Earlier this month I attended a wake for an acquaintance, a friend of some friends. It was held at a funeral parlor in Carthage. I had other appointments that day, so I decided to go early, to be there when the visitation was to begin. I arrived punctually at noon to find no one else there, the building apparently empty.
The body of Eliseo lay in a coffin, a Cadillac of coffins, looking heavy, as embalmed corpses often do. I stood there looking at the young man in his best clothes, lying in the silver satin cushions of the coffin.
My friends had been asking, "Why had Eliseo died?" He had a cold, got a fever, took some traditional remedies but continued to get sicker. Finally, his family took him to the doctor but it was too late. Why hadn't he gone to the doctor sooner?
Why hadn't his family taken him earlier? He could pay; he and everyone in his family were working. Maybe he was afraid that someone would ask for his papers.
Eliseo's family arrived: his father, a brother, a sister, a cousin. The Maya of Guatemala, of whom Eliseo was one, are a stoic people. They suffer, but they do not show it. The men's faces remained impassive. Eliseo's sister, however, sobbed, repeating the words, "Mi hermano, mi hermano, mi hermano" — "My brother" — over and over, the words said with a rhythm not Spanish but Indian. Her sobbing becoming a dirge.
A tall man who had been a friend of Eliseo tried to comfort his father. The man was an Evangelical, and he told the father, "He will sit on the right hand of God."
Some of the Guatemalans are Evangelical, others Catholic and many still retain their traditional Mayan beliefs, some going back to the great ancient kingdoms. Probably all of those beliefs were present in the room, ideas about God and justice and the meaning of our lives.
More people arrived, also mostly Mayan, co-workers from the company where Eliseo worked in West Chester. Among the Mayan Indians from Guatemala were also some Mexicans who had worked with Eliseo and came to pay their respects. The room, which might have held about 50, filled to overflowing, and latecomers stood in the hall looking in through the double door. Each one made his or her way forward to look at Eliseo, to give their condolences to the father, dropped $20 or $50 in the basket and then fell back into the onlookers. They gave $7,000 to send the body back to the village, to the place where it belonged.
After about a half an hour a group of white women came in, dressed for the wake in dresses and high heels. All stood a head taller than the tallest Guatemalan man in the room. I was asked to step forward to translate for the women, who spoke to me with the twangy accent of Appalachia.
"We worked with him," one of the women told his father. "We're so sorry that he's gone. He was always such a nice guy, a hard worker, and always had a smile for everybody."
One of the women bent over to hug Eliseo's father in a motherly way, and for the first time he cried.
As the four white women turned to leave, one of them turned around and looked at Eliseo's body in the coffin, kissed her own finger and then blew the kiss from her finger to Eliseo.
Eliseo died a long way from home, gone to America to make a living. What exactly brought him here I don't know. I do know though, what has brought millions of his countrymen and women.
The U.S. government overthrew the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, leading to a string of dictatorships. When the Guatemalan people rose up against those dictatorships in the 1970s, there followed a civil war in which the Guatemalan Army murdered hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Indian. Eventually 250,000 are estimated to have been killed.
Just when Guatemala finally negotiated a peace in 1996, globalization arrived, opening up the country to foreign competition. When I visited Guatemala a couple of years ago, I found that factories had closed, unions had lost members, many workers were unemployed. Then came the collapse of the world coffee market, one of Guatemala's important products. As the coffee prices fell, fincas went bankrupt, and agricultural day laborers lost their jobs. True, some maquiladoras, particularly garment factories, had opened in Guatemala, but management in those factories was tyrannical, the labor intense and the wage low, about $3 a day. And there just weren't enough jobs.
Guatemalans began to look for work elsewhere. Some crossed the border to work on coffee plantations in the neighboring Mexican state of Chiapas. Others migrated further into Mexico. But in Mexico, if they could find work, the wages weren't much higher. So the Guatemalans pushed on further north, risking the dangerous border crossing, to get to the United States. They found jobs and created communities in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities. They discovered Cincinnati and some settled around here, down on State and Harrison, up on Route 4 by I-275.
I never got to know Eliseo, never interviewed him to learn his personal history, but I am pretty sure it is one similar to others I have known. The Mayan village, the three or four years of school interrupted by work in the fields, the migration through Mexico, the danger of the border crossing, the search for work — and through it all the preservation of the family, the community, the village. All of those people gathered in that funeral parlor together form part of Guatemala and part of the United States.
Dan La Botz is a writer, teacher and activist. His column appears the fourth issue of each month.