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Rites of Passage

Old man from Guatemala shows kernels of honesty, fields of truth

By Drew Halfnight

I would like to tell the story of Don Jacinto, the old man of corn. For it was Jacinto who said: we are all made of corn, and though corn may be stripped of its kernels, it takes but one single kernel to plant the field anew. The kernels, he said, were “las historias.” The stories.

I met him two years ago, during the summer I spent as a human rights worker in the Guatemalan highlands. I woke, as ever, to the clamorous call-and-answer of roosters and canines in the village of Plan de Sanchez. After breakfast, I left the village by an ancient path that parted a green ocean of waist-high corn stalks. Children passed holding flowers, singing Dias! to me. The flora smelled strange, ambrosial. I had the sense of being lost without caring to be found.

I had gone to Guatemala expecting to do good. My job was to visit people who had witnessed massacres during the country’s 36-year civil war. I would hear their stories of loss, encourage them in their efforts to seek justice, and report any renewed abuses.

On paper, I was a human rights worker. My title, “International Accompanier,” bespoke authority and purpose. However, once there, I came face-to-face with the injustice, the indignities, the revolting cruelties done these people, the Maya — and was crushed. I went limp with doubt and guilt. I stewed. Each day, I witnessed the twitch of fear on their faces and asked, “How did I presume to come here?”

Don Jacinto was a scabby-faced, bedraggled and impossibly radiant old man. He lived with his wife in a remote valley. When I arrived at his home that day, the arthritic 80-year-old was bashing holes in the ground with a huge stick, prepping the soil for corn seed.

“Soy Jacinto, me gusta bailar!” he wheezed as he shuffled over. My name is Jacinto. I like to dance!

In his native tongue, Maya Achi, and in broken Spanish, Jacinto recalled the time he walked 70 km barefoot to the capital to hawk oranges at a parade for president Jorge Ubico, the “Little Napoleon of the Tropics,” who ruled Guatemala from 1931 to 1944.

Then, gathering his strength, he began the story of his daughter, one of 268 people murdered by the Guatemalan army in Plan de Sanchez on a Sunday in 1982. Other villagers had told me their stories of this day, too.

The morning after the mass execution, Jacinto hiked into Plan in search of his daughter. What he discovered defies description. The villagers’ huts were smouldering — here Jacinto twirled his hands to show the tongues of flame licking at the wood and rubble — and amid the wreckage he saw charred human limbs. In the yards lay the bodies of friends, cousins, children, most with bullet holes in their heads or backs.

Jacinto paused and rose up from his seat. He took a passing kitten by the head and cried, “Como pueden los soldados tomar los patojos y . . .” He lifted the kitten high, and with fury in his eyes, swung it at the ground, stopping himself just before the tiny body smashed on the floor of the adobe. “How could the soldiers take the children and . . .” The kids were not shot, he said, but beaten and kicked to death.

Finally, he found his daughter, half-naked, hardly breathing, her cheek ripped open. Like most other women, she had been raped.

Jacinto picked up his daughter and immediately carried her 25 km into town. There, a doctor laid her down, gave her an injection and left the room. Moments later, she died. The doctor had euthanized her. Jacinto then carried his daughter’s dead body back 25 km uphill to bury her.

After telling the story, Jacinto was exhausted. I did my best to thank him and his wife and left. During the walk back to Plan, I was not happy, but I was not sad either. Something had happened in me.

Two years later, I still haven’t answered some of the questions that dogged me in Guatemala. I still have no measure of the good I did there, just as I have no assurance that I am doing good here at home in Canada.

I am happy, though, that Jacinto will not die by a fallow field. He planted at least a few kernels in me that day. His crops have done well, and they will grow within me, even as I draw on them to plant stories of my own.
Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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