Response: April 2015 Issue

Listening to Latin America

Listening to  Latin America
Petronila Escalante prepares tortillas in her family’s home in El Bonete, a small village in northwestern Nicaragua.

In an overgrown cemetery in Trujillo, a humid port city on Honduras' Caribbean coast, there's a gravestone that reads "Willian Walker, Fusilado, 12 Septiembre 1860." Those who made the marker can be forgiven their misspelling of William Walker's first name, but they got the second part right. Fusilado means shot, as in by a firing squad. Trujillo is where Mr. Walker met his inglorious end, as Central Americans—who seldom agree on anything—joined together to get rid of the U.S. invader.

They were called filibusters in those days, but Mr. Walker was what we'd today call a mercenary, representing slave owners in the United States who were looking for new areas to expand their business. He'd gone first to Nicaragua, declaring himself president and legalizing slavery there, only to be rescued by U.S. troops when things got dicey. When he later tried it in Honduras, his luck ran out. Fusilado.

In coming months, United Methodist Women and others will study Latin America during Mission u events across the country. As we do so, it's important to keep in mind William Walker and so many others like him, who beginning with the first Spanish conquistadores saw in the region a way to get rich at the expense of others. That legacy of exploitation and violence, however, doesn't end at some neat point in history. Rapacious foreign interests and complicit and corrupt national elites continue to kill and wound the poor in Latin America today. And, living where we do, they continue to temper how we see the region.

Since well before the time that William Randolph Hearst fabricated news from Cuba (remember "Remember the Maine!") in order to drive the United States into war against Spain, media in the United States have been enthusiastic accomplices to U.S. empire. Particularly during the dirty wars of the late 20th century, U.S. media simply mimicked the official line, justifying military coups in Chile, Argentina and Brazil, genocide in Guatemala, death squads in El Salvador and terrorists in Nicaragua.

If the media's complicity with U.S. neocolonialism makes our task as learners complicated, so does our identification as people of faith. Because since the very beginning, the church has provided ideological justification for conquest. The first Spanish priests came on the same boats as the first Spanish soldiers. U.S. evangelicals later offered the same service to U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and elsewhere, and trained nationals well in how to "prayerfully" murder their compatriots. General Efraín Ríos Montt, who supervised a scorched earth campaign in the 1980s against Maya villages in Guatemala, was a fervent disciple of a California-based evangelical church.

Fortunately, our faith tradition in Latin America offers us alternative voices. From Bartolomé de las Casas until now, the church, albeit imperfectly, offers us a look at history from below, from the perspective of those at the margins. At best, parts of the church have given voice to those silenced by the official collusion of compliant church with murderous state. As we hear those voices, those real-life experiences of women, indigenous, peasants and descendants of enslaved Africans, we are called not to become instant experts on this region to our south but to explore partnership with our Latin American sisters and brothers. Such a relationship begins with listening, then leads us to profound, life-changing solidarity. The point of learning isn't to amass facts but rather to change history, a history that has left blood on our hands.

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 4/1/2015 11:00:00 PM