Studying Abroad

Claudette Silva, 23, was born and raised in Guatemala and speaks four languages: Russian, Turkish, English and Spanish. (She hopes to one day learn German and Hebrew as well.) Below is her story, which reveals an unusual childhood and how, as a young adult, violence and a lack of resources affected her experience as a student. 

 When I was born, my father was schizophrenic and was unable to get loose from his detention.  My mother bore me alone at home, and later that day they took us to the hospital. 

For the first three years of my life, though, I lived with both my parents in zone 1 in Guatemala City.  Then my mother separated from my father and left him.  She met my step-father later and had two children with him.  

We were continually moving because my father was perpetually looking for me so he could be with me, but my mother did not want him to have custody. I went to nine different elementary schools in different parts of Guatemala. Just when I made friends I would have to go somewhere else, so it was complicated. We lived in places like San Antonio Suchitepéquez, San Benito in Petén, and in Santa Rosa Oratorio, where my family is from on my mother’s side.  My mother is the daughter of Brazilian immigrants, who migrated there in a big group. There are a lot of Silvas there.

Later we returned to Guatemala City when my father had calmed down and wasn’t looking for me any more.  When I was sixteen, though, I looked for him, and I found him, but it wasn’t a normal situation.  He was constantly changing personalities.  

I believe that I had a happy childhood despite all of that.  Not to have your parents together happens a lot in Guatemala.  The majority of children go through that, so it did not feel out of the ordinary.  In fact, when we lived in Petén, we lived on a farm and I had horses, and everything was great. 

I spent middle school and high school in the capital in a school run by nuns.  Then I went to the University of San Carlos, having managed to enter there to study medicine, and I studied there a year.   

To get around, I had to take a lot of camionetas (a flatbed truck used for transport), and one day in one of them I was assaulted.  A guy, backed by two others, asked everyone for their cell phones.  I hid mine in my shoe and told him “no.”   It makes me angry when I think about it because it’s not like I had a lot of money to buy one.  It cost me a lot.  I did not want to give up my phone so this guy jabbed me with his fist.  He hit me in the chest and they grabbed my backpack, but they did not get my cell phone.

Also, one time, when I was coming back home on a bus from the university through a new route through Villa Nueva, some people started shooting at the bus I was in, just when I was about home. And someone was killed right behind me.  It was horrible.  I think the shooting may have been because some of the cab drivers were upset that a bus was starting to operate in that area in competition with them.  It’s not clear why, but the bus took these gunshots.  

After that I made the decision to find a way to get out of this country. I wanted to leave.  I wanted to find a new way to live, I wanted peace.  I wanted to be able to walk in a country where I did not have to worry about getting robbed.

I went to various embassies and knocked on their doors, trying to figure out how I could get a scholarship abroad to keep studying.  They do have scholarships for Guatemalan students at these embassies, but the scholarships are not easy to get because they are usually given to people with influence, say, to a politician’s son or daughter.  

Russia opened the doors for me.  It was the only country that guided me through the application process and then accepted me. You do have to have good grades and I always had them, but the people at the consul supported me a lot. The process took about a year and I got my scholarship to go to Moscow in 2015.

I think these scholarships represent a way to unite the two countries, to promote good will between the people on both sides.  For example, there are two Russians in Antigua (a town in Guatemala where she currently lives), and I help them in any way I can.  If they want to go the market, I go with them so they feel comfortable here.  I do this because there were many Russians who treated me well, who helped me when I was in Moscow.  

I was in Russia almost two years studying medicine.  For someone who is Latino, it is difficult because of the snow and the extreme cold they have there. I had never experienced snow and those types of temperatures.  I would ask them, “why do you live here? It’s freezing.”  In January, you can’t even leave your house. 

I lived in a very small apartment that was just one room, along with three other women who were from different countries: Albania, the Ivory Coast, and Kazakhstan.  We had bunk beds under which we would put our luggage, and there were four closets and a stand to put dishes on.  There were just two desks and they were almost on top of the beds, because they really didn’t fit. I always grabbed half of a desk to study. It was tough. The woman from the Ivory Coast would make food, these giant soups, for all of her African friends, and they would all come to our place to eat on the weekends, in that little room of ours.  I had to be careful what I wore around the apartment since they would all be there, from Friday to Sunday.  We had to be very tolerant of each other.

Over there it was really important to speak Russian, because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t respect you, and learning it was difficult. You open the books and you begin to read, and you don’t understand anything.  You had to grab a dictionary or an app on your phone to translate it to Spanish. You constantly had to be getting the translation to understand what the book was saying.  All of us foreigners had to study twice as much as everyone else. But these things change you and make you stronger.

In the first six months, they teach you grammar and writing, and the next six months you learn subjects like math, chemistry, and biology.  Although the professors were good, it was hard. I was able to understand and speak Russian within 6 months, but it took me a full year to master it.

I remember that one Russian professor in anatomy would make you feel so bad if you made a mistake, and in that class, there were so many things to memorize.  There are so many cavities in the skull, the bones in the temporal, all the connections, what vein is there and what organ communicates with it, and we had to learn all of it in Russian and Latin.  The professor would arrive, give us a bone and say, “what is this?” If you made one mistake, she would not forgive you, she would just say “well, just come back next week and do the exam all over again.” It was horrible, really.  She made a student cry for one error.  She said, “you are not fit to be a doctor.  Go back to your country. You can’t speak Russian well enough.”

I tried to avoid all of that. I would study and then make drawings of everything I studied, and when the exam arrived, I would put the drawings in front of the professor so she would know that I knew the material.  You had to find a way to win them over. (laughs)

Silva had to stop studying when she was no longer able to cover her expenses.

My parents started to have economic problems, more so than usual, and they began to send me just 250 dollars a month. With this I had to eat, and in a city so expensive like Moscow, I really had to spend money only on food, and it had to be the most basic type of food.  At times, I just didn’t have enough. The scholarship paid for academics, the courses, the labs, but it did not pay for your housing or your food. They may have provided you the books, but not the notebooks or pens. I stopped my studies in the second semester of my second year.

I would have stayed if I had the money.  The scholarship would have taken me through the program to become a doctor, but I couldn’t get the work in Russia that would have allowed me to afford living there.  There were, however, allowances for time off. You could take a year off and still come back and study, so I decided to go to Turkey to earn enough money to return. But if you don’t return within a year, you lose your scholarship.  

I went to Turkey with a guy I got engaged to who was Muslim, and I earned 1,500 dollars a month in tourism. First, though, I went to the Ukraine to study massage, relaxing forms of massage, like Thai, Balinese, shiatsu, styles from India.  I did this so I could go back to Turkey and implement what I had learned.  My fiancé had a business to sell massages to tourists at a hotel, and my job was to explain the types he provided, and to sell customers the massages, I would give a small demonstration and explain how the technique was.  If they liked it, they would buy some and we would assign them a masseuse.  

We had local clients, but 80 percent of them at that hotel were Russians.  Since I could speak their language, I could sell to them.  All the time, I thought I would go back to the university in Moscow.  And while I was there I learned Turkish. It wasn’t hard like Russian. 

When the time came to go back, my husband-to-be told me to stay.  He said, “you are my woman.  Stay with me.” Since I believed that I was gong to make my life with him, I didn’t return to Moscow.  We continued to see each other for another year, but I found out he had been married to another woman and hadn’t told me.  I found pictures of them together in India after he told me he was going there alone on a business trip.  How can I marry someone who already has a wife, and didn’t tell me?  How stupid. He wanted me to be his second woman.  After that I didn’t want to be with him any more, and I returned to my country.  

When you go back, everything is different, the traffic, the people, and the climate, nothing is the same.  But you remember who you are and where you are from, because sometimes you forget, no?  So much time passes when you are abroad and you begin to think in another language, you forget to think in Spanish.  But you also change.  You don’t see things the same, you don’t see things like your culture has taught you.  You open your mind.

People work very hard over there.  In Turkey, you only have three days of rest during an entire month, just three. And that is very tiring.  And in Russia, we studied from Monday to Saturday. We only had Sundays off, and on that day you had to buy things, go to the market, clean the apartment, everything had to be taken care of.  So you can’t do anything else.  It’s not like that here in Guatemala.

If I had the chance, I would return to Russia to study but I would have to have the capital to do it.  I would have to apply for a scholarship all over again, and I would have to have a job over there to sustain me, and that is something I don’t have.  It’s just not possible now.  I can’t have my parents maintain me either, and they haven’t since I was 20. So I’m never going to go back and study there.

I want to be here in Antigua a year, because maybe I will have a future here and could put up a business.   I want to study and understand how everything works and start something. I have to work, I have to eat, and no one is going to rain money down on me.  I have to think about my future.

I feel like Antigua is a very happy place, more so than in Moscow, more so than in Turkey, more so than in Guatemala City.  Here I don’t feel judged, the people are nice and sociable, and I feel supported by my friends. I also like the architecture. 

And it is peaceful here. It’s my country and it isn’t so dangerous in this part of it. 

That’s what I like the most.  

The above story was told in our interview on June 25, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. The translation is my own.

Claudette Silva, Antigua, Guatemala, June 25, 2019.

 

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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