Symbolic violence, doggy-style

I woke up to my alarm at 3:45 am on Friday, approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes after going to sleep. Almost immediately I was overcome with gastrointestinal distress the likes of which I haven't experienced since the days following our January Nile cruise, during which time I lost 2 kilos and quite possibly some internal organs. It got me wondering- have I acquired foreign microbes? Is Boston just as toxic to me now as, say, Mexico City or the Nile? And if so, who is responsible? If it's Moctezuma's revenge en el D.F., and the Pharaoh's revenge fi masr, what did I have? The revenge of the British tea distributors? Yankees' revenge? Will Honduran microbios counteract or complement whatever was in the Boston water?

The dispatcher called at 4 to tell me the cab was pulling up. His accent was all Boston. The cabbie, on the other hand, had a thick accent and grammatical bent which I mistook for Russian. "From where do you think I am?" he responded, when I asked where he had lived before Boston. "I give you free ride if you know the answer." When I guessed wrong, he laughed loudly. "Hah! You are wrong! Now you pay double!" He was from Greece. Sheesh. So much for my linguistic divination skills.

I don't remember the context, because I wasn't in a particularly ethnographic mode, but when he said the following I had to dig out my notebook and start scribbling: "You know what says the bible: 'If you are healthy you have to work. If not, you don't deserve to live.'" I said, no, in fact, I didn't know that the bible said that, but how interesting. He went on for a minute or so reiterating it, while I uh huh'd and ah hah'd, enjoying his exegesis. At one point he admitted, "I don't know if the bible or one saint say that. Either way, I heard it. It's right, too, you know. We have to work. And go on vacations."

Again I have forgotten the preceding topic (Alzheimer's, exhaustion, madness?), but a bit later he mentioned with annoyance that they were supposed to make the prices go down with all this solar energy and wind. I added that it should be true but since the solar power and wind companies were run with a profit motive there was no reason for energy to get cheaper, to which he responded enthusiastically, "Exactly!" "Finally," he said, "they're supposed to start mass production of hydrogen gas because they destroyed our planet. Slowly slowly, but they destroyed it." What a change from 1989, the year when I apparently wrote Senator John Chafee to urge him to stop global warming and received an official letter in return, informing me he was working to change Bush's mind (senior). It's a change in public discourse anyway. I'm glad of the very slight shift away from the neo-Malthusian hogwash in many of the random conversations I've had lately on the topic, even if it remains the dominant paradigm in development discourse. If poor people aren't somehow to blame, then the solution is unimaginable for the neoliberal non-profit industry. It would implode. I know, incendiary and unsubstantiated here, but more on this later when I get to Elena's take on NGOs in Honduras. See also a similarly pissed-off and brief diatribe in a previous post.

The last note I have from my friendly driver was his comment on my description of last week's Tegucigalpa plane crash, in which the highway nose-dive meant the death of the two pilots and a couple passengers in the front. "That means first class is not anymore safe."

Checking in at the airport counter, I asked the young woman at the counter if she could, perhaps, get me back on a flight to San Pedro (this after the past few days of enfuriating back-and-forth with American to get me on a flight to San Salvador at least, since San Pedro was booked into next week). Amazingly, in a few minutes, she handed me a ticket to Honduras. I should have just shown up at the airport a day earlier, I suppose. In the security line, I was informed I'd been selected by American for a special inspection--no big surprise. I caused them enough trouble on the phone (not to mention by doing something as aberrant and suspicious as living in Cairo), they need their revenge. [A few days earlier, Fhar and I were similarly interrogated by KLM's privately-contracted guard in Amsterdam, who just couldn't get his head around the fact that we lived in Egypt]

The patdown took place within a glass enclosure, and was thorough and intimate. I said as much, and as she patted my butt, my inspector replied, "well we can have that happening again." I agreed with the enthusiasm of a captive audience. I was disappointed that they didn't have the orgasmatron (click on "6.24"). A tag team including the woman who patted me down then went through my bags while I stood next to them, not touching anything as instructed. The chatty male guard rifled through my address book with the AUC logo and asked, "who runs those American Universities anyway?" He asked, "didn't there used to be one in Lebanon?" I said, yeah, American University in Beirut, but it's been pretty bombed out. He nodded and I gasped, not entirely sincerely, "oh, no, I hope it's not a problem that I said that word!" I wanted to keep the conversation going so he wouldn't notice my 4-oz. bottle of precious liquid Chinese medicine, for the horrible cold I anticipate getting in Honduras. He responded, "it's okay, as long as it's not preceded by the words 'I have a.' If I hear those words, the police will be here in ten seconds."
"Okay," I said somewhat nervously,"you won't hear it from me." He said, "Well, just to be sure, you should restate it. Say 'due to the ongoing conflict' three times." Not entirely sure he was being flippant, I did as requested.

A group of white people on the plane had matching "NHC Missions: Local National International" tee-shirts, and before my computer battery died, I wrote "I bet they're going to Honduras. Every pinche flight." I was wrong this time- they were heading to another nearby country. My disdain for evangelical missionaries threatens to hinder my ability to do my work. It's a structural disdain, but at times amounts to symbolic violence on my part, and I'm trying to work it out.

After a talk I gave in early May on the possibilities for gender work outside the academy and non-profit sector, the first question I was asked was about the possibilities for corporate social responsibility. Did I believe it could work? Answer: pause..."No." Another pause, trying to concoct something respectful. I gathered myself enough to say it was against corporations' nature to be responsible—as long as they own the means of production, they control the labor, and in order to succeed in capitalism, they have to steal money from workers and consumers. Profit, or even non-profit (since it's funded by, and often actually is, for-profit) is not compatible with responsibility.

I wanted to say something stronger, and probably should have said something longer, but in my own little Marxist bubble I forget that people everywhere actually believe that Andy Stern/WalMart crap. Anyway, my point is, I hate corporations, but I don't automatically hate all the people who work for them. I hate corporate capitalist management, but recognize that managers as individuals are not necessarily bad people; it's the structure of employment that makes them so—the ones who start out with good intentions, anyway. I mean! Some of my best friends are managers. I strive to take a similar position with the missionaries. After all, they really really believe that they are saving people. They really think they're doing the right thing. But when their positions coincide so perfectly with the agenda of the powerful (who often finance their work), when their work legitimates structures of violence, when they encourage a sense of individualized responsibility for structural problems, when their disdain for that admittedly problematic category, "local practice," is so obvious, it's hard for me to admire their good intentions. It's hard for me to acknowledge the wide variation within individual actors when I think about it in the abstract. Luckily, one cannot not have evangelical friends in Honduras, if one has any friends at all, so I'm forced to at least keep confronting my own prejudices in the process of talking with people for whom Christianity is not an opiate or ideology, but a matter of deep faith, survival, and beauty. Still, the hordes of bubbly blond gringos in their matching t-shirts and imperialist pomp…I don't think I'll ever see the value in that.

On the plane from Boston to Miami I had a nice conversation with a Brigham and Women's Hospital (I think- wasn´t taking notes) nurse named Delia who was going to visit her family in Puerto Cortés. She had just recovered from successful surgery for cancer in her liver (I believe), and was going to visit her family who had thought they'd never see her again. "It's not like when I grew up," she told me. "Then, we knew all our neighbors, we helped each other, we left our doors unlocked. Now, my sister drops my niece off at school, and she picks her up, and she doesn't let her leave the house. You can't live like that, with so much fear."

The Miami-San Pedro leg was even more interesting. Just before takeoff, a Franciscan friar with a soft friendly voice and sweet smile, moved up from the front of the plane and asked if he could take the center seat next to me. I tried to suppress my strange romantic fascination with friars (an obvious contrast with my automatic disdain for evangelicals, and no less problematic). I mean, at first glance he looked like something out of the 13th century. Or at least out of a made-for-t.v. reenactment of it. He had a long, pointy-hooded robe with an old-fashioned looking rope as a belt, and a beautiful hand-carved wooden rosary with a large-ish cross. I guessed his age to be 22 (I was a year off- 23). We spoke the whole flight. His sincerity and faith melted my heart, and his approach to evangelization, so quiet and unassuming, spoke to my deeply embodied liberal sensibilities. Any time I might have exclaimed "Christ!" or "Holy shit," (I didn't) he would say with a smile, "Ay, María." He told me about his community of capuchines franciscanos (and gave me their website, franciscanfriars.com). The way he described it, it sounded almost like my ideal of an anarchist commune. Except, I suppose, for that whole no gods, no masters bit. He spoke of the requirement to disobey unjust laws, to listen to people and not just talk to them, to live with and work alongside—not for—the poor. He told me about his difficulty explaining to family and friends why he had decided to become an hermano and not a padre: being a brother is to be part of a collective of equals, the important thing is to learn how to communicate and live with and love one's brothers, to share, as opposed to giving mass and holding a higher status.

I gingerly mentioned that I myself had been drawn to liberation theology. He responded with eager curiosity, saying he had once written a paper on the topic. He asked, "but don't they say that liberation theology is Marxist? And Marx was an atheist. He even said that religion was a…" he stumbled over the words, "a dr-…an op-…" I interjected, "opiate of the masses?" "Sí, eso." We had a very interesting conversation about that, in which I tried to make a case for not throwing the liberation baby out with the atheist bathwater, and argued that Jesus himself advocated for the poor. He listened carefully, admitting the possible validity of the argument but noting that Satan himself was one of the best misinterpreters of scripture, something that was important to keep in mind in the context of theological arguments. We also talked about Pope Benedict. He spoke of the Pope's visit to an American synagogue (certainly a good move given his much-questioned past), of the youth rallies (again, the comparison to a Durkheimian collective effervescence in contexts of direct action was inescapable for me). He talked about the church sex abuse scandal, and of the pope's visit with survivors. I can't argue with the importance of that. Although it kind of reminds me a bit of Scott McClellan's discovery that Bush & Co. lied. Too little, too late. I do like about Catholicism that it demands reconciliation; otherwise it would cease to be Catholic in the literal sense. I'm sure some elements of the Church would prefer submission, but if we follow Arendt's argument, violence is the opposite of power. And anyway, the Church doesn't have the power to enforce violent submission these days. He spoke of the pope's discussion of the tyranny of relativity. What was funny was that I totally agreed. I don't think truths are relative (see Reyna, Stephen P. 1998 "Right and Might: Of Approximate Truths and Moral Judgments," Identities 43(3–4): 431–465). I do think truths are out there (with all the normal caveats for subjectivity and agency). However, I seem to recall the papa said these things in the context of a discussion about Catholicism vs. religious plurality, not political economy vs. postmodernism. So thence he and I diverge.

We talked about Muslims, again the young friar was curious and nodded enthusiastically when I posited that there was as much variety within Islam as there was within Christianity. We also briefly dicussed evangélicos. He nodded sadly and told me about how he was sometimes verbally abused by other Christians for being so markedly Catholic. "There needs to be a space for dialogue, and some people won't even have a discussion with you. There needs to be respect. You need to be able to talk with people you disagree with." In some ways, his point could be seen as a contrast with the Pope's position, but he was so sweet and so sincere, and really seemed to practice it. Almost made me want to convert. Oh, and he had an interesting take on Mother Teresa, whom he admired passionately. Did I know, he asked, that her faith was so strong, that for the last 30 years of her life she didn't even feel the presence of God, but she still did His work? It certainly was a different interpretation of those diaries than the one I had come to when they came out.

Brother José María (the name he gave himself on entering the order) was coming down to work with his brothers who have a home in Comayagua. He was very excited to go to some poor aldea and meet the people there. He empathised with the trouble they face: violence, unemployment, drugs, reggaeton…the latter was a particular source of embarrassment, because it came from his homeland, Puerto Rico. [wow- we also had a fascinating discussion about independence vs. statehood vs. republic, but I've spent too much time on this already] Reggaetón, he pointed out, is very violent against women. And the worst part was that women are the first to dance to it. "Tú conoces," he asked, "el estilo de baile que se llama el perreo?" I nodded somewhat unsurely. "You know," he said, switching into fluent New York-Puerto Rican English, "doggy-style."

Me and the Franciscan friar, talking about the symbolic violence of dancing doggy-style.

Okay, I'm cutting that discussion off here. I still have to write that 20-page article on maquilas today and I'm only half way through yesterday's fieldnotes.

At the San Pedro Airport, a welcome sign advised: "Advertencia: La ley de Honduras (Decreto No. 126 89 de la República) castiga con prisión hasta 20 años el trato ilícito de drogas sin distinción. Disfrute de nuestro bello País y la tradicional hospitalidad de nuestra gente 'Sin temores, Sin angustia, y Sin DROGAS' BIENVENIDO A HONDURAS CONSEJO NACIONAL CONTRA EL NARCOTRAFICO." After a long wait at migración (I was at the back of the plane), I got outside and smelled the air. Rich, humid, green, heavy, hot, delicious. I dragged my heavy bags around trying to find an ATM and a bus. A white woman waited outside the tiny Hedman Alas, so I asked if there was a line, and we got to talking. Turns out Ingrid studies anthro at Berkeley and was off to Copán to see Rosemary Joyce and a group of folks she was showing around there. Small, small world. I gave her a book to give to Rosemary, who convinced me to come to Honduras in the first place. I hope I'll get the chance to see her while I'm here. We ended up sharing a cab into San Pedro to catch our respective buses there. Just past the Estadio Olímpico I saw this sign:
Basta de mora judicial en corte de apelaciones en SPS 'Honduras en justicia'
It says, "Basta de mora judicial en corte de apelaciones en SPS 'Honduras en Justicia'"; "No more judicial backlog in the appeal court in San Pedro Sula. 'Honduras in Justice.'"

On the bus ride to Tegucigalpa, I slept for the first 2 ½ hours through a big rainstorm (I was told), until the woman next to me tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I wanted to get out in Sigatepeque. The luxury bus companies each have their own private truck stops, with huge open buffet restaurants, big clean bathrooms, gift shops and a little mini-mart. The bus stops for ½ hour and you either get off the whole time or stay on; the bus is locked in the meantime. After the rest, she and I talked for the remaining two hours to Tegucigalpa. I'm going to resist the temptation to extend the narrative and point out some highlights of my conversation with Fatima, which I enjoyed immensely:

  • "You haven't been back to San Pedro in five years?! Well you will see there are many changes. It is much better now."
    "Really? ¿Cómo?"
    "Hay más malls."
    [pronounced in Spanish, moles] "There are more malls."
  • One problem with the malls, however, is the emos and the punks. I was surprised to hear that this bloody rivalry went beyond Mexico. Emos and punks, she states, say they aren't in gangs, but who knows? Fatima was all for a mano dura approach to them, but then her 16-year old daughter, who aspires to be an evangelical missionary, said to her: "When Jesus came, he came for them, not for los buenos (the good people)." So now Fatima's trying to be more open. She says to me, "you will see them, right there in City Mall. Since they don't let them inside, they all sit right outside.
  • Also, emos are cutters (which she describes in detail- I'm not sure if there's a corresponding label in Spanish. Anyone know?). This has come out recently in newspapers. They say that their own blood makes them forget the pain of their daily lives. These children--"and they are children," she says, "are crying out for help."
  • "Dicen que todos los lugares son peligrosos pero uno no puede estar huyendo de todos los lugares." "They say that everywhere is dangerous, but you can't flee everywhere." Based on this philosophy, Fatima and her pharmacist husband, whom she speaks of with deep affection, are going to open a preschool in Choloma next year, with the hopes of bringing another church there later too. She had disputes with her mother and other family members about it, because they didn't want her going to such a dangerous place, but she insisted.
  • Even the safest places have become dangerous. In fact, each time she goes to the mall with her kids, she runs the risk of a new creative development in crime: the "secuestro express." She described it as follows: the delincuentes take the child and go to a different part of the mall or somewhere nearby, they call the parent on the kid's cell phone, ask for a small amount of money, e.g., 5,000 lempiras (around USD$260), and return the kid when they get the cash. Elena´s son (oops, forgot another pseudonym) later tells me that the secuestro express is when the adult victim is taken at gunpoint to take the delincuente shopping, and to empty their bank account, and then let go. Apparently there are multiple variations.
  • "Are things different now than under [President Ricardo] Maduro?"
    "Yes, I would say that things are worse. At least under Maduro there was a firm approach, the mano dura. Now, under Zelaya, they don't do anything to stop the delincuentes."

Fatima also tells me all about her sister at church. [All church members are brothers and sisters, like all AA members are compañeros. Although I claim elsewhere that this kinship has an obfuscatory logic that serves to maintain relations of power, as has been argued many times of compadrazgo among Catholics, it also is deeply meaningful to its participants and can apply to what George Foster long ago termed horizontal (vs. vertical) "fictive" kinship. In that way, it bears some similarity to José María's brotherhood, actually, the difference being those vows of poverty that are somewhat more equalizing than rhetoric of kinship alone. Still…] Fatima's sister had been doing important work in Cofradía with (I think) the CDM (Centro de Derechos de la Mujer), trying to help peasants reclaim lands, and also assisting private security guards who had been screwed over by their company (see my earlier post for a brief discussion of the case). But she had started to receive death threats. Her family had started to receive death threats. Her close friend and colleague was killed by a sicario (hired gun). She didn't want to stop doing the work, but eventually caved under all the death threats. Fatima gave me her sister's number. I can't imagine having time to interview all the people I need to. I despair.

In Tegucigalpa, Elena and Teto picked me up at the bus station. It was like nothing had changed between us, although so very much has. I feel so comfortable being here. The conversation I had with them on arriving to her house was so intense and complicated that I don't know how to begin. I think another bullet list is in order:

  • Things are worse than before. "Aquí la muerte esta ya institucionalizada. Estaba visible la limpieza (ellos mismo le decia la limpieza social) si ahora lees en el periodico vas a ver, "Crimen tal…se presume que fue por sicarios." In other words, death is generalized; it's no longer a top-down street cleaning; it's horizontal and ubiquitous and assumed to be carried out by paid killers without a larger logic (i.e., Zero Tolerance) in most cases.
  • Mano Dura is indeed no longer the policy of [President] Mel [Zelaya—everyone refers to him by his first name]. He has good intentions, for example, in working with peasant groups, Elena thinks, but no power: "Mel no existe…no tenemos presidente. Él dijo que a quien le debiesen reclamar fue a los grupos de poder, lo dijo a los grupos del movimiento popular que él no tenia ningun poder.
  • The owner of Honduras is Miguel Facussé (some relation to former president Carlos Flores Facussé), nicknamed: "el tío Mike" [uncle Mike]. He's the "adviser" to the politicians.
  • Altagracia Fuentes of the Central General de Trabajadores, whose fight was with the maquiladoras, was tortured and assassinated by two sicarios.
  • From death porn to malls: "Y fijate, adriana, que eso es una estrategia del capitalismo, fuerte. Por un lado les saca todo el dinero y por otro les hace pasivo. Y todo en la tele es las malls. Tienes razón, es de esos imagenes de la muerte."
  • Although secuestros express are indeed increasingly popular, more serious ones are also still quite common, and very wealthy families try their best to keep it from the press to prevent their loved ones from being killed in the transaction. For example, Elena tells me a teacher friend of hers told her, a few days ago at one of the most elite girls schools in Tegucigalpa, armed gunmen entered, overpowering the school's private security guards, and without hurting anyone took one girl in particular, demanded 9 million Lempiras (around USD$475,000), got it soon afterwards, and the child was returned.
  • The..dammit, how do you say canasta básica in English? Basic cost of living? is 7,000 Lempiras a month. Unbelievably high (around USD$370) for most Hondurans.
  • ONGs (NGOs) are central to privatization, they are part of the violence, Elena says. They have overtaken the government. They are part of a farsa democrática. Now there are donors like never before, and they know what they're doing. They are helping to destroy the country by furthering the neoliberal agenda. [see why I like her so much?]
  • There is a big problem with repatriated ilegales (undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are called that here, too unfortunately) from the United States. 24,000 have been sent back, and this destroys Honduras's economy, which depends on remittances.

Finally, from the news, and germane to my upcoming joint events with Oscar, a court has sentenced 22 soldiers and police to a combined 740 years in prison for the massacre of 69 people at El Porvenir prison in 2003.