“Don’t Boo, vote.” Or, Why Your Name Will Never be on a Cross in a Guatemalan Church.
“Don’t Boo, vote.”
I’m going to keep going with the President’s statement: Don’t talk about how all politicians are thieves, vote. Don’t talk about how you can’t change anything, vote. Don’t talk about how irrelevant, or pointless, or beneath you this all is, vote. Don’t just bitch, VOTE! Even if you think it doesn’t really matter, even if only for the fact that not exercising your right to vote is simply un-democratic.
I know a lot of people who are engaged, who look forward to exercising their right to vote. And I know some people who just don’t seem to feel that it’s something they should waste their time with, which kind of gets me twitchy and here’s why. I went to Guatemala without my family when I was 18, my first solo adventure (well, second if you count the time I went off with my boyfriend in Mexico to Cozumel but that’s a different kind of story). I’d been several times before on family holidays, I was fascinated by the country and completely in love with the warmth and kindness of the people. So this was my graduation gift from my dad, a month in the highlands of Guatemala to learn Spanish in an immersion school. I came back with a lot more than Spanish.
Since I was a girl I’d been involved in the social justice movement for the war torn countries of Central America, I had a pretty firm understanding of the history, of my country’s role in places like Guatemala, and of the fight the people refused to give up for equality, democracy, and their land. About a week into my trip I was having lunch with some of my fellow students when one of our teachers told us the State Department had issued a travel warning for US citizens, advising them not to go to Guatemala because of the political violence. We were given the option of leaving, we all just shrugged and said we were staying. That month was being referred to as Black August because so many bodies were being found by the side of the road, victims of the death squads. I’d been well aware of the violence though so I didn’t feel anything much had changed for me.
One clear day I took a trip with some other students, it was an afternoon that solidified a great many things for me. We rode a bus to the town of Panajachel where we boarded a boat that took us across Lake Atitlan, a breathtaking lake in the highlands surrounded by three volcanoes. Our destination was Santiago Atitlan, I was looking forward to a fun day out, to seeing some countryside and experiencing a bit of cultural immersion. We strolled through the town, absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells–the vibrant colors of traditional clothing, Spanish mixing with Mayan dialects, the smells of cooking fires and incense. We eventually made our way to the church in the central square and quietly stepped inside. I wandered the church, enjoying its silence and sense of reverence. As I looked around I came upon a wall that was covered in three paper crosses, two smaller and one large. I stepped closer and saw that each cross was made of individual squares of paper and on each square of paper was written a name. I found our guide and asked him about the crosses, he told me that each cross represented a massacre and each name was a person murdered. He told me the names were those of young boys and girls, the elderly, mothers, fathers, all victims of the army. I remember my eyes filling with tears as I looked back to the crosses. This was a tiny village and there were hundreds of names on the wall, I stood staring at the crosses and quietly wept. This was a country where I’d frequently seen graffiti that stated “not for us but for our children.” People were shot because they were innocent bystanders, or because they demanded the army leave them in peace, or because they marched and spoke up and had the audacity to demand democracy and equality. And here was the price for all that, right in front of me, hundreds of names forming crosses in a small village church.
So, yea, when I hear my fellow Americans talk about how they’re so disappointed in a candidate because he or she didn’t pay enough attention to their pet issue, or because politician X didn’t do “enough,” or because they’re just so disillusioned with all of it and how they’ll just sit it out, I get twitchy. Because I think about that church and the squares of paper taped to the wall and how much YOUR VOTE would have meant to each one of those people. I think about what they sacrificed, what they were willing to do and give for democracy and freedom and equality. That day was like the solution to a puzzle for me. I felt all the blind idealism and “it’s between tweedle dee and tweedle dum so what’s the point” attitude drain out of me and I realized what democracy means and what happens when you don’t have it. So don’t take it for granted, vote, and when you feel yourself slipping into apathy be grateful for our flawed, dysfunctional, frustrating democracy. It’s ours to cherish and shape and that is a gift a lot of people are still fighting and dying for.