At the time of the Peace Corps I made my own, went to San José Costa Rica from Philadelphia to work for Editorial Caribe, a publishing house of the Latin America Mission. It used a fish as its logo. This was overtaken by larger events, JFK’s arrival and the parades for the Alliance for Progress, his reception at the Embassy, the eruption of the volcano Irazú, the beginning of Semana Santa three weeks after JFK’s visit, the death of my brother, buried May 22. These also include three trips to Limón on the Atlantic, another to Puntarenas on the Pacific, another to Turrialba where I stayed at the Agricultural Institute. These also include attending Puccini’s last opera at the National Theatre with the concert pianist Ricardo Foulkes. I first met Ricardo in classes at the Seminario Bíblico. The Mission was also overtaken by the larger event of liberation theology, but its visionary ideas, farms, orphanages, fish hatchery, bookstores, publishing house and seminary were not totally surprised. Things take a while to understand. Sky shadows above, reflect beneath their own awareness.
I arrived 03 Jan 1963 at Editorial Caribe to help install an accounting system, the previous years had kept books at Merrill Lynch and been an internal auditor at American Viscose. I learned Spanish and customs in the publishing house by day and roomed at night in the empty men’s dorm of the seminary. Classes did not begin till March. The amenities were cots, cold water showers, toilets without seats and a washboard to wash clothes. Some weekends I read Dostoevsky nonstop, Crime and Punishment in 18 hours, Tolstoy, War and Peace in a day and a half, listening to a portable radio. When the pastoral students returned I played ping pong into the night with the enthusiast Ciceróne Cárdenas. Once the cafeteria served boiled eggs in cream sauce, but nobody died. Breakfast was bread and coffee, but the coffee was the best in the world, the only comparison being the coffee served on the Left Bank in Paris, the freshest possible. Lunch was rice, every now and then mixed with sausage. One classmate brought his bottle of olive oil to the table. The rice and sausage, olive oil, a kind of yellow saffron rice sometimes, cooked in big pots with black pepper began to taste as good as the coffee.
JFK and the Alliance For Progress
Ricardo took me to his weightlifter’s gym in a San José blanketed with black volcanic ash that erupted the day President Kennedy toured the streets, as much outside ordinary time as Ricardo in my memory. I was still talking to him as a survivor when I wrote this. The President had traveled to Costa Rica for the Alliance For Progress, to meet with the heads of states at the National Theatre in San José, but the extraordinary part of his trip was the motorcade down Avenida Central. In those days security was light. He rode in a convertible with a motorcycle escort and about six vehicles in all. It was a beautiful day.
People waved American flags with huge enthusiasm. The crowd lined both sides of the Avenue, half a million people contained on the sides by police and guards, but the day had no danger in it, at least from them. The outpouring of affection moved the President, you can see the elation on his face, but more so smiles and joy on peoples’ faces. So the volcano was erupting and the president was streaming in the firmament, decorated with crepe. It was the celebration o f a lifetime, but Good Friday was coming and Holy Week, tradition of a thousand years. The Kennedy visit and processions of Good Friday blend together, its statues already burnished. The alabaster skin rose over the shoulders of the crowd like the road to Golgotha. I exchanged glances with the Mother and Joseph. The same face appears in the Lady Chapel of the Glastonbury ruins who above the altar holds his arms wide. But backs were ready to bear their burdens, and of course later in town they said the volcano was an ill omen. Only now I realize the word for ash in Spanish, cenizo, means ill omen. Everybody alive at his assassination remembers where they were when they heard the President was killed, November 22. There were more sky shadows in that journey, mirroring the surface. I wrote a first story that April symbolically predicting the President’s death, which occurred seven months later, things time cannot mitigate. The ash didn’t get to San José till after he had left.
Ricardo had just gotten a masters in theology from Princeton when I was in his New Testament studies class, studying Greek in Spanish with his wife Irene while he broke down Bultmann, Schweitzer and Renan. I did it myself, taught the avant-garde to freshman and sophomores at Fayetteville. Literature follows theology in the death of the author. Decades before Barthes, Schweitzer sought history. History is Memory’s son! At night in the seminary library I would urge those German critics out of their case and puzzle over them in Spanish as much as I ever had over Kierkegaard in the basement of my college library. Sometimes Ricardo would pass through the library in the evening with other professors. Once he said, “let’s go to the opera at the National Theatre.” He had performed there himself and felt like he owned it. To the question, “do you have tickets,” he said we’d just sneak in the back and go up in the balcony. It was Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, and whether you say the final “t” or not, it is the one interrupted when the maestro died. Although finished by Alfano, when it was first conducted by Toscanini in 1926, the conductor laid down his baton in the middle of Act III where Puccini had stopped writing and said, “here the Maestro died,” ending the performance. It fits with the unfinished business of this journey. Ricardo bandied about the Asian riddles and considering my love of the game I joined him with the admonishments of ministers Ping, Pang and Pong, who urge Turandot not to lose his head. As all operas and lives it was dark light, red curtained, maroon mauve tapestries, flashes off glasses, box seats. I was more interested in what was in the cup and why the point of the lance bled, which however I did not yet know. The semester ended for me before the dorm counselor had finished his Tolstoy, but after the Panamanian pastor who cut cane, with wrists as big as my ankles, prayed. That is, I never finished the class, wrote to Ricardo after my untimely exit to pose the riddle, why should you continue to exist. He was composing a long answer in his head, he said, when he realized I was kidding. Now I get his letter out, it is postdated the University of Strasbourg, 1968, five years after, during the period of his dissertation Defense.
I got to know Central America from walking in the mountains at Roblealto, San José de la Montaña, coming suddenly on whole families of people, little children, grandparents, living in wild fields picking shade coffee, then seeing the bright beans crushed, spread over the highway to dry, cars skirting them. Walking in Limón to catch the 6 AM train through barrios I saw a man badly beaten from prison. Little enough the offering made to him where families mourn children and conduct funerals with handmade coffins and heartbreaking grief. I spoke this to Ricardo, catastrophe the trigger, strangeness the detail, a one eyed pirate in the hotel of Puerto Limón, where the wide wind blows the coast so strong sometimes ships cannot dock, but the wind blows as it will. Many of the people of Limón are from Jamaica, which is to say they are robust. On that initial visit Paul asked me to speak to his Church of God congregation Sunday night about the new creature. Afterward George and some friends suggested we go for a late night walk. There are no streetlights in Limón. Coming down a gravel slope toward a street of houses, after sudden cries and a scream, lights came on. Not ten paces in front of us was a young Latin male in a white undershirt being chased by a woman with a long knife, the mother of some daughter. He sounded like he was trying to placate her as she tried to carve him. He leapt into the air like a cat and kicked the knife out of her hand. George, the leader of this expedition, said, “that’s why we travel in a group.”
On the other side of the continent, Pacific Puntarenas, the wind blows equally hard. You hear the sound of it in evening and feel the force, but it totally stops at night. I was awake, watching cockroaches run the floor when an allegory of politics sailed toward me, a satire of journalism, society and education as much of the legislature, the “Cockroach Congress,” and the executive. Where do come from, where go, these winds that were also blowing the Mission. About 1968 the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, meditations of the suffering of Christ, came to the Americas in the world of the crucifieds. I knew these, but not the doubts of St. Paul’s intellect. This was the end of the idyll before Liberation. The cenizo ash at my feet was heavy with it, but Irazú’s eruption was a divine deliverance the night I took a notion to sketch prostitutes in the streets of the San José square, and to take another student from the seminary with me, the student body president! Thick falling ash prevented that. President Kennedy was not so fortunate. Young men are volatile, even presidents.
A continuing conversation with Ricardo came into my mind Good Friday 2007 with a vision of what his letter would have said had he replied. I didn’t know there was a T. in his name until I saw the death notice on the Julliard website. Taken seriously, his answer was that the liberation of people to which this vision led was equally in its articulation of feminist/indigenous theologies and imaginative participation in the wounds of Christ. These were identifications with people against the oppressor, wounded with the oppressor’s transgressions, bruised with its iniquities. Ricardo’s Apocalypse of St. John appeared in 1989 just about at the tipping point where liberation theology started toward ecological feminism. His ideas with others contradicted the North American view that oppression didn’t matter because the church was going to be raptured out before the events in Revelations 18 occurred. I didn’t want to read Rev 18. It promises a blessing, but I knew people who read it and came to a bad end.
It is a catalogue of sea captains, gold cargoes, frankincense and souls, the city of Babylon compounded as a woman to represent global capital and world domination. These multinational corporations, commentators tell us, traduced to poverty the nations and people of the world. Babylon City/Woman is a picture of bond traders and merchants of world capital, global internationals unmasked in the intercourse of traffic. Their fortunes make “an idolatrous cult of Mammon, a cult that can only merit the name ‘fornication,’” said Ricardo. (El Apocalipsis De San Juan, 189). Extending the prophecy of St. John to contemporary global capital and multinationals, the Americas were polarized and crucified (Callahan, Ortega, Kidd on Wainwright). It was the same enemy Ruben Dario saddled as Alejandro-Nabucodonosor, Alexander-Nebuchadnezzar. Liberation theologies transferred the sufferings of Christ to the people of the Americas and then to the earth, to those exploded mountaintops and broken rivers, smitten of Man and afflicted. These exist, but poets flee philosophy, theology and politics. The rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing.
Ricardo died the year before I composed this answer. It seemed to materialize out of that theology of enriching the body, memorialize anyway. How the concert pianist became a new testament scholar, that’s not a straight line. Both pianist and scholar were weight lifters; one prophesied against empire. He knew the word for muse among people who were shocked. But you know that must be overlooked. They gossiped: “how can someone with such trained hands lift weights? What if he hurts himself?” Cost accountants! He took me with him to the gym sometimes, me already dressed in those legs weightlifters would die to get. They asked, “what did you do to get those legs.”
A cicada begins to sing two weeks before Semana Santa. They lose their body weight while singing. It signals high seriousness. Driving a car or motorbike on Good Friday is discouraged. Some communities throw nails in the streets to prevent it. The President’s caravan down Avenida Central three weeks before had to go twenty miles an hour to keep from being overrun by two thousand young men in pursuit. The embassy held a reception for the President to greet all the Americans that afternoon in the ambassador’s residence, a large white columned affair. Hundreds of Americans attended. I was traveling on a tourist card, renewed every three months. The secret service looked askance at it, said “you can’t come in.” I proved my citizenship by being indignant, was given a pass. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, spoke from the pulpit porch of the residence, but the President left the porch and mingled with the crowd. It was then I shook his hand. He was easy to like if you listened to the wit of his press conferences.
There were even more people out city wide for Holy Week than for the President, all close up, the parades, the embassy, the floats, the processions that went 15 miles from San José to Cartago, some people walking barefoot. I started walking early Good Friday at dawn, not to Cartago, but to every barrio of San José. Taking pictures with a Brownie camera elicited dirty looks so I didn’t much. The dozen or so slides lay dormant in archival sheeting, head scarves of women walking with the floats, faces of police protecting them, impassive ushers carrying the images on poles, the Holy Mother’s gown embroidered in gold with vines and flowers, the faces of children in cradles at her feet. These are right next to the slides of the face of the man who appears under Kennedy’s arm, a lucky shot, the President’s face framed by the American flags they were waving. The man has bushy eyebrows, a black moustache, a beard, a kind of top hat. It is not Lincoln.
An ocean of faces stretches the distance. The two parades become one in the slides, half are of each. Priests in white surplice lead the float of the Savior. Corn plants embroider his robe, garlands of pink lilies and roses at his feet, a diadem on his head. Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die seems to be the message The cross on his left shoulder is enameled in black with inlays, the heads of the priests are bowed, arms folded. A Cardinal in red walks between. A girl half the size of those around her wears a red scarf, a son in a blue shirt holds onto his father’s hair. The President and the volcano, parrots in the park at Limón, the pastel shacks and close woven barrios, the mountains around the city, the coffee beans on the road, Ricardo, Ruth and Ladoit Stevens and their children are still impressions bright as consciousness. I stayed with the Stevens family for two weeks after that first Limón trip. They made me welcome among the small sons of the champion wrestler, Steve. His boys could chin 15 times on a bar.
In and among these events I was hunting tropical fish with blue and gold fins at the base of the Irazú volcano. The streams of the national park beneath the mount in Cartago, at the Basilica, are full of them. It was the closest I came to my dream as a ten year old to catch tropical fish in the Amazon, unless I count myself the fish who took the hook and was caught, Jonah who turned the light off and watched his pupils dilate in the dark. For among people all different I left on this first exploration without the help of God. But even in the sea, darkness dawns. I went natural and when it was done got spit back up. It is dark in the fish where I was made a poet. As they flee the sky shadows above so this fled from me when I did seek. Following this pursuit conceived in the secret place at ten, I would have caught tropicals in the Amazon. The colors that swam in those pools later attracted me to mudslip and turn. But clay does not ask, why have you made me thus? Fish, butterflies, flowers, it could have been stars. Vision followed the way alternate accounts of our lives go to the Amazon or Grand Canyon or grow herbs in Tibet, contemplatives in paint, earth and high fire. As Melville says in chapter one, “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open.” I‘d have been in Chile for Allende’s depose as much as I was in Dr. King’s black south in 1968 for his. But I don’t chose the tale. It’s dangerous to write of living. Facts can be wrong. Ricardo was 27 at the time, on the thinking side of the mission, as its leaders. After a Bible study in the early days of his acquaintance he said to me, “you know about the muse.” I do.
My return was a regurgitation. I was gone within hours of receiving the news my brother had died. I was now the oldest son. When I got back to the offices, cleaned out my desk, Donoso, my roommate from Managua, appeared suddenly among the looming bosses with immense sorrow and compassion on his brow. I can only liken it to the look of the captain in Crane’s Open Boat as he hung over the water jar. When I returned to Philadelphia, at the church where my brother lay, Fred Phillips appeared in coat and tie, who I ridden back and forth to classes with time and again, who took senior philosophy as a freshman. I was given a hand in the swallowing. During the six hour layover on the first leg of return, in Panama City, told in Remembering José Donoso, the Chilean writer guided me through the outskirts of sheol with a taxi tour of the Canal zone and the locks in the dead of night. Then, the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. So that’s how it feels to be born of the spirit. Wind is greater than water.
Allen Dwight Callahan. “Revelation 18: Notes on Effective History and the State of Colombia.” In Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in honor of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (2003), 279.
Joan Kidd. Wainwright Ch 11. The Transformation of Society.
Ofelia Ortega. “Where the Empire Lies, People Suffer, They Are Exploited, and Life Becomes Death,” 43.
Ricardo, Richard T. Foulkes (1936-2006) graduated Julliard (’50, piano), took a doctorate at the University of Strasbourg, was New Testament professor at the Seminario Biblico Latinamericano, then Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (UBL). Two of his books are in print, El Apocalipsis De San Juan: Una lectura desde américa latina: Nueva Creación/Grand Rapids:Eerdmans (1989) and Marcos: Guillermo Cook (1996). He is called “a leading pianist in Costa Rica.”