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Betsy Arvelo and the purse

By the time I turned three, my family had gone from a normal family living in the outskirts of Santo Domingo dealing with "normal" day-to-day issues,  to having my father jailed as a political prisoner, my mother harassed daily, renting out our family home and moving to a small house in the city near my grandfather's, and keeping a very low profile.

Living under a dictatorship, in the Trujillo era, in the Dominican Republic, if your family got in trouble with the regime, anyone helping you or fraternizing with you risked the government’s wrath against them. So people like us, found that friends and family stayed away out of fear. I know that it was a lot to lose and they were desperate times, but my mother has always gauged people according to whether they talked to her when we were untouchables or they chose not to. Those who chose not to, she has never forgiven. I guess that, because I was young, I have never had such a black and white approach to the situation. Therefore, I have been able to forgive. I can't blame her for not letting go, but ire consumes you and it has consumed her.

The day I turned three, November 25th of 1954, I was playing with my brother in front of our little house in the city and a lady came up to me. She handed me a present and inside was a purse. I don’t know why it had such an effect, but I still remember that day. The purse was white with a red trim, a doll’s face in the front, and red and white drawstring handles. It had a red and white striped drawstring to open and close it. I was wearing a cowboy hat exactly like the one Andy wore in Toy Story, except it was black. I don’t know if it was mine or if it belonged to my brother. The lady handed me the purse, gave me a kiss, spoke with my mother for a short time and left. I overheard that she couldn’t stay and I understood. For some reason I knew that people couldn’t come to visit because we were untouchables. I overheard my mother very discreetly thanking her and saying she understood. The lady walked away. That purse was one of the coolest things I remember about my childhood. 

That afternoon we celebrated my birthday, a small party by my mother’s standards, considering the productions she later had for each of our birthdays, which were legendary. I still had a great cake and a lot of presents, candy and balloons. My mother's brother's children, my first cousins, the kids of my mother’s best friend, and the maid’s son were the only kids at the party. And it had to be a great party because I remember it. I never let go of the purse the whole afternoon. Every photo of me that day, I am proudly displaying the purse with pride.

I have always thought of the lady that gave me the purse. I don’t know who she was. But I have always understood the importance of what she did. It was not only a gift for me, but also a message to my mother that even though she couldn’t stay for the obvious reasons, she still thought it was important to support my mother in her plight. I am sure it took guts to come to our house when so many others didn’t and I am sure my mother was very thankful. Even some of my mothers' close family stayed away, so this was a very special thing to do.

All these years later I wonder, if the tables were turned, would I have the guts to go by and bring that lady's child a purse, knowing that, if seen, the government might question where my loyalty lies. Something to ponder forever. Would I have the moral conviction to do the same? I hope I would. But I also hope I never have to test it.

 

View the embedded image gallery online at:
http://betsyarvelo.com/stories/18-the-purse#sigProId2bc7d02969

 

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