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The Lives They Lived

Above photo: Filming together in Guatemala on 500 Years: L-R David Dávila, Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, María Aguilar Velásquez, Heber Uziel López Velásquez, Eduardo Cáceres, Melle van Essen, Beatriz Gallardo, Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís, and in the middle of it all Doña Clara Nimatuj Ajquí 

As we begin anew, we are pausing to remember and honor filmmakers and human rights defenders who passed in 2022 and will forever be part of the Skylight family.


By Pamela Yates

Javier Bajaña in Cuba

I met Javier Bajaña as the Sandinista Front closed in on overthrowing the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1978. He was living in New York, organizing to raise awareness and funds for the revolutionary Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), which ultimately prevailed, coming to power in 1979.

When the Somoza forces regrouped and struck back with a counterrevolution, Javier became the Associate Producer on our film Nicaragua: Report From the Front, where we filmed the CIA financed counterrevolutionary backlash against the Sandinistas.

Traveling by foot, first with the “contras’’ walking over 100 miles into Nicaragua from Honduras, and then with the Sandinista Army in the same area of the border on the Nicaraguan side, we documented evidence proving that the U.S. was covertly financing armed insurgents to stop the Sandinistas and our film was later used in Congress to cut off that funding. Later, he was integral to our filming with Rigoberta Menchú as she wrote and then spoke her story directly to the camera for When the Mountains Tremble.  

Javier was an enigma–a man everyone thought they knew. But what did we really know about the totality of his life? He was brilliant at compartmentalizing his many lives and loves. And he always had great stories to tell. 

Javier was born in Ecuador but came with his family to New York at a young age. He was such a New Yorker, really sociable, had tons of friends, knew everyone you needed to know, a natural born producer. He parlayed that talent eventually becoming a Senior Producer at Tokyo Broadcasting Service’s (TBS) New York office. Javier’s beat was Latin America and he roamed from the U.S. southern border to Tierra del Fuego, covering the breaking news of the day. He loved keeping his hand on the pulse of history in the making. 

What he saw as a political journalist, especially the suffering of children who couldn’t get health care became a driving force. It became his life’s passion. He felt he had had the privilege of growing up and being educated in the U.S., and his own kids were healthy. So he joined forces with Global Health Partners (GHP), an international NGO committed to improving access to healthcare through partnerships with regional and community-based organizations throughout Latin America. Javier focused his efforts primarily in Nicaragua and Cuba, the latter because of the U.S. embargo which prevented medical supplies from reaching people there. GHP was instrumental in directing tens of millions of dollars to the region and Javier was there for every step of the way across nearly 30 years of their work.   

Javier’s great joy in life were his three children with his first wife Luz Alba Tinoco Fonseca. Alex, Karla and Jessica won academic scholarships to U.S. universities, are all bilingual English/Spanish, and working professionals. Javier is also survived by his second wife, Isabel Patricia Díaz Bajaña whom he married in 2008.

Javier’s relationship with his beloved Nicaragua ended badly. After supporting Nicaragua even after the Ortega regime turned repressive, or as Bob Schwartz lamented, “We stayed too late at the dance,” GHP stopped working with the Nicaraguan government in 2018 as a popular uprising against government repression roiled the country. After the Ortega regime increased its repression at that time, Javier was unable to return to the country.

In my last chat with him a few weeks before his death, I asked him about his relationship to the Ortega government and he put it bluntly, “I do not support repression in any type or form. Most of my friends like myself are not allowed to enter Nicaragua.” I said, “So sorry to hear about your being kept out. You were so committed for so long to the success of democracy and justice in Nicaragua.”  He said, “Don’t know what to say anymore….keep me posted!”


by Anaïs Taracena

Diego Cobo Bernal, left, with Anaïs Taracena, Andrea Ixchíu and members of the Tz’ikin Network

Diego Cobo Bernal was a young man of 27 years old, very talented and curious, he loved photography, he had a shy personality but he was always smiling. I met him in 2014 when we taught an audiovisual workshop with the Tz’ikin Network in the community of Tzalbal, Nebaj in Guatemala. 

The workshop lasted 12 days and each participant had to propose a story to be chosen and created collectively. Diego proposed a fictional story about the suicide of young adolescents since it was a problem in his community that had affected many families and was not talked about publicly. The short film was called “Xhun” after the main character.

Diego was so enthusiastic about the story and the dialogues that he ended up playing Xhun, the main character of the short film. He was 19 years old and became passionate about film and video. From then on he worked in community exhibitions of the Colectivo Cine en la Calle and the Red Tz’ikin, participated in various audiovisual creations and worked as a social communicator and photographer for several human rights organizations in Nebaj.

Diego decided to migrate temporarily to the United States in 2022, for the same reason that thousands of young people in Guatemala do, the search for better job and economic opportunities in the absence of possibilities in a country eaten away by corruption and lack of rule of law. He tragically drowned in a river in California. We will always remember Diego for his talent, enthusiasm, curiosity and charisma.


by Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj

Photo: Skylight, from 500 Years. Three generations: Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, Clara Nimatuj Ajquí and María Aguilar Velásquez

How do you say goodbye to a true love, when those loves are so few in life? We say goodbye with joy, with pain, with dancing or even with the futile illusion that our paths may cross again in the future. 

Now I say goodbye to the love that  nurtured my life for 9 months, to the love that celebrated my first steps, that imbued my life and enveloped my body with this key trait: dignity. That dignity that I needed to be able to walk head held high,  in a society that excluded us because we are women and because we are Indigenous.  

Today our families are physically separated from the greatest love that united us, our mother, Ms. Clara Nimatuj Ajquí, a humble woman who taught us discipline, values and above all a consciousness about our environment.

We say goodbye to our beloved warrior, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin, comadre, neighbor and friend, whose body, on Friday, October 21st, 2022, which is also Job’ Imox day, was returned to the earth to become an acorn seed placed in sacred ground that will blossom into wisdom, strength and memory for her daughters, granddaughters and for the coming generations of brave women who will continue to transform the land we walk on today.

Doña Clarita was born on August 18, 1935 in the América neighborhood of Quetzaltenango.  She was the daughter of Mr. Víctor Nimatuj, farmer and aj’quij, and Mrs. Catarina Ajquí Cojulum, a healer, baker and melcocha merchant.  She was the  granddaughter of Mrs. Cleotilde Cojulum, a successful merchant of pom, candles and incense, and of Don Agustín Ajquí, one of the 52 Maya-K’iche’ Indigenous leaders, who fought to stop the destruction of their Indigenous government and its attempted subjugation by the central government in 1895.

As a child she worked with her aunt Juana Ajquí and with her uncles Francisca Ajquí and Pedro Chávez, recognized K’iche’ businessmen. With all of them, she learned the rules and vicissitudes of small and medium scale commerce. That allowed her to become an independent business woman when she was still a teenager. She started her own business with the backing  of her uncle Teodoro Ajquí, an industrialist who became nationally known, and to whom she always thanked for his support. Well versed in commerce, her imagination was limitless. She expanded her business first in the Central Market, later in the Democracia Market and finally in the Terminal Market and then returned to the Democracia Market where she worked until she retired. Her determination, her ability to form alliances with producing families, her knowledge and her families’ business background enabled her success, and age 40 she had gone on to invest in real estate.  One of Clara’s strengths was knowing how to face the vicissitudes of life with wisdom and serenity, like when  the Central Market of Quetzaltenango burned down on December 2, 1966, the Democracia Market on December 29, 1980 and later the Terminal Market where she lost all her investments. Despite the losses, she always learned the lessons, tenaciously started again from scratch always believing in herself. She had no fear of the challenges posed. 

Another feature of Clara’s life is that she was born into a large family of grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins and extended family members that she knew how to cultivate. She deeply loved each one of her family members and showed it by supporting them in moments of joy or sadness. She always stood by her loved ones with her presence, her work and her service. She also knew how to establish equitable relationships with the families that provided her with market products, as well as with their workers, who she made sure were always treated respectfully and considered to be members of the extended family. She explained that, without the workers, no business, no company, no family could prosper. 

One of her dreams was to travel and she made it happen. She traveled to Cuba and was surprised to learn that there were no illiterate children there, unlike the thousands in her own cities and communities. It pained her to see the impact of the economic blockade.  She did not understand how the richer countries would block normal business exchange with a country that thought differently.  She traveled to Europe and the United States where she was amazed by the technology, though she was never wowed and she thought that the relevant should be distinguished from the trivial. In her later years she returned to the Holy Land but found it hard to understand why the Palestinian people’s lives had deteriorated. 

Ideologically speaking, she explained in plain language that communism was not an economic system in which Indigenous people would prosper. But she also recognized that unregulated capitalism exploited human beings as well as mother earth. Her idea, with its own contradictions, was to maintain a fine balance between people and what they consume. And though she recognized that there were no set rules, she thought it was wrong that a person should be able to save in just one day what could feed hundreds of others.  She believed that that kind of behavior just created resentment.

Another of Doña Clara’s character traits was her capacity to deal with her health problems, in spite of the depth of her illnesses or her deficits, and she never gave up. She managed to find alternatives, even resorting to means that at some point would have seemed contrary to her ideals. 

Much could be written about Clara, but it is time to say goodbye physically to this beloved mother. Today we, her daughters, carry on rooted in strength. Today, we have her granddaughters and grandsons opening up and solidifying their own paths in life,  and her great-grandchildren starting to take their first steps. Today we thank the Nawal Job’ Imox because he receives her so that her bones may mingle with those of her parents, whom she called out for in her final days.

Thank you, beloved mother. You understood my life and supported me always, sometimes with your silence. Today I know that your light that has always shone upon me has now decided to walk towards infinity, while I am falling into a whirlwind of emotions that drag me to the bottom of the ocean. In the midst of everything, we want to thank you because the steps you took allowed us, your daughters, to go further, even more than you could have imagined. And in the midst of this physical separation we thank all the people and professionals who throughout these years were by your side, taking care of you, standing with  you and giving you the only thing you needed from us, a little of our time. 


by Pamela Yates

Nicolás Toma Matóm (standing) testifying in a genocide trial against former General Rios Montt, as seen in our film 500 Years.

Don Nicolás was an important eye-witness in the genocide case against Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013, where we filmed his testimony in court that appeared in 500 Years

A native of Villa Hortensia II, San Juan Cotzal, he courageously exposed the Guatemalan military, accusing them in great detail of the 1982 killings of his mother, father, his 10 year-old-brother and approximately 30 others, all members of the Maya-Ixil community. His 4 and 5 year old daughters disappeared in the chaos of the attack and were never found. He believes that the military carried them off.

Don Nicolás fled his village and hid in the mountains for 2 years but was found and forcibly conscripted to serve in the military’s militia (PACs) where he had to destroy cornfields to take away the primary food source enabling people to survive. As part of the militia, he and others were forced to be human shields for the military.

Surviving all of this, he dedicated his life to preserving the historical memory of what had actually happened during the time of the genocide in spite of the official history that said it never occurred. Don Nicolás never gave up on the quest for justice in the Guatemalan genocide.


By Pamela Yates

John Washburn

Paco and I asked John Washburn to be the first person on our Advisory Board as we set out to make The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court.

John had been one of the founding members of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) and had gone on to become the Convener for the American Coalition for the ICC (AMICC) and Co-Chair of the Washington Working Group on the International Criminal Court (WICC). He knew so much more about the ICC than we did, how could we ever manage to make a cogent, engaging documentary film about the Court’s first six tumultuous years?

John was extremely generous with his knowledge and intellect, he always made us feel that we ourselves were discovering that this Court in The Hague had the possibility of forging a new paradigm for justice.

He was an old school lawyer, always in suits and a wide brimmed hat, who acted in a modern way. Later we discovered that he graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School and after passing the Washington DC Bar, he joined the foreign service and served in India, Iran and Indonesia. At the State Department he was the Night Shift Chair of the Iranian Hostage Task Force in 1979 and received a Special Commendation from the Secretary of State for his service. John’s career focus was international organizations, and he served as a Director in the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General from 1988-93. He pursued his passion for human rights through his work in helping to establish and promote the International Criminal Court.

John surrounded himself with young aspiring lawyers, whom he called “counselor” even before they had passed the Bar exam. At the end of his life, the organization he so loved, the American Coalition for the International Criminal Court, was housed at Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights where it continues its work today.

I will never forget John at the final feedback screening before our film The Reckoning premiered at Sundance in 2009. As the credits rolled, he jumped up out of his seat and exclaimed, “It’s a triumph of the syncretic arts* 

(* an intentional process to visualize ideas that have no pre-existing visual language of their own.)


Thanks to all who contributed depth and nuance to these remembrances including María de los Ángeles Aguilar, Bob Schwartz, Jennifer Schense, Andrea Ixchíu, and Patricia Bajaña.

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is a an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder/Creative Director of Skylight Pictures, a company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice by implementing multi-year outreach campaigns designed to engage, educate and activate social change.

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