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Guatemala's Genocide

activist ceto bares painful truths, presents hope


Too many names: War and genocide victims are remembered on the walls of a Guatemalan church.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Olivia Santiago Ceto stood in a BC Law classroom and described an experience that was both literally and figuratively a world away from the one known to those who crowded into the East Wing lecture hall. An indigenous woman from the genocidetorn Ixil region of Guatemala, Ceto spoke of the armed conflict that ravished her nation, its devastating effect on her life and community, and what must now be done to rebuild Mayan Ixil society.

Sponsored by the Owen M. Kupferschmid Holocaust/ Human Rights Project, Center for Human Rights and International Justice, Lynch School of Education, and Latin American Studies Department as well as fourteen BC Law student organizations, the presentation, titled “Reconstructing Society after Genocide: The Experience of a Mayan Activist in Guatemala,” drew more than a hundred members of the Boston College community.

During the 1970s and 1980s, combat raged between the Guatemalan government and guerilla forces. The Ixil region suffered the deepest wounds as both sides sought to destroy the indigenous people and all they owned. “The Ixil community was, and still is, viewed as foreign from the Latino communities, and we were the ones who paid with our own flesh during the conflict,” said Ceto. Despite the massacres and deep injustice, most people remained silent because of the fear of reprisal. Ceto, who lost her grandmother, grandfather, cousin, and nephew, explained, “I am not the only one who suffers, but I am one of few who speak. But I say to my family, ‘If something happens to me, let it happen, because I am telling a truth that must be heard.’”

A peace agreement between the Guatemalan government and the guerillas ended the armed conflict, but the war has left deep scars, especially on the youth. Brinton M. Lykes, associate dean of the Lynch School at Boston College, said, “We must recognize that the very fabric of society has been torn and needs to be re-threaded. The enormous trauma, self-silencing, and fear did not end with the signing of the peace agreement, but is ongoing and rides on the heels of thirty-six years of human rights violations.”

Distressed by the suicide, proliferation of youth gangs, lack of self-esteem, and enormous poverty in her community, Ceto sought to bring hope to her people as they slowly began the process of reconstructing their culture and society. Working with others, Ceto founded the group Q’anul, a nonprofit organization that focuses on strengthening the Ixil culture, fostering education, crime prevention, and youth training programs. “Many people left the region during the conflict, and those who return have lost their culture and identity,” she said. “We are working to reconstruct these lost values, and we believe that each person must learn not only to live in our society, but also to be able to create change.”

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