At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala

Fernando Us (left) and Mónica Chub (right).

As my 15-day visit in Guatemala came to an end in early May, I had the chance to meet Fernando Us, Maya Kiché human rights defender and self-described sexual dissident. Fernando hails from a village in Uspantán municipality, Quiché department, that is not far (though accessed via a different road) from the had village I visited in the company of a team from Breaking The Silence and the Highlands Committee of Peasant Farmers (CCDA).

Fernando, who among other activities is a Mayan spiritual leader, met me on a Sunday afternoon in a downtown café located between the National Palace and the San Sebastian church where Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated in 1998. Religion and politics would become prominent themes in our friendship: fundamentalist religious groups very nearly scored a victory with an anti-LGBTI “life and family law,” but after an international outcry, congress finally voted in March to table the bill

Back home in Toronto two days after I had met Fernando, I was trying to catch up on news from CCDA. I came across a news article that quoted people from CCDA and Mónica Chub, a Trans woman and Maya Q’eqchi’ rights defender with whom Fernando and I would be working just a few weeks later. CCDA leaders and Mónica had attended a demonstration May 11 in Cobán, capital of the Alta Verapaz department, demanding freedom for prisoners accused of crimes they could not have committed. At the same time, high levels of violence against Trans women persist in Guatemala.

In early June, in partnership with Dignity Network and InterPares, I had the privilege of accompanying Mónica and Fernando during their days in Toronto. Together with Olowaili Green, an Indigenous film-maker from northern Colombia who is lesbian, their visit to Toronto followed participation in the Canada Pride Human Rights Conference, held in Winnipeg May 27-June 5.

In Toronto, there were public presentations at Glad Day Books and the San Lorenzo Church (an Anglican parish serving mostly Spanish-speaking people). At San Lorenzo, part of the conversation was about spirituality and the churches.

Fernando, whose father was a Catholic lay catechist murdered by a death squad in 1980, called on churches to distance themselves from those fundamentalist churches that “demonize” Mayan spiritual leaders

In June 2020 in Petén department, Domingo Choc Che, 55, a Maya Q’eqchi’ expert on traditional herbal medicine, was tortured and burned alive by people who accused him of witchcraft. In June this year, Adela Choc Cuz, a member of the Q’eqchi’ Maya Ancestral Council of the El Estor municipality, Izabal department, was kidnapped with her daughter. They too were accused of witchcraft, but both were released.

On their final day in Toronto, I talked more with Fernando and Mónica about the intersections of Indigenous and LGBTIQ+ identities in Guatemala.

Fernando: I think there is a sort of accumulation of oppressions within the structural racism that is found in Latin America – all of America – racism as an ideology of racial superiority that has permeated since the time to the Spanish conquest and is maintained to this day. 

What does that mean for Indigenous people? Displacement, loss of land, situations of poverty. In a country like Guatemala, there is a lot of cultural diversity and also biodiversity. The Indigenous people live on land that is not as good for cultivation. We have less access to running water and to education, and therefore less access to good jobs.

In that context, to be gay, or to be a person of diverse sexuality or queer, means another form of oppression and vulnerability. In the face of racism, you have fewer opportunities, but if you are part of that sexual diversity, your possibilities and conditions of life are even more limited.

Mónica: When we talk about inclusion in social struggles, we’re talking about many different struggles. When we talk about LGBTIQ+ rights where we live, it’s like we’re talking about the territories from which we struggles in ways that are separate from other struggles, like those going on in the cities. We realize that these social struggles are connected, but what we live in our territories is what we embody collectively, the theft our Q’eqchi’ land, the criminalization of land defenders: those events make us reflect and embody together with all our companions. There are members of our community who face repression, but we realize we are in a difficult context, one of vulnerability, racism and discrimination. 

Part of our community is hidden, and needs to hide. But to confront that situation, some of us have to be visible.

Jim: These situations of criminalization of land defenders, the political prisoners: what is going on now in the struggles for land?

Mónica: We embody those situations. As defenders, we too are diverse. Think of the people who are criminalized and condemned to years in prison. In any moment, they could criminalize us, we who are defenders of diversity, imprison us, persecute us. It’s very important to have solidarity. The colour of our organizational flag doesn’t matter. This is collective humanitarian work.

Fernando: The claims for land and natural resources are historic. The Indigenous people have built their claims around land issues. In Guatemala, Indigenous peoples have been forced from their land, or they have land that is not good for cultivation, and the conditions in which the land was taken are not very clear in legal terms. In effect, in recent years, the aggression and attacks against those who reclaim the land have increased.

I am from a village in Uspantán that is called Macalajau, more up in the mountains. Even though I have not lived there, I maintain a relationship with the community. It feels like a town that is growing. There’s more business, and it’s more culturally diverse now. But I think that outside the village, conditions of access to water are limited. There’s malnutrition. Access to primary education is still a problem, especially for Indigenous children. And because of lack of opportunities, some people, especially young people, migrate to the United States.

Mónica: Our people are being forced from their homes and communities. Why? Because our presence is not convenient for the land-owners, the ranchers, the hydro-electricity developers who want to take over Mother Nature and the ancestral lands of our communities. What they do is to force our people out. They’re forced to flee, risking their lives, walking to another place to seek refuge. We continue to see this. They criminalize people who defend their land, condemning them unjustly. That’s what is going on in the territory from which I come.

San Miguel de Uspantán, Quiché

My posts about people and issues in Guatemala, May through August 2022, are in different spaces. Here they are in chronological order:

Unwrapping Development:

Breaking The Silence:

Unwrapping Development

  • At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala [above]

Santo Domingo in October 1992: 500 years of resistance and the Canadian Ecumenical Presence

Left: The statue of Christopher Columbus (“Cristóbal Colón” in Spanish) that stands in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral today draws protests and calls for its removal.
Right: In May 1991, the Triennial Assembly of the Canadian Council of Churches (held in Camrose, Alta.) called on member churches to mark 1992 “as a year of reflection and repentance.”

by Jim Hodgson

As my penitential pilgrimage continued at a distance from that of Pope Francis, I found myself thinking increasingly of another pilgrimage. In October 1992, about 200 people joined the Canadian Ecumenical Presence (CEP) in Santo Domingo. As I could find almost nothing on the internet, I thought I should share something here. CEP became an ecumenical educational exposure experience beyond compare.

We were not yet using language of reconciliation – and indeed it may be premature still: much truth-telling still needed! – but we were wrestling with colonialism and its devastation in company with Indigenous people, descendants of enslaved peoples brought by force from Africa, and all people who struggle for liberation from contemporary colonialism that presents itself as globalized capitalism, indebtedness, human-trafficking and imperialism.

It all began on the back of an envelope. I met for lunch with two ecumenical friends: Joe Mihevc, then the Toronto animator for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and Patti Talbot, then on the staff of the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministries. “The only paper we could find among the three of us to jot notes was an old envelope from my purse,” Patti recalled later.

Soon, we were joined by other friends: ecumenical activist and educator Betsy Anderson of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG); Suzanne Rumsey of LAWG and later the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA); Rosalee Bender who became our program staff coordinator; Juan Rivas, coordinator of the Dominican Republic Experience; and Joe Byrne from the Latin America Mission Program of the Diocese of Charlottetown. 

Glad Tidings, the magazine of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, ends its print existence in 2020.
Entre-nous was a newsletter of the Canadian Council of Churches in the early 1990s.

From the time of the first CEP plan, the one drawn on the back of an envelope in a cafeteria, it had been our hope to be able to serve religious media by providing a relatively inexpensive place to stay, helping reporters get access to major events, and accompanying them in encounters with Dominicans who were working for change. 

CEP participants who had media accreditation were able to attend some of the official CELAM events and news conferences. It was a question from a Mohawk radio producer, Eric Gabriel, that turned what might have been a series of carefully-staged news conferences into informative briefings: “Will the bishops’ conference apologize to native people, and if not, why not?” First, there was silence — a silence that is captured beautifully in the documentary which Vision-TV broadcast in December 1992. Then one of the bishops on the panel sputtered an incoherent and embarrassing response to this sensitive question. The fumble prompted the CELAM media office to plan a 90-minute briefing on the church’s role in Indigenous issues the following day, featuring clergy and lay people who were Indigenous or who worked with Indigenous people. A day later, a thorough briefing on the situation of women was offered.

Clockwise from top left: Bishop Julio Cabrera of Quiché diocese in Guatemala; Jim Hodgson (and no: I do not understand the hat), Eric Gabriel, Fr. Jerome Kelleher, Leslie Wirpsa (National Catholic Reporter); José Álvarez Icaza, National Centre for Social Communications (CENCOS), Mexico; Raúl Rosales, Diego de Medellín Ecumenical Centre, Chile; and Rita Deverell of Vision TV speaking with Manuel Casado, a medical doctor serving in the Capotillo barrio of Santo Domingo.

The church, systemic injustice, social sin and the “doctrine of discovery”

Left: America magazine, July 28. Right: CBC News, July 30.

by Jim Hodgson

Many people who heard the apologies offered by Pope Francis in Canada were disappointed that the apologies were worded in ways that expressed regret for the actions of certain people or “local Catholic institutions” – as if religious orders like the Oblates and Jesuits are not themselves global organizations.

Building on existing teaching, the apologies offered by Pope Francis could have gone further. 

As my personal penitential pilgrimage continued, I came across a forceful definition of “social sin” – relevant because of the Catholic Church’s reluctance to say something definitive, like: “the church erred,” rather than just saying, “I’m sorry.”

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), in paragraph 119, describes social sin this way: “The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin…. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual, and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light.”

The entire colonial project, including the residential schools, is grotesque interference in the “development of peoples.” (That phrase echoes the name of an influential 1967 encyclical by Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, inspirational to the creation of the many Catholic development organizations an in the formation of people like your scribe.)

Away back in 1984, Pope John Paul II and the bishops of the Dominican Republic were anticipating a grand celebration to be held in 1992 to mark the “discovery and evangelization of the New World” on the “Fifth Centenary” of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. 
I was present on Oct. 12, 1984, in a sports stadium in Santo Domingo when John Paul defended the church’s role in the European conquest. Even then, his words shocked and angered me. A “black reading” of history, he said, had focused attention on the violent and exploitive aspects of the time which followed what he repeatedly called “the discovery” of the Americas. 
Protest from within the church and across the hemisphere, especially from Indigenous and African-Americans, was immediate. By the time the 1992 events unfolded, John Paul came back to Santo Domingo to open a meeting of Latin American bishops (CELAM), but scaled back his participation in government-led celebrations.

He met with Indigenous and African American groups, and local media reported that he apologised. But careful reading of the texts show no apologies. To Indigenous people, he said: “There must be recognition of the abuses committed due to a lack of love on the part of some individuals who did not see their Indigenous brothers and sisters as children of God.” To African Americans, he repeated words he had used earlier in 1992 at Gorée, Senegal: “How can we forget the human lives destroyed by slavery? In all truth, this sin of man against man, of man against God, must be confessed.”
Right: I read everything I could about these debates in the mid-80s and early 90s. Part of my collection!

Pope Francis should also have addressed the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who works with the Religion News Service, wrote after the visit that the pope’s remarks in a news conference during the flight back to Rome revealed that he had not been properly briefed for the visit. Francis said he had not thought to use the term “genocide” to describe the effects of the Indian residential schools system, but agreed that it was “true.”

And he said he was confused by the phrase “doctrine of discovery.” He should have been briefed and been prepared to address the issue, persistently raised by Indigenous people because of the lasting legacy of 15th-century papal teaching. Even if those teachings were abrogated by Pope Paul III’s edict in 1537, their accumulated impact influenced U.S. and Canadian law and government policy. The TRC Call to Action 45 rejects the doctrine of discovery and calls for a new Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown that fully honours Nation-to-Nation principles.

To be fair, the doctrine-of-discovery phrase is not used as commonly in Latin America as in North America to describe the complicity of church and state in the subjection of the Indigenous peoples of the hemisphere. It doesn’t appear, for example, in a volume edited by philosopher-historian Enrique DusselThe Church in Latin America, 1492-1992 (Orbis, 1992) – although the various papal bulls (edicts) that gave rise to the concept are described. 

In my experience, what is talked about more are impacts of colonialism, the role of the colonial state in managing Christian missions (royal patronage, power to appoint bishops, etc.), and resistance exemplified by (among others) a 1511 homily by Antonio de Montesinos to settlers in Santo Domingo (“Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery?”) or the first bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who argued for decades on behalf of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce the enslavement of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.

In Dussel’s introduction, he describes “the church of the poor” as already distinct from both the colonial church and the church of the criollos (descendants of Europeans born in the Americas). “There was not a single year in the seventeenth century that did not see a rebellion of natives, blacks or mestizos….” (p.7). The criollo-led independence movements of the early nineteenth century did not advance their liberation, and resistance continues to this day.

Next: Santo Domingo in October 1992: 500 years of resistance