In the last two weeks, I have shared some historical material. Sharing it has brought me back to the material, which I’d abandoned for close to four years now. Here’s some more …
November 1935. “Entrerios,” a coffee plantation in the municipality of Viotá in southern Cundinamarca department.
Ines, once a mischievous blonde with curls like Shirley Temple’s, grew into a tall lanky teen-ager with an infatuation for jazz and for the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her mother died and her grandmother, Maye, had custody of her, and treated her like fragile china. Ines and Maye spent six consecutive months of the year here in “Entrerios,” located between two small rivers, and a German governess came as well. Every morning, there were lessons in geography, Spanish and French, literature, science, math, and philosophy. Afternoons were for Ines’s new hobby, photography, and for horseback-riding with Juan, the freckly son of one of the caretakers. Maye insisted that trustworthy Juan had to come along when Ines went riding; it was as if Maye expected an emergency.
Ines thought it was strange that one afternoon, when she and Juan were brushing down the horses and putting away the saddles, he turned to her and said, “Perdoname, Señorita Ines.” She did not ask Juan why he was sorry, and she quickly forgot about it, eager to return to the jazz records.
If she had told her grandmother, Maye would have reassured Ines, without letting her forehead crease which would show she was lying, that she should not worry about Juan’s comment. But in her mind, Maye would have ticked it off as another warning sign. Maye was President Marroquin’s daughter and she had the same character-reading instincts as her father, who was now dead.
For Maye, it was obvious that the communist revolutionaries had made their rounds here. Nearly two years ago, the workers of “Buenavista” and “Calandaima,” two haciendas just a mule-ride away, presented the owners with a letter asking for the right to grow coffee freely and the right to have sugar mills in their own strip of land. Then, last September, since their conditions were not met, they organized a mass strike, which was unsuccessful but which lasted several months. When would the strike start in “Entrerios”?
This was Maria Cano’s third trip to “Entrerios” and Zoila Blanca Luna, the teacher, was lodging her. Maria Cano was one of the organizers of the famous strikes at the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company and the Tropical Oil Company, which resulted in hundreds of dead when the police were called to intervene. Maria had been arrested twice already. She was petite and she looked harmless but in the spare hours, she was guiding the teacher as to how to organize the strike in “Entrerios.”
It was seven in the morning, and Maria closed her eyes to savor a cup of coffee. Last night was a close call. She was hiding in the back of a truck, inside a straw basket, under a load of bananas and pineapples and potatoes, when two policemen stopped the driver and poked the basket with iron bars.
“You are carrying Communists here. You must,” Maria heard a policeman say. “Why else would you travel this late at night?”
In case they’d followed her, Maria wanted to get to work fast, and she told the teacher to put together a meeting with all the workers and a separate one for women-only. Women had to feel themselves included in the proletariat before those bourgeois feminists, like that woman who owned this hacienda, empowered them. She knew “la gran señora,” as the workers referred to Maye, taught the women hygiene and basic first aid and gave them nutritional tips for their children.
The teacher left for the day, and Maria Cano was free to indulge in classical literature. Like Maye, the strike organizer’s favorite writers were Diderot, Balzac and Victor Hugo, whose characters stripped the meaning of organized religion.
The cook interrupted Maye’s teatime. Augusto, the head blacksmith, asked to speak with “the little general’s” wife. “Can I send him in?” the cook asked.
“Of course,” said Maye. She put down the book, Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback.” The governess was reading it with Ines, and Maye planned to join their discussion.
Augusto was loyal. “Doña,” he said, tipping his hat. She pulled up a seat for her old friend. He’d aged, his hair was white and his face was puckered.
Augusto informed Maye that Communist emissaries were holding secret organized meetings at night, and more and more of her workers were attending. Lenin’s disciples, as they called themselves,instructed the campesinos to watch by day, as they went about their chores, mentally noting who came and went from their community. At night, they guided the workers to hide arms, stashing them under their beds and burying them in the ground. In the morning, the workers found letters under their threshold, encouraging them to declare war on la patrona. The letters were signed of as “Yours in Lenin and oppressed humanity,” or “Brothers in Father Lenin.” Augusto showed her such a letter, and what most upset her was that its message was riddled with atrocious spelling.
Augusto reported that on their days off, visitors preached Lenin and “the Socialist Constitution” to the workers.
“The teacher, la Señorita Zoila Blanca Luna, teaches this to the children,” Augusto said.
Maye had sensed the teacher mocking her earlier.
Often, under the teacher’s guidance, the workers gathered and discussed Lenin’s principles, which detailed: Sundays are for rest and must be a paid day. Maye only paid for days worked, and she paid on Saturdays when the head of the family, either a mother or a father, came to collect what the whole family, including the children, had earned. Lenin said there were to be eight-hour work days. Maye’s were nine hours long, or longer if there was an emergency like a flood or colic amongst the animals. Lenin insisted on compensation for accidents at work.
“Of course. If they have any kind of accident, I am responsible,” she said.
Lenin said there had to be lodging rooms for workers.
“I provide that,” she said.
The communists pushed the workers to buy “Bonds for the Armed Revolution,” say for $5 pesos, which was equal to several days’ pay of an entire family, parents and children. The money was to be redeemed when the revolution triumphed. The bond, which Augusto also showed her, stated, “The new guerrilla struggles for the triumph of the social revolution. Support it. To win or to die.” The workers guarded these slips of paper under their mattresses.
“Señora, one more thing, the locals feel that the police shot that Communist as some kind of landowners’ way to make Communists quiet down,” Augusto said. He was referring to José Ramirez.
“Yes,” she nodded. José Ramirez, a declared Communist, was elected by the people of Viotá as the town councilor, and his politics went against landowners’ interests. “I’d heard, but you do know, I have nothing to do with that.”
That night, Maye was insomniac. She yearned for news, but the radio transmission in “Entrerios” was lousy. Her brother kept her abreast of the disheartening events through the telegraphy notes she received almost every morning from him in Bogotá, and he last reported that there were labor strikes nationwide. She recalled the last conversation they had about the topic.
“‘Entrerios’ will not be free from the Communist violence,” he’d said, referring to the time when the government, spurred by Washington, sent soldiers to exterminate Viotá’s communist cells, and instead, the locals ambushed and killed them.
“Nonsense,” she told him. “Our land is peaceful.” She still thought so. That had happened five years ago and all went on as normal in “Entrerios.” Her brother insisted, however, that locals proved then that they were well-organized.
“I worry about you there,’” he said. “I fear you might be putting Ines’s life in danger.” To that, she had no answer. Her brother had become her protector since her husband died. He was the first Colombian to graduate from the London School of Economics, and his predictions tended to be accurate.
Yet, she had to come to “Entrerios.” Maye’s bank accounts, already punctured by world-wide depression, could not take another hit. The price of coffee commodities was slipping, and was now changing life in “Entrerrios,” and for the benefit of Communist pushers. Her heart raced from what Augusto revealed. Her workers were her extended family. Would they hurt Ines? Tonight, she also worried about Joaquin’s high fever and ordered for the boy to spend the night at her house, in a room off the kitchen where she could monitor his temperature. With patience, and with the medicine she brought from Bogotá, the boy was starting to feel better and finally had an appetite for a proper supper.
Maye opened the door to her bedroom’s balcony. The dormitories for the unmarried male workers were near to the family’s main house and tonight, she could not see the glow of the men’s orange cigarette butts. Not one halogen lamp was lit. Maye feared turning on the victrola to listen to her favorite, Verdi’s “Aida.” She wanted to be aware of any strange noise. There were few roads that connected the valley of Viotá to the outside and she relied on the men because she had to leave her own car at a crossroad and descend down to the hacienda on the sedan chair. She was forced to use the sedan chair because she was half-paralyzed. Would the workers leave her stranded here?
Maye checked on Ines and the adolescent slept, exhausted from a day in the sun.