September the 15th is Guatemala’s Independence Day and is celebrated by marches, formal activities, and patriotic symbols. You cannot avoid the proliferation of the national flag across the capital and in the towns.
Like every nationalist project, it is the use of symbols that is important and the lighting and carrying of the ‘Antorcha de la Libertad’ (‘torch of freedom’), on the 14th of September, is significant in that it captures the nation’s youth, primarily through the school system.
This demonstration that Guatemala is free is carried out through a decree of the Minister of Education and is represented by the adoption of the ‘Antorcha’ in the nation’s schools. It is, in some ways, the maximum expression of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, as laid down by the state, and is the culmination of the Civic Mondays (Lunes Civico) that schools promote. This is where pupils stand to attention and recite the national anthem while saluting the national flag. This is all ordered from above.
Woe betide teachers and schools that do not involve themselves in this nationalistic project with full vigour.
As for the students, it is not unusual that extra school credits are earned by turning up for the run.
The best students will, of course, be the first ones to carry the torch as it is lit and it is then passed on in the relay down the ranks. Regarding events on the 14th September, and with input from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the carefully managed choreography requires that the national flag is raised at 6pm to greet the torch when it arrives at its destination.
The symbols of flag and torch mean little to those for whom freedom have been denied through structures that they have no control over – and have been since independence was achieved in 1821.
It should be clear that those who gained most from independence were the local elites who were now able to increase their wealth dramatically through not having to pay taxes to the Spanish Crown and were now free to exploit fully the indigenous and poor ladinos. This is what is being celebrated.
Ironically, it was the Crown that reined in the greatest excesses and exploitation against these mariginalised peoples. After independence, all restraints were loosed.
For many in the capital, the lighting of the torch will take place at the Plaza del Obelisco from where the torches will be carried back to their respective communities. Here is where many groups start running out from, for example, students from the various education centres, football teams, youth groups etc. The groups come together, but separately. Think of a city where there will be many olympic torches snaking their way through the streets – in the name of freedom.
They are there to celebrate ‘Freedom’, firstly, and ‘Independence’, secondly- ‘Peace’ and ‘Justice’ have no place here.
In addition to the Plaza del Obelisco, groups congregate and set out from other points in the city, for example, in front of the Presidential Palace, and the National Theatre. Across Guatemala, groups set out from the respective Departmental and Municipal capitals and head for their village. Where they do head out from is a matter of geographical location and links to the relevant authorities.
The torches are usually lit by some local worthy, politician, or celebrity, depending on the links of the different groups. It would not be unusual to see the president doing his bit.
In addition to the Antorchas, on the 14th, Zone 1 especially is reverberating to the sounds of the marching bands of various schools in their military-style outfits in their military-style parades. Drums are very much in the majority here, as you might expect.
As with all good military projects, the schools are very much at the forefront. However, under the notion of freedom and independence, the young people of Guatemala are being tricked and deceived into believing that these things apply to them. They don’t, unless it means the freedom to be poor, the freedom to die from preventable causes, the freedom to be exploited, the freedom to be hungry and malnourished, the freedom to be threatened, the freedom to be attacked, the freedom to have a lack of education, the freedom to be sexually assaulted, the freedom to be cheated etc. Unfortunately the list goes on and these are the types of freedoms that the state provides its citizens.
In contrast to this nationalistic, flag waving, sham exercise, the Comunidad en Resistencia at La Puya supports the ‘Antorcha de la Dignidad’.
Last year was the first ‘Antorcha de la Dignidad’, and in solidarity with other communities affected by mega-projects, they started out from a community close by to them, in San Pedro Ayampuc, which is struggling against the imposition of a large hydroelectric project being constructed through TRECSA, a large Colombian company.
This year, the ‘Antorcha de la Dignidad‘ headed out from the Ministry of Energy and Mines building in the capital where, for over six months now, a smaller version of La Puya (La Puyita) has held its ground. It is now a point of resistance.
In place of running for freedom and independence, what does the comunidad en resistencia demand with the Antorcha de la Dignidad?
It demands dignity. It demands justice. It demands respect. It demands peace. It demands fairness. It demands full human rights.
It demands these for all Guatemalans, and these are the values that bind the runners, as well as the community, together.
It is not important that only students are running, it is only important that the runners share these values.
Last year the torch was lit by a highly respected elder woman from the community who was known for living with such high values and humility. This year it was lit by elder men who have spent the most time at La Puyita and who have suffered the most because of it.
These torch lighters of the Antorcha de la Dignidad have much more to be proud of than those of that other, contrived and controlled exercise in nationalism.
In a country of such unending injustices and social exclusion, classist, racist, homophobic, corrupt, and full of double standards, the Antorcha de la Dignidad provides a beacon for a more just Guatemala.