A Discussion with Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, Mayan Human Rights Activist and Recipient of the 2012 Niwano Peace Prize
With: Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez Berkley Center Profile
May 10, 2012
What led you to the work you are doing?
Mayans are survivors, and they have a deep respect for their traditions. It is this respect for tradition that has made it possible for Mayans to continue and uphold their beliefs and practices through so much violence and persecution. In a machismo culture that puts women aside, and where indigenous people and their traditions were ignored, women have fought for women’s rights, and especially those of widows. The rights we are fighting for are about truth and about gratitude to our ancestors.
I am still deeply, vividly influenced by the terrible time 29 years ago when my father was taken from our family without reason or warning. When military forces came to our village, they were looking for me, because even though I was very young, I was known to be active in speaking out against injustice. My father knew they were seeking me and so he told me to move to the capital city. When they came and did not find me, they took my father away. We still do not know what exactly happened to him, but we know he was tortured and believe his body was thrown into a mass grave near our community that we are pressing to have excavated.
For some time afterwards, I was weighed down by a burden of guilt, feeling that I was responsible for my father’s death, since the military was looking for me. I was ill with grief and despair, and wanted nothing but to die, but death did not come. I had help from people, like Samuel Lobato [member of the Niwano Peace Prize International Selection Committee], who helped me to understand what was happening and to restore my will to live.
Still more, I regained my convictions and anger about the injustice that was being done and the need to energize ourselves, as women, to go and look for those who had disappeared. We identified the cemeteries where bodies were secretly buried and demanded exhumation. We called the government to account for what had happened to those who had been taken away. We also fought against illegal, forced military service for young men, especially from indigenous communities, and against violations of human rights by the military and paramilitary.
We started as a small group of widows, and that became CONAVIGUA, which has many members today. We began during the war, focused on finding truth and knowledge. But now, well after the Peace Accords were signed, there is still much to do and so the struggle continues.
What about your family?
The war and conflict had terrible effects on families and often divided them. In my own case, I have one brother who is very Catholic and very conservative. We were raised as Catholics as a family. At first, he was not in agreement with what I was doing, including that I was so committed to a Mayan spiritual practice. But I learned that spirituality from my father and mother. In my life, from the beginning, I had a deep belief in Mayan traditions. It is for me very natural, and I can now look at the same traditions both from theory and ideas and from my own life. It is about harmony and respect. My brother has come to accept my view, and there is no opposition in my family.
And I am also overjoyed that in the ceremony in San Juan Comalapa when I return from Tokyo, there will be an ecumenical service where there is a true reconciliation among the very different views. The Mayan and the Catholic views can and must live together, and this is very natural. There is a harmony that is important.
How did you come to focus so sharply on women?
It was women who led these efforts in the Mayan communities. But the women themselves were wounded, their health undermined by the wrongs and violence, which included many rapes. No one knows the exact numbers but we believe that over 5,000 women were raped, often on many occasions. The women, however, channeled their energies to helping others, focusing on their husbands, fathers, and sons. So their own suffering was not healed. They tended to blame themselves because they could not run, or simply because they were there, or whatever. Many women have not spoken about what happened to them 20 or 25 years ago, and so their suffering is as if it had happened yesterday. Psycho-social healing, person by person, is what they need. It is a long and painful process because it means you must revive and relive the past. But it is what is needed.
The main lesson is that after death comes life. That is the spirit we must instill.
Are women emerging as leaders in Guatemala?
Women play special roles in Guatemala. There are now five women who have won important international prizes. Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and Helen Chang the Alternative Nobel, the Right Livelihoods Award, also in 1992. Norma Luz was recognized as a Woman of Courage recently by the U.S. State Department, for her work for human rights and against trafficking. And Otilla Luz, has also been recognized, including the Spanish Bartolome de las Casas award. What these awards recognize is that it is women who have risked the most. And spirituality is important for us all, though in different ways.
Do you meet and work together? Do you share a common vision or spiritual heritage?
We do work together, although we are very different. Each of us works from our own individual spaces.
How far do you see women’s rights as part of Mayan cultural tradition?
Women have always had an important part in Mayan traditions and practices, and there is a special place for widows. It is often women who keep traditions alive and who pass them on to young people and children. Men and women are equal as spiritual leaders in Mayan tradition. However, the Mayan culture, when it met colonization and other religions, was contaminated by the machismo of other religious and societies. Laws and traditions both were polluted by inequality. Politicians contributed to this contamination, and so women have had to defend themselves in new ways.
But the core of Mayan traditional values is about respect and balance, and that goes for relationships between men and women. Participation is another important traditional value of Mayan society.
In general, men do tend to be more violent and women are more peaceful. Women have special roles as promoters of peace. Women can be an example for communities and for individuals. Life would be different if these distortions had not come to be.
I see great potential for transformation and leadership in women. I see a capacity to have ideas, and a commitment to non-violence.
You have said that: “to be a Mayan in a situation of conflict means being an active peacemaker in its deepest dimension. It is bringing your entire personal effort to help restore harmony and balance in nature.” How does Mayan spirituality inspire your life and work?
I believe in life, and I believe in the future.
That is where one meets spirituality. It is where you think of your life, yourself, and then the lives of others. What Mayan spirituality does is it strengthens one’s own energies, so that other energies can function. Those other energies are in people, but they also come from water, the moon, mountains, and forests.
Mayan spirituality has allowed the Mayan people to deal with the violence they have encountered, to come closer, to find ways to protect all communities. This culture and belief is important for daily life and for health. It is part of oral education and the stories that are told. It is part of spiritual growth, an understanding always of how we are connected to Mother Earth. In the Mayan cosmo-vision, we do not have the notion of Heaven and Hell, of a specific divine being. That does not exist. What matters is what is around us, what we can see and feel.
And in the Mayan tradition faith without work is not possible. Indeed the opposite is true: work is an integral and living part of faith and that is true in life as well as in rituals and celebrations. Women, even more than men, have come to understand that they need to be involved in the life of the community because the land is in crisis. Mother Earth is suffering and we need to do something about it.
An important part of the Mayan world and reality are the Spiritual Guides, living people who transmit the wisdom of our ancestors. Both men and women can be spiritual guides, and they do not have specific roles that are different. We can see their roles and wisdom of the Guides in the most practical matters: family relations, our own health. Many women have health problems in our communities. Some are directly linked to the violence that they have experienced. All this suffering needs spirituality as a way to heal. The energies that come with sensitivity to what is around us are part of the process. Healing can come only with a spiritual energy and force. Women bring knowledge of natural medicine and the paths to psychosocial health. They bring special gifts.
Women also live through art: music, weaving, stories. Weaving, for example, is profoundly spiritual and is a way of expressing spiritual insights. It is movement, color, and design. Women are connected to these works of art and to the many threads that tie the earth around us to our ancestors and to ourselves and to our realities.
What about rights for Mayans and respect for Mayan spirituality?
It is absolutely necessary that Guatemalan society, in all its parts, understands that indigenous peoples have their own practices. Fifteen years after the peace agreements in Guatemala, for the first time we are starting to see a recognition that the indigenous people have been excluded. Their practices and values must be respected. Progress towards that basic respect is an important step. It came, however, at the cost of 250,000 lives and great pain. Now we have to defend and broaden this respect.
New generations in Guatemala need to learn to live together. This can only happen if there is true respect for the Mayan traditions and heritage.
And in this understanding, in building these new relationships, it is important that there be an appreciation that women have suffered the most, and were the most oppressed. If women do not get involved, actively, in making changes in the community, the society, no one else will. We need to change it for us all.
Life has three important phases, and they go with three kinds of energy: conception, birth, and life. If one understands this, alliances can be made that link people to each other, but also to their ancestors and traditions.
There are differences in the way different traditions see the world. To me the way we connect with nature may be the most important. Just look at these stones, here, in front of us. To a westerner, these are just stones, and they are unimportant, disposable. But these stones have been here far longer than we have. They are part of Mother Earth, respect. Each stone has a distinct form, and it is beautiful. It is part of life and the earth. That is a difference.
What does this prize mean to you?
When I heard about winning the prize, I went back, far back, in time. I remembered all the battles we had fought and still more the reasons we fought them. It brought to mind the stimulus for all the work women have done in Guatemala. And it also highlights how important the international support we receive is and especially the support for the contributions of women because there are still so many difficulties. It affirms that it is possible to imagine a peaceful world.
The spiritual character of the award is very important. I am very respectful of different beliefs and practices. My childhood and youth were spent as a Catholic. Mayans belong to a culture that sees time in different phases, one that is attuned to the many transformations in life. Our spiritual practices make it possible for us to survive, and, in the recent past, even to outlast genocide. Our Mayan spirituality does not conflict with others. But what we are asking for is to respect all spiritualities and especially the Mayan heritage and beliefs.
Mayan spirituality is not a religion. It is really a permanent set of practices that are transmitted generation to generation. We can find in the woods, the rivers, the seas, and the mountains a spiritual energy. We can take our spirituality from this energy. We are also energy ourselves and that is important.
What motivates you? What inspires you to act? How does your faith guide your action?
In every way! In the same way that Catholicism talks of love, in exactly the same way Mayan spirituality is a force for love and community. It gives courage, commitment to others, and the reason to act and to interact. It is very full of love and the idea of the common good. Another life force is a deep respect for Mother Nature that is conveyed in many ways through our spirituality. We do not only love and take energy from other people—family and community—but also by nature and what is happening around us. We are children of Mother Nature, above and below. That is what we see in our spirituality. It is not just the invisible but also the visible, which is just as important.
In other religions, there is more emphasis on looking up or down, but for Mayans that is different because we look at the here and now. Each religion has its own philosophy. We have our own, even though there are some Mayans who may prefer other spiritualities. That is the nature of human beings because our nature is curious and always seeking the spiritual. We must go on working to find what is right.
What will greet you when you return home to Guatemala?
There will be days of celebration, starting with an important Mayan ritual honoring our ancestors and traditions. Then there will be festivities in my town, Comalapa. Finally there will be an official event with the government in Guatemala City, including the diplomatic corps.
I am very pleased that on May 20 in my village, as part of the celebration of this Niwano prize, there will be an ecumenical ceremony, where five beliefs come together to pray for peace. They will share their joy and ask for peace in Guatemala and in the world. The ceremony will bring all the energies together.
Religion should not be an obstacle. For various reasons, some say that only their religion is correct, and they feel the need to spread their own belief. But there are different religions and in the end what they seek and look for is peace. When we understand that our end as humans and believers in different religions is the same, we will not see religion as an obstacle. We were all created, and we all have a mission to fulfill on earth. We should be able to share a common joy.
During the ceremony for the Niwano Peace Prize and during the press conference, the relationship between Mayan spirituality and Christianity were highlighted, to some wonder. Yet parallels were seen, between Buddhist and Mayan philosophy, and in the Japanese acceptance of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and practice side by side.
I agree that there is no conflict among religions, but what is needed is respect. As President Niwano emphasized, both Buddhism and Mayan philosophy have no place for anger and hatred. That is the foundation of non-violence. Peace comes with living in harmony and balance, and the understanding that the self is unique and independent but also part of a much greater whole. As Gandhi once said, the tree has a single trunk but many branches and leaves, and we share many common human values, many of which cannot be transmitted in language.
How do you see the transition to a new era that is coming in December 2012, in the Mayan calendar?
What is happening now is a change in era. There are some who are predicting a decline or the end of the world, but that is just bad communication. In truth we are experiencing life. There is an alignment of the stars that shows that around December 21, there are strong activities. We need to say goodbye to an era.
It is like a woman giving birth. There is suffering and pain, but that is what is involved in giving new life. The earth is suffering and laboring, like a woman giving birth. Suffering and work are both to bring new life.
You are part now of this remarkable group of women of Guatemala, recognized internationally for your work for peace. What are your hopes for the next years?
I want to keep working with my companions and friends for a true peace. Women must be part of that struggle, and so must the spirituality that is part of the indigenous Mayan culture. I know myself how deep despair can be and how hard it is to overcome so we are putting special emphasis today on healing the deep wounds that people, and especially women have suffered. The five women who have received international recognition (now including myself and the Niwano Prize) hope to play a special leadership role that will truly demand and work for truth and justice for Guatemalan society.