New Internationalist 322 April 2000
A few months after the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala my partner David Springbett travelled to one of the hardest-hit villages to shoot a documentary for Canadian television.
In San Martín Jilotepeque, a town in the Guatemalan highlands, David visited a project begun four years earlier by a small development agency called World Neighbors. The initial goal of the project was to improve soil and grow better maize. And on that level it was a resounding success: in just his second year with the program, one farmer, Wenceslao Armira, harvested 16 times more maize from his field than his family had ever grown before. But the ultimate goal was to help eliminate poverty. Classes in nutrition, literacy and maternal and child health followed. Gradually people began to take more control of their lives, to work their way out of poverty and malnutrition. Some of the teachers became community leaders. Wenceslao Armira was one of them.
As word of the program’s success spread, development workers from around the world visited. Some even sat in on Wenceslao’s classes. Then in 1974 World Neighbors purchased 60 hectares of local land and sold it on credit to landless families in the community. With improved harvests the former landless peasants could now repay their loans. They became independent farmers rather than dependent farm labourers. Life was changing in this mainly Mayan part of rural Guatemala – conflict with existing power structures was growing as was resentment from local élites who benefited from a landless labour force to work their vast plantations.
We came to Guatemala to make a film that would distinguish between emergency relief after the earthquake and long-term development efforts. People respond emotionally to the drama of a televised natural disaster. But the concept of long-term development is not as easy to explain or to sell. We quickly found the San Martín project, and Wenceslao Armira was suggested as a good person to interview.
He was reluctant at first, uncomfortable because of the attention his participation in the film might draw. But, after some explanation of our goal, he eventually agreed. The community asked only that we change his name, along with the names of other key people. As later events showed, they had good reason to be nervous.
In the film Wenceslao was known as ‘Juan Carlos’. He had a presence, a quiet confidence and intelligence that made him stand apart. If there is such a thing as a natural leader he was one. His community recognized this and so did the Canadian television audience who saw the film. And, inevitably, so did the Guatemalan authorities.
We eventually sent a print of the film to San Martín. We didn’t know until much later that Wenceslao had used it in his work. Showing films, awkward as it was without electricity, was a way to attract audiences to his classes. For local people it was a revelation to see people in a film speaking their language, Kachiquel. But some of the ladinos (wealthy land owners of European descent) resented the fact that a local Indian was in a foreign film. The film raised Wenceslao’s profile considerably.
As political oppression grew in Central America in the 1980s we read and heard reports about Honduras and El Salvador, and occasionally about Guatemala. The news was not good. Eventually we began to get detailed news of San Martín and Wenceslao – stories of violence and murder.
In the winter of 1984 friends of Wenceslao called to tell us that he had joined one of the guerrilla groups and was living in exile in Mexico. Despite the risk he wanted his side of the Guatemalan conflict told and he was willing to talk on camera. Unlike the obvious damage of an earthquake, the devastation of Guatemala’s civil war was largely invisible to the rest of the world.
When we met him in Mexico he was heavier, greyer and older. Seated in a chair, using straightforward language, he talked to our camera about poverty and power as he and his community felt it. He was a Catholic, a development worker and teacher. But in the face of increased brutality from the Guatemalan army, he felt that taking up arms was the only option. It was a painful decision, one he agonized over and discussed at length with his family. And the personal price was high. It meant separating from his wife and five children, putting them in a ‘safe house’ in Guatemala City and living from a backpack in the Peten jungle for 15 long, tough years.
Back at our home in Toronto we tried to combine the Mexican interview with our nine-year-old footage into a new film. Despite the obvious drama to us, it was a hard sell. Neither broadcasters nor development agencies were interested and in the end we were unable to raise enough money to finish this film.
Fast-forward ten years to 1994. We made contact again. Wenceslao was alive and in hiding, but two of his children, Juanito 12 and Quirina 15, had been tortured and killed by the Guatemalan military. His wife Guaya, blaming Wenceslao for their deaths, had broken off their relationship.
A year or so passed and we got more news. Wenceslao was now one of the highest-ranking Maya in the guerrillas; he was advising the non-indigenous guerrilla leadership on Indian rights as outlined in the recently negotiated Peace Accords. He had established a non-governmental organization in Guatemala City and was studying to become a Mayan priest. In addition, he now owned some land near the Mexican border and had a new wife, a Mexican-Mayan woman called Virginia. Now, we thought, Wenceslao’s story was finally ready to be told.
So in 1997 two filmmakers working for us on another project in Mexico agreed to travel to Guatemala to spend a week filming Wenceslao. In this footage he talks about the last 15 years of his life and the decisions he made since we last saw him in 1984. In one heartbreaking sequence he is shown watching the original 1976 film, which he had not seen for many years. The segments included shots of his murdered children when they were young, their whole lives ahead of them. It is impossible to imagine what it was like for him at that moment, confronted with his past and reminded once again of the immense personal cost of his decision.
Then in the autumn of 1997 we heard from friends that Wenceslao had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. He died in December 1998 with his second wife Virginia at his side.
The following June we raised enough money to travel to Guatemala to do additional shooting. When we returned to San Martín we saw much had changed for the better. Wenceslao’s former community now had electricity, children looked healthier and there were more vehicles on the roads. Maize was tall in fields and people did not meet us with fear. But in other ways San Martín looked the same as it did when we first filmed there 23 years ago. There was no indication of the tragic massacres that had occurred. The townspeople wanted Wenceslao’s body back from his adopted village for burial in his hometown. There was talk of a statue commemorating him in San Martín’s central plaza. People talked more openly but were still cautious about the prospects for peace.
During this trip a friend met us with a copy of a previously secret army document that had just been leaked to the press. The diario listed 200 people kidnapped by the army over the course of several months in 1984. Among them were Wenceslao’s two children. I looked at the dates of their abductions and a chill ran down my spine. I realized that as we interviewed Wenceslao in 1984, while he told us he was confident that his family was safe, his children were being tortured and killed.
The tale of how our lives became entwined with this man over so many years is still unfolding. Wenceslao influenced us in many ways. But by filming him we altered his life too. As filmmakers we have a responsibility to those we film and to the way we shape their stories. But how do we measure the success of our films? And can we ever know about their unintended consequences? We hope that our work will influence positive change and yet it never occurred to us that sending a copy to San Martín might create a risk to the community. In later years we wondered if being in that first film was a factor in Wenceslao’s name appearing on right-wing death lists.
Success in life is another question altogether. For me, there is no measurement other than knowing if you have faced squarely the question of what gives your life meaning and acted accordingly. Living our values can be our greatest challenge. Wenceslao’s life embodies that for me and that is why he remains a forceful presence in my life.
Beyond development, beyond even politics, Wenceslao’s life pushes us to look hard at something else. Here was a man who was certain of things that most of us strive for and precious few of us ever attain: he knew who he was. He knew his purpose on earth was to teach and work for the good of his people. And he was guided by his principles and a sense of justice that dominated his life. His desire to better the lives of his people forced him to face decisions that most of us will never have to confront. All our lives are made up of ethical and moral decisions and choices, but the decisions he made in the name of the greater good were at immense personal cost. How can we ever be sure of the consequences of such decisions?
Wenceslao’s second wife Virginia told us that as he was dying Wenceslao called in her brother and son and said: ‘I want you to pick me up and hold me standing up.’
They both grabbed him by the arms and then he said: ‘Now I want you to take good care of yourselves because I’m leaving... we will meet again some day.’
‘He was standing up,’ Virginia continued, ‘and it was like he was sleeping. He died on his feet. He didn’t die lying down.’