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Recovering Sexuality in the Midst of Violence: An Insight from Guatemala

I have lived in Guatemala for almost five years and through this article I want to share my personal story with you. My perspective on the Guatemalan situation is contextualized through lots of privileges towards the Guatemalan people which manifests itself through the following three points; First, I was not born here and so I did not grow up in the context I am about to describe. This also means that I did not experience the limitations of mobility between the borders of the world because of a privilege of movement caused by my nationality. Second, in comparison to many people here in Guatemala, I am living a privileged life. I do not have economic responsibilities for a family that depends on my income (at least at the moment) and my white skin color facilitates and enables a lot here in my daily life. Third, the fact that I was born in Europe gives me the possibility to return to “an easier reality” in case the political situation here or my personal one becomes more complicated. I think it is important to keep these aspects in mind while reading my interpretations.

I do not want this article to be read as if I am imposing an absolute truth. The following article presents my subjective reflections, which emerge from a process of trying to understand different perceptions and understandings. I have had the privilege of entering and getting to know many spaces where people from Guatemala participate. I think that the context of their lives has shaped and also influenced their perception of life. The way they value life influences the way they see other people and it is a strong motivation factor when it comes to the effort put into life and work projects which serve to contribute to a surrounding that is more healthy, fair and secure.

Being a foreigner in this country, many people often ask me why I am here and what I like about Guatemala. It is a hate-love relationship. Sometimes, when I feel sad, I do not even have an answer to that question. In these moments my answer is “because I like Tamarindo” – which is my favourite drink here. Then we laugh and the conversation moves on. However, I think I do have to answer this question, right? Above all, I have to answer it for myself. So I will give it a try. Many people in Germany do not even know how to spell the name GUATEMALA, neither do they know where it is, nor the history or the political situation of the country. In the town where my parents live, people think I am somewhere in Africa doing – whatever – something that has to do with poverty and hunger. If Guatemala pops up in the media, the image that is produced speaks about violence, extreme poverty, drugs, gangs and danger. So, why am I in a country with an almost unpronounceable name, a place full of violence? I have to ask myself this question because in some ways this place has become part of my life and my identity.

Women and their rebellion are framed by their context.

I think that in such a forgotten place as Guatemala, where you don’t expect better conditions, you have to fight which causes an immense potential for creativity and a revolutionary spirit in perceiving the value of life. Here, where when it rains, it rains the bitter smell of the rotten corpses that lie on the basurero de la zona 3 (the biggest garbage dump in 3rd district in Guatemala City). Here, where a four-year old child knows how to distinguish the sound of a bullet from the sound of a firework. Here, where a life sometimes has the value of a mobile phone, for which they kill you when they rob you. Here, where death is omnipresent, people value life in an extremely deep way.

I find it remarkable that in a place, where life is shaped by surviving, the value given to life is extremely different than in countries of the global north. This act of valuing shapes people’s identities, gives them strength, and shapes their cosmovision of “love towards life”. I have known people who get up every day without expectations for the best work or living conditions, but who dedicate all their power, hopes and work to their own, personal life projects. For the first time of my life, I heard the expression gracias a la vida – which means being grateful for life – an expression unknown in the German language. The idea of appreciating life has been new for me. It has become one of my favorite expressions because it emphasizes the value of life itself, particularly in a surrounding where the act of surviving seems arbitrary. For me, it also illustrates that the interpretations of life, the interpersonal dynamics and the relation with our environment are diverse and if we manage to go beyond our judgements, we can learn from the people in Guatemala and their struggle for wellbeing.

Guatemala has a long history of violence and protracted conflict. The Spanish conquest left traces of post-colonialism and post-conflict and its footprint can be seen in complex ways in people‘s lives even today. So complex that I am often challenged, even after living here for five years, to understand many things. The country is ruled by the people responsible for the massacres on the Mayan population twenty years ago. This seems to me an almost surreal and overwhelming paradox, talking about peace in the historical context of Guatemala almost sounds absurd. What meaning does peace have in this context? I have often read the definition of peace as the absence of violence, but for me peace is much more. For me, peace is the conscious and active support of happiness, pleasure and health – in its bodily, sexual and emotional manifestations towards myself and others. Putting this into practice is of course not easy. People have different needs and it is already difficult enough to understand ourselves.

Feminism contributes to this notion of peace, even though the history and structure of what feminisms are is also very complex. The version of feminism I grew up with is a construction of the privileged countries. This notion is confronted by a feminism that addresses the needs and life contexts of black women, indigenous woman, trans-people and women from rural areas. In Guatemala this is also complex. The majority of the population is indigenous, an identity that brings with it discrimination and the collective memory of an attempted genocide. In moments when women (both indigenous and ladinas Ladina/o is the Guatemalan expression for the part of the population which represent the mixture of Spanish and Indigenous ancestors. In other Spanish speaking countries they are called mestizas/os) reclaim their needs and rights, they are confronted with the argument that following a feminism that comes out of an western construction would be far away from their own reality. Still there was always female rebellion and it will always remain.

The act of “sexual healing“ means to leave behind the imposed identification as victim, and recover a self determined protagonism.

Women and their rebellion are framed by their context, in this case the sociocultural and political situation of Guatemala. The major themes that I have witnessed here in women’s lives are their recuperation of access and participation of public, cultural and political spaces and the defense of concrete spaces (importantly the body and also the land) as well as the recuperation and conservation of the historic memory, the preservation and defense of culture while simultaneously considering their own concrete needs as women. Furthermore, complex and critical thinking, historical memory, sexual violence and the phenomenon of femicide (Femicide is the killing of women for the fact of being a woman), the critique of the legal system and the state, the fight for territory (in the sense of body as territory and the land they depend on), sexual diversity, body and sexuality, the critical engagement with motherhood that is part of the society, individual and collective healing and the discourse of abortion are among the fields women are actively engaged in.

My main issue with European feminism in comparison to the experiences I have had here is the interpretation and the understanding of spirituality and the importance it has for healing and peace. As a “good student” and due to my personal story, I have learnt that rationality is one of the most important values to achieve. Therefore, when I was living in Europe I was very hesitant to use the word “spirituality”, and felt resistance finding out what it means to me. Here, I experienced something else. What I have learnt here was a new way of thinking and being in the world. This manifests itself in trying to achieve a holistic well-being by going beyond the separations of rationality and by including the emotional aspects and the body. It is not about setting up a hierarchy between them but about perceiving the human being as an holistic being in which every aspect deserves the same attention and care. Before, I did not understand this concept; I also separated myself from my own self. For a long time it did not seem important to have the tools for taking care of myself, my body or getting to know and understanding my own feelings.

Violence in general and in the Guatemalan history is one of the contexts in which relationships are built and shaped. In order to leave these forms of relationship and to transform an identity of victimhood, it is important to recognize the importance of individual and collective healing, also in a political sense. Taking care of the self and others is a deep and radical political act. In a country like Guatemala where the conflict destroyed the social net of human relationships and where relationships have to be rebuilt, healing is also a manifestation of justice. The act of „sexual healing“ – in a context of rape culture – means to leave behind the imposed identification as victim, and recover a self determined protagonism. In an environment of structural impunity that means an option to create justice on a personal and collective level.

What is very important for me in this context is the topic of sexuality. In cases of sexual violence (which in my perception is a much more profound dynamic than “just” the act of violent penetration), the options for a  response are to denounce it (which in the most cases leads to nothing because of the context of impunity arising from a lack of will to prosecute the perpetrators) and/or to receive conventional therapy. None of these strategies leads to the option of an active sexual protagonism, it just offers the same external definite identificacion as a victim, as always.

What is not reflected is that violence itself influences our sexuality and what we have to do is to reflect on our patterns. We have to create new forms that help us to redefine our sexuality. This means to recover knowledge from a process of institutionalisation (like recovering knowledge about our own bodies from, for example, medical institutions, and create an active participation in, for example, our visits to our gynecologists), being able to take free decisions about our bodies and to question where our images and sexual habits come from. Only then can we take the step of creating and finding a pleasant sexuality, a sexuality that is gentle to our body, mind and emotions.

This means to recover knowledge from a process of institutionalisation, being able to take free decisions about our bodies and to question where our images and sexual habits come from.

In a country where violence is omnipresent and that has gone through a history of sexual violence, I have found the potential of working with processes for sexual healing and especially working on my own healing and wellbeing as a woman. It helps me to process an experience of sexual violence I have had in my early youth. It took me a while to recognize this experience as a part of my life and through working with it in different collective spaces here in Guatemala, it helped me to transform this topic into something different, into a healing experience. Through working with the Centro de Formación-Sanación e Investigación Transpersonal Q´anil (Center for formation-healing and transpersonal investigation Q´anil- which is the word for seed in Kíche-Mayan language), working with the theater of the oppressed collective, Las Magdalenas and the Vulva Collective, I have experienced methodologies and spaces of working with sexual healing. It is about recognizing the sexual character that violence has for women and at the same time recovering a sexuality that is independent from violence, as well as creating a sexuality from the wisdom of our bodies and the relational connection with our bodies, our needs, desires, concrete pleasures and personal boundaries. All this is important for the way we interrelate with our environment.

Returning to the initial question of this article – why am I here in Guatemala? – I have to admit that I am here for my very own process, my very own necessity of being here. When I started this trip five years ago, I had a romantic idea of going to a foreign country with the intention of doing something good for others, of working for peace. When people in Germany ask me when I will come back, I can tell them now that I will come back when I manage to close a very important phase of my life that has to do with my own healing process of having experienced sexual violence. I consider working on my personal process as a fundamental step in creating a vision for peace. As I said in the beginning, peace is an active support towards wellbeing. It is important to know what is good for ourselves in order to bring this into our relationships. Sexuality plays an important role in my personal definition of peace. I perceive sexuality as a fundamental element in order to relate to myself, my body and with others.

*Translated from Spanish by Jana Elena Hornberger