Top 5 Books to Read Before Going to Foundry Guatemala

Guest post by Foundry instructor Victor J. Blue

I am psyched to be heading back to Guatemala and to meeting all of the students and faculty at this years Foundry Workshop there. It’s going to be great. Guatemala is an incredible country that I have been trying to understand for about 12 years now. It is possessed of a resilient, dynamic people and a difficult, tragic history. The war years, the massacres and the repression of the indigenous majority, and the years of fighting for justice and the reclamation of historical memory are the defining events of Guatemala’s modern history. There isn’t much that happens there now that isn’t colored by them. It can be hard to wrap your mind around all of it, but it’s important to try. Here are a few of my favorite resources for getting into Guatemala:

1. The Long Night of the White Chickens by Francisco Goldman

Long Night of White ChickensGoldman is one of our best American authors. Half Guatemalan, he explores his divided heritage and the fear and suspicion and intrigue of the war years in this novel. When people ask me what Guatemala is like, I give them this novel to read. As a boy, the main character Roger, falls for his Guatemalan nanny then as a young man travels to Guatemala to uncover the story of her death. The constant menace of the state and the intimacy with death that is so common to the Guatemalan experience make this the best psychological portrait of the country that I have read. And it’s fun to try and find the spots along the Sexta Avenida from the book. Extra points to whoever gets a drink in the expat/ CIA bar that’s still in Zone 10.


2. Guatemala – Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny by Jean Marie Simon

EternalSpringEternalTyrannyThis is the only book of documentary photography that comprehensively chronicles the civil war years in Guatemala. It’s one of the greatest works of photo reportage ever done. Closely resembling Vietnam Inc. by Simon’s mentor Phillip Jones Griffith, it mixes strong photography, excellent reportage, and unreal access to show all the sides of a fight that cost the lives of over 250,000 people. Simon was a young photographer who dedicated herself to covering the war in Guate- one of the only foreign photographers to do so. It very deftly lays out the major events and themes from the most violent and dangerous years of the war in the early 1980’s. She was unbelievably brave. There are three printings of this, I have all three. The original English version is out of print but you can find it on Amazon. The book was reissued in a brilliant new edition in Spanish a couple of years ago, and you can get it at Sophos bookstore in Guatemala City. If you are a photographer you really ought to own this book.


3. I, Rigoberta Menchu by Rigoberta Menchu

IRigobertaMenchuThe personal testimony of Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu. If you don’t have any previous experience or familiarity with the reality of life for indigenous Guatemalans, this is an important book to read. Menchu grew up in a persecuted political family and fled into exile in the 80’s and told her story to Elizabeth Burgos in Paris. There is no small amount of controversy around the woman in Guatemala, and if you feel like diving into, could be worth checking out David Stoll’s book Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, or better yet Greg Grandin’s Who is Rigoberta Menchu? No matter who you believe, the fact is that she is a symbol for millions of indigenous folks and her story is in many ways emblematic of the struggles of Mayan folks in Guatemala for, lets face it, centuries.


4. Memory of Silence- The Guatemalan Truth Commission Report edited by Daniel Rothenberg

MemoryofSilenceThis is a new edition of one of the two vital human rights reports issued after the signing of the peace accords in 1996. It isn’t easy reading, but then the history isn’t easy either. It’s accessible and this new edition isn’t hard to get through. Read it, get sad, and figure out what you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.



5. The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman

ArtPoliticalMurderGoldman returns with this nonfiction account of one of the greatest political crimes in modern Guatemala- the murder of Archbishop Juan Gerardi days after he issued the Catholic Church’s comprehensive report on massacres committed by the Guatemalan Army during the war. He goes deep inside a story that seems impossible to get to the bottom of, and keeps going deeper. This book is vital if you want to understand the impunity and disrespect for the rule of law that has created the ultra violence in the streets that Guatemala suffers from today. This story is an onion that Goldman peels back like a chef.


Bonus reading:

If you can get through one or more of these, you will have a head start on understanding the human rights context in Guatemala. If you have tons of time and read fast, then these are also worth checking out:

Bitter Fruit by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer – in case you weren’t aware the the CIA overthrew the popular, democratically elected govt. of Guatemala and all most of this crap in motion, this is a great history for you.

La Verdad Bajo La Tierra by Miquel Dewever – Plana A photo essay on the exhumation of mass graves from the war.

The Return of the Maya by Thomas Hoepker  – Photo book on the end of the war and the return of the refugees by Magnum heavy.

Our Culture is Our Resistance by Jonathan Moller – Moller was a human rights worker and shot incredible pictures of internally displace people in the later years of the war

Silence on the Mountain by Daniel Wilkinson -A kind of personal take on the end of the war and reconciliation and trying to unwind what happened.

La Patria del Criollo: An Interpretation of Colonial Guatemala by Severo Martínez Peláez – if you are really ambitious, the definitive account of Guatemala’s colonial history and the roots of it’s underdevelopment. (I am still wrestling with this one.)



Bonus films:

When the Mountains Tremble– Pamela Yates- this one from ’83 about Menchu and the war

Granito- How to nail a Dictator – Yates again, with an overview of the search for truth and justice in the aftermath of the genocide

Men with Guns– John Sayles- a fictional account of Central America in the war years. While not explicitly taking place in Guatemala, it’s pretty much Guatemala

Foundry students and faculty gathered in Istanbul, 2010. Photo © Neal Jackson
Foundry students and faculty gathered in Istanbul, 2010.
Photo © Neal Jackson

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