“Rudy and Berta Lopez: A Guatemalan Perspective on Living the Gospel,” Ensign, Aug. 1986, 25
Rudy Lopez thinks of himself as an eagle. Most people, he says, can be characterized according to how their behavior resembles that of certain animals—timid moles, savage lions, energetic hummingbirds. He is an eagle.
Soaring on winds of freedom, obeying principles to guide his flight along currents of responsibility, he is alert to opportunities to provide for himself and his family. He swoops down to take advantage of them, and tries to set the proper example so his children will see and learn. When they are ready, he will help them out of the nest to soar on their own.
The analogy holds up—to a point. The example is there, but so are humor and affection that do not fit the eagle image. Rudy may sternly instruct his eldest son Gustavo in how the affairs of the family business are to be handled, for example, but moments later he will tenderly bid his son good-bye, and check to be sure Gustavo has transportation home from the university where he studies mechanical engineering.
Those two moments of contrast are characteristic of the blend of love and individual responsibility that seems to make life go so well for the Rudy Lopez family—Latter-day Saints who stand out in service to the Church and to their community in Guatemala.
The Lopezes’ goals, as a family and as individuals, seem to focus on obedience to gospel principles. That obedience has brought them many spiritual rewards. They recognize that obedience to gospel principles has also helped them make the most of their temporal blessings—blessings they do not take for granted.
One blessing is their home in the hills above Guatemala City. On the horizon, white clouds scud by so fast their shadows pass in seconds. But below the level of the hilltops, the air is more still. Rudy and Berta Lopez dig and water around their fifty-five newly planted apple trees.
The hills in the distance are dappled with patches of farmland and small wooded areas, accented by an occasional house. It is a tranquil spot. It would be an act of will to remember that bustling, urban Guatemala City is only fifteen minutes away by car, in the valley just over the tops of the hills, but the occasional sound of a bus or truck serves as a reminder. The busy Pan American Highway is a hundred meters or so on the other side of the Lopezes’ house, beyond a row of tall trees.
It is early March, and conditions are ideal for gardening—pleasantly sunny, with a temperature near sixty degrees Fahrenheit that prevails almost year-round here at the six-thousand-foot level.
Brother Lopez enthusiastically conducts a quick tour of his large garden. There are blackberries, strawberries, other fruits and vegetables, and herbs to be used for treating mild illnesses.
Beyond the garden is a chicken coop. The chickens will provide eggs and meat. Behind the house is a large tank that can hold a week’s supply of water; Brother Lopez’s plans call for installation of two more like it.
If it sounds as though the property is meant to provide the family a degree of self-sufficiency, that is correct. It is all part of the Lopez family’s own welfare program. Several years ago, Brother Lopez sold the house they owned in the city and used the money to buy this property at a bargain price. He built their spacious red brick and tile home, reminiscent of a Mexican rancho villa, largely with his own hands, paying for materials as it progressed to avoid debt.
“This house and this land are the fruits of obeying the counsel of the First Presidency,” Brother Lopez affirms. It is obvious that, to him, having been obedient is more important than the temporal result.
There is more to this family welfare plan of his. Only infrequently, while running the tire and auto shop, did he take a whole Saturday off to work at home. More often than not, he was at the shop. (Not long ago, he moved into another business venture, so he leased his repair shop and put Gustavo in charge of his automobile restoration business.) His business ventures are important not only because they meet the family’s current needs, but also because he is banking on them—literally—for the future.
He will eventually give the auto-related businesses to Gustavo, he explains. But before that day comes, he plans also to set each of his other children up in a business that suits their talents and interests. (Twenty-one-year-old Jose Fernando “Pepe” Lopez is deeply involved in his father’s new venture, exporting Guatemalan woven goods.) “Then I will say to them, ‘Now you can pay me so much per month from what your business brings in.’” That will be his and Berta’s retirement plan in a country that does not offer its senior citizens Social Security.
The children learned to work when they were small. “We’ve always had jobs to do,” recalls Gustavo, now twenty-four. As early as age eight, he was allowed to change electrical outlet plugs in the house, along with his other jobs. By ten, he was doing plumbing. After his mission he became involved in mechanics at his father’s shop, and found he enjoyed it.
Twenty-two-year-old Gina studies commercial art and design at a university across town from Gustavo’s school. Her father proudly shows off her work and talks about her talent.
Gina has served in Church positions for several years now, but a recent leadership meeting presentation in connection with her position as first counselor in the stake Young Women presidency had her preoccupied. She was unsure how to approach one subject. What should she teach on this particular point, she asked her father.
“What does your manual say?” he questioned. Gina replied that she had not yet read the appropriate section. Her father, first counselor in the presidency of the Guatemala City Guatemala Stake, could easily have told her what she needed to know. Instead, he lovingly put his arm around her shoulders and said, “Read your manual. Then, if there’s something you don’t understand, come back to me and I will explain it.”
That teaching moment is typical in the Lopez home. Sister Lopez, a veteran secondary school teacher, says she and her husband have tried not only to set a good example for their children, but also to give them a strong sense of self-worth.
How to do that? “Don’t do everything for them from the time they’re little,” she answers.
The Lopez children have always had their own tasks around the home. They iron their own clothes and help with the cooking. Pepe returned not long ago from serving in the Guatemala Quezaltenango Mission. His mother had confidence he would not go hungry or wear unmended clothing as a missionary because he knows how to cook and sew. “Pepe is a very good cook. When he likes something, he wants to learn how to make it.”
At breakfast for the Lopez family, there are the traditional fried bananas, black bean puree, and sour cream (which may be ladled over the bananas, beans, or both) for most members of the family. But for Gina, who cannot eat the black beans, there are other items as well. “Gina,” Brother Lopez says with a wink, “is in reality a princess who was destined to eat finer food and live in a royal palace. But she became lost on her way to the palace and ended up in this home instead. So we have to provide other food for her.”
Sister Lopez says she has enjoyed her husband’s sense of humor since she first knew him, and that it has been a valuable asset in the family. “If there’s no humor, if one takes everything seriously, life would be very monotonous. It would lack spark.”
Berta Bonilla and Rudy Lopez “came to know each other as children, more or less,” she recalls. Both were preteens when they met through the Church. Her family was one of the first to be contacted by LDS missionaries in Guatemala City, where missionary work began in 1947; some of the first LDS meetings held there were in her home. Rudy’s was the first Guatemalan family to be baptized in its entirety, they believe. Sister Lopez recalls that on a list of converts in Guatemala kept by the Church at the time, Rudy’s name was number twenty-two and hers was number forty-five. He was baptized 17 September 1949, and she on 31 December 1949.
Their association through Church activities developed into something more than mere acquaintance during their late teens. They were married in 1961, and traveled to the United States to be sealed in the temple in 1970, the year before Carolina was born.
“Since we got married, we have hardly missed a Sunday in church,” Brother Lopez reflects. Their children grew up knowing no other way of life but Church activity. Brother Lopez served in a variety of leadership positions before receiving his current calling; this is the second time he has been a counselor in a stake presidency. Sister Lopez has also served in a variety of positions. She is currently second counselor in the stake Relief Society presidency, as well as a temple ordinance worker. Gustavo is also a temple worker; he has held a variety of leadership positions. Carolina is branch Sunday School secretary. Pepe is branch mission leader.
Pepe comments that his parents’ service “has been an example to me. In service I have obtained many blessings.”
The Lopez children not only grew up learning the gospel at home, they also grew up knowing love.
Berta Lopez wakes up early on the morning of her birthday to the rat-tat-tat-tat of a string of firecrackers in the stairwell. It is followed by the voices of her children and husband singing a birthday song to guitar accompaniment. Family members gather around her bed to offer gifts they have lovingly selected.
That word—family—includes more than their four children, because Rudy and Berta have always opened their hearts to others, even beyond blood ties. This birthday morning, in addition to Rudy and their children, those wishing her a happy birthday include “Talo” (Victor Estuardo Bonilla), her nephew, who has lived with them like a son for several years; Alejandra, their maid, a refugee from Nicaragua who lives with them along with her little son “Chato” (Roberto); and Mauricio, a returned missionary who is also a refugee from Nicaragua and a temporary resident in their home.
Brother Lopez deliberately built the house big enough to provide extra space. He and his wife seem to delight in making a place for those who need it. The household has at various times included one of their parents, a variety of houseguests, and usually a maid with a child. Sister Lopez prefers maids with children, she says, because they are more reliable and productive, and besides, “I like children.” Three-year-old Chato is treated as though he were a grandson. A few days before Sister Lopez’s birthday, everyone in the house pitched in to make pinatas for Chato’s birthday party.
How does Brother Lopez provide for all the extra people they take into their home? “I don’t,” he replies. “God blesses us. I don’t take care of them. He takes care of them.” When more people come to the house, he finds his business is that much more profitable.
There are many temporal and moral hazards in life, but Brother and Sister Lopez note gratefully that most of these have passed them by. Brother Lopez had a bout with serious illness a few years ago, and Gustavo, Talo, and Gina were spared harm in an accident that destroyed the family car. But there have “never been serious problems,” Sister Lopez says.
Those outside of Guatemala frequently hear or read of terrorism there. That is not one of their concerns, Brother Lopez says, because it is so isolated. “Difficulties with the guerrillas are very serious in the newspapers—but nothing more. The guerrillas set off one bomb, and in the newspapers it comes out that they set off one thousand,” he comments. “In all my forty-eight years here, I have never personally seen the effects of a terrorist attack.”
While some might feel deprived because the Guatemalan economy is not as well developed as that of more industrialized nations, Rudy Lopez does not. “I believe living is not a question of what surrounds one, but what one feels.” In Guatemala, he feels that his family is more secure and less subject to worldly temptations than if they lived elsewhere.
Though it is not highly industrialized, neither is Guatemala the poor country some may imagine. Expensive foreign cars and people in designer clothing are not out of the ordinary on Sixth and Seventh Avenues, which cut through the heart of the capital city’s business district. The city has suburban shopping centers, unknown a few years ago, and a generous sprinkling of high-rise buildings. There is a thriving middle class and a highly visible upper class.
Like many middle-class Guatemalan parents, Rudy and Berta send their children to private religious schools. Both the facilities and the quality of instruction are better, Sister Lopez explains. Is there spiritual peril for the children in these non-LDS schools? She says that has not been their experience. Teachers usually permit the Lopez children to be “uninvolved” in the mandatory religion classes, although Brother and Sister Lopez did switch Carolina to another school once because she was harassed by teachers.
Carolina, curious about what her friends were experiencing, once asked permission to attend a religious “retreat” for students from her school. She found the indoctrination uninteresting, and told her mother, “That won’t make me change my beliefs.”
Non-LDS friends respect the Lopezes’ commitment to the gospel.
Almost every weekday at noon, members of the family meet at an athletic club where they have a membership and engage in their own preferred physical activity—running, swimming, or aerobics. Then they have a light lunch together.
Brother Lopez is a runner. He took up jogging for his own physical well-being and now has developed himself to the point where he could compete in races. But he does not compete, because the events are scheduled on Sunday.
At the club, after the runners’ workout, the group leader announces an upcoming competition. With a side glance at Brother Lopez, he adds, “It’s a shame Rudy won’t be able to take part.”
“It’s like having a friend who doesn’t have a leg,” Brother Lopez explains. “One knows he can do all but this one thing because he doesn’t have a leg. I don’t have Sunday.” Friends understand.
On Sundays, the family meets at the chapel, next to the Guatemala City Temple, for their services. They also attend a variety of leadership or other meetings during the day. But on Sunday night they have their family home evening, since work or school schedules may keep Gustavo, Talo, Pepe, Gina, and Brother Lopez out until eight o’clock or later on weekday evenings.
Family home evening may feature a lesson from the scriptures. But, for the Lopez family, teaching is not confined to one night a week. For example, in one corner of a favorite downtown fast-food restaurant, where the family treated Sister Lopez to a birthday dinner, Brother Lopez taught a short lesson on the sacrament. Carolina raised a question. Her father asked Mauricio, the returned missionary from Nicaragua, to repeat the prayer on the bread. Then Brother Lopez explained briefly the covenants and blessings it speaks of. “If you’re not thinking about Christ—if there’s not a prayer in your heart—then you’re not really partaking of the sacrament,” he says.
Anyone sitting at a nearby table might listen in on this impromptu lesson in LDS doctrine, but no one in the Lopez family is bothered by that.
Their children have always come to them with questions and problems, Brother Lopez explains later, and he and his wife do their best to handle these concerns at the time they arise. “You could almost say we have a constant family home evening.”
“I have much confidence in my children. They are intelligent. They know what they are doing,” he says.
“If they have a problem, I always leave it to them to solve. I am near if they need me, but I will never do their work. They must fly on their own.”
He explains that he and Berta try to follow their Heavenly Father’s example in the way they love and teach their children.
“There is a difference between loving and knowing how to love. Many parents love their children and give them everything they want. That’s bad.” If our Heavenly Father had wanted to follow that course, he would have eliminated the need for us to work and struggle, he explains.
“Parents should teach their children in the manner God does. They have to love the children, and let them be free. If a person is not entirely free, he cannot learn. It’s necessary to teach a child that he only is free who is responsible for the truth. If he is not responsible, he is not free.”