Mario Bencastro

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek
Interactive Company and The Washington Post

Salvadoran Sagas

Area Writer's Works Describe Painful
Realities of His Native Land

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 1999; Page J01

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 Arlington.

"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 forgotten."

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 problems.

"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 that."

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 read."

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