May 29th was the 30th anniversary of a massacre that occurred in Panzós, Alta Verapaz. The murder of 53 protesters that occurred there in 1979 is widely regarded as the first act of mass violence against a Mayan community in modern Guatemalan history, ushering in the ethnic genocide of the early 1980s.
On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, the Cultural Center of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City held the opening of an exhibit on Panzós curated by the Q’iche artist, Marlón García. In 1997, Marlon worked as the forensic photographer for the exhumation of the mass graves in Panzós. From that point of departure, he dedicated ten years to researching the massacres, detailing the intricate socioeconomic and political links that led to the events of May 29,1979.
As my work here in Guatemala will involve developing an exhibit on the massacres in the Río Negro region, I was interested to see how local curators are approaching the subject of violence. For Marlón, the history of Panzós was so multidimensional that he chose to engage every aspect. The exhibit began with Q’eqchi origin stories and customs, and a depiction of 16th century military attacks by Spanish troops on Teculután. The later history of multinational land grabs, the arrival of the railway in Panzós and nickel mining underscore the problems local Q’eqchi communities have faced when fighting for agrarian reform and workers´ rights in the face of government corruption.
At the heart of the Panzós story is a protest involving eight hundred workers who entered the plaza in Panzós on the morning of May 29, 1979, led by a local Q’eqchi leader named Mama Maquín, her daughter and grandchildren. The Canadian company, Inco, Ltd., had expropriated their lands and crops to open a new nickel mine with the help of the Guatemalan army. As the mayor of Panzós addressed the crowd, army troops surrounded the square and opened fire on queue. Thirty-five people died in the plaza and eighteen more in the nearby Polochic River as they tried to escape. Mama Maquín was killed with her daughter and grandson. Her grand daughter survived, and is depicted in the painting by Marlon Garcia used as the central image of the show.
As the exhibit continues, some of the victims are commemorated with a wall of identification photographs, a now standard museum practice for documenting mass violence in Latin America. Marlón´s vibrant paintings of life in the Panzós region are spotted throughout the show.
The Panzós material is followed by images of Chixoy Dam and testimonials of the Río Negro massacres as well as images of the first memorials to the Panzós victims organized by the indigenous women´s organization FAMDEGUA, highlighting the strength of the women of this community.
The exhibit ends with a series of poignant photographs by James Rodríguez of the January 2007 eviction of subsistence farmers from their lands in the region of El Estor, somewhat near present-day Panzós.
Local police, military personnel and employees of the local nickel mine run by the Canadian firm, Skye Resources, worked hand in hand to evict the farmers from their land for the purpose of the expansion of the mine. Images of houses set on fire, armed police and a man crying over the end of the only life and the only land he has ever known offer an anatomy of greed.
Photographer James Rodríguez’s work captures the anguish and the historical replay inherent in this present-day tragedy. He could have been photographing Panzós in 1979, Río Negro, or any previous land grab and it would have looked identical, which is clearly the point. The entire catalog of El Estor photographs is available through his website, and discussed on his blog.
At the opening, Marlón spoke at length about his experiences and the people who worked with him. What was most memorable for me was his comment, “Va venir la justicia y le va agarrar.” “Justice will come and it will take hold.” The Río Negro sentence had been handed down the day before, making his words timely for some, but still only a distant hope for others.
Posted By Heidi McKinnon
Posted Jun 11th, 2008