In 1996, Luis von Ahn left Guatemala to study in the United States and never moved back. Thats partly because of something that happened just before his departure, something that changed his life forever: the kidnapping of his aunt.
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Martina Castro: Welcome to the last episode of our first season of the Duolingo Spanish podcast. Today we bring you a story from someone you might recognize. Heres a hint: A clip from one of his TED talks
Luis von Ahn: So what weve been working on for the last year and a half is a new websiteits called Duolingowhere the basic idea is people learn a new language for free while simultaneously translating the web. And so basically, theyre learning by doing.
Martina Castro: Thats Luis von Ahn, cofounder and CEO of Duolingo back in 2011. Theres a path that led Luis to this stage that starts before he launched Duolingo or became a Computer Science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. It starts back when he was a regular kid growing up in la ciudad de Guatemala. He has fond memories of that timeof visits to his familys candy factory, and of how obsessed he was with math and science. But theres one memory from the year he graduated high school that Luis wishes he could eraseeven though its what eventually led him to leave Guatemala for the United States.
Luis von Ahn: En el ao 1996, mi ta fue secuestrada.
Martina Castro: Secuestrada as in, she was kidnapped. It happened often during those final years of the civil war in Guatemala. By the mid-90s, when the war between the countrys military and communist guerrilla fighters was over, more than 200,000 indigenous people had been killed. As a child, Luis was mostly unaware of the war because it was fought in the rural areas of the country. Until the day his family got that fateful call
Luis von Ahn: Solo dijeron que tenan a mi ta, que estaba viva, y que iban a llamar despus con ms informacin.
Martina Castro: Again, welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, where we bring you true bilingual stories of travels with unexpected turns, plans unraveled, and destinations unknown. The Spanish in this story is for intermediate level learners, but if you get lost, dont worry, well be chiming in throughout the story.
Martina Castro: Luis aunt, whom we will call Marta, was the matriarch of the family. She was married to a colonel in the army who retired early, and never got another job.
Luis von Ahn: Despus de tener seis hijos juntos, mi ta y el coronel se divorciaron. Despus del divorcio, mi ta estaba sola y necesitaba pagar los costos de la comida y educacin de sus hijos.
Martina Castro: In order to support her family, Marta started a food business, and she became very successful. By 1996, Luis aunt had become a wealthy woman with kids and grandkids.
Luis von Ahn: Yo tena 17 aos y viva con mi mam a poca distancia de la ta Marta. Yo iba a su casa todos los das, y la ta Marta era como una segunda madre para m.
Martina Castro: One afternoon, Martas oldest son, Luis cousin, called Luis. He said his mother had gone missing. In Guatemala, kidnappings were common, so they feared that this is what had happened to her. His voice trembled; thats how Luis knew this was not a joke.
Luis von Ahn: Corr a la casa de mi ta. Ah estaban sus otros hijos y algunos de sus nietos. No tenamos mucha informacin.
Martina Castro: That day, Marta had gone to pick up her ex-husband.
Luis von Ahn: Mi ta y el coronel estaban divorciados, pero todava eran amigos.
Martina Castro: She was supposed to bring him over to the house.
Luis von Ahn: Pero nunca regres.
Martina Castro: But she never came back. Within a few hours, they received two calls.
Luis von Ahn: La primera llamada fue de una persona que no conocamos. Dijo que el coche de mi ta estaba abandonado, sin nadie adentro.
Martina Castro: The second call was from the kidnappers.
Luis von Ahn: Dijeron que tenan a mi ta Marta, que estaba viva, y que iban a llamar despus con ms informacin.
Martina Castro: By that time there must have been 15 people in the house already, and everyone was asking questions over one another Why was she driving alone? Who had found the car? How much money did they want? Would they have enough to rescue her?
Luis von Ahn: Fueron horas de peleas, gritos, y lgrimas. Despus tomamos una decisin: pedirle ayuda a los amigos militares de mi to, el coronel.
Martina Castro: After making a few calls, Luis family ended up talking to his uncles friendsomeone at the anti kidnapping unit with the government.
Luis von Ahn: Ellos preferan no hablar por telfono, as que decidimos encontrarnos en una calle en el centro de la ciudad. Fuimos en uno de los coches de la familia, una minivan con ventanas muy oscuras.
Martina Castro: The men they picked up were dressed in plain clothes and never shared their full names, but Luis remembers his family was instructed to call the boss El Capitn or The Captain.
Luis von Ahn: El Capitn era un hombre alto y musculoso de como 40 aos. No dijo mucho en el viaje de regreso a la casa de mi ta, pero nosotros le contamos lo que haba pasado. Cuando regresamos a la casa, nos reunimos todos en la sala.
Martina Castro: First, the captain assured them that Luis aunt would return alive. Kidnapping was a business, he said, and its bad business to kill your victim.
Luis von Ahn: Dijo que los secuestradores iban a llamar otra vez para pedirnos dinero.
Martina Castro: And he warned them that they would have to go against their instincts. No matter what amount of money the kidnappers demand, he said, you must say its too much and that you cant pay it.
Luis von Ahn: Nos dijo: Si dicen que s, y pagan muy rpido, los secuestradores van a pensar que pueden pagar ms. As, van a pedir ms dinero y el proceso va a tardar ms tiempo.
Martina Castro: The Captain said the most important thing was to choose one person who could negotiate with the kidnappers on behalf of the family. Ideally it would be someone who wasnt too close to Marta, because the kidnappers would try to manipulate them. So they chose the husband of one of Luis female cousins, whom we will call Juan.
Luis von Ahn: Juan iba a tener que pedir pruebas de que nuestra ta Marta estaba viva. Tena que decir que no tenamos suficiente dinero para pagar lo que pedan, pero que estbamos haciendo todo lo posible para obtener el dinero.
Martina Castro: The captain was clearthe kidnappers will say on the call that they will kill Marta if the family doesnt pay the ransom quickly. They will hang up in the middle of the call and then not call back for many days, to make the family believe that Marta was dead.
Luis von Ahn: Pero necesitbamos mantenernos fuertes, nos deca el capitn. Yo no saba qu pensar. No conocamos bien a este hombre.
Martina Castro: Not only had they just met this man, but Luis and his cousin picked him up with these other tough looking dudes in the middle of a parking lot and not one of them was in uniform. Luis couldnt help but wondercould the family really trust them?
Luis von Ahn: El capitn dijo que el proceso iba a tardar entre 7 y 15 das. Si seguamos sus instrucciones, ella volvera viva. Tambin explic que no era como en las pelculas.
Martina Castro: First, the family had to actually pay the ransom. There would be no SWAT team rescue. Second, the captain explained that the exchange wouldnt be in the moment. The kidnappers would say where to leave the money, and then Marta would be returned to the family several hours or perhaps even days later.
Luis von Ahn: Ahora s tenamos miedo. bamos a darle todo el dinero a los secuestradores antes de ver a mi ta? No tena sentido. Pero no tenamos otra opcin. Tenamos que creer en el capitn.
Martina Castro: That same night the kidnappers called back. By then, Juan, the designated negotiator, was anxiously waiting by the phone. The person on the line said he was calling about Marta. Juan said they had been expecting his call and that he would negotiate on behalf of the family.
Luis von Ahn: Juan le pregunt a la persona cmo se llamaba. Me pods llamar To Sam, dijo l. Despus dijo cunto dinero quera a cambio de mi ta y que si no lo pagbamos, mi ta iba a morir. Como lo habamos planeado, Juan dijo que eso era demasiado dinero.
Luis von Ahn: El To Sam, or Uncle Sam, said the family better find a way to get all of the moneyOtherwise, Marta would die.
Martina Castro: Then he hung up.
Luis von Ahn: La cantidad de dinero que queran era alta pero no era imposible de pagar, entonces algunos en la familia insistieron en pagarla toda.
Martina Castro: At that point, many family members had set up camp at Martas house to keep her family company. So they discussed the best course of action as a group, until they came to a consensusthey would follow the captains instructions and wait.
Luis von Ahn: Cuando el To Sam llam al da siguiente, pregunt si ya tenamos el dinero. Juan dijo que era demasiado, pero que estaba tratando de conseguir todo lo que poda. Tambin pidi pruebas de vida antes de seguir hablando.
Martina Castro: Prueba de vida, or proof of life, was essential, said the captain. Each time the kidnappers called, Juan needed to ask for evidence that Marta was still alive. El To Sam insisted on the original sum of money they had requested, but agreed to give them proof of life.
Luis von Ahn: Juan le dijo al To Sam que le preguntara a Marta algo que solo ella poda responder. La pregunta era sobre una conversacin entre ella y su hijo que ocurri un da antes del secuestro.
Martina Castro: At that point, el To Sam hung up. The following day, he called back, and gave Juan the correct answer to his question. Marta was still alive.
Luis von Ahn: El To Sam pregunt si ya tenamos el dinero. Juan le dijo que solo tenamos US$10,000. Pregunt si era suficiente.
Martina Castro: Ten thousand dollars was about a tenth of what the kidnappers had originally requested. Luis and various other members of the family thought this was too little, that they should give something closer to the original amount, even if it was high. But after much debate, the family settled on this figure. They had heard that kidnapping negotiations started very far from the original asking price, similar to haggling in a street market. To Sam was not happy to hear this counter offer.
Luis von Ahn: El To Sam empez a gritar, diciendo que saba que podamos pagar ms.
Martina Castro: And he hung up. They didnt hear back from Tio Sam until the next evening. He was agitated and said his bosses were losing their patience with them.
Luis von Ahn: Dijo que entenda que la cantidad original era muy alta, pero quizs podamos pagar $80,000.
Martina Castro: And just like that, they were back to the bargaining table. Following the Captains advice, Juan went up from the original amount, but still offered less than what To Sam requested.
Luis von Ahn: Juan le dijo que tena buenas noticias: que habamos encontrado ms dinero y podamos pagar US$30,000.
Martina Castro: To Sam said no, that they needed to come up with more money immediately.
Luis von Ahn: Juan fue firme y dijo que eso iba a ser imposible. El To Sam dijo lo siento mucho y termin la llamada.
Martina Castro: The following day, To Sam didnt call back. Nor the next. Even though the captain had said this would happen, everyone started to worry they had made a mistake. What if they had pushed too hard? Or offered too little? What if they didnt get another chance to negotiate for Martas release? What if she had already been killed?
Luis von Ahn: Vi que Juan estaba muy nervioso. Era probable que iba a sentirse responsable por la muerte de Marta. Nadie pudo dormir esa noche. En la maana, todos saltamos cuando son el telfono.
Martina Castro: Juan had been waiting near the phone and picked up quickly. But it was just a distant cousin asking if there was any news about Marta.
Luis von Ahn: Al da siguiente, el To Sam no llam. Muchos familiares se fueron de la casa.
Martina Castro: After the third day without word from the kidnappers, members of the family who had been camped out at Martas house started to pack up their things and head home. Luis took this as a sign that they had lost hope of Marta returning alive.
Luis von Ahn: Yo empec a sentir pnico. Y si mi ta nunca regresa? Pero unas horas ms tarde, el To Sam llam.
Martina Castro: El To Sam sounded even more agitated and angry than the last time he called.
Luis von Ahn: Juan le pregunt si mi ta estaba viva, y el To Sam dijo que s. Juan le dijo que solo tenamos 50,000 dlares.
Martina Castro: Surprisingly, Tio Sam said that was fine. He asked them to put the money in a suitcase and to leave it in a trashcan in a mall a few kilometers from the house. But first
Luis von Ahn: Juan le dijo que antes de pagar, necesitbamos otra prueba de vida. Una hora despus, el To Sam llam con la respuesta correcta a otra pregunta para mi ta.
Martina Castro: Tio Sam then asked that the ransom money be taken to the mall immediately. He warned that he would be watching the area, so they better leave it there within the hour. Martas family put the cash in a small suitcase and handed it to Juan to make the drop.
Luis von Ahn: Cuando Juan regres a la casa, dijo que no vio nada raro en el centro comercial, y que haba dejado el dinero donde pidieron. Las prximas horas fueron muy largas. Pasamos otra noche casi sin dormir.
Martina Castro: Hours passed, but they received no news from Marta, nor calls from the kidnappers confirming the receipt of the money.
Luis von Ahn: Pensaba en mi ta, quien era como una segunda madre para m. Me preguntaba si la volvera a ver.
Martina Castro: Then early the next morning The doorbell rang
Luis von Ahn: Era mi ta. Estaba viva y bien, pero muy nerviosa.
Martina Castro: Marta stood in the living room, while everyone sat around, eyes fixed on Marta. The 65-year-old woman trembled as she told them what happened the days she was kept captive.
Luis von Ahn: Nos dijo que estuvo en una habitacin pequea y oscura, y que no poda ver porque sus ojos estaban cubiertos. Dijo que los secuestradores le haban dado de comer, pero que tuvo mucho miedo.
Martina Castro: Days after being placed in that room, she was able to make out the face of someone familiar through her blindfold. She recognized one of the army generals who had worked with her ex-husband. For fear of retribution, she never denounced him for his crime.
Luis von Ahn: Despus del secuestro, mi vida cambi. Cada da me preguntaba si alguien ms iba a ser secuestrado. Sera yo, mi mam, uno de mis amigos? Meses despus, me fui a Estados Unidos a estudiar en la universidad, en parte por la inseguridad de Guatemala.
Martina Castro: And he never moved back. Just months later, in December of 1996, the decades-long war in Guatemala officially ended. Luis says, today, the country is much safer. But people walk around with ghosts from that timeloved ones they lost, regrets and fears that they were never able to shake. For Luis, his ghost is Martas kidnapping
Luis von Ahn: Todava puedo sentir la ansiedad de esos das del secuestro de mi ta.