Memories from Guatemala's Civil War

Memory: "I Was Fighting For My People"

Pamela Yates' memory of Maria Magdalena Pascual Hernández ("Inés")

March 1, 2012. The darkened National Theater of Guatemala is completely filled with people intently watching the premiere of GRANITO: How to Nail a Dictator. Towards the very end of the film, Inés, a 16 year-old guerrilla, reveals the concept behind the name of the film. She says, "We are making a big effort, each contributing our tiny grain of sand, our granito, so that our country can be free." In the audience that night was Inés' brother Valeriano who hadn't seen his older sister in 30 years and didn't know this footage of her existed.

May 1, 1982. We had walked all night long to meet up and film with the resistance fighters of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. It was in a clearing in the woods in the highlands of the Quiché in the Augusto César Sandino Front or FACS that I first met Inés. She was one of the few women fighters and so self-possessed, a leader even then, though she was just 16. Her compañeros and compañeras listened closely when she spoke. She was Maya K'iche and, although Spanish was her second language, she spoke passionately about the role of indigenous women in the armed struggle. I could tell she was a well-trained fighter.

March 8, 2012. A week after the premiere in Guatemala City in 2012, Inés' brother Valeriano found me on Facebook. He told me that his sister Inés, whose real name was María Magdalena Pascual Hernández from Zacualpa, had been killed in combat just months after I filmed her for When the Mountains Tremble. Valeriano told me that 2 other brothers were also killed battling the Army incursions into the highlands, one in 1983 and the other in 1989. Then a letter surfaced in my archives -- Inés' story spoken orally and transcribed, sent to me carefully typed on onion skin paper and airmailed in 1982 to my studio in New York. The stamp bore an image from the Popol Vuh.

Inés gave me a great gift - this concept of granito -- how each of us have a tiny grain of sand to contribute to positive change -- and I've carried it with me throughout my documentary filmmaking life, always trying to put it to use. And always remembering Inés.

-- Pamela Yates

Envelope for a letter sent from Guatemala


I am Quiché, from a municipal capital of El Quiché. I'm sixteen years old.

When the organization came, the Guerilla Organization of the Poor, I was with my parents. They were already thinking revolutionarily, they wanted to help the poor, but we didn't know where the Organization is. We already knew through the radio that there was one, there was also propaganda from the CUC, we would read it and we could see that everything it said was true.

My parents are Christians, they saw what the Holy Bible said, and also a priest came who would say things that were true. He gave a very good mass, he had photos of the fallen priests, the people would look at the photos and make their confessions. That's how we began to take up revolutionary ideas. My father met with the father, he was one of the first to organize for the Bible. He joined the whole family. The Ladinos said that it wasn't good, because before the father would give three masses a day in the town, then they said he was a communist because he only met with the Indians.

My father was from the CUC, he would carry out tasks, he would tell us many things about the justice that they're doing. He was working in the United States before, because we didn't have money or clothes. He was there five years, when he came back we were already aware, my mother told him that there were injustices, that was Lucas did was not good, and he said that it's true.

I realized how they discriminated against us Indigenous kids in school, how there were only a few of us there, they would hit us and push us down. That's how we started realizing the discrimination against us.

My mother would say that all the evil they were doing wasn't right. Like the mayor, who when the earthquake happened made the people work to get back what they had given to people from other places. My mother would say that guerrillas, they do good things, they help the poor and fight for them. She would say in Nicaragua the rich are fighting the poor. We saw that they were killing people, that the comrades there were fighting too. Sometimes my mother would cry, she would say that those things are done here too. That's how our eyes began opening.

The army wasn't there yet, it was more in the North, but it wasn't with us yet because there weren't many guerillas, we were organized but it wasn't visible. My cousin made flyers, he would hand them out in the town. The Ladinos who knew how to read the best got a little scared, then some of them became government spies, out of fear. Some indigenous people too, they became spies because of love for money. When they passed out flyers, they wouldn't bring them to the indigenous people, they wouldn't say anything, they would just keep thinking the same way, how you couldn't talk to just anyone.

They wanted to throw the father out of there, motorcycles and cars went by every little while to kidnap him, but he was already taking action, he was defending himself and we were protecting him too and we took action. Then the father left, we were sad, something that had been happy was fading.

After a while a comrade who was sick came, he was on his way to the North, he stayed with us. He taught us to put together and take apart guns, before we were afraid of guns, even worse they had had us the indigenous so deceived, we saw the gun as something very big, we didn't know.

Other refugees from the repression were coming, we helped them with corn, beans, keeping things in the house. My father was handing out flyers and organizing, we didn't find out because it he kept this separate.

I was already thinking about my enlistment. The comrade told me -- that I should prepare, that I should enlist. I would look at the people who were suffering a lot, I had my house and my studies, but I thought that not only I should be happy when some of my people are sick, that some don't even have anything to eat, that it wasn't fair. I thought a lot because I didn't want to leave my studies, but I thought now it is the time to fight -- that there was a lot of inequality and there should have been equality.

My mother said that it was OK for me to enlist, but my father doesn't want me to. He said that women couldn't fight, they can't take it, you have to suffer hunger and rain. He said that the suffering was a lot for a woman, better afterwards when there are more opportunities. I knew that I could take it, that the comrade says women can take the gun too, I said I'm still young, I don't have a child on my back. My father didn't want to let me come. The day I left he was in a meeting, I made my decision myself. Then my parents found out that I had made up my mind to join the struggle, and little by little they understood. I joined in September of 1980.

In the first camp I saw all the comrades with their pants. I felt content, amazed to see so many guerillas, I was very happy to know that I was fighting for my people and that I was going to have my gun to fight. Then they gave me a gun and a uniform.

We went to take Zacualpa and Joyabaj, we handed out flyers and had a rally. Some ran away, they got scared, a ton stayed too, they shouted and gave us money, they picked up the flyers, so that each person could have one. They followed us until the exit. On the roads we found people who would give us oranges. After that the people brought a lot up, and now food was coming for us at the camp.

Then I ended up the only woman at the camp, the comrades from before were scattered and there were all new ones. It feels sad when there aren't more women, even though the men treat you the same. Even though I was a woman I always had my decision to fight, I always participated in the battles. Now there are lots of women comrades again, so I feel happy.

-- Inés (Maria Magdalena Pascual Hernández)

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