A Q&A with Mónica Berger Gonzalez and Michael Heinrich
In early June 2020, Domingo Choc Che, 55, a Q’eqchi’ Maya spiritual guide and traditional medicine expert, was brutally tortured and murdered after a group of people seized him from his home in Chimay, Guatemala.1 The abductors allegedly accused Choc Che of witchcraft and performing a ceremony on a grave, beat him for more than 10 hours, doused him with gasoline, and set him on fire. A video shows Choc Che on fire, running, and asking for help before collapsing. Police arrested two men and two women in connection with his murder.1 One man was released because of lack of proof. The trial for the others was originally scheduled to begin on October 15, 2020, but was rescheduled for October 28 when the defense lawyer did not appear. At press time for this article, the status of the trial was unknown.
Choc Che, who was affectionately called “Tata (‘Grandfather’ or ‘Elder’) Domingo,” participated in several research projects to conserve traditional Maya knowledge. At the time of his death, he was one of 30 participants in a project to document traditional medicinal plants in the Petén department of Guatemala. Launched in May 2019, this ongoing initiative is a collaboration among University College London (UCL), Zurich University, and Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG).1
In The Guardian, Michael Heinrich, PhD, UCL professor of ethnopharmacology and pharmacognosy, was quoted as saying that Choc Che’s murder “is an atrocity, a huge violation of the most basic human rights, and leaves one with a feeling of helplessness.”1
For some people, his death is a harsh reminder of Guatemala’s 36-year genocidal civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. During that time, more than 200,000 people reportedly were killed and an additional 45,000 disappeared. Eighty percent of victims during the war were indigenous. The 1996 Guatemalan peace accords recognized the rights of indigenous peoples to their traditions, but prejudices and persecution continue.1
Below is a Q&A with Mónica Berger Gonzalez (MBG), PhD, director of the Unit of Medical Anthropology at UVG, and Heinrich (MH), both of whom worked with Choc Che. The responses have been edited and are based on email communications with Gonzalez and Heinrich on August 27 and 28, 2020, respectively.
Can you describe Domingo Choc Che as a person? What was he like?
MBG: Domingo was a kind and quiet man. He kept to himself and was most comfortable walking in the forest to collect plants. He was wise and full of love for nature, animals, and people. He took his job as an ajilonel (a Maya traditional herbalist-healer) seriously, though he never promoted himself as a healer. He used to say that healing and plant knowledge were gifts given by the Creator, and one should be humble about them. He treated everyone who came to see him. He was humble. In meetings, he waited for everyone to talk and only at the end asked questions, which were often profound. Over the years, he took care of many people with afflictions and worked as a support counselor for victims of the armed conflict who needed emotional and spiritual support.
Can you describe Choc Che’s contributions to the project, especially those related to medicinal plants?
MBG: Along with 15 other Q’eqchi’ herbalists, Domingo’s role involved thoroughly documenting his daily healing practice, including details about the types of patients he treated, diagnoses, and associated treatments. After six months of this documentation, he [went] with our team of biologists into the forest to collect the medicinal plants that were listed in his treatments. He was trained on modern methods of ethnobotanical collection and herborization [the collection and study of plants] and helped gather all the samples to be sent to UVG’s herbarium for identification. He was a lover of the forest and shared his knowledge openly with our anthropology and biology students. He shared not only medical information but many details about the plants’ growth, energy, and spiritual uses in Maya practice. He was open to questions and often shared his plans for creating a medicinal plant garden to help rescue species at risk of disappearing due to habitat destruction, etc. He was part of an effort to build a popol jay, the “House of the Council,” a place with a medicinal plant garden where new generations of ajilonel could be trained.
How difficult and important is it to continue the project after what happened to him?
MBG: The Maya elders continue to be persecuted and confused as “evil witches,” due to widespread lack of knowledge about Maya medicine and spirituality. To address the fear caused by ignorance, we more than ever need to continue efforts to communicate to society in general that the knowledge of an ajilonel is actually Maya science. In Maya cosmogony, ignorance is the first “sin” of the Wuqub’ Qaqix (the seven veils that keep us from being at peace with the Creator, according to Maya spirituality). It was ignorance, lack of knowledge, and fear of what we do not understand that led people to burn Tata Domingo. Therefore, it is important to bring to light the depths of this ancient medical system with respect, while honoring and crediting the elders. Research is imperative, and communication of the results with respect for intellectual property has to be our goal.
MH: We need much more national and international recognition of the tremendous contributions of traditional knowledge holders and other people in local communities. Therefore, it is crucial to continue the project, and we will.
What should people know about this crime? What should they learn from it?
MBG: People need to know that ignorance is not harmless, prejudices kill, and fanaticism without compassion is dangerous. Religious freedom is not a given, racism shows in many forms, and it takes everyone to end cycles of hatred, mistrust, and ignorance. A society where this type of crime can happen has to heal and learn, and this is a collective effort. This is not only the fault of those who committed this crime. It is a mirror of our society’s blindness to the value of other epistemic systems and sources of knowledge. We are still suffering from minds embedded in colonialism.
MH: This was in no way the first, nor will it be the last, murder of this type. There remains a level of marginalization and exploitation that needs to be overcome, and not only in Guatemala. A few weeks later, in late June, a group of Ikoots (Huave) men and women were murdered in Oaxaca, Mexico, due to territorial conflicts.2
What needs to change to prevent a crime like this from happening again?
MBG: We need to conduct systematic research in transdisciplinary formats in which Maya ajilonel are co-researchers. We need peer-reviewed papers, but we also need information published in Spanish and in many formats for a wide audience. People need to know who Domingo was and that with his death a library was burned to the ground.
MH: Change is complex, and there is no short-term solution. I hope that projects like ours will help in the long run. We need to ensure that rights are defended. This point has been made by many activists, scientists, and others. The global understanding of the current situation and challenges in rural regions, especially for indigenous people but also for national and international migrants, is very limited and often does not reflect the social and cultural realities. We also need support to develop livelihoods for people in these regions. These regions are no longer pristine forests, and we must empower communities to develop local, sustainable economies that respect traditions and biodiversity.
Why do you think this happened?
MBG: This is multicausal. It is an impoverished area with few services, an absent state, not enough food, jobs, and education, and too much intolerance.
MH: The project was not the trigger, but Don Domingo’s knowledge and ability to heal were causes of fear, hate, and disdain. It is crucial to ensure dignity, tolerance, and mutual respect of diversity.
- Abbott J. Outrage as Guatemalan Maya spiritual guide is tortured and burned alive. The Guardian website. June 10, 2020. Available at: www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/10/guatemalan-maya-spiritual-guide-tortured-burned-alive. Accessed September 4, 2020.
- Serious acts of violence against community in San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca. PBI Mexico website. Available at: pbi-mexico.org/news/2020-07/serious-acts-violence-against-community-san-mateo-del-mar-oaxaca. Accessed September 4, 2020.