by Laurie Coyle*
* This is the first in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. The occasion is the November 28, 2013, premiere of Observando al Observador (Watching the Watchman) in Buenos Aires.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Olga had traveled to Argentina where she became involved in community organizing in the town of Azul, four hours south of Buenos Aires. Laurie was an active member of the Olga Talamante Defense Committee, which was instrumental in bringing about Olga’s release from prison in March 1976.
Observandor al Observador is an important contribution to the Argentinian movement for Truth, Memory and Justice. It analyzes the role of the United States in the Dirty War in Argentina and features Olga’s experience of torture and imprisonment in the late 1970s under the dictatorship. The documentary was directed by a young Argentinian filmmaker, Malena Juanatey, who represents the enlightened children of the generation that suffered and fought against the dictatorship.
For an extended discussion of Olga’s views on torture and Operation Condor, see “Dirty Wars: On the Unacceptability of Torture—A Conversation with Olga Talamante” in Social Justice (Vol. 33, No. 1, 2006).
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November 21, 2013
Olga and I are having our first border crossing moment and we haven’t even departed from SFO. At the United Airlines counter they inform us we can’t check bags and get our boarding passes because we have no proof of our Reciprocidad documents for Argentina. It’s a relatively new visa, instituted because Argentina decided that if the United States was going to charge Argentinians to enter the U.S., Argentina would “reciprocate” with a permit and fee of their own. Fair is fair. If you travel to Argentina as the citizen of another nation, you won’t be paying this fee!
Olga already paid for her 10-year reciprocidad permit when she arrived at the Buenos Aires airport last year. But unbeknownst to our travel agent, now the permit must be paid for and issued right here in the United States. All this to say that I do not possess the reciprocidad permit and am sent running to the international terminal to pay up. Meanwhile, our UA agent is running as well, to ask his supervisor whether they will accept the reciprocidad stamp in Olga’s passport. Yes, it has a barcode, but they can’t read the barcode … yes, it says reciprocidad and even Argentina, but it’s not quite the same as the paper permit issued here. The topsy-turvy of North/South is finally righted and we are on our way.
So, in honor of the mysterious, maddening, frightening, and sometimes hilarious border crossing experiences we have all had–you reader, as well as we–I am sharing an earlier border crossing, this one from the diary I kept when traveling in Latin America in 1974. In the “comments” section below, please post a border-crossing story of your own.
Signing off with lyrics from the great Argentinian singer/composer Carlos Gardel: Adiós Muchachos Compañeros de La Vida!
Laurie (and Olga)
October 7, 1974
Our bus roars across the border and up to the Aduana between Honduras and Nicaragua. We climb down for the inspection that has become a ritual on this trek through Central America. Several soldiers slouch around, looking uncomfortable in their uniforms, hands shifting continuously to the machetes hanging from their belts. Each feigns the petty tyrant, giving our group looks to kill. They act as thieves armed and authorized by the national banditry of Anastasio Somoza. I experience once again the strange sensation of being on the Frontier.
The Nicaraguan border is notorious among travelers and we are anxious to make the crossing as uneventful as possible. While they inspect our bags, I feel relieved to be a North American not subject to the harassment received by the citizens of Latin American countries. Our suitcases scarcely warrant attention; we are through the line almost instantly. Fellow travelers are not so fortunate. The Chilean sociologist, Lucho Alvarado, is subjected to a shameless search, down to dismantling his shaving kit. The soldiers are not actually looking for subversive materials, but it is common knowledge that Chilean refugees are pariahs in these small rightwing Central American republics. Their rite to pass through has not been revoked, but the border guards spare no pains to show contempt for the homeless ones: they scorn the Chileans for having fallen from positions of real political efficacy–positions beyond their actual and imaginative grasp.
We have made it through customs and head for the bus, but the guards redirect us to another building for yet another test. What now? Freddi and I feel protective of Lucho, so the three of us stick together. We enter a long narrow room with a low table running its length. Opposite us and across the table sits an inspector. His belly is slung with a holster stuck full of peg-bullets. He is slovenly and probably wears the gun to offset the ridicule his appearance would otherwise evoke. Leaning back fat in his swivel chair, he belches and, without looking up informs us that we will have to wait until he gets through his reading: a comic book. He keeps us waiting as long as he can with the calculated greed of a man with one small power. Great, the government censor, a book-cannibalizer who is a functional illiterate!
The show begins. Each book is pored over and checked against a 10-page list of prohibited literature. The censor looks twice at my copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, shrugs, and then seizes two books that belong to Lucho. He gloats, having won round one. Lucho, however, asks to see the list. He points out that one of the books in question is not on the list; another title by the same author is (the list is ancient and does not include the author’s more recent work). Our cowboy looks quite unhappy with this development, but lacks the imagination to connect the two works, or the jurisdiction to seize a book not stipulated on his list. With a sigh, he hands the book back to Lucho. Next he confiscates a book written by a colleague of Lucho’s, who declares that this friend would be proud to be banned by Somoza.
And then he spies the Chinese characters on a copy of the I Ching that Lucho purchased in Mexico City. He pounces, scrutinizes the list, and finds no citation. Unbelievable. Shaking his head, he searches once again. Still not there. Unsatisfied, he places the I Ching between himself and Lucho, leans forward, and poses the question:
“Now tell me this (ahora dígame Ud.): was this book written before or after Mao?”
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