Letter to Youth of the Peaks


As Mike 360 said, as Leslie Marmon Silko said, as Rigoberta Menchú Tum said, as Miguel Angél Asturias said, as Simon J. Ortiz said, as Blackfire said, as Gloria Anzaldúa said, as Youth of the Peaks screams now,

¡Qué viva la cultura! ¡Qué viva la lucha!

Hello Youth of the Peaks,

my friends, I write you from central Guatemala, Sololá department. I write you on the occasion of your February summit, hoping that you are all well and that snow has blessed the lands since I left. I should be more specific: just enough snow for the trees, not enough for Snowbowl to open. Snow from the sky, and not what we call here "agua negra." Though I feel very far from the mountains that I have called home, I have been reminded of Flagstaff and especially of you all often on this camino. I write you hoping to pass on some of the things that I am seeing in my travels.

Outside San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas the most humble cement neighborhoods have spraypainted signs that read "AGUA ES VIDA, CUIDELA." Here the traditional Maya people consider their flesh to be made of maize. Foreigners like me are of course "wheat people."

The people here have also seen changes grow strong in the last years: "where culture and economy collide," rings true here as well. On the Lago Atitlán, one of Guatemala's most-touristed places, las milpas (fields of maize) still grow on terraces down the shore. Here too the peaks are sacred: the three volcanoes that form the walls of the lake hold the clouds tight around them, and café and maiz are grown in their soil. In the northern jungle along the Rio Ixcán, la tierra is so fertile that it gives harvest twice a year. Elders still wear the ropa tipica (traditional dress) and new hotels are built every year.

The thirty-six year-long civil war officially ended in 1996 when the indigenous, mostly Mayan highlander guerillas signed los Acuerdos de Paz with the government. Over 200,000 people, mostly indigenous civilians were killed or disappeared. Most of the tourism industry has developed in the last eight years, along with government infrastructure. The central government continues to build and improve "services" in the jungle, leading to a large influx of poor ladinos (guatemaltecos of mixed blood, no longer folllowing traditional ways) onto land that had been of the Chuj, Jacalteque, Kanjobal and Ixil. With the war ended, lives are generally safer but traditional ways of life continue to be in danger. Like in Flagstaff, here they also try to disguise the cellphone towers as trees. For the past 500 years the people here have been made to work, first as slaves then later for pennies on the foreign-owned fincas (plantations) of café, algodón (cotton), and azúcar (sugar). Now the practice of leaving the mountain aldeas (villages) for the coastal fincas to work for 4-7 months a year is becoming less popular than leaving to the United States, often for years at a time. When I tell people here I'm from Arizona, they know exactly where I mean.

When I tell people here that a group of jovenes indigenas (indigenous youth) from northern Arizona have organized politically to protect their cultural beliefs, they're not sure what to say. During the war, organization was very dangerous. In the early 1980's the government adopted a "scorched earth" policy against the guerillas, entire aldeas were massacred and buried in mass graves as punishment for allegedly supporting rebel groups. Currently things are safer for civil society, but still not like what we know in the States. People here smile when they hear of you.

Sometimes it seems that all I'm doing by traveling is searching for perspective. Sometimes the farther away I get, the clearer things become. Sometimes it's the opposite. I'm writing you to share these things I'm learning, but also to tell you that from here, removed from your area, what you all are doing seems yet even more incredible. You have like-minded people all over the continent that share your vision. There are many in this world who value culture before money. Like the graffiti in San Cristóbal says, "¡VIVAN LOS RESISTANTES DEL MUNDO!" The first indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales was just inaugurated wearing ropa tipica, and indigenous groups around the country came together to hold a ceremony naming him as their leader, the first time they have held the ceremony in about 500 years. Part of his inauguration speech from just a few weeks ago:

The 500 years of Indian resistance have not been in vain. From 500 years of resistance we pass to another 500 years in power... We have been condemned, humiliated ... and never recognized as human beings... We are here and we say that we have achieved power to end the injustice, the inequality and oppression that we have lived under... The original indigenous movement, as well as our ancestors, dreamt about recovering the territory.

And tell J.R. Murray and Bruce Babbit to listen to guatemalteco writer Miguel Angél Asturias when he says “la tierra es ingrata cuando la habitan hombres ingratos.” They say Snowbowl will go out of business due to the drought. "The earth is ungracious when it is populated by ungrateful men."

I'm honored to be counted among your friends. Remember that no judge will ever decide what is sacred or what isn't, as human beings we each reserve that for ourselves. Congratulations on all that you've accomplished and don't stop planning the next thing. Keep in touch.

El pueblo unido...

logan timoteo phillips Cobán, La Verapaz, Guatemala 06febrero2006