Dr. Lee Valenti 1928-2010
Dr. Lee Valenti, who like Huckleberry Finn fled from American consumerism’s attempts to “sivilize” her, has died in Panajachel. She was 82.
The former literature professor left her job at New York’s Hoffstra University in 1975, after long involvement in anti-war, civil rights, and environmental movements.
With her divorce complete and her children grown, she arrived in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, which, even then, was home to many expatriates. After her savings ran out, life there remained good. She whetted her lifelong interest in textiles by taking orders for, and sewing, Mexican-style drawstring pants.
This took place within a communal-living experiment, where she emerged as leader and launched a vegetable garden to feed her commune mates. These activities were augmented by tutoring, mostly of English. San Miguel changed during her years there, becoming increasingly expensive, and showing that erosion of authenticity that often comes with expat colonization; it was again time to move on.
Although Lee called herself fortunate to be born in the United States, she “never suffered homesickness.” Consequently, she did not go north from San Miguel, but south.
It started in 1986 with an “open-ended vacation” to the fresher expat haunt of San Cristobal de las Casas. Needing, as always, to renew her visa, it was inevitable that she would see more of Guatemala better, although she had already visited in 1976.
Guatemala, Lee concluded, transcended Mexico. Stricken by the beauty of Guatemala and the simplicity and warmth of the people, she settled there. One draw was the Mayas’ gift for textile patterning, which she called “infinte.” She collected samples of these, and then entire inventories, and made frequent wholesaling jaunts to Mexico.
After Lee landed in Panajachel for good in 1990, her children began coming for extended stays; one, Laura, also made her home here and raised her own daughter, Delia, in Panajachel.
“Mom loved words,” Laura recalls. “Whenever she discovered a new one, she’d run to a dictionary, like it was candy.” By the 21st century, Pana had its own burgeoning expat population. And yet, as Lee often pointed out, the town retained its authenticity to a degree that San Miguel had not.
Lee herself remained a salient figure in Pana; even past 80, she took long, daily walks with her gentle Akita, Toto, reputed to be Panajachel’s biggest canine. Her mind never faltered; she readily conversed with the same erudition that she commanded decades earlier in Acadème.
“Maybe what Huck and I, and others like us have done,” she once remarked, “is not to escape civilization, but rather, to extend it.”
Lee Valenti is survived by three children and three grandchildren.