Why Guatemala?

My road to loving Guatemala has been a long, but purposeful one.

I have a profound love for and commitment to the land and people of Guatemala. It has been the focus of my studies in higher education, and part of my career and volunteer work, and now my doctoral dissertation research. What’s the connection? Why the Guatemala Initiative? Why Guatemala? The answer is a personal one…

Guatemala is a country of beautiful landscapes and people. The heart of the Mayan civilization lives in Guatemala. A civilization of over 23 unique indigenous languages, thousands of years of tradition, and a supreme love and respect for the earth and natural world.

Mixed media sculpture- represents the resiliency of the indigenous woman and mother earth – by Emily A. Willard (c) 2008

Guatemala also has a bloody and violent history, from colonial times to present day. In 1954, the U.S. government supported a coup against the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. President Arbenz heeded the people’s call and began to purchase and nationalize Guatemalan land that was owned by the United Fruit Company (UFC), a U.S. company (which as since been re-named Chiquita). The U.S. government supported a coup and helped overthrow Arbenz, a democratically elected president. He was replaced with a series of repressive military leaders.

By 1960, the country was engaged in an internal armed conflict. The subsistence farmers of the highlands—mostly indigenous Maya—started to form a resistance movement against the land-owning oligarchy and government elites.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s the violence reached its peak. Guerrilla groups operated in the Guatemalan highlands, made up of mostly indigenous, campesinos. Urban resistance groups operated in Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango (Xela). Guatemalan military and police forces forcibly disappeared hundreds of urban political dissidents, and in the rural highland areas, committed what the United Nations has called, “acts of genocide.”

Peace accords between the Guatemalan government and representatives of the guerrilla group were signed in 1996. In 1998 the Commission for Historical Clarification report—a U.N. supported truth commission—was published in Guatemala. Two days later, a leading figure in the truth commission, Archbishop Gerardi, was murdered by government forces.

Guatemala still struggles with many of the same issues as it did back in 1954, and through the conflict, such as high levels of violence, increased militarization, and government repression of the public:
• a small oligarchy of land-owning elite own most of the farmable land in Guatemala
• large corporations such as sugar plantations, extractive industries (gold, silver, and concrete mining) force communities off their land
violence is at approaching conflict-level rates, particularly violence against women
• The current Guatemalan President, Otto Perez Molina, was a General in the army during the worst violence of the war in 1982 in the Ixil Triangle.

Those in Guatemala who are peacefully working to make their country a better place to live and raise their families are being attacked, threatened, and murdered. Many in Guatemala will say that violence is reaching conflict levels, and unlike during the conflict when the perpetrator was clear (the government security forces), current violence is attributed generally to clandestine networks and organized crime. National and international Human Rights organizations urge that the situation in Guatemala is worsening, most notably with the recent massacre of 8 people at a peaceful protest in Totonicapan.

I focused on Guatemala in most of my projects and papers throughout college and graduate school. In June 2008, I traveled to Guatemala for the first time on a delegation with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA to see the country for myself. I returned again in August of 2009 as a co-leader of the delegation, and to conduct field research for my graduate degree.

I was mesmerized by the beauty of the country juxtaposed with the terrible violence of the past, and the present. The connection to the earth and the people that I felt is something that will always stay with me. It is difficult to put into words. I hope that my photographs can convey it partly, but going and seeing it all for your self is a profound experience.


“Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala,” Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. Doubleday Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1982.
“Banana Companies in Guatemala: A century of Abuse of Land and Labor Rights,” Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA Fact Sheet.
“Searching for Everardo: A story of love, loss, and the CIA,” Jennifer Harbury.
“GUATEMALAN DEATH SQUAD DOSSIER: Internal Military Log Reveals Fate of 183 “Disappeared,” The National Security Archive, 1999.
“Operation Sofia: Documenting Genocide in Guatemala,” Kate Doyle, The National Security Archive, 2009.
“The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth,” by Dianna Ortiz and Patricia Davis, 2004.

8 responses to “Why Guatemala?

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