Bienvenidxs todxs! For the next seven months this "blog" will serve as an archive for the Friends and Family Letters that I'll be sending every couple weeks while I work as an international accompanier in Guatemala. As I picture all of you on the other side of the screen I assume that most of your faces are familiar -- dear friends, family members, ex-coworkers, role models, and special acquaintances who I met on some adventure or another. However, in case some of you don't know me all that well, I think it's important to give you a little background on myself. The goal of these posts is to educate folks in the US (myself included) about the realities of oppression and resistance in Guatemala and the ways that they are reflected back home. I promise that everything I write is my best and most rigorous understanding of the facts, but it is absurd for any writer to pretend that their writing isn't impacted by their unique place in the flow of global power and perception, and I hope to be fully transparent about my own positionality.
My name is Claire Bransky and I grew up in the small city of Duluth, MN, which rests on stolen Anishinaabe land at the western tip of Lake Superior. These days Duluth has a new hip outdoorsy feel, but while I was growing up it was a pretty classic tale of midwestern deindustrialization set against the breathtaking Northwoods and -40 degree weather. After high school I studied political science at a small liberal arts college in rural MN. Although I don't have much positive to say about the institution itself, my four years of undergrad were hugely impactful thanks to the incredible people I met, the farms I worked on during the summers, and the two study abroad trips to Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. I was politicized in the context of third wave feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and learning about US imperialism from the morally questionable position of being a tourist in Latin America.
While I was studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala I learned about NISGUA (Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala) and international accompaniment for the first time. Accompaniment a technique that is used all over the world in a variety of situations; in the Guatemalan context it is defined as foreigners being present with Guatemalans who face danger because of their fights for human rights. Here is the brief overview of accompaniment theory that I often share: Many Guatemalan land defenders, activists, and organizations face intimidation and violence through their work fighting for justice in a country ravaged by colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. International accompaniment is a way for individuals who recognize their complicity in these destructive forces due to their citizenship in the Global North to leverage their privilege in formalized accomplice/ally relationships. All the work done by international accompaniers is in response to specific invitations and requests by the Guatemalans who are most affected by forces of injustice, the people who are the most appropriate leaders of their own fights for liberation.
If this is your first time learning about accompaniment, those three sentences might just sound like a bunch of jargon. I'm also still learning what accompaniment looks like, so all that I ask is that you stick with me, because it's probably going to take me all seven months that I'm here to capture what accompaniment actually is.
For now, here's a maybe more concrete way of looking at it: Beginning with Guatemalan refugees who returned to their land in the 1980s, land defenders and people involved in post-conflict transitional justice (e.g. genocide cases) have requested that foreigners accompany them to bear witness to the dangers that they face. The presence of accompaniers at meetings, regularly scheduled visits, trials, travel, and protests deters violence, and this form of tangible solidarity makes up most of the day-to-day work of accompaniment. However, it is crucial to remember that the Western countries from which accompaniers come are often the main perpetrators of violence in Guatemala through their corporations and foreign policy. Therefor, accompaniment in country is less than half the battle of more complete solidarity; changing policy and norms back home (e.g. in the US) is equally -- if not more -- important.
With the need for solidarity building within the US in mind, I want to end this post with an example of the ways in which oppression and resistance are linked across the globe. A year and a half ago I was arrested at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest four days after police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile. Tens of thousands of people turned out across the country to condemn Castile’s killing, and organizers from the Twin Cities maintained a peaceful occupation outside the governor’s mansion for nearly three weeks. On the night of July 10, 2016 I joined fifty others who split off from the occupation to march down the road (literally chanting “We’re just going for a walk”). After about half an hour, a line of police blocked us, encircled us, and arrested us all.
I am being charged with two misdemeanors: unlawful assembly and public nuisance (16 months later we still have not had a trial). Unfortunately, this crack down on dissent is not just an isolated event. As is true across the country, politicians in MN are trying to more aggressively criminalize protest. As you all will read in my coming letters, such institutionalized criminalization is also common in Guatemala. As the case of Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrates, the violence that we are attempting to deter in Guatemala is often perpetrated and/or supported by entities from the US and other colonial/imperial powers, and also reflected everyday in the realities of oppressed people(s) within these parasitic countries. While I do not want to overstate the implications of my own personal case given my individual privilege, the criminalization of protest — motivated by racism and imperialism — is as real in St. Paul, MN, as it is in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, as it is in the Standing Rock Reservation, SD. Just as these forces of oppression are linked, so too is resistance across the globe.
In the coming months I will have the honor to accompany some of the leaders of this resistance in one small part of the world. May their acts of bravery and resilience inspire our own.
For ways to be involved with movement building in the US, please check out:
"More than 98% of the people say no to chemical mining of metals. Welcome to peoples in peaceful resistance." Photo from San Juan Bosco, Guatemala.
PC: Sandra Cuffe, Mongabay
Communications Fellow with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Intersectional feminist, aspiring farmer, and plátano enthusiast.