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Vocabulary Lessons

Before, my Spanish wasn’t so bad; but it wasn’t so good, either. I could go a month in Honduras without speaking English and more or less communicate anything I wanted, if dubiously, although every once in a while I’d land in a pit where I didn’t know the words at all—kitchen implements, say, or anything related to the legal system. I specialized: I could do a three-hour historical interview with a trade union leader in his eighties and catch every word. I had mastered gerente (manager) and contrato colectivo (collective bargaining agreement) and, of course, sindicato (labor union). I’d get stumped only by amusing leftover words from the United Fruit Company if I couldn’t see them in print, like watchiman or los nylon (gloves) or, my favorite, bulldozero (bulldozer operator).

Then, at 5:30 a.m. the morning of June 28, 2009, I plunged into a pit so huge and so dark and so endless that it was—and still is—far beyond any words I had ever learned or imagined having to learn.

I already knew the biggest, most important word: golpe (coup, or blow). But that morning, the radio said golpe de estado—the full phrase, “a blow to the state”—a coup d’état. As in, a violent overthrow of constitutional order.

Three months earlier, in April 2009, I’d learned encuesta (survey) when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya put a public opinion poll on the ballot for that Sunday, June 28, asking voters in a cuarta urna (fourth ballot box) if they wanted to elect delegates the following November for a constituyente, or constitutional convention, to take place in 2010 or 2011. Zelaya, a member of the Honduran elite himself, had been democratically elected in 2005, and gradually inched leftward to ally himself with the other Left and Center-Left governments in Latin America, including those in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. When he pushed too far for many in his own party, the oligarchs and military leaders who had long ruled Honduras balked, and sent in the troops that morning—invading Zelaya’s house before dawn and packing him off in his pajamas to Costa Rica, with the full collusion of the Supreme Court and most of the Honduran Congress.

With golpe de estado also came golpista—which translates, clunkily, as “coup perpetrator”—the all-purpose word Hondurans suddenly spat out to describe anyone on the other side of the chasm that opened up in one day, tearing apart families and neighborhoods and the whole country. I myself came to use it so much that I kept forgetting non-Spanish speakers didn’t know what it meant.

Opposing the golpistas, a movement arose to combat the coup and defend constitutional order: la Resistencia (the Resistance). Suddenly millions of Hondurans sounded like an underground movement in France during World War II. From that morning forward, much to absolutely everyone’s surprise on all sides, people poured into the streets to try to reverse the coup. A mass social movement came together within hours, naming itself the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular. I learned movimiento amplio (broad movement) to describe this new coalition, unprecedented in Honduran history, of the labor, women’s, indigenous rights, LGBTI, and Afro-Indigenous movements; human rights groups; Zelaya’s loyalists from the traditional Liberal Party; and people of all class backgrounds committed to the rule of law. I learned movimiento pacífico—peaceful movement, with no guns. I learned words for the tactics they began to deploy: toma—takeover or blockade; paro cívico—a kind of general strike.

“Draconian” and “illegally detained” rolled off my tongue.

But as the days of the coup stretched into weeks of crackdowns by the new government against the opposition, I learned the vocabulary of repression, too. It began with easy words, militares (military) and policías (police), but soon escalated to toque de queda (curfew), gas lacrimógeno (tear gas; it took a while to get that accent right), and old-fashioned weapons like toletes (batons) that were shoved into women’s crotches or whacked with full force across people’s faces during peaceful demonstrations. The police and military, I read, were contundente (forceful) when they attacked demonstrations (manifestaciones) full of my longtime friends and colleagues, who would be rodeados (surrounded) by the police and brutally golpeados (beaten)—that word again. The fifth day after the coup, my closest friend was capturado by the army during a peaceful march and thrown into the back of a truck.

The weeks turned into months. I learned of mujeres violadas (women raped) by the police. I learned about the cerco mediático, the media blockade, that kept the repression out of the Honduran news. When President Zelaya secretly returned to the country and popped up in the Brazilian embassy on September 21 demanding his restoration, the military and police poured tear gas over the embassy walls until, I learned, the people inside were echando sangre por la nariz—blood was pouring out of their noses.

But the Resistencia, miraculously, stood its ground, and grew and grew. I learned long beautiful phrases as they constructed a nationwide movement, and with it a new culture of resistance. The best, Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo (They are afraid of us because we are not afraid), from the song by Liliana Felipe and Jesusa Rodríguez, took me forever to unpack grammatically and even longer to say quickly. When I visited Honduras for the first time after the coup I saw posters with Ni golpe de estado ni golpe a las mujeres (Neither blows to the state nor blows to women). Later I saw a wonderful T-shirt from Feministas en Resistencia (Feminists in Resistance) that read Exigimos Democracia en el País y Democracia en la Casa. (Easy: “We Demand Democracy in the Country and Democracy in the Home.”) The new verbal humor of the Resistance was spraypainted everywhere. I liked Nadie Ama a Cristo como el Cardenal Ama el Pisto (No One Loves Christ Like the Cardinal Loves Cash), a reference to the loathed Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, who endorsed the coup on its sixth day. I learned tufoso—stinky—every time we crossed over a local river smelling of sewage known as Rio Tufoso, but popularly renamed after the coup as Rio Micheletti in honor of the post-coup de facto president, Roberto Micheletti.

I found plenty of humor at home, too, when I tried to describe in English my own new role. People would ask what I was up to lately, and I would reply that I had a new life as an Honduran Expert since the coup. But that sounded totally far-fetched, even if it was true. So eventually I gave up and laughingly went for, “I have a new life as a Honduran Freedom Fighter.”

I knew I’d learned a ton of new Spanish. But it turned out I was also learning and deploying a whole new English vocabulary. As I talked about Honduras on the radio, in opinion articles in the papers, and on TV, I became someone who talked about “human rights,” about “state security forces” that were committing “state-sponsored repression.” I learned the hard-to-grasp word “impunity,” which, over the next three years, extended into “complete impunity.” “Draconian” and “illegally detained” rolled off my tongue and into my op-eds. But the technical precision of those words masked the hours and hours I spent crying over what they described.

The Obama administration, in its own wordplay, called it a “coup” but refused to use the phrase “military coup,” which would have legally required an immediate cut-off of all non-humanitarian assistance to Honduras. In negotiations, the United States recognized post-coup dictator Micheletti as an equal to President Zelaya and never condemned the new regime’s vicious repression of the opposition. Honduras’s previously scheduled presidential elections went forward as planned in November, although almost all the opposition candidates withdrew their names in protest and all major international observers—except two groups financed by the U.S. government, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute—refused to participate. So I learned to write “No Fair Election in Honduras Under Military Occupation” in the Huffington Post. I endlessly debated with a friend from a policy think tank the nuanced usage of “bogus” versus “fraudulent” versus “illegitimate” election (I thought all three applied; he thought only the last).

I learned the vocabulary of true evil, full of hissing sounds: amenazas de muerte (death threats), sicarios (hired assassins), asesinos (killers), and asesinatos (assassinations).

The U.S. government immediately recognized the results of the election everyone knew was illegitimate. In January 2010, new President Porfirio Lobo came into office, and the repression continued as he reappointed the same military figures that had perpetrado (perpetrated) the coup. By a year and a half after the coup, more than ten thousand denuncias had been filed with the government for human rights violations. Denuncias were everywhere, translated as “complaints”—but that was way too mild-sounding, losing the power of “denunciations.” I learned to say “ongoing coup regime.” I learned the vocabulary of true evil, full of hissing sounds: amenazas de muerte (death threats), sicarios (hired assassins), asesinos (killers), and asesinatos (assassinations). In English, I had nuanced discussions with my various editors about which deaths of opposition activists qualified as “assassinations” and which were merely—merely—“killings,” as in “more than three hundred killings by state security forces.” Every day, reading the Honduran papers, I was assaulted by a long barrage of verbs—ultimar, matar, liquidar, tirotear (to shoot up), ametrallar (to machine gun)—all of which meant to kill, including ultimar a machetazos (to slice up with machete blows).

But the Hondurans kept fighting. The teachers’ unions, and the Resistance with them, poured into the streets in mass demonstrations in March and April 2011 in protest against the privatization of education. Now I learned to say “use of tear gas as a lethal weapon” when the police fired a canister at the face of fifty-nine-year-old teacher, who fell to the ground, was run over by a media truck, and died. Campesinos (small farmers, or peasants) began staging what they called recuperaciones (recuperations) of lands in the Aguán Valley granted to them by agrarian reform in the 1970s and ’80s but gradually seized by elites in subsequent years. In response, more than 104 campesinos were killed by state security forces and sicarios (the assassins, again), many of them allegedly working for Miguel Facussé, the biofuels magnate and übergolpista (to throw a bit of German in there) who is one of the richest and most powerful men in the country. In December 2011, while I watched, his alleged security guards, the military, and the police harassed the entire campesino town of Guadalupe Carney, while helicopteros hovered and francotiradores (snipers) dressed in black crouched in the surrounding hills.

I bought trim little suits and went to Washington, D.C., where I learned to speak the language of the United States Congress. I learned “approps” as shorthand for “appropriations” and could soon rattle off “State and Foreign Ops,” as in “Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.” (Eventually I learned to say “s-fops,” even deeper insider-speak.) I was taught not to talk about “power,” but instead “the ability to get things done.”

I learned the acronyms in both Spanish and English for human rights groups and anyone else who would care about what was going on, and then talked to them, from the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) of the OAS (Organization of American States) to HRW (Human Rights Watch), the CEJIL (Center for Justice and International Law), and, most importantly, COFADEH (Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras), not to mention the acronyms of all the other allies I came to work with and which I’ll spare the reader from spelling out—CCR, CEPR, CRLN, LAWG, SOAW, WFP, and many others, including social justice nuns, whom I learned to call “the Sisters.”

The river of horror didn’t stop. On October 22, 2011, Honduran police killed the son of the rector of the big university in Tegucigalpa and a friend of his, and dozens of other police were implicated in a cover-up. As former police inspectors and many others bravely came forward to denounce massive police corruption—and one of them was then assassinated for doing so—public outrage erupted, and during all the subsequent year and a half the headlines were full of the language of corruption and potential reform: I learned patrullas, as in the patrol cars that had openly passed through four police peajes (checkpoints) with the two young men’s bodies. I learned podrido, rotten. I learned depuración, purge. I learned the acronyms for three different new comisiones (commissions) charged with cleaning up the police, and eventually the corrupt military, prosecutors, and judiciary as well. And over the next year and a half I learned seventeen different ways to say the comisiones were going nowhere.

The worst moment was on February 14, 2012, when a fire broke out in a prison in Comayagua. Most of the prisoners were locked in, and their guards deliberately held back firefighters for thirty minutes. Three hundred sixty men and one woman died in the worst prison fire in modern history. I learned reos and deprivados de libertad (prisoners); I learned incendio (fire), en llamas (in flames), and perecieron (perished). To grasp the full terror of what I was watching, on live TV and in the most chilling photographs I have seen in my entire life, I learned siniestro (evil), wore out asesinos, and debated whether it was limpieza social (social cleansing).

The military and police poured tear gas over the embassy walls until, I learned, the people inside were echando sangre por la nariz—blood was pouring out of their noses.

The horror didn’t stop, either, in every day’s papers. “Vorágine de violencia cierra semana sangriente de Honduras” (Vortex of violence closes bloody week in Honduras), one paper reported matter-of-factly, and I picked up another word, vorágine. By then it was already old news that Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world. Nor was this random violence. It was thick with death squads (escuadrones de muerte) and deliberate assassinations (not just “killings”) of resistance activists. When I interviewed deposed President Manuel Zelaya on May Day, 2012, I learned another word, when he described a deliberate campaign by the elites to infundir (instill) terror.

I got an op-ed into the New York Times criticizing U.S. support for the ongoing coup regime. In response, I got letters on behalf of Miguel Facussé, the biofuels magnate, threatening to sue me for difamación de carácter (character defamation). Letters to the Times from the Honduran Ambassador to the United States and from a former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras attacking me were reprinted in the derechista (right-wing) Honduran newspapers. I had to cancel my upcoming trip to Honduras, and thought I might never return. I learned No te aflijas (Don’t get upset) from a friend who wrote me that “When things calm down you can come back.” Another wrote, in English, “Now you know a new word, desterrado”—exiled. But what I felt was just a tiny inkling of what the real exiles, thousands of Hondurans, were going through.

Finally, there were the things for which there were no words in either English or Spanish. What did I say to my close, beloved friend when his daughter and son-in-law were shot and killed in one of those incidents of “random violence” that happen when there is no functioning judicial system, the police are largely corrupt, and you can kill anyone you want and nothing will happen to you? What did I say to another close friend, who’d been sheltering a young victim of domestic violence, when drug traffickers who were tight with the abuser showed up one day and told my friend she had twenty-four hours to leave the house and no one from her family could ever live there again, and she had to flee across the border to Mexico, with no money? What did I say to the sweet, loving young man who finally found a good job in his cousin’s new shop, and six months later the gangs showed up and demanded a tax, and she said no, and after five days they came back and killed her, and he lost his job in her shop, and the family lost all their investment? For every word I learned, there was a new horror, a new atrocity report to write.

I wasn’t the only one who was learning. My words joined with those of hundreds, thousands, all over the U.S., Honduras, and beyond—until 94 Members wrote the Secretary of State to demand that all police and military aid to Honduras be suspended, and the Senators and Members on State and Foreign Ops put human rights conditions on part of the aid, State itself began finally to respond to the pressure, and over fifty million dollars in police and military aid was, indeed, suspended.

It turned out I’d known the most basic word all along. I learned it in college, from the classic Latin American song: “Basta ya, basta ya, basta ya que el Yanqui mande.” Basta! “Enough!”