Interview and translation by Lena Dorfschmidt and Justin Shenk
Coming here was beautiful, because we came from a finca where we suffered a lot. We came from a finca called Asunción. That is where I was born, where I grew up, where I went to school. There I met my husband, we got married, had four children…. And then the conflict started. [….] We formed a labor union, because the finca owner was not good. When the organization was formed, many people were involved, but later when because of being organized we didn’t get any work anymore, many people left the organization and only twenty-one people were left. Two women.
I didn’t attend the labor union meetings very often. They were very late in the evening, because they weren’t open, they were secret, because the finca owner was bad, and that is why we had to do them secretly. I nearly didn’t assist. Sometimes, but most times I didn’t, because it was so late. The leaders would also go to get information and came back really late and would say: “We have to talk now. We have to travel to Xela tomorrow.” Or something like that. So it was really late. My husband also was in the organization and we couldn’t both go because the children couldn’t stay home alone.
The organization wanted better living conditions, because how we lived was a disaster. The houses were made of old wood, the rood of aluminum panels, but they were broken and the floor was just dirt so when it rained it was a disaster. It wasn’t only about the living conditions. They also demanded fair salaries [for] teenagers, women and old people, because on the finca the salary for a child wasn’t the same as for a man and the women’s wasn’t the same either. From twenty to fifty years [men didn’t earn] a very fair salary, but it was [at least] more then the women’s. At that time women earned eleven Quetzals, as well as the old people. And the men from twenty or eighteen to fifty years earned twenty-two. That is not fair, because the finca owners say that men have more strength and that they are worth more. Also the old people have given their youth to the finca and they wanted [the wages] to be the same. And they [demanded] medicine. For example if at night a child or an old person got ill, it should be possible to go to the finca and say that we have a sick person and need help. But they couldn’t get through any of those petitions.
They had some orientations with some leaders of the catholic church. They listened to speeches, too. They walked from the finca to Colomba to get new ideas and support on how to go on working in the organization.
Those who stayed [in the labor union], we twenty-one people didn’t want to turn back anymore, because the compañeros, the leaders had suffered more then we, because they lost their work even before us. And they went out, they risked, they walked from Colomba to the finca where we used to live. Late at night. And maybe they were frightened, because the finca owner had a car and weapons. So if we were to give up, everything would stop and the owners could say, “You may leave without payment for the last years.” So the few that were left to finish the organization stayed united.
But the saddest thing is that in the organization we had a compañero that suffered an accident. We were cutting coffee and to cut coffee you have to carry a lot on your back. He suffered an injury to his leg and got high fever without getting medical attention. He died. He died for not receiving medical care. That […] gave the group even more strength to keep on fighting.
For us that were united.. it was very sad, because everyone had to see how to defend themselves, because we had no work and some had many children. Providing food for them was difficult. Some had to travel to the border with Mexico to work, because when we found work in fincas close by, the patron would come and tell the other finca owners that we were thieves of his land or that we were ex-combatants. It wasn’t true, but he had to say something so that they wouldn’t give us work, but some fincas helped us secretly with works that they didn’t write into their books for example. We worked secretly, but in risk, because the owner could find out about it and tell people, “You cant give them work.”
When the struggle [with the owner of the finca] ended we came here. Not all of us, some went to different places because they already had work there. Some went to Xela to work, others to the capital of Guatemala, others to Colomba – different places. Here we were only seventeen people from the organization.
Our leader assisted Christian meetings by the Catholic Church. It was at that time that they were told that the church had land to sell. The priest at that time, Bernard, father Bernard Velásquez, gave the authorization to buy the lands at a low price, because the money the finca owner had given us was very little. So we decided to buy this land here because the father arrived to tell us that there was land here and we were in favor of it and said “yes.” The price of each piece of land that one family lives on was at 3,500 Quetzals. […] We took these lands, and the priest also said that it wasn’t fair that we didn’t have land. He asked Caritas for support to buy houses. That organization worked here to build the houses and we paid the money back during four years, paying 200 Quetzals per month. It was a help that we could pay it back part by part.
For me it was a little sad [to come here], but at the same time happy, because it had so many advantages to come here. Our own houses, no fear anymore that the owner would just come and throw us out, the schools were nearby…[…]
Because we were in the organization [our children] had not had classes for three years, because the owner said, “If you are organized, I don’t want to see your children in the school.”
[Here] they had the primary school nearby in Nuevo San José and after that the Secondary school in Santo Domingo was nearby, too. And then the highway is nearby so they could go and study in university.
A lot changed, because I don’t have to… I like being in the fields, but I don’t like cutting coffee. But I like working.
I wouldn’t have thought [that I was ever going to leave the finca]. Where we used to live it was difficult, and here it is nice now. We are with the people from the fincas where the teenagers grew up together.
People [had come to the finca] from different places. I know that my grandmother was from [the department] Quiché, very far from here. And […] my mother’s mother said that they came from another place on the coast. So people came from different families and places and mixed up.
My grandmother says that she was very small when she left her village in search of work and she stayed [here]. Always working. She died here on the finca. She says she was very small when she came from her village. My father tell me that his mother told him that they came walking, step by step – they stayed in places [on the way], because at that time it wasn’t as dangerous as now – till they arrived at the finca to work.
My parents still live on the finca. They stayed there. When we entered the organization my father said, “You can’t fight with the owner, he has a lot of money. It is better to be on his side.” And I said, “I can’t. My husband is in the organization and I have to support him now. Because the petitions they are making are not bad. […] If some day they could reach what they are trying to reach, it would be for all of us: fair salaries and good living conditions.” He said, “No, leave the organization. I don’t want you to be in there.” Because I used to leave the house early, like at five in the morning, to go to other places to help a little in the house, for my husband, because sometimes he wouldn’t have work and I would work to give food to my children. But my father didn’t agree. He said, “No, because you are taking a risk going to other places. The owner might see you on the way and who knows what will happen then.” I told him, “I am not afraid.”
He kept working there, because no he has a pension by the IGCS. And he says, “I like the finca, because I don’t like how you live here all together. On the finca I can go for walks.” He says, “The finca isn’t mine, but I can go anywhere. I go to the rivers, to the green fields.” He says he likes it there, because he has passed all his life there.
He say that the former finca owner was good and maybe he says that because when he got ill, the former owner treated him well.
So he wants to be there and says that he has never suffered.
I was fine to be there too, but my husband for example said that the leaders of his working group were bad, because they obliged people to do very heavy work and they also formed the labor union because they had suffered, because they had to get up very early in the morning to work on another finca the owner had. I wanted to support my husband in his suffering. Even though I liked working in the fields, I also wanted higher salaries.
I will never regret it, I am happy here. I have wanted to have work to have more income in the house, but it is difficult here to find work, because I nearly don’t have education, and to get work it is necessary to have completed higher studies. I only did two years of primary school. Maybe I could work as a domestic help, but that would also not be possible. I would have to leave my home and go to live with another family and my husband needs me to prepare food early in the morning. [My daughter] Mirza is here now but maybe at some point of time she will return to her house. […]
Because we were in the organization they had not had classes for three years, because the owner said, “If you are organized, I don’t want to see your children in the school.”