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Uprooted Mayan Children

I: Chiapas

We wound our way down the dirt path, past the rough-shod huts, scrawny dogs and heaps of trash that make up this small barrio on the outskirts of San Cristobal de la Cases in Chiapas, Mexico. My companion on this particular day was Apolinar, a nine-year-old Kanjobal Indian from Guatemala, whose home this had been for the last four years. He had already finished his lessons in a Mexican school and now was going to see another teacher, an elder in this community of exiles. "The boy and I speak of matters of the heart," the man explained, as he rose from a mat on the dirt floor of his one-room shack, "about our people's struggle and the circumstances of his father's death."

As Kanjobal Indians, direct descendants of the ancient Mayan civilization, "the struggle," as the elder chose to call it, has indeed been a long one. IN 1524 A.D., Spanish officials arrived in Guatemala and set in motion a 450-year era of exploitation. In the absence of rich gold and silver deposits, Indians bore the burden of Spain's colonizing efforts, working as virtual slaves on their buildings, cities and roads. Native states were dismembered and Indians concentrated into local communities tightly controlled by Crown officials and priests. Exhaustive labor incarceration and disease leveled the indigenous population to less than 40 percent of its preconquest total. The ensuing colonial period and even Guatemala's own independence in 1821 did little to change the plight of the Maya. Expropriation of communal lands, debt bondage, vagrancy laws and the absence of meaningful land reform in this century have left Guatemala's indigenous people impoverished.

Even so, the Mayan Indians were never culturally conquered. Sometimes they battled against repression through open revolt, as was continually the case throughout the colonial years. More often, they have done so by turning inward to their communities, where extended families and other social arrangements protected them from the total loss of their remaining lands, cultural patterns and ethnic identity. The fact that the Maya still speak their native languages and have preserved many of their traditional practices, partly by hiding them within Spanish-Catholic forms, is telling testimony to their ingenuity and courage in the face of this historic exploitation.

But since 1982, when the Guatemalan army stepped up its military campaign against communist guerrillas in the highlands - destroying over 400 Indians villages and killing at least 30,000 men, women and children in the process - the very core of the Maya's resiliency has been shaken. With some 500,000 Indians uprooted from their land but still living in Guatemala, and more than 100,000 still displaced outside the country, the Maya people, along with their culture, are now more endangered than ever before, this is why Apolinar's community insists he meet weekly with a Kanjobal elder to discuss a way of life he was too young to consciously remember: "A person is a person only through others," they boy is told near the end of this day's session. "We all help each other along in this life. That's how your father died, trying to help our people become free."

Yet identity, locality and community are all linked. If the day-to-day existence of their highland villages in Guatemala helped forge a particular attitude toward life, so too are the demands of their current circumstances determining what it means to be a Maya. This is especially true for the children who measure the passage of time, not by the clock or calendar like adults, but in development terms, according to age-related demands and tasks. After four years, memories of family and communities left behind are growing dim, or, in the case of the very young, are non-existent. Instead, what many boys and girls are left with are the frightening images of murder and destruction, which emerge unexpectedly in nightmares and night terrors. At the same time, diverse experiences in Mexico are reshaping their identities along more individualistic lines; even boys and girls from the same rural villages now define themselves and the world around them in very different ways.

Life for Mayan refugees in the monsoon rain forests of Chiapas has been physically more demanding than for those who reside near Mexican towns or have migrated to the United States. In 1983, when some 45,000 Guatemalans had already poured into Chiapas, health conditions in these camps were ghastly. In spite of medical assistance, 90 children and 10 adults died in this camp during the first month alone. Even today, the infant mortality rate, life expectancy and daily calorie intake for refugees in the rain forests of Chiapas remain 60 percent worse than for Mexican Indians in the same area.

In addition, crossing into Mexico does not necessarily protect refugees from the violence they've fled. As early as 1981, The Guatemalan army began pursuing them across the border and making armed incursions into their camps which, it claimed, were being used as bases by the guerrillas. Between 1982 and 1984, 68 violations of Mexican airspace and raids on border encampments were documented by human rights groups. Most troubling for refugees in the Las Margaritas jungle was a massacre that took place in early 1984: 14 Guatemalans were found hacked to death on the dirt path linking the villages of Nuevo Matzam and Rio Azul. Within days, an unmarked plane bombed these two communities, prompting refugees there to flee further inside Chiapas.

In spite of these hardships, Maya refugees in this region of Chiapas have retained a high degree of cultural intactness. Living alongside Mexican Maya in remote edijos or semi-collective land tenure communities, often three to five hours walk from the nearest dirt road, they continue speaking and teaching their own languages to their children. Unlike their counterparts in more urbanized areas of Mexico and the United States, many women and girls wear native skirts and woven blouses, although eve here some have abandoned them in favor of western clothing. Maize remains the most essential crop and its planting, harvesting and corresponding religious offerings proceed much like they did in Guatemala.

Yet even more importantly, ethnic identity is still a source of positive values for refugees in these encampments. Through the daily examples of elders, children are taught that community responsibility is more important than individual pursuit, a perception which provides a measure or cohesiveness as they wrestle with uprooted aspects of their lives. Strong ethnic identification has also enabled children to place their losses within the historical context of their peoples' struggle against racism and exploitation: parents and other relatives who died in Guatemala are seen more as martyrs than as mere victims of indiscriminate violence. This perception seems to be helping turn what might otherwise be the passivity of depression into an active desire to return to Guatemala and continue the ways of their lost loved ones, an undertaking most refugees believe is still unsafe to do.

The fact that the Mexican government has not granted these refugees permanent asylum, however, limits other traditional aspects of their lives. An immigration status similar to that of a tourist or temporary visitor restricts them to the immediate border zone where they are forbidden to own land or use other natural resources. This in turn has increased the refugees' dependency on COMAR, the Mexican agency designated to assist them, and placed them in a subordinate position vis-à-vis Mexican Maya. In the Las Margaritas area, for example, Guatemalans must return one half of their vegetable harvests to individual landowners as the standard rental fee for small plots of land. Moreover, they are required to work 60 days a year gratis for the Mexican communities hosting them and an additional 70 days for local COMAR officials. In all, refugees in these settlements spend nearly one third of the year working without pay for others in exchange for their safe haven.

As an adolescent, 15-year-old Francisco finds it particularly difficult to make sense out of the conflicting realities children face in these camps. On the one hand, the strong sense of pride absorbed from his community urges him to work hard to make a better like for himself and his people. As one of the more promising youth in his village, he is already serving as a teacher's assistant in their one-room schoolhouse. Although he sees no lasting opportunity in Mexico, he knows full well that most Mayan refugees who have returned to Guatemala from Chiapas have either disappeared or been sent to model villages controlled by the military. The anxiety Francisco experiences over these opposing tensions is evidence in a dream he has had on several occasions over the past year:

In the dream I am in a big hole and rain is pouring down on top of me. It's very muddy and I know I must climb with all my strength or else I'll fall deeper into the pit. So for a long time I climb and climb until I finally reach the top. But when I start to escape a man with a gun tells me I must stay right where I am. I want to get out and go home but all I can do is hold on and try not to fall back into the hole.

Yes, our life is a lot like this," Francisco offered in response to my inquiry. "We work and work but never get ahead. There is not enough land to grow our food and this is why the children are so hungry. And how can I teach the little ones when there are no books? I can't even correct their letters because they must write them in the air with their fingers. Most of the time, we don't even have pencils and papers. No, we have no future here. We must find a way to return to our land in Guatemala. But the army thinks we are guerrillas and would kill us if we go back. That's the man I always see in the dream: a soldier who will shoot me if I try to go home."

Unlike Francisco, the largest number of Guatemalans in Mexico, some 50,000 it is believed, do not live in COMAR-assisted camps. Rather, they have sought unofficial refuge in a more familiar region of Chiapas, which runs along the southern border from the Pacific coast to the Pan American Highway. Historically, this segment of the border has never been a strong barrier to travel, and Mexicans and Guatemalans living along it often understand and speak the closely-related Mayan languages. Considered to be "illegal immigrants" by the Mexican government, these Guatemalan Maya live inconspicuously in small compounds outside of towns where they hope to escape official notice by passing themselves off as Ladinos.

Their illegal status forces them to hide their Guatemalan identity from Mexican authorities in order to avoid detection and eventual deportation. None are able to wear their distinctive Mayan dress and the use of their own languages has been suppressed, save for the privacy of the home. Mothers must bear the burden of eliminating the more obvious signs of Guatemalan identify from their newborns through changes in child rearing practices: early weaning, bottled formula and exposure to Spanish have replaced the closer, more swaddled upbringing provided older sons and daughters.

But assimilation into non-Maya society has clearly been most rapid for the children themselves. Even though parents try to maintain aspects of their heritage in hopes of returning home some day, many of these boys and girls are rather ambivalent about the thought. "No, I don't think I'll go back to Guatemala," says an 11-year-old refugee child, who now only answers to "Hector," his Mexican name. "I think I'll stay in Mexico. Maybe I can become a citizen so when I grow up I can get a job and buy some land. Then I'll be an important man with lots of clout." Indeed, after four years of hiding his true origins from others, Hector is not too sure he wants to be considered a Maya anymore. For the past 10 months he has refused to speak his native tongue, Kanjobal, even with members of his family.

Hector attends school only because his father was able to purchase false papers from the black market in illegal Mexican documents. All along, Hector had kept his distance from other children, fearing that in the intimacy of friendship he might inadvertently reveal the family's secret. Then one afternoon he was tripped by another student while playing soccer and, in a moment of anger, the first words that came forth were in Kanjobal. Later, when Hector informed his parents what had happened, he was whipped and told there would be no more school if the same mistake was every repeated. "That's when I decided I'd never speak Kanjobal again," Hector told me; a pledge he has stubbornly kept to this day.

II: Indiantown, Florida

The drawing is stark and simple, devoid of any details that give a sense of time or place. The artist, Juan, is a nine-year-old Indian child from Guatemala, responding to my request to draw a picture of his homeland. But neither the verdant hills nor the adobe homes of his former village in the highland province of Huehuetenango are apparent. Instead, we see three black figures on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. Tumbled on the right half of the page is a head paper. Tumbled on the right half of the page is a head and an arm, both severed by a bayonet-wielding man on the left.

This small, dark-eyed boy eventually told me he was so close to this murder that he heard the gurgles as the victim's throat was being cut. As he recalled this grisly detail, his face flushed and he began to perspire. Such involuntary somatic reactions clearly indicate that the psychological reality of this event did not end when Juan and his family fled Guatemala for the United States.

Juan is one of some 600 Kanjobal Indians who have sought sanctuary in Indiantown, Florida - a one-stoplight farming town 12 miles east of Lake Okeechobee. I began visiting with Juan and the other Kanjobal children in Indiantown last fall, at the behest of Peter Upton, an attorney with the American Friends Service Committee in Miami, who is representing these Guatemalans in their fight for asylum. He had heard their tales of death in the highland region of San Miguel Acatan, but hoped that as a psychologist with considerable experience of children in other situations, I could gauge the extent of trauma these boys and girls had been exposed to, and what effects a possible deportation order might have on them.

I began getting to know the Kanjobal children, as I always do, with quiet conversation and drawings, followed by a series of interviews with their parents. Drawing can be looked at as one of the better projective measures for children, especially when working in cross-cultural situations. Unlike adults, who rely primarily on language, children often do not talk about their fears and anxieties until what is troubling them has been externalized on paper. Having gained safer emotional distance through this displacement, they are better able to discuss what is happening in their drawings, and in doing so, they begin to confront some of their own worries and losses. From these drawings and the stories which often accompany them, one begins to get a glimpse of the children's struggles in Guatemala.

When Alejandro, a 10-year-old Kanjobal boy, was given paper and crayons and asked to draw a picture of his "homeland," he produced a house separated from a public building by two lush trees. On the ground was a snake slithering its way toward a man standing in front of the single dwelling, in the sky an airplane and a helicopter. When asked to comment, Alejandro said "the man in front of the house did not have to worry about the snake but the people inside the building might die." When asked why, Alejandro undertook more pictorial details. First in pencil and then in crayon, he drew a series of black circles he called "bombs" falling into an orange and red "explosion."

"They are afraid they will burn and die," he finally concluded.

"Who is inside the plane and helicopter?"

"Soldiers from the government."

"Why are they bombing the building?"

"I do not know. They just do it."

"When in Guatemala did you ever see anything like this happen?"

"Yes. Many times."

Responding to the same request made of Alejandro, 13-year-old Isolda drew a picture of worshippers, some with babies on their backs, kneeling before a church to pray. A helicopter is shown firing upon the cluster. She explained this was an event she had witnessed one Saturday afternoon in her home village. As she recalled, she suddenly heard a loud popping sound and saw "fire pouring down on the people and church." Terrified, she ran home to tell her father what she had seen.

"What did your father do?"

"He told me to tell no one what I had seen and that if the soldiers ever asked to never admit I'd been baptized a Catholic."

"Why did he tell you this?"

"Because the government soldiers thing all Catholics in our village support the guerrillas and would kill us."

"Did your family support the guerrillas?"

"No. My father worked in our fields and I stayed home with my mother and took care of my baby sister."

Many children recalled that the government attacks frequently occurred during the daytime when their fathers and, in some cases, mothers were away working their land. Consequently, one of the children's greatest fears was their parents would be harmed and they would never see them again. Especially troubling were memories of helicopters landing and soldiers entering their villages.

Eight-year-old Santiago drew a picture of a helicopter with an extended ladder. The helicopter was also dropping bombs, but as this youngster indicated, the ladder was far more frightening. "Soldiers came down the ladder and took some people away," Santiago nervously explained, the artery in his neck throbbing at an increased rate. A small figure is seen in a home in the corner of the drawing. Santiago identified the figure as himself:

"Who is inside that house?"

"Me. I was alone."

"Where were your mother and father?"

"I don't know. Maybe the soldiers made them go up the ladder."

"But both your parents are with you here in Indiantown."

"Yes. I guess they didn't get them."

Medical reports indicate that when the Kanjobal families began arriving in Indiantown in 1982, their children were exhausted, undernourished, anemic and suffering from various respiratory ailments and skin infections caught during their previous flights from Guatemala, their stay in Mexico and from walking many of the miles to Florida. They came with little or no money and were unfamiliar with western medicines, health clinics, packaged food products and supermarkets.

Under the improved care and stability provided in Indiantown, the children's bodies mended quickly. The children's psychological wounds, however, appear much deeper and, in most cases, are taking far longer to heal.

Last year, a loud backfire from a delivery truck sent nine-year-old Juan scrambling beneath a chair where he cried uncontrollably. The unexpected noise had caused a flashback of sorts: Juan was reliving the morning he saw a fellow villager decapitated by Guatemalan soldiers. To this day, he suffers from a recurrent nightmare in which he is being chased by a headless corpse.

Even more recently, a newsman arrived at the children's school in a helicopter to do a story on the Maya in Indiantown. As the aircraft hovered above the classroom and touched down on the adjacent grass playground, most of the other students ran excitedly outside to greet their guest. This same event, however, sent the Kanjobal children hiding under their desks and into the darker corners of their room. "We thought it was like the helicopters in Guatemala, seven-year-old Maria nervously explained. "We thought it came to drop bombs again or take us away from our parents."

Not all of the children's memories about their past are bleak or necessarily troubling. In words and drawing most recalled the steep mountains of the highlands, the especially fragrant White Nun flower and the green, long-tailed Quetzal, symbol of freedom and prosperity in Guatemala. Many look forward to the festival of San Miguel inaugurated by the Catholic Church is honor of the Maya's arrival in Indiantown. Yet, in spite of their apparent pride in past traditions, and occasional longing for the bucolic terrain and milder climate of the highlands, it was the more terrifying image of Guatemala that prevailed when asked if they ever wanted to return home.

"No," said eight-year-old Santiago, "Guatemala is a place where bad people do evil things to good people. And besides, my family and friends are with me in Indiantown." In watching children on the playground, I learned that when angered or upset over missing a turn at bat, for example, the worst threat one Maya child can hurl at another is to insist the "teachers are going to send you back to Guatemala."

Even if these families were able to return in safety to Guatemala, it is doubtful their children could reintegrate smoothly into the village life they left so long ago. Four years of exposure to formal education has promoted the kind of abstract thinking necessary to survive in a technological society, but which may be antithetical to the kind of contextual reasoning children develop and depend on in isolated rural communities. For many children, the traditional world view that Maya "exist at the center of the earth" has already been reduced to folklore.


As disruptive as these experiences have been for the exiled children, the situation their counterparts face in Guatemala is even more problematic. Since 1982, the army has saturated the countryside with barracks and bases, regular troops and paramilitary patrols, resettlement camps and model villages, all as part of its continuing was against a small guerrilla movement. As a result, tens of thousands of Mayan Indians - Kanjobal, Ixil, Kekchi, Pocomchi and Quiche - continue to be resettled in model villages without regard for their distinct languages, cultures and settlement patterns.

Three times a day, children inside these villages assemble in military formation to pledge their allegiance to the Guatemalan flag and to the soldiers who now dominate their lives. In between these shows of loyalty, boys and girls attend the army-introduced "castellanization" program intended to wean them away from their indigenous languages. In school, children are also being taught the military's version of history and culture. Indeed, until the new civilian government finds a way to loosen the military's grip on the countryside, indigenous children still in Guatemala remain the most endangered Maya of all.


By Jose Perez Aguirre

15-year-old refugee boy in Florida

My poor, poor country

people trying to escape

not knowing what direction

all points look the same

the boom of the bombs

drives them






Planes flying over sad

towns throwing bombs

on innocent people

Poor, sad, sad people

destroyed by the arms

of rich countries

and though


have served the killers

Oh sorrow, sorrow, sorrow


By Jose Lows Perez-Aguirre

16-year-old Mayan refugee boy in Florida


land of corn

of wheat

which feeds your impoverished children.

Oh Guatemala beautiful land

land of the hormigo

musical tree

of which your children

have created

the marimba

marimba of the sweet notes

which resound in the Huehueteca


where the quetzal cries bitterly

seeing your children


by the stranger.

Your children set on the rocks

where, unfortunately

you cannot feed them

While the cruel strangers

exploit your children

and enjoy

your riches.

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