It’s a holiday in Guatemala today – Revolution Day – a day when Guatemalans remember the October 1944 overthrow of dictator Jorge Ubico. He’d been in power for 14 years, in a string of dictators going back to 1870. The Guatemalan government offered very little intellectual freedom; it controlled the only university, etc. So, university students and faculty began to form protests which were the basis of the October revolution. They called for his resignation, and made themselves known until he did resign in July of 1944. One of Ubico’s buddies took office, which did not please the student groups; they continued to protest, others joined in, and the toppled the government in October of 1944.
Guatemala entered into what’s called its “10 years of spring” where education and government policy progressed significantly. In 1954 it all ended with the CIA enabled coup. But that’s another story. Today we focus on the October Revolution.
I don’t claim to know a lot about Guatemala’s history – I have a cursory understanding, but it’s so complex that at times I don’t even know if a certain event was “good” or “bad.” But I do know that I have a great historical source. Since I’ve moved down here I’ve been tutoring an older man who is a grandpa of one of my teacher friend’s students. (got that?) He wants to brush up on his English – but his vocabulary and ability to navigate English is really quite good, so often we end up just talking. And he has stories. He’s been a lawyer in Guatemala, a professor, and the GT rep to the UN. He’s lived in multiple countries, went to communist Russia to see how things really were, and the list goes on.
This past week he wrote me Part I of what he remembers from the 1944 revolution (he was 9). He accounted most of what I wrote above. Then he passed me a Guatemalan history book, which has an entry on his father and his role in the revolution. His father, a journalist, and a friend had been two of the first to call for Ubico’s resignation. The friend was killed. His father was marched from Xela to the Capital (an 8 day walk). Tradition said that the government used these walks as a guise to kill people – they would kill them and then tell everyone that the prisoner had tried to run away. Since there were no witnesses, nothing could be done. But, this man had friends walk with him to prevent that from happening.
Once in the city he was taken directly to the president, and he knew he was going to be killed. So, he asked to go to the bathroom, snuck out of the bathroom through a sunroof, and fled to the Mexican embassy. He was held in asylum until Ubico promised to spare his life. He left the embassy, was whipped by the president, but then was able to return home. He and his family had a plainclothes officer assigned to them for the rest of his life.
I was captured by this story. I felt like history was coming alive in front of me, and I gained a deeper respect for the October Revolution and those involved in it. And I couldn’t help comparing this to my family. This woman saw her husband taken away, assumed he was dead, and had her life put on hold just like my Oma did when my Opa was taken to a German prison camp.
Even if Revolution Day means little to you, I hope you can join me in appreciating the courageous people in every part of the world who took a stand for justice and reform in their countries.