When you visit Paulina Yus Lopes in Santa Cruz del K'iché in the highlands of Guatemala, you enter a house that seems exactly as she describes it. "Esta es nuestra casa comunitaria," a community, multi-purpose house with an open center, four rooms, a kitchen, and a stairway leading to the terrace. There's a huge fountain next to the front gate, unused so as not to waste any water. A table stands in the middle, right outside the rooms and kitchen. "Aquí es donde nos sentamos a platicar," where discussions and ideas are shared. But, mostly it's the place where actions begin and are organized, projects are hatched out and responsibilities are doled out and accepted. Paulina has accomplished so many projects in her three years in K'iché; many are ongoing and their completions rely on external funds, since Paulina and compañeras choose to remain an autonomous entity, foregoing the restraints that accompany government-supported funding. Her mission is to collaborate with the K'iché communities that dominate the 48 surrounding municipalities, to work in collective structures that address the wounds and scars of the people affected, even today after 26 years since the official end of the 36-year civil war that raged the country. But there are specific areas of the country where people were brutally tortured and murdered in exceedingly large numbers, and K'iché and rural communities nearby were especially targeted. Paulina's journey in search of self and self-fulfillment brought her "back to her roots," to the ancestral home of her K'iché great-grandparents. She left her family in the capitol city of Guatemala at the age of 15; her parents and grandparents moved to the city from the Kaqchikel community and thus, she learned both Spanish (el castillano) and Kaqchikel. Her mother was a healer of animals, and taught her about medicinal herbs. She realized at a very young age that healing, using alternate means from the western traditions, was her calling. But Paulina had another motive for choosing the path as healer of others; she had an inner struggle of painful proportions that she could only heal herself.
The Journey Toward Self-fulfillment
Paulina was the 16th and last child of a mother, a healer of animals who passed away at the age of 85, and her father, a former military soldier, who at 92 suffers from dementia. When she left home at age 15, she and her entire family was shunned by the community since she was the youngest daughter and was expected to take care of her aging parents. And, besides that girls are expected to stay home until they marry. But, Paulina suffered because of her abusive alcoholic father and she chose to leave home even though she knew the risks involved and had no specific place to go. She sought and acquired very low paying employment until she became a member of a group of women who shared similar backgrounds, views and aspirations. Not yet twenty and Paulina knew her life's calling, that she wanted to help others heal their wounds through a holistic approach using alternative medicines, namely herbs, and therapy. She was also involved in activism, advocating for people who are powerless socially, economically, and politically. Helping women heal their wounds became a natural, almost instinctual mission that she adopted as part of her membership in the women's organization.
Paulina made another life-changing decision when she learned that her great grandparents were K'iché spiritual leaders. That was the link that completed her circle of inquiry into who she was and where she was going. She moved to Santa Cruz del K'iché, where she lives today, is learning to speak K'iché, working as healer, activist, and organizer.
To understand Paulina's work in the feminist movement, it's important to understand the history and context of a colonized country, against the background of a hammered oppression of the people, especially the indigenous groups, by dictators and brutal military corps. No doubt, the civil war from 1960 to 1996, when the official peace accord was signed, left a huge mark of destruction in people and property. Lives were destroyed or disintegrated; around 200,000 people lost their lives. Whole villages were pulverized as part of the military's "scorched earth" operations. But the worst catastrophe was the horrendous treatment of women and children, and the crimes of the most evil proportions that were perpetrated upon them.
The exact number and nature of crimes committed against women and children were unreported for quite some time. Communities that suffered major casualties and crimes were so ashamed and offended that their silence became the cloak of fear and resentment. The rape, torture, and murder of women were strategic war crimes that intentionally targeted the most vulnerable of the community and were set to destroy lives, human dignity, and break the spirit of the entire social tapestry.
The report, "The Silence of Memory" by the Commission for Historical Clarification (http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/toc.html) clearly meant to reveal what had been hidden from the public, underscores the atrocities committed against women. One-fourth of the victims were women; they were raped, tortured, killed - all acts of human rights violations and violence. They were targeted because of their political or social associations, and sometimes they were massacred indiscriminately along with the men and children. There were hundreds of cases where civilians were forced by the army to commit these crimes against women. Even soldiers from the same town as the women participated in these crimes. Surely, the perpetrators were counting on impunity, knowing well the shame that would be brought upon the victims if they dared report them.
But in an ironic twist, women have bravely come forward to denounce their or others' attackers. Women have played a major role in defense of the victims, advocating for justice and organizing actions to locate those that were "disappeared," to help the relatives find closure to their pain and begin the healing process.
As part of the women advocate’s network, Paulina plays an important role in communities that still struggle to heal their wounds of pain and sorrow. Faced with the lack of adequate resources and funds, Paulina uses the culture, knowledge, and religion to perform outreach and organize collective forms of activities. In one community, she organized a group of both men and women to address an overwhelming anger and resentment wrought from years of uncontrolled rage. Dialogue seemed impossible, so Paulina organized a tree planting activity whereby each family planted their tree and was responsible for its nurturance. Now the families had something more fruitful to talk about and at least begin to put aside their differences.
Kaqla: Mayan Women's Group
But one of Paulina's most intense and long-term works has been the women's project. The common bond of the "grupo de mujeres mayas kaqla" is liberation. Yet, the women couldn't be more different, as reflected in the word "kaqla" meaning "rainbow" that alludes to the diversity represented in the group. The main theme is "transcendence" and through conscience-raising exercises, the women focus on healing themselves and each other. Paulina uses her knowledge and gift to empower the women; to help them use the natural essence of themselves and the natural and organic elements in their environment. Much like the Mayan religion, she uses the spiritual aspects of their lives as Mayas to draw energy from all that is sacred and positive.
Perhaps, the group's finest achievement is the completion of their book, containing their stories, wisdom, frustrations, and so much more that captures who they are as women of the universe. The book titled, La palabra y el sentir de las mujeres mayas de kaqla, is a testament of the work of women, mayas, survivors, empowered, and strengthen, not overcome or consumed by grief and fear.
The book is far from a descriptive discourse. The photographs of the women reveal emotions in the raw; their sexuality is expressed in photos of themselves nude from the waist up, in individual and group poses. If the theme is liberation, then the book should communicate this in a direct and sincere manner. Indeed, this is the message that Paulina wanted to convey.
Three other books have been produced, Alas y raíces: afectividad de las mujeres mayas, Mujeres mayas: universo y vida, and Tramas y trascendencias. Each one focuses on women and education, using the Mayan culture as a basis or framework.
La Escuelita/the Little School: Despierta la Conciencia
Recognizing the need to build community cohesiveness and to help families strengthen their role in maintaining the values and language of the Mayan culture, Paulina coordinates "la escuelita: despierta la conciencia" every year for a two-week period. Sixty children participate in an educational program focused on reaffirming the cultural values and spirituality, as well as provide them with a space for self- expression through art and literature. Even though the children attend primary school, their education is not inclusive of their culture and language. This programs aims to fulfill a void and enrich their lives as well as their parents.
Paulina, the Spiritual Healer
As a spiritual leader, Paulina leads a ceremony as ancient as the sacred place where it is commonly held. She starts a fire, each element carefully placed in position with universe. The sugar is spread in a carocol shape, a symbol of continuity. Then, a piece of chocolate is carefully placed to recognize it as a sacred drink created by the Mayan ancestors. The yellow candles are laid in a circular position, intersperse with kindling wood to enhance the fire, and sweet smelling rose petals are placed to accent the offering. Paulina begins the circle by setting a theme: giving thanks to everyone, saying their names and asking for blessings for each; invoking the sacred places such as the names of the mountains, volcanoes and archeological temples for they house thespirits of the ancestors; invoking the 20 nahuatls from the Mayan calendar, thanking each one for their abundance and asking for their blessing. Each member of the circle takes their turn as the fire burns to ashes. The fire is a great symbol of strength, but it also serves as a channel for the spirits to communicate. A rogue wind may create a definite swirl in the fire, thus, the spirits have responded. Nature is the order of the universe, and each one of us possesses our own universe. Paulina's universe encompasses the beauty, strength, and wisdom of her ancestors. In her journey for self-healing she has touched the hearts and minds of many and her gift is life.
A dictate from las mujeres de Ixil:
Decidimos sobre nuestros cuerpos;
Disfrutamos de nuestra sexualidad;
Desmontamos el sistema patriarcal.
We make our own decisions about our bodies;
We embrace our sexuality;
We unleash the injustices in the patriarchal system.