Monday, November 16, 2009


"En el continente latinoamericano se dan ríos de esperanza". (Ignacio Ellacuría)

Jesuit Massacre Still Haunts Salvadorans After 20 Years
New America Media, Commentary, Mary Jo McConahay, Posted: Nov 16, 2009 Review it on NewsTrust
Editor’s Note: Today marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter -– a turning point in El Salvador’s civil war. Former NAM contributing editor Mary Jo McConahay, who has been a reporter for many years in Latin America, was the first reporter on the scene.

SAN SALVADOR -- Twenty years ago, three colleagues and I were the first reporters on the scene of the murders here of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter, a turning point in the civil war that cost 75,000 other Salvadoran lives. As gatherings the world over commemorate the special anniversary, I remember details of that morning I do not want to forget.

“They’ve killed Ellacuria,” said the young priest in the hotel parking lot.

He had rushed over to tell reporters, he said, and we were the first he met.

We reserved belief. The death of Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of San Salvador’s Jesuit university and a world-renowned theologian, had been announced more than once during the civil war. We jumped into a jeep anyway.

At the university side gate, we knocked on a black iron door. From across the street, a soldier in a guardhouse kept watch. Guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) had been trying for six days to take over the capital. The army was fighting back with all the U.S.-supplied arms and aircraft it had. At this hour of morning, just after curfew lifted, you didn’t know what lay behind any closed door.

Inside, on the grass, we saw four bundles covered with white sheets stained with what looked like blood.

“Come with me,” said José María Tojeira, the Jesuits’ Central America provincial. My colleagues, radio reporters, were already striding with their mics toward two clerics, one elderly and one very young, who stood gazing at the bundles. I followed Tojeira.

“Come, look,” he said as we stepped inside the residence.

A man lay lifeless in the hall. A priest, I supposed, but not Ellacuria. A smear of crimson streaked the floor. Tojeira stood by an open door to one of the rooms. He didn’t speak, but tilted his head for me to look inside. A narrow room with a small bed and books, one fallen on the floor, next to a man’s body, some blood. Not like knife wounds, likely bullets. I wrote in my reporter’s notebook furiously, sloppily, tethering myself to the pages. Each time, Tojeira waited.

“Now we will go,” he said.

Instead of returning to the garden, however, we descended a short flight of outdoor steps. A door stood ajar. I asked myself what more might be possible.

The body of a woman lay over that of a girl. The woman’s remains faced the door, as if she had stood in front of the girl at the last moment. I could hardly breathe. My own daughter was three at the time.

By the time Tojeira and I ascended to the garden once more, news photographers had arrived.

“Father, you have to take the covers off the bodies,” I said.

Tojeira looked alarmed for a moment, then decisive.

“Promise me that these pictures, all this, will reach the Jesuits, will be known,” he said.

I felt a jolt. Tojeira’s words told me he was uncertain whether he would live through the day. Jesuits, most notably Ellacuria, had had the ear of both sides in the civil war, from President Alfredo Cristiani of the right-wing ARENA party, to leftist FMLN commanders. The scholar-priests pushed for a negotiated, non-military solution. To radical rightists, this was intolerable. A call for “Death to Jesuits” had surfaced, along with threats to others in the atmosphere of war.

I knew the photographers. I promised Tojeira. The sheets came off.

There was Ellacuria, still in his bathrobe, looking up, as if he had faced his killer. There was Ignacio Martin-Baro, the psychologist I had first met in San Francisco years before, when he explained to me how difficult it was to treat traumatic stress while people were drowning in war. Segundo Montes lay there, the sociologist to whom we always went for facts about the exodus that was making Los Angeles the second largest El Salvadoran city. He had tracked the uprooting carefully, sadly, holding back anger -– it seemed to me -– when he had described how the war was separating families, and emptied old towns.

I did not know the other priests who died that day, Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno. I did not know (but felt I did) the cook and her daughter, Julia Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos. When I visited the place of the murders recently, I saw that the roses Julia’s husband planted in the days after the massacre had grown to dominate the garden. Ellacuria’s brown bathrobe hung behind glass in the nearby museum.

An engineering student named Martin sat in the little room I had last seen disheveled and smelling of death, with the bodies of the two women on the floor. Young Martin was describing to visitors the history of that day, allowing them to choose which of two photo albums they wanted to see, one that was more “difficult” to pore through, and one that was “softer.” How in God’s name, I wondered, might there be a “soft” version of the images I saw?

I did not feel like speaking, but carried away something I heard Martin say. He was only a toddler on that day 20 years ago, but as he learned how the men worked to end the war, minister among the suffering, and how they died, he decided to join others volunteering for the “museum.”

“We cannot allow forgetting,” he said.

Journalist Mary Jo McConahay’s “Maya Roads, Travels through Space and Time in the American Rainforest,” will appear in 2011, from Chicago Review Press.



Sunday, November 15, 2009



November 13, 2009

Indigenous spiritual guides see a lesson for humanity in the din over 2012.

By Mary Jo McConahay

Writing From Guatemala City - The world may not end two years from now, despite Internet predictions and this week's blockbuster disaster movie, "2012." On screen, the final day in the 5,126-year Maya calendar brings global destruction, and Los Angeles slides inexorably into the sea.

Here in the cradle of Maya civilization, however, shaman/priest Calixta Gabriel said Mother Earth -- Madre Tierra -- would suffer "hunger, wind and thunder," but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

This is relatively good news coming from an ajq'ij, a "calendar keeper" or spiritual guide among the indigenous Maya people, whose traditions and astronomy-based cosmology originated more than 2,000 years ago. Maya today number about 7 million in Central America and Mexico. One million Maya live in the United States. Their Long Count calendar, which began Aug. 11, 3114 BC, ends on Dec. 21, 2012.

During Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, the Maya were suspected of supporting insurgents, and they were "disappeared" by the thousands. Their religion, which had survived the Spanish conquestwith influences from Catholicism, was practiced discreetly, far from non-Maya eyes. Gabriel, 52, fled into exile in California after death squads murdered three brothers in the 1980s, returning as the war ended to her "gift" as a shaman through study with elders.

Now some Maya priests have moved their rituals from caves and remote mountain locations to public areas, including temple ruins frequented by tourists. Calendar keepers perform ceremonies using fire, pine incense, colored candles, chocolate and other elements, petitioning for a community good, such as rain, or protection. The religion matches certain days with certain spirits, and interpreting time and the calendar in daily life is the main responsibility of a Maya priest.

More than a thousand years ago, astronomer priests determined Long Count dates of kingly reigns, inscribed on Maya monuments along with dates of royal births and deaths. Kings and queens had priestly duties by virtue of their position, and might sacrifice their own blood to communicate with the gods. Today, believers ask the shaman/priests to determine the propitious day to marry or travel, or to bless efforts. The signing of the 1996 peace accords was preceded by a Maya ceremony at the ancient site of Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala City and public prayers at the National Palace.

For these purposes, Maya priests use a 260-day calendar called the Short Count. The Long Count tracks Maya millenniums, centuries, years, months and days, starting with the supposed date of Maya creation and extending thousands of years into the future. A third way of reckoning approximates the 365-day calendar.

Some Maya spiritual guides say they have been consulting among themselves on the significance of 2012, traveling informally by foot and bus, including to Mexico. (There is no pope or central doctrinal authority to whom ajq'ijab look for counsel, although some elders command particular respect.)

Some experts on the Maya believe Dec. 21, 2012, merits no great attention, pointing out that only one inconclusive mention of the date appears among thousands of deciphered Maya texts. It's simply the end of an era -- of about 5,000 years -- with another one beginning the next day.

"The scale of Maya time-reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude," wrote epigrapher David Stuart on his blog devoted to ancient Maya script.

Gabriel said she was cautious about magnifying the 2012 date's significance in a way that may be misunderstood. "We do not want to commit the error that some Christians made at the turn of the millennium," she said, referencing much-hyped doomsday predictions about the year 2000, which passed quietly. Nevertheless, she said, we live in "a time of transition" between epochs, when men and women will realize -- or not -- how to pull back from "destroying" the Earth with pollution and by cutting down forests.

"Conditions could be severe," she said. "It depends on our answer. The universe responds according to the treatment it is given."

Another ajq'ij, Gregorio Chayax, 70, wears a baseball cap, T-shirt and pants rolled above rubber sandals. He serves as a spiritual guide among the towering temples of Tikal, the most visited Maya site in the Guatemalan Petén rain forest. (Tikal has a cameo in "2012.")

Chayax has already seen his familiar world disappear, well before 2012. He is one of only eight remaining speakers of Petén's once predominant Itza Maya tongue, according to the Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages.

From 1991 to 2001, about 815,000 acres of protected Petén rain forest were lost to unlawful settlers, drug traffickers and cattle ranchers. Since then, the rate of loss has accelerated, according to Edin Lopez, technical director of the government's National Council of Protected Areas in Petén. "We are not going to speak badly of cows," Chayax said. "But the ranchers have no heart."

Chayax suggested that a transition between eras, signaled by the end of the Long Count calendar, started more than 20 years ago and would continue for at least another 20. "We are going to suffer more heat than now," he said. "We are out of balance. We have become excessive in what we demand."

Yet he said the actions of men and women might head off deterioration of life on Earth.

"Roots are still there, if we know how to find them, and make them live again," he said.

Mary Jo McConahay's "Maya Roads, Travels through Space and Time in the American Rainforest," will be published in 2011.

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times