Anyone that studies Latin America knows about Rigoberta Menchu, the Maya K’iche activist who brought international attention to the violence of the Guatemalan Civil War after the publication of her book I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. She continues to be an internationally recognized figure for social justice and even won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her continued efforts to achieve social equity for indigenous people across the world.
While Menchu’s recognition is well deserved and her achievements are incredibly important, other Guatemalan women have made important contributions to the country that seem to be overshadowed in favor of more well-known women like Menchu, Claudia Paz y Paz, and Thelma Anderson. This article seeks to highlight these women and explore their contributions to Guatemala, Latin America, and the rest of the world.
In 2012, archaeologists discovered Kalomt’e K’abel’s tomb in Guatemala near the border with Belize. K’abel was the wife of King Wak K’inich Bahlam II, but historians believe she was even more powerful than her husband. Prior to the discovery of her tomb, the historical record contained many references to K’abel, both art and writing, as a powerful force in the Maya kingdom.
Although her husband was the king, scholars agree K’abel exerted more influence in the kingdom of Calakmul, where she and her husband ruled. In the written record, she is referred to both as “Kaloomte,” which means Supreme Warrior, and “Ix Kan Ajaw,” or Lady Snake Lord. Her tomb was filled with jade jewels, obsidian, knives, and a vase inscribed with her portrait and name, confirming her identity, and cementing her importance in history.
It’s said that was the most powerful ruler of the Maya late classic period and held the titles of queen and warlord for about 20 years, from 672 and 692 A.D. The archaeological team who discovered her tomb was surprised to find her buried where she was; she was laid to rest at the center of El Perú-Waka’ among plazas, palaces, and temples.
Her tomb wasn’t among others, but was placed near a center of worship for the Maya kingdom. The excavation during which she was discovered was intended to unearth important sites of religious worship, so the discovery of Queen K’abel was almost entirely by chance. The location of her burial place indicates the importance she held to the Maya civilization.
The Maya kingdom is the only North American civilization with a true “classic” period like Greece, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. They had an extensive written and artistic record that has been being padded with archaeological materials through excavations for the past century.
The fact that a woman was one of the most powerful rulers during its peak of splendor is an important historical anecdote that is often ignored. This also suggests that other women could have held significant positions of power during the Maya rule that history forgot. Hopefully, further excavations and examinations of the written historical record will bring these women to light and give them the recognition they deserve.
Luisa Moreno was born Blanca Rosa Lopez Rodrigues to an upper class family in Guatemala City in 1907. In college, she was active in the university scene lobbying for women’s educational rights and even briefly worked as a reporter in Mexico City. Later, she moved to New York, more specifically Spanish Harlem, in 1928 and quickly became involved in the social justice scene.
She changed her name to Luisa Moreno shortly after arriving in New York to separate herself from her wealthy family and “spare them embarrassment.” During the great depression, she worked as a seamstress and worked to unionize her colleagues. From there, she traveled all over the country focusing on unionizing Latinx workers.
Moreno traveled sound the south, mainly between Florida, California, Colorado, Texas, and Lousiana from 1935 to 1947 after leaving her abusive husband in New York. She was a professional labor organizer and joined the communist party and a militant organization called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), where she later became vice-president.
In 1938, she founded Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Español (National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples). Because of the group’s leftist leanings, from 1938 on she was under surveillance by the U.S. government. The Congreso specifically lobbied for protections for workers and reforms to housing and education. Moreno convinced a large majority of the cannery workers in the state of California to join United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA); 75% of these workers were women.
Her efforts were resoundingly successful, ended up securing a contract for 13,000 black and Latinx tobacco workers. She advocated for all workers, particularly Latinx workers, to join unions and other activist organizations across the south, and eventually grew Congreso de Pueblos to over 70,000 members.
During World War II, she was living in Los Angeles and saw first-hand the violence against Latinx immigrants, particularly Mexican Americans, at the hands of the police and members of the armed forces on leave. She co-founded the Citizens Committee for Defense of Mexican American Youth to protect those individuals, who were overwhelmingly young agricultural laborers.
Shortly after, the U.S. fell victim to McCarthyism and Moreno got a deportation order from the U.S. government based on her involvement in the communist party. She had the option to testify against her “co-conspirators” to gain citizenship, but declined and left for Mexico. She continued organizing the rest of her life in Mexico, Cuba, and Guatemala.
In 2018, Moreno and her story were added to the National Museum of American History’s exhibit “American Enterprise.” The exhibit focuses on the growth of American industry throughout the 20th century and includes display cases and interactive touchscreen displays. The curator for the exhibit, Mireya Loza, said,
“I think Moreno’s life story is a wonderful story—this is squarely American history of union organizing and civil rights. In an exhibition on American enterprise, I thought it would be fantastic to think about workers. And she represented the interests of workers… Oftentimes, we attribute Dolores Huerta and César Chávez as the beginning of labor activism and civil rights work but in fact, there are a lot of folks like Luisa Moreno [who made their success possible].”
Alaíde Foppa was born in 1914 to a Guatemalan mother and an Italian-Argentinian father living in Barcelona, Spain. Thanks to her wealthy parents, she spent her childhood and adolescence studying art and literature in Argentina and Italy before obtaining Guatemalan citizenship, marrying a prominent leftist in the country, and moving there to be with him and start a family. Despite her upper class roots, she had revolutionary tendencies and leftist leanings.
Her first child was with Juan Jose Arevalo, the first democratically elected socialist president of Guatemala. When his successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown in a U.S. backed coup in 1954, Foppa and her family, including her new husband, Alfonso Solorzano, who had been a minister in Arbenz’s government, fled to Mexico City.
Foppa continued to support the Guatemalan revolution from Mexico through countless mediums. A jack of all trades, she was an extremely skilled poet and essayist, worked as a professor at the University of Mexico, hosted a radio show about women’s issues in Mexico City, helped to found the first feminist journal in Latin America, Fem, and was a well-known art critic.
She wrote poetry about her family, feminism, and the difficulties of living in exile. Feminism was an important facet to Foppa’s identity- she taught the first course of the sociology of women in Latin America at the Autonomous University of Mexico.
She denounced the state-sponsored violence of the Guatemalan Civil War on her radio station, “Fora de la Mujer” (Forum of Women), and was an active member of both Amnesty International and International Association of Women Against Repression in Guatemala. Her visibility and activism landed her on the Guatemalan government’s list of subversives by 1960, making it incredibly unsafe for her to return to the place she considered her true home.
The revolutionary influence of Foppa and her husband rubbed off on their family as three of their five children were involved in the Civil War as guerilla fighters. Despite the danger, she periodically retuned to Guatemala to visit her mother and it’s believed she supported guerilla groups during her visits.
On December 19,1980, Foppa and her driver went missing while on the way to the airport to return to Mexico. Her mother, concerned after not getting her car back, called her eldest son, Julio Solórzano Foppa, to ask if Foppa returned home. Years later, when reflecting on that phone call, Julio said he knew then that he would never see his mother again. Despite his doubts, he poured all available time and money into finding his mother over the next few days.
A commission was quickly formed including then-President of Mexico, Jose Lopez Portillo, and prominent legal scholars and journalists. The commission told Julio they were willing to fly into Guatemala and search for Foppa, but he declined. Reflecting on this decision in a 2012 interview, he said,
“It was a very hard decision, but in the end I said no. I said, ‘We have no evidence she’s alive. We have no excuse to risk these people’s lives.’ With very few [exceptions] the disappeared never reappeared in Guatemala.”
Foppa published five collections of poetry in her lifetime, the last of which was published in 1979, the year before she vanished. She wrote about a variety of topics, but many of her most well-known poems are centered on feminism, family, and the difficulties of living in exile and being separated from her homeland.
The following is called “Woman” and explores the complicated relationship of feminism and motherhood.
Of distant adolescence:
Like a hidden flame,
Your whole desire stretches
Toward an untouched
Oh anxious creature
That no one stops,
Now you even fear
The weight of a ring.
And breaks your desire
The fear of ending
The hopeful weight:
Love is a blind curse
Toward a single destiny
That impedes another track.
Of your own hope
And your free desire.
There is no freedom.
Your tired gait,
And your heavy belly
Already taught you one day
That hope was
In buried blood.
Oh gentle creature,
Of childbirth, always
Left you disconnected.
Hope so large
Does not fit in you alone
And your grief grows
In a new land.
You hide in your chest
An open pomegranate
Little girl before your window
With the rose in your hand,
Tender pregnant wife,
Or sleepless mother
Who keeps on spinning her fabric
With hope and desires,
Your life is barely
An insecure expectation.
Myrna and Helen Mack Chang
Myrna Mack Chang was born in 1949 in Southern Guatemala. The ethnicity of her parents varies by sources; she was either fully Chinese or half Mayan. Regardless, her family was working class; her parents owned and operated a small store and had five children.
Myrna, too, was a jack of all trades and worked as a teacher, social worker, journalist and anthropologist during her life.
She studied in England during the 1970s and returned to Guatemala in 1982 at the height of the violence of the Civil War, working as a journalist for a leftist publication called, InforPress.
By 1986, she was a world-renowned anthropologist and founded a group called Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences in Guatemala (AVANCSO) that was dedicated to studying the impact of the Guatemalan Civil War on the huge numbers of “internally displaced” indigenous communities that had been left without homes due to the indiscriminate violence of the Guatemalan government.
Her research included countless testimonios from indigenous people across the country who had witnessed government violence firsthand.
Mack’s report brought international attention to the plight of the Guatemalan people and the disproportionate violence experienced by indigenous communities at the hands of the government. From the founding of AVANCSO, Helen worked closely with the international community and the Catholic church to bring these atrocities to light.
This work was not looked upon fondly by the government and she was quickly placed on a list of subversives. On September 11, 1990, two days before her report was to be officially released, she was assassinated outside of the AVANSCO office on her way home from work. She was stabbed 27 times and left for dead.
After Myrna’s death, her sister Helen fought tirelessly to hold the government accountable and seek judicial recognition for their role in her sister’s death, but this was an uphill battle against government conspiracy and cover-up. The detectives responsible for investigating Myrna’s murder wrote a 60 page report on the incident and concluded that it was politically motivated and even named Sergeant Major Specialist Noel de Jesús Beteta Alvárez as a suspect in Myrna’s death. However, the police submitted a 13 page redacted version of this report to the courts that omitted the detective’s findings of government involvement.
Fortunately, the full version of the report was unearthed through trial testimony by one of the authors of the report. He was later assassinated just outside police headquarters, and his killing remains unsolved. Despite the numerous speed bumps, including the case being swapped between 12 different judges, on February 12, 1993 Sergeant Beteta Alvárez was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
After this success, Helen continued fighting. She wanted to hold the masterminds behind Myrna’s assassination legally accountable for their role orchestrating her sister’s killing. Initially, the courts denied to hear the case, due in large part to the lack of cooperation from the prosecutor’s office.
Helen filed appeal after appeal until the Guatemalan Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and in 1994 they overruled the lower courts and allowed the charges to move forward. In an effort to stall the proceedings further, the case was transferred from criminal court, to civil court, to the military tribunals, and back to civil court. Another setback was a 1996 law that granted amnesty to individuals that committed crimes during the Civil War.
Those responsible for the planning of Myrna’s murder, General Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitán, Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, and Colonel Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera, all applied for immunity under this new law, and thankfully, their requests were rejected. Finally, on March 3, 2000 Guatemalan courts recognized the government’s role in Myrna’s assassination. On October 3, 2002 Valencia Osorio was convicted of ordering Myrna’s assassination and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Godoy Gaitan and Oliva Carrera were both acquitted. Helen appealed these acquittals, but it appears the motion is still pending.
Helen’s advocacy work didn’t end with these legal victories. She founded the Myrna Mack Chang foundation in 1993 to support survivors of violence and their families through legal advocacy. The foundation is still active today. Additionally, Helen is a member of the Commission for the Strengthening of Justice, an organization that makes recommendations for judicial reform.
She testified in countless cases of human rights violations in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Organization of American States. As of 2011, she is coordinator of the Commission for Police Reform. Helen has received countless accolades for her advocacy work, including the Notre Dame Award by Public Service in Latin America, the Human Rights Award from the King of Spain, and the Right Livelihood Award.
All of these women impacted Guatemalan and world history in significant ways, yet they aren’t household names. While they didn’t live their lives and advocate for the underdog to earn this recognition, we at Latina Republic think it’s important to shine a light on the work these wonderful women have done. This is by no means a comprehensive list, of course, but these four women have contributed immensely to multiple facets of our daily lives, even those of us who live in the United States. From labor activists, warrior queens, reform advocates, and feminist poets, Guatemalan history is full of women like K’abel, Foppa, Moreno, and the Mack Changs who deserve a prominent place in history for the work they’ve done to better the world.
Hannah is a senior at Harvard University studying the History and Literature of Latin America, Government, and Spanish. She’s currently writing a thesis about the connection between the state-sponsored violence of the Guatemalan Revolution and the lack of prosecutorial and judicial success for women who are survivors of sexual violence in the country today. When writing about communities she isn’t a part of, Hannah emphasizes their voices and experiences, telling their stories as they want them to be told and highlighting the successes of organizations and movements working to make their communities better. Hannah wants to go to law school and practice some form of social justice law; whether that’s immigration law or criminal defense with a social justice lens, she wants to focus on using her privilege to help marginalized folks get the justice they deserve. She currently volunteers with a bilingual preschool program, La Escuelita, near her hometown in Wisconsin and works with the Small Claims Advisory Service to offer legal information to Spanish speakers in Massachusetts going through the small claims process. As a Latin American correspondent, she hopes to further her understanding of women’s movements and legal advocacy in Guatemala, as well as elevate the stories of survivors of sexual violence through articles and her own thesis.