Authors: Deb Olin Unferth
For Comrade Robert Unferth
THE NEW WORLD
I had food in my heart and mind that morning. My parents had said they'd pick George and me up at the border and take us anywhere we wanted to eat. I wanted to go to McDonald's. My father thought that was funny. Part of his story for a long time was how the first place I wanted to go when I came back from fomenting the Communist revolution was McDonald's. Hey, to me at that moment, McDonald's looked pretty good. We'd seen McDonald's in Mexico, of course, and Honduras and other places, but we hadn't been able to afford it. Now, approaching the border, I was thinking about that lighted menu board. I was thinking about how I already knew what the food I ordered would look like. I knew what the French fries would look like, what the containers would look like, although I'd never been to that particular McDonald's. I knew what I'd get when I got a sundae. That seemed like a neat and attractive trick to me now. There would be toilet paper in the bathrooms. And soap. There were the little songs on TV, the McDonald's songs that people all over the world knew and I had sung when I was a kid, the Big Mac chant, the Hamburglar. George was asleep beside me, had slept through the last seven hours of desert. “George, wake up,” I said. “We're going to McDonald's.”
My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn't find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the areaâthere were severalâbut every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen. That's the whole story.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
George and I were walking through a shantytown. Two weeks into Mexico, the beginning of our trip, and we were outside Mexico City. An American priest walked ahead. He was saying hello to people and taking their hands. He was saying good-bye to them and waving.
Que te vaya bien. AdiÃ³s. Dios te bendiga.
They chimed back. We walked a long way, following this priest.
It was 1987, and at that time these little liberation theology institutes were set up all over Latin America, “popular churches,” they were called, short chapels with small gardens, places for people to get together and help usher in the revolution. The priests were in charge and they could be from anywhereâSouth America, Spain, the Statesâbut most were from down the street. We liked to drop in when we found these setups. We interviewed whoever happened to be hanging around and we borrowed books from their shelves and got the people to take us out. We liked to get the scoop.
So we'd met this priest at his
and he'd brought us to the shantytown. He was doing some work, fixing up some floors. He thought we just might like to see.
When you think of a shantytown, you imagine a few square blocks of board and tin, some chickens running through, but it's a whole city, a thousand thin paths, kilometers and kilometers of housewives standing outside askew miniature-sized houses, not a window pane in sight, the air moist and buzzing.
“These people are born and die here,” the priest was telling us. “They have no way to get out.” He raised his hand to show us where they had to stay.
“Well, at least they've got their little houses,” I said. I was impressed with how tidy it all was. “Some have less than that.”
The priest looked over at me.
Then he was gone. Just like that. Left George and me standing by a flower of electrical cords coming out of a pole.
We waited a while. Roosters called to each other in the distance. Then we started puzzling around the shacks, trying to find our way back. We were soon lost. We felt stupid and rude walking along, a couple of idiot gringos slapping at the mosquitoes and grinning. We were sad about the priest. Why had he gone away? He'd left us and we deserved it. We'd been bad-mannered.
been bad-mannered, according to George. George knew better than to say a thing like that. Oh yeah? I said. Then why had the priest left George here with me?
These priests for the liberation. You did not want to mess with them. Latin America was swinging to the left, hoisted on pulleys by these radical priests, and some said the Vatican was to blame. In 1962 the pope had summoned the world's bishops to Rome for the Vatican Two Council, to talk about how to renew the Church, how to be relevant to the laypeople. The story goes that the bishops met each fall for four years. They talked about things like how perhaps they should not say mass in Latin anymore because no one understood it (although the entire conference took place in Latin). Some of the South American bishops and priests thought that one way to renew the Church was to organize the lay into groups, maybe even guerrilla armies, and then rise up and overthrow their governments. Soon a continent of priests was storing weapons and reading Marx in the name of Vatican Two. They turned their churches into revolutionary enclaves and invited students to come live in them like a herd of hippies. Some priests held secret meetings with guerrilla rebels. Some manned radio frequencies that kept tabs on the national guard. And when the skirmishes began, some priests came out shooting. Every day their chapels filled with citizens, and the priests never stopped talking about Vatican Two, the theology of liberation, how the Church was a socialist soldier for the poor, and how grateful they were for this mandate from God. Of course the pope didn't mean to produce an infantry of gun-touting South American priests, and he said so, but it was too late.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Late for the pope, but early for George and me. This priest was the first of his kind, we'd found. We walked, lost, through the shantytown. Houses tacked up to each other with clothes hangers, a cobweb of roofs held down with tires. Outhouses winged out over the river. Lightless rooms, cardboard town. We began getting upset at seeing how poor the people were, now that we were looking more carefully. Ladies and kids stopped us and pointed in different directions, laughing behind their hands. A few folks followed us. We handed out all of our bills. We didn't see how we would ever find our way back. George was taking us in circles. Oh, right, he said,
was taking us in circles, perfect. We began to panic.
Suddenly the priest was there, stepped out in front of us. Ho ho. He'd stopped in to look at a floor he and some friends had put in. Lost track of us.
What, had we been nervous about getting stuck here? he wondered. About not being able to get out?
“Okay, okay, we get it already,” we said, though we did not.
LONG YEAR FOR WAR
We had wanted to go to Cuba, but we didn't know how to get there. George and I had very little money and we weren't resourceful, and it was illegal to go, which was awkward. Besides, there was no action there anymore. Just parades and congratulations and prisoners. Nicaragua had a very good revolution too. They'd won their revolution, for one thing, and they were in the papers all the time, and we could ride the bus there. They also had Russians.
The other revolutionsâin El Salvador and Panama, in Guatemala, in Hondurasâweren't revolutions proper, more like civil wars, military coups, and armed uprisings. They straggled along with their broken tanks and their camps in the jungle. We believed their revolutions were on the way.
Nineteen eighty-seven was a big year for war in Central America. Still, it took George and me a while to find any. We rode through Mexico on bus rides that lasted eighteen hours, twenty-two hours, twenty-six hours. We passed through Guatemala, where we had to fight our way through the tourists just to see a little scrap of the land. The tourists crowded together like shrubs, trying not to get knocked over. Mostly in Guatemala we were herded by heavily armed soldiers along a well-worn track that took us from pretty spot to pretty spot (look at the Indians! buy their amusing costumes to take home for yourself! ride a wooden boat across a glassy lake!).
People didn't have the details on Guatemala yet. We heard about the killings but we didn't know the extent and the scale. Or maybe we did know and chose not to understand. A couple of years later, when we began to hear so much about the death squads, the scorched earth policy, the tens of thousands of dead, the tens of thousands fleeing the country, I had a sick feeling of knowledge. A massacre, an exodus, going on all around us, had been for years, and still going on after we'd gone, and we saw none of it. We saw a few tattered labor protests, Indians sitting on cardboard in the plaza. Mostly we saw soldiers. Soldiers were in all the shops and banks, on the buses and in the cafÃ©s. There were pageants of them on the street. They stopped taxis and leaned in the windows. “
,” they said every minute or two. They held machine guns and wore camouflage uniforms, high black boots, helmets, strings of bullets across their chests. On their belts they carried clubs, pistols, Mace, hand grenades.
They were small and young and cute, like toy soldiers. Many only came up to my mouth. They stood and looked at us in moody silence. Poked at the pages of my passport. Sometimes they would pose for a picture.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In those days the Guatemalans still thought they owned Belize or thought they owned it more than they think they own it now, so many of us secretly felt that Belize didn't count. In any case Belize didn't have a revolution. But we went to have a look.
These were the days before the Peace Corps had been let back into the country. The days before Belize had even kicked the Peace Corps out. These were the original Peace Corps days, the days that led to their expulsion from Belize. They were all over the place, the Peace Corps volunteers, drunk in hammocks, lying on the sidewalks. “Hang on, man,” they called to us. “Want a smoke?” George and I picked our steps over them on the way to the bus station.