At 29, Iowa housewife Denese Becker went to Guatemalan to re-discover her past. She knew she was returning to dig up the roots of a horrific story that left both her parents dead, making her an orphan at the age of 9. What she didn’t know was that her trip would spark a movement to expose the perpetrators of one of the bloodiest events in Guatemalan history, and to help bring them to justice.
Denese Becker is one of the few survivors of a massacre in the Guatemalan village of Rio Negro.
Becker’s story was recorded by two Bay Area journalists who followed her for three years. Mary Jo McConahay and Patricia Flynn’s intensely personal and overtly political documentary of that journey, Discovering Dominga, will be shown in Berkeley on Saturday, March 27, as part of an exclusive viewing to help celebrate the 125th anniversary of St. Joseph the Worker Church. The documentary has already aired on PBS as part of the Points of View series. The movie documents Becker’s trips to her home country as she helps the community re-open the history of the murders committed by an American-backed Guatemalan army.
Becker, now a manicurist in Iowa with an American husband and two children, begins to sift with perfectly primped hands through the dirt of a story that only she can connect. A Guatemalan-born American, Becker combines within her own life the two countries that helped tear apart the community she came from.
“I knew this was a dream story because it could get the issue out there with an American at the center,” said McConahay, a journalist with San Francisco’s Pacific News Service. With an American protagonist, people in the United States feel an immediate connection, she added. McConahay is the co-director of the film and the person who originally found Becker. “But if it works at all, it’s because we care about Denese, and in caring about Denese we come to care about Guatemala.”
The documentary’s director, Patricia Flynn, is an award-winning broadcaster and has produced public affairs programming and documentaries for public television and radio for more than 20 years. She was a producer for the PBS documentary series In Search Of Law And Order, and for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS. She lives in San Anselmo.
Beginning in 1954, Guatemala suffered in the violence sparked by an American-backed coup that ousted a democratically elected government and set the country into a whirlwind of instability. In 1982, as part of a raid on so-called “insurgents” who refused to leave their land to make way for a World Bank-funded dam, the Guatemalan army entered the village of Rio Negro and killed hundreds of people, including 70 women and 107 children. The raid that killed Becker’s immediate family was one of several that left an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people dead.
After the massacre, Becker was adopted by an American family and grew up with only faint memories of the event. Though she married and had two children, she could never completely leave the past behind her. Eventually, after she found that she still had family in Rio Negro, she decided to return.
She comes back to a tremendous welcome, with the whole town turning out to greet her as she arrives. Initially, it is a festive event. But as time goes on, the community begins to share its secrets with her, and she is drawn more and more into the fight for justice the community has decided to take on.
Their struggle is sparked by a United Nations Truth Commission report that finds the Guatemalan army responsible for 93 percent of the total war crimes during the years of violence and unrest surrounding the coup, and declares the killings a genocide. The community makes the fight their own, and with Becker’s help creates a landmark human rights case against the Guatemalan military.
Along with Becker’s story, according to McConahay, the film has served to re-expose an issue that was left to fade into history.
“It makes me look around and see the people who just arrived, that they carry stories from their homeland,” said McConahay. “[It helps us see] the interconnectedness of this country and its affects elsewhere.”
At a politically charged time, with the war in Iraq and the coup in Haiti, McConahay and Flynn agree the movie also delivers a message that is easily applied elsewhere.
“As we think about Iraq, Americans will have to face a reality that Denese’s story so poignantly illustrates: that the wounds of war do not heal when the bombing stops,” write both directors in a letter posted on the PBS site.
“How many Deneses are being created in Iraq and Haiti,” said McConahay. “In Guatemala 50 years ago it was bananas, today in Iraq it’s oil. I don’t like to speak in such broad strokes but let’s be honest with ourselves.”
After testifying as one of the witnesses for the human rights case, Becker and the surviving people of Rio Negro are pushing for a trial in Guatemala. They want the court to hear the case in their country instead of the Hague.
“They want more than a judgment,” said McConahay. “They want to use [the case] to build the justice system.”
“Discovering Dominga” will be screened at St. Joseph the Worker this Saturday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. The church is located at 1640 Addison St. and the event is free. For more information call 482-1062. The film’s first theatrical release will be at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on April 14. For more information about the film, contact Mary Jo McConahay at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the legal case against the Guatemalan government, visit www.justiceforgenocide.org.