Produce stand along the streets of Guatemala City feed and house and educate its own people; but for forty years, since a Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored coup during the Eisenhower administration toppled an elected civilian president and installed a military government, Guatemala has waged a war of extermination against its own population. Luis and Patricia’s experience was not uncommon. It was so ordinary that the verb desaparecer, to disappear, is used in Guatemala verb, as in: Luis was disappeared from First Street; or the army disappeared Luis. Unlike Luis, many do not live to tell the tale. More than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in Guatemala The CIA claimed the coup was necessary to contain the Red Menace; in reality the agency was helping make the world safe for an American banana company, United Fruit, which was alarmed about the new Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman’s modest democratic reforms, especially a program that parceled small land holdings from idle company property to landless peasants. United Fruit orchestrated an artful public relations campaign, including a series of press junkets to Guatemala. “If the Arbenz forces are successful,” opined Clay Felker in Life, “the Kremlin will gain a de facto foothold in the Western Hemisphere.” That apocalyptic Cold War vision of freedom under siege permeated American policy in Central America, even after the Soviet Bloc collapsed. The years since have brought many instances of covert CIA collaboration with Guatemalan military murderers. And U.S. foreign aid has allowed the Guatemalan army to continue terrorizing its own people, crushing dissent in the name of anti-Communism. What sort of dissent was Luis Yax-Patzan engaged in? Put simply, and it is simple, he wanted a better chance in life, and so he peaceably protested the government’s education policies, and organized fellow students to do likewise. That may not seem like NOVEMBER 8, 1996 much of a crime elsewhere, but in a country where the government kills its own people with regularity and impunity, only acquiescence is logical. To resist official policy, to do so as a leader of and in concert with others, is often a prima facie death warrant in Guatemala. Indeed, compared to others arrested or kidnapped, Luis was, of course, fortunate. “I knew I was very lucky,” he says. “Usually they kill you.” Luis Humberto Yax-Patzan aspired to rise above humble beginnings, to improve his lot through schooling. He was born in 1974 and grew up in a small stucco cube of a house with his mother and two siblings in a densely populated Louis Dubose shantytown on the northwest ern edge of the city, not far from the municipal garbage dump. The family had no car; the house was inaccessible anyway, except on foot. To reach home Luis hiked down an embankment over ashen dirt paths and a deep ravine into a dry river-bed settlement of brightly colored cinder-block-andstucco matchboxes and corrugated metal shacks. Then he followed an open drainage ditch past a dirt soccer field, frequently crossing paths with free-ranging swine, before arriving at Thirty-second Avenue, an address that suggests a certain grandeur but in truth is no more than a weed-clogged poor cousin to a sidewalk. Luis’ father, a city bus driver, left home when Luis was seven. His mother supported Luis, his younger brother and older sister, by selling concessions in a university cafeteria. Luis is short, like many Guatemalans, and his is a pleasant, almost cherubic face, with the wide nostrils of a Mayan. Above his dark eyes, his thick black hair is combed in a neat wave. He wears large wire-rim glasses, befitting his thoughtful, studious manner, and totes a backpack weighted with the burdens of scholarship. 1988. The school principal noted that Luis “presented good conduct and cooperative behavior.” The following term he enrolled at Rafael Aqueche Institute, the downtown public middle school and high school near the Plaza Mayor. He proved to be such a good student, particularly in math, science, and English, that he was named his first-year section’s “Student of the Year.” “Congratulations!” his report card stated. “Keep up the good work and you will succeed.” Success came, but with a price. His classmates recognized his intellectual abilities and exemplary behavior, and in 1990 elected Luis president of the eighth-grade class. As class president, he also served as delegate to the school’s student association. With the honors came responsibility and visibility. And with visibility came danger. The association elected a representative to CEEM, the citywide coordinating THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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