Thursday, December 1, 2011

Comandante Maria

Comandante Maria
1992, Chalatenango, El Salvador

The Pastors for Peace Caravan of trucks and humanitarian aid was arriving throughout the country, and I was lucky enough to go to Chalate, the province that had been the rebel stronghold throughout the twelve-year civil war. We were met by father John, a liberation theologist from New York who had lived and worked in the province for ten years.

He wanted to show us this small village on the edge of Government territory, so we took a walk around, about six or seven of us from all over the USA and Canada. He pointed out the charred hills where napalm was used to flush out the rebels of the FMLN. We saw the remains of many houses and a small clinic which had been hit by rockets from not far away in the ARENA government territory.
A little farther up, a few people were sitting on a porch having an afternoon coffee and father John called out Maria Maria, ha llegado compa! I had seen her in the movie ‘Maria’s Story’, but in person she was truly a presence, barely five feet tall, green olive uniform, cap and heavy boots, radiant smile and gold tooth peeking out from folded up lips. Would they mind a little company from the Northwest CISPES contingent, father John asked, and a little interview for Portland KBOO independent radio, I added, flashing the microphone and tape deck hanging from my shoulder.
We went up and sat down, took pictures and through an interpreter I interviewed Comandante Maria Serrano, leader of a huge division of rebel soldiers in the hills of Chalatenango, El Salvador. One of only two or three women with such a rank in the FMLN.

I had been in El Salvador two years before, the war was raging in the hills, but now the United Nations was in full presence. The rebels were in the open now, no more rockets or death squads from the government for the time being, weapons were being dismantled and treaties were being signed with full press coverage. Big white trucks took UN men and women from air conditioned makeshift offices to hot thatched meetings to hammer out a peace plan with people like Maria who had spent twenty years or more in hiding.

One thing she said during the interview really sticks out in my mind. She told us that when she was in Seattle on her first trip to the USA, giving talks to various groups, including the Sanctuary Movement, she was in the back of a car going from one meeting to another. The driver was a young activist who was lucky enough to be her chauffeur, as well as interpreting for her all the time. They were driving along by Pike’s Market and some other car cut them off and nearly hit them. Maria’s driver hit the brakes suddenly, causing them to lurch forward quite violently, and Maria was thrown up against the back of the front seat, clunking her head a bit, but laughing in pain. The guy who cut them off shouted ‘Fuck You!! ‘ through his window, as if it had been their fault, when it clearly was not. Maria said she then asked her chauffeur what the guy had shouted, she had unbelievably never heard it, not in movies or TV, and so far none of the nice activists she was meeting had used it. The driver interpreted the phrase for her and she slapped the back of the front seat where she had hit her head, saying what a strange way to insult someone, with one of the most beautiful things in the world that humans do.

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