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Bringing the Guatemalan Genocide to America’s Attention Manz’s Book Compelling, But Her Lecture Falls Flat

By Katherine S. Ryan

Paradise in Ashes: The Life and Death of a Guatemalan Village

Beatriz Manz

March 16, 7 p.m.

Room 66-110

B eatriz Manz’s new book “A Paradise in Ashes” drags the largely-ignored killings of the Mayan Indians by the Guatemalan military in the 1980s squarely to the attention of the American public. This massacre was routinely ignored in the American press while it was occurring, and only later did the facts begin to emerge. Manz intends to reinitiate a dialogue on the ethnic war; one that was, as Manz writes, worse than Bosnia and whose facts were intentionally subverted by the U.S. government.

Manz, in her appearance at MIT, gave a dry performance. Despite an initial wisecrack about her fear of technology (“If I can face the Guatemalan army, I can face a Powerpoint lecture.”), she did little to engage the audience. Her speech was delivered near-verbatim from full lecture notes that merely summarized the text. Additional photographs of people in the book brought them somewhat more to life, but she related few new personal anecdotes and avoided offering any suggestions about how the U.S. or Guatemala should have behaved differently in this moment in history. It was only after a provocative question from the audience, “Was Clinton’s apology in 1999 to the Guatemalans worth the paper it was written on?” that she palpably livened up. At first skirting the issue, pointing out the symbolic importance of a statement of regret from someone who was at the time the most powerful man in the world, she eventually launched into a tirade against the U.S. Compared to Mexico, which was incredibly generous in accepting refugees, she claimed, the U.S. has not done anything for Guatemala. She suggested that American attitudes towards immigrants are ignorant and morally repugnant; rather than reducing people to the term “illegal aliens,” she suggests that America extend a heartfelt welcome to all Guatemalans, especially to those who are refugees of a war that America helped to sponsor.

Her book is rigorously documented and sensitively told. She brings readers first through the history of the Mayans in Guatemala, detailing how they entered into a poverty of dependence on the Latino elite, a situation made even more entrenched when a CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in 1954 instated a government associated with the economic and military power brokers of the society. The situation became increasingly dire for Mayan peasants. With the emergence of liberation theology in the Catholic Church and its promotion of collective action around 1970, a group of these peasants trekked through to the rainforest to claim uninhabited land where they could establish a village, which they called Santa MarÍa TzejÁ.

Manz worked with this group of people for decades in her anthropological research, and through their eyes, she describes the calamitous events of the 1970s and 1980s, as Guatemala descended into war. The guerrillas, generally supported by the villagers, made isolated attacks, and in 1982 the army brutally retaliated. While the village was being destroyed, one boy watched his sister being killed: “My baby sister was crying. A soldier took out a knife and opened my little sister’s stomach and threw everything out on the ground. My sister no longer cried.”

The gravity continued. People became refugees and lost touch with their families; the village was rebuilt, but was placed under military control until 1994. Hope, though, emerged in the end. Most of the refugees came back, and people returned to a more peaceful life.

Manz’s text is moving and informative. Whether Manz will come to change American attitudes about current immigration policies is questionable, but as her book starts to penetrate Barnes and Nobles around the nation, her story of the plight of one Guatemalan village will reopen a discussion on an atrocious period in history.