Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope

Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope

by Beatriz Manz

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Paradise in Ashes is a deeply engaged and moving account of the violence and repression that defined the murderous Guatemalan civil war of the 1980s. In this compelling book, Beatriz Manz—an anthropologist who spent over two decades studying the Mayan highlands and remote rain forests of Guatemala—tells the story of the village of Santa María Tzejá, near the border with Mexico. Manz writes eloquently about Guatemala's tortured history and shows how the story of this village—its birth, destruction, and rebirth—embodies the forces and conflicts that define the country today.

Drawing on interviews with peasants, community leaders, guerrillas, and paramilitary forces, Manz creates a richly detailed political portrait of Santa María Tzejá, where highland Maya peasants seeking land settled in the 1970s. Manz describes these villagers' plight as their isolated, lush, but deceptive paradise became one of the centers of the war convulsing the entire country. After their village was viciously sacked in 1982, desperate survivors fled into the surrounding rain forest and eventually to Mexico, and some even further, to the United States, while others stayed behind and fell into the military's hands. With great insight and compassion, Manz follows their flight and eventual return to Santa María Tzejá, where they sought to rebuild their village and their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520939325
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/15/2004
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 330
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Beatriz Manz, born in Chile, is Professor of Geography and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Refugees of a Hidden War: The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala (1988).

Read an Excerpt

Paradise in Ashes

A Guatemala Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope

By Beatriz Manz


Copyright © 2004 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93932-5


The Highland Homeland

"Viveros de mozos" [Seed beds for serfs]. Quiché Highlands peasant, describing living arrangements in the highlands

The land, breathtaking in its beauty, reflects the turmoil beneath it. A range of high rugged mountains tumbles into western Guatemala from the Mexican state of Chiapas and finally slips into northern Nicaragua, defining an imposing landscape that is the geological core of Central America. Powerful tectonic movements shook the earth thousands of years ago and violently thrust it upwards, molding towering peaks and deep valleys out of sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rock. The highest of these massive blocks is the Cuchumatán Sierra, a limestone plateau that spills into Guatemala south of Chiapas at an altitude ten thousand feet above sea level, with occasional peaks soaring toward thirteen thousand feet. Scattered pines and zacatal, a montane scrub-grassland, blanket the plateau. Steep slopes, once covered by a verdant cloud forest of pine and oak and laurel, plummet into valleys and areas of serpentine bedrock. Above ten thousand feet, warm, balmy days fade into crisp, chilly nights and, during the rainy season, brief intense downpours herald the evening.

Standing silent witness to the geologic uproar of the past, a chain of volcanoes strings along the Pacific coast from the Soconusco region of Chiapas, through Guatemala, and down the Central American isthmus into western Panama. More than 350 volcanoes—including twenty still active—have thrown up deep ash and lava deposits for thousands of years, transforming the landscape and creating a nutrient-rich, fertile soil. Along the coastal highway in Guatemala the volcanoes thrust upwards dramatically to the northeast, their abrupt slopes and flattened peaks overlooking the hot, humid coastal plains. The thunderous power and unstable nature of the land is still occasionally, sometimes tragically, demonstrated. A strong lateral shift along the Motagua fault provoked a devastating earthquake in 1976, flattening entire towns and villages and killing more than twenty thousand people in the highlands west of Guatemala City.

The Pacific piedmont and coastal lands are the epicenter of export agriculture—the commanding heights of the Guatemalan economy. In the last half of the nineteenth century, coffee plantations spread over the upper, cooler elevations in the Boca Costa, or piedmont zone, followed years later by sprawling sugar plantations at lower, hotter elevations. In the 1960s, cotton plantations extended over much of a hot lowland strip of land ten to twenty miles wide along the Pacific coast. Today, maps of Guatemala predictably identify towns on the Pacific coast, but they also pay homage to the power and influence of the leading plantations—called fincas in Guatemala—by spelling out their locations and names—Finca Pantaleón, Finca La Primavera, Finca Soledad, Finca El Paraíso, among hundreds of others. These fincas developed a vast appetite for cheap, seasonal labor that would transform life in the highlands and define the country's economy.

The Guatemalan highlands have been home to Mayan peoples for millennia. When Spanish conquistadors arrived five centuries ago, they encountered a complex civilization—a Mayan kingdom—known as the K'iche'. Corn or maize was their most important crop; the K'iche' word for "prepared maize" was almost synonymous with the word for "food" itself. Farmers used a hatchet (ikaj) and hoe (xoquem) to clear the hills and mountains near their homes and then turned the soil with a digging stick (mixquina). Then as now women ground corn on stone metates in a ritual central to domestic life. While maize dominated the diet, the K'iche' also harvested squash, beans, chili peppers, and sweet potatoes, hunted wild game, and raised domestic animals for food. Extended families worked the fields and labored in the home, assigning tasks along gender lines. Men dedicated their time to agricultural tasks in the milpa (corn fields); women worked in the house and produced clothing and home utensils. The powerful K'iche' exacted tribute and traded goods throughout the region, painstakingly listing in their chronicles the wondrous tributes they received, such as "metals, precious stones (including jade), quetzal and other tropical bird feathers, flowered garlands, cacao, gourds, salt, fish, turtles and crabs, and woven cloths." Markets linked people in economic and social interactions; women in particular were ever present selling their goods.8 Prior to the conquest the K'iche' constructed an impressive center at Utatlán, on the outskirts of the presentday provincial capital of Santa Cruz del Quiché. Few tourists visit Utatlán today—an uncommon detour from the much more famous lowland Mayan archaeological sites of Tikal and Quiriguá.

Soon after the end of the spring semester in 1973, I took off with three other students in a large, black, beat-up American car on a journey from New York to Guatemala. I was going to join the Projecto Utatlán research team in the El Quiché highlands. I was new to Guatemala but full of enthusiasm as research assistant to Professor Robert Carmack. Santa Cruz del Quiché, about one hundred miles northwest of Guatemala City, was then, as now, a faded, sleepy place that drew few visitors, although it lay only twenty miles or so north of the major tourist destination of Chichicastenango. Although it lacked Chichi's famous church, on whose steps K'iche' burn incense, or a busy market overflowing with colorful handmade items, Santa Cruz was nonetheless an important regional center. A three-story clock tower sat atop a drab government building, whose bulk and grim columns dominated an undistinguished central square. Across the square, a small appliance store displayed a working television in its window, attracting in those days an ever present crowd of townspeople and curious peasants from the region. I found a place to stay in a small pensión near the central square—Pensión Providencia—owned by Chus Urizar, a man with many other duties. He was a labor contractor for the plantations, a political activist for the extreme right-wing Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (the National Liberation Movement), the owner of the liquor store, and the moneylender for the enganche, the advance, or "hitch," peasants repaid by toiling in the plantations.

I contacted the local authorities to begin my fieldwork. I started out with the governor, a stiff military man in his sixties, appointed by the president, himself an aging military man. The introductions told me a lot about the military's power and influence throughout the country. After my high-level visits had been completed, I gave a brief radio address directed to the rural Mayan population in which I explained why the research team was there. Leonardo Zacarías Zapeta, a highly respected Mayan leader, translated my words into K'iche'. He subsequently became invaluable to my research and central to my stay. He and I would trudge to outlying cantones, or hamlets, and visit people in their homes or meet with groups of Mayan men, and sometimes women, at the church or community building in a cantón.

The central market was a bustling place, but mainly with locals and people from outlying villages rather than tourists. A block away from the square a military base was a commanding presence. The municipio of Santa Cruz embodied the economic desperation of highland Guatemala and was home to peasants who would settle the Ixcán. In the early 1970s, about thirty-five thousand people lived in the municipio—a little under nine thousand in the town of Santa Cruz itself, and the rest in the outlying rural areas. Eighty percent of the population identified themselves as Mayan and they, like the residents of other municipios, viewed themselves as ethnically distinct, with their dress, local saints, values, traditions, fiestas, and dialects. As I got to know people in the municipio, they became more and more candid in their conversations with me. Several weeks after I began my research, a group of peasants unburdened themselves, talking about their poverty, their work in the plantations, and their lack of money. In short, they viewed their situation as one of oppression and dependence. Not surprisingly, they wanted land, jobs, schools for their children, and improved agricultural techniques to raise their yields. They used terms such as estamos bajo el yugo de la tiranía (we are under the yoke of tyranny). I had expected passivity but encountered a more critical voice, especially from young men.

Guatemala has two main populations whose boundaries often blur: Mayas, generally considered the majority of the population, and Ladinos, either European descendants or more likely people of mixed Mayan and Spanish ancestry (sometimes also referred to as mestizos). At the time of the conquest the distinction was far clearer: one population was the dominant Spanish colonizers and criollos (Spanish descendents born in the New World), self designated as gente de razón—people of reason—and the other the naturales—natural ones, the so-called Indians. Today the distinction between Ladinos and Mayas is complex, ambiguous, and not always easy to identify. Scholars have pointed out that ethnic definitions are fluid, selective, historically inconsistent, ideologically and class motivated, and generally localized. In fact, ethnic identity is often shaped by the group's own process of boundary formation in local interplay. As revealed in the history of Santa María Tzejá, ethnic identity is a dynamic, changing, and for some a politically influenced process. Given my own observations in the village, I will pay heed to Ben Orlove's suggestion that it is unwise to provide an ethnic definition and label; instead it is much more sensible to "witness the different grounds on which these groups encounter one another. [Because] it is in the story of such encounters that identities are made and transformed."

A casual stroll through the outskirts of Santa Cruz del Quiché was enough to reveal the fierce pressures that were squeezing all peasants. The topography of the municipio severely limits the land available for cultivation. Rugged eight-thousand-foot mountains dominate its northeastern sections, and deep ravines cut through the landscape. Peasants cultivate corn on slopes tilted at impossible angles. Land-starved residents have stripped large areas of forest, which has accelerated erosion, leaching minerals and fertility out of the soil. By the late 1960s, the land had become so eroded that much of it could no longer grow corn. The small size of the plots and the ravaged fields underscored the economic despair. Everywhere one could see the scars of overuse. "The land was nothing but ruin; it did not produce anything," said Domingo Us Quixán, who lived in the highland area of Joyabaj and then left to settle in Santa María Tzejá. The small size and hilly nature of the fields precluded even the plow, and the lack of cash made fertilizer a dream for most. Nonetheless, like their K'iche' ancestors, peasants laboriously cultivated their tiny plots with the azadón (hoe), the piocha (pick), and the machete.

Each year survival became more tenuous in the highlands. A highly unequal and unyielding system of land distribution, combined with a lack of other alternatives, trapped peasants in an economic cul-de-sac. Within the confines of the land tenure system, demographic pressures squeezed everyone. Between 1950 and 1964, the highlands population grew by 41.3 percent—an annual rate of about 2.5 percent—fragmenting already small plots and leading to even more intense use. In four departments in the western highlands, minifundio landholdings ballooned by almost one-third between 1964 and 1974, according to a study carried out by the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. In the municipio of Santa Cruz, 75 percent of all cultivators lacked sufficient land even for subsistence—the average landholding was 3.4 acres of often exhausted soil, and 22 percent of the peasants had less than two acres or no land at all.

Some peasants lived on communal lands, although this arrangement was becoming rarer; others lived on large farms in the highlands owned by an absentee wealthy Ladino. The logic was simple and the consequences inescapable: by the 1960s and 1970s, the small highland plot compelled its tenants to work on the owner's coastal plantation. "We lived in the land owned by the patrón," Pedro Canil said. "We were there at his good will. His name was Carlos Herrera." Herrera had seized "a large extension of land in the highlands," according to Pedro, in which thousands of families had lived. He also owned several fincas on the coast. "So the deal was this," Pedro matter-of-factly stated. "We could live on his land in the highlands, and in return we had to go twice a year to work in the fincas. Thus, he didn't have to bother looking for labor.... We already knew the date, the year, the month, when we had to go work on the fincas." Pedro Tum, a short man who lost the vision in one eye and wears the years of hard work on his face, elaborated: "The three years I attended school in the highlands awoke me a little and allowed me to see the injustices around us. We had barely eight cuerdas [less than an acre] of land. The land was poor, full of stones." The misfortune of the peasants proved to be economic opportunity for the landowner. "[Our land] was the leftover land that the patrón did not use for cultivation." Pedro Tum continues, "He used it as a warehouse for his mozos [servants]. There he would put his mozos like working tools [como herramientas de trabajo]. The season for plantation production would come [in August], he would take them out. The season is over [in March], he would store them." Should one of the laborers want to work on another plantation, the highland patrón would swiftly kick him and his family out of the highland property. One person described the living arrangements in the highlands as being "viveros de mozos" (seed beds for serfs). These migrations separated families and disrupted labor-intensive work that needed to be done in the highlands, such as repairs in the house. The migration of the whole family interrupted schooling and exposed everybody to the diseases that were rampant in the plantations.

These fincas de mozos in the highlands date back to the early twentieth century. Carlos Herrera purchased several landholdings in El Quiché, and the Herrera family, more significantly, owned several plantations on the Pacific coast as well as Pantaleón, the largest sugar mill in the country. One of the highland fincas de mozos was the twenty-thousand-acre Chuacorral estate purchased in 1923 by "coffee and sugar baron [and ex-president] Carlos Herrera." This was one of the first fincas targeted for expropriation during the Arbenz reform period. "The finca was expropriated in November 1953 but then returned to the Herreras by the counterrevolutionary government in September 1956, with the 'protective' proviso that 'the mozos colonos have a right to remain in the same conditions they had prior to the application of [the agrarian reform].'" Powerful wealthy landowners, such as the Herrera and Leal families, owned dozens of fincas in key locations. Thousands of peons would reside in the large fincas de mozos.

Compounding the problems stemming from a lack of land is the scarcity of credit and resources. Almost 90 percent of agricultural credit went to large and medium-sized operators in the early 1960s, especially the coffee and cotton plantations. The government agricultural extension, the Service for the Development of the Indian Economy (Servicio de Fomento de la Economía Indígena), reached only 1 percent of the indigenous rural population. W. Arthur Lewis, the Princeton development economist, provides insight into the perverse incentives to the government for not providing technical aid:

The fact that the wage level in the capitalist sector depends upon earnings in the subsistence sector is sometimes of immense political importance, since its effect is that capitalists have a direct interest in holding down the productivity of the subsistence workers. Thus, the owners of plantations have no interest in seeing knowledge of new techniques or new seeds conveyed to the peasants, and if they are influential in the government, they will not be found using their influence to expand the facilities for agricultural extension.


Excerpted from Paradise in Ashes by Beatriz Manz. Copyright © 2004 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. The Highland Homeland
Chapter 2. Settling in the Promised Land
Chapter 3. The War Finds Paradise
Chapter 4. Ashes, Exodus, and Faded Dreams
Chapter 5. A Militarized Village
Chapter 6. Reunification
Chapter 7. Treading between Fear and Hope


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