The opportunity to go to school isn't given to all children. There is no worldwide mandate for compulsory education. But Carlos, the guide for our group on a recent trip to Guatemala, had a strong desire to learn. This is just one of the reasons he reminds me of my dad. Each had that first-generation educational drive and then, later, inspired others to continue their education.
Furthermore, each was devoted to his widowed mother. Both were young when they lost their fathers. Dad was only 8. He started working early – selling candy bars outside a local theater.
I don't know the details of my grandfather's death. But Carlos told me about his father.
When Carlos was 10, guerrillas entered his father's tienda (small store) and took rice, beans, and other food supplies without paying.
As a result, the village's Army spy implicated Carlos's father. The innocent 40-year-old store owner was never questioned. Instead, without any warning, the Army took him away early one morning. He is one of the 100,000 missing from Guatemala's 36-year civil war.
To support the family, Carlos's mother made empanadas, enchiladas, and rellenitos (plantain pancakes filled with fried black beans) to sell to the workers at a nearby archaeological site.
Like my paterfamilias, Carlos began working at a young age. He and his brothers would each carry two 25-pound pots of their mother's prepared food hanging from poles balanced across their backs. The siblings walked two miles each way.
For five years, Carlos also spent a lot of time with his maternal grandfather, Ramon, one of the wise men.
Ramon taught his grandson about his Mayan culture and also instilled in him a strong work ethic.
I am not certain how my dad acquired this trait, but I know that his example rubbed off on me.
Carlos's older brothers worked for Wrigley, the chewing gum company, collecting chicle from the sapodilla trees – and that's still their occupation today.
But Carlos, like my dad, was the first in his family to further his education. When he was 15, he walked nine miles to Tikal and then took a one-hour bus ride. Arriving in Flores, he stood outside a random classroom doorway at a local school.
When the bell rang, the teacher (who also was the principal) asked the boy why he was standing there. Carlos replied, "I want to work and earn money until my daddy returns."
After asking more questions, the teacher discovered that the boy wanted to do more than that and said, "I can see that you really want to study." Since Carlos had no relatives in town, he was invited by the man to join his own family. He earned his room and board by doing housework and cutting the grass with a machete. He also worked in a bakery, packing and slicing bread, and cleaning the floor.
He stayed with the kind educator for three years while attending secondary school. Eventually he completed postgraduate courses in tourism.
During his college summers of 1930 and 1931, my dad traveled in the Midwest selling subscriptions for magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and Harper's. Because of his success, he was given the nickname Buzz. Every week, a two-page newsletter was published for Dad's team of student salesmen. In four issues that Mom saved, Buzz was listed as the top salesman. In August 1930, he set a new high record of cash sales – $375.16.
He and Mom were sweethearts at the time, and my dad wrote to her on hotel stationery. I still have the letters they exchanged in envelopes affixed with red 2-cent George Washington stamps.
From Kansas City, he wrote: "Do me a favor, honey: Call my mother up this evening and ask to speak to her – don't leave any messages. Ask her how she is, give her my love, and tell her I'm great. Then report to me."
Carlos returned to his village on weekends while he was in secondary school. He arrived around 6 on Friday evenings and left at 3 on Monday mornings. Yet he found time at home to teach his mother, Rafaela, how to read and write.
My father never had to travel far (and later not more than a few feet) to see his mother. I remember she came to live with us when I was 8. My father insisted that she stay in my room. I moved upstairs.
Last fall, Carlos purchased a new house with a special room for his mother when she comes to visit. He has a close relationship with her and would like her to live there permanently. But she never stays long, always eager to return to her village, even though it still has no running water or electricity.
Dad graduated from college with distinction. He made great use of his business degree and was later able to establish an endowed scholarship at his alma mater.
Each year, I meet the recipients of his generosity.
Not long ago, Carlos was invited to speak at his primary school and got a wonderful surprise. The administration honored him: The promotion ceremony now bears his name.
Perhaps one day Carlos, too, will begin an endowment.
He has already inspired 17 young Mayan scholars to follow in his footsteps this year and continue their secondary education. But unlike him, they don't have to walk to Tikal. That's because his younger brother now drives the bus there from Uaxactún.
Carlos's son, Carlitos ("little Carlos"), should have a brighter future because of his dad's determined pursuit of education.
That's just as it was for me with my dad.