My mother, Sylvia Consuelo Cuéllar de Mérida, passed away on March 22, during hospitalization for a very swift and virulent illness. She passed in a quiet, darkened room with one of my brothers and a nephew present, while my own small clan and I were grabbing a bite in the hospital cafeteria. Never wanting to impose on anyone, it was almost as if she waited until everyone was tucked away to leave us.
She passed just after she received last rites from a Catholic priest. We were all there, including the nominal Catholics in our family. When the priest addressed her, she was able to rouse herself a little to pay attention, and it was likely the last conscious moment of her life. I am glad that this moment was during a religious practice that she valued throughout her life. As a practicing Roman Catholic myself, it was an immensely significant and holy moment for me as well.
My mother was born in a time and place of political unrest. She was born in 1940 in Guatemala, her mother’s only child, during a time when the countries of Central America were experiencing interference from the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations on behalf of American corporations. When she about four years old, Guatemala democratically elected a social democrat president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who instituted land reforms, updates to the constitution and more. Commentary of the time calls it Diez Años de Primavera, or Ten Years of Spring.
I grew up with stories of the positive effects of that election, from having milk and notebooks at school for the first time, to good jobs with benefits in nationalized industries, to even a “barn raising” campaign to build cinder block houses for everyone, in which everyone in the community built one house, then moved on to the next, and so on. She fondly remembered receiving pencils that were engraved with “a gift from the people of Czechoslovakia” and not having to carry her own stool to school anymore. The people began to get running water and electricity, and rural workers began to see prosperity through the land grants from the government.
Even with all those positive developments, my mother experienced quite a bit of tragedy in her young years. She contracted what we suspect was scarlet fever when quite young and was blinded, eventually regaining some sight in one eye. My maternal grandmother, Doña Luz, died before my mother reached 10 years old, and my mother was consequently placed in a Catholic convent’s boarding school because her father was an engineer for the state railroad. She did not remember those years with happiness, especially because her new stepmother and her daughters were unkind to her. She would tell me stories about the stepmother stealing the little gifts like hair ribbons my grandfather would bring her, only to put them on her own daughters later. And of course, growing up in a convent boarding school presented its own challenges.
But closer to her teen years, she was moved to British Honduras (now Belize) to live with her uncle, who was Guatemala’s consul to British Honduras. I used to love hearing her stories about climbing coconut trees and gathering coconuts in her croker (burlap) sack to sell at the market for spending money. She would talk about eating conch and playing with sea tortoises in the water, and she was a great swimmer.
Reaching adulthood, she went back to Guatemala City to study. She studied for her teacher’s certification there and worked at the Maya Excelsior Hotel, which catered to American tourists. She spoke fluent English from having lived in British Honduras, and unfortunately her lifelong rejection of what is Guatemalan, indigenous and Latino began. I learned Spanish through strange conversations between my parents, he always in Spanish, she always responding in English. Thanks to my bilingual elementary education and college study, I managed to hang onto it. Under imperialism and colonization, one often has to take on the attributes of the oppressor to survive, and in her activism, assimilation provided safe cover.
The democratically-elected Arbenz government had been overthrown with the interference of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who had holdings in the United Fruit Company (now Dole) and whose brother worked for that company. The Arbenz government had recently instituted land reforms which nationalized the United Fruit Company’s land holdings and granted them to rural workers. The situation is actually cited as one of the first examples of American imposition of disaster capitalism, inspired by Milton Friedman-styled imperialist policy. As a result, the country began to see crackdowns on free speech and social programs, which instigated mass civil unrest.
My parents met in that movement. Because of the crackdowns, my parents left Guatemala, stayed for a time in British Honduras, and then my mother left for the United States, having been hired as an au pair and housekeeper for a couple from Cuba, who settled in Rochester, NY. My father stayed behind, and after saving her money, she brought him up to New York in the mid 1960s. I was born not long afterward. She also managed to bring my father’s parents and siblings to the United States, too.
This song is one of my mom’s absolute favorites.
My mother was determined to carve out a comfortable life for her family. Both parents worked more than one job at a time, and in the years after leaving the au pair post, she ran a day care from our home, fostered children, held down graveyard shifts at Howard Johnson’s as a waitress and even set up her own business as an importer of Guatemalan textiles, long before Boulder hippies “columbused” those patterns. And her education! She was always studying, always racking up more and more training and degrees. Her absolute favorite book was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. She took into her hands my own early education, teaching me to read by age 3 and therefore trying to push me to start school early…as a result, I’m about 2.5 years younger than others in my class. But even with a young family and so many responsibilities, she still made time for civic action, even before she was granted citizenship. One project I am still proud of is the playground she agitated Rochester city government for, who had no intention of putting in any such things in a predominantly working-class, black and Latino part of the city. And she never, EVER missed a vote. She knew what good a vote could actually do.
My parents faced a lot of discrimination in those days back east, so when my father attended a conference held in Denver, he decided to relocate to a place that was more friendly to Latinos. Mom, brothers and I followed him, arriving in Denver on Christmas Eve of 1972.
You should have seen that trip to Denver via Greyhound. She had broken her arm the night before we left, but she gathered up three little kids and got on that bus. We made a connection in Chicago, in the huge bus depot, and she commandeered a big luggage cart, piled it high with kids, presents and baggage, and pushed that thing across the bus depot with an arm in a cast.
Nothing was impossible to my mother. There was always a way, and generally the way meant doing end-runs around privilege and status and “rules.” Our first schools in Denver were in the Denver Public Schools, but after being bullied by other kids, she insisted on putting us into Catholic schools. Between my two parents, they managed to squeeze blood out of a stone so that we could go. Every extra penny went to tuition, to school uniforms, to bus fare across town.
But not many people know that my mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Suffered from? Afflicted with? It is part of my culture not to refer to people with labels of stigmatization; in fact, what the Anglo world calls mental illness, we see as an asset. This is not to say that mental “illness” doesn’t exist; rather, our cultural tendency is to recognize the gifts that everyone is created with. In my case, my mother’s natural concern for others manifested in where her attention centered. She would talk about the hotels and other property she thought she owned and would always ask, upon visiting, whether we’d received the new cars or the money from so-and-so who works for her. In our childhood, she always made sure we had food and shelter and clothing, and it seemed that this was the extension.
Why did she settle on such ideas? Maybe on some level she felt she was owed reparations from having to leave her country to escape political reprisal, or because of hard she had to work to support her children. Maybe on some level she felt like her hard work had finally paid off. Maybe it was a sense of security after living so long without any family or parental support.
She was very prideful about being able to raise her children with very little public support. We only used food stamps sporadically, and we lived in subsidized housing for a few years. As she got older and had more free time, she would keep notebooks with all sorts of writing inside them…little slips of papers and sticky notes. She would say that she was taking orders and keeping inventory, and sure enough, on sunny days she would sit on the rocker on the porch and talk to someone who I couldn’t see, giving that person orders to purchase this and sell that.
After she was first diagnosed, I tried to seek “treatment” for her. I remember one incident of my locking us both in the bathroom to try to get her to take her medication. If you could imagine a showdown between two Titans, you could picture that scene. She finally obliged, I thought, but later spit the pills out. She was right, though: she was prescribed medication that would completely knock her out. It made her zombie-like and not at all like the keenly observant dynamo that she was. I know I felt embarrassed about her side conversations out loud with people I couldn’t see, as well as her brusqueness and her active fear of people she didn’t know or hadn’t sized up yet. We went to therapy sessions over and over. She would deny that there was anything wrong with her but would lapse into long spiels about people and places I’d neither met nor been to. Therapists would look up at me with a questioning glance, and I would just shake my head.
Finally a therapist said something to me that made sense: she was just one of those quietly “crazy” people who wasn’t hurting herself or others. She was certainly caring for herself in that harsh way she had: she would occasionally have blemishes and skin eruptions, which she would treat with scrubs, peroxide, alcohol swabs or whatever chemical sounded correct to her. She would say that people were injecting her skin while she slept. But the truth was that she would cook and eat, she would bathe and clean up her living space, and she would sit in the fresh air and go shopping. What did it really hurt for her to talk to herself? Who cared if she had “delusions” or suspicions about people? She never hurt anyone, and the only thing being injured was my vanity.
I learned recently that my mother was born out of wedlock, and therefore her mother raised her as a single parent, all within the cocoon that is a Latin family, but definitely psychologically single for sure. My mother helped me raise my son even before my first husband died, and it was always strange to me why she should dedicate herself so much to my son. Now it makes perfect sense. Even though she tried to Americanize me to shield me from racism, she couldn’t help but impart our true culture to me, through the cocoon she wove around my son and me. We understand multi-generational households, and for 25 years, that’s how we lived. She cooked for my son, greeted him after school, met him at the school bus, washed his clothes and tried to discipline him, albeit somewhat ineffectively, because she was a real softy for that boy. It was that same solidarity between clanswomen that her aunts must have offered her mother which she also offered to me.
My mom was was independent and interdependent, funny and serious, a sucker for calypso, stubborn, sometimes boorish and pushy, indefatigable and always exceedingly generous and loving in a non-demonstrative way. She would not hug me or cuddle me, and it was only until she reached her 70s that she actually let me kiss her. But this was the person who taught me how to put my nose to the grindstone and just LOVE.
I sensed her, on the way to Holy Thursday mass yesterday. I smelled the scent of the makeup she always wore, and I certainly don’t wear anything like that. It was fitting that she chose to accompany me to this mass, where we wash the feet of others and hear of Jesus’ Mandatum Novum;
Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem, sicut dilexi vos,
I give to you a new commandment: that you shall love each other as I have loved you.
Thus saith the Lord.
I love you mom. I miss you already, but you will always be here with me.