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…
Alexis de Tocqueville was the outsider who explained what made an adolescent United States tick. His book, Democracy in America, was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Two centuries later, de Tocqueville's observations ring truer than ever.
In the late 18th century, France and the United States had one thing in common: Revolution. Both nations fought – with each other’s help – to overcome despotic, feudal rule. Both revolutions sought to create societies marked by liberty, equality, and fairness under the law. Both societies communicated these ideals in similar defining documents, both made public in 1789: The Bill of Rights and the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen). Both documents led to the creation of constitutions, which defined processes for governance by rotating elected representation rather than by an absolute monarch who ruled for life.
But as 1789 drew to a close, while the US was busy electing its first president, the French Revolution had been hijacked by extremist factions on both the radical left and ultra-conservative right, plunging its short-lived experiment in republicanism into chaos. The chaos was called The Reign of Terror. Frenchman fought Frenchman, their weapons: imprisonment, sham trials, and the guillotine. Basically, if you didn’t agree with those in power, they took your head.
How can one person change the world? Mother Teresa did it by example.
Anjezë Gonxhe, the daughter of an Albanian entrepreneur, was born in 1911 the city of Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia. As a child, Anjezë prayed at the shrine of the Black Madonna, a pilgrimage site visited by many devout Albanians. God spoke to Anjezë there, at the age of 8; and at 18 she left home to become a nun.
After a year of preparation in Ireland, Anjezë began her novitiate in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. She took her vows at 21, choosing for herself the name of Teresa, the patron saint of missionaries. She would soon live up to that name.