Victor Perera’s father, a talmudic scholar, was a first generation immigrant to Guatemala who began as an itinerant pedlar selling bolts of cloth to Indians. After arranging by post his marriage to a third cousin from Jerusalem, he gradually became one of the capital’s leading merchants.
His son moved with a child’s adaptability between the sheltered life of his bourgeois family and the catholic, antisemitic and sex- dominated world outside. While his Indian nurse, his white classmates, and his mestizo best friend were all destroyed by the violent character of life in Guatemala, Victor Perera managed to survive.
‘Victor Perera is blessed with a salty wit, a marvellous turn of phrase and a cinematic eye for detail.’ - San Francisco Chronicle
‘One closes this short book with a sharpened perception not only of life in mid-twentieth century Guatemala, but of life in Latin America as a whole.’ -
Times Literary Supplement
Rites: A Childhood in Guatemala
Format: 220pp demi pb
Victor Perera was born in 1934 of Sephardic Jewish parents in Guatemala. Although he was later educated at Brooklyn College and at the University of Michigan, he has made frequent return trips to Guatemala and most of his writings are connected with Latin America. He has written numerous articles and essays for, among others, the Atlantic, Harpers, the Nation, New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker. His books include, Last Lords of Palenque (co-authored with Robert Bruce) a firsthand account of life among the Lacandon Indians, a minute communtiy that still retained Maya traditions.
Extract from Chapter One
My parents were born in Jerusalem, a few blocks from one another, and were in their mid-twenties when they came to the New World – Father to make his fortune, Mother several years later as
his intended bride. The marriage was a covenant between my father’s Palestinian brothers and my mother’s older sister. The courtship was entirely by mail – surface mail at that – so that pledged passions had a month to cool on each crossing. By the time Mother arrived in Guatemala, at age twenty-four, the bloom of their romance had faded, and they married ‘for convenience’, as the third cousins they were.
I was surprised to learn when we went abroad that Mother carries those letters from Father in her luggage, everywhere she goes.
My parents were tradition-bound Spanish Jews, Sephardim. They both descend from a line of respected rabbis and lived their entire lives in the pre-Freudian age, as innocent of psychoanalytic theory as a rice farmer in the Punjab. I know for a certainty that neither one suffered guilt pangs when Rabbi Toledano was branding my psyche with his clippers. (When I wrote Mother about this some time ago she replied in Spanish, at the bottom of a rambling letter: ‘Regarding your circumcision, Jaime: You were only six years old so you suffered. Your loving mother. ...’) To them this ceremony was prescribed by the Law, which placed it beyond the soiling reach of argument or reflection, much less remorse. I wish to record, however, in defense of my own flesh and blood, that they did betray a sincere and reassuring concern when it appeared that my genital growth had been arrested, perhaps permanently, by that second mutilation. They lost no time in bundling me off to Doctor Machado – the same Doctor Machado who bungled the first job, may his name and memory be erased – to ask if he had something to make the little bird grow. I forget what Doctor Machado prescribed, but it did not take effect for another ten years. I was seventeen the morning I stumbled into the bathroom half-asleep and startled Father straight up from the toilet seat with a full-grown erection.
Father was the middle one of three brothers who shipped to America in the 1920s to pick the gold from the paving stones. In Jerusalem, Father had been a Talmudic scholar and mathematics instructor at a girls’ seminary. In Guatemala he began life as an itinerant peddler. (Why Guatemala? Father never explained this to my satisfaction.) Only recently have I come to appreciate the courage this required of him – an educated man of twenty-five, scion of respected rabbis and with only a few phrases of Quixotesque Ladino Spanish, reduced to peddling bolts of colored gingham to Indian laborers in a country so ignorant of his lineage it labeled him Turk and levied on his head double and triple the going rate in bribes, kickbacks, police taxes, and the other routine forms of graft.
And yet he grew to love his work. He took pride in his hard-earned position as one of Guatemala’s leading merchants and in his standing within the Jewish community as a loyal Zionist, a scholar, and a humanist.
Some years ago I came across a yellowed photograph of Father standing at the door of his textiles shop the day it opened. The proud aura of ownership lights up his face. Father was to marry that store and consecrate his heart and mind to it with Talmudic ardor. Ourselves, his family, he fed, roofed, clothed, bedded down at night from an inherited reflex of duty. He had no real love for us.
Father was thirty-six when I was born, and nearly forty before I recognized him as my sire. By then the cares of business and advancing age had scored his brow and pinched his cheeks. I hero-worshiped Father from the start, as if from a premonition that his sway on my life would be brief. Any casual praise from him or word of advice stuck to my mind like a fly to flypaper.
The first story he told me was the La Fontaine fable of the lion and the mouse. The second was the boy who cried wolf.
A phrase that made a deep impression he spoke not to me but to a friend of his, as we strolled in the park: ‘The war will be good for busi- ness,’ Father said.
On another stroll with this same friend they discussed what private school I should go to. (Only the poor went to public school.) Father wanted a place where English was taught as a second language. ‘English is the most important language in the world today,’ I recall his saying.
When I was four Father’s appendix burst and he had an emergency operation in his bedroom. His cries of pain (‘Ay! Ay! Ay, Mama! Ay, Mama!’) filled the house and rang in my ears for weeks afterward. More terrible than his titanic agony was the realization that titans, too, cried after their mothers.
With a boy-child’s instinct I hoarded the following proofs of Father’s manliness:
His impressive phallus. It was deep-veined and thick, not overlong, a bull’s neck crowned with all the totemic attributes of godhead. From this parent trunk his testicles hung like swollen fruit.
His gargantuan appetite. At the breakfast table I looked on in awed wonder as he drew and quartered a whole papaya and gobbled it down, block by block. (Years later I learned Doctor Machado had prescribed this daily papaya for his poor digestion.)
His enormous size. At five-and-a-half feet Father towered four inches above Mother and six inches above most of his female employ- ees. (This illusion vanished forever the day Uncle Mair arrived from Mexico with his new bride, Aunt Renee. Both were taller than Father by almost a head, and Uncle Mair was markedly bigger around the chest and shoulders.)
His superhuman strength. This was evidenced by the case with which he unscrewed jam and cookie jars, unstuck windows, raised and lowered the steel shutters outside the store twice a day. A special niche was carved on my pantheon the day I sat in his boat as he outrowed five of his male employees across Lake Amatitlán. (Was that race thrown, I ask myself after all these years, to flatter a vain boss?)
The manly way he rocked on the balls of his feet during the Sabbath services. His mere presence in the synagogue was imbued with patri- archal virility and mystery, so that in this setting his lightest pat on my head acquired a transcendent significance.
His paternal counsel and admonitions. The first I remember was: ‘The time will come when you have to lie to strangers. But never, never lie to your mother and me.’ His second admonition, or rather warn- ing, after my pedal-car was stolen for the third time, was that I was too soft and pampered, and the world would take advantage of me. (That first commandment of his I broke before my next birthday, but I took the warning to heart.)
His position of authority at home and in business. Father’s rule in the home was unchallenged, at least in front of the children. He gave orders to Mother, who in turn gave orders to the cook, to my china (nanny), and to the two cleaning maids, Micaela of the ‘interior’, who made the beds, and Eulalia of the ‘exterior’, who swept the hallway. What took place in the bedroom, behind closed doors, was on a differ- ent plane of reality and I discounted it, although from my room I over- heard quarrels in which Father did not always get in the last word.
The store was Father’s true domain. He had twenty-five employees at his beck and call, all but six female; about a dozen of these looked upon him with an adoration far beyond the requisites of personnel loyalty. Edna, a pretty sixteen-year-old salesgirl of Mayan descent, was my own personal favorite. Father sent her to my bedside whenever I took sick, and she would tell me ghost stories. Once, when I was racked with coughs, pretty Edna placed her hand on my groin, which had a marvelously soothing effect.
I well remember the beatings Father gave me. A restrained capacity for violence ranked high among my standards of manliness long before I got hooked on war films and comic books. Father beat me only three times in my life, in each instance with sufficient provoca- tion, and the logic of the punishment – if not the severity – was perfectly clear to me. What makes them distinct in my mind is the gap in each case between my expectation (or lack of it) and the physical weight and texture of the beating.
The first time, he struck me because I’d left my schoolbag on a bus.
This was not sufficient cause in itself and I’m sure he would have forgotten the whole thing if I had let him. He hit me because I whined when confronted with the loss, and tried to weasel out of my guilt in a cowardly way. The slap was tremendous, a cosmic detonation that flung me across the floor. It was the sound of that slap, more than the burning in my cheek, that astonished and froze my tears for several seconds.
The second time came when I traced muddy handprints on the walls after making mud pies on the patio for my baby-sister. Then my astonishment sprang from the discrepancy between the misdeed and the punishment. I had often got away with far worse offenses. But the evidence was fresh on the walls when Father got home, and, I suspect, there had been some contretemps at the store. The blow came light- ning-quick, and once more I was knocked to the floor. When I pushed against the wall to get up I tracked fresh mudprints but he did not strike me again.
The third time, when I was eight years old, he beat me because I called Mother a whore. After that session I was confined to bed for nearly a week. In a sense, Mother herself was responsible for my committing that offense. It was during Holy Week, when processions passed outside our house every afternoon. I was watching one of them from my bedroom window, although Mother had specifically forbid- den me to, when I felt her behind me. At that moment an image of the Virgin Mary was trooping by, wrapped in clouds of incense.
‘The Virgin,’ Mother said, pressing my shoulder, ‘is a whore.’ She used the Ladino word putana.
Next time she provoked me, I flung the terrible word in her face.
I remember Mother’s slow smile after I shouted the blasphemy. And yet it was not she who reported me to Father but my sister, Becky, who was barely five at the time. She remarked at the dinner table that I had called Mother a ‘bad name’. Father, stiffening, asked me to repeat it. I flushed, lowered my eyes, my tongue stuck to my palate. He then asked Mother, and she said she didn’t remember.
‘What did he call you!’ Father shouted, his color rising.
‘Putana,’ Mother said in a low voice, as the slow smile formed on her face.
Father lifted me up by the neck with one hand and dragged me into the hallway, removing his belt. This time I steeled myself. I thought I knew what to expect. But once more reality overwhelmed my worst apprehensions.
Father took out on me a lifelong rage that evening. I still bear the scars from that strapping. But if he had not administered it I would have thought that much less of him as a father, and that much less of him as a man. That beating grew, with the years, to be one of the enduring bonds between us.