Soon it will be 20 years since I last set foot in Guatemala. The last time I went, I was 9 years old and it was an anxious trip for me. I think that’s when my anxiety fully started. I didn’t know it then, what it was. These feelings bubbling inside me. I didn’t understand and my family sure didn’t. I was supposed to get my shit together because this was a major family reunion. My Spanish had to improve and I had to be polite. I was excited to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal but there were a lot of other things that happened–many photos captured were of me in tears and splotchy faced; forced to be in front of the camera.
That’s the last time I went. I was offered lots of chances to go back but I never did. My cousins and aunts were all lovely to me, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t as magical a place for me that last time. My first time there, I was 5 and it was my birthday. I had the best birthday party. To go from carefree to anxiety ridden was enough for me to stay away.
My relationship with my parents soon deteriorated shortly after. I mean, we had all this family in Guatemala that we rarely saw and I was stuck with a mother with her own host of mental illnesses plus a father who was abusive until my mother said no more. Somehow they stayed in their marriage and continued such an unhealthy relationship. By the time I entered middle school both of my brothers were in college. I was alone with these two people and let’s just say, it didn’t end well.
Once I came to live in the city, I decided to place myself as emotionally far away from my parents as possible. It worked for the most part. Despite knowing the fact that my father fled the country due to his involvement with rebels, I never questioned him much about it.
I had no idea about the civil war in Guatemala and his role. He never talked about it. My mother didn’t even talk about herself as a child except when it came to discuss her mother’s abusive ways. It seemed like their visits to Guatemala cherished a different time, but a time I never knew or asked about. Should I have asked? I don’t know. Is it awful that I never seemed to care? Probably. What mattered to me were the parents they were. They literally did the best they were able to do. But it didn’t cut it for me.
This past summer I found out from my brother that my father was kidnapped and tortured two times during the height of the civil war. I don’t know how my brother managed to get the information out of my father, but it explained a lot. My father’s constant headaches, how he doesn’t sleep very well, how he treated my mother for years… Otto, my brother, was piecing together my parents’ past despite their reluctance to speak of it. Otto always wanted to write a book about my father’s life, but my father rarely discusses it.
When I found out, I was sad for my father. He was carrying this burden this whole time. Did I still have a right to be mad at him for other things? Yes. I can still be angry, but I can also mourn for him because he could his comrade being tortured in the next cell. That man died. That could have been my dad and I wouldn’t be here if that happened.
I wonder if people who are first generation like me have such strong, mixed feelings. Where to we fall into it, can we resent the choices our parents made and also feel for them? I think we can. There’s so much I want to know or learn. But I don’t have the strength to ask. Not yet. I tend to do things my own way anyhow, maybe I don’t need to ask my father. I can ask his brothers and sisters.
One day I will go back to Guatemala.