Beltran

(excerpt)

Francisco leaves me by the side of the road. At the crossroads of the routes to Nebaj and Uspantan, our farewell is brief—a warm embrace and a mutual blessing. Then, a locked gaze through a dusty minibus window, a last wave of hands, and he is gone. I’m now on my way to Uspantan to find José who will take me to meet Margarita and Beltran in Regadillos, a Guatemalan peasant village.

 

José meets me at the church square in Uspantan. The van that he found didn’t wait for us, but he came across a young man, Juan, who has a pickup truck. Juan, who lives in Regadillos, asks for three hundred quetzales to take us there. A silent negotiation ensues with them staring each other down. I watch, without saying a word, for about a minute. Juan loses his calm at the sight of José’s dismayed expression. “OK, one hundred seventy-five,” Juan finally suggests. “It’s a deal,” I answer. José gives me a discontented look, as if to say it’s not a fair price.

 

“A beer, my friend?” suggests Juan.

 

Peace offering? It’s eleven in the morning, and my stomach is empty.

 

“Dale! Considering the cost of the ride, I hope it’s on you!” I wink at José, appreciative of my answer, and continue, “But only one!”

 

José laughs uncomfortably. I study him: with his gray trousers stuffed into a pair of rubber rain boots too big for him, his heavy wool sweater, his straw hat, and his machete hanging from his waist, he really looks like a peasant in this urban setting. Juan must be around twenty. He’s mastered the city vibe with his graffiti T-shirt, washed denim jeans, multicolored runners, and American baseball cap. Getting into his red pickup, decorated with neon and race car accessories, I wonder whether he really comes from Regadillos. Are the youth from these incredibly remote villages already so assimilated? The uniformity of looks from one continent to another, the infatuation with trendy fashion branding reigns even here.

 

José, the peasant or guerilla, according to the authorities twenty years ago, is a hero. Juan, young, born in the renewal, the reconstruction, the healing, and the memories, channels the hope and freedom of pop culture. From the dream of simply repossessing the land and living peacefully now emerges the desire to leave the land to make something of one’s self. Juan still believes in a Catholic god, but secretly prays to another. Now, it’s not only the cross that hangs from the rearview mirror but also the soccer ball, the guitar, the miniature dream catcher.


In Regadillos, Juan parks the pickup in front of the only store in the village. His window rolled down, he yells out something I don’t understand. From the white metal lattice on the window of the tienda, a somewhat shrill voice replies just as incomprehensibly.

(...)

 

Already at ease with Beltran, I set up my tape recorder on the cement mantle next to the hearth. I let her know that I don’t want to lose any of these precious moments. Beltran is cutting the tomatoes and making the salad on the same cement estufa the San Marco Mayans use.

 

“So Beltran, tell me, who chose you to go to India?”

 

“I was in Nebaj at my daughter Silvia’s place. The regional president came to Regadillos to choose the women. They telephoned me afterward to inform me that the president had already chosen me. I told them, ‘I don’t know how to read, so I’m not going.’”

 

“It’s better if you don’t know how to read,” I told her.

 

“My daughter looked at me and didn’t know what to say, and neither did I. I didn’t know what to say to him. Since I‘ve traveled a lot with the Church, the community insisted and told me to ask my husband for his opinion. I’m so eager to learn about what I don’t know, and if I have a deeply spiritual experience every day, I have scant knowledge of material things. I also learned I will not be alone, that they also chose Margarita as well as women from other communities. When I returned to San Marcos, Margarita was not there. I spoke to my husband about it all and, without hesitation, he said, ‘Yes, go!’ I had his permission. On the other hand, I couldn’t make a final decision because my daughter wasn’t answering my phone calls. I wanted her approval. She is ill and I often take care of her. Everything took time to get organized. One morning, the mayor of San Marcos phoned me: ‘Have you decided yet?’ I still hadn’t heard from my daughter. Several days went by with the mayor phoning for my answer every day until, finally, my daughter said, ‘Yes Mother, you must go.’ I wanted her consent. My other daughter here, Rosa, wanted to go to India with me! Since she is under thirty-five, she wasn’t eligible.”

 

“I really dreamt of going to India,” Rosa adds.

“It’s sad that they don’t accept young people!” “I think it’s because you have a better future here at your age,” asserts Beltran. “Finally, everything was confirmed with the mayor. At the same time, Margarita returned to the village, and we agreed and encouraged each other to leave for India together. I went to the Church, lit a candle, and prayed. This is now my mission: to learn and succeed for the community because no one has ever come here before to help us. I have to succeed for the community and the others. All of this has really overwhelmed me. If God wants us to succeed, we will succeed.”

“Are you afraid?”

 

“Not at all. I spoke to the Lord and he reassured me.”

“What will change?”

“We will no longer have to spend money on candles; we will be able to work morning and evening. As you can see, we can’t see a thing in our houses; many animals are everywhere, and we can’t see them. The roads are dark; we can’t see when we step into the puddles or in the mud. A lot will change and we will be happier. Also, now, the children can’t study at night. Imagine trying to do homework with only the light of the Ocote flames, how is it possible? So, it’s with joy to know that all of this will change, that we will be working together joyfully toward change.”

“Why is there no electricity in Regadillos? The last electrical pole is only five kilometers from here; they could have continued cabling to Regadillos, no? Also, the road to the village is passable.”

“We are the forgotten ones. Without permission from the owner of the finca, we’re blocked. And he does not want to help us. Even now, he says we are on his land, which isn’t true. The San Francisco finca perimeters have already been officially drawn! But he wants more land! So we fight like we will be this afternoon at the meeting with the finca. As long as he is there, we won’t have electricity.”

(...)