The Phantom Tollbooths of San Pedro

Juan drove me to the airport to retrieve my suitcase, after Delta bumped it off the plane in Atlanta yesterday for some unspecified reason. On the way I told him that protestors were going to take the tollbooth, and he shook his head. “They’re not going to take the tollbooth. They’ve already burned down all the tollbooths in San Pedro.” This did confuse me, as I had (mistakenly) assumed that burning down the tollbooth was the main objective of the protest, as opposed to blocking traffic at the site where the tollbooth used to be in order to continue calling attention to the violence of privatization of education and the dictatorship itself. In Honduras (though more in Tegus than San Pedro), things long gone continue to serve as referents. So one might give directions that include a no-longer-existent yet well-remembered tree, embassy, movie theater, etc. Still not realizing my mistake, I texted Walter, my friend who had told me about the protest, that there was no longer a tollbooth. “Hahaha,” he responded, “yes you’re right.”

Juan and I spoke about our daughters, who are the same age. His only goes to school twice a week, because public education has been cut so drastically that that is all the education 7-year-olds here get. This, of course, means that mothers throughout the country can’t get employment outside the home unless they have another caregiver. Juan’s wife keeps their daughter with her at their business—a roadside stand selling sodas—but it’s exhausting for her especially with their two-year old as well. More than the privatization of education, though, Juan is worried about dengue (and hence, the privatization of healthcare). He told me he is terrified for his daughter, since most of those who have died in the current epidemic are children. He always makes sure she’s covered in bug spray but you can never really prevent your child from getting bit. I told him about how mine got dengue when we lived here in 2013, and how scary it was. “But she’s in the States now,” he replied. “She’s safe.”

Kids dead from dengue

As I type, I’m getting eaten alive by mosquitos. I’ve been reassured by my overly kind hosts that Aedes aegypti doesn’t make it up this hill though, in part because there’s no standing clean water (the little standing water one finds around here is dirty, and they don’t use pilas), and in part because they have no neighbors within the minimal flight range of that species. So all I’m getting is itchy.

Juan and I also spoke about migration (how can you not?). He never had the courage to go to the United States, he said, even when he was younger and single and his friends told him to join them. I told him it was hard for me to think about some of the things happening at the border—the jailing of children torn from their parents, the concentration camps. How the pictures were hard to look at, even though I face no risk at all. I was thinking of the worst one of all, that led me to avoid social media for days, and he immediately brought it up. “Did you see that photo,” he asked me, “of the father and baby who drowned?” Yes, yes I had. “When I saw that, I immediately felt my whole chest knot up.” He repeated that metaphor several times in different configurations—sentí un nudo. His youngest was barely older than the infant who died. That father could have been him. “And you know, babies that size, when they’re fat like mine, they’re heavier than you think. He probably went into the river not realizing how heavy the baby would be, and then maybe a current caught him. His baby looked fat like mine.” He added, “I had to get off social media for days.”

After the airport, Juan drove down several kilometers on the highway back toward San Pedro to drop me off at McDonald’s to meet Walter. We passed several carriages. This poor malnourished horse looked like it was about to drop dead as it tussled with cars for room, past femiñángara graffiti.

Highway horse & carriage
FemiÑa… graffiti behind tired skinny horse’s carriage.

Before Juan left to bring my suitcase back to the house, I took out one of the eight huge citronella candles I’d bought to bring here and gave it to him. Inside McDonald’s, more than a dozen of Walter’s middle school students were selling tickets for discounted meals to raise money for their school, led by one super enthusiastic and friendly mom. After catching up for a while, another friend drove us to the Pedagógica (Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Francisco Morazán—the national teacher-training university) for the march, which I was tagging along to observe. “You’re in good shape, right?” Walter asked, “in case we had to run away from teargas.”

Goddamn mosquitoes, even if they aren’t Aedes aegypti.

So inside the UPNFM, which is a beautiful campus, students were gathered by a statue of Morazán. Not that many. Everyone knew Walter, which was the probably the only reason I wasn’t accused of being a CIA spy. Knowing how tricky it is to take pictures—police surveillance is intense, and anyone identifiable in published photos is at much greater risk of getting killed by state death squads—I was careful to ask first, only take a few at a time, and only take pictures from behind. Still, on a couple occasions after giving me a green light, Walter advised me to stop. Of course I did. When the small crowd was gathered at first, a student took the megaphone to make a quick speech about punctuality. They’d said everyone was to meet at 5, and it was already 5:15. People needed to do a better job of sticking to their agreed-upon plan.

Students at the Pedagógica are particularly invested in the current anti-privatization movement because their future employment hinges directly on its success. The JOH administration, following U.S./IMF dictates, is trying to do away with public education.

Shortly afterward the students, accompanied by some faculty, started filing out. What immediately struck me was their discipline. It was like a parade, with the leaders of different groups (mostly but not uniquely organized by area of study) going first in the most orderly possible fashion with their respective banners…

Social sciences banner
Students marching from the UPNFM holding their departmental banners.

…and everyone else forming straight lines behind them.

Marching order
Students lining up to march

Suddenly there were hundreds of students. Many hundreds. Suddenly they stretched farther than I could see.

We joined the rear of the march.

Walter was remarking how this was the most militant generation of students—how his generation had never taken over the university, but a colleague of his of my generation begged to differ. “We used to take the U! And I learned how to occupy from my mother, who used to take me out with SITRATERCO when the banana workers would shut it down there.” In the 80s? I asked her. Yes, she said proudly.

Walter introduced me to a man whose nickname was that of a well-known 1990s land struggle (they were impressed that I knew the referent), and told me about how during the post-coup repression, police had pushed him off a bridge. I knew the bridge well, and gasped—I remember thinking while walking over it that it would be impossible to survive a fall, and there was no railing. The man told me his arms had been shattered, and showed them to me. They were whole (as in covered with skin), but mangled and misshapen. We said nice to meet you and he walked off ahead in the march with purpose, animatedly chatting with another friend.

The chants were fantastically clever and often funny rhymes. A student near us was reading them off his cell phone. I asked Walter to send me a list, because of course I forgot to bring a notebook. The only one I remember is “Somos docentes, no somos delincuentes” (We’re teachers, not criminals, but rhyming). Others opposed privatization and mocked the dictator Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH).

The usual fun classics were there. “El que no salta es cachureco”—“Whoever doesn’t jump is a National Party member.” Then there was one where everyone had to squat. I was conducting participant observation. I didn’t want to stand out. I squatted. “Why are we squatting?” I shouted to Walter. “What does this mean?”

“It means we’re about to run,” he answered.

Sure enough, just then we all stood up and ran forward, the hundreds of young people around me laughing with the rush of energy.

We did a U-turn where the tollbooth used to be.

Closer to the phantom tollbooth.

In between, Walter told me of his various brushes with death since we’d last spoken. Of recently being in a crowd where police were shooting live bullets, running in front of a car to protect himself from the gunfire. Thankfully the driver didn’t panic, and let him escape behind them. Of being followed by a death squad car while taking care of a friend’s daughter and having to figure out how to get them away safely without ever letting her know what had happened. Having to hide in houses in a town where he was organizing alongside locals against the regime, when soldiers started going house by house with large guns, searching for organizers, getting snuck out covered with blankets inside someone’s car. “But one thing I’ll never do is go crying to human rights organizations,” he said. “They’re not good for anything.”

Walter told me that I especially had to be careful of taking pictures because Security was always on the lookout for infiltrators. Security was maybe the most impressive part of the march’s organization. The immediate, seemingly organic way in which young men (only men were in security) formed arms at the back to block traffic to protect everyone else. So much experience, so much discipline. Such de-escalation expertise, among people so young. None of the macho bullshit that I’ve seen so many times in parallel types of actions in the U.S.

Here you can’t see them (that’s intentional, of course) except as tiny shadows in front of the headlights, but they’re blocking that whole mass of traffic by themselves until the tail end of the march (and in this case, me) turn the corner.

Security blocking traffic

I was similarly surprised at how little aggression there was from the drivers. There was much more support than hostility at the blocked rush-hour traffic. Drivers on the other side of the median honked their horns and shouted FUERA JOH in support, and the students cheered back.

There was only a very small media presence (the coup-era chant “No somos cinco, no somos cien, prensa vendida, cuéntanos bien” was repeated on various occasions). But to my absolute shock and delight, I did see Bartolo Fuentes, whom I had lost track of but had fully assumed he’d have sought asylum after the U.S. media and JOH government’s vile defamation campaign against him during the first big caravan last Fall.

On the road back to UPNFM, students were celebratory, singing protest songs and dancing.

Walter spoke of how really, they are part of a global movement and people around the world are doing the same thing. I agreed, but only to a point. If I (hypothetically) were to go out and protest against neoliberal fascism, I’m not as prone to get shot at or become a political prisoner. Some people in the United States are more likely to face those consequences thanks to the white supremacist logics of imperialist capitalism. The rates at which Honduran activists are hunted down by the U.S.-trained security forces, though, make yours—I said—a different kind of choice than mine. You’re all much braver than I ever could be. He nodded.

The student who had reprimanded the others for being late at the start now got on the loudspeaker to call for everyone to form a circle. Hundreds of students sat down in the road, and held a minute of silence to remember their fellow students killed in the struggle. It was punctuated only by shouts of FUERA JOH coming from the cars across the median, which caused some giggling and quiet responses of “Fuera JOH” (It’s used like a greeting here).

Inner part of circle of UPNFM students in the road, remembering their martyrs

Then, applause for the martyrs. We got up and went back. I felt jealous at the guys who were able to relieve themselves on the side of the road. I received a very kind invitation to participant-observe at the much bigger march happening today in Puerto Cortés, with large groups of people from various different departments coming together to fight for health and education. It was gut-wrenching to have to turn it down. But I’m so, so far behind on so many things, and I didn’t come here for the luxury of fieldwork. Just for the luxury of writing.

Carta de académicxs sobre Elliott Abrams

Estimad@ Colega,

Fuera Elliott Abrams

Le escribo para solicitar que considere sumar su firma a una carta de académicos que será enviado en apoyo al Comité del Llamado a la Conciencia, formado por sobrevivientes de genocidio, masacres y tortura en Guatemala, El Salvador y la Alemania Nazi, que han exigido al Museo Conmemorativo del Holocausto de Estados Unidos (USHMM) que expulse al criminal de guerra Elliott Abrams (#DropElliottAbrams y @DropAbrams en Twitter) de su Comité de Conciencia. Como debe ud. saber, en los años 80, cuando era un funcionario de alto nivel en el Departamento de Estado, Elliott Abrams jugó un papel central en el apoyo a prácticas genocidas en Guatemala y en el fomento y encubrimiento de múltiples atrocidades, incluyendo la masacre de El Mozote en El Salvador, y fue de hecho juzgado y condenado por mentir al Congreso de los EEUU acerca de su conocimiento y su participación directa en brindar apoyo y armas a las Contras en su criminal guerra de contrainsurgencia en Nicaragua. Posteriormente, siendo asesor de seguridad nacional de George W. Bush, fungió de arquitecto de la guerra ilegal, “preventiva” de los Estados Unidos contra Irak.

Puede leer la carta enviada por los sobrevivientes del Comité del Llamado a la Conciencia del USHMM en inglés y en español. Las web y Credo también alojan peticiones en apoyo a la exigencia del Comité del Llamado a la Conciencia, y ya cuentan con más de 60.000 firmas de apoyo.

Si está interesado o interesada en añadir su nombre a la Carta de Académicos, haga click AQUÍ por favor. También me gustaría pedirle que comparta este correo con cualquier colega que considere que podría estar interesado.

Adicionalmente, si conoce a sobrevivientes del genocidio, masacres y otras situaciones de violencia extrema que pudieran querer añadir sus nombres en un anexo a la carta original al Comité del Llamado a la Conciencia, pueden contactar al Comité en esta dirección:

#DropElliottAbrams Academics Letter

Dear Colleague,

Image showing a stamped-out Elliott Abrams, with the words “Drop Elliott Abrams”

I write to ask you to consider joining me in signing on to an Academics Letter of support for the Call to Conscience Committee, formed by survivors of genocide, massacres and torture in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nazi Germany, who have demanded that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) drop war criminal Elliott Abrams (#DropElliottAbrams and @DropAbrams on Twitter) from its Committee on Conscience. As you may know, as a high-level State Department official in the 1980s, Elliott Abrams played a key role in supporting the genocide in Guatemala and in fomenting and covering up atrocities including the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, and was tried and convicted for lying to the U.S. Congress about his knowledge of and direct role in supporting the arming of the Contras in their deadly counterinsurgency war in Nicaragua. Later, as deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush he served as an architect of United States’s illegal, pre-emptive war against Iraq.

You can see the letter sent from the survivors’ Call to Conscience Committee to the USHMM in English and and Credo have also hosted petitions in support of the Call to Conscience Committee’s demands that have now together gathered over 60,000 signatures.

If you are interested in adding your name to the Academics Letter, please CLICK HERE. Please also share this email with any colleagues who you think would be interested.

Additionally, if you know of survivors of genocide, massacres and other extreme violence who would like to have their names added in an addendum to the Call to Conscience Committee’s original letter, please have them contact

Ironies of the System

From Tomás Andino Mencía:
How the system works: A teacher teargassed while fighting to prevent the closure of the school where the son of the policeman who gasses her studies. Social injustice in action.