When 29-year-old Iowa housewife Denese Becker decides to return to the Guatemalan village where she was born, she begins a journey towards finding her roots, but one filled with harrowing revelations. Denese, born Dominga, was nine when she became her family’s sole survivor of a massacre of Mayan peasants. Two years later, she was adopted by an American family. In Discovering Dominga, Denese’s journey home is both a voyage of self-discovery that permanently alters her relationship to her American family and a political awakening that sheds light on an act of genocide against this hemisphere’s largest Indian majority.
On March 13, 1982, Denese Becker was a nine-year-old Maya girl named Dominga living in the Maya highlands, when the Guatemalan army entered the village of Rio Negro. By the time the soldiers left, hundreds of people, including 70 women and 107 children, had been massacred and dumped in a mass grave. They became part of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 men, women and children killed in the Rio Negro area by military forces from 1980 to 1983. The Rio Negro villagers had been marked as “insurgents” for resisting their forced removal to make way for a World Bank-funded dam.
Dominga was one of the unaccountably “lucky” survivors of the massacre at Rio Negro. Placed in an orphanage, she was adopted two years later by a Baptist minister and his wife from Iowa. Dominga became Denese. Adjusting to her new life in America, she tried to bury the trauma of the massacre and the unspeakable memories so foreign to her Midwestern neighbors. She graduated high school, happily married Iowa native Blane Becker, had children, and became a manicurist.
But Denese never completely forgot her childhood as Dominga, and was haunted by memories of her parents’ murder. When she asked one of her adoptive cousins for help to research her past, she discovered she still had family in Guatemala. She decided to return to find them. Once there, she shares bittersweet memories of family and village life with her relatives, and then the story of the killings comes pouring out. Inexorably, Denese is drawn into the ongoing struggle of the surviving Rio Negro community to find justice.
Forming themselves into a Widows and Orphans Committee, the survivors had started to document the massacre and speak out for justice. Though peace accords brought Guatemala’s civil war to an uneasy close in 1996, seeking the truth about crimes committed during the war and redress for the victims remained difficult and dangerous. A United Nations Truth Commission found the Guatemalan army responsible for 93 percent of total war crimes, and the killings at Rio Negro were declared a crime of genocide. Yet as Denese discovers, the perpetrators have not been punished, and the military is still powerful.
Outraged at the injustice, Denese decides to become a witness in a landmark human rights case brought against the Guatemalan military. She joins her relatives to demand the exhumation of the Rio Negro massacre victims from a clandestine grave and their re-burial in a new gravesite called Monument to the Truth. Ultimately, the community succeeds. In a dramatic moment, Denese returns once again to Guatemala to witness a forensic team unearth the grisly remains of the victims, including the body of her beloved father.
Back in the U.S., she begins speaking about her experiences before school and community groups. For Denese, honoring the truth is morally necessary, but also personally shattering. Though her husband has fully supported her journey to rediscover “Dominga,” the strains begin unraveling their marriage. As Blane reflects, “A war that happened so long ago has broken our family apart.”