tlf news Vol. xvii #3 September, 1996

Five Centuries of History

Don Fernán Gómez died in Fuenteovejuna, a village near Córdova, in 1476. Fuenteovejuna killed him and in doing so made them both immortal: if it hadn't been for that bloody deed, Fuenteovejuna would be one more insignificant Spanish village and the name Fernán Gómez would be buried in the decaying pages of municipal archives. But it didn't happen that way because Fuenteovejuna won for Fernán Gómez a place in the annals of Castilian history. The death of this gentleman not only satisfied the thirst for justice of a town of rustics; it also made that people aware of their own capacity, of the power of their united action in the face of the gratuitous violence they had put up with for too long.

The villagers of Fuenteovejuna rebelled against the despotic Comendador, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, and killed him in an insurrection in which even the women took part. The villagers agreed on how to defend themselves in the face of the investigations of the authorities:

ESTEBAN: We have to agree on what to say
when they interrogate us.
FRONDOSO: What's your advice?
ESTEBAN: To die saying only "Fuenteovejuna".
Fuenteovejuna did it.

And the interrogator whom King Ferdinand sent to investigate the rebellion and punish the culprits had to return empty-handed. State-of-the-art torture technology was unable to break the town's united reply: "Fuenteovejuna did it."

That mob of angry men and women whom Don Fernán Gómez imagined lacked all honor and courage, arrived at his palace gates to collect the debt he owed them to the last penny. He must have repented of assaulting Fuenteovejuna for eight years, of having flogged so many villagers, of having traded in their wives and daughters as if they were cattle. The Comendador must have repented very sincerely. He must have repented with his heart literally in his hand: Fernán Gómez' chest received more stab wounds than anyone could count. The women whom he had ravished took their revenge by beheading the corpse and displaying the gruesome trophy on the point of a lance. And none of his sycophants, no member of his army could do anything to stop it.

In the city of Toledo in 1572 Don Francisco Rades de Andrada published the Chronicle of the three knightly orders of Santiago, Calatrava and Alcántara, the tome where Félix Lope de Vega discovered the history that he would convert into the most important piece of theatre in the Spanish language, the Hamlet of the Iberian peninsula. Since its premiere in 1618, Fuenteovejuna takes second place only to Don Quijote in the firmament of Spanish literature.

Lope de Vega's work is more than a mere chronicle play; it is a history lesson that illuminates the difference between law and justice. Wherever there is injustice, a harvest of Fuenteovejunas is gestating; the plague of Fuenteovejunas can be avoided only in the measure that the dignity and justice of all the people become fundamental elements in the implementation of the rule of law. The rebellion of the villagers of Fuenteovejuna and their heroism speak directly to the characteristic conflicts of the contemporary world. "The people united will never be defeated."

In April 1996, the actors of teatro la fragua received a workshop in techniques of classical Spanish theatre offered in Tegucigalpa by the Madrid-based company Mico-micón. In May, taking advantage of that apprenticeship, we mounted a classroom version (half an hour's worth) of Fuenteovejuna, which in June we started presenting to high-school audiences as an introduction to classical theatre.

And meanwhile, back at the banana ranch on the other side of the Sula Valley:

The afternoon of Sunday, 4 February, 1996, some 15 minutes drive from the home of teatro la fragua in El Progreso, the 461 residents of the banana camp Tacamiche, under watchful military eyes, began the trek to abandon the camp which had been their home for three generations. Amidst tears and cries of sorrow and grief, the Tacamiches, carrying boxes, mattresses, and the few belongings still left to them, refused to board the trucks provided them by the military and chose to follow on foot the muddy trail that would separate them forever from their homes. "Land, I love you," cried Wilfredo Cabrera at the top of his lungs, kissing for the last time the earth where he had been born. "This is a forced and illegal deportation carried out by an inhuman regime."

This was the dramatic denouement of a conflict which began in June of 1994, when the union of the workers of the U.S. banana giant Tela Railroad Company, the Honduran subsidiary of Chiquita Brands, went on strike against the Company. (Since 1987, according to The New York Times, "the minimun wage paid banana workers has slid from the equivalent of $8 a day to less than $3.")

In retaliation for the strike "families on the Tacamiche plantation received letters saying the Company had designated the land on which they lived and worked for 'closing or final abandonment.' Since many of the families have lived here since the 1920's, a decade before Honduras granted United Fruit title to more than 3,000 acres for $1, they were shocked and frightened at the order to leave". For years Tela has been closing plantations and selling them to straw owners, (frequently executives of the Company) "a progressive strategy to weaken the union" (NYT, 22/07/96). The residents of Tacamiche were the first to offer a strong resistance to this policy: they refused to abandon their site and demanded the Company concede them not only the 40 hectares of the camp itself but also nearby lands for cultivation.

Bowing to the pressure of the Company and the U.S. Embassy, the government of president Carlos Reina refused to negociate with the Tacamiches, insisting that they abandon the camp. The government continually justified its stand on the grounds it was consolidating "juridical security" for foreign investment. Radio Progreso, the Jesuit radio station, condemned the government position, declaring that "the doctrine of 'juridical security' has simply replaced the outdated doctrine of 'national security'. Both doctrines share the same goal: to victimize the poor."

In July 1995, the government sent a contingent of 500 troops and street thugs who used tear gas, guns and baseball bats (generously donated by the U.S. Company) against the inhabitants, who responded with stones fired from sling-shots. ("David chose five smooth stones from the brook, put them in his shepherd's bag, and with his sling-shot in hand went forth to meet Goliath.") After several hours of pitched battle (televised live and in living color) the Tacamiches won a truce which allowed them to remain in the camp for several months. But the government never swerved in its demand that they abandon the land.

After several relatively calm months of stalemated negociations, the government reverted to the threat of violence. On 1 February 1996, a strong contingent of soldiers and police stormed the village at dawn. The inhabitants took refuge in two churches of the community. With all the media eyes of Honduras focused on Tacamiche, the military force was content to flex its muscles for the cameras without using direct violence against the inhabitants, and the Tacamiches put up no resistance to the massive invasion.

With the inhabitants invoking the right of sanctuary in the churches and the military patrolling the camp, the Company sent heavy machinery to demolish the crops sown by the Tacamiches. The military then looted the houses of furniture and belongings, loaded the booty on trucks and sent them away (destination still unknown). Some 300 workers contracted by the Company arrived to dismantle the 100 wooden buildings which had been home to the Tacamiches for 60 years. In three days what had been a lively, spunky community was reduced to a yellow stain in the midst of the green valley. Radio Progreso editorialized that "in the '80's, the government and the military specialized in disappearing persons. Now in the '90's they are specializing in disappearing entire communities."

According to Marcelino Martínez, of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras, the government's whole process in the case of Tacamiche was completely outside the law. "This is the moment in which Honduras has put itself outside the rule of law and of justice, to give full reign to the crude and dehumanizing exercize of brute force. There is no room for alleging juridical security or the rule of law. The orders of the court were disregarded; the orders of the transnational were the only ones obeyed. We have demonstrated once more to the world that this country continues to be the quintessential 'banana republic', the private domain of 'la Company'. The dollar continues to be the defining value, not human rights, not the rule of law, not negociation or justice."

Exiled from their land of birth, the Tacamiches are housed at present in a vacant hall loaned by the governing board of a community of banana workers. They are camped out as refugees in their own country, united in their demands that the government and the transnational comply with the promises which were made them at the time of their eviction (and which, seven months later, they have not fulfilled). They are not sure where to go from here, but they remain united and firm in their resolve not to back down.

Disillusioned by their treatment at the hands of the commercial media, they formed a community theatre group to explain their struggle in their own words, and mounted a piece which they call Tacamiche: Symbol of Resistance. On June 29, 1996, teatro la fragua presented Fuenteovejuna in the refugee hall of Tacamiche. The Teatro Taller Tacamiche presented Tacamiche: Symbol of Resistance. We were all very impressed with the theatrical quality of the work: on top of the passion of a lived flesh-and-blood experience, it had clear action and a well-defined theatrical structure to express that passion.

The actors of teatro la fragua began an intensive training program for the Tacamiche actors, including technical polish of their piece. Since then the two teatros are presenting both works as a single program; the result is one of the most interesting theatrical events teatro la fragua has ever produced. Several thousand young Hondurans have experienced an introduction to classical theatre that drives home its immediate meaning in their own situation. They have heard directly the same voice resounding across five centuries, across two hemispheres, across two very distinct cultures. The cry of justice reverberates in the darkest and most isolated corners.

Who killed the Comendador?
Fuenteovejuna, Señor.

"We Tacamiches were never, never defeated. We were sold out to the interests of the banana transnational. Tacamiche lives. Tacamiche united will never be defeated."

(With many thanks to Juan Ramón Saravia and Chepe Owens sj for their writings on the respective histories.)

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