The picture in the header

At the top of this site is a photo of one of the moments in my life most clearly responsible for my transition from a middle school history teacher to a direct action community organizer. I’m actually in it, on the right hand side, but my face isn’t visible; only the lime green bandana tied over my baseball cap. In black and white I’m impossible to find.

In the summer of 2001, when I was living in Guatemala, the government passed a 2% sales tax increase. People were tired of President Portillo’s corruption and broken promises so, all over the country, they refused the tax. And by refusing, I mean they shut the country down in protest.

In Xela, Guatemala’s 2nd biggest city, the protest was organized by the UTQ—La Unión de Trabajadores de Quetzaltenango, the Quetzaltenango Workers’ Union, which was a revolutionary force during the civil war and since then has been a community organization for grassroots unions as well as an organizing vehicle for the informal sector—like taxi drivers and street market vendors. The UTQ had 4 staff–only a couple of whom were full-time–yet they coordinated the logistics that resulted in 150,000 people taking to the streets of Xela and 95% of businesses shutting down for the day in solidarity.

I had heard about the demonstration and decided to go, and invited my friend Noelle to come along. As thousands of people gathered in front of the Free Autonomous University of San Carlos and began to organize themselves into three lines to take over the streets, Noelle asked me, “Do you think we’re welcome?” Before I could say anything, a father and his little girl called to us, “¿Nos ayudan?”

Will you help us?

‘Help us’ in the sense of “Hey, as long as you guys are here for the march, and standing right there, would you mind taking a corner of this banner?”

They gave us long strips of black plastic trash bag–the unifying clothing of the protest—and big smiles. I tied one around Noelle’s arm. She would later pen her memory of the little girl: “She tied the black ribbon around her head like a soldier, and marched like a child.”

As we walked down streets that are usually choked with diesel smoke-spitting buses, people chanted in unison,  “Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” (Only the people save the people) and “El pueblo que lucha es el pueblo que triunfa” (The people who fight are the people who triumph) and “Sálganse, sálganse!” (Come out! Come out!) All along the route, families poured out of their houses and apartments and we grew exponentially. We stopped in the city center, in front of the government offices, where the picture was taken from the back of a pickup truck loaded with a huge PA system for a lone local singer and his guitar. The musician tested the microphone and launched into “No Basta Rezar” by the Venezuelan protest band, Los Guaraguao. Everyone knew the words. A hundred and fifty thousand voices sung out,

“No, no, it’s not enough to pray. Much more is needed to achieve peace.” 

The old standby, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, {whatever we’re protesting}’s gotta go” would never again do it for me after that.

The PA system suddenly stopped working, but no one needed to be led; without missing a beat, everyone kept right on singing. In my mind’s eye I still see the entire crowd bouncing up and down this whole time, but it may just have been that my heart was leaping. I was witnessing a singing protest. A perfect fusion of labor and community organizing, of direct pressure tactics and art, of anger and joy, demands and celebration. I realized I didn’t want to be teaching history anymore. I wanted to be in community with the people who were making it.

(Photo courtesy of the UTQ) 

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