Very much in line with the old adage, nothing turns out the way it is planned. Today really wasn’t about volcanoes, it was about Mayans.
Ruben, my multi-linguistic Mayan guide, introduced me to the history and plight of his people. Of course, I saw volcanoes – beautiful and steaming – but they were not nearly as interesting as Ruben’s comments and explanations.
It’s not that I live in innocent bliss or in a protective bubble. In fact, I like to believe that I am relatively well informed. So why am I still surprised (…at my age) when I am confronted with blatant injustice in our world? As the human race, aren’t we supposed to move forward, become more civilized and enlightened and compassionate towards our fellow men and women, tolerant of other races, traditions and beliefs? As in other places in the world, such injustice appears to occur in Guatemala and it is primarily directed towards the Mayan people.
With the end of their civilization around the year 900 AD, the Mayan people did not disappear any more than the Italians did when the Roman Empire fell. There are still 4 million Guatemalans with pure Mayan blood lines in the country. But the role they have in determining their own future is diminished. With only 1 token Mayan in the Senate and still 2.5 million Mayans who do not speak Spanish, these ancient people are relegated to the sidelines and the government appears to do little to change that. From their perspective, an educated Mayan is a dangerous Mayan. And after 37 years of civil war and over ¼ million people killed, there is little appetite to ignite the fire, again. Instead, many Mayans are kept in slavery-like working conditions. They labour for wealthy landowners in the sugar cane fields, in the coffee harvest and the cotton plantations. Wages range from US$250 to $350 per month. Men are away from their families in the highlands for 9 months of the year while their wives and children eke out a living with weaving traditional garments and peddling their wares to tourists.
I realize that I only heard one side of the story, but then, if I truly wanted to be a journalist, I would interview government officials. But that might not be wise: according to Ruben, it is dangerous to ask too many questions. There is so much more to this story, I know. What I experienced was a glimpse into the world of an oppressed people. It was disturbing.
Before leaving, I just had to ask Ruben about the volcanoes we had passed while driving through the countryside: “When was the last time one of these volcanoes around Lake Atitlan erupted?” “Two weeks ago” he answered with a smile. “Mayans have a fatalistic outlook on life. We don’t really worry about eruptions.”
Good for them.