Letter from Honduras: Democracy in action
Led by our pastor Padre Jaime Parra, we recently massed a "town hall" meeting to demand an end to alcohol sales at the annual parish celebration of our patron saint, the Black (or "burned") Christ of Esquipulas. It's actually a feast, borrowed from Guatemala, where the original wooden crucifix, blackened by centuries of candle smoke, hangs in the cathedral. Years ago, the very enterprising Padre Fernando Bandeira obtained a copy for the church in Victoria when it became the new seat of the Victoria-Sulaco dual parish.
About the Author
Miguel Dulick has lived in Las Vegas, Honduras since 2003.
There he has no projects, no plans, no investments -- only to share the life of the poor.
For years he has been sending reports back to friends and family in St. Louis, and the Beacon is proud to become a part of his circle.
Every year in January, for at least two weeks, the main street of Victoria swarms with vendors, including about 30 "beer booths," the ricketiest excuses for a drunken binge you can imagine, a few boards slapped together, just big enough to hold an ancient refrigerator, extension cords and wires running through the urine-soaked mud gutters. Meanwhile, the church struggles to keep the mind of the faithful on the "reason for the season," the infinite mercy of God. Until now, no one has dared challenge the contradiction of low commerce and high hopes of religious renewal. But Padre Jaime and his even younger assistant Padre Manuel Cubias decided to take on The Establishment. They got the mayor, Sandro, to set a date for the big meeting and then rounded us up to show support.
Once it was his turn to speak, Padre Jaime never really yielded the floor. But the mayor, basically a businessman, tried to cut holes in our argument. For example, he said, "What are all you people doing here? This is just a matter for Victoria, I mean, there are people from Las Vegas, El Zapote, Guachipilin," etc. Padre Jaime put the kibosh on that: "The feast of Esquipulas is a PARISH feast, and the parish includes Victoria and Sulaco and the 200 villages they contain, so we all have a stake in this; please respect the Church!" The mayor comes back with, "OK, but look at Las Vegas. You've got a cantina a half-block from the Kindergarten. So don't you get on your high horse." Well, he's right, though I always thought that the "authorities" in Victoria had to approve such zoning.
There was really no hostility between Sandro and Jaime; in between jibes and jousts, they were smiling and joking together in the background. Another point the mayor wanted to make: "It's the responsibility of the parents, of the wife, of the family to keep their men sober; you can't put all the blame on the sellers, you have to put some of it on the sinners!"
Good point. When Chemo and his brother Marcos were testing the waters (the fire water, I should say) a couple of Christmases ago, I couldn't help noticing that I was the only father, or godfather, out looking for my kid to bring him home. But still, you'd have to say a community shouldn't fatten itself on the vices of its citizens. I heard each beer booth pays 5,000 Lempiras for its temporary license.
When Padre Jaime called for the final vote, it was agreed that only residents of Victoria had privileges. "Everyone in favor of the ban, stand over here; those opposed, stand over there." No one went "over there." It was unanimous. The mayor said he and Padre Jaime would hammer out the actual document or decree, the legal language. I thought, That's it? We did it? Athenian democracy? I am eager to see how it actually plays out....
Now, if Padre Manuel had been robbed, assaulted, and kidnapped AFTER the historic vote, you'd have assumed it was the revenge of the liquor interests. But his ordeal happened a week before the big confab. In fact, his attackers, 10 of them in masks and armed like a militia, did not even know who he was, until they asked one of the two other men "What are you doing with this guy?" (possibly because they knew them, whereas Padre Manuel has only been in the parish about a year).
"Well, we're just helping the priest." The priest! "Oh, God, Father, we didn't know you were a priest!" And they fell all over themselves apologizing. "You know, we don't want to do this. We've got orders from higher up," that is, from organized crime that has a ready network in place to steal and dispose of vehicles before you even have a chance to report the crime.
Here's what happened: Padre Manuel and two delegados were returning from a workshop in Tegucigalpa. Just outside Sulaco, a favorite site for assaults, they were stopped and surrounded by this gang, at 3 in the afternoon! They were roughed up a little, including having their wrists bound behind their back, blindfolded, and hustled up into the hills, while the car -- which had been the previous pastor's pickup for years, so it was no "luxury" vehicle -- and all their possessions were whisked away.
In the morning, after being abandoned, they found their way to a house and pleaded for help.
I felt so ashamed of our parish, indeed, of Honduras, that these two good men -- Manuel from El Salvador and Fr. Jaime from Panama, who have only come here to serve the church and share the gospel -- should be treated like this. (Jaime has been robbed a couple times, his car broken into but not stolen.) Their own attitude is ... miraculous. "That's life. These are things, no one got killed. And the car was insured."
Besides pulling at some of the threads of entrenched, misguided customs like the feria, Jaime and Manuel have started new traditions. For example, the big Youth Day gathering was just last Sunday in San Antonio, near Sulaco. I'm sure the population at least tripled with the influx of pilgrims. Jaime did a great job getting the big crowd into a celebratory spirit. And to top it all off, it was Padre Manuel's birthday. At the end of the day, Jaime led us in singing the traditional birthday serenade "Mananitas." One woman came up and gave Manuel a hug, then a man followed, pretty soon it was a flood and you could see that the gang that robbed him had been reversed. An assault of affection.
The very next day, another extravaganza, this time at the school, sponsored by Ayuda en Accion, the Spanish-based NGO that had almost died with the financial implosion in Europe. But it has bounced back and had the kids working for a couple weeks to transform the school into "Riesgolandia." When I saw the theme was "una gestion de riesgo," a risk-alert, I assumed it referred to the crisis in education, but no, it was the environment. Honduras really is at risk, underscored most recently by a series of storms that have sent floods all over, unimpeded by the illegal clear-cutting in the hills.
The students hauled hundreds of rocks from down by the river and painted them white to make a network of lanes, filled in with a carpet of sawdust, to mark the sites of little pavilions for six other schools invited to participate. There was a timed painting competition, a selection of "maquetas," that is, miniatures (of the schools), but the highlight was the musical competition.
You'd love for everyone to win, especially since some of the kids come from tiny towns in the remote hills who probably never imagined performing before such a crowd and did a brave and beautiful thing. But the little troupe led by Dorita, Elvis and Dora's sixth-grader, was miles ahead of everyone else, enhanced by the delightful choreography their teacher Profe Abener. Just see if you can picture this: two little twins were costumed as what? worms! Another child was a sunflower, and two other kids were pine trees, with Dorita (a Katy Perry lookalike and the same unending energy) leading the way.
When I see these grand showings, I swell with pride for our little town, and for the other little communities who put their best foot forward. But I'm like a soccer mom, torn because my boy Chemo did not make the "cut." Why? Well, "I'm too big." That's what the teacher told him. I don't raise any ruckus, because, first of all, this teacher has to pass him! And I don't want attention drawn to the fact that he's practically past the legal age for grade school. But I just want to cry when I see him enjoying all the performances and he's shut out.
Word is, the liquor ban is not sitting well among the movers and shakers in Victoria. They may be looking for a recount. The mayor has yet to "publish" the minutes of the big meeting, leaving the legal status of the vote in limbo.
To reach Voices authors, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.