MARIA ELENA SANTAMARIA GUATEMALA
Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish. Click here.
Editor’s Note: One of the reasons we wanted to meet Maria was to speak with the artisan who made the lovely hand-embroidered pastoral stole Don purchased last year (at the time of the interview) in our friend’s artisan shop. Don brought it along to have his picture taken with her holding it. When he got it out for the photo, we discovered he had brought the wrong stole, and she let him know the workmanship in this one is inferior to her work! Still, we laughed and took pictures anyway.
Today a flurry of activity is taking place in this campesino community tucked along the edge of the San Vicente volcano. Our visit coincides with this community’s week-long festivities of Calderitas’ 28th anniversary. Many communities such as this one were formed as a result of “free land” given to those who fought in the country’s civil war. Often the land is located in remote locations, and frequently land is difficult to cultivate. Several different churches serve this community, including the Lutheran congregation we worship in today.
Maria has been up since 2 AM preparing a special beverage referred to as “dirty drink” using a specific kind of black corn and salt. You can add beans to make a chili- type soup out of it. Despite her early rising, Maria is a gracious host and happy to share her story and many photos with us.
You grew up on the Pacific Coast.
Yes, I was born on May 10, 1971, in La Paz Department, the oldest child with four younger sisters and two brothers. My father was not part of our family. My mother supported us by cutting sugar cane and cotton in that region.
Since you were the oldest child, what were your family responsibilities?
Caring for the younger children was a typical responsibility of the oldest child during the time I was growing up. School was never an option. I never learned to read until I was in the war. (This is a common theme we hear when interviewing those who lived lives of extreme poverty and whose families fled their homes for safety.) When I was eight years old, I joined my mother to pick fruit to sell, and also I helped her sell fish. If my mom went to work in the cane or cotton fields, I went along to help her. My mom re-married when I was eight or nine years old.
I had no childhood of my own. I don’t know if I would have had one under normal circumstances or not, but during this period of time in our country, the situation became very serious. We were on the verge of civil war.
How did your life change when the death squads became active in your area?
The death squads were threatening and later targeting some of my family members who were involved in the FMLN movement. Our whole family, including my young siblings, left to join that movement. I was ten when I joined the guerrilla movement.
What do the young children do in a war?
Mostly run and hide especially during bombings. We would try to stay safe together and out of the way of the action.
Did your siblings stay with you throughout the war?
No, fortunately the Lutheran Church collected people running without direction and placed them in refugee camps. My younger siblings and I went to one called Fey Esperanza outside San Salvador to be safe. My mother stayed behind to fight.
When did you actually become directly involved in combat?
I left the refugee camp when I was fourteen. Sometimes I was with my mother, and other times we were separated.
Did you carry a weapon to defend yourself, or did you carry a weapon for the cause?
Both. I learned about “consciencia,” a term used to describe the ideology of fighting for the good of the country. After others raised my awareness that the purpose of the war was for a better life and a better country for everyone, I took part willingly. Also, seeing how cruel the military were motivated me to take part in a movement against them.
Everyone carried weapons to defend themselves. Personally, I hope I never killed anyone.
What areas did you serve in?
When I was young, sometimes I was responsible for bringing weapons and ammunitions in Jucuaran, Usulatan. At other times I was in Morazan or closer to San Vicente. I was wounded in Chalatenango at the end of the war.
Did you ever become disenchanted or disillusioned and want to desert?
No, but there were tough times, such as injuries and a pregnancy.
Can you elaborate?
In 1987 I became pregnant from a relationship of choice. I left the movement to provide for my daughter’s safety, joining my mother in the refugee camp. My mother was also pregnant at that time. I remained there for one year before returning to fight.
Were you able to stay in touch with your child and your family during the war?
Because my siblings were in the refugee camp, I had no contact with them for many years.
It wasn’t until five years later that I saw my daughter again, and that happened only because I was wounded in Chalatenango Department on November 20, 1990, in a big battle. My mother brought my daughter to meet me in Arcatao, where I was recuperating. She was six years old and had changed so much since I left her as a one-year old!
What was the extent of your injury?
I was shot in the leg by an AK47 during the last battle prior to the signing of the Peace Accords. The bullet shattered my bone. My fellow fighters took me first to Guarjila, then to Los Flores, finally to Aractao. They took the wounded there far away near the Honduran border for our protection. We stayed in Arcatao, where there was a large concentration of guerrilla camps, for a long time. A German doctor operated on my leg, putting in a pin as well as inserting a horseshoe into it. I was in traction with sandbags keeping the weight off. It took three months for me to recuperate. Because it happened so close to the end of the war, we did not return to fight. I still have residual pain, and that leg is shorter than the other one. (My partner was also wounded during the same battle.)
What was the worst experience for you during the war?
During the 1989 offensive I thought I never would come out alive. It went on for over a month. The military had both a much larger arsenal of weapons and air support, things that the guerrilla movement comprised of locals, never had.
What gave you strength during that time?
I don’t know if it was carrying the weapons or hoping for a better future that got us through it.
What was life like for you after the war?
UN peace observers came to the country to see that conditions of the Peace Accords were fulfilled. They came to the camp I was recovering in. They helped make certain the terms of the agreement were handled in a fair way.
The father of my first child, my daughter, was killed during the war. I had to form new relationships and start a new life from scratch.
One of my sisters, who lives in the U.S., does not communicate with our family any longer.
She felt that, because we placed her in the refugee center during the war, we had abandoned her. Those feelings never subsided.
Why didn’t you migrate to the U.S.?
Because I never had an education as a child, I was unaware of the U.S. at that point.
How and why did you come here to Calderitas?
After the war we had nothing. The peace observers took us to the coast where we withdrew from the guerrilla movement. The terms of the Peace Accords granted each of us a piece of land for our service; this gesture was like a reward. We had no choice where it would be. Because my husband also served, he was also granted the same amount of land, 2.5 matzanas, or 5 matzanas total for the two of us. We work that land which is located a distance away from here where we live by planting corn, beans, and rice. With the help of a bank loan which was later forgiven, we then purchased both this piece of land here where we live and galvanized steel to build a shelter to live in. There were no houses here at that time; it was only a camp.
Do you grow crops to sustain your own needs or to sell?
We grow primarily to cover our own needs, but we will sell the extras in the central park in the city to local people in order to buy the seeds we need to grow next year’s crops.
Do you miss living on the coast? What do you like or dislike about life on the volcano?
I liked life in both areas. One benefit of living here in the mountain is it is cooler. I also feel safe. Most people in this community are ex-guerrilla.
For our readers who are unfamiliar with a campesino community, can you describe how it is organized?
In Calderitas, which is all I can honestly comment on with any authority, there are 270 families, about 800 people. An assembly makes the accords (laws). The assembly elects a council every two years. We do not have our own police force, but there is one in a neighboring area 4-5 km away that patrols here regularly. A variety of volunteer groups are active in the life of the community as are the churches.
You mentioned various community groups.
Yes, there are a water group, women’s group, youth group, transport group, health group, teachers’ group, and senior citizen group.
Which groups are you involved in, and what are examples of their functions?
In the women’s group we raise money for special events such as Mother’s Day. We have lotteries of our crafts like the embroidery work I do. I volunteer with the health group which is involved in cleaning the community and in campaigns such as putting something inside the pilas to avoid mosquitos from breeding. The chikungunya mosquito is a recent threat to the country.
We understand today is a special day in your community.
Yes, actually the entire week. We have been celebrating the 28th anniversary of the founding of Calderitas. A community council plans events to take place each day or evening from January 2nd through January 8th. Activities range from cultural events, including plays and musicals, special foods, a coronation of the queen and court, and horse-riding events.
What is your greatest joy?
My children. My son lives here with us. My daughter, Blanca Lillian, who lives in the U.S., has two boys. We talk on the phone, but I would love to meet them. They don’t know the story of my life. I would like to get to know them.
Is there a chance you could visit them?
No, there is no chance. We cannot afford it.
Could they visit you?
They could not get the legal papers to do so.
Does your daughter use a computer?
Yes, she does.
Then she can read your story on-line when we post it.
That would be very nice.
What would you like to tell your daughter and grandsons?
That I love them very much.