Heidi McKinnon

Heidi McKinnon (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achí - ADIVIMA): Heidi holds a BA in anthropology and Spanish from the University of New Mexico and has worked with indigenous communities throughout Latin America since1997. Heidi worked at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in the late 1990s. Heidi researched human rights and sovereignty issues in every region of Latin America as she was developing content for the permanent exhibits at NMAI. Her research led her to ADIVIMA and the Chixoy Dam, which she recommended for inclusion at the Museum.

A Just Reparation

09 Apr

A young woman entered the emergency room Tuesday with a bandaged arm. A machete wound. Her father accompanied her, but kept his distance. I barely paid attention, intent on averting a possible heart attack. One of my colleagues looked ill that morning. His son had similar symptoms a few weeks ago and almost died. Some gentle prodding proved to be the only persuasion necessary to take him to the Health Center.

As I was arguing with the doctor that a simple case of gastritis was just not what we were facing here, the young woman whimpered as she unwrapped her bandage less than four feet away. The bleeding had not stopped. As I watched her father’s notable distance, all I could think was, “Women don’t use machetes that much, much less cut themselves on their outer arm with them…” However, deliberately focused compassion has become my mantra. Still I felt for her, wanted to show her a breathing exercise that would help a bit with the pain, if she would only believe me.

But my focus at that moment was dealing with acute chest pain, in a town with no EKG or X-ray machine and no cardiologist. All we could do was take the pills and elixirs meant for his secondary health concern and leave. Tomorrow we would try another doctor. Since his son had passed out a few weeks ago and stopped breathing, I was sure his stress level was incalculable. As a survivor, he had lost children and wives before and certainly did not need to lose any more.

I accompanied his son to the capital after that first episode, to visit a gastrologist who kindly suggested his problem might be emotional. We took it no further. His step mother did not seem to care either way, happy for the fruit and snacks I brought for him to eat when she had nothing to offer.

This week, I was told the child has passed out several times since. No follow ups yet. No EKG. The step mother jokes about what she will serve at his funeral should something happen. Wouldn’t her life be that much easier with one less child that was not her own to feed? I might have passed out as well after hearing what would be served at my wake. This week is the anniversary of his real mother’s death.

Clearly, the anniversary weighs on my colleague as well. Before the massacres began in Rio negro, his first wife told him to save himself so he could tell their story, the story of the whole community. And he did. Not exactly a guilt-free situation.

Last week, I visited a basket weaver whom I adore. We had a brief interview. Candelaria. Her words are simple and direct and that is what I appreciate most about our conversations. Simple. Direct. She could not express enough the grief of having lost her mother in the Río Negro massacre. Her father survived and has done some good things in the community, but she suffered at his hand immeasurably, as did her mother. She was orphaned and subjected to great cruelty when all she wanted was her mother’s tenderness. She still craves it today. Tenderness.

What was lacking in her life, she gives tenfold to her children. They may not have food on occasion, but they have her and that is all that seems to matter in their house. Her baskets are a study in concentration. Since the moment we met, I have wanted so much more for her than she has. Deliberately focused compassion. My basket collection has proliferated over the past year because of it.

Another friend of mine reminded me last week that she arrived in Pacux on Mother’s Day in 1984. As a six year-old, she had lived in an army camp in San Cristobal, Alta Verapaz, after the massacres. After some archival research, I believe the camp was called Acamal. She said people were celebrating in Pacux when she arrived, but not the newcomers.
I can’t even imagine what Mother’s Day must have been like that year in Pacux. With so many women lost and so many orphans left behind, those women who did survive must have felt like walking miracles. Unfortunately, the soldiers at the Army base outside Pacux didn’t view them in quite the same light.

Mothers. Fathers. Daughters. Sons. Lately, I am wrapping my head around stories like these trying to conceptualize intangible reparations. Sort of an exercize. Reparation is the mot du jour around here. A just reparation. It’s central to so much of the work.
The numbers of hectares, houses and animals lost are more or less clear. But how do you repair the loss of a grotto where people worshipped, a sacred archaeological site where deer dances took place for hundreds of years, lost language and lost social ties, the massacre of every healer and tradition bearer in a community? Or a mother?

What reparation is there to offer someone who cries inconsolably every Mother’s Day for lack of tenderness? Or a man who comes close to a heart attack on the anniversary of his wife’s death? Or a community that no longer remembers aspects of their own religious practices?

Honestly, there is none.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Apr 9th, 2009

1 Comment

  • Vincent Weiner

    April 29, 2009


    I am left hollow by your descriptions of the reality of these people and their daily lives.

    The work you do is astounding, however I know that you must feel overwhelmed at times.

    Thank you for being there and documenting.

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