Posts in South America
Rigoberta Menchú

In the summer of 1990, I blundered into a bloody civil war that few people outside of Guatemala knew or cared about. I was in the country to learn Spanish, but after finding the beautiful colonial town of Antigua choking with Anglophone gringos – not the cultural experience I had in mind – I made my way to the out-of-the-way hill-town of Huehuetenango, the last stop before the Mexican border. 

There, I found myself in the heart of the Guatemalan Highlands, home to indigenous Mayan villages, each one a different orgy of color thanks to the residents' traje, or local dress. In addition to its own homespun costume, each village had a unique agricultural tradition, whether harvesting salt to growing maize to managing livestock to cultivating garlic. They traded amongst each other on designated market days of mostly women and children – able-bodied men were notably few. I vowed to visit every village I could in the three months I would be living there. I wanted to learn everything about the indigenous Maya and their way of life.

What I learned, immediately, was that they were on the verge of extinction. For over 30 years, the indigenous people of Guatemala had suffered violence under a succession of repressive, dictatorial governments – all propped up and trained by the United States.

That’s also when I learned how today’s hero accidentally brought three decades of genocidal crimes against humanity to the attention of the international community. She was only three years older than me, but she'd already witnessed extremes that most of us can never even imagine.

Here’s her story, and the context in which her journey would eventually lead to the Nobel Peace Prize…

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Azucena Villaflor

This is not the first time in history that a government with terribly misguided intentions has tried to enforce its policies by breaking up families. And, sadly, it isn't the first time this has happened in the United States: for over 100 years beginning in the 1860s, Native American children were taken from their families and adopted into white families or brought up in boarding schools with the express purpose of robbing them of the language and culture of their birthright. It's also not the first time that parents have stood up to such abuse against humanity and fought back, even at the risk of torture or death.

Meet Azucena Villaflor. Hers is a short story. But an important one.

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