Posts Tagged ‘Central America’

The other day, Meg wrote a post about poetry and story-telling which was inspired by a commentary she had read – and read to me – that suggested poets have too much abandoned stories for word-play, making them increasingly inaccessible and irrelevant to all but a small segment of the population.

Now, I confess. I am one of those who likes wordplay, and it’s easy for me to get caught up in language when I’m writing, rather than to keep focused on the storytelling and let the language flow from that. But, as I’ve been thinking on this over the last few days, I’ve played a little with writing that begins with the story – not narrative, per se, but snippets of real life.

So today I have decided to post one of these exercises, just cause.

In keeping with plain-talk, let’s call it what it comes from: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, 1985.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

like cow-pats, pressed flowers, hockey pucks, papyrus,

legs splayed on broken ashphalt,

tire-mark-writ patterns on their backs.

odd that at dusk we never heard their croaking.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

for kicking, flinging, crunching beneath our shoes,

one-stop shopping for children’s pastimes from football, stone-skipping, ice-crackling –

or so it would be on another way to another school

some thousands of miles up this pacific coast.

odd that through the night we never heard them shrieking.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

beneath boys in Mexico-made sneakers and too-short, pressed trousers,

beneath girls in bare legs and long-patched, fresh-cleaned skirts,

beneath skies whose post-card-percfect blue cracked open

now and then with rain or thunder or surveillance signals or bombers with no national markings.

odd that in the dawn we never heard their breathing cut.

there were frogs on the road each morning

hundreds of frogs.

but always by the time we’d sung the hymn of the revolution,

by the time we’d stumbled through sums and sandino and sport,

by the time we crossed again

passing the morning-time fishers home for lunch,

passing the teenagers scurrying, suckling, sliding in the brush,

passing the trucks rolling home the coffins, the cripples, the crazy,

passing the troops of trade union internationalists with eyes like Christmas morning and mouths like Good Friday,

passing the carts of tortillas and rum and fresh-ish eggs from Cuba (thank-you-commandante-fidel)…

by this time the roads were always clear

and how so many dead frogs can simply vanish in a school-day

seems, as i look back,

a disturbing kind of magic.


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The United States of America. That name inspires a lot of feeling in me. Anger, fear, confundedness. But mostly revulsion.

Strong word, I know. But it really does hit me that hard. So hard I can feel it in my throat. I can feel my chest constrict.

When I think of the United States, I think of terror and death squads in Guatemala. I think of a country on the verge of utter collapse – economic collapse, political collapse, social collapse, staved off only by jingoism and endless credit. I think of cops. Lots and lots of cops. I think of all that is worst about us, and little of the best. But mostly I think about being a 12 year old kid in San Juan del Sur, a tiny fishing village on the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, wondering every day if the bombs would drop.

I grew up in an activist family, and while my mom traveled the world doing human rights solidarity work, our home was a way-station for countless people from all over the world – visiting unionists, radical Catholics, feminist leaders, writers. And many many refugees. Mostly these were Guatemalan and Salvadoran families, fleeing the state terror of US-sponsored national security states. Even as a pretty young child, I was acutely aware of torture and murder and massacre. And I was acutely aware that all of this was done with the explicit support and encouragement of the US.

I recall a grade six project for social studies. Pick a country, do up a little poster on it and present to the class. I chose Guatemala. I didn’t talk about the geography, the economic base, or even the cultural heritage. I wrote about the violence. I wrote about terror and armed resistance. I wrote about model villages in which North American charities did their work of feeding, “civilizing”, evangelizing in close cooperation with security forces, a central cultural piece of the counter-insurgency strategy. And I added pictures, lots of pictures. Pictures of bodies on fire. Pictures of mass graves. Pictures of faces tortured beyond recognition. At the time, it seemed exactly what was expected. Only in hindsight do I wonder what the hell those other kids must have thought.

This was, however, simply the world that I knew. I was immersed in the local Central American refugee community, my closest friends the kids of radical lawyers in exile, the scars of their struggle visible in every line on their faces. You didn’t represent workers in Guatemala in the 1980s. You didn’t take on the Coca Cola company.

Waves of people. It was like the underground railroad all over again, with families shuttled from home to home, snuck across borders, given sanctuary in churches. And it all seemed perfectly normal, And it was all part of a momentous struggle against one great beast – not capitalism, as I didn’t have that language yet. The United States – that brutal leviathan that hunted our friends.

Then in 1985 mom and dad announced a trip. With them, we four boys piled into a borrowed VW van and began a long drive south. Through Guatemala – there was no way to avoid that. Through Honduras. We would keep out of Salvador at any cost, that state less reluctant to kill subversive North Americans than the Guatemalan military was. Our destination? Something new and exciting, something of an alternative, something that signaled how close the victory was. Nicaragua.

Through the 1970s Nicaragua had been the worst of the worst. But in July, 1979, the dictator, Somoza, fled, and tanks rolled into the capital city, Managua, manned by women and men, farmers and workers, teens and pre-teens, even by kids like me. The soldiers of the Sandinista National Liberation Front entered victorious, and showed the world that resistance was definitely not futile.

We were headed for the revolution. We were headed for this beacon of all that was possible. We were headed for a tiny village of fishers who played host, too, to a community of Guatemalan exiles who were using this place as a base for various resistance work. Mom and dad had volunteered their own skills, so we drove into town and set up home in a house on the only hill, looking over the town and out to sea.

I went to school, as did my brothers. Mom and dad went to work with the exile community. We got our ration books to collect our weekly quota of rice and beans and milk. Us kids played translators to visiting delegations of Canadian labour activists. And this, for me, was heaven.

I was 12 and 13 years old during that time. I went to school with kids sixteen and seventeen who’d been living through years of civil war. I sang with them each morning the hymn of Sandinistas, about struggle against the Yankee enemy of humanity. I learned that Cuba sent nurses and doctors and eggs and meat to my community while the US sent guns and training personnel to the contras who attacked small villages across the country. I learned that alcohol was readily available, glass was not, and drank out of plastic bags tied tight so they could be carried in a pocket until it was time to nibble off a corner and squirt the clear silver rum into my mouth. I discovered the joys of leaping on a rickety truck and hopping off some towns down the road, and that the best place to sleep on the street was outside a militia office, cause they’d always have coffee and cigarettes in the morning. I learned that gringo supporters like us could always only be trusted so far, but that girls like boys from far-off places with different looks and different languages. And I watched my dad put on a gun.

Guns were everywhere. This was a country at war, and we knew it. As we traveled the country, the midnight bursts of gunfire would wake us up sharp and sudden. But San Juan was generally safe. Our kids left whole and alive, and came back in boxes and bags, but we didn’t have the war on our streets. What we did have was a shoreline, a port, and a fishing fleet that sustained its own people and many more in many towns. We had no active contra war in our community. No, here we waited for the big battle. Here we waited for the Marines.

Every night, groups of men and women sat on the beach, smoking, talking, singing, reading, cleaning their guns and watching for US boats on the horizon. Every few weeks it was dad’s turn, and he’d strap on his rifle and head out with the rest of them to do his shift. Every night I longed to go. Every night I was proud and excited. And every night, too, I was scared that this was the night it would all go down.

It never did, of course. There were days we could see the reconnaissance ships out there. There were days we were threatened, as the hotel being built to encourage tourism made for a good target. Once, in fact, a few shots were volleyed over the village into the hills behind. But only a moment, and it stopped. No shells fell on us.

We studied and played and drank and smoked. Mom and dad worked and documented and organized. And then, one day, we rolled out of that town in our van once again, to leave the revolution behind, to again make our way across the lands of state terror – under strict orders not to say a word and let our parents do all the talking at all times – and home to Vancouver.

The next several years we carried on as before, making space for fighters and teachers and families from the south who needed a safe place to land, raising money and raising awareness of the Central American resistance and the promise of Nicaragua. And then, of course, it all ended, War gets tiring. Eventually people trade hope for peace. Eventually people take the deal – we’ll drop the worst trappings of oligarchy, you drop the armed struggle; we’ll have elections, you’ll abandon this whole socialism idea. The Berlin Wall is down, those days are over. Let’s make a deal.

I’m sitting now on the train from Kingston to Toronto, my ten year old daughter sitting beside me playing chess on my palm pilot. This trip, there’s no border guards holding guns close and searching our bags. This trip, there’s no order that we can’t be trusted in Guatemala, and will need to accept a military escort to the exit border or turn around and go home. This trip, there’s no fear of speaking because our real work could be discovered at any moment. This trip, there’s no parades for dead kids.

This trip, though, I am just as scared and just as angry. In a few short hours, we’ll be heading for the airport, picking our way through US customs and security, watching our ID be scanned into the system once again, waiting for the pauses that always come, for that moment that they do in fact let me across the border. This trip, once again, I wait to feel sick. The border always provokes a physical reaction in me. I hate that country. It still feels like violence. It still feels like murder. It still feels like war. And look at me! I’m a mid-thirties white guy, well-educated, professional, money in his wallet and a child at his side. Borders are fucking easy on me. Cops don’t look twice. No fingers twitch at guns when I pass by. I’m the target market for “the police are your friends”.

But I’m feeling sickish already, simply knowing where I’m headed, simply knowing that soon I’ll be face to face with that beast again. It won’t recognize me as prey or competitor. It won’t bare its teeth or sharpen its claws at my coming. It will ignore me as a part of its natural landscape, as one of the ones living by its beneficent protection. But I know the secret here. I know what lurks behind that purr. I’ve seen those eyes before. And a huge part of me still hates.

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