The Common Good
July-August 1998

Languages and People Disappeared

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 1998

The danger of "men with guns."

Rough hands gripped mine. I stared down, uncomfortable, at the yellow and silver Formica table. "Tat nupal," the voices began, "tey tinemi tic ne ylhuicatl." In a run-down tract house in the weedy suburbs of Washington, D.C., five Salvadoran refugees began their evening blessing over our meal. "Our Creator in heaven," they pray in Nahuat, one of the indigenous languages of El Salvador. As a poet in a time when languages are being lost at a rate equivalent to the rain forest, I clung to the edges of the words, the narrowness of their sound, their rhythm like wind in high trees, never expecting to hear them again.

John Sayles’ newest film, Men With Guns, not only includes dialogue in Nahuat, but in Tzotzil, Maya, and Kuna, as well as Spanish and English. "Language is one of the main gaps between people," Sayles says about his characters. "If everyone was speaking English, the story wouldn’t make as much sense." (The subtitles, by the way, are clear and excellent.)

In his understated way, Sayles’ movie mission is about making sense. He does so not in a rational, superficial, or always socially recognizable way, but on a very human and spiritual level, digging at the question of how to shore up faith and uncover meaning in daily life.

Sayles characteristically uses a guide, an outsider, someone who leads the viewer through self-discovery in the story. In The Brother From Another Planet (1984), the guide is a black mute extraterrestrial who beams down in Harlem; in Matewan (1987), a union organizer; in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), a young girl. In Men With Guns, our "escort" is Humberto Fuentes (Argentinean actor Federico Luppi), a wealthy doctor approaching retirement who has never paid any attention to the political realities of his unspecified country. He considers his greatest achievement to be his participation in an international health program in which he trained students to work as doctors in the poorest villages.

When Fuentes announces his intention to visit his former students in the mountains, his children and his most prominent patient, an army general, try very hard to dissuade him because of the "unrest." Still, the doctor begins his quest.

In the village of Rio Seco, Dr. Fuentes finds the Sugar People who harvest cane. In the desert, he finds the Salt People. In Tierra Quemada, he meets the Coffee People who work the plantation, and then the Banana People. However, he does not find any of his students who are supposed to work in these areas. He is only told that they were killed, "graduated," or disappeared by "the men with guns." Fuentes’ journey becomes a Latin American Canterbury Tale with odd characters joining the doctor, each with their own bit of wisdom and their own unique ignorance.

THE IDEA FOR Men With Guns came from a story told to Sayles by novelist Francisco Goldman (Long Night of White Chickens), and the character of Dr. Fuentes is based loosely on Goldman’s uncle, an educated man unaware of the abuses happening in his own country. Sayles deftly raises the question of our responsibility for knowing what our governments, police, armed forces, and companies are doing.

uentes wrestles with how much he did not know because he was lied to and how much he did not know because he had a comfortable life and really didn’t want to know. "One of the reasons that people avoid knowing things," says Sayles, "is that they can’t, in any conscience, continue their lives as usual if they admit that knowledge."

While most of the physical violence in this movie is implied rather than actual, the violence of the poverty, as well as the moral and spiritual desperation, is exhausting. We realize that none of us are off the hook with regard to our responsibility for knowing what is going on. If you are unfamiliar with the Helms-Gonzalez amendment and its affect on equitable property settlements in Nicaragua, find out. If you don’t know about the anti-gang legislation going before the Supreme Court, find out.

In that tract house in suburban Washington, D.C., Margarito and Maria Esquino told me a story of rapes and beatings that took place in front of their children, of land stolen, of dreams destroyed, and of contracts broken. They were Weavers, and Fish People running a small shrimp cooperative, and Farmers with several sites owned by their Nahuat, Maya, and Lenca community (Asociacion Nacional Indigena Salvadorena).

Was it right-wing paramilitary squads? Was it leftist guerrilla troops? The political answer was complicated, but the immediate answer was simple. They were men with guns.

Men With Guns. Written and directed by John Sayles. Sony Pictures Classics, 1998.

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