Simon: My Hermit Friend (Who’s No Perroflauta)

Simon, My Hermit Friend

Since my arrival in Spain (2 months ago), I’ve become friends with a man whom a Spanish acquaintance of mine dismissed as a perroflauta.

Don’t worry; until recently, I never heard that word either. But here’s the way it’s defined online: “A perroflauta (plural “perroflautas“, invariable in gender) is a normally young person with an appearance and behavior reminiscent of those of  the hippie movement .”

The flauta (flute) part of the term comes from the fact that most in the category are street musicians. The perro (dog) part refers to the buskers’ habit of taking their dogs along.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the one I’m referring to is called Simon. He’s Chilean. He plays guitar in the street (all the while dodging the police). And he’s lived here in Spain for the past 20 years.

But Simon is not young. He’s 60 years old. And has no dog accompanying him. Neither would I describe him as a hippie.

So, he’s no perroflauta — which (as Simon informed me) turns out to be a disrespectful, dismissive characterization.

Rather, I think of Simon as a kind of hermit, a cave-dweller (literally), a wise man, a philosopher, a seeker of truth, a sort of shaman. (The two of us plan to study the Mayan Popol Vuh together as part of his helping me with my Spanish.)

Simon himself jokingly refers to his kind as “troglodytes” — as cave dwellers, since many of them live in caves above the albaicin barrio here in Grenada — as I said, our home for the past couple of months.

In any case, last week I had the privilege of entering Simon’s cave. It took me a long time to get there. Usually, my daily exercise routine has me walking 4 miles. Last week, in order to get to Simon’s cave, I walked twice that distance — up and down severe inclines, along stony dirt paths, and narrow ridges.

My poor arthritic knees have been complaining about all that ever since. And this, even though Simon and I stopped several times so I could rest, while Simon rolled and smoked a couple of joints.

Following Simon to his cave

Below is an overview of Simon’s community. All its members live in caverns originally dug out by gitanos (gypsies) as far back as the 15th century — or maybe (Simon told me) by Arabs before them. Anyway, squatters like Simon have converted many of the dugouts into homes, some of them with electricity and running water:

An overview of our destination

Simon’s cave has no electricity and no water. The fridge in this picture merely serves as a cabinet for storing his food.

Simon’s “fridge” and gas “stove” where he’s brewing T-4-2

Here’s the cave from the outside:

The Cave from the Outside

And here’s Simon’s bedside “stuff” — including a candle and a couple of books on Tarot. My friend’s trying to learn all about it in case the police confiscate his guitar again — or fine him $300 to get it back. (Simon told me he’s had “about a thousand” guitars in is life, and that he’s like to write a book on “How to Lose 1000 Guitars and Still Stay in Business.”) In any case, Tarot reading, he says, would be an alternate source of income if the cops remove his livelihood. He only needs about 10 euros a day to get by.

Bedside Stuff

Here’s the wall hanging at the end of Simon’s bed:

Edvard Munch’s The Scream which the artist admitted “could only have been painted by a madman”

Simon’s bedside reading:

Leibniz, 1646-1716 — A philosophical theory about monads

On each side of Simon’s cave was another dugout about the size of his own dwelling. The floors in each were dirt, the walls still unwhitewashed. Using typical American reasoning, I asked my friend, “Why don’t you make a couple of more rooms for yourself in these caves? You could cover the dirt floors and whitewash the walls in both of them.” The hermit looked puzzled at my reasoning. He shook his head, “No,” he said, “I don’t need the space. And changes like that would only cause envy in the community. That wouldn’t be good for anyone.”

One of the empty caves alongside Simon’s

Towards the end of my visit, I asked Simon about the point of his life — about the point of my life. He paused a long time searching for words. He looked out the door of his cave . . .

The view from inside Simon’s Cave

and said, “I don’t know. I don’t think much about such things. I don’t think about the past or the future. It’s just about living in the present moment.

Do you see what I mean about my hermit friend and his simple wisdom?

Second Report from Spain

Flamenco Dancer in Elaborate Cave Home

As you may have noted from previous postings, Peggy and I have joined our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their five children (Eva 14, Oscar 11, Orlando 10, Markandeya 7, and Sebastian 3) in Granada, Spain. Peggy and I have been here just over two months. (Please forgive any repetitions here. But I want to tell the story from the beginning.)

It’s all been quite fascinating.

To begin with, the two of us came across from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2.

Neither of us had ever traveled that way – seven nights at sea. And it was unforgettable. It included all you’d expect, fabulous meals, first class entertainment, live music that never stopped, dancing, lectures, films, and long hours in silence on deck chairs contemplating the Divine Presence of ocean and sky. It was all magnificent.

However, upon arriving at our destination, I came down with a severe case of COVID-19. So, I started out on the wrong foot. That called for 10 days or so of isolation and recovery.

Nonetheless, since arriving in Granada, the QB2 magic has continued. We’re in the city’s Albaycin neighborhood just above the famous 11th century Alhambra – a Moorish fortified city that draws tourists from all over the world. From the roof patio of our artistically decorated three-bedroom apartment you can see it all.

We can hear its uniqueness too, since we’re located right next to a Mesquita, a local mosque. When we’re on our patio we can see the muezzin and hear him sing the Salat calling his fellow religionists to prayer five times each day. Peggy and I treat it as a summons addressed to us as well.

Our barrio is also in the heart of what remains of Spain’s Gitano (Gypsy) culture with its famous Flamenco music and dance. On one high holiday here, Peggy and I stole a front row seat at a serious Flamenco performance in the square adjacent to our apartment. It was beautiful. Another night our whole family crowd attended a performance at a cave-turned-into-a-house in the nearby Sacromonte neighborhood. This area is covered with caves where people live. (But more about that later.)

Since our arrival, we’ve done some tourism too. For instance, we spent an unforgettable four days walking the famous Camino Santiago de Compostela. I tried to make it the spiritual experience reflecting its original intention (and rediscovered the rosary in the process).

It was also fun watching my grandchildren enjoying the same experience at a different level – all anxious to collect stamps recording their progress in their pilgrimage “passports.” For my part, arthritic knees confined my own advance to maybe 25 miles of walking over the 3 days of actual pilgrimage. My passport contains only a few stamps.

From there, we all traveled to Bilbao. We stayed a couple of nights there in a classy hotel. Visited the Guggenheim and a Fine Arts museum. Then it was on to Madrid and the Prado where, we enjoyed a guided tour pitched to the grandchildren’s interests and understandings. Of course, we barely scratched the museum’s surface.

Then a couple of weekends ago, Peggy and I traveled to Europe’s southernmost geographical point. We spent two nights in a beautifully simple hotel in Tarifa near the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean flow into each other. We took in a newly excavated Roman City (Baelo Claudia) near Bolonia and Cadiz. There were also the remains of Moorish forts and palaces to see in Tarifa itself. All quite interesting.

As for my exclusively personal interests, I’ve been intent on recovering my understanding of the Spanish language and a greater fluency in expressing myself. So, I took “classes” for 10 days at a language school just down the street from us. The sessions consisted in conversations with 4 different professors. During the one-on-one periods, we mostly talked about Spain, its history and culture.

I was especially interested in the years during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). I wanted to know how Spain made the transition from Franco’s fascism to its present situation where it’s governed by a coalition of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and a rechristened Communist Party called Podemos (“Yes We Can!”). Of course, there remains a lot for me to learn there.

Since finishing my “classes,” my continued interest in improving my language and cultural understanding has moved away from the language school to the street. I’ve made friends with a very interesting street musician from Chile. He’s 60 years old and is a kindred spirit. He lives in a cave neighborhood across the valley from us and high above our apartment’s location. There are about 40 people like him living there. All live in caves; none pay rent. Many are ex-military who have been alienated from “normalcy” by their experiences in the army.

I’ve mentioned Simon in a previous posting. But I’ve been learning more about him. He knows I’ve been a writing teacher and wants my help in authoring his autobiography. He also wants us to study the Mayan Popol Vuh together. Just this morning he invited me to visit his cave community. I intend doing that tomorrow. I’ll soon tell you whatever I learn there.

Report from Spain: I Meet Simon the Street Busker

Since coming to Spain, I’ve made it my business to improve my Spanish. I recently met a very interesting and unlikely friend who’s helping me with that. Let me tell you about him.

But first a word about my Spanish.

I started learning it in 1985 in Nicaragua where I spent six weeks of study at a language school called Casa Nicaraguense de Español. The point there was to spend the mornings in class and the afternoons learning about the Revolution that was then celebrating its sixth anniversary. It was my first experience of living in a revolutionary situation.

Getting some fluency in Spanish wasn’t so hard for me, since I already had studied Latin, French, Italian, and Portuguese. So I could get along.

Seven years later, Peggy and I did an intensive three-month Spanish course in San Jose, Costa Rica at a school set up there to equip evangelical missionaries from the States to learn enough Spanish to convert Tico Catholics to evangelical Protestants.

Both Peggy and I did well enough in our courses for us to participate in a semester-long workshop on liberation theology in a think tank in San Jose called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones (DEI). We were the first North American “invited researchers” allowed into those hallowed halls where everyone was suspicious of Yankees. (I remember being told about worries that I might be CIA!)

But while Peggy’s Spanish has since taken off because of her work with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, mine has remained where it was twenty years ago.

So, now that we’re in Spain long term, I find myself scrambling to get back on top of Español. To that end, I enrolled for ten hours of conversation with language teachers at a school just minutes away from our apartment in Granada’s picturesque Albaicin barrio. My intention was not just to improve my Spanish, but to learn about Spanish history. I was especially interested in knowing about the years when the fascist caudillo, Francisco Franco ruled the country (1939-’75). My four language teachers at the local school were happy enough to help me with that project.

I learned not only about Franco and how he came to power, but also about Spain’s current government which happens to be run by two left-wing parties, the socialist Spanish Workers’ Party, and a rechristened Communist party called Podemos (“Yes, we can!”). The country’s president is the socialist leader, Pedro Sanchez. But its most popular politician is the Podemos politician (and communist) Yolanda Diaz who is Spain’s Second Deputy Prime Minister.

All of that was fine. I really enjoyed conversations with the teachers just mentioned. But as my daughter, Maggie, said, “Why are you paying $50 an hour for conversations, when you could have the same experience for free with any elderly person sitting on a park bench down in the Plaza Larga?”

I had to admit she had a point. So, just recently I decided to locate such a person. I went down to the local Senior Center and struck up a conversation with a woman there. Her name was Carla. And she was very kind. However, she wasn’t really interested in conversational exchange. She just wanted someone to complain to about how terrible her life had become. The “conversation” was all one-way. On top of that, she spoke so quickly and with such dialect that I only understood about 20% of her complaints.

I decided to seek conversation elsewhere.

So, I approached an interesting looking busker playing at the entrance to the Plaza Larga which around here resembles an outdoor living room where locals gather at the many outdoor cafes and bars for cappuccinos and charlas.

The man’s name is Simon. He’s 60 years old and hasn’t a spare pound on his 5’3” frame. He wears a black tee, and at first peers out at you suspiciously from serious brown eyes framed with long and scraggly gray hair.

After I introduced myself and explained my language project, Simon warmed up and agreed to share a café con leche now and then and talk. He wasn’t interested in getting paid. “Just coffee,” he said.

Turns out that Simon is Chilean, living here for the last fifteen years without papers or passport. He plays a quietly thoughtful guitar.

I’d describe Simon as an old hippie. Looking out at the world, he sees a madhouse that he wants no part of. He’s discovered that he can live by singing and nothing other than his faith that Life will provide him with whatever he needs. It always does, he says. His busking brings him an income of about ten euros a day, sometimes a bit more. And that’s all he needs.  

Simon tells me that he lives in a simple house in San Miguel Arriba, a leisurely half-hour ‘s uphill walk from the Plaza Larga. At home, he cooks the vegetables he purchases at his local market on a butane stove. He defecates in a bag and disposes of his personal waste “more ecologically,” he said than the rest of us. It’s important, he says, to take care of his health, because he has no medical insurance.  

Simon’s mother died when he was very young. So, he was raised by his father who was an automobile mechanic usually paid in kind by his customers. His dad was an anarchist who always kept a statue of La Virgen prominently displayed in the house.

Simon was schooled by the Jesuits in Chile and went as far as his freshman year at a private university, where he studied special education for children suffering from dyslexia and other developmental problems. He left school though to become an artisan working in metal and wood.  

He took up with a woman he lived with for several years, fathering three children (ages 15 to 8) none of which (“sadly,” he says) he ever sees.

Simon is interested in theology and was amused by the fact that I had been a priest. The Jesuits, he said, taught him well and set him on a spiritual path that he’s followed ever since. It has led him to Shamanism and the Psycho-magic of the Chilean artist and filmmaker, Alexander Jodorowsky. Psycho-magic allows practitioners to heal and even perform operations using nothing but their imaginations.   

Simon now finds himself studying Tarot – as a fallback, he laughed, and source of income should he somehow become unable to busk any longer.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first conversation with Simon. On parting we agreed that we are somehow kindred spirits, and both look forward to future conversations.

Over his protests, I gave him ten euros anyway.

Liberation Theology: the Answer to Tom Paine’s Prayers?

A recent OpEdNews article entitled “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right” adopted the following lead, “The fact that the religious left and the religious right can both use the Bible to back up their opposing agendas shows us that the Bible is meaningless.”

I found the essay interesting, especially since it quotes me as a liberation theologian advocating a “Jesus for the left” position that (in my brother-author’s opinion) is no more well-founded than the “Jesus for the right” view. Both are simply matters of bias, he held. Each side merely chooses biblical texts that support its prejudices while ignoring problematic ones that contradict them. The left likes socialism and selects accordingly. The right opposes socialism and does the same thing.

As his remedy, my dialog partner argued for:

  • Reason not the Bible
  • Deism not religion
  • Thomas Paine not Jesus

This Article

What follows here attempts a largely appreciative response to my friend’s argument. In fact, I and most liberation theologians and biblical scholars agree with Paine’s critique of pre-Enlightenment religions founded on the naïve approaches to the Bible enumerated in the article under review.

Nonetheless, I found my friend’s critique did not go far enough. His equation of Jesus- for-the-left with Jesus-for-the-right remains mired in Thomas Paine’s pre-modern approach to biblical texts.

I wish it had gone further. 

I mean my friend’s piece ignored the fact that “Jesus for the left” theology takes seriously relevant discoveries in archeology, history, ancient languages, and in texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls. It wrestles with developments in literary analysis and critical studies involving recognition of diverse literary forms. It does the detective work of redaction criticism that traces down the historical and political reasons for editors’ changes in scrolls over centuries of revision with its additions, omissions, contradictions, and errors.

In other words, Jesus-for-the-left scholarship is founded on scientific method and advances unknown to Thomas Paine and other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, they are also largely ignored by Jesus-for-the-right advocates who as a result remain vulnerable to the criticisms of Paine and my brother author.

Without getting too far into the weeds of modern biblical scholarship, let me show what I mean by first expressing appreciation for Paine’s critique of religion, by secondly illustrating the advances in biblical science since Paine, and thirdly by reflecting on liberation theology as a politically powerful alternative to Paine’s 18th century Deism.

Paine’s Criticism  

A great deal of Thomas Paine’s criticism of traditional religion as understood before the Enlightenment was spot on. That approach to the Bible was unscientific. It understood the Bible as a single book inspired by a single author (viz., God). Before the advent of modern biblical scholarship, the Bible’s interpreters tended to read texts literally as though they were all infallible statements of historical fact. This led to the inanities and contradictions Paine struggled against and which my dialog partner rightly lampooned.

So, as a seeker of truth, Paine could write with reason:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by … any church that I know of . . . All national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. . . Whenever we read the obscene stories . . . with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind. . .The Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world. . . The fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation, by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty.”

Harsh words, no?

However, I don’t know a single liberation theologian who would argue with Paine’s criticism. In fact, it is a principal purpose of liberation theology to free humans from what Paine rightly calls the terror and enslavement of religious forms meant to consolidate the power and profit of the professionally religious. Liberation scholars do so by basing their approach to the Bible on the discoveries of modern scientific scholarship.

Paine would have welcomed both their commitment to science and the revolutionary implications of their work.

Biblical Science

The discoveries in question are myriad and complex.

At the simplest level though, they tell us that what we call “The Bible” (The Book) is not a book at all, but a collection of books – an entire library written by different authors at different times, under vastly different circumstances, and for different and often contradictory purposes involving what we call today “class struggle.” No wonder then that we often find an upper-class God supporting the royal classes with their debaucheries, exploitation of the poor, and bloody wars all fought (as they are today) in the name of their deity.

All of that becomes even more complicated when we realize most of the literary forms within the Bible are far from history as we understand it. Yes, there are “Annals of Kings” (like Saul, David, and Solomon). But those represent the work of court historians whose job was to glorify their employers, not to tell the truth; all of them must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides such “histories” the Bible also contains myth, legend, debate, and fiction. There are letters. There are ancient laws that seem superstitious and ludicrous to moderns. There is poetry and song. There are birth stories and miracle accounts that all follow predetermined patterns. There are prophetic texts and wisdom literature including proverbs, jokes, and plays on words. And then there’s that strange literary form called “apocalypse” which, scholars tell us, was a form of resistance literature written in code during times of foreign occupation and oppression. If all of these are read as history, as statements of fact, or as somehow predicting the future, it’s easy to see how misunderstandings result.

What’s more, virtually all biblical scholars (even the most politically conservative like Josef Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI) tell us that the Bible’s basic story is that of the formation of the Jewish people. And that account, the scholars say, begins not in Eden, but in Egypt and the deliverance of slaves from bondage there. It’s a story of liberation. All the rest is commentary.

The rest is also an account of the struggle between the poor and oppressed on the one hand against the royalty, generals, priests, and scribes on the other who consistently tried to wrest away from the poor a God the privileged wanted to support the elites’ status quo. It was a struggle between the establishment and the prophets who defended the poor as God’s favorites. What we find in the Bible then is a “battle of gods,” a kind of theogony.

According to the scholars I’m referring to, Jesus appeared in the Jewish prophetic tradition. He was a poor man himself – a prophet, a mystic, a storyteller, a healer, a social critic, an opponent of oppression by priests, kings, and emperors. And the one certain thing we know about him was that he offended the Establishment (Rome and its temple and court collaborators) to such an extent that they arrested, tortured, and killed him. Significantly, they used a form of execution reserved for rebels, revolutionaries, and terrorists.

Yes, Jesus was on the side of the poor and oppressed. But close examination of texts shows that even the evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) often altered the Master’s radical pronouncements to suit their own more conservative purposes. Scholars like those in the famous Jesus Seminar have developed criteria for (tentatively) separating the wheat of Jesus’ own words from the chaff of his editors. Liberation theologians avail themselves of such scholarship.  

Alternative to Deism

So, if it’s all so complicated, why not just pitch it all in favor of Paine’s reason and Deism which conceptualizes God as the Great Watchmaker in the sky who set the world spinning according to its own rules and hasn’t been heard from since? Why not just reason everything out abstractly?

To my mind, the answer is because we are human beings. And humans need stories. Perhaps some, like my dialog partner find abstract reason and an even more abstract concept of God more inspiring and helpful. If so, good on them.

But I repeat: most of the rest of us need stories. In fact, many like Nesrine Malik hold that with everything falling apart in our world, we need more not fewer stories.

My reply is that we already have the stories we need. And the ones found in the Bible are shared across the western world and by Islam. We all know those tales. They can bring us together and shed a penetrating transcendent light on issues that plague our world just as they did those of Jews living under foreign imperialism – including Jesus and the early Christians under Rome.

When those issues are confronted in the face of the liberating God of the Exodus or of Jesus and his pronouncements about God’s Kingdom, they can generate the power to move people to revolutionary action.

The experience inspired by liberation theology in Latin America during ‘70s and ‘80s is proof enough of that. Without liberation theology one cannot explain the Nicaraguan revolution, nor similar movements in El Salvador, Brazil, or Argentina. One cannot explain the pink tide that subsequently swept all of Latin America including the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez.

What I’m saying is that liberation theology provides a scientifically based revolutionary potential that Tom Paine would have admired.

(However, it must also be acknowledged that without liberation theology, one cannot explain the rise of the religious right in America and elsewhere in the world. Its Jesus-for-the-right was instrumentalized for reactionary purposes by the Reagan administration precisely to combat liberation theology which was seen by the CIA and State Department as a threat to U.S. national security.

That is, besides inspiring social activism, liberation theology evoked the exact type of persecution and martyrdom suffered by the early church under Rome. Such parallels say a great deal about liberation theology’s authenticity.)    

Conclusion

I hope it is evident from the foregoing that I very much respect what my friend wrote in “Jesus for the Left, Jesus for the Right”. However, I worry about its call to surrender religion and spirituality to right-wing forces. To my mind, there is no more powerful or important ground to defend.

Like the Constitution and American history, spirituality has always been and remains contested terrain. The fact that the left and right have differing interpretations and narratives by no means proves anything about “meaninglessness.”

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The struggle over history’s versions, over the Constitution’s interpretations, and especially over biblical texts only serves to illustrate their importance and the need to approach them with the scientific spirit of Thomas Paine.

Had he been exposed to modern biblical science, I believe Paine would have embraced liberation theology. He may have seen it as his counterpart, Noam Chomsky does in the film clip at the head of this essay. Paine may even have accepted liberation theology as the answer to his prayers.

Critical Race Theory: How Much Should You Tell 13-Year-Olds about U.S. Crimes?

On Thursday, my granddaughter, Eva, left her home in Westport CT – on of our country’s most affluent towns – for a service project in Panama – which has recently returned to the news because of protests and demonstrations there against policies that Panamanians see as caused by the United States.

Eva’s project is called “Amigos,” and bills itself as following:

“Discover AMIGOS is a two-week group volunteer experience for ages 13 and 14. Travel to Panama with a group of students to learn about environmental issues like conservation preserving endangered wildlife! From exploring beaches for turtle eggs to hiking through nature reserves, you’ll earn 30 service hours. See how local youth are getting involved with issues they care about. Enjoy Panama’s unspoiled Pacific beaches and immerse yourself in the tropical forests of the Azuero Peninsula.”

In other words, despite Panama’s current problems, the trip promises to be completely (or at best rather) ahistorical and almost certainly apolitical. And why not? After all, how much should you tell 13-year-olds about what our government has done in places like Panama? Why spoil kids’ beach vacation saving turtles?

And besides, opponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT) would say that early teenagers like Eva are too young to face such harsh realities.

I disagree. So, despite anticipated objections of CRT opponents, I’ve decided to share as much as I know.

That’s because I care too much about my granddaughter to pass by this highly teachable moment. After all, Eva’s already very curious about politics and history. She’s read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. She also watches Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” every day. And we discuss all of that on long walks together (as shown here in a poem I wrote for Eva on her 13th birthday).

With all that in mind, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and have written Eva the following letter. We’ve already discussed it. And I’ve tried to answer my granddaughter’s questions about references she finds obscure.

I wonder, have I gone too far?

Dearest Eva,

I’m so proud of your plan to visit Panama as part of an early teens group going there for two weeks of service and learning. I know you’ll be doing environmental work, living with a local family, and visiting places of interest in Panama. All that makes me even prouder of you than I constantly am.

I also know, Eva, that you are making this trip with pure intention. You’re not going to Panama thinking you’re somehow conferring benefit on or “helping” your hosts. Neither are you traveling south because your parents or some church youth group persuaded you to do so. You’re not going simply because this “service project” will look good on your college applications years from now.

No. Your purpose we’ve agreed, is to continue our project of learning more about the world and how it works. You ‘re already such a good student of those things. You’ve manifested that by following through on your commitment to watching “Democracy Now” every day. Our conversations about what you (and I) have learned from Amy Goodman demonstrate your interest in understanding how the world really works. You want to know what really happened in the past, what’s going on now, and how to do your part in changing the world.

Of course, I join you in those intentions. Again, it’s what we end up talking about so often on our long walks together.

In fact, Panama is an excellent place for gathering the information that will help you grasp what’s happened in the entire Global South for the last 500 years. As Raoul Peck has shown in his film series, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” it’s been a long process characterized by white supremacy, colonization, and slaughter of non-whites.

You know from Howard Zinn that by “colonization” Peck is referring to the system of robbery whereby Europeans and North Americans have invaded countries in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia to steal the natives’ rich lands, gold, silver, minerals, oil, uranium, and other products. Such colonial and imperial theft has been going on since 1492 and is the reason why countries in Europe along with the United States, and Canada are rich, while those robbed of their land and resources by the whites are either dead or left extremely poor.

The shocking fact is that all the world’s poor countries are former colonies of Europeans and North Americans. That tells you something about the entire larcenous process I’m addressing here.

And yes, it’s all involved with white supremacy. I mean the white colonists (or imperialists) from Europe and North America typically have regarded the black and brown people in countries like Panama as inferiors, as “less than,” and even as animals to be exterminated. (I know you’re aware of all that because you’ve read that book your grandma and I gave you years ago, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.)

So, keep what you’ve already learned in mind as you work in Panama. It represents a classic case illustrating the imperial and colonial practice of (1) Using force to steal land including entire continents and transferring the riches involved to the “Mother Country,” (2) governing the stolen countries through collaborating (usually white) puppet “presidents” who represent the country’s rich elite 10% (again, usually white) while the poor non-white majority is left in slums, poblaciónes, favelas, and impoverished barrios, (3) replacing the puppets by rigged elections or even assassination should they institute programs that actually help the countries’ poor brown and black majorities by providing benefits such as universal health care, free education, decent housing, low food prices, and guaranteed jobs.  (The process of replacement is called “coup d’état” or “regime change”).

Now, think about how that process evolved in Panama. There, U.S. imperialists actually created the country out of nothing back in 1903. It was then that the Colombian government refused to sell to the U.S. the part of its country which eventually became Panama. Responding to the refusal, President Theodore Roosevelt simply sponsored a “rebellion” of secession against Colombia and immediately recognized the breakaway section as a new country (now controlled by the United States as described above).

And why was the U.S. so interested in Panama? What did it have to offer? Look at a map, and you’ll see.

Panama happens to be located at the thinnest point between the North American continent (including Mexico and Central America). That means that it was an ideal place for digging a shipping canal that would help European and U.S. merchants, adventurers, and “gold rushers” obviate the need to sail all the way around the southern tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego) to reach California. This became extremely important after the 1849 discovery of gold there (on land btw stolen from Mexico whose Spanish colonizers (i.e., thieves) had in turn stolen it from the continent’s indigenous).

Well, the poorer people of Panama didn’t much like that. So, they often rebelled. But their uprisings were consistently defeated by the United States military which installed a large military base on the isthmus to keep the “peace” (i.e., U.S. control). The base was called Fort Sherman and was commissioned till 1999.

The United States also maintained “The School of the Americas” in Panama from 1946 until it was expelled from the country in 1984. In that year pressure from Panamanians forced its relocation to Fort Benning, Georgia. The school trained military officers from all over Latin America as a violent and often brutal insurance policy against the frequent rebellions of poor people against what they saw as exploitative U.S. control of their bodies and work.

One of those rebellions occurred in Panama in 1968. It was then that Omar Torrijos unseated a U.S. puppet and proceeded to change the country’s economy to help Panama’s long-disadvantaged lower classes. He also pressed the United States to cede ownership and control of the Panama Canal to Panamanians instead of the United States. That happened in 1999.

For his efforts, Torrijos was classified by the United States as a “dictator.” Still, because he was so popular with the Panamanian majority, he managed to remain in power till 1981 when he was killed in a plane “accident.” Insiders like John Perkins say the tragedy was engineered by the U.S. government. Perkins should know. He secretly worked for U.S. intelligence agencies (linked to the CIA) specifically charged with thwarting democratic tendencies in Latin America. His work assured continued United States control in places such as Panama. Conveniently, all CIA records about the Torrijos’ crash have somehow been lost.

Torrijos was succeeded by a long-time CIA asset called Manuel Noriega reputedly connected to the Torrijos plane crash as well as to Panama’s flourishing drug trade. But strangely, once in power, Noriega continued his predecessor’s programs aiding Panama’s poorest.

Noriega remained in power from 1983 to 1991. At that time, the United States decided Noriega had outlived his usefulness. So, he was reclassified from CIA asset and ally to a hideous drug dealer whose regime needed changing.

But how did the U.S remove Noriega from power? They bombed an entire neighborhood of Panama’s poorest who had benefitted from the Torrijos reforms. The barrio is called El Chorillo. The bombing killed at least 2000 mostly brown and black people (some say as many as 10,000) and created 15,000 homeless refugees – all, they alleged, in order to remove one man from power. Critics however say it was also intended to test new weapons systems on live people.

In any case, a subsequent “new order” in Panama restored to power the usual suspects (white affluent businessmen) who returned to the United States de facto control of the Panama Canal.

Chief among the businesses controlling Panama is Chiquita Banana (formerly called United Brands and United Fruit). Founded in Boston in 1870, it has controlled (exploited) Central America ever since. In fact, throughout Central America Chiquita is referred to as “the Octopus,” because in all the “Banana Republics” (Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama) the firm has its hands in everything. It controls who’s elected president and how long presidents remain in power. It controls wages, the living conditions of its workers, their education, health care, etc.  

Panama is also an infamous center of high finance. It has become a tax haven for businesses from all over the world. This means that such firms can avoid paying taxes at home by “legally” setting up fictitious offices (often mere post-office boxes) as their headquarters in Panama where taxes are kept very low. All of that was confirmed in 2016 by the publication of “The Panama Papers” detailing widespread crime, corruption, and wrongdoing by Panamanians and outside investors backed by the U.S. government.

There’s so much more to say about all of this, dear Eva. But this will have to do for now. If you want more, you should read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and/ or The American Trajectory Divine or Demonic? by Process Theology’s David Ray Griffin (pages 328-332), and/or Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism (chapter nine).

With all of this in mind, as you get the opportunity, please ask your teachers and guides in Panama about these matters. You might also share these insights with any friends you happen to make there in your Amigos group.

But I’ll bet you this: even the leaders of your adventure probably won’t know this story in as much detail as I’ve shared with you. Panama’s history (and history in general) is way more complicated and shocking than our “teachers” are willing to admit. They’ll never tell you that “our” wealth has been based on the transfer of resources from the world’s poor to the coffers of largely white bankers and businessmen. They’ll never admit that the United States has been an unrelenting force of hardship and oppression in the Global South. They’ll never tell you the unvarnished history of countries like Panama.

But now you know the rest of the story. You’re now in position to employ your sharp research skills to first of all check out the veracity of what I’ve shared here. Then having done so, you can ask questions and weigh the “experts’” responses.

Needless to say, I look forward to our discussing all of this and your experience when you return home in a couple of weeks.

Till then, have a great time in Panama. Make friends. Keep your eyes open. And if you can, visit El Chorillo. That would be much more interesting than the tour I’m sure they have planned for you.

With great love,

Baba

Eva’s Public Reading of Her Non-Fiction Piece

I know you won’t be able to hear the words Eva (my dear 13-year-old granddaughter) is speaking in the above video. It was “captured” second or third hand from a computer mic. Sorry about that. (But don’t worry, the words she’s reading appear in print below.)

Despite its problems, I include the video just to give an idea of the way Eva looked making her presentation at the final event of her three-week writing workshop at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Camp. Isn’t she lovely?

Students picked their favorite piece (poetry, nonfiction, fiction, drama) and read it aloud to their colleagues and teachers. (If you look hard down in the right hand corner of the video, you’ll see my bride, Peggy (Eva’s proud grandma), looking on. Peggy is sitting next to her college roommate (Eva’s ‘Aunt Micki’) from so many years ago at Central Michigan University.

In any case, I share below the text of Eva’s nonfiction work about her none-too-happy experiences at sleepaway camp in Maine. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when I heard the words without the recording’s distortions.

Summer Camp Reflection

When I was eight, my parents shipped me off to seven weeks of sleepaway camp in Poland, Maine. I hated it. Breakfast, lunch and dinner consisted of cubes of uncooked tofu. Cubes. I only had one friend. For privacy purposes, let’s call her Hazel. She was a good friend. She hugged me when I cried, she accompanied me to the activities I hated. When she met me, I was shy and sad. Over the course of five years, however, I changed. But she didn’t leave me. She stayed with me for each horrible year of sleepaway camp. I wrote her parents letters for her because she didn’t like writing them, and she gave me her dessert so that I had more than just tofu. We ate candy in secret, sitting on a hidden rock by the cold, murky lake, even though we weren’t allowed. We were good friends. But I wasn’t happy at that camp. I felt sad every day. And so, after five years, I made the decision to switch camps. And here I am. But I left Hazel alone. She didn’t love the camp. I left Hazel alone. She stayed with me even when I couldn’t stop crying. 

“It’s okay, Eva. Only 50 days left.” She would tell me.

I would take a shaky breath, and we would skip our activity and go to our special rock to eat candy and talk about everything we wish we could be doing. “Thank you.” I told her.

“That’s what friends are for!” She would always say.

But I left Hazel by herself. Now, she sits alone on that rock, watching the lake hit the shoreline, the water spraying her with white foam, eating candy and humming a tune to herself. Or maybe she found a new Eva. One she likes better. Maybe she doesn’t miss me the way I miss her. Maybe the new Eva doesn’t cry as much. Or maybe the new Eva would rather go to Marksmanship than read a book. Or maybe the new Eva doesn’t exist.

My Granddaughter’s First Sonnett

Eva with her proud grandparents

My 13-year-old granddaughter, Eva, has spent the first three weeks of her summer vacation at the famous arts camp in Interlochen, Michigan. She’s really enjoying her high-level introduction to writing poetry, autobiographical reflections, and fiction.

On this blog, I’ve written about Eva and our relationship several times — most revealingly, I think, in a poem I wrote to her on her 13th birthday.

I’m so proud of this young woman and cherish the conversations we share as we frequently take our exercise in morning walks. We always end up sitting by the Saugatuck River consuming treats from Starbucks.

In any case, Eva is a writer with ambitions to eventually pursue a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing at Princeton (her father’s university) or Wellesley (her mother’s alma mater).

However, at this point, she’s just getting started though the instruction she’s received at Pierrepont School here in Westport, CT has been excellent. It has prepared her well for Interlochen.

During my nearly 14-year conversation with my granddaughter, Eva has evidenced more interest in creative prose rather than poetry. “Poetry’s just not my thing,” she’s told me more than once.

So, you can imagine my surprise when during the first week at Interlochen she waxed enthusiastic about her poetry classes. She shared with me her first sonnet. Its topic was to be some personal experience. Eva chose to write about witnessing the birth of her 4th brother, Sebastian 3 years ago.

Here’s what she wrote:

Sonnet:
I saw a new life come into the world

It was a magical experience;

A small red baby with his fingers curled,

His vision blurred and brain delirious.

It made my eyes shine with watery tears

And my body feel a sense of wonder;

His skin is as soft as small rabbit ears,

I whisper to my mom how I love her,

And how proud I am of her good effort.

She smiles at me and says it’s not the first

Also babies always make her head hurt;

But after the baby had bathed and nursed,

And to our fam’ly friends we said farewell

My mom let me name him, Sebastian Nels.

Over the next few days, I’ll share two other pieces Eva has written at Interlochen — one a personal reflection, the other a work of fiction.

In Memoriam: Gustavo Esteva (1936-2022)

The world lost a great prophet last week. Peggy and I lost a great friend and mentor. He died of Covid-19 in Oaxaca, Mexico, his hometown.

No doubt, Gustavo would be shocked by my characterizing him as a prophet. After all, he always claimed to be an atheist. He was a harsh critic of the Catholic Church — and all religions for that matter.

Gustavo was once an IBM executive, and an official high-up in the Mexican government. At one time he was also a revolutionary guerrilla. But for many years, he called himself “a de-professionalized intellectual and itinerant story-teller.” He’s the founder of an alternative university (Unitierra). He also authored more than 30 books, among them Grassroots Postmodernism and Escaping Education.

Nonetheless, I’ll stick with my assertion: he was a prophet – not in the sense of a forecaster of future events, but of a powerful voice for Truth, which some of us still insist on calling “God.”

In the presence of someone like that, you can imagine the transcendent conversations we had around our dinner table each time Peggy and I got together with him in Berea (Kentucky) – sometimes with dear friends listening in and sharing. At others, it was just the three of us.  Invariably, we talked of almost nothing else but politics, literature, spirituality, and the direction of history.

Among Gustavo’s most outstanding roles was the position he occupied as advisor to the Zapatista revolutionaries. Perhaps you remember them. They were the Native Americans who on January 1, 1994 captured the imagination of Mexico (and many of us outside) when their lightly armed military forces occupied five Mexican towns around San Cristobal in the state of Chiapas.

They were protesting the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they said spelled the death of their culture and way of life. Their courageous “Indian Uprising” made them instant international heroes. So did their eventual abandonment of armed struggle in favor of non-violent resistance.

With Gustavo’s blessings, on more than one occasion, Peggy and I led Berea College students into Zapatista communities to experience their radically counter-cultural lives firsthand.

According to the Zapatistas, women were leading the way they had embarked upon.  In fact, 60% of their army commanders were women.

The importance of women’s leadership was the heart of the extraordinary convocation I remember Gustavo giving at the beginning of his “scholar-in-residence” stint at Berea College. It was a theme to which he returned often during his many classes and lectures there. Women are leading the way, he said, into the “other world” that is not only possible but required if our planet is to survive.

Our threatened survival is where Gustavo always started. He said our world stands in a position of unprecedented danger. It is threatened by climate chaos, oligarchical governments, tremendous wealth disparities, an economic system that simply doesn’t work, schools and communications media that propagandize rather than inform, and by an emerging and universal police state with its system of perpetual war that (suicidally) defends the status quo. Under the present world order, the line between governments, the military, the police, and the judiciary on the one hand and the criminals and thugs on the other has completely disappeared. Not a pretty picture.

During that general convocation I mentioned, Gustavo held us all spell bound as he outlined the seven principles to guide us out of the morass just described. The principles represent the North Star that guided not only the Zapatista movement, but Gustavo’s entire life. In fact, the Zapatista principles call into question our entire way of life.

Here they are as Gustavo explained them:

  1. To serve others, not self. For Zapatistas, the goal of life was the common good, not the accumulation of money or power.
  2. To represent, not supplant. The Zapatista model of revolution was not the seizure of power (supplanting one government with its mirror image), but the representation of the majority without reproducing old relationships of domination.
  3. To construct, not destroy. The Zapatistas taught that the new order could not be built upon violence.
  4. To obey, not command. However, the Zapatista model of obedience was never that of servant to master or of soldier to comandante. It was that of mother to her infant child.
  5. To convince, not to win. As taught by Gustavo, the Zapatista way centralized respectful dialog based not primarily on logical argument, but supplementing logic with intuition derived from the experience of life.
  6. To propose, not impose. Imposition represented the violence rejected by Zapatismo.
  7. To go down, not up. For Zapatistas the geography of social discourse and action had changed. Old categories of left and right, conservative and liberal were no longer applicable. The new more relevant topography directed our gaze up and down, north and south – to recognize the gap between the one percent and the rest of us.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed Gustavo’s convocation message of cooperation, non-violence, care, and acceptance. During the Q&A following his principal address, a particularly articulate young man posed a question that must have been on the minds of many “exceptionalist Americans” in the audience.

“You’ve described a rather bleak world, Gustavo,” the young man said. “But surely, you’re talking about a reality outside the United States. After all, here we enjoy extraordinary freedom and prosperity. That’s shown by the fact that so many foreigners are anxious to come to America. Isn’t that true?”

Gustavo responded, “I have bad news for you, my friend. The United States you describe is fast disappearing and is harder and harder to find. Your country with its pot-holed highways, homeless beggars, and falling bridges increasingly resembles what you call the “Third World.”

“And that’s the purpose of your politicians’ New World Order – to create a reality where we’re all racing to the bottom, while they enjoy the cream on top. Unfortunately, that cream is also fast evaporating. Soon the system benefitting the 1% will collapse entirely. (In fact, it’s happening before our very eyes.)  There is simply no exception to the collapse I’ve described. To save ourselves we have no alternative to a complete change of guidelines and world vision. The Zapatista principles I’ve just described, and which centralize women’s ways of knowing show us the way.”

That’s how real prophets talk. They’re usually right. This time however the warning was planetary and universal.

All of that is why I called Gustavo Esteva a prophet and why Peggy and I will miss his powerful voice, friendship, and guidance.  His words still echo from his newly turned grave.

Will we listen before it’s too late?

Thank you, Gustavo for all you gave us! 

A Close Call on I 95: A New Normal?

Last week Peggy and I took off from our home in Westport, CT to Clearwater Beach FLA where we’ll be snow-birding till the beginning of April. We’ve rented a condo in the Regatta Beach Club in North Clearwater. Such is octogenarian privilege (for some).

On the way, however, we ran into a dangerous snowstorm in the Washington D.C. area. It turned out to be truly frightening in a way that likely portends a new normal of systemic breakdown in the face of climate change and the inability and/or unwillingness of government to respond to associated problems.

Here’s what happened.

As we drove down I 95 on the outskirts of D.C., downed trees inhibited passage all along the way. Fallen trees overburdened by a wet snowfall blocked entire lanes while the rest of the highway was covered with snow, ice, and slush. Such conditions and innumerable accidents (with many cars stuck in the median) reduced highway passage to a crawl. There was not an emergency vehicle in sight.

Then suddenly everything stopped completely. Unbeknownst to anyone, a huge accident involving long-haul trailers lay some miles ahead. At least one of the truck drivers was trapped inside his tractor and had to be extricated by emergency crews. The process took hours.

Peggy and I were part of the lineup for about 5 hours – crawling forward only occasionally at less than a snail’s pace.

Luckily, our crawl eventually took us near an exit. On cellphone advice from our son, Patrick, we decided to leave the traffic jam then and there. We could see that there were several motels in the vicinity. We drove towards them, leaving the highway for a service road.

However, we found all the lodgings in darkness with empty parking lots. Evidently, electrical service had been lost to the entire area. And now we were on an uncleared side road and in danger of getting stuck in the snow with no one around to help. With difficulty, we made it back to the highway.

Peggy then secured a room for us via her Hilton app at a Comfort Inn about 20 miles from I 95. She also phoned ahead to confirm the reservation. The first words she heard from the motel desk were, “Thank you for calling Comfort Inn. All rooms are taken this evening. None are available.”

Peggy responded, “Yes, but I’ve just made a reservation online and it was accepted. Please check your records.”

“Oh, yes, here it is,” came the response. “You got the last available room.”

Relieved, we arrived at the Inn and were in bed by midnight.

The next morning, we found out how unbelievably fortunate we had been. I 95 was still closed and would remain so for most of the day. Many people, we read, had been forced to abandon their unheated cars now out of gas or electrical charge. They had to walk through the ice and snow to – who knows where?

The highway was closed for most of the next day. [Can you imagine the complications involved in removing (and retrieving) all those abandoned cars?]

Meanwhile, Peggy and I were able to continue towards Florida on secondary roads. It took us an extra day to reach our destination. But we were so much more fortunate than those other stranded motorists.

It was a close call indeed – for us, but a real tragedy for so many others.

However, the whole affair made us reflect on what promises to be a new normal. It demonstrates the inability of laissez-faire government to deal even with comparatively minor and predictable emergencies, much less with major ones looming on the climate-chaos horizon.  For instance:

  • Virginia governor Ralph Northam refused to deploy the National Guard to help stranded motorists by clearing even a single lane to safety – or to distribute food, blankets, and information.
  • More specifically, despite unprecedented communications technology at their disposal (including at the very least helicopters with loudspeakers) motorists were left without basic information about the severity and likely time span of their situation.
  • They were stranded without means of mass transportation at highway exists to bring them to safety and warming centers which did not become available till noon the next day.
  • At the most basic level, highway crews left entire lanes blocked by fallen trees on I 95 for more than 24 hours despite possessing the machinery for debris removal.

All of this raises questions about government and its purpose in the face of (once again) entirely predictable and more severe emergencies ahead. As one stranded motorist put it, “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

Get ready, this promises to be the new normal. Evidently, despite our tax dollars and the predictability of emergencies much worse than the I 95 occurrence, we’re all on our own.

In Memoriam: Our Dear Friend, bell hooks (1952-2021)

Yesterday (December 15, 2021) 
The world lost a great seer. 
My wife, Peggy, and I 
Lost a dear friend
And colleague
At Berea College
Too soon.

bell hooks was brilliant.
She lit up the world
And Jackson Street
No less 
Just down from our place
There in Central Kentucky.

Countless times 
She graced our kitchen table
Over 15 years together 
Just the 3 of us
Breaking Peggy’s French bread
Or at larger gatherings 
On special occasions.

bell introduced Berea
To Cornel West
In a living room soiree
I’ll not forget
And to Laverne Cox
And Emma Watson.
bell was a celebrity too
Beyond any of them
But you'd never know it.

Always up 
For deep conversation 
About issues,
Feminism for everyone 
And liberation,
The sprite in her
Found yet more energy 
For gossip and trash talk.
She was nothing
If not great fun.

“Let’s recite our favorite poems” 
She’d suggest.
Or “talk about 
Our romantic relationships,”
She’d grin
With that wicked twinkle
In her mischievous eyes.

And we’d obey.
We did!
Poems one after another.
And one night
At that kitchen table 
In darkness
Relieved by candlelight
Eight or so grave professors
Bared secrets
About just that
Our romances!
Can you imagine?
Extraordinary and memorable.
And so she was.

bell showed it 
In her books and lectures
That changed the world.
Didn’t they?
Didn't she?
They transformed
Berea College students,
And all who read and heard
Across the planet.
They changed me and Peggy.

More than anything however, 
bell hooks was a seeker
With infinite energy
For prayer and meditation
And the goddess
Understood as Pure Love
Absolutely forgiving
Creator of a world
With room for everyone
Feminist or not
..
So, rest in peace
Dear friend,
And sister
Dear teacher
And prophet.
Dear author
And speaker,
Dear fellow traveler
And seeker.
Diminutive giant of a woman,
We love you,
Dearest bell.
We are grateful
For your gifts
And most of all,
For your 
Rare goddess grace.