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August 09, 2004

Book Review: Paradise in Ashes

This weekend, I finished reading Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope<. Beatriz Manz, the author, is a professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. The book is her chronicle of over 30 years following the creation, destruction, and resurrection of Santa Maria Tzeja, a village in Guatemala?s rainforest.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking to better understand the Guatemalan Civil War, in particular the impact it had on rural indigenous and poor populations. Unlike other books on the topic, like Bitter Fruit, this book examines everything from the perspective of the people who lived through it. It largely avoids the political issues which really were not of much interest in this village. Instead, it focuses on the harsh realities of life for these people.

Santa Maria Tzeja was not a ?normal? village (interestingly Manz says no such thing exists). It was founded by a cooperative group of settlers who decided that battling the rain forest in order to have land was better than continuing in the cycle of suffering and exploitation. These settlers started this movement in the Ixcan and others followed suit. But it was also one of the first places that gave varied levels of support to the guerilla when the civil war heated up. The village was later destroyed by the Guatemalan military in one of the scorched earth initiatives. Many of the villagers went into exile in Mexico, others hid for years in the rain forest, while others fell into the hands of the military. It goes on to describe the subsequent militarization of the village, when many of the members were forced to serve in the infamous Civil Patrols and the government brought in Evangelical poor to help reduce the cohesion of the community members. The book shows how many members gave in and cooperated with the military, mostly to protect their own lives. It also goes into depth into how their memories were shaped from living in a militarized village. Eventually, the war ends and Santa Maria Tzeja, with the help of many NGOs, managed to bring back the original settlers and remove the Evangelicals in a humane fashion. It describes the difficulties faced in recreating what had been an incredibly cohesive cooperative based on Liberation Theology, as those who fled to Mexico and those who stayed had changed dramatically in the ten years since their separation.

This novel was a fascinating look into the war from the eyes of an anthropologist and historian. I learned about it from an angle very different from anything else I have read. But it also was captivating for another reason. It helped me to better understand the world from which many of our birthmothers come. As I was reading the early parts of the book where people were forced to work in the treacherous fincas, I could not help but to analogize this experience with that of my daughter?s birthmom, who also works the fincas. When I started thinking about the timeframe and her age, I realized that she may have lived through some of the terror that the people of Santa Maria Tzeja did.

So I?d highly recommend this book to anyone looking to better understand the socio-political environment in Guatemala, its recent history, and what led to the country it is today. This is not a book that goes into detail about US intervention, the cold war, or the politics of the war. Because, as is so often the case in war, most of the people impacted by the war were not interested in these things, they only wanted some land to grow corn and feed their families. It?s a pretty quick read, and once you get into it, you won?t want to put the book down.

If any of you have other Guatemala or adoption related books that you?d like to review on Guatadopt, please send them my way. I?m not promising to read them and write the review myself, I just mean for you to write it and we?ll try to get it on the site.

Posted by Kevin at August 9, 2004 06:36 PM