Maya Community Celebrates 20th Anniversary of their Return to Guatemala

After living nearly fifteen years in exile, the community of Nuevo Amanecer thrives
by August 24, 2018
 

 Este artículo está disponible en español aquí On July 27th, the Maya Mam community of Nuevo Amanecer celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of their town and twenty years of successful democratic self-governance. Through the celebration, Nuevo Amanecer commemorates its triumphs having survived genocide and attempted erasure,  building their sustainable way of life without any support from government, and preserving the town’s historical memory by engaging the youth directly in the preservation process. The town represents the hope of new beginnings and the resilience of indigenous peoples who must overcome even the most harrowing challenges.

The town was founded in 1998 by a group of fifty-two families from different regions of Guatemala including Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos upon their return from exile in Mexico. The community members fled genocidal violence and government repression in the 1980’s during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala to live in exile in Chiapas, Mexico. During the internal armed conflict — which started with the 1954 coup and intensified during the thirty-six year war — the Guatemalan government, supported by the United States, committed massive human rights violations, including what the United Nations found to be evidence of genocide, targeting Indigenous Maya communities.

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After living nearly fifteen years in exile, the community members, with the help of a Catholic priest, Father Juan Jose Aldaz, organized a return to Guatemala after the signing of the peace accords in December 1996. Fifty-two families finally arrived to a piece of land the community purchased in southwestern Guatemala on July 27, 1998, founding the community Nuevo Amanecer, or “New Dawn.”

Youth preparing handmade decorations for anniversary celebration (photo credit Emily Willard)

The anniversary celebration commemorates their return to their beloved community and twenty years of practicing democratic self-governance to transform an overgrown tract of land into their new home and the foundation for a better future for their children. Since the founding of the town, the people have built themselves what they call viviendas dignas or “dignified homes” of concrete, the town’s catholic church, school, medical clinic, and the cobblestone street. Without support from the federal or municipal governments, the community members have installed electricity, indoor plumbing, running water, and have made improvements to their potable water access, all with international support through relationships they have worked to cultivate.

Commemorating 20 Years

The anniversary celebration commenced on the evening of July 27th with a traditional Maya ceremony — performed by Maya K’iche’ Spiritual Guide Don Edgar Pérez — in recognition of those who had fallen for the community, twenty years of prosperity for Nuevo Amanecer, and those who support the community. Pérez encouraged the audience to take photos and video in order to help educate others about Maya traditions.

Ronald Cifuentes, a community member and one of the adult leaders of the youth, explained his motivation for organizing the ceremony: “Many of the youth have not had the experience of a Maya ceremony, so this will be their first time. It is important for them to remember their Maya roots and to learn about the traditions of where they came from.”

Maya Ceremony performed by Maya K’iche’ Spiritual Guide Don Edgar Pérez (photo credit Juan Jimenez)

The anniversary festivities continued the next day with Father Regino de Leon Taracena celebrating the Catholic Eucharist at 9am. In the homily, Father Regino spoke of the parable of the wheat and weeds, and asked the community, what kind of wheat are we trying to grow?  He spoke of “living our own exodus in Mexico,” and encouraged people to not lose their ideals, and to keep working together.

He went on to congratulate the community for their continued commitment to organized democratic self-governance, stating, “when you are organized you can do more than when you are divided; when you are divided you can’t advance.” Father Regino recalled the challenges of exile in Mexico, and the triumph of their return: “we were dispersed. Now we are here, we’re fighting for humanity, a better life. If you don’t remember the past you will repeat it. We want to make it better, and to keep improving.” He encouraged the parents of the youth, “don’t let hope die with you. We want to do something new and different.”

After the mass, community members and visitors shared a meal of chicken, rice, and mole sauce with tamales de chipilin cooked by the women in the community. The meal preparations began the day before, and continued with women rising at 3am to prepare the corn masa for the tamales, and grind the toasted ingredients for the mole sauce. The women cooked the food in the same large pots that were used to make communal meals when they first arrived in 1998.

That afternoon, the town’s men participated in a soccer tournament, playing against teams from other towns — with Nuevo Amanecer’s team winning the championship game. The women participated in a basketball tournament, Nuevo Amanecer’s team losing to a neighboring community. Winning teams received a prize of Q500 (approximately US $70).

Noche Cultural

The celebration ended with the noche cultural or “cultural night” that was organized by community youth. The noche cultural opened with a prayer during which community spiritual leader Don Jose Cardona recounted acts of violence that the community faced in Guatemala in the 1980s, and their exodus to and exile in Mexico. He shared details of the horrific violence he witnessed and explained, “this is why we went to Mexico,” noting the culpability of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, and the army’s use of tierra arrasada, or “scorched earth policy” in which entire towns were burned to the ground, killing all that was living. Don Cardona explained that it was at the School of the Americas in the United States where the Guatemalan military “learned to kill lots of people.” He recalled, “this is why we left.” He asked everyone to observe a minute of silence to remember the fallecidos, those who had fallen.

The evening’s main event, for which youth leaders Joél López and Lesly Choj served as masters of ceremony, featured traditional Guatemalan and Maya dances organized and performed by the youth and children. Traditional dances included the “Barrilete,” the “Son el ferrocarril de los altos” by Yessy Carreto, and the “Dance of the Four Cardinal Directions” organized by Lesly Choj. The youth explained the name and history of the dance, and the region of Guatemala it originated. Following the youth performances, a local marimba group played traditional Guatemalan music, and a DJ provided dance music.

Four cardinal direction dance performed by Nuevo Amanecer youth (photo credit Emily Willard)

Obdulia Rodríguez, president of the Women’s Committee and Juan Jiménez, president of the Youth Committee, explained the importance of commemorating every year the community’s return to Guatemala from Mexico:

“We celebrate our return from Mexico to Guatemala as one more year of happiness. It is a memorial to the date that we arrived, and a time to give thanks to the organizing and motivation of Father Juan José Aldas, with whom this community was formed. Father Juan José, because of his untiring work, was by our side in exile, and here in Guatemala. We chose the name “new dawn” because we arrived in an afternoon not familiar with anything, and we awoke the next day with everything new and different.”

Community elders recalled why “Nuevo Amanecer” was chosen as the name of the town, and how the name reflects the ideas upon which the community was founded:

“After a long process in a foreign territory, returning to our beloved country, we started a new process of life and creating something new. We had a dream of returning to our country, reuniting with our families, being able to express ourselves, continue our studies, and stand up for our rights. We dreamed of having a small piece of our own land, and now we have the community of Nuevo Amanecer and small parcels of land to grow coffee.”

The elders described why it is important to remember and commemorate every year the return to Guatemala:

“It is because of this that every year we share the stories with our young people and children to preserve the stories, but also ensure that they value the land and preserve it as an inheritance for all generations. We tell the story also so that the young people and children value the struggle and sacrifices of their parents during time in Guatemala in the mountains, while in exile in Mexico, and here in our community.”

Economic Challenges and Progress

While Nuevo Amanecer gathers every year to celebrate their successes, many members also acknowledge the challenges the community faces — in particular, economic challenges. Many people struggle to secure a fixed income because of a lack of job opportunities, particularly youth and women. Due to the violence during the war, and the families’ experience of exile, many adults were not able to complete their education. In some cases community members have been able to obtain jobs as teachers in the local school, police officers, working for political parties, and small business owners, however even with an education, there is a constant struggle to find secure employment. Many families rely on fluctuating manual labor jobs on nearby plantations and massive monoculture projects. In an effort to address this issue, members of Nuevo Amanecer have developed two programs, each run by committees: a scholarship program, and a new visitantes solidarias or “visitors in solidarity” program.

A Seattle-based non-profit foundation, New Dawn Guatemala, raises funds to support Nuevo Amanecer’s scholarship program which is administered by a democratically elected committee of adults and youth in the community. Scholarships are distributed to families for students to continue studying after completing primary school in order to gain vocational skills. President of the Women’s Committee Obdulia Rodríguez said that “thanks to the scholarships, graduates are working as nurses, mechanics, and in design. Soon, other young people will graduate as teachers.” As a part of the program, scholarship recipients participate in monthly, community organized educational assemblies and service projects in Nuevo Amanecer. Youth leaders explain that it is important for scholarship recipients to not only receive funds to go to school, but to learn about community development and give back to the town by serving their families and neighbors.

Nuevo Amanecer youth and scholarship recipients participate in community cleanup service project in preparation for the 20th anniversary celebration. (photo credit Juan Jiménez)

In an effort to bring additional economic opportunity to the community, Nuevo Amanecer has recently started to develop a program for people to visit the town and learn about the town’s historical memory and current projects. Originally termed the “eco-tourism” project, the committee leadership decided to change the name to the “visitors” project because the term “tourism” connotes a business-like transaction, where as the community aims to develop and foster new relationships with visitantes solidarias, or “visitors in solidarity.” They felt that the new name more accurately reflected their goals.

The newly formed Visitors Committee runs a guest house, and is currently organizing more structured volunteer programs and tours and trips to local ecological features. One community member who is excited about the new project explained that the visitor’s program “provides important opportunities for work for women who otherwise would not have access to employment.” She explained that the community as a whole benefits from the visitor’s program, both economically and by creating new relationships with the visitors.

Balancing Past and Future

Youth leader Juan Jiménez spoke about challenges faced by the town’s youth, particularly the balance between remembering the past, and building a new, modern future. He explains that some youth are disinterested in the past because “when people come from other countries, they motivate us, because we don’t want to be left behind. How do we continue forward carrying the stories of our parents and continuing their fight into the future?”  He explained that “we need to know more about the story of the past. We are conscience of all the suffering, we can change Guatemala.” Jiménez continued:

“We are in a critical situation, the bad news, the crime, there’s not much information that benefits us; there are many problems and delinquency. We need to maintain our traditions; and, other people are interested and benefit from our traditions but we don’t always have the knowledge or remember them. We can’t move forward if we don’t know about and remember our past, our foundation. We are here, if we want, we can make change.”

One of the ways that the youth are attempting to balance the past and future is the creating of a Facebook page for the community, “Caserio Nuevo Amanecer” which updates followers on the town’s current projects, focusing on the work of youth, and also serves to document, preserve, and share the town’s past.

“One of many memories of the return to Guatemala” July 1998, from “Caserio Nuevo Amanecer” Facebook page, courtesy of the Jiménez-López family.

Through the scholarship program, Jiménez was able to earn a baccalaureate degree in medicine. His dream is to continue to study at the university to become a doctor, and return to Nuevo Amanecer to serve his community. Meanwhile, he serves as a youth leader, motivating the young people to learn about their past, and work on building Nuevo Amanecer’s future as members of the new generation.