Witnessing Guatemala’s suffering is a transformative experience

Rabbi Susan Talve (at left) recently visited Guatemala as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service. Photos: Christine Han


The treatment of children on our southern border has many Americans asking why so many are being separated from their families, kept in detention and how 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, both from Guatemala, died in our custody on our watch.

I have been to the southern border, to shelters in Mexico, and recently to Guatemala to witness the human suffering, the injustice and the part American policy continues to play in the instability and migration in the global south. All of my visits have been with Jewish organizations and with other rabbis. I went with T’ruah, HIAS and most recently to Guatemala with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) as a Global Justice Fellow. 

I went because my tradition calls me to respond to suffering, and my history calls me to respond to the cries of the stranger.

The people of Guatemala and their children are no longer strangers. Witnessing the grassroots groups fighting systems of oppression for land, gender and economic justice transformed and deepened our relationships. Studying the history of the effects of colonialism, American business interests, the use of force by the CIA and corruption suffered by the indigenous people of Guatemala deepens our understanding of the roots of their poverty and the desperation that has led to the migration we see at our border.

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There are different ways of witnessing within the Jewish tradition. One is to be a lens, a camera, that sees and reports. This witnessing tells a story with as little spin as possible. The other way of witnessing is to be part of transformation. When one witnesses at a wedding, for example, you become part of the transformation of the couple from two separate people to becoming a family. In this case, witnessing makes change possible.

One of the many extraordinary heroes demonstrating moral courage that we witnessed traveled with us. He is on the staff of the AJWS on the ground in Guatemala and supports the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that depend on grants that help them fight for justice in the courts, lift people out of poverty with education, and support hundreds of indigenous midwives who take care of mothers and babies when the state will not provide health care for them. 

This young man was born into the 36-year armed conflict and saw his mother killed before his eyes. His family fled to Mexico, but he returned to work for justice for the indigenous people. He is bright and articulate and like so many others we met, is the future of a Guatemala free from the debilitating corruption, machismo and racism that currently rule.

As we arrived, thousands of those demanding a better future for Guatemala were protesting in the streets. The president, a popular comedian and TV personality who has turned out to be on the side of those responsible for the genocides, kicked out the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-supported international watchdog group that was having great success holding the corrupt and the criminals accountable. 

At the same time, two devastating bills were being introduced. One would free those who have been imprisoned for rape and murder during the genocides. The other would limit the financial support of the NGOs by outside human-rights groups. Both would be devastating. Both would add to the suffering of the people and, in turn, grow the migration to our borders.

A young Mayan woman named Anna traveled 27 hours to meet with us. Anna changed the culture of valuing educated women in her family in just one generation. She asked me what I thought of migration. I told her that America has been made great by people like her and that I would welcome her with all my heart. 

But I also know that the situation on our southern border, with thousands of children in detention facilities, family separations and arms deals being made with Mexico to trick migrants into seeking asylum there so they are ineligible to seek asylum in the United States, make it as dangerous to come to America as it is to stay in Guatemala. 

Shame on us. We can do better. 

At the very least, we can put pressure on our representatives to reinstate CICIG and hold the present government accountable if they want our foreign aid.

I’ve thought a lot about witnessing. It’s easier just to see and not be changed. To go back to what was. But this fails to honor all of those whose lives, whose suffering, whose stories of moral courage both personal and political we now hold. 

What I saw changed me, and I pray that the change in me and in others will somehow bring transformation and, God willing, healing to the broken heart of the world.

Rabbi Susan Talve serves Central Reform Congregation. She traveled to Guatemala with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Talve is a 2018-19 Global Justice Fellow with AJWS.