On Fire. Memory and Conflagration in Guatemala.

Protesters demaning access to justice in Guatemala. pic (c) Samira Marty

The fire in the Grenfell Tower in East London on June 14, 2017, has caused Europe-wide consternation. The tragedy has left 79 dead or missing persons dead or missing behind, shedding light on the possible ignorance on behalf of English authorities. At the beginning of this year, another fire blaze caught international attention when more than 40 teenage girls in a state-run foster home in San José Pinula, twenty kilometers south of Guatemala City, were burnt alive. This incidence is yet another one coming to light in the blurred lines of institutional failure, discrimination and death of low-income Guatemalans in a country that struggles to come to terms with its past.

“Fire is the most uncanny when it hits us in the cities”, an interlocutor told me during my fieldwork in Guatemala in early 2015. Indeed, the images of the conflagration at the residential Grenfell tower evoked shock, desperation and grief in its international audiences. In the aftermath, however, the public discourse shifted towards institutional neglect of the unequal protection between London’s differing population groups.

In a similar vein, in Guatemala City, a fire blaze that erupted earlier this year in a state-owned dormitory evoked similar reactions when 19 girls were burnt alive in the flames and 22 more died in the aftermath of the blaze in nearby hospitals. This dramatic event – the rollercoaster of emotions fueled by international media reports – has evoked accusations of institutional neglect against and even claims of murder by the local and national government because of the institutional lack of providing safety to those minors who were committed to the state’s care. The fine line between apathy by state officials and active reluctance to help lies at the core of the public debate half a year later.

The past’s long shadows

The intensity of the outcry after the fire this March and the following weeks-long public protests have been closely connected to claims by grassroots protest movements for social justice, including equal access to state infrastructure, such as social welfare, health care and education. This illustrates how crucial it is to bear in mind that contemporary incidents can ignite long oppressed feelings. The employee of an international aid agency I interviewed compared the citizens’ discontent with its government to a pressure cooker: ready to explode at any second. Indeed, waves of huge protests have emerged every time a “state failure”, such as the fire in the dormitory, has become public.

The recent tragedy particularly exposed the structural violence embedded in the Central American state and the on-going discourse of the state’s neglect of its economically unprivileged population. What’s more, it revives a decades-long heated debate on the non-dealing with Guatemala’s genocidal past, when atrocities were committed by army officials. Uncannily, then as today, the violence has been targeted towards the female indigenous population who are economically most deprived, as I have argued elsewhere (see Marty 2017).

Working as a social anthropologist on memory and violence in Guatemala, my goal is to situate events and find out how the local population tries to and makes sense of them. In the case of the tragedy in San José Pinula, I could draw clear parallels to another dark chapter of a prominent fire in recent Guatemalan history: the burning of the Spanish Embassy. In January 1980, a group of farmers from Quiché, the country’s North, and their allies marched on Guatemala City to protest their oppression and rising killings. They occupied the Spanish Embassy to Guatemala to carry out a self-proclaimed “peaceful hostage-taking”. After the refusal by the Guatemalan President to negotiate with the occupants, the President gave an executive order to attack. Surrounding soldiers set fire to the embassy, and the occupants and the captive staff, 37 their number, were burnt alive. At the core of both events, past and present, lies the blaming and disappointment of a state that refuses to protect its indigenous population. Furthermore, both events targeted those already feeling neglected, discriminated and marginalized.

Transition is more than an in-between

The way in which present events are embedded in a long-lasting history of suffering and marginalization, (sometimes) reaching back to the colonial period, shows that collective memory practices lie at the forefront of social movements and political claims. The country’s population suffered over four decades from a civil war that peaked in genocidal massacres against its indigenous population in the early 1980s. State-sponsored violence is still a sensitive terrain 30 years later, enhanced by the non-conviction of many perpetrators and hanging court convictions. Moreover, those activists working with memory and justice claims suffer from severe threats and regular psychological and physical attacks, making it extremely difficult to bring any demands forward. Breaking the silence has been a tremendous effort for the thousands of survivors of state massacres, and only in 2009, 13 years after signing the Peace Accords, have female survivors stepped forward and raised their voices. They have accused the military of severe human rights abuses such as rape, forced labor, massacres of their husbands and sex slavery (ECAP and UNAMG 2009).

Thus, instead of solely reproducing narratives on a failed state in an “eternally violent country” (New York Times 2012), it is crucial to recall that social healing is a tedious process without a clear endpoint, even after the remaining firefighters have left the scene and the last international journalists have closed their notebooks.


ECAP and UNAMG (eds.) (2009): Tejidos que lleva el alma. Memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado. Guatemala City: F&G Editores

New York Times 2012: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/a-testament-from-guatemalas-war-years/

Samira Marty: Das weibliche Gesicht des Widerstands. Der Kampf indigener Aktivistinnen gegen Unterdrückung und Gewalt in Guatemala. Promedia, Wien, 2017

BBC: Messages from the Tower. Piecing together the timeline of London’s Grenfell Tower fire in the words of victims and survivors. July 12, 2017: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/grenfell_voices

La Nómada Guatemala: Las primeras evidencias y las preguntas pendientes del Hogar Seguro. April 5, 2017: https://nomada.gt/las-primeras-evidencias-y-las-preguntas-pendientes-del-hogar-seguro/

Plaza Pública Guatemala: No fue el fuego, fue la negligencia. March 9, 2017: https://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/no-fue-el-fuego-fue-la-negligencia




Born in Zürich on July 21, 1989, Samira Marty has pursued her university studies at the University of Basel and the Graduate Institute for International Relations and Development. Her MA thesis under the title “The Female Face of Resistance” was translated into German and transformed into a monograph (Das weibliche Gesicht des Widerstands. Der Kampf indigener Aktivistinnen gegen Unterdrückung und Gewalt in Guatemala. Promedia, Wien, 2017). For this work, she has conducted fieldwork among Guatemalan indigenous activists looking into their resistance practices against the diverse forms of violence they are facing on an everyday basis, connecting memory, gender and violence. Samira Marty recently started a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo.