The National Geographic map that has accompanied me on many journeys to the region.
Recently, journalist Tracy Barnett wrote an article about the current human rights crisis in Central America that is fueling mass migrations to the US border. She spent three months in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador investigating and speaking with the people, to see what is causing this.
When I shared her article, I wrote:
(This powerful article by Tracy L. Barnett reminds me of things I could recount — and have recounted — that I learned in my journeys in Central America, which began in the late 80s ….)
One response was:
Please do, Lorraine. This would be a very good time for people to read some of your powerful work on this subject.
And so I take up the challenge …
= = = = = = =
My first trip to Central America was in 1988. For several years, I heard other people’s testimonies of what was occurring in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. For even more years, I had read about the history and politics of the region. And of course, there was what was being reported in the media and said by US politicians.
I determined I had to witness it for myself – and to bring those lessons back to my community.
For over a decade, I traveled in those countries. When I had the money, I would return to learn more about the pueblos’ experiences, their histories and cultures. I documented what I was taught in poetry and travelogues.
= = = = = = =
Dozens upon dozens of books have been written about the United States’ involvement in Central America. Many fine investigative works were published in the 1980s and 1990s. (I encourage you to browse through your public library’s stacks for them, and take them home to read. Also, Please share titles in the comments below that you recommend.)
In a nutshell, US involvement in the region began with Manifest Destiny, a doctrine proclaimed by President John Tyler in 1845. It declared to European powers that the US had the right to dictate the fates of Western Hemispheric countries in order to preserve US economic and political interests.
Since the mid-19th century, the United States has intervened over 100 times in Latin America’s affairs, installing governments that would protect its interests – especially economic and those of US corporations in the region. These interventions continue to this millennium, with such actions as those of the ouster of the democratically elected Honduran president in 2009. There are many other factors (such as the US market for drugs) that add to the region’s instability.
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This is not meant to be a political piece. It is intended to share the lessons Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans taught me. I have penned dozens upon dozens of works – but today, I shall share only a few with you.
I now invite you to join me on a journey through the history and lives of the people of Central America. We begin with two visits to Honduras, then continue to Guatemala and El Salvador.
Our manifest destiny is to overspread
the continent allotted by Providence for
the free development of our yearly multiplying
—John L. O’Sullivan, The United States
Magazine and Democratic Review,
America will be found fighting where
she has always been morally—at the head
of the column of Progress and Democracy.
—William Walker, New Orleans Crescent,
Beyond the arch & its wrought iron gate left ajar
beyond that cross & weathervane atop
beyond the undulating white plastered wall
Through the waist-high weeds strewn with listing headstones & crypts
their stones blackened with age, marble plaques still bright
among rusting crosses reaching towards the clouded sky
I follow a well-beaten path, then the
flagstone walk crowded with weeds
I stop before a three-foot-high iron fence
its peeling white paint spotted with rusty blood
To the back hangs a skeleton
of a long-decayed wreath
Faded white & yellow plastic tassels
flutter in the approaching rain
The original stone slab bed of the grave lies heavily on the earth
the name deeply chiseled, date lightly scratched
A newer bronze plaque catches a moment of weak sun
12 septiembre 1860
In a gust of wind, my sky blue poncho wraps around
my wiry body
My mind sinks into the weight of my late afternoon
losing loosing itself to your time to your
Dreams of conquering this narrow waist of the Americas
Golden dreams of Sonora
spinning into a Mexican dust devil
routing you back to California
Verdant Nicaraguan dreams
for Commodore Vanderbilt
shuttling 49ers across
Plush Nicaraguan dreams
for the US
desiring a canal
Luscious Nicaraguan dreams
for you, Walker
president-imposed of an English-
speaking slave state
These dreams wind into a green hurricane
unleashed by moneyed powers
blowing you North to New Orleans
Oh, but you still dream of your
Five or None banner
fluttering in those tropical breezes
On your Manifest Destiny dreams you sail
from Mobile to here, Trujillo
& the heavy silence before the storm settles
before me before you
After many days of battling jungle & the British,
you hand your pistol & your sword to Captain Salmon
on these pestilent banks of the Río Negro.
But as the Icarus flies back to Truxillo, your fate
melts into the waiting arms of the Hondurans.
Flanked by priests, through jeering masses, you
face your firing squad.
You fall from the volley of the first squad.
Your dead body jumps on the stony ground, pounded
by the second squad’s shots.
The officer walks up to your body lying still, facing
the morning. He puts his pistol to your head & blasts
your face skyward.
Skyward whips the dirt around my feet
Thunder blasts the heavy silence before this storm
I stare at the bronze plaque
wondering who placed it, who placed the wreath
Admiring Contras who had trained so near here?
The US Air Force, honoring its dead shot down in 1985?
The CIA or Ollie North, sipping rum
in the bar of their posh Christopher Columbus resort?
My brown eyes look coldly at your slab
more steely than your grey eyes ever could
I think of Manifest Destiny as the phlegm rises
to my mouth
& I fire a long stream upon your name
poem © Lorraine Caputo
The complete manuscript of my works about the United and Standard Fruit Companies. photo © Lorraine Caputo
In 1993, I embarked on a walking journey through the banana plantations, from Guatemala to Honduras.(This adventure is documented in my story “The Jungle Trail.” What I witnessed provoked me to spend nearly a decade learning about the history of the US-based Banana Companies in the region, and interviewing people there.
ANOTHER MAN WHO REMEMBERS
As the old school bus stops at the central park, I look at my watch. I’ve got an hour to catch the Chiquita train. But where’s the station?
The driver suggests I ask the ice cream vendor. He pulls the bill of his ball cap up. “Pues, at the traffic light, take a right. About ten blocks, then. Just past the bridge.”
I hop back on the bus. “Oh, I’ll be going right by there,” responds the driver. I know we are getting close: up on that water tower is the familiar blue seal.
I’m off and I’m hustling, bowed under the weight of my knapsack. “Where are you going?” people call out. “To catch a train.” “But it didn’t come today.”
It didn’t come today? Will it run tomorrow, as scheduled? There’s no-one at the station. Well, there isn’t a station, really. Just a platform.
I return to the gate I’d passed, across from the gridded and blockaded streets of the Company town. A sign says COBALISA. I hesitantly enter.
“Excuse me, señor,” I say to the man at the office. “The train didn’t come today?”
“It appears not. Go up to the dispatch and ask.”
I walk to the building he points out. It is the color of banana flesh turning I the air. There’s no answer and no-one around. I return.
“Well?” the man says.
“Look, take a load off. I’ll give a call over.”
I put my pack in the shade and sit on the curb.
“Umph. No answer. I tell you, the Company isn’t like it used to be. No, señora. He tips his chair against the wall. “Sí – Chiquita – because it is so small now. Used to have tens of thousands of workers. Even on a Sunday like this, this place would be crawling with people. Now there’s lucky to be 8,000 total.” He motions to a building near us. The wood is rotting away. “See that, the shape it’s in? And empty. It’s not being used. No. The Company isn’t what it used to be.”
He introduces himself: Juan García. (1) His father worked for the Company, too. Bored? Yeh, a bit.
“The problem is …” A silver pick-up stops. It shines bright in this early afternoon sun. Juan checks the man’s papers, then waves him through. Once it drives off, and no-one else is around, he begins again. “The problem is that the paternalistic US management pulled out and put Honduras in charge.” Paternalistic? I raise a brow. “But they are inefficient and corrupt. So, there’s less work. But now the Company is going through a restructuring, bringing in management even from Costa Rica. Those ticos are surprised the Company here still has an operating railroad. They say it should be gotten back into shape – why spend money on trucks? But the others had let it go….”
Juan sees some men enter the gate and near us on their bicycles. He waves to me to be still. He walks up to them. I hear him ask if they know anything about today’s train. They shake their heads.
He wags his head, taking his seat again. Once the bicyclists have locked up and walked into the compound, Juan directs his attention to me. “Before there was certainty in the Company. I could say with complete faith, Yes, there will be a train today at exactly this time,” he says, stabbing the air with a finger. Then he looks away. “But not any longer. They’re not taking care of any of it.”
A moment of silence falls between us. Then Juan turns to me, “Gee, good material for your book. Great impression this has made about the Tela Railroad Company.” That is, the book I’m writing about train journeys. This would be an interesting addition.
He falls into the topic of his family and childhood. Many more people come and go. He asks them all about the train. We finally piece the information together: It did leave from El Progreso, but it only got as far as one of the campos: Las Flores. It had mechanical problems. Juan says to me in a low voice, “This never would have happened in the past. They would have sent another locomotive in. The trains just aren’t what they used to be.” He slaps his knees. “Well, tomorrow there definitely should be a train. They have to take the workers to the hospital.”
I wait until we are alone again. “Don Juan – you said your father had also worked for the Company. How was it then?”
“It was tough, for sure.” He shakes his head at a memory. “It was in his time that the big strike happened.”
The big strike? I widen my eyes. “What year was that, don Juan?”
He sighs. “1954. The police – the military opened fire on the crowd with machine guns.” He closes his eyes for a moment. “My father was there. I was with him.”
I breathe deep, exhale slowly. “Were any killed?”
“Many.” He glances away. Silence. A slow movement of head back and forth. “I don’t know how many. But there was so much blood, it flowed.”
Juan gazes at me, “I was young” – he was only five years old – “but I remember.”
I look down at my hands.
“The unions don’t want us to remember. They’re in the pocket of the Company. And the Company doesn’t want us workers to celebrate May First.”
Of course not.
Juan continues, “I have no faith in unions.” He watches a man approaching on bicycle. “I prefer to work hard. And if I have any problems, I go to management itself.”
That man arrives. I look at the clock in the office: 3 p.m. “Well, it’s the end of my shift.”
“Thank you, señor García.” I hoist my pack onto my back and walk off to catch a bus for El Progreso. I’ll catch the morning train from there tomorrow.
(1) Name changed to protect the identity of this worker.
© Lorraine Caputo
My first journeys to Guatemala were when the Civil War was still raging there. Some nights, I would listen to the rocket fire in the hills surrounded the villages. I spent several spells in San Juan Cotzal, Nebaj and Chajul, the three main villages of the Ixil Triangle, deep in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of Guatemala. This was one of the hardest-hit areas of the country during its 35-year Civil War. The atrocities committed by the US-backed governments and their paramilitary groups were astounded. I spent many evenings in shuttered rooms, away from earshot of others, listening to the testimonies of those who lived through – and survived – those horrors.
San Juan Cotzal
The Saturday market streets are full of the
bargaining for housewares & chickens
in the sh-shs & clicks of Ixil
I wind past the crowded stalls to the church
Stone dust drifts through the nave
from a scaffold in the apse
It glitters in the filtered sunlight
On the left wall, Christ slumps upon a large crucifix
Small even-armed wooden crosses surround him,
names engraved of those victims
of the government abuses here
the disappeared, the kidnapped
the tortured, the assassinated
I sit on a nearby bench
studying their lives
Seventeen years of documentation
from 1974 to 91
many from 80, 81, 82
The clang of hammer upon rock
reverberates through this sanctuary
I mentally count the crosses, row upon row
like a halo around the Savior
Now & again I look furtively over to those workers
One, two, three hundred
four hundred & seventy four
crosses 474 lives 474
published in :
In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights (London, UK: Human Rights Consortium of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, October 2013)
During my first trip to El Salvador shortly after the peace accords were signed, I spent time in Morazán Department. I interviewed people in several villages – including Perquín, Segundo Montes and, yes, El Mozote – about their experiences during the civil war.
I was one of the first to reveal that El Mozote was being repopulated. In fact, I arrived on foot to that village just as the returnees were cleaning the ruins, to begin anew.
This is the poem I was compelled to write at that moment, sitting in the scant shade of the silhouette statue.
A village deserted for so long
after such a horror:
Battalion Atlacatl, armed & trained in
torture & so-called low-intensity warfare
by the US of A, killed 1000people here &
in neighboring villages in Operación
One December night in ’81, the soldiers arrived and stayed.
The people of the village were forbidden to leave their homes.
The next morning, the soldiers gathered the people:
the men in one place…
the women in another…
the children in the convent.
First they interrogated / tortured / shot the men…
then they shot the women…
then the children…
The soldiers left their boasts on the walls of the now-empty homes
& laid torch to it all.
The campesinos & guerrilleros near saw the columns of smoke arising.
Some had heard the shots & shouts, the screams.
When they arrived all that was left was the bodies of 1000 people
being eaten by buzzards & dogs.
And now the air is disturbed
only by a slight breeze through the long-needled pines.
A silhouette sculpture of a family
man / woman / children holding hands
stands in the center of the village.
Roofless buildings – some with bullet & shell holes,
all with charred beams.
And from these ashes, from the debris of fallen roof tiles
you, the few survivors of that massacre
only six, with your new families]
arise like a Phoenix
to rebuild your homes & your community
still called El Mozote.
published in :
Red River Review (August 2001)