TODOS SANTOS CUCHUMATÁN, GUATEMALA – There’s a new road to Todos Santos.
It used to be an uncomfortable daytrip from the departmental capital of Huehuetenango to this one-street town, tucked between mountains in northwestern Guatemala. The highway is mostly paved now, and those 17 miles of switchbacks climbing 10,000 feet only take an hour or two.
Those mountains protected Todos Santos and kept it nearly impermeable to the outside influences that caused other Mayan groups to lose their language and customs dating back to Spanish colonization. Separated by those 17 miles, Todos Santos was once a world away.
Today, Todos Santos is looking more like the rest of the world.
Delivery trucks cart in trays of Pepsi-Cola and Gallo beer for people to enjoy with their chicken, beans and tortillas. People stop into competing Tigo and Claro cell phone shops to buy more credits to text their friends. Teenagers walk around in their traditional red-and-white striped pants paired with shirts that have “Hollister” and “Guess” emblazoned across the chest.
But nothing new can come through town without first passing by Radio Xob'il Yol Qman Txun, Todos Santos’ community radio station.
The radio station is part of the change that’s taken place in the town. But the station is harnessing outside influences for a different purpose – to strengthen Todos Santos’ own culture.
The staff broadcasts programs in the Mayan language Mam instead of the Spanish that’s creeping into conversations. The station plays traditional marimba music, while teenagers dance to Enrique Iglesias and Michael Jackson at the high school down the street.
Radio Xob'il Yol Qman Txun has one of the few Internet connections in town to get news from the rest of the world daily, when the clouds don’t block the signal. Its Facebook page has more than 600 friends and is updated frequently. The semi-regular online streaming of its programs is accessible to the thousands of Todosanteros who live in the United States.
Change isn’t always bad, says Rosendo Pablo, who founded the station in 2000, four years after he returned from the United States, where he had fled during Guatemala’s civil war. Change can mean progress.
But there are consequences
Nearly half of Todosanteros have relatives who have immigrated to the United States, Rosendo estimates. The money they send back has replaced straw houses with block ones painted with small American flags in gratitude. It’s brought electricity and running water. It’s also brought English and a new way of life from those who come back. International aid organizations and Peace Corps volunteers have brought development to the town, but also new religions and cultural values.
“Our identity. How do we not lose our identity?” Rosendo asks in Spanish while sitting outside the radio station in May. “With all of the things we receive, how is there a way to not lose our identity?”
“No hay,” he says.
Rosendo was born a few miles outside of the town center in the 1970s, about a decade after the start of a civil war pitting leftist guerilla groups against U.S.-backed military dictatorships. More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the 36-year conflict, according to the Commission for Historical Clarification, which is supported by the United Nations. Eighty-three percent of the identified victims were Mayan.
There’s a worn, wooden cross planted in the ground in Todos Santos close to the station. It’s etched with “1982,” the year the army invaded the town on the suspicion that residents were supporting guerilla groups.
The strategy was used throughout the country. It was called “quitar el agua al pez” — “removing water from fish” — and referred to the massacre of indigenous people and towns so the rebels couldn’t survive.
Soldiers came to Todos Santos, rounded up the men, and killed them. Those who weren’t killed were forced to participate in civil patrols, monitoring their friends, neighbors and family for the army.
They extinguished pride along with people.
The traje, traditional clothing worn by indigenous people specific to each town in Guatemala, became a dangerous indicator of difference. Speaking in Mam and other Mayan languages brought embarrassment and shame. It was another conquest, Pablo says.
“They told our parents, our ancestors, they were nothing; they were stupid; they were like animals,” he says. “They started to get it into their heads.”
Todosanteros left for Guatemala City, the coast or the United States — anywhere safer than the highlands. They swapped their red-and-white striped pants, embroidered shirts, blue skirts and flowered blouses for mestizo T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.
But Rosendo came back.
He went to the United States at age 16, where he was caught and sent to a youth detention center in Amarillo, Texas. Rosendo applied for asylum and got it. He lived with a family in Florida and finished high school.
The Guatemalan peace accords were signed in 1996, and Rosendo had a choice to make: stay in the United States and continue his education or return home.
“I said, ‘If I study medical or international rights, I will never come back to my pueblo,’” says Rosendo, who always wears his trajecomplete with a blue-belted hat and hand-woven bag. “It’s possible – maybe a week, two days, a month. But after, I’d leave. I would be rich, I think. I’d have a car. I could fly in a plane. But for my pueblo? Nothing.”
He returned to Guatemala in 1996 and became a part of the blossoming community radio movement. The peace accords gave indigenous people the right to a voice and the right to participate in the media. There are more than 200 stations around the country today that provide local broadcasts of news, music and talks in indigenous communities.
Radio Xob'il Yol Qman Txun’s first broadcast was on June 27, 2000. Its name combines the Mam words for communication and the name of a sacred site in Todos Santos. Programming ranges from local and international news to hour-long blocks on the environment, women’s rights, indigenous rights and health.
The station is funded primarily by donations, and the eight people who work consistently there receive small stipends.
“What the radio is trying to bring is for people to know what’s happening,” Rosendo says. “People can come to express themselves and ask, ‘How are we doing?’ I want the radio to take fear away from people because people are talking.”
He admits the station doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s a sea foam green, cement building on the top of the hill with a signal tower on the side. An outside wall is painted with a mural of the station’s logo: a Mayan man speaking into a microphone with a temple in the background.
Inside, a few plastic chairs surround a desk, computer, microphone and switchboard. The wall hangings include the indigenous bill of rights, a sign reading “We have rights” and Todos Santos’ signature white-and-blue straw hat worn by the men in the town.
It’s a community space. Men walk home with lumber on their backs, dropping off a few quetzales to contribute to the radio. Kids run in and out during the broadcasts and a man stops by to ask for a pen.
Rosendo says the community owns the station. And although he continues to help with its development, Rosendo doesn’t work there every day anymore. He works for Cultural Survival, a U.S.-based organization fighting for indigenous rights and language preservation worldwide. Part of its program is focused on community radio in Guatemala. Rosendo creates training modules and travels the country presenting them.
He’s handed the reins to the executive board, the community, and young adults, who Rosendo says hold the key to continuing the culture.
Cristina Pérez, 24, Jorge Matias, 22 and Nicolasa Pablo, 23, were kids when Rosendo founded the radio station. They have Facebook profiles and cellphones and know the lyrics to the Mexican pop music heard in the street. They also collectively spend seven days a week on the radio, advocating for pride in their language and traditions and the development of their town.
“Twelve years ago, they started talking about not losing our culture and our history,” Cristina says in Spanish. “Now, we’re doing the same thing. It’s not the same as before, but we haven’t lost our traje, our manner of speaking, our clothing. That’s what we’re doing.”
Nicolasa spends five mornings a week at the station. She heats water in a tin cup, mixes in instant coffee and adjusts her flowery, woven huipil on a Monday morning before sitting down to read the news on the air. She pulls up La Prensa Libre online and reads its top stories, first in Spanish and then in Mam. Refugees who fled during the war and have recently returned to Todos Santos may still be learning the Mayan language, she says.
It’s the only news received by many members of the community. Newspapers are difficult to access, written in Spanish and require literacy. Only about 50 or 60 papers are sold each day in a municipality of 30,000 people, Rosendo says.
Nicolasa prefers to talk about human rights. On Mothers’ Day, she gives a talk about appreciating women and treating them with respect. In the days that follow, she talks about the militarization of the president who took office last year. Within one week, the army enforced martial law in a nearby indigenous town; and the government raided a community radio station for not purchasing its own frequency.
“Here at the radio, we fight day after day to keep you informed,” Nicolasa tells her listeners. “We read. We research so that you can stay informed. I hope you take advantage of it.”
It seems to be working.
Nearly three-quarters of the town listens to Radio Xob'il Yol Qman Txun, the staff estimates. It plays on cellphones in restaurants, emits out of windows as people clean their houses and buzzes through shops on the streets.
“It’s like a television channel here,” says Miguel Mendoza, who owns the electronics store in town. “It has social announcements and political announcements – everything.”
People are listening, Nicolasa says. Children have stopped throwing trash in the streets and women have told her their husbands no longer hit them. People call in to ask about what’s happening with indigenous rights throughout the country.
These small changes are important, Rosendo says, in both preserving culture and improving it.
“This isn’t BBC in London. It’s a community radio,” he says. “Maybe it isn’t in a 30-level building. But there are 30 teenagers in there, working and fighting. I think this is development in our pueblo.”