In 1970, a small village was established in Guatemala by landless peasants. Twelve years later they were discovered by the army and their village was destroyed. This book is the story of that village, Santa Maria TzejŠ, by an anthropologist who has followed the events for over thirty years, constantly returning to it to record interviews and to capture not only what happened, but the motives, the aspirations, and the feelings of the people involved, the peasants and wherever possible, the army. It is a true story, an anthropological study, but one which reads like a page-turner novel. The book is one of the California Series in Public Anthropology, which is committed to "describing, in human terms, how life is lived beyond the borders of many readersí experiences." Many quotes, pictures, and maps help to bring the events of life for the reader.
The story is set against a backdrop of the power of elites and governments. The 1970s was a time of optimism and renewed political activity in Guatemala. In the United States, President Jimmy Carter made US aid contingent on respecting human rights. The Guatemalan army rejected this aid as well as Carterís requests to reduce the shootings, beheadings, and torturings of political opponents. In 1982, however, Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup. Now the United States had a president (Ronald Reagan) who dismissed reports of human rights violations as a "bum rap." In the name of anti-communism, elites and military sought to reinforce their position by tapping into the economic military and political support eagerly supplied by the U.S. government. The U.S. government in turn argued that supporting military regimes or military-dominated regimes was essential to provide hemispheric stability.
People of tiny Santa Maria TzejŠ knew nothing of these governmental maneuverings, but they experienced their effects. The village that they had struggled to establish and maintain was discovered and completely destroyed by the army. The people were either murdered, fled to Mexico, or stayed in a kind of slavery under the direction of the army. Eventually, the village was again rebuilt, and some of the original people returned.
Beatriz Manz is an intrepid follower of the events. One of her colleagues, Myrna Mack, was killed, but Manz continued to return to the village often over the period of thirty years. When her book was about to be published, she was concerned not to reveal names, but very often people insisted that their names be included. They wanted everyone to know what they had gone through.
Paradise In Ashes is one of those books that first, is hard to put down, and second, stays with you long after you have put it down. It is very moving on several counts. Because it is a true story, one feels that one has gained insight into a country and a piece of history. Because it is written from the point of view of the people who actually experienced it, the reader gains a deep understanding of their situation and can feel a lively compassion for what they have experienced.