Letter from Honduras: Knock-out in St. Louis and Nueva Palmira
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2012 - When my friend Mike Baldwin left a local confectionery in North St. Louis with some snacks to enjoy during the Oscars telecast (because, I guess, he loves foreign films), he found himself a victim of the “knock-out game,” a violent assault from behind that includes kicks, cursing, robbery and, in Mike’s case, a dislocated shoulder. Mike’s wife, Teka Childress, who helped found “Karen House” decades ago for women in crisis, is a constant reminder to me -- the big “missionary” -- that Honduras can be anywhere, including your own backyard.
So when the reaction to the crime began to build, Mike appreciated the sympathy, but he tried to divert attention to other “crimes,” social crimes, such as the chronic boredom, disinterest, hopelessness of his attackers.
Who are we if we only play defense, instead of reaching out? Also, why did the police respond quickly to Mike’s case when they had ignored a nearly identical assault on Mike’s son-in-law, who is African American? Can justice flourish even in the bare streets of the North Side?
The knock-out game is played here in Honduras, too, but they don’t come at you from behind. They gouge your eyes out!
Murdered at 92
Doña Tonia was attacked and killed the other day near Nueva Palmira, about a mile from Las Vegas. She was 92 years old! They thought she had money, the “bono” the government gives the elderly from time to time, maybe about 3,000 Lempiras (about $150). She had gone to Victoria, but returned empty-handed; these bonuses have a way of disappearing as they change hands, long before they get to the poor. Enraged at their misfortune, I guess, the boys cut up her face with machetes.
When I grabbed a moto-taxi to go over there, the driver Raul was practically shaking. “I can’t believe this! I just dropped her off! I guess I’m the last one who saw her alive.” He had given her a ride -- for free -- from Victoria; he could not cross the little creek or he could have taken her all the way home. I would wave to her all the time, coming and going on visits.
The next day, the police “tracked down” the killers, shot three of them dead and wounded a fourth. Except: maybe they weren’t the killers, but family of the killers. No one is saying for sure; clarity only opens the door for more violence.
We started the novenario, nine days of mourning, and Tonia’s son Eulalio, himself an old man, who had probably never before made a public statement, stammered through his tears, “We forgive everyone, please no more violence, no more killing, my mother loved ... people.”
What demons had poisoned the souls of those children of God? The folks, in their grief, grasped for words to describe the unspeakable. Someone called Tonia a “martyr,” and it stuck.
The newspapers report an “express” version of the game in the big cities. Grab someone, threaten them, take them to the nearest ATM, empty their account -- and let ‘em go. I’m just bracing myself for my options. Whoever jumps me will not be impressed with my wallet or my account! I guess I have to joke, because I go crazy when I think of what could happen, especially if Chemo is with me. If it were only random, it wouldn’t be so scary, perhaps. But these are tentacles of organized crime -- drug trafficking -- that offers instant money and protection for anyone aimless enough to latch onto a “sure thing.”
Dead at 28
Death sometimes does its own knocking out. Abel, 28, so reclusive and inward he would not even tell his family how much pain he was in till his appendix burst. They got him to the hospital in Tegucigalpa -- 5 hours away over dirt roads -- where a first operation was quickly followed by a second, and that was that. They brought his body back to Las Vegas, and we gathered at the same house where about a year before his brother Dixi had a heart attack at age 24.
So many families in Honduras -- more statistically than anywhere else in the world -- lose their children to violence; so should sudden infirmities get to up the ante? I don’t know which is worse, the violence or the bolt from the blue.
One day during Abel’s novenario, there was just a handful of us, me and about five women, and I tried to be as conversational with the biblical readings as possible (you know, the Bible actually lends itself to that approach!). Soon enough, Reina, Abel’s mother, who had been with him to the end, related in calm detail how her son had slipped away.
“I saw the half-open wound from the first operation; I knew then it was very bad, and he was so afraid, but I just kept touching him, assuring him,” not unlike, I suppose, Yossarian comforting the fatally wounded Snowden in “Catch-22,” “There, there. There, there.” Soon, everyone, mothers all, told their stories, too.
One more “knock-out,” a bureaucratic one, but no less blind-siding for that. You may remember my upbeat story last year about Wilfredo keeping his job at the school thanks to the flamboyant intervention of Gladys, who charmed the pants off her cousin the superintendent. Well, now Wil is out. It’s all political; “they” are purging anyone who’s not a Nationalist. Wil sells T-shirts with Che on the front, so that’s enough. They knocked him out the old-fashioned way. Since they couldn’t justify firing him, they eliminated his position!
He taught computer science, and we are the only high school in the area, outside of Victoria, to even have such a class, supposedly mandated by the same “new” law that shut Chemo out for being too old for fifth grade. Suddenly, the school just didn’t have the “funds” for a computer class. Now, the parents are pressuring the administration to re-instate the position, which they might do, just not with Wil. They’ll plug in someone who doesn’t know a mouse from a megabyte, like the English teacher who has taught for years, “I have, you have, he have.”
Chemo’s family -- or families -- finally returned home after four months picking coffee in the mountains of El Transito. Their “patrón” and his son drove them back in pick-ups piled high with all their worldly possessions, including two dogs roped tightly to the sidehooks.
If you’d seen this, you would have sworn the trucks were heading for the dump, a load of junk. But no! Every flimsy little mattress, every rusty pot and pan, every well-worn piece of clothing was carefully returned to its place. Migrant workers are an embarrassment to anyone’s “economy.”
If you’re good -- and it helps if your kids are with you -- you can fill a hundred-pound bag of coffee beans in about three hours; that’s a “quintal,” for which you’re paid 120 Lempiras, about $6. Now, considering, as one Missouri politician I just read about was too dumb to know, minimum wage is $7.25 an HOUR, coffee pickers work all week for what a burger-flipper might get at McDonald’s in one day. Think of that next time you’re in the drive-thru for your Supercoffee-fragilisticexpialidocious.
Still, folks manage to save some money. Marcos and Dania came home with enough cash to build on an extra room to Natalia’s house for their little family. It helps that they’re making the “bricks” of adobe; mud is free. Santos and Alba had enough to get a new horse, a pretty white filly named “Sombra” (shadow).
Worth his weight in gold -- at least when he’s behaving! -- Chemo has begun his Saturday classes with Maestro en Casa. He’s the only one in his “level,” fifth/sixth grade, so he practically has his own private teacher, David Suarez, who divides his time with the five kids (adults!) in the seventh grade and Chemo.
David is so good with Chemo! During the week, we work on his homework and review previous material. No matter what, we study every day. Chemo doesn’t fight me too much on this, since I let him sleep till 8. (When he was “in school,” he had to get up at 6.)
Chemo will turn 18 just in time (next September) to vote for Nelson Martinez for mayor in the November election! Nelson runs the coffee cooperative that has benefited this community so much, and if he wins, he’ll be just about the only honest politician in the whole country. I did notice that I was seeing him here and there more than usual; then he asked to borrow my chairs for the kick-off of his campaign. So how about that? I’m his SuperPac! He’s a gentle, gentlemanly, dedicated, humble man, a lovely family man. Incorruptible, will he even be allowed to win?
As the full moon turns its light on us to celebrate Passover and Holy Week, may we live in peace, safe from the big crimes that crush our spirit, and free of the tiny crimes that bind our hearts and minds, and open ourselves to all God’s children.
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 St. Louis, and the Beacon is proud to become a part of his circle.