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Letter from Honduras: Hearts on Fire

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2012 - "Honduras is the most murderous country in the world, ravaged by violent street gangs, rampant police corruption, dysfunctional courts and brutal drug cartels." (AP News)

When Maria Magdalena from Nueva Palmira came to my door a couple weeks ago, I had a funny feeling, a dread, let us say. The news had just broken the night before (Valentine’s Day, no less) of the inferno at the Comayagua prison that claimed more than 350 lives as the flames swept like a hurricane from cellblock to cellblock in a matter of minutes. When Maria arrived, I had the television on.

“You’re watching the news about the fire,” she said. My heart sank. “My husband is there.”

I switched my mode to calm, as I had been taught way back when I had to handle emergencies at Holiday Valley swimming pool, but my fingers were trembling as I got on the Internet to look through the preliminary list of the dead published by the newspaper. It went by cellblock.

“He was in Number 6.”

According to reports, that’s where the fire started! Over a fight for a mattress. But Julian Dominguez Rodriguez was NOT on the list of 98 dead, the most for any cellblock. Maria was hardly relieved, and by the next morning she couldn’t take it anymore. “I have to go. Everybody’s telling me I have to go.” She asked for a “loan.”

So horrible a story broke through the red-carpet gaffes of celebrities on Yahoo News and the posturing of presidential candidates on Drudgereport, and you would think the whole world would catch its breath at the sheer scale of the tragedy -- the crime! -- bodies melted into each other, fused to cell bars, shot by panicking guards who “couldn’t find” the keys, a young neighbor’s iPhone recording the screams from a hundred yards away, Honduras, the shame of the world. But did you see “comments” left by readers? Check it out:

  • "Looks like they were just cleaning house.”
  • "Burn the whole country! LOL
  • "Too bad some innocents got crisped, but as long as the majority were gang-bangers, I say good riddance to bad rubbish. Clean the vermin by any means necessary! Bravo!”
  • "They should do that in every prison!”
  • "No pity here. No big loss, the #$%$ of the human race just lost a few. Too bad more didn’t burn to hell. Just think of the money saved not feeding them anymore.”
  • "Time for a second fire.”
  • "I only wish the entire prison would have burned to the ground. Oh well, good start :)”

Why do news sources even indulge our narcissism by inviting such comments? The display of depravity is as depressing as the news itself.
On the other hand, the “cleaning house” theory is a likely one, since the same thing has happened twice before, when Honduran prisons have burned off their overcrowded inmates like a farmer burning off last year’s growth for a new planting. Whatever, I am sick.

And, no, we still do not know for certain the fate of Maria Magdalena's husband, and many bodies cannot be identified.

When the story broke I was coming back from a trip. When Christy Tharenos asked me to marry her, in Mexico, I hesitated only a moment or two. OK, I wasn’t the groom! “Marry” meant officiate at her wedding to Ben Gerber. They had already had a “civil ceremony” so the Mexico wedding, scheduled for Feb. 12, would be the “real” version, the “sacrament,” as Christy herself called it, in one of the loveliest spots on the planet, in fact, a “pueblo magico” called Tepoztlan.

Christy, who had been my student at Parkway North, and dear friend ever since, discovered “Tepoz” during medical brigades that she had joined. She became friends with Helena and David Luhnow, who offered their home for the wedding. The guest list would not be extensive, about 20 family and friends. Christy would pay for my ticket.

At the hotel La Buena Vibra in Tepoztan, set against a picturesque wall of mountains that jump straight out of the ground, mythically “carved” by native spirits, I met the other wedding guests. The next day was for exploring the town, so I joined Kristy Engle, a nurse missionary working in the Dominican Republic, and Corrine Shannon, a physical therapist from Chicago, for what was billed as a “quick” hike up to a mountain-top pyramid built at least a thousand years ago. Over two hours later, we straggled into the open air at the top.

Christy and Ben needed me for a whole ceremony, not just a walk-on. So I searched my heart for the loveliest, most gracious, most prayerful words I could express.

I had been nervous about the wedding, but that’s nothing compared to my next assignment, home-schooling Chemo. When I took Chemo to the school in early February to register him for 5th grade, they told me, no, he’s “too big.” Profe Flor, the principal, cited the “new law,” which excludes anyone 18 or over from grade school. Chemo will turn 18 in September. I had been joking that he’d be the only fifth-grader voting for president; now the joke was on me.

I felt like crying, so I was not going to cave without some defense: “You know, it’s not Chemo’s fault he didn’t start school till he was 13, and he’s passed every grade; doesn’t he have the right to finish up to sixth grade?” Well, no, blah, blah, blah, like the teacher in the “Peanuts” cartoons. If they don’t want him, how will they treat him if I “force” them to accept him? They’ll make sure he flunks! You know what, Chemo’s not “too big”; you are too small!

So I thanked them politely, grabbed Chemo, and flagged down the moto-taxi, now manned by Walter, who is all of 14. We would register Chemo for Maestro en Casa, a sort of home-schooling program sponsored by the Catholic Church, specifically for poor teens and adults who still want a high-school education (7th, 8th, 9th grades), a GED, you might say. They offer a pre-high-school course that combines fifth and sixth grades in one year; so if all goes well and Chemo passes, he’ll actually jump ahead of his former classmates. But it’s going to be a lot of work, for Chemo and for me!

On the way back from Mexico; I wanted to consult with Fermin and his brother-in-law Javier, who run the best Maestro en Casa program anywhere. Kids even come to Morazan from Progreso two hours away every Saturday for classes. Chemo lit up -- ”I’ll just stay in Morazan!” I did at least assure Fermin and Javier we’d be making frequent visits, especially when a big test is coming up.

Maricela’s little Mariana Teresa (“Mari-Te”), 2, just got baptized Feb. 3, along with about 10 other children, at an open-air celebration at the soccer field in Paraiso, where they were celebrating their annual feast in honor of the Virgin Mary in her Honduran patronage as Our Lady of Suyapa.

But, not long afterwards, Mari-Te was all puffed up like a Cabbage Patch doll, and we feared the worst, since a little girl in Paraiso has been in treatment already for a couple years for the “same thing.” After repeated trips to doctors here in Las Vegas, Victoria, and Yoro, it just became inevitable that Maricela and Mari-Te would have to go to Tegucigalpa for some serious help. So off they went, with as much cash as I could muster.

Things were going well, test after test narrowing down the diagnosis. But Maricela always seems to find herself in Tegus at the “wrong” time. This time she was minding the baby daily in the hospital just as the charred, disfigured, putrefying bodies from the Comayagua jail fire began arriving for autopsies, hundreds of them, overwhelming the totally inadequate morgue. The penetrating stench was overwhelming. Maricela was alarmed for Mari-Te, who hardly needed any more setbacks.

Finally, a kidney problem was diagnosed and they got out of there as fast as they could. Back home now in Las Vegas, Mari-Te is guzzling Prednisone and calcium tablets the size of her thumb three times a day. We just hope medication will stabilize her condition and nothing more drastic will be required. If she ends up needing dialysis...!

It was close, but I made it back from Mexico and Morazan and all my travels in time for Beto’s birthday! Turning 29. Try to describe a birthday cake for a blind person ... fortunately, Beto is getting used to our efforts since we started making a big deal of his big day a few years ago. I called in advance to his neighbor Carlota, who makes cakes every bit as good as Lake Forest used to in St. Louis, and we loaded up Walter’s moto-taxi like a clown car and headed to La Catorce.

We surprised Beto, because I had warned him I might not be back from my travels. So we waited while he “washed up,” and rounded up kids all around to celebrate. Beto may be blind, but his taste is no doubt enhanced. He ate three big slices of Carlota’s masterpiece. 

Celebrate life! In all its wonder! I don’t care if it’s Lent -- every day is someone’s birthday!

Miguel Dulick has lived in Las Vegas, Honduras, since 2003. There he has no projects, no plans, no investments -- only to share the life of the poor. For years he has been sending reports back to friends and family in his native St. Louis. In sharing these reports, we offer a glimpse of how life is so different, yet so much the same, in different places.