Contrary to what we often hear and read, the U.S. problem isn’t that “too many immigrants want to come here. It’s going to be that too few might want to”. So argues Seketu Mehta, U.S. immigrant from India, in his important new book This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto . The author’s position on immigration, well supported by multiple facts and stories, is so seldom heard in the current debate as to be shocking. Although the 2016 average income of the Indian immigrant to the U.S., at $110,026 annually, far exceeds that of the average “White” resident’s income, $61,349, the anti-immigrant policies and language today have already deterred some from coming to this country. Today, Mehta points out, Canada accepts three times as many immigrants per capita than the U.S. And Mexico in recent years is seeing more of its nationals return from the U.S. than cross the border for the “promised land”.
It is the demographic statistics Mehta cites that best bolster his argument for “Why They Should Be Welcomed” as the book’s final section puts it. As the “white nationalist” emphasizes in often hysterical fashion, the U.S. white population is declining and becoming increasingly older. By contrast, 80 per cent of the immigrants to the U.S. are under age 40 while half the U.S. population, white and persons of color, are over 40. We are now familiar with the Social Security statistics indicating that in 1960 there were 5 workers for every retired and disabled person enjoying benefits compared to fewer than 3 workers in 2013 supporting the system. In 2018 Social Security paid more in benefits than it received in payments. Important to consider also is the Social Security payments of $13 billion by undocumented immigrants in 2010 while seniors and the disabled without documents received only $1 billion in benefits.
This book should help convince anyone that immigration has contributed and will support even more in the future the economic stability and health of the U.S. Stemming from their younger age and their relatively recent arrival, immigrants today make up 40 % of the home buyers in the country while representing 13 % of the U.S. population. Dramatic revivals of U.S. towns have occurred due to the welcoming of immigrant settlers. Mehta describes how 10,000 Guyanese transformed the abandoned downtown of Schenectady, New York as they restored decrepit houses “with little or no government assistance”. Most of the Guyanese immigrants, now 12 % of the entire town population, had been renting housing in the New York City borough of Queens when the Mayor of Schenectady in 2002 invited them to settle in the northern New York town. Other New York upstate urban areas have experienced similar improvements thanks to welcoming over 40,000 immigrants to their towns.
U.S. immigration policies fall far short of recognizing and supporting the vital contributions of the newly arrived workers. Restricting the flow of younger workers into the country now holds sway in our policies. Since 2000 the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled to the current total of 20,000 and the budget for “border security” has grown four times as large as two decades ago. In 2017, of the 1.1 million permanent resident permits, “green cards”, issued by the U.S. authorities, only 12 % were employment related.
Seketu Mehta’s book issues a wake up call to Europe and the U.S. that the racism and white nationalist fervor of the colonial era are proving difficult to overcome in accepting and implementing the policy changes called for now. Statistics tell us that the population growth of Europe is below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman, and only 27 % of Europeans are under 25 while 60 % of Africans are in that age group. At current growth rates the population of Europe and Russia will decline from 740 million to around 700 million in 2050 while Africa’s will double to an estimated 2.4 billion persons.
Due to even more dire consequences of the climate crisis expected in the global South, the flight of migrants to Europe and North America will keep immigration issues in the forefront of our civic dialog and politics. This “Immigrant Manifesto” as the author subtitles This Land Is Our Land challenges us in the North to view the immigrant “invasion” as an opportunity to strengthen the economies and ideals of our nations. Failure to change our attitudes and policies will, this book argues convincingly, seriously undermine our economic strength and our quality of life.
In a dramatic initiative to ease Muslim-Christian tensions and violent conflict, the Pope and the Grand Imam, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, pledged last February to “work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace”. Although largely ignored by secular media, notably in the U.S., the leaders of the world’s two largest religious bodies jointly created a document stating that “faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”.
Intended as a model and a guide for peacemaking and dialog in our times, the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” was signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Sheikh Abu Tayeb in Abu Dhabi. It was the first visit ever of a Pope to the Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam. While Christians have led the refugee flight from Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories, the Pope has worked to enhance understanding and respect for Christians now living in predominantly Muslim countries. Improving relationships with Muslim leaders is a priority of Pope Francis’ papacy and can also be seen as repairing the damage done by his predecessor Pope Benedict. A 2006 speech by the former Pope was widely interpreted as characterizing Islam as a religion which condones violence.
The “Human Fraternity” document signed in February and the current Pope’s warm relationship and ongoing dialog with the Grand Imam and other Muslim leaders encourage “all who believe that God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with one another and live as brothers and sisters who love one another.” The document identifies several obstacles to creation of a culture of dialog and peace in today’s world.
Echoing Martin Luther King’s observation that our technological advance has surpassed our knowledge of how to live in peace, the document identifies the causes of conflict today as “a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles.” Strongly condemned are religious groups who, “have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted.” Such “False Religion” has supported military build up leading to “signs of a ‘third world war being fought piecemeal’”.
Also contributing to the crises today the document points to increasing economic inequality, and the exploitation of women and denial of their rights. In its conclusion the document urges “research and reflection” on its contents in all places of learning “to educate new generations to bring goodness and peace to others, and to be defenders everywhere of the rights of the oppressed and of the least of our brothers and sisters”.
Unfortunately, most American media emphasized the political implications of the February meeting of the two leaders while ignoring the document’s contents. The two New York Times articles reporting on the Pope’s visit to the Arabian peninsula failed to mention the document or its contents. By contrast, the official Vatican News headline the day after the meeting celebrated “the historic declaration of peace, freedom, women’s rights”. Conservative Catholic media and commentators rued the document language characterizing the diversity of religions as “willed by God in His wisdom”. One commentator speculated that “this is not what Muslim converts (to Christianity, ed.) want to hear from their Pope”.
The lack of attention paid the document is troubling. Our secular media’s tepid response suggests we live in a world captivated by the force of armaments. Ignorance of this significant effort to bring about a world of “human fraternity” reminds of Stalin’s reputed response to the suggestion that the Pope be invited to the Tehran Conference in 1943. “And how many divisions does the Pope have?” the Russian leader was reported to have asked.
Despite the neglect of the “Human Fraternity” document, and the opposition of Catholic critics of the Pope’s embrace of “religious pluralism”, Francis and the Vatican are following through on the dialog with Muslim leaders. Meetings in August resulted in some edits of the February document and were followed by another conversation between the Grand Imam and the Pope this month in Rome. Discussion focused on the progress of the joint “Superior Committee” in efforts to achieve the objectives agreed on in February.
To read the complete document signed in February 2019 go to:
In speeches at the United Nations the last two years the President of the U.S. has defended national sovereignty and national interest as the pathway to global progress and prosperity. Choosing the forum created to foster global cooperation in the cause of world peace, economic development and human rights to extol national sovereignty highlights Trump’s heedless defiance of what makes for understanding and consensus building among nations. In a summary statement of his position, he declared in his September 2018 remarks, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
This year in another September address, the U.S. President again attacked “the ideology of globalism” in the citadel of global cooperation. After acknowledging the UN as “the world’s biggest stage” in this year’s speech Trump chastised and bullied UN agencies on several fronts. He announced the U.S. withdrawal from the UN Human rights council, withdrawal from the UN Arms Trade Treaty, withdrawal of support for he International Criminal Court, and rejection of the Global Compact on Migration. In explanation of the last action he told the UN, “Migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens.”
U.S. opposition to the global pact on migration stems in part from the U.S. administration’s hostility to references to a human caused climate crisis as a cause of increased migration. A leaked email of a U.S official working for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned of U.S. cuts in funding for the agency. The US appointee stated the IOM policies and positions “must not be in conflict withcurrent [US government] political sensitivities”.
An article in The Guardian newspaper of September 11 links the warning to the rejection by UN officials of the Trump administration’s nominee to be head of the IOM. Most reports concurred that Ken Isaacs’ failure to be approved was due to his denials of human caused climate change. The Guardian noted that the U.S. has been contributing one fourth of the IOM budget.
Just this week, on November 4, the current U.S. Administration officially withdrew the wealthiest nation in the world from the Paris climate Accord. As the only developed country to give precedence to increasing fossil fuel production over reversing the ongoing climate catastrophe, the U.S. has now formally ceded its leadership role on the “world’s biggest stage”. The action is the most dramatic and decisive declaration that the U.S. considers its “national interest” the priority above the survival of coastal communities and survival of the human species.
Trump’s two speeches at the UN communicate his administration’s determination to pursue its nationalistic, “America First” ideology in its international relations. They ignore that progress in protection of the environment, in advancing world peace, international human rights and combatting world poverty all demand the consensus, compromise and understanding of other nations for which the UN was created. No nation, including the most powerful, can provide solutions to the world’s ills without cooperation and collaboration with other UN members. The bluster and aggressive unilateral actions of the U.S. in its foreign policies today are also a primary threat to world peace.
Having warned that the U.S. will not pay more than 25 per cent of the UN’s peacekeeping operations in last year’s speech, Trump boasted in this year’s speech of increased funding of the U.S. military. In an introductory segment of his remarks, he declared that the U.S. has “spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military”. Such muscle flexing begs the question of whether excessive military expenditures and pride in U.S. military might have deluded foreign policy makers of this and previous U.S. administrations.
Perhaps the most revealing segment of the speech this year came at the beginning when Trump stated, “The essential divide that runs all around the world and throughout history is once again thrown into stark relief. It is the divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking they are destined to rule over others and those people and nations who want only to rule themselves.” Since the United States played such an important in the UN founding in 1946, its continual expansion of its armaments and military might suggest that our country has crossed over the divide Trump mentioned in the conviction we are “destined to rule over others”. The U.S. has deployed active troops in over 150 countries in the world and maintains bases in 38 nations today.
“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish.” J.Robert Oppenheimer spoke these words soon after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The chief of the Los Alamos team that produced the first nuclear weapons joined many other atomic scientists in calling for international oversight of future development of atomic weapons and atomic energy.
The scientists’ anguish over the cataclysmic potential of nuclear bombs led to the creation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists of Los Alamos. Their December 1945 newsletter editorialized, “the preservation of…secrecy on a purely national basis would represent the defeat of any adequate program of international control.”
At the same time, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by Los Alamos and Manhattan Project team members who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.” Several of them also contributed essays to the best selling book of 1946 titled One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb.
Oppenheimer continued to call for international control of atomic weapons in the 1960’s. At a series of lectures at Oxford in 1962 he declared, “[…] We think of this as our contribution to the making of a world which is varied and cherishes variety, which is free and cherishes freedom, and which is freely
changing to adapt to the inevitable needs of change in the twentieth century and all centuries to come, but a world which, with all its variety, freedom, and change, is without nation states armed for war and above all, a world without war.”
Albert Einstein was among the leading scientists who hoped the United Nations would provide the institutional framework for control of atomic weapons and atomic energy. He began his appeal to the Second General Assembly of the UN in 1947 lamenting: “Since the victory over the Axis powers – no appreciable progress has been made either toward the prevention of war or toward agreement in specific fields such as control of atomic energy”. Anticipating the argument that the U.S. or any other nation’s hegemony in nuclear weapons would guarantee security and peace, Einstein declared, “However, strong national armaments may be they do not create military security for any nation nor do they guarantee the maintenance of peace.”
Einstein’s appeal to the U.N. warned against the idolatry of national sovereignty as hampering progress toward international peace and security. “There can never be complete agreement on international control and the administration of atomic energy or on general disarmament until there is a modification of the traditional concept of national sovereignty…. Security is indivisible. It can be reached only when necessary guarantees of law and enforcement obtain everywhere, so that military security is no longer the problem of any single state.”
The hope for a world order without armed forces and weapons deployed by individual nation states soon gave way to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 1946 founding of the United Nations represented for Einstein and many others a departure from and repudiation of the logic of nationalism and national sovereignty. Expectations that progress in creating a world system of law and order would follow soon gave way to a new scramble to maintain control of the resources in the former colonies of Europe. It is the devotion to the defense of national sovereignty, a conception of world order most developed in the 19th Century, that drives opposition to “open borders” today.
Our “national sovereignty” is referred to as threatened by immigration to the U.S. Migrants today constitute an “invasion” of the country. Such language leads to further militarization of the 1,933 mile southern border of the U.S. Building a wall to ensure long term security ignores ample evidence that what hasn’t worked in the past won’t work in our time. The push for building a wall contributes to the hysteria surrounding immigration without contributing to the defense of the nation or clearing a path for progress in immigration reform.
Responding to increases in the number of migrants by building a wall does illuminate for us the dangers of clinging to outmoded, archaic thinking behind public policies based on defense of “national sovereignty”. Defense of our people in this nation from the potential consequences of atomic warfare, of global climate change and of mass migration from impoverished regions most affected requires the U.S. to rethink its posture and politics of “America First”. What must happen before we commit to international cooperation and control in this “one world or none”? What degree of catastrophe in the U.S. must occur before we open our minds to “open borders”?
A friend recently asked me, “Our immigration system is a mess but are you really for ‘open borders’?” The last serious discussion about immigration reform in the U.S. Congress got nowhere largely because Tea Party members and other Republicans loudly voiced opposition to any form of “amnesty” for immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for years without legal immigration status documentation. Now the tactic of anti-immigration reform activists seems to be to attack any reform-minded politician by accusing them of being for “open borders”.
This is an appropriate time then to consider what those have said who have looked at our earth and its conflicts from the perspective of outer space. So in this year of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, l respond to my friend’s inquiring if I am for “open borders” with the following comments from those who have looked at earth and our controversies from space.
“Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the moon, but to look back at our home the Earth.”
– Alfred Worden,
Apollo 15, 1971, USA
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” — Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
– Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud,
Discovery 5, Saudi Arabia
“From space I saw Earth – indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.”
– Muhammad Amhad Faris,
Soyuz TM-3, Syria
“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”
– James Irwin,
Apollo 15, USA
The scientist who is most widely known for his contributions to U.S. advances in space travel, Carl Sagan, wrote in his 1980 best seller Cosmos ,
“National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.”
Based on the wisdom gained by those who have experienced space travel, proponents of immigration reform might say we need not fear to join the rest of the universe in advocating for “open borders” on our planet. Our science has enabled us to overcome human ignorance about the extraordinary nature of human beings and our earth in the cosmos but our ethics and our politics have bound us to human weakness and error in managing our responsibilities on earth.
Wendy Garcia, a Honduran mother of seven, joined others in her rural community to protest pollution of their primary source of water. While many U.S. immigrants fear reprisals for their political protest, we need to remember that there are many other Honduran immigrants who silently resist by fleeing from the desperate poverty and violence resulting from what the U.S. has claimed is “foreign aid” in their country.
Policies of aid that favor dictatorships either led by or beholden to the country’s military have sown seeds of violence and civil war throughout Central and South America for many years. Our policies consistently have been guided by the interests of U.S. based international corporations and call for limiting government social services and support for foreign investors who export most of the profits to off shore bank accounts.
These policies need to be taken into account in any discussion of U.S. immigration policies. They have created the conditions of deprivation and desperation that lead so many to leave home in order to sustain their families’ health and well being. The following account of Wendy Garcia’s resistance to pollution of her community’s water source establishes her application for asylum status as a political refugee. We must however remember those other immigrants from the south who have silently resisted their governments’ brutal repression and corporate exploitation of their communities’ resources by marching north.
Mrs. Garcia’s story below has been shortened. For the full account, go to:
“I am seeking asylum in the US because of a hydroelectric dam. I fled Honduras fearing for my life after being tear gassed by police and arrested when our community resisted a dam which contaminated the water we rely on for drinking, cooking and washing.
I come from a small community where our water flows from the mountains into the River Mezapa. The communities who rely on the river organised many years ago to install a water system which stores and distributes water to people’s houses.
Every household paid a monthly contribution to ensure the riverbanks stayed clean, and the system functioned well. We had enough water, and it was crystal clear – clean enough to drink.
The problems started as soon as construction began: the dam company chopped down lots of trees on the river bank. The water turned browny yellow and tasted like iron, so we couldn’t use it any more.
In early 2017, a roadblock was set up in the Pajuiles community to stop the heavy machinery getting past. At first I didn’t want to get involved: I was scared because there are powerful people behind the dam.
But as our clean water turned to mud, I realised that if we didn’t stop the dam we could all die from thirst.
Early in the morning of 15 August 2017, we were coming to the end of the night shift at the roadblock when we heard that the police were on their way. It was only my third or fourth time at the roadblock.
Suddenly, there were armed police and Swat teams everywhere, throwing teargas into people’s houses. There was so much smoke we could barely see, and I’ve suffered from blurry vision ever since.
I ran into a house but went back out to look for my son – and that’s when they arrested me. Ten of us were arrested, including several elderly neighbours and a pregnant woman. We were held from 10am to 1am the next day.
Our camp was destroyed, and the police escorted the company’s machinery to the river. We were charged with trespass for blocking a public road. The police took our photos – and this really frightened me because in Honduras the police kill ordinary people.
I became even more scared when a few months later in January 2018, a colleague in the community struggle, Geovanni , was murdered by police who dragged him into the street and shot him dead.
If they did that to him, they could kill me too, and then who would support my children? In Honduras, money is power, and we, the poor people, don’t have access to justice.
That’s why I left Honduras. That’s why I’m seeking asylum in the US.”
The House of Broken Angels is a novel that seems destined to further build Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea’s international reputation and readership. Published in 2018, Urrea’s novel was glowingly reviewed by the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in the New York Times and is the Times-PBS “Now Read This” July Book of the Month selection.
Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother and went to college in San Diego. Though identified as a “border writer” his website quotes him saying, “I am more interested in bridges than borders”. Like the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón with the Academy Award winning “Roma”, Urrea’s work represents a clear window through which Mexican culture and family life can be viewed and a “bridge” is built between the U.S. and Mexico. It was inspired by the death of his older brother from cancer. He says on the Times book review podcast that his family threw a 70th birthday party for his brother, “his last birthday party on earth”, as the de la Cruz family does for the family patriarch in the book.
Another strong motivation in writing the book was political – particularly the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump 2016 campaign. “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’” the author told an interviewer. He went on to say, “I couldn’t any longer take all the rhetoric, I couldn’t any longer take all the ‘build-the-wall’ propaganda or the ‘bad hombres’ and all of the damage and harm and heartbreak this course in American politics is taking in people’s lives on a daily basis.” It is the author’s humor and love for all kinds of people that stand out and stay with Urrea’s readers. He says that after his public readings from the book, “I’m hugging a lot of people. Every night, my jacket smells like 14 perfumes and seven after-shaves. People want hugs.”
New York Times review in March 2018 of The House of Broken Angels :
“Now Read This” NYTimes-PBS Facebook group discussion of The House of Broken Angels :
Urrea talks about why he wrote the book with Pamela Paul on the New York Times Book Review podcast:
Speaking of higher tariffs on Mexican imports and the wisdom of closing the border with our neighbor to the south, I want to share a favorite piece of Mexican folk music. “Ya viene el tren de Durango” sings a Mexican migrant farm laborer who leaves his home in rural Mexixo to work in the fields of “el norte”, across the U.S. border. The song was inspired by the experience of migrant “bracero” farm laborers in the U.S. fields of the early 1940’s to the early 1960’s.
These primarily Mexican farmworkers replaced the labor force conscripted for WW II and, with the increase in U.S. population and demand, now provide most of the cultivators, weeders and pickers of U.S. crops. To call essential migrant farmworkers “illegal” is one of the many grotesque consequences of the lack of a comprehensive update of U.S. immigration laws since the Reagan administration.
You may listen to the song “Ya Viene el Tren de Durango” as sung by folk musicians of Northern Mexico, including Jose Ignacio Cardenas Alvarado, the song’s composer. Its lovely melody, simplicity of language, and the singer’s clear enunciation make it ideal for Spanish language learning.
“Here comes the train from Durango,
I must say good bye now, here in the Goma station,
to seek my future.
From Torreon to the City of Juarez
I’ll take yet another train
and then cross the border
so I don’t know when I’ll return.
I know how to make the cuts on alfalfa
I know how to pick cotton
I know how to grow tomatoes, watermelon and squash.
But I leave as a poor fellow
and the money I take isn’t enough
when I’m on the other side
and run out of dough.
So look my pretty old lady
the dollars we told our children
I’d bring with me
let’s not mention again.
Now is also a good time to remember how the U.S. has for years depended on fruit and vegetables from Mexico to feed its families. Mexico supplied 29 % of the tomatoes eaten in the U.S. in 2016. In that same year, Mexico produced 91 % of the avocadoes consumed in “el norte”.
The effect of increased tariffs on prices of Mexican food imports to the U.S. would of course be dramatic and onerous for millions. Prices of produce would rise from 20 to 40 % an April 3, 2019 Time Magazine article estimated. The same article noted that many large U.S. agriculture firms, Driscoll’s berries is one, now produce food in Mexico with Mexican labor.
U.S. poet Carolyn Forché has written the book of her lifetime and that of many other young U.S. citizens who left their homeland in the sixties and seventies and returned as changed persons to their homeland like “strangers in a strange land”. In Forche’s life, it was El Salvador in the late 1970’s that left the indelible marks on her consciousness that she has since interpreted with her poetry and the poetry of other witnesses to resistance and courage. It took her forty years but we can now celebrate her devotion to the truth and her craft that compelled her to write the story of her expanding awareness of what it was like to be a Salvadoran shortly before the 12 years of Civil War in the country.
Before the poet’s first visit to El Salvador in 1978, she might have read that the life expectancy of a Salvadoran male was 47, that of a female slightly longer. Eighty per cent of the population lived without running water, sanitation or electricity and one out of five children died before age five. Forché might also have read the 1931 dispatch of a U.S. military attaché that still held true after fifty years of dictatorship backed by the military: “30 or 40 families own nearly everything in the country. They live in almost regal style……The rest of the population has practically nothing.” Her empathy and her heart compelled her to learn the truth behind the facts and communicate what she learned with this book.
Explaining why she went, she wrote, “Although I had a college education, I knew very little about the rest of the world.” Her translation of a revolutionary Salvadoran female poet had brought her to the attention of the man who drove hundreds of miles to issue the invitation to learn about his country and the world. In many ways the main character and driving force of the book, Leonel Gómez Vides, describes her task during her first experience of rural El Salvador, “You could use your time here to learn what it is to be Salvadoran, to become that young woman over there who bore her first child at 13 and who spends all her days sorting tobacco leaves according to their size.”
Her host, guide, protector, mentor Leonel is a well connected, highly accomplished member of the Salvadoran elite whose coffee plantation and wealth allow him access to all sides in the country’s looming conflict. The movement to break “the silence of misery endured” is growing and Leonel tells her, “The Civil War is three years ahead, five at the most”. In persuading her to accept his invitation he avers it will be “like visiting Vietnam before the War there”.
There are indeed many disturbing parallels with the horror Americans became accustomed to hearing about during the prolonged U.S. War in Southeast Asia. On her 7 “extended” stays in El Salvador between her first visit in January 1978 and the outbreak of the guerrilla fighting in mid 1980, Forché is a witness to the torture, intimidation and dismembering of the poor and those who side with them. She meets with leaders of those carrying out the gruesome repression, the Salvadoran intelligence and military men who are “trained by U.S. advisors”, the unsettling refrain we have become accustomed to reading and hearing since the early 1960’s. Before she reaches age 30, Forche is taken inside a prison on the Guatemalan border where captives are held in wooden boxes the size of washing machines, reminiscent of the “tiger cages” used for political prisoners in Vietnam.
Three times Forché is herself pursued by “death squads” responsible for “disappearing” suspected opponents of the ruling elite. That she continues to return to a country threatening terror and death is powerful testimony to the conviction and courage of those serving the Salvadoran poor and to the impact of what the poet is learning from them. Describing herself as a “fallen Catholic”, she finds herself interacting with priests and church servants as the leading defenders of the poor. She meets a priest in a rural “Christian base community” who tells her, “To be with God now is to choose the fate of the poor, to be with them, to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts, and if this means torture and death, we accept. We are already in the grave.”
Without polemic or any socio economic analysis of the historical background or U.S. economic interests in El Salvador, Forché simply and directly relates the nature of U.S. involvement in the country. It is apparent that the involvement prioritizes a heightened military repression of the people and organizations dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Salvadoran poor. The official at the U.S. Embassy responsible for U.S. health aid to the country explains she doesn’t have time to visit the clinics and hospitals the U.S. aid intends to support. “I have plenty of work to do right here at my desk” she responds pointing to a pile of papers. In spite of the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, the new U.S. Ambassador tells Forché that the truth about the U.S. citizen dropped from a Salvadoran army helicopter during the previous Ambassador’s term will not be pursued. Forché later learns that most of the plastic latrines distributed in the health official’s “latrinization program” were dismantled for housing construction.
In taking the land and the suffering of the people to heart, the poet finds it hard to return home as the armed conflict nears. Among the book’s homages to Archbishop Oscar Romero is her account of how “the voice of the poor” encourages her to return home and tell the truth about the conflict in his country. When she expresses doubt she can do that “he assured me that the time would come for me to speak and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” She last speaks with the saintly Archbishop days before his assassination in the capital’s cathedral, not long before the outbreak of Civil War.
During 12 years of armed conflict, 100,000 lives are taken, 8,000 “disappear”, 500,000 citizens are displaced and 500,000 flee the country, thereby beginning the tide of Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. Concluding the book’s masterful portrayal of the elusive character of Leonel Gómes Vides, Forché describes his leading role in bringing about the peace accord. The mysterious stranger who appears on her San Diego doorstep at the book’s outset is revealed in the end as the heroic reconciler of the factions.
After the peace agreement is reached, Forché finally began to write her account of what she has seen and learned. Fifteen years later this important, lyrically written document was published not long after Leonel died in a hospital. Among his achievements was choosing Carolyn Forché to tell the truth about his country’s suffering. He told her early on, “I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.” Most readers will agree that Forché has succeeded on all three counts with this book. She has overcome all the difficulties of immersing us in the agony of contemporary El Salvador and making us and the Salvadoran people, some of our neighbors today, more human.