Papi’s House | הבית של פאפי
By Talia Katz, ES’17
In this piece, the author reflects on her dynamic relationship with her grandmother by exploring the similarities and differences of their experiences in Guatemala and the United States. In tracing the historical trajectory of their relationships with each other and these countries, the author points to the ways in which both global processes and small, daily moments influence and mold intimate human connections.
1928–1951 My Great-Grandfather’s House, Guatemala City, Guatemala
Papi Guillermo, my grandmother’s father, arrives from Austria. With an empty stomach and no knowledge of the Spanish language, he accidently uses his last coin to order a raw egg. Somehow, he manages to charm the Jewish factory owner and his beautiful young daughter. They marry and buy a house. In that house sits a radio that plays Voice of America, broadcasting the horrors emerging from Europe. In 1938, a few blank faces of Holocaust survivors arrive in Guillermo’s home. Their hollow eyes are unsettling — even in a country where violence is quotidian. The house that Papi builds collapses twice: once because of an earthquake, once because of a fire. They rebuild. At some point, it is no longer safe to bike to school. My grandmother and her siblings press their mattresses against the windows in order to avoid the spray of bullets, preferring the physical and emotional comfort of shielded windows to that of thick bedding.
1952- Tufts University, Medford Massachusetts, USA
Choosing a scholarship to study at Tufts over an opportunity to dance with the Guatemalan National Ballet Company, my grandmother begins her career as an international student at Tufts University. In her uncertain world, education is irrevocable. “Why Tufts?” the people, both in Guatemala and around Medford, often ask. The snow and the library. “Do you miss your country?” her American classmates ask. She smiles and shakes her head gently, “No.” Walking through Medford, greeting every student without worry, it is the first time she feels safe. No one is trying to kill her — not purposefully on the basis of her religion, not accidently for being a third world citizen living in the middle of a “Cold” war.
1994–2012- My Grandmother’s House, Rockville, Maryland, USA
I grow up in a world of worry dolls, ticks, indoor cacti, and quesadillas for breakfast. In this world, I learn how to say pato and pájaro before duck and bird. Eventually, the Spanish is abandoned in favor of English and Hebrew. After all, wasn’t Guatemala just a “stopover” in family history? Still, stories of Volcano Pacaya, Lake Atitlan, and Papi’s house linger.
2015- Ronald Reagan National Airport, Washington DC, USA
Sixty-four years after my grandmother departs Guatemala to study at a prestigious American university, I depart from Yale to travel back to the same place she once tried to escape: A country now infamously known for its international drug trafficking, gang violence and genocide against its indigenous people. When I initially tell my grandmother about my plans, she is upset and pleads with me to reconsider. If I have to leave the country (yet again), she suggests I go to Costa Rica instead. “You’ll get the Latin feel there too, but it’s safer!” My last phone call before boarding is reserved for her. We say our ‘I love you’s’ and I promise to email when I land. Once again, she reminds me of guns, bullets, fire, war. My plane takes off. As a student of anthropology, I am willing to go to great lengths to understand people, particularly people I love. Yet there is a danger involved in draping a shadow of my grandmother’s past onto an ever complex, present reality.
2016- Antigua, Guatemala
I tell my grandmother’s story to a group of Australians. Charmed, they accompany me on an adventure to photograph the happy places of her youth; Hotel Aurora, Doña Dora’s Chocolate Shop, the Central Square. I have made her childhood a checklist yet I want to scream at the tourists who have made this country their checklist. Later that night, I sip mezcal as a bartender tells me that the difference between Americans and Guatemalans is that Guatemalans are happy and Americans are not. I reflect on the Guatemalans I have observed outside of the tourist circuit. The next day, I climb Pacaya, the volcano my grandmother and her brother climbed together when they were my age. As I look down from the summit at Guatemala City lit by lava, I wonder to what extent happiness is performative.
2016- Yale University, New Haven, CT
It’s snowing outside and my lips are chapped from the return flight. My mind swirls with pink sunsets, long bus rides, the smell of corn tortillas, the eyes of Mayan women. I curl up in my bed, knowing I have a phone call to make before I can sleep. I call her and only her. I tell her that I’m tired, that I can’t talk now, that I love her. I tell her that I am in awe of her Papi, that I am happy to have gone but happy to be back. We talk about anxiety, political violence, death. She exhales and her breath cracks something deep. She tells me that she is sorry for being mad at me, that she loves me that she is happy. I look out at the falling snowflakes and my crowded bookshelf. We understand.