Phyllis Puffer
My Afternoon with the President of Guatemala

"The President is going to play ball with us! The President is going to play ball with us!"

The word went excitedly through the small group of US students. We were at a weekend picnic organized by our summer program at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.

I looked carefully at the President of Guatemala, General Ydigoras Fuentes. I didn't think he was very impressive. He walked slowly and rather hesitantly toward us. I expected a general and president of a country, no less, to be more commanding and sure of himself. He wore a dark brown army uniform, even including the hat, which made him look hot, uncomfortable and out of place at a picnic on the tropical seacoast. He was a little larger than the other soldiers, who remained spread out behind him facing us. Even though he was large, he had thin limbs, making him look like a square block with arms, legs, and head.

It wasn't clear what kind of ball game we were going to play. The way people were standing made it look as if we would be playing volleyball. But the ball was not a volleyball. It was more like a soft ball. In contrast to the earlier enthusiasm of the announcement of this event, everybody appeared notably lethargic now. Not one person seemed to be alert and ready to engage in competitive physical activity.

The President held the ball tentatively in his hand. He languidly threw it toward one of the students. The student caught it and threw it back in a similarly dull manner. The President slowly threw it again to another student. The student held it as if wondering where to throw it next. Finally, he threw it back to the President who held it gingerly and looked around vaguely. He threw it again and turned away before it could be returned. Nobody seemed interested in the game. The students dispersed.

I saw the President again sometime later. The scene was much more interesting but one I still don't understand.

I had wandered away from the picnic and was taking a little walk through the woods. The trees were not set very closely together and it was pleasant to walk among them. Suddenly I came upon them.

A luxurious, polished, black car was parked in a little clearing. The President of Guatemala in his brown uniform was in the right rear seat. The driver was not at his place behind the wheel, but some soldiers could be seen here and there in the woods, clearly on watch. The interesting thing was the woman. She was small and dark. She wore the Indian women's costume of skirt and blouse made of colorful, heavy, hand-woven cotton. The skirt was a long, wide, wrap-around, reaching to her ankles. The dominant pattern was stripes but a small design was woven into some of the stripes. The color scheme of the skirt was blue but of the blouse was red. Her glossy black hair was pulled back in a bun.

The Indian woman was leaning against the car right where the President sat. They were only inches apart. Her entire left side was plastered against the car while her right hand rested on the sill of the open car window. Her face was turned away from the President, and she was looking down, past her right hand to the ground. This hand had held a paper tightly folded into a small square perhaps two inches by three inches. The paper looked a little worn, as if she had been carrying it for some time. She was slowly, gently, persistently, and quietly tapping the paper against the car's windowsill. She was also talking. She talked continually in a very low, soft voice. No one would be able to hear what she was saying only a few feet away.

The President was inches from the woman as he sat leaning toward her against the inside wall of the car. He did not look at her. He said nothing. He looked ahead and slightly down. He appeared to be completely relaxed, not even thinking about important government matters. It was if she were not there.

Was the woman asking him for a favor? Did she want something for her village? A school or clinic perhaps. Maybe her son had gotten involved in political activity. He might be in jail and in serious trouble. At any rate, evidently she was not considered a threat or the soldiers would never have allowed her so near their leader. The soldiers didn't pay attention to me either as I came and then left.

I never saw either of them again. It was 1962, and the general was out of office the following year. Was there perhaps a connection? No. I don't think so. But you never know.

Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 40 countries, mostly in the Third World.



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