I met Delia Velasquez in the late 1990s through her daughter, Ericka Rubin, who was a friend of our babysitter. My daughter, Zoë, and son, Gabriel, were adopted from Guatemala, and she and her husband, Alberto, both from Guatemala, were curious to meet us. They had three sons, and we became friends. One blistering July day in 2005, I brought Gabriel over to play. Ericka, Doña Delia, and I sat in their Brooklyn kitchen, talking and cooking, and the subject of marriage came up. I mentioned my grandmother was married at fourteen.
“Yo también, pero a mi, me robaron,” Doña Delia said. In Spanish, that can mean either “they robbed me” or “I was stolen.”
“You mean your husband stole from you?” I ventured.
“My husband stole me.” She told me an abbreviated version. Staggered by her courage and impressed by her natural storytelling voice, I asked if she’d allow her words to be published. “I’ve always thought people should know that these things happen,” she said. A few weeks later, she bravely plunged in. For four hours, we were in rural Guatemala in the 1940s, as she told the story of how a man she’d rebuffed at a dance abducted her one night and forced her to become his wife at fourteen, with the complicity of his friends and family and custom.
The odds Delia Velasquez overcame to give her children what she modestly calls “una vida normal” make this story remarkable. But it has broader significance. The ‘evil spirits’ that seized her in 1943—machismo and impunity—haunt Guatemala. The 1997 peace treaty ending the 50-year civil war raised hopes that its atrophied social and justice system would evolve. They have not been fulfilled. Between 2000 and 2008, 4,000 Guatemalan women were murdered at steadily increasing annual rates. The 2008 law making violence against women a crime was a victory, but impunity remains the rule. Delia Velasquez’s story is a timely reminder of their plight.
I was born in San Pedro Soloma, in Huehuetenango province, Guatemala, near the Mexican border on July 27, 1930. Now it looks like a city, but then it was a small town, with only a few ladinos like us, and Indians living in the surrounding villages. My father was a carpenter when I was little, then he worked for the army, and after that as a secretary for another town. When I got older, he went to work in Belize, leaving us in Soloma. My mother took care of the house. I had six siblings, two died.
I was three months shy of my fourteenth birthday when my husband, Fernando, kidnapped me. A cousin had invited me to a Christmas Eve dance. I was thirteen. He was 20. Even though Soloma was a small town, I didn’t know him. He was already working. I was still a kid. He asked me to dance, and the very first song, he said that he was in love with me. He was handsome, but I ignored him. I didn’t know anything about boyfriends or falling in love or kissing.
Right then, he made up his mind to steal me. After the dance, he talked to his uncle and his cousin. It was a custom.
For three months, Fernando followed me. I was afraid of him. He would walk by the house and throw flowers. One night, I was grinding coffee in the kitchen by the window. He crept up and knocked on the window. “Good evening, mi amor,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” Mamaita said.
“I heard someone. Maybe I dreamed it,” I answered. She went out with a pinewood torch—we didn’t have electricity—but she didn’t see anyone.
He knew my father was working in Belize at the time, and my mother was alone with us children. One night, my mother told me, “Mi hija, go and wash the corn because it’s going to freeze tonight, and you won’t have water in the morning.” We didn’t have a mill so we had to grind our own cornmeal on a stone.
I went out to the spigot with a bowl of corn and a clay colander. My ten-year-old brother held a torch for light. Suddenly, a hat came down on the torch and snuffed it out. A hand stopped my mouth. Someone grabbed me and lifted me off the ground. I only weighed 85 pounds, but I managed to free my mouth. “Mamaita, Mamaita, an evil spirit has taken me,” I screamed. That’s what I thought had happened.
My brother started to cry. In the dark, I heard him yelling, “Mamaita, they’ve kidnapped my sister.” My mother ran out, screaming, “Where are you, mi hija? Come back!”
Three men took me—Fernando; his cousin, Roberto; and his uncle. Roberto was 22, and his uncle was 45. They carried me to Roberto’s. I was crying. One of my aunts rented a room in his house. When she saw me, she said, “What have you done, girl? Your mother will die.”
I told her they had stolen me, and I didn’t want to be there. She said, “That’s his problem. You have to get married.”
“I’m not getting married. I’m going back to my mother,” I cried.
They wouldn’t let me go. For eight days, they kept me locked up. I didn’t eat or sleep. If only someone had helped me, had saved me. It makes me so sad to think of it. After the eight days, my mother-in-law came. She said, “Don’t worry, mi hija, you’re going to get married.” She took me to her house to stay for 15 days until the wedding.
My poor mother, all alone, couldn’t do anything. She sent a telegram to my father saying Fernando had captured me, that he should go to jail. Her relatives all came to console her. Then one of my uncles said, “The boy is going to marry her. Let’s not look for trouble.” They all thought I was ruined. My father sent a telegram saying he didn’t want to see me and that he would never forgive me for what I’d done. No one took my side.
Three days before the wedding, my mother-in-law took me to my mother’s to beg forgiveness. Ayy, she gave me such a beating. The whip left my legs and arms purple.
I had no idea what it meant to have a boyfriend, to be in love. I’d never been kissed. At the church, I cried all through the ceremony. The priest just laughed. “Silly kids.”
Afterward, we went to live in on a ranch near another town called Santa Eulalia. Fernando was a labor contractor. He hired people to harvest the coffee, sugar cane. He traveled quite a bit, bringing people to the ranch. The Indian people loved him because he was straight with them. He didn’t cheat them.
At first, he treated me all right, but I was terrified of him. I cried day and night. I had to have food on the table when he came home or he got mad. By law and custom, you had to put up with your husband. He was king.
When I was 15, I got pregnant but the baby was born dead. The midwife said it was because he had damaged the baby. He beat me in my eighth month because I had forgotten to tie up a calf, and it ran away.
At 16, I had Arnoldo. That’s when my husband began to drink. I was constantly pregnant. I dropped babies like hailstones. We moved back to Soloma. He drank day and night. If there was nothing for him to drink, he sent me out with a torch at night to buy more. I tried to be prepared. I would buy a 10-liter barrel so I wouldn’t have to go out at night. Fortunately, food was cheap, and we had a garden and two apple trees. The convent school where the children went cost just 5 quetzales a year.
He took out most of his anger on me. He only beat the kids if they misbehaved. Once, he beat me with a stick because he found two flies in the cup of chocolate I’d made him. It was Holy Thursday. I had on a new dress for mass. His mother came in and found me covered in blood. She hit him with the same stick. Then she washed my head with lemon, bound it and took my bloody clothes to burn. “Tell people you missed mass because you hit your head,” she told me.
My mother didn’t believe me, of course. She dragged me to my husband and said: “Just kill her once and for all and leave her in peace.” When she left, he turned on me for telling my mother on him, until a neighbor explained Mama had seen him herself. I couldn’t win.
That was my martyred life. I left him several times but each time I returned because of the kids. Everyone knew. His mother, neighbors, told him he was doing wrong, but no one intervened. Men beat their wives. The police were too busy beating theirs to do anything.
He died when I was 32, during Holy Week. Esterlina was six months old. He drank day and night from Holy Monday to Good Friday. At midnight, Good Friday, he began vomiting. In the morning, he sent me to get something to stop the nausea from his uncle’s pharmacy. His uncle refused to give him anything: “I know he’s been drinking.”
When I told my husband that, he grabbed the bottle, vomited blood, and fell asleep. At six o’clock, he woke up vomiting mouthfuls of pure blood. He asked me to dress him. “They’re carrying the saint’s image to church,” he said. “I want to be there.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. “Don’t you see your condition?”
He fell at my feet and said either “perdonarme” or “peinarme.” Pardon me or comb my hair. In Spanish, the words sound similar. I’ve always felt terrible about this: I didn’t pardon him, I combed his hair. He collapsed on the bed. “Change my clothes,” he said.
I dressed him in a coffee-colored suit with a black tie. “Embrace me,” he said. I put my arm around him and wiped his face. We were sitting like that when his cousin entered. “Ay, Delita,” he said, “Fernando’s dead.”
I went blind for a moment. I didn’t believe it. His cousin ran to tell everyone. The entire village rushed in. They yanked his mustache to see if I’d poisoned him—they thought his hair would come out if I had—until my mother-in-law said he’d destroyed his liver by drinking so much.
They buried him on Easter Sunday. The next night, someone heard wailing in the cemetery. Rumors spread that he’d come back to life. I ran in my nightgown and found the whole village waiting to open his grave. It was the day of the resurrection, so I actually thought I’d find him sitting on the tomb. Imagine. I wanted him to be alive, after all that bitterness and suffering. But the mayor said it would be a sin to dig him up. The voice turned out to have been Fernando’s uncle, mourning at his grave.
He left me with nine children and nothing to eat. I took in laundry, ironing, baked bread. We gathered firewood in the hills and brought it home on our backs. During the day I cooked and washed for others; at night, I cooked and washed for us. I did laundry in wooden tubs by the river. Mountains of it. I ironed with a charcoal iron. My in-laws, who were butchers, let me work for meat. I would hold a bowl under the animals’ throat to catch the blood and to clean the entrails. I would carry a bowl of tripe on my head to the river to wash. I feel like I’m there again, just telling it.
Forty days after the funeral, I began drinking myself. I drank for three years. Finally, my father threatened to give my children away. That made me stop. When my mother died, I started up again, so my father moved in with me so he could keep an eye on me. My in-laws were rich, but they didn’t give us anything except the land where my husband had built our house.
Arnoldo went into the army at 15. He made 8 quetzales a month and sent me 4. When Neri and Esmeralda were 14 and 12, they went to Guatemala City to live with my mother’s sister. Esmeralda met a woman in the shoe store where she worked who helped her find work in an infirmary. They sent her to nursing school. Neri worked in a factory and studied bookkeeping. One by one, the older ones moved to the capital. I stayed in Soloma working in the convent where my children went to school, sewing mattresses, doing laundry and baking bread.
Once they were making money, the older ones sent for me and the little ones. The older ones went back to Soloma to sell the old house. We bought land in Guatemala City and built a pretty house with four rooms, kitchen, bathroom, and a floor.
When I look at them all grown—four here in the United States and five back in Guatemala—I think how much I suffered to raise them. I never wanted to marry after such a disillusionment, though I’ve forgiven Fernando. But I never understood why he was so violent. Why didn’t he come to me in friendship in the beginning? We might have fallen in love.
Translated by Julia Lichtblau