We Have To Sacrifice The Women

(A Guatemalan Story)

Dina Bern

© Copyright 2004 by Dina Bern

                                                            Photo (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.

The guerrilla patrol that moved slowly through the sides of the mountain chain that surrounded several small villages consisted of 8 combatants. Two months earlier, these same eight combatants, together with twenty others that hadn’t come along this time, made the first contact with the inhabitants of a tiny village called Las Peñas. The guerrillas introduced themselves as members of the country's Liberation Movement, and explained the reasons why they had taken up arms and gone to the mountains. The first reason, they pointed out, was that they saw no other alternative. All doors had been closed to any kind of participation, to variation, to difference. The rulers had been ruling for too long and they planned to continue ruling for even longer. And they were ready to kill and destroy anything and anybody who stood on their way. Demands for just salaries were out of the question. This demand represented investment, it meant giving back a bit of what the power holders took, usually by unjust and illegal means. They would never share their power with the people. The people were there to be exploited, to facilitate the accumulation of massive fortunes. This, according to the guerrillas, gave them the right to fight to take the power away by force.

The guerrillas explained that they were not trying to recruit fighters. The town’s inhabitants didn’t have to fear that they would be forced to fight. It was the army who kidnapped men, usually the youngest, to train as soldiers and return to their villages to kill their own. The guerrillas wanted fighters, of course, but they wanted fighters that joined voluntarily, not by force. If in Las Peñas there were men or women who wanted to join them in their fight for justice, they were welcomed with open arms. But at the moment what the guerrillas wanted from them was a commitment to provide supplies, some beans and tortillas, maybe even some coffee, every now and then. In exchange they would teach the inhabitants to read, to write and to improve their agricultural techniques. They also promised extensive education as to why poor peasants must organize to change their situation.

The peasants’ response couldn’t have been more positive.

Yes, we’ll help you. We are poor and ignorant”, said Jacinto, the elder who acted as leader of the village, “but not dumb. We are aware that the unjust way in which we live has been forced on us for different reasons. We want to help you, and we are ready to accept your guidance and your teachings.”

The patrol which visited Las Peñas consisted always of eight members, each one specialized and in charge of executing a different task: teaching to read, gender specialists, agricultural specialists, hygiene specialists, etc. etc. The education of the women started with the second meeting.

In this village, as in many other villages visited earlier by the revolutionaries, the women demonstrated more aptitude than the men in learning and implementing their knew knowledge. And their teachers showed their appreciation by congratulating them often for their good results, which increased the pupils’ enthusiasm and served as incentive to continue their development. Also, as in many other villages visited earlier, the men started to demonstrate resentment towards their women as well as towards the guerrillas. They resented their women for changing, for improving themselves, for showing independence, for expressing themselves as to their likes and dislikes, for refusing to do what they considered unfair and insisting on doing what they considered fair. And they resented the guerrillas for causing the change and because the women used them as mediators and as their judges and protectors. “I’ll tell the ‘compañeros’ that you don’t take into account my viewpoint”, or “We’ll tell the ‘compañeros’ that you ignore our complaints” were sentences that the men of Las Peñas heard everyday. They were also sentences of which, slowly but surely, the men of Las Peñas became tired of.

One day the usual patrol of teachers arrived in the village, as previously agreed upon. However, only the old leader and a man of around 40, both chosen by the village’s men to be their negotiators, were at the meeting place. The old man started explaining the reasons the villagers were absent:

The men are angry. Our women are not the same since you arrived, they have taken seriously this issue of organizing and demanding their rights. They really believe that they are equal to us and want us to treat them different. The men can’t even drink chicha any more, the women complain that it makes us drunk and throw it away. They want us to work harder at home, to help with the children in exchange for their help in the fields. And they spend too much time trying to learn to read and write. The few than can read, read to the others from those papers and books that you left us the first time you came down from the mountains. It’s a real nightmare, we can’t control our women any more. If this state of things continues we are not going to help you any more with your task of ‘changing the country.’ What are you doing, really? We accepted to help you because we want a better life, enough money to eat, to dress, and to send our children to school. We want all those things, yes, but we don’t want you to change our women. We want them back the way they were!”

The guerrilla patrol’s commander tried to explain,

-“Compañero, the changes our country needs are all-encompassing. To be able to effect them it’s necessary to change also our attitudes, as a matter of fact, it is with our attitudes that we must start, and the best place to start is our own homes, with our own families…”

-“No, no, no! Don’t you understand what Jacinto said, compañero?” Interrupted the younger peasant, “If our women don’t go back to being what they were, we won’t continue helping you. We know that your work is important, we know that it will bring some benefit some day. Maybe when we begin to see the benefits we’ll allow you to change our women. Right now, no, because we are only seeing disadvantages. We, the men from Las Peñas, are loosing, and we don’t want to loose anymore. We want to be the bosses in our homes again. We don’t want to come tired from working in the fields to be told by our women that dinner is not ready because they had been learning to read and write or because one of them had been reading to the others from the books you left us. Imagine, compañero, things could not be worse. When we protest, they ask us to cook! It’s not a lie, it has happened to me and to my brother Honorio!”

-“The compañero speaks the truth”, added Jacinto, “Even my wife has been infected by this fever of self-improvement. She used to help me in the fields, but now she says that the purpose of her whole life has been to do what I want, and that now that she’s old she wants to do something she wants. At her age, she wants to learn to read and write! Isn’t the old witch crazy?!”

-“Compañeros, in all civilized countries with just governments and decent living standards, women have the same rights as men. The men respect their women and allow them freedoms. And the women do not become despots, their goal in life is not to control their men. On the contrary, satisfied women cooperate willingly with their men, and their relationships, at all levels, become harmonious. Men and women become a team, not enemies."

-“I’m sure you’re right, but, as you said, that happens in civilized countries. We are still not developed and getting at the stage you’re talking about will take us at least a few hundred years. I hope our descendants can enjoy what you’re talking about. For us, however, it sounds just like something out of one of those books you left us to learn from.”

-“You must make it happen! It is not going to happen if you continue with your negative attitude.”

The younger peasant looked at the older one and asked,

-“Do you want to tell them, Jacinto, or should I?”

-“I’ll do it. Compañeros, you are going to need our support more than ever. The army was here all day yesterday and asked us a lot of questions. They know that you have a camp near Las Peñas and they plan to go up the mountains to find you. We have never liked the army, and your teachings have strengthened our dislike and mistrust for them. You can trust us, compañeros, we would never inform the army that you visit us often, it would be like issuing our own death sentence. But, if you don’t stop inciting our women to change, we're not going to supply you with more beans, or tortillas, or coffee. We won’t even want you to visit us any more, unless you agree to stop teaching our women all that nonsense.”

-“O.K.”, said the group commander, “I cannot give you an answer now, I must consult with my superiors in the mountains. But, whatever my superiors decide, it's just fair that the women be informed as well, in particular if the decision involves stopping their education. We don’t want them to think that we have abandoned them by choice, you must take responsibility, you must face them together with us and explain to them what you have done and why. We’ll be back in two days with a reply. We’ll meet here, at this same place, at the same time, and we expect to see the women here too.”

Up in the mountains, Comandante David was not surprised to hear the news.

-“I knew it,” he told his comrades, “So far there has not been a village where the men have accepted that the women take a step forward. However, I was hopping for a miracle at Las Peñas, because it was the women who organized and protested last year, when the local landowners refused to pay the salaries of their employees claiming bad crops. I figured that their men allowed them a certain degree of freedom, because it’s difficult to carry out this kind of action without the support of one’s family. I guess I figured wrong.”

-“What are we going to do, comandante?” asked Virginia, one of the members of the patrol that was in charge of educating the people of Las Peñas, “The women are so happy to learn everything that we’re teaching them. They show progress beyond our expectations. I absolutely refuse to stop helping them only because their men happen to be selfish primitives!”

-“Compañera, please, you have to understand that there are reasons why these men act as they do. We have to understand too that what they gave us is an ultimatum. We need the support of the people of Las Peñas and that support is in the hands of the men.

-“Yes, comandante, I understand that there are reasons for the behavior of those men. Historical reasons, cultural reasons all kinds of reasons. There are also reasons why the army rules our country and why the rich exploit the poor. And if I understood it correctly, we are here because we don’t accept those reasons. Why then do we have to accept the reasons the men of Las Peñas give us to keep their women oppressed?”

-“Compañera Virginia, believe me, I understand your frustration. But the road to victory is long, and full of hardship and injustice. We have to evaluate our options. If we insist on educating the women, we loose the support of the men. And because ultimately they are still the ones in charge, we will loose the support of the whole village. On the other hand, if we do as the men want we will win the support of a strategic zone. We definitely need the support of Las Peñas now that the army is so close!

-“What are we going to do then, comandante?” Asked combatant Gerardo,

-“We have to sacrifice the women!”

-“What do you mean?”

-“We must accept what the men of Las Peñas want. We must stop educating their women.”

The meeting with the people of Las Peñas took place as scheduled. Some of the women broke down and cried when they heard that the guerrillas accepted the ultimatum of their men. Others left the meeting quietly or cursing at their men and at the guerrillas. Still a few, frustrated and angry, slapped their men’s faces. A group of young women, some of them accompanied by their mothers, conferred quietly. Then they walked towards one of the corners of the small square where the meeting was taking place, outside the circle of people that surrounded the visitors and the representatives of the men of the village, who negotiated their right to education and improvement. The women stood there the three hours that the meeting lasted, and, to the surprised of the villagers, when the guerrilla patrol formed in single file to march towards the mountains, the women joined, positioning themselves at the end of the line.

The husbands, the sons, the fathers and brothers of the women panicked. They pleaded and argued to persuade them to stop with their craziness. But the young women said that they didn’t want to stay and marry men that didn’t regard them as their equals. The older women declared that they had complied with their duty, that they had been good wives and mothers, that their children were already grown and didn’t need them any more. It was time for them to do something for themselves, they said, and going to the mountains to fight with the guerrillas was what they wanted to do.

The men asked the guerrillas to stop their women from going with them but they refused.

-“Everyone has the right to contribute to the revolution in any way they want and can”, had been combatant Virginia's answer.

One of the young new recruits stopped and yelled a question to the men:

-“Are you going to allow us to continue learning from the guerrillas?”

-“Nooo!” the men replied, in unison. The young woman turned and joined again the group that walked towards the mountains.

-Damn revolutionaries! Yelled old Jacinto. They are taking my wife, and my daughters, and my sisters, and they know damn well that we cannot retaliate. On the contrary, they know that our cooperation with them is now ensured, because there is no way we are going to sacrifice our women! Damn women!

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