Although the deceased had over Lps 2,000 (US$100) on him as he had been recently paid for being a teacher, the money was not taken, supporting the idea that the murder was designed to frighten and intimidate the Maya Chortis, and was not just another simple robbery. “Asombro”, a feeling of frightened surprise is how the mood of the Chorti in Copán Ruinas is described after the murder news was known. The story of this murder of the Maya Chorti teacher has not been covered by the Honduran Spanish speaking newspapers, even though they were sent articles in Spanish about it with photos.
This problem that violence in the general society was also affecting directly schools in Mexico and their personnel, was also a topic at the First Pedagogical Exchange in San Pedro Sula in July 2013. My last articles for Honduras This Week on Honduran maras. or gangs, began that when you think of the risks of taking a job as a primary school teacher, you do not think that seeing one of your students murdered in front of the school would be one of them, as happened to my UPN students in San Pedro Sula. Accepting to be a school teacher, especially for elementary grades or for the Ministry of Education in Tegucigalpa, has not traditionally been thought of as a high risk job but it has become so in Honduras.
The mother of one of the young Maya Chorti teachers, both only around 20 years old, had been the First Consejera Mayor (lead Council Person, the highest position in CONIMCHH, the Chortis’ ethnic federation) of CONIMCHH (National Council of the Maya Chorti Indians of Honduras), which has its main office in Copán Ruinas.
An employee of CONIMCHH confirmed the murder of one of the Chorti teachers, and said the organization of CONIMCHH denounces this kind of activity against its teachers and against the Chortis. An earlier report had erroneously said both the teachers were killed. As in the case of the Pech, the younger people involved as bilingual intercultural education teachers, are often family members of Honduran Indians who practice a wide variety of traditional skills, because these are the families most likely to speak the language and to value the traditions enough to teach them to their children, and also because they are often local leaders, and being a leader in the community, first means being a leader and an example within your home.
The mother and aunt of the Chortis who were attacked is a craft person in the Chorti pottery cooperative project in Carrizalon, while the grandfather of both of the teachers attacked is a well known healer and one of the few makers of the traditional maguey fiber crafts among the Chorti and who still grew maguey, currently a very scarce plant among the Chortis. An example of Maya Chorti Carrizalon pottery and maguey crafts, as well as examples of crafts important in healing ceremonies, are now in the Burke Anthropology Museum at the University of Washington and in the office of CONIMCHH in Copán Ruinas. The San Pedro Museum has plants to include Maya Chorti crafts in its upcoming Honduran Indian craft exhibit, but has not yet found the funds to be able to fund the purchase of them, nor the display cases to put them in.
Other examples of Honduran Indians being killed who worked in the bilingual intercultural education project include Maya Chorti Candido Amador, and the Pech teacher from El Carbon, Blas Lopez. Candido Amador who was the Chorti with the highest grade of education at that time, was a 9th grade graduate and had been working as a tour guide at the Copán Ruinas Archqueological Park when CONIMCHH request that he accept the position of Chorti Bilingual Intercultural Education Coordinator at the National level. He was an official Ministry of Education employee paid with international funding from the World Bank in the bilingual intercultural education program at the time of his death.
Candido Amador was murdered outside of Copán Ruinas on his way home, where he was found with machete wounds and at least nine bullet wounds, and his long hair was cut off by a machete. He had been in a nearby village helping the almost illiterate Maya Chorti women of the village fill out a grant proposal for sewing machines for a sewing cooperative. His death galvanized the Chortis who fought even harder after that, and his picture hangs in their office and his photo and his story is on their website www.conimchh.org. As the Chorti currently have no sewing cooperative with sewing machines, I assume that not even to honor his death, were the funders encouraged to approve the sewing machine project grant which he was working on.
I met Prof. Blas Lopez in 1987 when he was one of the sixth grade graduates, along with Hernan Martinez the husband of the Pech chief of Moradel Doña Juana, who were hired to be bilingual intercultural education teachers among the Pech of Olancho. These Pech teachers had generally studied two years in a formal primary school with a teacher, but then they had primarily finished sixth grade through adult education programs by radio, such as Alfalit of the Evangelical churches during the Contra war period, or such as Escuelas Radiofonicas (Radio Schools), who had studied in groups led by volunteers, usually themselves Pech Indians who did not have 6 years of formal school education. It is actually very brave to decide you will take up teaching first graders to learn to read and write when you yourself have such a low level of education.
If US teachers with Master’s degrees in reading have problems teaching reading in US schools, how much more difficult to teach reading and worse Math in rural Honduran schools. I observed a few of the classes they gave over the years, and sometimes it seemed very difficult to deal with the orders that came from Tegucigalpa. If it says on Monday, at 10 am you must listen to the radio class on math, they did this.
There is terrible reception of the radio in the Olancho mountains, so if it was not raining, it was still not clear what the radio instructor said. But if it was raining, as was often the case in this edge of the rainforest area in Olancho, it was totally impossible to hear a thing on the radio. But the instructions said on 10 am, you must teach Math by radio, and so for an hour the Pech students and the Pech teachers listened to static or the rain, or both.
The use of the official textbooks was also difficult in Pech villages. The textbooks and curriculum said you teach about cows in the section of “Domestic animals” (animales mansos — tamed animals). The Pech children grow up in Olancho where Ladino cattle ranchers let their cattle which they do not visit for months at a time, roam wild in the forest. The Pech children grow up afraid a running steer will run over them, or gore them, or knock the clay off of their clay house.
So if the Pech teacher asks, “Are cattle “manso” (tamed), or “bravo” (wild, angry, dangerous)?” the Pech children all answer “Bravo” (wild, angry, dangerous). This is the wrong answer according to the curriculum. In the world of the textbook writer, cattle are tame, domesticated, while in the world of the Pech the cattle are semiferal/wild and extremely dangerous. I have been in a Pech village in Olancho when the Ladino cattle owners finally came on horse to round up their cattle for sale and dozens of cattle are hurrying down a path only wide enough for one person towards the highway, when I was walking the other way. I ran. I know Olancho cattle are “bravo” and a lot bigger than I am.
Some Pech teachers dropped out of the project almost immediately, like don Hernan of Moradel, but Blas Lopez kept getting more training and teaching. First he spent six years studying on the weekends in a professionalization program to get a high school degree as an elementary school teacher. He went on studying several more years on the weekends to get a college degree, so that he could qualify to teach and eventually become the director/principal of the Centro Basico (a combined elementary school and nineth grade junior high school) in El Carbon, which did not exist until he helped fight for it. On several occasions Blas Lopez lived in Tegucigalpa, helping the Ministry of Education project to write Pech textbooks or the Pech grammar book that was published last year, or a proposed Pech dictionary that was never published.
If you are a rainforest Indian, living in Tegucigalpa is often not a pleasant experience. The Tawahkas have come to my house in Tegucicalpa, amd I asked what they liked to eat, and they said, “sopa de tepescuintle” (tepescuintle soup). Tepescuintles, a rainforest animal that eats only fruits is delicious according to everyone that has eaten it, but it is not available in Tegucigalpa supermarkets, and in fact due to its overhunting and loss of habitat, especially the wild fruit trees, is rarely available anywhere in Honduras now.
The lack of water in Tegucigalpa where there is often only one hour a day of water if any, the crime, the high cost of food and not food they like, lack of firewood, etc. is part of what makes one Pech woman who used to live in Tegucigalpa’s twin city Comayaguela say of a Pech village in Olancho with no electricity or running water, but which had farmland, forest, creeks, “Estamos en la Gloria aqui” (We are in glory or paradise here in Pech villages in Olancho).
When the bilingual intercultural education program started in the Pech villages, there were Ladino teachers there. These teachers called the Pech children “payitas”. Paya means “bruto”, stupid, like a dumb animal, according to the Pech, and “payitas” is the diminutive, so it means little dumb things if they called their students “payitas”. Sometimes the dimunitive in Spanish, shows affection, but it also often shows a lack of respect. To call the Pech Chief Carlos Duarte, an older well known healer and a hereditary chief for more than 40 years and he had formerly been Mayor of the county of Culmi, “payita” is just as insulting of calling sixty year old Black men in the Southern US “boy”.
I know that now that I am over 50, I think people should not call me a “gringuita” (a little gringa) and I am still angry about development agency people or Ministry of Education employees in Tegucigalpa who used to use “vos” with me. “Vos” (you) is only used with either people you are very intimate with like your childhood friends, or towards people inferior to you, and if I have to call the other person, Licensiada (a person who has a college degree), I do not want them to use “vos” with me.
Just that fact alone, of being called “little brutes” was one that made the Pech Indian children want to drop out of school often before finishing third grade. At that time none of the Pech schools had a sixth grade, not because of government policy as in the case of the Chorti, but because none of the Pech children still wanted to be in school by the time sixth grade came. Honduran children not liking school and not finding it useful, and not wanting to go, is what makes the majority of Honduran parents say, Ok, don’t go. It’s not worth the money, and I have work you can do around the house or the farm”, according to official studies and my experience with the Pech.
When the Pech teachers were hired, they said immediately to me, to each other, to the Pech parents, to the Pech students, “It would be good if we the Pech had Pech nurses. It would be good, if we the Pech had Pech bus and truck mechanics. We are made out of meat and bones (carne y hueso), someday we will die. It would be good to have more Pech teachers.” Since the Pech teachers were hired, in spite of their original low level of schooling, Pech children school attendance has soared.
Almost all Pech finish sixth grade now. There are a lot of Pech who study high school, and I know of at least 2 Pech college graduates who teach at “Centros Basicos” in the Mosquitia, and at least 15 in-service Pech teachers are studying college on the weekends. I think Blas would say, it was worth it to have spent those years in Tegucigalpa and more than 10 years of being away from his family on the weekends, so that we could have all these Pech professionals.
Many Pech bilingual intercultural teachers also take on roles of leaders in the Pech village councils or in villages that elect chiefs (some Pech villages elect chiefs, in some it was heriditary by families), to become chief, partly because you need to be able to read and write Spanish well to go to this infinite number of meetings and sessions, and you also need a cash income to pay to go to these meetings. This means the same bilingual intercultural education teachers are the ones fighting for land rights. And it was because of land rights struggles in Olancho that Prof. Blas Lopez, then the president of the Pech Federation was killed.
And it was probably because of land struggles that one Chorti Indian bilingual intercultural education teacher from Carrizalon, Copán Ruinas was killed and another one shot at over the last month. The Chortis of Carrizalon are one of three Chorti villages threatened to be dislodged from lands the Honduran government promised to buy them and then did not. It is strange that Carrizalon should be in this position, because the Chorti residents say they have lived there since 1820, before the independence of Honduras, and more than a century before the location of the Honduran-Guatemala border was decided in the 1930’s, a decision brokered in Washington, DC because the border conflict was between the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) advancing towards the border from the Guatemalan side and the Cuyamel Fruit Company of Samuel Zemurray advancing towards the border on the Honduran side.
Carrizalon, located 1 km from the Guatemalan border, is in the sights of narcotrafficantes, the drug traffickers, who have bought all the mules available along the Salvadoran-Guatemala border, according to the mule sellers. A high ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel was captured in Guatemala in the Zacapa Department on the lower end of the Chortis’ area and armed Zetas, have also been seen having lunch on the Guatemalan side of the Chorti lands. The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are the two biggest Mexican gangs fighting for the control of the drug trafficking business in Mexico. The Cachiros, the Hondurans who had their bank accounts frozen and their lands seized in the Colón/Garifuna area were reportedly associated with the Sinaloa cartel. The name of the community of Copán comes from the Nahua and Honduran Spanish word for bridge copante, because it was on the path from the Valley of Mexico to the Guatemala city area to the Honduran north Coast 1,000 years before the Spanish even thought of finding the New World or the route to the Spice Islands.
When the recent 32 year civil war was going in Guatemala, a time known as “las ruinas” (the ruins) among the Guatemalan Mayas because of the high number of murders of Indians, a number of his Mayan bilingual education teacher friends were also murdered, reported Dr. James Loucky, a Latin American anthropology professor at WWU. The start of this civil war was also associated with problems with United Fruit (Chiquita) and about land for Indians.
Now Hondurans is now gaining a reputation that it is competing with Guatemala of the civil war period for its horrendous treatment of Indians and of the people who worked in favor of them. English anthropologist Krystyna Duess’s book on her thirty year study on Mayan Shaman, Witches, and Priests in Highland Guatemala is dedicated to an American USAID bilingual education project worker who disappeared in Guatemala and showed up dead later in Mexico. That book is now available through the University of Oklahoma Press.
I purposely chose to come Honduras to work in 1985 instead of Guatemala which is much more famous for its Indians than Honduras, because although I thought Guatemala was beautiful, they were killing the people who worked with the poor there then during the civil war, and the situation in Honduras was much better then.
The situation in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has deteriorated so much, that they are now called the “Northern Triangle” by The Atlantic magazine which considers them collectively the most dangerous place in the world, and CCN has done articles, repeated on Honduran radio, comparing the safety of living in Honduras on par with the Congo. (11/17/13)
Note: Wendy Griffin is the co-author of the book “Los Garifunas de Honduras” (1995) and was previously a reporter for Honduras This Week about Honduran ethnic groups including the Garifunas and an anthropology professor for the UPN in La Ceiba. Since 1996, she has split her time between living in the US and volunteering and living in Trujillo… in or near the Garifuna neighborhoods there.