My life can be divided into periods marked by which woman took me under their wing during that time. No span is without the support of at least one helping hand, and my time in Peace Corps is not an exception. My Paraguayan guide is Herminia. She is 60-something-years-old and I think of her as the guardian of my spirit. Not my spirit in a religious sense, but more as Merriam-Webster defines it, “the force within a person that is believed to give the body life, energy, and power.”
Herminia was once beautiful. She tells stories of her long hair and running away to Brazil when she was young. The traces of beauty remain, but I know her better for ignoring the obsession of perfect appearances most Paraguayan women have. Herminia’s hair is always twisted up in a nice clip. Her legs are bowed in, highlighted by the faded tights she most often wears. Her threadbare shirts are filled with holes. As much as her daughter tries to get her to wear a bra she usually doesn’t, finding them to be nothing but torture. She is clean and her nails show the remnants of paint. Her most defining feature is the lines in her face, which are caught between telling the story of a life filled with laughter and a life of nervous outbreaks.
Herminia did not go to school after second grade. She is the mother of 3, and the main caretaker of one of her grandsons. These days, Herminia lives with her aging mother, so her mother will not be alone. Herminia is 1 of 9, but the only daughter. Herminia cooks the tastiest food over wood and charcoal fires. Sometimes she has all the ingredients for what she intends to make and sometimes not, but her food always turns out yummy. She has a cow whose milk she sells. She is a talker. She talks to all people. She was raised in Asuncion, so her Spanish is as ferocious as her Guarani. She knows the medicinal plants and she believes in God.
Paraguayans are the most welcoming people I have ever met. But, most of my Paraguayan friends and neighbors don’t seek me out. I am part of their lives when I show up at their houses, and I am on a different planet the rest of the time. Herminia is different. She comes looking for me. On those days when I hide in my house, having spent the pervious day there too, she charges across the street. I see her coming with her head high and a determined expression. “Where have you been, my daughter? I thought you were mad at me. Come over and we will make some rich food,” she says.
And I go to her house. We drink terere. We cook. We chat. We watch TV. And, the unexplainable gloom that comes to one unpredictably when she lives abroad is lifted. My energy is restored, and after I leave her house I am once again ready to face the Paraguay that hardly ever looks for me. I cross my threshold on my own, until the gloom returns. And the cycle repeats.
Herminia is the most open-minded Paraguayan I know in my community. I do not believe there is any conversation we can not have, or that there is any position on any topic to which she will not at least listen. I learned how to do the rosary in Spanish, I don’t know it in English, because she taught me. I learned it because it made her so proud that she could teach me. She shares her faith in her Catholic God, even though she does not expect me to believe. She tells me about the people of the community, if they are good or bad. She is a gossip, but I have yet to see her judge of character miss the mark. She tells anyone who asks about me, and most people do, that I am the daughter of the community. She says that all the mothers here are my mothers because I am far from home.
Herminia dances on chairs with liter beer bottles balanced on her head. She is my favorite dance partner. Once, we danced until 2 am, and she made me spend the night, sleeping with her and her grandson in one bed, so I wouldn’t have to walk home. At that time, she lived farther away than she does now. Herminia defends my sobriety as she sips beer she puts in metal cups so people on the street don’t know what she is drinking. She has a sweet tooth. She forgets where she put her glasses, her wallet…her grandson and I keep track of her belongings.
I can go to her house and talk a lot or say hardly a word. I can go read while they watch TV. I go to work, but sometimes Herminia does all the cooking. We move the table from shade patch to shade patch until lunch time. Then, we eat in the living room, plates on our laps, because Herminia’s mother can no longer lift her arms to eat at the table.
When I travel, Herminia watches my house from her yard across the street. She does not know my every move or try to tell me what to do, but she keeps track enough to know everything is going along without trouble. Paraguay knows when I am down. And usually, Paraguay sends in Herminia to bring me up again. I can not think of a better agent of change.