This July, the HIRC staff at Greater Boston Legal Services joined New Bedford-based Organizacion Maya K’iche and the Council for Ethnic Communities Runujel Junam (CERJ) to host series of events for the Mayan community of Massachusetts. Spread over 10 days, “500 Years of Genocide and Racism Against the Indigenous Mayan Community,” included a mix of cultural events, community meetings, and political conversations. Several of those in attendance traveled all the way from Guatemala to be part of the event. According to co-managing directors of HIRC at GBLS John Willshire Carrera and Nancy Kelly, the program served two purposes. “We wanted to do a celebration of the culture and a political discussion of what happening on the ground in Guatemala,” said Willshire Carerra.
The cultural events, said Kelly, “were really for the community to come together and teach their kids,” many of whom have grown up in the U.S. and never visited Guatemala. On Saturday July 12, a Mayan ah k’in, or priest, visiting from Guatemala led a Mayan spiritual ceremony that was held outdoors on the sacred lands of the Ogunquit Community near New Bedford. For many of the Mayan children, the ceremony was the first of its kind they had ever attended. Though the event was closed to the public, Kelly and Willshire Carrera were invited to attend as special guests.
The political discussions provided a forum for people who had fled the violence in Guatemala to tell their stories and an opportunity for advocates here in Boston to better understand the situation on the ground. On Thursday July 14, CERJ human rights activist, Amilcar Mendez, presented to a group at GBLS on the current conditions in Guatemala. Mendez, who has been documenting the human rights abuses against the Maya for decades, took questions about racism, the government, and the role of gangs in contemporary Guatemala. Kelly and Willshire Carrera hope the information shared over the course of the week will help build better asylum cases for Guatemalan clients in the future.
Over the course of the week, the clinical staff also helped collect many hours of testimony from members of the Mayan community. “For people who are here representing their cases, we want to find a way to memorialize their stories,” said Willshire Carrera. This testimony-taking is part an ongoing effort to record and compile an oral history of the Mayan people.