Notes from a trip to Chalatenango, August 2010.
Looking over the cauldron that is called the “Valley” of Mexico in the 1970s I knew that I could have had a career in narrating its ecological collapse. Although I worked in a cardiology hospital I was an eager student of tree health, and here was the greatest opportunity to follow the death of those infinite beings my sister called Los Gigantes: ash, laurel, ahuehuetes (Taxodium spp) rooted in the dying lake underneath the asphalt enough to make anyone believe that a paved-over tree would always be fine just with the water dogs peed inside the hole left in the concrete for the trunk to come out into the air. I really did not need any training; as a teenager I knew already the course these trees would take: first the spooky move of losing the outermost canopy, leaving skeletal branches sticking out as sole reminders of the tree’s past, and then sooner or later even though still with tree-like lentor, finishing their stage exit with a crash or, more commonly, as diced-up rounds lying on the bed of beat-up trucks.
But the ecological violence of tree death in the city is as unbearable to the loving observer as it is invisible to the milling crowds below: too slow to register in five-year plans or career moves, urban deforestation and general ecological collapse is simply taken for granted by the current generation of urbanites, who simply change their standards for what is “nature”, what is “beautiful”, what is acceptable postcard matter, and get on with their busy lives.
The devastation of war is different. More than other kinds of destruction, the rate and mode of ecological change brought by intent humans on foot and with instruments of death upwells dynamics that shake human consciousness more readily. Some Europeans know about this, although most are too old to count. In Vietnam and Cambodia and the Philippines, Angola and Zimbabwe, it must be the same: a glimpse of what awaits the planet not from vapid concentrations of CO2, but from the very real, very solid work and chemistry of metal and explosive.
I’ve been to the future in Guarjila. Here, in the province of Chalatenango, the destruction of a place and its inhabitants was quite thorough. Those who live there today can well be said to have been to hell and back, such was the depth of plowing-over, the heat of scorching visited upon the place.
Some may say that the waves of destruction brought upon this small country are simple echoes of what happened there when Europeans first arrived, Alvarado’s footprints; others will point to Maximiliano Herrera’s illiterate opus “La Matanza”, or more diffusely to the coffee landlords, although these at least had to keep shade trees and some bare-bones presence of indigenous life for labor. What is true is that someone, sometime, somehow must have hard-washed the face of the country leaving scant trace of Pipil or Lenca on streets or fields. What was the texture of their botanies, the herbaceous lining of their creeks and lakes, the nature of their tallest trees, the smell of their kitchens? Would anybody know?
The 70s and 80s are indeed more knowable (for this more–or less–terrifying?). Guarjila and many other human dwellings in haciendas or villages were visited by the remote, blind-steel force and abandon that would seem unique to the United States’ mode of empire: if a definition was needed, here I would find one for the idea of ‘scorched-earth’. I can see it underneath the over-enthusiastic tatoo of green, the early-succession vegetation that so many tourists take for the pristine face of “The Tropics”. Look, and especially try to listen as the sun sets or rises in its indecorous way here: you will not hear a monkey howl, an armadillo rustle or even the trace of a peccari. Birds and insects appear afraid to show themselves here, something that tourists again would be surprised to understand under the hail of mosquito bites. I could not see one leaf-cutter ant, on which I have been told I am a specialist. Eroded soils, some of them clutching under their litter a thin layer of charcoal as a one-page testimonial, few if any trees with a dbh more than half a meter complete the scene.
Humans were equally brutalized here by the counterinsurgents. Those not killed summarily or in selective-murder raids spent their decades “en el monte” if male over 12, or in the concentration camp of Mesa Grande, across the river in Honduras.
Hell could also be had in Los Angeles, in Mexico City, or in any international border-zone.
But then they decided to return. They mobilized their penniless power, compelled the UN to give face-cover, dared the local killers to do one more mass-murder, and pressed on in a caravan of broken buses with mud up to the axles to go live in what was not their land any more than it was anyone else’s but would become theirs through this act. Children were lost in the minefields, planes and mortars blew-up more mountainsides as close as possible to their huddled straw-and-plastic hovels, but the water sources were found and there were dances with the men who came down from El Monte with their weapons. Babies came then. Milpas in the bombed clearings.
People here carry their scars as well as the landscape–over forty: missing limbs, shrapnel furrows on the eroded face; underage: the papyrus sheen of tatooed skin that knows no bounds, evolving stages of dermatological succession. They say–many repeat this– that they want to recover their historical memory.
The basque Jesuits who lived here–those not murdered then are still around with their gangly pace, wry humor and song, not many–did a good job of using the promise of paradise only once and then burning the route map when they got to Guarjila. And so I think that this idea, the idea of future paradise, in the land of so much violence found no difficulty transforming itself into the idea of a memory lost in the past. Who could possibly hold onto it otherwise, after Guernika, after East LA, after Tepito, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, after Guarjila?
Guarjila is distinguished in the world by its monumental efforts to find the children who ‘disappeared’, separated from their biological families during the counterinsurgency wars. With them they seek to fill something that feels deeply missing, not only in the families who come forward to report the loss. This is what they call recovering their historical memory. But I wonder: what memory could one have of a past that evolved in Brussels, or Missouri or Guatemala City, the lives of these children while here the land burned and the ravines flowed with bloodied mud? Some of these children, now young adults, choose not to recover the memories offered by a distant phone call in a foreign language. But more than a memory, I sense an insatiable urge to construct, to build, to protect a landscape of real and imagined existence bridging over the horrors of war, the rediscovered-disappeared the easiest step along an uncharted territory of apocalypse. The historical memory of Guarjila–like it will be for all of us, one way or the other—an almost sub-conscious effort to regain the ecological memory that could reach the Pipil and the Lenca, who knows: a memory that would understand and be at peace with the uplifting of the earth’s crust and the volcanic thrusts that put this land on the map.
I came invited to view this landscape and to participate in its reimagination. For harmony’s sake I go with the idea of recovering one’s ecological memory. Following my friend Cristián I brought what I have, what I know and what I know I don’t. It all fits well in a small bag. Soon we were out finding edible mushrooms, prospecting life, soils, water, air. We ended in a kitchen in Guarjila cooking on a propane stove and a wood-fired comal, with many women, children and men partaking on little morsels of the mushroom dishes riding atop triangles of freshly-baked tortilla. Over one of these, Ester told about her work operating radio and other communications for the people in El Monte, about the tears of despair with the noseeums and the spasms of hunger as they stuffed leaves in their mouths to stave-off the worst, only to vomit after: all the while sitting in front of just these mushrooms that we were now eating, without knowing.
Guarjila wants to grow mushrooms to eat. They want to grow trees that host fungi in their roots, which produce mushrooms they could eat. They want to use the solar dryer that the Austrians left behind to dry and preserve mushrooms like they do with fruits already. They want their young to do all this and more. Young Lenin Serrano, who at age 16 and against all odds and all opinion except his parents’ has already assembled an admirable orchidarium in Guarjila could yet become a great botanist.
The red flags of the party, once enough reason to be tortured and killed on sight now wave sloppily in the streets here as well as in the capital. The new president even affixed an apology “in the name of the State” to those brutalized by the counterinsurgents, for all to see in the international airport, placed between the electronics dealer, the expensive leather store and the perfume stalls. There is talk of justice and demands to drop the amnesty before seeking reconciliation, although in Chalatenango few seem to believe the propaganda signs.