There was a man in Guatemala City who would paint your picture as you sat in one of the sidewalk cafés along the paseos. They were fast portraits, colored chalk on pebbled paper. He had a way of revealing the person beneath the face, which did not always please his clients.
From this work the painter earned enough quetzales to support him in his true metier, the creation of small books, perhaps a dozen paintings in each, on a single theme. His first book portrayed the masked Indian wrestlers of Guatemala, where one combatant wears the mask of good, the other of evil.
The painter once explained that the masked wrestlers originally represented “various aspects of humanity according to primitive belief,” and only after the Conquest became reduced to two combatants representing good and evil. “By such means,” he smiled, “the Church established morality and ethics among las indigenas.”
The city is recently more silent: few linger at the cold metal tables chained to the sidewalk. The languorous lemon-scented nights along the paseos have vanished with the hardening of the government against the poor, the constant deaths and disappearances.
Those who fight back have found their wives and children slaughtered, and thus wear bandannas or masks to avoid recognition. Consequently the death squads and soldiers now kill indiscriminately. The people endure a faceless fear, when any passing stranger might impose a sentence of death.
Recently the painter, too, was shot down by a death squad. Perhaps the government had seen his book, and had decided the masks worn by the guerrilleros were derived from those worn by the wrestlers in his pictures. Or perhaps they wished to teach the guerrillas a lesson: have no connection with the people.
After the death squad killed him they cut the flesh from his face so that the grinning skull peered out. The face they hung all in one piece on a nearby tree, so that it shriveled after several days to a leathery distortion. I have seen many such faces, children and adults. The face is nearly always unrecognizable.
After an Army sweep, when the peasants to go pick up their dead, they frequently cannot identify them except by clothes and stature.
To the military government and the elite of Guatemala, the malnourished campesino, doomed to endless labor without gain, is faceless. The generals decree there shall be no unions, no real schools, no agricultural cooperatives, no health services, no land reform.
And the people, after so many years of anguish and anger, no longer see the generals, but only their peaked caps, their epaulets, badges, and medals, their grim smiles and the dark unreadable eyes of executioners.
In El Petén, the northernmost province, military leaders have declared free-fire zones, forcing thousands of peasants from their ancestral lands, in places where U.S. oil and mining firms have found substantial mineral reserves. The leaders, including a former president, have appropriated these lands in order to lease them later to the Americans. Those peasants who resist are termed guerrilla sympathizers, and are soon eliminated by the death squads.
It was the Christians who reduced the polytheistic wrestlers of Guatemala to the dualism of good and evil. Yet it remained a game of masks, with real men underneath, who at the end of the struggle would throw off their masks and melt back into the people. The spectators understood that the struggle between good and evil goes on in each of us, not on the stage, and that neither is ever totally the victor.
Nonetheless in Guatemala today the masks threaten to become permanent, and the choice between good and evil is continually more clear. On one side are the poor, the hungry, the landless, the malnourished children, the dispossessed. On the other side are the gentry, the politicians, the military, and unfortunately, the Americans.
As the murdered painter once said, the mask of the Guatemalan wrestler is not the quintessence of its wearer; it is momentary charade. But actions are not masks. Our actions condemn us: they become glued to us and cannot be removed.The Oregonian, 12/8/1983