While researching for a documentary on the immigration crisis in Guatemala, I came across the reference of this book being one of the best books on the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted thirty-six-years and claimed some 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom died (or “disappeared”) at the hands of a U.S.-backed military government. The title sounded familiar, so I checked out my bookshelves and, low-and-behold, it surfaced and I’m so glad it did.
The author was a young human rights worker, and the story begins in 1993, when the author decides to investigate the arson of a coffee plantation’s manor house by a band of guerrillas. This scene was familiar, as my wife’s family also had a coffee plantation in the piedmont region of Guatemala. We stayed at the “big house” many times during our initial courting period in the 1970’s. I wrote an article, “My Life in the Land of the Eternal Spring,” in which I reflect on the gap of expectations between what our four-year-old daughter could expect in life in contrast to that of the more than a dozen worker children peering in a screen door of the big house. They were looking at the new puppy my daughter received for Christmas and the many colorful packages under the Christmas tree. The tranquility and beauty of the lush gardens surrounding the big house were counterbalanced by the dismal conditions of the plantation workers, who were part of a feudal labor structure that offered opportunities for advancement where, to a degree, Mayan workers were picking coffee beans for European markets.
When the author begins investigating the arson of the coffee plantation’s manor house, the questions surrounding the incident blossom into a complex mystery with little information from those who lived there during this period. After digging into the unwritten history of the country’s civil war, following its roots led back to a land reform movement largely curtailed by a U.S. sponsored military coup in 1954.
Finding anything about this period of time was complicated by decades of terror-inspired fear, causing Guatemalans to adopt a survival strategy of silence bordering on collective amnesia. Amazingly, the author manages to tell an extraordinary tale in a most disarmingly funny, perceptive and deeply human way. You feel that you’re riding with him on his beat-up motorcycle up slippery, dangerous jungle trails into the heart of the rural areas where some seem to be just awakening from a long nightmare.
The author’s story crosses all of the rigid social and ethnic nuances that make up Guatemala. His entrée to “La Patria” plantation was a planter of German descent who married an American college professor, making the planter, for all intents and purposes, an American. The author sees through the family stories of overcoming adversity through virtue to the racial favoritism that gave handsome opportunities to the lighter-skinned immigrants, while retaining the local Indians and mestizos in low-wage jobs. Once the wife inherited the plantation, she vowed to treat the workers fairly, which turned out to be much more complicated than meets the eye.
Wilkinson also interviews members of the guerrilla groups, specifically the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), who were hiding in the forests above the plantations. While at the coffee plantation of my wife’ family, I heard stories of how the army would descend on the plantations during the day looking for subversives, only to be followed by the guerillas. Later that day, the guerillas would return and carry off those it deemed were collaborating with the landowners—life was very complex, to say the least.
He does a masterful job in convincing members of the community of Igualdad to share the story about the massacre of a community known as “Sacuchum.”
There had been a battle in the woods below, and all day long they had listened to the army bombing the mountainside. Then on Saturday the soldiers came up the mountain from all sides and surrounded the valley. The people had no idea what the army intended to do. So they waited. And on Sunday morning the soldiers came down into the town…
After hundreds of troops and three helicopters controlled the area, the soldiers pulled villagers out of their homes and put them in a circle and began taking them away. About twenty women were raped. The next morning, villagers followed the path into the woods where they had seen the soldiers lead villagers away and found the first bodies half-buried, in ditches, five or six people in each ditch.
There were my brothers. They had their throats slit.
Many of them had their throats cut like animals.
Some had been strangled. They put a cord around their neck,
tied it to a stick and turned the stick until they were choked.
Forty—four people had been killed. And no bullets had been fired.
The author’s real gift is his ability to find ways for people to tell their stories—and through them—dramatic, intimate, heartbreaking—that anatomy of a thwarted revolution is revealed, which is relevant not only to Guatemala, but also to the countless places around the world where terror is used as a political tool.
• Publisher: DukeUniversityPress (August 31, 2004)
• ASIN: B00QOR7VF0
• Pages: 359
Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He came to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make-A-Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking.
His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction and, according to the Midwest Review, “…is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery…”
Several of his articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines, Literary Yard, Literary Travelers and Quail BELL, while another appeared in "Crossing Class: The Invisible Wall" anthology published by Wising Up Press. His reviews have been published by Revue Magazine, as well as Peace Corps Worldwide, and he has his own column in the Arizona Authors Association newsletter, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why.”
His honors include the "Service Above Self" award from Rotary International. He’s the membership chair for “Partnering for Peace.” His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com and follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/millionmilewalker/