Editor's Letter: Legacies of Violence

By June Carolyn Erlick

The diminutive indigenous woman in her bright embroidered blouse waited proudly for her grandson to receive his engineering degree. His mother, also dressed in a traditional flowery blouse—a huipil, took photos with a top-of-the-line digital camera.

As each student in the small graduating class at Guatemala’s San Carlos University Engineering School briefly presented his thesis project, the grandson showed how water systems could both bring potable water and create recreational spaces for his hometown in rural Guatemala.

Then Alejandro Valle Rosal praised another grandmother—the courageous journalist Irma Flaquer—in his acceptance speech, citing her as inspiration. She had been kidnapped and her son—Alejandro’s father—had been killed when he was a toddler. My first book, Disappeared, A Journalist Silenced, was about Alejandro’s grandmother. I hadn’t expected him to mention her when he received his degree. The silence had been broken. The legacies of violence were slowly being overcome.

After the graduation, Irma’s sister, Anabella Flaquer, and I went to see the Guatemalan Police Archives (see Kate Doyle’s article, p. 10). Anabella lives in Miami, and this was the only chance we would get to visit them. “I feel my sister is here,” she told me. “There is no silence here.”

It was a day of many emotions. Watching the young indigenous man willing to return to his community instead of seeking an engineering job in Guatemala City or Mexico; listening to Alejandro thank his grandmother; looking at the piles of records diligently being processed in the archives—all these things made me think that Guatemala was changing.

Yet Guatemala faces serious new challenges, most of which have emerged from the legacies of violence of both the distant and recent past. Drug trafficking, youth violence, environmental damage, loss of remittances from the United States, corruption and impunity, natural disasters and their consequences: the list is exhausting.

Guatemala was a basket case, a failed state, with both organized and common crime permeating every aspect of life. Yet all throughout my visit, I thought of the old proverb about the glass being half empty or half full. I decided it was half full, and returned to Cambridge to work on this issue of ReVista.

Almost that very week, Nancy McGirr’s Fotokids studio in Guatemala was robbed of all its computers and cameras (see p. 44 of print version). Then terrible news came: my friend journalist Felipe Valenzuela had been shot through the head. It was not clear if it was an attempt on a valiant journalist’s life or a bungled robbery. No one knew if Felipe would survive. And then there was a volcanic eruption with ashes clogging the drains, piled high like drifting snow. And then came the hurricane, washing away crops, destroying housing.

Then Carlos Castresana, the head of the United Nations group that had helped extradite former president Alfonso Portillo on corruption charges, resigned (see Paul Goepfert’s article on p. 41 of print version). Political scandals deepened. Drug trafficking was said to escalate.

The glass was half empty, I thought. As my friend and ReVista author Edelberto Torres-Rivas once observed, Guatemala suffers not from a lack of reality, but from too much of it.

The articles for this issue began to arrive. Felipe went back to work without any grave permanent damage; the investigation concluded it was a bungled robbery, and journalist friends concur. And as I read the incoming articles, I wondered, is the glass half full or half empty? Guatemala is exploding with projects and ideas and filled with brave men and women intent on transforming society. It is also filled with sadness and corruption and underdevelopment and inequalities and all the legacies of violence that it has inherited over the centuries. I don’t know. Dear reader, I leave it to you and these pages to decide about Guatemala and the proverbial glass.

See also: Guatemala, Violence