Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Angel from Los Angeles

While in Casas Viejas, I have witnessed weddings, baby showers (called baby showers in Guatemala), birthdays and graduations. It was just a matter of time before I’d attend a funeral.

My first day back at the tienda after the new year, I walked into the store and found Adan and Miselly already at work counting the register. Nancy had quit after Veronica ostracized her for talking to her baby’s daddy. Miselly is her replacement. Employee number six in so many months. I greeted them, asking how their holiday was and Adan said, “For us it was fine, thank God.” I thought it was peculiar that he stressed the “For us” part. The reasoning became clear when moments later he filled the silence with, “Alfonso is not going to be working with us for some time, he lost a son.”

Alfonso’s son, who everyone called Junior, had been living and working in The United States for 22 years when he suddenly fell ill and died in a hospital in Los Angeles. He was about 40 years old and survived by a wife and eight children. All week everyone was commenting about when “he” would arrive. Junior’s remains were being sent down to Guatemala so he could receive a proper burial in the Casas Viejas cemetery. The casket arrived Monday, the vela (candlelight vigil) was planned for that very evening and the burial was to take place on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning as I was doing some work at home Loyda came by my house and yelled for me through the chain link gate at the side of my house. “Annalisa” she shouted to me in a raspy voice (she’s been nursing a mean cold/flu for the past week). I ran to the gate to meet her. “I can’t come to cook today, the burial is at 3pm” she said while covering her mouth with a little towel. “That’s not a problem. I’m going to postpone the cooking class.” I responded. I was already prepared to do this if the funeral was in the afternoon. I then asked if she and Adan could come by my house before they headed to Don Alfonso’s so I could accompany them to the funeral. She said she’d be by at 1:30 or 2:00.

Don Alfonso lives about a kilometer outside of town in a small cement whitewashed house. His living space is modest with an outdoor kitchen and an outhouse teetering on the sloped bank of a small stream that cuts through his land. We pulled up to his house in Adan’s pick up truck loaded with townspeople we had picked up along the five minute drive. Tents had been set up surrounding the thatch roof rancho under which, in better times, hammocks hang, but now housed the flower adorned pearly white casket. There was little refuge from the pounding sun and mourners had strategically placed their plastic chairs to optimize the little shade that was available. As I took a seat under the protection of a tall bush I noticed three electric fans were airing the coffin.

The heat had also drawn enterprising granisada (snowcone) vendors to cool the crowd with their Q3 icy treats. One of the granisaderas is a surprisingly white, nearly mute, kind-hearted woman named Marta who I have been known to hunt down on particularly scorching afternoons. We share a bond over our mutual inability to understand everything that people are saying around us. On Tuesday Marta’s ever present smiley face was enhanced by colorful make-up. I could see from ten yards away that she suffered from an over application of blush. But, I supose one must try extra hard to show respect for the deceased, especially when profiting from their untimely death. Both Loyda’s sons ran over to Marta with change in hand as soon as we sat down. On any other occasion I probably would have joined them (I have become addicted to the sweet tamarindo jam that is placed on top of granisadas) but I felt it probably wasn’t appropriate for a grown woman to slurp a snowcone during a funeral procession.

I spotted Alfonso near the entrance to his house. It was the first time I had seen him without his signature white cowboy hat. Its absence aged his forlorn face.

As I waited for the ceremony to start I soaked in the surroundings. A limping pig was sauntering around the pila and outhouse and a overheard a little boy peeing behind me in the bushes. Its amazing how the sound of pee hitting a solid doesn’t make me flinch- I’ve become so accustomed to boys and men alike making impromptu urinals wherever they feel fit.

Don Alfonso’s granddaughter was filming the crowd and I couldn’t help but wonder under what circumstance would anyone want to watch that video.

About thirty minutes passed and the priest presented himself and began to talk. I noticed that he mainly addressed the Catholics in the audience who were gathered closest to his makeshift podium. The Evangelicals were scattered around the periphery. He did, however, start his eulogy by saying that he loved everyone, Catholics and Evangelicas alike because, “We are all God’s children.”

The tribute didn’t last long and when the priest asked if anyone would like to say a few words, not one person stood up. After a few songs lead by Oscar Ruben’s mom, Julietta, the casket was lifted and the funeral procession began. As I stated earlier, Alfonso’s home is quite a ways out of town so the march to the cemetery ended up taking about an hour to complete. There were numerous stops to allow the rotating pallbearers to exchange duties. I had secured a black umbrella from the funeral coordinators and thus, kept the beating sun off my head as we slowly progressed down the town’s main street.

When we arrived at the cemetery a crowd already surrounded the burial site. Mourners sat and stood on nearby cement graves and the pallbearers carried the casket and placed it in front of the newly cemented block that was to be Junior’s final resting place. A well-respected man of town who I know only as Profe (professor), climbed atop the gray grave and addressed the grievers. I was standing behind the grave and stared at his back while he gave his impassioned panegyric over the coffin.

At one point during the praise Profe said, “Junior had left Guatemala in search of a better life in the place that we call the land of dreams.” It was the first time I had heard anyone in my town talk about the United States while not addressing me. It gave me a bit of an out-of-body experience, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation that I shouldn’t be listening to. I got a little uncomfortable. Profe wasn’t saying anything negative about the country, but it was awkward hearing it discussed in such a solemn setting. I was reminded that as a Peace Corps volunteer, I represent the United States and in that role I felt mildly guilty for being from the country that lured Alfonso’s son away from his homeland. I was probably the only one present who had these sentiments but regardless, they still hung heavy on my heart.

After Profe gave his final words the coffin was slid into the block and cemented over. I could hear Junior’s mother wail uncontrollably as I followed the crowd out of the cemetery with tears in my eyes.

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