My mother was a woman ahead of her time
My mother, Elba Parra Guzmán, was ahead of her time. Born in Chile, in 1917, she was the daughter of Tránsito, a school teacher, and Carlos, a bartender in a club frequented by the powerful of the time.
Margarita, my mother’s grandmother, was an illiterate peasant from a southern town, who was practically kidnapped at age 15 from the garden she was planting and taken on horseback to Santiago. Emilio, the man who charmed her onto the back of his horse, was forced into a hasty shotgun marriage by my great-great grandfather, who soon realized that the “kidnapping” of his daughter had been more the case of “love at first sight.” Real love—of course, the shotgun was also real!
But that is another story. Actually, many stories are lurking there. This particular story is about my mother.
Following the steps of her own mother, she became a teacher—a much loved, respected (and feared) teacher of the School for Girls #7, in Santiago. Tough love was something she believed in. Both in her school and in our home.
She never put her hands on my three sisters and me, but she used a barrage of phrases and stories that kept us in place. If we went to her crying with a little hurt, be it physical or mental, she would say, “Shoot! Watch it! That happens five minutes before you die!” That proved to be a most effective cure.
If we lost something and were running around desperately, like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off (and I saw a couple of those during the few years we lived in the countryside), she would ask: “So? Where did you last see it? Well, it should be there! Don’t waste my time.” And it usually was there.
Nevertheless, that is not why she was ahead of her time. I am certain that most mothers also use phrases (or chancletas) to keep us in line. I say that about her, because she was considered extremely “opinionated” and “combative.”
She excelled in various sports. She played on some of the first Chilean Women’s Basketball teams, and she was the Chilean Champion in the 100 meters, 200 meters and broad jump. Popular among those who competed with or against her, she was elected both a beauty “Spring Queen of 1944” and captain of her various teams.
She also had a clear mind and was not afraid to use it, belying the stereotypes about athletes, who are considered rather limited on their intellectual realm. If today it is controversial for athletes to express “non-sports,” or political ideas, imagine what it was like for a woman in the late 1930s.
But she spoke in defense of women athletes and fame did not get to her head.
I read interviews with her from those years when she was an active competitor (1935-1945).
“I am a firm believer that the practice of sports by the Chilean women is a sign of progress and helps in the development of our culture … I am not talking about competitive sports, or the development of the individual champion, but about the promotion of the collective practice of sports, looking towards a higher goal, the betterment of our people.” (“La Patria,” city of Concepción, Chile, 1944)
In another interview with “Que Hubo” in 1939, she said: “There are antiquated men who are not consequent with what they say. There are men who defend and break their swords in support of the theory that their daughters should practice sports, but then they turn around and forbid them to do so. These antiquated men get in the way of making a reality what they claim to profess.” A final quote, from the same “Que Hubo” interview: “Something else that I find of essential importance, is the fact that the coaches for women sports, any sports, should be women. We understand ourselves better.”
These statements did not make her life easier. In spite of her charm, intelligence and athletic excellence, she ran into some powerful enemies. She told me, for example, that in 1939, she was selected to represent Chile in the South American Championships in Lima, Perú. But the main coach impeded her invitation to run.
“He was a Nazi!” she told me about 6 years ago. “He did not like what I expressed, about women coaching women. Just four days before that Championship in Perú, there was a big earthquake in the south of Chile. I was there, attending a sports event and could not return to Santiago on the exact day he demanded. The roads were blocked! I was one day late! He could not kick me off the team, but he forbid me to run …and I was the fastest! A Nazi! An ugly man!”
My mother died about 4 years ago. Until her last days, she kept on reading, singing and painting (which she took up when she turned 80). Wherever she was, she was a central figure.
The fact that I am now writing this column is, in large part, due to her constant insistence: “You have to write more, Carlos! You have so many stories! Share them! Don’t be selfish!”
That is what I am doing today: in celebration of International Women’s Day, I am sharing bits of the story of my mother: a woman ahead of her time.