Saturday, December 7, 2013

Adoptions in Wartime?

This is my latest in the current edition of ReVista, the magazine of Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, edited by veteran Latin America journalist June Erlick.  If the subject is controversial, let the discussion unfold.


Discovering Dominga
 Adoptions and Tangled Truths


     In the open central market one morning in Rabinal, Guatemala, 28-year-old Denese Becker picked up a bolt of corte cloth, woven fabric used by Achi Maya women to make their skirts, and brought it to her face. She closed her eyes. “My mother,” she said. “This smells like my mother.” I knew which one she was talking about.
     That was more than a decade ago; we were in Rabinal to shoot the PBS documentary Discovering Dominga, the story of an Iowa housewife—Denese—a survivor of the 1982 Rio Negro massacre in which both her parents died. Denese, the former Dominga Sic, was returning to look for the bones of her father and to untangle the truth of a lifetime of nightmares. On that journey she also discovered a world of memory that might have remained hidden in small-town Iowa, where she arrived at age eleven, adopted by an evangelical pastor and his wife. Her adoptive parents were loving and attentive to her, their only daughter. However, as I watched Denese Becker in the Guatemala highlands, among trees and flowers once familiar to her, I couldn’t help thinking how much this young woman had lost by being taken from her roots to live in a strange land.
     “What is this tree called?” she would ask. “I know you can eat its leaves.” Or, “I think I recognize that flower. It’s bad. Don’t touch it.”
     Like Denese, thousands of children during the Central American conflict were adopted by foreigners, mostly from the United States and Europe. When my husband and I arrived in Tegucigalpa from San Francisco with our 8-month old in 1987, the hotel clerk glanced at the infant slung across my chest and said, “I assume you want the adopting parents’ rate.” During the week it took us to find a rental house, we learned that a dozen U.S. couples at the hotel, and several single individuals, had come to Honduras not to live, but to adopt.
     When conflict, displacement and extreme poverty were national conditions in the 1980s and 1990s in Central America, “orphans” was a term used indiscriminately for youngsters separated from their families, whether they had a living parent or close relatives or not. Reasons were myriad: both parents might indeed be dead, killed in the violence, as in Denese’s case, although close relatives said later they had searched for her fruitlessly in Guatemala; soldiers and other armed authorities took children after families were killed; in many cases desperately poor single mothers, pregnant again, gave away newborns or sold them to enganchadores, front men for corrupt lawyers connected to ostensibly legitimate operations that can only be called “the baby trade.” In Honduras, and sometimes in Guatemala, newspapers periodically ran stories about the latest discovery of a casa cuna, houses where multiple infants were fattened up from low birth weights before presentation to prospective adoptive parents.
     We will never know the true answer to the endless question, “Weren’t those children better off raised elsewhere?” We simply won’t know. What we can suggest in the wake of those terrible spasms of violence in Central America, at least, is that those of us who were meant to be watching events so closely did not track the region’s youngest and most vulnerable inhabitants to the degree they deserved.
     Their stories are many. In 1980s El Salvador, for instance, a six-year old being adopted by a blind Italian man and his wife at our hotel approached me to say her mother sold grilled meat near the Parque Libertad. She wanted to return to her mother. Engaged with my own toddler, covering post-earthquake events daily, I never investigated, and the moment slipped away. At a holding camp for civilians “rescued” by the army from Guazapa, a rebel stronghold, an elderly woman said her grandson had been taken by an officer; she feared he would raise him as his own. In mountainous Las Vueltas, known as territory sympathetic to rebels, a man showed me where he had lain in tall grass as his seven-year old was taken away in a helicopter during an army sweep, while she cried out, “Papi!” He wept to recall he could not reach out to her without endangering others who hid around him.
     “Do you think they will know that she is not an orphan?” he asked. “That I am her father and I am alive? Will she know that wherever she is?”
     There are reasons why journalists, academic researchers and others do not investigate such stories at the time, including the urgency of other coverage and the general confusion of war. Some feel that any child removed from the risk of war or life of poverty is indeed better off, and questions ought to stop there for the good of all.
     During the weeks we filmed Discovering Dominga in 2001 and 2002, Denese could not bring herself to accept invitations to sleep in the dirt-floor houses of her relatives; their lives and living conditions were too foreign to her. One day, we met an ajq’ij, a spiritual guide charged with giving thanks to the Creator lords, keeping the Maya calendar and performing ceremony. “What does his red kerchief mean?” she asked me later. “My grandfather wore one.” Now an evangelical Christian, she seemed to struggle with the knowledge that her grandfather had been a guardian of Maya spirituality, so inimical to the beliefs of her extended adoptive family. In the film Denese says that as a child in Iowa she never “fit in”; but off camera in Rabinal, it seemed clear that neither did Denese Becker/Dominga Sic “fit in” any longer among the people to whom she was born.
     An advantage of peace is the gift of space and time to ask questions about what has come before. How much of the memory of the homelands is carried in the minds of children, now adults, as they live far from where they were born? Should adoptions during time of war be forbidden, or truncated in any way? They are questions we might consider before we are forced, should the occasion arise, to answer them again.


Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest(Chicago Review Press). She wrote the original story for the PBS documentary Discovering Dominga and co-produced it with producer Pat Flynn.  Here is the link to the ReVista story, in an issue on Memory: In Search of History and Democracy:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year

By the light of a hotel room window in Oxford, moving back on line after time off the grid in northern England, I read the astonishing news that I had been named the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year.  I could not have been more surprised, and grateful. As a writer I believe in “deep travel,” which means I report upon and otherwise describe people in places with regard to their history, and political, social and spiritual surroundings.  I am humbled and thrilled that the judges who looked at my work and deemed it worthy of this recognition appreciated, and by their award, esteemed this perspective.  Maya Roads, for instance, includes not only the beauty of the Mesoamerican rainforest, but also contains accounts of the violence of its recent past.  The essay, “Gore Vidal’s Old House” suggests the late writer, one of the keenest observers of U.S. foreign policy in the last sixty years, began to form his critique of imperialism while living in Guatemala as a young novelist (elsewhere on this site are links to these and other stories in the portfolio given the Grand Award).  I am grateful to my agent, Andy Ross, the editors with whom I worked, and most of all to individuals in several countries who allowed me to share their stories.

Here is the YouTube video of the awards presentation (my bit is at the end, Grand Award) and here are the SATW press release and judges’ comments:
Mary Jo McConahay, author, freelance writer, blogger and documentary filmmaker, earned the title of Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year for a portfolio of her work that included exceptional storytelling in “Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.” Afar magazine, Travel + Leisure and the Los Angeles Times were the top winners, earning the most awards.
The annual competition is sponsored by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. Winners of the awards, the most prestigious in the field of travel journalism, were announced Oct. 21 at the SATW convention, held this year in Biloxi, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This is the 29th Lowell Thomas competition and drew 1,257 entries. Judges were members of the faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It is the premier competition in North America in the field of travel journalism.

Grand Award — Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year 

Gold: Mary Jo McConahay, freelance writer, author, blogger and documentary filmmakerThe best travel writing entices readers to be adventurous anywhere — from the remoteness of the tropical rain forest to the density of sprawling Sao Paulo. Mary Jo McConahay does just that in “Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest” and “Navigating a Hypercity: Sao Paulo” and in other wonderful articles such as “Gore Vidal’s Old House.” In the latter, McConahay walks us in the footsteps of novelist, journalist and playwright Gore Vidal, who was a World War II veteran and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy in his later years. Vidal’s life is center stage in “Old House,” which McConahay informs us is not your typical residence: “In 1946, the author (Vidal), then just twenty-one, took $3,000 from the payment for his first novel, ‘Williwaw,’ and bought a crumbling 16th-century convent next to the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen.”
In “Navigating a Hypercity,” McConahay introduces Brazil’s largest city, which requires serious travel planning before visiting:
“Despite having traveled in more than eighty countries, I froze last year when planning a trip to Sao Paulo, Pop: 20 million. It wasn’t the number itself that stopped me — who can count to twenty million anyway? But descriptions called the largest urban conglomeration in South America a hypercity, a term new to me, evoking image of chaos, attention disorder and suffocating density. I got nervous.”
McConahay’s writing is anything but chaos as she calmly advises would-be visitors on how to best tour the city. From walking to eating, and of course shopping, she steels our nerves to the point that we are ready to book a flight right now. With outstanding writing and advice Mary Jo McConahay proves that she is both the quintessential travel writer and exceptional storyteller. For that she earns the gold in the Grand Award category.

The SATW award competition is formidable and prestigious in the field because:
* it does not promote any particular destination or travel product,
* it is open to all North American journalists, not just SATW members, and
* it is judged independently by the faculty at top U.S. schools of journalism.

The Foundation distributes nearly $20,000 in prize money to individual winners. Generous donations by this year’s Underwriters, the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels and Travel Guard, help make the prizes possible.
For more information about the awards, including a full list of winners and judges’ comments, and SATW, visit and
 29 Years of Rewarding Journalists for Outstanding Work in the Field

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writers' Workshop Coming Up

Come November, I'll be offering a writers' workshop at beautiful Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.  This is the chance to jump start the writing you've long thought of doing, finish the novel you have been working on, or outline the memoir you have long promised to family, or yourself.  This is a photo of a dock at the lovely inn (rooms of volcanic stone) where we will stay, Posada Santiago, by Jeff Speigner.  And yes, it really looks like this.

Nov. 9-17, 2013

Writers’ Workshop
on magical Lake Atitlan

The gift of time to write.
Inspiration, and experienced support.

This will be a small group -- ideal for a spirit of retreat, and individual attention to each writer. We will work on structure, and voice. Feedback and thoughtful critique are central to developing the craft -- these will be key elements in our days at the beautiful Posada Santiago on the Lake.
With Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the RainforestIndependent Publishers' Award, Best travel essay book; Northern California Book Award, best creative nonfiction; USA BookNews International Book Awards: Best travel essay book, best autobiography/memoir, best new nonfiction; A National Geographic Traveler  Book of the Month. 
Mary Jo’s travel stories have won four Solas Best Travel Writing awards in the last two years, appeared in Best Travel Writing and Best Women’s Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), and on Her story on, was judged one of the site’s top five of the last year. Her award-winning reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and more than two dozen other publications. Workshop details at:

Saturday, May 11, 2013


MAY 10, 2013








MAY 11, 2013 IT'S A NEW DAY

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"I am Innocent" -- The General Speaks

  The General Speaks at the Genocide Trial

For the first time since the Guatemala genocide trial began on March 19, Gen. Efraín Rios Montt spoke, for nearly an hour. In a manner not unlike the Sunday sermons he broadcast on moral themes during his administration from 1982 to 1983. he explained that far from committing genocide, he saved the country which he said had been on the verge of falling into the hands of pro-Communist rebels.  Earlier, in documents presented during summation for the prosecution, army patrols said the guerrillas had left the Ixil Triangle area of the country's highlands, before the army scorched earth campaign.
Rios Montt's daughter Zury, center in photo left, and Ixil Maya survivors, watch Rios Montt speak

"I was chief of state and I had a staff called a cabinet," the general said, insisting he had no direct command over the violence.  "I was a head of state, not a zone chief, " he said.  Local commanders possessed autonomy. "What did I do wrong?" he asked.  I fulfilled my responsibility."

Prosecutors gave final arguments.  They are asking for 75 years in jail for Rios Montt, 86

In his summation, Rios Montt's lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel questioned the capacity and education of most prosecution expert witnesses, including the Guatemalan  forensic anthropologists who have unearthed thousands of remains of the slain.  Rios Montt addressed his remarks to journalists who squatted before him or knelt or sat in a circle to get the best shot.  After 20 minutes, Judge Barrios directed the General to speak to the bench.  The court has only to hear a statement from Rodriguez,  beginning early morning May 10.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Genocide Trial Turning Point--Final Arguments

 "Time's Up"

The courtroom filled quickly once word spread the judge called for summations.
After three weeks in which the Guatemala genocide trial threatened daily to crash and burn with pleas before parallel courts, a cascade of motions and a sudden defense table illness, closing arguments began today.  Judge Jazmín Barrios, noting that the defense continued to fail to present its final witnesses despite multiple requests to do so, said, in effect: "Time's up."
Ixil women lean forward as Judge Barrios announces final arguments will begin.
       Lead prosecutor Orlando Lopez from the Public Ministry, spoke for more than two hours in the afternoon, beginning a series of summations by placing former head of state Gen. Efraín Rios Montt at the head of a chain of command in 1982-83 when the army declared Ixil Maya the "internal enemy" and killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and -- the majority of those documented in the present case -- children under age twelve. The process, called here "The Trial of the Century," is on its way to a proper end, no matter what the verdict, instead of dying of suffocation under what the bench itself called a blanket of "delaying tactics" by the defense.
The Prosecution used bar graphs, pie charts and diagrams to illustrate final arguments

       This development had been not at all clear at the beginning of the day.
     In a jaw-dropping demonstration of abuse, Ríos Montt's attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel called judges "delinquents," questioned their intelligence, their preparation for the bench and the quality of principles by which they lived "from the cradle." He waved documents, addressed the audience instead of the bench, and pointed a menacing finger at judges.  "I will not rest until I see you in jail," he said.
     "We do not accept threats," said Tribunal President Jazmín Barrios.

      Yesterday Garcia called in sick, forcing Judge Barrios to delay the trial for 24 hours.  Today the prosecution showed security camera photos of Garcia at another court building at midday.  Garcia had suffered an attack of kidney stones "more painful than childbirth," he said, but by midday was feeling better.  When it was clear this afternoon that Judge Barrios was proceeding to summations, Garcia moved to have them delayed another day because he was "feeling very ill right now."  The judge said no.  Final arguments are expected to continue.
     Tonight at the old, central hotel where I stay, Ixiles are arriving from the highlands, sitting down to eat plates of spaghetti and beans, preparing for the court session tomorrow.  "Some thought the trial would not succeed, not with all the appeals and delays," said one survivor, Antonio Cabo Cabo.  "But I always knew we would go forward."
Man of the Hour, Prosecutor Orlando Lopez leaving court.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Seeing Red

Genocide Trial Judge Stands Her Ground

            Survivors wait for trial to continue.

            In the shortest session since the trial against former head of state Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt began March 19, Judge Jazmín Barrios declared three times in twenty minutes, "The trial is not annulled."
                Judge Barrios generally dresses in courtroom-appropriate muted colors.  Today she marched in wearing a blazing red dress.
Rios Montt waits for elevator.
            Decisions from other courts on complaints, accusations against magistrates including Barrios and demands for throwing out the case, on the part of the defense, have delayed the trial.  Today Ríos Montt's defense lawyer, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, called in sick.  Barrios said Gen. Ríos Montt could call back his two other defense lawyers, one a well-known former guerrilla, both of whom walked out with their briefcases on April 18 in a demonstration they called "peaceful resistance."  She called for debate to open again promptly in 24 hours.
     In the mid-1980s, when massacre survivors from Ixil country were either still wandering wildlands subsisting on grass and leaves, or undergoing re-education in model villages based on the U.S. Phoenix Program strategic hamlets system in Vietnam, a Guatemalan officer gave me his assessment of the origins of current local dress in the area of Nebaj, the area's largest town.  Spanish conquerers perceived the particularly rebellious nature of Indians there, he said, and had ordered them to wear red.  
Observers were still arriving when the session ended, only 20 minutes after it had begun.  Journalist Xeni Jardin tweeted from the courtroom, "...if you want to know what's going on with this trial don't ask a lawyer.  Hire a psychic."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Good Bye to the Turtle and Snail

The Question of Speed at the Genocide Trial

Down from the dias to watch a video presented by the defense, tribunal magistrates sit flanked by bodyguards.

After thirty years in which survivors waited to tell their stories in court, the genocide trial of former Guatemala head of state Gen. Efrain Rios Montt is raising the question of speed.  Tribunal President Jazmín Barrios (above, center) ordered twelve witnesses a day heard in the early days of the process, which began Mar. 19.  In the Srebrenica and Rwanda genocide trials, a single witness sometimes took the stand for more than a day. In Guatemala, have witnesses delivered testimony in a manner more redolent of a truth commission than a trial?  The world has seen so few truth commissions or genocide trials -- this is the first anywhere of a head of state charged in the national courts where the alleged crime happened -- that comparisons can be shaky. 

Gen. Rios Montt takes a moment to greet co-defendant and former  intelligence chief,  Gen. Mauricio Rodriguez, seated.

The defense, which has introduced numerous motions to delay the trial or suspend it completely, says Barrios' pace violates the rights of the accused.  Atty. Francisco Garcia Gudiel tried so vehemently on day one to have Barrios taken off the case he was tossed out of court and reinstated only nineteen sessions later, and now says he has not had time to review what happened when he was gone. (Competent counsel acted meanwhile.)  Defense attorneys picked up their briefcases and walked out on April 18 in a show of "peaceful resistance" to the way things were going, and a public defender appointed by the court has asked for more time to review files.  In comments to reporters about what the trial should not be, Garcia Gurdiel used the term "horse race." Zury Rios, a former Congress member, has become the voice of her father, who has not made public statements. "Why the hurry?" she asked in an interview with the El Salvadoran El Faro. Barrios begins sessions promptly at 8:30 a.m. five days a week, never allowing more than an hour for lunch, sometimes running past five p.m. "Why the interest in accelerating this trial?," said Rios. Other cases have met only Monday through Thursday, "but never past three-thirty in the afternoon."  

Defense table with trial files, too much material to review quickly complain lawyers.

El Periodico columnist Jorge Jacobs, who calls those prosecuting the general "groups descended from the ex-guerrilla," says the trial is hurtling toward a pre-determined guilty verdict, suspiciously fast "in a country where the rhythm of justice has always seemed a race with speed between that of turtles and snails."

 Judge Barrios has often guided witnesses to answer only questions put to them, intervening when they stray off point by her measures.  She has emphasized the legal requirement of the straightforward, undelayed process. An observer who follows the case closely said Barrios wants to move apace also because "she has a sword over her head," petitions in various courts that could, if and when decided, delay or derail the trial completely.  On April 19 a judge in another court "nullified" the trial, and ten days passed before Barrios regained control.  

The trial has only to hear six more witnesses for the defense and listen to closing arguments, which Barrios has limited to four hours on each side. Yesterday lawyers for the generals said they could not produce witnesses immediately.
Barrios reprimanded the defense for delaying tactics, reading to them parts of the judicial code of ethics from the bench.  While being scolded, Garcia Gudiel (seated right) tapped his fingers, finally bending his head to fiddle with a pen.

Barrios granted a recess until Tues., May 7.

Street graffiti, a block away from court building where genocide trial is being held
"Here the dead continue to live"

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Too Strange for Words -- Re-reading Genocide Charges, Re-starting the Trial

Too strange for words, to hear once more the reasons for the charge of genocide read in the grand courtroom, five weeks after they were first articulated on Mar. 19, opening day of the landmark trial.  After a judge from another court caused the process halted on a technicality on April 18, the trial went into suspension.  When it opened again on April 30, certain changes had been made from the day it stopped, so the charge had to be restated.  
The same accused sit at the defense table, former head of state Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt and his intelligence chief, Gen. Mauricio Rodriguez.  What’s different this time: more than 120 witnesses have already testified, so that each time elements of the genocide charge rang out -- “sexual violence, individual and collective,” “burning of houses, schools”-- the images of witnesses who testified to them arose in the mind, their voices heard once more.  
The women allowed to partially hide their identities, heads covered with cloths woven in shades of red, speaking in Ixil through an interpreter, their draped figures ramrod straight as if to endure the recounting without folding in two, or shaking.  The man of age 70 who cried for his parents. 
Once again, Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt, fit-looking at age 86, walked to the witness stand to state the details of his identification, place of birth.  Survivors stared, faces 
grim. The presiding trial judge, Jazmín Barrios, spoke clearly, denying defense requests that would have caused delays or another suspension.   Once again, the trial was on.

 In a chilling image by photographer Estuardo Paredes that appeared in today’s Prensa Libre, a Guatemala City daily, Judge Barrios is seen walking from her chambers sans jacket, revealing a bullet-proof vest.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Genocide Trial -- In the Streets, and the Land's Highest Court

The day began (for me) with a twitter photo posted by a local radio station from a listener who took a shot of a bus with a mantle saying, "Hairy hippies and foreigners: Don't make money with the lie of genocide of Ixil people in Nebaj." When I caught up, buses were discharging hundreds onto a main thoroughfare.  The indigenous Maya wore the distinctive clothing of the biggest town of the Ixil triangle, Nebaj. Thousands died in the region during the administration (1982-1983) of Guatemalan Gen. José Efrain Rios Montt, who has been on trial for genocide until proceedings were suspended last week on a technicality.

The take-away message from hours spent with the demonstrators was that development, and the process to obtain reparations for damages suffered during the war, were being sidetracked by the genocide trial.  There was no genocide, but rather the inevitable, lamentable suffering brought about by both armed groups, guerrilla and army.  The international community came in for special venom as manipulators of the tragedy, for its efforts to support the trial.
"Donors, quit financing manipulators."
"International Community: It's a lie to say that there was genocide in Nebaj."

"I am Ixil and I want to be a witness," said printed signs handed out near the Torre de Reforma. From there participants walked about half a mile to the Supreme Court, and later in the morning, another mile to the Constitutional Court.  Inside, magistrates were considering a ruling on whether the trial would go forward. 

 Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, President of the Foundation Against Terrorism, which includes former army officers and others against the genocide trial, at the march.

By day's end Constitutional Court spokesman Martín Guzman delivered the magistrates' decision supporting a judge's decision last week to "annul" the present trial, handing reporters a 45-page document. Referring to where the trial goes from here, Guzman said several times, "It's complex." The following days are expected to bring some clarity as to whether the trial goes forth in any form.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cloud of Uncertainty over Genocide Trial

In a change from the air of flying sparks last week at the Guatemala genocide trial, when the entire defense team walked off in protest at judge’s rulings to leave Gen. Efrain Rios Montt and Gen. Mauricio Rodriguez alone at the table, a judge from another court “nullified” the trial, and the genocide trial judge refused to accept the cancellation in front of a full house of spectators, a slow-growing cloud of uncertainty has fallen over proceedings.  The Supreme Court room that seats 500 where the trial has been unfolding, sits empty.  

Ten blocks away, in sessions closed to all but magistrates, the Constitutional Court must decide whether the trial continues.  Survivors and supporters of Ixil Maya at the center of the genocide charge demonstrated outside the Constitutional Court building to pressure magistrates inside to come to a decision, to dissipate the cloud. Many wore buttons saying, “My heart is Ixil.”  
Women held up a kind of quilt made by family members to memorialize their dead and disappeared. 


Photos of some of the murdered, and other photos from the 1980s by Jean-Marie Simon were placed in public space outside the court. Following the culmination of a countrywide traveling exhibit in 2011, financed by the U.S. Embassy via former Ambassador Steven McFarland, Simon donated two sets of images to Guatemalan organizations. “They have put them to hugely good use,” said the photographer in an email. 
The Constitutional Court has until May 2 to deliver a decision on whether the trial continues, but may deliver its answer before that date.