Charissa Zehr, an MCC service worker in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, shares her thoughts on a book written over 20 years ago, and wonders if anything has changed for the rural people of Honduras since then. “Gringo” is Spanish slang for a person from the U.S. or Canada. Check out her blog at http://findinglempira.blogspot.com/
Away from the urban centers that drive economic and political activity in Honduras, the countryside is littered with signs advertising another government or NGO intervening to help poor Hondurans. Yet poverty remains a huge concern in Honduras. Despite all the development work in rural areas, rural Hondurans are a relatively marginalized population. For decades Honduran campesinos have been manipulated, oppressed and used by the wealthy, ruling class for financial gain.
Elvia Alvarado, a Honduran campesina woman, vocalizes the reality of this inequality for the rural poor. In her narrative, Don’t be afraid, Gringo, Alvarado tells of her dedication to organizing Honduran campesinos in the fight for land reform. She openly shares about injustices that fuel rural poverty while articulating her astute perspective on government, politics, corruption and the economic disparity that controls Honduras.
Although written in the early 80’s, the stories Elvia tells could be lifted from the pages of today’s Honduran newspaper. Inequality between rich and poor; the corruption among government, military and police forces; the siphoning of Honduras’ wealth into the hands of the few—are all issues that shape present-day reality. I wondered if anything has changed in the last 25 years. And then, tragically, how has nothing changed in all this time? Why are Hondurans still fighting for the same rights, rule of law and equality that Elvia struggled for in the 80’s?
With so much foreign involvement in this small country, it is frustrating to consider the lack of advancement for the rural population. In the Western region of Honduras alone there are development organizations in (seemingly) every community. Hondurans are used to foreigners coming and making promises but never seeing many results.
“We don’t need the U.S. money. We never get to see any of it anyway…that money goes…to the foreign bank accounts of the rich, to line the pockets of our corrupt politicians, to give the military more power to repress the poor.
It’s the rich who need the U.S. aid, not the poor. We’ve lived for years with only our beans and tortillas, and we’ll go on living with our beans and tortillas. If the U.S. stopped sending money, it would be the rich who’d hurt, not us. They’re the ones who live off the dollars.”
It is a constant struggle to live here as a foreign development worker and consider why things are not changing for people living in poverty. But how is my work any different from what Elvia speaks out against? The harsh reality is that I don’t have answers.
I believe deeply in the potential of Honduras, but I know no amount of microfinance programs or small business development will bring lasting change for impoverished families until there is systemic change in government structures and practices. The fear that keeps people from speaking out against injustice gives the wealthy ruling class incredible power to keep doing “business as usual.” And it has to change.
“It’s hard to think of change taking place in Central America without there first beingchanges in the United States…So you Americans who really want to help the poor have to change your own government first. You Americans who want to see an end to hunger and poverty have to take a stand. You have to fight just like we’re fighting—even harder…you have to have the character, the courage, the morale, and the spirit to confront whatever comes your way.
If you say, “oh the United States is so big and powerful, there’s nothing we can do to change it,” then why bother talking about solidarity? If you think like that, you start to feel insignificant and your spirit dies. That’s very dangerous. For as long as we keep our spirits high, we continue to struggle…
[But] you can’t struggle just because someone else tells you it’s a good idea. No, you’ve got to feel the struggle. You’ve got to be completely convinced that what you’re struggling for is just.
…we’re not asking for food or clothing or money. We want you with us in the struggle…We want you to denounce what your government is doing in Central America. From those of you who feel the pain of the poor, who feel the pain of the murdered, the disappeared, the tortured, we need more than sympathy. We need you to join the struggle.”
Ref: Don’t be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart – The Story of Elvia Alvarado, Translated and Edited by Media Benjamin, The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1987.