Life Lessons from Genocide Survivors: The Story of the Tum Pérez Family

When I first travelled to Rabinal, Guatemala 10 years ago, I was so deeply inspired by the history of the community — and in particular its young people — that I’ve returned each of the past 10 summers since. This year, I once again had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of young leaders. Although all of Voces y Manos’ students live in the municipality of Rabinal and most speak the local Maya-Achí language, they live in different villages, and each of these villages has its own unique history. To explore these rich histories, we do an activity called Photovoice in which our students use digital cameras to identify and document the strengths they are most proud of in their communities.

I love this activity because it helps our students further develop a positive image of themselves and their Maya-Achí culture. On a more personal note, I’m always impressed by the depth of our students’ knowledge about their culture and inspired by the wisdom we learn from the families we meet.

This year, Voces y Manos’ summer intern Lindsey Moore and I had the remarkable opportunity to join Lizbeth Tum Pérez, an outgoing 15-year old in this year’s program, on a tour of her community of Pacux (prounounced Pah-Coosh). The highlight of the tour was when Lizbeth introduced us to her mother, Doña Anselma, an expert weaver whose life reflects her community’s resiliency in the face of an unimaginably violent past. As Doña Anselma showed us her artwork, she began to share her life story as well. Partway through our conversation, we were joined by her husband, Romualdo Tum Iboy, and through their intersecting stories, we learned how their humble town became the backdrop for a disturbing chapter in Guatemalan history.

Doña Anselma Perez


Doña Anselma sits barefooted, with her legs extended on the floor. A small backstrap loom is wrapped around her waist as she speaks with us. She shows us a beautiful variety of weavings: brightly colored coin purposes, traditional fajas (belts worn by women) and bracelets. Doña Anselma explains that she learned to weave from her mother, and that her artwork was both a means of subsistence and of keeping alive a tradition passed down over generations.

Doña Anselma was born in a remote hamlet high in the mountains above Rabinal called Canchún, in the year 1981. This was an infamous period in Guatemalan history, and her village was near the epicenter of a human rights conflict of seismic proportions. Cachún is one of 30+ indigenous communities near the banks of the Chixoy River whose residents’ culture and way of life was deeply tied to the river. In the late 1970s, their lives were completely upended when the Guatemalan government announced plans to build a massive hypdroelectric dam that would flood and displace the communities along the river. Despite the fact that the dam project had been years in the making and involved hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign (largely U.S.) investment, the affected communities were never consulted nor given a chance to voice their concerns. When some residents refused to obey orders to relocate from their ancestral lands, the entire community was labeled subversive, terrorist, and an enemy of the state. To make way for the dam and to supress those who opposed it, the government and paramiltary forces mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of innocent people in Canchún and its neighboring villages.

Doña Anselma’s father was one of the victims of this campaign of mass terror and violence. Early one morning while her mother and siblings were out of the house, the military assassinated her father in front of their home. Doña Anselma explains that the reason she is alive today is that her mother, then nine months pregnant, was able to escape from the military by hiding in a dried river bed. It was there in hiding that she gave birth to Doña Anselma. I ask if anyone accompanied her mother at the time of her birth. “¡Nadie!” Doña Anselma replies, “Ninguna comadrona; solo mi hermano de nueve años estuvo allí.” (“Nobody! No midwife, only my brother, who was 9 years old was there.”)

“¡Nadie! Ninguna comadrona; solo mi hermano de nueve años estuvo allí.” (“Nobody! No midwife, only my brother, who was 9 years old was there.”)

Doña Anselma sheds tears as she recounts the difficulties of growing up without a father and in the wake of such mass trauma. She attended school for just one year before her mother took her and her four siblings to work on a sugarcane plantation on Guatemala’s southern coast. Conditions on the plantation were brutal. She and her mother were assigned to work as cooks, which meant waking each morning hours before dawn to make tortillas for the farmworkers’ 5:00 a.m. breakfast. Doña Anselma worked on the plantation from the time she was nine until she was thirteen years-old, when her family could no longer endure the harsh conditions and returned to Rabinal.

Upon her return, Doña Anselma did not reenter school — she had already missed too many years of schooling and her family depended on her for income. At age 15, she married Romualdo Tum Iboy, and at 16 she gave birth to her oldest daugther, Jandy Eunice, who is now 20 and studying to become an accountant.

Romualdo Tum Iboy


Rain is pounding down on the aluminum roof overhead by the time Don Romueldo, Lizbeth’s father, begins to tell his story. His wife, Doña Anselma, and his mother look on, filling in pieces of the story as he tells it.

Don Romualdo was born in the village of Rio Negro in 1974. Rio Negro, just a few miles away from Canchún where Doña Anselma was born, sits immediately adjacent to the Chixoy river and is the community that was most gravely affected by the government’s repression of the Maya-Achí people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like his wife, he lost his father at a young age. On the morning of June 19, 1981, Don Romualdo’s father was assassinated when he was alone in his home. His father’s body was found later in the brush, “con guzanos comiendo sus piernas,” (with worms eating his legs,”) Don Romualdo recounts.

Years later, after the Guatemalan Truth Commission garnered funds for exhumations of the individuals killed in the massacres, Don Romualdo’s family attempted to identify his father’s remains. “We did a blood test,” Don Romualdo explains, “but we could not identify him.” This meant that his family was not able to provide their loved one a proper burial, and with it, gain a semblance of closure. Don Romualdo’s father was one of at least 440 individuals who lost their lives in the Rio Negro Massacres between 1979 and 1982. The survivors, including Don Romualdo, were forcibly relocated to Pacux, where most remain to this day.

Unlike his wife, who was too young to remember the violence of the massacres from first hand experience, Don Romualdo was old enough — seven or eight at the time — to vividly recollect three impossibly difficult years of his early childhood that he spent in hiding. He and his siblings survived eating whatever food they could find. “Tuvimos que comer cuero,” (“we had to eat the dried cow hides,”) Don Romualdo recalls. Don Romualdo explains that they ate this sustenance raw, because building a fire risked being spotted by the military.

Tuvimos que comer cuero,” (“we had to eat the dried cow hides,”)

Life after the war, once his family could finally come out out of hiding, brought new struggles. Unlike the abundant fish, wildlife, and fertile soil in Rio Negro, the so-called “model village” of Pacux consisted of densely packed houses and scant agricultural land. Families went from living in terror to living in extreme poverty. Don Romualdo recalls the sadness he felt as a child watching his mother struggle to provide for her family, and his embarrassment at lacking even basic clothing. With a forced chuckle that thinly masks his childhood shame, Don Romualdo tells a “funny story” about needing to wear women’s pants because that was all his mother could afford. “Ni siquiera tuve zapatos—” (“I didn’t even have shoes — ”) he says, and the attempted moment of levity turns to grief as his voice breaks off and he buries his head in his hands. I look over at Doña Anselma, whose eyes too are red with tears.

Lizbeth Tum Pérez

In light of her parents’ histories and their fierce commitment to their children’s education, it is no surprise that Lizbeth is not your average teenager. At 15, she is equally comfortable talking with adults or her peers. In class she is outgoing and thoughtful; her hand shoots quickly into the air in response to teachers’ question. She is quick to smile, and completely bilingual. I hear her speak both Spanish and Maya-Achí with her classmates, sometimes switching seamlessly between both languages. One also cannot help but notice she is quite thin.

When she was two years old, her parents became concerned about her poor health and low weight, so they brought Lisbeth to a large public hospital in Guatemala City. The doctors there diagnosed Lisbeth with a heart problem and promptly performed a successful surgery. They instructed Lizbeth’s parents that she was to refrain from heavy exercise, and to return for check-ups every year. But because they could not afford even annual trips to the capital, Lizbeth has not been able to go to a check-up at all in the past three years.

Lizbeth completed her first six years of school at the local primary school in Pacux, but by middle school, she and her family felt they needed to make a change. Her parents explained that school supplies were expensive; and, perhaps because of her physical limitations, her classmates made fun of her. At age 12, she started school at Fundación Nueva Esperanza, where costs were lower, and where Mayan students were allowed to wear their traditional guipil (traditional hand-woven blouse) and corte (traditional Mayan skirt). Lizbeth likes Nueva Esperanza because “nos enseñan de nuestra cultura,” (“they teach us about our culture,”) she says.

Earlier in week, Lizbeth and her classmates wrote “I am poems” in which they describe themselves, their family, and their culture. I ask Lizbeth if she would share a portion of her poem to include in this story. Characteristically, she launches right in:

 “Yo soy una jovencita orgullosa de su cultura; nombrada por sus padres. Tengo un sueño de ser una maestra; de seguir mis estudios; hasta donde pueda…

(“I am a young woman who is proud of her culture; who was named by her parents. I have a dream of being a teacher one day; of continuing my studies, as far as they will take me…)

Con el apoyo de nuestros padres, todos tenemos la capacidad de seguir adelante en nuestras vidas. Aunque nuestros padres no tengas los medios, hacen lo que pueden, y debemos de ser agradecidos.

(“With the help of our parents, we all have the ability to get ahead in our lives. Even though our parents may not have the means, they do what they are able, and we should be grateful to them.)

“Burlan de nuestra traje, pero debemos de ser orgullosas de quienes somos. Podemos aprender de nuestros padres lo que ellos han aprendido de sus padres. Debemos de ser orgullosas de nuestra cultura Rabinalense.”  

(“They laugh at our indigenous clothing, but we should be proud of who we are. We can learn from our parents the things they have learned from their parents. We must be proud of our Rabinal culture.”)

Lizbeth smiles off-handedly, without the slightest trace of embarrassment at having just revealed so much about her life and her identity. Though they say nothing, the twinkle in her parents’ eyes belies how proud they are of their daughter.

By now, the pounding rain has subsided, and we begin to wrap up our conversation. Before Lindsey and I leave, both Doña Anselma and Don Romualdo conclude their heart-wrenching stories by saying that they find hope in her children. Although she was unable to experience a joyful childhood or attend school herself, Doña Anselma says she is gratified that each day her children have food to eat and the opportunity to go to school. Don Romualdo, too, is very proud to be able to send each of his children to school. They may not have been able to do it themselves, he says, but they can at least make sure that their children have a more promising future than they did.

Bringing it home

Having worked with young leaders like Lizbeth over the years, I agree with her parents that young people like Lizbeth are indeed an enormous source of hope. Lizbeth will likely go on to become a teacher, inspiring and educating hundreds of children in her community, who will in turn touch the lives of countless more. Yet without access to basic health and education, Lizbeth’s life would have been radically different. Without a scholarship, Lizbeth easily could have been forced to subsist on meager earnings from work in seasonal labor or the informal sector. Had she not had access to medical care when she was a baby, she may not be alive today. The line separating a life of purpose and meaning from one of abject poverty — even death — is precariously narrow. Sometimes, the difference is a matter of luck; but more often it is a matter of political will, conscious decision, and how far we are willing to extend what john powell calls the circle of human concern.

Voces y Manos is so committed to providing scholarships to young people in Rabinal because we know that the small amounts of assistance can make an enormous difference in shaping a young person’s life. Every person has immeasurable value, and education fuels a series of virtuous cycles that can lift entire families out of poverty. Yet the harsh reality is that for every young person like Lizbeth who is is able to reap the benefits of education, there are many more young people in Guatemala and throughout the world who are denied the opportunity to realize their full potential. This means it’s not enough to help young people beat the odds; we need to change the odds. That’s the reason why Voces y Manos trains young people in advocacy and leadership so that they can participate in the democratic process. By doing so, they will be better equipped to create policies and practices that improve conditions in their communities that for too long have been oppressed and abandoned.

Those of us living in the United States have an important role to play as well. For years, the U.S. has allocated less than 1% of its federal budget to international aid, among the lowest of high-income countries. Yet now, the Trump Administration has proposed a 31% cut to to an international aid budget that was already woefully inadequate. This makes it urgent for our elected officials to hear from us. Partner’s in Health, a renowned international health NGO, has started a petition to urge elected officials to reject any budget that would include cuts to international assistance. In light of the U.S. role in enabling the violence that killed both of Lizbeth’s grandfathers, international assistance is not a matter of generosity, but rather of obligation. By signing the petition, sharing it, and calling our elected representatives to encourage them to safeguard international assistance in our federal budget, we can join with thousands of others in encouraging our government not to turn their backs on the world’s poor.

In recent times, as social change has felt increasingly daunting, I’ve tried to remind myself that for people like Doña Anselma and Don Romueldo, hard times are nothing new. As Lizbeth’s poem so poignantly conveys, we have much to learn from their strength, wisdom, and lived example. Despite surviving some of the most challenging and dehumanizing conditions a person can experience, Lizbeth’s parents never stopped struggling for a better future. Their story is an invitation to us all to remember that the human capacity for resiliency is vast, and that the future is not predetermined, but unfolding with each action we take.




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