Miapogeo.com/My Latino Voice publishes my essays on Latino subjects and politics. This essay appeared this week.
For a Latina academic, a childhood visit to Guatemala inspired curiosity about the world we live in.
We wonder how things begin. How did I end up teaching Latin American history? While it’s true that my mother was born in El Salvador and that my father’s parents came to San Francisco during the Mexican Revolution, there are relatively few children of Latin American parents teaching our history.
My curiosity began at the end of the fourth grade in the summer of 1960, when my mother took us to Guatemala for her first visit since she had left in 1948.
I loved the fourth grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Gojny, exposed us for the first time to geography and other cultures. We learned about the Emerald Isle (most of our teachers were nuns from Ireland); about Italy’s shape like a boot; about the wooden shoes that the Dutch wore, and their dikes and tulips. We learned about oceans that covered the earth: not just the Pacific Ocean where our parents took us on the rare sunny Sunday in San Francisco, but also the Atlantic, thousands of miles from us but still touching our country; the Indian Ocean and others. We were introduced to maps, and I still love them and use them when I teach. The vast and ancient civilizations of the East were barely mentioned. And Africa, the home of all human life? As we say in Rhode Islandese — “fuggitaboutit.”
Our teachers and textbooks celebrated the cultures of European countries. The textbook barely mentioned Latin America except to describe the original inhabitants as savages. Small wonder that even in our Latin American household, my mother was determined to make sure that we knew that we were Spanish not mixed with “those Indians.” Clearly, she held the same view of them as did our textbook.
My mother’s family was originally from El Salvador but the violent conflicts there had driven them to neighboring Guatemala. My mother had come to the United States from Guatemala in 1948, at first only to visit her older sister. She stayed; she married my father, and had the first three of her four children. Until the summer of 1960, she had not been able to go back for a visit.
Guatemala defined culture shock for me. I was nine, and nothing about Guatemala was like my life in San Francisco. My grandmother, a woman of modest means, had a couple of Indian sirvientas who worked for her. Servants; I had never heard the word and had some difficulty understanding what it meant. It seemed illogical or wrong, somehow. They made our beds, cooked our food, cleaned the house, and washed our clothes by hand in outdoor pilas or sinks.
Except for the center of town where the mercado was and the streets were paved with cobblestones, many of Guatemala’s streets were still dirt roads. At the time of that first visit to Guatemala, my abuelita’s house was close to the center of town. The buses cost a few cents to ride.
Around the corner from my grandmother’s house, there was a commercial laundry where in the window, there was a brazier upon which rested the irons, huge and heavy. They opened up and hot coals were put inside. Then a laundrywoman would lift the iron from the brazier and use it to press the clothes. It must have weighed 15 pounds without the coals. Even to my nine-year old consciousness, I thought it must be backbreaking work, especially working with the heat from the brazier and the hot irons. Then again, watching the servants wash our clothes by hand struck me as being backbreaking as well.
As we traveled around Guatemala, we would see Mayan shamans doing traditional Maya ceremonies on small shrines, often right in front of the Catholic churches. It was not hidden or done secretly. Considering that Protestant Evangelicals and the Mormons had not yet taken hold there, and Catholicism was the only officially recognized religion, it is fascinating that they did their rites out in the open. I had never seen anything like it.
One of the strangest things to my American eyes was that there were soldiers everywhere, carrying machine guns. It was particularly striking to one used to the huge, burly policemen in the United States. Guatemalans are a diminutive people, and at nine, I was already the height of most of the soldiers I saw. Having never been exposed to the violence of the army towards the civilian population (a policy that would lead to the murders or disappearances of 200,000 Guatemalans by the army during the civil war), I would still see them as harmless. Their machine guns were no more frightening to me than the toy guns that my brother played with. In 1960, the United States was training the Cuban refugee troops in eastern Guatemala who would invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In the midst of the Cold War and the midst of its own troubles, Guatemala could not recuse itself from the turmoil. We knew nothing of that; the pervasiveness of soldiers everywhere in Guatemala was, like everything else that summer, surreal.
When I brought back candy for the servants from our travels around town, I was thoroughly chastised and told not to waste money on them. Unused to being waited on, I was embarrassed by them, and my mother was impatient with my reticence. That was simply the way it was, and I would do better to look at the beauty of the countryside. Did I want to wash my own clothes in the pila? I was, however, a great hit with the servants.
I must have driven Mom crazy that summer. She wanted me to look at the volcanoes, the lakes; and the beautiful ruins of colonial buildings. I saw them but I couldn’t ignore the men sleeping in parks and doorways; the Indian women carrying a baby tied snugly to their chests, carrying another on a hip, with two or three children hanging on to their skirts, all of them dirty, with mucus dripping from their noses. When we would alight from the buses, we would be swarmed by Indian women and their children, all begging. All I could see was the unrelenting, overwhelming poverty: esos Indios sucios, those filthy Indians, spoken of with such contempt that you knew that they must be poor and filthy on purpose. Half-starved dogs meandered in the streets, and occasionally one would see a pig wandering about.
My awareness of poverty, of the difficulty of labor, of hardship, was unusual for a nine year-old. At that time, American children had little exposure to wars and violence in part because our exposure to television was minimal and the offerings, for the most part, were more benign. Seeing all the suffering made me sick at heart and in fact, physically ill; at least that’s what my mother always said.
Guatemala City is surrounded by volcanoes, including an active one, Pacaya. Since 1965, it sputters continuously, a plume of smoke emanating from its depths in a warning that it could go off any time, and the city is very susceptible to earthquakes. I’m glad Pacaya hadn’t started steaming yet when first I went there. Everything was already so surreal. We visited relatives in the colonial capital, Antigua, or Antigua Guatemala which means “Old Guatemala.” It was originally named Santiago de los Caballeros but after it was destroyed by earthquakes in 1717 and 1773, the crown ordered the capital moved to a safer place, and Antigua was ordered abandoned.
My first taste of Latin American history was visiting the Museum of Old Weapons in Antigua where my aunt’s father was the curator. I have a picture of my brother and sister sitting in a colonial chair that had belonged to the conquerors of Guatemala. We saw armor, swords and other weapons which, until then, I had seen only in the British TV show, The Adventures of Robin Hood. What were they for, I asked? To kill the Indians, I was told. That was a very confusing answer considering that there were Indians everywhere in Guatemala, dressed in their traditional brightly colored trajes. I guessed that the conquerors hadn’t succeeded in killing all of them. Moreover, killing Indians was something I knew about: I had watched John Wayne’s movies; the Lone Ranger and Tonto, as well as all the other cowboy and Indian movies on television. These Indians didn’t look anything like the fierce, war-painted Indians on television. These Indians just looked small, poor, and dirty, not at all fierce; why did anyone want to kill them?
I fell in love with Antigua Guatemala. I resolved that I would come back to live in Antigua. As I grew older, I dreamed that I would be a writer and I would live in a little house there and write my books. Sadly, I have only returned there to visit. The civil war, from 1960 until 1996, ended any possibility of that dream.
Guatemala made a tremendous impression on me. In the years that followed my first visit, my uncle sent me a book, Los Grandes Conquistadores, which was the first real book I read in Spanish. My vocation was set then. As an adult, I would come to be horrified by accounts of the massacres of indigenous people by the Spanish conquerors, but the landscapes and the downtrodden people I saw that summer left an indelible mark on my heart. At some level, my mother’s love for her adopted country penetrated my subconscious and hooked me.
We left the country very abruptly. I had been browsing in the stores around the perimeter of the mercadowith my grandmother, and we had just approached a shop with eggs and incubators in the window, where baby chicks were beginning to hatch. I heard popping sounds but thought nothing of it. My abuelita grabbed me, ran into the shop, threw me to the floor and covered her body with mine, telling me to be absolutely quiet. I remember the scent of the sawdust on the floor of the shop. I thought I heard horses’ hoofs on the cobblestones outside but I cannot tell you what happened that day. When the commotion stopped, Abuelita found a back door to the shop, and we ran home. The next day we were on a plane going back to San Francisco.
Every teacher who loves his/her subject passionately is possessed by things they must teach to the next generation. And so it is with me. I have tried to find some mention of what happened that summer, but censorship and repression have worked their magic and there is no trace. I've asked my mother about that day; she says I imagined it. Now that she is deeply lost to Alzheimers, I guess I'll never know, but I have never forgotten the scent of the sawdust.