Dear Friends: Thirty years ago, on nearly every Sunday in a small house in San José, Costa Rica, Ana Margarita Gasteazoro and I sat side-by-side at a desk in my office/darkroom, a Sony recorder and a couple of glasses of wine between us. We were chronicling her life story, along with sounds of Michael in the kitchen, banging pots and pans and occasionally singing. Ana was 36 then, beautiful and vibrant and full of colorful tales of growing up in El Salvador as a rebellious girl in an upper-middle class family. But a more serious tone and melancholy pervaded at times. Ana was in Costa Rica as a political refugee, having spent nearly two years in prison in San Salvador.
She told of being violently arrested by the national police at the height of a bloody civil war that would cost 75,000 lives. After being “disappeared” for 11 days in the clandestine cells of the police, and repeatedly threatened with death, the first title of the book – Tell Mother I’m in Paradise – refers to Ana’s answer on the day she was delivered to Ilopango women’s prison, and the intake officer asked if she wanted to send a message to her family. Paradise, in this case, meant that she knew she was going to live, unlike so many of her colleagues and friends, but she was also already thinking about how she would continue her organizing work with the women political prisoners. (Header image above of women in Ilopango prison.)
Ana was an “organizer” at heart beginning with her teenage years, when her conservative mother sent her to Guatemala to a Catholic girls’ boarding school to “straighten her out.” Instead, Ana found herself surrounded by a group of Maryknoll nuns involved in resistance to Guatemala’s regime through liberation theology. The nuns didn’t tell her exactly what they were up to – later Ana learned that one, Sister Marian Peter, became the famous antiwar activist in the US, Margery Melville. Ana was encouraged to volunteer in poor neighborhoods after school and on weekends, and it was here in Guatemala that her social consciousness began to take shape.
Ana went on to describe her young adult years as a rising star/activist in a legal political party in El Salvador, trips to Europe with Socialist International, a few affairs with famous men along with many unwanted advances from other famous men. There were some attempts to settle into a work and domestic life, and then, as the war escalated and she saw her political comrades and friends kidnapped, horribly tortured and left dead by roadsides, she made the decision to go underground and become a militant, while continuing to work “above ground” with her legal party. A very dangerous decision, as it turned out.At some indefinable moment on one of those Sundays in San José, I said – or she said, or we said together – “This should be a book!” With our mutual friend, Andrew – who had introduced me to Ana – we worked together transcribing, editing, adding extra recording sessions to fill in gaps. Ana was eager but always ambivalent. This was 1988 and the war was still on in El Salvador. Should she be revealing all this? And if a book came out, shouldn’t it be in Spanish? (My Spanish then was rudimentary; her English was perfect after years in the American School in San Salvador). We carried on, piece-meal, as I worked full-time with CUSO, and Andrew who worked with same Canadian NGO, returned to Canada.
Then, on a holiday to the Caribbean coast, Ana met Smokey. Always passionate and compulsive, she announced on her return that she had decided on a new life to realize a long-held dream. She and Smokey would open a bakery and cafe in Puerto Viejo. Ana had always loved to cook – she and Michael had quickly bonded over food – and Smokey owned land on the beach where they would build an open-air cafe with living quarters above. Michael contributed his labor with plumbing and electrical work; Andrew came back to Costa Rica, did more interviews with Ana and loaned her funds to buy a pizza oven. I stayed in San José working, and visiting when I could.
Cafe Coral was an instant success, with Ana’s granola (which I still make), and Smokey’s green-peppercorn-and lobster pizza. Within a year or so, Ana was chairwoman of the community of Puerto Viejo, promoting ecologically friendly development in the fast-growing tourism scene on the Caribbean coast.
There is so much more to this story, both sadness and joy, in Ana’s ebullient voice, but I hope you will buy the book so I’ll stop here. But with one more photo. In 1992 Ana and Smokey came to visit us in Cuenca, Ecuador. I took this photo of the two of them in the back yard of our house on the Tomebamba River. Another day, after we two went shopping and Ana bought a string of red coral beads, I took the cover photo in my upstairs studio. It was the next-to-last time I saw Ana.
In 2019, realizing Ana’s hope, the book was published in Spanish in El Salvador by the Museum of the Word and Image (MUPI) (with excellent translation work by her cousin Eva Gasteazoro), and on April 19, 2022, University of Alabama Press will officially publish the book in English. (pp 4-5 in catalog)
For those who like instant gratification, the book is already available on Amazon, but I’m hearing from friends who are getting it from their local independent bookstores such as Powell’s Books in Portland, Barnes and Noble and others. (I also hear that it is a beautiful hardback with dust jacket, cream-tone pages, and good photo reproductions.)
One last note. When Ana died prematurely at age 40 of breast cancer, I was still in Ecuador. Grieving, and remembering how much she had wanted a university education, like her brothers, I started the Ana Margarita Gasteazoro Fund for Women (now the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation). Since then, 38 Cañari have received full scholarships to state universities in Ecuador.
Any royalties from Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador will go to a similar fund in El Salvador. Ana Margarita would be pleased; she believed strongly that the education of women was one of the most important avenues for social and political progress in Latin America.
C a ñ a r B o o k C l u b
Well, unlike past book club meetings, I’ve had some good reads lately, and they sync nicely with recommendations from our members. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Abih Alameddine is about a transgender doctor, Lebanese in origin, who goes to the island of Lesbos with several friends to help support the immigrants arriving there. Interesting parallel with a book recommended by Chris in Ottawa: What a Strange Paradise by Egyptian-Canadian Omar El Akkad: “More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one has made the passage…”
I read recently Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and I’m still deciding what I think. Part novel, part memoir (now called autofiction), I was deeply drawn in to his life story, but put off by some of his long discourses on politics, art, money, sex, religion, and prejudice. I say read it, and get back to me on what you let think.
A friend visiting from Mexico, Natalie, left her book with me: All the Frequent Troubles of our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner. What a pleasure to hold a beautifully produced hardback book after months of Kindle reading! Incredibly well documented and written, a terribly sad book that reminds us how important resistance is to autocratic regimes, whether in the US, Russia or El Salvador.
Allison in Minneapolis has read and liked Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. “An immigrant family from Ghana settles in Huntsville, Alabama in hopes of a better life in America. … a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut, Homegoing.”
Joanne in Mexico has recommended Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan, and after Michael and I listened to her read her short story, “So Late in the Day,” on the New Yorker podcast last week, I ordered her book on kindle and finished it in a few short hours. I agree with Joanne: “This beautiful, spare little book I read on the plane was so wonderful I wish it had been longer. Set in an Irish village at Christmas time, a local man confronts his past and the scene at a Magdalene laundry.”
Charlotte in Portland recommends Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. “… a very readable 80 Black-authored essays and poems giving the reader a broad picture of how enslavement of Africans essentially built America (and Western civilization) and how those Africans managed to fight and keep fighting through the entrenched hypocrisy that is still very much with us today.”
Shirley from Cuenca: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. “Real page turner based on three women in 1875 post civil war trying to find lost relatives, and current day teacher trying to bring history to life in a black southern community. Did not want the story to end.”
She carries on the “book” theme with: The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Hamel. “A historical WWII novel about a Paris student who uses her artistic talent to forge documents to help Jewish children cross the border. How she saves all the names in a book in code is amazing.”
And now she is reading How the Word is Passed about slavery. “Author Clint Smith visits important sites like Montecello, Whitney Plantation and a Louisiana prison to interview workers, visitors and inmates to see oppression past and present.”
Did I miss anyone? If so, please remind me what you are reading, with a comment a two. I always love hearing from our Cañar Book Club members.