It’s June, 2018 and we’re in the midst of controversy about the implications of separating children from their parents at the border of the United States. I remember my father, Angel Luis, and the time I hugged him goodbye before leaving with my mother on a journey to the United States of America. I was seven years old and I didn’t know any English, much less anything about the place I was going to – Chickasha, Oklahoma. I was one of the lucky emigres. My mother came with a teaching contract in hand, and of equal value, we were ‘white people’ in a state still mired in Jim Crow policies. I was lucky because my mother did not have to go through I.C.E. and we were not seeking asylum, nor was I separated from my mother. But the fear of the unknown was palpable as I walked into the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport in 1949. The cacophony of sound attacked my ears as I tried to decipher what was being proclaimed through the sound system, or what people were saying all around me. “I’m in an insane place…how will I ever feel at home here?”
People have been moving across the North and South Hemispheres of the Americas for millennia, whether for economic, political, or domestic disturbances in their home countries. In the case of Guatemala, it goes back to 1954 and beyond when the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a coup, financed by the CIA, in response to the United Fruit Company’s anger when he regained control of lands owned by the U.S. based company. Arbenz made agrarian reform the central project of his administration. This infuriated the largest land-owner in the country, the U.S. based United Fruit Company. He insisted that the company and other large landowners pay more taxes. As the reforms advanced, John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State, fearing the threat to sizeable American banana investments and to large U.S. bank loans to the Guatemalan government, began a public relation campaign against Arbenz.
Working in Honduras and El Salvador, the CIA helped to organize a counterrevolutionary army of exiles led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas. Residents of the capital city panicked and the Guatemalan army refused to fight. Arbenz fled into exile, and Armas became president. A president decades later, Jose Rios Montt, committed further atrocities in Guatemala, documented as such by the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Nations as part of the 1996 Accords of Firm and Durable Peace.
Widespread human rights abuses committed by Ríos Montt’s military regime included widespread massacres, rapes, and torture against the indigenous population in what has been called a Guatemalan genocide. Ríos Montt said there was no government-ordered genocide, and that abuses were only the result of a long, violent civil war. Montt had close ties to the United States, receiving direct and indirect support from several of its agencies, including the CIA. His regime was held accountable for constraining the guerrillas through what became known as the ‘gun and beans’ campaign. He told people “If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if not, we’ll kill you.”
The 36-year war only ended with the signing of a peace treaty in 1996. The civil war pitted Marxist rebels against the Guatemalan state, including the army. Huge numbers of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Up to 200,000 Guatemalans were declared missing or killed during the conflict, making it one of Latin America’s most violent wars.
The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission found that the resulting counter insurgency campaign, significantly designed and advanced during Ríos Montt’s presidency, included deliberate “acts of genocide” against the indigenous population. Decades of political uproar resulted in a humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by growing violence and lack of opportunities, impacted many Central American citizens.
Let’s take the story of my friend, Gustavo. His father left Guatemala in 1981 without papers, seeking a better life. While Gustavo’s father left for economic reasons, his uncle, a bank courier and union member, received death threats and fled Guatemala for fear of his life. (During the Eighties, being a union member in Guatemala meant you could be killed by U.S. trained death squads). Gustavo was left with only one parent, his mother, and he suffered the anxiety over his dad’s absence. Gustavo’s grades began to fail and the principal of his school called his mother in for a consultation. Gustavo’s mother explained that his father had left for the States, and the principal agreed that this might be what was causing his grades to slide. Shortly after, Gustavo’s mother told him she had received a letter from his father, saying he’d safely arrived.
It placated the seven-year old and his grades began to improve. Then the moment came when his mother also made the journey, and Gustavo begged to go with her. He was angry and said “I hope the Migra catches you and sends you back.” Sure enough, a few weeks later his mother was caught and sent back to Guatemala. She later recalled how she’d suffered panic attacks while imprisoned. Imagine her additional suffering, if her children had been taken away from her and sent to an unknown facility, near or far away.
Today Gustavo is a middle-aged man with U.S. citizenship and a career in human rights and a son of his own. He is doing important work in this country, and is completely assimilated – just like I am. But the melancholy of the early years when he suffered from being deprived of his parents still hurts. To this day, I sit here, remembering my father’s sojourn through five Cuban concentration camps after being arrested as a saboteur by the Castro government. His incarceration caused me great anguish, not quelled until we were reunited in 1984.
I think of that skinny, curly-haired blonde moppet that wet her bed, and longed to be reunited with her daddy, yet anxious about not being left behind by her mother. When will it change? When will we remember our humanity, and remember that each white, black, brown or yellow child is important to the world, that familial ties matter, and that pain engendered has consequences. ###