The customs agent stopped cleaning his revolver and picked up Donna’s passport. Stared at her picture and back at her. Smug and pompous and aware of his posturing, he eyed her up and down. Donna knew better than to start babbling her cover story: the power stayed with the one who spoke last. Ramón had made her to fly in to Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil to attract less attention. It would be a short hop over the border to Ciudad del Este and Paraguay. But first, she had to get in her camera, tripod and equipment.
The agent flipped slowly through her passport pages. “You travel much,” he said.
“Business,” she said, but didn’t elaborate. Ramón had said get a visa on the border where they were lazier with background checks and open to “suggestions.”
“What kind of business?” the agent said. He set down her passport and with a flourish toyed with his revolver before snapping the barrel back into place.
“My business,” she said and smiled to soften it. Then casually unzipped her purse.
“You have excess luggage,” the agent said. Good, she thought. He’d caught his cue. He reholstered his gun and stood. “That will be two hundred U.S.”
Argue a little, but pay it, Ramón had told her. Good advice and she’d better take it. “I’m not sure I have that many dollars.”
The agent said nothing. This time she didn’t wait him out, but drew the bills out of her hidden waist wallet. He picked up his pen to add her name to the list.
She threw another hundred on his clipboard. “Don’t write me down,” she said.
The driver swung open the lower compartment, and Donna threw her suitcases into a dented hulk of a bus. She settled in and stared at the broken city as if it would help her remember Ramón’s features—but every mind picture was a blur. His phone calls had all been about politics and suffering—the people’s movement and its fight for farmland. President Espinoza vs. General Villarrica. The upcoming election might be deadly, but nobody could say to whom. She and Ramón had barely discussed that noisy spark in Uruguay a year ago. Maybe it was better that way.
The bus crawled across the Puente de Amistad/Friendship Bridge. A gridlocked hustler’s haven across the Río Paraná, her driver had to honk and bully his way past cheap-goods vendors stalking day-tripping Brazilians looking for bargains. Donna craved the counterfeit cigarettes with Xeroxed labels and perfume bottles containing who-knows-what scent. Square fry pans with shiny red handles and mp-3 players which might play for a month. Pins and needles and chewing gum. She lusted for the cards full of white lace or crudely marked pharmaceuticals which were probably illegal—unless they didn’t work.
Sharp-eyed money changers with worn billfolds hopped aboard the bus and searched for suckers—she feigned all knowledge of Spanish, Portuguese and German until they’d leave for other prey.
Finally: the western shore and Paraguay. Borders always gave Donna a warm feeling, as if she’d made good an escape. Even if she was riding into more questions than she was running from. The thought of interviewing subjects made her grip the armrests. She’d have to overcome the last time and the disaster in Gaza. Dig out a story once again.
Drained, she pressed her face into the grimy window as if a better view would clear everything up. The ride was six hours of bumps and stops with small children selling iced yerba mate which they called tereré and adults yelling, “Milanesa, sandweech, hamburguesa.” Cows and palm trees and miniscule towns. Chipà—cornmeal rolls—were everywhere—on a wicker tray, folded in a tablecloth, carried on the head, They were dense, leaden, mealy. She meant to buy two, but her 5,000 guaraníes netted eight rolls and no change. Exhausted, she couldn’t make out the math. But since the whole transaction only cost eighty three cents, she decided to let it go.
She half-expected to wake to machine gun-toting guerrillas and a military escort—not Caaguazú’s dilapidated main bus station with its six disorganized storefronts and two mangy dogs. An oasis of movement in the torpid streets, vendors crowded against the bus to make friends and sales.
Ramón fought through the crowd to get to her bus. In the middle of everything as always—and always standing out. He looked good. Not handsome—he wasn’t before. But confident, virile, maybe a hint more salt in the peppered hair. Forty eight and fighting. Would he still have the restless energy which made her quicken her pace?
He slicked his hair and straightened his striking, newly-pressed guayabera. Donna smiled to see his secret anticipatory gestures. His care. She regretted not wearing makeup—not having another face to show.
She did as instructed and waited until last to get out. Nobody seemed to paying her any attention, so she pushed her way past the wayward children and ticket touts. Looked into Ramón’s brown eyes through those owlish glasses and touched his crisp, white collar,. “You haven’t gone campesino, Professor.”
Ramón laughed. “It’s my last clean one,” he said. “Tomorrow I learn to wear t-shirts.” He held her shoulders for a two-cheek kiss—the welcome of friends, not of lovers. If you could call them that, twelve separated months later. They’d been too intimate too soon—or maybe not enough.
“It’s good to see you,” she said and he hugged her briefly. She dug out her claim check—which nobody asked for—and sorted through the driver’s hasty piles.
Ramón indicated a stern man emerging from a red Jeep. “We have company,” he said, with subtle emphasis. “A Spanish priest the people look up to.”
“But you don’t,” she said and counted her bags.
Ramón grinned and picked up her backpack. “We have to ignore the lesser evils.”
“Don’t underestimate the church,” she said. She bought a newspaper and tucked it under her arm. “Does he know you’re an atheist?”
“We’re all sinners,” she heard from behind.
Father Francisco Manuel Aragón y de Oliva preferred to be introduced by his full family name. “But as a stranger you won’t understand the old ways,” he said with patronizing humility. “So please call me Padre Aragón.” Seventy, maybe, with Castilian diction—no white collar, but that unyielding posture demanded respect.
“Señora Devore, the Padre has been looking forward to meeting you,” Ramón said—with a sly smile and no Señorita. He’d married her off. Great.
“We must go,” the priest said. “Before word spreads of my presence.”
She felt forced to give the priest the front seat. Ramón took it easy until they spun onto the highway’s reddish asphalt. He checked the rear-view mirror; it was clear. “Enjoy the smooth ride,” he said. “We’ll be back jolting before long.”
The cramped pressures of a small city dissolved behind them. Cracked sidewalks and corrugated tin gave way to endless horizons. No billboards, barely any signage, but acres of soy and wheat and corn. Ramón swerved around a horse cart. “This is the best part of my country.”
“I can see why the campesinos want to live here,” she said. Odd that word, campesino. It meant peasant but wasn’t pejorative. Your class is who you are. And the landless ones were sintierras—literally “without earth.” The landless movement was trying to change that by occupying the farms of corrupt landowners—not legal or safe, but definitely moral. And a good subject to film, Donna thought.
Father Aragón fanned his face. “Paraguay’s not Spain, but it deserves better.” Another example of his striking ability to make every conversation about himself.
Donna watched the simple green sameness duplicate itself mile after mile. “No signs of a struggle,” she said.
“Looks are deceiving,” Ramón said.
The priest turned off the air conditioning. “We must not waste,” he said. Ramón didn’t comment, kept his foot on the gas.
Donna rolled down her window and a wave of jet lag blew into her with the South American late spring. She wanted to sleep but the priest kept peppering her with questions, making clear her arrival was not his idea.
“Paraguayan problems need Paraguayan solutions,” he said. “Three weeks of research doesn’t mean you understand our people. Why do you think you can help?”
“I make documentaries not propaganda,” Donna said. “Helping isn’t my issue.” She almost went on, but she caught Ramón’s eye in the rear-view mirror. He must have known she’d hate this ass.
The priest coughed meaningfully, and she reluctantly rolled up her window. “The sintierra movement needs to know it can trust you,” he said.
She kept her voice level. “The truth is why I’m here.”
Her answer seemed to satisfy Father Aragón, but she knew she was on shaky ground. The private funding made it nearly a vanity project and the land invasion’s timing cut short her prep. She might not be ready with the hard hitting questions. And to get the right footage in these situations you had to be fearless. She hadn’t been this nervous in years.
The priest finally slept. Ramón kept his eyes on the road. She meant to watch the scenery, but her eyes strayed to the curve of his neck and his hands firm on the wheel. The crisp linen which covered the scars of long ago torture, like a personal history on his back.
“What pried you out of Asunción?” she asked him. “I thought you wanted to monitor developments from there.”
“I was choking,” he said. “Universities will do that.”
“So does Los Angeles.” It already seemed years away.
He said he’d read one too many vapid essays on Guevara vs. Bolívar. Limp theses written by wealthy students whose families would rather study medicine or law. He had plenty of middle class strivers in his courses, but they would only get so far. Universidad Católica was liberal but pragmatic, and the unwritten restrictions on his teaching chafed.
“The elite get away with too much in high school,” he said and shifted into low gear for a hill. He told her how last year the seniors at Asunción’s chi chi colegio got out of hand and the principal tried to suspend them. The Board of Trustees said no. The principal lost her mind at graduation in front of the parents. “She told them this is where the corruption starts,” Ramón said. “This is how.”
“That takes guts,” Donna said. “What happened?”
“She needed armed guards to get out of the country.” Donna clutched the roll bar as Ramón took a curve sharply. “You don’t question politics or power in Paraguay,” he said. “You follow your father, who followed his.” He quick-passed an oxcart and ducked back into the lane.
She dug out her seatbelt. “What did your father do?”
He smiled into the rearview. “Not this.”
“When are you going to occupy the farm?”
“Two a.m.,” he said.
He sighed. “If we don’t move in soon, someone will give our plans to the government.
“Then I’ll have to be ready,” she said.
Donna rechecked her camera to avoid giving into jet lag. Time to take over a farm. She marveled at the number of people expected to fit in each vehicle and winced at their condition. It had taken twenty four hours of traveling to get here from Los Angeles—but Ramón said once they hit the trucks it would be five hours more. “You could have had more time,” he said, “if you’d flown in a few days ago.”
Not much she could do about that now. She’d stayed in the Jeep cleaning her gear for most of the evening, hesitant somehow to begin. Ramón’s students would bring his car to the farm when the danger was lessened—and keep it safe until then.
They passed two campesino women smothering a cook fire. In front of them, Ramón offered her a gas mask. “In case they’re expecting us, Señora.”
If he could be so formal and professional, maybe she should try. “If I put it on, I couldn’t look through the viewfinder, Professor Vasquez.” She thought she saw him grin.
At last she stepped out for a few shots of the preparations. Pressed record on instinct. Found her frame and groove.
The campesinos crowded onto the stakebed, piling themselves on top of luggage and luggage on top of themselves. Donna had brought more gear than any family and bribed two twelve-year-olds to help her load. Squirrelly and skinny and cheerfully dirty, they insisted she take their picture as they worked.
Jaime tied off the tripod. He had a fresh intelligence, an amiable frankness in his crooked grin. If I were eleven, he’d be my best friend, Donna thought, but I’d have a crush on some more mysterious boy. Jorge was more athletic and serious and kicked a fútbol against a tire. His father was Óscar, Ramón’s university janitor, and he seemed isolated from the rest of the kids.
Jaime called her Ma-Donna with glee. “Now everyone will know you’re my girlfriend.”
“Our girlfriend,” Jorge said.
The campesinos made Ramón sit up front. He hated the class distinction, but professors deserved respect and Ramón was a professor which was the way things had to be.
“Sit with me,” Ramón said and squeezed her hand—a small stolen intimacy.
“The back’s better for the camera,” she said with reluctance.
“Whatever you want,” he said.
The makeshift caravan rumbled out, messy and noisy. They took side roads for better concealment, and even the ruts seemed joyous. A boyfriend held his girl closer than necessary. Tight enough to feel each bump together. The girl was shy but grateful—Donna tried to keep her thoughts on her work. It would have been family camp for the neighborhood church, except for the 2×4’s lashed in the corner, the few restless machetes, one treasured gun.
The night air whipped by, but the press of bodies warmed her.
This is crazy, she thought.
The gears ground on the overloaded truck—even on such a slight grade. Muscled and serious, the driver steered with purpose. An owner-operator, he’d volunteered his one vehicle: Ramón coveted his clear belief.
A priest, a North American and a political science professor. Like a joke from my father, Ramón thought. The off-color kind his customs buddies would trade in between bribes at the airport. Good thing he was dead, he’d always railed against causes—Hijo, take care of yourself.
Map and rosary in hand, the priest sat on his right and tracked their progress by flashlight—although they had several hundred more kilometers on this route.
Exhaust filtered in from the six diesels ahead of them. Ramón coughed. Padre Aragón stopped mumbling prayers. “Sick, Professor Vasquez?“
The priest cleared his throat. “It will be worse where we’re going.”
Ramón nodded politely and offered him his thermos. He wouldn’t drink but handed it to the driver. I should suggest a hair shirt next, Ramón thought.
In the moonless dark Ramón could see nothing but headlights and insects. He shifted to keep himself from sticking to the vinyl. Tried not to worry about the bad odds ahead.
For many years, he’d practiced being invisible when it counted. In Paraguay, it kept you safe. But he’d opened his mouth and ended up entangled in the sintierra movement. Maybe inwardly hoping it would make Donna come back to South America. Knowing he had to see her again.
He should observe, maybe write a paper. Spend time with her and see where that went. Stay three days, a week, and take off when things settled. Leave the danger to stronger men.
But admit it—he liked the other benefits of being in the movement’s leadership, the subtle deferrals and public praise. The first yerba maté offered with shy smiles from divorced women. The campesinos’ hush when he ventured an opinion. The he-teaches-at-Universidad-Católica always appended to introductions. Ramón’s thoughts counted and they never let him overlook it.
He glanced in the rear view mirror, forgetting all he’d see was piled luggage. So many people. So much weight.
The priest gripped the dashboard, gray-pallored from the swerving. Worn brakes and rough roads had to be tough at his age. Ramón bet he was too rigid to do anything about it. He tested him anyway. “Perhaps we should stop for a moment to stretch, catch our breath.”
The priest nodded. “The others might like that.”
“And you look like you could use some air.”
Padre Aragón looked over at the faint glow of blue-purple in the horizon. “The sun is arriving,” he said to the driver. “We must move.”
Ramón stifled a laugh. Although in a way he admired the priest’s asceticism, his unwavering moral code. Ramón called himself a Catholic-atheist who felt too guilty to argue away God. But he’d always said all mass movements required deliberate delusion. If he were going to help the poor and landless, he might have to share their blind faith.
“We’ll put the women up front of the march in case there’s trouble,” the priest said. “Soldiers won’t harm them.”
Ramón couldn’t believe his naiveté. “If we meet soldiers, they’ll shoot.”
The farm’s cheap metal gate listed on its hinges, not even a lock to shoot off. Donna had imagined a more substantial barrier. Something worthy of a righteous but illegal takeover. Like battlements she thought, or a moat.
A ranch dog loped to greet them, chased their truck until it lurched to a stop. Muddled shouts in the background meant the other groups of campesinos were already marching. She clambered down into a chaos of disjointed orders. Found Ramón unloading his suitcase and a duffel. “We’re late,” she told him. “What happened?”
“We couldn’t risk the priest,” Ramón said. “He’s the face of the movement.”
“I’ve missed the arrival shot.” Not the way she wanted to get started.
Ramón looked at her like she was nuts. “I didn’t want you in danger, either.”
“Next time ask me,” she said.
He looked around at the exhausted mass of campesinos. “Not much of an army,” he said and helped Jorge take off her equipment. “But against day laborers, we’ll be fine.” The owner lived on a fancy spread halfway across the country. An easy mark for squatters, he’d taken title with bribes.
Seven panel trucks passed them heading back to the highway, cutting off their easy means of escape. “Why ditch the trucks?” Donna asked Ramón as they vanished.
“It’s not like we own them,” he said. “What carries us in, can drag us out.”
Women unloaded. Children ran rampant. Men looked for a fight.
Jetlagged and sore, Donna took out her camera.
An ex-boyfriend once told her she used the camera to stay distant. To separate herself from the real. But he hadn’t understood the rush of capturing a moment, the adrenaline of story and frame. She shook off Los Angeles and brought her mind back to Paraguay.
Time to press record.
The lens captured rich red topsoil and one shabby living space. Overloaded soy stalks with their incipient harvest. Birds and bugs and rusted tin. A few horses corralled, not stabled. Empty bags of pesticide, one dead car. A camp, a home, a future for the campesinos. But only if they hung on, stayed strong.
Jaime ran down from a small rise.
“Ma-Donna, Ma-Donna,” he said, breathless. “Do you want to take a film of a fight?” This was her crew: twelve-year-old advance scouts with quick feet.
He took her up the road to a makeshift cabin.
“Good instincts, Jaime,” she said. Two dozen campesinos surrounded the bunkhouse. Three frightened farmworkers had barricaded themselves inside.
Outside, young men with sharp sticks and machetes shuffled and shouted. “They’re gonna get the Brazilians,” Jaime said.
Father Aragón held a patched-up bullhorn, which crackled so much Donna could barely understand him. He demanded the men come out as if they were delinquent children. The shrill incivility in his orders wasn’t smart.
The campesino leaders hovered nearby, uneasy. She guessed it was too early to be challenging a priest. But she didn’t like the look of the torch a muscled man was holding. She sent Jaime running for Ramón.
Ramón hesitated at the edge of the clearing. “Let the priest handle it,” he said. “He should be good with mobs.”
“He won’t lower himself,” Donna said.
Ramón didn’t want to hear it—she was right in that annoying way of someone who didn’t have to solve the problem. Padre Fucking Aragón. In his mind Ramón called him Padre Nuestro—Our Father who ought to be in heaven, not here.
“You speak enough Portuguese so they’ll listen,” Donna said. “And our campesinos will follow your lead.” Because of his past—although she wouldn’t say it. The poor trusted suffering, he thought. He definitely had the right scars to prove it. He wasn’t above using them to get what he wanted, but he’d never figured out why the fading reminders of a police state made him an honorable man. He knew some shitty people who’d been roughed up by the Stroessner regime. One of them being his ex-wife.
Donna stepped into the clearing already filming, setting and capturing the scene. An older man stopped Ramón, offered him a kitchen knife in front of her camera. “I’m better off without it,” he said.
More chanting, more taunting and the mob closed in, restless. He had to act quickly, if he didn’t want them to lynch. “Someone needs to go inside,” he told Padre Aragón, “I don’t think they can hear you.”
“I’ll speak with them,” the priest said.
“You’re too important,” Ramón said. “We shouldn’t risk you.” Ego mollified, the priest stepped aside.
Donna swung around the camera, but Ramón wouldn’t let her follow. “I need to keep it casual,” he said. And he didn’t want to worry about her safety: although he now knew not to tell her that.
“Fine,” she said, pragmatic and cool.
He leaned into the door, said, “Eu falo o português,” with what he hoped was confidence. Good thing he’d once thought he’d get work in Brazil.
The cabin door cracked open. He stepped in.
Donna was torn between admiration for Ramón and annoyance at not getting to see him work. She covered her nerves with a few well-chosen reaction shots, let the crowd tense and worry in her frame.
Jorge tugged at her sleeve. “Can you tell what they’re saying through your microphone?”
“I’m not that powerful,” she said. The crowd hushed enough to hear a crow caw, then bubbled back into threats once again.
In ten seconds or thirty minutes the door kicked open. Somebody dropped a stick. Ramón emerged with four Brazilians clutching duffels, their shoulders up and eyes straight ahead.
“Padre Aragón, perhaps you could escort them to the road and the bus,” Ramón said.
Smooth move, she thought. The priest whisked them away.
She framed Ramón in a tight shot. “How’d you get them to leave the cabin?”
“Gave them two hundred mil guaraníes each. Told them you were from CNN and would guarantee their safety.”
“Forty bucks isn’t much of a payoff.”
“It is in Paraguay,” Ramón said.
Ramón inhaled from a cigarette until he coughed and felt stupid. He hadn’t smoked in twenty years and he’d bought the pack without thinking. Mierda—that hurt. He stubbed the cig out on a discarded Monsanto barrel and breathed in fresh eucalyptus from the replanted grove around him. Tried to exhale his nerves with the menthol wind.
He should be down with the others celebrating and directing traffic. Nailing down tent pegs, marking territory, adjudicating claims. The sexy part was over—now the quiet dangers set in. They’d scramble for food and wait for repercussions. The takeover had been easy, which scared him. You had to wonder who’d greased their way.
Donna collapsed next to him in the shadow of a rusty tractor, leaned against a rotting tire. Sweat soaked her lower back, muddied her dirt-caked jeans. She smelled like tree sap with a strange hint of vanilla. He remembered her shampoo from Montevideo. Odd how the little things came back.
“How’s the film?” he asked as she toyed with her lens cap.
“Confused.” She hadn’t differentiated the people—they were still one unmemorable mass. She hated these simpleminded cocoons. When she couldn’t see beyond on a 16×9 high-definition rectangle or a 1.33 digital box. Nothing made sense except fragments of images—she could hardly remember what she’d been trying to look at, much less what she actually shot.
Maybe she’d overreacted in not bringing a crew. There was no one to catch her mistakes. Was jet lag the reason for her mental exhaustion? She couldn’t even focus on whether that was the truth.
She dropped her daypack off her shoulders and rested the camera on it, breathed deep. “I don’t know my main characters, yet.”
“It must be hard,” Ramón said. “You a foreigner and not part of the movement.” And a single woman in Paraguay—although he sure as hell wouldn’t say that.
Donna pressed record and raised the camera. “Why is this personal for you?”
“It’s not,” he said, the lens already annoying him. It gave Donna a reason to front every tough question. And him no right to refuse. He wouldn’t admit he wanted to look good for her camera. “You like control,” he said.
“When I can get it.”
“You’ll have a tough time finding it here.” His peripheral vision caught a glint near the property line next to a stand of old oaks. “Did you see that?” he said. “Like the sun hit the glass in someone’s binoculars.”
Donna swung around and zoomed in closer. “It’s hard to tell with those trees at this distance.”
Six more flashes convinced him. “I expected spies, but not so soon.” He’d thought it would be at least three days before Asunción got its act together and took action. It wouldn’t be local government, they’d be outmanned.
Concerned, she set down her camera. “If that’s true, they could have stopped us but didn’t.”
“Po caré,” he said. Twisted hand. Of politics so perverse they had a Guaraní expression for it. Where the whole truth was an endless origami—and for every fact there were five motives to unfold.
If he knew, Father Aragón would point fingers. There were only supposed to be five people who should know all the advance planning of the invasion: the three movement leaders, the priest, and Ramón, himself.
Donna put away her equipment and zipped up her pack. “How will we figure out who’s watching?”
He ducked the question. “It’s more important to understand why.” He stood and picked up his jacket. “Let’s keep this between us so no one panics.” He didn’t tell her he’d privately let out details to a handful of his students. Which meant directions could have leaked to a whole raft of people. And the invasion date. He looked west, where the sun threatened to sink into the horizon. “We’d better get set up.”
Donna wiped her brow and they walked down the embankment, winding their way through the weeds. “Where are we sleeping?” she asked.
It caught him off guard. Obviously they’d sneak around and hide their relationship. It’s not like they were in Asunción with a million people for cover. “I brought two tents,” he said.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.