Saturday, 23 February 2013

Honduras - El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!

To kick off my research about Honduras, I read a really inspiring book called Don't be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart (1987).  Translated and edited by the US political activist, Medea Benjamin, it tells the story of Honduran community leader, Elvia Alvarado and her involvement in the campesino/a struggle for land rights. 

Elvia had a pretty tough life, born into poverty with no real opportunity for education, she got pregnant as a teenager and went on to have six kids, working as a maid for rich people in the city, who fed their dog better than Elvia could afford to feed her children.  She settled down with a typical campesino who worked in the fields, earning very little money, drank a lot and was against her having a life of her own. 

Campesina by ndbutter
After 15 years of being a housewife, she decided to get more involved in her community, initially with the Catholic church's Mothers Club, then with FEHMUC, the Federation of Campesino women and, ultimately, with national political movements of the 1980's, such as the Central Nacional de Trabajadores del Campo (CNTC).  From housewife to political dissident, hers is a fascinating story - whilst feeling fulfilled as someone who could really make a difference to her country and bring justice for landless campesinos, she also faced state intimidation, imprisonment and even torture. 

I was quite interested about the role the Catholic church had to play in Elvia's becoming politicised.  The Mother's Club she first got involved with had the objective of providing food to impoverished mothers and children in isolated asentamientos (settlements) around Honduras.  The very act of organising relief politicised the women and, when they really started organising themselves to improve life in the asentamientos, the Church got scared, pulled the funding and branded the women as Marxists.  In Elvia's own words:

They (the Catholic Church) wanted us to give food out to malnourished mothers and children, but they didn't want us to question why we were malnourished to begin with.  They wanted us to grow vegetables on tiny plots around our houses, but they didn't want us to question why we didn't have enough land to feed ourselves. 

Despite her disillusionment with the Church, Elvia didn't lose her faith in God. 

'I don't think God says, 'Go to the church and pray all day and everything will be fine'.  No.  For me God says, 'Go out and make the changes that need to be made, and I'll be there to help you.''

Campesinos by ndbutter
I guess these statements highlight the basic contradiction of organised religion - is it about acceptance of the status quo or empowering people to make the most of their lives?  It also made me think that the message of Jesus was a radical one - about equality and peace.  By all accounts, Jesus told his followers it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:23-26) and this kind of teaching inspired Elvia to fight for the rights of the poor in her own country. 

She also mentioned the persecution of celebradores de la palabra (celebrants of the word), bible-study groups that were seen as subversive by the Honduran church and state.  It's interesting how threatening religious sentiment becomes when it doesn't conform to the state's religious identity! 

I experienced this in Uzbekistan, where there was a real fear of the wahhabis - an ultra-conservative form of Islam, but used in Uzbekistan as a catch-all term for anyone who was too interested in following their own religious path.  We can also see it in countries like China, where the government has cracked down heavily on religious movements, such as the Falun Gong.

Central America is famous as the birthplace of Liberation Theology - a grass-root movement involving many Catholic priests, who fought alongside the campesinos to protect their rights.  Elvia mentions the massacre at Los Horcones, which took place in June 1975, in Olancho, Honduras' 'wild west' province.  It's an event which has scarred modern Honduran politics and involved the murder of two priests, as well as some of the villagers who were reclaiming land that they believed belonged to them.

Campesinos by ndbutter
I'd like to do some more research on Liberation Theology, perhaps in a later blog post.  Growing up in Ireland in the 1980's, where the Catholic church pretty much controlled people's lives, education and freedom to believe in whatever they wanted to believe in, it's hard for me to reconcile the words religion and liberation

What inspired me most about Elvia was her dogged optimism and determination to make the world a better place, in spite of the obstacles she faced.  I'm going to leave you with another quote from this inspirational woman - one I feel encapsulates the spirit of this blog, Learning about the World:

So I've learned that if you want to know what's going on in the world, you should study as much as you can.  You should read or listen to as much news as you can.  You should take it all in, but digest it in your own way, and judge for yourself what you think the truth is. 

Image credits:

For this blog post I want to highlight the work of flickr member ndbutter who is from Phoenixville in Pennsylvania - I really love his portraits - the ones in this blog post were taken in Honduras, but he has many more amazing portraits, which you can see on his photostream.  Thanks ndbutter for sharing these wonderful images with us, using the Creative commons license. 

Please note, the old woman in the photo above isn't Elvia Alvarado - unfortunately, I couldn't find any copyright-free images of Elvia, but you will surely find her, if you Google her name - she looks like quite a tough cookie!
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