July 21, 2000

On a Valentine's Day, Iowa Mom Discovers She is Guatemala Massacre Survivor

By Mary Jo McConahay

Rabinal, Guatemala: Denese Joy Becker, a mother of two who lives in Algona, Iowa, had begun to worry whether the vivid memories she carried were the imaginings of a crazed mind. She had no one she might ask, no one to talk with to compare memories of an idyllic childhood that ended in unspeakable scenes. In March, with the help of an Internet-savvy cousin, Becker discovered she was a survivor of one of the worst massacres in the history of this country's 36-year internal war.

Photo by Eros Hoagland
Paternal aunt embraces Becker as they and other relatives await blood testing to prove, by examining DNA, their relationship.

Rio Negro, once an 8 hour walk from this town, was the only one of 15 villages which refused to move without adequate compensation to make way for the flooding behind the proposed Chixoy Dam, partly financed in the l970's and 80's by the World Bank. In February, 1982, the able-bodied men of the Rio Negro were summoned to a market town and slaughtered by members of the Civil Patrol, acting for the army. On March 13, l982, patrollers from the town and soldiers in uniform fell upon the women, children and elderly who remained in Rio Negro. The spread of riverside houses and their dozens of families, part of a thousand-year old Achi Maya culture in the valley, became one of the 440 villages nationwide marked "subversive" and wiped out by the army during its war against leftist guerrillas. By 1996, when peace accords were signed, some 200,000 persons had died in the conflict, mostly unarmed Maya Indians, in a government campaign called "genocide" by a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission.

"I knew I was a survivor of something, because I remembered things, and I remembered my name - Dominga Sic Ruiz," said Becker, who was adopted at age 11 from a Guatemala City orphanage by a Baptist minister and his wife, and raised in the town of Thompson, Iowa, pop. 670. There, among blonde, blue-eyed children, the Maya Indian girl felt shy and "almost ashamed" of an awful past that she couldn't share — neither she nor anyone she knew what was happening in the place she was born.

She recalled a village in an area named Rabinal, and knew she was adopted in Guatemala, but over the years, she forgot her native Maya Achi language and Spanish. She had nightmares even in the security of a caring family.

She fell in love with Blane Becker, a K-mart department manager 6 years her senior. The courtship began with a blind date and included the prom and marriage, but the nightmares continued. "Sometimes I thought I was losing it," she said. As sons Sturling, now 7, and Skylar, now 4, grew, Becker felt more compelled than ever to return to Guatemala. "I looked at them and realized you have to know yourself well enough to teach them your own personal history, which is part of their background too," said Becker. But she was shy about talking of her desire to reconnect with the past, and funds were tight, so a trip seemed impossible.

Two years ago, at an annual summer extended family reunion in Michigan, Denese Becker confided her desire - "even just to know if I was celebrating my birthday on the the right day" - to Mary Purvis, 41, a relative of Becker's adoptive father. A missionary's daughter who spent her own childhood in a Mexican Indian village, Purvis had become close to her adopted "cousin."

"Denese would seem stuck up at the reunions, keeping to herself, feeding her children," Purvis recalled. "It finally occurred to me the reunions were hard for her, this was not her real family. Here we are hugging each other while she's over there in pain." Purvis was especially sensitive to Becker's desire to return because she herself had recently met with a son she had given up for adoption at birth when she was in her early teens. It was, said Purvis, a "healing" experience.

A divorced mother who works as a truck broker, Purvis used the tool of her trade - a home computer - to do research and drum up funds. Last summer, she e-mailed thirty families on the reunion list, asking for ten dollars a month for a year. She read a book about the Rabinal massacres by an anthropologist on the forensic team which exhumed bodies in l993, and wrote a 3-page letter noting where Denese's memories coincided with the evidence. She searched the Internet until she found a web-page for Stefan Schmitt, a founding member of the team who worked at Rio Negro and now teaches at Florida State University. Schmidt corroborated details Becker recalled.

Early this year Schmitt forwarded a note about a U.S. speaking tour by Carlos Chen, a survivor of Rio Negro, sponsored by Rights Action, a Washington D.C.-based group that raises money for grassroots humanitarian and development projects in Latin America. Blane Becker encouraged his wife to email a note to their office. "We wondered and worried about what happened to you," said Chen when he called Becker from Washington. "We used to call you la gringa, affectionately, because your skin was light."

"Yes, I am lighter skinned," said the amazed Becker. The pastor at the First Baptist Church of Algona, Iowa, where the Beckers live, heard the story one night over dinner, read Purvis' memo and "asked lots of questions," said Blane Becker. The pastor sent a $1000 check, and the congregation donated collections for three Sundays.

Blane Becker supported his wife's planned return "in every way," but as the date of departure approached he grew apprehensive about his first trip outside the United States. Meanwhile, emails about the discovery of an American survivor of Rio Negro — which occurred at a time when Washington whole-heartedly supported Guatemalan military dictators — flowed among the academics, activists and others concerned with U.S. Central America policy. The news interested the Chixoy Dam Reparations Campaign, part of the campaign against the World Bank, and Amnesty International was sending a cameraman. Others wondered if Becker might be a high-profile witness in legal cases against the dictators Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt.

Becker, 27, works as a manicurist and recently took a part-time waitress job. At first, she seemed overwhelmed by the expectations swirling around her. She had never heard of these campaigns and cases.

"I just want to see my family," she said the day after her arrival in Guatemala City. She hoped to meet relatives who might tell her what she was like as a child, perhaps find someone with a picture of her father or mother. She wanted to confirm flashes of memory - soldiers swimming across a river, soldiers surrounding a church where she played dead among still bodies, perhaps when she was about age 6. It happened, she would later find out, when soldiers protecting the dam project attacked the village briefly in 1979, purportedly to find thieves. One of Denese Becker's clearest memories was the March day when she was 9 years old, when her mother was killed.

Photo by Eros Hoagland
With local Maya Achi, Blane and Denese Becker and Becker’s adoptive “cousin,” Mary Purvis, bring flowers to monument for Rio Negro dead.

"It was early in the morning and my mom was breast-feeding," Becker recalled. Her father had been slain the month before with 76 other men from Rio Negro in the town of Xococ, and hastily buried there. Days later, a sister was born to her mother in Rio Negro. "It was very peaceful, very beautiful, and I was sitting next to her. All of a sudden I heard shouting. I looked up and saw soldiers had surrounded us all and they were grabbing people, dragging people, putting a noose around their necks." In the midst of flailing boots, ropes and crying villagers, Denese said her mother told her to grab a cloth typically used by Indian women. "She tied the baby onto my back and turned me around and squared me up and kind of took me by the shoulders and I looked up at her. `Run,' she said."

For four months the girl tried to keep herself and the baby alive, eating berries, squeezing berry juice into the baby's mouth, wrapping the infant in leaves for warmth. They slept in the crooks of trees "because I was afraid of caves." When the baby died, Denese — then called Dominga — buried her at the base of "a huge tree." In the next months, as starving survivors —including an aunt - found each other in the forests, they passed the girl from place to place clandestinely and finally to a convent here, where nuns secretly delivered her to the orphanage in the capital.

When Denese Becker's rented jeep pulled into Rabinal, set in a tropical mountain zone some 5 hours from the capital, her former community was ready. Now displaced, living in small wooden houses in the shadow of a military garrison on the edge of this county seat, they brought loudspeakers and a microphone and marimba tapes into the main square. When Becker stepped into the light they saw a Maya Indian like them whose skin showed no sign of a life in the sun, a woman of their small stature yet wearing perfect make-up, with flowing - not braided — black tresses, wearing blue jeans, not a long woven skirt. But Denese Becker was a stranger only for a moment. Someone called her name, "Dominga," and the crowd broke into crying and keening, with aunts and uncles and cousins presenting themselves in a language she could not understand.

"We thought she was dead," said her father's 52-year old sister, Dorotea Iboy Sic, stroking Denese's hair. When a hard rain began to fall the crowd moved under a yellow arched colonnade; Denese, pressed on all sides, touched a woman's cheek and whispered, "They're just like me."

But tensions of that long war have not disappeared, as Denese Becker discovered almost immediately. On her second day in Rabinal, the Beckers, Purvis, and a couple of dozen displaced Rio Negro residents walked in a group to a square cement monument to the town's dead at the border of the civic graveyard. Becker gazed at the names of the 77 women and 106 children, and the hand-painted confirmation of her own memory of that day — villagers joined at the necks by a long rope, at the hands of armed men who would shoot them just over the rise, after raping women and making them dance.

"There's a verse in the bible that says God sees what happened and will take his vengeance," Denese Becker offered. Villagers felt differently. "We can't wait for God — they took the cows of the people and the widows have nothing. We must fight here and now," said Carlos Chen, 53, whose wife, young son and daughter, and sister died at Rio Negro. "There were pregnant women and those babies never saw light," said Pedrina Burrero, 36. "You can be their voice."

For awhile, walking the long, thin single row where the Rio Negro villagers' remains lay re-buried, Becker shook with tears, her only words, "I didn't do anything." But when she heard that a locally well-known oreja, or military collaborator, was standing at the edge of the crowd, her tears turned to anger."You're causing problems here - leave people alone," she confronted the shocked man, as villagers melted away clearly worried by the scene. "I'm just here observing - will you be staying?" he said. "I'll be returning and returning and returning," Becker said, and spit at his feet.

In the following days Becker, customarily soft-spoken and in her own words "terribly shy," had to be dissuaded from marching into the military outpost that keeps an eye on the resettled community. She wanted to go to the town of Xococ, to see where her father's bones might be, but many civil patrollers who collaborated in the massacres remain free and in charge, and she was told the trip would be dangerous without protection from the United Nations human rights observer team and armed police.

One afternoon, searching through canvas-covered residence ledgers in the municipal office, Becker found the hand-written entry for her father, Rosendo, along with his picture. Moved and elated, she stood for several minutes stroking the photo, then arranged to have it copied. This was, she said later, the "most important" moment of her journey. "It brought me peace," she said. But that night Becker became furious when she learned that one of the ex-patrollers present at the massacre had demanded the clerks tell him what she was doing. She also discovered that another patroller, named repeatedly by witnesses in a trial about the massacre but never arrested, is on the city council, a member of the same party as President Alfonso Portillo.

"I'm an adult now and I can do something about it. Seeing the perpetrators everywhere — it just burns me to have them free," she said.

"She is bringing an American view of the world to this situation," said Schmitt, the forensic expert, who had come to Rabinal to take DNA samples from Becker and relatives to corroborate their blood relationship. "She grew up in a country where she has rights and is aware of them."

The samples — on special paper which might be kept without refrigeration — never left Schmitt's backpack for days to ensure an unbroken chain of evidence. Schmitt said establishing family ties was a "humanitarian" act, but proof of relationship to the victims could also be evidence in a legal proceeding. As an eye-witness and victimized party - and as a US citizen with the right to sue in U.S. courts - Becker's appearance has not escaped the notice of Guatemalans attempting to push legal cases against perpetrators of the violence.

After days of talking with family members and others, Denese Becker said she had moved from her concern about family "to also seeing I have rights," and "wanting justice." But she had no intention of soon changing her life in Algona, Iowa. "I'll appreciate the United States more when I go home. My life is there, my job is there, my other family, my children. America has been good to me." If she could help make things better for her Guatemalan family, she would. If she could "just get a hold of the town of Algona - getting people there to understand what happened here - I'd be doing good."

Meanwhile, during her final days in Rabinal, Denese Becker often slipped into the market in the town square to buy juicy yellow jocote fruit, or an orange mango, to eat the rich traditional corn and chicken stew called pinol from a gourd bowl. Sometimes she sifted through the lengths of woven fabric worn by Achi women, holding the fabric to her face, as if to impress upon her mind again the scents of her childhood.

"I had to put myself in the place where these things really happened," she said.

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