By Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers
(Originally Published September 16, 1970)
By the time she had graduated from Bryn Mawr in June of 1963, Diana Oughton had traveled among the poor in the byways of Europe and worked closely with children in one of Philadelphia’s decaying ghettos, but she did not really begin to learn about poverty until she went to Guatemala.
When she filled out a personal information form after being accepted by the Quaker-run, Voluntary International Service Assignments (VISA) program, she put a single word after the heading marked experience:
Barbara Ann Graves, director of VISA, felt Diana’s sheltered upbringing and gentle character would be a handicap and tried to dissuade her from the lonely assignments in back-country areas. Diana refused to be given special consideration, however, and was assigned to the isolated Indian market town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala.
Chichicastenango is a small, still half primitive place where Catholic priests look the other way when the Indians burn incense to the old gods and beat ceremonial drums on the steps of the church.
When Diana first arrived she was struck by the gaudy vitality of the town, by the bright-colored shawls of the Indians, the rambling streets, whitewashed buildings, church bells and surrounding jungle, a damp rank tangle of vines and undergrowth and towering trees. She was delighted by the market where Indians from the surrounding hamlets came to sell cakes of brown sugar, earthenware, handwoven cloth, firewood, vegetables and freshly killed goats, pigs and chickens.
Gradually, however, Diana began to see other things–the Indians’ bad health, their short stature, the small, child-sized coffins sold in such numbers in the market.
She plunged into work, helping local priests to launch a nutritional program, editing a newspaper for adults who were just learning how to read, and helping to care for the children who swarmed through the town. She went shopping in the market two or three times a week, learning to bargain over carrots and cabbages, and she began to know and respect Father Jose Maria Casas, an energetic middle-aged man who had spent many years helping the Indians.
The directors of VISA in Guatemala City, Bill and Donna Dreyer, began with the same doubts about Diana that Barbara Ann Graves had originally felt. When they saw the speed with which Diana learned Spanish and the rapport she established with the priests and the people of Chichicastenango, their doubts disappeared.
Dreyer remembers Diana most clearly in the market one sunlit morning, simply dressed, surrounded by Indian children. She was bargaining with a vendor for vegetables, her blonde hair catching the light; a kind of northern goddess above the dark-skinned, dark-haired throng.
After Diana had been living in Guatemala for several months she met Alan Howard, a young Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala City. He was running an experimental adult reading program in the city’s federal prison and long conversations with political prisoners had made him cynical about the chances of peaceful change in the country.
When Diana told him about the work she was doing in Chichicastenango, Howard said it would never end the poverty of the Indians.
“You’re only delaying the revolution,” he told her.
He argued that VISA was treating the symptoms of poverty, not the basic causes.
He pointed to the experience of another Fulbright Scholar who had planned to spend a year studying the country’s corporate structure but completed his project in a week. There was no corporate structure, he said, only a handful of ruling families.
Whenever Diana was in the capital, Guatemala City, she would spend the evening with Howard, talking late into the night about the peaceful revolution envisioned by the Quakers and the violent revolution already under way in the mountains to the East. Howard argued that Guatemala’s only hope for fundamental change lay with guerilla leaders like Luis Turcios.
Howard’s views were shared with one of Diana’s Guatemalan friends who prescribed violence even more bluntly. “What this country needs,” he told Diana, “is to line up the 50 first families against the white wall.”
Diana, oldest daughter of the first family of Dwight, Ill., a midwestern Republican who opposed Social Security until she went to college and who favored Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, found such ideas hard to accept. She was not necessarily against violence in extreme circumstances; but like most Americans, she had always assumed that hard work could achieve the same ends with less suffering.
Throughout her two years in Guatemala Diana struggled with the questions of poverty, social justice and revolution. She and Ann Aleman, another VISA volunteer in Chichicastenango, had been exposed to the country’s deep conservative roots as soon as they had arrived; the priests warned them bluntly that discussion of birth control or other subjects considered sensitive by the Catholic Church was forbidden.
During the months that followed, both girls gradually began to see that no matter how hard they or Father Casas worked, there would always be more people than food or jobs or places to live.
“Father Casas is one of the finest men I’ve ever met but he’s a fool too,” she once said to Mike Kimmell, another VISA volunteer living in a small town about 15 miles from Chichicastenango.
Diana told Kimmell that she sometimes doubted she would ever make a difference in the lives of the Indians, no matter what she did. Sometimes she took pride in having taught 50 or more Indian men to read Spanish, but then she would think, so what? The country is still 70 percent illiterate.
Despite her doubts, however, Diana committed herself totally to her work. She deliberately sought out a simple, almost primitive place to live. She carried all her own drinking water, cooked over a wood fire, read by candlelight and washed her clothes in a large wooden tub. Her door was always open and the children in the neighborhood wandered in and out freely.
When two Indian children contracted a rare eye disease Diana kept prodding the sluggish Guatemalan bureaucracy until operations for the children could be arranged in the capital. Several times she took the children to Guatemala City for eye examinations and returned the same day, a bruising four-hour trip each way.
When she developed asthma in the high mountain climate of Chichicastenanago she tried to ignore it. During severe attacks Ann would build a fire to dry out the air and Diana, refusing to leave the town and her work, would simply retreat into bed until the attack had passed.
Once she was bitten by a dog the whole town considered rabid, but refused to leave to get rabies shots, saying she couldn’t spare the time. At night she would sometimes walk a dozen miles along the twisting mountain roads, checking on the programs she had established in the tiny village. One night she stumbled down a steep embankment into a water-filled ditch, got herself out, and continued on despite cuts and bruises.
As time passed Diana began to feel that American economic aid was only consolidating the control of Guatemala’s ruling families without ever reaching the broad mass of people.
The American influence seemed to reach everywhere. Diana knew that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been responsible for a coup against a left-wing Guatemalan regime in 1954, and that the Spanish newspaper she helped edit was run by the Guatemalan Army with U.S. military assistance funds.
She and other VISA volunteers made friends with the people who ran CARE in Guatemala City, stopping in whenever they got to the capital to pick up a couple of pounds of radish seeds for the Indians or a box of ballpoint pens or whatever else had arrived since their last visit. The volunteers were surprised and disturbed when two CARE officials suddenly left after it was reported that both were CIA agents.
On another occasion Diana was angry to learn that a large shipment of baby food donated to CARE had been prompted by something other than charity. The American manufacturer had simply decided that free samples distributed by CARE would be the cheapest form of advertising.
Diana’s growing concern over the American influence in Guatemala was matched by a growing dislike for the American tourists who came to Chichicastenango and stayed at the Mayan Inn, where the spent enough in a week to support an entire Indian family for a year. She hated the Americans’ gaudy clothes, their broken Spanish, their silly questions, the way they snapped pictures of the Indians. She began to hate doing the marketing because the Americans would always spot her blonde head above the crowd and ask what in the world an American girl was doing in such a godforsaken spot.
Diana’s distaste for American extravagance was also directed at her friends. When an old college friend and her husband, both heirs to large fortunes, came to Guatemala for a visit, Diana was disgusted by their complaints about the food and water and by their extravagant spending. “My God,” Diana said to Kimmel after the couple had left, “She used to be my very best friend in the whole wide world.”
The attitude she had tolerated in her friends was something she could not abide in her parents. For weeks before they came to visit her during the Easter holidays of 1964 Diana worried that they would shatter in a moment the image she had worked a year to create, erecting a barrier between her and the Indians. She told Kimmel she didn’t care what her parents did or how they lived in Guatemala City, where no one knew her, but she couldn’t bear to have them behave like visiting aristocrats in Chichicastenango.
Before they arrived she made them promise they would stay at the cheapest of the town’s three hotels, not the comfortable but expensive Mayan Inn. During the visit her parents were always aware of Diana’s tenseness. She was impatient with their occasional discomfort and constantly afraid they would anger or insult the people she worked with.
Later, after they had gone, she wrote them and apologized. “I had forgotten how long it took me to adjust to life here,” she said.
Shortly before the end of her two years in Guatemala, Diana wrote home and tried to explain what the experience had meant to her. She did not mention the long conversations with Alan Howard about revolution and the disturbing charges taking place in her attitudes toward her upbringing, her country and her own life, but she alluded to her doubts about the Quakers’ approach to changing society.
“When you work at such a basic level with people from a different culture, with different values and different ways of thinking, you really have to seek a common denominator of understanding,” she said.
“Instead of talking about equality of the races, you live with it, get past the hump many people get stuck on and begin to really look at people as people with needs, happinesses, tragedy.
“I have to admit grudgingly that I benefited far more than the inhabitants of ‘Chichi’ from these two years. I’ve come to a real understanding of that which one might call an ideal, practically gained.”
By the time she left, Diana had a totally new view of the problems faced by underdeveloped peoples and of the U.S. role in the struggle to solve those problems. When an Aid for International Development (AID) official, impressed by her fluency in Spanish, offered her a job Diana was flattered but refused to take the offer seriously. By this time she had largely accepted Howard’s argument that American and Guatemalan interests were directly opposed. She felt that working for AID would inevitably put her on the side of Guatemalan aristocrats resisting change.
The following year, when Diana returned to Guatemala for a brief visit, she was half embarrassed to tell Donna Dreyer she was working in a poverty program in Philadelphia.
“What are you doing working for the Federal government?” Donna asked.
Diana tried to dismiss the question with a joke, but Mrs. Dreyer felt she was troubled by it.
After leaving Guatemala Diana occasionally wrote the priests of Chichicastenango, Mike Kimmell, Howard and other people she had known there. She carried the letters she received in return from place to place until the week before she died.
On New Year’s Eve in 1967, Diana met Kimmell for dinner in New York. “I’ll drive,” Diana said when Kimmell started to get on his big BMW motorcycle.
“You’re crazy,” Kimmell said, but Diana insisted. Kimmell finally agreed and she startled him by expertly kicking the machine to life and then maneuvering through New York traffic until the icy December air began to hurt her gloveless hands. After dinner she flew back to Ann Arbor, Mich., where she was helping to run an experimental school with a handsome, charming radical named Bill Ayers. Kimmell never saw her again.
In November 1968, Diana wrote him to say the experimental school had folded and that she was thinking of becoming a fulltime organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She included a quote from D.H. Lawrence which referred indirectly to a discussion she and Kimmell had on the plane to Guatemala in 1963.
“There is no point in work unless it absorbs you like an interesting game,” Lawrence had said. “If it doesn’t absorb you, it it’s not any fun, don’t do it.”
“With her money, she can afford to think that way,” was Kimmell’s first reaction.
Later, remembering the way Diana had worked in Guatemala, he decided his first reaction had been wrong. He felt that she had not been telling the truth, that out of embarrassment she had been trying to disguise her almost puritanical seriousness and devotion to hard work, and that in fact Diana always did what she thought was her duty, whether she liked it or not.
This post is the second in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 16, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Link her for Part I or Part III.