala's social reality.

First, only a few blocks from my house, a new mall opened. This mall—Megacentro—featured more than seventy stores and that latest idea in US mall design, the food court. Megacentro imitated US malls in every aspect. It was anchored on either end by two giants in Guatemalan merchandising, the Paíz supermarket and the Cemaco home store. On the day I walked over for the grand opening, Christmas decorations were going up, and a huge crowd turned out to see the new marvel, the latest evidence of Guatemala's progress.

It was a festive day, and everyone was caught up in the excitement of Christmas shopping. Families looked over clothing and electronics while Christmas songs (a marimba version of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") played over the sound system. I sat on the edge of a sparkling fountain and watched while window shoppers strolled the mall, dreaming of the day they could own the marvelous gadgets on display. According to some people, in the near future western liberal democratic capitalism might finally establish itself here, and Guatemala would become like Albuquerque or San Juan or Honolulu: just another neocolonized place with malls and freeways and suburban subdivisions. Megacentro seemed to signal the arrival of the future Guatemala, a Guatemala in which western-style consumerism would thrive and people would be happy because they could buy and sell and buy still more. When the US government or the Guatemalan elite said that Guatemala must be saved from communism, they located the country's salvation in places like Megacentro. Megacentro was a reification of their ideology, a tangible rejection of all the things that, according to this view, had debilitated Guatemala for so long—things like communist subversion and backward indigenes.

The next day the newspapers reported that a massacre had occurred in a little hamlet near Chimaltenango. At some time during the day of Megacentro's grand opening—perhaps even as the Christmas crowds milled about in front of the prettily decorated stores and sampled the treats at the food court—twenty-two men in the tiny aldea of El Aguacate were dragged from their homes and murdered.

In the days following the massacre, the newspapers were filled with accusations. The army's spokesman declared, "This massacre committed by terrorism is lamentable." The Christian Democratic government sided with the military and stated in no uncertain terms that the guerrillas were responsible. President Cerezo told the press, "It's enough to speak with the people of the hamlet for one to know that the guerrillas are responsible for the kidnapping and massacre."

The Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), "the voice of the guerrilla Left," offered a different version of events in its statement to the press: "The URNG accuses the army of being responsible for the massacre. It is totally and absolutely false that guerrilla forces of the URNG or the Organization of People in Arms (ORPA) would commit a massive kidnapping and murder of peasants." The URNG believed that the false accusation was part of "a carefully orchestrated plan" by the government and the army "to blame the revolutionary movement for the atrocities that are committed by them. This crafty action shows the degree of desperation of the high command of the army in light of the failure of their military offensives and their impotence to obtain victories against the guerrillas."

Cerezo and the government responded that the guerrilla claims had no basis, "since the government has the credibility of the population." For several days, the newspapers carried scores of these denunciations and counter-denunciations. A typical article would lead off with a headline such as "PR Denounces Massacre." The column-length story would then tell how the organization's spokesman had issued a statement condemning the massacre (a safe enough position to take if no direct accusation was made). The spokesman then would go on to warn the public that "the continuation of a situation wherein elements operated outside of the law and disrupted society" was unacceptable and changes were necessary. Vague and contorted language typified these statements. Every politician, every party, every group—and they were legion—rushed to get a pronouncement in the newspaper.

It was clear that in Guatemala City there was little chance of learning anything about the massacre. To find out more, I decided to go to Chimaltenango and El Aguacate to see for myself. I went on the day of the funeral for the massacre victims.

Chimaltenango is thirty miles from Guatemala City out the Pan-American Highway, a bus ride of about an hour. There, I switched to a smaller, more decrepit bus for the dusty ride to San Andrés Itzapa. The bus was crowded. Feeling conspicuous, I stood in the rear and held onto a seat back. People were somber that day, and there was almost no talking. Some babies cried abruptly and then were hushed back to sleep. The driver and his assistant, ladinos, tried to keep up a jolly banter, but soon they too lapsed into silence, the driver's concentration drawn back to the road, which was obscured by the dust swirling in the wake of passing cars. The traffic to Itzapa was heavy that day; the press went to cover the funeral, and even some dignitaries put in an appearance.

Itzapa was the end of the bus line. From its tiny plaza, I had to walk to El Aguacate, a mile or so out of town. The day was warm. A high, bright sun beat down on the procession of people walking the rough road to El Aguacate. It was the dry season, and the corn stalks in the fields had withered. The paperlike husks drifted in the hard, hot wind, fell to the dusty road, and crackled under the feet of those who passed. Acotenango Volcano towered above, its peak just barely covered by a huge, hovering cloud. Little rectangular farms patchworked the volcano's lower slope. Somewhere in the rugged wilderness of the upper slopes, the ORPA guerrillas were thought to hide. All during the walk, I could hear the distant, monotonous chop of helicopters. The army routinely bombarded the volcano, a random bombing that reminded me of Marlow's description in Heart of Darkness of a French gunboat shelling the African coast.

In Aguacate, I followed the funeral procession to the cemetery. It was like a scene from a Latin American novel. Twenty coffins were carried up a hill of rocks. The wind whipped up dust and swirled it everywhere. It was still morning, but the sun felt intense, and the heat seemed to slow the march. The progress of the coffins was labored. The wails of the mourners, who were mostly women and mostly indigenous, their polychromatic garb covered by black shawls, echoed off canyon walls. About three thousand people made up the procession, many of them crying, inconsolable, bereft. The last three hundred meters up to the cemetery were very rough. The path became steep and rocks gave way under the feet of the mourners. Several people fell, and rocks tumbled down on those trailing behind. The dust caused people to cough. The wind and the heat contributed to an overdone and tedious symbolism.

At the cemetery, the mourners filled in every available space around the mounds and crosses. Some perched atop the larger adobe memorials. The surrounding trees—cedars, eucalyptus, and ceibas—bent and shimmied in the hot breeze, leaves coated with dust.

When the coffins were arranged on the ground alongside the twenty new holes, the widows rushed forward and threw themselves down, shouting "Rise! Rise!" and "Where are you?" Relatives tried to catch and hold the widows, and everywhere there were groups of weeping people kneeling in the dirt. A few women fainted by the coffins. They were taken up by friends, but no attempt was made to revive them.

Now the crowd turned its attention to three men who stood by the graves—the priest, the village mayor, and an evangelical minister. The priest prayed out loud: "Let it be known they were humble men, innocent men, ready to serve their community." He choked with sobs as he spoke, and the rush of the wind drowned his weakened voice. The coffins were blessed. Everyone, except the evangelicals, signed the cross on their breasts, and the tedious work of lowering the twenty coffins began. I stood at the edge of the crowd, able to see because I was taller than the natives. Behind me, where the road ended, were some luxury cars and four-wheel drive vehicles: the Guatemala City contingent. One man stood on the roof of a Chevy Blazer taking pictures. The word PRENSA (Press) was taped to the Blazer's door.

There were no clues as to why this massacre happened. No one suggested any direct motive for the unknown perpetrators other than deception. The army believed that the guerrillas did it in order to blame the army. The guerrillas argued that the army did it in order to blame the guerrillas. What either side hoped to gain by conducting a massacre only to blame the other side was unclear. The army's official announcement—though purposefully ambiguous—sounded obvious enough: "These acts were committed by groups acting outside the law."

From my perspective, newly arrived in the country, it was difficult to understand why such things seemed to happen so often in Guatemala. The president spoke of a "society frightened by la violencia (the violence)," a phrase used in Guatemala in the same ambiguous and ominous way that "the troubles" is used in Ireland. Violence in Guatemala seemed random and unattributable. A priest named Father Girón, leader of a peasant organization, noted that violence had been injected into the social system, like a virus: "The deteriorating social situation of Guatemala ends sooner or later in violence." I was reminded of what Graham Greene wrote about Mexico in The Lawless Roads. The ideals of the Mexican Revolution were gone by the 1930s, according to Greene, and the country's endemic violence, unattached to any cause and lacking in significance, just went on and on. The only certain thing about this massacre in El Aguacate was that twenty-two people were dead. Maybe it didn't really matter who was ultimately responsible. The fact that someone or some group thought that there was something to be gained by murdering twenty-two peasants indicated how gravely amiss things were in contemporary Guatemala. The worst, as Yeats put it, were filled with a passionate intensity.

Caught in the middle of all the clamor were the bewildered peasants—the landless Indians, the widows wailing and fainting and crying for the dead to rise. They were the true desconocidos, unknown for nearly five hundred years as anything other than objects in the struggles between one cause or another—conquest, Christianity, capitalism, communism. For the rulers of Guatemala the massacre came at an inconvenient time. For three years they had been trying to forget la violencia. The president had called on the country to forget the past, to begin anew without looking back, without investigating, without making accusations or demanding justice. Unlike Argentina's leaders, Guatemala's rulers did not want closure. There was no one to cry out, "Nunca más (No more)." The staff of the US embassy certainly wanted to forget the past. During a decade of particularly brutal military regimes, the staff had sweated over the statistics and had tried to juggle the draconian numbers. With the election of a civilian president in 1986, all that was supposed to be past and forgotten. Guatemala had been declared a model of democracy for Central America. But suddenly, once again, all the denials, all the claims were negated. The trouble that always seemed to be boiling beneath the surface had bubbled up again. In foreign newspapers, Guatemala's name appeared one more time as it so often had before: in a brief article reporting random, senseless violence. To outsiders, the massacre at Aguacate was yet another sad moment in a long history in which violence, without the support of any particular ideals, just went on and on. For me, it was the beginning of a difficult struggle to better understand a place where malls and massacres could be so strangely juxtaposed.

Guatemala City was not at all as I remembered it. Ten years had passed since I last traveled through, a college student on a grand tour in search of some ambiguous combination of Shangri-La and the Heart of Darkness. But in my first few hours in Guatemala City this time around, I could see that it was not what I had remembered, not even close. For one thing, it was now September—cool and rainy and lush. Before, I had come in April, the driest, hottest month, when the hills were parched and brown and the city was engulfed in haze from burning cornfields. Now the hills were dense with rainy season verdure. Purple jacarandas and red bougainvillea flamed above the streets, and the cloying smell of tropical fecundity dominated the senses.

Back then, in the late 1970s, Guatemala was just beginning to earn its international reputation as a nightmarish place where politics was brutal and horrific. Those were the sanguinary days when General Lucas García was president: tanks and troops stood sentinel in the capital; there were informal curfews, frequent blackouts; and the downtown, where I was staying in a seedy hotel, was an eerie place after nightfall. The nights proved long, hot, and tortuous, and I lay awake thinking about Costa Rica and the quiet, cool nights there when I had caroused into the small hours and had never given a second glance at a national guardsman. But in Guatemala, my Central American jaunt turned ugly. The highlands were difficult to visit, the guerrillas were surging, and the police were suspicious of everyone. I rushed through the nearly vacant tourist sites—Antigua, Chichicastenango, Panajachel—and got out along the coastal route to Mexico just before the US embassy issued travelers' warnings for those areas.

In the intervening years, Guatemala had suffered through a long, dark, hellish night. Or so the reports issued by groups such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch led one to believe. The titles of these reports evoked the terror of the place: Guatemala: A Nation of Prisoners; False Hope, False Freedom; Messengers of Death. Over the years I had followed the desultory news and wondered at the horror that had befallen that picturesque country—one of the loveliest on earth according to even the most jaded travelers.

Throughout the 1980s, dramatic events in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and then Panama stole the headlines coming out of Central America. One heard less and less about Guatemala, as though it had been cast down to the deepest circle in the Inferno of nations, a benighted land of unspeakable horror, whose very name was now synonymous with tyranny, repression, death squads, and massacres.

When in 1988 I was offered the chance to go back to Guatemala as a Fulbright scholar, I was both excited and leery. I had waited a decade for this chance, but I wanted my family to go, too. Could I possibly even consider taking three small children to such a place? The Fulbright administrators in Washington assured us that things were fine, just fine, in Guatemala; what with a newly elected government and "lower levels" of violence, Guatemala had become a great place for a family. Now that the country had held an election and chosen a civilian president, the Reagan administration had even begun lauding Guatemala as a "model democracy," the region's great success story.

Well, we were not exactly talking about Orlando, and I remained dubious. In fact, a book called Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (by Jean-Marie Simon) was just out, and I read it with increasing despair. Guatemala seemed as bad as or worse than ever. No one outside of the US government had anything good to say about the place. The Guatemala News and Information Bureau's report for January/February 1988 told of continued disappearances and deaths. Guatemala, it seemed, had not changed as significantly as the Washington administrators would have it. We arrived in Guatemala nervous, apprehensive, and prepared for a nightmare worthy of Orwell or the Third Reich.

But Guatemala, in those first few hours of my return, was neither the place I had remembered nor the place I had been reading about in the months previous. We had touched down in an entirely different Guatemala. Months later, I would look back on that arrival and appreciate the subtleties of its lessons; but at the time I felt nothing except relief—relief upon realizing, as the taxi took us out of the airport and along Avenida 7 of Zona 9 to our hotel, that we had arrived not in a land of terror but in what looked like a rather pleasant place of tree-lined avenues, expensive automobiles, and chic shops. We passed North American burger and chicken franchises fronted by large playgrounds swarming with happy children. We passed galleries of native art and fashionable boutiques, and as we drove around the Plazuela España and continued up Avenida 7, I could not believe the number of late-model luxury cars on the streets of Guatemala City. It was something of a shock to have made the long journey to a Third World country—one of the poorest in the hemisphere, according to the statistics I had seen—only to discover landscaped avenues and speeding BMWs.

That first weekend provided numerous surprises. From our hotel, the Villa Espahola, we walked down Avenida Reforma—a wide boulevard divided by a grassy, tree-shaded strip—to the American embassy. The embassy side of Reforma was located in exclusive Zona 10, a part of the city I did not visit on my first trip. Large estates and beautiful houses stood partially hidden behind high walls and huge eucalyptus trees.

Near the US embassy, we sat down to a brunch of pastries and coffee at a German-style pastry shop tucked away from the street in a large wooded enclosure. Classical music played on the radio. Children climbed on a swing set near the patio. A glass showcase held row after row of fine chocolates. The patrons read newspapers and chatted amicably. I found it hard to believe that this was the horrible place I had been reading about.

What I learned that first weekend, or rather what I began to learn, was one of the important lessons of my sojourn: you cannot anticipate a place like Guatemala; it defies facile definition. On arriving at the scene of turmoil, you often find, as Orwell did when he shot the elephant in Burma, that "a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes" ("Shooting an Elephant"). I began to realize, as I sipped espresso and ate a nut paste croissant, that Guatemala was much more complicated than I had thought. My black-and-white perception of the place would have to be revised to account for the all-too-obvious gray that I saw all around me. I would somehow have to account for the existence of pleasant pastry shops and wooded grounds where polite—extremely polite—Guatemalan families enjoyed a little conversation over espresso while Brahms played in the background.

These people were wealthy ladinos, the Hispanic minority who ruled Guatemala and were described in such disparaging terms in the publications of the human rights organizations. Yet here they appeared highly cultured and sophisticated, not bigoted killers at all. I remembered a college professor once telling the class how difficult it had been for him to adjust his thinking about South Africa after he had met white Dutch Reform Church ministers in Johannesburg.

They were good-hearted, devout Christian people who were meek, loving, and generous, and yet who supported apartheid. Something similar was going on in Guatemala, it seemed. The professor's conclusion was that good intentions, goodwill, even a "good heart" were not enough. The kindest people, he said, could support the cruelest policies. As I was to discover in the years to come, things would be much easier to understand if our black-and-white picture of a country like Guatemala held true once we got to know the place. But of course things are never so simple.


“Benz brings the reader face to face with the landscape, the people, and the institutions of Guatemala. I am convinced that his book will appeal to a general audience, to students entering the field of Latin American studies, and even to people planning a trip to that country. His insights into and observations of Guatemalan society are invariably accurate and engaging.”
Pablo Medina, author of Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood


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