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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One-Eyed Jacks-i

'In Mortal Sin,' which Wilson Blass and Paulo Quevedo are co-producing, might probably benefit from some of the publicity surrounding the telegenic Roman Catholic priest Alberto Cutié (see the promotional poster at right.)
In a recent conversation, the Puerto Rican playwright/director gave us some background. In the play, Juan de Dios (Quevedo) falls in love with Milagros (Pinzón) and struggles on whether to maintain his devotion to God or his earthly affection to the woman.
Certainly nothing out of this world, and hard from a novelty.
In fact, Blass himself makes the point that his play is based on the real life stories of two Roman Catholic priests (both known to Cutié, not necessarily at a personal level.) One of them is a known university professor, says Blass, who left the priesthood to marry and eventually divorced the woman, not before tormenting and berating her for having caused his downfall.
In a previous incarnation of his as a reporter for a syndicated program on one of the major Spanish TV networks, says Blass, he was contacted by police. They wanted him to help them lure the other priest, whom at the time they suspected to be a pedophile, into a solicitation charge. Because he wasn't wired to register the conversation, Blass adds, he opted to warn the priest that they were being watched and later told police that the priest had actually advised him to leave the area, as it was a known place for homosexual encounters.
Some time later, that second priest was murdered by members of a teenage gang.
You'll have to watch the play at the Byron Carlyle to see how Blass ties this all up.
Some of this obviously resembles Cutié's story. The clandestine sexual relation. The dilemma of serving the Church or loving the woman. Unknown to most, says Blass, is that Cutié was the first to read the play and approve of it. Most striking is his assertion (belief, perhaps) that the play itself may have somehow pushed Cutié towards engaging in the behavior that ultimately has brought him to where he is right now:
"He projected himself (on the script.) It was his own life (that he was reading about,) without my being aware at all that it was so."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One-Eyed Jacks

It was the only film that Marlon Brando directed.
Nowadays, many probably consider it a forerunner of the so-called Spaghetti-westerns that would make Clint Eastwood a familiar name all over the world.
Back then in the early '60s when I first saw the movie, as it usually happened with most films one of my interests was to find out what was hidden behind the title. ‘One-Eyed Jacks’ clearly did not translate to ‘El Rostro Impenetrable,’ a fact that kind of made it a challenge for me to settle the question.
Close but no cigar, might actually be the best way to describe the translator’s approximation to the conceptual part on the title.
As any movie fan knows, it comes from the line that Brando's character tells to the one played by Karl Malden: “You're a one-eyed jack around here, Dad, but I have seen the other side of your face." They both were, which explains the plural jacks.
The allusion is to the jack of hearts and the jack of spades in a deck of cards.
And because we know of their common history, we understand better what Brando's character is telling Malden's.
The recent controversy around the Puerto Rican-born priest Alberto Cutié brought the Brando movie to my mind.
Not that I am moralizing, condemning or absolving here. The point is, I think, that whether we like it or not, however we may approach the controversy, there is no more one-eyed jack around, we have all now seen the hidden face.
We all know too that Cutié’s story is not unique.
What may be surprising to many is the apparent link between Cutié and ‘In Mortal Sin,' the play soon to be staged at the Byron Carlyle theater in Miami Beach.
Mexican soap-opera actor Paulo Quevedo (who starred in Doña Bárbara) and Alejandra Pinzón (Colombian, one of the main characters in Sin Senos No Hay Paraíso), both pictured here, star in the drama written and directed by Puerto-Rican Wilson Blass.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Forever February

Februaries have always been good to me. Not that I've ever been particularly fond of blanket statements but there you have it: as far as months go, Februaries have always been good to me.
Let's see.
My mother was born on a February (how much credit should I take for that making it a good-for-me-month it's debatable, but read on.)
It is also the birth month for the youngest of my three children: coincidentally perhaps, born one day shy of the date, eight years before, when I first saw the brightest and prettiest eyes that once loved me the most, her mother’s.
February is when the attack happened.
I’ve always thought of it as the month of rebirth for my second child, barely a few weeks over seven months old when the two gunmen came to the house.
One of them snatched the baby off the nanny's arms, pushed the teenager to the ground, kicked the front door wide open and —shielding himself, perhaps, with the tiny body— joined his companion in shooting the place.
"Afterwards, my father cried like a baby," my wife later said. The gunmen had carried out the obviously intimidatory attack unaware that he was inside the house, and armed with a snub-nosed .38.
He had been unaware that one of the attackers was shielding himself with the baby. In finding that out later, he couldn't bear the thought that in shooting back, he had risked harming her, not the gunmen.

Those are some of the reasons why Februaries have been good to me. Optimist that I am, I'd probably say the same for any other month.
After all, it's not only Februaries where, once the event is gone, you realize that life’s still around just because something that's not precisely definable prevented things that would have put you in harm's way.
Roll back to just a few weeks before the attack, in November.
Early in the morning on a slow day for news, we are invited to join friends on a trip to
Guatemala. The invitation's actually for my bureau chief, who's to meet his brother returning from a private visit to the United States
. He inquires if I can tag along and the answer is yes.
Departure time: “We’ll let you know,” he is told, with the understanding that we’ll probably be boarding sometime in mid-afternoon or early evening.
This is the era before cellular telephony and though portable (car-mounted) phones and radios were already in use, neither one is available to us. Time passes, and as lunch time approaches, we board my friend's old VW microbus.
He’ll drop me home and we'll both be back at the office in the afternoon to take care of whatever news develops, and also wait for the phone call to head to the airport.
As luck would have it, some unexpected traffic jam diverts us from our usual route to the Boulevard de los Héroes, for many years now bustling with shops, cafes and restaurants with outdoor terraces.
As we past Manolo's just across the median, I tell my friend, "Let's stop for a bite." The u-turn is just a couple of blocks away. As we approach it, my friend asks: “What if they call?” He answers himself: “Nah, they said departure time mid-afternoon, let’s go.”
So we stop at Manolo's and 'a bite' turns into a rather moderately long lunch, ice-cold beer poured into frosty mugs to help us both wash down the food.
We finally make it home. Because it’s not too far away from his, I walk to the house I am heading to and as soon as I enter, the phone rings: “They called. Take-off is about now, think we can make it?” my friend asks. “Call them and find out," I say.
He does, but it’s too late. I usually make fun of the manner in which we in my native country usually reply to queries of, “Are they still there?” The answer will invariably be, “Acaban de salir, si se apura los alcanza.” (They just left, if you hurry up you’ll catch up with them not too far away.)
Most likely, the “just left” happened long ago enough for the people you are looking for to have returned.
Not this time, though.
On approach to the Guatemalan capital national airport, the plane crashes and our friends, all of our friends on board, are killed.
It’s hard to think of the disaster as an accident, given the experience and skill of the pilot. At the same time difficult to pinpoint as the product of sabotage. And if that was the case, were we, my colleague and I, also targets of the attack?
Can’t answer that, I fear. Whatever the answer may be, for me one thing it’s clear: goodness or kindness is not, should not be attributable to months.
So hear or read my introductory assertion as God has always been good to me in Februaries, always good no matter what the month, day or year.
I probably don't deserve it but hey, who am I to buck His will?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Monsignor and Me-i

In time I will be blogging about subjects other than things from the past but as you may understand, when you have 40-plus years of work to think about there is plenty to remember. Not all of it is good not everything is bad. There are things that even now I wish I had done differently. I could be of course speaking for just about everybody and not just myself.
There is an element of pride in remembering where I was at a certain point in time and how I reacted to things. But there is also a distinctive touch of humility that comes with it.
Allow me please to explain.
Just a glance to the reprint of the interview with monsignor Romero, that you can see in my previous post, shows a number of mistakes that I have regreted since the original time of publication. The opening sentence: "Cualquier persona que conozca..." I would have liked to substitute for: "Cualquiera que conozca..." To say the least.
And just immediately after, beginning the second graph, there is also another glaring mistake that basically made me cringe when I first read it: "Y es que no hay motivo..." I wrote. My mother, who taught me a lot about writing, was certainly not responsible for that one.
At the time of reprint, I could very well have asked that some of the mistakes I had noticed were amended. I can honestly tell you this: the thought never entered my mind. Then, as now, the pride is not enough I hope to make me vain. In short, neither the clippings nor my present writing am I offering as perfection. This is me, then, warts and all.
You will naturally look at pictures from years past. An "I was there" kind of statement, should the reproduction of newspaper clippings not be enough to convince you. The pix on the right is one of those. I am at the foot of the stairs with three other Salvadoran journalists on our way to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It was the first flight from El Salvador to the neighboring nation since 1969, when both countries fought in what came to be known as the "soccer war".
Newspapering, journalism in general, abounds in examples of not too careful writing.
On ocassions, specially when working for a wire service, where your story has to be ready for transmission before the competition can send theirs, the rush to beat them sometimes compounds the mistakes. Your goal is to get the facts straight, get them fast, and put them out the fastest with no mistakes —or as few mistakes as possible.
As we all know, that doesn't always happen. The dispatch reproduced at top left is but another example: to the writing mistakes in the original story, as published on Wednesday 26 March, 1980, in the Mexican daily Excelsior, you can also add the repetition of a phrase at the end of graphs 13, 14, and 15. Whether it was me, my editors, or the typesetters at Excelsior that made the mistake, no one can now tell.
Mind you, the way you wrote your story and filed it from a Thirld World country in turmoil like El Salvador was not specially conducive to perfection. You composed and edited your story on humongous machines whose keyboard you banged with all the strenght your fingers could muster if you wanted to put out an "idiot tape" that would give you a five-by-five readout.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Monsignor and Me

Back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when I was a Washington, D.C.-based foreign correspondent for one of the three main wire services that I worked for during my many years as journalist, a top State Department official used to say that relations between countries should not be viewed as a snapshot, but rather like a movie.
The same can be said of course about life itself.
The fact that the official used this argument to sometimes avoid answering a controversial issue does not rest validity to his point, which in my opinion he had brought to the context of international relations from some other discipline.
Many times and for different reasons I constantly remind myself of such a view. Occasionally, it comes to mind rather forcefully. Such has been the case in the past few weeks, while looking over old papers and files and remembering some of the issues I have written about and some of the people I have known or interviewed.
One of those people is Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated by a sniper on 24 March, 1980, while officiating mass in remembrance of the deceased mother of another Salvadoran journalist, Jorge Pinto h.
I quote the view held by the former State Department official because of the picture I am posting here. It's the scanned page of the interview that "el Padre Romero" (as most Roman Catholics in El Salvador called him, even when he was already Monsignor Romero) granted me back in 1977, a few days after his formally assuming his new position. Originally published on 6 March, 1977, it was reprinted on 30 March, 1980, the day thousands congregated outside the National Cathedral in San Salvador to attend his funeral.
In future posts I will reminisce some more about Romero. If a life, especially in cases like that of monsignor Romero, shouldn't be judged solely by that one instant in time when something was said or done, what about the opposite? What if your views are firm and solid and remain, no matter what? Shouldn’t that snapshot account as a total reflection of your lifework.
Among the many people that loudly denounced his murderers there were, I am sure, some of those who in the early months of his fated tenure as an archbishop referred to him as “the old son of a bitch" for his refusal to embrace their radical positions.
Neither the people who opposed him and probably rejoiced on his death nor the radicals who hounded him probably ever listened to what Romero held true. As you read in the interview, I asked him whether there was in fact a "new Church."
His answer may have been equivocal to some but it was clear for anybody to understand: "The Church is perennial. The Church is always the same: a Church that extends Christ's mission in the world."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The General and Me

The scattering of patrons was the first signal to us that something was amiss. Like that rustle of leaves you hear in the forest, when there is nobody else but you out for a stroll to enjoy the solitude and every step you take makes the little creatures scamper and run for cover.
Next it was Paola and her friend who had joined us at the table for a drink and in hearing the commotion, glanced back at the entrance door and, faster than you can even think to ask “What the hell's going on?” both got up, mumbled something unintelligible and headed to wherever exotic dancers go when they are not occupied trying to fleece you.
While we might have then qualified as good ol’ boys, the Club Safari was not one of our usual haunts. Fact is, we had not been there before and after that night, were never again to visit while it was still in business. Had it not been for the fact that my colleague and coworker had earlier made Paola's acquaintance —one of those chance encounters where you exchange pleasantries, find out what the other one does and let time and opportunity decide whether to pursue a second meeting— we might have very well stayed true to the usual after work routine: clock out, hail a cab, and head for the joint where the beer was cold, the appetizers tasty, the food plentiful, and everybody knew your name (that one is from Cheers, I know, so sue me!)
You talked shop, pondered immortality, ate enough to keep alive, and drank not to oblivion but enough to get a buzz and be grateful that you were riding cabs and not driving. That way, you didn't have to worry about the stalking national policemen out to extort anybody on the streets, whether you were young and dumb enough to be at the wheel after having a couple (or more than a couple) of drinks or just an anguished father rushing to the nearest drugstore on duty.
To this day my friend and I still wonder why we didn’t follow the scattering patrons.
As I recall, we got to the place around midnight. It had been one of those spur of the moment decisions you take after suddenly deciding that the night's still young and why head home just now. It’s early, we used to say, sun’s not up yet!
It was also a Friday, which by that time everybody had started calling L'il Saturday: Sábado Chiquito. A testament I think to the power of advertising, where the nickname originated at about the same time that Chepe Toño (the character that promoted the more popular alcoholic drink made out of sugarcane) set house in Salvadoran lore —once he did, you never again invited a friend to go out for a drink, you went to “get a Chepe Toño,” that is “a echarnos un Chepe Toño!”
How and why that type of stuff stays on we might talk about it some other day. However it happens, what's clear is that you just don't improve on such sayings just like that. Somebody tells you on a Thursday how grateful we need to be because it is "Almost Friday" (Cachi Viernes) and it sounds contrived, just won't stick.
In time, I came to realize that we were both (my friend and I) being watched over and protected more than we probably deserved. God, it is said, takes care of children, drunkards, and fools. We were certainly not drunk and way past the age of innocence but we certainly qualified at that precise moment as fools. Read on.
“Better you both take cover. It’s the general,” Paola told my friend, who got up to inquire about the ruckus while she was safely hidden behind a column. So were the waiters, the dancers, the bouncers, and all the other patrons. Except for the two of us still sitting and nursing our drinks, all other tables and chairs were empty.
By "the general" she meant José Alberto "El Chele" Medrano. It was the early 70s and while both my coworker and I knew well enough who "the general" was, neither had ever made the general's acquaintance.
You didn't have to work in a newspaper or even read the newspaper to know who "the general" was. Fame and notoriety surrounded him.
The pix here shows him leading a column of national guardsmen at the time of the war between El Salvador and Honduras, in 1969. I've always thought that it was staged. Were you to look at the original you might notice even more how Medrano's boots are rather shiny, odd if it's rainy weather in the countryside. Unseen is the .357 Magnum revolver he was usually photographed with, in a holster across his chest.
Back in the days when "death squad" had still not made its entry into the political lexicon in El Salvador, Medrano was reputed to be one of the earliest founders or sponsors of such groups. A “death squadder” was still someone you only associated with the sordid and clandestine campaign of annihilation of marxist urban guerrillas or common criminals in South American countries. As you can see from the reminiscence here by the veteran journalist Francisco Romero Cerna (Don Chico, to most everybody) there was a lot to be fearful of or at least apprehensive about were you ever to cross “El Chele” Medrano.
Fact is, as per Paola's rushed and hushed warning to her friend, my coworker, that night, you didn't even have to cross "the general". Most of the patrons that night at the night club were regulars, therefore familiar with his coming into the club, drunk as a skunk, and fire away his weapon. Was anybody ever injured during such a display? My guess is that all the scattering patrons would rather not stay put to find out.
“What do you think, shall we scamper away? She thinks, and so does her dancer friend, that we ought to,” said my friend.
“Too late now for that,” I replied, as “the general” made his entrance into the lounge, dutifully holding his .357 Magnum on his right hand and followed by his bodyguards, who promptly cased the joint to make sure that no one would dare confront or threaten the old soldier.
Even Salvadoran teetotalers can precisely distinguish the different stages of drunkenness. “Picado” is the equivalent of “a buzz”, and “zapatón” (roughly, flatfooted) defines the guy who’s actually well imbibed but lucid enough to realize that he is, at the same time trying to prevent his listing to either side by stomping rather than walking.
As soon as we saw him head to our table, we both realized that Medrano was neither “picado” nor “zapatón” or even “dead drunk”. He was actually as it is said “on autopilot”, the palimpsest stage of alcoholism evidenced not by the unsteady walk or the stench of alcohol, but rather by the nothingness behind the dark and bloodshot eyes.
“Good evening, general, sir," I greeted him, as Medrano pointed his revolver right up to my forehead (a rather difficult target to miss, if you really want to know.)
“How are you doing, sir? Good evening,” my coworker dutifully chimed in, as "the general" waved the revolver to his right.
There was of course no answer from "the general." He more or less waved the Magnum around, strolled for a few seconds by the empty tables, and left.

Neither my friend or me ever made much of the incident. We were at the time old enough to have surpassed the "age of invulnerability," that absurd feeling you have that nothing will ever harm you that characterizes your teen years. Perhaps naively we just thought, "why run, if we haven't done nothing."
Once when we reminisced about the story and younger friends listening inquired whether the general in fact pointed the gun at either one or both of us or just waved it around, and also whether it was the famed .357, my recollection is that we just exchanged a look —the one that says that when you are staring at the wrong end of the barrel of a gun, details like that are meaningless, you just thank God for shielding you from harm.