When I returned from Central America in 1975, there was no news about the brewing revolution in El Salvador and Guatemala. In fact, I believed that the government of Guatemala was fairly stable and that it was a great idea for my mom to build a hotel there. My husband, Pete, and I were enthusiastic about investing in it. Yes, I had seen the military with machine guns on every corner, but because Guatemalan and U.S. currency were even, I thought that unlike El Salvador, things were basically under control in Guatemala.
Pete and I married that June of 1975, and the whole following two years were like an extended honeymoon. We traveled to Europe, spent a lot of time in Hawaii, and went back to Guatemala to visit my mother and brother. Pete was in Jefferson Starship, a huge band at the time; we were on top of the world. “Miracles” was a hit song and Red Octopus had sold a zillion copies. We bought a house in Mill Valley and filled it with antiques from the proceeds of that album. It was a thrilling time for us. I traveled with the band in a private airplane–touring the country, seeing all the American cities…and everywhere we went people loved us because of the music. Pete and I were (and still are) crazy about each other, but the biggest thrill was yet to come. On June 9th, 1977, our son Dylan was born. Six years later, on March 19th, 1983, our daughter Natalie was born….wow! Having children brought something new into our consciousness. We both felt the enormous responsibility of our parts in ensuring the future health and happiness of our children. A new awareness descended on us as we were enveloped in the haze of happiness our children created. We were the adults…it was our job to address world problems and make decisions that would affect the health of the planet. The environment was uppermost in our minds, but when my mother escaped with her life from Guatemala, Central America became our focus.
When Reagan became president in 1981, one of the first things he did was lift the human rights sanctions that had been placed on Guatemala. Consequently, all hell broke loose in that country. My mother and brother had just finished building the Posada de Santiago when the army came marching into the pueblo. My brother, David, had gone back to the States, leaving Mom to put the finishing touches on the hotel. She remembers that she was swimming in the lake when she first saw the soldiers. She joked to a friend that she knew the hotel would attract people, but didn’t expect THAT many…ha ha ha. It was macabre. She had no idea of the devastation that was about to be unleashed. The army set up camp within a quarter of a mile of the hotel.
A couple of weeks earlier, a caravan of flatbed trucks had pulled into Santiago and set up a P.A. system in the central church plaza. They announced to the Mayan villagers that they were “guerrillas” come to give them a better life. They gave free beer to all and then encouraged the drunk men to “sign up” to be guerrillas. Sixty-some men of the village signed the list. As my mother watched the day unfold it grew stranger and stranger to her. She’d never seen a “guerrilla,” but she’d heard they were hiding in the mountains, poor and bedraggled. Where did they get the money for the trucks and the beer? Why weren’t they afraid to expose their identities and why were they getting others to put their new affiliation in writing? It made no sense.
When the army came marching in two weeks later, they had that list in hand. Every man who had signed that paper was killed…along with their entire families. The first night was chaotic terror. A couple of men who had worked for my mom for years had been murdered…and their families. She was frantic to stop the killing. She tried talking to the army officers–telling them that these people were her employees–not guerrillas. Her pleas for leniency were ignored. That second night, the people fled into the church for shelter. The Catholic church has a history of providing sanctuary, so the Mayas thought they would be safe there. The Mission priest, Father Stanley Rother, turned the soldiers away under threat of excommunication…the people were safe that night. A few months later the army would return for Father Stanley…the Oklahoma born priest was murdered in his bed at the church by the death squads, and that was the first news from Guatemala that hit the mainstream press in the U.S.–presumably because the priest was an American. The news didn’t tell us that the death squads who killed him were trained and funded by the U.S.
The army set about destroying the small hospital and scaring the American doctors into leaving the village. What little infrastructure the pueblo had was destroyed. There was no one to help or defend the people. My mother felt that the army wouldn’t target her because of her American citizenship and also because she was a capitalist landowner. On the second day of the massacre at Santiago, Mom went running around to all the officials she knew, begging for help for the pueblo. Shades were drawn, offices locked. The phone lines were down. More of her employees were killed that day; a huge ditch was dug right next door to the hotel and bodies were thrown into it like so much garbage…and then Mom got sick, really sick. The drinking water had become contaminated and she was suffering from severe dysentery. There were no doctors to go to, so she went across the lake to Panajachel, a touristy Mayan village that had services. During the two weeks she was recuperating she lost 25 pounds and her grey roots had grown out. Vanity sent her to a hair salon. She asked the hair dresser to do something new–told him she looked old and worn out. He dyed her dark brown hair a bright red–not what she expected, but it probably saved her life. That evening, before her return to Santiago, she was walking down the main street in Panajachel trying to decide where to have dinner when she became aware that a Jeep Wagoneer was following her. She knew it was the car of choice for the death squads and a quick glance at its passengers confirmed her fear. Luckily, she was in front of an expensive restaurant that catered to tourists, so she quickly ducked into the place. She was sitting at a table holding a menu when two menacing men came strutting up to her and just stood over her, peering at a photo, and then back at her numerous times. Remember, her five foot frame was 25 pounds lighter and her normally dark hair was bright red. She ignored the men and after a few minutes, they left.
When she got back to her home in Santiago the next day, the place was in shambles and her dog had been cut into pieces and strewn about the house. It was a warning and she knew it. Her next door neighbor (on the opposite side from the ditch) was a wealthy woman who used a private helicopter to come and go from her lake house. When she saw what had been done to Mom’s house, she told her to grab her clothes and get into the helicopter immediately. It flew her to the Capitol where she was able to get a flight home.
Mom came bursting into Marin County with what was no doubt PTSD and a lot of people thought she was kind of crazy. If all that was going on in Guatemala, how come it wasn’t in the news? Pete and I believed her, of course, and our friend Michael Krasny not only believed her, he put her on his KQED talk show to tell her story. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the American priest, Stanley Rother, was killed, that the “civil war” in Guatemala made the mainstream news here. As the eighties progressed, the atrocities in Guatemala escalated until by the mid-eighties it became the country with the worst human rights abuses in the world (taking the top spot from Cambodia). My mother couldn’t go back there at that time, but she did everything possible to raise awareness about the situation, including writing an excellent first-hand account of her experiences in Santiago, Atitlan.