Guatemala Conference Wraps up at Villa Aurora

Fri, 09/16/2016 - 5:00pm

Conference co-chairs Victoria Sanford and Wolf Gruner share their final thoughts on the conference


USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research’s conference “A Conflict? Genocide and Resistance in Guatemala” concluded Wednesday at Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, leaving the participants with renewed energy and ideas for continuing their conversation on the genocide in Guatemala.

The final presentations of the conference mostly focused on genocide denial and resistance.

Rebecca Clouser talked about the state-sponsored denial that a genocide had occurred in Guatemala. One of the most powerful groups was CACIF, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial, which published notices on its website that there was no genocide. The “violence” was a product of “senseless confrontation” and Guatemalans from all sides attacking each other, they said. The government told citizens that it was their civic duty to avoid civil unrest, proclaiming that the country needed “solidarity” in order to achieve prosperity and peace.

Debra Rodman shared her research on eastern Guatemala, which she said was the perfect place for “greasing the Guatemalan military machine.” The region has a history of violence against Mayans, and it was there that the state established a Ladino military operation in order to control the indigenous people, though it denied that it had perpetuated genocide.

“The East was no mere witness,” to the genocide, Rodman said. “It legitimizes state action and legitimizes the Ladino role [in the genocide] through denial.”

Emilio del Valle Escalante spoke about resistance and survival through poetry, focusing on the poet Sabino Esteban Francisco. Betsabe A. Martinez Manzanero shared photographs and discussed memory and cultural resistance among Guatemalan Mayans in southern Mexico.

There was also a surprise appearance by Ricardo Falla, who had been scheduled to present the previous day but had missed it due to a traveling conflict. However, he arrived just in time for the final day of the conference and gave his presentation. Falla spoke about resistance groups in the Ixcán region of Guatemala, where, he argued, the Guatemalan resistance movement was born.

The crowd gave Falla an enthusiastic standing ovation before he even began speaking – a testament to his preeminence and contributions to the field of Guatemalan Genocide research and activism.

Victoria Sanford, conference co-organizer and professor at Lehman College, said Falla’s presentation was one of the highlights of the conference for her.

“Ricardo Falla is not only an amazing scholar of the genocide in Guatemala but he was one of the first people to say it was a genocide in Guatemala,” Sanford said. “It was really beautiful to have his presence. It was extraordinarily interesting to listen to him talk about what it meant to accompany the massacre survivors who were in flight from the army in the mountains because he lived with them in the 1980s. That was really powerful.”

At the conclusion of the day’s official business, Sanford and Wolf Gruner, director of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research, spoke about what they see as the major takeaways from the past three days.

Gruner said he was impressed by the breadth of topics that had been covered throughout the presentations, including systematic killing, violence against women, racism and more. In fact, the conference discussed in detail every element of genocide established in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, which will help raise public awareness that there was indeed a genocide in Guatemala.

He also noted that for the participants, the conference was especially meaningful because it was the first-ever international conference devoted exclusively to the Guatemalan Genocide.

“That’s what amazed most of the people. Usually [discussion of the Guatemalan Genocide] was hidden in some panels or in bigger conferences on very different subjects,” Gruner said. “This set the tone for the whole conference to finally have a place to really talk in depth about this gruesome past of Guatemala but also resistance.”

Sanford said the conference participants have clamored for ways to keep in touch and continue collaborating on research and other projects – even asking if USC Shoah Foundation can host another conference, this time in Guatemala, in the future. She has suggested setting up a blog so they can share their work with each other and the public no matter where they are in the world.