Quinn Brenneke is a SALTer working with MCC Mexico partner Voces Mesoamericanas.
Mateo Lopez Ramirez’s* parents didn’t have a choice. When they heard that they would be forced out of their home by soldiers, they packed up and followed others from their Guatemalan community to the closest safe place they could find: the Mexican-Guatemalan border. I met Mateo and his community when I visited their displacement camp with a team of international observers, Guatemalan NGO workers, and my colleagues at Voces Mesoamericanas, an MCC partner. The tents that Mateo and his neighbors live under looked to me like a life-size nativity scene. As it turns out, the Christmas story and Mateo’s story have a lot in common.
Laguna Larga, Mateo’s community, has existed in Peten, Guatemala for 17 years. However, its story goes back much further in history. Peten’s first inhabitants were wiped out in the 1500s during European colonization, but the land was later repopulated in the 1950s when the government opened it up for settlement as a sort of solution to the agrarian conflicts at the time. Those new settlers were forced further into Peten’s jungle-like terrain in the 1980s when soldiers seized their lands to gain control of the area during the Guatemalan civil war. At the end of the 80s, the government designated most of Peten as an environmental protection area in order to continue to control the territory, while still granting some of the land to interested settlers. In 2000, the Peten governor gave ten families permission to establish the Laguna Larga community in northern Peten, and over time it grew to be a community of 111 families. During those early years of the community, Laguna Larga leaders negotiated with the government to be officially recognized by all parties in the area, including the PERENCO oil company. The state slowly granted the families recognition and regular services like schools and teachers, but all of that changed in 2009 when personnel in the government transitioned.
My job during our visit to Laguna Larga’s camp was to facilitate activities for the children while my colleagues presented a report that they had written about the community’s situation to the adults. Upon arrival, children surrounded me and we began to make our way to the open area where we would play. Mateo walked up to me and smiled. He looked to be about 10-years-old and asked if he could help me with the box of crafts I was carrying. I warned him that it might be a little heavy and let him hold one side. “It’s not even heavy,” he told me. I smiled, laughed to myself, and thought about how strong Mateo and his community have been over the past six months.
The new management that took control of Peten’s environmental protection area in 2009 accused Laguna Larga of falsifying the documents that legally allowed them to live on their land. A judge signed an order to evict them – all 450 people, including Mateo – on June 1, 2017. Word got to Laguna Larga leaders and on a rainy day, the community immediately began loading as many of their belongings as they could into trucks. This wasn’t the first time a community in Peten was displaced by soldiers, so the community knew to act quickly. The community drove to the Mexico-Guatemala border the night of June 2 and set up camp. They were close enough to hear the 1,800 soldiers arriving in trucks and helicopters to occupy their community shortly after they left. Maybe those sounds helped them predict what they would find out days later: Mateo’s school was converted into a military outpost and the churches became guard stations.
Thirteen Laguna Larga women were pregnant when their homes were taken. Three of them miscarried due to the trauma of the move. The other 10 have since given birth and are now caring for the babies in tents and tarp shelters. The gospel writer Luke records that Jesus was also born in extreme circumstances. He writes that when Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem to be counted in the census, “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The was no inn for the Laguna Larga families either.
I can only imagine the fear that Mary and Joseph felt, the same fear that Laguna Larga families feel right now, of all the risks that come with caring for a baby outside of their home. Then, as if the stress wasn’t already unbearable, Mary and Joseph got a call like the one Laguna Larga families got on June 1. An angel visited Joseph and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13). Egypt was their Mexico-Guatemala border.
Advent is a season of spiritual waiting when Christians look toward the birth of Jesus, God’s salvation entering a broken world. Laguna Larga knows exactly what it means to wait for salvation. Mateo and his community have now lived in their tent village for six months. They miss their homes, the fields where they grew their food, the places that hold their memories. Although their homes are still being occupied by Guatemalan soldiers, Laguna Larga has hopes of returning. Servelio Velasquez*, one of the community leaders, told me that they don’t want to pursue any other options yet – they just want to go home. Meanwhile, Mateo is reaching for anything he can for life to feel normal again.
After my colleagues and I packed up the activities that we did with the children, we began to walk toward the truck that would take us through the mud path to the town where our van was parked. Mateo tugged on my shirt and motioned that he wanted to whisper in my ear. “When you come back, can you bring me a remote control car so that I don’t have to be sad anymore?” I still don’t know any good answer I could have given him. Was it really a toy he wanted, or the feeling of stability? Doesn’t every 10-year-old boy just want to play, to have fun, to feel that there are people that can take care of him?
Churches around the world this week will read the familiar words that an angel spoke to frightened shepherds on the night that Jesus was born. “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10). These words couldn’t come at a better time for Mateo and his community. Under the tarps, over the mud paths, on an international border, in every small and miraculous bite of food – here is the place, now is the time for a Savior.
*Last names changed for security.
You can read the Voces Mesoamericana’s report on the situation, in Spanish, here.