The Face of Juan Mendez

I am myself today, but I am him also, the one called Juan Mendez. Once Juan Mendez lived in Buenos Aires. Probably, I imagine, he took the Retiro-Constitucion line of the subterranean to Plaza General San Martin station, turned the corner to the left onto Maipu and walked past the pink flowered pampas trees, past the gothic grillwork entry gate intertwined with brilliant purple-red blossomed bougainvillea, and looked up at the French baroque apartments with their narrow balconies, bolted shutters, gray mansard roofs.

Now Juan Mendez lives in Washington and works as the Washington director of the Americas Watch Committee, a human rights organization that parallels the work of the U.S. Helsinki Watch, which focuses on human rights abuses by the Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe. So instead of taking the subterranean in Buenos Aires, Juan Mendez now travels on the D.C. Metro from his office to Capitol Hill, where he monitors legislation affecting those areas in Latin America with human rights records needing something more than quiet diplomacy.

When the war of words over the place of human rights in American foreign policy initially erupted, the face of Juan Mendez could have become the human rights activists' secret weapon.

That is because to see the face of Juan Mendez, to see the stark contrast of jet black hair and full mustache in combat with pale olive skin the color of forgotten ghosts, skin as translucent as parchment, is to see the debate over human rights come to life.

To see the face of Juan Mendez is to gaze into dark, deep-set eyes, liquid caverns the color of anger and anguish that spill over into raw shadows, shadows etched long ago into this face by the eaters of persons. To gaze into these eyes is to comprehend the crucial flaw in the Reagan approach to human rights.

For to see the face of Juan Mendez is to see the words made flesh.

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