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A Guatemalan grandmother's secret is revealed

A columnist's recent writings on illiteracy lead to a surprising discovery much closer to home.

October 27, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

It isn't every day that a 50-year-old family secret comes tumbling out of the closet.

A week ago, my father read the second of my columns on illiteracy, about the struggle of three Latino immigrants to learn to read and write. He came to talk to me. The look on his face as he stood on my deck was pained.

"You can't tell anyone this," he said in Spanish. "I've never told anyone."

"What?" I asked. "What is it?"

When he finally spoke, the words came out quickly and seemed to drain him of breath. "My mother never learned to read or write," he said.

My Guatemalan grandmother Valeria Cruz never lived in this country. She died in Guatemala City in 1995. Her progeny include five U.S.-citizen grandchildren who are residents of Southern California -- and five more grandchildren who live in Guatemala.

Valeria Cruz had a hard life. She was born in 1907 in Huehuetenango, in western Guatemala, and was orphaned as a child -- perhaps because of the 1918 flu pandemic. Her facial features hinted at a Maya heritage of which she never spoke.

Maybe you have a grandmother or a great-grandmother like her. A lot of Angelenos do. The kind whose stories transport you to a simpler but harsher time and place.

Many of the key events in Valeria's life took place in the eastern Guatemalan town where her sons were born, a place of steam trains and machetes, like the fictional Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's great novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

She met my grandfather at the train station and eventually bore him two sons. Several years later, my grandfather abandoned her, and she boarded another train, on her own with her boys.Valeria started working as a domestic when she was 11 or 12. She washed clothes on stone basins, cooked and ironed. She never went to school, though it was her fervent wish that her sons do so.

I had just written a column lamenting that we in Los Angeles allow widespread illiteracy in our city. And now I had discovered it in my own family. I was stunned.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked my father.

"Because I was afraid you would write something about it," he said. "I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I never taught her to read, and I should have."

The next day he brought her old Guatemalan passport for me to inspect.

My father wanted me to see the space for the signature, where a bureaucrat had written in two words. "Ignora Firmar," it says, which translates as "Does not know how to sign."

I was grateful to my father for sharing this long-hidden truth. I told him that over the years many people I've interviewed have revealed to me similar secrets from their Latin American pasts: family histories of hunger, hardships and abandonment.

Valeria Cruz was born into a life of poverty but emerged with her dignity and humanity intact. Her ambition for her family reached its full flowering in a U.S. city a world away from Huehuetenango.

Her descendants include executives, engineers and assorted professionals. Her oldest grandchild is my cousin Rosiemarie Cruz, a UCLA alumna, dentist and recently minted major in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Rosiemarie was born in Guatemala and lived a few years with Valeria. I asked her if she knew that our grandmother could not read or write.

"I sort of knew, but I wouldn't have been able to swear to it," she told me.

When she was an adult earning her first paychecks in Los Angeles, Rosiemarie sent money and letters to our grandmother, who asked people to read the letters for her, often under the pretext that she couldn't find her eyeglasses.

"What I remember most about her is not that she was illiterate but that she was a great cook," Rosiemarie told me. "She made an awesome banana cream pie. And she told me amazing stories."

My father said he was about 15 when he realized his mother could not read or write.

He offered to teach her, but she turned him down. She was in her 50s and too old to learn, she said. They never discussed the matter again.

"It made her feel uncomfortable," he told me. He read letters for her and kept her secret.

Later, my father scrambled to continue his own truncated education, which never got past the sixth grade in Guatemala.

He migrated to the U.S. and earned a high school degree in Los Angeles, at night school.

Eventually, he became a hotel manager in Beverly Hills.

My father told me that he worried most about his mother when she flew alone to Los Angeles to visit us. How, he wondered, would she fill out her tourist card and customs form? "Probably she asked another passenger to help her, with the excuse that she couldn't see well," he said. "It must have been difficult and embarrassing for her."

Thinking about my father's private burden brought moments in my own life into focus.

At about the same time my grandmother was visiting Los Angeles, my father gave me the one birthday present from my childhood that still remains in my possession: a hardcover copy of the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

It was a big book for an 8-year-old, and I treasured its thousands of entries. A decade later, I took it to college with me. Now I see that gift in a new light: The man whose mother could read no words in Spanish was giving his son all the words in English.

"Your grandmother couldn't read," my father told me, "and you became a writer." Obviously those two things are connected somehow.

My father and I are both voracious readers of U.S. history. So I pointed out to him that there are many well-known U.S. family sagas that feature people like Valeria Cruz in the early chapters.

The illiterate great-grandfather from China in Lisa See's L.A. memoir "On Gold Mountain." The uncle in Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes."

Sharing Valeria's story might lessen the stigma for others, I told my father. He agreed, and gave his consent for me to write about her life and struggles.

It is, after all, the story of an American family. And it's no longer a secret.


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