The Birth of Juan Jose’

Juan Jose' and Crystel

Juan Jose’ and Crystel

The best part of Antonio’s name change was when Crystel stood up in the courtroom and said, “I want each of you to tell me something you like about me.” She stood confidently, her hand resting on the bar that divided the gallery from the well of the courtroom. She faced the nine people, including Antonio, who came to support his name change. Aunts, Uncles, Antonio and his girlfriend, were sitting with their back against the wall. She pointed to her Aunt Kathy. “Start there.”

This surprised and delighted me. She was asking for what she needed. And, in this moment what she needed was to know that she was as important as Antonio who within minutes would legally be named Juan Jose’.

She didn’t share his need to change her name. Her Guatemalan birth mother had told her that she named her Crystel.

 

Waiting for the judge.

Waiting for the judge.

The birth search and visit report that Jody and I had done in 2011 when her and Antonio were 9 years old said, Mayra (her birth mom) remembered exactly the date of Crystel’s birth. Most birth mothers do not, not for lack of interest but because dates are usually not important in Guatemala. She named her Crystel Rocio. Crystel because:  “I felt she was a little fragile thing as crystal, and Rocio (dew in English), because as I was walking the day I gave birth to her, it was cloudy and it had rained during the night, and I saw the leaves with drops of dew on them”.

When Jody and I adopted our children, we felt it was important that we keep the names that they were given at birth. We wanted to honor the birth mothers. At the time we didn’t know what their birth names would be and I fretted if I would be able to pronounce their Guatemalan given names. I refused to name my baby boy even though my social worker said that I could. I didn’t want to give him, one more thing that could be taken away from him. He was already losing his mother.

IMG_0425A few months later, we received the results of Antonio’s birth search. His birth mom, Rosa, was asked if she named Antonio. She said no, that she wanted to name him Juan Jose’ (Juan to honor her father and Jose’ to honor her grandfather), but the adoption people named him Antonio. Her father Juan died in 1982 during the Guatemalan Civil War. It is estimated that at least

5, 000 Mayans in the Rabinal area were massacred in 1981-1982. Rosa is indigenous and belongs to the Mayan Achi ethnia.

Ever since Antonio learned that Rosa wanted to name him Juan Jose’, he felt that was his real name.

Jody and I supported Antonio’s name change, nudged him even. We wanted to honor his heritage and his birth mother. We understood how central a name can be to a person’s identity. Both of us have changed our names.

A door opened. “All rise. This court is now in session. The honorable Judge Bernhardson, presiding.”

Just minutes before, Crystel had each person, including her brother and his girlfriend say something they liked about her.

What I witnessed that afternoon was two 13-year-olds asking for what they needed.

They’ll do well in the world, I thought. If a person can identify and then ask for what they need, they can navigate the road ahead of them. Jody and I have taught our children well.

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Juan Jose and a Guatemalan Revolution

FullSizeRender (5)In Guatemala today, there is an uprising.

“We don’t have medicine in the hospitals. The children don’t have books in their schools. And throughout society there aren’t any jobs and the president hasn’t done anything to help. They’ve just stolen from the people,” said Maria Elena Aquino Gomez, 38, as she sold flags in the plaza. “Guatemala is alive. We’re not dead. And we’ll continue fighting for our liberty.”

The parents of many of the organizers warned them not to get involved. “They grew up in the ’80s in Guatemala, when going out to protest meant death,” said Gabriel Wer, a 33-year-old organizer.

They hoped a few people would show up. Thirty thousand came.

I watch safely from afar, read bits and pieces, and know enough to know that I don’t understand.

Juan Jose had a history before he met Jody and me.

Antonio (9), Rosa, and his sister, Ani.

Antonio (9), Rosa, and his sister, Ani.

His grandfather died in 1982 during the civil war and his grandmother was left to raise seven children on her own. She couldn’t provide for all, so when his mother was five years old, she was given to an aunt. The aunt treated his mother very badly so she ran back to her mother’s house. The economic situation hadn’t changed, so his mother had to get a job cleaning houses in Rabinal at age 9.

Antonio was 9 when he met his mother, Rosa, for the first time.

“Did you name Antonio,” was one of my first questions. I so much wanted to show her that we honored her by keeping his name.

“No. The adoption people named him Antonio. I wanted to name him Juan Jose. Juan to honor my father and Jose to honor my grandfather.”

Ever since then when Antonio and I meet someone whose name is Juan or Juan Jose we look at each other knowingly.

During our first meeting with Rosa, Jody and I asked her if we could help her with monthly groceries. She said, “No. I don’t want Antonio to think I sold him.”

 

Antonio (11) and Rosa

Antonio (11) and Rosa

It was then that I knew the strength and heart of Guatemalans.

Rosa is indigenous and belongs to the Mayan Achi ethnia. She is from Aldea Concul, approximately 10 miles southwest from Rabinal on the Sierra de Chuacus, 5,500 feet above sea level.

Today, she lives in the poorest section of Guatemala City. Taxis won’t drive there. Still, she didn’t want to receive help. More than anything, she wanted Juan Jose’s forgiveness for letting him go.

The Guatemalan uprising resulted in Pérez Molina no longer being President of Guatemala. Perez Molina was a former general who led the most feared branch of a military that routinely massacred citizens during nearly four decades of Civil War. About 200,000 civilians died, one of them being Juan Jose’s grandfather.

I can picture Juan Jose a.k.a. Antonio running the mountain trails in Guatemala. He has the heart of Rosa.

We will be visiting Rosa next year. She’ll be able to see for herself the man Juan Jose is becoming.

Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant

Jerome_foundation newJody met me at the end of the driveway. In her hand she held a yellow envelope addressed to me.

Notifications on two prior occasions from the Jerome Foundation came by email: We’re sorry to inform you….

This was an envelope. A large envelope. I opened it slowly and carefully which isn’t my nature. Rejections don’t come in such packaging. This could only mean one thing.

As I pulled out the contents I realized that I’ve been a beneficiary of much goodness: wonderful teachers, mentors, my writing group, peers, friends, and family.

In November of 2012, participating in Mary Carroll Moore’s weekend workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at the Loft Literary Center, I understood for the first time what my book was about: A Woman’s Search to Be Seen. Using her W-shaped Storyboard and Three-Act Structure, I left her workshop with an outline and edited structure for my near completed manuscript. That weekend, I revised several chapters and was able to reach a new depth in my writing.

More importantly, I was excited about my writing and my book, HOUSE OF FIRE. I had been working for ten years on finding the right structure to tell my story.

guatemala-map[1]After applying and receiving a Next Step Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, I attended a one-week writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore at the Madeline Island School of Arts, September 2013 and participated in two twelve-week online classes – “Your Book Starts Here: Part 3.

Since winning the Loft mentorship, I have been working closely with mentor, Mark Anthony Rolo.

Under his tutelage, I enhanced the structure of my book to weave in my present story with back story. For example, on our flight to adopt Antonio and Crystel the sun is setting when the plane descends into the airspace above Guatemala City. Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon and I ruminate how both me and the Guatemalans were literally running from fire in 1974 when I was 15-years old.

And now, receiving a Jerome Travel and Study Grant allows me to travel to Guatemala to research indigenous Mayans and Mayan heritage to inform my memoir. I’m truly blessed. This trip is critical to finishing my book.

The trip is detailed field research on the traditions and history of Antonio’s and Crystel’s homeland. Besides the powerful emotional content intended for the last chapters, my visit will also provide insights that will enrich the whole manuscript.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

Following Antonio and Crystel visit with their birthmothers we will travel by van to Panajachel and board a lancha to take us to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a small pueblo located on the northern coast of Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala.

Situated half a mile above the shore on the mountainside it is home to indigenous Mayans.

Accessible only by rocky footpaths and lanchas, Santa Cruz is a virtual island on the mountainside.

Because of its isolated nature and small size, Santa Cruz is a great home base for our stay. We will be employing indigenous Mayan guides to explore small, traditional Mayan villages around the lake. The guides will be much more than guides as Antonio and Crystel will daily be seeing their own rich café au lait skin.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

Santa Cruz la Laguna

During our travel I will create a record of the voices, landscapes, and villages of the indigenous Mayans. Following my return home I will be able to create prose that truly draws its inspiration from the specific natural setting.

I’m lucky and grateful to have won a Next Step, Loft Mentorship, and Jerome Travel and Study Grant. Receiving these grants will help me complete HOUSE OF FIRE.

Antonio and Crystel, of course, understood the nuances of winning the Jerome Travel and Study Grant but it was Jody and I who were doing the HAPPY THANKFUL DANCE in the driveway.

Hiking the Canyon

Starting our hike up Pampatin Canyon, Santa Cruz la Laguna

Antonio had mumbled and grumbled up the zigzag paved road to the village square the first evening at Santa Cruz la Laguna and often brought up that traveling by tuk tuk was an excellent way of going from point to point and why didn’t we do that more often. He hadn’t warmed to the idea that we were a-people afoot. Still, I was hopeful when he was handed a walking stick for our hike up Pampatin Canyon. He could poke, stab, and slash his way through the jungle, over the creeks, and up the gorge that starts its accent from the backyard of Los Elementos. In my suitcase back at our suite were the guide books Moon Guatemala and one that I thought would be particularly helpful on our trip, Moon’s Guatemalan’s Western Highlands Including Chichicastenango & Lake Atitlan. But I didn’t crack the handbooks open our entire trip. No need. Lee Beal and our Guatemalan guides were our experts. They went into detail about the age-old traditions of the Mayans, the colorful mountain villages, the indigenous Guatemalans, and the forest jungle.

The jungle

After I started blogging about our trip, I quickly learned that even Google couldn’t provide the information about the area surrounding Lake Atitlan that Lee and the guides did. It was through Lee that I learned that the old and original name Mayan of the village of Santa Cruz (Spanish for Holy Cross) is Pampati. The name of the canyon is from this origin.I shrugged when handed a walking stick by our guide, Alex. I’m not a grumbler. I’m agile. I can skip up rocks. I survived Kor Am Tae Kwon Do black belt camp. Quickly, I learned the poker was useful for pushing aside large leaves that I termed itch weed. Alex told us the correct name of the leaf but my head is only so big. As far as I was concerned it was itch weed and I shouldn’t touch it. We stopped often on our trek up the canyon as he pointed out a fruit, a plant, a leaf, and coffee plants.

Alex showing us the pitaya fruit

Alex nodded to our left towards two children, who looked to be about 5 and 7 years old, resting, tucked under a tree with a bundle of wood made up of dead twigs and branches. Alex told us that any child who wasn’t in school or working had the job of fetching wood from the forest for cooking fires or to sell. Of course, I hoped Antonio and Crystel were hearing this.

When we received photos from their birth families, I sat with them, and told them to look past what their eyes first saw. “See your family sitting around the table and on the bunk bed?” I said to Crystel, “From this photo you can tell that this one room is the family’s living room, bedroom, and kitchen. The room is smaller than your bedroom.” I added, “Look past your family and see the toothbrush on the window sill? There is only one toothbrush. It is likely that your family is sharing that toothbrush. If you look at the walls you can see that they aren’t painted. The walls are plastered or whitewashed.”I wanted Antonio and Crystel aware on our Guatemala trip. This is their birth country: beautiful, vibrant, rich in culture, poor and illiterate. Alex and Samuel our guides, would receive 200 quetzales, about $25.00 per day for their service, their skill set speaking English, is marketable. The average Guatemalan earns 50 to 60 quetzales a day, about seven dollars.

Antonio, Crystel, Jody, Elizabeth

Alex showed us a pitaya (Mayan word for the color of the inside of the fruit) also known as dragon fruit. When he opened it with a machete I could see that it was a fruit that had been offered at our breakfast buffet at Hotel Grand Tikal Futura, zona 7, where we stayed for three nights in Guatemala City. Jody and I encouraged Antonio and Crystel to try at least a taste of something new at each meal. The pitaya tasted like a cross between kiwi and pear.

On our hike we met a local Mayan woman who was picking pitayas to sell at the market.Our trip in June of 2012 was very different than our trip in June of 2010 for many reasons. One of them was the fact that we didn’t take any pictures of the Guatemalans that we saw in remote villages. Having Alex, Samuel, and Lee as guides meant that taking photos was possible because with their Spanish we could ask permission. Antonio and Crystel have more than four years in a Spanish dual language school but their grasp of the language was most evident when they were buying boom booms (lollipops) in the tienda (store).

Locals carrying firewood down the canyon

When Alex asked the children if we could take a photo they smiled shyly and shook their head no. Later we met the woman who had been picking pitayas and we learned that the two children gathering wood were hers. After visiting with her, Alex asked if we could take a photo of her and her children. For a few quetzales, she agreed.

Our goal for the canyon hike was to reach the waterfalls. We didn’t make it before Alex called Lee and found that it was time to meet up with him to visit our first NGO (non-government organization). It was odd to me that we were in a third world country yet you could use a cell phone to call someone. Cell phones are inexpensive in Guatemala. You can buy one for less than $20 dollars. This is something I will do on our next trip if only to be able to call within the country.

Later that evening, Zach took Antonio and Crystel back up the canyon to see the falls. The 14-year-old and two nine-year-olds returned breathless, happy, and flushed with energy. The grumbly nine-year-old boy had transformed into an adventurer. And truly, he didn’t grumble the rest of the trip. But then again, on a few occasions in villages we all piled into a tuk tuk to get from point A to B. Funny thing, his Spanish came alive when I told him it was up to him to ask for a tuk tuk and find out where it would pick us up. Ah, kids.

Our first NGO visit, Mayan Medical Aid, opened by Dr. Craig A. Sinkinson, M.D.,  in 2004 serves the 99% native Mayan Indians that make up the population of Santa Cruz. To help subsidize the clinic, he gives private Spanish lessons along with his Guatemalan wife who is also an M.D. Dr. Sinkinson developed a medical Spanish accredited program that also brings in funds. The benefits of the program for medical students are the

Lee Beal and Dr. Craig Sinkinson, M.D.

one-on-one attention, the ability to participate in the clinic, and the immersion experience. Prior to Dr. Sinkinson coming to Santa Cruz, 12 to 15 Guatemalan women died each year in childbirth. Most years they now have 0 deaths. The locals come to the clinic for medical assistance with digestive, reproductive and skin concerns, diabetes, and emphysema.I found the doctor to be very hospitable and knowledgeable with a respect and passion for the Mayans that was similar to Lee’s. One of Dr. Sinkinson’s goals is to teach the Guatemalans working with him to operate the clinic. In this way if something were to happen to him, the clinic would be self-sustaining.

The goods we brought–gloves, vitamins, aspirins. Oh, yes, and suntan lotion. Dr. Sinkinson was happy we left the large blue suitcase on the cardboard box for him to use.

Antonio and Crystel sat patiently while we visited with Dr. Sinkinson. Though Lee and his wife Elaine don’t have children, they have a sense for when it is time to move on. Prior to leaving the clinic, we stuck our head into an office and saw the suitcase we had brought filled with sterile gloves, Centrum, and Ibuprofen for the most part. Alex asked what was in the spray cans. I explained that it was suntan lotion for the clinic. He laughed and pointed to his skin. All I could do was raise my hands and tell him that it was on the list. Funny foreigners.

What are Antonio and Crystel doing and where are their mothers?!? You can see a typical casa in the foreground. Tin roof, chickens, dogs, firewood, dirt yard.

Walking across the village square, Lee said lunch at Sabor Cruzeno Restaurant was next. The restaurant is part of the CECAP Culinary Arts program that trains young people for successful employment in the tourist business. CECAP is supported by Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation of which Lee is on the board.

Local tienda where Antonio and Crystel buy their boom booms. This Mayan is a graduate of the CECAP vocational training center run by Amigos de Santa Cruz

Though not yet totally immersed in village life, the di Grazia family was beginning to place their fingertip on the local culture. We were closer than we had ever been before to the Guatemalan way of life.

If you like my blog writing hit the subscribe button on WordSisters. You will automatically receive my posts every other week. Also, I find Lee Beal’s blog very interesting.  He writes about his meanderings in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, and the Mayan culture. http://lakeatitlantravelguide.com/blog/