Location: Escuela de La Montaña, Guatemala
Recorded and Translated by Lena Dorfschmidt and Justin Shenk
Good evening to all of you. I would like to thank you for giving me this oportunity to share with you the story of Fatima, which is not unique, but rather like many other stories.
Before coming to live in F·tima, we lived on a coffee finca, called Asuncion. The owner of the finca was from Germany and his wife was from Spain. The finca had a size of about 7000 cuerdas.
There were about 100 families living on the finca, each having at least one worker. Though in this case there were only 80 workers, as 20 people were already receiving a pension from IGSS, the Guatemalan Institute for Social Security.
The work that was done always had to do with coffee, which was the principle cultivation that sustained the working class. The salaries were very low. We were working a lot and earning very little. Exploitation was a big problem, especially between men and women.
In time the fincaís owners grew old. The owner died and only the lady was left. But she was too old to administer the finca. They had three daughters and each of these daughters had a son. One of the ladyís grandsons took over the administration of the finca.
With this gentleman came big problems. He had his own land. He had a plantation in the department of […] On this plantation he was cultivating mango trees.
In the year 1994 we were obligated to work on this plantation. To get there we had to leave at 3 AM to arrive at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. After the working day we would return to the finca, at about 10 or 11 PM. Our wives would get up at 1 AM to prepare breakfast. This situation was the same in the years 1995 and 1996.
We earned a daily salary of 17.7 Quetzales.
In 1996 we decided to talk to the owner and asked him to increase the salary. He promised to pay us four hours extra so that the salary would be 22 Quetzales.
On fincas it was usual to get paid after 15 days of work. We would work from Monday to Saturday for two weeks and then get paid.
At that time we were cutting the fruits. After the first 15-day period we were expecting to receive the higher salary. But we didnít receive it. We again only got 17.70 Quetzales.
So when we returned to the finca we decided to get together and wait for the administrator to ask him why he didn’t pay us more.
After some time he showed up. But he came by car. He was a little drunk and when he saw all the people he ran to the office and locked the door. He said he wasn’t going to talk to anyone.
The comrades said, then we are not going to cut the fruit. But on Sunday the corporal, the person that is responsable for the workers, came by to tell us that we should go to work and that we would be paid at the plantation.
Monday morning when we arrived at the plantation we asked for the owner. They told us he wasn’t there. We were taken to the work place and asked to start our work, but we said we weren’t going to work until the owner came. So what we did was, we sat down under the trees till the owner came.
He showed up at about ten in the morning. He found us sitting below the trees and asked why weren’t working. We said, “We want you to pay us what you owe us – then we will work.” So the owner said, “Go on working and I will pay you at the end of the day.”
We kept sitting there and around noon the owner showed up again. He found us seated. So he didn’t say anything anymore. He took out his pistol and started shooting between the trees’ branches, just to frighten us.
Then he ordered the trucks to take us back to the finca. That day we didn’t work.
When we returned to the finca, we started to think about how to defend our rights. The finca was a little afraid, because the owner didn’t like organization. But we, considering the problems we had, tried to find a way to organize ourselves.
So of the sixty workers that were doing the work of cutting the fruits at the time, fifteen decided to start our struggle. We started looking for legal help through some organizations and got the support of Pastoral de La Tierra, for example. And Minuva, an international organization in Guatemala.
Another organization that supported us was the Catholic Church. After some time we formed a committee and through this committee we started a more formal legal fight. The first thing we did was to sue the owner. To that law suit, we added some petitions, demanding better living conditions for example. We sent that law suit to several departments: Mazaltenango, Coatepeque, Quetzaltenango and Guatemala City. When the owner got to know about the lawsuit he got very angry and ordered all the workers to get together. When everyone was there he said: “I have to know who sued me.” So the fifteen that gave the demand stood aside. We got together at a different place, and when we were together said that it had been us who sued him. So the owner sent the rest of the people home and the fifteen kept waiting for what he was to say.
The owner told us that for the lawsuit we filed he had to pay 15,000 Quetzales to a government official. He said, “Why should I pay that man. He has money. I should better give the money to you and you split it. A thousand for each of you and you take back the lawsuit.” We told him that the law is not a toy. We had filed the lawsuit and weren’t going to take it back. The owner said, “Fine, if you want to fight with me, no problem. I have money. You don’t have money and you will lose.”
On from that moment the problems increased, because the owner started to repress the fifteen of us that gave the demand. The first thing he told us is that we didn’t have any work anymore. He also wrote letters. He wrote letters and sent them to other fincas, saying that they shouldn’t give us work, because we were guerillas. Many partners went to other fincas in search of work, but didn’t find any.
This led many partners to go very far away in search for work. Some went to Quetzaltenango or Tapachula in Mexico. We others stayed at the finca to see what was going to happen. He also took away our children’s right to go to school. He closed a prayer house, a church where we used to unite. “I don’t want any organization here!” He also contracted security personnel to protect the finca and to make sure that none of us entered the coffee area – not even to get firewood. He also took away our wives’ right to get water at the pila. He closed down all the principle ways leading to the finca. There was no way to get there by car anymore, no way to take an ill person to a doctor. Our grandparents, with permission by the owners, had cultivated something close to where we had our houses that were given to us in exchange for our work. But that gentlemen, considering all the problems, sent a man with a chainsaw to cut all the trees saying that we didn’t have a right to anything that grew on his land. The Juzgado de Trabajo only told him to give us work again, but he said, “I don’t want them to work on my lands anymore.” Other people joined the fight and we reached a number of forty-three people in the organization. But that was only for short time.
The owner had a strategy of offering money to the farmers. Say they had to renounce the organization and in return he would give them money. Many partners received money. And when we noticed it the number had decreased to twenty-five.
That is how we spend the years 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. In the end of the year 1999 the owner yet again had a surprise for us. Very early in the morning about 300 military people, accompanied by the Civil Police arrived at the finca. They also brought some public prosecutors. They had the plan to revise our houses.
In the union we had elected four people to be like the leaders of the union. One of these leaders had left the finca in the early morning heading to Colomba. That’s where he had found work. He was traveling by bike. On the way we saw the military and the police and thought that something was about to happen. Arriving in Colomba he talked with the father of the Catholic Church, some human rights organizations and Minua, while at the finca the public persecutors and the military started to enter our houses. They said they had been told that we had weapons, so they came to check. But that was a lie. We had work problems, not weapon problems.
Around eight in the morning Minua and some human rights organization showed up. When the police and the military saw Minua and the human rights organizations, they tried to hide. Some climbed into the pickups, some into the trucks and others went to the owner’s house. 300 people. Many people. And all of them tried to hide themselves. Only the boss of the police couldn’t hide himself. So Minua took him and started to interrogate him on what was happening. So the boss of the police said he didn’t know what was happening. He had only been hired for a mission, but did not know the reasons for it.
So Minua asked him to accompany them to start an investigation on who had given the orders for this operation. Some of the union members also went to do the investigation in the department of Coatepeque.
In the investigation it just so happened that a judge from Coatepeque had given the order. And that judge, well, was a family member of the owner. Also that the owner, to mobilize the military, had paid 200,000 Quetzales. That’s how we passed the year 1999 and 2000. In 2001 the owner started to look for a solution to the problems and offered us money. In two occasions we didn’t accept, because the money didn’t make up for the lost time.
Below those offers, there was an offer of 10,000, 8,000 for some, 5,000 and 3,000 for others. From the side of the workers we also presented some suggestions. One of those was that he should provide work for us. But the owner said no. So if he didn’t want to give us work, he should give us land. But he said, I am even less willing to give you land.
If he didn’t want to give us that, he should pay 100 per cent of our debts. But he said he didn’t have money. A third offer he gave was a little better. But only for the four leaders of the union. For them it was of 25,000 Quetzales. For the rest of us it was the same as the previous offer. This offer was discussed. On a discussion table we discussed it, we analyzed it and in the end decided to accept. We said it wasn’t convenient, but that we had to accept. One of the reasons that made us accept was that our children hadn’t been going to school for five years now. So we said we had to accept. And the situation was that right after everyone received their part of the money we would have to leave the finca. We accepted and decided to leave. It was our wives that got a little frightened when they got to know that we were leaving the finca. They said: “Where will we go? We don’t have land, we don’t have houses. What will we do?” We, at no moment, lost the faith, the hope. Out of the twenty-five families that I mentioned that were in the union, seventeen decided to stay together, to look for a piece of land together. Other comrades decided to go to a place close to Quetzaltenango. They already had work there, so that was better for them. The priest of the Catholic Church supported us in our fight. When he got to know that we were leaving the finca he said, “Don’t worry, we will find a piece of land for you.” He took us to have a look at a piece of land about four kilometers uphill and the one that we are at now. We liked this piece of land and solicited it. We paid 100,000 Quetzales for it. The land is 33.5 cuerdas big. One cuerda is a area of 400m2.
[…] With the support of the priest we also solicited support for houses from Caritas, an institution of the Diosis of Quetzaltneango, financed by Manos Unidas from Spain.
The houses had a price of 16,000 Quetzales, but the organization supported us with 50 percent of that and we paid the missing 50 percent over a time of 3.5 years. We gave the place the name “Fátima”, because in the Catholic Church that we attended at the finca there was a image of Fátima, or the Virgin Mary. When we arrived we were thinking of which name to give it and some suggested “Nueva Asunción,” but we said no, because that brings up bad memories. So we said Fátima. And Fátima we named it. We have been living here for thirteen years now and are currently about twenty-six families. 122 people. We are not many, just a few. And the land also […] The part where we live is flat, and after that comes an area that is very steep. The flat land is divided into equal parts. We couldn’t give anyone more land, because we couldn’t send anyone to live at the steep land. So the flat land was divided between the seventeen families.
That is the story how we came to live here. But the problems didn’t stop. There are always new necessities. New problems. But we keep up the struggle for the development of our community.
One of our greatest pleasures was to get in contact with the “Escuela de La Montaña,” because the school started to support us. One of the supports was that the students they had at that time helped carrying the materials to where the houses were build. And also the school supported us with the water. We didn’t have water, so the school gave us a connection. Several years we lived like that. It wasn’t until the year 2007 that we could do some steps ahead of the absolutely basic needs. We were starting to find solutions. In the year 2007 we got running water for the families. Each family had its own connection in the house. Also we got electricity in the houses. The construction of a primary school and the drain for water […]
We also have a building that is a Health Center. And a small church and the paved street now are projects that we could do. […] All these projects had a high economic cost. Some projects could be done with the support of the Municipality of San MartÌn Coatepequez. We believe that our fight doesn’t stop. It will always continue. We always find new problems in the community. We keep up the fight, whichever problems there might be. There is division with the neighbors, policies that divide, even the church. The church itself divides us with its forms of belief, so there are many problems in the community, but there is the struggle.
Where are the people that had gone to Mexico now?
Yes I mentioned that they had gone to Mexico. But when the problems at the finca were solved, they came back. Now we are all united here. The only ones that are not here are the ones that went to Xela.
Is there an organizational structure in Fátima?
Yes, so, about the, let’s say, organization of Fátima, let’s say, we have an organizational structure made of different commissions. Below these commissions there is one that has the most basic function, the base. In that is the “Consejo Comunitario de Desarollo” (Communitive Council of Development). I am the representative of that. I do the work as a legal representative of the council. Apart from that there is the women’s association. It is called “Asociación de Desarollo Integral Fátima” (Association of Integral Development Fátima). Then we have a Health Council, with five members, and a Women’s Council, also with five members. And we have the Family Parents’ Council. That is how our community is organized now.