Thursday, July 16, 2015

Visiting political prisoners, part 5: "la vida es un carnaval"

There was no way that Rigoberto could have known that I was coming to visit him, since we hadn't been in touch since well before his arrest, and although I asked one of the attorneys to pass my regards along, I have no way of knowing whether he did. But he didn't look surprised when he saw me, as we finally approached the table where he and Domingo were already seated with some of their relatives. He stood to greet me and wrapped me in a long, warm embrace. I joked, "Well, the last time I was here you wanted to see me and we couldn't meet up, but now here I am, although this is probably not where you wanted to meet me." He laughed and we embraced again, and then sat down to eat and talk.

They had only reserved one table -- I learned that prisoners had to request a table in advance -- and there were 10 adults. But we managed to scrounge enough chairs and then we squeezed ourselves in. We unloaded the trays of tamales, and Rigoberto's wife Juana unpacked a large container of vegetable salad -- peas and carrots and green beans with mayonnaise -- and we started to make up plates for everyone. We flagged down one of the prisoners who was circulating taking orders for food, and asked for tortillas, which one of the "waiters" soon brought over. We had our atol and a couple of large containers of water, but this being Guatemala, our table ordered a large bottle of soda (I think Coke, but I'm not sure). 

The dining room where we were seated had about 30 square plastic tables of the kind that you see all over Guatemala, and the U.S. as well, and plastic chairs. The tables were all covered with colorful plastic cloths, decorated with flowers. The prisoners were dressed in street clothes -- that is to say, regular pants and shirts -- with the exception of the prisoners who were managing the food and who were serving as waiters or vendors. Those were distinguished by orange t-shirts. But they weren't a uniform style of orange t-shirt. There were all different kinds of shirts that happened to be orange. One of the prisoner-waiters wore a Syracuse University t-shirt. It seemed as though the prison staff had gone to a "PACA" (one of the places that sells used clothing from the U.S.) and just picked out whatever was orange and purchased them for the prison.

As we ate and talked, there was a constant flow of prisoners walking around offering items for sale. Some had large cafeteria trays with plates of food - fried chicken and tortillas, pieces of cake. Others were selling inexpensive plastic toys such as Spiderman (well, a knockoff of Spiderman). Still others had vases made of folded pieces of paper, intricately braided together, each holding a single flower, also made of paper. Rigoberto explained to me that all of these were businesses that the prisoners ran, and that there was an entire internal social system that was established within the prison. He said, "I'm not very good about writing things, but if I were a writer, I could write a couple of novels about this prison." I asked how the prisoners got the supplies for all of the businesses, and he said that either their families brought them or they had worked out some arrangements with the guards (which seemed clearly was the case -- since half of the items that were for sale included ingredients that were on the prohibited lists). I asked who were prisoners who were permitted to have these sales, and he explained that they were prisoners who had already been sentenced -- this seemed to be relatively benign form of social control by the guards, since if they allowed those prisoners who were serving sentences to have some means of income and also some outlet for their energies, and a position of some relative authority and power, they might be less likely to express their discontent in another way.

The atmosphere was actually very similar to that at a patron saint feast in a small town -- given that we were in a prison. We were in an outdoor patio covered with a tarp, seated around tables, with people embracing, chatting, eating -- sometimes all at the same time -- calling out for service children scurrying around underfoot. There were flowers, vendors circulating among the tables, calling out their wares, background music, and in general a festive atmosphere. The only things missing were the convites, marimba music, the Baile de la Conquista and the fireworks.

At a nearby table, there were five women, mostly middle aged, one somewhat younger with a child. At one point I looked around and saw that there was a very muscled man giving one of the women a massage on her head and neck. He seemed quite good, from what I could tell.  He had one of those Rubbermaid-type storage boxes with some tubes of what I imagined ot be creams and lotions -- a portable beauty salon. When he finished with the massage, he produced a roll of some kind of adhesive tape, and proceeded to do the woman's eyebrows. When he was finished, they chatted for a moment, and then he moved on to other women at the table. I think he gave massages and eyebrow waxing -- after a fashion -- to at least 2 or 3 of the women there, but then I didn't see him again. Perhaps he moved on to another room.

Rigoberto looked amazingly good for someone who had been in prison for over 100 days. He lit up very subtly when he saw the unexpected visitors, just a slight gleam in his eyes and the tiniest hint of smile, but he didn't seem surprised. His eyes were clear and focused, and his face was calm, composed. Serene, perhaps, is a more appropriate word. His speech and gestures were as thoughtful and deliberate as they always have been -- he is one of the most unflappable people I know. Even when we were stopped at that roadblock last summer and our traveling companions told me that he was very anxious since he had several outstanding arrest warrants, he didn't betray any visible nervousness or anxiety, and worked to reassure the others and to try and keep the entire situation under control. These are qualities of a leader, or rather a particular kind of leader, one who works quietly, carefully and almost undetectably. 

I sat next to him so that we could talk as best we could, with all of the hubbub surrounding us. Domingo, whom I didn't really know -- I had seen him, but I don't think we had ever spoken -- was wrapped up with his family, and because I didn't have the same degree of familiarity with him we only spoke one-on-one a little. Rigoberto said he was in fairly good health -- in the beginning he had had some digestive problems from adapting to a different diet and a different routine, but that had settled down and he said that he felt good. I had a letter for him, and also a copy of the Guatemalan Penal Code, and he seemed pleased by both. We asked if there was anything he wanted that was within the limits of what could be taken inside the prison, and he asked for some books. He wanted a book published by the Academy of Maya Languages, called El Alfabeto Unificado de los Idiomas Mayas and another book on the Maya cosmovision -- he wasn't sure of the name but thought it was something like Nuestra Cosmovisión (our cosmovision). He explained that he and Domingo were spending a lot of time talking with the other prisoners, and that the prisoners had expressed interest in learning more about Maya culture, language and spirituality, and so he was going to offer some talks or workshops. I had my notebook but we hadn't been able to bring any pens into the prison. However, the prisoners who were running things and taking food orders had pens and so we flagged down one of the "prisoners in charge" and asked if he could lend us a pen, so we wrote down the titles in my notebook. He told me that they were organizing the prisoners and had established a kind of council. He was also participating in two study groups that met weekly to read the Bible. Anticipating, perhaps, that I might raise my eyebrows and give him a quizzical look, he explained that those were the opportunities that were available in the prison to meet and talk with other prisoners. I said that it made perfect sense, and that from what I knew of political prisoners in the United States, many of them took advantage of similar opportunities to do a kind of political education or consciousness-raising. 

We ate and talked, talked and ate. Domingo bought his son a Spiderman toy, which kept him busy and happy for most of the visit. One of the women at the next table made up some kind of game with him, where she pretended to be about to take the toy away, and he squealed with delight as she play-threatened him. We talked a little about the overall political situation and the unfolding crisis in the country, and the other political prisoners. Rigoberto said he wanted to talk to me in more depth and told me to ask the attorneys to see if they could get permission for me to visit on a day that wasn't the general visiting day. He and Domingo are only permitted visitors on Saturday, and because of the noise and excitement -- and also the presence of so many family members, who had their own matters to discuss with their dear ones -- it was hard to have a consistently in-depth conversation. I promised I would ask (but it turns out that it is not so easy, and there has been so much else occupying the attorneys that I only asked once). He also said it would be good if I could attend one of the court hearings, and luckily -- in a matter of speaking -- there were two scheduled during my trip. So I promised that I would.

We had asked, earlier on in the visit, about all of the food and other things for sale, and Rigoberto leaned over confidentially and said that he wasn't very good at writing, but that if he could write, he would be able to write an incredible book about all of the things that happened in the jail. Momís asked if he and Domingo wanted to write a letter that we could then share with everyone, and so I passed him my notebook and then pen we still had, and he thought for a moment, and then wrote a few pages, and we promised to publish it. We asked Domingo if he wanted to write something, and he dictated a short note that Momís wrote out. 

After we had been there for maybe an hour, RIgo told us that they would have to leave so they could line up and be counted, and that the male visitors would have to leave, but that if we wanted, we could stay and wait for them to return and be able to visit a little more. So we waited, and after about half an hour they returned and we were able to chat a little more.  But Rigoberto's and Domingo's families had long trips back to their homes -- neither was going to spend the night in Guatemala City, and since there are only a limited number of buses that go to Santa Eulalia, she had to make sure that she caught her bus. We walked back out to wait for the guards to open the gates -- visiting hours end at 2 p.m. In the small courtyard, one prisoner was methodically grinding blocks of ice to make granizados (snow cones). He had an ice chest along side and removed and unwrapped one block after another, placing each on a metal wheel that had a scraper on the bottom, turning it with a handle as the shaved ice fell down into a container below. Next to him another prisoner had a small stand selling gum, candy, combs. Off to one side, a young man stood with his mother, and then slipped behind her and wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on her shoulder, and she leaned back into him. Along the wall leading to the exit gate, there were 3 or 4 telephones and prisoners lined up waiting to use them. These were obviously prisoners who had not had visitors that day, and I imagined that some were calling their families to find out why they hadn't come or when they might come. 

Domingo's wife started to tear up as the moments wore down towards 2 o'clock, and tried to fight back the tears. Everyone seemed to get a little tense, a little teary as the visitors knew that they would be leaving the prison, and leaving behind pieces of their hearts, and the prisoners knew that they would soon slip back into the regular routine of prison life. Eventually a guard came down and joked with a prisoner, and we thought he was going to open the door -- we were effectively locked in -- but he just asked one of the vendors for something and then walked back up the stairs. A few minutes later -- which seemed like an eternity -- another guard came and opened the gate and we filed through, tracing our way back through the places we had passed on the way in -- except that we exited through a different doorway. It took us about seven or eight minutes to retrace the route that had taken us over an hour on the way in. There was one last inspection before we finally exited - what we were supposed to have acquired in the prison, God only knows. And then we were back on the other side of the fence, only a few dozen yards away, and with no maximum security barriers or thick concrete walls separating us, but we might have gone to a different planet. We retraced our steps back down the slope. Rigoberto's wife stopped to check for something she had tucked away behind a bush but it wasn't there (I'm not sure what it was; probably some food that was prohibited). We retrieved our bags of fruit from the stand where we had left them, and then found enough cabs to accommodate us, and set off to our various destinations -- Rigoberto's family went to where the buses leave for Xela, and the rest of us back to the Zona 1 (the historic center of Guatemala City).  We made sure that Domingo's wife Juana was able to meet up with the people who were helping her pay for her travel, and then we started our walk back. 

In the brief time before I plunged into the next part of my day -- the weekly protests in the Parque Central in front of the National Palace -- I reflected upon Rigoberto and his composure and conviction. Prison hadn't dampened his conviction in the least; on the contrary, it had sharpened his analysis and strengthened his commitment. I was reminded of a verse in the song by the British ska group The Specials, "Free Nelson Mandela": "His body abused/but his mind is still free." 

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