Lost in translation...

I didn’t know quite what to expect as the rented microbus jumped and jolted our weary bodies closer and closer to the village. We had been on the road for almost 8 hours from Guatemala City. My mind skipped back to all that I had read about the small ixcan village of Santa Maria Tzeja. Clark Taylor’s book, “Return of Guatemala’s Refugees, Reweaving the Torn” paints a graphic picture of the violence and destruction that gripped the village in the 1980s as well as revealing the struggle to reintegrate their two populations in the mid 90s.

I didn’t know quite what to expect as the rented microbus jumped and jolted our weary bodies closer and closer to the village. We had been on the road for almost 8 hours from Guatemala City. My mind skipped back to all that I had read about the small ixcan village of Santa Maria Tzeja. Clark Taylor’s book, “Return of Guatemala’s Refugees, Reweaving the Torn” paints a graphic picture of the violence and destruction that gripped the village in the 1980s as well as revealing the struggle to reintegrate their two populations in the mid 90s.Those two populations would be those that fled to Mexico’s refugee camps and those that chose to stay on their lands, several times hiding from the army in their own cornfields. This was a story that can be told by so countless villages in Guatemala. The first paragraph in the introduction to this book captured my thoughts, “On February 13, 1982, the Guatemalan army stormed into the remote northern Guatemalan village of Santa María Tzeja. The inhabitants were gone. Given two hours’ notice, and knowing that the army had destroyed other villages, residents fled in terror. During the next five days, seventeen people from the village, nearly all women and children, were massacred, the animals slaughtered, and all the buildings burned to the ground. The external world learned nothing of the carnage.” So these few lines begged the question, what would I see and feel as I entered the village here numerous years later.

The route to the village was just as you would picture a road out into the jungle. The dust and rock “highway” twisted and snaked us out into the country side once we turned off the paved road at the small town of Cubilgüitz and the driver hopped out of the van to let about 5 pounds of air out of his tires for a smoother ride. The rolling sea of green trees, bushes, and plant life on either side of the microbus was occasionally and without warning interrupted by a large tree springing out of the ground with fiery yellow plumage. The image that came to mind was finding one yellow kernel of corn among a bed of peas; your eyes immediately drawn to this inconsistency in the pattern just as my eyes continually darted from one yellow tree to the next. Nothing in the journey suggested anything out of the ordinary for this town we were about to visit but my own mental pictures continued to play over and over again. Yet upon entering the village there no glaring immediate differences from what I have seen in the other ixcan villages I have visited in that area. My first impression was just of a quiet community.

Over the next five days I spent time all over the village, lost in translation. Literally I was the translator for the groups that I was with and so sometimes that was the translation of Spanish to English or vice versa in a variety of meetings. In addition, sometimes it was translation of the images before me into words within my head and sometimes it was the translation of what I had read in the book versus the stories that I heard in the village. These translations gave me a tiny opportunity to glimpse the village as it exists now but also to sense what it has come through to get there. In actuality the easiest of these translations was the language. We met with the health committee, the university students, the middle school teachers, the catholic church group, the entire community, etc. and I even ended up teaching a 9th grade English class. In each of this intercultural interactions, placing on one side the American visitors and on the other the local villagers, each conveniently seated in a motley assortment of colored plastic and wooden chairs and benches, we were divided but also united by the language. Each meeting started with introductions as we went around the circle or stood up in front of the large meeting rooms. As has become my policy in translations these days, I made sure to introduce myself in K’iche’ which luckily happened to be the local Mayan language. From the first time that I let a K’iche’ word slip in front of the community, their eyes lit up and an obvious interest crept into the room. At this point, the words just role off my tongue since I have used them so many times. As was pointed out by one of the American group members this way of starting a translation, of getting the people’s attention and paying respect to the village by addressing the people in their own language has a way of loosening up the crowd, of opening them up to the other words that I speak in Spanish. Once more Spanish is used as the “universal” language for meetings though it is really everyone’s second language. While the use of three languages always sautés my brain and sometimes leads to comical moments where I translate into the wrong language, it is something that I love to do as it helps to unite people with different spoken languages. Combine that with the common goals that we all shared for the development of the community, with our words, our gestures, our actions, our laughs, our tears, our sweat, and we all seemingly came together as one people, as one community.

In translating the images from the book versus my own personal experiences I found that the subtitle really did reflect what I felt in the village; the community has been rewoven in so many ways. Of course, nothing is perfect but enough of what I saw, enough of what I heard from people I remembered being quoted in the book, enough of what I felt convinced me that this community, while having to overcome so much, has found a way, a path to bring their community together. In one very large way this was revealed by their treatment of the group I was with. I sat one morning, leaning back in a maroon plastic chair placed in front of the communal house trying to catch some of the shade provided by the tiny sliver of roof sticking out above me. As I looked out over the village it was hard to picture the pain that the village had suffered. I sat there not noticing the sweat pouring down my face from the 100 degree temperatures and I watched the women carrying the pear shaped water jugs up the street from the tiny pond at the bottom of the hill, I listened to the familiar sound of the corn grinder sputtering from a building in the distance, I thought about the laughter easily shared by a family washing clothes at a waterfall on the outskirts of the village with us “gringos” who came for a dip in the cooling waters, and I felt the hospitality that had flooded the land wherever we stood, or sat, or slept drifting around me in the air. It was the hospitality that affected me the most. From the moment we set foot in the village we were brought into the village family. Their hospitality was evident around almost every corner. From their inclusion of the group in the village, to the conversations and sharing together, to the people that hung around while we were working and occasionally would all pitch in, etc. they made the time walking together with their community in its daily life a part of our lives.

From my perch above the village, I looked at the lands that I had only read about before from a new angle. I saw and heard the suffering of the village in some of the stories told but I also felt the new life that had been breathed into the community. I saw their sense of themselves, their sense of community, of hospitality, of struggle, and of persistence. All of these things were easily translated from a child’s smile, a glint in one of the old men’s eyes, a glass of lemonade brought to us as we were working by some of the women, the tone in one man’s voice, the number of students from the village studying at the university in the capital, the taste of the delicious food prepared for us three times a day by the volunteering village women, etc. etc. in each of these as well as so many other moments I discovered something else about the people and their village.

Though I could write pages and pages more about my time in Santa Maria Tzeja some of it might get lost in the translation. So until next time… Pablo

Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG). He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.