They were easy to spot from a distance because they all had on the same red shirts. As they neared my row, I cringed a bit, hoping they would continue on towards the back of the plane that was going to carry us to Miami. But then two women stopped and asked to get past me into the window and middle seats. Other group members settled around me. I was trapped.
Flights in and out of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince are mostly full these days. A good part of the passenger load is composed of volunteers traveling to the Caribbean island nation to help rebuild after the 2010 earthquake. The groups often have look-alike shirts boasting the motto of the expedition, usually something breathless about “bringing hope” or “sharing God’s love” on their “mission to Haiti.” The chutzpah of the group shirts is often embarrassing to people who struggle “bringing hope” for more than a week at a time. In Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, Church World Service sponsored a bunch of young people who came for a year or more to help with the hosting of such short-term delegations. In the house where they lived in Tegucigalpa, they created a “Wall of Shame” composed entirely of these t-shirts given to them by visiting short-term volunteers.
On the plane, being ever polite, I took note of my seatmates’ shirts and asked about their visit. The woman beside me starting telling me about an orphanage where the group had played with the kids and done some construction work, both at the orphanage and on two homes nearby. She told me how she’d never seen such poverty, particularly in the tent cities they had driven by. I asked her if she’d gotten out of the car and actually spoken to anyone in the tent cities, and she said no. But she had spoken to the staff in the orphanage and the two families who were getting new houses. I asked her what she thought her team had accomplished, and she responded with a familiar rap about how she had “received more than she’d given,” how she was going home to appreciate better her “blessings,” and so on. Yea yea, I said, but what had they accomplished for the Haitians? “We showed them how with hard work you can get things done,” she told me earnestly. “How there is hope, and that despite all the suffering of the earthquake, if they quit worshiping idols, put their trust in God and work hard, they’ll overcome it.”
I knew it was going to be a long flight.
Working hard at being polite, which doesn’t always come easy to me, I asked her if there were any other factors, besides idolatry and laziness, which might have contributed to Haiti’s dramatic poverty. “Ahhh… I’m not sure what you mean,” she said. I asked her what she knew about Haitian history, about the revolution against France, about the French campaign to make Haiti suffer for its independence, about the military domination and occupation by the U.S. military, about the U.S. government’s campaign against the country’s first democratically-elected president, about the Clinton administration’s destruction of the Haitian rice industry. . . As I went on, she looked bewildered. The safety briefing started, saving her from having to respond. We didn’t speak much the rest of the flight. She stayed turned in her seat toward her friend in the window seat.
I wanted to ask her if she’d ever heard of Littleton Waller, the colonel who in 1915 led the U.S. Marines ashore at the start of a two-decade occupation of Haiti. Waller had summed up U.S. strategy by stating: “I know the nigger and how to handle him.” Or to go back further in history, I wanted to ask her if she’d heard of Hatuey, a Taino indigenous chief on Hispañola, the island which is today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When the conquistadores arrived, Hatuey was a leader in the resistance to the Spanish. As they were losing the fight on Hispañola, Hatuey fled in 1511 to the nearby island which is today Cuba, in an attempt to warn residents there about the Spanish. They didn’t believe him, and so were ill prepared when the Spanish soldiers arrived. Hatuey stayed in Cuba to lead a futile guerrilla struggle against the troops of Diego Velazquez, but was ultimately captured and tied to a stake in February 1512. Just before the Spaniards lit the fire to burn him alive, a priest who served as chaplain to the soldiers asked Hatuey if he wanted to covert to Christianity, something that would allow Hatuey to go straight to heaven after getting burned to a crisp. Remember that the priests of the day were chosen and paid by the state, Pope Julius II having conferred that privilege on Queen Isabella. Anyway, according to Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire:
Before lighting the fire that will reduce him to charcoal and ash, the priest promises him glory and eternal rest if he agrees to be baptized. Hatuey asks:
“Are there Christians in that heaven?”
Hatuey chooses hell, and the firewood begins to crackle.
There’s a bit of that same imperial arrogance that creeps into much of our mission theology today, at least as it’s expressed by the hordes of people flocking to “save” the people of Haiti without understanding the real roots of their devastating poverty. To be fair, comparing modern volunteers with Spanish conquistadores is, even for someone as given to exaggeration as I am, a bit of a stretch. But there’s also another issue at work here, which is how we understand poverty.
Many see poverty solely as a deficit. They define poverty as a lack of food, clean water, medical care, faith. To solve poverty, all you have to do is fill the deficit. Right? Nope. I found Bryant Meyers book, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Devleopment, to be helpful here. More than a deficit, he argues that poverty is the result of broken and dysfunctional relationships among the poor and between the poor and structures of power. Poverty isn’t an accident; people aren’t poor because of fate or bad fortune. Poverty is manufactured, and it’s structural. There are similarities here to what Latin American liberation theologians have called “sinful social structures,” but whatever you call it, the result is the same–poverty that translates into dehumanizing misery for millions of people. If we want to make a difference in the lives of poor people, it means we have to address those structural issues.
It’s convenient, on the other hand, to go on treating poverty as merely a deficit, because then . . . a drum roll, please . . . we can be the ones that end up filling the deficit. We can provide the food, the water, the medical care, we can send the volunteer teams to build the houses, we can send the money to pay the teachers. In short, Meyers argues, we become God. Sure feels good to be God. But in the long run it doesn’t solve poverty and only makes things worse.
This trip to Haiti was to capture some images of work being done in the southern village of Mizak by a group called Haitian Artisans for Peace International, which is supported by United Methodist Women. HAPI has a variety of activities going on, including a dance group for young girls. I was asked to do some photos of the dancers, and I suggested we take them to some different environments, including the beach at Jacmel (most of the girls had never before been to the sea) and on a hillside at sunrise. Hurricane Irene was passing nearby, so we had to deal with cloudy skies and flat lighting, but we had some fun making pictures that aren’t the kind of images you usually associate with Haiti.
I also shot some more of Haiti’s daily life, including a couple of voodoo practicioners, and spent four days capturing images related to recovery work sponsored by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, including girls and women with goats, moms selling produce in a camp for relocated quake survivors, people working the fields, women clearing rubble and men building schools.
As a photographer, I’ve long admired the work of Paul Dix. As the photographer in Nicaragua for Witness for Peace in the 1980s, Paul had a good eye for documenting the effects of the U.S. war on ordinary people. He has now published a book with Pam Fitzpatrick in which he revisits some of his subjects from that period, yet also includes images and narratives from their lives since. Nicaragua: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy (Eugene: Just Sharing Press, 2011) is the result.
Dix and Fitzpatrick made four trips to Central America over seven years, spending 18 months tracking down people for whom they often didn’t even have a name, just a grainy black and white image from a fleeting moment years before. Determined detective work led them eventually to almost everyone they were looking for.
During these reencounters, Dix would photograph them again, and he and Fitzpatrick would record their stories of what had happened in the intervening years. Sometimes these are powerful narratives of how people overcame both personal obstacles and social strictures. And other times they are stories with no happy ending, of people left irreparably damaged by the violence.
The book includes photos of 30 of the people who Dix and Fitzpatrick found. Possessing wounds both visible and invisible, they represent Nicaragua’s complicated demographics, including people who are still loyal Sandinistas and others who blame the Sandinistas for everything. Still others, consumed with daily survival, long ago grew tired of ascribing political responsibility for their plight. The bilingual text summarizes their stories, and in the back of the book their raw testimonies appear.
Some of the stories remind us of the feistiness of Nicaraguans, of the revolutionary character and spirit that have outlasted the political compromises and corruption of the revolutionary party. Dix photographed Jamileth Chavarría in 1987 as she leaned on a cross at the burial of her mother, who was assassinated–along with two of Chavarría’s sisters–by the contras on the muddy road into the remote jungle outpost of Bocana de Paiwas. A 2002 photograph shows Chavarría at the microphone in a women’s radio station in Paiwas. Her accompanying testimony tells of how she’s creatively combating violence against women embodied in Nicaraguan culture as well as in the policies of both government and church.
In her testimony, Chavarría reflects a sentiment common among Nicaragua’s poor: although she knows who killed her mother and sisters, she doesn’t hate them. Instead, she blames “the gringos [who] were the ones that made Nicaragua divide itself. . . the gringos were behind all of this, and . . .the contras were also victims of the gringos.”
Tomás Alvarado sure looks feisty in a 1990 Dix photo. He’s leading a group of Sandinista activists in an election march from the Honduran border to Managua. He’s in a wheelchair, the result of wounds he suffered in combat against the contras in 1984, but he exudes enthusiasm for the revolutionary project. In a second image, this one from 2002, he’s older and heavier, but playing basketball in his chair. He’s now an activist for the rights of the disabled, and talks openly in his testimony of how things have changed since the Sandinistas lost that 1990 election. And he’s realistic about his need to fight off the depression that can come easily to war victims like himself: “What is left for you to do is turn the chair around and think about how to move forward, first how to get out of bed, then how to leave the house, then how to go out into the street, and then how to work.”
Carmen Picado is first pictured in the book in a 1986 photo, a beautiful 19-year old woman lying in a hospital bed. (Full disclosure: I got to know Carmen after the truck they were riding in was blown up by a contra mine on a road north of Jinotega. Six people died and 43 were wounded, several losing limbs. When Bill Moyers interview Lyda and me for his 1987 documentary, God and Politics, I took Moyers to meet Amancio Sanchez, Carmen’s uncle who was a Pentecostal pastor and lost one leg in the blast. It was my photos of Amancio’s seven-year old daughter Elda, who also lost a leg in the blast, that helped move some U.S. church folks to get more deeply involved in helping victims of terrorism in Nicaragua. They went on to start Walk in Peace, sponsored by Jubilee Partners in Georgia, to help the abundant number of amputees that the war was generating in Nicaragua.)
In Dix’s and Fitzpatrick’s new book, Carmen is also shown in images from 2002 and 2004, one of them showing her walking with crutches along a Matagalpa street with her two children. In describing her situation, Dix and Fitzpatrick note she survives “with no visible means of support.” And she confesses that her physical challenges are at times overwhelming: “One moment I feel calm, then I feel like something hits me in the heart and I’m overcome with desperation and I cry and cry and cry.”
Not long ago, Nicaragua’s revolution and counterrevolution were headline news. What Salman Rushdie in 1987 called a “fulcrum of history” has become much like any other banana republic. Yet remembering today what happened there in the 1980s is essential, lest amnesia allow history to repeat itself as a nightmare. Books like this are needed to innoculate ourselves against the usurpation of memory by those who wish to replicate such ravages elsewhere.
While we in the U.S. can forget our country’s tragic involvement in Nicaragua’s history, the people pictured in this book have no such luxury. They still live it every day, they bear signs of it on their bodies and souls. Dix and Fitzpatrick record one Nicaraguan woman who laments the ease with which we remain ignorant. “It is terrible to think that in a country like the United States, for example, the young people who live there don’t know anything about what their own country does in other countries,” said Coni Perez.
Many Haitians would agree.
The book can be obtained at local independent booksellers, or online.