Three Sorrowful Stories My Spanish Teacher Told Me About America’s ‘Bleeding Scar’

The perpetual crisis on our southern border

Photo by Ronald Cuyan on Unsplash

It’s not often a New York Times editorial triggers me. 

This one, written by Jorge Ramos about the endless crisis on the US-Mexico border, that frontier Carlos Fuentes described as a “bleeding scar,” did.

I grew up in California — in wine country no less — where I witnessed firsthand the xenophobia and racism directed by the state and federal government, not to mention private citizens, toward Mexican-Americans and other Latinx people.

Despite this, I studied Spanish in high school. Since then I have been privileged to enjoy trips to several countries in Latin America. 

Jorge Ramos’ opinion piece about the ongoing moral failure of US immigration policy reminded me of three stories my Spanish teacher told me on a trip to Guatemala fifteen years ago. 

The stories relate to the reasons why people are willing to travel thousands of miles and risk everything to immigrate to the USA.

They’re not happy stories, but they’re true.

Photo by Lerone Pieters on Unsplash

The man atop the globe

I went to Guatemala to study Spanish. 

In Guatemala City, I found no fewer than three statues of Christopher Columbus. 

All three show him standing atop the globe.

Riding buses and reading newspapers, I saw pictures of presidents, vice presidents, and ambassadors who looked like the man atop the globe. 

They did not look like most Guatemalans, who are of Mayan descent.

Large portraits of European-looking presidents and priests dominate the foreground of Guatemala’s currency, which is named for the quetzal, a small, green bird with a long tail and shimmering red chest. 

The quetzal does not speak, does not say that pre-colonial Mayan rulers used its feathers in their headdresses. 

Neither does the quetzal say that “independence” in Guatemala was a matter of American-born Spanish taking power from European-born Spanish.

Eventually, on the back of the fifty-quetzal note, I found people who looked Mayan.

They were picking coffee.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The American dream costs you your life

My Spanish teacher was Mayan. One day in class, she told me a story: 

A man from the village next to hers had just failed to cross into the United States for the third time. He had taken out bank loans to pay the coyotes, the people smugglers, using his house as collateral for the first two loans. 

After the second failure, his parents put up their house and a small plot of land as collateral for a loan to fund another try. 

After the third failure, the bank took both houses and all the land. The man and his family had only their clothes. Nothing else. 

The man used his jacket and a tree in the village square to hang himself.

La sueña americana te cuesta la vida, my teacher said. 

The American dream costs you your life.

Photo by Giovanni DS on Unsplash

The crime committed against them

Another day my teacher told me about when she was twelve and the civil war came to her village. In the village, they had “a little electricity” and their fields, homes, tools, and clothes.

The army came in tanks and trucks. The army came with loudspeakers that screamed in Spanish, a language many in the village did not speak. The loudspeakers screamed of communists and guerillas.

In the 1500s, when approaching a village for the first time, the Spaniards halted some distance away and read in solemn, legal Spanish a decree informing the villagers that they were trespassing on land granted the King of Spain by the Pope in Rome, that to remain on their land they must pay tribute in gold, that the penalty for refusal or delay was war.

In my teacher’s village, in many villages, people ran from the tanks and the trucks and the voice screaming in a language they could not understand. Many — 200,000 people — were killed. Many — 190,000 — ran to Mexico. Many — 400,000 — ran to the United States. Many — 100,000 or more — disappeared. Over 1 million people out of Guatemala’s population of 12 million were forced off their land.

The Spaniards did not use interpreters. They did use firearms and dogs in the attacks that quickly and invariably followed the reading of the decree.

They would not have run, the government said, if they had not been guilty.

Guilty, my teacher said, of not speaking Spanish.

Guilty, to use Eduardo Galeano’s words, of the crime committed against them.

Photo by Arturo Rivera on Unsplash

The life of the fifty-quetzal note

To practice reading and improve my vocabulary, I read newspapers. Almost daily I read that the government wanted peace, reconciliation, and national unity after decades of civil war.

I asked my teacher about peace. My teacher said the government wanted peace because the rich now had the land they wanted.

The land, she said, never disappears.

The land cleared of people and villages by loudspeakers and massacres was some of the most productive in Guatemala. 

The old owners, if they aren’t dead, are selling newspapers in Guatemala City or fled to Mexico or the United States. 

The new owners, who look like the man standing atop the globe, are getting richer selling the fruits and vegetables from their new farms to America and Europe.

The old owners, if they aren’t dead, are living the life of the fifty-quetzal note, picking cash crops where their homes once stood.

Ramos ends his editorial by saying there is no other way to end the border crisis than the US allowing more legal immigration. 

I hope it happens soon. For the sake of the people locked in cages and temporary camps. And for my country’s sake.

We cannot begin to atone for this national sin until we cease to commit it.

Historical information from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire Trilogy.
© Copyright 2021 by Jim Latham
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