There’s a way to go to Guatemala as a tourist and see beautiful places like Antigua and Tikal without ever knowing a genocide took place in that country in the 1980s and 90s and that still today indigenous Mayans face racism, discrimination, environmental degradation, forced disappearance and death. You would never have to know the country is ruled by corrupt oligarchs who build their real wealth on trafficking in drugs, weapons and people. You would never have to know the history of United States involvement in a coup against the democratically-elected socialist president in the 1950s and the CIA’s involvement in the later genocide that disappeared or killed 200,000 people, the majority of whom were Mayan.
You can do short-term missions in Guatemala and never know these things either. You are more likely than the average tourist to see some of the results of this history in the poverty faced by many Mayans, but you don’t have to stop and ask what has caused that poverty and what perpetuates it. In particular, you don’t have to examine the role of conquest and the church in the ongoing subordination of the Mayan people.
Guatemala is one of the top destinations for short-term mission trips, and certainly American Christians who go on those trips to build houses or teach children to read mean well. Those efforts often do help individual people. But they do not bring about the long-lasting and structural changes that are necessary for justice for indigenous Mayans.
“U.S. intervention contributed to the conditions that have caused so many Guatemalans and Hondurans to leave their homes and travel toward the U.S. border.”
U.S. intervention in Central America contributed to the conditions that have caused so many Guatemalans and Hondurans to leave their homes and travel toward the U.S. border, however unwelcome they are in the eyes of the Trump administration and many of its ardent supporters. Contemporary American, Canadian and European corporations continue to exploit Guatemala with hydroelectric dams, nickel and gold mines, and fruit and coffee companies. These operations take land away from indigenous subsistence farmers, poison the soil and water and impoverish many Mayans even as they enrich oligarchs, politicians and foreign corporations.
In the early 1980s, the community of Rio Negro opposed the building of a hydroelectric dam that would flood their ancestral home. In response, the government massacred the entire village. The men were ambushed when invited to a meeting in a nearby village, and the women and children were marched up a mountain and slaughtered on the top of it. The few survivors rebuilt the community higher up after the dam flooded their homes and sacred sites. They didn’t get electricity for their village for more than 30 years after the massacre.
Mayans themselves have organized to oppose encroachment on their land and diminishing of their rights. These human rights defenders are the frontline of resistance, and their efforts are the ones well-meaning Americans – and especially compassionate Christians – should support.
In 2012, people from around the community of San José del Golfo began a blockade of an American company’s attempt to mine gold, a process that would have had devastating effects on the environment and that the community largely saw as illegal. Twice, the government attempted violent evictions of the people at La Puya who for years maintained a protest at the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Despite the fact that the constitutional court suspended mining operations in 2017, people in the community still fear the operation could resume, and the American corporation has threatened to sue the Guatemalan government for not protecting its access to the mine.
“Most well-meaning mission efforts in Guatemala at best address the symptoms and not the causes of Mayan suffering.”
I began taking students to Guatemala five years ago, not to do anything for the Mayans, but to learn from them. Working first with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission and then the Human Rights Defenders Project, we met activists across the country. Many are still working for justice for those who have been forcibly disappeared and for the families of those murdered in the genocide. Others oppose dams that still displace entire communities and mines that pollute the water and land. Others work toward ending violence against women. Some are politicians, working for change from within.
What is common across all sectors of this activism for justice is that Mayans are agents in their own right. They don’t need Americans to educate them, rescue them or fix them. Most well-meaning mission efforts in Guatemala at best address the symptoms and not the causes of Mayan suffering. In fact, these efforts may even contribute to the perpetuation of the systems of oppression that harm the Maya.
A short-term mission project may feel good for the Americans who go to Guatemala, but partially finished efforts and two-week “relationships” actually mean abandoning the very people missions projects set out to “help.” Often the things American Christians bring to give Guatemalans are not the things they need, and many of these things can be bought in Guatemala, so bringing them actually takes money out of the Guatemalan economy. Building churches and hospitals can take jobs away from the Guatemalan citizens who desperately need them. Local people and groups can also usually do these things much less expensively than outsiders.
Significantly, mission projects can also undermine a cornerstone of Mayan resistance – indigenous religions. As subjects of long histories of colonization under so-called Christian empires, many Maya have held onto their own religious practices and draw strength from them for resistance. The very act of practicing their indigenous religions is an act of resistance against colonialism and racism.
We must not make indigenous Mayans the target of evangelism or the object of our well-intentioned do-goodism. Rather they need us to be advocates with our own government about U.S. foreign policies in Guatemala that perpetuate the oppression of indigenous communities, poison their land and water and prevent justice for the genocide and ongoing racism against Mayan people.
“Mission projects can also undermine a cornerstone of Mayan resistance – indigenous religions.”
Events are unfolding rapidly as the crisis deepens. At this writing, Jimmy Morales, a television comedian-turned-president, is working to end a United Nations commission investigating corruption in the Guatemala government (yes, I see the parallels), assuming the U.S. president won’t intervene. Many political observers see these maneuvers to end the investigations by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) as a slow-motion or technical coup, once again installing an authoritarian government without constraints. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala issued a tepid statement of concern. But, as Morales expected, the Trump administration has largely remained silent. Rep. Norma J. Torres of California wrote in an op-ed that if the administration doesn’t act, she will reintroduce the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act.
If we really care about the people of Guatemala, our response should not be a mission trip to do good for the Guatemalans. Rather we should learn about Guatemala’s human rights defenders and support them. If we want to take a youth group abroad, then let’s take them to Guatemala to sit down with the human rights defenders who are resisting corruption, oppression and violence by government and corporations, and let’s learn from them. Let’s bring back what we learn and advocate with our own government to change U.S. policies in Guatemala so that our country becomes part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
Let’s not go build a school. Let’s ask why there aren’t already adequate schools. Let’s not volunteer in an orphanage. Let’s ask why children have been taken from their families. Let’s not take school supplies. Let’s ask why there is such a prevalence of poverty. Let’s not see Guatemala in terms of its deficiencies. Let’s ask what role the U.S. has played and continues to play in the politics and economics that create poverty. Let’s not try to build relationships with people in Guatemala while we condemn migrants at our borders and accept family separations and Guatemalan children in cages in the U.S.
Let’s not merely offer our thoughts and prayers. Let’s offer solidarity and advocacy that give feet to our prayers. Let’s rethink that mission trip.