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My Friend Juan Carlos

October 19, 2005

I would like you to meet my friend Juan Carlos de León Ventura. An official Guatemalan introduction calls for me to tell you that Juan is 32 years old, that he is Vice-President and Youth Coordinator at Acción Cultural Guatemalteca, that he is married, that he is originally from Cucabaj I and that his native language is K’iche’. Juan Carlos and his wife Maria Cristina have also been my family for the last two years as we have shared our lives and our stories together in a two-story house close to the central market of Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala. It is those stories that bring us closer but also remind me of how different our lives have been. I would like to tell you one of those stories that is part my own words and part my translation of Juan’s words. Here is an excerpt from the life of Juan Carlos…

{mosimage}He sat two steps below me on the ascending staircase that leads from the first floor patio of our home up to the second floor kitchen and bedrooms. These were the only seats left in the house since the actual 11 chairs were filled with a delegation from the United States and Juan Carlos’ wife Maria Cristina (who was getting her hair braided by the youngest member of the group.) Juan began to tell a story that I had heard before, of one of his experiences during the war.

“The time of armed conflict was a time of terror because our situation in life, well, really wasn’t life.”

Juan would speak for about 2 minutes and then turn his head slightly, tilting it upwards but not lifting his eyes towards me, to signal that it was my turn to translate what he had just said. The members of the group all had their different ways of listening to the words that tumbled from his mouth or my subsequent translation. While some looked intently at him or me; others fixed their gaze upon the table, upon the floor, upon something else; others shifted uneasily in their chairs; others closed their eyes.

“We were lucky that my father had been in the army around the time of President Jocobo Arbenz. He knew the strategies used by the army. The internal armed conflict came to my village in August 13, 1982. We had no way to know that they were coming, no way to organize the community. We were in our home when they came, when the army from the base in Santa Cruz del Quiché began a massacre in the villages around Santa Cruz with the excuse of trying to uproot alleged sources of assistance for the guerillas. I was 8 or 9 at the time.”

By 1982 the “Scorched Earth” campaigns of the army were well on their way. It is my simplified interpretation that this philosophy was based on the idea that destroyed villages and dead people could not provide aid. Numbers vary depending on the source but by 1985 it is estimated that more than 440 villages in Guatemala had been wiped off the map, with more than 50,000 people killed. This number continued to grow as the years passed.

“They killed women, children, and elders...helicopters came, military airplanes arrived...they dropped bombs...”

Juan's movements are animated when he tells this story but it’s his eyes that give him away. His hands are always in motion, moving up and down, back and forth, spinning around with the fingers extended like a sign language interpreter. But behind his eyes is an uncharacteristic rigidness, when usually there is a glow.

It was only about 10 minutes into his story when I reached a point where each time he turned to let me know that he was ready for me to translate I choked up for a second. After that brief moment I would begin to try and capture his words, his feelings, and the weight that came with each piece of the story. You can sense the heaviness that bears down upon his soul and each piece takes a crane to lift it out. For him, that load will never get lighter.

“My father said that we would not flee towards the ravine because the army would be waiting for us there, that we would stay among the milpa [cornfields]. In August the milpa is very high. The army began ‘a disparar, a disparar, a disparar ’ bullets into the air from the road [opposite the ravine] in order to corral the people towards the ravine. And, the other half of the army was there hidden in the forest waiting for the people to come. They massacred everyone, only a few were able to escape. “

That is not a typo. Juan repeated that word over and over again, “to shoot, to shoot, to shoot.”

“We hid among the cornfields. It was a difficult time for us. We couldn’t go home and eat anything. We couldn’t make a fire for fear of the smoke giving us away. We listened to the sounds of our neighbors being tortured. After two days in the fields, two consecutive days and nights the dogs began to bring bones from the people who were killed in the ravines back onto the plains. My mother saved us, she risked her life to go to our home quickly and bring maza for us to eat, and this sustained us for 4 days. “

His mother snuck out of the cornfields after the first 2 days of initial terror. The family had no idea how long they would have to remain “escondidos” [hidden] among the corn, how long they would have to lay in fear of any small noise in the fields or peep that escaped their own mouths.

“Finally after 6 days a helicopter came with two flags, one white, and one the Guatemalan national flag. I am thankful that my father knew the strategies of the army for all of the 9 immediate family members hiding with us in the corn survived but we did lose neighbors, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.”

In this abbreviated way, Juan told the account of when he was just a child and the army came to his home village of Cucabaj I. I have been to Cucabaj I many times for dinners, soccer games, celebrations, etc. I have seen the fields where he and his family crouched, I have walked on the land once soaking wet with the blood of his people and yet, and I still know nothing. How can I ever know? How can I ever understand something so foreign to me? And so his words brought many images to mind as I tried to fight down the tears. By the end, it became a struggle for me to spit out the words. My relationship with Juan is strong and deep but there are times, like when I heard the stories of his childhood, that make me realize how different our worlds are.

The Peace accords were signed in 1996, officially ending the civil war. The word officially here is written with a smirk since the war supposedly ended but the pain, poverty, and violence still continues for the Guatemalan people.

I have heard Juan’s story three or four times now and it never gets any easier. This story not only represents a piece of Juan, it symbolizes a component of many Guatemalan’s lives. Above everything else, there is one very important detail worth mentioning.

As people on this earth, we are the twine ball of our experiences, each string constituting a fundamental ingredient. And Juan does not let that string stained red with the blood of friends and family infect him. He works in an organization dedicated to rebuilding the lives of Guatemalans who went through the horrors of the armed conflict. He works each day as the Youth Coordinator to provide a future for the country’s children and has hopes that they will never have to experience what he did. But he is not running from his memories. His family still lives on those lands where he hid for 6 days and he has his inheritance there. Currently he and his wife return to that land every weekend to farm their crops, to cultivate their corn. Juan will keep this story with him for the rest of his life, he will tell it to people who are interested, and he will call up those painful memories so that someone else can learn of the realities of life in Guatemala.... That is my friend Juan Carlos.

Pablo

Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG).  He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.





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