After my first year of graduate school, I decided to spend the summer in Latin
America, practicing Spanish and relaxing at the same time. I was on a gradu-
ate student’s budget and flights to Central America were cheap, so I booked a
flight to Guatemala City without much thought. Little did I know that I would
be challenged and inspired over the following decade by what I found.
I spent my first few weeks in Guatemala in the style of so many foreigners,
volunteering and attending classes and seminars with a left-leaning language
school in Quetzaltenango. Early on, I was asked to translate for a guest pre-
senter while he discussed his personal experiences during the U.S.-backed
coup (1954) and the subsequent armed conflict (1960 – 96). I was unprepared
for the task and struggled to find the words to respectfully translate the de-
tailed story of this man’s capture by members of his own community (orga-
nized into state-sponsored civil defense patrols) and his subsequent torture.
At the time, he was living in an impoverished town lacking basic services.
When he organized his peers to undertake an irrigation project, he was la-
beled a guerrilla and was subsequently kidnapped, beaten, and thrown into a
pit, where he was starved and periodically urinated on. Translating his first-
hand account left me emotionally exhausted, wondering how any person, or
any country, could recover from such trauma.
A few weeks later, I accompanied a group of foreigners to a small com-
munity associated with the language school. The community’s residents were
mostly former refugees who had returned to the country from Mexico after
the democratic opening in the mid-1980s. One of the residents puﬀed up in
pride, telling me that they had built the community, the school, the clinic,
and the homes on their own. “The only thing the government provided was
the road,” he said, pointing to the narrow brick road running through the
center of the small town. They relied on support from foreign nongovern-
mental organizations (ngos), small-scale agricultural projects, and selling