“Let me get this straight, ma,” I say slowly so she gets every word. “You are trying to convince your daughter not to help your eldest brother who left school at the age of 13 to work in the fincas of Media Luna and other fincas to keep all his brothers and sisters, including you, alive, and never once left that commitment to help you all. Not only that, you are trying to convince me that he is not worth the money that we spend to help him live a more peaceful, dignified life. Please let me know if I misunderstand you.” The silence is thick between us. We both know how quickly our conversation could turn. She tells me I just don’t understand.
The large, deep puddles make the road slow to navigate; every time we hit a particularly large hole, the bicycle tire spins wildly. Luz, my mother’s sister, stares out the window, lost in thought with one of her eyes half squinting, a pirate face that exudes dislike and general distrust. She chews on a piece of gum a few hours old and two fincas back. The gold front tooth in her mouth shines every time she smacks at her gum. She tells us that the only thing that has changed is the road – it is wider, and some trees have been knocked down on both sides, but the rest time forgot. It is the same place where she and mi Tío Neftalí grew up.
She sticks her head out from the window and her face is flat like an estela, unmoved, and leaving more unsaid between the gum smacks.
It smells of wet dirt as Luz forgets to put her window up, staring out into the thick spaces between the banana trees, lined up in neat symmetrical rows as far as the eye can see. We share the road with over-sized African water buffaloes hauling rustic wooden wagons filled with the seeds from the palm trees still dripping with the rain. Lean men with sweat gleaming, cocoa dark skin and torsos exposed to the direct sun, walk by us with pants tucked into the black rubber boots that reach to their knees and machetes dangling from a thin rope and slung across their chests. There are no wasted footsteps as they haul large loads secured by a thick strap that hugs their entire foreheads. They stare directly at our eyes as we pass them. We are not from here. But my family was, that’s what I want to tell them, we have not left.
The family hates him for making them come back to where they started. In their own way they have all tried to forget, to move as far away as possible, away to another country as my mother did when I was seven years old, like a true coyote, taking brothers, mother and daughter into the Mexican desert. Leading them by bus, train, on foot, por jalon, lo que sea porque mas vale este diablo por conocer – by hitching a ride because it’s better to know a new devil than live with the old one.
Twenty-six years later, I am going back for the whole family to where we all started, within a few miles of where all my grandmother’s children and her mother’s children lived in a small shack by el Rio Motagua. It’s not far from where Tío Nefta hangs his hammock over the fire pit of a kind neighbor’s house. One of us stayed, one of us returned.
When I left Guatemala at the age of seven with my mother, we joined the immigration tide of thousands of people fleeing Guatemala’s civil war, poverty, gangs and corruption to enter the United States illegally as mojados or “wetbacks.” My mother didn’t know about the genocide or the origins of Guatemala’s civil war that dated back to the split that emerged after the United States financially backed a military coup in 1954 that overthrew leftist Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. When I ask her why she left, it’s simple: “Teníamos hambre y yo no me iba quedar en la fincas a morirme de hambre.” We were hungry and I wasn’t going to die in the fincas of hunger.
Guzmán’s election was viewed by many Guatemalans as the first signs of democracy. But then a significant period among these decades was General Efraín Ríos Montt’s 18-month presidency, which began in 1982 after the military coup. It was one of the most violent periods of the 36-year internal conflict, resulting in 200,000 dead, mostly indigenous people.
Living on the fincas was like living in a separate country – forgotten, isolated and under La Compañia’s clock. The sun rose and you put yourself in line for the day’s bananas. You picked, lifted, carted and hauled bananas, and at high noon you found the shade for a quick lunch and then continued. The heat was as thick as your saliva from the lack of water. My mother didn’t care to find out if democracy was making its way back to las fincas. So in 1982, at the height of the genocide, we left Guatemala.
“La Compañia siempre nos cuidó,” The Company always took care of us – we had schools, playgrounds, a hospital, my mother tells me. They never had to pay bills, which is why to this day my mother blames her late bill payments on The Company. It was a kind Company; more than the Guatemalan government, they provided, even a nice hospital – the one I was born in, Bananera, was the first Company hospital with air-conditioning. “¡Con aire, puedes crearlo!” With air conditioning, can you believe it? You were the first child to be born on El Día Del Ejército, the Day of the Army in that air-conditioned hospital, my mother reminded me. Tío was a sindicalista, a union leader, one of the first to ask for fair labor rights and pay at the Company. Many followed him, just to listen to his stories and the confidence with which he spoke.
Just as we left Media Luna and the other fincas where we had grown up, so the United Fruit Company began to pull out, changed the name of the company from United Brands Company into Chiquita Brands International Incorporated, underwent numerous lawsuits and eventually marched towards its eventual collapse. In Media Luna, the schools closed down, the basketball courts began to crack, people were replaced by cables and machines, the cement dorms and houses were abandoned, and slowly the workers found themselves without jobs. Not long after, many packed their bags for Guatemala City, a destination for more than 2 million people at the time, among them my grandmother, uncles and my mother.