Voices, Images and History

Voices, Images and History

LSOE professor aids Guatemalan villagers' efforts to rebuild lives

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

The Guatemalan civil war ended in late 1996 after more than three decades, but a long, uncertain recovery for villages like Chajul - which endured murder, arson and other atrocities committed by combatants in the armed conflict - had only begun, according to Prof. M. Brinton Lykes (LSOE).

Prof. M. Brinton Lykes (LSOE), second from right in the front row, with the authors of Voices and Images: Mayan Ixil Women of Chajul during one of her visits to Guatemala.
Many in Chajul believe the healing that takes place must include, but reach beyond, economic revitalization, says Lykes, who has researched the impact of state-sponsored violence on Guatemalan families. Among them are a group of Mayan Ixil women who banded together several years ago to respond to the psychological, as well as economic and educational consequences of the war.

As part of their efforts, the women undertook a project to record the personal and social history of Chajul, utilizing a relatively new skill - photography - in combination with the ancient art of storytelling. They spoke little or no Spanish, let alone English, few of them could read or write in any language, and none of them had ever even held a camera.

But the women learned and persevered, and the results of their work have now been published in a book, Voices and Images: Mayan Ixil Women of Chajul.

The photos, along with the accompanying texts - based on interviews of the villagers - offer an unvarnished view of life in Chajul. One section is devoted to the civil war's impact, using crude but evocative, often disturbing, drawings to help recount the events. A mother describes the public execution of her daughter for suspicion of being a guerilla, while other accounts concern the assassination of the village pastor and women whose families were decimated in massacres by the military and guerillas.

Other sections depict everyday customs and culture in Chajul: a young girl lying atop a pile of harvested beans as she sorts them in preparation for storage; a woman lifting her skirt slightly as she walks along a dirt road to market, her horse loaded down with bundles and baskets; a coffin being prepared by male family members and villagers for an aged relative who has just died.

But social and economic problems affecting the village also are discussed, such as alcoholism - with a photo of a man, apparently inebriated, slumped against a wall - and poor health care, the accompanying photo showing a father and his sickly 18-month-old daughter, who died two days after the picture was taken.

How do taking photographs and interviewing fellow residents help restore a community? As Lykes explains, coming to terms with their collective ordeal is a complex but necessary task for Chajul, and anything that promotes greater understanding of their lives past and present helps move the process along.

"When you rebuild a community, you tend to think first of supplying material needs," said Lykes, who worked with members of the group in several stages of the project. "But these women, and others in the town, said they regarded mental health as absolutely vital. They saw the two areas as intimately interrelated.

"Understanding that relationship may be difficult at first glance, but think of it this way: To meet material needs, you need to feel positively enough about yourself to feel that you can make a contribution to your community. Yet if you're constantly preoccupied by meeting basic needs, like food, shelter and health care, it's difficult to find the time and energy to undertake the kind of reflection needed to develop strategies for the community's recovery and to attend to your psychological wellbeing."

Most of the 20 women who volunteered to be the photojournalists spoke only Ixil, instead of Spanish. Assisted by University of Texas graduate student Joan Williams, daughter of a professional photographer, the "PhotoVoice" project began to take shape, said Lykes, who held workshops with the Ixil women that focused on the thematic and psychosocial aspects of the task, as well as guidelines for interviewing and researching.

With automatic cameras in hand, the 20 women set out to take photographs in and near Chajul, designating a specific topic for each roll of film used. The themes included women's work, health and illness, religion, culture, harvest, as well as the war and its effects. The women frequently recorded stories of the people they interviewed, and audiotaped their own personal and family histories.

As the photographs and oral histories accumulated, Lykes said, the group met to discuss their findings and explore the immediate and underlying causes for what the words and pictures showed. Eventually, the "PhotoVoice" participants selected photographs and helped to craft accompanying texts or drawings that would be used in the book.

The project did have areas of tension, Lykes notes. Participants differed occasionally in their memories and interpretations of certain events during the war, and not all participants were equally articulate or comfortable in discussing their lives.

But ultimately, Lykes says the experience has been healing for the participants and for their wider community. "Once they began taking pictures of their families and their lives, they were able to step back and view themselves and their community in a wider context, to compare their situations to those of others, developing empathy for those "on another side" of the conflict," she said.

"Talking about the war and other problems carried the risk of opening old wounds. But one woman in particular was able to see the complexity of the struggle, even though she had lost her father. That's one key to reconciliation: to be able to somehow overcome your pain and step outside yourself."

Lykes says the project underscores many of her ideals as a professional educator and researcher. "It's confirmed my belief in people's capacity to create alternative paths for their lives with the appropriate support. Teachers and researchers are facilitators, who help people reflect on the events and situations in their lives and connect these to the world around them. That is as true for a village in Guatemala as it is for a school in Boston."

For information on ordering the book, e-mail epicabooks@igc.org or visit the World Wide Web site www.epica.org. The price for each copy is $25, proceeds from which will benefit the Association of Maya Ixil Women - New Dawn (ADMI), which develops economic, educational and psychosocial programs for people in Chajul.


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