When the trumpet sounded, everything
on earth was prepared
and Jehovah distributed the world
to Coca Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors and other entities:
The Fruit Company Inc.
reserved the juiciest for itself,
the central coast of my land,
the sweet waist of America.
Everyone seems to forget Central America exists. I can’t count the number of times it’s referred to as South America, even by people who have traveled to South America. It’s some combination of it being marooned between two far greater land masses and not technically being a part of either, and the relentless ability of the well-off to turn a blind eye toward the struggling.
I get it. There are a lot of countries in the world. You can’t know about all of them, can’t be expected to sit and study maps until you’re able to orient every single region in your mind. But, if you live in the United States, they are your neighbors. It’s like living on a block with the same people for 250 years and not knowing a single one of their names.
On top of that, the history and current situation of Central America, as each one of these books can attest in one way or another, is inextricably tied to ours. And not in a friendly neighbors kind of way. More in a tyrannical governments were forced into power there by the very governments that we’ve freely elected kind of way. From the perspective of Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli, whose The Country Under My Skin is featured below, the U.S. is the country “whose carefully laid net captured and conquered so many of my high-flying fantasies.” We are the “schoolyard bully” who “stole the kite [she, and other Central Americans] set out to fly”.
If only by virtue of living in the U.S. (for those of my readers who do), of benefitting from history’s spoils and the wealth of our nation, we are, to some degree, complicit in the means used to gain that wealth and obligated to shape those means. Perhaps we can sacrifice some of the luxuries we’ve been afforded, too often through disgraceful and unpardonable means, to stand up for those we’ve bullied. You can start by simply listening, listening to the stories of your neighbors and becoming aware. Because any movement forward is going to require compassion, which requires understanding, which requires knowledge. I’ve chosen books that not only provide some brief, introductory knowledge of these vibrant and beautiful and terrible histories, but they’re filled with immaculate prose, gripping tales, and well worth literary merit in their own right.
The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua)
A beautiful memoir written by a woman who grew up in Managua and came of age as the Sandonista movment began to take hold. She opens the memoir “Two things decided my fate: my country and my gender” and proceeds to tell us about how she got involved with a guerilla army in Nicaragua, becoming a revolutionary, being exiled to Costa Rica, and more, all while being a mother and trying to live out dreams of falling in love and having a beautiful family.
- Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua is a comprehensive account of the United States involvement in Nicaragua throughout the 70s and 80s told from the perspective of a U.S. correspondent who lived there the whole time.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
So it isn’t technically Central America so much as the Caribbean, depending on where you pull your definition, but the history here is still relevant. This is an astounding work of fiction. Having won a Pullitzer Prize, it weaves the stories of several generations of Dominican family members, their migration to New York/New Jersey, and the bloody history of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, all while also being hilarious, offbeat, and endearing.
Salvador by Joan Didion (El Salvador)
This is a book-length essay by brilliant and iconic literary journalist Joan Didion about the U.S.’s involvement in El Salvador in the 80s during the height of its civil war.
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu (Guatemala)
Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan peasant woman whose family was murdered by the Guatemalan military, writes on harsh and unjust experiences commonly shared among many Indian communities in Latin America. “Menchú vividly conveys the traditional beliefs of her community and her personal response to feminist and socialist ideas. Above all, these pages are illuminated by the enduring courage and passionate sense of justice of an extraordinary woman.”
- Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala
Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and Law in Central America by Julie Marie Bunck (Central America)
A unique examination of drug trafficking from South America to the United States that specifically focuses on its effect on Central America, the tunnel through which much of the trafficking must pass. It details the different consequences the drug trade has had on each country in Central America.
Extra Credit: More Comprehensive Non-Fiction Books on Latin American in General
- Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano: Amazing, comprehensive history of Latin America that heartfully details its oppression at the hands of Europe and the United States.
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn: A candid, comprehensive history of the United States that in many sections details the history of our relationship with Latin America from 1492 up until the Clinton administration.
- Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari: A comprehensive account of the War on Drugs’s affect on Latin America from the perspective of a U.S. journalist who lived in Mexico throughout the rise of its drug cartels.
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann: A comprehensive history of Pre-Columbian Latin America. “A groundbreaking study that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.”
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