A Survivor’s Story

A Guatemalan native adopted by Iowans tells of life in her war-torn homeland where her parents were massacred and she was left to bury her baby sister.


Morgan: It is difficult for Iowans to imagine the life our next guest has lived. Born in Guatemala, when Dominga sic Ruiz was nine, her parents were massacred. All alone, she had to bury a baby sister who died. Adopted two years later by an Iowa family, Denese joy Becker suppressed Dominga's experiences in order to fit into her new home. But Denese never forgot and in time she had to go back to her roots.

Her journey of self-discovery has been chronicled in "discovering Dominga," part of the award-winning P.O.V. series. In this scene, a group with Denese waits and watches while the grave site where her father and others were buried is excavated, the remains evidence of the massacres that killed hundreds of Maya Indians. Lorenzo Sandoval talked with Denese Becker in this survivor's story. She was joined by her cousin Mary Purvis, who helped Denese find her past.

Denese: I always knew that my name was -- always been Dominga. As a matter of fact, when I was named Denese, I had a really hard time adjusting to my name. It's always been there. Dominga is very well alive.

Lorenzo: did memories of Guatemala come to you at once, or was it a gradual experience?

Denese: No, I've always -- I've always had certain memories in my mind, and I always -- the massacres, and I always remembered surviving and running for my life. There were certain things that I was unsure of, but when I went back to Guatemala in 2000, a lot of the puzzle was -- I was able to put together. And things just came together for me.

Lorenzo: So you carried these memories and images. When did they start getting very troublesome for you, these images?

Denese: I started having nightmares very shortly after I came here, after I realized that I looked different than the average blond-hair, blue-eyed person in Iowa. And I had some discrimination too. So as a child, you -- well, how I dealt with it was I just closed up. I just got really shy and I didn't say much.

Lorenzo: How about the conversations that you had with your cousin Mary?

Denese: It took me years to open up to Mary. She -- she tried many, many, many years. It is -- my story comes out a lot easier to her. When I told it, I remember that it was -- but I still to this day find myself -- I'm just a very private person. And sometimes it's easier to say it's none of your business, you know. But I try. I really try to open up to her. She's very sensitive to my feelings, and that's why I do it. And that's why I have her here today, because someone has got to scrape me off the floor when I fall.

Lorenzo: Now, Mary, as the adopted cousin, when you were first hearing these thoughts and feelings from Denese, what were your impressions?

Mary: Well, I believed her right away because we had heard them ever since they had adopted her. I met her when she was about twelve. I think she came to the first family reunion and they had told me her parents had been killed and so I knew all along. And I tried to talk to her in Spanish, and she -- she wouldn't have anything to do with me. But when she started opening up, I believed her. I think the most heart wrenching one for me was when she broke down crying and told me she felt like it was her fault that the baby had died. And she was nine; it wasn't her fault. And that was really a special moment that began to bond us together, I think.

Lorenzo: What compelled you, then, to want to do something, to take some action?

Mary: One year I didn't go to the family reunion, and I didn't know till the following year, Denese told me she didn't go that year because I wasn't there. And I didn't realize I was even important in her life. So then the next year when I saw her and she said, "Mary," she said, "I feel like you're my only hope to ever go back to Guatemala," because I had been going to Guatemala since 1990 on short-term mission trips and I was familiar with the country. So she felt like I was her only connection to Guatemala and I could help her go back. We discussed it at that reunion that I would help her raise the money to go back.

Lorenzo: Denese, would you have found your roots, do you think, without Mary?

Denese: No, probably not because she's the one that found the people that i'm connected -- was connected to and still is on the internet. And I don't do any internet at all.

Lorenzo: Denese, how -- how important is this search for your identity? How important is that to you?

Denese: For -- it is so important to me that I would fight to the end to find it, and i'm still searching. I'm still look -- there's still things that I want to know that has happened that maybe a part of my mind has shut off. I've been told it's trauma, which is scary that anything like that could have happened to me, but it did. And just the pain that I have to live with every day pushes me forward to keep finding myself. And I think I -- I don't think I can survive without Guatemala. It is very crucial to me and my boys.

Lorenzo: Do you ever compare your childhood to the childhood that's currently being experienced by your boys?

Denese: Yeah, I find it so sad that Sterling has not been to Guatemala, and he's ten. And to know that that's all I knew when I was ten, it is so opposite that I just -- I think it's very important that I go forward and show them Guatemala. It's just -- I find it sad that he doesn't know what bushbul is and he doesn't -- he doesn't eat a mango. He peels his mango. He doesn't eat a mango like the Mayan people do. There's so many details that he doesn't know that I know. And I don't want him to experience, like, the starvation or running from bullets or anything like that. But I think he needs to see the beauty of his own country.

Lorenzo: Do you feel there's a conflict between Denese and Dominga?

Denese: There was at first. When people started calling me Dominga, I felt like Dominga was the one that ran in the mountains and did her own thing and was very independent and scared and saw all the bad things. And then -- and here I am; I'm Denese. And all I've known for almost nineteen years now is the U.S. And I'd like to think that that's a better life for me, so I really -- I do tell people to call me Denese. It's almost painful to be called Dominga for me because I see myself running in the mountains and I see myself struggling and starving. To me it's not a good thing to feel that. And here I am in my makeup and my Merle Norman. And to be called Dominga, it contradicts as to who I am now. So -- but I believe that we -- we are very much the same.

Lorenzo: When people hear your story, what would you want them to do? How do you want them to respond?

Denese: I want them to thank god for what they have. They have, probably, a secure job, a nice car, a nice house. And I bet they have a complete family: grandmother, mother, father, daughters. I've lived all my life without that, almost all my life. But I know what it's like to have them. And I believe it's -- it's very important that people see that they are lucky for living in the united states, for the most part. If you think you have it bad, you don't.

Lorenzo: There have been very many painful moments for you in this journey, I'm sure. Have there ever been any moments of peace for you?

Denese: Yeah, there has been moments of peace for me. There's a river in Xococ and that's peace. That's the only place I find peace is the river. And when I saw my dad's picture in the Cedula in 2000, that brought me peace. But there's a lot more things that I can do that can bring me peace, like take my boys back to Guatemala. I'm definitely not there but --

Living in Iowa

Iowa PBS, 2007


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