Monday, June 08, 2009

Vista Hermosa

This is the first of a series.

It's difficult to believe that 30 years have passed since I was there. In the summer of 1979 I had completed my sophomore year in high school and embarked on the greatest adventure of my young life. With 2 years of high school Spanish in my head and almost no other relevant life experience, I boarded an Eastern Airlines flight at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. I went to Miami, changed planes and boarded a Pan Am flight to Guatemala City, where I and 15 of my schoolmates would spend about half the summer as exchange students.

I had never been any further from home than Chicago in my life. While I thought I was prepared for what I would see and experience there, I was quite mistaken. The program that my high school had set up was tied to families in Guatemala, not to any particular school, and the family that I stayed with was somewhat apart from the other students from my school. Worse, they did not speak much of any English. It wasn't a great setup for a shy kid from Wisconsin.

The Guatemala of 1979 was outwardly placid, but there was tension galore. Some 335 miles to the south, the corrupt Somoza government of Nicaragua was losing its grip on power to the Sandinistas. My family lived in a suburban enclave known as Vista Hermosa, an area filled with large ranch style homes nestled into the hillsides. I had my own room in the large house I lived that summer, with two servants available to me whenever I needed anything, although it wasn't easy to tell them what I wanted since I could barely speak Spanish and they could barely speak it either, since their native tongue was Kaqchikel, a Mayan dialect. My family would set up elaborate games of croquet on the broad lawn and I had plenty of time to read and think. It was idyllic in Vista Hermosa, but with each trip into the city we saw increasing signs of trouble. As we would approach the Avenida de la Reforma, we would see soldiers on the streets. The first week or so, they were unarmed and traveling mostly in pairs. By the end of June, they were lining the street, each equipped with automatic weapons that were just about as big as they were.

As the month went on, we began to see more and more vehicles with Nicaraguan license plates, mostly big Mercedes. These were the cars of the rich Nicaraguans, who were fleeing the approach of the Marxist Sandinistas, who vowed that they would bring justicia. The Sandinistas also vowed that they would be luchando contra el Yanqui, el enemigo de humanidad.

It was pretty hard for a 15 year old kid to understand why the Sandinistas were hot to be "luchando contra el Yanqui, el enemigo de humanidad" (fighting against the Yankee, the enemy of humanity), but my family seemed to take things pretty seriously. Outwardly they would make a point of showing that they weren't afraid of what might be coming, but in dinner conversations that they assumed I wouldn't understand, they worried openly whether the Sandinista wave would arrive in Vista Hermosa.

This was the backdrop for a summer I'm still trying to sort out, some 30 years on.

1 comment:

Gino said...

eyewitness to history.