Saturday, September 11, 2021

A Shoe Dropped Here Sounds Like Thunder There

“I suppose you have heard of the events in your country?”
September 11, 2001 RABINAL, Guatemala – The first word came from three Achi Maya Indians in this mountain town. Our documentary film team had ben working in places with no television, no telephones. Polite and discreet, the indigenous Maya waited until I finished my business – looking for a translation of their ancient language – before one said obliquely, “I suppose you have heard of the events in your country?” By the time I rejoined the crew again, I was shaking. Monitoring a scratchy radio broadcast over dirt roads made one thing clear – wherever you hear the news is, for one awful moment, ground zero. The news from New York and Washington traveled fast to locals, and hurled us to the other side of the lens. The day before, we had watched as a community exhumed the bodies of 20 of their men, massacred in 1982 during the country’s civil war. How sad we had been to see survivors and relatives weep over the bones of loved ones, some skeletons with ropes still around their necks, recognizing the fallen by a special belt or the way a boot had been repaired. Now the survivors gazed at us with compassion and curiosity, in much the same way we had regarded them the day before. It was startling and confusing. I wanted to snap, “What are you looking at?” In time we contacted loved ones, shouting “Is it true?” into the clammy air of a phone booth in town. Remarkably, we found we could get on the Internet through the phone center’s new computers, but the machines were too slow to provide images beyond tiny boxes of mad pixels. At home, other Americans were watching what happened with their own eyes, a thousand times over. But for us, because a day would pass before we saw real pictures, a new epoch began with thinking and imagining the enormity of what had happened.
Receiving the news in such a faraway place brought another kind of basic lesson, about borderlessness, a realization that there is no longer any such thing as a periphery of events. In the capital, Guatemala City, newspapers responded to the attack as if it was a local disaster. Stories carried phone numbers where families might seek the missing. The Cleaning Workers Union at the World Trade Center reported that most of its members were from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Vacationing local doctors set to visit the twin towers that day had not been heard from. Mario Catu Argueta, a fireman gone North to seek his fortune, had written his family before the attack that he was scheduled to work at the Pentagon the week of Sept. 10-14. “No one answers his phone,” they said. Most of all, the newspapers spoke fearfully of a coming war over which the country had no control. During the Cold War, some 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives, mostly Indians massacred by a military supported by the United States, according to a U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission. In those tense decades, Washington and local allies saw the enemy in every Indian and guerrilla who opposed the government, and the word “terrorist” was often used to characterize the opposition. President Clinton apologized for U.S. involvement in the violence during a 1999 visit, but inhabitants of small countries (Guatemala’s population is 11 million) know that in big wars, battle lines are far flung and blurred. “Fear is a poor counselor – it is not good for anyone in the world that the most powerful country feels threatened,” said El Periodico, a daily. The paper worried that the arms race, “which was given new life” with the George W. Bush administration before the catastrophe, would spiral upward unquestioned, given the “noble U.S. tradition of uniting” behind the president in such times. In the cosmopolitan capital, all eyes did not bespeak compassion and shared human experience, as those of the Achi Maya had done. Once in a grieving moment when I asked aloud whether my country deserved such horror, I was shocked to hear one acquaintance, an educated Guatemalan health worker, say, “I reserve my answer.” I could have asked what terrible personal experience or history might lie below the answer, but I was speechless. A university administrator I knew from Nicaragua called the events “barbarous and unthinkable,” but voiced thoughts I heard from many urban Central Americans. “Much will depend upon what civil society does in America at this moment, whether there might be a time for reflection about what people in some parts of the world think of them.” The comments made me feel resentful, isolated. But after working for years in Central America I know that, historically, when a shoe drops in Washington it is heard as loud as thunder in places such as Guatemala. “We deeply understand your human tragedy,” voices here say, “but please do not make it worse.” Nevertheless, many seem to be hunkering down for the inevitable. “None of this can be considered encouraging for a country on the periphery of the great giant,” said El Periodico.
Written in the days after 9/11, published in the Sacramento Bee and other U.S. newspapers. Photos from Wikimedia commons and Mary Jo McConahay

Monday, July 12, 2021

Reflection on a Cold War Martyr

One day in March, 1984, I pulled my old Volkswagen into the town of Juchitan on the southern Mexican Isthmus of Tehuantepec. I expected to find a sleepy county seat off the highway, but I could feel tension in the air. I spotted several armed soldiers patrolling rooftops overlooking the municipal square. Local people, mostly Indigenous Zapotecs, were gathering with hand-made placards to protest the military occupation. I had been headed for El Salvador, still thirteen hours away by road, and was startled to see posters of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in 1980. Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Our Lady of Guadalupe were the ubiquitous icons of Mexico. And now here was Romero, too. I decided to stay for a couple of days and talk to people, and soon understood the connection. People here revered Romero as a saint, a man whose words supported their own struggles for justice. Members of the “popular organizations” of the Juchitan municipalidad (pop. 1984: 70,000) had been teaching local peasant farmers to read and write. They formed cooperatives to buy seed and fertilizer in bulk and sell their products, working toward independence from local strongmen who monopolized land and commerce. A number of the groups had formed a common political platform and won local elections. They were moving away from the overarching national ruling party, the PRI (Party of the Institutionalized Revolution), working at what Romero had called in El Salvador, “the people’s project.” When the PRI refused to recognize the upstarts of Juchitan, Mexico City sent in the soldiers. Since the 1960s, in other parts of Mexico, too, indeed all over Latin America, people were protesting a growing income gap between rich and poor caused by a new economic model. After World War II, encouraged by the United States and international banking organizations where Washington held sway, Latin nations undertook so-called development projects financed by heavy borrowing and a shift to industrializing agricultural production for export. In agricultural countries south of the Rio Grande, the majority who were small farmers was left behind. They languished on the land, or sold what they had to owners who could farm at a bigger scale to meet the demands of new government economic plans. Many were forced into densely populated “misery belts” around cities to work for low wages. Sometimes reformers were murdered, or died when protests were met by gunfire from authorities, or they “disappeared” after being taken into custody or kidnapped by government agents or local henchmen. The social landscape of Juchitan was similar in places farther South. By the 1980s half of the population of Latin America lived in poverty or extreme poverty, with little stake in the economic systems of their countries. In El Salvador, a tiny percentage of the population owned virtually all the land. Guatemala had given huge tracts to military officials, and most of the rest remained in the hands of traditional oligarchs. The vast majority of the population was left landless, condemned to a kind of serfdom on the land of others.
When Oscar Romero became archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, peasant farmers, union workers and students were already agitating for agrarian reform and other improvements to their lives through their own grassroots “popular organizations.” The archbishop was clear about supporting any associations or coalitions whose goal was social justice through peaceful means. Many of the organizations were Christian-inspired, drawing members from active parish communities, but the Church did not limit its support to those who were Catholic, Christian, or even legal. In a 1978 pastoral letter, considered the official word on a subject by a prelate, Romero wrote that Church teaching and tradition required speaking up when the faithful were faced with difficult times. “It would be wrong to remain silent,” the letter said. “The Church identifies with the poor when they demand their legitimate rights.” Pictures of Romero had appeared in Juchitan because his words echoed there. In time I would discover that it was not unusual to find the image of the slain archbishop elsewhere in Latin America, well before the Vatican officially canonized him in 2018. Sometimes his head was already surrounded by a halo – a symbol of sainthood. His face gazed from convent walls and private chapels in Guatemala during its civil war (ended 1996), when public display might have been dangerous. In Bolivia, where tens of thousands of miners lost livelihoods in the collapse of the global tin market, catechists training in Cochabamba prayed for the intercession of Romero, at an altar graced with candles and his portrait. In a Peruvian chapel frequented by the Indigenous an unusual crucifix hung; in place of the customary figure of the dying Christ, there was a picture of Archbishop Romero. In his martyrdom the prelate symbolized an ultimate act of support for grassroots efforts to change the status quo. His life and death resonated in an era when a global contest was taking place between the United States and the Soviet Union superpowers, first for world domination, and finally, to fix spheres of influence, while in the meantime, the people of Latin America were engaged in their own struggle, to change their lives for the better.
Romero exemplified the Latin American Cold War martyr, men and women who attested to their faith in the particular context of that period of history. During those years (1947-1989) the United States favored conservative regimes that would unwaveringly maintain the capitalist system. Even when they abused citizens’ rights, ultra-conservative governments, generally led by the military, were considered preferable to any sort of governments, the lesser of two evils. John F. Kennedy, fearing the spread of communism after the 1959 Cuban revolution, repeatedly referred to Latin America as “the most dangerous area in the world.” El Salvador was “a crazy place” and a “sick society” where there was ”too much indiscriminate killing,'' said a U.S. ambassador in San Salvador, Deane Hinton. “But if the other guys take over it would be a lot worse.'' As a hemispheric voice that spoke on behalf of the poor, denouncing U.S. intervention in national affairs and a U.S.-backed government that ruled by repression, Oscar Romero was a threat and needed to be silenced. At first Washington attempted to quiet Romero by diplomatic means. In January 1980, U.S. Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote to John Paul II, a fellow Pole who had ascended to the papal throne less than two years before, requesting the pope’s “intervention.” The archbishop was critical of the Salvadoran ruling junta which Washington considered the “best hope” for the country, Brzezinski wrote, without mentioning that the junta failed to stop murders of civilian social activists. Despite warnings to Romero “and his Jesuit advisors” Brzezinski wrote that the archbishop “leaned toward support for the extreme left.” This was not true. The pope did not express support for Romero at the time, which confounded and hurt him. But instead of being silenced, he raised his voice more as violence grew.
Washington knew that death squads were connected to the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military; they were not “rogue elements” that operated independent of the state, the official story. The assassination teams had begun operating the 1970s, military men who put on plain clothes for the operations, or civilians sent by military officers to execute targets. The government organized a rural paramilitary with its own hit teams. In town and country, squads killed peasant farmers organizing for land reform, labor union and student leaders, and religious workers who supported them. The system was an effective tool in a war against a civilian population that was energetically developing groups that aimed for change by non-violent means. Out of the continued repression of the civilian movement an armed guerrilla response emerged late in 1980, but neither government troops nor rebels were able to defeat the other militarily. The death squads carried on, killing activists and other community leaders to frighten and dishearten civilians. The archbishop was a peaceful man who continually called for dialogue and reconciliation, but never failed to defend the poor. He said insurrection was legitimate when all other forms of self-defense had failed. Given the death squad strategy based on the psychological effect of selective assassination, Romero was an eminently logical target. When I covered El Salvador during the war, I heard an echo of despair in the voices of people who asked, “If they can kill an archbishop, what can’t they do?”
A report declassified in 1993 shows that the State Department knew soon after Romero’s death that the crime had been plotted during a meeting organized by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a cashiered intelligence officer trained at the U.S. School of the Americas. Participants “drew lots” to see who would pull the trigger, according to the report. But the U.S. authorities did not divulge the information during a Salvadoran government investigation into the archbishop’s murder, which never reached the courts. Neither did State Department officials share what they knew about the death squads during testimony before Congress on human rights in El Salvador; invariably, they presented the country as a bastion against communism. Assured of the El Salvador’s adherence to norms, Congress continued to certify the flow of U.S. military and economic aid. Robert White, the U.S. ambassador when Romero was killed, later told the New York Times, "The Salvadoran military knew that we knew, and they knew when we covered up the truth, it was a clear signal that, at a minimum, we tolerated this." Hiding the facts on Romero’s assassination, and the murders of others, helped to give free reign to bad actors in the twelve-year war that ended in 1992. Seventy-five thousand died, mostly civilians at government hands. Of all the things he was in life – pastor, theologian, prelate of the Salvadoran Church -- Oscar Romero had posed the most dangerous threat to the powerful because he was a prophet in the Old Testament tradition of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah, who condemned growing disparity between the few rich and many poor, and warned against false gods. He warned against idolizing wealth, and false religiosity, quoting Amos (5:21-24): “Spare me the sound of your hymns, and let me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Like the Old Testament prophets who decried Pharaoh for repressing God’s people, Romero spoke clearly to the government and military, as he did in the sermon the day before he died when he called on them “in the name of God” to “stop the repression.” As the Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino has written, Romero “began with God, but he spoke of history, and therefore, he also spoke of things secular.” It was the latter, wrote Sobrino, “that formally constituted him a prophet.” For all of Romero’s connection to the tradition of the Old Testament, the archbishop was a prophet of his particular day, alert to its concrete “signs of the times” -- political violence, cries for justice, the layers of pressure, including from abroad, that weighed down on the Salvadoran people. Like African Americans who live with a history of slavery that permeates generations to the present day, dissident groups in Latin America carry with them a history of U.S. imperialism. In the twentieth century alone the United States sent warships (“gunboat diplomacy”), or aircraft, or landed troops, forty-seven times in thirteen Latin countries to protect U.S. business interests and friendly regimes. As a Cold War prophet, Romero called forth a nation’s right to self-determination, a right highlighted in the final document of the landmark Medellin conference of Latin American Bishops (1968) which pledged to “denounce the unjust action of world powers that works against self-determination of weaker nations who must suffer the bloody consequences of war and invasion.” Latin Americans who opposed the status quo perceived U.S. military and economic domination as the enemy that impeded the free development of political and economic systems apt to the region, an enemy worth fighting against. In February 1980, Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter, imploring him not to send U.S. advisors or more war materiel to El Salvador where “political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who know only how to repress the people and favor the interests of the oligarchy.” The people were “awakening and organizing and have begun to prepare themselves” to manage the country’s future, Romero wrote in a passage tinged with hope. In other writing and interviews the archbishop was saying the “people’s project” was on the verge of unification and success, ready to achieve non-violent change. He appealed to Carter’s “religious sentiments” and “feelings in defense of human rights” to guarantee that the United States would not intervene to “frustrate the Salvadoran people, to repress them and keep them from deciding autonomously the economic and political course that our nation should follow.” He wanted the future of the country to remain in the hands of Salvadorans, not outsiders, and quoted from the document of the important meeting of Latin American bishops that he had attended just the year before, in Puebla, Mexico, “when we spoke of the legitimate self-determination of our peoples, which allows them to organize according to their own spirit and the course of their history and to cooperate in a new international order.” At the time, the term “new international order” echoed an aspiration among the poorer countries of the global South for economic and political cooperation with each other that might free them from the hegemony of the global superpowers.
But a new international order was not something that superpowers wanted. Romero received no response from President Carter. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance answered Romero’s letter stating that Washington considered the Salvadoran government “moderate and reformist,” and that supporting the junta would be the best way of promoting rights. Soon U.S. aid and weapons began to flow in a torrent, continuing under President Reagan, and under George H.W. Bush, when the ultra-right National Republican Alliance party founded by D’Aubuisson, the death squad leader, won the national elections. Oscar Romero had been the ideal death squad target of the place and time. He represented in a single person the morally based opposition to the reigning authority, the victim whose death would generate the most fear among a rebellious population. But instead of being cowed by his murder, Salvadorans, and other Latin Americans under siege in the heat of the Cold War, took heart in the archbishop as a symbol of their struggle, regarding him as a martyr, revering him as a prophet for his time, even as political reverses crushed progress toward immediate liberation from lives of poverty and strife. Coming upon Romero’s image by surprise all those years ago in Juchitan, then finding it appear elsewhere, showed me that it is not the Vatican that makes saints, people do. Shortly before his death, Romero told a reporter “in all humility” that, “if they kill me, I will rise among the Salvadoran people.” Knowing his picture hung in places far from El Salvador, I concluded that people in every age and in all places, especially in the most dangerous times, know in whom to put their trust, and hope, with or without official approbation. The life models we emulate and admire change with history, according to the needs of the times. Oscar Romero is properly called a martyr, and not only by ordinary people expressing popular religiosity. He is a martyr in the sense of the word that developed along with the movement articulated at the Medellin conference, to commit the Church to an option for the poor. His martyrdom was not officially recognized at first: ultra-conservative hierarchy, including in El Salvador, knew full well that identification with the poor was considered subversive in Latin America, and pigeon-holed the sainthood process for Romero until Pope Francis moved it forward. With Romero’s canonization, however, no longer could the Vatican entertain the cry of critics that Romero was not a saint, but a victim of political tension. Because theology is not static, either. It develops within cultural and historical contexts as it responds to the questions of who is God and what is the relation of God to history. Theology recognizes that culture, history and contemporary thought are to be considered along with scripture and tradition, as valid sources for theological expression. During the Cold War the Latin American Church had become identified with the struggle for fairness for the poor in this world through the practice of liberation theology, which examines the meaning of religious faith and action in the context of oppression and inequality. Romero personified the revolutionary theology. He was known as “the voice of those without a voice,” adamantine in his call for justice for the most vulnerable. Just as liberation theology gave a new dimension to Christian theology, so too did Cold War Latin America give a new dimension to martyrology. Traditionally a “martyr” was considered someone who dies while standing up against hatred of the Catholic faith, odium fidei. But Catholics were the majority population in Latin America during the 1980s, and Romero’s assassins were hardly crusading against the religion into which they had been baptized. The faith as professed by Romero had become synonymous, in historically important sectors, with the demand for justice for the poor, so that the archbishop can be said to have expanded the definition of who is a martyr, a person with an exemplary life killed out of odium justiciae, hatred of justice. Since the end of the Cold War, without deep structural change of the kind in which Archbishop Romero and the popular organizations of El Salvador once placed their expectations, the promises of peace and democracy have not brought better living conditions to the majority in Latin America, and the poverty rate is climbing again. Economic experts forecast, as one journal put it delicately, “a more precarious life for millions of Latin Americans compared to before the pandemic.” As long as the poor, the landless and homeless, and those who struggle against discrimination and early death are with us, and there exist prophetic voices to denounce them, the age of martyrs is not over.

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