By **John Sevigny**
Earlier this year in Guatemala City, I made contact with a clandestine organization of activists called H.I.J.O.S. (Hijos y hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio). The aim of the highly secretive organization is to insure that the two hundred and fifty thousand people who were murdered and disappeared by the military during the genocide are not forgotten, and that the killers are brought to justice.
H.I.J.O.S. members plaster streets of the Guatemalan capital—one of Latin America’s most dangerous cities, according to the US State Department—with posters, each showing a photograph of a single victim of Central America’s brutal and darkest episode.
After a number of months, I have a collection of fifty or so of those posters, each measuring eight and a half by eleven inches. But getting them was no small trick.
I went to Guatemala to give a photography workshop, talk, and exhibition. While there, I was able to establish contact with a member of the organization, a person I have never seen, and whose name I do not know. I explained that I was interested in sharing the posters with people in Mexico and the United States in order that we might learn something about recent Guatemalan history, and use the materials to reflect upon Mexico’s situation today, where nearly thirty thousand people have been killed during an increasingly unpopular war against organized crime groups. My contact at the organization was suspicious and declined to meet me in person.
[The images] show individuals and yet, echo the collective experience of a nation. On the other hand, they also prove that that the collective experience of history, is lived (and in this case suffered) by individuals—flesh, blood, bones and souls.
We agreed that hard copies of the posters would be left with a third party near the central plaza in Guatemala City. I would pick them up on what happened to be my last day in the country. I went to the designated location just an hour before my bus was to leave for Tapachula, Mexico, but unfortunately, the posters had not been delivered. To this day I don’t know if this was done out of forgetfulness or an overabundance of precaution, but I left Guatemala without the materials, highly disappointed.
A few months later, from Mexico, I was able to re-establish contact with the H.I.J.O.S. member, who through other methods, sent copies of the posters to me.
For me, a photographic artist, they are fascinating documents, but of course, sad ones. They show individuals and yet, echo the collective experience of a nation. On the other hand, they also prove that that the collective experience of history, is lived (and in this case suffered) by individuals—flesh, blood, bones and souls. Every face, each belonging to a person who is presumably dead, tells a small part of a larger story of genocide that spared neither men, women, nor children.
The context of the genocide is complicated. Many killings occurred during a civil war between the US-backed military and left wing guerillas. But the government decided—or with racist motivations simply pretended—that Guatemala’s rural indigenous population was aligned with the guerillas. The army burned hundreds of towns to ashes in an exercise that might serve as a description for the term “scorched earth policy.”
According to the London-based Peace Pledge Organization,“…the killers destroyed crops, slaughtered livestock, fouled water supplies, and violated sacred places and cultural symbols…Children were often beaten against walls, or thrown alive into pits where the bodies of adults were later thrown; they were also tortured and raped. Victims of all ages often had their limbs amputated, or were impaled and left to die slowly.”
On some posters, information about each of the victims is included. On others, there is next to nothing in the way of details—just a haunted face, a ghost forgotten by society and history, but not by H.I.J.O.S., an organization that I know next to nothing about.
Rebeca Eunice Vargas Braghilory, a twenty-four-year-old poet, teacher and member of an armed guerilla organization, for example, was kidnapped by the army in 1981 and never heard from again. Rosa Aura Mendez, meanwhile, disappeared on November 27, 1984. Nothing else is known about her.
Guatemala is a small and relatively non-influential country that rarely makes headlines in the United States. Many have forgotten that the death toll from the late-twentieth century Guatemalan genocide dwarfs those of the so-called dirty wars in Argentina, Chile and Mexico combined. It is worth remembering.
Copyright 2010 John Sevigny
John Sevigny is a photographer, teacher, writer, and curator, who lives in Mexico.