Date: Wed, 1 Jul 98 12:39:41 CDT
/** headlines: 166.0 **/
Edited/Distributed by HURINet - The Human Rights Information Network
Where are the compeneras? Guerilla broadcaster Juana Mendey Rojas
By Esty Dinur, Guatemala, Women's International Net, issue 10A, June 1998
She was one of the voices thousands of Guatemalans heard during the late 1980's on the clandestine radio station run by guerrillas -- the only non-governmental source of news. Mayan Juana Mendez Rojas reported on the government massacring entire villages and the "scorched-earth" policy its army employed devastating all land, crops and buildings.
"It was our job to provide an alternative voice for the people, and to those outside of Guatemala," says Rojas. "We informed people of how the [civil] war was progressing, and we denounced the terrible human rights abuses that were going on. The radio station also prepared people for the struggle."
It was dangerous work. Transmitting from the Tajamulco volcano in southwestern Guatemala, Rojas and the other Voz Popular (Popular Voice) broadcasters were forced to move from place to place on the volcano so as to avoid capture. The military did everything in its power to destroy the station and its operators. It sent planes and troops, encircled the whole volcano -- losing more than 2000 soldiers -- shelled it, and tried to interfere with the station's signal. But Voz Popular was invincible.
Some 18 months after peace accords were signed between the rebels and the Guatemalan government, Rojas is still fighting to change society. Her battle is now on behalf of indigenous people, especially women.
Sixty percent of Guatemala's population is Maya, the ancient Indian people who populate much of Central America and who have been the target of repression, in this and other countries, for millennia. Mayan women in particular are discriminated against and marginalized, even by former revolutionaries.
At 41, Rojas is a small woman with shiny black hair without a trace of gray, and a serious, dark face with prominent cheek bones. The day we meet, she is clad in the traditional Santa Eulalia region white embroidered huipil (shirt) and long woven corte (skirt) of gray and purple hues. Reflecting the spirit of the times, the materials were bought in the store, not hand-woven.
Born into crushing poverty in a Mayan village in the municipality of Cabrican, Quetzaltenango, Rojas was one of 13 girls -- of whom nine survived -- and one boy. Although better off than most families, the Rojas sisters were not treated as equals with their brother. A stinging blow came when he was named the principal heir, the one to receive the bulk of the inheritance. Although her father agreed it was unfair, he told his daughters that was the way things are done.
Because of discrimination and terrible poverty, many Mayan girls are not sent to school and are forced into marriages as teenagers. Rojas' parents wanted all their children to receive education, but could not afford to send them all at the same time. Rojas was already nine when she started primary school and was then expected to drop out and marry a few years later. But as she would do so dramatically later, Rojas rebelled against societal dictates.
At age 17 she went to Guatemala City, the capitol, to continue studying and to work as a maid. There she "felt the hard blows that racism showered on me," she said. She was forced to stop wearing her traditional clothes, to cut her hair, and to speak Spanish instead of her indigenous language, Mam.
"The treatment I received was very bad. I was told that the only thing I was good for was being a maid, not to study," she said.
Yet she continued her schooling and obtained a degree equivalent to middle school. At that time she came across a communiqué from one of the guerrilla groups, the EGP (People's Guerrilla Army), published in a newspaper. It addressed the situation of young Mayan women working as servants in the capitol.
"It opened my eyes and helped me gain a clear view of what I was going through," says Rojas.
While looking for guerrilla contacts, Rojas ran into a former primary school teacher who was involved in the armed struggle. At the same time she interviewed for a job in a hospital, dressed in her traditional clothes. She was told that she could start working there the next week, only if she wore other clothes. Hers, they said, carried germs.
"I decided right then to join the armed movement," she says.
Her former teacher invited her to a restaurant and handed over a thick envelope. "I became very emotional as I always do when I receive mail, and started to open it under the table. But my teacher told me not to do it, that it was too dangerous to do it in public," she recalls.
When she later opened it, Rojas found clandestine political-military pamphlets.
"I was so excited when I read it, I knew I found my path. I couldn't sleep that night, I couldn't eat," she said.
She joined the ORPA, the Organization of People in Arms, which, together with the EGP and two other groups, made up the URNG, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. Rojas went to the mountains to train as a guerrilla.
In the armed movement, Rojas found some attitudes harkened back to the general society. Men were given the harder assignments; women, who constituted less that a third of the fighters, the easier ones.
"I never agreed with that," says Rojas. "I always felt that we, as women, had the same capacity to do the work that men were doing. When I first got up to the mountains, the men offered to do everything for me: to cut the wood, carry it, and put the tent up, as though I was completely incompetent. But I'd been raised in the countryside and had learned from my father how to do all these tasks."
Many guerrillas also considered Mayans inferior and incapable of achieving much educationally. But when establishing a new pirate radio station, the rebels wanted the broadcasters to be from different ethnicities so as to reach as much of the population as possible. They needed a Mayan, and although Rojas had no radio experience, she was tapped for the position. She was determined to succeed.
"I always viewed my work there as a commitment to my people," she said.
"Voz Popular" started transmitting in May 1987, and continued until the signing of the peace accords. Today Rojas continues her broadcasting work as head of communications at APDENA, the Association for the Promotion, Protection and Development of Mother Earth, a Mayan organization. She produces radio programs on the peace accords, Mayan issues and the environment, which are broadcast through a closed-circuit transmitter; currently the only viable means. Plans to create a Mayan radio station are prohibitively expensive.
Also working at the grassroots level, Rojas urges Mayan women to participate in the political process and become a strong force within the popular social movement. Sexual assault is a relatively new, but very serious problem. APDENA workers encourage battered women to speak up and denounce their abusers, and also try to get men to change sexist attitudes.
The work, Rojas says, is starting to pay off, albeit slowly. "Some men are starting to have different views on what women's roles should be, but the change won't happen overnight because this is the way both men and women have been raised and educated for centuries," she says. "One goal is to alter this education, and the mentality it cultivates so that together men and women can work for a different sort of society."
Such a society would be more traditionally Mayan, since before the Spanish invasion of the Americas men and women had equal roles, Rojas argues. The invaders' influence resulted in the discrimination of women, she asserted.
To change the ways things are today, mothers have the responsibility to treat their sons and daughters as equals, she preaches. As the wife of a fighter she met on the volcano, and the mother of a three-year-old son, Rojas tries to set her own example.
"I tell [my husband] he has to be an example for our son, that he should also wash dishes and clean around the house," she says. "At times when I'm alone with my son I already see the results -- he offers to help me do the housework. When I see that it becomes all the more important for me to educate and form him in the right way."
Do not, Rojas says, "confuse" her work with feminist struggles in other countries. "As Mayan women, we're not struggling against Mayan men; we're fighting against the system that exploits us both, men and women," she said.
However, sounding very much the feminist, she adds: "In my activism I look around me, and often I'm the only woman who's involved in the work. With the authority that I claim through all the work that I've done I always ask 'where are the compañeras [female companions]? Why are there only men here?' I know that we have a long way to go still, but we learned in the armed struggle that change takes time and victory does not occur overnight. We have to continue the work and one day things will be different."
Esty Dinur is a print and radio journalist based in Wisconsin, the United States.