Local nonprofit works to educate and create opportunity for indigenous communities in Guatemala
In an isolated region of the Guatemala mountains called Ixil, the indigenous Maya population was devastated by a civil war between the government and leftist guerrilla factions that spanned 1960 to 1996.
During that 36-year war, the Guatemalan military eradicated entire Mayan communities. In what amounted to genocide, soldiers burned Mayan farmlands and homes, raped and tortured the people, and scattered families. By the end of the war, 200,000 Mayans had been killed, 7,000 of whom were Maya-Ixil.
Although the war ended 17 years ago, the Mayan people who survived the genocide, as well as the younger generation that followed, continue to suffer from the after-effects of the war.
Today, many Ixil families grapple with alcohol abuse, the youth have slim access to higher education, and there is practically no outside support, all of which has made it very difficult for the people to move on and improve their lives.
Limitless Horizons Ixil (LHI), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Santa Cruz and operating in Guatemala, fosters education and literacy in order to create opportunity for the indigenous youth, women, and families of Chajul, the municipality of Ixil hit the hardest by the war, says LHI founder and Executive Director Katie Morrow.
“The people of Chajul still see their lives in the context of war,” Morrow says. “It’s hard to get rid of that in a community and it’s very hard to rebuild psychologically.”
Morrow, who grew up in Santa Cruz and attended Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, founded LHI in 2004 after traveling in Guatemala the previous year.
LHI provides Chajul youth with academic scholarships and, in recent years, has expanded to provide wrap-around services—a “comprehensive youth-development program”—that helps students succeed and provides work opportunities, Morrow says.
The program works primarily with one local Ixil school, but the community library, which LHI opened in 2011, is at the heart of its work.
“We’re working with kids who have never opened a book before,” Morrow says. “So, we’re essentially creating a culture of literacy.”
Morrow cites a 2010 study by the Guatemalan Ministry of Education that shows less than 11.5 percent of students in Chajul graduate from middle school and 75 percent of the adult population is illiterate. The area has some of the lowest socioeconomic indicators in Guatemala—for instance, 80 percent of the Chajul population lives on less than $2 a day.
Edilma Magdalena Hernandez Ijóm, a 24-year-old Chajul native, graduated from a Guatemalan university in 2009 and chose to return to Chajul to work as LHI’s program coordinator.
She says everyone in the Ixil region lives in poverty.
“It’s very common,” she explains during a phone interview from Guatemala. LHI board member Laura Myers joined in on the call as a Spanish-English translator. “Some homes have 12 people sharing a single room.”
The common language among the indigenous in the region is Ixil, and because very few learn Spanish, their career opportunities are extremely limited.
Ijóm says that if a student in Guatemala doesn’t learn to speak Spanish, they have no chance of attending high school or college.
It was only when Ijóm wound up with a teacher who spoke only Spanish that she forced herself to learn.
Today, she helps LHI in its mission to create the first generation of Ixil in Chajul who speak, read and write Spanish, which the organization believes is a major source of empowerment.
In the past, indigenous groups have resisted outside efforts at assimilation and education, out of concern about losing their traditional languages and culture.
However, Myers says that the only resistance LHI has received in Chajul has been from the occasional father who doesn’t believe his child will benefit from an academic education.
In addition to teaching the youth Spanish, LHI provides an education on Ixil culture and history and does story-reading hours in the Ixil language as well as Spanish.
“I think in that way we balance out cultural preservation with the economic reality,” Myers says. “Chajulense staff members think [Spanish] is really important, especially because we don’t choose it over Ixil, but we recognize that it’s necessary.”
The region LHI has worked in for eight years is currently receiving more international attention than ever. This is thanks to a Guatemalan Supreme Court case that began in March in which former head of state Efraín Ríos Montt, now 86, faced charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Ixil region.
The court found him guilty on Friday, May 10, sentencing him to 80 years in prison.
The case is historically significant because it marks the first time a former head of state has been tried for genocide by his own country’s judicial system. May 23 Update: The Guatemalan Supreme Court overturned the verdict on Monday, May 20. The decision came as a blow to many human rights organizations, who had considered Montt’s initial conviction on May 10 a sign that Guatemala’s deeply conservative courts and political structure would no longer allow impunity for the country’s powerful.
Montt was in power from March 1982, when he staged a coup, to August 1983—one of the bloodiest phases of Guatemala’s civil war. During that time, the Guatemalan army carried out a “scorched earth campaign” to flush out guerilla soldiers hiding in the Mayan Highlands. Montt commanded troops that killed 1,771 Ixil.
Approximately 60 percent of the Ixil population was forced to flee into the mountain wilderness, where countless numbers died of exposure, famine, disease, and from bombs that the army dropped from planes.
According to a 1999 United Nations Truth Commission, between 70 and 90 percent of the Ixil villages were burned while Montt was in power.
Ijóm says that every Ixil has lost at least one family member, and that the horrors of the war—what she calls the “conflicto armado”—are still being relived every day.
In her own family, Ijóm says her father was the most tragically affected.
When her father was just 5 years old, during the height of the war, the army came to where his family lived and seized Ijóm’s grandfather. Ijóm’s grandmother fled into the wilderness and was never heard from again. Ijóm’s then-young father watched from beneath a nearby avocado tree as soldiers burned down his house with his father, still alive, locked inside.
Throughout the case against Montt, the Ixil people, many of whom have never spoken out about the horrors of the war, traveled the seven hours through the mountains to provide their testimonies in court, Morrow says. Though Ijóm’s father did not go, more than 100 Ixil witnesses have shared memories of rape, torture, arson and murder.
“We know firsthand that no family was left unscarred,” Morrow says. “Everyone has a distressing story to tell.”
Myers says that, while the outcome of the case does little to change the difficulties the Ixil face today, Montt’s guilty verdict has brought the people who suffered under his rule a sense of closure.
Ijóm says that Ixil who testified held a private celebration on Sunday, May 12, but that mostly there is little discussion of the outcome.
While the Ixil are relieved that Montt “is in jail and will pay for the damage and pain he has caused,” she adds that the national Guatemalan periodical, Prensa Libre, published that the entire trial and the judge’s verdict were unfair, demonstrating the continued institutionalized support for Montt.
Ijóm also says there were rumors that, had Montt not been convicted, a number of Ixil would have taken up arms to seek out their own justice in the nation’s capital.
While the trial has brought much-needed attention to the plight of the Ixil, LHI believes that real justice will be served by empowering the youth.
“We see that our best way to support this forgotten community is to help the youth access education and have a voice,” Morrow says. “That’s what will keep something like this [genocide] from happening again.”
Myers adds, “It will be a new generation of leaders that reconciles the past and rebuilds their communities. The attention of the world must now shift from examining the past to investing in this new generation. That would be the greatest form of justice.”
This is why Ijóm says she returned to her home region to work with LHI.
“With education you can change the path of your future,” she says. “Through learning—little by little—that’s how you change a community.”