“The Past Is With Us:” (Violent) History in Real Time

Theatre group in 1995How do we engage and challenge teenage students in their guts and heads at the same time?  How do we make history come alive in a way that changes the way they think about themselves and their future?
      Background:  Santa María Tzejá, Guatemala, was burned to the ground in 1982 in the country’s civil war.  The population was separated, with half fleeing to refuge in Mexico and the rest remaining at the village site.  Twelve years later the original population was reunited at the village site.  Here’s where the story begins.

     Young people returning from Mexico longed for the familiar life, the only life they had known, in Mexico.  They were bored with their new rural surroundings.  Other young people who stayed in Guatemala had been conditioned not to speak out about anything and were shy about speaking at all with strangers.
     A creative, liberating educator, Randall (Rolando) Shea–pictured above with student actors–had an idea.  He had been with the SMT population in their refuge in Mexico and taught in a middle school there with SMT children, so he knew the returned refugees of the village and was getting to know those who had stayed in Guatemala.  The school supervisor in the region had made him the principal of the new middle school in the village.  His idea: to write a play based on testimony interviews of the parent generation’s experience of the violence they had experienced in the civil war.  To do that he would need their permission.  He said to them, “There’s a risk here.  Your children could be killed for publicizing what the army did in many villages, including SMT.”  They told him to write the play; they wanted the world to know what had happened.
     The resulting play, “The Past Is With Us,” had a profound impact on the lives of its middle school actors and the rest of the village.  The actors had known something of the horror their parents had faced, but nothing of the detail in how it had frightened and changed their lives.  Now they were, in effect, putting themselves into the skin and emotions of their parent generation.  Some of these actors had been babies or very young children at the time the village was destroyed, so they had been unknowing actors in the drama they were now getting to know through walking in their parents shoes and speaking with the words they had spoken at such a stressful time in their lives.
     The play started with a recitation of some of the points in the Guatemalan constitution, which was progressive on paper but thoroughly violated in the civil war.  Each point was punctuated by a dramatic action, like the killing of a baby or an elderly person in the village.  One girl told me that when she and others in the play were backstage waiting for their time to perform, they found themselves crying from the emotional impact of what they could hear going on at the moment.  A torture scene was particularlSantiago as torture victimy wrenching (photo: Santiago acting in the torture scene).
     When the play toured around the country it awakened people to the awful things that happened in rural parts of the nation.  The student actors grew in their own voices and understanding at every performance.  Some in the audiences asked the performers if they weren’t afraid for their lives to be going around exposing the truth of what the army had done in their village.  One of the girls in the play said that it had taught her that there are some things worth risking your life for.  Those actors continued on through their education as leaders in their schools and, more recently, as leaders in their community, region and nation.
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I am pleased to introduce my book, Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in Guatemala” through these posts.  You can get it from Amazon or by ordering it from Paradigm Publishers at your local book store.

One response to this post.

  1. It’s wonderful to read this post and go back in time to the mid 1990’s when we were creating and touring this play. It was one of the most impactful experiences of my life.


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