Guatemala is a Central American country with a rich, complicated and, at times, troubled history. This CentreTerm, Assistant Professor of History Stephen Dove brought that past to life for students who traveled there as part of his course, Human Rights in Guatemala.
CentreTerm is Centre College’s three-week January term that gives students and faculty the opportunity to dive headlong into subjects that interest and intrigue them, often through travel abroad and, as in this case, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful service-learning project. For Dove, who lived in Guatemala from 2010 to 2012, sharing the country’s unique politics, culture and history has been a priority since arriving at the College.
“Having a chance to introduce students to a place I love so much was one of the reasons I came to Centre,” he explains. “Guatemala has a lot to offer students with its wonderful cultures and beautiful landscape, but the country’s recent history of human rights violations, genocide and systemic inequality color almost every aspect of life there.
“This makes Guatemala an interesting place to study not only profound human rights problems but also the promising ways that both Guatemalans and non-governmental organizations are addressing these issues,” he continues. “I created this class with the hope that students interested in international development and non-profit work could get a firsthand look at the complex histories and present circumstances that affect those fields.”
“Firsthand” is certainly the appropriate word for the nature of the course; students spent three weeks exploring various facets of Guatemalan life and culture, from holding class in 17th-century church ruins to visiting an export-oriented coffee plantation to learn about coffee processing and labor in the industry.
In addition, students met with community leaders from Kaqchickel Maya towns of Comalapa and Tecpán to discuss recuperation of historical memory on a local level. They were even fortunate enough to be guided by Centre graduate Meghan Farley Webb ’04, who is currently conducting fieldwork in Tecpán for her Ph.D. in anthropology at University of Kansas.
The class also met with various groups concerned with indigenous land rights, fair trade, and waste management and recycling. The group visited massacre sites from the early 1980s and spoke with families of survivors, in addition to touring a forensic anthropology laboratory that exhumes mass graves and works to identify the remains of victims.
“This was both sobering and inspiring,” says Paul L. Cantrell Professor of Religion Rick Axtell, who accompanied the group. “The building was full of boxes that contain the remains of massacre victims—row after row of stacked boxes, each representing the case of someone in a mass grave or killed in the mountains to which they had fled.
“Here, too, we saw the painful realities of Guatemala’s brutal 36-year conflict and the genocide unleashed by the military,” he continues. “But the painstaking work of these anthropologists who are dedicated to returning the remains to their loved ones for proper burial was inspiring. Our conversations about the chilling reality of human cruelty and the inspiring reality of human compassion were profound.”
Students also hiked three hours to the mountain village of San Pedro el Cerro to complete a service-learning project to provide the village access to running water.
“While there, many of our students also had the chance to learn traditional cooking techniques from the women of the village,” Dove explains, “and Sam Aguiar ’16 even slaughtered the chicken we ate for dinner the night we were there.
“Also, we lost very badly in the Centre vs. Guatemala soccer game, but we had a lot of fun,” he adds.
Though the class focused on profound and at times difficult topics, there were also several more lighthearted adventures.
“We explored classic Maya ruins in Copán, Honduras,” Dove says, “and roasted marshmallows over the lava from an active volcano two days after its most recent eruption.”
The trip was a resounding success, so much so that Dove plans to return again soon.
“My favorite part of this trip was having wonderful conversations with the students each step of the way,” he says. “Thinking about how to address systemic violence and inequality is a daunting and complicated task, and it was very rewarding to work with students who both care deeply and think critically about these issues.”
Learn more about CentreTerm abroad.
By Mariel Smith