Back from Guatemala

On the plane ride home from Guatemala, Mateo and I sat next to an American business school professor who has consulted on growing businesses in Guatemala for the past 30 years. It didn’t take long for “Professor M” to figure out that I was what he called a “do-gooder”—that is, someone who believes that my small efforts to help a country I love might actually yield a result. Then when Professor M learned I lived in San Francisco! Well, that sealed the deal. M could categorize me as a person with my head in the clouds, you know the type.

Nevertheless, over 30 years, Professor M has, like me, developed a great love for Guatemala. His affection was clear as he spoke about the good work by many in the Guatemalan business community—their efforts to create jobs and income streams, their support of young people in the middle class to become educated and move up the career ladder. At the same time, the professor voiced deep frustration. According to him, the political system is so corrupt that it discourages talented, honest people from getting involved. Violence runs rampant. Drug traffickers have destroyed communities. “They’re recruiting kids as young as your boy,” M said, pointing to six-year-old Mateo. We both shook our heads.

By the time we touched down in Houston, the professor and I realized we held opinions more alike than different. Guatemala had captivated each of us. In our own ways, we do what we can.

That’s why I’ve posted the photo above, taken during my most recent trip. The picture shows a woman named “Dona G,” standing in front of a house built by Common Hope, an organization headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, and based in Antigua, Guatemala. Contributions to Common Hope funded the house. Dona G earned it by putting in the required hours of sweat equity. Finally, Dona G and her family are living between walls that won’t collapse. During the torrential downpours of the rainy season, her new cement floor won’t turn to mud.

No one person can change the world. But in ways large and small, we can try to make our particular corner of it better.

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3 Responses to “Back from Guatemala”

  1. Vincent Skemp says:

    This adoption memoir is genuine and sincere. The author has taken a big emotional risk in revealing her views and experiences in the adoption process. I recommend this book for anyone interested in international adoption and particularly for anyone who has adopted from Guatemala.
    The biggest strength of the book, along with the author’s sincerity, is the emotional ending when she meets her daughter’s birth mother. The decision to end the book with her daughter about to meet her birth mother is a brilliant decision. The latter omission honors the sacredness of that experience that belongs only to her daughter and those with whom she wishes to share it. Any parent will relate to the author’s concern for her daughter’s development; a theme of the memoir is her worries about whether her daughter’s multiple fostering may have harmed her development and ability to bond with people (pages 183, 193, 282-83).
    Moreover, clearly the author always has the best interests of her daughter in mind, as is evidenced by her enrollment in after school Spanish upon her arrival in the U.S. and her efforts to connect her with her Guatemalan heritage. Another further step, however, would be to connect more deeply with indigenous Guatemalan culture through immersion in K’iché (Quiché) once her daughter became proficient in Spanish (the language of colonization). There are places in the U.S. where this can be accomplished: University of Kansas Kaqchikel Mayan Resource Center; State University of NY at Albany Institute of Mesoamerican Studies; University of Texas; University of Chicago Center of Latin American Studies. At issue here is the loss of indigenous languages as a major ongoing problem in the world and complicity in that loss through removal of children from a context in which they could otherwise be brought up as a speaker of one of the K’iché dialects. Even though the ending of the memoir reveals that her daughter’s birth mother freely chose to not raise her daughter for important and understandable reasons, the fact of the matter is that the girl’s indigenous heritage is not sufficiently honored through Spanish study, positive thoughts about Guatemalan culture, and artwork. Academia de Lenguas Mayas sells simple and practical tapes and books in K’iché. The ACL has its central headquarters in Zone 1 of Guatemala City. There are also Quiché courses available in CALUSAC of the University of San Carlos, in Guatemala City. Much of this information is online.
    The glaring weakness of the book is the lack of critical awareness regarding the implicit but nonetheless real connection between Guatemalan poverty, particularly among the indigenous, and the long civil war that erupted after U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles propped up the United Fruit company’s unjust hold on the Guatemalan land-based economy through the overthrow of democratically elected Pres. Arbenz, who supported agrarian reform. The brief reference on page 147 to rumors about CIA overthrow is shocking in its lack of awareness. When the author refers to looking so “young and innocent” (page 180), that reference and the lack of critical awareness made me think of the myth of American “innocence” referred to by Edward W. Said in his Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, 1993) page 8. I also read the author’s references to “guilt” in the memoir (pp. 143, 155, 265, 271) as superficial due to the lack of an attempt to relate her experience with the role of U.S. foreign policy in creating the situation of poverty in Guatemala and, conversely, to prop up the standard of living in the U.S. through cheap bananas, coffee, and clothes. One does not learn from the author that one can purchase fair trade coffee and bananas in an effort to help create a more equitable situation in the enormous coffee and banana economy. While there are a few brief acknowledgements of the author’s privilege, she stays at the finest hotel (Camino Real) and hires a housekeeper in Antigua, even the brief references to privilege are not accompanied by depth of insight that would help connect her situation with the larger socio-economic picture. A depressing aspect of the book is the repeated dismissal of the Hague Treaty (pages 78, 178), as if that treaty was not an effort to deal with sort of corruption her memoir relates. The memoir would be less superficial had the author become informed even a little bit about our postcolonial context. To this end, for starters see Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism referred to above.
    The other unflattering self-revelations in this memoir can be viewed ultimately as a strength of the work. For instance, I found the author’s treatment of a foster mother, who had bonded with the baby and with whom the baby was deeply bonded (page 194), to be insensitive and not in the best interests of the child. To the author’s credit, however, she acknowledges as much by expressing doubt about the right course of action (pages 199, 285). A major strength of the memoir is that the author reveals much about herself and her attitudes, including an annoying naiveté and an obvious lack of reading in postcolonial studies, but altogether her self-revelations mark the memoir as genuine and sincere. Moreover, those who embrace notions of American exceptionalism and historical innocence will read the memoir without finding the weaknesses I point out here.
    Despite the caveats referred to above, I recommend this book and am grateful the author took the time and effort to share her family’s experiences with a wider audience. A much better written, better balanced, and more critically aware book is Jacob Wheeler’s Between Light and Shadow. A Guatemalan Girl’s Journey through Adoption (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

  2. Jessica says:

    Dear Vincent Skemp:
    Thank you for your thoughtful critique of Mamalita. I appreciate your taking the time, first, to read our story, and second, to reflect on it. I’m honored.

    I really appreciate your making the distinction between Guatemalan and indigenous heritage. In fact, Olivia self-identifies as “Maya K’iche.” That part of her heritage is very special and important to her and to us. My greatest hope is that Olivia masters K’iche someday, so she communicate better with her Abuela (everyone else in the family is bilingual Spanish K’iche), and maybe go on to become an expert in Maya language, history, and art. What a culture to be a part of!

    In the book, I don’t go into our ongoing relationship with Olivia’s birth family–and I don’t go into the details on this blog, either, for reasons of her privacy and theirs–but we visit them at least once a year and immerse ourselves, if only for short time, in indigenous culture. Olivia’s first question about someone in Guatemala is “Do they wear traje?”

    So yes, I will do my best to give her (and us) the opportunity to study K’iche. Thank you so much for listing the resources.

    Regarding the civil war: In one of the early drafts of the manuscript, the decision was made to focus the book on the experience of becoming a mother through adoption, and what that very specific experience felt like. As you know, there are books out there that focus on the politics of Guatemala and the civil war–better than this one could. I will say that I read many, many books on the history of Guatemala and Central America while writing Mamalita and hope such research informed my understanding of the country. Should I have gone into more depth? Possibly. Perhaps that would have led to a different book. Next time, maybe.

    The housekeeper, Paola, “came” with the house. I didn’t hire her; she has worked there more than 20 years.

    The Camino Real–much has been said in the NYTimes and other venues about “baby hotels” and I thought it important to state that we stayed there, and contributed to the scene. As for the Hague: Again, I wanted to be honest about how I felt at the time. Today, I support the Hague. Then, I didn’t understand its intentions.

    Thank you again for posting your comments here and on Amazon. I am grateful.

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