Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Dateline:
Hurricane’s aftermath threatens even basic necessities

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 12, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father David Baronti Hurricane Stan, which on the one hand destroyed our area’s corn crop in October, has on the other hand reconfirmed a Hurricane Mitch impression from six years ago: Our Ixtahuacán will never produce an isolate culture.

Isolate languages are like those of the Mississippi Natchez and the Iberian Basques that reveal no relationship to any other, that have outlived their parent and cousin languages in a test of time in which they alone kept the faith through eons of amalgamating foreign influences and overlords.

But our people do not wish to have an isolate culture. It does matter that the Ixtahaucán communities that arranged themselves after Stan on the top of a mountain plateau like a jigsaw puzzle thrown together without order showed a certain reflexive solidarity in rejecting President Berger’s personal order to them on Dec. 9 to leave their “unacceptable” location in favor of areas far away “where they will not be speaking the languages of their fathers.”

Their tenacity in clinging to their new regions responds to forces that have little to do with their words.

When one surveys the wreckage of Stan – the 500 tents bunched together on the 11,000 foot site close to a gale-beset ledge overlooking the distant beauty of Lake Atitlán, where bougainvilleas glow at sunset and the fulsome of face walk around in shorts, but as far removed from that postcard land as the rich man and Lazarus on this earth, one surveys a scene that, except for breakdown of traditional culture, could not have occurred.


• If the outlier village of Tzamchaj divided into two equal parts (the half that remained and the half that emigrated) the causative factors seem less to be found in numbers than in the makeup of the constituent parts: the half that left is overwhelmingly Evangelical Protestant, antagonistic to the traditional culture.

• Likewise in the Tzamjuyub outliers: the causative factor in their migration would seem to be found less Stan than in the fact that that group is the one group in the wider area that is almost entirely Evangelical and so of equal attitude to the traditional culture.

• Similarly, although not identically, even in the case of the two Pa K’utama’ outliers, whose inhabitants fled when the surrounding mountains jettisoned arroyos that could have carried off an entire village each one of them had scorned – even there the causative factor would be located less in the rains than in subgroup of young males (Pa K’utama’ has no Evangelicals) that convinced the others at the very peak of the storm to stumble and fall, up through the pathless rain and thorn, up over one cliff after another – with the mountains collapsing around them like an Apocalypse Now picture – up, by hands as well as feet, toes as well as fingernails, up 7,000 feet to the site inhabited now by their begrimed and shivering children.


The old Pa K’utama’ is less accessible now: one must hike to Tzamchaj along the road that Stan disallowed for vehicles, and from there mountain-goat-it 800 steps along narrow ledges and remains of path to a river below, and then climb 2,000 steps to the crest of the mountain on the other side of the valley, and then 1,000 steps down again on the far side of that mountain to the Pa K’utama’ River.

One finds little of the wreckage that one would have expected from the people’s reports. To be sure, the marks of Stan are still dreadfully evident – in front of the village, a 100-meter-wide, nearly vertical swath of a stonefield on either side of a rivulet that had become during Stan a river, and another, less steep, of equal width through the center of the hamlets’ widely spaced houses and about 30 meters from the school. Seeing this, one can understand that they had more than enough reason to flee – but why, after all was said and done, did not they return? Except for the possibility that the storm owed its origin to the depleted ozone layer, a storm like this will not occur again for 100 years.

The school house itself is almost a call to tears: the generations of caprioling children from this onetime parish project excitedly miming out their laj nuk’arne’l (my little lamb) songs (with faces as fresh as the shepherded creatures) are still there. One finds coffee beans left in the baskets around the homes, and the ubiquitous verdure. Why do they remain in the chloroform desert waiting for the first cross to be placed in the black earth floor? Why do they not return?

And even more to the point, the other peoples from the other hamlets who were not affected even to the degree of their current Pa K’utama’ neighbors – why do they not return?


I really do not know, but if one wishes to find another objective correlative for a part of the answer – a physical symbol that can explain a dynamic that is interior – one can perhaps look at those who were really dispossessed by the storm: the four village catechists – each a paramount leader in the respective village, in the miniature theocracies as they were before: Miguel Guachiac of Pa K’utama’, Lorenzo Tzaput of PaCorral, Santos Rosario of Tzamjuyub and Antonio Guachiac of Tzamchaj. Like Sebastian Guarchaj after Mitch, each refused the role of Moses to his people during the storm. In the case of Miguel, he remained alone on the exploding earth.


…One has to admire the little man, diminutive even by local standards, with the narrow eyes and fast, high-pitched voice bespeaking intensity and a focus that is the hallmark of the local leader. That a person should stand alone is practically unheard of for these people who walk in groups as Morman missionaries walk in pairs, and whose word for neighbour reveals a great deal about the culture. It is ajil tz’aqat – one’s complement one’s fulfilling part. Like most of the older people, his religion is his center. The deeply personal experience of his life, when he talks about them, are invariably faith-centered – for instance, the time that he travelled to a catechist’s meeting near Lake Atitlan where he became violently ill with a nausea accompanying headache which persisted until the moment he received the Eucharist with the words, “Jesus, you are here.”

For him, the storm was a test of faith that his community failed. He laments his companions´ spiritual “softness” in following a group (the youth) whose faith is not yet mature. Asked why he moved to another village instead of rejoining his people, he replies with fervor: “the place is too cold, and they have no water.”


Even though Miguel’s analysis of the land dovetails with that of Guatemala’s president, mentioned earlier, one senses another reason nearer the core.

If, after Mitch, I, in watching the young people occupy the parish Church and strip it bare, felt a certain helplessness in the face of this savvy new generation who could exploit the reliquaries for political power, Miguel, too, must have felt dispossessed by these youngsters whom he had prepared for First Holy Communion only a few years earlier.

Did any of us really realize the consequences of putting the kids in the hands of teachers of a competing, more material culture? In any case, it would not have mattered.The elders would have paid any price to have their children in a situation different from that of the poverty and humiliation that they endure.

For the youth, the separation from physical Ixtahuacán six years ago was but a metaphor for their separation from the old culture – a first step towards what is for them the world’s real center – the United States, where most of the youth that left six years ago in fact now are.

The sufferings the people in climbing to the tops of our mountains is perhaps but corollary to the sufferings and deaths (we have three cases already) that others endure in attempting to climb to that secular Heaven that beckons long distance at the rest of them from everywhere, in the conspicuous McDonald’s and Burger King installations that bilocate and multi-locate with their advertising and that have sprung up all over in the past few years and are but metonym for an alluring American physical presence that is everywhere. The suffering is but a first step towards the country that is beckoning them even as it closes its doors.


In an audience with Guatemala’s first lady, Wendy de Berger, I and a recent group of visitors expressed admiration for her government’s reflex immediate (“so unlike New Orleans”) relief effort. Only afterwards did someone raise the question of the first lady´s concern for native cultures.

In fact, unless they are out-of-the-box types like Bolivia’s new president, Latin leaders, when they speak of nation building, envision the amalgamation of the autochthonous peoples into a greater commercial culture that will not stop at a single border. Such is the world today, with the Lacandones peddling cloth on the streets of Merida and the Amazonian Auca in Quito, Ecuador, it is unlikely that any isolate cultures will anywhere again emerge. For however much this reducing of the world’s cultural gene pool may be an evolutionists nightmare,the one country’s “melting pot” of a century ago has become more of a “meltdown” that is exponentially bigger.


During that same interview, I referred Dona Windy to my greatest concern.: that the greatest calamity of Stan in our area would not seem to be the visible but the less visable one – the destruction of the area’s corn The government’s rush to relief effort is doing nothing to help those others who did not leave the lands of their ancestors. The government and the NGO commitment to the refugees seems obvious. For whatever agonies that they are enduring, they, at least for the present, are being provided for. One sees the gigantic cisterns in the camps and the bags of corn. But what about these others who did not evoke public sympathy with the dramatic evacuations and the accompanying pictures in the newspapers?

Certainly, the First Lady knows about the problem, even as she turned back to talking about her many projects rather than giving answer – that if something is not done, a Sudan-like famine could occur.

The typical subsistence farmer in our area grows no more corn in a typical year than will last his family for five months – from the January harvest, until May when he begins to purchase the larger landholders’ reserves. In the succeeding months, he spends perhaps a third of his disposable income on corn. In years of great scarcity, as those prices double, he will be spending not just two- thirds but far more. Because his own crop failed, he will need to purchase not seven but 12 months’ supply of corn. The arithmetic is obvious. Without help, his family will go hungry, perhaps starve.

Vast forces are arrayed today against the Miguel Guachiacs in this new melting pot of a world that will prevent the formation of any isolate cultures. As their sons and daughters struggle to conform, one can only hope that in their inarticulateness, their basic needs at least will be provided for.

(Father Baronti, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane, has been a missioner in Guatemala for over three decades.)

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