A Religious Journey
My longtime friend Calixta Gabriel, a Kaqchikel Maya poet and spiritual guide had decided the time had come to unbury her past. As she revealed her history to me, I discovered things I didn’t know about her. But I also came to understand better an era of extraordinary faith-based commitment to a better life, which was also an era of struggle among Christians’ beliefs— during the Guatemala civil war (1960-1996), when some 200,000 persons were killed or disappeared, mostly unarmed civilians at the hands of the military, according to a U.N.-sponsored truth report. Calixta suffered through the storm, and gravely distressed by the war within the war—among believers—left Christianity behind, to embrace Maya spirituality.
In 2013 Indigenous women testified to war crimes committed under the aegis of General José Efraín Ríos Montt, who would become the first head of state convicted of genocide by his own country’s courts. Day after day I watched women enter from a side door with their woven shawls pulled up to hide their faces, walk past Ríos Montt, some leaning on the arm of a woman professionally trained to provide psychological support, then dropping their shawls to face the judges, keening, or with valor in their voices. They poured out wrenching stories of loss and abuse. Proceedings were broadcast nationally.
“I have memories to unbury, too,” Calixta told me after the trial.
Whether the example of others had provoked her, or whether she had other reasons, I reckoned Calixta had prayed on the decision, because that was her way. Soon I realized with a shock that the “unburying” would be literal, with Calixta carrying shovel and pick on a journey to somewhere in the countryside, a place only recently repopulating after destruction by wartime fire and violence. I worried.
At the genocide trial, notable figures had sat in the front row—the U.S. ambassador, the chief of the resident United Nations anti-corruption commission—giving an impression of protection for witnesses to the past. Calixta, however, would be setting forth alone to uncover I wasn’t sure what. It wasn’t bones—the national forensic anthropology team was dedicated to recovering remains at hundreds of clandestine mass graves. She spoke instead of photographs, “subversive” materials, lesson plans, a Bible. From years of reporting in Central America, I knew war does not end with a peace treaty. Survivors’ retribution, or fear, might erupt at any time.
“You would have to put it off until after the rainy season,” I said. “And you shouldn’t go alone.”
One morning in November 2014, I rode in a car in the pre-dawn dark, ready to document the day with a cameraman, sound recordist and a still photographer. I am a journalist and accidental filmmaker—my 2003 PBS production, Discovering Dominga, the story of a 28-year- old Iowa manicurist who discovers she is a survivor of one of Guatemala’s worst massacres continues to be shown on TV, in video cafes and college classrooms. I know film is an effective means of communication about overlooked history. Calixta liked the idea, too.
For safety (and convenient to a compressed narrative) we would have to travel, interview and do the digging in twelve daylight hours. It was one of the fullest days of my life.
As the sun rose, we arrived at Calixta’s house in the market town of Chimaltenango, 30 miles east of Guatemala City. She greeted us dressed in the clothing of Kaqchikel Maya women—a long, cotton skirt called a corte, bound at the waist by a wide woven strip of cloth, and a bright overblouse in the colors of tropical birds. In an interior courtyard, before a tin-framed mirror hung on a yellow wall, she combed her long, dark hair into a single braid, which she twisted around her head like a corona and fastened with a comb. She put on earrings, checked her look and turned to us with a tentative smile. “Ready?” she said.
We all drove together toward a town higher in the mountains, where Calixta would tell her story before we went out to dig. In the distance, three volcanoes loomed blue and peaceful. Calixta called ahead to a cousin in San José Poaquil, where the family had fled after the army razed their rural house during the violence. And then she went quiet, fingering the edge of a rolled straw mat she carried on her lap, staring out the car window.
In the 1970s and 1980s, these central highlands were contested territory among armed groups. They were also a battleground of faiths. Calixta was in her late teens and early twenties then, a Catholic whose father had helped build the church in Poaquil, a young woman hungry for education. Among the first Maya to attend university, she studied education and social work but also had learned about liberation theology. From her own experience of life, she understood its thinking, developed while studying Scripture: all people deserved a dignified life; hunger and sickness that shortened lives were not inevitable, but the result of a status quo that kept families like hers continually poor, a condition that could be changed. Calixta Gabriel Xiquin, to give her full name, was not a hero or a prominent figure of the faith struggles, although she was capable of heroic acts, like burying “subversive” teaching and religious materials, an attempt to preserve history. I see her as a survivor of the struggles.
For the documentary, the trick would be to recount events in a sit-down interview, go to the burial site—which I hoped she would remember after more than thirty years—then compress history into twenty-two minutes for a half-hour television slot, a classroom, a program in a church basement. I would focus on Calixta and what led her to bury certain things. We would condense the backstory to fit into a few precious minutes.
In the 1970s, Calixta attended, then taught in, a literacy and catechetical program led by a U.S. missionary, Father Ron Burke, who once worked with César Chávez’ California farmworkers. Padre Ronaldo, as Calixta called him, was a lanky, bearded, former champion diver, an indefatigable worker who drove, rode buses or hiked to communities near and far. The pastor in Parramos (pop. 1980: 6,000), near Chimaltenango, Burke also supported vibrant Base Christian Communities (CEBs for their Spanish initials), small, grassroots groups that blossomed in the wake of the 1968 conference of bishops in Medellin, which committed the Latin American church to an “option for the poor.” CEBs prayed together, sang, explored ways of putting their faith into practice socially and politically. In a measure of the times, and Burke’s embrace of popular religion, the padre supported Catholic carismaticos too, growing numbers of groups who emphasized social justice less than the CEBs, but celebrated the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” an emotional unleashing of the gifts received in the original sacrament of Baptism, accompanied by spiritual signs that harked back to the earliest days of Christianity, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing.
Programs like the one in which Calixta worked—she also contributed to its Kaqchikel language radio hour for women—proliferated in Latin America after Vatican II, the gathering of world bishops (1962-65) called by Pope John XXIII to open the Church to the modern world and “let in the fresh air.” Lay participation, love of neighbor, and peacefully transforming society for the good of all, became the emphasis. Literacy was considered important not only so the faithful might participate in society, but also so that Scripture, funneled for centuries through the words of priests, might be available directly to them, to apply to their own lives. Lay people became “catechists” to help teach and minister. With education and other assistance in Guatemala, people of faith attempted to make up for government abandonment of the Indigenous majority. In the 1960s, only eight percent of Maya could vote, the rest were disenfranchised as illiterates.
Burke’s pastoral team in Chimaltenango aimed to support both those with natural leadership abilities but little formal education and teachers, which meant they would have graduated from sixth grade.
“Teachers and theologians taught us to be lideres [leaders], and we turned around to teach others,” Calixta said. They gathered for workshops in Bible study, leadership skills, and how to teach literacy to other adults. Calixta also taught campesinos, peasant farmers, to read and write. “We called it ‘vacation school,’” she said wryly.
Calixta and the pastoral team were “enchanted” with the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (d. 1997), who developed a method of critical thinking—“conscientization”—to liberate the student from prescriptive thinking. Adults learned remarkably quickly to read; his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is globally famous. When Calixta described the method, she used the phrase, “See, judge, act,” emblematic of Catholic social teaching.
By 1980, violence roiled the Guatemalan countryside, its roots in the 1954 U.S.-sponsored overturn of a democratically elected government and subsequent autocratic military rule. Government agents and their elite backers cut down reformers with impunity. Armed rebellion grew. Some of the lideres questioned whether there was room for a peaceful solution. The pastoral team urged continued non-violence.
Nevertheless, in an interview (1984), Burke told labor and anti-war activist Richard Bermack that he could not condemn those who armed themselves “and are fighting back rather than sitting down and waiting to be killed.”
“The problem is not the violence of the guerrillas, but the causes of their violence: the structures that condemn people to starve to death, babies to die of malnutrition,” he said.
In October 1980, somebody painted the initials of one of the rebel groups on a wall of Burke’s church, and rumors called him a guerrilla, Comandante Ronaldo. Armed men accosted the sacristan, who held the church keys, taking away books and a collection of commentaries on Sunday readings. The sacristan was found murdered, with signs of torture. Armed men also captured an active layman after an evangelical Protestant neighbor listened to a CEB meeting through cracks in the cane stick wall of his house, then told the mayor he heard discussion of what could only be communism. In the hand of the layman’s tortured body a list of 81 names had been placed, a death list. The first was Padre Ronaldo.
Burke told Bermack he had no contact with the guerrillas, but pastoral team members were constantly confronted by friends and relatives who questioned their non-violent stand.
For Burke to survive and bear witness to what he had seen, he felt he must leave. On Oct. 28, 1980, he went to the airport with an armed escort from the U.S. embassy, flew out and did not return. During the civil war at least twelve priests and tens of thousands of unarmed catechists and members of Catholic Action—who worked with farmer, labor and youth groups guided by what they considered a mandate of church social doctrine and statements of Vatican II—died targeted in the violence. Catholics, especially those who sided with the poor and the Indigenous, could no longer be counted upon to support the government and the elite, and had become suspect.
The Chimaltenango pastoral group disbanded. Some lideres were killed by the army or death squads, some joined the armed rebels. When the first of her brothers was assassinated, Calixta’s life came more under stress than ever. What would she do?
We set up our camera at the extended family’s house in Poaquil, a town of 10,000. I clipped a lavalier microphone onto a fold of her huipil blouse, and she sat before an altar that held Christian and Maya images. Candles burned for the dead, including Ron Burke, who died peacefully in his sleep in California, in 2012, at age 82.
Both Calixta and I tried to keep the narrative crisp, for the sake of clear telling, but I felt queasy pulling at necessary details of murder and pain, and I could see her dark eyes occasionally welling with tears. Soon we would travel to find the site where papers, books, memories, had been buried. But first, Calixta must tell why she had buried them.
“In Guatemala we were living two very clear extremes,” she said. Her family “identified with the poorest.” They had “a social consciousness” about “the injustice” of unequal land distribution and lack of opportunities, “above all for the Maya people, the Indigenous, especially those who lived in rural areas.”
She believed the revolutionary movement had “justifiable reason,” although she herself “never picked up a gun.”
Confusion riddled her beloved community. Would believers of one religious way of thinking betray or lie about those of another to save themselves? Who was with the army? Who was with the guerrilla? All sides infiltrated the Catholic church in Poaquil, she said. Her mother joined the carismaticos, and convinced Calixta’s eldest brother, José, to join. An army veteran—forcibly conscripted like many Indigenous—he preached in the church and led songs. He fell on the wrong side of some local guerrillas, who captured José as he walked home from a night service with his parents in June 1982. He was not seen again.
José had advised Calixta that if she were captured, she should submit to rape, or she would die. If anything happened to him, she should bury material the army would consider subversive. “At the time, Christians who followed liberation theology were persecuted. I taught in the spirit of liberation theology,” she said.
Sometimes the camera batteries would go out just when Calixta reached a delicate part of her story, and we stopped until the cameraman said listo, ready to go. She recovered and began again. Once, she bent over and picked up a cigar, lit the tip from a candle flame and inhaled, blowing out the smoke as if to purify the place, and what we were doing. Cigars are used in Maya ceremony to do just that.
A few months after José was taken, Calixta’s second brother, Cruz, 22, disappeared, but this time the captors were the army. They never found his body, either.
Narciso, her youngest brother, joined a guerrilla group who killed him in 1983, apparently for violating security. The 17-year old had snuck into town to visit his girlfriend.
Convinced she might die too, Calixta wrote to Padre Ronaldo for help. A visa and air ticket led to a miserable, lonely decade of exile in California, where she lived haunted by her brothers’ deaths, anxious about her impoverished parents. The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary received her as a lay associate in San Francisco, supporting her legal status in the United States. Nevertheless, Calixta said she had wanted to end her life.
What helped her survive, she said, was telling the story of Guatemala in churches, classrooms, at house meetings and Latin American folk music venues, as well as developing her gift for poetry. A measure of peace came when she met Native Americans who took her into their circles; their ceremonies and beliefs resonated, reinforced the values of respect for Mother Earth that had always lived alongside, sometimes intertwined with, the Christianity she knew in Guatemala. When she returned to Guatemala in 1988, she became an ajq’ij’, conveying ancestral Maya wisdom, a spirituality based on the 260-day sacred Maya calendar, offering ceremony for thanksgiving, for healing.
“Why am I a Christian?” she said she had asked herself in exile. In Guatemala she had left behind a very “complicated” mix of “beliefs, attitudes, ideologies, an epoch when they all just piled up, one thing top of another, and spilled over. You couldn’t trust anyone. It tore apart the social fabric of Guatemala, especially the Indigenous communities.”
The interview went long, but I knew we could run some of its most telling lines under visuals of the rough ride out of Poaquil to the rural place where Calixta’s village once stood, run them under the walk from the road to find the burial site.
We trod on a soft forest path, the boom mic scraping low branches, with two of Calixta’s neighbors and a nephew, shovels in hand. We had perhaps an hour of daylight left when miraculously—to me—Calixta announced, “This is the place,” a grassy stretch surrounded by trees. The feeling was lonely. Those who lived here had fled, died, or disappeared. Calixta and the men cleared ground and she lit candles as they stood by reverently. She thanked Mother Earth for guarding memory. The scene was beautiful, but as she prayed and bowed to East, West, North and South, I was sweating at the sight of the sinking sun.
Finally the digging began, the mic picking up the scraping sound of shovels against dirt. “Something!” Calixta said. She had buried her precious university graduation photos, early poems, copies of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and of A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez, the Bible, teaching plans and other documents in plastic bags, from which bits emerged torn and rotting as soon as the bags were open.
“Bring up a bag and empty it where we can see better,” I said. Calixta and her nephew brought two bags to level ground. Somewhere there had to be a copy of the New Testament “which all the catechists used,” she said, documents of the 1979 Latin American bishops’ meetings in Puebla, Mexico. “Very important,” she said. “They talk about community participation, and say people have the right to live with dignity and human rights.” Documents that, for the government and its allies, were proof of rebellion.
“The guerrillas passed through to see whether the army was here. Then the army passed through, and burned down the place. The poor, the Indigenous, were like the filling of the sandwich. It was very painful,” she said in a low voice as she sorted through the old paper, in the last light of the setting sun.
Calixta never lost the awareness of injustice in the world and the importance of human dignity she developed from the experience of her family and years of immersion in liberation theology; her Maya practice today incorporates them and more, directed by ancient understandings of the oneness of the world, uplifting her people, honoring Mother Earth. What did she do with the material she dug up that day?
“I buried it again in the same place, and sowed the ground,” she told me recently on a WhatsApp call. Attached were photos of thriving young coffee plants, leaves shiny in the sun, a banana tree, and Calixta on her knees with upraised arms, thanking the earth for guarding memory, for life.
Winter 2021, Volume XX, Number 2
Mary Jo McConahay is a journalist, author and filmmaker. Her latest book is The Tango War, The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II (St. Martin’s Press). She is an Alicia Patterson Fellow.
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