Bird of Life, Bird of Death

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The quetzal was one of those birds one first encountered collecting stamps many years ago. Its picture came along in a special packet prepared by the stamp companies to tantalize the young and entice them to spend their allowance. In addition to birds, one could also buy an assortment of fish, horses, dogs, and tropical fruits. One had to sort them out, track down the countries from which they came, and ever so carefully paste them in an album, using the translucent stamp hinges that one would fold before licking but that would usually stick to one’s fingers. In each bird packet there would usually be one or more quetzals because Guatemala featured it on many of its stamps of low value. This small picture, however, gave little idea of the bird’s majesty, as it was printed on very cheap paper, in no more than two colors, and drawn by rather untalented artists. Once mounted in the album, the quetzal did not seem out of place with the drab pictures of dictators and architectural monstrosities that routinely appeared on the other stamps of that country.

Stamp collecting, one was told, would increase one’s awareness of the world, be one’s guide to faraway places and of times past. The editors of the stamp album would try to push one along by providing short, helpful descriptions of the countries whose canceled postage one was saving. One learned that Guatemala was “discovered” in the early sixteenth century by Spanish explorers, who found there an incredible Mayan civilization, and that the country in time grew to be one of the most populous in Central America—90 percent of its people were Indians or mestizos, while the small percentage of Spanish descendants made up the ruling class. The natives sold their handicrafts to the tourists; they raised coffee and bananas and worked in the forests, which yielded chicle for chewing gum. There was also a growing oil industry, and the national emblem was the quetzal.

Trouble is, most people’s knowledge of Guatemala never seemed to go beyond that found in the “Around the World” stamp album. Nothing in that book with those tiny pieces of paper glued neatly in rows told anything of the repressive conditions under which most of the country’s people have lived since the sixteenth century. Jonathan Maslow says that his trip to Guatemala to go bird-watching was motivated by an obsessive curiosity about nature, but he ultimately found more than he bargained for. “Dust, grit, smoke, weeds, garbage, slops, marl, excrement, packing crates, naked kids with bloated bellies, drunks lying in the gutters, and looming over everything an enormous billboard showing. . . some girl in designer jeans.” His description of the slums of Guatemala City is not to be found on any of the country’s stamps. “How do poor people take it?” he asks. “Why don’t they burn the whole thing down and start over again? What have they got to lose?” Before his journey is over, he will begin to provide some answers.

In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado, one of Hernán Cortés’ unruly lieutenants, arrived from Mexico at the head of a column of 120 horsemen and three hundred foot soldiers to conquer the land for the Spanish crown, enslave the inhabitants, rob them of their wealth and, in many cases, their lives. These foreign plunderers were thoroughly convinced that what they were doing had the blessing of the king and God. Alvarado, a homicidal maniac, was given the greatest opportunity of his life to satisfy his lust for blood. His war against the civilian population initiated what Maslow describes as “the tradition of genocide that has bedeviled Guatemala as it greatest shame down to the present day.”

Though future dictators never quite seemed to measure up to the murderous panache of Alvarado, this was often not through want of trying. That the ruling classes would run roughshod over the natives was taken for granted. In the state of siege which currently exists, the campesino villages are habitually destroyed, the men massacred, the women raped, the children left destitute or even killed along with their mothers. The bloodshed is mostly confined to the remote areas of the country and is often not publicized. Journalists do not usually write about things that they are not allowed to see, which accounts for the standpoint of the rest of the world: out of sight, out of mind. Amnesty International has branded Guatemala one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. When Maslow was writing his book, the chief hangman was born-again Christian President-General Efraín Ríos Montt, who gave the army the power to arrest “subversives” and sentence them to death without the right of appeal or pardon.

Maslow writes of visiting an adobe church sanctuary perched on a long steep hill behind the provincial capital of Salamá. The atmosphere inside the church is one of tranquillity and peace, with polished black-and-white floor tiles leading to votive tables covered with lace-embroidered cloths gleaming white beneath the...

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Bird of Life, Bird of Death Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, May 1, 1986, p. 1280.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, December 15, 1985, p. 1382.

Library Journal. CXI, March 1, 1986, p. 87.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 9, 1986, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 10, 1986, p. 78.

Smithsonian. XVII, May, 1986, p. 164.

Texas Monthly. XIV, June, 1986, p. 157.