(Previously published in Swedish in the magazine Sydförfattaren)
© Copyright 2004 by Dina Bern
Mariana Axelson’s story was that of the Ugly Duckling’s. At least when it came to physical appearance. Born of a mixed union, an American father of Swedish ancestry and an indigenous Guatemalan mother, her looks, up to her early teenage years, were not considered “attractive” in the mini-society where she grew up. Mariana was always taller than her schoolmates and her slim long body showed no grace. Her pale skin had a yellowish-hue which her black hair accentuated. Her face was long and her mouth seemed too small in it, while her eyes, slanted and dark like her mother’s, seemed too big. These features caused her schoolmates to call her “the UFO rider”. They thought she looked like the drawings of extra terrestrial beings which scandal newspaper often published to promote sales. They called Mariana the UFO rider in spite of the fact that ”Don Gringo”, as they called her father, owned the enormous farm where their parents worked. Mariana’s mother consoled her with theories of envy: ”They envy you because your father is their fathers’ boss. Don’t be sad.”
Tobias Axelson’s apple of the eye was his daughter. He despised ”the little idiots” that made fun of her. On one occasion the fathers of two of the ”little idiots” suffered the consequences of their children’s behavior, and of their own callousness. They got fired when the boss overheard them laughing at the stories their children had told them about Mariana’s nickname. One of them had even commented: ””Don Gringo” can have all the money in the world, but that won’t make his daughter a little fatter or her enormous eyes smaller.” Losing their jobs also meant losing their homes. They could live in them only if they were employees of the farm.
Tobías Axelson registered his daughter in an expensive boarding school in the capital city. He did so reluctantly. Mariana was only nine years old, too young an age to separate a child from her parents. But the rich children of the capital looked more like her. After all, most of them were foreigners or mixed with foreigners. Except for the ”new rich”, a social strata constituted almost totally of military men and their families. These men had acquired their wealth by stealing lands from the indians by any means possible, including murder. However, Tobias himself had used some of the tactics of the dishonest new rich army men to get his farm. He had even met his wife while accompanying the troops that evicted the previous inhabitants of the vast area that now constituted his property.
Tobias Axelson fell in love with Guatemala the moment he set foot on it. He traveled there looking for peace of mind. He needed to put his head together after two years with the USA Armed Forces somewhere in Europe during World War II. Within days he realized that his dream of having a big farm could easier be made a reality in this small country than in his native South Dakota. He combed the country entirely looking for the appropriate spot and found his dream land in Palín, near the southern city of Escuintla. He could grow sugarcane and cotton in Palín. He could even raise cattle. The land possessed blue-green mountains and green valleys. It possessed two blue rivers and even a turquoise lake. But, alas! the land itself was possessed by a community of two thousand Mam indians that Tobias would not allow to stand in the way of his dreams.
He visited the local military commissioner and told him of his plans. How the export of cotton, sugarcane and beef would benefit the town of Escuintla and the local authorities who dared to help him achieve his dream. The commissioner asked for a bribe of 5,000 US dollars promising delivery of the land’s title within a month. Three months later, Tobias had not received the document. He payed the commissioner another visit.
”The indians are organized,” the commissioner informed, ”They don’t want to leave their lands. We have started forcing them out but there are still some that are holding fast. A soldiers' unit will come next week from Escuintla to help me get rid of the stubborn ones.”
”Soldiers! Señor comisionado, why do you need soldiers?”
”Because we have to kill them, mister. You want your land, don’t you? If they don’t go when we ask them, we’ll have to kill them. Or do you want to lose your 5,000 US dollars?”
“Have you tried communicating with them with translators? The indians around here don't speak any Spanish.”
“Mister, I grew up in this area and I speak their language. Why would I talk to them in Spanish?”
Tobias Axelson’s imagination, at the depths of his mind, tainted the blue rivers bright red and the turquoise lake dark red. It was one thing to evict the indians, they would go to another part of the country and most likely another indigenous community would accept them. But having blood all over his dream land, no way! He had seen enough dead people in Europe during the war. He did not want to cause the violent death of anyone in this primitive paradise. Tobias told the commissioner that he wanted to talk to the indians himself.
”They are not so innocent, mister, they can be dangerous. General Cuevas and Colonel Paredes will command the army unit that will arrive next week. You can go in their company to talk to the indians. Otherwise they could kill you.”
He was relieved to see the spot in dispute deserted when he and the soldiers arrived. The indians themselves had burnt their crops and their own huts before leaving. There was only a small hut that showed signs of being inhabited. Smoke came out of its window as if someone cooked inside. Colonel Paredes ordered his soldiers to surround the hut. Concerned, Tobias asked him not to give the order to shoot; he wanted to persuade the ones inside to leave. He knocked on the door and a young minute woman of dark complexion opened.
”Hablas español? (do you speak Spanish)” he asked,
”What’s your name?”
”I’m Tobias Axelson, the new owner of this land. You must leave. All this region, as far as your eyes can see, belongs to me now. ”
”No one paid anyone in this community the price of our land. I don’t understand how you can be the new owner. I would have left, like all the others, but my father is sick and I’m the only one who can take care of him. We only have each other, we have no other family.”
She was bitter and angry for she was powerless, yet she was proud. She absolutely lacked the humility of all the indians he had met before. She showed no sign of fear, and from her small stature she held her head up and looked straight into his eyes. Tobias admired the strength in her smallness. The opened door gave him a view of the interior of the hut. On the floor, on a ”petate” (area rug made of wicker), he saw an old man as small as the young woman at the door. The new owner turned to the colonel.
”Colonel Paredes, this woman and her father will stay as my workers.”
”You’re crazy, mister! They'll always resent your having taken their lands.”
General Cuevas ordered the troops to move out.
It took Tobias almost ten years to convince Renasencia to marry him. To the American this meant that it had taken her almost ten years to forgive him. Or had she? At times, when she thought he did not notice, she looked at him with peculiar eyes. He did not know what her stares meant. Where they resentment, where they sadness, where they love, or hate? At these times he remembered the words of Colonel Paredes: ”They'll always resent your having taken their lands.” But his land was also hers. And their daughter's. Tobias was aware of his feelings of remorse. He blamed his inability to decipher his wife's mysterious stares on those uncomfortable feelings.
The day that he was going to tell Mariana that she was going to a boarding school in the capital city, the girl came home from school unusually cheerful.
”Daddy!”, she said, ”The teacher said that the school needs new furniture and supplies so that the children can learn more, and better. She said that those responsible for the welfare of the school and the students have refused to help claiming lack of money.”
The father knew well what the girl was talking about. It was true. The teacher of the rural school had met with him to request more notebooks, more paper, more pencils, more books, more desks. If possible even another teacher. The population of the school had been growing together with the production of the farm. Yet he refused to help. He was tired of seeing Mariana so sad and unwilling to go to school because of the jokes of the pupils at her expense. He and his wife had complained to the teacher on several occasions. She had washed her hands of any responsibility saying that although she could punish the children for bothering Mariana while they were in class, it was absolutely impossible for her to check their behavior during recess periods. Tobias was sure of having detected indifference in the young teacher’s attitude. She did not care about his daughter's suffering. Maybe she was a guerrilla sympathizer! Yes, a guerrilla sympathizer angry at the fact that he, a foreigner, an American, had the power to give her a job. Instead, she should show some gratitude by protecting his little girl.
Mariana continued relating the cause of her rare excitement,
”The teacher said that in order to raise funds for the school we're going to have a party. But the best part, daddy, is that before the party we're going to sell votes to elect a queen. The party will be to celebrate the election of the queen. We'll sell tickets to everyone who wants to attend the party, and that money, together with the money that people will pay for their right to vote for the girl they want as queen, will be used to improve the school. Daddy, I want to be the queen of my school!”
Tobias looked at his daughter amazed and pleasantly surprised. She had not lost her competitive spirit in spite of ”the little idiots” she unfortunately had as schoolmates. And, wouldn’t it be a wonderful and well-deserved farewell present for his Mariana? And the ”little idiots” deserved it too. He was the king in this part of Guatemala, this was his farm, they owned their jobs, their food, their homes, to him. And Mariana was the little queen of this remote kingdom. They had to learn this fact before her departure for the capital.
”Yes, my darling, my sweet little girl”, answered the father, ”You'll be the queen of the school and of this whole region, I promise you!” Mariana ran to her father’s opened arms. His voice, his arms, his smile and the smell of his pipe gave her such peace and security. Her daddy truly loved her, she knew it, she felt it. He could do everything. He could make her the queen of her school. All her schoolmates and even the teacher had said that Adriana Paz was surely going to win. Everyone wanted to vote for Adriana. But this was ”Don Gringo's” kingdom, that she knew well, and ”Don Gringo” could do everything. And ”Don Gringo” was her father.
Next day Tobias Axelson visited the school to plan his daughter’s future coronation. The teacher was astonished.
”Don Tobías, this is only a minor local activity, there are no public or political posts or prestige to gain from it. Don’t you think that it is a senseless abuse of power to interfere in the will of the people of the locality and of the children of the school?”
”Señorita Martínez, I don’t give a damn about your objections. I'll buy all the votes that the school puts out and you better start thinking about the design of the posters that will announce my Mariana as the queen. If you don’t like it you can leave the farm, there are many unemployed teachers who would gladly take your job. If you comply, however, who knows? I might even hire a teacher of your recommendation to help you out. You’re complaining all the time about the increasing number of pupils and the increasing amount of work that comes with them.”
Mariana’s coronation party could have matched the inauguration party of a mayor or a governor. The most wealthy from neighboring Escuintla and even some from the capital city attended. This was a day Mariana would never forget. As a matter of fact, it became a vivid memory eight or nine years later, when she studied at a young ladies’ school in Guatemala City. Even Tobias was reminded of it. His daughter's words made him remember the coronation day and the events that preceded it.
The annual election for queen of the “Colegio de Señoritas Santa Mónica” (young women’s school) was announced together with the names of the candidates. Among the students and teachers Mariana Axelson was the most popular candidate. She was one of the best students, extremely diligent, kind and polite to all. She had also turned into a beauty reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn.
At the “Colegio de Señoritas Santa Mónica” studied also Ximena Fanfarronea, daughter of General Manuel Fanfarronea, President of the Republic. Ximena was not a happy young woman. The coldness and aloofness of her military father and the indifference of her mother had instilled a lack of self-esteem in her, which showed in her low academic performance. But as a member of the upper class of a land forever ruled by dictators, Ximena knew that being the daughter of the President meant that she had power over others. She displayed her power by being extremely rude to all, and at school she did not discriminate. She was as obnoxious to her teachers as she was to her schoolmates.
The President knew well of his daughter’s personality problems and how they affected her contact with others at school and everywhere else, although acknowledging part of the blame for those problems was out of the question. His position demanded that he did everything in his power to keep Ximena as happy and content as possible. Otherwise, her tendency to hysterical attacks in public would keep the pages of the country's newspapers full of negative stories about the Presidential family. As soon as Ximena called her father to tell him that her name was not among the candidates for queen of the “Colegio de Señoritas Santa Mónica”, General Fanfarronea called the principal. How could the principal disregard the wishes of the President?
”Of course, General Fanfarronea,” the principal said, ”your wishes are orders for me. And of course, your talented daughter will be the queen of our school this year.”
The news spread through the institution in no time. Mariana knew that she deserved to be the queen of her school. Everyone wanted her to be queen. Was it possible that obnoxious Ximena would get her way only on account of her father? It seemed so unfair! She had to talk to her father, he would know what to do.
Tobias Axelson could not help his daughter this time.
”It’s the President of the Republic who wants his daughter to win”, he told Mariana, ”I’m only a rich gringo, my darling, my sweet little girl. I certainly don't have the power that the President has. But you and I know that you're the real winner, that's what counts.”
”But daddy, isn’t it a senseless abuse of power?
These are only school elections, there are no political posts or prestige
to gain from them!”
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