After working with the caravans of Central American migrants in Mexico, I felt the next logical step was to journey south in search of answers to questions not all that different from those being asked by one another in my home country, the United States. “What is driving these people from their homes, and what is being done to improve living conditions in Central America?” I now find myself in the highlands of Guatemala, an area known as the “Altos,” and home of the indigenous Maya, a people whom account for a great portion of the mass exodus.
I have embedded with three NGO’s, Feed the Children, ASSADE, and Primeros Pasos, and with their help, I have been given rare and intimate access to the lives of a people long ago driven by colonialists to the mountain tops of a nation once their own. I arrived with what I believed was a fairly thorough knowledge of the dark history of Guatemala, including a civil war that ensued for 35 years, one greatly funded by my own country, and former president, Ronald Regan, and one that led to the mass genocide of 200,000 Maya, an official count, but many believe the numbers may reach into the millions.
I had come to learn as much as an outsider could, of an infinitely dynamic situation, and to document what and who I found here in the Altos. But now, I feel confronted by what I have seen, I feel haunted by my photographs, haunted by faces, and images of inescapable realities, now forever etched upon my mind, on film and in pixels. When I first arrive to a home, the intensity is mutual, the embarrassment of strangers studying one another out of the corner of the eye, subtly becoming acquainted. The kindness and openness is virtuous, as they allow me into their home, a home most would consider nothing more than a barn for livestock, yet livestock they cannot sustain without. But with pride they endure, and find joy and the will to live with dignity upon dirt floors.
Although the Maya of the Guatemalan highlands speak twenty-one indigenous languages, we are left only with the language of the eyes, when suddenly I notice a pair glistening from the doorway of a darkened room. But, I cannot yet see the dreams hidden deeply behind those dark pupils. And as the earthen feet of the young girl swiftly scurry from the darkness and out of the shack, nor do I sense the dreams that flee with her into the fog and corn stalk.
After a few portraits, we bid farewell, and as I step out of the dark shack and into the glowing mist my shadow casts lightly on the dirt path upon which I came. I am drawn to these places, where the world is still real, where on can still walk there. Where you can feel the past, and the connection between things, and the course of events that led everything to this point. Where you can look back and see the path upon which you came, a path not so easily paved over by denial nor disillusionment.
I turn back and see golden teeth glistening through the fog, and with their image, I walk away, back toward a world they will never know, a world that only exists within their dreams. And, as I set forth to set their image free, I feel the sharpness of the other edge of the sword, as the reality of whom these people are, I know will be tarnished through the filter of modernity, through false judgment, and pity. Yes, the poverty is pitiful, but we forget to pity modernity. Pity for a lack of community, of innocence, culture, of an ancient connection. And, pity for a lack of understanding of the earth and stars, of the dirt and the divine?
As I walk along the dusty path, the young girl who had fled, suddenly emerges from the stalk with a small boy clinched by the hand. I glance at her with a gentle smile, and she drags the boy’s stumbling feet to the border of her family’s land, a border I continue far beyond. I consider beyond her shyness she doesn’t want my eyes to leave, that she truly does want to be seen and that her fear is of never being seen again.
In a community as close as her’s, as predicable, to walk away, never to return, for seeing eyes to never see again, to the innocent mind of someone who possibly feels unseen by the world, is a feeling akin to death. As I reach a bend, I turn back, and there she stands, and through the fog I can see the vanishing silhouette of her waving arm, and a dream as clear as day.
All images and text © Cory Zimmerman
By Cory Zimmerman