In 2014, Topacio Reynoso Pacheco, 16, opposed a silver mine planned to operate near her hometown about 50 miles southeast of Guatemala’s capital in Mataquescuintla, Jalapa. As part of her advocacy work, she created an anti-mining youth group and traversed the country with her dad, organizing communities to vote no on mines. On April 13, 2014, the teenage defender of the environment was shot and killed for her cause.
Whether fighting for environmental justice, Indigenous rights, or feminist issues, activists and organizers in Guatemala often face violence, including death, for their protests. Across the Central American country, many human and land rights defenders have been killed, attacked, or disappeared for simply protecting their communities and their futures.
The Guatemalan government is complicit in this violence, too. On March 8, 2022, during International Women’s Day, the Guatemalan Congress approved “Life and Family,” or Ley 5272, a regressive bill that “undermines the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people,” according to a Human Rights Watch analysis. The mandate, more commonly known as “Ley Del Odio,” aimed to outlaw abortion, same-gender marriage, and sex education as well as decriminalize hate crimes.
While the law was ultimately struck down, it wasn’t the first time politicians have attempted to legalize misogyny — and activists don’t believe it’ll be the last. Even more, passing the law on International Women’s Day has been interpreted as a violent attack on women.
Despite threats, coercion, and violence from the state, capitalists, and everyday people, Guatemalan women and queer communities remain on the frontlines of the struggle for social justice and human rights. Here, we chat with some activists who are leading the way and leaving a legacy for younger and future generations to live courageously.
In 2012, Guatemalan military personnel attacked Indigenous protesters in Totonicapán that were demonstrating against a nearby Alaska hydroelectric project. Six people were killed, and more than 30 people were injured. Lucia Ixchiu, an Indigenous Maya K’iche’ feminist, grew up in the community that was ambushed, and the experience informs her activism today.
“I had to live the war in the middle of the 21st century in 2012 with the massacre of Alaska,” Ixchiu says.
Like the rest of Latin America, violence against women is a serious problem in Guatemala. According to a 2020 PNC report, approximately 7,200 cases of gender violence were reported in 2020. In addition to the physical, sexual, emotional, and economic violence Guatemalan women experience, Indigenous women also face significantly higher rates of poverty and racial discrimination, compounding the violence and making it harder to seek help. In fact, one in three Indigenous Guatemalan women have no access to healthcare or family planning services.
While Ixchiu, who was exiled, is not currently living in Guatemala, the miles between her and her home country have not slowed her down. She continues to fight from a distance, advocating and raising awareness to issues that are impacting Guatemala, and Indigenous Guatemalan women specifically. To support these women, Ixchiu is part of multiple feminist collectives that create spaces for survivors of gender violence to speak, learn, and heal.
“The word feminism in our Indigenous languages does not exist, but the word liberation does. Women of Guatemala, Indigenous and mestizas, we are looking for our freedom, whether they call themselves feminist or not,” she says.
Growing up in a Catholic household and attending a private Catholic school, Alejandra Campollo had a lot of questions that neither her church nor her teachers would answer: mostly, questions about sexuality.
Guatemala is supposed to offer comprehensive sex education (CSE) in schools, but it doesn’t. According to the United Nations’ standards, CSE is supposed to cover “sexual and reproductive physiology, prevention of HIV and other STIs, contraception and unintended pregnancy, values and interpersonal skills, and gender and sexual and reproductive rights.” However, a survey by Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales-Guatemala and the Guttmacher Institute of 80 secondary schools found that only 7% of students between the ages 14 and 17 had been taught all the CSE topics.
Campollo has taken on the responsibility to provide accessible comprehensive sex education. In addition to her podcast, she also offers workshops and certificates for women interested in learning more about sex ed, self-pleasure, and women’s empowerment.
“I know how sex should be, but what about the other women in my country? They never touch themselves, or they feel dirty, or they don’t know the anatomy of their vulvas. It’s wild,” she says. “This is my journey. I need to give sex education to my people. I’m tired of people getting raped. I’m tired of women not getting pleasure. I’m tired of people not knowing what to do with their sex lives. I’m done.”
However, being pro-sex, bisexual, and a reproductive rights activist — with a public platform — has made Campollo a target for threats and violence. She regularly receives critical and menacing comments from trolls and bullies online who hate that she dares to talk “sin pelos en la lengua.” But she says these “haters” won’t stop her.
“As long as I’m helping other women to feel pleasure, and as long as I’m helping other women to feel comfortable with their bodies, I’m OK. I can die,” Campollo says.
Ann Fratti is an LGBTQ activist and volunteer at Visibles, a Guatemala City-based nonprofit organization based out of Guatemala City that is bringing awareness to sexual and gender diversity in Guatemala. This work has been difficult in the Central American country. “Diversity does not exist in law in Guatemala,” Fratti says.
Currently, Fratti, who is nonbinary, has been in the process of changing their legal name, an experience they describe as violent. In each document they’ve had to fill out, they are forced to identify with genders they don’t subscribe to: man or woman. However, Fratti says the experience is much harder for some of their other trans friends whose transitions aren’t legal or deemed legitimate under Guatemalan law.
“It’s a constant attempt to erase identities, to erase families,” Fratti says, adding that trans people don’t have laws that protect them or public support for gender reassignment surgeries. “There is a very constant attempt to erase us.”
Last year, 33 queer people were killed in the small country, according to a report from the Observatory for Human Rights and Violence for Sexual orientation and Gender Identity.
Without support from state leaders, healthcare professionals, or mainstream media, organizations like Visibles take on the responsibility of educating the public on gender and sexuality as well as raising awareness around anti-LGBTQ violence and discrimination.