Memory without history: Who owns Guatemala's past?

Memory without history: Who owns Guatemala’s past?

In the light and not in the light, in the darkness
and not in the darkness, … motionless and in
—Miguel Angel Asturias, Men of Maize’

On the edge of the Plaza Mayor, Guatemala City’s vast central
square, a small block of stone supports a Plexiglas case, within which burns
a single finger of flame. Seven simple words chiseled into the side of this
modest monument explain it. “A los heroes anonimos de la paz,” the inscription
reads—to the anonymous heroes of the peace. Which heroes? What
peace? One need not ask, for these references are made unmistakably clear
by the date given beneath: December 29, 1996, when the government and
its guerrilla opponents signed accords ending a civil war that had rent Guatemala
for 36 years.
Next to the stone, the flame, and the plastic case, a marble plaque lies flush
to the ground, invisible until you are directly upon it. It was placed there by
two associations of university students in February 2000, and it is decidedly
less restrained than the official commemoration by its side. It quotes from the
work of Otto Rene Castillo, “poeta revolutionario de Guatemala”:
But it is beautiful to love the world
with the eyes
of those who have not yet been born.2
These lines are familiar among literate Guatemalans. In them, the future is
honored along with the past in the Plaza Mayor.
There is something altogether tentative, even furtive, about this tableau.
The plaque is no bigger than a tabloid newspaper. The flame is the size of a
Bunsen burner; its case is almost opaque with scratches, graffiti, and patches
of singed plastic. It projects all the majesty of a battered mailbox and is eas-
ily missed in the enormity of the square, but this provisional impression is
misleading. The Plaza Mayor is the most explicitly public space in all of
Guatemala. This assemblage is meagerly made, one surmises, precisely because
its implications loom so large. It suggests a reclamation—not just of
space, but of time. It posits an ineluctable link between what happened and
what is to come—between the past and the future. In these implicit assertions,
it asks: who will occupy the public space of Guatemala? There is another
way to put this question, of course:
what does it mean, after so many years of
war and tragedy, to be Guatemalan?
To read the Guatemalan dailies these
days is to enter upon familiar concerns: the
health of local industry, the exchange rate
of the quetzal, the latest political
maneuverings, the rising incidence of
crime. The present pales, however, when
compared to the nation’s preoccupation
with its past. It is the past that imprisons Guatemalans and is the source of
a lingering sense of menace as palpable as the stones in the Plaza Mayor.
The past is the true news, for it remains undecided, and it is the past to
which people know they must refer so as to see ahead. A prominent social
scientist named Edelberto Torres-Rivas and Edgar Gutierrez, a close advisor
to President Alfonso Portillo, recently discussed these matters. “Many
people fear the past,” Torres-Rivas says. “They don’t want to remember.”
Gutierrez looks the other way. “We live in a time of uncertainty toward the
future,” he says. “Many of us fear it.” To understand Guatemala is to recognize
that these statements amount to the same thing.
Guatemalans, it must be said, began to address their problematic past
even as they negotiated the agreements that ended the war. Signed at intervals
during the 1990s, the peace accords include detailed social and economic
provisions intended to redress longstanding inequities in Guatemalan
society.3 Then came the truth commission reports. In 1994, Bishop Juan
Gerardi and other Catholic leaders launched the Recovery of Historical
Memory Project, or REMHI, the first comprehensive attempt to document
and analyze the violence. In 1998, it published four volumes under the title,
Guatemala: Nunca Mds! 4 The following year, the Historical Clarification
Commission, an independent body authorized by the peace accords, issued
its official report, Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio, a 12-volume document
much influenced by the church’s work.5 It concluded that more than 90 percent
of the atrocities committed during the war were the work of the army
and its paramilitary creations, the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil, commonly
known as PACs. Significantly, the commission termed these atrocities “acts
of genocide” against the Mayan population.
The importance of these documents cannot be overestimated.6 Taken together,
they are a kind of foundation. They represent the best chance Guatemala
has to discover a new way forward for itself. Among the political,
business, and military elites that run the country, however, they stand like
the monument in the Plaza Mayor: they are there, acknowledged; they have
been given their place, and they are not going away. They are also ignored,
unincorporated into the national process. Little that is provided for in the
peace accords has been accomplished, and it is perfectly acceptable to dismiss
the truth commission reports as the unbalanced work of leftist intellectuals
and guerrilla sympathizers. In 1998, two weeks after publishing Nunca
Mdsl, Bishop Gerardi was murdered, and the message to the nation could
not have been clearer: the peace accords ended one war and began another—
a war over the past, and therefore the future. The Gerardi murder,
like numerous others since the accords, remains unsolved, an eloquent expression
of the nation’s suspended state, the interim
condition in which Guatemalans now live.
“Since we are the outcome of earlier generations,”
Nietzsche wrote in his famous meditation
on history, “we are also the outcome of their aberrations,
passions and errors, and indeed of their
crimes; it is not possible wholly to free oneself from
this chain.” To value history, Nietzsche observed, is
“to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘it was.'”
Yet the historical consciousness is complicated, he
cautioned, for “the unhistorical and the historical are necesary in equal measure
for the health of an individual, of a people, and of a culture.” So it was
that Nietzsche found value in forgetting, too, for it is only when man forgets
that he escapes the bonds of the past and dares to begin again, to imagine and
create, “to perceive as he has never perceived before.” It is possible, the great
German reminds us, to live without memory; all too many of us do. “But it is
altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting.”7
In this thicket of apparent paradoxes lies Guatemala’s challenge. It is
worth considering partly because this nation much deserves an escape from
its past to a different and better future, and partly because so many other
nations share this challenge as they seek a path forward from the ravages—
psychological, social, economic, political—of the Cold War years. Guatemala
must remember, as best it can, as a nation and as a community. Yet it
must also learn to forget. It must grasp a final paradox that the freedom to
forget begins in the act of remembrance.

Constructing a Different State

The civil war that began in 1960 was nothing if not a national exercise.
More than 200,000 were killed before the end. A million more became refugees,
chiefly in southern Mexico, and 200,000 more were internally displaced.
Among the dead, the exiled, the harassed, and the hounded,
Mayans who dwell in the altiplano, the central highlands, were the principal
victims. On the government side, a million Guatemalans were engaged in
the conflict, most of them in local PACs. In a population of 11 million,
then, roughly 2.4 million were directly affected by the war.8 Given that Guatemalans
tend to have large families, there are hardly any that the violence
did not touch in some way; by an official estimate, the war also created some
40,000 orphans.
Four years after the peace accords ended this national bloodletting, a
sense of relief remains immediately evident. It is nonetheless an uneasy
peace, for this nation is not yet settled. The threat of renewed violence is
pervasive. Lynchings in the countryside are common—fruit of a deep (and
wholly justified) mistrust of the judicial system. Assassinations and
kidnappings, although not as frequent as during the war years, are still a feature
of daily life: at least six prominent unionists and activists were killed
last year, and three others were “disappeared.” The government of President
Portillo, a former leftist elected in 1999 as a conservative populist, is what
we can politely call “inclusive.” Prominent leftists and Mayan leaders serve
in the administration alongside senior military officers and far-right political
figures; the same mix is evident in the Congreso, the national legislature. Inclusion
is the key to Guatemala’s future, certainly, but we can also call the
government fractious, corrupt, disingenuous, irresolute, and, above all,
paralyzed in its effort to combine perspectives that are not, by Guatemala’s
grim tradition, prone to combination.
Guatemala has never acknowledged itself for what it is—it has never, so
to say, looked squarely at its reflection in the mirror of national identity. Its
ruling elite, an oligarchy of a few dozen families, has instead determined
that Guatemalans live according to deep divisions: between the countryside
and the capital, rich and poor, men and women, educated and illiterate,
propertied and landless, the Ladino (nonindigenous) minority and the
Mayan majority—los indigenes, as they are called. Since the Spanish conquest,
to put the case another way, Guatemala has been a society of the included
and excluded, and the lines between the two are as clear today as
they were in the sixteenth century. A United Nations (UN) report issued at
the end of last year analyzed these lines from every possible perspective. Almost
60 percent of the population lives in poverty—and almost half of that
percentage in extreme poverty; three-quarters of the poor are rural-dwellers;
three-quarters are indigenous.9
Another division goes along with these, though it is less remarked
upon: Guatemala is a nation of rememberers and forgetters. The Maya,
who now account for roughly 70 percent of the population, have always
been a majority. Yet for half a millenium, they have been more or less
erased from the national narrative. Their story, to the extent it is told, is
told from the European or Ladino point of view. The Maya, in short, have
not been permitted to participate in the historical
phenomenon known as “Guatemala.”
This is the original exclusion, from which all
the others flow. In their relations with history—
and in many other respects, of
course—the Maya have remained in a primitive
or archaic state. Instead of history, they
have memory—that is, lived experience and
an unofficial, handed-down past. If memory
is all one has, the act of remembering becomes
all-important—a matter of self-preservation. This condition we can
call “memory without history.”
How memory without history is prolonged is evident in any Guatemalan
schoolbook.10 To transplant a term, these are exercises in Orientalism, in
obliteration. On one hand, we find the Maya, with neither faces nor
thoughts, neither logic nor plans nor complexity of any kind, the people of
the “epoca prehispdnica.” On the other are the conquistadores, full of faith,
purpose, and ambition, the radically individual finders and makers of the
New World. The conquest and the society it produced are rendered as
Disney-esque fairy tales. By the time one arrives in the modern era, one is
reading about a Ladino society in which the indigenous are depicted as in
the postcards sold in hotel lobbies: colorful creatures who dwell in another,
quite separate universe. So is memory without history reproduced, generation
after generation, as a national condition.
So also is the inverse condition reproduced, the condition of the Ladino
elite. This can be described, neatly enough, as “history without memory.” It
is the malady of the forgetters, who organize the past into a grand but incomplete
narrative, the purpose of which is to structure a historical consciousness
that excludes the memories of others (in all senses of this term)
and obviates the necessity of remembering one’s own past. The creation of
history without memory is evident not just in textbooks. It is woven into the
national fabric, into the very geography of Guatemalan life. The Plaza de
Espafia, a busy circle not far from the Plaza Mayor, is ringed with elaborate
benches decorated with ceramic tiles in the Spanish baroque style. The tiles
tell stories: they recite the names of famous conquistadores, while depicting
scenes from the conquest not unlike those in the textbooks. To the side of
each bench is a public-works sign: “This bench is the patrimony of Guatemalans.
Let’s preserve it!” This is history as an exercise in exclusion—history
without memory.11
Neither of these relationships with history is new; the civil war was in no
sense their genesis. They are pathologies with long histories of their own, in
Guatemala and elsewhere. But the civil war—
that is, the Cold War in its local manifestation—
had a transforming effect on Guatemala’s
relations with the past. It was the final eruption
of a long-submerged contention over the ownership
and occupation, so to say, of history. Reflecting
upon the years of conflict, Torres-Rivas
describes violence as the national destiny. Guatemala,
he has written, was throughout its history
addicted to “domination by violence” and had become “the metaphor of
a society that punishes itself.”12 In this respect, the war was an ending. It had
divided Guatemala one final time, into a nation of victims and perpetrators—
final, because there could be no going on from this division, for what had long
seemed parallel paths from past to future had at last intersected.
So the war was a beginning, too. Relations between the guerrilla armies
and the rural population, indigenous and poor Ladino alike, were complex.13
There is little question, however, that the principal guerrilla organization,
the Unidad Revolutionaria National Guatemalteca, was instrumental in cultivating
among the dispossessed a nascent awareness of human rights and indigenous
identity—of “Guatemalan-ness” and “Mayan-ness” alike—as the
war went on. At the conflict’s end, it was immediately clear that it had produced
the moment when those excluded from history began at last to assert
a place in it. “The war brought us to a very strange situation,” says Edgar
Gutierrez, who, before joining the Portillo administration, served as general
coordinator of REMHI’s Nunca Mdsl project. “Usually it is the victors in war
who write its history. Here we have the defeated—the victims, who lost
land, families, and lives—who are gaining part of their history.”
To include in history those excluded: this, surely, was the intention of
Bishop Gerardi and, afterward, the official truth commission. There is still
much controversy on this point—on what, precisely, the truth reports are
intended to do. The past should be buried, many say, for disturbing it will
produce only anger and revenge and more divisions. Even some of the victims
invited by REMHI and the commission to contribute their stories declined
to cooperate, and it is not difficult to understand why. A recent UN
survey indicates that, for almost two-thirds of the population, the peace accords
mean only that the guerrillas and the army have disappeared from
their lives.14 But evidence is abundant that the excluded are gradually
grasping the importance of telling their story. In the capital, one finds stasis;
in the countryside, one finds that the spread of this historical consciousness
through the indigenous population is among the most dynamic aspects of
Guatemalan society.
So is there movement amid motionlessness, as Asturias wrote in his modernist
celebration of Mayan consciousness. One Sunday morning late last
year, several thousand Mayan women assembled in the central square in
Antigua, the old Spanish capital. The gathering’s theme was clear from a
canvas banner stretched across the street. It depicted scenes from the war—
a crude mass grave, a burned village, and homeless survivors wandering in
the altiplano. At the top was an affectionately rendered picture of Bishop
Gerardi, and next to it two slogans. “Let’s teach
our children that justice is the fruit of truth,” one
said; the other, “People, don’t forget your history.”
These lessons, it seems, were among
Gerardi’s most familiar. The second of them is
not taken to refer merely to the immediate past,
but to the deep past too, back through the centuries
of landlessness and slavery and the conquest
to the epoca prehispdnica. This is the fruit of a
Mayan resurgence that is barely in bloom in Guatemala. Because of it, the
line between these pasts—the past of the truth reports and the larger,
deeper past—is at this point undetectable.
“We are collecting the people’s memories because we want to contribute
to the construction of a different country,” Bishop Gerardi said at the official
presentation ofNunca Mds! in April 1998. Did this jovial, benevolent,
and intelligent man understand that collecting memories would lead “the
people” back far beyond the civil war, into the entire “national story”? One
suspects so. Did he recognize that to create a new nation would lead finally
to a collective act of forgetting? That is less clear. At this point, only the habitual
forgetters are comfortable with this idea—and they for the wrong reasons.
For the rest of the nation, all energies now are given to the reification
of memory in the life of the nation, but to what end?
In the town of Santiago Atitlan, an American priest named Tom McSherry
recently reflected upon an infamous army massacre that took 19 lives on December
2, 1990. “Everyone here bears the scars,” he said as we talked outside
his sacristy, “and no one will ever forget.” This is true and not true. At the
edge of town, where the killing took place, a Parque de la Paz has been built:
a stone terrace with memorials to each of the dead. At the back is an open-air
altar where a mass is said on the second of every month. Children play amid
the memorials and on the stone wall that rings the pavilion.
Are those children not the first generation of what we can call creative
forgetters—Nietzschean forgetters? The Parque de la Paz is a repository that
at once preserves the town’s memory while also cleansing it of memory’s
burdens. Does not the park give the people of Santiago Adrian a history
that matches their memory—permitting them to reclaim both space and
time—in their town and their lives? Does it not enable them to forget and
then perceive and construct anew as the German philosopher urges?

A Message to the Future

One day in the middle of last year, the 113 lawmakers of the Congreso completed
debates on a revenue bill that would levy a new tax on alcohol; the
figure approved was 20 percent. In the greater context, it was a minor piece
of legislation—or should have been—for all but the beer and rum industries.
Those businesses (like most others in Guatemala) are controlled by families
that are part of the ruling oligarchy, and so, in short order, the bill became a
national cause celebre. Between the debates and the gazetting of the bill, it
seems, members of the ruling Frente Republicano Guatemalteco altered it to
reduce the tax to 11 percent. Then the official videotapes covering the session
disappeared, leaving no record of the agreed terms of the bill. Then a
local television correspondent came forward with a perfectly clear tape.
Then, as the Portillo administration dithered and equivocated, Guatemalans
erupted into protests that ran for many months.
The incident gained notoriety precisely because the bill itself—the question
of the tax rate—was more or less beside the point. It was a matter of
form, not content. It provided Guatemalans with an almost perfect occasion
to isolate and attack the most intractable of all the problems they now face.
They call it impunidad—that is, the ability of the political, commercial, and
military elites to stand above the law. Impunity renders the legal system unreliable
and the legislative process dysfunctional, as the tax affair reveals
plainly enough. To understand impunidad properly, we must recognize that it
preserves not only the position of the local oligarchy, but that of the rest of
the country as well. At its core, impunity is an instrument of control.
Impunidad has deep roots in Guatemalan history. One could reasonably
argue that it goes back 500 years, to the conquest. In its modern manifestation,
the problem is rooted in the 1954 coup orchestrated by the U.S. Central
Intelligence Agency to overthrow the elected government of President
Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. The lawlessness implicit in the system of impunity
at once made possible the U.S. intervention and is its lasting legacy. During
the civil war that followed, impunidad turned the ordinary conditions of
Guatemalan life—uncertainty, anxiety, exposure without protection—into a
climate of terror. Because the system persists in the post-civil war era, so
does the terror, albeit in somewhat altered forms. “We can measure the impact
of impunity easily enough,” says Marta Luisa Cabrera, a psychologist
who works with traumatized communities. “We see it manifest in both political
and economic corruption. It also produces the pervasive sadness and
fear with which Guatemalans live.”
There is also the matter of justice. “Justice
dignifies victims,” Cabrera says. The inverse is
also true, of course. To deprive another of justice
is to deny dignity—to exclude. Equally, with neither
justice nor any belief that justice is possible,
there can be no trust in either legal protection
or in a nation based upon acknowledged rights.
As a result, lynchings—some, one hears, for the
most minor of transgressions—blight the countryside.
One also hears the PACs that spread terror
during the war have begun to regroup in rural areas. So impunity spreads
through Guatemalan society more or less without boundaries.
It is to the Guatemalans’ credit that they have identified the eradication
of impunidad as the key to both the present and the future. It suggests a seriousness
of purpose that is to be commended. The path to a future free of the
plague of impunity must inevitably lead through the judicial process.
Claudia Virginia Samayoa is director general at the Fundacion Rigoberta
Turn, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) begun and supported by
Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in
1992. The courts, Samayoa tells me, are “the gateway—the door through
which the past can be redeemed.” It would be hard to put the case more
succinctly. It is simply not possible to construct authentically democratic
political institutions without justice. Such a system would be an accomplice
of the past, not its redeemer. Without justice, Guatemalans would be condemned
to “a truth of the community,” as Samayoa puts it—that is, memory
without history—instead of “the truth of a judge, a more durable truth,” a
truth that is entered into history.
A few court cases were filed in the years leading up to the peace accords,
and numerous others since the accords were signed. They have so far
yielded few verdicts; none appears to be going anywhere. Last year, the
Menchu Foundation decided to follow the Chilean example and brought
more than a dozen suits before the Spanish courts under the international
convention against genocide adopted by the UN in 1948. The foundation’s
argument is that the Guatemalan judicial system is simply not ready to perform
the tasks now expected of it. It is not clear where these cases may go,
either. Late last year, the Spanish court declined to hear them.
The court cases have provoked the same sort of comment among the
Guatemalan elites as the truth commission reports: they are provocations, it
is said—instruments of revenge that are unhealthy for the nation. This interpretation
is indefensible, of course. There are many views among those
who support the cases as to how justice is to
be achieved, but none involves revenge.
They are intended, rather, as a “message to
the future” (Samayoa’s phrase) and an official
nunca mas!—a “never again.” If a consensus
is emerging, it includes accepting that
it is impossible to mount a case based upon
each of the war’s thousands of violent incidents,
even though many involve civil
crimes—rape, murder, arson, and so on—
that are not to be defended by invoking the
context of war. The point, it seems, is to
identify chains of command and place the senior-most leaders implicated in
both war crimes and civil crimes on trial.
Guatemalans following the cases have a fairly good idea that this process
could lead to the highest levels of the military and the government. As a
broad indicator, the Menchii Foundation’s cases name two former ministers
and three former chiefs of state, including Efram Rios Montt, who now
serves as the Congreso’s president. There is plenty of pessimism that these
cases might together produce a satisfactory outcome and what Americans
like to call “closure.” In this respect, however, many Guatemalans look,
again, to the examples of Argentina and Chile. “It took Chile 25 years to
consider the Pinochet case,” Torres-Rivas says. “In El Salvador, they are just
now trying people for the murder of four American nuns more than ten
years ago. It’s the same historical process here. Step by step, people gain a
consciousness of the past.” Nineth Montenegro, a legislator in the Congreso,
the widow of a “disappeared,” and longtime human rights advocate, says the
same thing differently. “We are survivors, not victims,” she says. “The task is
to generate an entirely new culture, and that will take at least a generation.”
Of what will a new culture consist? It will rest upon rights instead of fear
and law without impunidad. It will incorporate all Guatemalans by providing
better access to education, medical services, and all the other conditions
necessary, as Montenegro puts it, “to take a step from being simply a poor
country.” It will have a past as inclusive as its present—that is, it will allow
all Guatemalans a place in history. To build such a culture is a process we
can call “reinvention,” and it is apparent, here and there, across the globe.
If justice is a tool for the creation of that new culture, it is ultimately about
the future, not the past. In the end, the court cases will stand in Guatemalan
history like the Parque de la Paz in Santiago Atitlan: they will be repositories
that enable people to begin the work of forgetting.

A Site of Memory

Guatemala has entered upon a rare passage—rare for any nation. Seldom do
a people achieve the level of self-consciousness, in the best sense of this
term, described here. The process of becoming self-aware, though evident at
all levels of society, is especially notable among the Maya. For them, it is a
matter of “interior decolonization,” to borrow a phrase from the French
scholar Pierre Nora.15 “We are working against an historical pattern that effectively
told us to forget who we were, ” says Ruperto Montejo Estaban, a
Q’anjob’al Indian who also goes by the Mayan name Saqch’en. Saqch’en belongs
to an NGO that is producing the first standardized grammar texts in
the most prevalent of the 21 Mayan tongues. After the grammar books will
come dictionaries. “The goal,” Saqch’en says one day amid his computers,
research files, and piles of galleys, “is to create a multiethnic, multilinguistic
It is impossible not to admire Saqch’en’s clarity and ambition, but the implications
of this quest, of necessity, can be grasped only in the course of
achieving it. Guatemalans such as Saqch’en live now in a “lieu de memoire,”
to take another of Nora’s phrases—a site of memory, “where memory crystallizes
and secretes itself.” They propose, however, to leave behind this familiar
place—which is at once physical and psychological. There will be no
more primitive continuities in the Guatemala to come. No one will any
longer be assured of a simple passage from the past to the future. There will
be fewer certainties, even if many of the old certainties were grim ones.
Guatemalans of this generation are passing from a society accustomed to
drawing upon the wells of memory to one served by the modern infrastructure
of history—that is, representations of the past instead of common recollections
of it. As Nora reminds us, “History is perpetually suspicious of
memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it.”
This process is complicated wherever it takes place, especially in Guatemala
because there is no prospect of building a nation based on a shared
memory of the past—a memory-nation, as Nora calls it. Guatemala is only a
nation of diverse rememberers (and forgetters) who have reconciled themselves
to one another—and then chosen, altogether consciously, to accept
the conditions that make it possible for them to live together.
If monuments tell the story of their times as much as the people and
events they honor, what kind are being erected now? There is the Parque de
la Paz, and the flame in Plaza Mayor. And near the flame, on pillars in front
of the national cathedral, the names of war victims are chiseled into marble
tiles. One other monument is worth mentioning, for it adds to the story
these three tell. It was completed in 1997 and,
though many hands contributed to it, the prime
mover was a former journalist named Lionel
Toriello, some of whose forebearers were prominent
supporters of the Arbenz government in the
“We have to see history in a different light,”
Toriello said late one evening at his office in the
capital. “At the end of the civil war, we had no
good sense of history—and no good climate for
writing history.” Armed with these conclusions, Toriello assembled a fund of
$2 million and a team of 156 historians. They spent nearly a decade researching,
editing, and peer-reviewing work that was eventually published as
a six-volume Historia General de Guatemala.16 The notable aspect of the
project is its approach to the question of perspective: it attempts to be “pluralistic,”
Toriello explains, by providing as many as three points of view on
the periods and events it describes. So it purports to be not a national narrative
so much as an assemblage of narratives. This alone makes the Historia
General the most ambitious history Guatemalans have ever attempted. In effect,
it is also an attempt to create public space in a nation that has lived
too long with too little of it.
Toriello’s project is not without critics. Several noted historians declined
to participate, and two resigned midway through. Leftists have termed it a
history of the oligarchy; rightists, a history of the rich written by communists.
There are no doubt problems with the Historia General—some of the
same as one finds in school textbooks. This is inevitable, given the poor historiographical
tradition Toriello himself described. The Historia is a project
of the elite, fair to say, and it is in large part for the elite. It may substantially
change in later printings, and even then it may not stand as a national
history—if such a thing is indeed even possible.
But the impulse is interesting. “It’s a new story for Guatemalans,” Toriello
said. “It won’t quell controversy about our past—if anything, it may add to
it. But it’s a departure, an effort to make several Guatemalas into one and
bring us a little closer to modernity.” It could also bring those who have long
avoided an accounting of the past a little closer to accepting one.


1. Miguel Angel Asturias, Men of Maize (London and New York: Verso), p. 83.
Hombres de Maiz was first published in Buenos Aires in 1949. The translation is by
Gerald Martin.
2. Pero es bello amar el mundo
con los ojos
de los que no han nacida todavia.
Castillo (1936-67) was captured by the army three months after joining a guerrilla
column and was never again seen alive. Vamanos Patria a Caminar, the poem
quoted here, appears in full on the Plaza Mayor.
3. The Acuerdos de Paz were signed at intervals after the initiation of negotiations
between the government and the Unidad Revolutionaria National Guatemalteca,
or URNG, the main guerrilla organization in 1990. In addition to the peace agreement,
they cover human rights, the official truth commission, indigenous rights,
agrarian reform, civil institutions, the role of the armed forces, and constitutional
and electoral reform. The texts are available on the Minugua web site
4. Guatemala: Nunca Más! (Guatemala City: Oficina de Derechos Humanos del
Arzobispado de Guatemala [ODHAG], 1999). A one-volume edition is available in
English as Guatemala: Never Again! (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999).
5. Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio (Guatemala City: Comisión para el Esclarecimiento
Histórico [CEH], 1999). A one-volume English summary was published as Memory
of Silence in 1999 by the United Nations (UN) Office of Project Services in New
York. In 2000, the CEH published a companion volume that analyzes the background
of the civil war, Causas y Orígenes del Enfrentamiento Armado Interno.
6. A third report on the violence must also be noted. Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and
Herbert F. Spirer, State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection
(Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999).
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely
Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale; trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge and
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 57-123.
8. These figures are from Minugua, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala, and are
confirmed in the various reports on the violence produced after the peace accords.
9. Guatemala: la fuerza incluyente del desarrollo humano (Guatemala City: Sistema
Unidas en Guatemala, 2000). The report defines poverty as an income of less than
$60 per month per person—$2 per day—and extreme poverty as a per capita income
of less than $30 a month, or $1 a day.
10. The reference here is Estudios Sociales 5 (Guatemala City: Editorial Santillana,
1999). I wish to thank Sarah Martinez Juan of Antigua de Guatemala, my interpreter
and assistant, for introducing me to this fifth-grade text on history, geography,
and civics. See also Imágeries Homogéneas en un País de Rostros Diversos
(Guatemala City: Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales en Guatemala,
AVANCSO Cuadernos de Investigación No. 11, 1998).
11. I have previously applied the notion of history without memory to U.S.-Japan relations.
See “Remembering Japan: A Bilateral History,” The Washington Quarterly 21,
no. 1 (Winter 1998): 212-136.
12. “La metáfora de una sociedad que se castiga a sí misma” is published as the prologue
to Guatemala: Causas y Origenes del Enfrentamiento Armado Interno.
13. These complexities are the subject of numerous accounts They are famously elaborated
in David Stoll’s work, especially his critique of Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography.
See Rigoberta Menchu, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala,
ed. Elisabeth Burgos Debray, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1984); David
Stoll, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1993); David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans
(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999).
14. Conocimiento y Percepción de Derechos Humanos, Derechos del Niño, Paz y Democracia
en Guatemala (Guatemala City: UNICEF, 2000).
15. Here and in the folowing passage I draw from Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and
History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26, trans. Marc Roudebush (Spring
1989): pp. 7-25.
16. Historia General de Guatemala (Guatemala City: Asociación de Amigos del País,
Fundación para la Cultura y Desarrollo, 1997).