“Es muy triste,” Gloria said to me, her arms elbow deep in dishes in the backyard. Returning from Xela, I had been greeted at the door by her young son and then it was straight up the stairs to the kitchen and out to the back yard to announce my return. Finishing the dishes from lunch, Gloria had asked me about my trip, and I had told her that my head was full. I explained that I had talked to a lot of people at Cafe R.E.D. and learned a lot about coffee, immigration, deportation, and history.
“You learned the history of coffee or the history of Guatemala?” she had asked, and I had explained that it was the history of Guatemala. Then I told her about the book, Bitter Fruit, that Cesár had me read, and that it had explained to me how the United States had been involved in instigating and later funding the civil war in Guatemala. There was something special about that book, for it had opened the conversation up first for Cesár and I, and now for Gloria.
“Es muy triste,” she said. And then it all came pouring out, the book acting as a key to unlock what people were carrying. It was as if people wanted to talk about it with me, but without knowing that I understood at least the foundation, it was too big and too painful to explain to a novice who would only ask insensitive questions in stuttering Spanish and still be incapable of fully understanding. Knowing that I had now read over 300 pages of in-depth research on the topic, however, Gloria felt like she could talk about it… finally.
She told me that it had been a time of great sadness, and I felt in her words that this was the cause behind the sadness that always seemed to linger in the back of her eyes. She told me that it was a big part of the story both of her family and of Jose Felix’s family, that there were many, many stories that would take a lifetime to tell. She had grown up and raised her oldest children during the years when soldiers, funded with US military aid, patrolled the lake region, searching for indigenous guerrillas; from time to time raping women; assassinating or kidnapping community leaders; and, on occasion, massacring civilians in ethnically targeted actions.
She said that her mother used to cry and cry and plead with God for the safety of her three daughters. With all that the soldiers were doing to women in the area, it was her mother’s greatest fear that something would happen to her girls. Gloria did not say exactly what her mother was worried about, but a significant look exchanged between us and we understood one another. There are some things in life that women do not need words to communicate. Thanks be to God, they were protected.
The family lived in a rural part of the mountains, far away from others, and their father had died, leaving them without the protection of a man in the house. So they were always listening, always listening. Often they would hear the sound of gunfire at night. They would spend the night in darkness, only occasionally using the dim light of candles; trying not to be seen or to attract any notice. Learning to live life in silence, hoping to be invisible. It sounded like a terribly traumatic way to grow up.
After she and Jose Felix married, he experienced many terrifying things she said, while he was teaching in another region. Soldiers came and put guns to the heads of teachers where he was. It was a very dangerous time, and many teachers died throughout the decades. Teachers, along with priests, were people who empowered others, and thus were targets for assassination. She said she was not with him at the time. That they were living apart while she stayed in a safer area with their baby girls. It made sense now why the couple was such a serious pair. Why it seemed that everyone of their generation around here, with the exception of the jovial Vincente, was so serious.
She told me that Jose Felix had lost 3 cousins to the massacres and disappearances, and that she had lost 2 of her cousins. The loss of one cousin seemed to impact her in particularly. She kept saying that he was so intelligent and so full of promise. He sounded like he had been quite the “golden child” of the family. She said they never knew where he went, his body could be in the mountains or at the bottom of the lake. It reminded me of the stories Vincente had told me. She said that his father refused to give up looking for his brilliant son. From sun up to sun down he thought about him and searched for him. Once, she said, he heard that a corpse had been found and he rushed to the scene certain that it was his son. But it was not his son. His son was never to be found. Finally, one day, the father was found sitting in the street, appearing to be asleep with his arms folded. But he was not asleep, he had finally died there of a broken heart.
Just then Gloria’s son came running in, a toy motorcycle in each hand – one red and one black. He had waited until his little niece was not around to show them to me because he knew that nice toys did not fare well around the baby. Then he fetched his toy trucks and we ran them across the floor.
I finally understood what this ultimo hijo meant to this family. This last child, this unexpected child, this child born late in life, who might as easily be mistaken for a grandchild. This was a child that she had given birth to in freedom. This was a child that had come into her world during a time of peace. This peace-time child was an unexpected blessing. A child for whose safety she would not have to cry and plead with God for, as her mother had for hers.
This child was joy. This child was hope. This child was the fresh beginning that her husband sang about in his songs. It was possible, after all, for someone to exist who was completely untouched by the violence that had dominated their lives.
As we finished playing, I stood up and looking at Gloria said only “Gracias…. gracias.” And she understood.
I wandered around the streets of San Pedro for the rest of the day, feeling like a time bomb had gone off in my heart. Everything was so beautiful and so painful; so tragic and so hopeful; so sad and so joyful. I was reeling, like someone walking into the bright light of day after weeks in the dark – the light proving to be both beautiful and illuminating while also being a bit painful and difficult to adjust to.
I had let these people into my heart without knowing what they carried. And now I had to deal with processing what they had gone through.
I could feel that something about me was different. I had left the door to my heart wide open to them, and they had carried memories of such pain and such sorrow and such fear in with them; but they had also carried in all the healing and all the hope and all the strength that had helped them survive.
C.S. Lewis says that “to love is to be vulnerable….” I had been vulnerable with them and they had been vulnerable with me, and we would each carry a piece of each other on our journey forward.
It has been a year of feeling new things for the first time. That was the way it all started, and I feel sure that will be how it will all end. My heart is in training; for what, I do not yet know.