Friday, November 23, 2007

Day of the Dead in Comalapa

San Juan Comalapa. Chimaltenango, Guatemala.
November 2, 2004 (Day of the Dead).
Issue: Post-war / Reparations / Gender Struggles

“On November 18, 1981, the Guatemalan Army launched a massive offensive in the Quiché and Chimaltenango regions which marked the beginning of the large-scale massacres in Chimaltenango.” (1)

“Between 1980 and 1983, in the Municipality of Comalapa, a considerable number of men were detained and/or disappeared... Many were arrested inside their own homes, while others would leave home never to be seen again by their family members... The military garrison in Comalapa, located at the entrance of the municipality, became a detention center where torture and disappearances were carried out.” (2)

“As the years lapsed by, courageous women conquered their fears from the past and turned such emotions into strength. They were determined to find out what had truly happened to their loved one: fathers, husbands, and brothers, despite being fully aware that a most likely re-encounter would be via a mass grave.” (3)

As 2003 came to a close, the National Coordination of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA) organized the first of what eventually turned into 49 mass grave exhumations in Comalapa’s former military garrison. Such exhumations, carried out by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropological Foundation (FAFG), revealed the remains of 179 war-time victims. (4) Most of these corpses revealed signs of torture and grave violence. (5)

“Gilberto Reyes, Gregorio Cutzal, Javier Tuyuc, Isabel Bal Cux, are just some of the 179 names inscribed in the stone monument erected in Comalapa’s community cemetery.” (6)

After more than a year of arduous and risky labor, the exhumations at the military garrison came to a close in October 2004. In order to commemorate the event as well as the victims, CONAVIGUA organized a walk from Comalapa’s town square to the former barracks. Such march was made to coincide with the traditional celebration of Day of the Dead (All Saints Day) which is observed every November 2nd in a number of countries including Guatemala.

Upon arrival to the clearing where the military garrison once stood, the victims’ family members carried out a Mayan ceremony.

“In cases like Comalapa’s, the strength and firm conviction displayed by the local women is and has been a key element so as to maintain family cohesion and progress, in addition to setting the foundations for the construction of an improved municipality.” (7)

Roalina Tuyuc (center), who sought to recover the remains of her father, Javier Tuyuc, and her first husband, Rolando Gomez, indicated that “if someday, those to blame assume their responsibility, the wives, siblings, and orphans left behind may decide to forgive.” Tuyuc is the current director of the National Program for Reparations (PNR), served in the National Congress from 1996-2000, headed CONAVIGUA for many years, and is a native of Comalapa. (8)

In September 2006, some surviving victims from Comalapa received a war-time reparation package from the PNR. “Such symbolic reparation will undoubtedly alleviate, in some ways, the financial difficulties which many victims’ families face. Nevertheless, it will never erase the memories etched during those times, as many survivors continue to live with the uncertainty of knowing what truly happened to their loved ones and where their remains may lay.” (9)

Tuyuc added: “We seek tranquility inside our heads because there can’t be true peace until we find our loved ones.” (10)

Versión en español aquí.
In Japanese: 日本語で

1 Guatemala, Memoria del Silencio. Informe de la Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH). Tomo VI, Anexo I: Casos Ilustrativos, P. 74.
2 Rodríguez Martínez, Dania M. “Mujeres de Comalapa, sujetas históricas activas”. Incidencia Democrática. September, 2006. (
3 Ibid.
4 Munaíz, Claudia. “Veladoras para Desaparecidos”. Prensa Libre. Guatemala; November 3, 2004. (
5 Op. Cit. Rodríguez Martínez.
6 Op. Cit. Munaíz.
7 Op. Cit. Rodríguez Martínez.
8 Op. Cit. Munaíz.
9 Op. Cit. Rodríguez Martínez.


Anonymous said...

Thanks again James! This photo-essay was particularly timely as myself and the group of nursing students I travelled to Guatemala with in May are in the midst of designing our community presentation outlining themes from our trip and the work of Conavigua will be part of it. Your coverage of some of their important work will help guide and focus our efforts. I hope you are keeping well... Trista

Sarah Underhill Photographer said...

Wonderful photographs.