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Vicenta Jerónimo, A Congresswoman Who Never Wanted To Be A Politician

Sebastián Escalón

 
 

Vicenda Jerónimo picks up her backpack in her office, ready to go back to her community. Photo by: Simone Dalmasso
 
Vicenda Jerónimo picks up her backpack in her office, ready to go back to her community. Photo by: Simone Dalmasso

The Spanish version of this article was originally reported by Plaza Publica

Vicenta Jerónimo’s first battle in Congress was over an office, her office. 

Every four years, congressional representatives wage war against each other for the most luxurious and spacious office. Some take over more than one office to set up their many staff. Meanwhile, the small fry clamor for something better than a wet dark storage room. 

Vicenta Jerónimo, who didn’t know about these things, arrived in Congress on January 15, to claim her office. After waiting several hours, she was offered one in a nearby building. But when she and her advisors got there, they saw that Congressman Wilmer Mendoza had already put his plaque on the door. This was an abuse of power; Mendoza already had several offices. 

Jerónimo didn’t think twice. She switched out Mendoza’s plaque for one with the logo of the Movement for the Liberation of the Pueblos (MLP), and started to unpack her things. But soon one of Mendoza’s staff arrived and kindly told Jerónimo that the office had already been claimed. 

Jerónimo, who isn’t easily intimidated, answered, “I’m sorry, but I was under the impression that Mendoza already has several offices. I’m already here, and I’m not leaving. You can keep the offices you already have.” The advisor got a dose of MLP-styled redistributive justice, and left. Plaza Pública reached out Wilmer Mendoza who said he knew nothing of this encounter, and that he didn’t have an office in that building.

Jerónimo’s second battle happened on camera. First, she gave up all congressional privileges: health benefits, a petty cash account, cellphone, free lunches, as well as five of the eight assistants she was assigned. These luxuries, she explained, are inappropriate in a country as hungry as Guatemala. 

On February 3, she embarrassed the entire political class at a meeting by making a simple proposal: that they move the meeting to two in the afternoon so that Congress didn’t have to spend money on lunch. This proposal was soon lambasted. Congressmen felt their austerity measures were being scrutinized. “We need to stop engaging in populist publicity stunts. Not having lunch will do nothing to curtail this country’s problem of malnutrition,” said former president Álvaro Arzú, before telling Jerónimo to give up her seat. But this was a serious misstep: a millionaire heir clinging to his free lunch while an indigenous, poor woman rejected hers. He was soon buried under an avalanche of memes and insults.   

Todos Santos, Ixcán, Quintana Roo, Patulul

Vicenta Jerónimo was born on October 27, 1972 in the village of Todos Santos, Huehuetenango. She comes from a family of landless campesinos whose fate was about to change. Twenty days after she was born, her family abandoned the Cuchumatanes Mountains for the municipality of Ixcán. Her father, Francisco Jerónimo, had joined the religious cooperative of Guillermo Woods, an American missionary who organized indigenous campesinos to farm the jungles of northern Quiché. Her family settled on a small plot of land in the Mayalán community. 

Jerónimo remembers a peaceful life. “My dad and mom had animals to sell and eat… My dad was able to secure a much better life than the one he’d been living. He sold coffee and cardamom.” But history soon caught up to them. 

On November 20, 1976, Father Woods died in a plane crash. It’s widely believed that the Guatemalan army shot down his plane. Violence in Ixcán intensified: murders, torture, and disappearances multiplied until, in 1982, they became part of a state sponsored campaign of extermination. 

Like many other families, Jerónimo’s left their land and sought refuge in the jungle. For a year, they fed on fruit and roots, fleeing the army’s raids. “We were desperate because when the helicopters would come shooting, it wasn’t easy to run. We’d hide among the trees or in the rivers,” Jerónimo remembers. 

In 1982, they crossed into Mexico. They made it to a refugee camp in Chiapas, but when the Guatemalan army found them, they were relocated to the state of Quintana Roo. The Mexican government gave them a small house and plot of land, where they lived for seventeen years. Like many other women in the refugee camp, Jerónimo worked as a maid. Later she participated in UNHCR projects, leading workshops on nutrition and childcare. She also learned to weave.  

In the 1990s, the refugees began considering going back to Guatemala. Jerónimo participated in the committees that negotiated and organized their return. It wasn’t easy. They had to put up a fight against the Guatemalan government. The refugees camped in front of the Guatemalan consulate in Chetumal until the government relented and bought the land where they were relocated. 

In the midst of these struggles, Jerónimo began to cultivate herself as an organizer. She attended various workshops and trainings that were like a patchwork of truncated studies; because of the war and her family’s repeated migrations, Jerónimo was barely able to finish second grade. 

In 1997, a year after President Álvaro Arzú signed the peace accord with indigenous rebel groups, her family returned to Guatemala. Not to Ixcán or Todos Santos, but a place formerly unknown to any of the refugees, a village called San José el Carmen in the municipality of Patulul Suchitepéquez. The southern coast would become, from then on, Jerónimo’s new home, her new place of action. 

 

The Road Back 

It’s three in the afternoon, on a Friday. Congress is at a lull and representative Jerónimo has finished all of her meetings of the day. It’s time to leave a city where she’s not fully comfortable and return to her rural community. She throws on her backpack, leaves her office and goes down Sixth Avenue to the bus station, El Amate. On the way, people recognize her and ask to take selfies with her. 

The line at the bus station is so long it spills out the door. However she can, pushing her way through, the congresswoman gets on the bus and joins the mass of compressed bodies—white-collar workers, laborers, public employees, and street-corner vendors who have also finished their workday. 

Night is falling by the time Jerónimo gets off the bus. She gets on a moto-taxi which, for 30 quetzals, will leave her in San José el Carmen. The highway, bordering the huge rubber farm owned by Mario Leal Castillo—the ex-vice-presidential candidate who ran on a ticket with Sandra Torres, known for illicitly funding his political party, the National Unity of Hope—is in terrible condition. 

A half hour later, Jerónimo finally gets home and greets her two daughters and five grandkids. They live in a simple rural home made of cement block and laminate roof, with few pieces of furniture, many flowers, a wood-burning stove, and a latrine. Chickens, turkeys, geese, and pheasants come and go as they please. There are three pigs in the pen and rabbits in a cage. In the back, the small Jajá river flows for the children to play and splash around and hunt for crabs. 

This is where she likes to be. “I’m used to my town. It’s peaceful, quiet, the air is pure and you can commune with nature. I feel its energy. I go to the forests to ask for forgiveness whenever I’m not able to fight for its rights.” 

When Jeronimo returned from exile, she got involved in politics and joined the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party (URNG). After the 2003 election, when they lost the municipality of Patulul, she felt disappointed for the party that was formed by guerrillas. “Rural communities weren’t being respected,” she says. But the URNG, she added, had become a “politicking party.” 

In fact, according to Jerónimo, all of the parties, except the MLP, are “politicking parties” that simply play by the rules of the oligarchies. This is why, even though they converge on certain points, she doesn’t want to make alliances with other parties in Congress. “I can’t make alliances, because the pueblos have asked me not to,” she says. Not even with Winaq, the indigenous party founded by Rigoberta Menchú. “They have another ideology. Sometimes they say they’re with the pueblos, but they don’t fight hard for the pueblos.” 

In 2005, after URNG’s loss, she joined the campesino movement called Codeca. 

How did you come to join Codeca?

“It was through Thelmita,” she says, referring to Thelma Cabrera, another Mam woman, and leader of Codeca, who ran for president in 2019. They met while working for URNG. 

 

The Business Nightmare

In 1992, sugar cane harvesters gutted Santo Domingo Suchietepéquez with their powerful strike. They were earning 1.50 quetzals a day and demanded 3.50 quetzals. A scandal. Pushed by the layoffs and repression that followed the strike, Mauro Vay and 16 other campesinos created the Committee for Campesino Development to fight for labor and land rights. 

For many years, Codeca was overshadowed by larger campesino organizations such as CUC and CONIC. It wasn’t until 2007 that it gained national notoriety. 

The fight for electricity became a central part of their struggle. Guatemala’s largest energy company, Energuate, charged rural communities hundreds or even thousands of quetzals, enraging the country. Codeca called for the nationalization of energy and backed communities that refused to pay their energy bills and instead stole power from the grid. In turn, Energuate filed hundreds of complaints against members of Codeca. 

With time, Codeca has broadened its work to encompass water rights, land rights, healthcare, education, and the fight against corruption. Codeca also created the concept of Buen Vivir, which looks for a harmonious way of life between people, communities and nature. Inspired by Bolivia, Codeca is also demanding that Guatemala become a plurinational state. This would give the 25 indigenous nations of Guatemala greater autonomy and decision-making power over changes in the consumption and production of natural resources, the justice system and education. Codeca is now made up of 125,000 families, and some 25,000 active members who pay a monthly quota of 3 quetzals. 

In 2016 Codeca decided to take a big step forward: it formed a political party, and started participating in congressional elections. And so the Movement for the Liberation of the Pueblos was formed, and in 2018 it elected its first candidates. 

Neftalí López, ex vice presidential candidate and sociologist says: “Many thought we were academics and were solely going to occupy those jobs.” But this didn’t happen. The MLP elected Thelma Cabrera to run as president and Vicenta Jerónimo for congress. “In this organization we give priority to women, to the indigenous and to the movement,” he explains.

And why Jerónimo? “She’s been an organizer since she was a girl. With her backpack in tow, she comes and goes, comes and goes. This is what earned her respect in the organization and prompted her to be the congressional representative,” López says. 

Jerónimo herself was surprised. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind.” At first she wanted to say no. “I questioned my colleagues. ‘I refuse the nomination,’ I said. ‘Why would you do that?’ they asked. ‘This is a mission that the pueblos are enlisting you to do.’” And that was that. 

The results of the 2019 elections were questionable for the MLP. On the one hand, Thelma Cabrerara got a historic 10.3% of the vote: almost half a million Guatemalans voted for a female indigenous campesina candidate. This was, at that point, unheard of. On the other hand, the legislative and municipal results were disappointing: they won only one seat, that of Vicenta Jerónimo, and no mayoral bid. The congresswoman reaffirms the MLP’s position: it was fraud that denied them greater representation. “If we had 40 votes on record, they’d only count 5 of them,” she says.  

Political scientist Renzo Rosal denies there was fraud. Rosal thinks the results reflect the nature of the MLP: a new, radical party without a strong national organization in place. “It has the heart of a social movement, not of a political party.” In addition, the states where Codeca is strongest, Retalhuleu and Suchitepéquez, don’t have many seats in Congress. “I think the idea of fraud lacks substance. MLP should be proud of what it has accomplished, and should work to get more votes.”

Accountability in Patulul

She awakes in San José el Carmen and prepares for a long weekend of work. At 8 AM she has her first meeting in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Patulul. In a small patio, under the shade of a tree, the congresswoman greets other Codeca community leaders. Twelve people, men, women, teachers, housewives, and laborers are her audience. Each with a school notebook in hand, they will relay the information from the meeting to the other 450 local Codeca members. 

Jerónimo, wearing her austere navy blue traditional skirt which is offset by her bright huipil adorned with flowers, butterflies and birds, starts off the meeting recounting what she has seen and done during her first month in Congress. She tells stories befitting someone who is new to Congress and can’t believe what she sees. She was struck by the congressmen’s tardiness (“those who come late are the first to leave”), their tantrums (“they’re like children”) and their hypocrisy. She gives an example—their discussion on an initiative to give midwives 3,000 quetzals a year. “All of the congressmen made this show, saying how important [midwives] are, and that all of them were born thanks to a midwife… but when it came time to vote for the measure, only 53 voted in favor.” 

And of course, she speaks of austerity. Jerónimo promises to only keep 15,000 quetzals of her 30,000 quetzal salary. She will donate the rest to new chapters of the MLP. This is one of the party’s promises: that no public official should make five times the minimum wage. 

Jerónimo’s actions have largely been symbolic: attending Giammettei’s inauguration with her face covered in a typical woven cloth (like the activists of Sepur Zarco) to show she finds his presidency illegitimate, refusing the free lunches at Congressional meetings, and not attending the election of Supreme Court magistrates. 

She knows that one lone congressional representative can’t do much more. She’s convinced that the laws proposed by the MLP “so that mother earth will be recognized as a living being, with its own set of rights,” will be denied. And yet, she says, “the popular will is not won in Congress, but directly on the lands of those who are neediest.”

Even so, for the MLP, having one foot in Congress is incredibly important. Jerónimo is part of the Finance and Human Rights commissions. Her vote won’t have much weight, but she can see firsthand what is discussed and what initiatives Codeca and the MLP should push for. She can also quote any public official and demand explanations. “They are going to have to come to my office, instead of me begging for their ear,” Jeronimo says. 

A Native in Cowboy Territory

In 2012, Codeca entrusted Jerónimo with an impossible mission: to bring their movement to eastern Guatemala. 

“The east has its peculiarities. There are a lot of white people, and there’s a strong culture of machismo and racism. There is a Xinka village there, but they’ve lost their language and their traditional dress to discrimination,” Neftalí López explains. “No one thought Codeca would be able to organize over there.” 

Jerónmio seemed the least safe bet because she would face the greatest rejection as an indigenous woman without formal education and whose Spanish is occasionally broken. Jerónimo’s native language is Mam and she’s also well versed in Quiché, Cakchiquel and Ixil. 

Jerónimo started her push in the city of Jalapa. By bus, by moto-taxi, in the beds of pickup trucks or by foot, she visited the most remote communities to meet with two people here, three people there. She was always on the move, repeating the same message of resistance and rebellion over and over, like Paul organizing the first Christians. “It wasn’t easy,” Jerónimo admits. 

Herminio Ordóñez, a farmer from the village of El Pinal, Jutiapa, and member of the state’s Codeca branch admits it: “Sure people made fun of her. There’s always racist jokes against the indigenous,” he said. “Forty percent of them said a woman could never win people over.” Some of the community leaders asked Codeca to enlist another ambassador. 

Jerónimo found a way to combat that racism. “In our workshops, we gave them the homework of looking into what traditional village their peoples were from. And so their racism towards me began to diminish,” the representative says. Farmers in the East became more aware of their Xinka roots and began to take pride in them.

“She showed us why we were ignoring where we’d come from,” says Herminio Ordóñez, who now identifies as “Xinka until I die.” 

At the same time, Jerónimo was able to turn the discontent of poor campesinos in the East into political organizing. The opening of the San Rafael mine, the decimation of forests by logging companies, water scarcity, and the steep energy bills readied communities in the area for Codeca’s arrival. 

Today, Jerónimo says, Jutiapa and Jalapa, where she worked for six years, are two of the states where Codeca is strongest. 

 

Codeca Targeted

It’s seven o’clock in the morning on a Sunday and Jerónimo is already aboard a bus on her way to Patulul. Today she has meetings in the municipality of San Lucas Tolimán. 

The first almost got called off. The host, María Ester Cojtí called to let Jerónimo know that the leaders she had invited had decided not to come. But Jerónimo doesn’t care: two or three people in attendance is enough. For a couple of hours, in the room of a middle-class home, the congresswoman talks with three leaders of the San Lucas area. Cojtí can’t believe that a congresswoman has come all the way to her home. She feels more than flattered. Normally, she says, congressmen disappear after an electoral campaign. 

The second meeting is in the neighborhood of Xejuyú, with a handful of coffee producers. Jerónimo is greeted with fireworks and balloons. Some twenty people gather to hear her talk about Congress. These aren’t Codeca militants either, but who knows? It’s so nice to receive a congresswoman, that perhaps this will become the new chapter of Xejuyú. At the end of the meeting, some ask how they can form their own chapter. 

Before returning home, Jerónimo wants to pass by the courthouse of Patulul. It’s a Sunday, but she hopes the judge on duty can get her signature. In 2014, the electricity company EEGSA filed a complaint against her and another Codeca member. The two activists were accused of staging an attack against a public utility services site, threats, and instigating crime. They were acquitted, but the company appealed. Since then, the congresswoman must periodically go to the courthouse of Patulul and sign an order that proves she’s not absconding. 

EEGSA and Energuate have filed around 600 complaints against leaders and members of Codeca. The road blockades that Codeca has organized have also attracted a number of legal suits from politicians. For Jorge Santos, the coordinator of the UDEFEGUA, a human rights organization, these suits are a way to criminalize social protest. 

The media, as well as social media, have also been on the attack: Codeca has been the target of an “articulated campaign that is heavily resourced” and that “uses hate rhetoric and incites violence,” Santos explains. 

Codeca’s enemies have employed a third strategy: murder. Since Codeca was founded, UDEFEGUA has found that fourteen of the movement’s members have been murdered because of their activism. “These murders are not only about their actions around energy but also about their land-rights organizing,” Santos says. 

One of these deaths was that of Luis Marroquín, one of the leaders who Jerónimo mentored in Jalapa. Jerónimo’s voice breaks when she remembers him. “For more than a year, Luis came with me to the communities. He was a man who wanted to see change in his community. He started the fight over there. He never betrayed his pueblo,” she says, fighting back her tears. On May 9, 2017 he was shot nine times in a bookstore in San Luis Jilotepeque. The ex-mayor of San Pedro Pinula, José Manuel Méndez Alonzo, is accused of ordering his murder. 

Despite this history of violence, Jerónimo comes and goes by herself. “We’ve talked to her about watching out for her safety,” Neftalí Lopéz says. But she doesn’t seem to listen. 

Night falls and Jerónimo gets atop another moto-taxi en route to her village. Tomorrow she’ll have to rise early yet again, to return to Guatemala City. 

*Translated by Daniela Ugaz

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