He went to Honduras in search of his roots – and ran afoul of the military

January 23, 2016

The latest story at the Second Chances website comes from an American citizen of indigenous Lenca descent. This is what he found in the land of his ancestors.

Aaron

AARON MONTENEGRO’S STORY (along with his photographs)

My colonized name is Aaron Montenegro and the photograph shows my bloody face from the military in Honduras. They tried to criminalize me and said that I was an international terrorist training fieldworkers for a communist takeover. They said I was in the country illegally, when I had my passport and visa all in line.

As a disclaimer, I don’t really like telling my story. I challenge how narratives can be framed, especially within the non-profit industrial complex. I don’t want to be tokenized and don’t want much attention centered on me. Instead, I’d rather use my position to share space and highlight more of the stories that have been systematically silenced. I also don’t want to portray myself as a victim. I am a survivor. Although, I did experience some physical and psychological abuse on behalf of the US-trained Honduran military, I do not consider my experience as torture. What the soldiers did to Maria Guardado was torture. How prisoners are held in solitary confinement is torture. My case is exceptional, but it’s just as important as any other narrative of resistance. Using my social position, I try to highlight more the cases of the people who’ve been killed, disappeared, and displaced.

This narrative is based on the Bajo Aguan region, of the land we refer to as Honduras. First off, I would like to challenge this concept of the nation-state, because “Honduras” is the name Columbus put on us. When he invaded, he said “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de esos honduras/ thank god we have left those depths” referring to deep waters off the coast. The departments (states) in which he landed are named Colon (after him) and Gracias a Dios, the country: Honduras. Using this language perpetuates a colonized mentality that reinforces the colonizers’ rule over our land, language and customs. So part of my resistance is to deconstruct this mentality by first of all not identifying with nation-state. There are numerous indigenous groups that have been lumped together between these borders. As a persyn [“son” perpetuates patriarchal bias] of Lenca descent, my family has survived the genocidal campaign that has worked to systematically erase the population through different forms of violence. Apart from the outright murder of indigenous communities, our language and many customs have been sadly erased. However, there are some pockets in isolated regions in which there are still some remnants of its existence. For the most part, our language is gone, but there is a cultural and social revitalization which is trying to bring back our traditions and ceremonies, as well as actively protect our lands from capitalist exploitation.

My ancestors are from the southwest are of “Honduras” near the border of “El Salvador”; but due to forced migration our family ended up living in different regions. I do not have much knowledge on my great-grandmother, except that she migrated to the northern coast and died at a young age. My grandmother, Zoila Marina, has a story in herself, which I’d like to highlight first and foremost. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be the persyn I am today. She faced many different forms of violence and was able to overcome so much indescribable adversity. She loved poetry, started a school for young girls, and was able to dream big. She came to the US in the 1960’s and left everything that had to do with Honduras behind. She had nine kids and eventually brought them all up along with her siblings and extended family. She lived in Hollywood and started a housecleaning business all on her own. She never wanted to talk about ‘Honduras’, so I had to learn about our family herstory on my own. My grandma never went back. She didn’t want to go back. My parents didn’t either. But I didn’t know my roots. I was lost. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going or what I was going to do. I’m the only one in my family that decided to go back and over time I grew a great affinity with the people and land so chose to stay there.

I had a strong relationship with my grandmother so I got to learn a lot from her but certain things she wouldn’t share. That’s what led me to go down. I was in school and would go on and off to ‘Honduras’. As I was finishing my thesis in Washington, DC as part of my Masters program, I chose to stay down in ‘Honduras’ as part of an independent study.

Initially, I went down to the Bajo Aguan as a student, an independent journalist, and as an international human rights observer but I challenged the “nonprofit industrial complex”–the salaried positions, people getting paid, while fieldworkers were being used as the face. I didn’t really appreciate that or agree with it politically so I left these organizations and got involved with the actual fieldworker movement. I connected with the people and was invited to become a member of one of the farmworker cooperatives. They taught me how to grow my own food, ride a horse, fish and helped me build an adobe home. By living in harmony with mother earth in my ancestral homeland, I felt spiritually fulfilled.

There have been many cases of state-sponsored violence, including extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances, in the region where workers have organized a social movement to recuperate stolen land that had been used to create African palm plantations. The fruit from this plant is used for many products including vegetable oils, makeup products and most recently biofuels. It is a huge industry and many fieldworkers were forced to sell their cooperatives to big landowners through violence and intimidation decades prior. It’s a struggle that’s been going on for generations, since colonization, but it’s been exacerbated since the coup. [In June 2009, democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was abducted and forced into exile by the military.] There have been new cooperatives of campesinos and campesinas organizing and reclaiming the land, growing their own food and building their own homes. For this, they’ve been constantly attacked and criminalized.

Since the coup, there have been an increase in militarization and everywhere one goes, there are always numerous military checkpoints. There has always been corruption and due to the influx of funding coming from the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and other imperialist programs promoted by the US State Department. There have also been numerous accounts of extrajudicial killings and State-sponsored violence that go unresolved. I personally worked closely with families that were affected directly by the high levels of impunity, who had loved ones killed or disappeared, as well as families that were violently evicted from their recuperated lands. One of the first times I was confronted by the military was on a bus during a checkpoint. As usually they would take the men off the bus to be searched and identified.

bajo aguan 20

They went through my belongings and all I had was my camera and dirty clothes. I complied but I also made a comment. I asked if they found what they were looking for. They didn’t like that. They kicked me off the bus. They encircled me, twelve soldiers heavily armed, and they took me to the jail for disrespecting an officer of the military. I was confronted face to face with German Alfaro who is now the head of the military police. He asked me a couple of questions as they had me handcuffed. I refused to comply and give information because I saw their power as illegitimate. They didn’t like that either.

People who were driving by saw and other people, particularly vendors who I have built a relationship with, kept an eye out for me. The military took me to a holding cell in an isolated region and told me they were going to leave my body under a bridge, and that my family was going to receive bad news. From there they took me to the regional police station in Trujillo and by that time I had people from the capital, people from local communities, people from the US calling and pressuring them to let me go. So after finding out who I was, an international student, they thought twice about detaining me and decided to let me go.

Their intelligence was already working on me but they didn’t have a face to go with the name. So after that incident it became a bit more difficult for me to do my work. I was still growing food, corn, beans, squash, and I would get on my motorcycle and take part in whatever was happening with the locals, with the evictions, killings and disappearances.

Then a case came up. A year before I had helped a family looking for somebody that was disappeared and never came home. Jose Antonio Lopez Lara wasn’t involved with any social movements. He was just a fieldworker who wanted to go fishing in the river which is located around the plantation of Miguel Facussé [the richest man in ‘Honduras’, whose private plane transported President Zelaya out of the country when he was kidnapped and deposed]. His Dinant Corporation has private security that worked hand-in-hand with the police and the military. No one knew what happened to the man. He just didn’t come home. So a year later we found his body buried under a palm tree with fish bones, with his boots, with his machete. I was there taking pictures and providing emotional support for the family.

grave

Then the military came. They saw me present, and this reaffirmed their despise for me and the work that I was doing.

A day or two later there was a meeting with ambassadors, with the municipal government leaders, the police, and with tourist destination businesses. I questioned why a tourist business was at this meeting during a time in which disappeared bodies were being discovered. So I went as a journalist to cover that issue, but didn’t have the opportunity. Once the military saw me they ran me out and I had to go into hiding. I was transported to a safe place and I become a little hesitant to leave after that but then I came out for the upcoming May Day march.

We marched from one end of the city to the other and we were going to end in the central park but instead we got word that some of our comrades were being attacked on one of the plantations so we went to support them instead. And that’s when the military and police came to violently evict us, it was around 200 armed personnel in total.

bajo aguan 29

When we left the plantation peacefully we gathered outside the gates. I sat for about two minutes to eat some tortillas and cheese and that’s when the military came down with tear gas and targeted me, they wanted to take me in, they beat me across the head, and along my back. My comrades began throwing rocks at them to protect me and I was able to run out and get to a safe space.

I had to go into hiding. I was in a state of constant paranoia. But I had my ticket to leave. A week later I had my graduation to go to so I was lucky to get to the airport and since my paperwork was all in line, I got on the plane got back to DC in time for my graduation. Then I came back to California, never went back to Honduras. I wanted to live the rest of my life there. I hope to go back sometime but don’t know when. Despite the distance that separates us, I am still connected to the communities of the Bajo Aguan. My role now is to build more international support for the farmworkers. Since my return I have helped start an autonomous community center in which we host events highlighting these struggles. It’s been difficult for me to make this transition back to life in the north, but I try to stay balanced within this concrete jungle through art, creativity and protest.

For me, all our struggles are interconnected. I do not want to simplify things too much, but it all relates back to our resistance against all different levels of oppression manifested through patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism. I just don’t want to see us repeat the same cycles. Different forms of violence and oppression have been ingrained in us through colonization and reinforced through some of our practices. So we’ve really got to challenge it every day. I think we’re all on a journey. We all learn from each other and it’s and intergenerational struggle. We’re all connected and there is beauty in our struggle.

Where Will My Hope Come From? – Chheng’s Story

December 22, 2015

The images of Syrian refugees in the news made Chheng break her silence and remember what she prefers not to think about: surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the atrocity carried out against refugees by the Thai Army, and the challenges of resettlement in the US. I am grateful to her for speaking and being willing to share this. I learned from her and was inspired. Read her story here.

chheng 2

From Russia, with self and alter ego

December 16, 2015

Sonya found that taking on a male alter ego let her write freely. Leaving Russia for the US lets her live freely. Her story, the latest at Second Chances LA.

Sonya image

Interview at Awst Press – Beautiful ideas cross borders

December 11, 2015

Liz Blood was in the process of leaving Austin, TX for Tulsa, OK but still caught up with me and edited our interview for Awst Press. If you check it out, I also highly recommend the essay by Donald Quist.

and for something lighter and happier, the latest cat photo.

Millie and plant

Escape into a novel

December 5, 2015

With so much heartbreaking and terrible news around the country and the world, I was happy to escape into Damnificados, JJ Amaworo Wilson’s new novel.

Damnificados

Read the review here.

Her parents escaped North Korea; she grew up with her father’s PTSD

December 4, 2015
Korean Dance of Peace

Korean Dance of Peace

In addition to collecting survivor stories, I’m very interested in the 1.5 generation – that is, immigrants who were born overseas but came to the US at a young age. Maryann’s story is so illuminating about what is passed down through generations, what it’s like to grow up with secrets, traumatized parents, and cultural confusion. And to me, it’s such an important reminder of how much care and concern can mean to a child, even when we don’t understand.

Maryann is the latest eloquent storyteller at the Second Chances LA website. You can read her words here.

She can’t go back.

October 23, 2015

Nancy said, “I have to forget about Uganda. There are some sweet memories but that’s a place I can never go back to. What happened was they arrested a few people at an illegal meeting and somebody during interrogation named me….”

She impresses me so much with her intelligence and ambition and grace.

Her story also illustrates how the ordinary assumptions Americans make so easily can confound a person seeking asylum. I just posted her story here.

Kampala

Transgender in Africa, Rebirth in LA

October 16, 2015

Coming to Los Angeles saved his life.

And for anyone who doesn’t quite understand what it’s like to be transgender, his story is a must.

I just posted it at the SecondChancesLA website where you can read it in his original French along with my English translation here.

trans

He survived war and torture; she married him — and his trauma.

October 13, 2015

Here’s Miguel’s story of survival from the civil war in El Salvador. I always think it’s important to consider how trauma affects others in a family as well so I am grateful that Sandra was willing to talk with me about their marriage, and here is her story, too. Click here, please, to read.

Gay Man Deported to Mexico, Assaulted by Police

October 10, 2015

I’ve just posted the latest oral history to the Second Chances LA website. http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/angel.html

It’s an honor to know people like Angel.

gardenia 2


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