Memoir: Looking Back at My Peace Corps Experience in Guatemala

Memoir: Looking Back at My Peace Corps Experience in Guatemala

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.

How We Remember Terrible Things

I've been thinking a lot lately about memory and history. I took all of those thoughts, wrote some short historical snapshots, and wrote a long-form blog post tied together some creative non-fiction and some photos. All this to say, here is a writing experiment. I can only hope it makes sense.

How do we remember terrible things?

History and Memory

Though related, history and memory are not the same. History is the study of change over time. Memory is how we remember the past. People interpret history and create memory of it. Both subject to changes in interpretation.

The Legacy of Slavery in Brazil

We remember terrible things by excavating memories of the past.

People in the United States remember the stain of slavery in a different way than people in other places. Public monuments in the Caribbean and Latin America celebrate the end of slavery, suggesting a landscape of liberation, a reckoning with an ugly and violent racial past that has no place in the present moment. Monuments to commemorate the end slavery in Latin America look nice, but Latin America isn’t the mythical “racial democracy.” One doesn’t have to look very far to find evidence of deep racism throughout the region. Monuments of liberation haven’t shifted underlying systemic structural violence towards people of color.

If slavery is the original sin of the United States (in tandem with dispossession and genocide towards native peoples), we might think about about how nations like Brazil have remembered their long histories of slavery. (To be clear, comparing public memory in Brazil and the U.S. is not a perfect comparison. Nothing like the Confederacy existed.)

Slavery was a crucial part of colonial projects in the Americas, beginning with the enslavement of indigenous people. Because disease killed many native peoples, colonial powers imported millions of enslaved Africans. Scholars estimate that between 10 and 16 million enslaved Africans imported to the Americas. Brazil received four to five million slaves, around 40% of the total estimate. The U.S., in comparison, received 6%. Eventually, 60-70% of enslaved people ended up in Brazil or the Caribbean.

Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil came from West Africa. Many of the enslaved people who arrived in Rio came from what today is Angola. Possibly as many as 900,000 people passed through the Cais do Valongo in Rio de Janiero. Slave markets and mass graves were located nearby. The living were bought and sold, the dead thrown into mass graves.

 African slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888. Brazil was the last Western nation to do so.

In the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and Nazi violence, the United Nations formed UNESCO in 1945. UNESCO set out to understand the concept of race in a new way to prevent future horrors. UNESCO’s 1951 statement of race rejected the racial thinking and biological determinism of the past. It proclaimed

“From a morphological point of view, moreover, it is impossible to regard one particular race as superior or inferior to another.”

Because of Brazil’s long history of slavery and miscegenation, the nation became the focus of post-WWII race studies. UNESCO sponsored race studies in Brazil in the 1950s, operating on the assumption that a place with such a complex racial composition had mastered the art of racial harmony. What researchers found, however, was a much more complicated problem than they’d assumed. Race studies began in Bahia, the state with the most evident African influence and blackest population. The scope of the investigation widened as researchers confronted several problems with the project, as their research showed entrenched patterns of structural racism.

Cais do Valongo was rediscovered in 2011 during the public renovations to the city of Rio for the 2016 Olympic games. The Cais do Valongo is one of the few tangible remnants that reminds us of the magnitude and unspeakable cruelty of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. A research center and museum now stands there. A proposed memorial at the site includes native African plants and public spaces where slaves might have perhaps practiced capoiera.

Not many slavery memorials exist in Brazil today.

City Beautiful Movement and Denver

We remember terrible things through things we build.

The City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century sought to use monumental architecture to not only beautify cities, but also to instill certain civic values and a sense of moral virtue in the residents of cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. The City Beautiful proponents favored monumental neoclassical architecture because it emphasized harmony and dignity, but above all, social order.  The people, of course, targeted by the City Beautiful movement, were the people city planners thought needed to learn these things: women, people of color, the working class.

Fears of losing control over established social order framed the world’s fairs of the 19th century that inspired the City Beautiful movement. The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893 provided a watershed moment for city planners. Known as the White City, the fairgrounds featured neoclassical buildings, thought to inspire symmetry and balance. The manicured lawns and beautiful architecture of world’s fairs reflected an imaginary vision of the world, one in which people behaved according to racial, classist, and gendered social norms.

The City Beautiful movement also reflected the aims of the popular eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. Eugenics seemed like cutting-edge science. Many world’s fairs featured exhibits fairs provided an opportunity for scientists to teach the public about eugenics. In 1920, the world’s fair in Kansas City held a Fitter Family contest to measure the eugenic fitness of entire families.

The City Beautiful movement influenced city planning in Denver, where I now live. Enacted under the leadership of Mayor Robert Speer (1904-1912), the architecture of the Civic Center park reflected the City Beautiful movement’s goals.  Denver of the early 20th century was a rapidly changing city. In particular, the Labor Movement threatened to upend established social norms.


Efforts to stamp out the labor movement culminated in the 1914 Ludlow massacre, when the National Guard massacred striking coal miners and their families. Ludlow itself has been abandoned, but a small memorial marks the site. A Woodie Guthrie song also commemorates the strikers.

By the mid-1920s, the KKK controlled most government functions and offices in Denver. Much like mayor Speer, mayor Benjamin Stapleton sponsored many architecture projects, including the famed Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Denver Municipal Airport.The airport became known as Stapleton. When the airport closed in 1995, the neighborhood was renamed Stapleton and redeveloped into subdivisions. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to change the name of the neighborhood. BLM suggests Justina Ford, the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in Denver.

Political power, racial oppression, and public space merge together in memory.

The Oppressive Beauty of Memory

We remember terrible things through beautiful things.

Material culture (for non-historians: stuff) that seem to celebrate culture can also be used to create historical narratives that erase history.   Things that sometimes seem to celebrate racial difference are often complicit in reinforcing it.

One of the stories that I tell in my book manuscript is about a New York fashion designer named Ruth Reeves. She traveled to Guatemala to collect textiles for the Carnegie Institute.  

Ruth Reeves took the Mayan textiles she created and produced textile designs for the Macy’s department store. Her show opened to rave reviews. People admired the timelessness of the traditional designs and marveled over how a people so far from modernity could possibly produce creative designs that seemed so fresh and vibrant. In doing so, she shaped the idea of the material culture of native peoples as artifacts of folklore. She helped to create in public imaginations what Peter Nabokov terms the cute ways of brown people.



Vibrant indigenous culture is often the result of brutality, violence, and exploitation, not centuries of unbroken pre-Hispanic rituals. Reeves helped create a story in which native peoples produced beautiful and authentic textiles just like they did at the time of the Spanish conquest. The story she helped create papered over a long history of oppression, racism, extermination, and discrimination. Nostalgia for an invented and romantic past oppresses people as much as Confederate monuments.

Tourists today often talk about the beauty of indigenous textiles in Guatemala.

The Vietnam Wall

We remember terrible things differently.

The Vietnam Wall sends no heroic message. A wall, by definition, has two sides.

 I had students once do oral history interviews with family and friends who had living memory of Vietnam. Their interviews showed families often torn apart by the war.

It is still divisive, a scar on the national psyche.

There is also a wall to the South, divisive in other ways and a reminder of injustices there.

Remembering terrible things in Guatemala: (no) hubo genocidio

We remember terrible things when people will not let us forget them.

The armed conflict in Guatemala, stemming from the 1954 overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz, claimed around 200,000 lives. Another 40,000 were desaparecidos.

Rios Montt was tried and convicted in a national court for the crime of genocide in 2013. His conviction was overturned shortly afterwards.

In 2014, the Guatemalan congress adopted a non-binding resolution that denied any state attempts to commit genocide.In 2015, then president Otto Perez Molina affirmed: “No hubo genocidio.”

Turns out, a lot of people agreed with this statement. Many people rejected the genocide label; they felt that genocide was not something that happened in civilized nations like Guatemala.

The pillars that surround the main Cathedral in the plaza in Guatemala City bear the names of the victims of the conflict that the government insists was not genocide.

The community of Rio Negro still remembers the massacres, including the one on March 13, 1982. Surviving community members established an educational center to remember the victims of violence. They now walk visitors up the path to the summit of Pa’koxom, where 177 women and children were murdered by government forces.

A small memorial now commemorates the site.


We remember and yet forget terrible things.