Letter from Honduras, letters to Honduras
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2013: Last year, I made three trips to St. Louis for family emergencies, including the deaths of my brothers John and Bob. This year was, as the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals like to say, a “Happy Flight!” An ecstasy from end to end, so much joy and grace, fabulous family time, great friends, eager students, gorgeous weather and did I mention the bountiful food?
I scarcely had a minute to visit any schools last year, so this time I filled my dance card. One of my former students, who has now taught longer than I did invited me to Hazelwood West Middle School, a big and beautiful place with wonderful kids to match. They had a million questions! And the kids collected eight bags of clothes, and another teacher had a box of shoes.
I made it up to Parkway North, where one class was in the middle of “The Canterbury Tales,” a pilgrimage not unlike my life in Honduras, whose stories I try to tell with at least a bit of Chaucer’s celebration of our common humanity.
In fact, that is always my theme when I speak with students. Many Cardinals shirts are “MADE IN HONDURAS,” as are Parkway’s, St. Louis University’s, and lots more. And why? “Cheap labor!” the kids brightly answer. “But are some human beings worth less than others?” I ask.
Honduras is as close as the clothes on your back. If you let the poor make your clothes, then let them touch your heart. In fact, “poverty,” which does not even appear in the kids’ textbooks, is best defined not by what folks DON’T have but by what we all share, our common humanity. I had to spend years in Honduras to appreciate that revelation, and I just have to hope that in a few minutes I can share that experience.
Parkway South had the theater ready for me during Academic Lab, and we had a big crowd, considering it was voluntary attendance. But they had been well prepared by their teachers with multiple handouts about the history, problems and beauty of Honduras. My “presentation” was unique; the Diversity Club sorted through questions submitted by students, chose the best and conducted a kind of press conference with me. They chose well, basically leading me from point to point. “What’s your favorite memory?” Watching Chemo head off to school, every day!
Wydown Middle School just finished its new building and it might as well be an extension of its neighbor Washington University, so impressive is its architecture. But its real strength is the uncompromising commitment of teachers to dig deep roots in our social responsibility. The students wrote letters to Chemo and to “my” other kids and I want to quote just a few.
“Dear child of Honduras,
"First off, I hope you know that we love you! When you look up at the moon at night, it’s the same one that I see. In the end, we are all human beings with a heart.”
“I wish every human being in the world a good life and a chance to be safe. I have never lived scared in my life. If it was up to me, I would make everybody’s life better.”
“I feel kind of bad to live a life of being spoiled. Seeing your life really inspired me to change my ways and to go out of my way to help people.”
“Te prometo que si pudiera hacer algo por ti, yo lo haria. Asi que desde aqui te mando un saludo para que recuerdes que lo que importa no es lo que tienes; lo que importa es la fe que tengas.” (I promise you that if I could do anything for you, I would do it. So from here I send you a greeting that you remember what matters is not what you have; what matters is the faith that you have.)
At Selvidge Middle School in the Rockwood District two classes of students filled the room, and a number of eighth graders remembered me from a previous visit, so they had even more questions than usual, about Chemo. I admit it, I like to get past the “big” picture (the poverty, the violence, the corruption, the drugs, the this and the that) and tell the stories of Chemo, Guillermo and Erlinda, Chepito, Maricela ...
When Teresa Jorgen and I went to southwest Missouri to visit her former neighbors Hildur and Andy, who moved to the family farm there, I felt right at home. It was like an even greener version of my Las Vegas. “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Flat.”
I, of course, paid special attention to the foods, including schnitzel, all “hand-crafted” by Hildur, originally from Germany. A busy lemonade stand was staffed by daughter Selma and her friends, and they were making a sign: “Lemonade for Hondrurs 1$.” “Whatever we make here, Miguel, is for you,” Hildur explained.
My sister Barb arranged a visit to our nephew Nick, the son of my late brother Bob. He’s in another rural Missouri town, Farmington, but this time it wasn’t heaven. Our destination was Farmington Correctional Center, where Nick is serving a six-year sentence. The “offenders,” as they’re called, sit in a green chair, all facing the same direction at tables for four in a large lunchroom, and the visitors are allowed a “light hug” arriving and departing.
Nick, 25, looked great, and he’s doing great, it seems. He’s in a program that sounds a lot like the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Successful completion, which includes a substantial improvement in anger management as well as managing drug addiction, will take years off his sentence, along with reductions for “good behavior.” But when he’s “free,” he really has nowhere to go. Another nephew, my sister Nancy’s son Dan, who just graduated from Mizzou, is offering to get a place together. Nick could really use some good in his life!
My friend Teresa’s nephew Bryan, 20, is a prisoner of a different sort, managing cerebral palsy. After an operation to straighten his legs, he started therapy at Ranken-Jordan. She and I jumped in to take Bryan at 10 and pick him up at 4 every day. Just so you know how popular he is there, look at the video they made; Bryan appears in it at least three times, including the final, lingering shot.
Upon my return to Las Vegas, I was greeted with ... a rainbow! Now, that’s a good sign, don’t you think? It makes a good symbol of everyone here enjoying the new photobook, as well as the colorful variety of clothes and things that were donated in the States.
One shirt was a donation even before it got down here, from “Labor of Love,” a fundraiser run for Micah House, where kids are saved from the mean streets of Tegucigalpa. I wanted a “Small” for Dennis, the autistic boy in nearby Paraiso. He loves to run!
It’s been 40 days since Guillermo died, an interval marked here by another celebration. Erlinda, Guillermo’s widow (boy! does THAT sound strange!) spoke for all of us when she said it seems like yesterday. “But I don’t see him dead. Every time I think of him, I see him alive, here with me if I’m cooking or sewing or talking, anything, not dead.”
She had a recent appointment of her own in Tegucigalpa for her diabetes, so she made a point of telling them about their negligence in Guillermo’s chemotherapy that killed him. And not just him. “Miguel, they all died.” Guillermo had been in a big room with about 20 other cancer patients. “Remember the man with one leg? He died. The young man who had a motorcycle? He died. The one next to Guillermo who kept kidding the nurses? He died.” She went through the list. Well, it’s a cancer ward, and there’s rarely anything resembling “early detection” here in Honduras, but, still, between the cancer and the chemo, they didn’t have a chance!
My heart filled up just thinking about seeing Chemo again, and he did not disappoint.
“Where is it?” He meant the “official” jersey of the World Cup Honduras team I promised him. When the team qualified, the screams and horns and blasts and caravans of fans outside the Nanking Hotel in Tegucigalpa seemed, in my mind, to be also celebrating a Cardinals win over the Dodgers. Schools shut down the next day, anyone who could took the day off work, fast-food chains gave away Whoppers or whatever they sell, and stores had 50 percent off sales. So I got the shirt at the “exclusive” dealer in such merchandise, Diunsa.
Oh my God, the place looked like the last minutes of the Titanic, jostling crowds dragging, carrying, throwing everything -- mattresses, appliances, big boxes of things you only ever see at such sales, I tripped over someone’s life-size plastic reindeer for Christmas (almost knocked its damn antlers off!) -- into the fray. Fortunately, the jersey sales had their own register, so I got out alive.
Or he meant the “tacos,” that is, soccer shoes I also got at 50 percent off. Now he looks like a pro.
So you see, he WAS happy to see me.