Los Cimientos Alliance: the Seeds of Hope in Guatemala
Francia Ala is a Californian grandmother and mother of two sons approaching her late 60's. She arrived in Guatemala in 1987 to learn Spanish in the colonial city of Antigua. While she was on her way to San Salvador to work with children, she found out about the human rights violations going on in Guatemala. "It was a shock to find out what was happening here and that there were many villages where the artisans were being killed," explains Francia. "It opened my eyes as people were walking around chanting 'alegre, alegre Guatemala'." Having created the human rights forum "The Mayan Connection" in San Francisco, aimed to bring awareness to the United States about the Guatemalan situation, Francia Ala moved down to Guatemala in 1990 and has been involved in human rights issues ever since.
Francia started as a 'human rights accompaniement' for the leaders of the K'iche community of Los Cimientos. A 70 year old grandfather, along with his grandson as his interpreter, were courageously imploring assistance carrying the original land titles proving that the 6,000 acres of Los Cimientos belonged to their community, Francia joined them and found her destiny linked to a very complex tragedy.
Los Cimientos' Community Historical background
The ancestors of today's Los Cimientos Maya K'iche community moved to the land known as Los Cimientos in the late 1800s. Situated in the municipality of Chajul, in the department of Quiche, in the Cuchamatanes Mountains, the land is rich and productive, allowing for a traditional highland Mayan agricultural life.
In 1981, during the Guatemalan civil war, the community was forced to flee their fertile land. They suffered as penniless refugees until 1994 when the government told them they could go home again. When they returned, they found that the army had given their valuable, legally owned land to a group of paramilitary families. Court findings and presidential studies proved the legitimacy of the K'iche land rights, however the land occupiers, with impunity, constantly harassed them.
A land study, funded by USAID money supporting the Peace Accords, again proved the K'iche's clear and complete ownership of the land. Yet on the 25th of June 2001, the K´iche families of Los Cimientos were awoken at dawn by a group of men armed with machetes, guns and sharpened sticks the size of baseball bats. The community was told they had two hours to leave Los Cimientos or they would be killed. So as to reinforce this point, the armed men raped two K´iche women in front of the community and their young children. Once again the K'iche landowners were forced to flee their homes and their land, leaving behind their possessions, food and crops, and becoming again impoverished internal refugees.
After too many years of suffering and constant injustice, the Government finally offered them new land in exchange for the land forcibly taken from them. The new land, called San Vicente, is in southern Guatemala, far from their ancestral land and far away from all Maya K'iche cultural influences. On December 9, 2002, the community of Los Cimientos, (1500 people, 233 families), were relocated from the refugee site to the new land that they have named Aldea San Vicente de Los Cimientos. The government has promised in the contractual agreement called "Convenio," signed in September 11th 2001, to "give food, humanitarian help and basic services" to the resettled community.
Francia Ala has been adopted by the K'iche community of Los Cimientos during an unusual ceremony: "their spiritual leaders did a Mayan ceremony which I didn't really understand until it was completed with the reading of the seeds." Explains Francia. "They were divining what my role would be and whether or not I was the appropriate person to be there with them. According to the seeds I was." The seeds could not have chosen a better guardian angel than this energetic woman. Creating in 1992 Los Cimientos Alliance, an all-volunteer, non-profit 501(c)3 organization that has served as human rights advocates and humanitarian aid resource for the Los Cimientos community, Francia has been dedicating more than a decade of her life to these Mayan people. Going from one meeting to another, helped by very dedicated international volunteers, Francia used her basic knowledge of Spanish during endless meetings until finally the government responded to the community's plea for justice. "I don't really speak Spanish," says Francia, "but in this kind of work, if you want to communicate, you can do so. This is maybe one of the reasons of our success, because I've almost been comic with my Spanish!"
Last December 9th, 24 volunteers of Los Cimientos Alliance helped resettling the K'iche community into their new land. 28 buses and 23 trucks moved 1500 people along with chicken, horses, and pigs. A new life started for the community. However, the day of the resettlement was a very "silent day" for los Cimientos families, describes Francia. "People left the Quiche area knowing they were leaving for ever their homeland, their ethnic area. They were absolutely silent when they came into the bus. There is a deep grief because they had to leave Los Cimientos which was paradise, and accept a land on the side of the volcano that is exploding." When they arrived into their new land, the little neighboring town of Siquinala offered them a warm welcoming. They had decorated the new land with signs on the trees saying "welcome Los Cimientos" and a merimba band was welcoming them with music. "There was this delightful welcoming party from the precious town of Siquinala" testifies Francia, "but the people who organized it were a bit disappointed because the community of Los Cimientos kept unpacking their things and putting them inside the houses, finding out where they were living. They were not in a party spirit. Only after that did they have some sense of celebration."
Francia feels gratitude that the community has now at least a piece of land where they can plant their food crops. Even if the new land is half of the size of Los Cimientos, it will offer them new opportunities. When the community selected the land on the side of the volcano, after months of search for the most suitable land, they said, "that's ok, we are protected", "the lava will go down the other side!". Today, they live 1h30 from Antigua, and their children will be able to go to school. "They will be able to grow organic food and to start an eco-tourism business" explains a positive Francia Ala. "That volcano can be their highlight, maybe they can have horse tours for visitors!"
There is still a lot to be done with the resettlement of Los Cimientos community. Children, women and men have arrived to live without real adequate housing, basic food requirements, health care, and without reliable access to national or international aid. There are over 400 children in the Community and many are suffering from years of malnutrition, which has led to their hair turning blond or red, diarrhea, intestinal and respiratory problems. While many of the adults suffer from the same health problems, there are also numerous accounts of skin disorders and of bone, muscle and joint pain, caused from their strenuous work, deprived diet and the sudden change from a cold climate to a hot and humid one.
Los Cimientos Alliance is in great need of volunteers, teachers, doctors, nurses and of course financial support to help the community in their resettlement. The organization is planning on creating a school to suppliment the community school in teaching children reading and writting, as well as art and foreign languages taught by volunteers. The organization also plans to get rid of the municipality garbage dump, which is located on the river going to the new community, and to chlorinate the water. "The most valuable thing for me" tells Fabian, a 20 year old German volunteer, "is to have the experience of that very complex historical event for this country and to help those indigenous people who are really in need and to see the changes that we can make."
Without Los Cimientos Alliance, the K'iche community of Los Cimientos would probably not exist anymore. They would have been divided up and absorbed into the fathers and mothers we can see in the streets of Guatemala, begging with their babies in their laps. "Why do we do what we do?" asks Francia "Is it destiny? Now according to the seeds that they read up there 10 years ago, there seams to be some kind of destiny..." a destiny to become the difference she wanted to see in Guatemala.
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