In 1979, my grandmother took me to Guatemala for a short visit, which ended up stretching to a full year, and would have continued indefinitely had my fed-up mother not boarded a plane and personally retrieved me. According to her, I had insisted on wearing full native costume for the trip home: corte, huipil, faja, trenzas piled on my head interwoven with ribbons and festooned with pom-poms. She says I sang the Guatemalan national anthem as I deplaned. I have a vague memory of this; I remember my huipil was from Cobán. I was five years old.
I remember many things about my life in Guatemala: living in the Zona 1, walking with my cousins to school at San Vicente de Paul, all of us in our green-and-white uniforms. I remember going with Abuelita or Tía Sheny to buy tortillas down the street, and the strange dark room in our house that was curtained off, that nobody ever went into.
I remember the student store at school, the kindly pàrroco who never smiled –“Padre Shuco” to my cousins, because he apparently never bathed—and Maria Luisa Rey, my kindergarten/1st grade teacher, whom Tìa Sheny had dubbed “Señorita Tamalita” because she was round and compact. I remember marching in the Independence Day parade as the abanderada, but as I was too small to carry the flag—I walked in front of it, wearing white knee socks on my arms because I had deemed the wrist-length gloves I’d been offered not formal enough for the occasion.
I remember my fifth birthday party, with all my cousins and the neighborhood kids, and my Penèlope Burro piñata, and the stupid clown whom I instantly hated when he informed me I had incorrectly answered a Guatemala trivia question (I promptly and tearfully informed him that there would be no more need for his services at my party, while my uncles wept with laughter).
I remember buying green mango with chile, sal y limón from the street vendors –eating so much of it one day that I got a sour stomach as Abuelita clucked, “te dije!”– and drinking purple Fanta from a baggie with a straw. I remember the procesiones in the streets and making my primera comunión in a white dress and veil with what seemed like hundreds of other, identically-dressed little girls. Learning to write in cursive. Going to misa with Abuelita and feeding the pigeons in the plaza, sitting on the fountain. Fireworks and sparklers para la Noche Buena. The entirety of my other childhood memories is virtually eclipsed by this one year, this singular window into the world of my mother’s upbringing.
This one year in my young life became the cornerstone of my very identity (particularly when I returned to the U.S. with no recollection of how to speak English, and was promptly treated as Other). When I went away to Guatemala, I became –in my mind and heart—Guatemalteca, and lived much of my life thinking of myself that way, despite the fact that I would not return again for many, many years; too many to admit.
Most of these memories make appearances in my current short story collection, and they are easy to work into the narratives—they are mine, and mine only, and their idyllic nature makes them a relative joy to fictionalize. But they’re not the only memories serving as a basis for my book: my mom’s stories of her life in Guate, her political activism, her emigration to the US, her life in New Orleans in the ‘60s and her service in the US Marine Corps during Vietnam all figure prominently as well, as do secondhand tales of various other family members.
These stories are not mine… and when I went to Guatemala last fall to try and supplement my Mom’s versions of them (and maybe pick up a few new ones!), I was presented instead with a tangled snarl of resentments, estrangements, conflicting accounts and never-to-be-solved mysteries. Most of all, I was confronted with a painful truth, one that brought my work on the stories to a screeching halt for months: I am not Guatemalan anymore. And, worse– maybe I never really was.
This story is PART ONE of writer Stephanie Diaz Reppen’s journey going to Guatemala to do research for her writing. Stay tuned for part two of her story.