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Not Your Typical Jewish Mother: A Review of Thunder in Guyana

 

When Janet Roberts Jagan was growing up in Chicago in the 1930s, she saved her allowance and spent it on secret flying lessons.

This confident and determined woman again pursued her own path in 1943 when, despite her parent's opposition, Jagan married the Guyanese man she had fallen in love with in college.

Together, Jagan and her husband Cheddi dedicated themselves to improving the lives of the Guyanese people. And after 50 years of working to improve conditions there, at the age of 77, Jagan, a white Jewish woman, was elected president of the overwhelmingly non-white nation of Guyana.

Thunder in Guyana, a documentary made by Suzanne Wasserman, Jagan's niece, tells the story of Jagan's stunningly rich life by interviewing Jagan herself; her two adult children, Nadira and Cheddi, Jr.; Guyanese people who know her; and some of Jagan's surviving relatives in the United States. The films also includes news clips of Jagan and televised interviews with Cheddi, who was thrice elected president of Guyana.

Nearly 80 when she is interviewed, Jagan is still a compelling woman. She's down to earth and unpretentious. She dresses simply and wears dated glasses. She says what she thinks, not what is politically correct. And she is clearly devoted to the welfare of her adopted nation.

Although we don't learn much about Jagan as a mother or wife--the film focuses on the political and social accomplishments of Janet and Cheddi--her daughter Nadira says that Janet never allowed Nadira to do many of the things Janet herself did, such as drive alone at night through the more dangerous areas of the country.

It was while attending the then-radical Wayne State University in Michigan that Janet met Cheddi--a Guyanese man of Indian heritage. They both became Marxists, committed to helping the underprivileged of Cheddi's homeland of Guyana.

Their plans to marry, however, were opposed by both sets of parents. Although Janet's parents had never met Cheddi, her father, she says, perceived Cheddi as having three strikes against him--he was considered "black" because he was of Indian heritage; he was foreign; and he was not Jewish. Similarly, Cheddi's Hindu parents disapproved of his plans to marry someone from a different culture.

But Janet and Cheddi went ahead and married, then immediately moved to Guyana. Although she stayed in touch with family members through long letters, when her dying father requested that she come see him, Jagan told him that she was "unable to leave my people."

In Guyana, Cheddi and Janet worked to create a political party and began successfully organizing workers to demand higher pay. They also advocated and won independence from England. Cheddi then won Guyana's first presidential election by a large margin; however, according to the documentary, the English were uncomfortable with having a Marxist in power and forced him out of office.

Unfortunately, Cheddi and Janet's dedication to Marxist goals also threatened the United States, which, the film indicates, fomented racial strife in Guyana to turn the people against the political couple. The US helped to create a black opposition party, and the ensuing violence brought to power a man who became a dictator for twenty-eight years. Sadly, when he was finally ousted and Cheddi was re-elected and allowed to govern, Cheddi died of a heart attack before he had a chance to implement his agenda for the country.

Janet, a foreigner, was then elected president of Guyana. But ill health forced her to resign after only twenty months.

The film makes it quite clear that Janet remains active and involved in politics, reporting to work every day at her party headquarters.

Thunder in Guyana offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of an energetic, indominitable woman who exemplified and fought for her ideals, never stopping to look back.

The film was shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Look for it at a Jewish film festival near you.

Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.

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