By: Laura Robinson (BTS Cooperant)

On February 13th, I accompanied the Rabinal Legal Clinic and The New Hope Foundation School to what had been used as a clandestine cemetery in Xococ, a town outside of Rabinal. It was the 38th anniversary of the Xococ massacre during which the Guatemalan army and civil patrollers killed 71 people from Río Negro; 54 men, 8 women and 9 children. 

We disembarked from two school buses in Xococ and began walking down the bank of a small river. Jesús Tecú Osorio, founder of the Rabinal Legal Clinic and New Hope Foundation, led the way. He untied his shoes and walked through the water easily.


The students and teachers from the school followed along easily doing the same. Some accepted piggy-backs and some found another path downstream where they could hop across wet rocks. After some time, everyone was on the same bank once again and we set off walking through fields of milpa, or corn. We knew we were approaching the site of the commemoration as the sound of marimba and smell of incense from the ceremony which had already begun, filled the air.

The ceremony was really a raucous event, involving food the students had brung, marimba, violin, and drums. It was closer to a party than I had expected with an abuelo at the center of it all performing the ceremony with incense, candles, flowers, and other necessities.

Towards the end of the ceremony, Jesús Tecú Osorio and teacher at the school, Fidel Oswaldo Lopez, spoke to the students to deepen their context of the day. Jesús explained that the massacre occurred when residents of Río Negro were forced to descend into Xococ to retrieve identity cards that had been withheld by civil self-defense patrollers. He shared that it was during this massacre, here, that his parents were murdered. Jesús explained that when the exhumations took place here it was discovered that while the individuals from Río Negro had been murdered for suspicion of being guerillas during the war, they were found with ropes around their hands and necks. This demonstrates the arbitrary execution they faced. When Fidel spoke, he highlighted the importance of learning and understanding their history by expanding upon the context of the violence within the country during the Internal Armed Conflict. He pointed out that while Guatemala is in a period of democracy now, it is a fragile period of democracy. 

We ended the afternoon by following the marimba back up over the hill, through the fields of corn, and back up over the barbed wire fence. The marimba players carried it along the river until they found an area that seemed shallow enough that they dared dance across the wet rocks with the large wooden instrument and then scramble up the bank. Everyone was loaded back into their pick-up or bus and set off. 

The following day at the New Hope Foundation school, students spilled out of their classrooms, carrying their chairs to gather around the school’s ceremony space. There, members from the legal clinic had been building an area for the ceremony, laying out wood, candles, and flowers. 

This ceremony was very different from yesterday, involving everyone’s participation. Everyone received candles to place in the fire when invited by the abuelo performing the ceremony. Each candle was to be placed for each nawal and between each opportunity, the names of the teachers at the school and the lawyers at the legal clinic were read along with repeating the grades taught at the school. The purpose of the ceremony was to ask that nothing bad happen to these people, to give thanks to their ancestors, and to remember those who had died in the massacre. 

Speaking with the students after the ceremony as they prepared to rest for the weekend, they had enjoyed the ceremony whether it had been one of their first experiences, or their hundredth. I believe that there is something very powerful about bringing 2 buses filled with youth to the site of a massacre, eager to hold ceremony and to discuss the true history of what had happened there.