A tiny Guatemalan restaurant is my favorite here in Tucson. In the kitchen, Guatemalan Grandma produces delicious food which I chronicled here a few years back.
I still go there weekly. Guatemalan Grandma must think I am still growing: The pile on my plate mounds higher with every visit. For eight dollars, I get two healthy meals: One at the restaurant, and another for lunch the next day. After I finished eating on a visit before Christmas, Guatemalan Grandma came out from the kitchen with a care package: Two massive Mayan tamales all wrapped up in tinfoil.
Lots of gibber in broken English as Grandma and daughter simultaneously taught me how to reheat the tamales. You don’t microwave them. You steam them in a pan. The tamales, each a meal unto itself, contained a uniquely Guatemalan mix of sweet, sour and hearty. Corn meal. Peppers. Raisins. In each, a single giant green olive. All of it wrapped in a banana leaf.
On a visit this past week, instead of tamales, I got a history lesson.
The founders of the restaurant came from the Mayan highlands of Guatemala in 1982. They came to this country illegally, smuggled across by Catholic Church missionaries.
They had fled Guatemala for their lives.
The United States has a long and troubled history in Guatemala. In 1954, when an elected president started to fight the United Fruit Company’s efforts to defraud Guatemalan peasants of their land, President Eisenhower authorized a successful CIA coup to replaced the elected government with a military dictatorship that was more banana-friendly.
In an odd coincidence, Allen Dulles, brother of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, sat on the board of United Fruit.
When democracy again reared its ugly head in Guatemala in the 1970s, American favorite Efrian Rios Montt put a stop to the non-sense with a military coup.
A Pentecostal minister trained in California, Rios Montt showed up on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson. He and Jerry Falwell were friends. President Reagan called President Rios Montt “a man of great personal integrity and conviction.”
In reality, Rios Montt was a ruthless butcher. Using American military aid, Rios Montt’s death squads slaughtered the Mayan people of the highlands. Bodies of men, women and children––entire villages––filled the ditches.
Page 2 of 3 - Even the CIA was appalled. However, American military aid continued to flow.
To escape the slaughter, Guatemalan Grandma and her daughter escaped underground to Tucson.
Last week, a man named Carlos joined them at a table in the back. The ladies teased him in Spanish and explained to me in English: Carlos had just kicked some Mormon missionaries out the door, and the ladies told him he would suffer for it!
To defend himself, Carlos changed to English: “I believe in God, just not religion!”
“What about Rios Montt?” I said, impulsively, remembering the name from a course I took in Latin American history in college.
The man’s eyes grew big. He switched back to Spanish. Guatemalan Grandma translated. “I was imprisoned for six months,” he said. “They said I was a communist. I was merely in a trade union.”
He showed me scars on his arms from torture. He had been handcuffed behind his back the entire six months, not allowed to lie down, and was forced to drink his own urine every day.
His imprisonment ended when Rios Montt’s bloodthirsty regime was overthrown after only 17 months in power. By then, 200,000 had died, mostly Mayans. Over 1.5 million Mayans were uprooted from their homes. Many were enslaved, others ended up in concentration camps.
Guatemalan Grandma and her daughter escaped to Tucson to start their little restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall no more than fifteen feet across. The walls are covered with murals of jungle scenes and posters of Guatemala. The restaurant is a happy place.
Rios Montt was convicted of genocide in May of 2013, but second court overturned the verdict. A new trial begins in 2015.
Guatemalan Grandma and her daughter work hard. They are the restaurant’s only employees. Last night when I made my weekly visit, both looked tired.
Guatemalan Grandma asked me about my trip to Minnesota. I asked her what she did for Christmas. “I slept!” she said. “That’s all!”
Daughter looked haggard. Turns out, she had major surgery only three days before.
“I try to be tough!” she said. “There is nobody else to help!”
Page 3 of 3 - I almost offered to wait tables on the spot, but it was closing time. The next day was Sunday when the restaurant is closed. Perhaps she will get some rest. These are hard-working people with a difficult story. Our country is better off with them here to tell it.
And here I am, privileged since birth, growing fat on Guatemalan Grandma’s food!