“These people are the enemy….”
Mother’s Day Weekend, May 9, 1974
William drove his new-old Land Rover, his “jeep,” south on route 1, toward Chimal (Chimaltenango). He took the longer route over the volcano to Quezaltenango, called by its Mayan name, Xela (Che-la), then east. He wanted to see the terrain and countryside that Raúl claimed as his area of operations.
María insisted that he go to the party and he had given a brief thought to requiring that she be invited. He knew that would not happen and he gave in to her better sense without a struggle. He had two months at the hospital and his entry into Reu’s social elite had been flawless thus far. He did not think of himself as a social person but now felt reasonably confident in his mixing skills.
But this party could turn into an interrogation. He knew how families could be and this one was complicit in his father's treatment, his whole family in fact, maybe even the deaths. The thought sent a shudder and his shoulders waggled noticeably. William had some questions of his own about those years but he would hold on to them unless the conversation got rough. He hoped that none of it came up and that everybody would be nice. It's just two days, he thought, I can do that.
The only one of them he had actually met was his grandfather Fernando. The headmaster of his boarding school in Guatemala City had sent a message one day that he should come to the office after class. And there he stood, gray hair, dark suit and distinguished; they shook hands. His grandfather asked him if he could have dinner that evening and William said that he would be pleased. "Curfew does not apply tonight," the headmaster said. About the only thing he remembered now was how tall his grandfather was and he had assumed that his own height came from his mother's side. Gustav was no midget either he remembered. His grandmother was dead by then and Fernando traveled a lot so they saw each other only a few times. He never told his father.
William had his own curiosity to satisfy. Freddy Solano had been his Spanish-fluent patient in the emergency department one Saturday afternoon in August 1972 at the Georgetown Hospital.
"William Hoffman Z. period," Freddy read William's nametag, "who is a Spanish speaker. Let me guess, Zuñiga?"
Freddy was an Army officer, “a JAG,” he had said. He had thrown something into his eye weed whacking around his flowerbeds without safety glasses. He was as tall as William, perhaps more so, and when he sat on the examining table his feet nearly touched the floor. "No goggles, Mega-stupid," he admitted and William agreed with him. They spoke Spanish together. Every once and a while Freddy's tongue slipped in a lisp like a Spaniard. Then he had said, "Let me guess, Zuñiga?" and the conversation took a new turn.
"Really, I have an uncle named Zelaya, in Guatemala."
William turned from his bandage prep to look at him, "I'm Chapin."
"No." he looked at William, jaw slacked, "How many can there be?"
"Mine's, Fernando. He's my grandfather."
"Holy shit," the JAG said, "my uncle is too. He was big in World Fruit."
William used his foot to slide the steel examining stool over slowly and sat on it, staring at Freddy. "Nice to meet you, cousin," and he gave Freddy a big grin. Freddy took his hand in both of his and they shook heartily.
It was a great conversation for both and it lasted so long there was no way the hospital could have billed for it. Fortunately it was still daylight and the ER business had not yet picked up. They learned that they both Americanized their names and it became an unexpected bond between them.
Freddy invited William to his house and they talked in the kitchen to include Jill, his wife. Neither of the men had seen nor heard from Fernando for years although Freddy's mother still exchanged letters with him.
William learned more from Freddy than the other way round. He said that Fernando was related to his father, a Spanish diplomat, who remained in the U.S. after Franco won the Civil War. His father later joined the U.S. Army and died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. His mother was the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador of the same period. He was still living in the area. Freddy had pictures.
"I've heard of kids with 'uncles' before," Jill joked, poking her husband but Freddy smiled thinly.
"I knew about the German side but not the Spanish." William said.
"Oh, you know those Spaniards," she quipped, "they'll sleep with anybody."
All of them laughed at this and two years later, at his going home party, William told Jill that the way she talked at that first dinner would be his, "enduring impression of American women."
"Don't think poorly of all of them," she said, "I'm an Army wife, born and bred." She was funny; they were a kind couple, and they made his longish residency much more tolerable than it might have been. They had not been in touch since he left Washington. Time for that to change, he thought. So, do I dare bring this up?
William took the wrong turn south after Xela (Chela) and ended up in Solalá center. He got directions to the main highway without having to backtrack. When he reached the main road he turned right and within 15 minutes arrived at a village called Agua Escondido. He was almost through it when he remembered. The last time he was in this area, Agua Escondido was hardly a hamlet and seeing the name on a government highway sign almost did not register. He saw what must be the road to the farm he grew up on; if it was, it was much improved and lined with mature coffee on either side. He stopped the car. He was late and the thought of meeting the new owners filled him with more dread than meeting his mother’s family.
Twenty kilometers further on, at Chimal (Chimaltenango), William passed a one-story hospital on a corner of the central plaza, diagonal to the church. It looked established but he did not recall having seen it before. Indigenous families gathered around its two entrances and he glimpsed rows of cots under the eaves of the inner courtyard. These were Kakchiquel most likely; possibly a few of them from his mother's lineage—maybe someone I might recognize. Curious but still late, he drove on.
The family was there, arrayed in pairs and threes in a semi-circle around the courtyard when he pulled into the compound. Uh oh, he thought. But they were the epitome of grace and the yard was flooded with the scent of eucalyptus trees planted around the walls. Two servants stood in the back of the large terrace and one of them came forward but a woman motioned the man back.
His aunt Isabel had taken over the matriarch's duties in the twenty years since her mother passed and she was good at it and warm toward her nephew. She reached for William as soon as he placed his left foot on the ground. Both she and her husband Humberto, who was next, embraced William. Humberto seemed to sense that there might be tension and he stayed at William's elbow, handling introductions and gaps in the conversation with skill and caring. He's a well-trained husband, was William's impression, and a nice man.
His uncles Oscar and Fabio were the next closest. Friendly, like practiced politicians, and Oscar was garrulous, telling a suspect joke as soon as they shook hands. William was so relieved at the reception he appreciated his uncle's attempts to loosen things up. The combined ambience of friendly people, the scent of eucalyptus and the cool bright day blunted the edge of his anxiety. If there were cousins, none came.
Oscar and Fabio dressed casually but Oscar's haircut and bearing left no question that he was in the military "I'm in Esquintla," he said, "in charge of the western highlands down to the coast, so I should be able to see you from time to time." William was at a loss to respond and for the second time in the day, he sensed other dimensions of his decision to work with the guerrillas. Humberto filled the gap smoothly and William looked around at his family. It felt complicated, even twisted in some way.
These people are the enemy, it took his breath. He knew that they were, of course, but seeing these flesh and blood people being nice, trying to enfold him as one of them disoriented him. He had not planned on liking them and now he wished that they could be colder, more standoffish. He realized that he would rather hate them, needed to hate them, liking them just doesn’t work. Why didn't I see this coming? The thoughts overwhelmed him into quietness and Humberto worked harder for him, keeping the conversation light. Thank God, for Humberto, I've got to get over this. Then he caught his grandfather's gaze and excused himself. Humberto remained with the two brothers.
Fernando sat in an old, Spanish colonial chair. The style had always reminded William of a fancy Roman campstool, but with the tall, somewhat frail Fernando in it the impression was a throne. Fernando rose from the chair easily enough, then reached for an aluminum cane hanging from the back of it. With his free arm he wrapped William's shoulder. With the other arm, he swung the cane into Isabel who had just come up. She fended it off and Fernando turned to take her arm and apologize.
"No harm Papa. You spend time with William." She gave her father a loving smile and he leaned over to kiss her forehead.
"I know," he said, and squeezed her elbow before turning back to William.
William held his grandfather in a loose embrace. They talked for a few minutes. William lied, telling Fernando he had always appreciated his grandfather's visits to his high school.
"I didn't come often enough," he said and William thought the remorse was real.
"Is this all of us?" William asked, "I thought I had another aunt."
"Yes, Dolores, Isabel’s sister. Our family saint, she's in a convent in Guate City and her duties take her out of the city from time to time. This unfortunately is one of those.” He looked away then back to William, “Thank God for Dolores," he added smiling, "I'm going to need all the help I can get at the pearly gate."
"They are twins, if I remember correctly." William sensed his grandfather's humility in the last comment and he felt awkward sticking to mundane questions.
"Identical, can't tell them apart. Isabel sees her all the time, they live near the convent. Those girls got their woman's piety from their mother."
"What did the boy's get?" William regretted the words as soon as his mouth opened but he felt helpless to stop them. His awkwardness was driving away whatever social grace he possessed and he offended and scared himself. I've got to get some control.
But Fernando just looked at him, appraising him. "By God, William. Your mother always said what she thought." He placed his hand on William's forearm as though sensing a connection through him. Then he smiled, shaking his head, "So did Gustav. I was the only one in the family who could sense what they saw in each other." He gave a little humpf that might have been a stifled chuckle, "You've got it too. You warm my heart, William."
"I'm sorry for the bluntness, Don Fernando. I would really like to hear more about my mother."
Fernando gazed at William. He spoke quietly, “If you call me ‘Don Fernando,’ William,” he said, “neither of us will enjoy the day.”
The words were electric. He stared at Fernando. “You are right. Of course. I’m being awkward, sir—Grandfather.” Mother wasn't the only person in this family who speaks their mind.
"Your mother Lela,” he said her name as though William had never heard it, “was always self conscious about being tall. Gustav was new in town and tall himself. Your mother had heard of him through another friend and she insisted that I invite him. They met here, on a Saturday like this one. " His face darkened, "I don't know how much you've been told about us but I imagine it hasn't been good." He looked at William. "All’s fair though. We have not been kind to your father either." He took a visible breath, then engaged William's eyes. "I sincerely hope that is behind us now." They talked awhile longer. He learned nothing but a few tidbits about Lela. But his knowledge of his grandfather increased by several orders of magnitude.
One thing about his mother surprised him. “Didn’t Gustav ever tell you? Your mother Lela,” Fernando repeated her name as though driving home a point, “was technically Mexicana. She was born there, prematurely, when we were visiting friends.”
“If he did, I didn’t remember it.”
“Your grandmother used to say the reason Lela was such a difficult kid was because she lived in an incubator for two months and didn’t get enough of mother’s milk. But I always thought she favored my side of the family.”
“I could have used that when I applied for a license in Mexico. Do you have a copy of her birth certificate?”
“Somewhere, I’m sure I must. Are you going to apply for a visa?”
Isabel came over to get him. "Okay Papa, let's share him with the ladies. They are dying to meet our handsome doctor.”
The ladies were all curious about him and his plans and no one was rude as he had been to Fernando. They all lamented his living in the backwater of Reu, "It's dangerous out there," Oscar's young wife commented, “too many Mexicans.”
What a ditzl. Later William spoke to Isabel about her, "She seems way too young to be married to Oscar."
Isabel pursed her mouth to the “ooh” shape and waggled her finger, turning him away from the others, "Not his wife," she whispered, "his wife's at home with the children."
"What about Fabio? Is she a date?" William grinned in spite of himself.
"Tsk, tsk.” Isabel wagged another finger. But she smiled also. “She is my sister-in-law. Fabio is a straight arrow, more or less. But neither of them can hold a candle to Humberto in the husband category."
Fernando went to find Lela’s birth certificate. As he gave it to William, he said, “Our oldest was always the rebel, even as a teenager…” a grin spread across his face, “she was the original Guate feminist.” He likes people who break the rules, William thought.
A late lunch was the main meal and after a late dinner of leftovers and some great wines, William excused himself from cigars with the men. Given his performance so far, he was sure that he could not handle the inebriated conversation of that group. He said goodnight, shaking hands all round, and took a stiff scotch to his room. The drink was supposed to mellow him, make sense of his raging internal conflict. It turns out, he thought, I'm the hostile interrogator, not them. I've got to find a way to be trusted.
* * *
The next morning started late. The brothers and William nursed impressive hangovers. He was up anyway out of habit and into his second mug of black coffee when Fernando came up to him.
"May I join you, grandson?" he chuckled, "I'll call you William if you wish but I just had to say it once. I'm so pleased that you've come."
"Either is Okay." He rose a bit and nodded Fernando to the seat next to him. "I'm afraid I'm going to be even worse company this morning than I was yesterday."
Fernando chuckled a little and waved away the disclaimer. "Is there anything you would like to know about the family? We've missed the usual family stuff for 30-some years."
"I'm 32," William said, "thirty-three in July." He shifted sideways a little, "I would love to hear more about Lela, but there is one other thing. I met Freddy Solano in Washington. He was my patient."
* * *
“Ahh,” Fernando took a long breath, “Ahhhh…” he breathed it out. “Calls himself Freddy but he’s my namesake and nephew of sorts. I haven’t seen him for years. It’s a distant relationship, but I’m an uncle of some degree.” He looked away and asked, “How is he? Did you meet his mother?” But his thoughts fled to the day he tried to take William, at six months, from his father. Gustav had been willing to die to stop that; even the younger Fernando could see it. Was I willing to give so much?
Fernando stared off, his eyes unfocused and ignoring his grandson. William just answered, “Fine.” He waited a few moments then left with Isabel when she came to get him.
“He does that sometimes,” she said.