Recommended reading on Guatemala

As expected, nobody blew up my métro car or kidnapped me off the street yesterday, so my day proceeded peacefully and I made it to my choir’s performance without incident. No news yet of the CPT members held in Iraq. All I can do is hope.

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I made a few trips to Guatemala in 2000 and 2001. They were my first foray outside of the safe, rich countries I’d been raised in, and although I’ve travelled some more since then, those experiences will never leave my mind. To prepare, I spent a winter reading everything I could find at the University of Waterloo library and in used book stores on the history of Guatemala in the 20th century. Recently, two friends asked for some suggested reading on the area, so I drew up the following list as an introduction.

In general, the historical patterns I saw in Guatemala weren’t that different than those I’ve since learned about elsewhere, especially in nearby countries. One thing which makes the nation stand out in the Americas, however, is its vibrant indigenous culture. Despite the best efforts of 500 years of colonization some two-thirds of the population speak little or no Spanish, wear traditional clothing, and live a lifestyle not all that different from those of their ancestors. It’s a beautiful country and I’d love to go back.

Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America

Walter Lafeber; W. W. Norton & Co., 1993; ISBN 0393309649

Best single historical analysis I’ve read of the region, in just 452 pages of perfectly accessible prose. If I could write one book this good I’d die a happy man. The basic hypothesis is that by suppressing small movements for democratic change which happen to inconvenience them, the United States tends to allow resentment to grow until it becomes strong enough to launch an all-out, violent civil war. Sound familiar?

Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny

Jean-Marie Simon; W. W. Norton & Company, 1987; ISBN 0393305066

Simon’s photos are brilliant and heartbreaking and her prose is its equal. Big glossy photos with impeccable, compelling research; certain to make you cry. It fits better on a coffee table than in a backpack, though. Locals call Guatemala the “land of eternal spring” because in the altiplano, or highlands, where most of the population lives, the climate is a pleasant 20°C year round, with enough rain to make every hillside verdant.

I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

Rigoberta Menchu, with Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (Introduction); Verso, 1987; ISBN 0860917886

You have to read this one if only because everyone else has, and either loved it or hated it, depending on their politics. A simple biography of an indigenous woman’s plight during the revolution, it’s popularity won the author a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s since come to light that she may have embellished the story in several places, but even if the events she recounts didn’t all actually happen to her, they accurately describe the suffering the native peoples of her country endured.

Bird of Life, Bird of Death

Resplendent Quetzal
The Resplendent Quetzal, a small bird with an iridescent tail up to 60cm long. It lives up to its name.

Jonathan Evan Maslow; Laurel, 1987; ISBN 0440507081

The author, a naturalist, decided to travel to Guatemala in the middle of its brutal civil war to document the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of the country, which was already hovering on the edge of extinction. He does want to see the bird — for my money the single most beautiful animal on earth — but his trip is also cover for a personal expedition through the ravaged countryside. The central metaphor surrounds how the quetzal, an important Mayan symbol of life, has been all but displaced by the zopilote, or vulture. (The one I saw was stuffed, in a museum off the central square in Quetzaltenango. I hear you can spend months in the nature reserve dedicated to the quetzal without seeing a live one.)

Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

Stephen C. Schlesinger; Harvard University Press, 1999; ISBN 0674075900

Probably the bestselling popular history of the 1954 coup, in which the “ten years of spring” ushered in by the country’s first democratically elected government was overthrown by the CIA, who did everything from fund militias to fake radio broadcasts to help install a government more friendly to US banana planters. This coup set the course for the country for at least the next 50 years.

Efraín Ríos Montt, servant or dictator?: The real story of Guatemala’s controversial born-again president

Joseph Anfuso; Vision House, 1984; ISBN 0884491102

This one’s out of print, thank god. Published by an evangelical press associated with Pat Robertson, who invited Ríos Montt onto his TV show and introduced him as a “good man and a humble servant of Christ” just days after he took power in a military coup, it describes the former dictator in unbelievably flattering terms. Montt was the worst dictator the country’s ever had — no mean feat. And has he spent his time since then in jail? No, he’s spent it running in presidential elections, coming very close to winning several times. Wikipedia has a brief history, if you’re curious.

Guatemala: Never Again!

Recovery of Historical Memory Project, Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala; Orbis Books, 1999; ISBN 157075294X

I have to confess I never read this one; it’s brutal. Begun shortly after the peace accords of 1996, it’s a single-volume condensation of the official report of the Archdiocese into human rights abuses during the war, which as you might imagine were legion. The report was so well received by the military that the bishop in charge of the project, Monsignor Juan Gerardi, was killed in his home with a brick to the head two days after its release in 1998. I bought it when visiting the Human Right Office in 2000 and it’s been sitting on my shelf accusingly ever since. I still mean to read it some day.

Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary Spanish: Spanish-English/English-Spanish

Langenscheidt Publishers; ISBN 1585730556

301 Spanish Verbs: Fully Conjugated in All the Tenses

Christopher Kendris; Barron’s Educational Series; ISBN 0812024974

While of course the primary written and oral sources are all Spanish or Mayan, locals told me that the best histories of Guatemala, particularly of the periods of violence, are all in English, since it wasn’t safe to write them in the country. However, nothing will give you an understanding of the character of the place like actually going there and meeting the people, and that requires learning Spanish. These are my two personal favourite language references. Of course, you’d have to take some lessons too, which is cheaper and more effective if you do it there. The Spanish school I went to was great and I’d highly recommend it if you’re planning to go, although there are many to choose from.

El señor Presidente (The President)

Miguel Ángel Asturias; Various editions, first published 1946

Asturias, a Guatemalan diplomat and author, was the recipient of a Nobel Prize in literature. This novel, his best known, traces the story of a dictator and an uprising. Asturias’ son Rodrigo would later go on to become one of the leaders of the URNG, the main opposition group during the civil war, and after the peace accords their presidential candidate.

The Long Night of White Chickens

Francisco Goldman; Grove Press, 1998; ISBN 0802135471

This beautiful novel is the story of an American trying to find out what happened to his Guatemalan adopted sister, who was found dead at home in the middle of the military tyranny of the 1980’s. Engrossed in his journey, we see him come to terms with the character of Guatemala during that period. The novel loosely inspired one role in John Sayle’s film Men With Guns, a reflection on the nature of armed conflict set in an unspecified Latin American country that strongly resembles Guatemala.

Happy reading…