Sunday, October 30, 2011

The end of a chapter

I'll be departing briefly from the usual themes presented here, in order to describe the end of an extended endeavor of mine.  While riding on Santiago's subway this week, I read the final page of the third and last volume of Eduardo Galeano's Memoria del fuego.  On the surface, this might not seem like such a big deal, but in many ways, this series of books has been very much a companion for me during my years traveling in Latin America. 

One of the three volumes - along with my even more dog-eared Spanish-English dictionary -  has been a virtually constant item in my backpack any time I've left the house, whether to go to work, for a weekend vacation, or simply for a walk outside.  In considering what to pack for our trip from Ecuador to Chile, there was no doubt that all three volumes would be making the journey with us, as indispensable as they had become for me.  I've learned countless words, phrases, and colloquial expressions from them.  Grammatical features that once puzzled me as I first began deciphering the first pages have slowly become familiar to me.  But more than that, the books for me have stood as an emotionally-moving teacher that has deepened my understanding of Latin America.

Memoria del fuego is laid out across a total of nearly 1000 pages in its three volumes, presented in the form of short and captivating vignettes.  Each short story reveals one moment in history, applying the very Latin American art of the cuento to the task of defining its history.  Volume I, Los nacimientos, begins with pre-columbian legends of creation and prophecy, before fixing on the three Spanish ships led by Columbus and his superstitious crew on their way towards the inevitable meeting of two worlds.  From that point in1492, the stories march through the long history and expansive geography of Latin America, until Volume 3, El siglo del viento, concludes the series in the 1980's.  As I read the stories, I have also moved my way around Latin America, with the books providing insight along the way.  Today I will trace this journey through Latin America, as defined by Memoria del Fuego.  All the translations in italics are my amateur's own.

As most journeys do, mine began with an idea.  As I described in a previous story from a year ago, the idea to experience Latin America started with the immersion Spanish course I took in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca.

Thanks to our teacher Luis and his impassioned reading of Galeano's rendition of the first landing of the Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés on the American mainland, I became fascinated by the story and decided I would find my own copy of the book.

Once back in Santa Fe, I soon discovered the Spanish language bookstore Allá, which had a single copy of the book on the shelf.  The owner, Jim, was a kindred spirit in his fascination for Latin America, and his store was a few blocks from where I worked in downtown Santa Fe.  As such, in the coming months I learned from Jim a great deal about Galeano, his occasional visits to Santa Fe, and other interesting and tantalizing pieces of wisdom, as I planned a return trip to Latin America.

In the coming months, any time I found myself alone in a cafe or park I was alternating between story and dictionary, struggling to grasp so many new words and phrases.  At the time I swore I would commit the 60 or so pre-columbian stories to memory, and so I read each one over and over until I had a rough English approximation that I could relate to whomever was willing to indulge me.  5 years later, I'm not convinced that I've maintained such a sharp recollection of those stories, but if you put me to the test, we could find out...

By the time I returned to Latin America, a year after my first time in Mexico, I had made it through the first section of Los nacimientos and was getting into the initial meeting of the Spanish and the Aztec empire.  In a personal milestone towards my goal of reading in Spanish, I revisited the story of Cortés and the founding of the city of Vera Cruz.  At the time I was also finding some new places to read, like these:

I had decided to return to Oaxaca, Mexico in order to complete a course to become a teacher of ESL, through an on-site program through the School for International Training based in Vermont.

I got there about a week before the program started, which gave me a lot of time on my own to explore the city and find my preferred places, like the cafes pictured above, or the upstairs patio of the house where I was staying, here on the left.

I also enrolled in another Spanish Immersion course, this time through the institute that worked in conjunction with the SIT program, called Ollin Tlahtoalli.  This program started a week after the ESL course finished, giving me more time to explore Oaxaca on my own before the course began.

For me it was perfect timing to return to Mexico while also returning to the same section in the book that I had discovered during my first visit there.  Walking around stone buildings and churches constructed during the same time period I was reading about added a dimension to the stories.  At the same time, the stories gave a poignance to my surroundings.  In the streets of Oaxaca, I read as Cortés marched from the coast towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and shrewdly maneuvered his way into victory over the city.  The coming together of two empires, both rising in power, resulted in the abrupt conclusion and supplanting of one for the other.  What resulted was there around me, hundreds of years later.

From Mexico I flew to Cuenca, Ecuador, where I began my experience as an ESL teacher.  I had found work there months earlier and knew I would be going there before deciding to return to Mexico.  In fact, it was a bit of an afterthought and a lucky coincidence to be able to go back to Mexico at all.  The director at the school I would be teaching at in Ecuador suggested that I get a certificate to teach ESL before coming.  Fortunately I was able to find the program in Oaxaca, which would conclude a few short weeks before I was slated to start work in Cuenca. 

As I settled into my more extended stay in Ecuador, and continued poring through my book on the patio of my new apartment, I read about the ongoing exploration and conquest of the territory beyond the Aztec Empire.  I read about the Incan Emperor, Huayna Capac, upon whom depend the fields, the water and the people... While he contemplates the sun, Huaina Cápac decides, "Soon I will die."

I learned that Huayna Capac was born here, in the Inca city of Tomebamba.  Cuenca was built upon its ruins, which have been partially restored.  I also learned that Huayna Capac had expanded the Incan Empire beyond Peru and into parts of modern day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile.  Most likely, he died of smallpox, brought to the Americas by the Spanish.  European diseases often moved through trade routes faster than the Spanish themselves, resulting in the Spanish finding a new group of people already decimated by disease.

After his death, Huayna Capac's empire was divided between two of his sons, and the Incan Empire descended into civil war.  Atahualpa, one of the sons, defeated his brother Huascar and was marching south through Cajamarca when Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard, came upon him.

In Cajamarca, Vicente de Valverde, a priest in Pizarro's band of explorers, upon meeting Atahualpa, raises the Bible with one hand and a crucifix with the other, as though conjuring a storm on the high sea, and shouts that here is God... the interpreter translates and Atahualpa, high above the crowd, asks:
-Who told you this?
-The Bible says this, the holy book.
-Give it to me, so that it may tell me.
Atahualpa looks at the Bible, turns it around in his hand, shakes it, and presses it against his ear.
-It says nothing.  It is empty.
And he lets it fall.

At this point, Pizarro uses this blasphemous act of dropping the Bible on the ground to launch his surprise attack, capture Atahualpa and hold him hostage in return for the famous Inca's Ransom.  Once the Ransom was delivered, Pizarro reneged on the deal and had Atahualpa put to death after all.  Only after Atahualpa accepted baptism and the Christian name of Francisco, his conquerer.

The same day I read this story while sitting on my patio in Cuenca, I attended a lecture on the musical instruments of the Inca and the other indigenous people of the Andes.  The sounds of rattles, whistles, conch shells and drums, in a culture with no written language, were the means of communing with the divine, much as the Bible is in the Christian world.  So, was Atahualpa merely exercising his own cultural means of spiritual communication by shaking it like a rattle and then holding it to his ear like today we hear the ocean in a seashell?  Or was he truly challenging this lowly but arrogant priest from his position as triumphant Emperor?

More recently, we have come to Chile, and in the meantime I had progressed into modern times in Galeano's series.  This year, as the US remembered September 11th, Chile remembered the military coup of September 11th, 1973.  In another coincidence, I had reached the 1970's in El siglo del viento.  The themes of this time revolve around the storm of military dictatorships and political assassinations that swept over Latin America, a truly dark time in history that Galeano captures with his unapologetic accusations and intimately told revelations of atrocity.

The series abruptly concludes, seemingly, with the year 1982.  Up to this point, you find yourself reading hundreds of stories, one after another, in the inexorable march through time.  When the final story comes and goes and no other follows, you are left with the sense that so goes history, one event after another, in such a way that any attempt to chronicle it will inevitably end, and time will still continue, unpausing, unstoppable.  But why 1982, rather than some other year either earlier or later?  Galeano, in his letter to the editor of the series on the final page of narrative, reveals why not before, or after, I don't know.  Perhaps because that was the last year of my exile, the end of a cycle, the end of a century.

Galeano, from Uruguay, left his country in 1973 as it too was gripped by military dictatorship and the killings, disappearances and imprisonments that followed.  He returned in 1985, having composed all of his epic historical narrative during his time of exile.  These final words, as all his words do, frankly deliver the reality of history, to your heart.  This defines Memoria del fuego against your traditional "history book," which itemizes history, catalogs it, filing it and placing it neatly in your analytical mind.  In addition, it has introduced me to countless figures, moments, concepts, other books, which the coming years will no doubt find me exploring further.  In so doing, these three books will continue close by, having slowly gone from an endless source of discovery to an endless source of reference and light.  The book and I know that the last page is also the first.