From Belize to Radcliff, Guerrero's life is packed

Sunday, June 3, 2007 8:58 PM CDT

RADCLIFF - At 68, Eleanor Guerrero has led a charmed life.

Guerrero, who speaks with a very proper British accent, is flanked by daughters, one of her sons, a grandson, stepdaughter and her stepdaughter's husband, and sits among pictures of places and things she has seen and done in her life.
This group seems like a tight group of friends, laughing and telling inside jokes, contributing to what may be Guerrero's most visible trait: a room-brightening smile.
In her time, Guerrero has had a few brushes with fame. She has seen Queen Elizabeth II and met Princess Margaret; Guerrero's father and grandmother, who at 100 was the oldest woman in Belize at the time, met the queen and Prince Phillip.

Her daughters, sitting next to her on a couch, joke and laugh behind their hands and discuss a time in the early 1980s when they met Pope John Paul II.

"We just shook his hand, and he gave us a blessing, spoke to our grandmother," who had been mayor, Nadine Johnson said.

But while she has rubbed shoulders with some of the most well-known people on the planet, that's just a small part of her life.

Guerrero was born in what was then British Honduras, the daughter of a national representative father and mother who was the mayor of Dangriga, the town in which they lived. Her parents also ran a nightclub called The Eden Rose Club, one of the most popular clubs in the country.

Dangriga is a town on the southern coast of what now is called Belize, a country in Central America bordered on the south and west by Guatemala, on the north by Mexico and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. The country, whose first known inhabitants were the Mayan Indians from 1500 B.C. to 900 A.D., was settled in modern times around the 1630s by British and Scottish loggers and eventually became a British colony. Belize formally gained independence from England on Sept. 21, 1981.

To Guerrero, it always will be home.

"It is a lovely place," she said. "It is right in front of the Caribbean ocean."

Belize is a mixture of several ethnic groups. While English is the official language, several others are spoken as well. Guerrero belongs to the Garifuna group with African and Caribbean heritage influenced by Spain and France, and she's proud of it. Other groups include Mayan, Creole, Spanish, Mennonite, Asian, Mestizo and English.

Guerrero's parents, family and culture were strict as she grew up. An only child, she said it was not unusual for relatives to discipline younger relatives in the street when they were up to mischief.

From the time she was a little girl Guerrero wanted to be a nurse, to help people. So in 1961 she planned to go to England to school.

Traveling first with her uncle's family to New York before going on to Middlesex, a cousin pointed out how lonely she would be in England by herself.

Instead, she stayed in New York and worked as a cashier while she went to nursing school.

"It wasn't fun at the beginning," she said. "I was homesick for quite some time, before I started working and meeting people."

She remembers vividly her first New York winter.

"My cousin said, 'It's snowing!' and I was the first one out there," she said. "Now I'm old, and every winter I want to go home."

In 1963, she married a man who was sent to Vietnam, and after he returned they moved to Fort Lewis in Washington state. She soon moved to Los Angeles, which she liked at first. But tragedy struck during Christmas 1983. She had gone home to Belize to celebrate with her family, and her mother had a massive heart attack and died Dec. 26.

"I was an only child, and I had to stay with my father for some time," she said. She traveled frequently between Belize and the United States, and it was during one of these trips in 1984 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Belize for the first time. Her father was invited, and she accompanied him to a large soccer stadium.

Her grandmother, Felecia Ellis, as the oldest woman in Belize met the queen.

That wasn't Guerrero's first brush with royalty. She met Princess Margaret in 1955.

"We shook hands, and her hands were just like velvet," she said.

Her father died in 1990 on Valentine's Day, and Guerrero resettled in the United States. In 1992 Guerrero moved to Colorado Springs. It would become her favorite place to live here.

"I loved that place," she said.

While there, soldiers from a nearby Army installation were preparing to go to Belize to build bridges, so they came to Guerrero's door.

"One day while I was sitting down and there was a knock at the door and two men came in," she said. "They said they'd like to ask a few questions."

So she made them comfortable and gave them advice about her home country.

A few years later, her son-in-law, Jeffrey Johnson, who married Guerrero's eldest daughter, Nadine, came back from Korea and was transferred to Fort Knox. Guerrero, who refers to Johnson as "my son," soon followed, as did her daughter and son, Nancy and Mark Nunez.

Guerrero has five children and 17 grandchildren in all. Two of them, Paul and Hansel, are in Columbus, Ga.

The children relate more to Belize than the United States, but believe they are privileged to have grown up here.

"It makes me understand and appreciate what's available in the U.S.," Nancy Nunez said. "I keep that culture (of Belize) with me and let my son, Rakeem, know he's Belizian."

Nadine considers herself part Belizian and part North American. She said Belize has "more of a culture of trust - there's not competition out there like there is here."

Mark, the youngest of the five, admires the strength of the citizens, especially the Garifuna.

"The strength of the people, waking up at 4:30 a.m.," he said. "That's what I remember and take with me every day, the strength of my people."

Forty-four years after moving to New York, though, Guerrero is ready to move home.

"I'm ready to go," she laughed. "But I'm afraid to fly."

She, like her children, misses the culture.

"And I don't live that far from the ocean," she said. "All the sea breezes, all the fish fresh from the ocean."

Guerrero considers herself a happy-go-lucky person, which is easy to see when meeting her. She is cheerful, realistic and most of all, happy. She doesn't have a personal philosophy, but possesses an enormous love for her family and her life.

"I just pray every day the good Lord will give myself and my children health, strength and allow us to stick together," she said. "When one falls, another is there to pick them up."