MOTHER TONGUE chronicles the first time a documentary film about Guatemalan genocide in Guatemala was translated and dubbed into Maya-Ixil—5.5% of whom were killed during the armed conflict in the 1980s. Told from the perspective of Matilde Terraza, an emerging Ixil leader and the translation project’s coordinator, MOTHER TONGUE illuminates the Ixil community’s ongoing work to preserve collective memory.
Over 51% of the 15 million citizens of Guatemala identified as indigenous Maya. A clandestine civil war, rooted in the “mainstream” ladino (Euro-Hispanic) Guatemalan population’s historic discrimination and repression of the Maya people, took place from the 1960s until the 1996 Peace Accords. In the 1970s, a democratic movement emerged in response to a repressive military dictatorship; when this movement was forced underground, many factions move their bases to Maya villages in the highlands, spurring some members of those communities to join the struggle. The Guatemalan government responded to this movement with a counter-insurgency campaign: In 1980s the military instituted a systematic plan to end guerrilla warfare targeted specifically at the Maya population. Over the years that followed, the army methodically moved across the Maya region implementing a scorched earth policy. In this time, they destroyed over 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million, with more than 150,000 seeking refuge in neighboring Mexico.
In the years since the genocide, a documentary about the armed conflict has never been translated into any of the Indigenous languages of the Maya people most affected by the events of the 1980s—until now. MOTHER TONGUE follows the unprecedented process of translating GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, a documentary film about the genocide in Guatemala and the quest for justice, with voice-over into Ixil—the language of one of the Indigenous groups most affected by the armed conflict. The creation of the voice-over version of the film was, at its root, a pragmatic decision—Ixil is primarily a spoken language and moreover, not everyone in the Ixil community is literate, making subtitles unfeasible. The process of translating and recording the story of GRANITO, however, brought much more to surface—the pervasive intergenerational consequences of genocide, the importance of collective memory, the depth of fear that remains in the Ixil community, and the profound resilience of the Ixil people, 14.5% of whom were killed in the genocide.
MOTHER TONGUE is also the story of self-discovery of an emerging Maya leader and the coordinator of the Ixil-translation project, Matilde Terraza. Set in the regional capital of Nebaj, (“land of streams”) the film begins in a small, makeshift recording studio where Matilde sits with a group of people she’s gathered to read the various parts in GRANITO for the Ixil dubs. “I feel that in Nebaj,” Matilde says, “you won’t find anyone who doesn’t identify with the situation that happened, the entire conflict.”
As the recording sessions proceed, it becomes apparent that almost every person recruited to be voices for the documentary has their own harrowing story about the genocide. One of the voices, Alejandro, who records the voice of General Ríos Montt in Ixil, recalls finding his own father “hung like a chicken” in the town square. But it is through Matilde’s story that we come to understand the depth and complexity of what it means to be a survivor of the Guatemalan genocide. As she reads the part of Alejandra, a courageous young woman whose father was “disappeared” when she was an infant, Matilde is overcome with emotion and can’t continue:
When I had the script for Alejandra in my hands, the emotions arose again and I began to feel the same pain I felt when I translated it. The same pain I felt throughout the process of GRANITO but didn’t know why. I thought it was just sadness, but why? Until I found that script, that text that speaks about the father, about what it means to miss him. What that’s like for everyone who has lost their father. It was very difficult, and I immediately felt moved, I felt that pain again, like a nail penetrating my heart.
The film weaves Matilde’s narrative with the storyline of the translation process of GRANITO into Ixil, and culminates with the first public screening of the translated film in the town of Nebaj, six months after the recording sessions. People gather in the town square, setting up plastic chairs while others erect a large portable screen for the world premiere of the Ixil language version, titled Tal B’aq’ Ivatz Sanab’: Nu’kich Aq’on, K’ulb’al Tib’ Txumb’al.
As it grows dark, the chairs fill with all four generations of the Ixil community—from grandchildren to great-grandparents. Before the film starts Matilde and Antonio, an Ixil man and a lead character in GRANITO, speak to the audience about the importance of remembering. Matilde explains that screening GRANITO in Ixil, “has the potential to be controversial, because the people will want to join the cause.” Darkness soon envelops the plaza: The film starts and the Ixil dubbed sound booms out through the sound system as the light from the projection flickers across Maya faces intent on the filmed action, remembering the past.