This blog post was crafted by Global Grandmothers board member, Sarah Pruden.
Winner for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars, Roma, based on the director’s childhood, takes place in an upper-middle class area of Mexico City in 1970 – ‘71. It brought me back to my summer in Guatemala in 1974, the seeds of my interest in Guatemala’s indigenous people and my love of Child Aid, a non-profit that assists them.
During the summer of 1974, I experienced much of the life depicted in the film but in Guatemala City when my husband, Hank, took a teaching job at a new university, Francisco Marroquin. Hank’s mother, Maruca, had emigrated from Guatemala City to California in 1928.
We, including our two daughters ages four years and seven months, were provided an apartment where tiny maids speaking an indigenous tongue insisted on doing everything for me: I should not pick up a dish let alone wash it! Our apartment was in a garden surrounded by a wall with shards of glass on top. The neighborhood, like the one in the film, Colonia Roma, was upper-middle class.
One of my mother in law’s sisters, Margot, remained in the city with her husband, a doctor. That summer we visited them at their home in Zona Una, the most central and oldest part of the city. Just as in the film, huge gates faced the street, and inside them at the back of an open courtyard were rickety stairs leading to the servants’ quarters. Margot always shopped with a maid to lug the bags, but she didn’t treat her or the other servants with any respect. In Roma when the mother and father yelled orders about cleaning up the dog poop in the driveway to the servants, it reminded me of Margot.
My mother-in-law, after living in California on a chicken farm for fifteen years, returned in 1960 to visit her sister and cousins with fresh eyes. She saw the class system there from the perspective of an outsider, and one who had personally toiled on a farm. She came back to the U.S. saying she could not abide the way her family and old friends treated indigenous people.
While we were in Guatemala, Margot accompanied our family to the home of her son, Hector, a man with power. The house was adjacent to his coffee plantation and near his medical practice in a small rural community. Because he was a member of the Congress, there were machine gun-toting guards at the entry to the home, and at night attack dogs roamed the grounds. Imagine my nightmares with a baby just learning to crawl!
Hector was on his third wife, very young, parading around the pool in her bikini and constantly calling him, “mi amor.” Neither of them paid any attention to their son, who was about two. There was an ever-present nanny, with whom I spent time in the kitchen where she was giving the little boy dinner and where I was feeding my baby daughter. This woman told me that she had never had a child who lived beyond three; I don’t know if the deaths were stillbirths as in Roma or the result of disease. I do doubt that anyone would have taken her to a hospital.
Roma gives a clear view of both the class system and rural poverty. I too saw rural and urban poverty as well as distrust of and disdain for the indigenous people who came to Guatemala City hoping for “a better life.” Rural poverty was extreme. When we were at Hector’s coffee plantation, many of the farm workers formed a line on a Sunday morning to request favors or money from him. He listened and seemed to respond to many of them.
As I reflect on that summer, I recall when we went to Lake Atitlan for a short holiday including a boat trip with stops around the lake. The local children, most with runny, infected eyes, were fascinated by my baby in her stroller. Not realizing that these children did not speak or understand Spanish, I kept saying, “No toca,” which I thought meant “no touch.” Despite my concerns for my little one, my heart went out to those poverty-stricken children.
When I learned about Child Aid, which trains teachers, educates children, and provides books to local schools and libraries in the same communities around Lake Atitlan, I knew it should be a Global Grandmothers’ recommended nonprofit. After my husband died, I suggested that friends donate to Child Aid in his memory because Guatemala was an important part of his heritage. Additionally, helping the less fortunate, especially through education, has always been a core value of our family.
I was very moved by Roma. I wish that my husband could have viewed it with me, and we could have reminisced about our summer in Guatemala almost forty-five years ago. In addition to triggering many memories from that time in 1974, the film reinforced my commitment to support the work of Child Aid with indigenous children in rural Guatemala. Perhaps some are the descendants of those very children who looked with confusion at me pushing that strange contraption with my pale curly haired baby!