Saturday, 23 March 2013

Honduras - The Final Word

It's time to say ¡hasta luego! to Honduras - I hope you've enjoyed this virtual journey around Honduran culture, just as much as I have. 

A summary of the themes

During my research about Honduras, I learned about the country's turbulent history and the origin of the name, Honduras.  I read about the inspiring community leader, Elvia Alvarado and the impact of liberation theology on the politics of Central America.  I read a novel by one of Honduras' most famous modern writers, The Big Banana by Roberto Quesada.  I also learned about the hazardous journey many Central Americans make to a new life in the United States, as documented in Enrique's Journey by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, Sonia Lazario.  And I learned how to make Enchiladas Hondureñas

Tools for research

I read five books as part of my research about Honduras:

Lonely Planet: Honduras and the Bay Islands (1st edition, 2007)

Books I read, as part of my research
Don't be afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart (1987) - the story of Elvia Alvarado, translated and edited by Medea Benjamin.  The Institute for Food and Development Policy

The Big Banana (1999) by Roberto Quesada,  Arte Publico Press

Enrique's Journey (2006) by Sonia Nazario, Random House Trade Paperback edition

The Mosquito Coast (1981) by Paul Theroux - I read the 1982 Penguin edition.  I didn't blog about this book - it's one I've read before and I read it again for sheer pleasure, it's still a classic story and I'd highly recommend it. 

I also watched several movies as part of my research:

Walker (1987), directed by Alex Cox (who did Sid and Nancy)- although it's mostly set in Nicaragua, I found this movie to be a fascinating portrayal of the 19th century filibuster, William Walker, who tried to take over Central America in the mid-19th century.  The style of the movie was Acid Western which is a genre I'm not very familiar with. 

DVD cover of El Espiritu de mi Mama
El Espíritu de mi Mamá (1999) by Ali Allie was a beautiful movie, probably the most famous one to come out of Honduras in recent years.  I had to order this one from the US, as it's not readily available here in the UK. 

The Mosquito Coast (1986), the movie based on the book, directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren

I did all of my research listening to the music of the following Honduran bands:

Grupo Garifuna de Honduras (traditional Garifuna music - really beautiful stuff, many of the songs also featured in the movie El Espíritu de mi Mamá)

El Sol Caracol (a modern pop-rock band, that I've really grown to like - I particularly liked their song Pero a tu Lado - Only by your side - and could picture myself boogeying away to this in a niteclub in Tegucigalpa!)

Banda Blanca (a more old-fashioned show band, playing hits like the Spanish version of John Lennon's Imagine)

Aurelio Martinez (a more modern, funkier Garifuna singer, who is incredibly popular on the world music scene)

Pero a tu Lado - a song about Tegucigalpa by the band El Sol Caracol

Other themes

As usual, if I had more time, there were many other themes that I would liked to have blogged about.  Perhaps I'll come back to some of them later.  These included:

The Mayan Apocalypse
The deeps/depth
Garifuna culture and language
The treatment of LGBT people in Central America
The banana industry
Fr Jose Andres Tamayo - the eco-warrior priest
The currencies of Latin America
The Fountain of Youth
The 'White City' of La Moskitia
The legend of La Sucia, aka Bubbly Susan

Dinner-party trivia

And I learned some trivia about Honduras that will, no doubt, come in handy for dinner party conversations!

- The Honduran currency, the Lempira is named after a native Lenca chieftain who led a revolt against the Spanish invaders in 1537. 
- British pirates dominated the Caribbean coast of Honduras up until the 19th century
- Miskito people were so-called because of the 'muskets' that the British pirates gave them, so they could fight against the Spanish
- 30% of the words in the Miskito language are of English origin
- The writer O Henry first coined the phrase Banana Republic
- Honduras had a 'soccer war' with El Salvador in 1969 - so-called because the conflict broke out after a football match, although the underlying tensions concerned Salvadoran immigration to Honduras
- the five stars on the Honduran flag represent the five countries involved in the Federal Republic of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica)
- Honduras qualified for the World Cup only once, in 1982
- Despite being a nominally Catholic country, there are around 100,000 Protestants in Honduras
- Of Honduras' 225 native species, almost half are types of bat!
- The Tolupan people of Honduras are believed to be one of the most ancient American peoples and speak a language which some linguists believe is related to Sioux. 
- Honduras' second city, San Pedro Sula, has been called the 'Aids capital of Central America'
- The oldest clock in the Americas can be found in Comayagua cathedral - it was built for the Moors of Alhambra around 1100CE.
- La Moskitia has the largest rainforest in Central America

In the News

Since I started blogging about Honduras, more than a month ago, I've noticed the following stories in the news:

The Honduran national football team wins during a World Cup qualifying match against the United States. 

The Honduran economy is on the brink of collapse.

The government proposes to boost the economy through the development of 'Charter cities' which would be run by companies, without regard to social and human rights

The President sends soldiers to the capital to keep law and order

Honduras marks the one year anniversary of the terrible Comayagua prison fire

The Final word in Death

It's hard to research about Honduras and not come across the fact that this small Latin American country has the highest intentional homicide rate in the world. That's a rate of 91.6 out of 100,000 people, way ahead of the world's second most dangerous country, neighbouring El Salvador, which has a homicide rate of 69.2 per 100,000 people.  Cote d'Ivoire comes in third at 56.9 and is Africa's most dangerous country.

It's a far cry from countries in Europe, like Ireland and the UK (both 1.2 per 100,000 people) - the murder rate in Honduras is more than 75 times higher!  Europe's most dangerous country is Greenland (19.2) followed by Russia (10.2).  Asia's most dangerous country is Kyrgyzstan (20.1). 

The intentional homicide rate in the US is 4.2, but this runs as high as 24.0 in the District of Columbia, where the federal capital, Washington D.C. is located.  The countries with the lowest homicide rates include; Monaco, Palau, Hong Kong, Singapore and Iceland.  Japan also has a fairly low homicide rate (0.4) for a country with such a big population. 

On a slightly more cheerful note, I'm going to leave you with a wonderful manga video to the soundtrack of Banda Blanca's 'Imagenes'- enjoy and up next month is I . . .

Image credits:

Both images were taken by me. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Honduras - Riding El Tren Devorador

As part of my research on Honduras, I read a truly amazing book by Sonia Nazario called Enrique's Journey (2007).  Nazario was born in the US, but has Argentinian heritage and is a highly successful investigative journalist, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2003 for her work on Enrique's journey - a series of news articles for the Los Angeles Times. 

Enrique was a teenager when Nazario met him on the Mexican border - he had travelled all the way from Honduras and was trying to get to North Carolina, to be reunited with his mother, who had left him and his sister behind when he was still a child. Enrique eventually makes it across the border and is reunited with his mother. What I really appreciated about this book was that Nazario doesn't end Enrique's journey there, but also documents the experiences of Enrique and his mother as they try to rebuild their relationship after so many years of separation.

Mexican train by saguayo
I'm someone who loves to travel and live in different countries - if I'm not physically travelling then I'm mentally travelling, through my research for this blog. Nevertheless, I understand that most people would prefer not to live outside the place they were brought up in. I also sense how distressing it must be for people who aren't 'born travellers' to suddenly have to uproot themselves and go live somewhere else. Living abroad is great when you have some choice in the matter - not so great when you're forced to leave your home in search of a better future.

Some people never get up the courage to make that choice and Nazario quite rightly points out that it's mostly the optimists in societies like Honduras who decide to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Nazario does a fantastic job at highlighting how difficult the choice to go to the United States is for young Hondurans, especially the young mothers, thousands of whom are forced to leave their kids behind with elderly parents and other relatives. But often it's a choice between physically being there for their children or providing them with money so they can have a good education and a better future. Enrique's reaction to his mother, when they're finally reunited, illustrates the complex emotions felt by those children that are left behind and the bewilderment of their parents who feel they made a difficult choice but, ultimately, for the right reasons.

Train by saguayo
It's a horrendous journey between the Guatemalan border in Chiapas, southern Mexico, to Nuevo Laredo on the border with the US. Nazario did her research well and tells some harrowing tales of violence, robbery, rape and exploitation of the immigrants from Central America, as they pass along a well-established route, controlled by gangs and La Migra, the Mexican immigration authorities.

Immigrants mostly ride on the trains and I remember watching a really poignant movie about this called Sin Nombre (2009) by the director Cary Joji Fukunaga.  The train is an iconic 'being' for the immigrants. Immigrants call it El Tren Devorador (the train that devours), because of all the people who lose their lives falling off or being murdered by gangs. They also call it 'The Iron Horse' and the 'The Pilgrim Train' as it is their passage to a new life. The train sits in stark contrast to El Bus de Lágrimas - the Bus of Tears, that La Migra uses to transport immigrants back to Guatemala, where they must start their journey all over again.

I was horrified by accounts of the injuries immigrants suffer, when they fall off the trains, breaking bones, losing limbs, becoming disabled - realising that their American dream ends right there. Immigrants from Central America don't bring their passports or any ID with them, in the hope of blending in with local Mexicans and avoiding El Bus de Lágrimas. Sadly, when they fall off the train and die, they are unidentifiable and usually end up being thrown down a hole in the local graveyard, leaving behind relatives, children and parents who have no idea what happened to them.

Enrique also mentions the kindness of people along the way, especially the villagers in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, who feed, clothe and shelter immigrants, most of whom have had a terrifying and exhausting journey from the southern border. Nazario also documents the amazing work of priests and volunteers who have devoted their lives to providing some respite and humanity for people making that awful journey.

Passing between two trains by saguayo
Like many immigrants, when Enrique arrives in the United States, it doesn't quite live up to his expectations. The life of an immigrant is pretty hard - they suffer racism, work in incredibly low-paying jobs and are always looking over their shoulder and living in fear of deportation.  Enrique also suffers from the trauma of the journey and turns to alcohol and drugs, squandering his wages, instead of saving for the future.

Towards the end of the book, Nazario gives us the facts about immigration. How cheap labour allows US citizens to have a more comfortable life. How remittances sent back to countries like Honduras increase the dependency on money coming from abroad, which decreases motivation to sort out the problems at home. Most importantly, she points out how immigration destroys family life in the immigrants' home country. Like Enrique's mother, Lourdes, many immigrants think that they will only be gone for a year or so and will be united with their children pretty soon. Then they struggle to make ends meet in the US and every spare cent is sent home. They can't return to Honduras because it means leaving the US and US wages, behind for good.

It was a compelling read and I'd highly recommend Nazario's book to anyone who would like to understand the immigrants and their journey. I only wish Nazario had published other books based on her investigative journalism but, unfortunately, I think this is the only one.

Image credits:

As much as I would love to illustrate this blog post with fast-paced, journalistic images of immigrants riding the trains in Mexico, those are not the kind of images that tend to be copyright-free.

Instead I want to illustrate the work of flickr member saguayo who is from Mexico City and has shared these wonderful images taken in the Mexican train museum.  You can see more of saguayo's work on his photostream

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Honduras - How I made Enchiladas Hondureñas

I've cooked a Central American dish before for this blog, when I made Tapado, a Guatemalan seafood soup.  This time I thought I would opt for something even more typical.  Although mostly associated with Mexico, enchiladas are found throughout Central America and the Honduran version I made is just one of the many Honduran versions of this classic dish.

I used a recipe book this time, Cooking the Central American Way (2005) by Alison Behnke - although I also looked at other online recipes, as I usually do and added an ingredient, crème fraîche, to the original recipe.

The ingredients

Enchiladas Hondureñas - the main ingredients

For the main meal

Vegetable oil - aceite vegetal

1/2 kilo minced beef - 1/2 kilo de carne picada

1 onion - 1 cebolla

1 green pepper - 1 pimiento verde

2 small tomatoes - 2 tomates pequeños

250ml vegetable stock - 250 ml de caldo de verduras

It's all about the avocado!

Served with

4 corn tortillas - 4 tortillas de maíz

Grated cheese (Cheddar) - queso rallado (de Cheddar)

1 avocado - 1 aguacate

1/4 cabbage (shredded) - 1/4 repollo (rallado)

Crème fraîche - crema fresca

2 eggs - 2 huevos

Salsa - salsa roja

How I made Enchiladas Hondureñas
Preparing the main meal was very straightforward and nothing that I haven't done before.  First I heated the vegetable oil in a heavy-base frying pan, then I fried the onion, adding the green pepper and the minced meat, which I fried until it had turned brown.

Prepare the onion, pepper and tomatoes
Fry the onion and peppers

Once I had browned the meat, I add the chopped tomatoes, then the vegetable stock and let the whole mixture simmer for about twenty minutes.

Brown the minced beef, then add the tomatoes
Add the vegetable stock and simmer for twenty minutes

The bits on the side

Enchiladas involve lots of 'bits on the side' - the range depends on where you get your recipe from! I followed Behnke's recipe by shredding some cabbage leaves.  I decided to steam the leaves, although I don't have a steamer, so I usually improvise by putting the vegetable(s) I want to steam in a collander.  I place the collander in a pot 1/3 full of boiling water and cover with the pot lid, so the vegetables are steamed, without touching the boiling water.

Shred some cabbage leaves - I did this by hand
How to steam when you don't have a steamer

I hard-boiled the two eggs and grated some cheese.  I took the cheat's option of buying salsa in a jar and then spooned this into a ramekin, to be added to the enchiladas later.

Surprisingly, this experience was the first time I'd ever opened an avocado.  Avocados originate in Mexico/Central America and are used a lot in local dishes and Mexican specialities, like guacamole.  

Prepare the avocado

It was quite easy really, I simply sliced the avocado down both sides, cutting it in half and removing the stone, which is quite large.  I then used a spoon to scoop the avocado pulp onto a saucer.  I then chopped the avocado pulp into smaller pieces.

Unlike Mexican enchiladas, which involve folding tortillas around the meat/vegetable mixture, Hondurans prefer to pan-fry their tortillas until they are crispy, then pile all of the meat/vegetable mixture on top.

Hondurans fry the tortillas until they are crispy
Tortillas ready for their topping

So this is exactly what I did - tortillas, topped with meat, then grated cheese, avocado, crème fraîche, slices of egg, shredded cabbage and a spoonful of salsa on top.

Almost finished - where's the cabbage?

Enchiladas Hondureñas with extra salsa on the side and a cold Mexican beer

As you can see from the photo, it was quite a feast!

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me, please feel free to reuse, under the Creative Commons license:

Attribution (especially to this blog post)
Share alike

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Honduras - Life in the Big Banana

I chose The Big Banana (1999) by Roberto Quesada, as an example of modern Honduran literature.  Honduras seems to have a fairly healthy writing scene, although it's difficult to find Honduran novels that have been translated into English and I had to order The Big Banana from the United States.

It's an interesting novel - mostly set in 'the Big Apple', it tells the story of a young Honduran wannabe actor, Eduardo Lin, who moves to New York seeking fame and fortune, but mostly ends up working on building sites and living in the Bronx.  The Big Banana is a play on words, as Eduardo is nicknamed bananero because he comes from Honduras, a banana republic

When he first arrives in the Bronx, he's frightened by the burnt-out cars and the rubble - it looks like a war zone and his first experiences of New York are far-removed from the Hollywood images most Hondurans (and the rest of us) see on TV.

Theme: Escapism

New York subway by Raymond Larose
A major theme of the novel is escapism.  Eduardo's girlfriend, Mirian, who he leaves behind in Tegucigalpa, suffers from an extreme form of escapism where she fantasises about the James Bond actor Roger Moore.  Her parents are so worried about her obsession that they send her to a therapist.  In the novel, Roger Moore actually turns up in Tegucigalpa and I think this is based on a real event - before I read this novel, I didn't know about his humanitarian work or that he became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador!

Eduardo also escapes, during periods when he feels anxious or bored, he travels to his past in Honduras or to an imaginary future in which he is a famous actor.  Eduardo's flat-mate, Casagrande, escapes to the past through his story-telling and memories of his male lover in San Francisco.  Eduardo's friend and compatriot, Javier, uses cocaine to escape the failure that his life has become.  The Ecuadorians that Eduardo and Casagrande live with, get drunk and listen to Julio Jaramillo 'El Ruiseñor de América' - the nightingale of the Americas. 

I get the sense that escapism is a reality for many Hondurans (and Latin Americans), that goes beyond the confines of fiction.  Escape from poverty, seeking out a new life in the affluent north. 

Theme: National Pride

Another theme is the pride that Eduardo feels in being Honduran, despite the backwardness of his country and fellow-countrymen.  In New York, he mixes with lots of different nationalities - Chilean, Columbian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Bolivian - he gets teased a lot, because he's from Honduras, which is considered to have 'sold out' to the United States by allowing the establishment of US military bases in their country.  Eduardo quietly defends his country and wins people over with his natural charm and unassuming modesty. 

He praises the beauty of Tegucigalpa, which he contrasts to the supposed beauty of the United States:

'Tegucigalpa is unravelled from a distance and at nighttime.  Neither the White House Christmas tree in Washington nor the Golden Gate in San Francisco with all its lights can compare to it from a road a few miles outside the city, from some nearby mountain.'

Eduardo also offers a really interesting description of Hondurans:

'Intelligent but lacking opportunities; full of projects but with no money to make them happen; with a bad reputation because people don't know us personally; we're not lazy, it's just not worth working if you're not well paid; a bit quaint, which we take not as a defect but a virtue'

It really struck me how often I've come across descriptions of beautiful countries with fantastic people and great resources that, for one reason or another, haven't fully achieved their potential - Eritrea, Cambodia, Yemen, Paraguay - the list goes on!

Theme: Winter and broken dreams

Central Park snow by Raymond Lerose
Coming from Honduras, where temperatures rarely get below 15C/60F, Eduardo is fascinated by snow.  He feels that it makes him more artistic and he sees a beauty in the snow that makes New York seem other-wordly.  180 pages into the novel, winter comes to an end.  Mirian comes to New York to visit Eduardo and he 'wakes up' and decides to return to Honduras and make a life for himself.  Winter symbolises stagnation, sleepwalking through life, as though in a dream.  Many of the immigrants in Quesada's New York have had their dreams crushed and broken.

Eduardo's dreams are also crushed, that is, until he gets a once-in-a-lifetime audition with Steven Spielberg.  The audition is a success and, just when it seems that Eduardo is on the cusp of realising his ambitions, he decides that it's not really what he wants and returns to a simpler life in Honduras.  I guess that this is symbolic of Honduras itself - being on the cusp of opportunities, but not really knowing how to make the most of them?

Theme: Sex and Literature

It's quite a sensual novel and, despite his love of Mirian, Eduardo spends much of the winter seeking solace in the arms of a series of 'conquests'.  The woman he loves most, out of all, is the beautiful Columbian, Andrea.   

The first time Eduardo makes love to Andrea, it's on a bed made of books by some of the world's best writers; Pound, Kafta, Borges, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Cabrera Infante, Chekov, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Allen Ginsberg.  The novel is full of references to writers that have influenced Eduardo; Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Fernando Alegria, Milan Kundera and the love-making scene combines sex and literature in a way that is both funny and sensual. 

Theme: Race

Grand Central station by Raymond Lerose
When he first moves to New York, Eduardo lives with Mairena, a Garifuna friend from home, who is a preacher.  Throughout the novel, Mairena raises the issue of race and how Garifuna people are treated as second-class citizens back in Honduras because of their culture and the colour of their skin. 

The novel introduced me to the real-life nightclub fire that happened in the Happy Land club in the Bronx in March 1990. Many Honduran immigrants died in the fire, most of them being Garifunas.  The fire was started deliberately by a Cuban immigrant who was having a fight with his ex-girlfriend, who worked as a cloakroom attendant at the club.  87 people died as a result of the fire - ironically, one of the four survivors was the Cuban immigrants' ex-girlfriend. 

There's quite a poignant scene in the novel, where the characters gather for a memorial service to victims of the fire, which takes place in Van Cortlandt park.  The scene is full of tension, because of Mairena's anger at the racism of people's response to the fire, because of the despair and sadness felt by the characters, as a result of such a horrific event.  The fire marks a turning point in the novel - Casagrande decides to leave New York, as does Eduardo, Mairena returns to the safety of his family and congregation, Javier gets lost in a vortex of drug-taking, eventually ending up on the streets. 

It was a good read and an interesting insight into the life of a Honduran immigrant in New York.  

Image credits:

For this blog post, I want to highlight the work of a photographer I really admire, flickr member, Raymond Larose who is originally from Connecticut.  Raymond has taken some pretty amazing pictures, which you can see on his photostream or website

Thanks Raymond for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License.