A Personal Essay on Fear
November 30, 2008
The events of World War II mark my childhood, so that to this very day I can cite “the battle of the Solomon Islands” or “the battle of Iwo Jima” , the bombing of Dresden and the liberation of Auschwitz. I was born in 1935, in an immigrant section of Boston which surely was more Catholic than Jewish, more closed than liberal. My family, assimilated atheists as far back as oral history goes on both sides of the family, came to know that according to Hitler, we were Jews.
Well, my grandmother knew how to make potato latkes.
As a child I went to neighborhood movies and watched Pathé News. In my head I still see the corpses of concentration camp Jews stacked like firewood, and still-living skeletons cling to those who liberated them. Right then, being no dunce, I decided that I did not want to be a Jew. As it happened, no snotty-nosed boy in knickers expected a reply to his challenge, “Are you a Jew?”; by the time I was down on the ground crying the boys had lost interest and run off.
So, let’s just say I fled being a Jew. When I was an adult, Boston hired a black woman news anchor, a tall presence even sitting down, named Liz Claiburne, maybe. One day in an interview she described having gone to the movies as a child. Tarzan movies prevailed, and in the one she best remembered, Tarzan chased the black people over a cliff and they all perished. She decided she didn’t want to be one of the pursued and destroyed, and in racist Boston she did the best she could, adopting mainstream speech patterns and higher education. But she was stuck with her skin. I wasn’t stuck with my Jewish name; I married and changed it, with nary a glance toward feminism.
When the Boston public schools were obliged to integrate, I participated; it was the peak experience of my teaching years. But look, when the whites were throwing rocks at the school buses with me on board with my black students, I wasn’t particularly afraid – because they were throwing rocks at “blacks” and I am “white”.
On November 25, 2008 Doctor Bertha Muñoz Meir returned to Oaxaca. She stood before the end-of-march crowd on the platform among several other speakers. Her first words were, “Now I am here.” She fled into an exile lasting two years, following the 2006 repression being commemorated that day. Facing the crowd, she asked for forgiveness. She said she fled out of fear. Now she is fed up with fear, and will regain her home and her role in Oaxaca’s social movement.
I was surely not the only person weeping as many in the crowd called softly, “We love you, we love you”. To me, La Doctora had seemed fearless, speaking on Radio Universidad during the months when the APPO controlled the station. But no, she had received threats: We’ll cut your tongue out, We’ll burn down your house, We’ll rape you with a microphone. They threatened to kill her sons.
Around the time of the worst repression I occasionally saw on the street, during a march or heading to a forum, the Oaxaca branch head for the Mexican League for Human Rights, Jessica Sanchez Maya. She was never unaccompanied. Her eyes would dart from side to side as she stepped out of a taxi; seeing me she might fleetingly acknowledge me but her looks reflected terror. When she entered a public movement event we all applauded. She never fled. She was another heroine.
On a minor note, some of us decided to hold a meeting about supporting community radio, and I saw that same darting glance of terror in the eyes of a Oaxaqueño whom we thought would be safer in meeting in a public place, while he clearly thought just the opposite. He sped away from the group as soon as he could.
For me, writing frequently at that time for Narconews, threats against me were frightening, but modestly so – shall we say they were modest threats. Even when they publicly asked for death they were modest because they didn’t reach my ear. We had lived in Oaxaca several years by then; I supposed few people knew me by more than my first name, my daily walks to the market. My dear George, who personally is a tough little bastard, sloughed off my fears saying, “They won’t kill an American”, that being well before they murdered Brad Will. Since then, we joked when we obtained Mexican citizenship: They can disappear us or torture us or murder us, but they can’t deport us. Some joke, huh? But the possibility of being snatched and tortured rings no bells in my interior mental world. There was no likelihood of my fleeing Oaxaca, then or now.
Listening to Bertha say she owed an explanation to those who remained here, especially those who could not flee, I thought of how many did flee, and from what depths of fear. Unknown to George, I used to cross the street with a notion in the back of my mind that a car would race out of nowhere and run me down – quite unlikely. Unreal. Fear lives in private. Even when I say out loud “I am afraid” that is not the real fear, the fear of my childhood, when I fled a Jewish surname, when layers of skeletons entered my mind and never left.
Many people in Oaxaca experience fear. The rich fear being abducted, the reporters fear murder, movement people fear police violence, readers of mainstream news fear the teachers’ blockades and the vandals, APPO adherents fear the ideologues who have corrupted the assembly. Mexico in the hands of narco-cartels and organized crime has no law enforcement, as anyone can read; not just Oaxaca under the present governor, but the entire nation, suffer total criminal impunity.
During her speech La Doctora called on the people who lived through the repression to come together to talk about what had happened to us during the social movement. To talk away the fear, I suppose. Many suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, if you will forgive the use of that sterile phrase. Clinics have been set up to “treat” the survivors of torture, Oaxaca is “modern” enough for that. Other sessions for “therapy” or analysis or mourning have been taking place for more than a year. I wonder who is treating the children?
For some, further political or practical action works best. La Doctora called for people to gather today, Sunday, in the zocalo to talk through what happened, give over our fears, resolve what to do next. Somewhat more than thirty arrived, and in a very low key way –although they were recording an filming – the newest discussions began.