The Scorched Earth of Todos Santos

October 17, 2001

This week, like most other Americans, Douglas and I are galvanized by television images of the monstrous terrorist attacks against the United States; like everyone else, we talk of little else. We try to understand why. We watch in stunned silence. We ask, how could so much hatred be possible? Spending as much time outside the country this year as we have has opened our eyes to the vision people in other nations have of America, and sometimes this complicated negative perspective has been hard to take. An incident happened to us in Todos Santos recently that seems even more poignant now.

Receding quietly in a doorway to get out of the rain, Douglas and I tried to look inconspicuous, watching a funeral procession trudge in a slow wave up a steep, wet cobblestoned street toward the cemetery. Rarely washed children and wretched dogs scattered as it passed the open front doors of the little concrete homes. Following the six strong boys shouldering the open casket were about 75 men, women, and children, many crying, some holding each other up. The women wore woven wrap skirts and colorful huipiles—blouses—while the men wore traditional red-and-white striped pants, black chaps, straw tasseled hats, and the embroidered shirt collars particular to the Mam Indians of Todos Santos. If it weren’t for the casket, you’d almost think this was a convention of Indian gondoliers. Inside the rough box, the old man was dressed in what probably had been his best clothes, all likely handmade by his wife. An incongruous black top hat was positioned on his head in such a way that his neck bent at a funny angle. Wildflowers and a crucifix were propped in his withered hands.

As the elders struggled up the hill, several glared at us. Whenever we inadvertently made eye contact with anyone, we said, “Buenos dias,” then quickly lowered our gaze. I heard someone in the crowd snarl, “Gringo…” I shuddered a little, and looked away.


“This town sort of gives me the creeps,” said Douglas, as the smell of wood smoke, shit, and dampness mingled with the sounds of Mam music wafting through the air.

In Todos Santos, the tiny mountain village hidden in the clouded volcanoes of the Cordillera de los Cuchumatanes in Central Guatemala, you can’t be too careful. A couple of years ago here, two tourists were stoned to death in the Saturday market because a Mam mother thought a man taking her child’s picture was trying to steal her baby. The Mam are wary of strangers. They’ve lived in relative isolation for centuries, and this region was particularly hard hit by the slaughtering attacks inflicted by their own military government (funded in large measure by the United States). Most of the time, we kept our cameras in our knapsacks.

| | The women of Guatemala are some of the finest weavers in the world* * *|


Why would we come here? And why would these Guatemalan peasants think outsiders are stealing children? The answer to the first question is curiosity. Douglas and I had heard so much about this region of the country from other backpackers, about its magnificent beauty, unparalleled mountain hiking, and unspoiled Mam weaving traditions, that we decided to go ahead, make the five-hour chicken-bus trip on mostly unpaved roads from Huehue to the highlands, and just keep a low profile. The answer to the latter question is a bit more complicated, and appears to involve, among other things, American politics, big business, and the CIA.

In the 1950s, a moderate Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, tried to institute agrarian reforms that would establish more equitable tax payments from the large land-holders and redistribute some of the vast Guatemalan holdings of the American-owned United Fruit Company to the poorer people of Guatemala so they could harvest their own crops. He selected for this transaction uncultivated land that United Fruit, themselves, had designated as fallow. Located in Boston, the corporation known by its Central American critics as La Pulpo, the octopus, put pressure on the US government to prevent the Guatemalan land reform. The government, through the CIA, helped orchestrate a “revolutionary” invasion from Honduras, led by two puppet Guatemalan military officers. The successful “uprising” forced Arbenz out of office; land reform never took place, and the right to vote was made contingent on literacy, which virtually shut out the poor majority and secured the power of the elite.

From then on, violence and terror became commonplace. Many people who were suspected of opposing the new and brutal military government were tortured, killed, or “disappeared.” Guerilla groups formed all over the country, and a ferocious civil war ensued. Amnesty International estimates that more than 400 villages were wiped out, and more than 60,000 Guatemalans were murdered in the 1970s alone. The government initiated a “scorched earth” policy; villages suspected of harboring an antigovernment sympathizer were sometimes destroyed entirely, everyone murdered. Guatemalans refer to this reign of terror as La Escoba—the broom—because everything they had and many of their loved ones were swept away. Hundreds of thousands of people became refugees. In the 1980s, Indians from villages such as Todos Santos were massacred in the name of anti-insurgency, stabilization, and anti-Communism, and the national death toll was estimated to be close to 200,000. Guatemala was coming apart at the seams.


In 1983, finally, Americans cut off military assistance. An election occurred, the military government was voted out, and peace talks began, although for another decade the human-rights abuses and massacres continued. In 1996, a general peace accord was signed, formally ending a war that had lasted nearly four decades. In President Clinton’s second term, he traveled to Central America, and expressed regret to Guatemala for American actions during the civil war.

During the years of conflict, the Soviet Union had tried to support the guerillas by selling them arms, and by generating a creative disinformation campaign in which Guatemalans were warned to watch out for los robo niños, the children robbers. The story was that Americans were abducting children and sequestering them in casas de engordes (fattening houses), then shipping them to the United States where their organs were harvested to save the lives of rich gringos. Newspaper accounts of frantic parents, whose children were missing, storming Guatemalan orphanages suspected of being casas de engordes, fanned the flames. When children disappeared, a everyday tragedy during the war, the robo niños were blamed; the rumors spread.

Kelly McBroom, an American midwife who works at the Ak’Tenamit Clinic on the Rio, told us how two years ago, in Todos Santos, a village that had been gutted by the sharp blade of the war, a rumor sent waves of fear through the town. People heard that a group of evangelicals were planning to perform Satanic rituals somewhere in the mountains. Catholicism, mixed with centuries of indigenous ritual, is the most popular religion here, but there’s also a rapidly growing evangelical movement. People went on alert.


That Saturday, at the local market in the center of town, a private van arrived carrying Japanese tourists. Dressed stylishly in black clothes, the visitors entered the covered, crowded market, and started wandering around taking pictures. One of the men tried to get a close-up of a sleeping baby, wrapped in a blanket tied around her mother’s back. The baby started to cry, the mother whirled around to see the Japanese man and all his equipment so near her child. She screamed. Someone else began yelling “robo niños!” The townspeople attacked the man. The driver of the van rushed to help, but he too was attacked, and beaten with rocks. Both men were killed.

| | Josephina, 10 years old, works at the weaving co-op in Todos Santos* * *|

In Guatemala, rumors are a powerful force, history is tainted by self-serving perspective, and truth is elusive. We heard various versions of the “murdered Japanese” from many people, but got the detail on it from Kelly, whose work with women we wrote about a few weeks ago in our Log called “Catching Babies.” Through a twist of fate, Kelly happened to be traveling to Todos Santos on the day these murders occurred, and told us what she’d seen and heard.

The U.S. government’s involvement with United Fruit and the military regimes in Central America is thoughtfully and frighteningly discussed in Schlesinger, Kinzer, Coatsworth and Nuccio’s Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. For a particularly moving account of how war, terrorism, and governments’ complicities intertwine, Jennifer Harbury’s terrific book Searching For Everardo: A Story of Love, War and the CIA in Guatemala, offers an infuriating story. Harbury is an American lawyer who married a Guatemalan guerilla commander. Her husband’s disappearance at the hands of the military led her to take on the Guatemalan government, staging a hunger strike in Guatemala City that captured world attention, including that of the CBS television program 60 Minutes. As a result of her efforts, the U.S. government eventually acknowledged its contribution to her husband’s murder.

| | Irma prepares her thread, while her son looks on. Thread is stretched over and under rods tied to a working board at the desired length. Clothes are all woven to size, not cut from finished cloth.* * *|

These days things in Todos Santos are quieter. Two small language schools have opened, where tourists can learn Spanish and Mam for a week or more, and the schools even organize home stays for those who’d like to live with a Mam family while they learn the language. There are some handmade tourist items in the market now, and a wonderful handicraft co-op (located on the first floor of Hospedaje Casa Familiar) where the local women display and sell the finest weaving we’ve seen anywhere in the country. There are a couple of basic places to bunk; we selected the Hotelito Todos Santos, which, like most places we’ve been staying here, doesn’t have hot water or showers (a rain barrel is available), but did have clean sheets, a friendly family who ran it, and a breathtaking view over the mountains—an especially good spot from which to watch the afternoon fog crawl in at eye level and enshroud the town.

On the streets, which were thick with mud from the heavy rain that buckets down this time of year, every day at around 2, people in their traditional clothing hurried about their work. Most were shy around us. The older ones kept to themselves and averted their eyes from ours. But the younger ones were curious, smiled, and tried to talk to us; one even wore a T-shirt with an American flag on it. Hombres in full regalia, with feet like leather, carried impossible loads of kindling on their backs. Small boys lugging shoe-shine boxes looked for customers with muddy shoes, and found them everywhere. A drunk lay unconscious on the sidewalk, his fly unzipped. An old woman went door-to-door with her hand out, people chatted with her for a moment, smiled, and gave her a coin or two—there’s no other welfare here. Young mothers with babies strapped on their backs chatted with one another in Mam. Other women, with their long raven hair braided with colorful cloth and scarves, washed their clothes in pisinas, or rushed home with squawking hens carried by the legs upside-down. We quietly admired the gorgeous clothes, the art, the skill.

| | A backs-strap loom is a flexible web. Warps that stretch up from the weaver are held by rods tied at one end to a tree or post. The weaver can adjust the tension of the loom by leaning forward or back on the leather back strap around her lower body. The width of the warps tied to the rod sets the width of the finished cloth. The length of the warp determines the length of the garment.* * *|

Douglas and I strolled around, and as we took in the sights and had a bite at Comedor Katy, our favorite spot here for good local food, we talked about another incident from more than a month ago at Ak’Tenamit. We were working at the clinic, and I was playing with Victor, a baby whose mother had died in childbirth, and who’d been nurtured back from death’s door by the medical staff after his father had fed him watery coffee and corn gruel for three months. By the time we’d met him, Victor was a chubby, happy, and healthy one-year-old, and was going home with his father in a week’s time. Dr. Katy Mitchell had become Victor’s primary caregiver in the months he’d lived at Ak’Tenamit, he was often in her arms, he slept in her office, and she’d hired a Q’eqchi woman to look after him whenever she was busy with patients. During the baby’s months with Katy, Victor’s father had never come to see his son. Finally, Katy went to the father to ask him about putting Victor up for adoption.

| | The traditional men’s outfit of Todos Santos: red striped pants, embroidered shirt, and wool chaps. Each village is proud of their distinctive clothes for men and women.* * *|

“I told him I knew someone who loved Victor, and would take good care of him,” Katy said. ” An American.” She didn’t mention that she was referring to herself.

“Never to a gringo. I’d rather see him starve to death,” he said. “I’ll take him home.”

Stunned, Katy told the father that she wouldn’t release Victor until he’d been weaned, until the father proved he could take care him, and until he’d spent the time to bond with his son. Within three months, what looked like a tragic story had an about-face. First, Victor’s father began coming every week to spend time with his son. Then, he began to work at the American-run clinic to repay them for saving his son’s life. By month three, an amazing thing happened. He enrolled his other children at the Ak’Tenamit school. Victor was going home.

His father’s words, “I’d rather see him starve to death,” have rung in my ears ever since. I couldn’t imagine a father feeling such hatred. But in Guatemala, while the guns may have stopped firing, the people are traumatized by what they have endured, and they grieve for those they’ve lost. Their wounds are recent and raw, and the earth is still scorched. An American in a country such as this has to do a lot of hard thinking.


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