I was there with a Finnish film crew and we were doing this documentary called Deadline. It’s worth seeing because you see Nebaj the way it was. The rawness of the film gives you a really good sense of what it was like to be in Nebaj in rainy season with the military there. And at that dance, I wanted to see what was happening. And the commander of Nebaj at that time was Otto Perez Molina, but I didn’t know that until a year ago. To me he was just the commander with a Kabil beret, and a beard and mustache. He asked me to dance and I couldn’t say no, so I danced with him . . .
But what choice do you have? That to me was. . . it was putting myself in the shoes of a Guatemalan. What do you do? Do you say “no”?
And last night, [for the book release and exhibition of her photographs] at the Spanish Cultural Center this little Indian woman, she was very sweet. She got up to the podium, she was 4 foot 10 and she gave a little speech. And she said, “I wanted to thank you for your photo of the girl dancing with the soldier, because to me it reminded me of all the times that our women were forced to dance with soldiers . . . and we had no choice.” And you know, I thought, that was one of the few times when I was in the position of a Guatemalan. Where my passport didn’t actually mean much at the moment.
I mean, sure, if I had said “no” to him, it would not have had the same consequences as a Guatemalan saying that, but there is a point where we had a common denominator. How do you say “no”? I’m part of this, even if I hate it.
MT: With this printing of the book, in Spanish, who is your target audience? Is it primarily within Guatemala?
JMS: Well, yes. It’s a limited printing. 1000 copies. CIRMA received half the copies and is distributing them gratis to non-profit organizations. And the other 500 copies are being sold at Sophos Bookstore in Guatemala City. They’ve sold 170 copies, and we hope it will sell out by Thanksgiving. Then we have to decide what to do. The rough plan now is to secure more grants and combine that with the revenue from the sales of this book and to invest that money in a popular edition of the book with 200 photos and very little text, just captions. We aim to put together a run of 15,000 copies.
MT: And when’s the hope that it will come out?
JMS: It’s all a function of money, but we’re hoping for this time next year. You don’t want to release it right before Christmas, or Holy Week . . . Though, maybe Christmas. Maybe people would buy it for Christmas.
MT: It would be a hell of a stocking-stuffer.
MT: I mean, I’d buy it, but then again, I live in a dark, horrible world.
JMS: Maybe there would be interest. (She laughs) I was really surprised at the turnout last night. And there were so many young people there. There were many people I knew, but also many people I didn’t.
MT: What was the capacity of the room?
JMS: 150, but they estimated 300. [U.S. Ambassador] MacFarland came. The Spanish Ambassador came. Then the event at Excéntrico was wild. There were hundreds of people there. Excéntrico is a wonderful art gallery in Zone one, administered with funds from the Spanish government. It was quite an event. Guerrilla commanders’ mothers were coming up to me. A commander I’d been with in the Javier Tambriz Front and who is in one of my pictures in the gallery showed up. He was an ORPA commander.
MT: Had you seen him since those days?
JMS: No. He contacted me a week ago on facebook.
MT: The former guerrilla commander contacted you on facebook?
MT: That is a sentence I didn’t think I would ever hear in my lifetime.
JMS: Me neither. (She laughs.) And so people were taking pictures of us in front of the picture of him.
MT: Which photo was it?
JMS: It is one of Comandante Ana where he and she are plotting the war at a table in the middle of nowhere.
And there was another person there last night who was a relative of Beatriz Barrios. She is the woman whose hands have been severed. Her picture is toward the end of the book. Someone from the Spanish Center came up to me and said, “There’s someone crying in front of one of your photos.”
You know, her brother has recently been in contact with me; now everything is coming out of the woodwork. For so long I forgot about Guatemala. My photos weren’t out there. Not because I didn’t want them to be, but because I felt that people didn’t need to be reminded of something so evil and insidious. And why would I, a foreigner, ever presume that my photos should remind them of something that perhaps they would rather forget? But then you start getting your photos out there, and then (she laughs again) you go on facebook and everything goes viral. But the net effect is that people start contacting you. And Beatrice Barrios’ brother contacted me about two weeks ago. He was 13 when she was killed and the family fled into exile. He was at her funeral and he said he suppressed the memories for a long time, but then two years ago he decided to do something about it. And he’s been investigating her death and trying to get a case before the Inter-American Court.