Monday, November 16, 2009


"En el continente latinoamericano se dan ríos de esperanza". (Ignacio Ellacuría)

Jesuit Massacre Still Haunts Salvadorans After 20 Years
New America Media, Commentary, Mary Jo McConahay, Posted: Nov 16, 2009 Review it on NewsTrust
Editor’s Note: Today marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter -– a turning point in El Salvador’s civil war. Former NAM contributing editor Mary Jo McConahay, who has been a reporter for many years in Latin America, was the first reporter on the scene.

SAN SALVADOR -- Twenty years ago, three colleagues and I were the first reporters on the scene of the murders here of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter, a turning point in the civil war that cost 75,000 other Salvadoran lives. As gatherings the world over commemorate the special anniversary, I remember details of that morning I do not want to forget.

“They’ve killed Ellacuria,” said the young priest in the hotel parking lot.

He had rushed over to tell reporters, he said, and we were the first he met.

We reserved belief. The death of Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of San Salvador’s Jesuit university and a world-renowned theologian, had been announced more than once during the civil war. We jumped into a jeep anyway.

At the university side gate, we knocked on a black iron door. From across the street, a soldier in a guardhouse kept watch. Guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) had been trying for six days to take over the capital. The army was fighting back with all the U.S.-supplied arms and aircraft it had. At this hour of morning, just after curfew lifted, you didn’t know what lay behind any closed door.

Inside, on the grass, we saw four bundles covered with white sheets stained with what looked like blood.

“Come with me,” said José María Tojeira, the Jesuits’ Central America provincial. My colleagues, radio reporters, were already striding with their mics toward two clerics, one elderly and one very young, who stood gazing at the bundles. I followed Tojeira.

“Come, look,” he said as we stepped inside the residence.

A man lay lifeless in the hall. A priest, I supposed, but not Ellacuria. A smear of crimson streaked the floor. Tojeira stood by an open door to one of the rooms. He didn’t speak, but tilted his head for me to look inside. A narrow room with a small bed and books, one fallen on the floor, next to a man’s body, some blood. Not like knife wounds, likely bullets. I wrote in my reporter’s notebook furiously, sloppily, tethering myself to the pages. Each time, Tojeira waited.

“Now we will go,” he said.

Instead of returning to the garden, however, we descended a short flight of outdoor steps. A door stood ajar. I asked myself what more might be possible.

The body of a woman lay over that of a girl. The woman’s remains faced the door, as if she had stood in front of the girl at the last moment. I could hardly breathe. My own daughter was three at the time.

By the time Tojeira and I ascended to the garden once more, news photographers had arrived.

“Father, you have to take the covers off the bodies,” I said.

Tojeira looked alarmed for a moment, then decisive.

“Promise me that these pictures, all this, will reach the Jesuits, will be known,” he said.

I felt a jolt. Tojeira’s words told me he was uncertain whether he would live through the day. Jesuits, most notably Ellacuria, had had the ear of both sides in the civil war, from President Alfredo Cristiani of the right-wing ARENA party, to leftist FMLN commanders. The scholar-priests pushed for a negotiated, non-military solution. To radical rightists, this was intolerable. A call for “Death to Jesuits” had surfaced, along with threats to others in the atmosphere of war.

I knew the photographers. I promised Tojeira. The sheets came off.

There was Ellacuria, still in his bathrobe, looking up, as if he had faced his killer. There was Ignacio Martin-Baro, the psychologist I had first met in San Francisco years before, when he explained to me how difficult it was to treat traumatic stress while people were drowning in war. Segundo Montes lay there, the sociologist to whom we always went for facts about the exodus that was making Los Angeles the second largest El Salvadoran city. He had tracked the uprooting carefully, sadly, holding back anger -– it seemed to me -– when he had described how the war was separating families, and emptied old towns.

I did not know the other priests who died that day, Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno. I did not know (but felt I did) the cook and her daughter, Julia Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos. When I visited the place of the murders recently, I saw that the roses Julia’s husband planted in the days after the massacre had grown to dominate the garden. Ellacuria’s brown bathrobe hung behind glass in the nearby museum.

An engineering student named Martin sat in the little room I had last seen disheveled and smelling of death, with the bodies of the two women on the floor. Young Martin was describing to visitors the history of that day, allowing them to choose which of two photo albums they wanted to see, one that was more “difficult” to pore through, and one that was “softer.” How in God’s name, I wondered, might there be a “soft” version of the images I saw?

I did not feel like speaking, but carried away something I heard Martin say. He was only a toddler on that day 20 years ago, but as he learned how the men worked to end the war, minister among the suffering, and how they died, he decided to join others volunteering for the “museum.”

“We cannot allow forgetting,” he said.

Journalist Mary Jo McConahay’s “Maya Roads, Travels through Space and Time in the American Rainforest,” will appear in 2011, from Chicago Review Press.



Sunday, November 15, 2009



November 13, 2009

Indigenous spiritual guides see a lesson for humanity in the din over 2012.

By Mary Jo McConahay

Writing From Guatemala City - The world may not end two years from now, despite Internet predictions and this week's blockbuster disaster movie, "2012." On screen, the final day in the 5,126-year Maya calendar brings global destruction, and Los Angeles slides inexorably into the sea.

Here in the cradle of Maya civilization, however, shaman/priest Calixta Gabriel said Mother Earth -- Madre Tierra -- would suffer "hunger, wind and thunder," but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

This is relatively good news coming from an ajq'ij, a "calendar keeper" or spiritual guide among the indigenous Maya people, whose traditions and astronomy-based cosmology originated more than 2,000 years ago. Maya today number about 7 million in Central America and Mexico. One million Maya live in the United States. Their Long Count calendar, which began Aug. 11, 3114 BC, ends on Dec. 21, 2012.

During Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, the Maya were suspected of supporting insurgents, and they were "disappeared" by the thousands. Their religion, which had survived the Spanish conquestwith influences from Catholicism, was practiced discreetly, far from non-Maya eyes. Gabriel, 52, fled into exile in California after death squads murdered three brothers in the 1980s, returning as the war ended to her "gift" as a shaman through study with elders.

Now some Maya priests have moved their rituals from caves and remote mountain locations to public areas, including temple ruins frequented by tourists. Calendar keepers perform ceremonies using fire, pine incense, colored candles, chocolate and other elements, petitioning for a community good, such as rain, or protection. The religion matches certain days with certain spirits, and interpreting time and the calendar in daily life is the main responsibility of a Maya priest.

More than a thousand years ago, astronomer priests determined Long Count dates of kingly reigns, inscribed on Maya monuments along with dates of royal births and deaths. Kings and queens had priestly duties by virtue of their position, and might sacrifice their own blood to communicate with the gods. Today, believers ask the shaman/priests to determine the propitious day to marry or travel, or to bless efforts. The signing of the 1996 peace accords was preceded by a Maya ceremony at the ancient site of Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala City and public prayers at the National Palace.

For these purposes, Maya priests use a 260-day calendar called the Short Count. The Long Count tracks Maya millenniums, centuries, years, months and days, starting with the supposed date of Maya creation and extending thousands of years into the future. A third way of reckoning approximates the 365-day calendar.

Some Maya spiritual guides say they have been consulting among themselves on the significance of 2012, traveling informally by foot and bus, including to Mexico. (There is no pope or central doctrinal authority to whom ajq'ijab look for counsel, although some elders command particular respect.)

Some experts on the Maya believe Dec. 21, 2012, merits no great attention, pointing out that only one inconclusive mention of the date appears among thousands of deciphered Maya texts. It's simply the end of an era -- of about 5,000 years -- with another one beginning the next day.

"The scale of Maya time-reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude," wrote epigrapher David Stuart on his blog devoted to ancient Maya script.

Gabriel said she was cautious about magnifying the 2012 date's significance in a way that may be misunderstood. "We do not want to commit the error that some Christians made at the turn of the millennium," she said, referencing much-hyped doomsday predictions about the year 2000, which passed quietly. Nevertheless, she said, we live in "a time of transition" between epochs, when men and women will realize -- or not -- how to pull back from "destroying" the Earth with pollution and by cutting down forests.

"Conditions could be severe," she said. "It depends on our answer. The universe responds according to the treatment it is given."

Another ajq'ij, Gregorio Chayax, 70, wears a baseball cap, T-shirt and pants rolled above rubber sandals. He serves as a spiritual guide among the towering temples of Tikal, the most visited Maya site in the Guatemalan Petén rain forest. (Tikal has a cameo in "2012.")

Chayax has already seen his familiar world disappear, well before 2012. He is one of only eight remaining speakers of Petén's once predominant Itza Maya tongue, according to the Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages.

From 1991 to 2001, about 815,000 acres of protected Petén rain forest were lost to unlawful settlers, drug traffickers and cattle ranchers. Since then, the rate of loss has accelerated, according to Edin Lopez, technical director of the government's National Council of Protected Areas in Petén. "We are not going to speak badly of cows," Chayax said. "But the ranchers have no heart."

Chayax suggested that a transition between eras, signaled by the end of the Long Count calendar, started more than 20 years ago and would continue for at least another 20. "We are going to suffer more heat than now," he said. "We are out of balance. We have become excessive in what we demand."

Yet he said the actions of men and women might head off deterioration of life on Earth.

"Roots are still there, if we know how to find them, and make them live again," he said.

Mary Jo McConahay's "Maya Roads, Travels through Space and Time in the American Rainforest," will be published in 2011.

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

El Salvador Through a Tourist's Eyes


We Were Wrong to Try and Kill You

Journalist Vets in El Salvador crossed the Torola River on a bridge this time, a much different experience from crossing in the 1980s. Once, Jon Lee Anderson’s orange car filled with water in the middle of the shallow river, and with Jon and Nancy McGirr, I waded to the far ( ERP guerrilla-held) shore. Army mortars began to fall behind us, then eerily stopped. We tried to make our way back across, but came under a rain of bullets from them mid-river. Never made it that day.

"You were wrong to try to cross the river," said the Salvadoran commander in San Miguel. But he made an admission too. "And we were wrong to try and kill you."

So this would be Nancy and my first experience of Perquin. I’d call it Kafka-esque.The museum is not to be missed. Here is an ex-combatant in front of the remains of the plane in which Domingo Monterroso was cradling what he thought was the Radio Venceremos transmitter. Just as we pulled up a tour bus carrying about 40 middle-age Salvadorans was leaving after their visit. We skipped the guerrilla camp. Guides, wounded ex-combatants, said they get an average of 60-70 visitors a day.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

For the Women's National Book Association-One Way to Find an Agent

By Mary Jo McConahay

“Only connect,” counsels E.M. Forster. I had begun to think the British novelist invented the phrase for would-be authors, and their would-be agents. My book project had moved along considerably in 18 months, but where did one go from here?

As I wrote, researched, and rewrote, I made sure I also was “putting myself out there” at literary events, just as the manuals advise. I met one or two agents, amenable but failing to connect to me or to my work, and I, unable to connect with them. I even bid at a benefit auction, for lunch and pitch time with an agent whose name you would know; as other bidders peeled off, I got scared, but raised the prize $10.00 each time against those who remained. The poor agent would be my captive audience; I would order something that didn’t stick in my teeth; after a last glass of Napa Merlot, I would walk out past the kind of dustless palms that grow only in restaurants, a represented author. When the bidding reached $700.00, I quit.

No one had ever told me getting an agent might be the hard part.

Now a chance was coming to talk not just to one agent, but a dozen, each pledged to give me three full minutes of attention. The process, unfamiliar to me, had a name I kept referring to mistakenly as “Kiss and Tell.” By the time I reached the Women’s National Book Association venue, I knew to call it, “Speed Dating.”

Last March I joined a hundred other men and women from the WNBA San Francisco Chapter at Sinbad’s Restaurant for its annual Meet the Agents event. From the windows, views of the Bay were the blue of dreams, and expansive enough to calm the most nervous. I won’t say I wasn’t a little jittery as I looked around the room, at the agents waiting at their little tables, and before each, folks like me lined up in orderly queues.

From the WNBA website, I had taken down the agents’ names days before, and researched them as thoroughly as I might have fact-checked a sentence in my book. One specialized in novels – not my genre – but had once written about geography similar to that in my book, so she ranked on my list anyway. Another had represented a National Book Award nominee, that again, was fiction, but rooted in the country I described, so I considered that a bridge. With one agent I could see no point of contact at all, except that his last name was Polish, like my mother’s; I decided I was not above using any contact point, real, or a stretch, with anyone behind a table, and would talk to him, too.

There was one particular agent I hoped would love me, or at least be drawn to my project, because I really liked his life story (you can find anything on Google), and non-fiction specialty. Others I would have been perfectly happy with. Only one fell into my category of any port in a storm, but if she liked my project, I would admit to having misjudged. You’ll notice the hubris with which I walked into that room, and stood in the lines: as if any of the men or women there would take me as a client, I who had a good writing record, but new in the book publishing world. However, without possessing, or pretending to posses, the confidence that I would “only connect” with someone, I would never have had the nerve to subject myself to the strange, but unexpectedly enjoyable, process.

By the end of the morning, I had talked to every agent, some of the WNBA officers, and many other writers, and learned something from each one. As I find the opening lines of a chapter to be, the first was the hardest.

“Have you got something I can read?”

No hello. I handed over Chapter 1.

“What is this supposed to mean? ‘Surf line.’ What is that?”

Damn, I knew I should have cut it.

First lesson: Follow your gut.

His voice was loud. I felt like disappearing into to the Ladies’ Room. He continued to read silently.

“Good,” he said, and gave me his card, without ceremony.

When I stood to leave, he did too, and put an avuncular arm around me.

“Send it, please.”

Second lesson: Hang in there.

Others, much more talkative, invited me to send a chapter and outline, or the entire ms. when finished, or simply and graciously said I might be a better fit with someone else. I drank three cups of (free) coffee. Had many laughs with fellow authors. Discovered I could encapsulate my project in a 30-second sound bite; explain why Rysard Kapuscinski and Joan Didion are my models; compare my project to a bestseller, while making it different enough to pique interest; and of course, describe my platform, how I might help “sell” the book. In fact, the hours were so learning-intensive and fun, that something in me will miss the experience at the next Meet the Agent event, while I’ll continue to recommend it to anyone who asks.

Because, Dear Reader, I called an agent I met, to whom I felt connected, and within a few days we were literary representative, and client. This week, some six months later, I sign the publisher’s contract.

Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads: Travels Through Time and Space in the American Rainforest, will be published by Chicago Review Press. Her agent is Andy Ross.

Sunday, September 13, 2009



I used to feel chills when I drove by the Casa Crema, the massive “Cream-Colored House" once home to the Defense Minister and his powerful offices. The Casa Crema was a house of horrors during the 1970s and 1980s. It was a time when students, intellectuals, labor leaders and anyone else presumed sympathetic to the armed left, were murdered by government death squads. Or kidnapped and tortured first, before disappearing forever. Some suffered in the Casa Crema.

A few days ago, searching for the offices of the Academy of Maya Languages, I found myself walking in the direction of the Casa Crema. It is not cream-colored at all, but battleship gray, covering a city block, walls crenellated, with the tiny rectangular windows from which men with guns can shoot, if necessary.

How ironic, I thought, for the Maya Academy offices to be near a place that once served a military that killed tens of thousands of unarmed Maya Indians.

In fact, the Academy of Maya Languages, and a Maya television station, now occupy the Casa Crema itself.

“I bet you thought you were going to be kidnapped, joked a young Maya woman inside, commenting on the building her offices have occupied for 5 years.

The Academy of Maya Languages, established to preserve the country’s 22 indigenous tongues, is part of the Ministry of Culture and Education; a former president gave the Maya the Casa Crema to use. The Defense Ministry has long since moved elsewhere.

The young woman sold me some books. She looked in her late 20s, a child during the heat of the war, which ended in 1996 . She wore the heavy woven blouse, woven belt, and long blue skirt of the Kanjobal Maya. And the black, pointed-toe high heels of a fashionable woman in the capital.

“Can a Maya remain Maya, living in a big city, speaking Spanish, far from her mountain home?” I asked.”

“I can,” said the young woman . “Because I know who I am inside.”

In the office of the director, a Pokomam Maya, it was clear that part of the Casa Crema, at least, once had been something like a home. A fireplace framed in dark wood. Stained glass windows with images of medieval ladies and hunting hounds. On the director’s desk burned incense, its scent filling the room.

All the way back to Antigua, I wondered if there were enough incense in the world to purify the Casa Crema. I wondered why the Academy accepted being housed there. The government hardly backs Maya insistence on a “multilingual, multicultural” nation; I wondered whether it pulled a cynical trick by making the Academy -- dependent for funds on the state -- an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Or whether it didn’t matter at all, to anyone who knew who she was inside.


In Guatemala again for the first time in 8 months, I sense the grip organized crime has on streets and minds. It seems the violence of the 30-year civil war didn’t disappear with the 1996 peace accords, but metamorphosed into a far more ambiguous, fearsome mayhem.
The sides in this war are unlikely to meet at a table.
The week began with what one daily headlined, “A Diabolical Tidal Wave:“ In coordinated attacks, in various public corners of the capital, hitmen murdered the director of one prison, sub-director of another, and on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, two prison guards transferring a prisoner from one site to another. Passers-by were killed too, or wounded in the sprays of gunfire, some from AK47s.
A few days later, outside the home of the country’s Chief Prosecutor of Organized Crime Rony Lopez, a police agent protecting Lopez’ family challenged two men, who answered with 9mm bullets. The agent died on the spot, and the killers escaped.
U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland and Carlos Castresana, head of the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity, appeared with a drawn-looking Lopez to show support. But the prosecutors and prison-keepers of Guatemala must know the crime lords have them in their sights.
The crime web catches ordinary Guatemalans too, notably through extortion. Bus company owners are expected to pay monthly to keep their drivers from being murdered; over 80 were killed last year, and the killing continues. Passengers are at risk. Drivers’ murders can take place by automatic weapons fire from a car running alongside the bus, or even a grenade.
Many extortion rings are run from prisons by cel phone. A good friend explained how it worked at their house: a call comes once and tells you where to leave money. If you don’t, another call comes, advising “we know” where children go to school. My friend’s large family now lives without a telephone at home out of terror of another call.
Reactions to the atmosphere of precarious living range from the poignant to draconian. At a conference given by photographer Jean-Marie Simon this week in the capital, the packed room intently watched troubling wartime slides from her classic book, Guatemala, Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny. Afterward, queries about the cycle of violence showed frustration, as if some questioners were asking themselves, “What can we do?”
Former President Alvaro Arzu, now the mayor of this city, the biggest in Central America, believes he has an answer. Democracy is not it.
“Behind a mask of tolerance and freedom of opinion,” Arzu said in a speech Sept. 10, are values in today’s society -- such as democracy -- considered unquestionable, just as ideas about religion were in the Middle Ages. He suggested a “civic military” model of education to regenerate the country’s institutions.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Marketing Memory -- Latin American Studies Conference in Rio

Rio LASA Windup -- Don't Move All Meetings to the USA! And, The Obama Effect

Killing Kodachrome

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Expanding Genocide’s Definition at LASA

Only seeing Rio from the bus so far: Latin American Studies Association meetings, Rio de Janiero, Brazil......
Parsing Political Violence
There is more reason every day to study the paroxysms of violence that shook Chile, Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries in the late 20th century. Knowing in depth what happened can mean they may never happen again. But examination also determines whether they fall into the category of genocide, what journalist and academic Samantha Power calls, “The Problem from Hell.”

The problem defining genocide comes first. Panelists discussing Institutional Memory -- that of political parties, the military, etc -- ended up grappling with what genocide is, and which killing events might fall into it, for much of their lively session. In particular: should the definition of victims be expanded to include members of a political affiliation?

It’s well known that genocide includes targeted killing of individuals because they belong to a particular group -- religious, racial, ethnic, national. What is less well known, as Pablo Policzer of the University of Calgary, pointed out, is that the first several drafts of the 1946 U.N. Genocide Convention included the political category, making it a crime of genocide to kill someone for his affiliation with a particular political group. Only at the last moment, because the Soviet Union and Iran threatened not to sign the convention if that group were left in, was it removed.

Some panelists said only the most numerically massive and egregious killings ought to be included in genocide's definition, like the WWII Holocaust, Cambodia, or the slaughter of Armenians; others stood for the original, wider definition including political groups, which might bring in Chile, for instance.

Against the wider definition is the argument that political affiliation is a choice one makes, less basic to identity than one’s ethnicity or religion. The counterargument is that a person’s choice of political affiliation is far more fundamental to who one is than even the other protected categories: Ethnic identities may be constructed; religious affiliation may be changed. By political affiliation we are not talking here about U.S. citizens choosing between the parties of Democrats and Republicans, who have more in common than they do separating them; instead we are talking about political world views, dictated by a person's birth or experience to become as intrinsically part of his being as his blood type.

Any of the already recognized categories of victims of genocide include identities that are not necessarily objective, but can be created or defined by the perpetrators of the genocide themselves. That is true too of political grouping -- consider the Guatemalan military policy of eliminating entire indigenous villages because of its belief the Maya were natural “allies” of insurgents. It was the military’s own definition of who the enemy was, its assumption of alliance with a political group, without regard to the stand of individuals.

Beyond scholars, lawyers and judges are wrestling with definitions of crimes against humanity and genocide to an increasing degree each year. Defining genocide is not an exercise like determining the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin. It has real world consequences for justice: crime juridically defined as genocide becomes a crime against humanity, which makes perpetrators liable under international law.

At least one panelist was convinced by colleagues’ arguments at LASA, he said, so that by the session’s end he said he believed the political affiliation category ought to be included when considering the crime of genocide.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Back Story (Maya Poetry panel)

The PUC campus where LASA is being held in Rio has its own rainforest....

Guatemala’s own Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for Literature rolled into one, the Miguel Angel Asturias prize, named after the country’s Nobel novelist (and father of guerrilla chief Gaspar Ilom), was presented to Humberto Ak’abal in 2004. He declined to accept it This shocked the country’s intellectual elite.

As a young writer, Asturias had opined on the majority Maya as a lesser kind of people, with passions and proclivities that signalled they were inferior to Guatemalans of European roots. His Social Problem of the Indian encouraged racism, Ak'abal said.

As I've said, I've known Humberto for years. In January, in Antigua, he told me he couldn't accept an honor named after Asturias. Humberto is gentle, peaceable; internationally and at home, he has accepted honors as a way of bringing light to Maya history, aesthetic, and living conditions. But even illiterate (but not uneducated) Maya know about this writing of Asturias, and there was no way he could accept, because he answered to his community.

“I am one of my people,” he said.

Arturo Arias has received the Miguel Asturias prize.

Coming: Marketing Memory, and Was there Genocide in Latin America or Not?

It's pouring like crazy in Copacabana as I write…

Whose Literature is it Anyway?

The take-away from a panel on Literature and the Left and Right turns in Latin America was that testimony is out; gone are the articulate first-person narratives of key figures that made us understand in an intimate way moments in the national liberation movements. I think of Omar Cabezas in Nicaragua, unforgettable Mario Payeras in Guatemala, Nidia Diaz, Ana Maria Guadalupe, and the story of Radio Venceremos in El Salvador.

“The testimonial mode is out, and the neo-liberalism T.V. mode is in, “ said Marc Zimmerman. That must be at least partly true, given the appearance of some of Brazil’s famous telenovelas which include memory of the military dictatorship and torture as themes amid romance and usual format (more about memory marketing later).

Literature in Latin America has long been associated with political and social commitment, represented by the left. But as the very clear and funny Ileana Rodriguez showed in words and pictures, the return of the left in Nicaragua, for instance, can too easily be seen as a joke, with Ortega the punch line. Alliances between writers and “revolutionaries” cannot now be assumed. No more Gabo-Fidel.

When Mario Benedetti died recently, it felt as if an era were passing. At the panel it was easy to understand why when Jon P. Beasley-Murray, younger and more brusque than Zimmerman, said when he heard the Benedetti news his reaction was surprise. “I thought he was already dead,” he said. Tellingly, Beasley-Murray’s presentation was titled, “Literature at the Margins.”
Does commitment and engagement for revolutionary change disappear for the writer now that the shooting wars are over? If the left is in electoral power here and there (Let’s leave aside “what the Left is” for the moment), does that mean the writer no longer feels a compulsion to expose hypocrisy and the human condition?

And testimony is some of the most riveting literature on earth -- just ask the protagonist of the haunting Senselessness by Honduran novelist (in exile) Horacio Castellanos Moya. Or ask the tens of thousands of students first exposed to the realities of Central America in I, Rigoberta Menchu. It’s not a fashion genre.

A lot of us have stayed up nights reading truth reports (or our own interviews) from Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, as unable to put down the troubling stories as we would be unable to close a page-turner of a novel. The fact that they are first person and non-fiction grabs us in a way all its own. Now that fear is dispersing in certain corners like fog in the sunlight, it’s arguable new and even more crystal testimony is forthcoming, written by witnesses themselves, or with collaborator writers cursed with commitment.

The LASA “Left Turns” panel might have been happening on a different planet from another on modern Quechua and Maya poetry. I cannot speak to Quechua, but two of the most prominent Guatemalan Maya poets, the Kakchiquel Calixta Gabriel Xiquin, from Poaquil, Chimaltenango, and Humberto Ak’abal, who is Ki'che from Momostenango, have been my friends for more than 20 years; their poetry, and their lives, have been and continue to be testimonial, committed, and engaged. Panel chair and novelist Arturo Arias, a former LASA president, recognized their “revolutionary” work, and that of memoirist Victor Montejo, Jacalteco Maya. One presenter from the United States delivered an entire paper on Calixta’s poetry.

When talking about “the literature of Latin America” it’s just dangerous and embarrassing to open the umbrella only half way.

Let Loose at LASA

Just returned from a death squads comparison workshop…
Good to meet old friends-- David Holiday now in D.C.; Martha Doggett, whom I hadn’t seen since visiting her office high up in the secretariat at the U.N. 4 years ago.
Like minds end up in the same rooms here at the Pontifical University, which is good because otherwise people would be hard to find among 5500 attendees at more than 1240 panels over the four days of the conference.
Peter Kornbluh and colleagues from the National Security Archive presented fascinating panel on how uncovered documents pursue and nail dictators and other rights violators in Chile, Peru and Mexico. Never underestimate that good, old-fashioned virtual paper trail.
Unfortunately, Kate Doyle unable to appear, but word is the Guatemala genocide case is proceeding apace. Perhaps most hands-on useful of all was Emilene Martinez-Morales’ explanation about how access to information with regard to human rights is now mandated and available by request to govt. files in Peru, Guatemala, Uruguay , and perhaps soon, if legislation passes, in Argentina. And in Mexico now at
Mexico takes 12 days to reply; a Freedom of Information Act request to Washington takes an average of 2 years.
Look on the Archive’s website for more, but if needed, emilene’s mail is

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bye Bye Bahia -- for now

I must stop writing about Bahia now because a couple of days have passed and we are already at the Latin American Studies Association meetings in Rio. I’ll return in memory from time to time, to Bahia at night, the folk dance company (a name that falls far short of doing justice to the troupe), and the food, the food. Meanwhile, here is a picture of our last evening in Bahia, on the corner of the street near the Guest House. Maria Angelica was always a wonderful little traveler as a child; now all grown up she’s the best traveling companion a mother could want.

Pelourinho Bahia

Spent the day with a native guide of Bahia named Wilson, who wears his long hair in about a thousand tiny braids and taught himself four languages besides Portuguese. we went to the oldest part of the old city, a warren called Pelourinho. Pelo, as it’s called for short, has its own reputation for quick heists and muggings, so you don’t wear earrings, other jewelry, don’t show cameras etc.

Yet Wilson showed examples of ecclesial beauty in a place I would never have expected to see them. Florence, Taxco, Seville, yes. But not Pelo, which now I have to add to my list of places to find great church art.

Asian -- mostly Chinese --artisans from Portuguese colonies built a Jesuit church using the blue of Ming dynasty pottery for the Madonna’s robes, with its touch of teal instead of the traditional clear blue, and her usually-flowing mantle draped instead across her waist, obi-style.

Staring into the baroque carved golden curls and swirls that covered the walls reminded me of the kid’s game of looking into drawings of clouds and answering, “Who do you see there?” Once your eyes became adjusted , you see Chinese masks everywhere.

Niches in the Jesuit church were roofed with what looked like Asian warrior helmets -- think Genghis Khan. Parallel to an altar column, if you looked closely, a dragon climbed from floor to ceiling. Unless I’m mistaken, it breathed fire.

The Franciscan golden church was built by black African slaves, not paid workers like the Asians. They created a stunning jewel box: seriously, imagine every inch of every surface, ceiling and walls, niches and chapels, covered in gold. Yet the effect was not cold, not gaudy.
But neither did the blizzard of gold feel like it would lead a church-goer to greater understanding or devotion; that is, to me it impressed without inspiring. Wilson pointed out acts of resistance on the part of the enslaved artisans: male cherubs with saucy expressions whose penises ---- before they were discovered by an abashed cleric -- stood large and erect.

In the cloister, 4 walls are covered in tiles in dutch blue and white, telling legends. I’ve never been in one like this. Walls not of paintings or carvings or marble or sandstone but tile, remarkably preserved in spite of Bahia heat and moisture. I felt like Alice in Wonderland after having the Eat Me cookie (small), sitting on a Delft platter.

Inside the church, a large, covered entrance, where the tiles were perfectly preserved, they looked fine as a teacup.

When we left the church I told Wilson how fabulous it all was, and he said the beauty of Bahia is ‘passing us on all sides.’ Blue eyes, green eyes, although three quarters of Salvador’s population are descendants of African blacks. But his dark skin is red toned “from the Indians,” his hair black and tightly curled, and his lips “not thick but narrow like the Europeans in my ancestry.” This is Bahia’s true beauty, “its best gift,” he said.

Barra Bahia--Nearly All Sins

A few blocks from the guest house here in the sector of Salvador called Barra, an old Portuguese fort is pounded by spray from breaking sea waves on one side, while on the other, the sound of gently lapping water rises from All Saints Bay, one of the biggest in the world. As daughter Maria Angelica likes to say [], before there was Brazil, there was Bahia.

The Portuguese (1549) landed with everything they needed to set up a New World colony: 400 soldiers, 400 settlers, priests, prostitutes, and city plans for Salvador, which would be the new country’s capital for the next 300 years. They even brought paving stones in the holds of the ships, and in one case dismantled an entire Portuguese church, numbered its stones, and reconstructed it in the middle of the fortified town they built here on a hill. ( Today that church is the plainest-looking.)

The worship houses didn’t keep Salvador from getting a raunchy rep, and the Bay getting another name: “The Bay of All Saints and of Nearly All Sins.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Bahia heat and humidity turns to rain, which makes it easy, even magical, to go in and out of sleep all day, recovering. At 7 pm, Russell the innkeeper shakes up the first caipirinha of the evening, and we talk on the front porch. It’s cane liquor--40 proof--lime wedges, sugar and ice.
It’s so good I can even have the economy conversation.
Brazilians have only been buying homes using mortgages for 4 years, he says, so the crunch from a housing bubble affects them less than Americans. Two years ago, Russell sold his software company and opened a small guest house three minutes walk from the beach. “I know, everyone’s dream,” he says. “But you have to see me at the computer at 6:00 a.m. dealing with bureaucracy as a small business, and see what a dream it is.”
Russell wears shorts and flip-flops downstairs to work, laughs and talks with guests animatedly about the beauties of Bahia, has a lovely family and a charmer of a dog named Snoopy. Looks like a dream to me.

Bahia on My Mind

Stayed up too late last night, juggling packing with watching Flying Down to Rio. Now there was elegance -- Dolores del Rio. With Fred Astaire playing accordion, and young Ginger Rogers in a transparent black gauze dress -- guess the film code hadn’t started yet They had a better time of it: my trip was 26 hours through 4 airports. When I bought the ticket I thought the price was great; now I know why.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Coming up

This is a continuation of my electronic GlobeWatch column once posted on Pacific News Service/New America Media. In June I'll be posting from Brazil. Please return and join me.
Mary Jo