tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS May 21, 2016 4:00pm-4:31pm PDT
>> hinojosa: the wars in central america have framed his life and shaped his work as a writer. in his latest book the art of political murder, he uncovers the truth behind one of guatemala's most notorious assassinations. award winning author francisco goldman. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. francisco goldman, you're an award-winning author and a contributor to the new yorker. welcome to the show. >> it's very nice to be here. >> hinojosa: so, we're talking about some pretty serious stuff here. but it all kind of starts in an interesting way for you. you are this guatemalan jewish kid growing up in the northeast.
and in the late 1970s, you make a decision, like a lot of kids, which is to take a road trip. and you take that road trip right into guatemala in a moment of civil war, essentially. >> well, my father's family... my father's from a russian jewish immigrant background family from here in boston. but my mother's family in guatemala is an old fashioned guatemalan mestizo catholic very traditional guatemalan family. and i had spent a lot of time in guatemala as a child, the first couple years of my life, almost every summer, summer after summer. but then, as i become more and more your typical american teenage kind of kid, i become sort of self-conscious about that. i want to fit in the way americans do. and i sort of begin to stay away from guatemala, i guess. i hadn't been down there probably since sixth grade or so. and sure, then in college one day with my friends, we didn't really have anything to do that
summer. and one of my friends had a new ford mustang, and i said, "let's drive down to guatemala." and we did, you know? and that would have been about 1976. and... >> hinojosa: when the political situation was... >> well, the political situation... >> hinojosa: was percolating. >> ...was just percolating. i remember the big... my big moment of political intuition was one night, late at night, we were out just walking around guatemala city looking for something to do. and a vw thing stops in the street to ask us if we know where there's any party going on. and they were students from salvador. and they were... there had just been a huge massacre at the university in salvador. and they had fled, because the situation had heated up there first. and i remember they had the strongest pot i'd ever smoked in my life. we got into the vw thing with them. >> hinojosa: and you're like, "wow, guatemala."
>> and we drove around hearing their stories, you know? i had never met anybody before who... you know, fleeing a massacre, right? and... but outside of that, that summer was fairly innocent. that summer was basically hanging around with my girl cousins, you know... >> hinojosa: and then you go back. >> ...who were beautiful and had lots of beautiful friends. >> hinojosa: and then you go back and you make an incredible decision that really changes your life. because at that point you decide to go to the morgue. >> this is when i go back the second time. i was just out of college, and i knew i wanted to... i thought i was going to apply to master of fine arts writing programs. and i was living in new york. i didn't quite graduate yet. and i was living in new york, working as a bartender in restaurants and all. i just couldn't get the time. and i said, "oh, i know, my family, you know, down in guatemala, we have this..." i was so innocent. i hardly used to read the newspapers. you know, this was about 1979. and i know we have this little
chalet down in guatemala on lake amatitlan, which is not the beautiful, spectacular lake. lake amatitlan is the sort of polluted little lake outside the city. but we had an old chalet there, and i thought i can hole up there and write and do the three short stories i need to do to submit to a writing program. >> hinojosa: this was going to be, like, your getaway. >> it was my getaway. and i get there, and my uncle is like, "you're crazy. you can't go live out by the lake. you know, there's been violence there, you know, there's a war going on in this country." and so i live at my uncle's house. >> hinojosa: when he said that to you, when your uncle said, "look, there's a war going on," did you understand? >> not really. i began to understand. it was fascinating, because i'm living at my uncle's house, working on my new york city love stories, right? they were the most apolitical... >> hinojosa: because you're a new york city bartender who's trying to figure out life as a writer. >> and meanwhile, yeah, you know, you're picking up the papers every day, and you're beginning to see the codes, right? because guatemala was basically... that happened to be the most violent year for the
city, because that's the year we know now in history that the guatemalan army intelligence forces really cracked down on the urban guerilla networks, the student networks, and so forth. and there's just dead bodies turning up everywhere. and they never identify in the paper what happened. so you're reading the papers, and they're always saying, you know, "he was last seen," you know, et cetera, et cetera, "his family last saw him, the mother says he wasn't involved in politics." you know, always these little code words, right? and they'd say, you know, "body found." just an endless cascade of bodies being found all over the city, always described as showing signs of torture-- (speaking spanish) a coup de grace in the head. >> host: these are kids that are basically your age at that point. >> my age. >> hinojosa: 20, 21, 22, 23. >> sure. and then one day we're at a family cocktail party, right, and this other girl, she's the daughter of family friends, she's at the public university, and she's studying to be a doctor, and she's telling me about, like, part of their medial school practice... because it's the public university, it's the free
university. and they do their forensic studies at the morgue. and she says to me, "you have to see what it's like in there. some mornings, you know, there's bodies stacked up like firewood outside, and you should see the condition they're in." and that's the moment where my life changed, really. that's the moment... because i could so easily have gone, you know, "no, i don't want to see that," or... the journalist in me opened up at that moment, right? and i said, "yeah, okay, i'll go see it." and to get me in there, she was so funny. it was so innocent. she put me in a medical robe. i even had, like, a little stethoscope around my neck. you know, and she said, "don't say anything. if anyone asks us anything i'll just say... you know, i'll do the talking." and we go in, and sure enough, it was like... you know, it was like falling through a hole. it's a moment where you looked in and you saw what i saw. and you said, "who could have done this to anybody?" >> hinojosa: and you used that
kind of metaphor. you say that you felt like you were falling into a hole, and it was a hole that basically enveloped you. i mean, those images of seeing young men, young women your age, more or less... tell me what you saw. >> yeah, i just remember very specifically the men, young men, laid out in these concrete slabs. and they'd been mutilated, you know? and the way they used to torture people back then, they used to torture... as it still is now in the narco wars with the beheadings and everything, they used bodies to send messages, and to intimidate. it's theater of terror. of course, to someone like me to see something like that, who'd grown up mostly here in the suburbs of massachusetts, it was... who could be so vile? who and why, and who are these people, and why do they do it, and what's behind all of this? and this whole series of
questions opened up. and i would never be... you know, i walked into that room in some ways an innocent american kid from a, you know, split immigrant family, and i walked out of that room already contaminated, in a certain sense, by another sort of reality that i was going to have to begin to understand. there was no way i could just forget about it. >> hinojosa: you could have. >> yes, but then i wouldn't be me, right? so it was a real... it was the beginning of an... it was the beginning of my real, true education. because what happened is, you know, i wrote my stories, and i sent them out from guatemala to the mfa programs, and i also sent some to esquire magazine. and i got into the mfa programs, but bizarrely, miraculously, esquire magazine bought two of them. >> hinojosa: that's kind of...
>> and then i said, "wow, i'm a writer now." and they asked me if i wanted to do nonfiction for the magazine. and i remember to this day they proposed that if i wanted to go and write about sherpas in nepal. and i said, "no, i want to go back and write about what's going on in guatemala." >> hinojosa: and that's surprising that they said yes, because, you know, when you think back about central america and its relationship to the united states and the wars, a lot of people know about nicaragua and the sandinistas and the contras, and a lot of people know about what happened in el salvador, maybe, you know, not as deeply. but there's not a lot of detail about what happened in guatemala. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: i mean, if you know, you know that there was a genocide. >> there was a genocide. it was by far the most... it was the most violent, repressive country, really that latin america has seen since the conquest. >> hinojosa: and the longest civil war, right?
>> the longest civil war, 36-year civil war. why didn't it get the attention? it didn't get the attention that nicaragua and el salvador got, because the guerillas were never a threat to win. the army basically wiped out the urban networks, i guess in the late '70s. the very brutal, notorious scorched earth campaign in the early '80s essentially locked up the country militarily. and then a whole other process of kind of military consolidation, right, and transition to so-called democracy goes on. whereas obviously nicaragua is under control of the sandinistas, salvador was very contested, honduras was the base camp for the contras going into nicaragua. so all those countries tended to be more part of the us policy arguments, right? >> hinojosa: so let's fast forward a few years.
you become a successful writer, your books do amazingly well, and they're all fiction. and then you decide, basically, to insert yourself into a very political reality. and that's... the name of the book is the art of the political murder. >> the art of political murder, yeah. >> hinojosa: the art of political murder. set up the story behind the art of political murder. >> well, you know, so i basically... you know, because that esquire article sends me into 11 years almost of working, supporting myself as a freelance journalist for magazines down in central america, the last story i do is the sandinista elections, i think in '91. and then i basically quit journalism, and i just am burnt out, i'm sick of central america, i'm sick of political violence. i go and, you know, immerse myself in fiction. divine husband, which is almost like... my friends tease me, and they call it little women in the tropics. it's almost like a girly book,
you know? it's all about these girls, and jose marti, and it was, like cleansing myself. >> hinojosa: a whole other side of jose marti, by the way. if you think you know jose marti, you don't. it was amazing. >> and this is how i get into the art of political murder. i knew that divine husband had to open in a convent. and i wanted to do research inside the guatemalan church. in 1998, when bishop gerardi, the head of the guatemalan human rights office, after he presides over the publishing of an unprecedented, taboo-shattering human rights report on the war... >> hinojosa: and this is based in the church. >> the church sponsored... >> hinojosa: the church is saying, "we're going to open up this pandora's box about political violence." >> "and we're going to defy the amnesty." see, because when the guatemalan... the guatemalan army basically could dictate... the un peace accords basically dictates the terms of the peace agreement, right? and among the things that they
insist on is that there's going to be an amnesty. in other words, of the 200,000 or more murdered civilians in the war, the vast majority of them killed in the 1980s... >> hinojosa: 200,000 people. >> civilians killed. they say there can be no criminal prosecutions or investigations, right, of these countless tens of thousands of homicides. it was basically one of those horrendous... you know, the 20th, late 20th... the 20th century invention, almost of making the civilian population bear the brunt of the fatalities, you know, in a war against insurgency. that was taken to a real extreme in guatemala for so many reasons, part of them i'm sure, you know, a kind of genocidal rage and desire to sort of cleanse the country of these
sort of... >> hinojosa: so the catholic church, through gerardi... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...inserts themself here. >> well, they say, "we didn't sign the peace accords. the church is not a..." and, you know, the un peace accords had said there could be a truth commission, but that their report supposedly would be forbidden from naming names and assigning blame. so he thought that the un report was going to be neutered. and he also worried that the un, when they went in, would be more or less, as it was, in fact, staffed by, you know, young north americans out of law school, and europeans, and that to break... they would never be able to penetrate the fear and silence that was up in the highlands. as you just said, people were isolated not just by language, because they mostly speak mayan languages, but also by geography, by history, by... and
just this tremendous air of trauma. >> hinojosa: and distrust. >> and distrust. >> hinojosa: total distrust. >> and the church... if there's any institution in guatemala that people trust, it's the church. because people know who's in their local parish and so forth. and so he... basically the way he did this report, it was phenomenal. they trained... started off with 700 volunteers from the grass roots, from local parishes, and basically trained them how to use handheld tape recorders, and a methodology of what sort of questions to ask, and sent these people up into the villages, where nobody had ever told their stories before. >> hinojosa: and the stories that you relate in the book, the art of political murder, of these people talking about what happened to their sons and their daughters and the disappearances... so gerardi puts out this report, which is huge. two days later... >> he's murdered. >> hinojosa: he's murdered. >> murdered. >> hinojosa: give our viewers just a context of why this
gerardi murder is so historically important. >> the thing is i basically wrote this book almost... i lived it alongside these guys. but basically this book... this should have been a slam dunk for the army. it should have been so easy for them to create this false case that gerardi died, you know, in a homosexual murder, and smear the church and so forth, right? young... a group of young people from the church itself, civilians, start investigating on their own in a long process that sees corrupt prosecutors, corrupt judges, eventually pushed aside by honest people. you get a kind of perfect storm, really, of unprecedentedly committed, brilliant young people fighting this case, with the help... very important, because if these people hadn't been there they would have been killed-- the united nations peacekeeping commission. >> hinojosa: but it's interesting that these young people actually... again, they knew what had happened in
guatemala. they were putting their lives on the line, and yet they were prepared. i mean, tremendous courage. >> this was an extraordinarily important... the courage in this case is unbelievable-- the courage, the resourcefulness, the intelligence, the meticulousness, the patience, it's a classic legal case. and i try to tell the story of how it was investigated, the problems they met, the mysteries. because the case still has mysteries, right? and how it led to this unprecedented moment when, for the first time in guatemalan history, still for the only time in guatemalan history, military officers were convicted and sent to prison for having taken part in a state-sponsored political execution,. >> hinojosa: amazing. what did this... the book and the reality of the gerardi case, how did it change guatemala? >> well, to say it changed guatemala would be a little grand. but it definitely had incredible impact. now, after the book comes out, i'm sort of in a daze.
i don't really realize... my wife has died. i don't really realize what's going on. but i begin to hear reports that the book is having a huge impact in the election campaign. because the book does, in fact, suggest that general otto perez molina, who was the leading right wing candidate for president, had a role. in fact, the main witness in the case says he has a role. and i tried to provide some supporting evidence for that, of which now, since the book's come out, i have a lot more. and this became a big factor in the campaign. >> hinojosa: well, he's running for president, right? >> yeah. >> hinojosa: the man who's implicated. >> and a lot of people say... and, you know, it was... whether scrupulously or not, the opposition certainly used the book. and a lot of stuff got out there, and a lot of people say it hurt his campaign. most importantly for me... and this is... i don't want to go on too long about this, because it's complicated. but a big part of the book talks about how after the verdicts in 2001, so much was done. because this verdict, this
unprecedented achieving of justice, threatened so many people in guatemala if the case went forward. so much depends in impunity staying intact. and they tried to just, you know, smear everybody involved, and create this... confuse everybody about what had happened. and the book, i think, restored the true story of the gerardi case to guatemala, and it's recognized as having done that in guatemala now. and, i mean, i'm really proud of the fact that it's been three years since that book came out. and in terms of its... for all the enemies i have in guatemala in the media and, you know, the powerful media controlled by people who are on the side of the murderers, essentially, they haven't been able to find one detail that's wrong, that i've had to retract in my recounting of the case itself. >> hinojosa: the importance of fact-based reporting is right there. so i want to talk just as we end about something that happened in your life that was really extraordinary. you... you later in life find a
woman to fall in love with, and you fall deeply in love with aura estrada. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and just a few years after you're together... >> well, we were together five years. >> hinojosa: five years. >> and no, she was... you know, she's beyond the love of my life. we were... i think i was... you know, i don't know how to say it except to say, you know, we were married two years. we were married in 2005. and i felt... you know, as a husband, and she as a wife, i think we were everything that a husband and wife are supposed to be to each other, you know? she was absolutely every... she was a genius. >> hinojosa: she was a writer. >> she was 20 years younger than me, as you know. she was a young writer. she was studying for her ph.d. at columbia university. but she deeply wanted to write. she did this incredibly beautiful act of rebellion the
last year of her life, because it put all her scholarships at columbia at risk, and she applied in secret to the hunter mfa program. >> hinojosa: because she really wanted to be a fiction writer. >> she was desperate to write fiction. and... >> hinojosa: and one of the things that happened with aura was that she was this brilliant writer, but that she didn't believe it. i mean, you kind of lived what so many latinas go through, what so many women go through, which is, "do i have a voice, can i write, can i trust this, am i good enough?" >> yeah, i mean, you know, i've seen this not just in latin america. i teach creative writing classes. and in the past i've sometimes seen, you know, all the work i have to do to get the female students in the class to speak up, while the kind of boys sit there and sort of dominate with their... you know, it's funny with their raunchy jokes and everything. but often the most talented girls in the class, they'll sit over there in a row, they're doing the best writing, and they're terrified, right? and it's somehow... i don't know why it is, but so often, like every... so many young male students who decide they want to
write think they're geniuses the minute they write, like, their first sentence. and fiction... >> hinojosa: i've never experienced that, ever. >> and the women, you know, are just sometimes the most, you know... something... are much shyer about their voice, and much more insecure about their voice, and much more... and it's especially compounded, i think, sometimes for latin american women, especially from a culture like mexico. and so... >> hinojosa: it's hard. >> and then there's personal reasons, right? and so aura was the most... aura was a much better writer than me. she was a genius, she really was. she was extraordinarily talented. and i would sit there, and anytime i read a story i would say, "oh, aura, this is so good." she'd say, "you're just saying that, because you want me to... because you love me." and i'd go, "no!" you know, so it was so fantastic when she went to hunter and got validation from the people... >> hinojosa: let me ask you about what you're doing in aura's legacy. because aura passed away very suddenly. >> in a swimming accident. >> hinojosa: in a swimming
accident that you don't really talk a lot about, exactly what happened in that accident. >> it was a... we were body surfing at a beach, mazunte, and there was... we... it was just... you know, we had... we had been waiting all winter and spring for this two week vacation. and we'd rented a house, and, you know, it was aura, and her cousin, fabiola, and me. and it was just the second day, and it was this beautiful day, the water was full of people, and she caught a wave wrong. and even then, you know, i thought she was still going to make it. and we... you know, luckily there was a lot of people on the beach, and everyone tried to help, and we put her... there were no ambulances. you know, you forget what the infrastructure of a poor country is-- "get an ambulance!" and there's no ambulance.
the closest ambulance is three hours away. >> hinojosa: ah, dios mio, oh, my... >> and he had to put her in a... there was a doctor on the beach, and we put her on a surfboard and got her into the back of an suv, drove her to the nearest hospital, where they didn't even have a respirator. they had to use a hand thing. i mean, it was such a journey. 12 hours later we get her to this... we finally get her air medivaced out to a hospital in mexico city. the only... so at least her mom got to see her one more time. you know, and then she died the next morning. >> hinojosa: and you have decided in her name to create an amazing award, the first of its kind, which is basically to give financial support to young... >> yeah, the aura estrada prize. >> hinojosa: the aura estrada prize. and it's basically to say to young women who write in spanish... >> women 35 and under who write
in spanish who live in mexico or the united states. and you get... if you win, you get $10,000, and you get residencies in three writers' colonies-- ledig house, santa maddalena in italy, and ucross in wyoming. and we gave the first prize last november. we had the most extraordinary fundraisers. we were so lucky at the last fundraiser, because it was at two weeks before the crash. >> hinojosa: mmm. >> and in one night we raised $80,000. you know, we have enough to give the prize now for... you know, we need more. >> hinojosa: well, you know what, francisco? what we can leave our viewers with is that if they want to learn more, they can go to auraestradaprize... >> auraestradaprize.org, yeah. >> hinojosa: and we can read your new book. and the title of your new book is? >> say her name.
>> hinojosa: say her name. and it's about your life with aura. >> it's a novel, but it's about aura. yeah, that'll be... >> hinojosa: francisco, thank you so much for opening your heart to us here and in your writing. it means so much. >> thank you, maria. thanks for having me. >> hinojosa: thank you. >> bye-bye. >> hinojosa: continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also, by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith. he's an independent film icon, and five time academy award nominee, whose credits include boyhood, slacker, dazed and confused, bernie, and school of rock. his latest film, everybody wants some, has just opened. he's richard linklater. this is overheard. (exciting music) (applause) (evan talking) (people laughing) (exciting music)