LUIS ALFONSO MIRANDA PÉREZ
I would like to share with you a piece of my childhood in Mesoamerica. From my abrupt arrival to the land of the Mayas and my difficult upbringing in a post-war environment, to becoming involved in community efforts and returning to the United States, while learning to move on from a conflict. I will recount on how conflict became a personal catalyst for peace. My story speaks of a post-war generation eager to change the narrative present in the country and contribute to society, and how I found myself building a space for peace and transformation in one of the most unlikely places.
I was just 3 years old when my world was shaken upside down. My mother found herself in deep trouble while we were living in Los Angeles. Abruptly, I was placed on a plane with my aunt and the little possessions I had, with a ticket to a new destination: Guatemala. Little did I know about the country, its people, the experiences, or the wisdom that awaited for me there.
Guatemala is a majestic country, blessed by its legendary past and at the same time cursed by the disturbing cycle of violence. After a military coup in 1960, the war raged between an oppressive military regime and a series of indigenous paramilitaries, taking the national front stage for over 30 years. The results were forced disappearances, enduring systemic violence, and genocides. I was 8 years old when a peace agreement was signed, but there was one problem: war might have ended but there was no peace. The culture of violence had become so pervasive across generations in Guatemala, that we internalized it: the violence wasn’t just normal but also part of our national identity. Here, the volume of every day violence and death is greater, and still grows larger, even after peace was signed, than during the years of war — or at least it still feels like it. You see, the industries of war were transformed into industries of contraband and drug-trafficking. Our sins of the past never left us — they just changed costumes.
I grew unsatisfied with the specter of doom which clouded my everyday existence in Guatemala. In the midst of a war-torn and poverty-stricken country, optimism and hope were hard to find. Surely, it is hard to find hope, when we continue to live the traumas of violence. I knew of primary classmates who had to move due to extortion by criminal organizations. On occasions, other children would suddenly recluse themselves after being sexually molested. Sometimes, their family members were killed – brutally and unnecessarily. The word got around, and everybody was aware of what was going on. No family could really escape these stories, not even mine. We endured while my sister and her family lived under constant fear. Along with her husband, they were kidnapped and robbed multiple times and eventually murdered. It is hard to remain hopeful amidst the angst of a state of insecurity, not being able to see an end in sight. The immensity of the personal horror could only be overshadowed by the pain of knowing that others would have to relive this reality. Being only a child, what was I to do?
I dared to believe that we could build a better world and looked for ways to channel that energy constructively. I was living in Izabal, the region Northeast of Guatemala, surrounded by a tropical rainforest and a stunning lake. But it is also one of the most dangerous regions outside of Guatemala City due to the drug trafficking. It was there that I began participating with a local humanitarian organization which worked with basic human needs and environmental conservation in our region. I sometimes helped during the disasters, for instance at points of distributions after natural disasters, which happen yearly. Often, I traveled to remote communities. Sometimes the road took me through muddy hills into dense forests – straight to the heart of indigenous communities in the mountains of the Sierra Madre range. Sometimes the road meant navigating in village-made boats through mangroves, with choirs of howling monkeys mystifying our incursions into the coastal villages of the Caribbean. In all those destinations there were children, eager to play, to receive an education – to just live a normal life. I learned lessons about the vital role of, not only primary education and conservancy education, but also of fundamental living necessities like drinking water, electricity, mosquito nets, and soap. I couldn’t understand it then, but I was moved by how ordinary people were very quietly, but steadily, taking ownership of our reality in Guatemala. They specially kindled in me the two most important questions that I could ask myself as a young person: why not me and why not now?
I dared to stand for something – and my peers soon followed. After a humanitarian camp with young people in Guatemala City, I chose to organize my peers to help our community. It began by just a few conversations between classes at our primary school. I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether rejection or cynicism, since – when it comes to peace – we lived in such a sterile environment. Indeed, cynics were not hard to find. But I did discover that my generation shared something in common: we were all sick of this reality even if we didn’t know how to get out of it. What we needed to do was to find a way out, so at first we decided to start by assisting our immediate community. We began with unofficial meetings held in my home. We assessed our resources – as minimal as they were since we were just children. We also assessed our local needs, and chose to work on inequality. We felt that we wanted to build solidarity starting from our generation, so we decided to create projects to help other children. Because we were inexperienced, we reached out to organizations that shared similar values looking for advisors and mentors who could assist us in our path. We approached our local school to start simple initiatives like donations of items from children that could help other children. At the same time we were pitching our project to our peers and adults.
The support for our idea was big at that time, but we didn’t know what the future had in store for us. The deadline for donations arrived and we didn’t know what to expect. Donations did come in, and the project was working! We were content with our first project and what we had gathered: we had fulfilled our initial goal. After this project, donations continued increasing to the point that they tripled. Simultaneously, more and more children wanted to be involved. We hadn’t even named ourselves at that time, but a new community was formed and a new identity in me cultivated. It is today that I realize this identity was of a ‘peacebuilder’. That very year that I was named best young leader in Guatemala for my efforts in humanitarianism. And just like my Guatemalan chapter had started, it all ended abruptly.
I was placed again on a plane with the little possessions that I had and a one way ticket to the United States. Living in Guatemala became too dangerous, our future looked bleak, and returning to my native land was imminent. The group continued operating after my departure, but the energy began slowly fading away until, sadly, they disbanded. Since I was far away from them there was nothing I could do about it
Even though this experience taught me great things, it still took me years to become sober from the internalized insecurity of Guatemala and to adapt into the normality of living again in the United States. My mother, not having a legal way to escape our reality Guatemala, crossed the Rio Grande River to give me the opportunity for a decent life and safe future. I spent my adolescence in Salt Lake City. Since my mother was an undocumented resident, we were forced to move into a poor neighborhood. She struggled finding work and we could barely afford somewhere to live, much less a bed to sleep on. Even though Salt Lake City was drastically safer, I still felt terrified of walking alone or being out in the dark of night. Large crowds of people reminded me of the gangs, even if I knew they were harmless. I was also surrounded by many other migrants from Mexico and Central America. They didn’t seem to fare any better. I remember a classmate from Central America getting suspended for pulling a knife in a fight after school. Another neighbor from Guatemala suddenly stopped coming to school – he ended in juvenile detention for working with drugs. Despite the fact that we left our country behind, the mentality remained engraved in our beings. Escaping Guatemala did not equate to healing, it just entailed an odd beginning of restoring my own humanity. I was the lucky one.
My only way to soar from the past was in the pursuit of a life where I could heal and restore my humanity to its fullest potential. At the most fundamental level, it required that I heal myself – both spiritually and emotionally. That meant that I had to believe in my inner worth, to recognize the demons from my past and the role they played in my emotional survival. I had to understand and embrace that their presence was no longer required in my new life. In all, I had to treat my wounded self with love and care. I no longer felt the responsibility to sustain the culture of violence. I used the fire from Guatemala to organize more young people, who just like me, want to make the world a better place. I participated or chaired other youth leadership organizations or initiatives in Central America, Czech Republic, Mexico, Russia, Japan, and the Netherlands. Interacting with our shared globe, with love and patience, and nonviolently assisting its transformation became my craft. This is why I chose to devote my short existence in this world to the work of peacebuilding.
I had no idea what Guatemala had in store for me, but it undeniably helped me to become the person that I am today. I left Guatemala with a strong Latin American identity. I also left inspired by the ordinary people there who were doing extraordinary work. It is them who kindled my passion to question the roots of our problems, to understand the intricate global society we live in, and to formalize arguments for sustainable change in our societies. In all of its wisdom, Guatemala created the environment where I could form my dream, and further catalyzed the transformation process that was necessary to pursue it. But most importantly, my childhood experience taught me that no matter where you stand, how young or old, how poor or rich, short or tall, the place to change is here, the time to change is now, and it starts within us all.
Story: Luis Alfonso Miranda Pérez (26) is an aspiring peacebuilder from the United States and Guatemala. Starting early in his life by working for his community, he has gone on to manage humanitarian efforts in Mexico, participated in youth leadership development projects in Czech Republic and the Netherlands, helped launch a social enterprise in Japan, and has chaired in the past international youth leadership communities and a bilateral working group between youth associations in the US and Russia. Currently, he is a masters student at the London School of Economics where he founded the Emerging Peacebuilders Society. He dreams to work as a mediator and do peace process design.
Artist: María José Guzmán Moras (age 12) is a young Guatemalan attending middle school in Salt Lake City, United States. She contributed this drawing to complement her uncle Luis’s story. Both her mother (Luis’s sister) and father had their lives taken away by the prevalent organized crime in her country when she was just 6 years old, leaving her and her siblings orphaned. In this piece she reflects on the gruesome reality and the pain of her childhood experiences while remaining optimistic of a better future for her and her family.