There's a passage in Mario Bencastro's new novel that would mean
little to most Americans, but thousands of Salvadoran immigrants
in the Washington area would recognize it instantly. The scene is
set in a bus station in Mexico, where several Salvadoran refugees
are waiting nervously for the next leg of their illegal journey
to the United States.
"The walls and benches of the terminal witnessed so much sadness,
despair and fear. They listened to countless dramatic stories of
the great Latin American exodus, stories of millions of human
beings who were fleeing from the misery and violence in their
countries, in search of the promised land. Each traveler left a
drop of suffering etched on the floor of that labyrinth . . . "
There are other scenes in Odyssey to the North that Salvadoran
refugees here might relate to just as quickly. Much of the action
takes place in a hotel kitchen in the District, where two
Salvadorans named Juancho and Calixto wash dishes until 3 a.m.
while reminiscing about their homeland, worrying about
immigration raids and commenting on their friends' peccadilloes.
The men share a foul-smelling one-bedroom apartment with 20
people, sleeping in shifts.
The book also follows actual events, including the 1992 unrest in
Mount Pleasant, when thousands of Latinos in the District took to
the streets after a police officer shot and wounded a Salvadoran
man who was drinking in a park. Bencastro alternates between
official police accounts of the disturbances and differing
versions described by Latino witnesses.
But the passage about the Mexican bus station also seems an apt
description of Bencastro's literary vision and purpose. The
49-year-old Salvadoran American author, who works as a computer
analyst in the District and lives in Falls Church, has devoted
the last 25 years to writing novels, plays and short stories that
bear personal witness to the painful reality of his native land.
El Salvador, a country of rural poverty and oligarchic wealth,
erupted into civil war in 1980. For a decade, rightist military
forces supported by the United States battled leftist guerrillas.
The violence and disruption of war drove more than a million
Salvadorans to flee. Many entered the United States illegally,
and tens of thousands found their way to Washington.
"I started out as an abstract painter, but as the war went on I
realized that the reality was too overwhelming for painting to
suffice," said Bencastro, who was born and raised in El Salvador
and immigrated to the United States during the civil war. "I
became obsessed with telling people's stories. Even fiction
seemed pallid compared to what was really happening."
His best-known work is a 1993 novel about the assassination of
Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador in 1980, a pivotal event
in the country's political struggle.
The plot interweaves two threads: quotations from Romero's
homilies calling for justice, and the fictional account of a
young Salvadoran journalist trying to survive in a climate of
repression and paranoia.
The prize-winning book, A Shot in the Cathedral, has been
published in both Spanish and English and is taught at numerous
area schools and colleges, including Georgetown and American
universities. Teachers say many of their American students are
shocked and moved by it.
Bencastro enjoys expanding their awareness by giving classroom
talks and readings.
"So many of my students have no idea of American intervention" in
Central America, said Arlette Clayton, who teaches at the
National Cathedral School. "Then they read his book, and he comes
and has conversations with them, and he is so approachable and
friendly, and they say, 'My God, you really opened up our eyes.'"
Barbara Mujica, a professor of Spanish at Georgetown who is a
good friend of Bencastro's and often assigns his works, said that
much contemporary writing about El Salvador has tended to be
political, with a dry or polemic style. Bencastro, she said, is
one of the few Salvadoran writers to give a human dimension to
the conflict he chronicles.
"He really gets to the anguish and uncertainty people feel living
in a war-torn society; it transcends the partisan aspects of his
books," she said. "Yes, he is taking a stand, but you never feel
you are reading a diatribe."
Bencastro also reaches out to nonacademic audiences, including
Salvadoran American teenagers who may not understand the forces
that drove their parents to flee their homeland and who often
feel they do not belong in either society. Recently, the writer
has been giving talks to the Buckingham Youth Brigade, a
gang-prevention and leadership group for young Latinos in
"Here there is a rapidly growing Salvadoran community that knows
almost nothing about its history," said Bencastro, a slight man
who speaks with a soft voice and an unhurried manner. "I start
way back with Mayan civilization. I talk about patron saint
festivals. I emphasize all the customs people may have
At one meeting of the youth group last month, Bencastro broke the
ice by passing out copies of his dictionary of Salvadoran slang,
called Vato Guanaco Loco --a slang term for Crazy Salvadoran
Guy, that includes a section written in rap-style Spanish.
Soon, several students began talking about themselves and their
"We always felt this tension of being in the middle. We were
called gringos, but we felt like guanacos. I had a lot of rage,
and I always wanted to fight," said Julio Cesar Hernandez, 22, a
Salvadoran American who survived a troubled adolescence and
recently graduated from Eastern College in Philadelphia. "We have
one foot here and one foot in our homeland, and we have to live
With Odyssey, Bencastro has brought the Salvadoran saga up to
date and directly home to Salvadoran immigrants living in the
Washington area. The novel, scheduled for publication next month
by the University of Houston [Arte Público Press], traces the tortuous path of several
fictional refugees from El Salvador to Washington.
The scenes of daily immigrant life in Washington are both gritty
and humorous. In one, the Salvadoran buddies set out looking for
fruit one night and end up in their first topless bar. In
another, a Salvadoran window washer falls to his death and the
others scatter, afraid of being deported if they talk to the
police. Juancho, trying to attract American girls, takes to
calling himself Johnnie.
But the tales from the immigrants' travels are unrelentingly
harrowing. A small group of refugees stumbles through the Mexican
desert, lost in the dark.
Families are corralled in a Texas detention camp, preyed upon by
criminals. And there is a chilling verbatim transcript of a
bewildered young woman's deportation hearing, followed by a news
clipping from El Salvador that suggests she was slain after being
forced to return home.
"Mario is doing something no one else has. He is reproducing our
culture as our community evolves on a day-to-day basis," said
Arnoldo Ramos, a Salvadoran American who is director of the
Council of Latino Agencies, a nonprofit advocacy group in
Adams-Morgan. "He is giving form to the aspirations and
conditions in which people live. For me, he is a cultural hero."
Although Bencastro's work is known and admired in circles of
well-educated Latin American immigrants here, it is less clear
whether Odyssey, will reach the real people who resemble its
characters: ordinary Salvadoran Americans with limited
educations, who may have difficulty with English, work at menial
jobs and tend to watch Spanish-language television rather than
pick up a book.
But the writer, who has made a point of having his books
published in inexpensive, large-print Spanish editions back home,
said he hopes the relevance of his writing will inspire
Salvadoran immigrants of all backgrounds to read.
"It's my goal to promote reading, not just to write," Bencastro
said. "A lot of people in my country leaped straight from the
fields to the television set. There is a certain cultural delay.
But when people say our community doesn't read, it's because they
have nothing to relate to. When they find it, believe me, they
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