as long as his heart beats

Francisco Coz Xep, a 65-year-old Mayan elder, had never left his native Guatemala before last Sunday. Though he told me that he lived in "la zona fria," the cold zone of his country, the temperatures here in the Yukon far exceeded his experience.

Francisco Coz Xep, a 65-year-old Mayan elder, had never left his native Guatemala before last Sunday. Though he told me that he lived in “la zona fria,” the cold zone of his country, the temperatures here in the Yukon far exceeded his experience. He believed he would have trouble explaining to the people of his village of San Jose just how cold it is here.

His Vancouver-based solidarity tour organizers with BC CASA/Cafe Justicia-BC ( outfitted him with Value Village sweaters and coats on Monday to help him cope.

The zona fria Mr. Coz Xep referred to lies in the Guatemalan highlands around the volcano-studded shores of Lake Atitlan. There his life began in the hopeful days of the progressive presidency of Juan Jose Arevalo.

Arevalo inaugurated a social security system, established a labour code and instituted fundamental health and education programs all in a democratic climate of free speech and press. At the end of one term, he stepped down and Guatemalans democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz to continue the reform process.

Arbenz took on the root cause of the social and economic injustices afflicting his Central American country, the control of the land by a small rural elite. His land reform angered powerful forces like the United Fruit Company, which had allies deep within the Eisenhower government in Washington, D.C.

The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the Arbenz government.

Francisco remembers this period well. As a young Kaqchikel-speaking boy his life fell back into a traditional pattern of exploitation as another military dictator reversed the reforms that had favoured rural and urban workers, this land’s poor majority. By 12, with little education, he had to join other family members picking coffee and cutting sugarcane in order to survive. He worked for half the wage of an adult, which then was 50 cents a day.

In the 1960s a young Catholic priest from Minnesota came to the village of San Lucas Toliman near the plantation of San Jose Cacahuate where he worked. Padre Gregorio married Francisco and his young bride, but more significantly, perhaps, he began offering adult education classes. Eager to learn, Francisco claimed the literacy previously denied him. His education opened his eyes to rights long kept from him and other indigenous peoples in Guatemala.

Francisco worked on a plantation where the owners never paid the labourers their full wage. Becoming aware of his rights empowered Mr. Coz Xep to form a small group to demand their rightful salaries in the early 1980s. The plantation administrator discovering this and immediately fired the seven workers involved. This provoked a long struggle. More workers joined the struggle and eventually they won compensation, which allowed them to own the land they lived on.

A Norwegian non-governmental development group, APN, found out about their small victory. With their financial help and that of the local church, 35 families formed a housing co-operative and built homes. Francisco continued to lead his community by joining the Campesino Committee for the Defence of the Highlands (CCDA) and taking up the cause of land and workers’ rights.

Landless, though, he and his fellow villagers must still work on local plantations. The legal minimum wage is 65 quetzales or roughly $9 a day, but as Francisco told participants in the last session of the Lenten Ecumenical Social Justice series in CYO Hall, landowners find ways to evade their responsibility by often paying 25 quetzales – about $3.25 a day – or even less.

One goal of his visit is to make us aware of the CCDA’s Fair Trade coffee (Bean North is a distributor) which helps their now 30,000 campesino members build housing, schools and medical clinics.

He also presents us with a challenge to recognize our role in an unjust economic order. How do we truly come to see Francisco and the other millions of men and women in Guatemala and across the Global South struggling to escape poverty and win basic human rights as our brothers and sisters? How do we learn to walk in solidarity with them?

Francisco said he will continue this struggle until his heart stops beating. The Yukon Employees Union and the Public Service Alliance of Canada local, who helped fund his visit along with church and school social justice committees, surely wish him a long life for the sake of his people and for our sake as well.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact