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Diego's Story, Part 2: A Painful Family Secret

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today we continue our story about six-year-old Diego. Diego was born in Guatemala and adopted into the US by Laurie Stern and her husband, Dan Luke. The family makes trips to Guatemala to allow Diego to be close to his roots, but the visits can be painful. Yesterday we heard how Diego's biological mother Isabel is struggling to feed her remaining children. The trip also found her grieving over the death of one of Diego's biological sisters.

Ms. LAURIE STERN (Diego's Adoptive Mother): I wanted to know how Diego's sister Julia died. Isabel said she had stomach problems that got worse because of an infection or a curse, but it wasn't clear.

BRAND: Little Diego would be the one to discover the truth. Laurie Stern continues their story.

Ms. STERN: Diego's village is nestled against a volcano next to an enormous blue lake. The people in his village are mostly Tzutujil Mayan, and Diego's proud to call himself Tzutujil.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. STERN: Isabel Xicay Petzey is Diego's biological mother. She's brought two of her children to our hotel for a visit.

Ms. ISABEL XICAY PETZEY (Diego's Biological Mother): (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. PETZEY: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. STERN: She says the children have the same father. He was in the military, and now he works as a truck driver. The way Isabel puts it, he comes and goes. At the hotel, she showed Diego, Dan and me a photo of a man dressed in an army uniform carrying an assault rifle.

Mr. DAN LUKE (Diego's Adoptive Father): Oh.

Ms. STERN: Oh.

Ms. PETZEY: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. LUKE: That is your birth father.

Ms. PETZEY: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. LUKE: What do you think?

DIEGO MAX SURKALEB(ph): He's cool.

Mr. LUKE: He's cool?

Ms. PETZEY: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. LUKE: Do you like the...

Ms. PETZEY: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. LUKE: ...uniform and the gun?

SURKALEB: I love guns.

Mr. LUKE: I know you do.

Ms. STERN: Diego couldn't wait to go swimming with his biological siblings.

(Soundbite of children laughing and playing; splash)

Ms. STERN: At home, Diego is smaller and stronger than most of his friends, but here with his siblings, he doesn't look any different.

(Soundbite of splash)

Ms. STERN: The kids were sitting on the pool deck, taking a break from swimming. Diego asked his siblings about their sister Julia's death. Dan was watching the kids and overheard their conversation. Isabel had told us Julia died of a stomach illness, but Diego found out that wasn't true. Later, he told me what he'd heard.

SURKALEB: One of my sisters died. I know what--how she died. She was sick and she stole a mango, and her dad got really out of control, and he kicked her in the stomach and she died.

Ms. STERN: But, Diego, can you tell us how you found that out?--because, you know, when we asked Isabel about it, Isabel told us that Julia had been sick and died. Is it 'cause you asked? So did you say, `Like, what sickness did Julia have?' or something?

SURKALEB: Yeah. She--that kind of stuff.

Mr. LUKE: Yeah, and the way I remember it, you said, `What sickness did Julia have?' And then they said, `Well, she didn't have a sickness; her papa killed her.' That's what they said. And then you said, `What did he use?'

SURKALEB: His foot.

Mr. LUKE: `A gun or a knife or what?'

SURKALEB: He used his foot.

Mr. LUKE: Right. And...

SURKALEB: What was her grave like?

Ms. STERN: Oh, well, you know, we have pictures of it. It was just a mound of dirt that was covered with weeds. So the first thing that we did when we got there is--especially Isabel was pulling up all the weeds to make the mound of dirt look nice. And Isabel was crying and maybe saying a little prayer. It was hard to understand. And what she said was about how Julia was always so interested in you and excited when she heard you were coming to visit and that even though Julia's in another place, we're here at the grave to tell you that Diego is here to visit and we're thinking about you, and we know you were thinking about him.

SURKALEB: She said that?

Ms. STERN: That's what Isabel said.

SURKALEB: Sad.

Mr. LUKE: Are you being sad now, Diego? OK.

Ms. STERN: It's OK to be sad.

Mr. LUKE: It's OK. I think it's...

(Soundbite of Diego crying)

Ms. STERN: We do wonder if this is too much for Diego, but Dan worries about it more than I do.

Mr. LUKE: My view is that at the very core of his being is this sadness because he knows, you know, that he was separated from the place that he was born into.

Ms. STERN: I feel like, yes, there's sadness in Diego and there's joy, and that makes him just like everybody else. But Dan and I do agree that looking this hard stuff in the face has helped Diego to be articulate about his own feelings and that he should know all there is to know about his circumstances. Also, by being in Santiago Atitlan, Diego knows what it means to be Tzutujil. He feels it. The people in his village taught him his Tzutujil name, Atico. They tell him, `Never forget, you are Atico. Wherever you go in the world, know that you are Tzutujil, and that's something to be proud of.'

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. STERN: The last thing we did in his village was to visit a god. His name is Moximon, and he's actually a life-sized but legless wooden figure. He's guarded by a group of men called the Brotherhood. Diego sat down in front of Moximon with our interpreter, Dolores. She told him that Moximon is the holy grandfather, the main god for the Tzutujiles.

Ms. DOLORES RATZAN (Interpreter): And people come here, they worship Moximon. they want a blessing from him or a job or anything they want to do.

SURKALEB: Can you ask him, the people that own Moximon, tell them, can they be at any time?

Ms. RATZAN: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Spanish spoken)

Ms. RATZAN: Anytime, he said. This is your home. You can come anytime.

SURKALEB: Gracias.

Ms. RATZAN: (Spanish spoken) Thanks to you. Can you say it? (Spanish spoken)

SURKALEB: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STERN: Now that we're back, we visit Diego's Guatemalan family just through the photo album. Diego says he likes to look at the photos of Julia and the others, even though they make him sad. But he loves knowing his Tzutujil name, Atico, and being in Guatemala has made him want to learn Spanish. We're not sure how Diego will deal with the difficult stuff he learned on the trip, but so far he's been his usual soulful and resilient self. We'll let him decide when it's time to go back.

BRAND: Our series on Diego and his family was produced by Ellen Guettler of American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media.

Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ellen Guettler
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