by Jennifer De Leon
We left before dawn. We met in front of the school with our backpacks full of the very thing we could not stop talking about for most of the two-hour bus ride to San Marcos: food. We were two dozen foreign students, two Guatemalan guides, and one bus driver. The guy with the ponytail showed off a heavy bag of pumpkin granola. His buddy brought a loaf of bread and four hot dogs wrapped in tinfoil. One German girl said that after much debate, she eventually stuffed a Nutella jar in her backpack last minute.
We arrived at the foot of Volcán Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Central America (4,220-meter peak). The Mayans often held ceremonies up there because, they believed, it was closer to God. My lungs were tight, my throat dry. Rows of pine trees and clay-colored hills spread in the distance. The sky was the color of water. Guatemalans believed that if you approached the journey with fear, if you hiked with panic about getting sick or lost, you would get sick or you might get lost. The volcano would punish you for your doubt. However, if you went in with faith, then you would be fine. The others began chugging water. Two blonde girls from Denmark helped each other adjust their packs, while another traveler applied sunscreen onto her nose and ears. I tightened my shoelaces. The hike would take about five hours, which at that altitude translated to about twenty-five hours. The driver explained, again, that the risk of sickness was great and that because of the altitude, the hike itself, and then camping overnight in the frigid temperatures, we might want to reconsider going at all. “This is the last chance to come back with me to Xela. No one will judge you,” he said. He wore dark jeans and a leather jacket over a button-down shirt. A gold cross dangled from his neck.
The guides waved their arms, calling everyone in to form a circle.
The van driver, looking at me, asked again, “Are you sure you want to hike the volcano?”
Students were busy adjusting lenses on their fancy cameras, tightening ponytails, and tucking Gore-Tex T-shirts into Gore-Tex pants.
“You can still come back to Xela,” the driver repeated. “No hay problema.”
My feet sank down into the earth tender and brown as my skin. I shut my eyes tight and inhaled the sweet mountain air. No hay problema.
Our two guides could not have been more different. Amaro looked to weigh 110 pounds. He wore green cargo pants, a wool sweater, hiking boots, and a khaki fishing hat. He hated America. He hated Americans. Later, I would learn that he really just hated the fact that the United States government had funded the war in Guatemala for so many years, taking with it so many innocent lives. He was not on the side of the pro-capitalist army. Instead, Amaro lived as a guerrilla in the mountains, alongside his father, who had been kidnapped and tortured before escaping the army barracks one day. Now, Amaro and his father worked for Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco (PLQ). His father gave lectures and personal testimonies from time to time. Amaro explained to the group, now huddled in a circle, that we must try and stay together as much as possible. “Never hike alone,” he said. He would walk ahead and guide us, while Fito, the other guide, would hike at the tail end, making sure no one was left behind. We would stop three times for water and food breaks, but other than that, we would not stop until we reached the campground by sunset. “Understood?”
“Yes, sir!” I wanted to say, but he didn’t look like the joking kind. He turned around and started hiking even before Fito was done translating for him. Fito wore Timberland boots, enormous wide-legged jeans, a white turtleneck, and a huge navy blue raincoat that fell to his knees. The tents he had strapped to his backpack were hanging at odd angles, and his cheeks were red, even though we hadn’t yet started the climb. A plastic supermarket bag tied in a knot suspended from his pack. In it, I could see a few individual sized packages of Tortrix chips, one orange Fanta, and a Snickers candy bar.
So we hiked. I alternated between taking many small steps and fewer, wider ones. Neither method reduced the huffing and puffing. I squinted. I wheezed. Soon I spotted specks of red and blue bobbing packs up ahead. The Germans. I pushed harder. I vowed to never smoke again, not even when I was drunk, not even on New Year’s Eve. The muscles in my legs pulsed, burned. My back ached with the pressure of the pack.
The views from Volcán Tajumulco made me feel like I was standing inside a glass of water. Wind wrapped around me like gauze as I climbed. My chest visibly heaved. By this point we had been hiking for close to three hours. I mostly stayed by myself. Talking and hiking were like oil and water: they didn’t mix. Branches crackled in spaces I could hear but could not see. Birds cawed in their secret bird language. The crunching sound of my marching feet was hypnotic, soothing. It grew louder as I hiked, and that’s when I realized that someone else was marching behind me. Fito. Oh shit, I thought. I really was the last one in the group.
“What’s your name?” he asked in English.
“Jennifer,” I said, pausing to catch my breath from having spoken the one word.
“Jenny from the Block!” He laughed, coughed, cleared his throat, and sped up to walk in stride with me.
“Yeah. Jennifer Lopez.”
“You like her?”
“Me? Oh, I guess so. Not really.”
“How about Mariah Carey?”
“Yeah, I like her.”
“Where you from?”
“Well, my parents are actually from here. I live in Boston though.”
“Yeah.” I was sure that my lungs were about to collapse at any moment. How the hell did the guerrilla soldiers run up and down hidden trails and distribute weapons and report from clandestine radios all while surviving on the goodwill of campesinos at the foot of the mountain to bring them tortillas and beans every few days? How did Fito? Supposedly he had lived on Tajumulco in a guerrilla camp when he was a teenager. I stared at the yellow ring around his white turtleneck. He spit out his gum. A neon green ball flung from his mouth and landed not far on the path.
“Is gum biodegradable?” I asked, like an idiot.
He winced, adjusting the straps of his backpack on his shoulders. “What?”
We didn’t say much after that. Every effort to speak pulled on my lungs.
Twenty minutes later we came upon the rest of the group. They were all spread out underneath the canopy of trees, feeding each other fruit and resting. Together they looked like a Victorian painting, only they weren’t naked. They were dressed in Patagonia fleeces. A couple of the guys had traded their hiking boots for Teva sandals, their bare feet as white as lightbulbs.
I offered Amaro a boiled egg, which he accepted with a low gracias and returned to his position away from everyone else. I wondered what he was thinking as he stared out at the vast scenery below, the dips and folds of the mountains and trees and clouds like something out of a fairy tale. What did he make of these foreigners, myself included, most of whom flew down to Guatemala for a week, a month, maybe even a year, to leave and never come back? Without us, students wanting to learn Spanish in a sociopolitical school that included field trips in their weekly tuition, Amaro wouldn’t have a job.
We continued up the mountain. I wasn’t so sure if the sun had dipped behind a series of clouds or if it was getting later, probably a combination of both, but the blue sky had left for good. Once we finally reached the campsite, Amaro and Fito immediately began to set up a fire. It seemed everyone else was pulling out wool-knit hats and thick socks and moving behind a tree to change into long underwear. No one had told me to bring any of that. I swallowed the last drops of my water bottle.
Amaro called us over. I sat on a log across from him. A girl shared her jar of Nutella with her friends but no one else. I could see Fito eyeing it. At first, Amaro spoke generally about the world-wide battle between democracy and communism. He began by mentioning the CIA-sponsored coup in 1954, which overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president at the time, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.
“Up until then, all the presidents had supported the interests of the United Fruit Company,” he said. Fito translated, adding, “They’re the ones who produced all the bananas and stuff like that.” “There were a few failed attempts to restore democracy. But the United States government feared the widespread communism. Guatemala’s rich agreed.”
“Why?” one girl innocently asked.
“Why?” Amaro repeated. He didn’t sound angry, so much as genuinely perplexed. Had this girl been so sheltered her whole life not to understand that most rich people liked to remain rich, no matter what? “People in the city, wealthy people, they don’t see where their tortillas come from,” he said. “They don’t understand what it is to live without shoes, to not know how to read, to bury baby corpses because of hunger and illness. It was Guatemala’s poor that suffered the most.”
The girl blinked slowly. “I know that. I meant, why did the attempts for a democratic reelection fail after the coup? Wasn’t there a strong coalition of Árbenz supporters?”
“Assassinations,” Amaro said. “That’s why. Anyone considered a threat, that is, a leader or anyone who had any influence in town, including politicians and priests, or really anyone who appeared a leftist, was kidnapped, tortured, and often killed. Sometimes vans full of armed military or police kidnapped men and women in broad daylight. They forcefully interrogated them until they got the answers they were looking for, and if they didn’t get them, then, well … ” Amaro looked down at his feet. His laces were undone and the tongues of his boots stuck out.
Fito was having difficulty keeping up with the translating. After a while, Amaro asked us to raise our hands if we could understand most of what he was saying in Spanish. Did we still need it all translated, or could he just keep going?
He kept going. “So, by 1970, Carlos Arana rose to head of state. He was also known as the ‘Butcher of Zacapa’ for all the massacres that took place while he directed the counterinsurgency campaign in the late 1960s. He once said, ‘If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.’”
One guy with a brown ponytail stood up, crossed his arms, and began to pace.
“Thousands were kidnapped and murdered under the administration of Lucas García. By the time Ríos Montt came around,” Amaro said, shaking his head, “we were fucked.”
“Really fucked,” Fito said. He tossed a branch into the fire, and it seemed to smother the flame rather than catch light.
I had heard of Ríos Montt. He oversaw Scorched Earth. He was basically a Latino Hitler responsible for the genocide of tens of thousands of innocent campesinos in the Guatemalan countryside. I thought of one of my Spanish teachers at PLQ in Xela, Maria Tulia. She had been kidnapped. She had been blind-folded and thrust into a helicopter and told she would only survive if she gave up names.
“Entonces the four guerrilla groups—EGP, ORPA, FAR, and PGT—formed the URNG.” Amaro lifted his sweater and revealed a T-shirt with the letters URNG.
He also told us about the underground radio station that the URNG had established. They used it to communicate with each other but also to reach the people. The army could never find the radio source because it constantly moved. Amaro smiled big when he talked about the radio. “They never found us.”
A few students asked questions regarding the refugees who had fled to Chiapas and Tabasco. I wanted to ask about the women. What did a woman do when she got her period? What happened if she got pregnant?
By now, night had fallen. The cold left our mouths in smoky puffs. Fito passed around a jar of honey and instructed us to eat spoonfuls of it in order to stay warm overnight.
“My father was kidnapped and tortured,” Amaro said. The orange flames cast a glow on his face, his skin dark like bark, his high cheekbones and intense eyes. “My father could be anyone’s father. He could be your father, sí?”
“I guess … ” The same girl from before looked close to tears. “I couldn’t just sit there while my country suffered. I couldn’t live in a country where there was no democracy. Not unless I was doing something to change it.”
That night I was cold to the point of actually crying. I had forgotten to pack one of those sleeping bag pads that prevent the earth from absorbing all your body heat, or whatever. I kept thinking about Amaro’s stories, especially the one about his father being kidnapped. Maybe it was my insomnia or something about being on the very volcano that so many guerrilla soldiers occupied during the war, but my imagination was on overdrive. I imagined how the Guatemalan Army raided Amaro’s family’s village. Soldiers slaughter the elderly first, next the women, and finally the children. The men, they torture. The strong ones are kidnapped, and the weak ones are shot in the backs of their heads. In my nightmare, Amaro stares at his father, whose pupils are so dilated that Amaro can see the reflection of the volcanoes in them. Then a soldier pours gasoline and lights a match to his father. Flames devour his father’s arms, legs, and torso while he slithers in the dirt, and the soldiers laugh standing around him in a circle. Amaro screams. Patches of his father’s skin have melted off in clumps, and his hair emits a horrible stench. When he leans closer, it’s not his father’s face he sees on his father’s body. It’s his own. Amaro wakes to his wife tugging his arm. “¡Despiértate!” she says. “Wake up. You’re having another nightmare.”
I was scaring myself with another person’s imagined nightmare. What was wrong with me? And why had I forgotten to bring a sleeping bag pad? I didn’t know it would be so cold here. Then I heard something. A shuffling of some sort. An animal? Oh dear God, no. Next, I heard a voice. Fito. He was coughing and laughing. I crawled out of the tent and wrapped my sleeping bag around me like an oversized shawl. Fito and Amaro were smiling and smoking as they stood around the fire. I practically wept now from joy. Heat. Light. Two Guatemalan guys who could be my cousins.
“Hey, it’s Jenny from the Block,” Fito said. He passed me the jar of honey with a white plastic spoon sticking out of it.
“Thanks,” I said.
We talked around the fire until the first streak of pink appeared in the sky. I learned that Fito had recently been deported back to Guatemala. He had been living in Corpus Christi, Texas, where as a high school senior he won “Most Likely to Win an Oscar” for his performance in the student musical Grease. Fito played Danny, the starring role. That is what he missed most about America, he said: anyone who works hard and has talent can make it. But because Fito was deported days before his high school graduation, he never got to receive his diploma from the principal. He asked if I could help him get a copy of his high school diploma. “I know it’s just a piece of paper,” he said. “But it’s important to me.”
“I can try,” I said.
Mostly Fito and I talked. Amaro squatted every now and then to feed the fire. At one point, when I bent down to tighten my laces, Amaro looked at me as if for the first time. After a brief awkward silence, we both stood up. It was then that he spoke about his family, and I spoke about my family, and Fito about his family. Finally I was able to ask Amaro my questions about women guerrillas. “If they got pregnant,” he said, “they worked until they couldn’t work anymore, and then someone escorted them to a midwife, usually a supporter in a nearby community.” It made sense.
Then he twisted his face and in a low voice said, “Leaves.”
“To answer your other question.” He stared at the tall flames. “Many women used leaves.”
The essay “Volcán Tajumulco” is excerpted from Jennifer De Leon’s White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing, published March 2021 by the University of Massachusetts Press. Copyright ©2021 University of Massachusetts Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Published on March 17, 2021