Memoir: Looking Back at My Peace Corps Experience in Guatemala

This week, I wanted to do some writing about looking back at my Peace Corps experience in Guatemala. I'm writing some creative non-fiction here to explore international development, state violence, trauma, and my own role in those stories.

The first time I someone asked me if I ate children, I had to repeat the question to make sure I’d understood correctly. I was still learning Spanish and reasoned that I’d simply misunderstood. I hadn’t. The seriousness of the question and the implication that I was capable of that level of monstrous violence scared me and made me break out in a cold sweat. 

I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. Before I’d left home for my two year service, I’d gone to the library and located it on the map. I read the entry for Guatemala in the World Factbook as additional preparation.

As volunteers-in-training, we learned Spanish, received technical training, and learned how to ride the bus. We learned a dizzying litany of current development buzzwords and phrases: sustainability, grassroots, community-based leadership. When we became full-fledged volunteers and arrived at our sites, we felt confident that we’d be able to carry out the projects we’d been assigned. We did the best we could to carry out our projects. I worked with a local NGO that collaborated with Heifer International (yes, of the Christmas catalogs) to support a dairy goat project in four indigenous communities.

After a year in country, we re-convened as a group to discuss our progress. My fellow volunteers and I discovered that many of our projects suffered from a similar set of symptoms: apathy, disorganization, poor communication, and a lack of support from local agencies and people.  When most of our development projects failed, we blamed ourselves, our local partners, ourselves, and the people we were there to help. What we didn’t realize was that our projects couldn’t possibly succeed because of what we didn’t understand.

We knew that there had been a violent conflict that had ended in 1996, but didn’t understand much about its root causes or the extent of the violence. We didn’t understand the challenges of trying to do “international development” work in a country with such a violent recent past and a legacy of centuries of violence, oppression, and colonialism. We didn’t understand how structural inequalities—expressed in everyday racism, sexism, and classism enforced through violence— and unequal land distribution doomed our projects to failure.

We naively thought that if we explained the benefits of capitalism to the communities we worked with, they’d suddenly be filled with an entrepreneurial spirit and be able to boot-strap their way out of poverty. After all, we were there to provide technical support, know-how, and the spirit of a capitalist work ethic. We fell hard for narratives that linked development to modernity. We were there to bring backwards people into the modern capitalist economy of the twenty-first century.

We had no way to imagine that the communities we worked with were engaged in a much longer struggle for their rights as indigenous people and for the survival of their cultures. We could not image that as a part of their struggle, they resisted our benevolent intentions. Much later, I’d find out about the 1954 U.S.-backed CIA coup and the decades of military dictatorships and violence that followed. Much much later, I’d learn about neoliberalism, the shift to export agriculture, and the ugly underbelly of international development. I'd learn about the massacres that accompanied the construction of the Chixoy dam to generate electrical power. I’d learn about colonialism, imperialism, and dependency theory. I’d learn about the ruthless logic of capitalism and its intimate relationship to state violence. I’d learn about how capitalism, modernity, development, foreign aid and the state conspired to unleash decades of horrific violence against the very people I’d been sent to teach about the magic of capitalism and free enterprise.

People in Guatemala often don’t want to talk about violence, particularly not with strangers. The violence is still too recent, too raw, and too horrible. Nevertheless, I sometimes found myself as the recipient of someone’s story of violence. I arrived to a small aldea one day to check in with the project participants and look at some of the goats. Before I could start, I remember a man explaining to me in broken Spanish that the community had suffered a massacre. From his story, I learned that the army had zoomed up to the aldea in jeeps, separated thirteen men from their families, and shot them on the spot. I don’t know if that man had ever had the opportunity to tell anyone about what had happened to his community. I do know that he seemed to feel compelled to tell his story to me, a random white woman who just happened to be there.

When people did tell me about their experiences with violence and their traumas, there was nothing I could do for them. I listened with all of the respect and reverence that the moment deserved. I witnessed their suffering. It was the only thing I could do.

People also ascribed violence to me in ways that I didn’t understand. Indigenous women with babies refused to sit next to me on the bus, even if that seat was the only one available. They preferred to stand, whispering to each other and watching me suspiciously. A woman sitting in front of me one day explained to me that her friend was worried that I’d eat her baby. My hands felt cold and clammy. People seriously thought I would eat their babies. I didn’t realize until much much later that my very presence in Guatemala as a single white woman traveling alone without her own children transgressed so many cultural boundaries that people believed I really could be capable of anything, even eating babies. It was also not until much later that I learned about Guatemala’s notoriously corrupt international adoption program, in full swing until being shut down in 2007. I learned about how babies were essentially sold to American parents for thousands of dollars for their personal symbolic consumption. On every flight I took out of Guatemala, there were at least three Guatemalan babies with their new white adoptive parents.

Despite Guatemala’s growing reputation for corruption, drug trafficking, homicide, and gang violence, tourists continued to arrive in droves. They strolled the quaint streets of Antigua, visited the tiny villages that ringed Lago de Atitlan, and marveled at the ancient temples of Tikal. Tourists (including me) purchased handmade textiles from indigenous women, driving up the price of huipiles until the weavers themselves could not afford them. People purchased coffee too expensive for ordinary Guatemalans in brightly woven bags to bring home as souvenirs for family members. Tourists visiting Lake Atitlan sometimes told me about how they longed to experience some strange New Age vortices rumored to exist there. People in chic cafes in Antigua sometimes told me about how beautiful they found Maya culture. They also sometimes wistfully pondered how people so poor could still be so happy. The topic of violence rarely, if ever, entered those conversations.

I had these vague feelings that not only was I not helping people, but that I was actually an agent of oppression and not just when people asked me if I was “seeya.” (Oh my lord. People think I’m CIA.) I came to realize that tourists (and Peace Corps volunteers) came to Guatemala precisely to to escape their own hectic modern lives and personally experience the fictional romance and simplicity of Maya culture. Much later, I thought a lot about my own role in people’s stories of violence and how I’d also bought into the romance of supposedly primitive cultures. I thought a lot about how tourism to Maya communities could co-exist with state violence against those same communities, how the state had tried to exterminate the very people that it also wanted to serve as tourist attractions. Much much later, I came to understand that Maya culture hadn’t endured for centuries simply because of unbroken cultural traditions, but had been forged and hardened because of centuries of struggle, violence, and resistance.

These were the thoughts and experiences that drove me to be a historian and to try to understand my own role in people’s stories of violence and trauma.