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.

Paulino`s Boots

08 Jun

I bought my rubber boots the day after arriving in Rabinal. It is the only way to manage the mud. From the looks I get, I am clearly the only woman wearing rubber boots and a skirt around town. Maybe this is how people will remember me: the woman with tall black boots and a red skirt. That wouldn’t be so bad.

Thursday, I wore my boots to an exhumation in Xesiguan, a hamlet in the mountains thirty minutes from town. It was not an easy drive. When I arrived with Marvin and Maria from the ADIVIMA exhumation team, the first person I met was Heidy, an anthropologist from the Foundation for Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology. She had long, dark hair and black rubber boots like those rugged ones you can get online on ShoeAdviser. We were both holding shovels. I will remember that. We all have markers with which we recall certain events and people in our lives. I will always remember Heidy for her boots. Her presence made me feel at home.

The Osorio family was waiting when we arrived and they showed us to the two burial sites, one in a milpa behind the house, another further up the hill next to a rather grand mango tree overshadowing a rather diminutive brick house. Pine branches, flowers, and a pillar candle had been placed over the graves the previous day when the families held their private ceremonies.


Offerings at second burial site

The team consisted of four anthropologists from FAFG, the ADIVIMA team, two local police, and representatives from the magistrate’s office in Rabinal. All day long, we were surrounded by the families and friends of the deceased who passed back and forth across the field to watch the dig. Nothing so eventful had happened in Xesiguan for some time.


Taking GPS readings at the site

After the official documents were read at the first grave site, the FAFG team took GPS readings and photos, taped off the area and carefully moved the offerings to the edge of the field. Then a friend of the family began to dig.


Beginning to dig

Paulino Osorio Cahuec was found dead fifty meters down the hill from his house on August 14, 1983. By 3 PM on June 5, 2008, his remains were beginning to take form deep in the honey-colored earth behind his cousin’s house in Xesiguan. What appeared first were his boots. They were navy with a white stripe on the rim, and they were short. Everyone commented. “I thought he wore tall boots?” “Mira sus botes.” “Ay, los botes.” This went on for some time as Sergio and Luis from FAFG worked tirelessly and the rest of his remains emerged from the soil.


The FAFG team at work

The comments were perfectly natural. In order to process something so senseless, you have to find a point of entry into the story that humanizes the event and allows you to identify with what you are seeing and experiencing. And there it was. Paulino wore short rubber boots in the rainy season. Most of the men, and Heidy and I, were wearing the exact same boots this summer. It really is the only way to manage the mud.

According to testimony, Paulino had been shot in the back of the head. He was 30 when he died, a Maya Achí farmer from Xesiguan. His mandible was mostly in tact, but his cranium and upper jaw were found in fragments. After his death, his family carried him home and buried him near the house, which is a common cultural practice. The civil patrols, or PACs, made it hard for anyone to leave their home without fear for their safetly, much less to go to a cemetery or have a ceremony at home to bury a murder victim.

Over 4,500 people died in the Rabinal region alone between 1981 and 1983, and 99.8 % of them were Maya Achí. (Oj K’aslik: Somos Vivos. Litografía Namal Wuj. Guatemala: 2003, p. 79.) If the PACs did not bury the bodies themselves, then most of the deceased were buried near their homes by family, most likely very quickly and quietly. That is where the body would remain until a family member found the courage to speak out and denounce the murder before the local police. ADIVIMA manages at least one exhumation case a month, but nearly every day somewhere in Guatemala, people are still coming forward with their stories. Countless families are still not able to speak. Thousands of bodies remain unaccounted for.

A local elder prayed over the remains and reminded the children present not to forget what they were seeing, that a murder had happened.


The next generation

Even today, some younger people in these villages do not believe that the civil war occurred. It is not part of their experience, and I shudder to think how so much can be lost in one generation.


Neighbors and relatives watching the team work

Local boys coming home from school

After the prayers, Luis and Sergio then handed each bone to Heidy, who carefully placed them in individual brown paper bags labeled with the necessary internal codes and notations of FAFG. She and her lab partner, Luis, would clean and analyze the remains over the next four to eight weeks to officially identify Paulino’s body and determine his cause of death, if possible.


Heidy at work

When I bought my rubber boots last week, I thought I would leave them behind when I return home. Too much baggage. Now I think they will travel with me, a reminder of the day I came to know Paulino Osorio Cahuec.

Posted By Heidi McKinnon

Posted Jun 8th, 2008

1 Comment

  • 511 boots

    August 8, 2008


    Thank you very much for the great information.

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