Saturday, March 10, 2007

Looking North with Doña Celia

La Violencia, Chickens, Basketball

I was born in Parramos, between Chimaltenango and Antigua. My family is ladino, but most of the population there is indigenous, and a lot of people from the aldeas come in for the weekend markets. If you go into a church on Sunday, almost everyone there is Maya. There was a lot of violence in Parramos in the 80s, and eventually they built an army base right outside of town. For many years there was fighting, and I knew many people who were killed, or abused, by both sides.

My mother was still pregnant when my father died. She gave birth to my baby brother eight days later, and with my baby brother she was a widow with five children. I was the oldest, so I worked with her to take care of my siblings. There was a Peace Corps volunteer in town, named Jimmy Milton, from St. Luis. He taught us how to raise chickens, so my mother could go to Antigua to sell eggs on market days. Thanks to Jimmy we got through the hardest years. He did a lot of this work in Parramos, with other families as well. I'd really like to find out if he's still alive, but I don't know how. He sent my mother a card after thhe big earthquake, but she lost it after a few years.

There were festivals in town, including the annual festival titular to honor Los Santos Niños Innocentes. Sometimes there were formal dances, they'd rent out a hall and bring marimbas, and everything. Those were special times, because we were allowed to stay out at the dance, even when it was the middle of the night. In those days everyone was well dressed and very decent with one another, and we would dance together. We say the youth of today are very different, with gangs, violence, drugs, and wickedness. When I was young we lived with humility and caution. We thought hard about the company we would keep and the friends we made, and we didn't keep our lives hidden from our parents.

I was friends with other ladino girls in town. When I was fifteen I started playing basketball on a team. We were called "Oasis", and we were really good. We travelled out to Chimaltenango, Antigua to play against other teams. The best was when we would go to some city far away, then come back as the winners. I'm still in touch with some of those girls. We get together for dinner and we tell stories about the basketball years.


One of my aunts immigrated to Oregon with her husband when they were both really young. She had four children there, and all of them survived to become adults. I don't know what she and her husband did for work, because my family had no connection with her at all after she left Guatemala. When she was getting ready to leave, and my father was dead, she wanted to take my baby brother with her to Oregon, and my mother wouldn't agree. They fought about this, and finally my mother became so upset that they stopped speaking. My aunt died a few years ago, and they burned her body. That's what they do with the bodies of the dead in the United States.

Cleveland, Ohio

When my oldest son was thirteen, his father took him to the United States because there was some work there. I haven't seen either of them in twenty-five years. My son lives in Cleveland now. For a long time he worked in a plant packing ham. One day there was an accident. His friend flipped on a sawblade as a joke, but it caught my son and took away three of the fingers on his left hand. While he was recovering, I wanted to go and see him. I wanted to, but I didn't have enough money, and my husband here wouldn't let me go. The children I had with my husband were very young. I thought I could ask for help from a church or aid organization, but I was afraid that my son's papers weren't in order and I would bring trouble to him. His employers paid him $70,000 in injury compensation, but losing part of his hand was a really immense blow to his self-esteem. He still lives in the United States, but he is struggling with depression. He doesn't want to come home because he says he would be embarrassed to return to town with his disability.

I would still like to go and visit him, because I don't want to die without seeing his face again. I'm his mother, it's how I should feel. I haven't applied for a passport, or a visa. I just pray to God to let me see my son in Cleveland or in El Tejar. If my prayers don't succeed, so be it.

Chicago, Illinois

I have another son who lives in Chicago. He's been gone for two and a half years, because he wanted to build a house here, above the house I live in. The old house is made of adobe, and we didn't want to use any more because of the earthquake.* We wanted to use cinder blocks. My son was a mechanic, but he was making very little money and he needed to support his wife and two children. He realized is he stayed here and worked as hard as he could, he would still never have the kind of house he wanted for himself.

*Note: The poorer side of El Tejar was once built entirely of adobe, a cheap substitute for brick-and-mortar construction. Nearly all such houses were levelled in the 1976 earthquake, and many died there. On the other side of town, where the houses were built with better materials, there were only three fatalities.

One of my son's friends came back from the United States and built a really nice two-story house, and he painted it yellow. My son said, "I'm going to do that, too. I'm going to have a house just like that." This happens a lot with young people here--they see the success of one man, and they decide they want to do it, too.

I took a loan from the bank for 40,000 quetzales ($5200). That's how much I paid to get my son to the north safely. I owe all of this money, and I don't know how I'll pay, but he is safe. Still, something that really frightens me about the US is that you have tornadoes there. You never know when they come, but then suddenly they appear and destroy every one's houses!

My son joined an evangelical church in Chicago* They asked him what sort of work he wanted to do, and found him a job working in a mechanic's shop. His employers love him, because he's got no vicios (vices). He doesn't smoke, and he doesn't drink, and if he sees that someone likes to drink liquor he distances himself from them. In the last two years, as the lord is good, my son has been able to build his house, here.

*Note: This term is used in Guatemala to describe a any non-catholic denomination.

Celia gave me a tour of her son's house. It has been built on the property the family owns alongside the Panamerican Highway, rising three stories above the family's old single-level house. The entire structure has been constructed in in the absence of its owner, funded through remittances sent piece by piece though Western union. There is no furniture n the house, and the plumbing is still waiting to be finished. In the afternoon the rooms fill with a ghostly light. The walls are built with reinforced cinder blocks that have been stuccoed and painted white. The living area is on the second story, over a garage that is currently being rented to another mechanic until Celia's son returns to open his own business. The house has two bedrooms, a dining room, a spacious landing for a kitchen, a large bathroom, and a balcony looking out onto the highway. In the bathroom are rare items: a large bathtub and a showerhead attached to a "real" water-heater, both are items of luxury in a town where everyone showers under frighteningly informal electric water heating systems. Above the living area is a third level, currently unfinished, that will contain a small bedroom and an open terrace for hanging laundry. From the site of this future terrace it is possible to see the house that inspired Celia's son to undertake his own trip to the United States.

My son tells me he will be coming home at the end of this year. In the winters it is very cold in Chicago, and it snows a lot. He says the ice is starting to get into his bones. When he goes to work in the shop, he says his hands and legs ache. He doesn't want to come home with sickness, so before the next winter begins he will return to Guatemala. People love him here, because he's an honest worker. Even though he is in Chicago, they come here looking for him. When he opens his shop he will already have many clients. He should come home to his wife and children, before he loses their hearts. He's already built his home, what more does he need?

Notes from the Periphery

One of my sisters lives in Encino, where all of the artists come from. She's been there for almost twenty years, taking care of other people's children. She's already a citizen, and all of her children are citizens as well. They come down to Guatemala every Christmas, but in the US she says she mostly socializes with North Americans*. She says there aren't really very many Guatemalans there.

*Note: In Guatemala this phrase is ordinarily used to describe Caucasians with US Citizenship.

Look, every place has its advantages, but I think the major difference is that people in the United States feel more comfortable, they feel they are personally valued. Here you can work and work and never see the reward for your trouble. We are paid by the day, and the day can be pretty long. In the US you work hourly and your time is transformed into money for you to see. I take care of kids in my house, I feed them and bathe them and wash their clothes. One girl's parents work in the courts in the capital. One girl was adopted from an indigenous woman in Panajachel. Their parents are wealthy, but I am paid 200 Quetzales ($25) per month to care for these children. In the US the wages are higher and the gains are greater, because one's labor is valued by society.

My son tells me everything up north is very legal, by the hour, orderly. Here, someone can kill someone else with impunity. In the US they solve murders, right? These three Salvadoran members of parliament who were murdered by the police last week, in the capital--why were they killed? No one knows what happened, who really did it, what they wanted. Saber? The saddest part, for me, is that no one will ever come to justice for this, not really. Everyone is saying these murders are a disgrace for our country.

Now George Bush is coming to Chimaltenango to see the agricultural projects in Zaragoza and Patzicía. There they have huge fields full of vegetables for export, vegetables we don't eat in Guatemala. He's coming because he wants to show how free trade is good for development, how it brings jobs and money. But he can't even get there, an hour from the capital, without riding in a helicopter. The roads aren't safe enough for him. And they are closing down half of Guatemala City just so he can come here for a few days and visit these fields.

My husband was the mayor here for four years, and recently some people in town were asking him to be mayor again. He started to get a campaign ready, but some others started threatening us. They would pound on the door of our home, and call late at night to tell us they were going to kidnap my sons, that would hurt our family. It was pretty terrible. My husband isn't going to run for mayor. It's a bad time for politics in Guatemala.

Post script: Doña Celia requested that if I was going to put something about her on the internet she would appreciate it if I also invited anyone who will be visiting Antigua for Semana Santa to stay in her home, where she will provide square meals and good conversation for a reasonable fee. Please write to me if you would like to discuss this possiblity, and I will help put you in touch with Celia herself.