Walking Near Death

I went toward Death.

It was 1986 and I was nearing forty. I’d recently left Tucson for a job in Kansas City, Missouri. In Tucson I’d been involved with the Sanctuary Movement, assisting Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing repression, torture, and death squads in their countries.

When I arrived in Kansas City in the fall of 1985, churches there were just beginning to organize to assist refugees. I immediately became involved. Soon I realized I had to go to Guatemala myself to learn firsthand what was happening.

My learning began in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. A refugee camp in the jungles of Mexico, less than a mile from the Guatemalan border. Where sometimes, at night, helicopters would drop low, their thump thump thump giving warning.

Chiapas is the pink-colored state at the southern end of Mexico.

Warning before bullets strafed the village. A warning, but not enough.

Warning, but no time to jump from sleep, grab the babies, rush out the door and head deep into the jungle.

Just enough warning to let them know they or a neighbor or their daughter or son would soon die.

But I went there, to the place Death often visited. I went in daytime. I wasn’t ready to die, I knew I likely wouldn’t die—the strafing happened less by day. But I knew I’d walk close.

And today, how many in that village are still alive?

Arrow shows approximately where I was.

Walking out of the village, back to town, hiding in the jungle when I heard a vehicle. The army patrolled this road, and if they saw me, I’d be arrested. Visitors weren’t allowed in the camps. Hiding, crouching low in jungle’s dense green, running out when I spotted an old farm truck, waving it down for a ride.

Days later, time to enter Guatemala. A bus at dawn from Comitán in southern Mexico, then a back-of-a-truck ride to the border. Crossing a border, paying an illegal entry fee. Argue with the border guard who wanted a little of my money? The one who could prevent my entry or even have me arrested? Never a good idea.

Comitán to the Guatemalan border.

Four hours, bumping along on a Guatemalan bus, probably an old school bus, on that road to Huehuetenango, from borderlands jungle to highlands. The paved road that dissolved to dirt and rock and cratered holes, the craters caused by bombs. “Don’t take that road,” the nuns had told me. Muy peligroso! Very dangerous.

Bouncing down that road, three to a seat, me wedged between two farmworkers. The man by the window with his head fallen to my shoulder in sleep, his machete tied at his waist, swinging, banging against my leg with each bump. Each crater.

Border of Mexico to Huehuetenango.

Off the bus briefly in Huehue to stretch, then boarding again to ride south two more hours into Santa Cruz del Quiché, still in the highlands. Santa Cruz del Quiché, surrounded by villages too tiny to appear on maps. Most of the villages sites of army-led massacres. Villages that no longer existed because everyone there had been killed, the buildings burned.

South another hour, through Chichicastenango and changing busses in Los Encuentros. Cutting southeast in another old school bus, in the aisle for hours, sitting on my suitcase. But at least no longer on the road the army sometimes laced with mines.

The whole route—what a long day!

Arriving outside Antigua in the dark. “But how do we get to town?” we asked. The driver swinging his arm to point up a steep hill to the road above.

Slip sliding our way up the hill. “I wonder when there’s a bus?” one of them said. “No, we’ll just get a ride,” I said, as I stepped into the highway and waved my arm to stop a passing truck.

Necesitamos un hotel simple y limpia. We need a clean, basic hotel. We piled into the back of the truck, and within ten minutes he’d dropped us in front of a cheap hotel where we bunked, three females sharing one bed, two males sharing one next door. I’d been a stranger before that night.

Another night, unable to sleep. Hearing the gunshots just outside of town. The next morning, I approached two women washing clothes at the neighborhood spigot. “What was happening?” They turned sad faces away, eyes downcast. As I’d feared: death squads.

Attending gatherings of leftists in little cafes, speaking of refugees and how to get information to villages. How many informers were there that night? Afterwards, scurrying down unlit streets, glancing over my shoulder at imagined footsteps. Avoiding darkened alleyways.

Another trip in 1989, as the wars still raged, as activists continued to disappear, as villagers continued to be massacred. Meeting in a daycare center in Guatemala City. Sitting on the floor, my feet in a hole. The hole caused by a bomb tossed through the front window a few months previously. Thankfully, women had just taken the children into the back room for lunch. No one injured.

The daycare center, run by—and for—women whose husbands were among the disappeared. To start a daycare center, to organize at all, was considered subversive.

Stepping out of the daycare center, we knew we were being watched.

Back to the hotel. The same man who’d been reading a newspaper on the patio that morning was still there, still reading a newspaper. In the dark. And he was there the next morning, pre-dawn, and that night too. Always with a newspaper. Our own personal spy.

Was it the same paper all the time? Did he listen at our doors when we were closed in our rooms?

Meeting also in living rooms. Thirty people standing, sitting, leaning against walls. Talking with village organizers who’d slid in after we’d gathered, who disappeared when they were through talking. Who cautioned us not to acknowledge them in the market, in the streets. To acknowledge them in public would make them suspect. Make them a possible target. Make us ones also.

Meeting with the US Ambassador to Guatemala, in the US Embassy. Taken to a small theater that was far too large for our little group. An uncomfortable feeling I was being watched, turning to see the camera pointed at us. Later spotting another at the edge of the stage. They hadn’t even bothered to disguise them. Blatant intimidation.

And meeting with organizers in a village on a dirt road, helicopters suddenly appearing above, flying lower, lower. Kicking up dust and gravel, impossible then to talk. The Guatemalans we’d been speaking with disappearing, running all directions, down every street. Me wondering if they’d be alive the next day. Wondering if we would be.

Our bus breaking down on a back road, several miles outside of Chichicastenango. At night. Flagging down a truck yet again, this time a produce truck. Hiding behind sacks of potatoes and corn. The driver didn’t want to be accused of operating an illegal taxi service. Having his truck confiscated. Going to jail. And then, well, who knew what would happen?

A third trip, 1990, in Quetzaltenango, traveling alone. Attending a concert by Nicaraguan activist Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, one of the best concerts I’ve been to. And once again, walking many unlit blocks back to where I was staying. Walking in the middle of the street, once more away from darkened doorways and alleys. Again, looking over my shoulder, noises making me jump.

I’ve walked near Death. Walked toward him. Sometimes looked at him more closely than I’d liked, as though he were just across the room. And yes, there were times I was afraid.

But Death never wanted me. He never stepped forward, never gave forth a greeting.

He waits.

Published by Emilie

I'm a retired instructor from a community college where I taught Developmental English and Reading as well as English as a Second Language. I'm also now a published author of a bilingual children's book entitled. Luisa the Green Sea Turtle - Luisa la Tortuga Verde del Mar. It's available from me, through Amazon, and is in a few (more and more each day!) bookstores.

Join the Conversation


  1. Powerful story, Emilie. Your writing pace built and sustained the tension. Made my heart beat a bit faster. Here’s a poem I wrote after a visit to Chichi…

    Down a narrow callejón
    between whitewashed walls
    over dust dirt under, puffing,
    doors shut shutters barred
    on never know;

    Through the hurt beauty of soundless,
    breathing hot sun off red tile,
    moving backwards into ever.

    And ever they come,
    centurial procession,
    wrapped in colors
    of from and supposed to be,
    carrying great baskets
    filled with hard
    and the well-know order
    of ancients.

    Quiché. Elegant race.

    They come with pure
    to keep the rhythm
    of a strain
    with no begin.

    Then, around a still corner
    in midday glare,
    SMACK into the face
    of camouflage strut
    green rolled over muscle
    cocksure machine gun slung
    hard brown sneer says:

    “A un lado!”

  2. I lived in Guatemala 1988-1994. I remember. My marriage ended because I just could not do it anymore (kidnapping offthe bus my daughter rode to school, bomb blew all the pictures off our walls, bodies in the streets in the morning) and my husband did not want to leave.

    1. I could not have been there with a child. Although, in general, US citizens were left alone, that wasn’t always true. And you were living with the people there, not just visiting—a whole different situation. The kidnapping off the bus would have done me in!

    1. I wrote a lot after my visits there. That computer crashed and died, taking my writing with it. There’s just no way to reconstruct it all at this late date. Memories have been flooding back, but snippets. Perhaps if I went back …

    1. Thank you.
      I did so much when I was young! I took risks I’d never recommend to others. I truly never felt unsafe—I was protected by my US citizenship and my fair skin. I know some US citizens were “disappeared” or just shot, but in general we were safe.
      Of course, walking those streets alone at night after a meeting or a concert, I was definitely uncomfortable! There’s no way they didn’t know who I was and what I was doing.
      Back home, I participated in the Sanctuary Movement. I often had refugees living in my home, and I knew I could have landed in prison for that. But once you meet someone, see the terror in their face and hear their story, well, it just overcomes the fear of breaking an unjust law. I’ve only recently “retired” activism. I decided to sort of quit at 74.

    1. I so agree. I would have loved to go to Guatemala for pleasure rather than to look at the horrible situation there. I know that people go down there on expensive tours or go to the beaches, or just party. I simply can’t imagine that. I find it impossible.

  3. I loved this. I traveled most these roads myself. You do such a beautiful job of taking me on this journey.

    1. Thank you. Horrible things are still happening today, but it’s gangs doing the evil. I’m not sure I would go back down today because the gangsters don’t care who they shoot. The army, in general, used to leave US citizens alone. I know they killed and disappeared some, but overall, my fair skin and US citizenship protected me.

  4. What times we shared during these revolutionary years, Sister. My most poignant memories … traveling far into the Highlands to villages ringed by the army that had no boys or men because they had been “disappeared.” Being followed by men in suits in the Guatemala City Square following my photographing of the “Mothers of the Disappeared”, who held posters of their children and husbands who had been kidnapped in the night (I outran and lost them in the crowd.) Lake Atitlan village dangers (I still have the embroidered bird clothing). Army boarding peasant busses, frisking and hauling Mayans away. And today, on the border, when I make contact with Guatemalan children who have walked thousands of miles, I “see” the grandchildren of the “mothers of the disappeared” – GAM – and curse our government that supported and trained the intentional overthrow of the Guatemalan democracy in 1950, and the subsequent decimation of the Mayans. I give eternal thanks for Tucson’s Rev John Fife and the Sanctuary Movement … and all who risk life to give humanitarian aid on the borderlands. We will not stop. Thank you, Sister … what a bond we have, how our soul’s pushed us into Guatemala and Nicaragua. And our respite in Oaxaca and the Casa de Chocolate’! (smiling wide) I love you.

    1. Yes, I think of our time I’m Oaxaca with a smile—me heading south, you on your way back north. I’m so thankful the army never boarded the busses I was on! Saw John Fife last week. He looks just the same.

  5. Your actions, your doing, continue to amaze those of us who have known you for decades…you have given so much of yourself to enhance just causes, humanistic as well as ecological ones…I am proud to be among all those here on your blog and in Bisbee who have admired your courage and decisiveness and talent…thanks for consistently being all who you are, and thanks for sharing this powerful/compelling narrative, Emilie Gail!

  6. What a story Emilie, I was in those highlands of Guatemala in 1975. The people are so colorful and hardworking and very poor. The violence and oppression is hard to imagine. Thank you for your efforts to alleviate their pain.

  7. Wow Emilie; you knocked this one out of the ball park, and it’s refreshing to see such positive support in the comment sections.
    I’ve ‘dabbled’ through most of those countries, but not in the depth that you did.

    We never know when it’s ‘time’ for our voice to be heard, but your stories at this time are very important. People are waking up and wanting to know the true histories. Just this past week I ‘audited’ an online climate course a friend is giving to 200 students around the world. I listened as one from Guatemala introduced himself, and I thought of the recent hurricane histories – of the strife from so many directions – of their desire for a better life… and how some people say they are acting and not really victims of crime or climate. It doesn’t make me mad, it makes me sad that – in contrast to someone like you – there are people who no longer care about their fellow man.

    For everyone who wants the truth, there are others who want oh so much to find reasons to explain it away.

    I hope that this story finds its way around the world.

    I also hope that your friend is better – or if not, that she ‘slides on over’ soon. You’re a walking angel on this planet.


    1. Lisa, I am trying to revive an old computer that I was writing I did 30 years ago after I returned from Guatemala. If I can’t revive it, it is all lost.
      If I can revise it, there will be some detailed stories of specific events. I can’t remember the details well 30 years later but I captured them long ago, I know.
      Compared to many people, I have done so little. However, I feel good about what I have done and I feel great about the hundreds and hundreds of dollars I raised for women in Guatemala over the years.
      I have had the privilege of being a white woman with enough income to take care of herself. I know that I am more fortunate than the majority of the women in the world. It seriously pisses me off that people with money hoard it or buy luxury cruisers and airplanes and third and fourth houses when there are people who so desperately need a little bit of their money.
      I learned what I could and I’ve helped where I could. Now I am “retired” from all of that but the memories still roll around.
      You’re doing your good work down there. Keep it up!

  8. My Central American time was 1959-64. My husband was probably CIA (he denies this to my kids when they congront him) but his persona was as a plant pathologist for United Fruit, first in Golfito, Costa Rica and then La Lima, Honduras. We (my four kids too) took a jeep across the Honduran border into Guatemala, spent holiday time in G.City and on Lake Atitlan. We also at different times went to Tikal and Copan to see the Mayan ruins. I made rubbings of the stele. I grew a Latin heart and I ache for the events you so dramatically chronical. My small taste of that corruption was during our friendship in AZ. Here in Grants Pass, OR, 23% of the high school kids are Latinex! Almost all the jockies and trainers at the race track are too, but except for yardmen and cleaning ladies, I never seee them except for groups in laundramat parking lots or I see them shopping in supermarkets. We speak briefly in Spanish and I go home with aching heart. I feel so helpless now. I’m so glad you are telling the under-story of Latin America,

    1. Thank you so much. We have all done our parts in the ways we can. You did wonderful work across the border when you were here. And of course you did the wonderful work right here helping us learn to make the cards. I am only irritated by those plenty of money and time who do nothing.

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