It was not the type of news that I was prepared to receive on December 1, 1998. But then, who can ever predict what will happen each day or any moment in life? The only permanence in life is its impermanence. We know not the day or the hour.
“Hilá numada” (My friend is dead) was all I could say when the Garifuna helper at my home wondered why tears were quietly streaming down my face as I reclined silently in my living room sofa with eyes closed trying to fathom the news of passing of my friend Julian Cho. She quietly handed me a glass of water and a handkerchief. After that hour of mournful reflection I emerged with a resolve to continue supporting friend’s work. It’s why I became a Board member of the Julian Cho Society and supported the struggle through the courts.
Julian’s life was cut short at 36 years old, during the prime of his leadership in the Toledo Maya Cultural Council (TMCC). His unanimous election as Chairman of that organization in December 1995 had turned the tide of the history of his people’s struggles.
For the first time in their history, the Mayas had found from among themselves, a highly educated, astute, and determined leader dedicated to social justice and human rights. His wasn’t the type of education that makes some academics live in their heads with apathy, egotistic detachment, fear and complacency. His formation fired him to a life of service. Hardly anyone realized the weight of his position. As a family man and with the full time high school teaching job that Julian had, the extra demands of voluntary work as Maya leader could stretch one beyond limits. The land rights struggle was local but its context global, stemming from centuries of a deeply entrenched system.
In his own unassuming but shrewd manner, Julian pursued a mission that was rooted in his history. He was born in the Maya village of San Jose in the Toledo District on April 6, 1962. As the sixth child of his family he was determined to overcome the cycle of poverty through education. We first met at St. Peter Claver College, a Jesuit high school in Punta Gorda. He was in first form when I was in fourth. (My other friend the late Andy Palacio, was in third form then.) Julian went on to further studies at SJC Junior College. As he contemplated the Jesuit priesthood, he pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy at St. Louis University, in the US. After a few years in the seminary, his path changed. He returned home, taught at St. John’s College, Sacred Heart College and Toledo Community College (TCC), and in 1992 became married to Magdalena Coc, Cristina’s eldest sister. They had two children. The height he reached was rare for any Maya of Toledo.
As a Maya leader, Julian had a remarkable ability to mobilize his people to voice their concerns over disregard for their rights to land. Callously and without consultations, the Government of Belize, in 1993, granted long term logging concessions to a foreign company Atlantic Industries, to exploit timber in lands near and around Maya villages. There were great concerns that massive deforestation would threaten the resources that the Mayas traditionally depended on to sustain their way of life. While the people were (and are) consistently denied their rights to communal land rights and opportunities to benefit from the bountiful natural resources within their area, secret agreements were very often made to benefit foreign corporate interests. (Ironically, amidst these injustices, Maya archaeology, history and culture have become hallmarks in the promotion of Belize’s tourism industry.)
Julian was also able to mobilize alliances and draw international attention and support to challenge the government in court. Under international pressure, government’s agreement with the Malaysian logging company was finally terminated. One of Julian’s crowning achievements was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on November 25, 1998, with the Prime Minister of Belize to negotiate a solution to the Maya land rights struggle. One week later he met his untimely death.
Julian’s struggle for his people went far beyond the discriminatory ways in which successive UDP and PUP government administrations have treated the Mayas. It represents the historical global struggle of indigenous peoples against the injustices that are deeply rooted in Western capitalism – a system designed to fulfill a certain class dominance while exercising subjugation and dominion over indigenous and Afro descendant peoples.
At the core of this system are racism, greed and blatant disregard for the well-being of people and nature. Its legacies are deeply entrenched throughout the Americas, Africa and wherever there are people of color. The massacre of Native Americans for the expansion of North America, the centuries of brutal transatlantic trading of enslaved Africans, the invasion and banishment of the Garinagu from St. Vincent, the brutal oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, the alienation, marginalization and mass poverty of indigenous peoples all over the Americas, are all manifestations of that system.
There are still “leaders” in Belize who bear the mental shackles of this system. Under their leadership, our independent state is not meant to produce a new system or to radically improve the current one. Rather, it was designed to reproduce the same structure that perpetuates these inequalities. That’s the hypocrisy of our democracy. Therein lies the essence of the struggle that Julian took on his shoulders on behalf of his people.
Through Julian’s friendship, I understood in a personal way what leaders experience when they seek to break the oppressive grip of a system that tramples the dignity and rights of people for the profit of a greedy and oppressive few. Quite often, he received death threats. While the circumstantial details of his passing remain interred in his bones, we know that leaders such as Garvey and Mandela were jailed, others such as Ghandi, Archbishop Romero, Martin Luther King, Che Guevarra and many others assassinated as they fought against exploitative and oppressive conditions and for the rights of their people. Bob Marley echoed it best when he asked, “How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?”
My friendship with Julian intertwined in many ways – professionally, historically and socially. Only three days before his passing, he and I had one of our usual lighthearted but insightful conversation that makes one least suspect that life is not forever. He was advising one of my U.S. university students for a research assignment on the Maya land rights. In the early 1980s, we were both served as teachers at Toledo Community College. We were part of the SEARCH youth group around the same time. In 1993, when I served as a consultant for the US-based Center for Native Lands to map out the extent and boundaries of Garifuna and Maya land use in Belize, Julian provided key insights. From 1995 to the time of his passing, he had served as a lecturer of Maya History and Culture in the School for International Training program, in which I was serving as the Academic Director.
As one becomes more aware of life’s synchronicity there is a realization, as Paulo Coelho notes, that “important encounters are planned by the souls long before the bodies see each other.” My in-depth understanding of Maya life and culture came through my own family roots. In 1907, my grandfather Andres P. Enriquez opened the school in the village of San Antonio and served as school Principal there for 28 of his 45-year teaching career. He was highly respected and revered among the Mayas. My grandmother whose first five children were stillborn due to inhospitable living conditions in that village, later became a renowned midwife and traditional healer. My father and his five siblings grew up in San Antonio and were well known in the Maya communities. Like other families of Garifuna teachers, they were also steeped in Maya cultural traditions. In the 1970s & early 80s, my father served as interpreter of Maya at the Supreme Court. Our home in PG always welcomed visits by Maya villagers. When I was a boy, my parents shared our home for about eight years with a homeless elderly Maya man, Mr. Telesforo Paquiul, the son of one of the founders of San Antonio Village. Mr. Paquiul became our adopted grandfather; his evening stories from his hammock enhanced the rich diversity of my childhood experiences.
The friendship I shared with Julian emerged within these encounters and grew during early adulthood when we attended regular Jesuit vocation retreats as we both discerned whether the priesthood was our calling. He entered the seminary for a few years; I didn’t. My path weaved its own form but we maintained contact. While I was studying at Minnesota State University (1986-88) Julian and Lawrence Mangar (another Belizean Jesuit seminarian at the time) visited from their seminary base in Omaha, Nebraska. Our discussions at the Jesuit residence in Mankato, MN where they stayed during their visit, had sometimes left me tempted to return to that path.
Julian’s leadership was groomed by his Jesuit formation. His life demonstrated that once imbued with the Jesuit spiritual tradition, one becomes more critically aware of individual and social evils and of the need for discernment and responsible action. It is a spirituality that empowers people to become leaders in service towards building a just and humane world. Contrary to the pervading individualistic, materialistic culture of our society, the spirituality brings out a profound set of human values, attitudes and insights that empowers one “to give and not count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, to labor and not ask for reward” – for the greater good. The struggle continues through emergence of new leadership including his sister-in-law Cristina Coc, Pablo Mis, Greg Choc, and other emerging Maya leaders who were inspired by him.
Too often, as stated in the wisdom of indigenous Cree: “When the last tree is cut down, the last river is poisoned, the last fish is caught, then only will they discover that they cannot eat money.” We ought not to wait until then. A transformed consciousness and a paradigm shift is what we all desperately need for a better Belize.
Julian Cho’s service to his people is a stellar example of dedication to rid unjust systems and practices that are still deeply embedded in our nation’s institutions and among our leaders. The bigger struggle continues. For the sake of our children’s future, we must continue. Through our homes, our schools, our work, our churches, communities, and political party affiliations, we must work assiduously to transform this nation. Indeed we must. Yes we can.
(Channel 5 News 6/22/1999 Channel 5 News Archives 22825 ) In December Belizeans were shocked to hear that a young and vocal activist for Maya rights had died suddenly at his home in the Toledo District. Although it appeared as if Julian Cho had fallen from the roof of his home by accident, his family, in particular his wife Maggie, believed he had been the victim of foul play. But this week the case of Julian Cho appears to have been finally laid to rest as a coroner’s inquest in Punta Gorda on Monday ruled his death an accident and that no one is criminally responsible. Cho’s body was found on December 1st, 1998. Reports at the time indicated that Cho had been drinking over the weekend and failed to report for work at Toledo Community College that Monday. Maggie Cho and his close friends, however, insisted he was not a heavy drinker and wanted the matter investigated further since they claimed he had received death threats from workers displaced by the suspension of the Malaysian Logging Concession, an operation Cho had opposed. Maggie Cho’s efforts led the Ministry of National Security to exhume the body and bring in an independent pathologist who performed a second autopsy in February. His findings concurred with those of Dr. Mario Estradabran who ruled the death an accident. Apparently Punta Gorda Magistrate Clive Lino, who presided over Monday’s inquest, also agreed with the medical authority and police findings.