Sunday, July 5, 2009

On pupusas and counter-revolution

I appreciated the irony that my family's meal on the 4th of July, the American Independence Day, was Salvadorean food. I spent a year as a Navy ROTC cadet, 1984-1985, when Salvador was hot and the U.S. military was involved, though covertly.

Our violent involvement in El Salvador was an open secret in the ROTC program, even among freshman squids like myself who had not yet signed an agreement to repay our free education with military service.

I recall a memorable lecture on propaganda, when were taught that good guys are "freedom fighters" and bad guys are "terrorists," and that we would be told who were the "good guys" and who were the "bad guys". The context of the lecture was Central America.

The problem down there was the bad guys, the "terrorists," were landless farmers fighting for their land, and we were leading a military of our own landless farmers. Propaganda had to be kept tight when the "good guys" were mercenaries defending the interests of coffee barons, and the "bad guys" were landless farmers fighting for the land.

I'll never forget that lecture. I retell this story a lot, because it was a very rare peek inside how the U.S. military - this was Ronald Reagan's military - resolves its own contradictions, which are many.

I told it once to a guy who married one of my cousins. His father was a retired U.S. Army general. I had met the old man. Judging by his age, I figured he had earned one or more of his bars leading fights in wars in which we, officially, had not fought.

I asked my cousin's husband to ask his old man if he had led men in Salvador and Nicaragua, and if so, to tell him some war stories. The guy came back to me shaking his head.

"My old man said he didn't want to talk about it," I was told. "He said, 'Son, more people were killed down there then you will see in all of your life, and it won't do anybody any good to talk about it now.'"
I later did some translations of a Salvadorean poet, Roque Dalton, working with a Salvadorean scholar who had lived through parts of the dirty wars. She was much more willing to talk about it than the general had been. I published several poems I wrote about our conversations; here is one.

Why I loved to watch baseball with her

When she saw the yellow foul
pole striping the jungle
green of the right field
wall, echo of Oakland
A's mustard and spinach
when sky blue Cubs were home,
she remembered her travels
during the war, how a sock
or blandly knotted tie
could encode solidarity.
Red and yellow said -
tiny, quiet, sly,
not the bleacher drunk,
heckling Bobby Bonilla -
red and yellow spoke, in whisper:
guerilla, guerilla, guerilla,
guerilla, guerilla, guerilla,

That last, repetitive bit riffs on a Roque Dalton poem from his essential volume Clandestine Poems (Curbstone Press).


Image of the Salvadorean delicacy pupusas from Wikimedia. The best pupusas in the St. Louis area are at Tres Banderas, Clarkson at Manchester in West County, 636/527-1990.

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