My adventure in Central America (here) has required me to drastically change my reading list for 2015. As I am sitting at the airport waiting to depart for El Salvador, I thought I would quickly piece together a post on the books I read since I know next to nothing bout Central America. Well, I lie, I know what a high school senior should know about the region- Banana Republics, Iran-Contra, and export economies; Mayan civilization and Spanish colonization; fight against communism and dictatorships.
Reading the current news from the area hasn’t really provided me with any context, in fact, I found myself really confused about the deeper reality that might be present there. I did what any good reader would do, create a crash course on Central America with a reading list.
I first asked my friends for reading suggestions, from that a list began to take shape. I updated the list with books that were discussed on the trip, as I realized that there were certain themes and book suggestions that kept coming up. The first list that follows are those books I read, with small descriptions of the relevance for me on the Root Causes Delegation.
Just a blurb on these books and their perspective. I think books are important means of conveying ideas. These ideas are filtered and there is always a bias present in what we read. I believe in this wholeheartedly. The books I have listed below were suggested by friends who see the world differently, in a more critical of America sort of way. These books present the Southern view of the North American neighbor. I think this is an important view to understand and to hear from because it is one that represents a different perspective.
The difference in perspective allows North Americans (me, you, us) to be introspective (hopefully not defensive and closed off) so that way we can engage with the ideas and be participants in a civilizational dialogue. So before you go accusing me of leaning-left, or what have you, understand that these are book suggestions from folks who see the world differently, and differences are something to be celebrated.
Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart, by Elvia Alvarado, translated by Medea Benjamin (link here)
I read this, found it to be incredibly informative. Its a testimony, and as a testimony you have to read it more like a narrative of an experience without the details being specific and it lacks the academic citations. But for me it was great read on what it means to grow up in the poor rural areas. I felt humbled reading this book after reading a purely historical work. History in relations to this testimony felt real and the impact on individual lives is incredible. I believe that a historical and political science book is incomplete without a personal testimony as a supplemental reading. Its a short read, 146 pages. Quick and well paced. I highly recommend picking this one up.
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, by Rigoberta Menchu, translated by Ann Wright (link here)
Like Don’t Be Afraid, this is a great book that goes into rural life of Guatemalan Indians, as well as, gets into a Guatemalan woman’s perspective. Fascinating and sad at the same time because Guatemala was afflicted by a horrible civil war. The former dictator, General Rios Mont, supported by the United States with weapons and up to a million dollars a day, engaged in a scorched earth policy against the indigenous population. Mont stands, for now, as the only Latin American dictator charged with genocide. Another important note is that this book is by the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, this book might have saved her life considering that her family was engaged in the indigenous struggle for human rights, being assassinated, tortured and executed. At times this book is significantly hard to read, but thats what gives the history and political science books the relevance that they at times lack (need to figure this out?). This is a 250 page book, however, quick well paced read.
Inevitable Revolutions: The US in Central America, by Walter La Feber (link here)
This book is by far my favorite, partly because it’s written by my favorite historian and because it’s pretty well researched. This is the second book I read by La Feber, the first being the epic cold war book- (LINK) America, Russia, and the Cold War 1945-2000; which I re-read the last two chapters of to contextualize the Cold War implications of American foreign policy. This is pretty long read, it’s an investment of time and also I had an emotional rollercoaster ride reading this and had to stop in between to read the above two books. It is 368 pages long.
Understanding Central America, by John A. Booth (link here)
This is a political science focused book. Its intriguing thesis posits that there is a internal colonization that is still strong and that requires dismantling before significant changes can take effect. At first I understood their argument in light of the US foreign policy being benign and not as impactful on the development (or lack thereof) of Central America. Its a bit pricey to buy because it’s an academic book, however, I was able to get hold of it through the UCI library and found that it was also at some larger public libraries. It’s a short read and you can skip over El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua sections/chapters if you want to.
The End of Power, by Moises Naim (link here)
This book is pretty incredible in contextualizing the future of Central America in context of globalization and the changing dynamic of power across the social spectrum. This book is pretty good read to bring together the history and political science as well as the testimony books. It’s 244 pages long and the central premise of the argument is that things will be pretty chaotic moving forward because power is decaying, it no longer holds sway and the incredible diversity of new players rising and falling creates this sense of constant change. (I am still reading this.)
Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by Eduardo Galeano (link here)
While reading Eduardo Galeano’s “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” I found myself carried away by the lyricism of the translation. I can’t even begin to imagine how beautiful it is in Spanish, because the translation is immensely pleasing to read. This is a brilliant piece of prose and collection of soccer facts, but what is wonderful about it is that it gives a very Latin American perspective on the world politics, social criticism and historical reflection through the lens of the worlds most intensely popular sport, futbol.
Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano (link here)
I found Galeano to be a wonderful read, even in translation. This book in particular is written in the same lyrical way as Soccer. What is interesting about this book is that its structure is novel, Galeano focuses on the extraction of goods from Latin America, speaking from that perspective about the history and impact it has had on society, culture, economics, and politics. From oil to tin, from bananas to sugar, this book walks the reader to all the things that get extracted and shipped to America and other developed nations. The image that it paints is one of a neo-merchantile system housed in capitalism and globalization, in that vein this book is a critique of the established narrative.
Between Two Continents: Notes From a Journey In Central America 1920, by Prince of Sweden, Wilhem
Not necessarily a book I would recommend, but I found it incredibly helpful in tracking the development of infrastructure and society in Guatemala way back to the early part of the twentieth century to the present through books. I wanted to read this so I could add to the changes I have seen when I visit as compared to the observations made and shared in the various books I have read which spanned a publishing timeline of some 100 years. You can read my Goodreads review to get a sense of why I wouldn’t recommend this book here.
Root Causes Delegation reading list (Added August 19, 2015)
After some discussion, reflection, and listening during my trip, I am updating this list with books that were mentioned as resources by other participants and by folks we interacted with while on the ground in Central America. In a way its the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity’s Root Causes Delegation reading list, and anyone interested in Central America in the United States should be reading these books.
- Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala, by Daniel Wilkinson
- Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, by Stephen Schlesinger
- Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad, by Renny Golden
- Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, by Greg Grandin
- Latin America: From Colonization to Globalization, by Noam Chomsky
- The Violence of Love, by Oscar Romero (I was informed that this is available for free as well here)
- On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation, by Gustavo Gutierrez
- Essential Care: An Ethics of Human Nature, by Leonardo Boff
- Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire, by Hamid Dabashi
- The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer
- Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, by Peter Chapman