My Dad’s Guatemalan Summer

Elderly Guatemalan Woman, photo by

My gentle, white haired Dad didn’t actually go to Guatemala that summer in 1994. It just seemed that way. When the Mennonite Central Committee told him about Hugo, a 36 year old Guatemalan man who worked on a hog farm and lived in his car, Dad knew someone must do something. “I have much to be thankful for,” he said. “I’m living alone in a 3 bedroom home. He is welcome.”

Hugo walked in that first evening carrying his few belongings. Dad had supper waiting and over the meal they began to talk, but Hugo’s sketchy English made communication difficult.

During the first couple of weeks they collaborated in developing a simple system of signs and words. They were like 2 kids who haven’t yet learned communication requires a common language.

Jake, you want?” Hugo would say, holding up his offering. Sign language was unnecessary when Dad said, “Hugo, you want coffee?”

On work days Hugo got up at 5 a.m. and prepared breakfast for himself and Dad, often a fried egg, unbuttered toast, a spicy green pepper and coffee. By the time Dad woke, the food retained not even the slightest hint of warmth. Only the green pepper was hot. Dad ate all but the pepper, without complaint. “I lived through the Dirty Thirties,” he told us. “I was taught to be grateful for whatever was placed on the table.”

At supper it was Dad’s turn to cook. His specialty was vegetarian soups and pies. Except for Guatemalan foods, Hugo had a teenager’s palette. He loved greasy foods, especially burgers and fries. He always praised Dad lavishly, smiling broadly and saying “good food, Jake. I like.” Dad noticed though that Hugo ate little. “I don’t think he cares for my cooking,” he said. “I’m sure he stops at McDonald’s on his way home.”

At the beginning of summer, Hugo said, “Jake, my mother, my sister. They want come visit Canada 2 weeks. Is alright they stay here?” Dad knew Hugo’s family ties were tenuous. This might be an opportunity to mend fences. “Yes, Hugo,” he said. “They are welcome.”

The mother and sister soon arrived. They spoke only Spanish, so Hugo needed to interpret in his still skeletal English. The two women quickly commandeered the kitchen. Soon the fridge was stocked with ingredients to prepare tortillas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and more. Dad was pleased.

Virtually every day, while Hugo was at work, the old mother and her daughter visited local thrift shops. They returned with bulging shopping bags. Because Hugo left early in the morning and usually returned late, Dad was often at home with the two ladies. They were learning English, but initially communication was primarily by signs and gestures.

We remembered that Hugo had told Dad the ladies wanted to stay two weeks. The time passed rapidly and when we expected they’d be leaving imminently Linda and I invited Dad and his “Guatemalan family” for dinner. Over coffee and dessert, Linda innocently asked what day they were planning to leave.

The Old Mother’s response provided insight into Guatemalan time and culture. “In our village, when someone goes on a holiday,” she explained, speaking through Hugo, “it is necessary to bring a small gift for everyone. I have too many presents for the plane. I will buy a truck and my other son will drive it back. We will go with him.”

When Hugo’s sister unexpectedly left for L.A., Dad faced a new challenge. It was not considered proper in his Mennonite culture for a man and woman to live in the same house outside the bond of marriage. How would he explain this woman, almost his own age, living in his house? He devoted many hours to working on his yard. It was looking pretty spiffy.

Several weeks later Hugo arrived driving a red 1979 Toyota pickup truck. “Brakes no good,” he said. “My brother Otto fix when he has time.”

In the eighth week Otto arrived in the pickup. When he had loaded the truck, the Old Mother came to Dad and gave him a large straw hat with a red ribbon. With tears in her eyes she said, “In my village you welcome to visit.” Then she added, “Please, you take care my Hugo.”

Yes,” Dad said. “He is like a son.” She climbed into the truck, tears on her cheeks. And so ended my Dad’s Guatemalan summer.

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