Immigrant Stories: Fleeing civil war in Guatemala

Walter Gallacher
Immigrant Stories
Lizbeth Jacobs

Intro: Lizbeth Jacobs was born Lizbeth Rivera Vazquez in Guatemala in 1976. She and her older sister came to the United States with their mother in 1988. They were fleeing for the same reasons people are fleeing today, the brutality of Guatemala’s authoritarian government and organized crime.

The roots of Lizbeth’s story date back to 1954 when the United States, in the name of anticommunism, overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. That coup precipitated a 36-year civil war in which over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared.

Jacobs: We came to the United States because my mother had an opportunity to come and study nursing. At the time, there was a nursing shortage in the U.S., so she was able to secure a study visa with the understanding that she was going to go into the profession and actually make a contribution to the workforce.

Gallacher: Was she a nurse?

Jacobs: No, she was studying to be an agronomer, learning how to improve and fine-tune the processes for growing crops in Guatemala.

Gallacher: What was going on in Guatemala when your mother was deciding to change?

Jacobs: We had had unrest since the ’50s and in 1982, when General Ríos Montt took power, he turned out to be another in a series of military dictators. He banned women from wearing pants. He wanted them to wear skirts to work. My mother was in her early 20s when he came to power, and she had a rebellious spirit.

Gallacher: Tell me about your mother.

Jacobs: My mother has always been a very strong woman. She had to take care of her brothers and sisters, five of them, and she was maybe 6 years old when she was responsible for feeding them, doing their laundry and getting them to school and doing everything that a mom would do.

My grandfather was not present. I don’t really know where he was. He didn’t really provide, and so my grandmother had to work 14-hour shifts. She couldn’t be there for her children, so my mother had to take care of all her brothers and sisters, cut their hair, sometimes make them clothes.

Mom learned how to be very self-reliant from the get-go. She started out as a secretary in the Ministry of Cooperatives, and she moved up the ladder pretty quickly. She was a professional woman, and she wanted the clothing and the success she saw in the “9 to 5” movie with Dolly Parton. But she also had me and my sister to raise. She was always trying to get ahead.

When mom was going to the university, there was a lot of activism. My mom joined the marches and protests against the government and the oppression that was going on. But at the same time, mom saw that a lot of these students started disappearing, and there were murders. Women students, young college students, were brutally murdered or never found.

Gallacher: Well, that’s a courageous act to go protest a government that’s disappearing people.

Jacobs: One day, a friend asked her to go to a protest with her, but mom said no. She was pregnant with me and just decided not to go. That day, her friend disappeared. She was murdered. Mom decided, then, that there was no way she was going to raise her children in that kind of environment. She started planning our escape.

Gallacher: General Ríos Montt was responsible for the death or disappearance of thousands of people.

Jacobs: Yes, it was well-known that every time there was a government construction project, underneath that project was a mass grave. This was a common thing that happened.

Ríos Montt wasn’t the first of his kind. Guatemala had had unstable government since 1954 when President Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown. Árbenz wanted to make the land more accessible to farmers so that they could grow crops and feed themselves and make their way out of poverty. But the United States saw this move as communism and decided Árbenz was a danger to the United States.

So President Eisenhower sent troops. And there were American tanks rolling down our streets, and they unseated our president because they were afraid our country was going to be communist.

So that’s how everything started, and then the military leaders from then on basically saw it as their job to maintain that. The elite owned all the land, and the farmers had very little opportunity for commerce.

Gallacher: It opens the door for industrial agriculture, too, doesn’t it? I mean, the farmers don’t own the land or run the land, big corporations do.

Jacobs: Yes, Guatemala became a banana republic. Our gas and oil, timber and sugar cane never stayed in our country and never made our people prosperous.

Gallacher: What about your dad? What was his story?

Jacobs: I don’t know much about my father’s early years. I know that he grew up lower middle class. He was just finishing his bachelor’s and going into veterinary school when he met my mother.

She went to work to support him while he was getting his veterinary degree. But I don’t think mom wanted to be the wife who stayed at home. They really never got along.

Dad got his degree and went to work as a meat inspector. I think one of his co-workers was approached by a crooked government official and was being pressured to sign off on meat that wasn’t good. He must have refused because he disappeared.

My father realized that he was going to be next if he wasn’t willing to cooperate with this corrupt government, so he got a tourist visa and flew to the United States in 1981. He had been separated from my mom for about a year by then. My mother wasn’t very responsive because they were fighting.

But he was also worried about us kids because he knew that his pursuers might try to harm us. One social worker that I know ended up with her mother in a box in front of her house because she told them no. My father knew that if they couldn’t get him they might take us.

Gallacher: Yeah, the people of the country get caught in the middle.

Jacobs: Yes, you were either with the government or you were seen as a collaborator. So it was a hard place for people who just wanted to get ahead and feed their families and have a life, you know, do what you do.

Gallacher: Right. So your mom realized that her way out was through the nursing program?

Jacobs: Yes, there was a nurse shortage in the United States. It was like the IT folks coming from India and other places.

Gallacher: But Guatemala was all right with letting her go? They didn’t see her as any kind of threat.

Jacobs: No, my mother was a professional. She was working with that Institute of Cooperatives at the time. So she wasn’t seen as a problem.

Gallacher: How old were you when you came?

Jacobs: I was 12. I think the strange thing was that I didn’t worry about leaving my friends. My mother asked us, “Do you want to stay here, live with your aunt or grandmother and have your life as is or do you want to come with me.” And, of course, there was no choice. We wanted to be with her. I didn’t really think about it that much. We left everything. We came with two suitcases each and that was it. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I just knew that I wanted to be with my mom and my sister and that was it.

Gallacher: Did you speak English when you came?

Jacobs: No, I didn’t. I remember being made fun of on the bus. I guess it was a good thing that I didn’t understand enough to know what they were saying. I just knew from the way it was said and the laughter and people staring at me.

I remember being that kid, the one who sits in the cafeteria eating lunch by herself, and nobody really cares that she’s new or takes the time to talk to her. Obviously it was culture shock. Sometimes I felt like I was on another planet.

Gallacher: Lonely.

Jacobs: Yes, but, luckily, I was befriended. I was in ESL, and I met a girl who was from Israel. She felt just as ostracized, so we were friends. Unfortunately, she had to go back to Israel.

The ESL classes weren’t very helpful for me. We weren’t learning very much, but for some reason or another, I became a teacher’s aide. I think they figured I wasn’t adjusting well in class, so they made me a teacher’s aide for English class. That teacher saw my potential, and I was eventually able to go to regular English. When I transferred from eighth grade, I think I had 98s and 100s. I don’t know how.

Gallacher: So you came to it pretty fast. Nothing like being dropped into a whole different culture to motivate you, though, right?

Jacobs: Yes, sink or swim. My mother and sister were doing the same thing, so we knew that we had to succeed.

Postscript: And succeed they did, Lizbeth’s mother went on to be a nurse, her sister graduated from law school and works as general counsel for a multinational corporation. Lizbeth is working on her Master’s in Anthropology and Archeology at Harvard’s Extension School and teaching at Colorado Mountain College.

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