Thursday, September 9, 1999
In 1993, the K''iches of Los Cimientos put out an international call for help. The Mayan Connection, a Monterey-based nonprofit group, responded.
Today that Monterey group-renamed the Mayan Connection/Los Cimientos Alliance-is the sole supporter of the 672 Los Cimientos refugees in Guatemala. The Monterey group has organized cultural and economic self-help projects in the Mayans'' temporary village, sent food, clothing and seeds for planting crops, sponsored fund-raising trips to the U.S. for several villagers, lobbied Congress, written letters, intervened with various agencies, and-perhaps most important-raised more than $5,000 for attorneys and paperwork to pursue the K''iches'' land claims in Guatemalan court.
It''s a rare, but growing example of community-to-community grassroots activism, where a group of Americans get together to offer direct aid to folks in another country.
Jeff Woods, career development director at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and vice president of the Los Cimientos Alliance, believes this mode of community-to-community activism is the wave of the future: Non-governmental groups can act more quickly and effectively in foreign arenas, unhampered by policy restrictions or red tape.
"Governments aren''t always effective in their ability to give aid," he says. "Look at the billions of dollars missing from the Bosnia situation. We are doing more for these people than the U.S. government could do in a million years."
But, if this example of grassroots activism highlights more direct involvement between international communities, it also points to the problems inherent in such unstructured fraternization. At the same time Mayan Connection is helping the K''iche tribe assert its legal claim to the land, a Texas-based Christian organization is aiding a rival group of Mayans now living there.
In Monterey County, the Los Cimientos Alliance has garnered support from a healthy number of other organizations and individuals, including churches, schools and local businesses. In August, on its latest humanitarian mission to Guatemala, Los Cimientos Alliance, together with Monterey volunteers from Airline Ambassadors, representing employees of several U.S.-based airlines, took clothing and more than 400 pounds of seeds to the K''iche Indians.
Donations of time, money and goods were also provided by students at Robert Louis Stevenson School, students and faculty at MIIS and UC Santa Cruz and congregants at All-Saints Church in Carmel, the Community Church of the Monterey Peninsula and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Carmel Valley. A Salinas Valley agricultural company donated the seeds anonymously. Carmel Roasting Co. and Prunedale''s Gappy Farms donated the bags they were carried in, and Long''s Drugs provided the packing tape. A private air travel company gave the group free hangar space at Monterey Peninsula Airport. Safeway''s Seaside store donated boxes. The Chatterbox and the Thunderbird Bookstore stepped up to bat. The list goes on.
Taking it BackHR>
The K''iches'' 20-year tale of government atrocities, forced eviction, relocation to a non-fertile region, resultant hunger and impoverishment, and dogged struggle to reclaim their land is not unusual in modern-day Latin America. But, unlike some other, less fortunate victims of government-sponsored violence around the world, the K''iches of Los Cimientos have three things working in their favor.
First, they have international recognition of their plight. In February a United Nations-sponsored commission formally accused the prior Guatemalan government of genocide against its own Mayan population and concluded it was aided by the U.S. government. On March 11, President Clinton formally apologized for U.S. support of the rightist regimes that ruled Guatemala for three decades.
Second, the K''iche have documents to prove their land claim: 65 title deeds to 7,000 acres of land probably worth more than $60 million. Several Guatemalan courts, and a Guatemalan governmental fact-finding agency in 1994, have upheld the legality of those deeds. But the K''iche still are not back home.
Third, and perhaps most important, the 672 K''iche of Los Cimientos have an international ally: a group of concerned citizens in Monterey County that has taken up their cause.
"God help the people who don''t have this connection," says Wood. "How many other villages are simply being pushed off their land, dying of hunger and malnutrition? So much of this is going on in Guatemala. And they''re getting away with it."
What makes one group of people-non-political people, people without big money behind them-take such proprietary interest in the fate of another group of people, half a world away? A sense of right, certainly. Humanitarian sentiment. But there''s always something more, some personal connection that compels this kind of involvement.
In this case, the linchpin is Monterey resident Francia Ala, a 50-something woman whose commitment to her cause is so total, she has no permanent home or telephone. "I sleep on friends'' couches," she admits. You can see Ala most Tuesday afternoons at the Old Monterey Marketplace, selling handmade, embroidered bags and clothing made by the K''iche women''s "artisan project," a self-help project Ala helped organize.
Ala first began helping Mayans in Guatemala in the mid-''80s, before the civil war atrocities were widely known. She visited Guatemala, organized a children''s art project, and sold the children''s drawings for $1 a piece back in Monterey to raise money. In 1987, she founded the Mayan Connection, with a strictly humanitarian focus. "At first, I just gave lectures and displayed Mayan weavings," Ala says. "At the time, we loved the weavings and didn''t realize the people were getting killed. I was just telling their story. I was not going to get involved politically."
Then several of Ala''s Guatemalan friends were killed. One woman, a mother of four, was stabbed 21 times as she left her office, "simply because she was bringing this story to light," Ala says. "I made a promise to continue her work."
By the early ''90s, Ala had hooked up with the Los Cimientos K''iche Indians, and renamed her nonprofit to include their cause. Kicked off their land in 1981 by the Guatemalan army, which was clearing out Mayan villages they suspected of harboring rebels, the 132 K''iche families took their title deeds with them, deeds they''d had since 1909. "So far as I''ve heard, they''re the only village that took their deeds," Ala says.
Using the System
The K''iche are still stubbornly fighting to reclaim their lands, working through the Guatemalan court system. Their land is now occupied by a rival group of Mayans, the Ixil, who were sent there by the government. The case has made it to the district court, and at every level, Ala and Wood report, judges have ruled that the K''iche deeds are legal, and the Ixil must leave.
But the Ixil have powerful connections, including an evangelical Christian group in Texas, allegedly backed by a U.S-based investment corporation. Meanwhile, a major Guatemalan agri-chemical firm has lodged a counter-claim to the land. Judges have been intimidated, decisions have been reversed, helicopters have appeared mysteriously in the night.
"The whole thing is so convoluted," says Wood. "Somebody wants their land badly. We''re very curious to know what minerals are under that land."
Fighting a court battle takes money and guts. The K''iche only had the latter. When they launched their case in 1993, a judge told them they needed copies of all 65 land titles: They were carrying around the original documents in huge duffel bags. But each copy cost $50 or more, Wood says, money the K''iche didn''t have. The Mayan Connection raised the money needed for those copies in Monterey County, as one of its first fundraising projects.
"In a world where only the wealthy and cunning can survive, they have somehow managed," Wood marvels. "Most Mayans would have been wiped out financially long ago."
MIIS came into the picture in 1995, when Ala went to Wood''s office looking for student interns to help out. Since then, about 10 MIIS students have volunteered with Los Cimientos Alliance every year, doing reports, translating documents, and so on.
This past year, outreach has doubled. Ala and visiting Los Cimientos representatives have made the rounds of Capitol Hill and Sacramento, and have found allies in several key offices, including Congressional Human Rights Caucus Co-Chair Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel).
A legislative assistant in Farr''s office says Los Cimientos Alliance is the first constituent group with an international focus that has turned to his office for help. Farr''s office, like Lantos'', has provided Ala with letters of introduction to use with government offices "to provide her additional tools to facilitate her efforts," the assistant explains.
This past spring, Ala brought the Airlines Ambassadors into the program. As airline employees, the Ambassadors are able to take large cargo loads with them when they fly. Monterey Ambassadors rep and American Airlines employee Barbara Brown went to Guatemala in August, carrying 17 duffel bags filled with seeds to the K''iche, and will be returning on Oct. 4 with a heavier load of supplies.
"We have 50 boxes still waiting to go," Ala says. "And we can use more." Particularly needed, she says, are warm children''s clothing, open-pollinating seeds, bedding and basic "medicine cabinet" supplies such as bandages, aspirin and antiseptic ointment. And, of course, money, so other supplies can be bought locally-and more cheaply-in Guatemala.
What gives Los Cimientos Alliance the right to become involved in the domestic affairs of a foreign people? Well, Ala points out, U.S. funds-taxpayer money-are now going to Guatemala to help implement the 1996 U.N.-brokered peace accords. "Guatemala has the most notoriously corrupt legal system in Central America, and USAID is there monitoring the reform of their judicial system. That''s our money."
"I guess it''s something ingrained in the American spirit," Wood adds. "The right to help other people. And these people are our neighbors."
Donations of clothing, medical supplies and money are needed by Sept. 25. The Mayan Connection can be contacted at 644-6363. The group maintains a booth at the Tuesday afternoon Old Monterey Marketplace, where handmade items from the K''iche artisans'' project are sold.