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As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and Guatemala was under lockdown, a remarkable woman told her story — one that mirrors the long history of struggle of Guatemala’s Maya, especially that of its women.
“My full name is Rosalina Tuyuc Velasquez,” she said in Spanish over the phone.
She belongs to the Kaqchikel Maya linguistic community. Tuyuc was born to a family of peasant weavers and artisans some 60 years ago, and was raised as a Catholic in San Juan Comalapa.
She heads an organization she founded in 1985 known by its Spanish acronym as CONAVIGUA, the national coordinator of Guatemalan widows.
The organization fights for the rights of women who were raped and widowed during the country’s long civil conflict. Tuyuc says that what led her to organize this organization came out of her own experience.
“I’m still looking for the remains of my father,” she says. ”He was detained, and forcibly disappeared, along with my husband and a number of other relatives.”
Tuyuc says that what Guatemalans call “the time of the violence” — almost four decades of war that lasted from 1960 to 1996 — was very painful for her, and for countless Maya women. Especially the bloody 1980s
Her family’s pain, she says, comes from the constant search for her father’s remains and the memory of other loved ones lost to violence. Like it or not, she says, this will always be a source of anguish.
“Even after all this time,” she says, “the war officially ended more than two decades ago. It’s hard to heal the wounds of the past.”
This isn’t just the case for Tuyuc, but for thousands of other Maya women who endured similar losses.
“First there was the very real trauma of what they experienced, either the disappearances or the actual husbands being killed right in front of them. That was true in a number of cases.”
University of Arizona anthropologist Linda Green writes about the challenges these women faced — not only emotional loss, but just trying to survive and support their children.
“For several years. there were no corn crops planted because of displacement. There was enormous food insecurity. Women didn’t have the money to buy the fertilizer. They themselves either had to work those fields or they had to hire mozos to do it for them.
Fear and necessity drove many from their homes. Women also suffered in other ways.
“Chronic headaches, gastritis, inability to sleep,” Green says. “As well as the physical manifestations of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress syndrome here in the United States.”
Even as Tuyuc dealt with these challenges, she came to believe that the universe also gives us a chance to find balance along with the pain.
“I’m profoundly grateful to the universe,” she says, “to have grandchildren, to fight alongside other women.”
She arrived at this understanding gradually. For more than 25 years, she’d questioned why the tragedies of the war had happened: “Why was there no father, no husband? Why did the Guatemalan army kill so many people?”
Tuyuc found answers to these questions in the teachings of her ancestors, passed down through the generations.
She expresses gratitude “to the many elders — men and women who told us it isn’t good to keep on suffering, because we were meant to be happy, we were meant to take care of Mother Earth, to protect all life, be it human or animal, the life of everything that lives on this planet.”
After her husband disappeared in 1980, Tuyuc says she sought out an elder. He told her, “Your husband won’t be found, nor will you hear about your father.” And, he said, “Now you have to start thinking about yourself, about your children. Now you have to live for you and for them.
“Now,” he told her, “you have to live your life’s mission.” Only then, she says, did she begin to understand that what the Maya call “cosmovision” is not a religion.
“Many call it spirituality. it’s very complex and holistic,” she says, “encompassing everything — the cosmos and nature.” Tuyuc says that when the elder asked, “Do you know what your mission is?” the only way she could respond was that she was a woman with a desire to heal, and to help people.
Even after she sought the elders’ advice, Tuyuc discovered she had more to learn from the traditional teachings of her Kaqchikel Maya culture.
“That’s when I began to understand that it’s good not to feel defeated,” she says. “That we should keep moving forward, loving life, and our existence.
If it weren’t for these wise teachings, she adds, “I might be like so many women who suffered and basically stopped living because of their pain, who died with no hope for a better life. Traditional religion had taught them to accept suffering in return for a happy afterlife.
“I think that sometimes (conventional) religion condemns us to suffer. To not live life fully, and in balance.”
Embracing her culture, she says, allowed her to make sense of all that had happened, and to heal.
Now she can say that, even with all these threats to life, she’s profoundly grateful to the universe to be alive, to have grandchildren, to fight alongside other women. “All this,” she says, “has given me strength to continue with my life’s mission.”
When she was small, Tuyuc’s father was a music teacher who did some work with the Catholic Church.
She remembers how people would call on him when they were ill, so that even at a young age, indigenous healing traditions were part of her life, although few people publicly acknowledged or valued them.
“Sadly,” she says, “the colonization of the indigenous made us believe that our knowledge and our practices weren’t worthwhile. It’s something that was ingrained in us since we were little.”
Because her family was Catholic, she didn’t realize as a child that these Maya practices were all around her.
“It’s something that one carries in one’s blood, from knowledge passed down by the grandfathers and grandmothers. My maternal grandmother was a midwife, and my paternal grandfather was a great farmer,” Tuyuc says. “He would give thanks to the earth, and salute the sun when it rose and set. He would give thanks to the rain, and to the air.
“He would ask the earth for permission to work the land,” she says. “So these are traditions not taught inside churches, but in the collective customs of a people.”
But because of her very religious upbringing, Tuyuc says that as an adult, it was difficult at first to accept Maya cosmovision.
Eventually, it gave Tuyuc a new way of looking at the material world. It also gave direction to her human rights work.
“In 1985, when I began my work with the women, and there was also the commemoration of the 500 hundred years of colonialism,” she says, “that’s when I began to understand how Maya cosmovision connected with my social and political work.
I began to understand that this cosmovision is also about organizing, about politics, about economics.” Tuyuc says. “So I started to defend the rights of indigenous people, their way of being, of acting, of thinking.”
Her work with the widows in the late 1980s and early 90s coincided with a re-awakening of Maya identity — not only for Tuyuc, but for other indigenous leaders like her countrywoman who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“Sister Rigoberta Menchu,” Tuyuc says, “helped me understand the profound complexity of indigenous communities.”
By the time peace accords finally ended Guatemala’s conflict in 1996, the widows association Tuyuc founded, CONAVIGUA, had become one of the leading human rights organizations in the country. Four years after the war ended, she became the first Mayan Kaqchikel to serve in the Guatemalan Congress.
That time was key, she recalls. “Out of 80 congressmembers, six of us were indigenous. Some important legislation was passed, for example, outlawing amnesty for crimes of genocide.”
Still, she says, it was an uphill struggle being in the minority and maintaining her identity as an indigenous woman.
Wearing her traditional traje, a woven skirt and top, Tuyuc would bring her baby to the Congress, nursing her when needed. Some people criticized her for that.
“But I would say, if the popular vote brought me to Congress, then I have to be accepted, as a mother, as a peasant, as indigenous.
“We Maya women always carry our small children with us when we’re shopping, or weaving, or working,” she says, “because that’s when the learning starts.”
Following the war, the Guatemalan government established a reparations program for war widows. Tuyuc became its director.
During that time, she worked to dignify the memory of the dead, by leading the effort to exhume mass graves and identify the remains, and also the living, fighting to offer war widows financial and emotional support.
“I went to one of these ceremonies when they were giving money to these women,” says Eliza Strode, an American who’s spent many years in Guatemala. “And she would just open her arms and envelop them in a hug. It was so moving. She was so totally present.
The government funded the reparations program for only a few years. With no consistent institutional support, Rosalina Tuyuc continues working with the widows, many of them elderly and dying, in whatever way she can.
Dr. Bill Clemens is an alternative medicine practitioner working with the poor in Guatemala. He’s known Tuyuc for some 15 years. Together, they’ve conducted medical missions in neglected communities.
Clemens described Tuyuc as “very loving and caring.
“I remember when an 88-year-old woman came in through the rain. No shoes, no children. The cutest little grandma. I remember Rosalina dried her off, combed her hair, hugged on her to warm her up.”
Jordán Rodas, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, believes Tuyuc has become an icon representing brave resistance to military brutality. “She went to congress and came out with her head held high,” he says. “She’s truly a role model to emulate.”
Although international human rights groups have recognized Tuyuc for her work, she says she doesn’t do it for awards.
“When I was growing up, we were taught that the Maya had disappeared, and the only thing that remained of them were tourist attractions,” she says.
“We grew up being taught we were just worthless Indians.”
Despite some social progress, Guatemala’s Maya still strive to achieve parity and respect in their own country, where opponents feel increasingly free to attack indigenous human rights defenders and practitioners of maya spirituality.
In June 2020, witnesses watched in horror as members of an evangelical sect dragged the internationally recognized Maya healer and plant medicine expert Domingo Choc into a field, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.
His attackers accused Choc of witchcraft. His death called attention to continuing discrimination in guatemala against those who practice traditional Maya religion.
So Rosalina Tuyuc says she has a renewed commitment to vindicate her culture and its spiritual traditions, and to honor those who’ve perished to keep it alive.
“It’s a revindication,” she says, “Not only of art and culture, but of rights and history.
“And it’s not a gift. it has a cost. And so, we have to continue to struggle to maintain our culture,” Tuyuc adds, “especially in memory of those who shed their blood on this sacred land.”
Maria Emilia Martin is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.