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Translator conveys truth expressed in prophetic poetry

“You seduced me, Lord, and I was seduced,” Gloria Kinsler read from one of the poems by Julia Esquivel, who was ill and unable to come to Spokane for The Fig Tree’s Faith in Action Dialogue.

Gloria Kinsler
Gloria Kinsler

Instead of translating Julia’s Spanish words to English, Gloria translated her poems, her life, her truth-telling through Guatemala’s suffering, and its impact on her own faith and life.

The words were from Julia’s poem, “Confession,” based on Jeremiah. It expresses the truth that many prophets, like Julia, begin with God’s love and their love for God seducing—or as other possible translations of the word from Spanish might imply duping, tricking or deceiving—them into commitments, lives and risks that they never anticipated.

Gloria considers Julia a prophet because she spoke truth to power on behalf of Guatemalans. She was moved by love to risk her life, weeping with those who weep and pouring herself out on behalf of “the least.”

Gloria gave presentations in October at Bethany Presbyterian and St. Ann’s Catholic churches, at the Women’s Hearth, at Gonzaga and Whitworth universities, and for the Bioneers Conference.

After her life intersected with Guatemala and Julia, Gloria set aside schoolbook impressions she had of the United States.

From 1963 to 1977, she and her husband Ross were Presbyterian missionaries in Guatemala.

She was in her late 20s when she first met Julia, five years older and “much wiser,” Gloria said.

Today, Gloria is disheartened that “we in the United States have lost a sense that torture is wrong and that greed, once one of the seven deadly sins, is a virtue. Our society and faith are twisted.”

Julia, a Latina who studied at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala
, the Latin American Biblical Seminary in Costa Rica and the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Switzerland, told Gloria her life turned around when she ministered to young women in jail, women who stole or prostituted their bodies to feed their children.
Latinos and Latinas are descendants of Mayans, forced to work as slaves on plantations on the Coast and to stop speaking their languages and wearing their traditional clothes. Their lands were taken, because the people had no written deeds.

In 1945, realizing they were ruled by fascists, the people of Guatemala overthrew the dictator and held a democratic election, Gloria said. There was a second election four years later. Changes began: labor laws, public schools, hospitals and land reform.

Large landowners were to sell unused land for the value they declared on their tax statements. The land was to go to campesinos, poor peasant farmers.

U.S. government and corporate policy were involved in the politics and suffering in Guatemala, she said. For example, two brothers who worked for United Fruit later served as U.S. Secretary of State and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

United Fruit, a major landowner in Guatemala, helped overthrow the democratically elected president in 1954.

A series of dictators and civil war followed in the 1970s and 1980s.

The disparity between rich and poor then and now is great.
Two percent of Guatemalans lived luxurious lives in their gated communities, not sharing the wealth generated with those who worked for them in slave-like conditions on plantations that provided cheap fruit, coffee or sugar to North Americans, Gloria said.

“Anyone who wanted to change the oppression was called ‘communist’ much like the enemy image and fear generated by the word ‘terrorist’ today,” she said. “Communists then were thought to be lurking everywhere, in guerrillas some called rebels and others called freedom fighters.

“When violence became obvious,” Gloria said, “most churches closed their eyes, not wanting to be involved.”

Those who wanted freedom from state terror were kidnapped, killed or “disappeared,” said Gloria. The disappeared were tortured and often dropped from airplanes into the ocean or the mouth of a volcano.

Julia and an ecumenical group of Catholics and Protestants
started a newspaper, Dialogo, to report on what was happening and what some Christians were doing. She also worked with Mayans in Christian base communities that studied Scriptures and related faith to everyday lives.

Catholic priests and others leading Bible studies and organizing co-ops to help the indigenous people improve their lives were seen as communists, Gloria said.

“The Christian base communities celebrated communion with coffee and tortillas, the everyday beverage and food, as wine and bread were in Jesus’ time and culture,” she explained.

“Julia spoke when no one else would speak. It was easier to pretend the suffering, violence and torture were not happening. Most of the war was fought outside of Guatemala City where tourists came,” Gloria said.

“Julia has been a voice of truth through her writing and her poetry,” Gloria said. “She reflects the pain of the Guatemalan experience of violence.”

Because of human rights abuses, U.S. President Jimmy Carter cut military aid to Guatemala in 1978.

In 1979, a priest in the ecumenical group Julia worked with was kidnapped and tortured. He recanted on TV.

Walking on the main street of Guatemala City after that, Julia was grabbed by would-be kidnappers. She screamed, yelled, flailed and made such a scene they let her go, Gloria said.

Julia fled into exile for about 15 years, first with the Grand Champs monastic community in Switzerland. While there, she worked with the United Nations Human Rights office. In exile, she wrote three books of poetry.

After the Kinslers left Guatemala, they spent three years in Switzerland while Ross served with the World Council of Churches where they reconnected with Julia.

When the Kinslers returned to the United States, Ross worked in the U.S. office of the WCC in New York City for three years and then taught at the San Francisco Theological School extension in Los Angeles.

There, Gloria became involved with Jesuits and Holy Names Sisters in the sanctuary movement, an underground railroad for Central American refugees fleeing oppression.
In 1987, the Kinslers moved to Costa Rica, where Ross taught at the Latin American Biblical Seminary and Gloria led church and solidarity delegations to experience the multiple realities of Central America, meeting with business people, farm workers, peasants, the U.S. embassy, priests, pastors, lay people, aid programs and ecumenical agencies.

Meanwhile, Julia spoke in Europe and North America, telling people of oppression, machismo violence in homes, government violence and human rights abuses that were intended to keep the wealthy protected and in power.

“I tell you this, because I don’t want it to happen to you,
” she told an audience in a packed room at the World Council of Churches’ Sixth Assembly in 1983 at Vancouver, B.C.
She knew that the then U.S.-based and now multi-national corporations, as well as U.S. policies supported the injustices and inhumanities in her country.

Julia later lived in Nicaragua and helped refugees in Mexico.

Soon after the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, Julia returned to Guatemala, accompanied by international witnesses. She returned to her family home. Her aunt, who lived there, had told people Julia was a guerilla, so people were suspicious.

Gloria said that after Julia returned to Guatemala, she helped Auxiliary Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi compile several volumes in the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, documenting 200,000 civilian deaths and disappearances. She listened to and recorded stories as part of this effort to tell the truth, make reconciliation possible and prevent future atrocities.

The volumes, “Guatemala: Never Again
,” were published in April 1998. The bishop, 75, was murdered three days later.

The document reported that about 90 percent of the atrocities, including massacres of more than 400 villages during the 36-year civil war were at the hands of the government, police and military.

Six months later, the United Nations’ report said 95 percent of the violations were by government apparatus, Gloria said.

Now Julia, 77, works with women who were tortured and traumatized by the violence.
In 1999, Orbis published the Kinsler’s book, The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life. Through this tutorial book, they interpret Central American realities to North Americans.
The Kinslers remind Christians of jubilee justice teaching—the vision of release from the bondage of debt.

Gloria said, “The first mention of Sabbath in the Scriptures is the story of the manna for the Hebrews in the wilderness. Everyone was provided for so they would have enough. No one was to have too much or too little.

“Sabbath and jubilee are intended to restore that balance when people move from times of want to times of plenty. There are still hungry, homeless, outcast people who do not share in the plenty God provides,” she said.

Gloria said life in Guatemala is worse today with widespread violence and poverty as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Previously Guatemalans lived in poverty, but survived with their families and communities intact.

Central Americans who fled repression, death threats and war in the 1970s and 1980s were considered “economic refugees,” but today they are economic refugees. They come because NAFTA undercuts Guatemalan and Mexican farmers’ ability to sell their corn, rice, beans and chickens because U.S. subsidized corn, rice, beans and chickens are sold for less.

Farmers have to sell their land to agribusinesses to buy corn, rice and beans to feed their families.

“We blame them for coming,” she said. “Instead we in churches need to understand they come because NAFTA has destroyed their livelihoods, and because U.S. businesses and agriculture need them as cheap labor.

Their communities are broken. Men have been killed or are in the U.S. trying to work. There is violence against the women and children left behind. The fabric of their society has been destroyed,” Gloria said.

Unlike poor Americans who are blamed for and blame themselves for their poverty, poor Mayans know why they are poor—their land was taken and livelihoods undermined. They do not blame themselves, but retain a sense of dignity, she explained.

“Julia does not always write of the deep sorrow she carries with her,” Gloria said. She also shares hope in a poem, “Why Not?”: “If the stars can be reflected in puddles of mud, why could they not be reflected in the most evil of people.”

For information, call 323-4037.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2007