I grew up in a Salvadoran household in San Francisco. My mother arrived in San Francisco, at 26, in 1948 after a traumatic youth. The granddaughter of a wealthy landowner in Santa Ana, she had fled with her family to Guatemala following La Matanza in 1932, the massacre of some 30,000 workers in Santa Ana and the other western departments of El Salvador. You could say that she jumped from the frying pan into the fire: In 1944, teachers went on strike for higher pay. Jorge Ubico, the dictator of Guatemala, sent in the army and over 200 protestors were killed including Maria Chinchilla, the head of the teacher’s union. Jácobo Arbenz Gúzman and a coterie of leftist army officers overthrew the dictator Jorge Ubico. Mom and her sisters left Guatemala for the United States four years later hoping to find a peaceful existence. They found that the streets were not paved with gold but at least they were paved, and their jobs here made it possible for them to send remittances home to their mother and younger brothers.
It was a fortuitous time to leave Guatemala. President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, who replaced Ubico, began an agenda of reforms that led to the first-ever universal suffrage election. They elected Arbenz to the presidency in 1951. He set about to create real land reform, even meeting clandestinely with the leadership of the Communist Party to assure the creation of an effective program. American companies such as the United Fruit Company saw this as a danger to their interests: Arbenz gave them only what THEY had paid for land on which they were not growing fruit. The result was a CIA coup of the Arbenz government and the beginning of a military dictatorship that led to a 36-year civil war in which 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. Arbenz was forced to flee. In exile, he fled from country to country, dying, finally in Mexico under mysterious circumstances.
Even as far away as San Francisco, my mother was touched by Guatemala’s politics: Her younger brother, a law student, was kidnapped, torturedwater-boarding is the only one he would talk aboutand finally dumped naked, bleeding and unconscious, barely alive. During his confinement, we crept about the house waiting for the phone call that would confirm his death.
My mother was an ambivalent immigrant. On one hand, she felt safe in San Francisco, particularly after she married my father. She loved the beautiful, clean city; admired the big, strapping policemen (in those days when tallness was required and women were excluded); and she believed, for a time, that politicians and policemen were incorruptible. On the other hand, she longed for the beauty of Guatemala and missed her mother and brothers.
In 1960, she hastened to get her citizenship because she wanted to vote for John F. Kennedy. I remember the study sessions over our kitchen table when she and her expatriate friends studied for their citizenship exam, laughing and talking late into the night. But when Kennedy was assassinated, “This country is just as corrupt as mine” she thundered in Spanish. Kennedy’s photo still adorns her living room. She even named my youngest brother for him. Then Bobby was assassinated. She stopped voting. She cautioned us never to get involved in politics because they were all corrupt.
I was thinking about her recently, in light of the revelations of the deals between our government and the vendors who provide their meals and other goods. They don’t call it profiteering; they say it’s just business. Dick Cheney should have been impeached years ago. As a former CEO of Halliburton, one of the companies that is making money hand over fist in Iraq, there is little doubt that when he leaves office, some of those spoils will go to him. Were Spiro Agnew’s (Nixon’s disgraced vice president) sins as vile as those of Dick Cheney? And George W. Bush? It is a small wonder that during his last campaign he claimed that he did not need to reinstitute the draft. The vendors are performing tasks that once went to soldiers. Halliburton is happy; its stockholders are getting rich!
As for other forms of corruption, such as playing fast and loose with the truth, Cheney’s former Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby looks like he will be hoisted on his own petard. Let us hope that it is only the beginning of an avalanche of forced truth-telling by members of the Bush administration.
I hate it when my mother is right.
Rosa Maria Pegueros is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island.