From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala was torn apart by political instability. Frequently changing dictatorships were the norm, punctuated by short-lived democratic governments.
At the center of it all was the University of San Carlos, Guatemala’s only public university. Student movements both helped to overthrow a dictatorship in 1944 and overthrow a democracy in 1954. Even today, the university’s students continue to play an important role in Guatemala’s political and intellectual life. In her book “Do Not Mess With Us!”: Students and the State in Guatemala City, 1944-1996 Dr. Heather Vrana, assistant professor of history at SCSU, relates an oral history of student movements during those troubled times.
Students played a crucial role in not only calling for new governments, but also creating them. Dr. Vrana calls this phenomenon “student nationalism.” In 1942, law students at the University of San Carlos wrote a ten-year plan of changes they wanted for Guatemala. After the 1944 Revolution two years later, those students were drafting the constitution.
“The base question [for me] is the relationship between students and the nation-state and what student culture had to do with that,” said Dr. Vrana. “In the 1944 Revolution the university won autonomy, which means among other things that the territory of the campus is sovereign. If police or military set foot there, it is a big deal…The constitution has a lot about the duties of the university. [During the civil war] professors and students often appealed to the constitution. It became a tool they used,” she said.
The Civil War is a painful topic for Guatemalans. Many people that Dr. Vrana talked to lost friends and relatives to “forced disappearances.” Forced disappearances are illegal abductions and executions by state authorities. When collecting oral histories, Dr. Vrana strived to be respectful, while still exploring the difficult emotional territory. It is important to her to build up relationships with interviewees. “I start with people who are closest to me. Most of my work is archival, so I talk to archivists… I began to talk to them very slowly. Some were people I had known for seven years and it took that long before I felt like I could ask them these hard questions. Sometimes interviews are half an hour or hours and hours. Some people were interviewed many times,” said Dr. Vrana. “I try to maintain relationships with people I interview so I don’t just disappear.”
Dr. Vrana is also looking at how today’s students are politically engaged. Despite the central role university students have played in Guatemala’s political history, some of today’s students are moving in a different direction. “There is this branch of being young that’s about digging in and looking for some judicial recognition of past crimes and the violence of the Civil War. Within that there is this other group, whom I’m most interested in, there are those thinking about justice outside of the ‘justice’ system. They are interested in community-based justice and ongoing action,” said Dr. Vrana.
Students interested in this new kind of social justice use a variety of tactics to address the past: graffiti, social media, rallies banners, and slogans. Most importantly, today’s student movements have lost faith in traditional government. “One of the big shifts [between 1960 and 1996] is that by the end of the civil war, the idea of student nationalism with students leading the nation shifts into a student nationalism for radicalizing the nation, then to a student nationalism without a government. To [students by the end of the civil war] the government is totally bankrupt. Today, members of the group H.I.J.O.S. imagine an amorphous, but never settled-upon, future for the government,” said Dr. Vrana. H.I.J.O.S stands for “Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio” or “Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence.”
For students at SCSU, Dr. Vrana hopes her writing and teaching shed light on the effects of U.S. foreign policy. Guatemala’s repressive dictatorships were backed by the United States government in an attempt to prevent communism from gaining a foothold in the Western Hemisphere. “The most gratifying thing for me is teaching students about the role of the United States in Central America…I want them to understand the Cold War more fully. It wasn’t freedom vs. communism. I teach future high school teachers and I hope that they will bring that into their own classroom,” she said.