My name is Juan. I live in Guatemala, in the mountains. My town, San Pablo, has three huge volcanoes near it, and high cliffs all around it, and steep, bright green fields of corn and garlic and onions growing in the hills, and red coffee berries growing in the shade of big trees in the valleys. It has lots of flowers and birds—eagles and orioles and owls, hummingbirds, and flocks of wild parrotsthat zoom down out of the trees to steal our corn and don’t talk any language but their own.
San Pablo is on a big lake with seven other towns around it. People get from one town to another mostly by ferryboat or canoe. There’s a road, but it’s not a good one.
I’ve never been in any of the other towns, only San Pablo. Still, at night I like to go down by the lake and look at the lights of the fishing canoes on the black water, and the lights of the other towns glowing at us across the lake, and the thousands of stars in the sky. It seems like every light is saying, “You’re not alone. We’re here too.”
Right in town, San Pablo has stray dogs and dust in the street, and a few cars, and a few buses from the big cities, and afew mules carrying firewood from the mountains, and lots of people carrying still more stuff—jugs of water or big baskets of bread or vegetables on their heads, babies on their backs, or sometimes huge wooden beams balanced over their shoulders—whatever they need to take home. Since there aren’t many cars, if you want something, you carry it yourself, no matter how heavy it is.
The only time people aren’t carrying things is at night, when they go out just to stroll around town and have fun and tell stories and talk to their friends. Everybody walks in the street, more or less straight down the middle, and if a car comes while somebody’s having a good conversation or telling a good story, the car has to wait till the story finishes before people will move out of the way.Stories are important here, and cars aren’t.
Down by the beach there’s an especially beautiful place—a big, low house with lots of windows, and flowers and palm trees all around, and green grass and peacocks in the yard, and an iron gate that opens for walking right down to the water.
That’s where I was born. Well, really I was born in a little house behind the big house. My dad was the caretaker for the big house, and he and my mother had the little house in back to live in, for free. But after I was born, my dad wanted to go out with his friends at night the way he did when he was single, and my mother said there wasn’t enough money for that, so they fought, and one day my dad just left. I heard he took the bus to the capital, which is not that far away; but he nevercame back to see my mom or me. The truth is, I remember the peacocks on the lawn where we lived better than I remember my dad.
After my dad left, the rich people who owned the big house had to hire a new caretaker, and naturally they wanted him to live in our little house, so my mother had to move out. She was only seventeen, and she didn’t have any money or any way to take care of me, so she took me and moved back home to my grandmother’s house. My grandfather died a long time ago, but lucky for us, my grandmother isn’t poor. She has a house made out of cement blocks, with windows without any glass in them—they have little wooden shutters that my grandmother closes at night or when it rains. The house has four rooms, and all the walls inside are covered withthe paintings my uncle Miguel has made, which are really pretty, and which he says he’s going to sell someday.
Outside, my grandmother keeps lots of flowers, so the house looks nice. But best of all, my grandmother owns her house and the land it’s on. She keeps the papers that prove it in an iron box under her bed, and she’s sure of what they say because somebody she trusts read them to her, and nobody, praise God, can take my grandmother’s house and land away from
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