Having In-Laws of another Culture and Country



My Mother-in-Law, Dona Maria


It is really difficult to get to know the people around you when you don’t speak the same language. You can be speaking the same native language and not understanding each other. Words have meaning, but if you think about it, how many times have you said something to someone who interpreted it entirely differently than you intended? And you had to say, “That isn’t what I meant.”


What IS meaning? Is it what you intended, or is it the result you got? You thought you were being clear, but the receiver did not get what you meant. For most of us, this happens a LOT. When you add to that using a foreign language that you are new at speaking, you have no idea what the receiver of your message thinks that you mean. And if you haven’t learned a category of vocabulary, such as construction, you can get into a lot of problems. We did. Here is an example:


When Bonnie and I were just starting construction of the retaining wall, I had a conversation with our manager, Don Vicente, about a tree that was just on the other side of our property line. It was probably thirty feet tall and obstructed our beautiful view of two of the volcanoes. I did my best in Spanish to tell him that in the future we would ask the neighbors if we could trim some of the branches at the top to improve our view, but not remove the tree. He was nodding as I talked about it like he understood.

Do you think we love this view?



Recycled cd's become my sculpture of a butterfly. Our B&B is called "Ojo de la Mariposa"





Two days later when we returned to the job site, most of the crew of ten men were not working on the retaining wall. They were on the other side of the wall, taking down the entire beautiful tree, limb by limb. The main trunk now looked like a human body with two branches extended out to the sides, like a bandit raising his arms in the air when the cops say “Hands up!” The head of this tree-body appeared to have an open mouth like the person in the famous painting called “The Scream.” I may have imagined it, but the tree really looked like someone running and screaming in horror. We were horrified. It was too late to tell them to stop since they had denuded all productive foliage. The neighbor who owned the tree had given them permission to take it down. Of course Geronimo permitted it, because this owner takes down trees all the time on his land…  one: to make fields for growing produce, and two: to provide firewood for cooking. Here some men had come offering to take this huge tree down for him, free, and Bonnie and I paid for the laborers to do it. We were both close to tears about the loss of the tree. We should have fought at least for a share of the firewood.


When we started construction of the second level our excellent mason decided to leave. Misai didn’t agree with our construction method for the walls. So we hired a young man named Walter, who was also a very good mason. He came to work every day on his bicycle. Just to tell you how far people in this culture will go to get work, Walter rode about 20 kilometers each way to get to us. The first eight kilometers were mostly downhill, then about 4 were pretty level, and the last eight were all uphill. Going home at the end of a hard work day he repeated this trip, downhill, level, and uphill again. Granted, he was in his twenties and very fit, but that last eight km at the end must have been the hardest.


Zaqueo's Lovely Daughter Monica
My Step-Daughter!

Zaqueo and his Children when I first met them



















Walter always had a smile and a cheerful attitude. I have to admit that most Guatemaltecos are pleasant, friendly people. They are polite and reserved as well. And VERY modest. It seemed that Walter and Zaqueo got along especially well as I heard them laughing and joking a lot. They had met each other on a remodel construction of friends of ours. Zaqueo was hired to oversee a group of men already in process, but they needed someone with a vehicle to run for supplies and to make sure they all showed up for work and didn’t leave early. He helped out in a variety of ways during the day. Walter was assigned to assist two older masons, more experienced than he, with the remodel of a bathroom. The two older guys had long discussions for hours at the beginning of each day about how to approach the plumbing problems. While they took forever to decide Walter would listen and wait, doing nothing and being bored. Sometimes they told him to work on something, only to come back later and have him take it apart because one man had changed the other’s mind or just over-ruled him. Walter told Zaqueo he was sure he could have done it better himself, in much less time, but he wasn’t assigned the responsibility. He was a very fast worker. Later on, when Walter’s wife gave birth to their second child, Walter asked Zaqueo to be the godfather. (Very smart to chose someone who is married to a millionaire gringa, I thought.) It turns out Zaqueo could not do that because he is not Catholic, which is required by their faith. But Walter still thinks of him as godfather and reminds him when the daughter has a birthday.



Eventually when we started construction again Walter was happy for the job we gave him. He built the main columns and support beams on the platform/floor of the second level. When we were ready to put the panels in that would become walls, we also hired Zaqueo’s brother, Israel. He had just returned from the United States where he had worked construction for almost fourteen years. His specialties were dry wall and painting. He turned out to be the best painter I’ve ever known. He is meticulous and very clean. He always cleaned up and took very good care of the brushes and rollers, which is a sore point for me. I had found that Guatemaltecos prefer that you buy more brushes for them rather than take care of the first ones. I often found brushes on our land stuck in plastic containers of dried paint, no longer usable.


Second Level Getting Close

to finished



Israel (now my brother-in-law) had gone to the United States initially as a crew member on the yacht of a wealthy man to deliver it to Miami. The owner had gotten him a visa for ten years, in the days when such a thing was possible. Once Israel got there he decided to stay and make a living. One of his jobs was on a Trump Tower somewhere in Virginia. Eventually he got lonely for his homeland and decided to return to Rio Dulce. He had been courting a woman from his town over the internet. Lydia is the sister of Chicalo whom Israel had know growing up, but the last he’d seen Lydia she was young and not very interesting to him. But now they had decided to get married without ever having even held hands, only chatting on Skype. He would return from the US and use his savings to put on a full wedding for them.


When Israel agreed to work for us he and Chicalo shared the other finished bedroom on the first level. Prior to that, Chicalo had been living in the lamina bodega (workshed) with a dirt floor, sleeping on a wood platform with a blanket or two, a single electric hot plate to cook his dozen eggs a day, and rats that came looking every night for leftovers. So living in a room with windows, doors, real beds, and bathroom was a huge luxury. Not long after Israel joined us he asked to bring his fiancé, Lydia, to stay with them (she is Chicalo’s sister, after all). So all three shared the bedroom. Lydia had never lived at this great altitude where it gets cold at night, and windy. Days are very sunny, and her light skin was not accustomed to that either, so she stayed in the bedroom all day while the men worked. I realized later that she was in the beginning stage of pregnancy and feeling nauseated quite often, and that was maybe the real reason she stayed in bed all day.


Tres Puntos:
Israel and Lydia, the "Happy Couple" on wedding day




We went to Rio Dulce for the wedding a few months later. Lydia looked lovely in her white gown, and clearly had to have it fitted for her growing tummy. She had already been married and had a son who was about five years old at the time of this wedding. The boy’s father had been shot to death in a barroom brawl. Lydia’s parents had been helping her with the boy while she worked, but now she would live in the house that Israel owns, his share of the family plot where Zaqueo’s house is. The land was divided into four pieces, one for each of the four sons, and the mother still living in the original house. The only daughter had married, and they live on the other side of Guatemala on a big piece of land where they alternate seasons of growing tobacco and corn. Since Zaqueo’s mother is still living in the original house, she has become the built in babysitter for Lydia’s boy and the new one, Dave. It is very common in this culture for grandmothers to keep mothering throughout their lives. Dona Maria has helped care for most of her children’s children, except for the daughter’s. She had moved so far away it wasn’t feasible to be there to help.


Dona Maria and Grandson, Dave




Zaqueo’s sister is Delilah. She has four grown children, and two of them are living in their own houses on the parents’ land. One daughter has two children that Delilah raises while mother goes to work, and one son has married, built his own house next door, and his wife is expecting their first child. The youngest boy is just now off to get a college education in agriculture. In days past in the United States families lived this way, parents continuing to help their children for generations. Guatemaltecos don’t venture off to far places unless they come from the wealthiest families that can afford private education.


The thing that impresses me about Delilah is that she is the oldest of Dona Maria’s five children and the only female. She finished high school, got a job and saved money until she was able to buy a piece of land for her parents and the younger children. They built a house on it of wood and lamina, initially with a dirt floor. Some years later they could afford to put in a cement and tile floor. Now that house is really old, and Zaqueo plans to replace it soon. His mother still cooks outside in a covered area on her wood stove, as she has done all her life. And she still goes into the countryside in search of firewood, as many still do.


As the boys grew up they each acquired a quarter of the land to build a house and have a family. Just one of the sons chose to go off to the big city of Guatemala and make his way. That’s Noe, which is Noah. The children were all named after figures in the Bible. The youngest two brothers are twins, Israel and Adan, which is the way they say Adam. They are hardly alike in appearance or temperament. Noe sold his share of land where Dona Maria’s house is to Zaqueo, so now he owns half of the plot. Since Zaqueo is not living in his own house any more, he has made it a bed and breakfast, as we have done with two of our bedrooms here near Antigua.

Zaqueo's House in Rio Dulce


I have never met Noe, but he has three adult children. The twin to Israel, Adan, has been married for about twenty years to Alba, and they have three children. The oldest boy works, the middle son is finishing high school, and the youngest girl is finishing grade school. These are my inlaws, but I also have step children. It’s hard to believe at times, but most difficult to wrap my head around the idea that my own sons are older than my husband, and he is technically their step-father. I live in a culture vastly different from anything I’ve known, but I feel very comfortable here. The part I don’t feel comfortable with is not really being able to have in-depth conversations with my in-laws because of my small vocabulary. I speak enough Spanish to make my requests and basic information, but I don’t understand very well when people speak to me. UNLESS they speak slowly, and very few are able to do this. My mother-in-law and I liked each other instantly, and we mostly smile and give each other warm hugs. They are lovely people.


The one family member who isn’t quite so lovely is Israel. Zaqueo gives nicknames to most people, and the one he has for Israel is “Tres Puntos.” The literal translation is “three points” but it is what they call a plant that has 3 very sharp points which you don’t want to touch, like a cactus. He says his brother is always grouchy, angry, and rarely smiles. And further, he says that Israel is the mirror image of their father both in looks and temperament. Their father passed away several years ago, so I never met him. Luckily the twin of Israel, Zaqueo, and their sister are really relaxed, friendly and happy people. Nobody knows what happened to Israel.

Maies have dominated my life. I have two brothers and no sisters. I did not even have my mother during most of my childhood. I have three sons and no daughters. I have five grandsons and no granddaughters. There was some mitigation to have three daughters-in-law, and we have varying degrees of closeness. But now I love that I have a step-daughter, Monica. And two step-sons. That makes Monica very special to me. She recently turned 13 when her father gave her a smart phone. Over-night, like all young people who get the chance, she became addicted to a set of ear-plugs and her phone. You have to shout or do sign language to get her attention. We think it's great that for the moment the biggest reason she has male friends is that she likes to play soccer with them, but we know the flirting and hormones are increasing, she will soon likely have boy friends, not just male friends. And with access to the world wide web she will leave many of the teenagers of this country behind because their families cannot afford phones and internet fees. So many advantages to connecting to all the world, and so many disadvantages. Raising my sons I did not have the added element of monitoring their "screen time." And in some ways I would have been a far more anxious mother of a daughter than of sons, so I let that side of life outweigh the significance of having males dominate my life. Monica lives with her mother and five siblings, so I do not have much direct influence in her life. I cherish the time with her and relationship we do have. As the only young girl, she has received a few special pieces of jewelry of mine that none of my sons would care much about having. 

Next Designing + Building a House in Guatemala - Part 5b

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