Scott's Entry #9

"Arturo's Story"

It was kinda’ like a summer camp… only it wasn’t summer… and this wasn’t camp.   Instead, Gabby and I, along with the other volunteers, were attending a retreat at Centro Mam.  The place was originally built by missionaries in the 40’s who had come to learn from the Mam and share their faith.  Today, the place houses a clinic and several other buildings which serve as lodging for anyone who happens to be “retreating” there.

Scott And Gab At The Retreat Center

Come to think of it, “retreat” is a very apt word for our get-together.  Though most people think of a retreat as an event where people relax a lot and maybe burn some S’Mores, my soul had other plans.  I was personally really scared about leaving the comfy confines of our language school and beginning “real life” in Guatemala.  I think my mind was running… no… RETREATING… from the very idea of immersing myself here.  I wanted time to close my eyes and imagine that I was back in Austin with my flushing toilet, comfortable job, personal transportation and buffalo wings at my beck and call. The long hours of soul-searching, praying, reminiscing and planning at this event were good for me, but everything was clouded in the shroud of “what good am I actually doing here?”

We were walking back to our “cabin” after our dinner of soup and tortillas.  My mood was effecting every fiber of my being.  I was being “Mister Grumpy Pants”.  It was cold.  It was dark.  It was wet.  I was tired of thinking and I had to use the bathroom like a kindergartener who just downed 3 bottles of soda. 

We rounded the corner to see our bosses, Joe and Selena, talking to a Guatemalan man.  Though I didn't feel like socializing, I stopped and tolerated the exchange of pleasantries and introductions.  The man (we’ll call him Arturo… though it’s not his real name) was very gracious and pleased to meet us.  His smile made me feel a bit guilty for my bad mood, but it wasn't enough to turn me into Mr. Sunshine.   Not wanting to be outwardly rude (but still being very preoccupied in my own head), I remained there with the group while the Arturo and our bosses conversed in Spanish.  Half-paying attention, I caught bits and pieces of the exchange.

He was giving a brief history of the region and Centro Mam.  His brother works at the place, and Arturo is somehow connected to it as well.  While I stood by doing the “potty dance”, he went on and on about the mountains, the volcanoes, the crops of the area and the missionaries who had worked at the center.  Just as I was about to say “pleased to meet you” and be on my way, he pointed to the hills to our left and said…

 

“Había masacres allá.” 

This comment woke me up out of my selfish stupor.  Did he just say that there were massacres over in those hills? 

After he said the sentence, his face broke into a half smile and he let out a tiny nervous laugh.   We all knew that he didn’t think that the idea of massacres was funny.  It was obvious that he was only trying to mask something deep down that was hard to talk about.   Joe asked him to elaborate.  Arturo continued…

“Yes, there were massacres there.  I think 13 people were killed by the National Police during ‘the violence’ (this is the term Guatemalans use to describe the war years, and especially the genocide that took place in the early 80’s).  There were massacres in a couple of other towns around here as well.  It was a really tough time.”

Then Joe asked the question that everyone was curious about yet no one wanted the answer. 

 

“Did you know any of those killed?”

 

The something changed in Arturo.  His “facts and figures” manner of speaking took a turn towards the personal.  It was similar to the way in which a talkative traveler in the airplane seat next to you decides to tell you all about his personal problems.  Usually, this will either  a) bore you, or  b) freak you out a little bit.  In this case, it was different.  It was evident that Arturo was giving us a gift.  He was sharing a piece of himself with us, and a piece of this country’s sad history.

“I didn’t know anyone who was killed in the massacre.  However, I DID know people who were killed during the violence.  For instance, my sister’s son was about 15 years old.  The family was poor, so he sold bread to make ends meet.”

He continued, “Every day he would walk down to the road from his mountain home and sell bread to the people in town.  He made enough money to help the family buy food and necessities.  But, one day the police came by for a visit.  They weren’t looking for bread.  Instead, they assumed that he was selling his bread and giving the proceeds to the guerilla army, which was looking to overthrow the government.  If it wasn’t that, they thought he was baking bread to feed the guerillas.”

“One day, he didn’t come home.  The family set out searching for him and later found his tortured body in a field.”

Here stood Arturo proudly sporting his Lee jean jacket, McGregor shirt, and hand-me-down slacks… all manufactured by companies in the U.S.  The irony is that all of these clothes came from the same country that provided weapons to the army that killed his nephew.  Here stood 7 Americans, listening to this story.  During the past couple of weeks we had all read about the role that our country had played in the history of Guatemala, and it made us all a little cautious of how we responded to the people here.  Now, it was hitting us right between the eyes.  None of us said a word.  We were caught in a freeze frame, wondering what you’re supposed to say when someone tells you a terrible story like that.  For good fortune or bad, Arturo broke the awkward silence. 

“I had some trouble with the National Police as well.  I had gone to Puerto Barrios (on the East Coast of Guatemala) for a job.  I missed being at home, so I was trying to return as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, my bus to Guatemala City was late.  So, when I arrived there, I had to catch a different bus back to my village.  By the time I arrived to my village, it was very late and very dark.  As I was walking up the mountain toward my house, I was met by my brothers.  They told me that the National Police had come by the house looking for me.  They suspected that I was part of the guerillas.  When I wasn’t home, they called on my brothers.  They denied knowing where I was.  That night they helped me hide out until it was safe.

For some reason, my name had made its way onto their ‘Death List.’  They came to my village looking for me two more times.  Each time I was working in another town.  My wife lied about my whereabouts, as did my family.  Nothing more happened to my immediate family.  I don't think my name is on ‘the list’ anymore.  (For this reason, Arturo is anonymous in our story)  I believe the grace of God saved my life.  I am a lucky man.”

He finished his story and we were all speechless.  This man had lived through the hell of genocide.  Who knows what else may have happened to his wife or family that they haven't told him?  Still, Arturo called himself lucky.  We had no response except, “WOW!”

What struck me the most was how he considered himself a fortunate person, and how he believed he was blessed by the grace of God.  If I had been in his situation, would I feel the same way?  Probably not.  I would probably be cursing God and asking him what I had done that was so terrible to deserve to live my life in constant fear.  Yet, Arturo was praising God.  It was an amazing testament to the faith of the Guatemalans who have grown accustomed to discomfort, distrust and fear. 

Arturo’s story helped me realize that God never promised us that life would be easy.  Yet, in the times of struggle, our faith is what carries us.  God loves helping when we are unable to help ourselves.  We live in a world of free will, and some people choose to lie, hurt and steal.  Still, those of us who choose love and faithfulness will win every time. 

This year promises to be a struggle for both Gabby and me.  Heck, these first couple of months have already been hard.  I find myself complaining about the little things a lot.  It's NOTHING like what Arturo experienced. Still, during these times, it is important to stay focused on the blessings in my life.  There is so much to be thankful for. 

As hard as we may try this year, we will never really know what it is like to be poor.  We may be living with a poor family, eating food that is available, and sacrificing indoor plumbing.  Still, we know at any time that if something terrible happened here, we have the ability to go back to “the good life” at  a moment’s notice.  What’s more, we have the love of friends and family.  We have a strong marriage.  We have the good fortune of being born in the richest country on the globe.  Even without these things, the love of God is enough, but it’s sure nice to have the icing on the cake.

My prayer today is that we all do a “glass-is-half-full” inventory and remember the blessings in our lives.  There is so much richness to find when you wipe away the grime of complaints, hassles and worries.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.  And the God of peace will always be with you.  Phillipians 4: 8-9