Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Thinking about my father ... Hope is the thing with feathers

May 7, 2014: I've been watching the movie "Missing," the Costa-Gavras' film rendition of Charles Horman's death during the Pinochet coup in Chile. The last time I watched the movie was with my father, not long before he died from pancreatic cancer. We didn't talk much during his lifetime about his experience being kidnapped and held and hurt during Guatemala's armed internal conflict, but we did that day and on subsequent days. 

I remember telling him I thought he was brave, but now I wish I had told him every day. Because these kinds of experiences ... they are relived and refought every day. At a recent Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma workshop I attended, I heard about the long term effects of immigration and refugee trauma (including, but not limited to, those who have been tortured) so the analogy I made in this post isn't as far-fetched as it might seem.

I wrote this post in 2008, four years after my father died. I'm startled now by how little has changed for immigrants in the U.S. (although all the links in the original post were dead and I had to remove them). The rest of the post is unchanged — even though the line about Guatemala was far too naive and optimistic, and written before a former military man from an earlier repressive regime, Otto Perez Molina, was elected president.
“You must have been so scared when you were kidnapped.”

It is a few months before my father’s death in 2004, and I’m riding home with him from an appointment with his oncologist. He is driving because he still can – and because it is one of the few routines he has been able to retain from his pre-cancer days. No matter that all of the family actually likes driving more than he does, it is a way of taking care of us so ingrained that wresting the steering wheel from him would be viewed as an act of high treason.

He doesn’t answer me immediately, concentrates on guiding the hulking Land Rover through the twisty Chester County back roads on which he’s chosen to drive home. This is another idiosyncrasy of my father’s – never choose the easier road, go for the one that requires attention to navigate.

“Scared? No,” he finally answers. “Not exactly.”

He rarely talked about the experience. We lived in Guatemala when it happened. He was driving home from work one afternoon when three cars boxed his in – you’ve seen the maneuver in movies. The men dragged him out of his car, hooded him, shoved him to the floor of one of their cars and drove around to disorient him before taking him to a room. There, they alternately abandoned him to hooded isolation, or harangued him with the details of my mother’s whereabouts, and ours, and how easily we, too, could be where he was.

In those days in Guatemala we lived on tenterhooks – no family got through without some brush with terror. Cars were pulled over, houses were forcibly entered, schools and workplaces were raided. Neighbors denounced one another, and people were picked up for interrogation on the slightest suspicion of malfeasance, or misfeasance, or nonfeasance. Torture, disappearances, assassinations and all manner of the collateral damages associated with an undeclared war were commonplace.

Kidnappings funded arms purchases, and despite ransoms paid, most of the kidnapped were never seen again. Or, their bodies turned up much later.

So how could my father not be soaked in fear, not be paralyzed by the impossibility of his circumstance?

"I was too busy for fear,” he tells me as we traverse the bucolic Pennsylvania landscape where he found a home a few years after his kidnapping. “I had to figure out how to stay alive. I had to convince them to let me go, so I could get back to you kids and your Mami. To make sure you were safe.”

I look over at my dad that day in 2004, and see a man much diminished by the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation. He had always been too short to cut an imposing figure, but he had the presence that comes from years of obligations met, of words held as bond, of a fire banked so deep that no circumstance – no matter how dreadful – could extinguish it.

Don’t you hate the people who put you through that?”’ I ask him.

“How can I hate?” he answers after a moment. “I’m here.”

Years after we moved to the United States, my dad met the father of one of my brother’s friends. The man – roughly my dad’s age – had been detained by Pinochet’s henchmen after Allende was overthrown in Chile. He was an impressive person – a man of deep intellect and erudition. His twisted hands and wrists were the result of torture. He conversed quietly about his experience – about the grotesque things human beings are willing to do to each other in the name of politics, or for fear of what that other person represents.

My dad wasn’t a man of many words – so he had to be prompted to tell his own story. He never described it as a form of torture – it hadn’t left a physical trace on his body after all – but it was clear to all of us listening that torture, indeed, was what it had been.

Listening to both of them talking that day, I felt a little pity for their captors. (Okay, not much pity, but still, some.) They had sought, by inhuman treatment, to make these men less than human. To make their lives unlivable. To make them forget to hope.

They had failed.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.”

As much as I miss him, I am grateful my father didn’t live to see the country he loved embroiled in the sordidness of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or the debate about whether waterboarding truly qualifies as torture. I’m relieved he wasn’t alive for the revelations about extraordinary rendition, nor to see the Patriot Act enacted.

Mostly, I’m glad he – a proud U.S. citizen – didn’t live to see the fear we are visiting on undocumented immigrants in this country. It would have sounded alarmingly familiar: Cars pulled over at random. Workplaces raided. Neighbors denouncing each other and people picked up for interrogation on the slightest provocation.

If you are recoiling at the analogy, you are not alone. So did I the first time I heard it drawn for me by a priest friend who works with the undocumented. Even more, his analogy for the way we treat and deport the undocumented uses the word torture.

Told you – recoil.

But then I think back on my father’s experience and I see troubling parallels. He was plucked suddenly from his life. He was taken somewhere he didn’t know by people who held power over him. He was isolated. His family was threatened with the same treatment. Read my blog post of Oct. 23, “Disappeared in Philadelphia,” and you’ll see that Beto’s experience is not far removed from my father’s.

A number of people with voices in the immigration debate have claimed that whatever treatment undocumented immigrants get it is no more than what they deserve. That they’ve broken laws. That they negatively impact the economy. Even, as Pat Buchanan says in his book “State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America,” that they are threatening the very nature and ideals of the nation.

The same arguments were made in Chile under Pinochet. And in Guatemala during its slow slide into genocide. Thankfully, both those countries have since come out of their long, fearful darkness.

We, on the other hand, stand poised on the edge of a feather.

Originally posted December 14, 2008.


Jason Vourvoulias ¡presente!

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