The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

Earl Swift (2011)
Mariner Books, 2011.


It takes us a good hour to get to Santa Lucia and then navigate the labyrinth of washed-out dirt roads leading to Wagner's house.  Antonia keeps pointing with her hands, either to the left or right, to give directions even though she is seated in the back behind the driver, and he keeps making wrong turns as a result.  But, sure enough, by around 9 a.m. Antonia beckons him to stop next to a little embankment, and the two mothers hop out of the car before it has even come to a halt and scramble up the slope with the agility of teenagers.  I slowly get out of the car and tell the driver to take a well-deserved nap, "We may be here a while," and I follow Antonia and Judy down the dirt path towards Wagner's one-room brick house, maybe 50 feet from the road, which is surrounded by beautiful banana and mango trees.  Paradise.

Sitting on a wooden bench next to a pila cistern in front of the house are Maynor, William, Wagner, and Bereníce, waiting patiently for us.  I clear the embankment just as Judy reaches her daughter and embraces her in a fantastic hug.  But the girl cannot reciprocate.  She is torn between her adoptive mother and her brothers.  Judy takes Ellie gently by the hand into the house where they can talk, but the girl keeps looking to her right, out the open doorway, at Maynor and William, whom Antonia has approached and is giving hell for running away without telling anyone.

I catch up to the scene and walk into the house, just as Judy holds out and unfolds Ellie's American passport, the mid-morning sunlight illuminating the white eagle on the document's blue background.

"Ellie, do you really want to give up this and everything it stands for: your education, your future, your sisters, your Dad and me, and return to this poverty in Guatemala?  Do you really want that?  Because if you stay here now you'll be throwing it all away, everything you have been given and everything you have accomplished since we adopted you."

Judy will never forget the completely blank look that comes over the girl's face at that moment, standing on the dirt floor of a one-room brick house in the middle of the jungle, surrounded outside by the love that reared her and then abandoned her, and staring straight at the woman who has given her shelter, and love, and that dark blue passport, one of the most arrogant symbols of wealth in the world today.  Judy is tired, desperate, hurt, and may not realize that she's playing the role of imperialist.  Ellie resists the obvious urge to turn her head to the right and look out into the sunshine at the woman who gave birth to her and the brothers with whom she grew up.  Instead, she focuses on Judy.

"I don't know, Mom.  I don't know what to do."  A long pause, and then, "Can you make the decision for me?"

Of course the decision will be made for her.  Of course Judy's was not an open-ended question.  Of course the girl will return to the United States with Judy on Thursday.  Whether she likes it or not, she is Ellie Walters.  She lives in Traverse City, Michigan, in a nice two-story house on Old Mission Peninsula.  She attends sixth grade at Central High School, excels on the junior high girl's basketball team, and attends summer camp at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy where she is a voice major.  And yes, she owns that American passport with the eagle on it - the document coveted by so many.

The match today here in this jungle in Central America was not going to be fair.  In fact, it was fixed to begin with.  Two poor Guatemalan boys with no money, no resources, and no valuable passports never really stood a chance against a middle-class white woman from the United States when it came to fighting over the 14-year-old girl they all love and need so badly. At the end of this week Guatemala's most valuable natural resources, its children, will still be leaving the country on airplanes for El Norte, and this particular case will be no different.  At the end of the month, Guatemala's role will still be one of subservience to the United States of America.

Outside, Maynor has picked up a knife and is carving into a ripe mango he plucked from the tree.  The blade cuts open the fruit but the juices bleed all over his hands, the process messy.  He pleads to anyone who will listen: Antonia, Wagner, even me.  "Ella no quiere salir."  She told me she doesn't want to go.  She wants to stay here with us.  And that familiar impressionable look of marvel comes over Antonia's face again as she turns and looks at us gringos as if she expects us to answer Maynor with a sparring of words.  It's the same look she gave when we told her Ellie was in sixth grade and liked to sing and draw; the same look on her face when the doctor told her two days ago that if she didn't have a hysterectomy she would probably die; it could be the same look on her face after Doña Cesy told her to give up her seven-year-old girl all those years ago.

"He says Bereníce doesn't want to go," Antonia tells us, nodding toward Maynor. 

At that the translator and narrator uneasily sheds the remnants of his objectivity, knowing that the outcome has already been decided - it just needs to be justified.

"Antonia, Bereníce is very confused.  She's a fragile 14-year-old girl and she's torn between her Guatemalan and American family.  She doesn't know what's best for her right now."

There is no response from Maynor, and Antonia just stares.

"You will see Bereníce many times during your lifetime," the voice is directed toward Maynor and William.  "She will come back and visit often, I'm sure.  She loves you and you are an important part of her life.  This is only goodbye for a little while.  You are not losing her the way you did the last time."

William is bowing his head and nodding silently, as if he is sorry for their actions, but Maynor has dropped the mango and the carving knife and retreated to the bench where he holds his head in his hands, crying hard.

By now Judy and Ellie have left the house and are standing in the crowd.  The narrator backs up a few steps and addresses the crowd, repeating the question in both Spanish and English several times so everyone understands.

"This girl belongs to both of your families.  She is both Guatemalan and American, and she will probably spend her life going back and forth between these two countries.  She loves all of you and needs all of you equally.  But for her to be happy, those that love her need to be willing to share her, even if that means knowing you won't see her all the time.

"Who here loves this girl so much that they are willing to share her?  Levanta la mano.  Raise your hand!"

First William and Judy simultaneously answer the call, their right hands shooting up into the air.  A moment later Wagner does, and he nudges Antonia, who might not have completely understood the question, but raises her hand nonetheless.  Sadly, it is only Maynor, sulking, defeated, on the bench, a day shy of returning to the banana finca and probably less than a year away from marrying Guadalupe, who doesn't respond.

The girl looks around the crowd, at her brother, her two mothers, and Wagner, arms all bent at the elbow and raised, and though her back is turned to me, I think she smiles.


Ellie will get her wish.  Before returning home she will see Tiquisate, the village where she was born and which she knew intimately, even though she mistakenly thought it was in El Salvador.  She will sweat in its heat, know its faces, and see its bustling poverty.

Ellie gets into the back of the taxi cab and sits between Antonia, to her left, and Judy, to her right, though today she favors her Guatemalan mother and holds her hand while ignoring her American mother.  This would deeply hurt Judy, even though she knows deep down that Ellie is just confused.  "Once I get her back to the United States, in a few days she'll warm up to me and she'll be ours once again," Judy tells herself.  I climb into the passenger's seat and slap the dusty dashboard to awake the sleeping driver.  He looks around him and smiles when he sees Ellie in the backseat.  His sheepish grin seems to say, "So this is the reason we've been driving around the country all morning."

The driver shakes his head, starts the engine, and returns to the highway and then back to Tiquisate.  Judy, Ellie, and I are sound asleep when Antonia asks the driver to stop in front of the tortilla stand near her old house on the town's main street, where we stopped earlier this morning to look for the runaways.  Since then, she has figured out how to give directions from the backseat.  The three of us awake to the sound of Antonia's jubilant voice.  "I want to introduce Bereníce to the rest of her family before she leaves."

We climb out of the taxi, cross the street and accept the plastic chairs offered to us under a plastic tarp that keeps out at least some of the scorching sun.  Ellie's aunt, Esvin's sister, offers us refreshing cups of purified water, and says how happy she is to see the girl again, but how equally proud she feels to know that Ellie has a good life in the United States.  We give the woman a couple of quetzales to buy a plastic bag of freshly cooked tortillas, some of the best we've ever tasted, and at that moment a little old lady who can't be more than four feet tall hobbles over to us.  Her skin is worn and leathery, and she appears to be missing quite a few teeth, but her smile is warm and gentle, as is her handshake.  This is Ellie's grandmother Rosa, Esvin's mother.

By now she has heard about last night's daring escape, and she wags her bony finger and gives Ellie a kind grandmotherly scolding for the adventure.  Why would she give up a life in the United States, the woman asks?  Then grandmother Rosa turns to Judy and tells her how grateful she is for all the woman has done for this lucky girl.  "Suerte," she repeats.  Lucky.  Antonia stands next to Ellie's grandmother, beaming with pride the entire time.

We drive on and stop at the Tiquisate bus terminal because Ellie wants to see the teeming market, one of the places she remembered well from her birth village.  This is where she would sweep the floors for a few quetzales during those tough days after her father abandoned them and before she was given up for adoption.  We are just about to duck down one of the many paths descending into the market when Antonia suddenly exclaims, "Mira, Esvin."  Look, there's Esvin.  And standing in front of us, leaning against a wooden pole that is holding up the plastic tarp roof, is the character that this story had forgotten.

Esvin Arnoldo Ortiz Gonzalez, 36 years old, the father of Maynor, William, and Bereníce and the other four children Antonia gave up for adoption; the man who favored the bottle of aguardiente over his children, stole Antonia's house, and kicked them all out onto the street in favor of another woman; the man who stands before us now, wobbling as if he's drunk, a five o'clock shadow and eyes that suggest a hangover, and wearing a filthy checkered shirt covered with food stains.  We were afraid of this man because we didn't know what he'd do to Antonia, or Ellie, or the boys.  But at this moment he looks helpless and pathetic.  Antonia doesn't fear him, she doesn't even hate him any longer, as she tells us afterwards.  The way she addresses him, the way she introduces him to his daughter, shows that she just pities him.

Esvin shakes Ellie's hand, quickly and without affection, though he acknowledges he knows who she is and then mumbles a few inaudible words.  He shakes Judy's hand and mine too, and before turning and stumbling away into the market he says, "I did what I could for the girl.  I wish I could have done more."

It all happens in a flash, and moments later he is gone ... for Ellie, and for the story, a distant memory once again.  Nearly doubled over with fatigue from the heat and lack of sleep, Judy, Ellie, and Antonia do not dwell on meeting Esvin and don't even exchange words about him.  Instead they move on to the next event in this whirlwind tour of Bereníce's past.  Yet the birth father's appearance today was so sudden and seemingly insignificant that it spoke volumes.

Our final stop in Tiquisate is to the clapboard shack a block away from the market where Antonia and her kids lived after Esvin abandoned them, where Antonia resorted to prostitution to make money, and where Cesy and Estela courted her to sell her children.  We know this house from the photos Maynor took on the first day we met him last fall: the fading blue paint on the pila out front, the jocote tree with scuff marks in it where the kids used to play.  Antonia hasn't been here in a while, but the neighbors do remember her, and one older woman even remembers Ellie, the girl who they figured had died.  At our request, they give us a tour of the rooms where our family once lived.  Two little boys without shoes, scratch their heads with what could be head lice while swinging in a hammock inside a dark room.  Absolute, grinding poverty, and Ellie is absorbing it all.

The family is honored by our visit, and they offer us chairs and drinks.  But Judy can tell that Ellie no longer feels comfortable in this setting, and she suggests that we get back in the taxi, drop off Antonia, and head for Antigua.  On the way out the door, Ellie says to her American mom, "I don't really like Tiquisate.  I'm more of an Antigua kind of girl," and Judy shoots me a sigh of relief because she knows what that ultimately means.  In its wealth and decadence, Antigua is America, not Guatemala.

By the time we return to Maritza's house in Rio Bravo, Maynor and William are there as well, having caught a bus from Wagner's place.  For Ellie that means saying goodbye all over again, but the kids are somewhat deflated from last night's adventures, and after 20 minutes and a bucketful of tears we are able to get her back in the taxi.  A last-minute decision is made that William will accompany us back to Antigua because he wants to study at Safe Passage and the director Hanley Denning seemed open to the possibility of his replacing Maynor.  William has no girlfriend or church affiliation holding him back in Tiquisate, and we hope he can move into the Casa Hogar and begin studying very soon.

Judy and Ellie both promise that they'll return again soon, and Antonia, the hero of the day for finding Bereníce and bringing her back to Judy, is the last one to hug the girl before we close the doors of the taxi.  We head east, along the Pacific Highway and its sugarcane and banana fields and aroma of fermenting fruit before turning north for the ascent into the highlands, the valley of the volcanoes, and finally Antigua - a route quite familiar to us all by now.

Eleanor Patricia Bereníce Ortiz sleeps soundly in the backseat with her Guatemalan brother William sitting to her left and her American adoptive mother Judy to her right.  Her journey has come full circle, and on Thursday she will return to Michigan, and the sixth grade.