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Endangered Species
The Language of Our Lives

Democracy. Once upon a time the word evoked access, fairness, participatory representation. Once upon a time we could think of the United States as a democ- racy; and defenders of its policies proposed it as an example to nations around the world. This hasn’t been true for decades, of course, but the cartel, which less than two weeks ago succeeded in grabbing control of this country for the second time, has managed to radically change the meaning of the word. Today “the greatest democracy” describes drastic curtailment of freedom and opportunity here at home and a politics of coercion, destruction, and death globally.

Democracy is not the only word or combination of words that criminals in high office have twisted beyond recognition. Others that come to mind are revolution, right to life, family values, sanctity of marriage, compassionate conservatism, health care, no child left behind, healthy economy, jobs for everyone, impartial journalism, weapons of mass destruction, freedom and liberty, count every vote and make every vote count. This discourse from an administration whose presi- dent boasts that he says what he means and means what he says is Orwellian doublespeak at its most outrageous.

As someone who expresses herself primarily with words, I find misleading or cowardly turns of speech particularly annoying, often dangerous. In a true gift economy speech that is truthful, courageous, filled with holistic vision, rich in linguistic beauty, and useful in that it offers choices and encourages positive change, is the most valuable currency there is.

We used to think of lesbian as the “L” word. Now it is liberal. One more in a long list of co-opted words. The neo-conservative patriarchy currently exerting its power over our lives—and over so many lives across the globe—has paid special attention to language and its influence. Repeating the lie is referred to as “staying on message.” Sound-bite shorthand replaces in-depth discussion. Spend enough money imbuing words and concepts with meanings different from—often dia- metrically opposed to—their original definitions and people assimilate a language of lies. The unacceptable becomes acceptable.

My generation of feminists paid indignant attention to how language was used. Early on we demanded a discourse in which the pronouns “he” and “his” would no longer be common denominators, meant to represent all humankind. We invented the generic “Ms” so that women wouldn’t have to define ourselves by whether or not we belonged to a man.

We urged that language assume responsibility for its acts: not the passive “I was raped” but the more explicit “so-and-so raped me.” Names. Places. Dates. Accountability. A feminist and egalitarian use of language spread throughout the world. Women from different cultures and with different linguistic codes made innovative contributions to this reclamation of self. Speaking the truths of our lives helped us understand who we had been and could become.

For many years I lived in Latin America, working for social change in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. There I learned that all the peoples of the continent call themselves Americans, a word long monopolized by the United States. In Mexico, qu╚ padre! (in praise of the father) is an exclamation denoting excitement or ap- proval, while estĚ de madre (quite literally, “how mother-like”) describes something ugly or wrong. An advertising for a popular beer displays the words, la rubia de categor╠a: the high-class blonde. Prejudice reveals itself in speech in so many more ways than we are aware.

Latin American feminists have also righted some of these wrongs and returned denigrated images to their rightful meanings. An important example is La Ma- linche, the Indian woman whose family gave her to the Spanish conqueror HernĚn Cort╚z. Because she represented the mixing of the races—an Indian woman who “slept with the enemy,” i.e., the Spanish invader—the term malinche was used to signify betrayer in contemporary Latin American Spanish. A feminist rereading of this history pointed out that it was in fact La Malinche who had been betrayed: first by her family who gave her away, then by the Spaniard who raped her and kept her enslaved. For many of us La Malinche is a symbol of dignity and courage.

Today a fundamentalist reading of several different scriptures turns words and concepts inside out. We live in a time of redefinition and backlash. A powerful corporate media draws on unlimited financial resources and sophisticated psycho- logical manipulation to make sure we go along with the game plan. A punishing system of injustice makes sure we don’t rebel.

Fear and hatred of others is sold as Keeping America Safe. Policies advertised as repelling terrorism only increase the anger other nations and peoples feel when faced with U.S. belligerence; such policies do not keep us safe, they provoke future attacks. Severe curtailment of citizen rights is described as a necessary sacrifice in The War on Terror. Invasion is sold as liberation. An environmental policy that is poisoning the air we breathe, the water left for us to drink, and the earth that is our home bears the name Clean Air Act.

How can we fight this rape of language? Even with a new and creative use of the Internet our resources are meager compared to those the system is able to muster against us. I believe in preserving and nurturing memory, in restoring language to its original meaning and, most of all, in the power of our stories.

I offer two examples. In the first I call your attention to an underreported event that illustrates—better than many—the ways in which our government usurps and attempts to control our lives by usurping and controlling the authentic storylines of these times.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a government agency established to support the art that sustains us, recently announced its latest project launched in conjunction with the Pentagon and funded almost entirely by Boeing Corpora- tion. Military men and women, returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, will have the opportunity of attending workshops with professional writers. In these workshops they will presumably learn the skills that will enable them to write about their experiences of war. The best of this writing will then be published in an anthology. One can only imagine the promotional efforts that will catapult the volume to best-seller status. Along with embedding journalists with contingents of fighting troops and the treatment of misinformation as entertainment, this project will help construct the official stories of the wars being fought in our names.

At first glance this might seem to be a laudable endeavor. As in the case of the embedded journalists, won’t these veterans be writing about what they’ve experienced on the ground? Isn’t the protagonist always the most authentic storyteller?

But look more closely. Rather than use public monies to send these veterans to legitimate writing programs, where they may be able to gain some distance from their trauma, learn from mentors and peers, and eventually produce a literature tempered by time and self-reflection, the NEA’s hurry-up approach takes men and women who are still living on military bases, still under military orders, and uses them to produce propaganda pretending to be art.

Veterans of America’s war in Vietnam, who were able to write after years of struggle and healing, have denounced this project as the worst sort of language control. The very men and women in a position to share the pain and horror of today’s “preemptive” wars are being forced to regurgitate that pain and horror undigested, unexamined, and removed from context. It will take years for us to disentangle the real stories from this constructed storyline. The NEA project is one of many examples of how the Bush administration takes our language, twists it to serve its interests, and uses it against us in its assault upon our lives. The second story is a tender gift. I offer it here because it exemplifies the worst and best of our humanity, the horrendous crimes and power of resistance that have defined our lives. This is a true story.

In Latin America during the 1970s brutal dictatorships ravaged hundreds of thousands of lives. In Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay paramilitary forces captured young rebels, torturing and murdering them in clandestine prisons. “Disappear- ance” was a new type of state terrorism, designed to punish revolutionaries and instill fear and uncertainty in their communities. These revolutionaries’ small children were often stolen and given to childless couples involved with the criminal regimes. In many cases pregnant women prisoners were kept alive only until their babies could be harvested. Then they were murdered, their offspring adopted by the very men and women against whom they’d struggled. These are Latin America’s lost children.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires is a tireless group of women who for years they have demonstrated for the return of their grandchildren. With determination, hope, and DNA technology, some 60 lost children have been identified to date. Many wish to reconnect with their families of origin. Oth- ers—raised in a culture of hate—have been poisoned by an ideology that doesn’t allow for them to reclaim the identities they never knew they had.

This is the story of Sara M╚ndez and her son Sim█n. Sara and her husband were Uruguayans, captured in Buenos Aires, Argentina on July 13, 1976. Like so many others, they disappeared. Their 22-day-old son Sim█n was taken and never seen again. But unlike most of the tens of thousands of disappeared, Sara and her comrade Mauricio Gatti survived years of torture and imprisonment. In May 1981 Sara was freed. Like all such survivors her process of reentry and healing would be difficult. She made finding Sim█n her life-long goal.

The Sara M╚ndez / Sim█n case became a popular cause. For years in Montevideo lampposts and walls bore flyers asking, “D█nde estĚ Sim█n? Where Is Sim█n?” Sara was obsessed in her quest. Human rights organizations worked on this case along with hundreds of others. As months became years and years decades, some began to refer to Sara as “that crazy woman looking for a son who won’t be found.” Tenaciously she appealed to governments and international institutions. Mostly they promised help but did nothing.

Several years ago a Uruguayan senator named Rafael Michelini decided to take up Sara’s quest. His father and also senator, Zelmar Michelini, had been gunned down in the streets of Buenos Aires many years before—by the same criminals who had taken Sim█n. Sara M╚ndez was his friend. He didn’t think she was crazy. He believed she had a right to find her son.

Michelini asked himself what he would have done with a 22-day-old infant had he been a paramilitary operative in Buenos Aires all those years before. It occurred to him that he might have delivered the baby to the nearest police station. Based on this hypothesis, he located the precinct closest to the scene of the crime and set about to identify the men who had been on duty the night Sim█n was taken. Four names surfaced, all belonging to officers now retired.

The self-proclaimed detective decided to call these men, one by one. As a member of parliament in neighboring Uruguay he had some prestige. A brief introduction was enough to convince the first man on the list to meet him at a bar. As Michelini told the story of Sara and Sim█n, the man’s eyes filled with tears. “Recuerdo la noche como si fuera ayer ... I remember that night as if it was yester- day,” he said; and went on to describe the protocol they were ordered to follow when paramilitaries brought these children in. “We did the necessary paperwork and then sent them to a nearby orphanage,” he explained. It was clear that this man had been an honest policeman doing his job, not someone aligned with the dictatorship or who shared in the responsibility for its crimes.

The retired policeman went on to describe how he had gone home and told his wife about the “orphaned” child he had processed at the end of that night’s shift. Childless herself, she told him “Ay, Viejo ... son tan fr╠os esos lugares. Those orphanages are such cold places! Couldn’t we adopt that baby ourselves?” And so it was that the policeman now telling his story to Michelini had gone and retrieved the child. He and his wife had raised him as their own.

They had never told their son he was adopted. He said. “He’s a good boy. We’ve had such a happy life together.” But Michelini could tell the story wouldn’t end here. The retired policeman promised to go home, talk to his son, and leave it up to the boy—now 26—whether he wanted to meet his birth mother. He promised he’d be back in touch.

A week later Michelini got the call. Sim█n’s adoptive father said the truth had come as a shock to his son. Upon learning of his origin, he’d left the house in confusion and gone to stay with his girlfriend. “It was she who calmed him,” the man said, “and convinced him to find out more.” He wanted to talk to Michelini, who assured him he would travel to Buenos Aires the following day.

And this is why, on March 8, 2002, as Sara M╚ndez emerged from a Montevideo radio station where she’d participated in an International Women’s Day program and was making her way through the heavy traffic of Avenida Artigas, she heard her cell phone ring. Unaware of how her life was about to change, she reached into her bag, retrieved the phone and said hello. On the other end of the line a young man’s voice asked, “Mother?”

The lamppost flyers in Montevideo now read “Welcome Home Sim█n.” This story and others like it, from many different cultures and profiling the human experience in its broad array of tragedy and hope, give us back our language freed from the distorting manipulation that would use it against us.

This is not a story told in isolation. Obsessed as we in the U.S. were with our own 2004 election, we may have missed hearing abut the election in Uruguay. In that small South American country the stories of repression and struggle had been kept alive, passed from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, even when uttering certain words was forbidden by law. Few families do not have victims on one side or the other. Many of the torturers remain free.

The dictatorship in Uruguay had been defeated when, in a 1980 plebiscite designed to perpetuate its power, 57.2 percent of voters spontaneously wrote the word “No” on their ballots. Slowly, steadily, people worked to revive an opposition movement. The Frente Amplio is made up of communists, socialists, Tupamaros,1 social democrats, environmentalists, and others. For 31 years, through a succession of elections, they gained in strength. In 2004, with 51 percent of the vote, the Frente Amplio finally came to power. In the same election, Uruguayans resisted a sinister measure to privatize water.

The vote is obligatory in Uruguay. And there is no absentee ballot. Between 40,000 and 50,000 citizens who live in other countries came home to participate in this national decision. People danced in the streets.

This shows what can happen when real issues are discussed, honest dialogue is encouraged, and language has not been successfully co-opted; when people refuse to put up with doublespeak, pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to advertise on television, diet commercials do not follow on the heels of com- mercials featuring fast food, and grandparents and parents keep alive the stories that inform their and our lives.

We must not let the power-greedy rip meaning from our words. We must not let them usurp our stories. Memory and stories are among our most precious tools for life. We cannot allow them to be turned into weapons of death.

Margaret Randall lived for much of her life in Latin America: Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. She returned to the U.S. in 1984, only to face a deportation order due to the opinions expressed in some of her books. She won her immigration case in 1989 and has resided in her native Albuquerque, New Mexico since. Author of more than 100 books, among her most recent titles are When I Look Into the Mirror and See You; Terror and Resistance; Into Another Time: Grand Canyon Reflections, and forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press, Stones Witness, a multi-genre volume which includes poems, personal narrative, and photographs. She lives with her lifetime companion, artist Barbara Byers.


The Tupamaros (MLN or National Liberation Movement) were an armed struggle organization active in Uruguay during the 1960s and ’70s. Many of its members later transitioned into a political organization which is now an important part of the Board Front (Frente Amplio).

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