I stared open-mouthed at my Peruvian mother-in-law Rosa Tapia de Villalobos. She couldn’t mean it. Once again, she had blindsided me with the kind of old wives’ tale people in Lima took in with their mother’s milk.
Rosa came every morning with fresh granadillas for my infant daughter, Rosalena, who shared the names of both her grandmothers. Rosa usually stayed a few minutes to chat and supervise the preparation of this gentle juice which I had learned was the Peruvian infant’s introduction to tropical fruit.
That day she had patted my daughter’s head lovingly as the juice level went steadily down in the bottle, but something about the way she was avoiding eye contact warned me that I, her American daughter-in-law, was in for another lesson in Peruvian child rearing. I was doing something wrong, or not doing something right, to my firstborn.
Shortly after her birth, I had been admonished to tie a red string around her tiny wrist to ward off el mal ojo, the Evil Eye, and to pin a small red bow to her sleeper for the same reason.
“The Evil Eye? What’s the Evil Eye?” I’d asked, as visions of medieval sorcerers came to mind. Rosa explained to me about nefarious individuals who cast evil spells on infants by looking at them, causing sickness and even death. The terms superstitious and uneducated had popped into my head, but I was learning to mask my skepticism.
“Of course, it’s just something people believe,” she said, carefully avoiding the word superstition. “But where’s the harm?”
So Rosalena wore the crimson protections while I took her for routine immunizations and followed the pediatrician’s instructions for her diet and hygiene. Curiously enough, I noticed that the doctor encouraged me to indulge the talismans.
“No, of course I don’t believe in it,” he said. “But where’s the harm?”
I gave it a month.
I was okay with that, but I refused to keep the windows closed at night to prevent el mal aire from entering the bedroom. Peruvians, I was learning, in addition to being terrified of cold beverages, were deathly afraid of breathing the night air. None of them would believe me when I mentioned that in the sorority house at IU, I slept in the Cold Dorm, without heat and with the windows wide open to the Indiana winter without ever getting sick.
“Fresh air is healthy,” I insisted.
“Maybe over there, in the States, (where people are crazy) but not here in Peru where everyone knows it’s bad for you,” they would say.
Still, in spite of my inexperience (but with the surreptitious help of Doctor Spock’s Baby and Child Care,) I was navigating this bi-cultural parenting thing and thought I was doing okay.
Until that day. I watched as Rosa stroked the scant wisps of golden baby hair, lifting them gingerly and drawing them out into the air with her fingertips. There was something curiously akin to distain on her face. I didn’t have long to wait to find out why.
“Pobrecita,” she began. “Poor little thing.”
I took a deep breath. I was still not used to Rosa’s prefacing every remark about her granddaughter this way.
“Why do you say that? Why do you feel so sorry her?” I once asked. “She’s tiny. She’s perfect. Why does she need our pity?”
Without removing her gaze from the button nose and rosebud mouth of her namesake, Rosa sighed.
“Just think how much suffering she’ll endure in her lifetime!”
The fatalism of that remark had left me speechless, and not only because I was leaning to keep my opinions to myself. I also knew that it was entirely possible that at some time in the future I would come to comprehend, if not to share, Rosa’s point of view. Just then, however, I didn’t get it, but something else was up.
"Just look at how thin her hair is, poor little thing.” Rosa regarded me accusingly. The desirability of thick hair had never occurred to me. Fingers and toes, regular facial features, and other normal body parts constituted my requirements for a physically complete baby. I just assumed she would have serviceable hair.
“She’s only eight months old,” I reminded her. “It’ll get thicker as it grows.”
“No, it won’t.” said Rosa, firmly. “It will stay like this, all listless and pitiful, unless…”
Unless what? I thought. My mind went to hair follicles, scalp tissue, genes…all things beyond my control. What did she expect me to do?
“Unless,” she continued triumphantly, “You shave her head!”
My jaw dropped. She went on, nodding sagely, sensing a weak spot in my armor.
“That’s right. Children’s heads need to be shaved so the hair will grow back nice and thick. Like pruning trees. Hair is the same way. You shave i t all off. It grows back thicker.” And then, the kicker: “That’s the way we do it here in Peru.” She crossed her arms.
I recalled my own baby pictures with that same kind of blonde hair that had turned darker and much thicker as I grew. I pictured my mother’s head of beautifully dense silver hair. Why did we have a problem? Then I remembered that I had never known my father with more than a thin ginger fringe around the back of his head.
“You shaved your children’s heads?” I asked. She nodded happily. “Just so the hair would grow in thick?” Big smile.
I shook my head. Her three children did, indeed, have lots of hair. But so did most Peruvians! All those Inca descendants had thick ropes of braids to their waists. And Spaniards, if you wanted to get anthropological, had had thick mats of dark (and possibly lice-infested) locks under those uncomfortable-looking Conquistador helmets. What’s the big deal?
“I’ll think about it,” I waffled.
Unconvinced, I confronted my husband –her son–about it later. In typical fashion, he ducked the issue.
“Where’s the harm? It’ll grow back. Either way. It’s up to you. I don’t care.” He turned back to the soccer game.
Left in the position of either opposing or appeasing my mother-in-law, I decided to do some impartial research. I consulted friends. All the Peruvian women had shaved their children’s heads, but none of the Americans had, even the ones married to Peruvians–and all their children had normal amounts of hair.
“How can you compare a child’s head to a tree?” My friend Margaret shook her own head in disgust.
Recalling my university science classes, I cast about for an equitable solution that would prove me right once and for all, and settle this ridiculous issue. At length, I came up with the Scientific Method.
Observation: Peruvians shave children’s heads so their hair will grow in thicker (a patently ridiculous assertion.)
Hypothesis: Shaving a child’s head will make the hair grow back thicker.
At that point, it became distressingly clear that I would have to shave only ONE SIDE of my child’s head to prove my point. If I had been worried that my beautiful baby would look funny bald, the thought of her half-shorn settled the matter. I caved.
After all, where’s the harm?
I lost the battle but avoided a war with my wonderful mother-in-law. Rosa and I reached an unspoken agreement about this. The other three grandchildren survived infancy without having their heads shaved, and they all grew luxuriant tresses, a point I may have mentioned in passing (at every possible opportunity) at family gatherings.
Years later, when they all graduated from high school in California, the only accolade my Peruvian-American off spring shared in their high school yearbooks was–wait for it–Best Hair.
When the phone rang late that winter night, at first I was glad I didn’t recognize the man’s voice. Lately, someone had been prank calling me. He’d pretended to know me–flirting like–until I’d realized I didn’t know him and hang up. But this voice was different. Ominous. None of the macho confidence of the previous caller. He hesitated after I answered, almost nervous when he spoke.
“Señora Nancy? This is…” and he rattled off an acronym that meant nothing to me. It sounded like a rebel terrorist group, but it wasn’t one of the notorious ones that were in the news all the time. Still, the bottom fell out of my stomach. The blood pounded in my ears so that I could hardly hear him. And then I did.
“You will leave ten thousand dollars for us tomorrow.” He named a site. I was afraid to breathe. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the destination. I had no intention of going there. I tightened my grip on the receiver.
“If you don’t, something bad will happen to someone in your family, Señora Nancy. Are you listening? Something very bad.”
Too stunned to answer, I lowered the receiver to its cradle.
This was Lima, Peru, in 1987.
Twenty-two years before, I had arrived in a peaceful and democratic country to study Spanish on a simple junior year abroad. That’s when I fell in love–with the country and with the son of my host family. Maybe that clouded my nascent political vision, because I didn’t see that under the surface, revolutionary leftist forces were already gathering strength for an armed revolt. They meant to deliver the government and the nation to el pueblo–the impoverished and disenfranchised people of the indigenous population.
Two years later, I married my Peruvian, Rolando (Tito) Villalobos, and returned as a bride. Not long after I arrived, a military junta bundled up the President of the Republic in the middle of the night and dumped him on a flight to somewhere else.
For the next twelve years, the military dictatorship contained the insurrection to the southern mountains. In spite of all the difficulties the populace at large suffered under the military regime, no one expected the country to be in even worse shape when Democracy was restored in 1980, right around the time my husband died of an attack of acute pancreatitis.
Thank goodness Tito isn’t here to see what has happened to his country, I thought. I stood in the sprawling, one story home we had built together. Every room had a door to the outside so the children and I would be safe from Lima’s frequent tremors and occasional major quakes.
Safe. Now fear of natural disaster had been supplanted by terror of the man-made variety. In the seven years of my widowhood, Lima had become a city of rationing, gas shortages, and generalized unease. Rebel groups routinely disabled electrical towers, throwing the city into prolonged blackouts. Without electricity gas stations couldn’t pump gas. The Shining Path rebel movement known as Sendero Luminoso, espoused a violent version of Maoism. Mayhem appeared with the introduction of coche-bombas–vehicles filled with explosives that were detonated in affluent areas of the city. The armed insurrection had finally come down from the mountains into the capital.
In response, President Alan García imposed martial law. The constant ominous military presence. Those young, conscripted, illiterate boy-soldiers with heavy weaponry standing in the darkened streets, enforcing the 1:00 am curfew, filled me with dread.
And then there was the insane inflation. When the rate reached a ridiculous level, the government simple invented a new currency–the Inti–to replace the traditional Sol and gave it a new, artificial value. Not that it mattered much. There wasn’t a lot to buy. Grocery shelves that should have held cooking oil or rice or canned milk, greeted housewives with banks of toilet paper. Sendero was succeeding in its purpose–the country was in a tailspin.
When kidnappings of foreign businessmen and their families for ransom became common, large companies gradually repatriated their executives who had dependents and replaced them with single men. As a result, the roster of students in my international nursery school had dwindled.
Affluent Peruvians were also threatened. My mother and I had unknowingly interrupted the kidnapping of our neighbor’s son one afternoon when we pulled up in our driveway. The young man had just parked his car next to ours, in front of his house, when a scooter with two men aboard entered our cul-de-sac. Unconcerned, I left my mother in the passenger seat and got out to push open the heavy gate to our property. When I turned around to go back to the car, I noticed that the men on the scooter had stopped. That was odd. And why were they talking to my neighbor’s son? That’s when I saw the large handgun. The men hesitated, glancing at my mother and me, and roared away.
And now this. After I stopped shaking, I sat down to compose myself. Following Tito’s example, I tried to avoid panic by analyzing the situation. The caller asked for me and not my husband, so did he know I was alone? Likely. Many people knew me as a widow. He had said “your family,” not “one of your children.” Could he know how many I had or where they went to school? Unlikely. Or was he referring to my elderly mother, who now lived with me? Highly unlikely. I couldn’t remember the acronym of the group he mentioned because I was so scared. Any set of letters these days posed a potential threat, but maybe were these just wannabes, trying to cash in on the hysteria. Highly likely. Otherwise, it didn’t make sense. Why was I being targeted? I was American but not high-powered at all, just a private citizen running a small nursery school. And the sum...ten thousand dollars (as daunting for me as it seemed) was not a likely ransom. Compared with the enormous sums demanded of foreign companies for their executives, it was much too small.
With a deep breath, I decided it was too late to do anything that night. In the morning I would get some advice from my friends at the Consulate. Just that afternoon I had seen the long line of Peruvians standing outside it, hoping to get visas. They wanted to flee. Why was I still here?
I walked to the closet where my hands lingered on the highly varnished teak slats of the door. I pulled it open, revealing the small wall safe inside. Under my fingers, the reassuring click of the tumblers calmed me as they fell through the familiar combination. The heavy door swung open. Six valid U.S. passports lay inside. I put them under my pillow and turned out the light. It was time to go.
I’ve been a part of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years. Excerpts of my memoir, Peru;My Other Country, A Love Story have been performed in the Annual Memoir Showcase, put on by the San Diego Memoir Writers Association and San Diego Writers, Ink. and published in two annual anthologies. Another excerpt appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman. I belong to San Diego Writers, Ink and have been a board member of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association.