Next up in our Motherhood Around the World series is Michelle Acker Perez who lives in the small city of Antigua, Guatemala. She and her husband, Gerber, have a four-year-old daughter and a four-month-old son, and run a non-profit that partners with local leaders to build water filters and fuel-efficient stoves in rural Guatemalan communities. Ahead, she talks about black bean sandwiches, the importance of greetings, and kids drinking coffee…
On first impressions: I traveled from California to Guatemala when I was 25 to study Spanish. I met my husband, who is from Antigua, on that first trip and moved here permanently in 2010. The thing that surprised me most at first was the rain. I arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, which goes from May to October. Many of the first Spanish words I learned were the different ways Guatemalans talk about rain: chipi chipi is barely drizzling, lloviznando is raining softly, aguaceros is a downpour, and chorros de agua is raining cats and dogs. When my daughter, Elena, was little, I bought her rain boots so she could jump in puddles, and my neighbors were shocked. Getting wet for us was fun — we would go home and throw her clothes in the dryer — and I didn’t realize at first what an incredible privilege that was. Many Guatemalan kids don’t have extra clothes or dryers at home, and getting wet equals getting sick. Many parents do everything possible to avoid their kids getting wet.
On life in Antigua: Antigua sits in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes (one is still active!). The town is a lovely blend of old and new. It’s not uncommon to see a farmer walking home with his horse piled high with corn husks to make tamales, or a woman carrying a stack of firewood on her head, while cars drive by and teenagers sit in the park snapping selfies. We have magnificent 500-year-old buildings and cobblestone streets, but also colorful painted walls, bright flowers and vibrant textiles.
On running errands: One thing I love about Antigua is that it’s so walkable. The coffee farmer, Freddy, lives on the road we take to preschool, so on the way home we often stop to get beans. A few times a week, we walk to the plaza by our house and get freshly squeezed orange juice from a woman named Marta. I appreciate being able to buy our bread from the local bakery and our lettuce from the local organic farm. I love that my daughter knows where everything comes from. We speak English at home, but when we’re running errands, we speak Spanish. I’ll give my daughter some money and she’ll order the bread or tortillas or fresa ice cream.
On not buying in bulk: After my maternity leave, when I needed to restock my office, I went to the little store and pointed at a box of paper clips. The lady behind the counter asked me how many, and I said a box: una caja. She then proceeded to count each individual paperclip. I bought 98 paperclips that day and learned that paperclips, pens, sheets of paper, Band-Aids and even diapers are sold individually in the small stores in our town. Most Guatemalan families we know buy only what they need in the moment.
On privacy and safety: Theft is very common here, so, for example, if a restaurant has tables and chairs outside, they’ll be chained down even when in use and then brought inside when the restaurant closes. When my husband first visited California, he thought it was really odd that people would leave their cars, bikes and lawn chairs outside. We live in a gated community here, along with both Guatemalans and expats. There’s a large metal gate at the entrance and high walls in front of the buildings so you can’t see in. Even outside the gated communities almost every house has a wall around it, whether it’s made of cornstalks, corrugated metal or cement. Protecting one’s property is paramount.
On childbirth: In the past, Guatemalan women traditionally had home births with midwives. Although nowadays more women choose to deliver at hospitals, two out of every five births in Guatemala are home births. Due to lack of space in national and public hospitals, no one can go into the labor and delivery room with you, not even your husband or partner. For that reason, I had both my kids in water-filled tubs at a birthing center in Guatemala City with a German-Guatemalan midwife. My husband was the first man from his family who got to be with his wife in labor and delivery, and he cut the umbilical cord! He says he wishes more Guatemalan men could witness their kids’ births. For my son, we also invited my mother-in-law into the birthing room. Since her other grandkids were born at the national hospital, she never got to be there. It was really special.
On carrying babies: Most Guatemalans carry their babies with a sheet or blanket known as a cargador. When I was pregnant with Elena, my mother-in-law gave me a beautiful woven one. She showed me how to tie a knot at my shoulder and pull the fabric around the baby’s feet, but it felt awkward and bulky. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t use it. Of course, I was very wrong. Now, more than four years later, my daughter still sleeps with her cargador every night. My mother-in-law gave me another one for my son, and this time I was immensely grateful.
On nursing: My Guatemalan relatives are very concerned about children being cold. Even when it’s 70 degrees out, babies are wrapped in blankets and wear hats and socks. They’re also very worried about pregnant and nursing mothers getting cold. I was told by many Guatemalan women — my sister-in-law, women on the street, waitresses — that I shouldn’t drink anything cold while I was nursing. My mother-in-law was concerned that I wore only a nursing tank because she said my shoulders were exposed and my milk would get cold. Once, a friend ordered a smoothie at a café. The waitress walked over and kindly said, ‘I saw that you were nursing so I warmed it for you.’ A strawberry and banana smoothie, heated!
On swaddles: My mother-in-law is very respectful and lets us do what we want, but she sometimes tells me later if she didn’t agree with something. When Elena was an infant, I got an American swaddle — the one that looks like a baby straight-jacket — and put her in her crib. Years later, my mother-in-law said, ‘I went home and cried thinking of Elena stuck in one of those things all by herself.’ Most Guatemalan homes don’t have separate nurseries; babies sleep in a bassinet or with their parents in bed. Co-sleeping is not a trend, it’s just what you do.
On the importance of beans: Every week, I make a big pot of beans to eat with our meals. I boil dried black beans with water and salt for three hours, then add a touch of onion powder at the end. Many kids eat beans with bread as a sandwich — my daughter will take a bean sandwich over peanut butter and jelly any day. As soon as she could pinch with her fingers, I would put black beans on her high chair. Her first phrase was actually ‘Mas beans!‘ I have grown accustomed to having black beans with breakfast, but still am not a huge fan of beans on bread. I once bought what I thought was a chocolate croissant — imagine my surprise when I took a bite and tasted black beans!
On family gatherings: We live about 20 minutes from my husband’s family and see them weekly. My husband’s siblings are all married with kids, so the 20 of us will gather for lunch, which is the biggest meal of the day. It’s always loud and full of jokes. The little cousins run around together — sometimes I try to listen in to hear my daughter rattling off games in Spanish! On birthdays, my mother-in-law will make pepián, my favorite meal (and what many people think of as Guatemalan’s national dish). Her recipe for the brown stew has roasted pumpkin, sesame seeds, tomato, onion, cilantro and chicken, served over rice. Elena loves it, and I’m sure my son will, too.
On kids drinking coffee: When Elena was two, we visited one of the rural communities where we work. One evening, at a family’s home, the mother boiled coffee over an open fire, added sugar and served the sweet, watery coffee to each of us. She poured a small cup for her young daughter and she handed a cup to Elena. The little girl sipped her coffee across the table, but I asked my husband to drink our daughter’s. It wasn’t until later that I realized that they didn’t have a faucet with clean water, so they boil water and give kids sweet coffee so they don’t get sick. After that night, I learned to observe and understand the complexity of a situation before assuming that my cultural knowledge is best.
On greetings: Greetings are very important in Guatemalan culture. If you pass a friend or stranger on the street, you’ll say ‘buenos dias‘ in the morning, ‘buenas tardes‘ in the afternoon, and ‘buenas noches‘ at night — or just ‘buenas‘ for short. It’s a way to be polite and say ‘I see you.’ These greetings have been hard for Elena since she’s so shy. We gave her a sticker chart to reward her for every time she does one. And goodbyes are equally as important. When I started out as a teacher, I’d say a collective goodbye to whomever was in the room; and if I didn’t see anyone, I’d just clean up my stuff and walk out. I soon realized that nobody does this — you’re supposed to say goodbye to everyone individually. Even at a staff meeting, if someone has to leave early, they stand up and do a quick goodbye to everyone in the middle of the meeting!
On the school system: Elena attends a wonderful preschool, but I’ve scratched my head about their emphasis on things like developing good penmanship very early on, with less of a focus on creativity. She’ll often tell me, ‘My teacher said we need to stay in the lines when we color.’ I tell her that at school she should follow her teacher’s directions, but at home we can be creative or silly or color outside the lines. The phrase ‘In our family, we…’ has been a way for my husband and me to help define what we may do differently than the traditional Guatemalan culture without criticizing or wanting to change it.
On parenting duties: My husband and I often talk about how I’ve had to change my entire outer world — how I grocery shop, how I go to the bank, how I work, how I exercise — since I’m in a new country. But he has had to adapt his whole inner world — our parenting approach, household responsibilites and marriage are not only in English, but also have a new set of cultural expectations. Guatemala has pretty distinct gender roles, with women handling the majority of household work and childcare, but my husband and I split home duties along preferences, versus gender. I cook dinner while he looks after the kids; then we both put them to bed. My husband will be the first to tell you it has been hard. He says, ‘I’m learning to be a father and raise a family for the first time and do it in whole different way than I saw in my family.’ We’re still figuring out what works best — one thing that has helped is just asking, ‘Is this working for you?’
On feeling at home: A few weeks ago, we were in the car and my daughter announced, ‘Mama, I’m chapin [slang for Guatemalan], and Mateo is chapin and Daddy is chapin.’ Then I asked her, ‘What am I?’ She said, ‘You’re Californian.’ Of course, I do see myself as a foreigner — an American who has chosen to call Guatemala home — yet I became a wife and a mother in Guatemala, so it’s certainly shaping how I raise my children and live my life. Perhaps one of the oddest feelings is when I realized that what still feels foreign to me is completely familiar to my kids. Last year on Guatemala’s independence day, I watched my daughter put her hand over her heart and hum the Guatemalan national anthem as the flag was raised. Guatemala is the only home she’s ever known. And we love it here.
Thank you so much, Michelle!
~ Mark Twain