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domingo, abril 10, 2011

A Plague Of Forgetting

This story begins in 1928 with bananas. On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, campesinos who are employed by United Fruit are paid less than $1 per day for backbreaking work. They live in filthy hovels. And they die of malaria and tuberculosis. Then they form a union. Then they go on strike and paralyze the exportation of bananas.

General Carlos Cortez Vargas announces in Aracataca at a dinner put on by United Fruit that he will end the strike.

The workers are told that a manager of United Fruit will arrive to accede to their demands, so they gather together to hear the announcement of their victory. Instead of a United Fruit manager, General Cortez Vargas appears. He doesn’t issue a concession. Not at all. He issues instead an ultimatum: get back to work, end the strike right now. Or else.

When nobody moves, the shooting begins from all sides. Nobody knows exactly how many workers are killed. After the shooting the soldiers spend the evening throwing bodies in the ocean and scrubbing the plaza. In the morning there is no evidence of the massacre. Immediately, hundreds of strikers who escaped the massacre are also rounded up and killed.

About these events, Eduardo Galeano cites Cien anos de soledad, written by Garcia Marquez, who was a child in Aracataca at the time :

“In Macondo nothing has happened, nor is happening, nor ever will happen.”

About Garcia Marquez and this event, Galeano writes:

The years will pass and [Marquez] will reveal to the world the secrets of a region so attacked by a plague of forgetfulness that it lost the names of things. He will discover the documents that tell how the workers were shot in the plaza, and how Big Mama is the owner of lives and haciendas and of the rain that has fallen and will fall, and how between rain and rain Remedios the Beautiful goes to heaven, and in the air passes a little old plucked angel who is falling into a henhouse

A plague of forgetfulness. If it were not for Eduardo Galeano’s masterful “Memory of Fire” trilogy, and his recitation of the above in volume 3, “Century of the Wind,” I wouldn’t know this story. It is not in any of the history books I was directed to read in school. It is not something most people in the United States have heard about. It was apparently consigned to being forgotten.

The story transforms the piles of bananas in the supermarket. Before they were a common fruit wearing its own package. They were something we mash and feed to babies. Their peels were a slapstick joke. They were the title of a funny Woody Allen movie. They were something used to demonstrate condom use. They were so wonderful. And humorous. And multifaceted. And now it is impossible to look at them without recalling the massacre, and the many murders, and blood that is responsible for them. A plague of forgetfulness.

Bananas aren’t alone in this forgetting.

The list of horrors in this hemisphere is long and painful. One example and then a list. We drink rum, but have apparently forgotten that it was a leg of the triangle trade and that slaves from Africa were its hypotenuse. We don’t think about the Middle Voyage and the cramped ships and the fetid smell and the abuse and the broken families and the horror of working under the lash. We don’t think about branding slaves. All of that, all of that that went into making the product, we omit. We forget it. We overlook it. And, of course, we also don’t think about the history of cotton, sugar, gold, silver, tin, phosphates, on and on and on and on. A plague of forgetfulness.

As time goes by, the forgetfulness inevitably grows. Virtually all of those who were involved in these events have by now died. And their stories. What about the stories? The stories, if they are retold at all, if they are remembered at all, compete, often unsuccessfully for attention with so many distractions. We live in a society that produces spectacles and distractions, and inevitably forgets. A plague of forgetfulness.

Forgetfulness is the Petri dish in which cruelty grows to its full virulence. And it is its own justification:

“In Macondo nothing has happened, nor is happening, nor ever will happen.”

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