Tribute to Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘man with the talking guitar’
January 24, 2019
Author: Willie Chinyamurindi, Associate Professor, University of Fort Hare
Disclosure statement: Willie Chinyamurindi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Fort Hare provides support as an endorsing partner of The Conversation AFRICA.
Musician Oliver Mtukudzi, who died at the age of 66, was a great cultural ambassador for Zimbabwe. Known to his fans as Tuku, he was a cultural icon for the southern African country. His aura and presence had a global resonance with fans around the world, yet the man remained humble and magnanimous.
I once boasted to some international colleagues that he was Zimbabwe’s gift to the world. But on closer scrutiny, he was the perfect gift for Zimbabweans especially during their tumultuous times.
Mtukudzi died in Harare after a long battle with diabetes, ironically enough on exactly the same day as his friend, the musician Hugh Masekela, who passed away on 23 January 2018.
He was also a businessperson, activist, philanthropist and a goodwill ambassador for Unicef in the southern African region. But it was his innovative music that made him deeply loved. Dubbed “Tuku music”, it was a blend of southern African music traditions, including mbira, mbaqanga, jit and the traditional drumming styles of the Korekore.
Tuku released his debut single in 1975. As a solo artist, Mtukudzi had his first successes shortly after Zimbabwe declared its independence in 1980. His debut solo album, Africa. The prolific Mtukudzi released his 67th album in 2018 – Hanya’Ga (Concern), saying it was “meant to share a message of introspecting and I’m hoping people learn a thing or two from it”.
Celebrated as “the man with the talking guitar”, Mtukudzi learned by experimenting:
I looked for a sound the guitar couldn’t make in a guitar – that is how I learned to play the guitar. Professional guitarist at the time use to laugh at me. I used to look for a mbira (music instrument) on the guitar strings. I’ve always been experimental. But it was a blessing in disguise because I went on to pioneer a sound that was later labelled Tuku music.
A wide canvas
But Mtukudzi was more than just a popular singer. In his song “Todii” (What shall we do?), Mtukudzi reflects on the challenge faced by communities as a result of the scourge of HIV/AIDS. The song gives cadence and sympathy to those who provide care. At the same time it magnifies how despicable those in positions of authority are for violating their responsibility.
He ends the song with a solemn appeal for help and for ideas in view of this challenge. This is Mtukudzi, the social activist.
In another song “Mabasa” (The works) Mtukudzi paints a dire picture of how young people are the first to die, leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. For me this song attests to Mtukudzi reminding us all to be cognisant about how we live.
Mtukudzi also acknowledged the existence of deity and spoke against the attribution of success to luck or happenstance as he did in the song “Raki” (luck).
Conversely, in “Ndagarwa nhaka” (Inheriting) he brought attention to a Shona cultural practice of a widow being married off to the late husband’s elder or young brother. In this song Mtukudzi, using the voice of the widow, appears to praise the status quo as enabling the widow to get solace and protection given her loss.
A stark contrast, though, is found in the movie “Neria”. Mtukudzi crafted the soundtrack detailing the tribulations of a widow trying to survive past patriarchy in all its forms.
In the song “Dzoka uyamwe” (come and suckle) Mtukudzi bemoans the experiences of a person suffering prejudice based on how they look. Given this sad experience, the mother urges her child to come back home and suckle. The song then becomes philosophically charged, reminding us all that the core of all prejudice emanates from the mind and the heart. This theme of a concerned parent appears to reverberate in the song “Chengetai” meaning “to keep”.
This time, a role reversal: children are being urged to take care of their parents.
Some of Mtukudzi’s songs were sources of contention and deemed anti-establishment. For instance “Wasakara” (You are old) was interpreted by some as a reference to former President Robert Mugabe, given that a character in the song was in denial of age creeping up on them. In later years as a consultant, I would use the song in driving home the importance of succession planning for effectual and efficient organisations.
Mtukudzi also continues to give the same admonition to the elderly in the song “Mkuru mkuru” (the elderly leader).
Mtukudzi would also pen “Mutserendende” (the slide) and draw comparisons between two generations. From the first generation, Mtukudzi idolises how life was easy and pleasurable for children, a stark contrast to his generation’s life of toil and hardship in climbing the mountain. The solace, as argued by the song, is continued perseverance and determination.
In “Magumo” (the end), Mtukudzi raises some poignant life lessons on the importance of ideals such as humility. The most important question we should ask in everything we do, Mtukudzi argues, is: what will be the end of this that I am doing?
In the song “Kunze kwadoka” (the sun has set, it’s dark), Mtukudzi presents the questioning parent and the precarious situation of a child who has stayed out on a date for a long time. Giving advice to the boyfriend, “perekedza mwanasikana, perekedza bhebhi iro zuva ravira kunze kwadoka” translated “accompany the girl, accompany that babe the sun has set, it’s dark out”.
Now the sun has set on Oliver Mtukudzi. He leaves the world his greatest prized possession, the gift of song. Thank you, maestro par excellence.
Chinyamurindi is an avid narrative researcher. This piece was written using Oliver Mtukudzi’s Greatest Hits album – The Tuku Years (1998-2002).
How to reduce your risks of dementia
January 23, 2019
If you engage in cognitively stimulating activities in midlife, such as reading and playing games, you can reduce dementia risk by about 26 per cent, according to research.
Author: Nicole Anderson, Associate Professor of Geriatric Psychiatry, University of Toronto
Disclosure statement: Nicole Anderson receives research grant funding from NSERC and CABHI.
Partners: University of Toronto provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA. University of Toronto provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA-FR.
Many people do not want to think about dementia, especially if their lives have not yet been touched by it. But a total of 9.9 million people worldwide are diagnosed with dementia each year. That is one person every 3.2 seconds.
This number is growing: around 50 million people live with dementia today, and this number will rise to over 130 million worldwide by 2030.
You do not have to wait until you are 65 to take action. In the absence of treatment, we must think of ways to protect our brain health earlier. This month is Alzheimer’s Awareness month — what better time to learn how to reduce your risk of dementia, whatever your age?
In my work at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, I address cognitive, health and lifestyle factors in aging. I investigate how we can maintain our brain health, while reducing the risk of dementia as we age. Currently, I’m recruiting for two clinical trials that explore the benefits of different types of cognitive training and lifestyle interventions to prevent dementia.
There are three dementia risk factors that you can’t do anything about: age, sex and genetics. But a growing body of evidence is discovering early-life, mid-life and late-life contributors to dementia risk that we can do something about — either for our own or our children’s future brain health.
Before going any further, let’s clear up some common confusion between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Dementia is a term to describe the declines in cognitive abilities like memory, attention, language and problem-solving that are severe enough to affect a person’s everyday functioning. Dementia can be caused by a large range of diseases, but the most common is Alzheimer’s.
Risk factors in early life
Children born at a low birth weight for their gestational age are roughly twice as likely to experience cognitive dysfunction in later life.
Many studies have also identified a link between childhood socioeconomic position or educational attainment and dementia risk. For example, low socioeconomic status in early childhood is related to late life memory decline, and one meta-analysis identified a seven per cent reduction in dementia risk for every additional year of education.
Poorer nutritional opportunities that often accompany low socioeconomic position can result in cardiovascular and metabolic conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes that are additional risk factors for dementia.
And low education reduces the opportunities to engage in a lifetime of intellectually stimulating occupations and leisure activities throughout life that build richer, more resilient neural networks.
Work and play hard in middle age
There is substantial evidence that people who engage in paid work that is more socially or cognitively complex have better cognitive functioning in late life and lower dementia risk. Likewise, engagement in cognitively stimulating activities in midlife, such as reading and playing games, can reduce dementia risk by about 26 per cent.
We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, and engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity in midlife can also reduce dementia risk.
Aerobic activity not only helps us to maintain a healthy weight and keep our blood pressure down, it also promotes the growth of new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, the area of the brain most responsible for forming new memories.
Stay social and eat well in later years
While the influences of socioeconomic position and engagement in cognitive and physical activity remain important dementia risk factors in late life, loneliness and a lack of social support emerge as late life dementia risk factors.
Seniors who are at genetic risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease are less likely to experience cognitive decline if they live with others, are less lonely and feel that they have social support.
You have heard that you are what you eat, right? It turns out that what we eat is important as a dementia risk factor too. Eating unrefined grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and fish, with low meat consumption — that is, a Mediterranean-style diet — has been linked to lower dementia rates.
Along with my Baycrest colleagues, we have put together a Brain Health Food Guide based on the available evidence.
What about Ronald Reagan?
Whenever I present this type of information, someone invariably says: “But my mother did all of these things and she still got dementia” or “What about Ronald Reagan?”
My father earned a bachelor’s degree, was the global creative director of a major advertising firm, had a rich social network throughout adulthood and enjoyed 60 years of marriage. He passed away with Alzheimer’s disease. My experience with my dad further motivates my research.
Leading an engaged, healthy lifestyle is thought to increase “cognitive reserve” leading to greater brain resiliency such that people can maintain cognitive functioning in later life, despite the potential accumulation of Alzheimer’s pathology.
Thus, although all of these factors may not stop Alzheimer’s disease, they can allow people to live longer in good cognitive health. In my mind, that alone is worth a resolution to lead a healthier, more engaged lifestyle.
Erik Olin Wright Inspired the Left to Embrace Real Utopianism
The brilliant scholar taught radicals to think big about solutions—such as universal basic income.
By John Nichols
Erik Olin Wright never gave up on the dream of a just and equitable society in which human beings might treat one another as kindly as the University of Wisconsin sociology professor and internationally renowned public intellectual treated his students, his colleagues, and the communities that he nurtured in the United States and around the world.
Even as he fought a battle with the leukemia, which claimed his life on Wednesday, Wright wrote enthusiastically, even joyfully, about “this extraordinary privilege that I had, not to live a life of self-indulgence but to create meaning for myself and others by trying to make the world a better place.” He was 71 years old when he passed away.
Educated at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of California, Berkeley, he taught generations of scholars and activists as a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, served as president of the American Sociological Association, collected the great honors in his field, and produced stacks of books.
Instead of settling into academia, Erik Olin Wright burst out of it and proposed radical new responses to challenges that others imagined as overwhelming.
Yet he never grew tired, never entertained complacency. Instead of settling into academia, Wright burst out of it and proposed radical new responses to challenges that the policy-makers of his day imagined as overwhelming: poverty, inequality, discrimination along lines of class and race and gender, distributions of wealth and the future of work. Wright’s Real Utopias Project, outlined in his essential book Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso), was all about ideas. Big ideas, such as the Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposals for addressing not just poverty and unemployment but dislocation after technological change, which he began exploring decades ago.
Today, movements advocate for UBI, political and business leaders embrace it, and pilot projects are being developed in multiple countries. The idea of providing “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement” was not always so popular. Indeed, as the Basic Income Earth Network noted last week, Wright was writing about this idea and “providing platforms [for] other people to write about it when few people thought it had any chance.”
Wright’s Real Utopias Project was always about more than the specific proposals it explored, even the ones that took off and captured imaginations far beyond academia. It was about renewing the enthusiasm of the left at a time when neoliberalism and neoconservativism were ascendant.
Writing in 2010, Wright explained that:
We live in an era of diminished expectations and, perhaps, diminished imagination. To most intellectuals the idea that the social world could be fundamentally changed in ways that would dramatically reduce the enormous inequalities in the world today and create the conditions in which all people could live flourishing lives seems naïve, perhaps even ridiculous. Capitalism reigns triumphant and at least in the developed capitalist world talk of socialism as an alternative has almost disappeared. I believe this radical pessimism and cynicism is itself a constraint on possibilities for creating a more just and humane world. Gramsci once described the struggle for social justice as requiring “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I believe in the world today we need an optimism of the intellect as well: an optimism grounded in our understanding of the real potentials for emancipatory alternatives which can inform our practical strategies for social transformation.
His efforts were strikingly successful. Scholars and activists around the world were drawn in to the discussions Wright opened, and they took them to remarkable places.
When I tweeted about Erik’s passing Wednesday, British parliamentarian Ed Miliband responded immediately. “Very sad to hear of the death of Erik Olin Wright,” read the note from the former leader of the opposition Labour Party. “He was a brilliant, kind and generous man. His ‘Real Utopias’ series including on Universal Basic Income is essential reading for those who want a better society. He will be sorely missed.” That was typical of the outpouring of love and solidarity for a bike-riding, fiddle-playing intellectual who took as much delight in listening as he did in lecturing, as much delight in reading as he did in writing.
In a reflection on his work, written just days before his death, Wright was typically thankful for the exchange of ideas, the intellectual reveries, the debates that shaped his decades of engaged scholarship—and the thousands of students, colleagues and many, many friends who made it all possible.
“I think my dogged attempt to revitalize the Marxist tradition and make it more deeply relevant to social justice and social transformation today is grounded in a scientifically valid understanding of how the world actually works,” he concluded. “But without being embedded in a social milieu where those ideas were debated and linked in both sensible and misguided ways to social movements, I would never have been able to pursue this particular set of ideas. But I was enabled, and it’s made for an incredibly meaningful and intellectually exciting personal life. So no complaints. I will die in a few weeks, fulfilled. Not happy that I’m dying, but deeply happy with the life I’ve lived, and the life I’ve been able to share with all of you.”
John Nichols is The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent. He is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books, and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.
Japan court upholds sterilization to register gender change
By MARI YAMAGUCHI
Friday, January 25
TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Supreme Court has upheld a law that effectively requires transgender people to be sterilized before they can have their gender changed on official documents.
The court said the law is constitutional because it was meant to reduce confusion in families and society. But it acknowledged that it restricts freedom and could become out of step with changing social values.
The 2004 law states that people wishing to register a gender change must have their original reproductive organs, including testes or ovaries, removed and have a body that “appears to have parts that resemble the genital organs” of the gender they want to register.
The unanimous decision by a four-judge panel, published Thursday, rejected an appeal by Takakito Usui, a transgender man who said forced sterilization violates the right to self-determination and is unconstitutional.
Usui, 45, had appealed to the top court after he unsuccessfully requested lower courts to grant him legal recognition as male without having his female reproductive glands surgically removed.
Despite the unanimous decision, presiding justice Mamoru Miura joined another justice in saying that while the law may not violate the constitution, “doubts are undeniably emerging,” according to Usui’s lawyer, Tomoyasu Oyama.
The two judges proposed regular reviews of the law and appropriate measures “from the viewpoint of respect for personality and individuality,” according to Japanese media reports.
The Supreme Court decision ended Usui’s legal battle, but he and his lawyer said the opinions in the ruling left them with hope.
“I think the ruling could lead to a next step,” Usui told a news conference. “I hope to find what constitutes a family of my own that does not fit the traditional mold.”
Human Rights Watch said the Supreme Court ruling was “incompatible with international human rights standards, goes against the times and deviates far from best global practices.” The New York-based group said the ruling tolerates grave human rights violations against transgender people.
There is a growing awareness of sexual diversity in Japan, but it is often superficial and generally limited to the entertainment industry. In a country where pressure for conformity is strong, many LGBT people hide their sexuality even from their families because of a fear of prejudice at home, school or work.
Japan does not legally recognize same-sex marriages. As LGBT rights awareness has gradually grown in recent years, some municipalities have begun issuing partnership certificates to ease problems in renting apartments and other areas, but they are not legally binding.
Lawmakers in the conservative ruling party have repeatedly come under fire for making discriminatory remarks about LGBT people. Earlier this year, Katsuei Hirasawa, a veteran lawmaker, was widely criticized for saying that “a nation would collapse” if everyone became LGBT. Last year, another ruling party lawmaker, Mio Sugita, was condemned after saying in a magazine that the government shouldn’t use tax money for LGBT rights because same-sex couples aren’t “productive.”
Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi
Washington Trained Guatemala’s Killers for Decades
The US Border Patrol played a key role in propping up Latin American dictatorships.
By Greg Grandin and Elizabeth Oglesby
John Longan was an agent with the US Border Patrol in the 1940s and ’50s, working near the Mexican border, where two Guatemalan migrant children fell mortally ill in the custody of border agents last month: 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8, and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who died on Christmas Eve.
Longan had a reputation for violence, as did many of his fellow patrollers. Since its founding in the early 1900s, the Border Patrol has operated with near impunity, becoming arguably the most politicized branch of federal law enforcement—even more so than J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
As the Cold War heated up in Latin America following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Longan, who’d started his career as a police officer in Oklahoma, moved on to work for the CIA, providing security assistance—under the cover of the State Department—to allied anticommunist nations. Put simply, Longan taught local intelligence and police agencies how to create death squads to target political activists, deploying tactics that he’d used earlier to capture migrants on the border. He arrived in Guatemala in late 1965 and put into place a paramilitary unit that, early the next year, would execute what he called Operación Limpieza, or Operation Cleanup. Within three months, this unit conducted over 80 raids and multiple assassinations, including an action that, over the course of four days, led to the capture, torture, and execution of more than 30 prominent left-wing opposition leaders. The military dumped their bodies into the sea, while the government denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.
Longan’s Operación Limpieza was a decisive step in the unraveling of Guatemala, empowering an intelligence system that over the course of the country’s civil war would be responsible for tens of thousands of disappearances, 200,000 deaths, and countless tortures. (Greg Grandin describes Longan’s work in his book The Last Colonial Massacre.)
Of course, the US role in that civil war wasn’t limited to the covert operations of one former Border Patrol agent. Throughout the Cold War, Washington intervened multiple times in Guatemala, funded a rampaging army, ran cover for the death squads that its own security agents—like Longan—helped create, and signaled that it would turn a blind eye to genocide. Even before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, two retired generals with prominent roles in his campaign traveled to Central America and told Guatemalan officials that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done” (for this quote, see Allan Nairn’s report “Controversial Reagan Campaign Links With Guatemalan Government and Private Sector Leaders,” published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs on October 30, 1980). Once in office, Reagan supplied munitions and training to the Guatemalan Army to carry out that dirty work (despite a ban on military aid imposed during the Carter administration, since existing contracts were exempt from that ban). Reagan was steadfast in his moral backing for Guatemala’s génocidaires, calling de facto head of state Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power in a coup in the spring of 1982, “a man of great personal integrity” and “totally dedicated to democracy.”
The civil war that the United States drove forward in Guatemala hit the home regions of Jakelin Caal Maquín and Felipe Gómez Alonzo—the two children who died recently in US custody—hard.
Jakelin was Q’eqchi’-Maya, from the town of Raxruhá in northern Alta Verapaz. There, as in much of rural Guatemala, Maya communities have struggled for more than a century to remain on their lands. For much of that time, the US government intervened on the wrong side of those struggles. The result was a vortex of violent displacement that continues to this day.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the Q’eqchi’-Maya lived mostly in Guatemala’s lush, fertile northern highlands. But during the 20th century, many were pushed out. First, coffee planters, who were members of Guatemala’s colonial and military elite, as well as new European and North American investors, dispossessed them of their lands through legal chicanery and violence. When Q’eqchi’ villagers tried to fight back, they were killed or exiled.
The CIA-orchestrated 1954 coup against a democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, was a turning point in the Q’eqchi’ region. An ambitious land-reform program that had widespread beneficial effects in Alta Verapaz was reversed, and poor Q’eqchi’s began a great migration—fleeing political repression and hunger—to the lowlands, either east toward the Caribbean or north into the Petén rain forest. Raxruhá, Jakelin’s home town, was founded in the 1970s by these internal migrants.
Caal and Maquín are common surnames among the Q’eqchi’, with strong historical resonance. Adelina Caal Maquín, also known as Mama Maquín, is an icon of political struggle in Guatemala. Like Jakelin, Adelina was a refugee, having fled her mountain village after the 1954 coup for the lowland town of Panzós, where she became a leader in the fight against land evictions. On May 29, 1978, she was murdered, along with scores of other protesters, by the army. The Panzós massacre kicked off a brutal period of violence: Over the next few years, the US-backed Guatemalan military murdered more than 160,000 Maya. The army especially targeted Q’eqchi’ communities for slaughter, then rounded up the survivors in military-controlled model villages. A women’s-refugee organization honored Mama Maquín by adopting her name.
The end of Guatemala’s civil war in the 1990s brought no peace to the Q’eqchi’. The policies pushed by Washington created new afflictions: The promotion of mining, hydroelectric production, hardwood timbering, and African-palm plantations for “clean” biofuels destroyed their subsistence economy and poisoned their water and corn land.
Meanwhile, Q’eqchi’ communities were caught in the crosshairs of an escalating international drug war. As Washington spent billions of dollars shutting down South American trafficking routes, Q’eqchi’ communities were turned into a transshipment corridor for cocaine moving into the United States. Throughout the 2010s, drug-related crime and violence that had previously been concentrated in Colombia engulfed Central America, including Jakelin’s birthplace, accelerating the migration north. In 2010, narcotics-related violence grew so bad, with the Mexican Zetas cartel effectively controlling large parts of Alta Verapaz, that the Guatemalan government placed the department under an extended state of siege.
Q’eqchi’ men and women fought back, organizing social movements to defend their communities. But the repression continued. In 2011, soldiers working with private paramilitary forces evicted hundreds of Q’eqchi’ families, turning their land over to agribusinesses financed by international development loans. One study estimates that between 2003 and 2012, 11 percent of Q’eqchi’ families lost their land to sugar and African-palm plantations. By 2018, the situation had grown even more dire, with a wave of murders of Q’eqchi’ peasant activists.
And so more and more Q’eqchi’ refugees have been forced to leave the communities founded by their parents and grandparents, taking their chances on migrating to the United States. Why would a father bring his young daughter on such a perilous trek? CNN Español interviewed Jakelin’s relatives in Guatemala, who said that her father, Nery Gilberto Caal, 29, did everything he could to “stay in his land, but necessity made him try to get to the US.” According to the World Bank, the Q’eqchi’ are among the poorest of the poor in Guatemala and suffer from chronic malnutrition.
The past two decades have brought changes in US border policy, with terrible consequences for Central Americans. The militarization of the border since the 1990s, especially the sealing off of urban entry points, has pushed migrants to cross in remote and treacherous desert areas, where thousands have died. Border militarization also helps explain why people would bring their children on such a dangerous journey. In the past, men usually migrated alone; they would work for a while in the United States and then return to visit their families. But now, border militarization has ratcheted up the cost of that trip. Where it used to cost around $1,000 to travel from Central America to the United States, it now costs up to $12,000, making shuttle migration impossible for many. Often the only way for families to stay together is for women and children to migrate as well. Yes, it’s dangerous, but so is staying in Guatemala.
Intending to request political asylum, Jakelin and her father were among a group of 163 Guatemalans who turned themselves in to the Border Patrol at a remote entry point in the New Mexico desert on the night of December 6. This is legal: US law says that people may make an affirmative claim of asylum no matter how or where they enter the country.
Felipe Gómez Alonzo, the other guatemalan child who died in Border Patrol detention, was born in a different region of the country than Jakelin. But the history of his community is also one of land struggles and violent displacement, where Guatemala’s peace accords brought little respite.
Felipe was from the western highlands, in the department of Huehuetenango, in an isolated village called Yalambojoch, a 10-hour drive from Guatemala City and not far from the Mexican border. The village sits in a sunken valley surrounded by pine-tipped hills. In the middle of this valley is a knoll that looks like a baby in its mother’s womb. In Chuj, the Maya language of this region, this knoll is unin witz, the “child hill.”
Where Jakelin was Q’eqchi’, Felipe was Chuj, part of a community of former tenant farmers with a long history of fighting for their land. As in the Q’eqchi’ region, the US-orchestrated 1954 coup overturned agrarian reforms and kicked off decades of political strife in Huehuetenango, pitting local landowners allied with the military against impoverished Maya peasants desperate for land and a better future. Many communities in this region were influenced by the Catholic social-justice doctrines of liberation theology that swept through Central America in the 1960s and ’70s. When the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) entered Huehuetenango in the mid-1970s, large numbers of villagers greeted them as allies in the struggle against the “army of the rich,” and by 1980 the province was in open rebellion against Guatemala’s corrupt and violent military government.
On June 17, 1982, Guatemalan soldiers under the command of Ríos Montt entered the San Francisco cattle estate immediately adjacent to Yalambojoch. The estate’s owner, a military colonel, had fled because of guerrilla activity in the area. Soldiers went from house to house rounding up workers and their families, whom they accused of supporting the guerrillas. They separated children from their parents and killed them by slashing their stomachs or smashing their heads against poles. Women were raped and then burned alive. The soldiers killed the men with bullets or by beheading. After a day of slaughter, 350 people were dead. A lone survivor made his way into Mexico, where Guatemalan anthropologist and Jesuit priest Ricardo Falla interviewed him. The San Francisco massacre was highlighted in Guatemala’s 1999 Truth Commission report.
After the massacre, Yalambojoch residents fled along with thousands of others, leaving the border corridor between Guatemala and Mexico almost completely depopulated, as government troops razed their villages. Whereas villagers in the Q’eqchi’ region were pushed by massacres into the rugged mountain and jungle terrain within Guatemala, people from Yalambojoch fled across the border into Mexico. Some were captured and killed by the army as they fled. Others ended up in refugee camps or dispersed throughout Mexico’s southern states. Still others continued on to the United States, beginning the great movement of Guatemalans to el Norte. All told, 1.5 million people were displaced by the Guatemalan military’s scorched-earth campaign in 1981 and ‘82. Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification called the violent displacement in the Maya-Chuj region an “act of genocide.” Young Felipe Gómez Alonzo’s father, Agustín Gómez Pérez, was just a child of 11 during that exodus. Yalambojoch’s villagers stayed away for 14 years, returning only after the signing of the peace accords in 1996.
Huehuetenango had been one of Guatemala’s top migrant-sending regions. So why couldn’t these returnees survive in postwar Guatemala? One reason is the legacy of the genocide: The army’s broader purpose was not just to beat back the guerrillas but also to destroy any hope for a different future in Guatemala. Among the people from Yalambojoch who were scattered in Mexico after 1982, only half returned to Guatemala, and those who did were strangers to one another. Young adults who had fled as children didn’t know much about the land or how to farm it. When Mexican and US labor recruiters arrived in Huehuetenango to hire Maya youth for jobs in US agriculture and poultry plants—as Mexican workers unionized, the Guatemalan workers were seen as more pliable—these young people jumped at the chance to go. As Ricardo Falla and Elena Yojcom describe in El Sueño del Norte en Yalambojoch (The Dream of the North in Yalambojoch), remittances sent from the United States rebuilt these war-ravaged communities. With few exceptions, international migration was the only reparation these communities had, as Guatemalan anthropologist Ruth Piedrasanta shows.
Residents of Yalambojoch subsist on plots of only a few hectares of marginal land per family. The peace accords didn’t change the inequitable land-tenure structure or the concentration of political and economic power in the country. That chance had been lost with the 1954 coup and the counterinsurgency of the early 1980s, as time and time again the US government tipped the balance of power in favor of the Guatemalan ruling class. Elites in Guatemala are only too happy to see people emigrate, as the banks controlled by the oligarchy reap financial dividends from the transfer of remittances; and beginning in the 1990s, international development banks began to promote remittances as development.
Instead of pursuing a people-centered rural development, the Guatemalan government’s postwar strategy, backed by international development loans, has been to open up large swaths of the country to foreign investment in megaprojects like mining and hydroelectric dams. As Guatemalan economist Luis Solano notes, there is not a single Maya name among the list of investors in these projects, where the profits go to international conglomerates in association with elite family networks in Guatemala.
One such project is the Northern Transversal Highway, a project initiated by Guatemala’s military governments, in concert with foreign oil interests, to open up the northern reaches of the country to oil drilling and other forms of extraction. Guerrilla sabotage halted the project during the civil war, but since the peace accords were signed, it has returned with a vengeance. The Transversal now spans the entire region, from northern Huehuetenango, where Felipe Gómez Alonzo lived, to Alta Verapaz, where Jakelin Caal Maquín’s grave is located. Much of the foreign mining activity in Guatemala is concentrated near the Transversal. Both Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango form part of what the government calls the “hydro-electric ring,” where water rights are granted to corporate interests.
In Yalambojoch, people banded together to stop construction of the highway through their village—not because they didn’t want a road, but because the Israeli company contracted to build it threatened to cut down hundreds of trees in a protected forest reserve next to the community’s only supply of fresh drinking water. Not too far away, community and environmental activists opposing the megaprojects have been jailed, attacked, or killed, and Guatemalan security forces have militarized the zone once again. The most recent killings in this region occurred two days before Felipe and his father crossed the US border.
Finally, there is climate change. While it is too simplistic to claim that Central American migrants are “climate refugees” (the assertion is dangerous, too, since it ultimately justifies even more apocalyptic border-enforcement policies), there is evidence that in some regions, climate change may be eroding people’s ability to stay on their lands. In Huehuetenango, including in Yalambojoch, the potential to earn cash by growing coffee on small plots is being undermined by the spread of a plant-choking fungus called la roya, or coffee-leaf rust, which some scientists attribute to climate change.
There are circles within circles in the tortured history of Guatemala, all spinning forward to this dismal moment. A Border Patrol agent began working with the CIA and helped put into place a death-squad regime that accelerated a civil war, which in turn produced biblical levels of displacement. When the refugees from that civil war, including families from Yalambojoch, tried to return home, many found that they couldn’t survive in the society the war had created (according to news reports, Felipe’s father was drowning in debt). Suffering yet more violence, more displacement, and more dispossession, and doing their best to fend off the worst social and environmental effects of resource extraction and grinding poverty, many tried to escape, with the only viable route being north, to the militarized border where, in a way, it all began. According to Stuart Schrader in his forthcoming book Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, it was common practice during the Cold War to send former Border Patrol agents to train foreign police through CIA-linked “public safety” programs. Men like Longan helped speed up the pace with which local security forces could target and kill political reformers, thus accelerating political polarization and social misery.
As the Drive-By Truckers wrote in a 2016 song—about a murderous teen who became a Border Patrol agent and who went on to lead the NRA into its current militant right-wing phase—“It all started with the border. And that’s still where it is today.”
Greg Grandin, a Nation editorial-board member and New York University history professor, is the author of The Blood of Guatemala, The Last Colonial Massacre, and, forthcoming this spring, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.
Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American studies and geography at the University of Arizona. She is co-editor, with Greg Grandin and Deborah T. Levenson, of The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics.