Friday, April 30, 2021


All over my San Francisco neighborhood people are walking the streets with their masks around their necks, thankful — if smiles are any indication — about the new CDC guidelines, yet ready to cover nose and mouth should they have to enter a shop. The newly built sidewalk and curbside structures for open-air dining and imbibing are packed outside cafés, restaurants and neighborhood bars. But my tango classes have not re-started, and until they do, for me this long year of lockdown will not be truly over. When they begin again I’ll feel the freedom that the dance bestows within the set parameters of its steps and moves. Only then I’ll believe we’re back to normal.
More than a year ago, in the last week of January, 2020, I went to the local cultural center for my twice-a-week session and found only my teacher and two other students, instead of the fifteen or twenty persons who usually showed up. (San Franciscans watch the news and were early adopters; probably my absent fellow students were being cautious about the possibilities that this new virus would hit our city, too.) I had just bought a pack of class tickets that were cheaper by multiples and still have several left. I practiced at home for awhile to YouTube videos, and ran and re-ran my iPhone video of a short display our teacher had given us female followers about how to do a patada kick without destroying the male leader’s reproductive organs. But to tango alone is a contradiction in terms, so I practiced less and less until I stopped.
Now I think back to tango moments for comfort, knowing they will come again. One moment sticks especially in my mind, from an afternoon in the historic Uruguayan town of Colonia, across the Plate River from Buenos Aires. The river itself had been a wonder to cross the day before, so wide that from the middle that neither the Argentine shore where I had boarded the ferry nor the Uruguayan shore toward which it headed were visible — it seemed for awhile we sailed the open sea. At sunset the river looked not silver (it’s name in Spanish is Plata, silver) but like coffee re-made with the dregs, carrying as it did the soil of Paraguay and other countries along its length until it emptied into the cold South Atlantic. For two weeks in Buenos Aires I had been hunched over old manuscripts and yellowing photos in windowless archives, doing research for my book on World War II in Latin America — Argentina played a complex, fascinating role — and my head was spinning. It seemed the work would never end, just as it has often seemed in the last year that our altered way of life might go on forever. But wherever there is music — and tango — there is beauty, and the promise of good things to come. In a small plaza off a side street my friend and I took seats along with other people, mostly locals who seemed to be quite accustomed to what I could only believe was a beloved tradition. Two men, one with a guitar, the other with a Bandoneon, an instrument like a small accordion, took seats across from us under the branches of a tree and began to play. From one moment to the next a half dozen couples entered in their Sunday best, some of the men in natty hats, women in fascinators and wearing shoes with heels the height of which I could only hope to graduate to some day – my beginner’s tango shoes are only 2-inchers. Until dark came, time seemed to spin backward. Old and young, the couples danced with precision and infinitely slow moves, and when it was called for, with sweep and élan. The memory of the dancing makes me look forward to the day when I can do it again, when all are fully vaccinated, and the pandemic is truly behind us.
Are such thoughts frivolous at such a time? Yes. But we each are allowed our own kind of comfort, and thinking tango is mine. I’m keeping those dance class tickets in a safe place.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Picturing Calixta

My longtime friend Calixta Gabriel, a Kaqchikel Maya poet and ajq’ij’, spiritual guide, told me she had decided the time had come to unbury her past. When it finally happened, I discovered things I didn’t know about her. But I also came to understand better an era of extraordinary faith-based commitment to a better life, which was also an era of struggle among beliefs -- during the Guatemala civil war (1960-1996), when some 200,000 persons were killed or disappeared, mostly unarmed civilians at the hands of the military according to a U.N. sponsored truth report. In 2013 Indigenous women testified to war crimes committed under the aegis of General José Efraín Ríos Montt, who would become the first head of state convicted of genocide by his own country’s courts. Day after day I watched women enter from a side door with their woven shawls pulled up to hide their faces, walk past Ríos Montt, some leaning on the arm of a woman professionally trained to provide psychological support, then dropping their shawls to face the judges, keening, or with valor in their voices. They poured out wrenching stories of loss and abuse. Proceedings were broadcast nationally. “I have memories to unbury, too,” Calixta told me after the trial. Whether the example of others had provoked her, or whether she had other reasons, I reckoned Calixta had prayed on the decision, befbecause that was her way. Soon I realized with a shock that the “unburying” would be literal, with Calixta carrying shovel and pick on a journey to somewhere in the countryside, a place only recently repopulating after destruction by wartime fire and violence. Continue HERE:

Tuesday, February 16, 2021


 Latin America has forced a redefinition of who is a martyr. The definition matters — for spiritual, political, and historical reasons. This is the first of a series. It begins with a photo of a flier I found pasted on a wall in rural El Salvador in 2015, thirty-five years after the murder of these women, a sign of veneration.

Image for post

The first time I ventured into the countryside of El Salvador in 1983 was to visit the graves of Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, two of the four American churchwomen beaten, raped, and murdered by members of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.

Their assassinations forty years ago, commemorated recently in prayer services, webinars, and zoomed gatherings around the world, has come to stand for the thousands who gave themselves for faith in a better future for the poor of Central America during the liberation wars of the last century. HERE IS A STORY I RECENTLY WROTE ABOUT THESE WOMEN , about why people think they matter today, and whether they should be called “saints.”

Friday, February 12, 2021

Biden's New Family Reunification Task Force - Hard Lessons from History

During the U.S.-backed wars in Central America, I met parents whose children were whisked off by U.S.-backed militaries, never to be seen by their families again. President Biden’s new task force created to find parents of children taken at the border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, can learn lessons from those historic separations: Despite best intentions, the harm cannot be undone.  And beware of Central American governments, which have protected adoptions of children irregularly taken from their parents–- partner instead with highly motivated private groups.

On an autumn morning in 1985, Niris Menjivar, then 41, showed me the last place he had seen his daughter, Reina, 11, three weeks before.  “Do you think she will know she is not an orphan?” he asked. We were in territory held by leftist rebels, supported by peasant farmers like Menjivar who had long suffered at the hands of an abusive government, and were suffering even moreacutely from bombardment since Washington began supplyingair power to San Salvador. When local people feared a government military operation, they packed food and infants on their backs and fled to remote mountain corners on treks they called guindas.On the last guinda,returning with other men carrying water to where women and children sheltered, Menjivar said he watched helplessly from behind a boulder, unable to cry out without giving away the hiding place of neighbors as a military helicopter lifted off with his daughter, and soldiers captured others. 

            “Do you understand?” he asked, as if asking forgiveness.   

            “The torture is ongoing,” Adriana Portillo-Bartow of Chicago, a retired community services worker, told me recently. In 1980, Portillo-Bartow’s daughters Glenda, 9, and Rosaura, 10, and her 18-month old half-sister, Alma, were taken in a military raid from a house suspected as a hideout for rebels in Guatemala. She never saw them again.

            Portillo-Bartow has worked for Amnesty International, and testified in courts and to a truth commission about missing Guatemalan children. The Guatemala government targeted families thought to favor rebels “as a way to deter others,” she said. Trump used the “same logic, the same kind of sadistic policy planned to cause damage, punishment for coming to the United States.” 

At least 3000 children went missing during the war in El Salvador; five thousand went missing in Guatemala. Neither government pursued reunions. Those thattake place largely have been organized largely by private groups, such as one founded by a Jesuit priest in El Salvador, another by mental health advocates in Guatemala, more by organizations of the once-missing children – now adults – in the United States and Europe. 

In 2000, Luis Curruchich, then 48, pictured above, sat in a wooden chair outside his house in Santa Anita Las Canoas, Guatemala, and told me he was still lamenting the loss of his daughter, Aura Marina, who had disappeared at age three during a 1980 army attack on his village. “She would be 23 now,” he said.

A Guatemalan Catholic Church report said missing children were taken to army bases before being given to soldiers and officers, or placed in orphanages or trafficked into adoptions; guerrillas took two adolescent boys to join their ranks. Americans adopted more than 30,000 Guatemalan children from those years until 2008, when a corrupt adoption system was closed down for reforms. In Honduras, a hotel clerk offered me an “adopting baby” rate as I checked in with my San Francisco-born 6-month old one day in 1987 – I found the place filled with foreigners waiting to adopt. An estimated 2,354 Salvadoran children were adopted into the United States during the war (1980-1992). Adoption also may be the destiny of the misplaced children of the border captures. A 2018 Associated Press investigation identified “holes” in the U.S. legal system that permitted granting legal custody to families caring for migrant children without notifying the children’s parents. Some were separated during the Obama administration which deported three million persons.

Gemma Givens, a founder of Next Generation, an association of Guatemalan adoptees in nineteen countries who are looking for their birth families (and sometimes find them), told me the children separated recently at the border will need “emotional support” if their parents are not found despite the task force’s efforts, and the, too, want to search some day.Immigration hardliners amenable to family separation remain working in the new administration. The cycle of Central American children torn from their parents seems endless.  “It has to stop,” Portillo-Bartow said.

White House image:

photo of Luis Curruchich by Nancy McGirr copyright 2000 for the San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

On the First Day of the Rest of My Life: The Shot


In the first hour on the first day of availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, the line was already two blocks long.  We all had scheduled appointments, but nobody wanted to risk missing. I had spent four hours waiting on the phone when news of the shots had come, doing mindless tasks with the numbing recorded message on speaker; when the drone became a human voice -- "How may I help you?" -- my brain took a moment to shift gears and I answered so clumsily I almost cut off the call. "First available," I said.


On the scale of concern about getting COVID, from not concerned at all to very concerned, mark me terrified.  I did everything Dr. Fauci said, risked alienating some close friends, I am afraid, by nixing even socially distanced, open air walks (I took them alone, or with my husband). When special occasions arose, I passed food and gifts to my dear friend and neighbor of decades with a bucket and stick over the back fence.  I work from home, have a generous daughter and her partner who insist on shopping for us. These privileges have not made the year shorter.



"Let's keep our distance," I heard a man's voice saying as the vaccination queue moved. "Imagine getting infected in line for the shot."


In almost a year of lockdowns (I was an early adapter), I had worn only house slippers or walking shoes, only easy-fit boyfriend pants or gardening jeans and t-shirts, with a necklace for Zoom.  Today I put on nifty corduroy pants and my good Dansko clogs, a favorite cotton jacket last taken from its hanger in February 2020.  Waiting in the early San Francisco sun, I shifted my purse (Purse!) from left shoulder to right and reached into the jacket pocket to find the set of front door keys I had been looking for the last eleven months.


If it sounds as if this day felt monumental to me, it has.  Precautions remain, but the fear I've shared with millions of others has lifted. The shot itself happened so fast I didn't get a selfie. To make the next appointment -- "Your vaccine is here, you'll get your follow up," the attendant assured me, although I hadn’t asked – I was moved to six different chairs, had stickers taken on and off my shirt. "So sorry," apologized a nurse, "we're organizing this as we go."   A doctor who checked me out after the shot told me that when word came that the governor was making 60,000 doses of the vaccine available to the facility instead of the 10,000 they were expecting, people worked all night to set up tents. I noticed the big sales tag still hung from his swivel chair. There may be huge glitches in the national vaccine rollout, but just as they have since the beginning of the pandemic, front line medical workers are pulling out the stops to control this thing.


I was on the verge of tears as I made my way to the street.  So many have not survived. From social media, by email, I’ve felt the grief among those left behind. Even at a remove, the sadness has been overwhelming. Somehow I feel I have to work harder now at whatever I do, to use the new lease on life to the utmost. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Last Two Weeks Begin with an Attempt on the End


Thoughts on Trump's Self-Coup Attempt, Colored by Latin America

Armed police take positions as mob assaults U.S. Congress

     President Trump tried something they would call an autogolpe, a self-coup, in the "banana republics" of Latin America  -- a despicable term used by arrogant Americans once unfamiliar with coups at home. I covered the region for more than three decades and saw such maneuvers up close.  The action means the chief of state forcibly eliminates the power of the legislative branch of the government so he (yes, generally a he) can rule alone, or with lackeys and lawmakers answerable only to him. 

    At a rally in front of the White House, Trump baptized followers as shock troops and sent them forth to assault the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to formally seal the results of Joe Biden's election. Like everyone else, I was glued to television, radio and the internet as the spectacle that rocked my country unfolded, as Trump's troops occupied the Congress, as hundreds of elected officials cowered in justifiable fear for their lives or stepped fast to secret locations. Late in the day, I re-ran the Trump rally online. The center seemed to be holding and I wanted to know what kind of talk would move thousands to violate the law, history, decency, the Constitution. And anyway, who could sleep? Researching a book I wrote on World War II in Latin America, I had spent countless hours watching and listening to videos and recordings of that era's fascists.  Trump's echo of those voices, and their distortion of history, was overwhelming, like a match on kindle.

    In an autogolpe I covered in Guatemala in 1993, the big question for hours was whether the military would back the president, or the Constitution. (The military was split, but under U.S. Embassy pressure, the key elements eventually stood against the president.) For hours in Washington during Trump's self-coup,  which side the armed authorities were taking wasn't clear either -- police sometimes seemed to facilitate the insurrectionists, or appear passive, and only after agonizing hours did a few authorities -- absent Trump -- find backbones and call in the National Guard. The casualties in Washington could have been worse. The White Supremacist Proud Boys leader had been arrested a couple of days earlier on the way into D.C., long guns and bumpstocks confiscated.  Two IEDs planted on Capitol grounds, the kind of weapon that has killed more than 2,000 GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan, were disarmed before they could explode.

The self-serving resignations of Trump's administration enablers has begun, but many remain, and even after the mayhem, more than half of the Republican members of Congress were willing to go along with delaying the formality of saying yes, Biden won. (Their moves lost.)  I have not been able to travel to work in Latin America since the COVID lockdown began, but the region's worst days in my memory feel close by. It is going to be a long two weeks.

Photos: Both, Wikimedia Commons
Police in Congress is a still from video shot by Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Flint

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Requiem for a Café, in Words Once Found There

Of news about places I loved which are closing forever because of the pandemic, I was most moved by an announcement I read online from San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. Memories flooded in of Tierra Adentro, a restaurant under a high roof, a center for music and poets, and an outlet for goods made in Zapatista communities nearby struggling for existence. During the days I was researching my firstbook, Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest,  I met friends and sources there, reviewed my notes at night. All around, in  pamphlets for sale, written on rough boards, even printed on placemats, were a memorable words from an eclectic crowd that reflected the spirit of the place. I want to remember some of them (my translations) to make myself feel better, to recall Tierra Adentro in joy. 
Luckily, I saved a placemat.

“That two and two is necessarily four is an opinion many of us share. But if anyone sincerely thinks otherwise, let him or her speak up.  Nothing amazes us around here.”

---Antonio Machado


“Craziness is like gravity. All it needs is a little push.”



“For the one who loves, a thousand objections do not make a doubt; for the who does not love, a thousand proofs do not make a certainty.”

---Louis Evely


“Sorry for the inconvenience. This is a revolution.”

 ---Sub-Comandante Marcos


“Utopia is on the horizon.  I walk two steps, she is two steps further away, and the horizon runs ten steps farther. So what good is utopia? For that, to walk on.”

Eduardo Galeano



     “If there is no coffee for all, there will be no coffee for anyone.”

---Ernesto “Che” Guevara


“My name is Esther, but that isn’t important now.  I am a Zapatista, but that’s not important either in this moment. I am indigenous and I am a woman, and that is the only thing that’s important now.”

---Comandante Esther


And from Guille, the brother of Mafalda:

‘"Isn’t it incredible how much there can be inside a pencil?"