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February 9, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Rabbi humbled, inspired, educated during mission to Guatemala with American Jewish World Service

By RABBI DAVID WEIZMAN Cong. Beth Shalom, Clearwater

Rabbi David Weizman gets a warm greeting from a member of a midwives group in Guatemala. Rabbi David Weizman gets a warm greeting from a member of a midwives group in Guatemala. On the road up to the mountain city of Quetzaltenango, our bus stopped at an idyllic rest stop where they served us, a cohort of 13 American rabbis, locally grown Guatemalan coffee.

I found there an artist from whom I bought a painting of a pair of tropical birds, and just as I was finishing the transaction, our guide and local liaison for the American Jewish World Service, Megan Thomas, walked by and offered the story of how this Quetzal bird got its red breast feathers. The Quetzal bird, after which the city is named, as well as the national currency, used to fly in great numbers throughout the forests. The legend is emblematic of the story of the indigenous people of Guatemala.

In the year 1524, there came from Spain a warrior named Pedro de Alvarado and he marched with his army into Guatemala. Alvarado found the Mayan world filled with many riches, but he had only come to take their gold. It came to pass that Alvarado battled the Maya chief Tecun Uman by himself. When Alvarado’s lance cut through the chief’s heart, the quetzal fell upon his prince, it’s emerald green feathery breast drenched in Uman’s blood. In the morning, the quetzal rose and flew up off of Uman’s body. It’s beautiful green chest feathers had turned crimson, and from that moment on, the chest feathers of the quetzals have been the color of blood.

Megan Thomas of AJWS listens as Edwin Cavil, right, shares painful memories of his mother and sister being killed during a raid on his village during a period when Mayans were being systematically exterminated. Megan Thomas of AJWS listens as Edwin Cavil, right, shares painful memories of his mother and sister being killed during a raid on his village during a period when Mayans were being systematically exterminated. At the Museaum of National Memory in Guatemala City, we reviewed how the Mayan Kingdom had been populated by 70 million people, but after the Spanish Invasion, only 3 million were left. When Guatemala claimed its independence from Spain in 1821, the people continued to suffer under a series of ruthless dictatorships, until the first free elections were held in 1944. But the country enjoyed only one decade of democratic governance until a U.S. sponsored coup overthrew the government to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company. As a result of the coup, the country plunged into an armed conflict that spanned from 1960-1996, during which, the military dictatorships, with U.S support, carried out the systematic extermination of entire villages of the indigenous non-combatant Mayan people. A peace was signed finally in 1996, but the wounds of that conflict are still open.

Rabbi Weizman lights candles during a Mayan ritual with Nuevo Horizonte, a group seeking to involve more women in government. Rabbi Weizman lights candles during a Mayan ritual with Nuevo Horizonte, a group seeking to involve more women in government. One afternoon our group, Global Justice Fellows, met for lunch in Antigua, once the capital of the Mayan kingdom, and now somewhat of a tourist stop. We sat in the open-air section under a canopy of blooming vines, with the sound of falling water in the background. After the meal, we were introduced to Edward Canil, who will become the next liaison for AJWS in Guatemala. With tears in his eyes, he told us the story of his family, what happened to them when they fled from their village into the forest. He spoke Spanish, pausing to gather himself, and we listened through our interpreters to this story of a massacre, told in detail through the eyes of a 6-year-old child.

“After the shooting stopped, I came out from my hiding place. I didn’t even know what dead meant. I kept shaking my mother and my sisters, saying, get up, we have to get out of here.” Edwin’s father and brother had been apart from the rest, looking for a safer place for the family, and managed to survive as well. They were united a day later. Because their village had been burnt to the ground and all of their animals slaughtered, they fled, along with many others across the swamps to a refugee camp in Mexico where he lived for the next 12 years. There were approximately 200,000 casualties during the armed conflict, most of them indigenous Mayan, and over 1 million people displaced from their land.

You might imagine what kind of stereotypes would be associated with a group of Americans traveling in Guatemala in January, only a few days after their president characterized countries like this, in less than favorable terms. In fact, one of the Mayan women remarked at the end of a session, “It was nice to see that not all Americans are the same.”

These women had traveled for two days to meet with us. Grantees of AJWS, they were working for the inclusion of women’s voices in civic governance. The example that they offered us was this: Their community was allotted a minimum budget for maintenance and development. The city council allowed one woman to sit on the board, but she could not be an officer. This woman proposed using the money to build a water system so that a pipe could bring water to the center of their village, if not their own homes. The men on the council decided to use the money to make a baseball field instead. So as it still stands, the women continue to spend hours carrying water vessels on their heads, from the source to their homes.

The mission of AJWS is to address the root causes that inhibit growth and advancement in the developing world. We know from experience what kind of contributions women have made to western society and what factors have enabled that. These Mayan women from Neuvo Horizonte spoke openly about the demands that large families have which keep women out of the work force, of early marriage that prevents higher education, of social norms that subjugate women like the example given above. The integration of more women outside the home can be a benefit to the whole society. Neuvo Horizonte, (New Horizons), is a group of 21 communities working to advance the political participation of women on various levels of government.

One of the ways that our Constitution ensures the honesty and efficiency of our government in the U.S. is through the transparency that is offered by the freedom of the press. Our group had the opportunity to meet with members of Prensa Comunitaria, the Community Press, on several occasions, a news source whose journalists suffer from false criminalization. In fact, the International Federation of Journalists reported six targeted killings of journalists in Guatemala in 2016, second only to Mexico in Central America.

We met Norma, who was taking photos with her phone of a river that was being dammed for hydro electric power without the consultation of the local residents, when she was arrested, beaten, blindfolded and put in jail in solitary confinement. She had no way to contact anyone, and didn’t know where she was being held. Fortunately, for Norma, her co-workers were able to locate her, and with the help of another AJWS grantee which advocates for the security of human rights defenders throughout Central America, she was freed, and continues her journalism. We met another journalist later who had a warrant out for his arrest for writing about the same subject: Land grabbing by foreign companies.

When we met with the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, at the U.S. Embassy, we were accompanied by two other members of Prensa Comunitaria. After hearing the presentation of their work and their challenges, Arreaga said he had been reading their articles online, but did not know who they were. Now that connection was made, the embassy was in a better position to advocate for their protection. “Although I am a U.S. citizen,” he said, “I was born in Guatemala, and I want to see a better life for the people here.”

We asked Arreaga if there was any message that we could convey to our representatives when we visit Capitol Hill later this month. “Yes there is,” he said. “We need to abolish the corruption in government here that plagues the country of Guatemala. And we need to continue the kind of foreign aid that will help people make a living in their country of origin, so they will not need to migrate.”

Since my return from Guatemala, most people ask me this opening question: How was your trip? A difficult question to answer in 10 words or less. So I have come up with two words: Humbling, and inspiring.

Humbling to realize, by way of contrast, what freedoms and opportunity I enjoy in the USA.

Inspiring to see the resilience of a people who have suffered, the devotion to their people and their land, and the patriotic spirit that drives them to make their country a better home for all of its inhabitants. Inspired as well, to feel that way about my own country.

I will add one more word: educational. Maimonides taught us that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. This is the work that AJWS does in 19 different countries around the world; it helps people who are helping themselves. It was an honor to witness that holy work, and to see firsthand, how they accomplish their mission.

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