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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 440 | Marzo 2018



Imagine the other

This 2017 winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize gave de university year's Inaugural Lecture at Guatemala's Rafael Landivar University on February 6. With passinante words he spoke about the religion's child emigrants and about migrants, refugees an "others" en general around the world. He called on the audience to "migrate" from mere tolerance for others to imagining them. identifying with them, understanding them and getting inside their skin to feel what they feel.

Sergio Ramírez

There’s a recurring phantasmagoria that repeats itself so many times we end up turning our backs on it. It’s the army of Central American emigrants who try with unending stubbornness to reach the Mexican-US border, despite the wall, the laws and decrees, the raids, the risk of abuse, kidnapping, extortion, humiliation, and above all of getting murdered on the way, dying of suffocation inside containers or of sunstroke and thirst in the Arizzone deserts.

It’s an epic journey by heroes of misfortune. They have names, but those willing to pay any price to reach the wrongly promised land are left with no name. They become numbers, statistics. Their life’s drama, what it means to be uprooted, the miseries of their journey, the fear, danger, anxiety, anguish and hope all end up in an abstract total sum.

The migrants are now an “industry”

The remittances sent last year from the US to Central America by that mass of human emigrants totaled US$15 billion. Those sent to Guatemala increased by 16% over the previous year, amounting to almost US$7 billion. It’s the country of the region that receives the most resources in remittances. Its total exported goods added up to US$12.2 billion, making its main exportation product its people. Its own inhabitants. And the same happens in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The cargo train on which so many of them journey from southern Mexico, piled on the running boards and roofs of the cars, has been baptized The Beast by these people. A land-based Leviathan that takes them on a journey by rail across the desolate and hostile Hell-like landscape they need to cross to reach the forbidden paradise. A journey many of those anonymous and undocumented emigrants who have left everything behind will not survive. Necks broken by a fall from the train or crushed by the wheels. Murdered. Kidnapped. Disappeared.

Nobody ever imagined that kidnapping the poor and extorting them, making them victims of reprisals, tortures and killings, turning them into a multi-million-dollar industry, their lives subject to the will of criminal bands that stalk them at every point along the way, could be possible. It is.

The income of the “coyotes” who traffic the emigrants combined with that of organizations like the Zetas who kidnap them and subject them to slave labor follows immediately after drug trafficking for sheer profit.

Migrant children are an ethical crisis

Children also leave their homes, often alone, and set out on the journey towards the border of dreams. There are thousands. Some make it to US territory or end up in humanitarian shelters in Mexico. Others are on the road right now.

Migration crisis. Humanitarian crisis. But let’s not forget that it’s an ethical crisis above all. It’s true that those who run the highly profitable business of illegal emigration have found a new gold mine in exporting children seeking to reunite with their families or facilitating their relatives’ entry once they’ve gotten there. But they aren’t the first link in the chain. What conditions did these children suffer in their own countries before setting out on a journey toward a border thousands of kilometers away that their elders have sought so persistently before them?

These young Ulysses have no names either: like their parents they’re only numbers. They live their own epic adventure, but nobody will sing their feats. Riding the death train, walking the hidden paths, begging, exposed to abuse and rape and even to losing the life they’ve only just begun, they are children of poverty and neglect. Opaqued by their numbers, that’s the first thing we forget.

We forget that the Central American societies in which they were born continue to be unjust, divided between those who have a lot, or too much, and those who live on the margins because they have way too little. They don’t have opportunities, starting with education, because its deficits and deficiencies continue to represent the most frustrating impediment to development.

So these children migrate, and they’ll be deported en masse, returned to those places where they began their exodus, where they were born without hope so sought it far away. Where they fled from forced recruitment by criminal gangs, fled like their parents from the violence of drug-trafficking and the violence of poverty.

My first question is: Are they also “others,” those we don’t acknowledge because they’re different? Or do we own them, truly feel they’re part of our own identity? Are we capable of seeing the world through their eyes? Do we care, do we worry about their fate, their exodus?

The World Ultra Wealth Report, presented by Wealth X Singapore, reveals that the number of people with new fortunes has increased as never before during these last years in Central American countries, the ones from which the children of this bitter history depart to forced exile, expelled from their homes by poverty and insecurity.

We live in failed societies

The wealth of the new rich with their easy money is oblivious to development and represents no transformational leverage to bring welfare to others, to those who live with less than US$2 a day, those who are no less than half of the Central American population. It’s an offensive wealth that exhibits itself through vulgar and excessive luxury.

That injustice and inequality is also repeated in other latitudes. “Not only in India but all over the world, an economic system is being created that is driving people apart,” says Arundhati Roy, author of the novel

The God of Small Things,

Booker Prize winner in England. “...this system is actually smashing up the vulnerable in this country” “I would find it very hard to live with myself in this country if I didn’t talk about what was going on.”

It’s the same system that has expelled those thousands of children awaiting deportation trials in the US, demonstrating an emphatic failure; not theirs, but ours. We live in societies that have failed to create equality and distributive justice. Political and economic power is responsible for this ethical failure, having allowed, among other evils, corruption to adhere like festering flesh to the social body.

When questioned about the reason for their long and perilous trip, many of these children, those who managed to make it to the other side only to find themselves imprisoned in camps in Texas, Arizona or California, sometimes answer like adults and say they were seeking a different life. “There’s work here, we can eat and have a house and everything is cheaper here,” says one. Another simply says they set out from their remote village to keep from starving to death there. And others speak as what they are, children. They say they wanted to visit Disneyland. Or eat a hamburger.

Do we consider them our equals?

The wall between the United States and Mexico has become a familiar issue to us. If we are asked our opinion, we’re all against it. But as long as we continue being a high-yield factory in the production of poor people, the waves of emigrants will continue to move towards that wall and seek a way to cross it at any price, or crash into it.

It’s a wall for “others.” Walls are always for others, for the strange ones, those who are different. And not only that. Those who are inferior. That’s how all Central Americans are seen by many on the other side of that wall, starting with those who proclaim white supremacy. The rednecks, the Bible thumpers in the Bible belt, the professional racists of the Ku Klux Klan, those devoted to the Tea Party…

They are poor immigrants, which makes them even more different. More other. But my question still remains: Are they not others to us also? Do we know them? Do we consider them our equals? Is whoever leaves or perhaps remains living in poverty our neighbor?

A neighbor is near, someone close to us. We identify with them, make them our own. Solidarity becomes identity, and then we’re capable of feeling them within us, leaping barriers and prejudices, overcoming distances.

Tolerance isn’t enough,
we need “belligerent humanism”

We need to take a stance in a world like today’s, where the worse threats to human coexistence come from terrorism, discrimination, racism, political and religious intolerance, exacerbated nationalism, the resurrection of fascism even in Europe, alternative facts, alternative realities, contempt for diversity, persecution and harassment against emigrants. The feeling of exclusion that is so intimate in the human heart, buried deep, must be brought out, confronted and combated. We need to uproot it from within us.

Not simply with tolerance, which is the passive way of seeing others who aren’t like us, but by trying to be, see and feel like others, move towards them, embody them. Get beneath their skin, be the other, whether they are our emigrants or those from other latitudes.

The others are those forced to leave in search of the welfare and dignity their own country denies them. They aren’t Ulysses who return to their homeland, but Ulysses in reverse, who leave their homeland and must face the dangers that arise along their hazardous route, at the mercy of criminal bands, exposed to deadly threats, for which not few of these banished people end up at the bottom of a common grave before ever seeing the mirage on the other side of the wall that claims to be impregnable. A wall built with the stones of intolerance.

The others are different, and therefore are discriminated against and repressed, for the color of their skin, their race, their gender, their sexual preferences. For their religion, their culture. Because they come from afar. Because they speak a language we don’t understand, because they don’t dress like we do.

We must start the journey towards them, to find them and find ourselves in them. That is what my teacher Mariano Fiallos Gil, rector of the university where I studied in Nicaragua, called “belligerent humanism.” Not the passive humanism enclosed in the cloister, but the humanism that seeks to transform the world, but first transforms us, ourselves.

What are the Africans
and Haitians fleeing from?

For thousands of Africans, the long and hazardous overseas journey starts once again in the Gulf of Benin, the same place from which centuries ago ships loaded with slaves departed towards America. They disembark in Brazil and cross the continent in search of the magical border, traveling unheard-of distances across wastelands, jungles, rivers and mountain ranges. It’s a trip that seems impossible even to one’s own imagination, but its protagonists are of flesh and blood.

They seek to reach Darien, the first closed door they have to get through. Then they move on through Panamanian territory, and then Costa Rica, up to the next forbidden station, Nicaragua. Thousands of Haitians journey along with them.

Due to its geographical position, connecting the two continental masses since millennial times, Central America has been a bridge for migrants traveling down from the north or up from the south, a territory of racial, cultural and language fusions. But today’s migrants don’t want to stay, they’re just passing through. Their goal is the Arcadia behind the wall, represented inside their heads as a technicolor world, the happy ending to all their misery.

The Africans are fleeing hunger and hopelessness, poverty and abandonment. Does that sound strange to us? And also tribal wars, persecutions, religious fanaticism, their villages burnt down, the relentless advance of deserts with fiery sands, the death of their crops. The Haitians are fleeing chronic poverty, calamities caused by natural catastrophes, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, and the political failure of a State in decomposition.

Nicaragua’s wall
blocks their passage

In Nicaragua, the official migration containment policy blocks their passage so they are caught and sent back to Costa Rica’s border territory, where they are crowded into emergency camps. But they try again, traveling at night along hidden paths so they won’t be discovered and hiding during the day, seeking to reach Honduras, the next station, then on towards Mexico from there.

In their clandestine attempt to cross Nicaragua, some don’t make it, drowning in rivers, bitten by snakes, dying giving birth in the middle of the jungle along with their newborn. However, many do make it to Tijuana, which means that the implacable Nicaraguan wall, another wall, has cracks after all.

When one of the fragile boats that transports them at midnight is shipwrecked, their bodies are washed up by the waves of Nicaragua’s Great Lake, and they’re buried in the cemeteries of neighboring villages in graves without a name or along the coast itself, because of the advanced state of their body’s decomposition.
In the police files, only a few random traits are jotted down under the name “unknown”: frizzy hair, dark skin, athletic appearance, large structure, medium build, female, black t-shirt, sport shoes….

Sometimes fragments of the lives of these wayfarers appear in the newspapers, but they soon become old. I noticed one of these stories. David, 21 years old and Yandeli, 25, a Haitian couple that managed to cross the border and were forced to live hidden in a spot in southern Nicaragua. They stopped their travel because she was soon to be a mother and was seeking to give birth in the solitude of their shelter. Their son was born and they named him Davison.

Without a job, they had sold everything they had and decided to emigrate. For the time being their American dream was that: a shelter in the jungle and the daily risk of the army or police kicking them out, making them return to the camps in Costa Rica.

People in the Pacific fishing villages sometimes see those being pursued in the yards of their homes when night falls, stealthy shadows that creep close with fear. Through hand signs they make themselves understood: they are thirsty, they are hungry.

And defying their own fear, the neighbors give them the refuge they ask for, water, food, shoes, clothes, diapers for the children. They only know they must help them, no matter the risk of being repressed. A neighbor gives to a neighbor no matter how little they have, or gives them all that they have.

Imagining the other is a powerful
antidote against fanaticism

The Israeli writer Amos Oz received the Prince of Asturias Award ten years ago. To begin to speak about him, I want to recommend to you his novel Panther in the Basement, published in 1988, in which he narrates his childhood years in Jerusalem, then under British dominion. His parents had come to Israel with a wave of Jews from Eastern Europe, fleeing Nazi persecution; several of his relatives, whom he never met, died in concentration camps, Back then Jews, Palestinians, Maghrebis, Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians, Turks and Greeks lived in separate neighborhoods in Jerusalem, without manifested violence among them, a true Babel of languages, and if we can take that expression beyond languages, a Babel of traditions and religions. They lived in tension, but in peace.

Panther in the Basement tells the story of Tolfi, Amos Oz himself, a child who secretly teaches Hebrew to a sergeant from the British occupying troops. The novel provoked mixed reactions. He won Israel’s national literature award with it at the same time that the confessional extreme Right accused him of treason before the Supreme Court of Justice. A traitor, as was the case of his child character, Tolfi, for teaching Hebrew to the enemy.

Are we capable of making
that imaginary trip?

Before the Prince of Asturias Award, Amos Oz had already won the Goethe Award, and when receiving it in Frankfurt he remembered in his speech that he had once sworn never to set foot in Germany again. He had plenty of grievances, of the kind one drags around as if they were a heavy chain tied to the ankles. But he also said that to imagine the other is a powerful antidote against fanaticism and hate.

Not simply to be tolerant ofothers, but to get inside their heads, their thoughts, their anxieties, their dreams and even into their own hate, as irrational as that may seem, to try to understand them.

Are we capable of making that imaginary trip towards the Quichés, the Tz’utujils, the Lencas, the Miskitus, the Talamancas, the Garifunas, the Creoles? Of understanding their deep sacramental relationship with nature, the rivers, the forests, the jungle, the mountain, that steadfast passion to preserve their sacred universe for which Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras, opposing the exploitation of the Lencas’ ancestral lands? If we search for it, we’ll always find a way out of the vicious cycle of resentment and aversions that open like festering sores in the skin of those who feel so different from others as to believe they are opposite to those others, adversaries and in the end enemies. To only be tolerant means remaining in a condescending attitude, like those who live in the same city but separate neighborhoods and even when they speak the same language live in a Babel of the spirit because they don’t want to hear each other, are not interested in hearing each other.

Amos Oz has not ceased for a single day speaking about the need for peace and harmony between Palestinians and Jews, for which he has also been accused of being a traitor by his own country people, while at the same time there are also Palestinians who barely tolerate him. They could probably settle for tolerance, but beyond tolerance lies coexistence and understanding and better than that, identification.

It’s not enough to tolerate each other. One must travel out from our mind towards the other’s mind and live inside it long enough so that, when we leave, we’re no longer the same. There’s no other way to solve the recurring, hateful and bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. They must live in peace someday, sharing the same tile upon which geography and history has confined them. We in Latin America also live on tiles, of different sizes and fenced in by visible and invisible walls, the first one being selfishness.

Ignorance is at the base

Another Jew who speaks the same language as Amos Oz is Daniel Barenboim, a musician of a universal nature. He aspires to have a symphony orchestra formed of Israelis and Palestinians, and has created in Ramala a musical kindergarten for Palestinian children, from which a youth orchestra has resulted. And so there can be no doubt that he wants to go beyond tolerance, he has conducted “The Ring of the Nibelung” by Wagner in Tel Aviv. Wagner, the composer recurrently accused of having composed, a century in advance, the background music for the “black” saga of the Nazi.

Ignorance is at the base of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, he says. He also says the daily killings will continue as long as both people don’t get to deeply know each other and don’t learn to accept the other’s point of view and to know what the other wants and needs,.

To him it seems an aberration that his country’s official policy has led to the construction of a wall as part of the escalating war, one more in the terrible sequence of walls that have divided entire peoples throughout history, walls raised for ideological and racist reasons, or selfishness, and have always marked infamous borders. He says the wall isn’t even between Israel and Palestine, which would still be foolish but acceptable; instead it’s a wall that divides one Palestinian land from other Palestinian lands.

The many walls that
separate peoples today

By refusing to give up her seat to a white person on the segregated bus of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Rosa Parks achieved the victory that blacks could sit next to whites. She achieved tolerance. But for whites to imagine themselves as blacks or vice versa is still a long way off. Or for a Ladino from San Cristobal Las Casas to imagine himself as a Tz’utujil or a Mestizo from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to imagine himself as an Aymara from the Bolivian highlands. Or a Costa Rican as a Nicaraguan. Or a Spaniard as a Moroccan, or a French person as an Algerian. Or a Christian as a Muslim or vice versa. Or a Shiite as a Sunni or vice versa. Or a Catholic as a Protestant, or vice versa.

The young Catalonian journalist Agus Morales, in his book We are not Refugees, explores contemporary exoduses in the world as a result of intensive field work while being in Doctors Without Borders (MSF) camps within all those places of conflict he describes. And he counts all the walls that today separate peoples, erected to avoid migration or simply to divide.

The well-known wall between the US and Mexico. Another in Ceuta and Melilla to block the passage of Moroccans. The wall that divides Botswana from Zimbawe. The one that rises between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Israel’s wall to isolate Palestine. The one that divides Cyprus in two. Another between Turkey and Syria and another between Turkey and Greece. Another between India and Pakistan and still another between India and Bangladesh. The one between North Korea and South Korea. Between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The Mediterranean Sea, a liquid wall that Somalian refugees enslaved in Libya try to cross, Libyan victims of anarchy, Syrians who flee from cities turned into ruins by missile attacks.

The tragedy of the Rohingya

In Myanmar, once Burma, most of the population practices Buddhism. However, there are the Rohingya, an ethnic group of Bengali Muslims settled in the northern part of the country on the border with Bangladesh. Although the civilian government is nominally in the hands of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, the army of which she was a prisoner for years is where the real power resides. And it’s this same army that recently unleashed an ethnic cleansing operation against the Rohingya. Nine thousand were killed just in the first month, among them hundreds of children.

Another 650,000 fled to Bangladesh in barely three months, leaving behind thousands of their villages burnt down, all in retaliation for actions by the Rohingya guerrilla Salvation Army. Today they’re crowded into camps, a humanitarian catastrophe that the government of Bangladesh cannot handle.

Between Buddhists and Muslims there are old grudges as a result of conflicts that date back to WWII, when the Muslims wanted to impose through blood and fire an independent Islamic State in their territory. But today’s repression from the Buddhist State is not only against the Muslim minority. Other minorities are also segregated, violently expelled to Thailand and Myanmar, among them Catholics and Christians of other denominations.

Where the real adventure starts

Diderot, in his 1749 essay titled “Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who Can See,” constructs a great metaphor about the conception people born blind have of the world. Diderot’s blind man says he assumes others don’t imagine differently from himself. The world is what the blind man thinks it is and how he thinks it. Congenital or acquired blindnes leads to a unique imagination, a unique thought, and from there to all sorts of destructive fundamentalisms. Because of this book, judged as subversive, Diderot was arrested and taken to the prisons of Vincennes in France, as was Amos Oz, accused before the courts of Israel more than two centuries later because of his Panther in the Basement.

The real adventure begins beyond simple tolerance, when opening a way towards others, seeking to meet up with them. The road is long and perilous, no doubt. However, we need to start walking.

Sergio Ramirez. former Nicaraguan Vice President and National Assembly representative, is a writer, author of dozens of books, articles and essays, and winner of multiple prizes. Subtitles by envío.

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