A few years ago I lived in Guatemala. It was there that I came across this poignant story. You may enjoy reading it.
“I’m from here”
A Mayan girl, orphaned by war, returns to her roots with Sally Tisdale, who adopted her.
We slipped into Guatemala City through grand heaping clouds thick as snowbanks. When at last we broke through, my daughter clambered over her father’s lap to press against the airplane window, staring at the crammed neighbourhoods and canyons below. The city I remember from 12 years ago – an uncomfortably quiet, battered city – was gone. In its place was a teeming hive of cars, trucks, scooters, buses and people – more than two million people, all of them hurrying somewhere.
That morning, driving to the airport thousands of miles away, Annie Rose announced, “I’m going home!” She is 14 and has not been in Guatemala since she was 2, when we adopted her. She has traveled many places with us, but war has kept us away from here. Wait, we said several times. Wait awhile yet.
“Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums.” So begins the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation epic. “The face of the earth is not clear.” The Mayans are great keepers of time, still tracking a calendar kept for thousands of years. They tell the time in cycles of days, months and years – good cycles and troubled ones.
That night we stared at a strange violet moon through the shivering haze, and slept fitfully. We had planned this trip, this return to Annie Rose’s roots since her departure from them. She has had books, a few pieces of clothing, photographs, and her imagination. For years she has wondered about who she might have been – who she was before – who she would become. The erratic city chorus never stopped; dogs, cats, horns and sirens, the burbling cries of a neigbour’s caged peacocks. A **** crowed outside the window at three in the morning, a mysterious herald. She had come home to a strange place where we were only visitors, and I felt a silent fist on my heart.
We stayed in the city with Julio Quan and Maralise Hood, friends I had met long ago in San Francisco. Julio was once the nation’s geographer, the writer of its atlas, but he fled Guatemala during the latter years of the troubles. He and Maralise, who is American, have helped to organize several Mayan political groups and are now assisting Maya determined to see the peace accords of 1996 put into action. With Julio and Maralise to help, we came up with an itinerary. They had also arranged for a guide for a few days, an old family friend named Brenda Velázquez. Brenda, who is Mayan, happened to be born in the same place as our daughter – a dot on the map called Boca del Monte.
For many years, we’d had only this name, the place where she’d been carefully left as a newborn to be taken to the city orphanage. Her own name is our choice, a replacement for the birth certificate name pieced together from the first and last names of the orphanage staff. Boca doesn’t even appear on most maps, and I have long assumed it as a tiny, out-of-the way town near the lake. Early this spring, I finally found it - quite close to Guatemala City on a main highway heading south to Lake Amatitlán. Boca might once have been a rural town, but the explosive growth of the city is rapidly catching it up. We could have taken a bus but chose a taxi instead, not ready to relinquish control just yet.
We woke from the disturbed sleep of the city, to fresh orange and papaya juice, tortillas made by Ana, the shy young Mayan girl who works for Julio and Maralise, and Julio’s own black bean pancake. Annie Rose was the last awake, stumbling down the cool stone stairs in a daze, with a faint smile. For our trip to Boca, she wore a neon-blue T-shirt we bought in Mexico, decorated with Mayan stelae glyphs.
Brenda arrived in a rush, full of kisses and gossip and anticipation. And then the taxi came, and all at once we were piled in the rickety sedan, hurtling through the city’s thick traffic – past gated subdivisions hidden behind walls and railings, a military base, busy commercial districts and unfinished apartment buildings. The highway twists through steep hairpin turns, past wide canyons with shantytowns perched on the cliff like resting birds. These little communities, Julio told me, are called limonadas, lemonades – a complement for the fresh upstart character of the people determined to make a life here.
More than half of Guatemala is Mayan – most of the world’s eight million Maya live here, in a growing population. Most are rural, but more and more are moving to the city, trying to take advantage of a changing economy. Much of the time outsiders talk about the Maya as a single people, and even in Guatemala, they are often referred to as one group – the indígena, the indigenous. But there are 22 separate ethnic families of Mayan people, 22 languages, many lineages within each family. The Maya have long kept their divisions sharp, fought between tribal groups, divided the land into separate kingdoms.
Boca del Monte belongs to no group. We left the highway and came upon it all at once, an odd mix of poverty and wealth, rutted dirt roads and homes hidden behind locked gates. Annie Rose stared from the taxi window, craning her head. “Is this it?” She whispered.
We walked up and down the dry streets of Boca del Monte, Brenda exclaiming now and then at what she remembered, what has changed, showing us the lush canyon she used to climb, peering into backyards and alleyways. Annie Rose was shy and silent, staring curiously at equally curious children nearby while I bought us Cokes. “Go say hello”, I said, but she is slow to meet people at home, and here home, not home, a place foreign and familiar at once, she retreated inside.
One of the commitments of the peace accords is to help the desarraigados, which means “uprooted” or “exiled”. Boca del Monte has long been a gathering place of refugees of one kind or another, and in several ways, my daughter is desarraigado too; born in this place of transit and change, one of an estimated 100,000 or more Mayan children orphaned one way or another by war. She is part Guatemala, part her father and brother and me, part of the world of the adopted and the displaced, still Maya, and herself alone.
I thought she would refuse to pose for photographs while the children watched. But she wanted these pictures - “by the soccer field, Mom” she said. She stood, awkwardly, holding a proud secret, by the wall where the town name is inscribed, clutching the chicken wire fence and squinting into clouds of dust.
You see the terrible life of the people in the city, Maralise told me. “You must go see Xela to know the other side.”
After Boca del Monte we took a bus to Quetzaltenango, known everywhere by its K´iché name, Xela (SHAY-la). We rode slowly out of the city, past discount mattress outlets and auto-parts stores, the bus boarded by singsong vendors selling cookies and sodas and fruits at every traffic light, climbing slowly past subdivisions and giant billboards advertising cigarettes and chocolate and pesticide, up, up. And through the looking glass. The city is largely Ladino; almost every other part of Guatemala is Mayan, and utterly different.
Guatemala roads are always full of buses, vans, cars and trucks often little pickups filled with people dressed in rainbows, laughing as the truck swings dangerously around a corner, a flower garden on wheels. People sit, work, sell, and walk along the way, many miles from the nearest town, and climb steep trails into the hills, dig in the fields, sleep by the road. Mile after mile, women walk steadfastly beside the highway in traditional huipils and skirts, with babies swaddled in shawls. Children play with ravenous-looking mongrel dogs. Men lie propped on rocks, smoking, or bend under heavy bundles, or cook over campfires.
The western highlands are split by narrow, snaking highways crossing jade and emerald mountains, mountains falling away on every side, layer to the sea. The bus radio played ceaselessly marimba, reggae, Top 40 pop. We rose above neat terraced fields of corn and coffee, above shimmering Lake Atitlán and mountains pearl gray in the humid sunlight. And on up, to almost 8,000 feet, where the light is as fair as a newborn and Xela rests between the arms of green highland valleys and sharp volcanic peaks wreathed in cloud.
Xela is the second-largest city in the country, with a population of more than 100,000, and the commercial center of the western highlands. It doesn’t beckon to tourists. But Xela is everything the capital is not, cool and clean, with a cheerful prosperity in the corners. After the long hours on the bus, the disconcerting shifts of travel, Xela seemed transparent and clear in the daytime, blanketed in blackness at night.
The municipal building on one side of Xela´s central plaza is made up of big arches and Grecian statuary. Even the daily market, with its crowded aisles of chickens and baskets of beans wreathed in cooking smoke, is in sight of the Temple of Minerva, a crumbling monument to the Roman goddess of wisdom. (There are various Minervas around the country, erected in the 1800s by Estrada Cabrera, who was eventually declared insane, It is a typical Guatemalan irony.) All through the highlands are unexpected touches of the Greek and Romans reflecting, for one person, pride and education; for another, tragic colonial caprice. It was in Xela that the first big defeat of the highland Maya by the Spanish took place.
“Before the war,” people say in Guatemala, “during the war.” Every conversation is peppered with it; the war is the border within which people’s lives are drawn. But which war? There have been many for the Maya, or a single very long one, perhaps. One cycle in the Mayan cosmology is the Calendar Round, 52 years long the time it takes for the constellation of the Pleiades to cross the zenith of the sky. Each Calendar Round beckons catastrophe. Cortés, with great good luck for the Spanish, arrived in Mexico in 1519, the first year of a Calendar Round.
We - or, rather Annie Rose - had an appointment with the mayor of Xela, thanks to Maralise. One of her former college classmates is Rigoberto Quemé Chay, the first Mayan city mayor in the history of Guatemala. Anne Rose was working on a school report about literacy. Maya average only a few years of formal schooling; a third of them never go to school at all. Yet another irony: The Classical Maya were great scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, architects. They wrote grand epics of adventure and godhood. In some parts of the country now, more than half the men and 80 percent of the women are unable to read and write.
On our second sunny morning in Xela, we waited a little nervously while the mayor said good-bye to a Japanese investor. Quemé, and Xela, are attracting international notice and money. A handsome, tidy man, he graciously invited us into his corner office, a room of dark wood and big windows and leather furniture, a confident room. He immediately asked Annie Rose where she was born.
“Indigenous people say you leave your umbilical cord in the place you are born,” he told her. “It is a tradition that indigenous people don’t go to the hospital. Maybe now, but before they didn’t. A special woman comes to the house and takes the placenta and buries it in the ground. It shows respect to the place you are born. It is very important, your pride.”
Quemé speaks in whole paragraphs laced with statistics. He was born in the highlands to a poor family; his mother still cannot read. “When I was born, we rented a house that didn’t have sanitary services, we didn’t have water, only one light bulb,” he told us. “But they made the effort to put us into school. There was not too much money, so the children worked and studied.
When he was about eight years old, his parents bought a house in downtown Xela. What was intended as a benefit for him and his siblings backfired. “We were surrounded by the non indigenous people. We didn’t have friends, my parents didn’t relate to the neighbors - a lot of racism. They put us in schools that were not indigenous. They didn’t teach us the K’iché language; they preferred that we learn Spanish. We thought, Where do we come from? We didn’t know about our culture. We were lost in the sun”
Quemé dropped out of school in his teens, started drinking, and didn’t stop until he was 37. And then he turned himself inside out, going to the university, to law school, and then for his masters in social anthropology, where he met Maralise. And eventually he became mayor.
Mayan unity is a strange animal, Quemé has met resistance from a divided people afraid of change, scrabbling for scarce money and jobs. “How does it feel to be the first Mayan mayor?” Annie Rose asked. “I am very proud and kind of worried about it,” he said. “Proud because I am part of history. Now my name is written in history. But I am worried about it because it is a big responsibility to the community, If I do something well, it is going to turn up the passion, and if I make it wrong, there will be a moment when people will not believe us. So I have to work so my people can be proud of me.”
What can I do to help Guatemala?” she asked. “First, you must know Guatemala.”
We were staying at the Hotel Modelo in Xela, a quite place with simple rooms and the dark, heavy architecture of the Spaniards. We had the same waitress at every meal, Elsa a young, placid K’iché woman who quickly took an interest in Annie Rose. (“She has three sons, ”Brenda told me after a quick exchange. “No daughters.”) She offered to braid Annie Rose’s hair in traditional style. Else’s reaction was like that of many people outside the city. Again and again I saw it dawn in people’s face that this Mayan girl was with the white lady and gentleman. Were we social workers, teachers? “Adoptar.” I would explain in my bad Spanish. “A dos años,” Ahhhh, people would say. Adoptions yes. I had worried about resentment. Adoption has been an inflammatory issue for some Maya; they have lost so much, so many children. But we found only interest, and acceptance. And more Annie Rose gradually got used to women bending down in introduction, kissing her cheeks, wrapping their arms around her when they walked. Come, many seemed to say in secret whispers, I will show you how to be here.
One morning, Elsa came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her pretty apron, carrying a paper bag with her second set of clothing. We chased Bob and Brenda out of the hotel room, and Elsa wove Annie Roses thick hair into two tight braids. Weaving a long neon-blue scarf through both sides. She pulled a huipil embroidered with pink roses over Annie Rose’s head and folded it in, pulled on the navy skirt, with its yards of folds and distinct Xela cross seam, and cinched my daughters already small waist tight, with a long belt, until she was shaped like an hourglass.
I sat on the bed, suddenly in tears, watching my scruffy, athletic daughter change before me into something new. She cannot bear to have me comb her hair. She hides her figure, never wears a dress, wont put on belts. For Elsa, she stood still, and was suddenly la señorita, a young woman, beautiful.
I called Brenda in. “Que linda!” she cried, and we went out in the sun and took pictures. She and Elsa stood serenely while our cameras clicked, and a gardener near by stopped to watch. Annie Rose is one of the shortest and smallest girls in her school at home; in Guatemala, she is lean and tall, taller than grown Elsa. Finally, Elsa had to take back her clothes and go to work. But Annie Rose kept the braids in, sneaking a look in the mirror now and then, flicking them back and forth with a secret smile. “What are you crying for Mom?” she asked. “Because I looked pretty?”
That afternoon we met the mayor’s wife, Julia, as handsome and charismatic as her husband. She works on literacy and training programs for local women, and wanted us to see one of Xela´s nine sewing cooperatives. Late in the day she hustled us, along with a few of her friends, into a tiny white pickup, and we bounced over dirty roads into the rough hills above town, where the looming volcano was softened by mist. Near a wide field were boys played soccer, several women worked in a small room packed inch to inch with old sewing machines. They were learning to make modern children’s clothes, while their own children played nearby. They hope eventually to have a cottage industry exporting clothes, which won’t exploit their labour like the factories do.
“Many people have a bad idea of Guatemala,” Doña Julia said as we went back into town. “You will go home and tell people what you have seen.” It is almost a command. Behind me, Annie Rose laughed in the back of the pickup, where she is never allowed to ride at home. Down a side street I could see two women walking side by side, huge bundles balanced on their heads, rainbow skirts swaying with each step. Doña Julia stared straight ahead through the windshield, and we slowly drove through dusk. “You will tell them what is good.”
We left Xela, changing buses in the dingy three-way pit stop called Los Encuentros, and said a rapid farewell to Brenda. She was returning to the city, and we were going on to Chichicastenango, a small highland town famous for its big market, to be held the following day. Every bus was full to bursting; we rose up the titling, narrow road in the aisles, under the bags and bundles, pressed on every side.
Chichi is a sedate village five days a week, a mob of marketgoers every Thursday and Sunday. We walked through the plaza on Saturday night and watched the market go up, seemingly out of thin air. All day and into the night the buses rolled in, each honking as it came into town, prompting a chorus of cries from the vendors selling fruit, sodas, and cookies. By morning the market had quadrupled in size, filling the whole plaza and half a dozen side streets with stunning color and noise. I was drunk on texture detail, surprise on the human need to make life into art, to make beauty, outrageous beauty contrary to all practicality and reason, and to make it on a backstrap loom, by the fire.
Many hundreds of indígenas and dozens of tourists slowly passed through the plaza with hardly a inch to spare, packing the streets, talking, sparing, sleeping, buying and selling flowers, chili peppers, firewood, clothing, turkeys and roosters and pigeons, squash and scarves, and masks and thread.
At one corner of the market was the Church of Santo Tomás, a very old indigenous meeting place. The steps are the flower zone, a resting place, the air muddy and fragrant from piñon fires and incense. Foreigners are strongly discouraged from entering the front door of Santo Tomás, or even climbing its steps. All through the day, while indígenas make traditional offerings and perform private rites there, non-Maya are directed away, to a side entrance.
All at once Annie Rose was overwhelmed. “I’m from here,” she said, and it was all too much, too foreign, too thick with sameness and strangeness. She was suddenly unanchored, only 14 years old, and she escaped to our peaceful hotel to read in the hammock in the rooftop garden until it was time to go.
The day before she had said after a long silence, “Do you think my mother buried the placenta?”
Brenda was the first to speak. “Oh, for sure,” she answered. “For sure, you were born at home. Your placenta is in Boca del Monte.”
Since we’d left the city, she had been one of many, seeing her reflection everywhere we went. Now and then she laughed at our pale faces, her tall father sticking up above the black-haired crowd, and she struggled with her own more subtle separation. When we went to the Hotel Santo Tomás, a few blocks from the church, to meet the van we were taking down to Antigua, we had another line to cross. Outside the front door of the hotel, in the bright spring sun, were sidewalk booths draped in colour, barefoot children, street vendors holding up weavings and calling out the price. Through the foyer, past a security guard keeping the vendors and children out, were captive parrots, a marimba band, and half a hundred heat-befuddled visitors in shorts and T-shirts, clutching bags. We came in the front, but I felt like looking for the side door, because she – and we – were different all over again.
Some days later, we returned to the city and the Hotel del Centro, where we’d stayed 12 years ago during the complex process of adoption. It is a dim and quiet haven in Zona 1, the oldest part of the city, near the main plaza. Our rooms there was eerily familiar, dreamlike in the sameness of its detail. Nothing seemed to have changed since she’d been so tiny I could bathe her in the bathroom sink. We wandered around the hotel’s rooftop terrace and stared down at the city, Annie Rose repeating to herself, “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.” The mountains were hidden in the smoky haze, clouds like curtains on the heart of the sky. “Wait!” sings the Popol Vuh. “Thou Maker, thou Modeler, look at us, listen to us, don’t let us fall, don’t leave us aside … give us our sign, our word, as long as there is day, as long as there is light.”
That weekend, Bishop Juan José Gerardi had been assassinated, shortly after releasing a painstaking report on human rights abuses during the war. We returned to a city in mourning. It was not obvious on the street, in the frantic Zona 1 crowd of shops, restaurants, and banks. Business never stops in Guatemala. But the church bells rang, and while we ate dinner with Julio and Maralise, picking at paella and this sorrowful death of a personal friend, thousands of people marched in the street, shouting “Nunca más”, Never again.
When we’d met Rigoberto Quemé, Bob had asked him, “How do you stay optimistic?” He’d though awhile and said, “It’s part of the cosmic vision of the Mayan culture. Cycles begin and end. After a bad time, a good time starts. That is part of the culture. After a bad time, there will be a cycle of happiness.”
A few weeks after our return to the States, Annie Rose went to the mall with a friend and came home with her long black hair cut short. Her room is a jumble of jeans and T-shirts and Mayan hair ribbons and a poster the mayor gave her, celebrating the peace. The disparate elements are slowly weaving themselves together for all of us; Guatemala feels near now, and familiar. Do you feel more Guatemalan? I ask her, and she says yes. And more American. And more herself. Then I ask her where she wants to go when we return to Guatemala, her answer is unequivocal: Boca del Monte. “That’s where I was born,” she says. “I want to go back again.”