Hispanic Heritage Month: My Paraguayan Roots Inspire Courage

Carmen Paul and her mother Maria Fleetwood

September 17, 2019 - DC, DE, MD, VA Florida Maine New England New Jersey, New York and PA North and South Carolina

Carmen Fleetwood Paul is a Senior News Writer and Editor for TD Bank's Corporate and Public Affairs (CAPA) team. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

One of the joys of my life is doing pet therapy with my golden retriever Elsa.  We visit nursing homes and schools to meet with people.  Earlier this summer, we were asked to join the hospice program at our local Veterans Administration hospital.

I had a million excuses for not participating, but the truth was I was afraid of the sadness. I was about to respond via email while sitting in my dining room when I looked at the portrait of my late mother. My beautiful Paraguayan mother – Maria Emilia Valenzuela Fleetwood. I then remembered one of the most important lessons she gave me.

She had returned to medicine after a 20-year hiatus to raise her family. Her new practice in the mid-1980s was in Jersey City, a place devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was a time when some healthcare providers actually quit to avoid treating these patients. The providers that did treat HIV/AIDS patients, did so while wearing full masks and gloves to prevent direct skin contact.

My mother had the burden of telling a young woman that she tested positive for HIV - at that time a virtual death sentence.  Not wearing any protective gear, my mother hugged the young woman, and they spoke and cried together for two hours.

I asked my mother why she took the risk. She said simply ''no one should be alone at that time. I am from Paraguay, and we don't leave people when they need us most."

I knew what I had to do with the request for the hospice program – I wrote my email asking when I could start.

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Paraguay is always a part of me

It's been a difficult time in the Hispanic community with incidents such as the El Paso shooting and immigration debates. The celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month has caused me to consider what my roots mean.

My mother was born in Paraguay and first came to Boston when she received a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Afterwards, she married my father, whose Virginia family first arrived in the U.S. from England in the late 17th century. She became a proud U.S. citizen after the birth of her three children in New York City, but she also continued to take pride in being from Paraguay.  

I primarily grew up in suburban New Jersey in a blended household where we celebrated the traditions of both my parents. But few people knew much about Paraguay in my area. It's a landlocked country in Southern Central South America of about 6 million people. The population is mostly mixed between Spanish and the native Indians – Guarini. The official languages are both Spanish and Guarini.  Its most significant imports include the sweetener Stevia and beef.

In our family, we ate steak regularly (my grandmother believed it was unhealthy not to eat daily),Sopa de Paraguay (a type of cornbread), empanadas, Dulce de leche, and my favorite milanesa, which is a  breaded meat dish.. We listened to Paraguayan harp and guitar music.

My family was different in that we always had dinners together. We also took joy in the simplest things, such as going to the supermarket on Saturday as a family. While I admit to being embarrassed by those trips as a teen, they are now treasured memories. It's something that I live by today.  One of the happiest things for me is a simple Sunday barbecue with my husband. 

There is a special affinity in Paraguay between its people and horses. My grandmother Carmen (whom I am named after) was an excellent side-saddle rider. I've carried on the equestrian tradition, but as a dressage rider.

Paraguayan drive to make life better

The poverty level in Paraguay is about 30%, and life is hard. But you may be surprised that the 2016 Gallup Global Emotions Report named it as the happiest country on the globe. I believe it's because of the soul of the Paraguayan culture – one that accepts the hardship of life and strives to make it better.

Perhaps one of the best illustrations is The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, an orchestra of Paraguayan children who had to make musical instruments made from scrap materials collected from landfills because of a lack of money. This group went on to playing all over the world with major stars, such as Stevie Wonder, Metallica and Megadeth.

My roots today                

I know my mother would be thrilled that I am working for TD, the "Unexpectedly Human" Bank.  She believed that reaching out was the most important thing about life after family. She would certainly enjoy the culture of making people a priority – saying that was the Paraguayan way.

I've been learning more about the value of reaching out with my volunteer work this summer at the hospice. Visiting people weekly at the end of their lives has been both joyous and sad.  But Elsa and I are there for the people when they need a joy that only a dog can bring, whether it's talking about the dogs they've had in the past or just comforting family as their loved one dies. I know this role honors my mother and my Paraguayan roots for which I am so proud. 


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