Her idol murdered. Democracy lost. She'll be a star, yes . .. to face down the darkness.
Everybody says they want to be a star. If any of them comes to my door and has the magic to make the exchange, I am ready to give them my life and say "Here, be a star!"
I never said I wanted to be a star. I never told my dad to put his video of me singing my original songs, with my Grand Piano, at my 9th birthday party, on the ICT. Nor did he tell me he was doing it, let alone ask me if he could.
Now, 13,000,000 Pays Per View and 7,000,000 downloads later, here I am singing on a dare. Pina Colada, the world's biggest Latin music company, dared me to be irresistible, with a new Spanish song, to some 1,000,000 fans in Lincoln Park on 22 September, 2025 and millions more watching on the ICT. If there are enough Pays Per View, Downloads and cheers in the Park, I become a Pina Colada star. If not, it's "hasta nunca" and I go back to flying papillotes on Playa Blanca in Guatemala. Fine for me but I don't think Dad would ever recover.
I'm not really a "wannabe": I'm a "Dadwantsmetobe."
So I try my best for Dad but the pressure is . . . like I'm the bull in the bullfight!
Every day except Sunday, I spend two hours in traffic jams going to Pina Colada's studios. Then I practice my song with Pina Colada's bands and back-up singers for six hours until I hate the song: just sick of hearing it and singing it. Then I spend two hours going back to our hotel in traffic jams. We're not allowed to use the city's underground train: I am already too well-known and we could cause a stampede. People could get killed.
The hotel reception saw me going out this morning and called me to the desk.
"You are 'Maria Isabelita MacAlistair-Castleton'", the receptionist says.
"Aye, that's me Guatemalan name," I say.
He then gives me, with both hands, a package that I have to take with both hands, it is so big!
As I walk out to the car, I see that it is full of official stamps saying "Republica de Guatemala".
Mum asks what it is.
"Haven't a clue except it's from Guatemala", I say.
"Well get it open, ya wee bampot!" Mum says.
After nine years, I've got used to Mum calling me 'insane' in Scottish. She doesn't mean anything personal by it.
I rip the package to bits, trying to look as insane as she says I am.
I find a letter, on official stationery, with lots of official stamps on it.
I hold it with both hands.
"What is it?" Mum says.
I show it to her and giggle, saying "Wanna read it?" I know that she's been living in Guatemala as long as I have but she doesn't know one word of Spanish and I'm fluent.
"No, thank you," she says. "I'll take the benefit of those 100,000 Units we spent on your Spanish-immersion school now. And don't be cheeky!"
I gulp and translate for her.
"It's from la Presidenta, IsaRosa," I say. "She wants me to come back and sing the national anthem in the Independence Day celebrations next week. We will sit on the veranda of the Green Palace with her other honoured guests, next to her."
"Absolutely out of the question!" Mum says. "If you go galavanting off out of the country in the middle of your rehearsals, the week before your performance, Pina Colada'll cut you off at the knees without a farthing. Don't even bother buying a return ticket!"
"But Mum, IsaRosa's your friend too," I say. "We've been at her Palace so many times. She's even been in our little flat. We canno' just say 'No', can we? She's asking for my help. Absolutely out o' the question to say 'No', as I see it!"
"She doesn't understand what going on here, lassie," Mum says." When I explain it, she'll order you to stay here. She's from the music business too, originally, isn't she? She'll understand how important this chance is for you and won't want you to slough it off like that."
I push what's left of the letter packet on to the floor of the back seat. I sit back in the seat, my arms folded.
"Sod the chance!" I shout. "Sod the music business! I'll not leave mia Presidenta in the lurch. And you'll not breathe a word to Presidenta IsaRosa about this or I'll . . . I'll . . hitchhike to Guatemala and let the armies of the world come a-lookin' fer me!".
"Gone mad as a hatter," Mum says. "Right OTT!"
Dad is even more sure than Mum that I cannot go to Guatemala for Independence Day.
"Little Bird, why are you determined to destroy your life before you've even reached ten?" Dad says.
I shout back, "Mum always says 'Dunno' put off 'till later what can be done today!'"
I run into my room, slamming the door behind me. I jump into bed, crying into my hands untiI I fall asleep.
In the morning, no one is talking. At breakfast, no one is eating. Mum's porridge is becoming a milky, fruity, soggy, uneaten mess.
"Little Bird," Dad says, "How many days is the Guatemalan Independence Day celebration?"
I look out the window and watch birds fight in the tree.
"We always have to close the sawmill in Puerto Barrios for a full seven days for Independence Day, Dad says."
"Yeah," I say. "'Cos all the schools and factories are closed, people celebrate like that every day. I would too, truth be told, if I lived there . . . But I dunno' live there now, do I? And I have work to do. And the Presidenta didn't ask me to come for seven days. She only asked the fifteenth."
"So, would that be enough for you?" Dad asks. "One day?"
"Aye," I say. "24 hours. For our bessie, the Presidenta. Is it really too much to ask Dad? She's your friend, too. And she's asking you to come, too."
"Bullet train LA to GC on the 14th, then GC to LA on the 16th, since there are no jet planes anymore," Dad says. "Maybe it's do-able."
I run to Dad and hug him more tightly than I can ever remember doing.
On the morning, of the 15th September, in our old flat in Guatemala City, Mum makes me up for singing in the national Independence Day celebrations. She puts the superreflective tiara in my hair. She box-braids my hair in the front. She puts reflective green and red sparkles on my face. She puts a violet flower behind my left ear and a red flower behind my right ear.
Now I am the New Little Princess again.
Dad gives me a new blue and white dress, like the Guatemalan flag. Many Guatemalan girls wear that on Independence Day.
But Mum doesn't put my antennae in my hair or give me my roller-skates.
"A time and a place for everything, lassie, as I've told you many times," Mum says. This is an official function, neither the time nor the place for antennae or roller-skates."
I wear them in my Princess videoconcerts. But I know that this is no Princess videoconcert.
We take a tuk-tuk to the Green Palace. I've never been inside that Palace before. The President does not live there now. The Palace is for special days, like Independence Day.
The Plaza, in front of the Green Palace, is full of people. I never saw so many people in one place. Maybe there are millions!
The tuk-tuk takes us around the Plaza to the front of the Green Palace. Dad gets out of the tuk-tuk first. The soldiers put the knives at the end of their guns together and block his way. They tell him, in Spanish, that he cannot go in. He does not understand.
Then, I get out of the tuk-tuk. When the soldiers see me, they put their guns straight up and down and salute. I salute. The soldiers smile. That Spanish-and-English-immersion school, which made me fluent in Spanish, was also a military school. If I learned nothing else in four years, I learned how to return a salute properly.
I tell the soldiers in Spanish that these are my parents and they have to come with me to meet the President. Then they say OK and we go into the Palace.
"Dad, why are there so many soldiers here?" I ask. "I've never seen this in Zone 2 before. This looks like my CARATRAC school."
"I don't know," says Dad. "Perhaps because it's an official celebration. Also, look at all those people outside. They have to keep order."
I do not feel that answered it.
As we are going into the Palace, I hear people shouting "Princesita, la princesita!" behind me. First one or two shout, then many people. Then they clap and cheer. Some shout "Viva la princesita!". Soon the whole Plaza is shouting for me or making noise.
I turn around and wave at them. Some wave back or shout or clap louder. That is the only thing I like about Dad's idea about being a star. I get so much love from people whom I will never know.
Dad says, "Hurry up!" So I give the people a big wave and run inside after him. Mum follows us up the long, winding, white marble stairs
As we come on to the balcony, we get announced. The President gets up from the sofa, where she has been talking to people, turns around, sees me and then runs to hug me and my parents..
"Princesita, Princesita, I am so glad you are here!" the President says.
"I'm glad I'm here too!" I say. "I am so happy to help you and Guatemala!"
At the President's request, we sit next to her on the sofa. Soon, the President takes me to the front of the balcony. When the people in the Plaza see us together, they clap and cheer.
The President takes the microphone and introduces me. She tells the people the story of my life. I put my hand in front of my face.
Then the President tells the people in the plaza a story about my song, "Guatemalteca". I had never heard anything like this story.
The President says that my song stopped Guatemalan girls from going to America with papi chulos. Papi chulos means "handsome Daddies" in Spanish. Papi chulos are rich, handsome, always dressed in fashion. They have expensive cars. They come to Guatemala and teenage girls fall in love with them. Then they take the girls to America, the land of their dreams, and make them rich.
But the President tells the rest of the story. Papi chulos are rich because they sell drugs. They are criminals. They kill people. The girls have to do crimes for the papi chulos. The girls take drugs too. Many times our Guatemalan girls get killed or put in jail in America.
Now, this year, the President says, the girls themselves sang the end of my song, "Guatemalteca", to their friends who started to go with papi chulos. Then the girls stopped going with the papi chulos.
I giggle, then fight hard not to laugh. The President is singing my song, a cappella, shaking her hips while the people clap the beat. Why not? She was a singer before she was a President. She is showing why the song stopped the girls from following papi chulos.
That part of my song meant:
Better be careful
'Cos it could be you
A Guatemalan girl living in a zoo
I never thought about papi chulos when I wrote that song. But I understand how it fit. At the end of the song, the main character, a Guatemalan girl whose dream of going to America came true, was singing that it wasn't such a great place after all, so don't come.
It was not my idea to sing that song to stop girls going with papi chulos. It was the girls' idea. Yet it makes me think: if this is what a star can do, maybe being a star is not so bad.
Then the President gives me a paper. She says that is her decree so that my parents and I would now be Guatemalan citizens. We are citizens of Britain, where we were born, and also citizens of Guatemala. The President says we deserve that because of all the Guatemalan girls my song saved from papi chulos.
Then the Orchestra, downstairs, begins playing the national anthem. I turn around and see Mum is gone. I guess that she has gone downstairs to play the piano for the Guatemalan National Orchestra, as she often does.
I thought I would go downstairs to the orchestra to sing, later. I am not ready now.
We sang the national anthem every day in CARATRAC. So I know the song. But I don't like singing at the drop of a hat.
I look out from the balcony. There is the blue and white Guatemalan flag, level with us on the balcony, struggling in the wind. It looks like it wants to fly off the flagpole but it is tied there.
The President gives me the microphone.
I say, "Señora, I'm not ready."
She smiles and says, "I know you are ready. Sing for Guatemala!"
I keep looking at the flag and put my hand over my heart. I do not look at the people in the Plaza below.
I am not a singer. I am a pianist and a songwriter. But I try my best.
I think of the meaning of the song. No matter what you do to us Guatemalans, kill us or torture us, you can never conquer us. When you come to take our country from us, we will never hide from you. We will fight you and defeat you.
I am proud, more proud now as a Guatemalan citizen. I mean what I sing. I sing it for me too, this time, no longer as an outsider.
My voice comes back to me from big amplifier boxes around the Plaza. I have never sounded so good!
That song sings itself. I lend it my voice. And the song flies around the Plaza and takes the feelings of all of us for our country up to Heaven. May God help us!
At the end of the anthem, the people in the Plaza are clapping and cheering. They are chanting that little chant that my audiences at Princess concerts often chant:
"Princesita, estrellita! Princesita, estrellita!"
"Little Princess, little star!"
Then they chanted "Otra, otra, otra!"
No, that is too much!
They want an encore!
Sorry, I will not make the President's Independence Day celebration into a Princess concert!
I give the microphone back to the President.
I waive goodbye to the people. The people waive and clap and blow me kisses. I blow a kiss to them, too.
Then I go to sit with my parents. Mum is back now. We sit behind the President as she gives her speech.
I can understand enough of the President's speech. My parents listen politely. I know they cannot understand.
I feel a cool breeze above my head. I hear a W-H-O-O-S-H. Yet the air is still now. There is no more wind.
A wasp must have flown over my head. There are no flyscreens on the balcony.
I look around at the walls and ceiling. I want to know where that wasp is, so it does not give any of us a little surprise!
I see a fresh hole in the ceiling, with brown and red around it.
A wasp cannot make a hole in wood that quickly, can it?
The President suddenly falls backward. Her head falls into my lap. She is looking up at me.
But her eyes are crossed. There is a hole in her forehead like the one in the ceiling.
The hole in her head is full of blood. The blood is coming out, all over my dress.
I am so shocked I cannot move. I cannot understand. I cannot do anything but stare at the President's upside down face in my lap.
I hold the sides of the President's head.
I ask her, in Spanish, if she is OK.
"Won't you please finish your speech first before lying in my lap?" I say in Spanish.
But the President does not answer.
Women are screaming. People are running away from the balcony, into the Palace.
I hear people shouting in Spanish, "Ring the hospital!" "Ring the Police Commander!" "Is there a doctor here?" "Ring the Commander of the Army: we're under attack here!"
I also hear shooting down in the Plaza.
My parents are on their feet, in front of me, saying "What happened?" "Are you all right?"
I nod. But it is a silent lie. My brain is as empty as an idiot's. I don't know what happened or why. I just wish I could get the President up!
I kiss the hole in the President's forehead. Mum always kisses the spot if I cut my leg or my arm and that makes it better. But this does not get better: that only makes my face full of blood. I spit it out.
The President is shaking and twitching now. I . . . I do not know what to do.
I keep screaming, in Spanish, "Please stop! Please stop!" uselessly.
Now I am crying. I feel so sad and hopeless.
Dad gets down on his knees to help the President. Others get down to help Dad.
Dad and the others try to make the President sit up properly and not lounge across my lap.
The President has stopped shaking. Now she is limp.
Dad and the others make me angry! They are playing with the President like a Barbie doll.
That makes me cry more.
Three Army officers come on to the balcony. The one in front looks so happy.
Has he been eating ice creams all day?
"Está muerta, no?" he says.
No one answers. I understand but do not want to think of the answer.
Then, looking at me and my parents, he says, in English, "She's dead?"
Only I answer.
Wiping my eyes with the backs of my hands and choking back sobs, I say "I don't know if she's dead, Señor. But I'm afraid. She doesn't move. She doesn't answer. She was shaking."
"That's dead," the officer says. " 70% sure. It sure sounds dead."
That makes me cry again. I try to stop but I cannot. A waterfall opens up on my little face. I cannot see. I am drowning in the President's suffering. I am choking on her powerlessness. Here she is in my lap and I miss her already.
But I can hear what those officers are saying, as I am struggling to be good and quiet. I can understand everything.
Anger replaces my misery.
"See?" the lead officer says to the other officers, "I can still do it."
They are all laughing. Then he tells the other officers that he shot up from the Plaza. The bullet went through the President's forehead.
The officer points to the hole in the President's forehead. He raises her head up to look at the back of her head but says he cannot see the hole. He says that he can see blood on my dress, coming from the back of the President's head, so the hole must be somewhere.
Then he points at the hole in the ceiling.
"Aca!" he says, meaning "There!"
He says this is what the Americans call a "through and through".
I do not know that man. But I know that I hate him. He has said he killed my friend, my President and now he is bragging about it!
"Look at your child," the officer says to my parents. "She is full of blood and now it is getting worse. You should take her to your hotel and clean her up."
"Aye," Mum says.
"Let's go, Little Bird," Dad says.
I will not move.
The officer says to me, "You should go to your hotel now. It's not good for your character for you to play with dead bodies, chiquitita."
Then he swirls his big Army boot around and kicks the President off me, to the floor.
"Now you can go," the officer says to me.
My mouth hangs open. My brain rages like a forest fire.
He has kicked my beloved President out of the way like rubbish in the street.
"Come along, Little Bird," my father says, holding his hand out.
But, inside me, the fire is raging. I cannot see straight. I cannot think straight
I'm a volcano. I'm gonna blow. I'm gonna blow!
All I can see is the back of the officer as he faces the Plaza and speaks through the President's microphone.
Suddenly, I am in the air.
I have leapt up and forward, toward the officer's back, my hands out straight, to push him forward, over the balcony.
Dad's arms wrap around me in mid-air.
I am caught.
I wish Dad had played football at Cambridge instead of Rugby Union.
Overnight, in the bullet train with my parents, as 15 September becomes 16 September, as we cross into safety in Mexico, going back to Los Angeles, I finally understand who I am and what I am doing.
Now, I am no longer that Dad-wants-me-to-be anymore. My 24 hours back home have changed everything.
First, I am a Guatemalan girl. The President made me that: not only by making us citizens but by dying in my arms. I think I would never have understood what it meant to be a Guatemalan girl if a good person, whom I loved, was never murdered and did not die in my arms. That is the reality of my new country.
Second, now I know why I want to be a star. It's not for the money or to have 20,000,000 followers or to be on the covers of the entertainment zines on the ICT.
It's not for me at all.
It's to save Guatemala. I need to be a star so people will listen to me tell them about what happened to my country: and do something about it!
And my beloved President, I'm going to be a star for you: to avenge your death, to give you justice. I'll never let them kick you aside and forget you again.
Everyone in sight of us on the bullet train gets quiet and stares when I suddenly stand up.
I raise my fist in the air and shout: "Democracia en Guatemala! Lock up the junta!"
Then the whole train, at least the part I can see, cheer and clap.
"Viva la princesita!" they shout.
"No!" I shout. "Viva Guatemala libre!"
They cheer and shout back "Viva Guatemala libre!"
Yes, right now, I know it.
I want to be a star.
And I will be . . .