Author Q & A

Is Caminar a real story?

Caminar is fiction. That means I made it up. Chopán is not a real place, and Carlos is not a real kid, but what happened to him and what happened to his village did really happen in Guatemala not too long ago.

Why were the soldiers and the guerillas fighting?

It’s hard to understand why people are fighting because each side has their own ideas about what the argument is about. I think the Guatemalan army felt they were fighting to stamp out communism, and to maintain control. The guerillas were fighting because they didn’t like the way the government was treating them. In the midst of all that, there were many people who weren’t technically on either side but caught in the middle and often killed.

What happened to all those people?

Many died. Still others were “disappeared,” or taken by the army and never heard from again. Others left their village and moved to the city. Many left Guatemala altogether, leaving behind everything they owned, their way of life, their families and friends, and fled to Mexico or the United States, where they felt safer.

Why were they massacring villages?

Maybe it was an attempt to scare people away from helping the rebels, who were going from village to village and trying to recruit people to join their cause. Efrain Rios Montt, who was first a general and later the President of Guatemala, once said:
“The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.”

Why didn’t anyone stop them?

I wish I knew. There isn’t a simple answer. I’d encourage you to research this and see what you learn. In 1954, the United States helped overthrow the President of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, who had been democratically elected by the people. Though at the time this was presented as an effort to stamp out communism, it’s pretty clear now that it had to do with the personal interests of some people in power. Do some research into that coup, the threat of communism, and how it all ties together to United Fruit Company.

What is communism?

Look it up! But here’s a simplified explanation: Communism is the belief that the wealth of a nation should be divided equally among everyone who lives there.

I thought people spoke Spanish in Guatemala. Why does Carlos speak a different language than Hector?

Spanish became the official language of Guatemala almost 500 years ago, when the Spaniards came from Europe to the land we now call Guatemala. But for hundreds of years before that, there were many different languages spoken in Guatemala, such as K’iche, Kaqchikel, and Mam. Today, we call them indigenous languages. Many people in Guatemala, especially outside of the cities, speak them still. A great map that shows where each language is spoken can be found here.

Why did you tell the story in poems?

That’s a question I kept asking myself while I wrote this story! I don’t know. The story came to me in poems, and that’s how I started writing it down. I thought I’d probably just use those poems to help me write a novel in prose, but the poems kept coming and I started to wonder if maybe the story should be told in verse.

Are you from Guatemala?

No, I’m from the United States, but I’ve visited Guatemala many times, and I lived there for five months while I was revising this novel.

Do you speak Spanish?

A little. But for this book, I had help from my husband, who teaches Spanish to college students, and from my Guatemalan friends.

Why did you write this story?

For more than ten years I’ve been really interested in Guatemala and saddened by what happened there a few decades ago. I’ve read many books on the subject and met many people who lived through the violence. The more I learned about what happened there, the more I felt that my country, the United States, shares a good part of the blame. It made me sad to realize that, and made me feel like I wanted to do something about it. One thing I can do is to make sure people know about what happened there, so that we can all find ways to help.

What can I do to help?

If you’d like to donate money to help people like Carlos find out what happened to their loved ones, you can check out organizations such as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation and if you’d like to send them a donation, you can mail it to:
Friends of FAFG
450 Lexington Avenue Suite 3800
New York, NY, 10017-3913

Donations are tax-deductible. (Friends of FAFG is a 501c3 in the United States.) If you’re sending a check, write “Caminar” in the subject line so they’ll know you’ve read the story. If you’re an Amazon shopper, you can also help them out by linking up your account to their Amazon Smile account, which will cost you nothing but give them a tiny bit, every time you buy something on Amazon.