Mayan tragedy, dignified memory


Relatives to the south are suffering tonight after devastating weather once
more reminds us how fragile our human condition really is. These days, it
seems nature is returning a fury on the Earth. Death and displacement are
everywhere at once.

In Guatemala, in the central area of Santiago Atitlan, torrential rain on
top of deforestation brought down the side of a mountain and buried a whole
village. Hundreds more were killed at Tacana, about 12 miles from the
Mexican border, while about another 100 communities were isolated by the
floods. The storm is estimated to have killed hundreds more in San Marcos
Department of Guatemala and more than 100 others in Mexico, Costa Rica and

This was the impact last week of Hurricane Stan, younger brother of Katrina
and Rita, and 16 others in the brood so far this year. New Orleans and the
Mayans of Atitlan together suffer the effects of violent winds and
voluminous waters. In Guatemala, as in New Orleans, an inept national
system showed its disregard for the marginally poor of the society.

An ancient Maya village of strongly rooted Tzutujil indigenous people lost
perhaps as many as 800. This was the community of Panabaj, near Lake
Atitlan, engulfed by a swath of mud 20 feet deep and a half-mile wide.
Whole families were buried in their own homes while they slept. For days
after the mudslide and other accidents from the storm, no outside help
reached the communities. Washed-out roads and other troubles got in the
way, but so did disregard.

The Indian mayor of Atitlan mocked the elite racism in Guatemala in media
interviews: "For them, they say, 'Ah, they are only the indigenous.'" In
Atitlan, as the few relatives dug with spades and machetes for their
families, five days went by. The bulk of their support came from other,
less-affected Indian villages that sent food and clothing across the lake
by boats and canoes.

Then the army showed up. In Guatemala, beyond the devastation from natural
disaster, the not-so-distant policy of military massacre in Indian
communities blankets another layer of complexity on all societal movement
-- even rescue operations.

In Atitlan, the people threw the national army out in 1990 after drunken
soldiers killed 13 people in just one night. This came on the heels of half
a decade of murders and disappearances of town officials and other civic
leaders, carried out primarily by the army and its death squads. A 20-year
civil war in Guatemala intensified horrifically as a result of the
much-vaunted "Reagan Doctrine," which in Latin America became the green
light for repression by assassination or massacre of anything and anyone
that looked like or supported any type of popular social change.

It took a lot of courage for the people of Santiago Atitlan to kick out the
army in 1990, but this is the caliber of the people from those lakeside
communities. The army's unceremonious eviction, the focus of world media
attention, signaled the waning of its prestige and power and ushered in a
new phase of the anti-communist war -- one that resulted in workable peace
accords by 1996. One of the most traditional and ancient cultures and
languages among the 22 Mayan nations, the Tzutujil are respected for their
strength of cultural identity throughout Maya Guatemala.

Last week, when the army arrived and soldiers were offered to dig for
buried victims, people from Santiago Atitlan blocked them from entering.
Before allowing army soldiers to dig for their dead relatives, the people
asked that the whole site of the buried village be declared hallowed
ground: a cemetery for the many people who would never be dug out. This was
accepted and legalized by the national government.

Indigenous-to-indigenous contacts north and south nearly 30 years ago
initiated a powerful set of dialogues with Maya people. In mutual visits
even then, many family-to-family and leader-to-leader friendships were
made. Since then, numerous visits and exchanges have taken place. We urge
all those who know the Maya and have recognized them as relatives over the
years to consider donating in some way to their recovery from the recent
ravages of Hurricane Stan.

One sustained and trustworthy relationship has been with the indigenous-run
relief and development group ADEEC-Guatemala (Association for Educational
and Economic Development). Led by its president, don Roderico Teni, ADEEC
has organized a network of indigenous and other non-governmental
organizations who are working with the most affected communities at
Santiago Atitlan and at San Marcos. Items most needed include storable
foods, water purification tablets, blankets, coats and tents. ADEEC is
organized to receive small and large shipments of such items. Some items,
such as water and building materials, are best acquired in the region.
Financial contributions can be tax-deductible. Guaranteed special-delivery
shipping is best.

Tribes, organizations and individuals wishing to assist, may contact
Roderico Teni at ADEEC/Indigenous Hurricane Response, 15 Calle B, 17-50
Colonia San Ignacio, Zona 7 de Mixco, Guatemala, CA; by calling 502 2
434-5906; or e-mailing or