Patriot In Their Midst
by Michael Dwyer

       “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”  – Albert Camus 

The morning fog disappears over the finest natural port in the Southern Cone just as our driver announces that we have reached Montevideo’s one and only Sunday fair.  A dizzying array of stimuli await the minute our feet touch down on the infamous Calle Tristán Narvaja :  fragrant flowers and fruits, pungent cheeses, huge mushrooms, scared-stiff parrots locked in small cages, forlorn  puppies and kittens for sale, a cobra on the loose, poison dart frogs reads the sign, free-range city chickens, fresh fish from the Rio Plata, designer rip-offs from China and beyond, new & used  appliances and tools of every kind, false teeth in-a-barrel… take your pick… even tiger balm to soothe the nerves, so where are  the tigers? I’m nearly hallucinating as we float down Tristán Narvaja and feel like I’m bathing in the collective unconscious of the Uruguayan people themselves as the parade slowly comes to a halt.

As we move away from the center of the fair and on to the side streets, friendly court jesters magically appear and a vague sense of trickery and deception begins to fill the air. I see only smiling faces as those on the margins appear to be joyfully basking in their own glory. A blind man plays the concertina. In a tin can you can place a coin if you like, upon hearing the sound, he’ll take it immediately and store it in his vest pocket. Two youngsters half-asleep in a doorway… at their feet a filthy mongrel dog, tired and motionless; around his neck is tied a huge sign but his sleep remains undisturbed; the sign simply reads: Se Vende.  If you want to get “your feathers plucked”, there’s always 3-shells-and-a-pea. “How about a little bit of cannabis?” whispers un chamaco, “It’s legal, just ask President Mujica”. All the while, the girls of the night offer a sensuous Sunday buffet in an adjoining alleyway, “How do you like your coffee, ma petitechérie?” she sighs.

Backing away slowly from the periphery, we find ourselves on La Calle Paysandú euphemistically known as “The Street of Fine Arts” where they shamelessly pretend to sell the great paintings of the seventeenth century Dutch Masters and refer to Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer as if they were old friends reincarnated. A little further down, we approach a narrow alleyway full of tarnished reproductions as the coy young salesman simulates disinterest urging us only with sly glances that suggest we might even find el loco Van Gogh or le français Cézanne in the nave of his bountiful treasure lair.

Famished, we stop for a snack of succulent, newly baked sausage and delicious hot rolls.  Directly ahead, I notice a large, eclectic collection of translated books neatly stacked against a crumbling brick wall: World War II, philosophy, history and nineteenth century classical literature including the The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas as well as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. In that instance, I wonder to myself how the translated version of Huckleberry Finn might sound; could it even be possible to capture its true essence in another language? As I turn to my right, I spot two misplaced, but identical photography books titled Lucha Vietnam. As I start to peruse, I realize  that these books are nothing more than pure Soviet propaganda published by the Novosti Press, translated from Russian to a flowery Castilian and printed without page numbers, dates, nor tables of content with the authors named only in brief initials. In the upper left hand corner of the inside cover of one was written in pencil “1965” which had clearly survived after almost 50 years. So vile were the photos and captions that I thought just maybe, for the first time, I might even know what it feels like to be a Muslim looking at pictures of the Prophet Mohammed depicted as a clown or a pathetic caricature. At a glance, I found a picture of our ambassador at the time, Henry Cabot Lodge, smiling gleefully juxtaposed against the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thith True Zien in 1963. Then, I saw a depiction of President Lyndon Johnson along with his imaginary Army Ranger son with the caption reporting that both father and son were just as willing to kill innocent Vietnamese children as they were “niggers” in Alabama. How ironic, I thought. Besides the fact that Johnson did not even have a son, it was he who signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited all forms of racial segregation. Without thinking, I bought both identical books although neither my lovely wife nor I could understand why I would have purchased both?

Our home is a decaying Penthouse in La Ciudad Vieja where the water pressure is barely a trickle and the frequent wind and rain place predictable small puddles throughout our apartment almost daily. However, the view is panoramic and we can see the boats coming into this breathtaking harbor at eye level. Many Russian ships are clearly visible with their names neatly blocked in Cyrillic lettering. Early the following morning while my wife slept, I sat on the balcony with my café con leche and my weird books watching the boats come and go and idly ruminating: What kind of relationship did the Uruguayans have with the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War? Did these people really believe at the time that the Americans were as bad as the “Angel of Death”, Dr. Mengale, or perhaps as evil as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge? Would they still believe the same if I showed them these pictures today? Would both young and old agree? What about other South American countries and how about the Europeans? The French, after all, had an unsuccessful war with North Vietnam, as well. And Americans like me, what do we think of these pictures as we approach the golden anniversary of the Vietnam War?

The next day, I finally realize why I might have bought both copies of these identical books. Perhaps, subconsciously, I thought they were the last two copies on earth and very well they may be. Do I fancy myself as a kind of Irish monk who after the fall of the Roman Empire feels responsible for hiding from prying eyes the incriminating remnants of Western civilization? Could the Huns, the Visigoths, the Anglos or even the Saxons be hiding nearby? Why do these confabulated, pre-photoshop depictions strike such a visceral chord in me? After all, I lived in San Francisco during the late 60s. I slept in Golden Gate Park by night … roamed Haight-Asbury and Berkeley by day… read Che Guevara and the Berkley Barb and listened to Bob Dylan around the clock… even crossed the bridge to Oakland to rally with the Black Panthers. In fact, I was deeply involved in the anti-war movement and I must admit that I loved our home-grown political posters from the Vietnam era; yea, I remember helping my friend Pilot hang a bunch one night straight across The Haight. Our posters were just as unrelenting, visually grotesque and acerbic as the Soviet depictions, so why does the word blasphemy seep from my pores when I look at one, but not the other? I rationalize that our posters were spontaneous, grass-root expressions designed to expand our consciousness, not to distort and alter the very process of thinking itself. For that matter, what is the true nature of propaganda? I muse, as my third cup of coffee turns cold. Can information be manipulated so astutely that a seemingly normal person can actually come to believe it? Can propaganda be so powerful that it can actually change neurological structures in the brain?  Where can I find a good neurobiologist when I need one? I consider, as a smiling seagull flies by.

The following weekend, we find ourselves strolling down Le Boulevard Sarandí in search of our new favorite drink, a delightful mix of sparkling wine and muscatel called medio y medio. As we pass the Catedral Matriz, Gregorian chants entertain all those seated in the park nearby as the church bells soon announce the nine o’clock hour. If you turn too quickly, you might just think you were in Paris or Madrid. We head towards El Puerto de Mercado and soon seat ourselves at a funky outdoor hipster bar where we’d gone once before. It’s Saturday night and tourists from Buenos Aires are seated just to our right. They came across the bay in just 3 hours on the fastest large ferry in the world. The crowd is mostly Uruguayan with a few Germans thrown in for good luck. Just as we order our drinks, familiar faces appear: it’s Galileo and his pretty girlfriend Sandra, both dressed all in black. She taller than he and wears her hair in a braided bun. Galileo’s locks are long and loose and held in place only by a thin leather headband. They make and sell jewelry in El Peatonal by day and by night enjoy lavie de bohème. We once shared a joint outside El Café Brasilero during El Festival de Condombe… as I remember, despite our age difference, they seemed to really enjoy our company and were especially interested in my San Francisco hippie life during “The Summer of Love” and even wanted to know if I ever met Charles Manson.

The atmosphere is communal and the sweet leaf they call porro is passed freely and openly between tables. The subject of the night seems to be… oh my God, not the 911 conspiracy theory again. We’ve heard it all before! My stomach starts to curdle when I realize that this time it’s our friends Galileo and Sandra leading the way. They begin to outline in detail this all too familiar plot as those at nearby tables begin to nod in agreement.  I tell myself to shut up. I tell myself it’s hopeless, but after another toke on the magic dragon, my résistance wears down and I jump in. “Don’t you know that Noam Chomsky himself clearly dismisses the 911 conspiracy theory and considers it nothing but a distraction”, I announce in my best Spanish. Although I try to stick to the facts, I find myself getting emotional as I wade deep in the water. “We did not cremate Jews in Eastern Europe. We did not pile up bones in the killing fields of Cambodia and we did not bring down the twin towers; however, I must tell you, my friends, that the Bush Administration may be responsible for crimes just as serious. Yes, we are capable of overt violence, but our crimes are almost always clandestine in nature, crimes involving profit over people that take years to incubate and hatch. The late Howard Zinn simply called it ‘a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth’- just ask Mitt Romney, if you don’t believe me”, I add.

The small crowd is quickly getting restless and will have nothing to do with my nuanced arguments. Galileo has a particularly surly look on his face as he openly dismisses my comments as pura mierda.  Sandra even begins to laugh out loud as I slink back into my chair. All these fools can envision is the propagandized, snapshot version of their 911 tall-tale and see Bush and Cheney, with ghoulish grins on their faces, simply lighting a proverbial match to the  towers. Don’t they realize that it’s so much more complicated than that! To me, their homogenized view looks exactly like something from one of my distorted, circa 1965, soviet propaganda books. “Why don’t we just save our breath”, I say to my wife, “Let’s just Photoshop their favorite 911 image and paste it clear across La Plaza Libertad, maybe we’ll even put one on  La Columna de la Paz,” I interject sarcastically as we head out the door.

Sunday mornin’ comin’ down leaves us with some cobwebs so we head to Las Ramblas for a quick run. Later in the day:  a 4th of July, barbecue celebration in Pocitos at the home of our ex-pat friends Diana and Ray. I’m really looking forward to some fine Uruguayan grass fed, organic beef, the most tender and flavorful in the world! For now, however, I’m left to reflect on last night’s “happening” while my wife is out-and-about with her best friend Araceli, shopping up on nearby Calle 25 de Mayo.

While sitting on my balcony, I absentmindedly thumb through my Soviet propaganda books almost as I way of centering myself as I puzzle over how those seemingly bright, young, beautiful people could be so blind. In one of my crazy daydreams, I see Galileo’s imaginary father, Copernicus, working as a young boatswain on a large Soviet ship anchored in the harbor. While he works, he is being bombarded with propaganda books and pamphlets that literally rain from the sky. At the flagstaff stands Vladimir Lenin, straight and tall. Were some of Copernicus’s neuropathic connections distended, tangled and twisted forever when he was young, I ask myself? Could he have passed a mutant gene onto our poor, little Galileo? In my madness, I envision freezing their brains so neuroscientists in the next century can take a good look – Walt Disney here we come! In that moment, I’m startled when my beautiful bride brings me back to reality. “Hola, Bueno”, she sings. “I bought a big box of pastries at La Pastelería Iruñachurros, ricarditos and pasta frolas – but keep your hands to yourself, my boy – there for the barbecue, not you”, she chides. Delightfully sweet smells of apricot, quince, caramel and meringue intermingle in the air, but, thank God, I know when to keep my hands to myself.

There’s still time to read my e-mail before we go, so I grab my laptop. My hipster friend Bobby just sent me a link from The Guardian about the Edward Snowden case so I decide to check it out: encryption… decryption… the NSA… fundamental American liberties… movie-maker Debra Poitras… journalist Glen Greenwald … some call them traitors, but others might say great Americans in the same tradition as Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Moore, and Woodwood & Bernstein.  Ooh La La, it’s time to wave the red, white & blue, chimes my partner, as we head downstairs with our huge box of pastries. Huge breakers flood over Montevideo’s ancient sea wall and spill clear across Las Ramblas as our taxi speeds towards Pocitos; all the while, I ponder, what is it about my country that I really love? It’s not our military might and certainly not the buzzing drones overhead. It’s not our sagging economy, once the envy of the world. ¡Ay Caramba! it comes to me in a flash: young Galileo and his friends don’t need to waste their freakin’ time making up tall-tales … we’re always the first to tell our own damn story … whatever the cost may be … yea, that’s what I love about my country!

 

About the author:

Michael presently lives in Medellin, Colombia where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in the Social Sciences at ‘La Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana’. He formerly lived in ‘La Ciudad Vieja’ in Montevideo, Uruguay where he spent his days mostly readin’, ritin’ and ruminatin’ with a little drinkin’ and dancin’ thrown in for good luck.  He is originally a proud Irish-American from the State of Connecticut. Michael graduated from The University of Connecticut and once played basketball for the UConn Huskies. He spent a large part of his career working as a teacher and school psychologist in both Connecticut and New York.

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