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Arrival: Ciudad de Guatemala

Mamá ChelaI ask her how old she is.

"Soy del trece," she says, the voice raspy and soft on the consonants, but resonant.

I count the decades out loud on my hands, aiming for her left ear, the good one.

"Noventa y siete," I say.

"Noventa y siete," she says back.

Mamá Chela is still able to walk up and down the stairs of her daughter's house in the hills south of Guatemala City, just off the "Carretera a San Salvador," a.k.a. the Pan-American HIghway. She does wear a diaper. But she spoons food into her own mouth and eats as much as any of us, and holds a coffee cup to her lips. She is always the first one to sit down for the merienda, the traditional Latin America afternoon caffeine-and-sugar snack.

She remembers who I am.

I am a grandson again.

I am a nephew again. And again, after so many years away from Central America, I play the Liberation Theology red to my uncle Ramón, devotee of the right-wing Opus Dei. (That I teach at Loyola Marymount University, where the ideal of "social justice" is in our mission statement, is a source of endless jibes from him.) As if the civil wars of the 1980s had never ended.

Family Tree, cuarto de la abuela

I sit at the dining room table for breakfast served by the indigenous "muchacha." Her name is Lala. She has jet black hair in a straight ponytail down her back and she wears a uniform. My family is not rich by any stretch, if anything claims a tenuous hold on the middle class, but "help" in Latin America is much more common among the middle class than in the States, partly due to terribly low salaries.

It is not 1989, I tell myself. The war is long over.

Long live the war.

There might not be the same Cold War backdrop to it all, but the atmosphere is as tense as I remember it back during the days of Marxist guerrillas and Reagan-backed army regulars. Today the terms are inseguridad, ingobernabilidad: the insecurity and ungovernability stemming from narco- and gang violence. (The two are often as not related.)

Or maybe it is the same war, fought by a new generation under new terms, but certainly surging from the same source: the staggering inequities of Latin American society, and the blatantly unfair terms of global business.

My tíos live in a gated community. They are retired but they cannot live on their pensions, so they work. Ramón at a textile firm, and my aunt at an oncology lab. This is what they've done most of their adult lives. He makes sure the colors are right and the distribution networks are flowing; she is looking for abnormalities in the specimens.

The day of our arrival we have dinner guests, friends of my tíos. Edwin and Beatríz are a young couple. They are utterly familiar to me in the Latin American middle-class kind of way. He is criollo, a German-born businessman. She is a light-skinned mestiza, works at a hospital making sure the patients are getting their meds--that the distribution networks are flowing.

In Latin America, being "middle class" often means affecting social status more than actually having it. And in these, the years of inseguridad, it means being shockingly vulnerable.

Not long ago Edwin went to the bank and withdrew $3000 cash for a business transaction. A few minutes later he was cornered in the parking lot by armed men who demanded the money. (Surely they must have been tipped off by someone inside the bank.) He gave them the money but that was not enough for the ladrónes to let him go alive. When Edwin realized they were going to finish him off, he jammed the jeep into reverse and smashed into the car behind him. The assailants started firing away. Bullets whizzed past his ear, blew out windshield glass, punctured steel.

My aunt says the only reason he survived was because he had a four-by-four.

My aunt tells me this story as we are on our way to Antigua, reaching for a bit of tourism in the midst of it all.

We never make it, because we get stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on the Carretera a San Salvador, which becomes Avenida Roosevelt, the city's main artery. We travel about 5 miles in two hours.

Later we find out that it was all because of a bank assault downtown that left several dead.


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