|Soldier and Children, Danlí, Honduras, 2011|
I think of Honduras as an elderly woman in a small town whom, still being judged for several moral transgressions in the past, must tread carefully in the company of strangers, despite her successful reformation in latter years. The last two years have been a severe trial to Hondurans, who have deeply and emotionally felt the pain of recent political upheavals. The great social, economic and technological strides achieved since the dark times of turmoil in the seventies and eighties seemed for naught, as the carefully built monument of stability came tumbling down after the removal of Chávez-sympathizer President Mel Zelaya in June of 2009. An astounding fact of the "coup" was that it was perpetrated by the military, with the overwhelming sanction of the general population. Condemned by most of the world's leaders and nations, Honduras retreated into itself.
It was a trying time. Tourism and foreign export began to dry up. Investments dropped. Hondurans watched with sadness as their country's image was smeared by international media. Uncertainty and worry grew exponentially.
Slowly and steadily, and with a stubborn determination of the "sticks and stones..." variety, Hondurans have been regaining their voice. "Honduras is an extraordinary hotbed of possibility," one visiting investor told me as we sat on the tour bus driving us to Danlí in El Paraíso. "She's just absolutely terrible at marketing herself." To contradict him, I mentioned several large-scale projects proposed by the private sector and the government to re-attract foreign investment, including the Humor Jaguar Cigar and Tobacco Festival he was currently attending. He smiled. "it's definitely a good start, but she's still got a long way to go."
It is difficult to explain to others sometimes why I left Honduras. It is bitingly hard to leave your family, your friends, and everything that you have ever known. It is not a light decision to make. Lack of job opportunities is one reason, educational pursuit is another. You tell yourself a million others, but in your heart of hearts, you always wonder if you have made the right choice. When I do return to visit, I am assaulted by unexpected culture shock at the noise, the poverty, the whole chaos of it, even if it is as familiar as my own skin. I am saddened by the overwhelming growth and spread of American fast-food chains, megabox stores, and Capitalist influence (does that sign really say, "Black Friday Sale?"). It generally takes a few days for the old feel to come back, for me to shed my own carefully-constructed reformation, before I start noticing that between the the Burger Kings and Pizza Huts there seems to be a curious new population of restaurants catering to a type of local fare called baleadas. A kind of burrito, the baleada is honest and simple Honduras food at its best, a flour tortilla classically filled with refried beans and cream, which can then be modified by the eater with a variety of other fillers such as scrambled eggs, chorizo, avocado, and cheese. It is the "new" fast food. Other signs of a latent nationalism begin to emerge: the explosion of local television stations, the heavy push to "buy local," and everywhere I go, everyone wearing the national soccer team's jersey.
When we arrived in Danlí on the third day of the Festival, we were greeted to perhaps the most inspiring display of nationalism I had seen all week, especially regarding the recent upheavals. As we stepped off the bus, we were greeted by twin lines of Honduran children in their school uniforms, smiling broadly and proudly holding plastic Honduran flags taut in their hands. I was not the only one incapable of keeping a dry eye. I stepped to the side to quietly photograph, and noticed off to one side a man in military garb, part of the security detail, with a smile just as broad and as proud holding a small digital camera up to the scene and snapping off a few shots. He saw me looking and laughed, embarrassed. I asked him what he was photographing. "The foreigners, looking at the children. Look at how respectful they look. I am proud of these children, and proud of what they can show the world."
He asked me to take his photograph with the children, this man who represented to the world the "oppressive, violent, and aggressive" military who had "torn the country apart" a year before. He stood before the children and pushed his chest out, choosing not to smile, but rather to appear stoic and invincible, protective of the future standing behind him. He genuinely appears to be a son of that proud old woman Honduras, who though kicked and beaten, called names and thoroughly exoriated, chooses to stand and show the world that she has not been defeated, that she will continue to stand tall for generations of Hondurans who believe in their potential and promise.