By Tommy Airey
*Another episode in a weekly series of fictional accounts rooted in reality.
Aden Alvarenga and his Tío Tejada grew up in the coolest region of Honduras. They were born, two decades apart, in the 1700-meter high mountain town of La Esperanza, which means “hope” in Spanish. Hope, however, is a concept conditioned by context. For white folks, hope tends to be synonymous with optimism and progress. It is a belief that things must get better and will get better. Eventually. However, for the Lenca of western Honduras, as it is for most Indigenous peoples of the world, hope subverts despair through solidarity. Hope is a rugged conviction that does not depend on circumstances improving. Hope resists despair through a fierce faith in a higher Power built on love and compassion that transcends events on the ground.
Aden and Tío thrive on this kind of Indigenous hope. It brings them back to the pain of 2016 when the Honduran fútbol team narrowly missed out on their homeland’s first Olympic medal and when Donald Fucking Trump, a white-collar criminal and crotch-grabbing rapist, became President of the United States in a campaign that notoriously began when he called immigrants coming from south of the border “criminals” and “rapists.” For Aden and Tío, these two swift kicks to the groin paled in comparison to the groaning loss of Berta Cáceres, the greatest leader they’d ever known, who was ruthlessly assassinated in her own home in La Esperanza.
Just a few months earlier, Berta had flown to New York to accept a prestigious award for her tireless work as an environmental activist. This made her even more of a threat to those who build power by threatening the most vulnerable. She had been on the military hit-list for years because she led her Lenca community in a nonviolent rebellion against the mining and dam projects of corporate developers. Shit like self-interest and profit-motive don’t fly with the Lenca peoples who believe that they come from the earth, water and corn and are called to be guardians of the rivers. In this vocation, they are protected and guided by the spirits of young girls who teach them how to give their lives for the well-being of humanity and the planet. Berta Cáceres gave her life just two days before her 45th birthday.
When Tío heard the news on his way to work, he was silent and misty-eyed for hours. Words finally breached his emotional dam after the lunch rush. He explained his feelings for a younger female employee, undocumented like him, “Everything Berta did was deeply spiritual. She wasn’t about ‘resistance.’ She wasn’t down with a defensive posture. She was forever moving forward, channeling her strength and energy into refounding a world that worked for everyone, starting with the Indigenous, women, queer folk and for Mother Earth and her more-than-human creatures.” And the corporate bastards killed her for it. Just like they did Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. Just like they did Jesús himself.
That was Tío’s final day folding burritos and frying zucchini at A’s Burgers. At the end of that work day when Berta joined the ancestors, Tío threw down his apron and ritualized his grief in a 216-hour Lenca lamentation. He made daily 20-mile roundtrip walking pilgrimages to Panhe, the Acjachemen burial and ceremonial site at the border of Orange and San Diego counties. Panhe somehow survived the encroachment of a military base, nuclear power plant, state campground and Trestles, one of the most legendary surf beaches in California. On his daily journeys, Tío was fueled by freshly pressed tortillas and chicha, a fermented corn beer that Indigenous peoples had been pouring to ritualize grief for millennia. Tío was not alone. He walked and talked with Jesús, the virgin Mary, the OG martyr San Esteban (the patron saint of his hometown), the seagulls and sage brush, the spirits of the Pacific—and Berta herself.
When Tío arrived at Panhe each day, he pivoted his prayers towards San Tomas, the doubting one who refused to trust the divine until he physically touched the wounds of the crucified Jesús. Tío journeyed to this resilient Indigenous sacred site to touch one of the oldest wounds of empire. He posted up under the ancient Oak and Sycamore trees of Panhe because, like him, the Acjachemen people are not recognized by the federal government—despite archaeological proof that they lived sustainably on this land for more than 9,000 years before white colonial Christians invaded it and stole it and converted them to the violent cult of Jesus, the white conquistador. To add insult to injury, the white Christians raped their women and infected them with their diseases.
Panhe was the epicenter of a super-contagious cocktail of disease centuries before COVID-19 came for a country trying to make itself great again in every batshit crazy way imaginable. The people of Panhe were victims of a COVID-19 on steroids, crack, heroine, Dexedrine, Desoxyn and a bottle of low-shelf tequila on clearance at Walgreens. As more than 90% of the Indigenous population of Turtle Island were killed off, white Christians spurned social distancing for profit-making. Panhe is the crucified wound of a people still surviving, but totally unrecognized. In fact, its sacred quality is soaked in the surreal statistic that .0001% of those who call California home drive by Pahne thousands of times in their lives and never even know it exists. This was not so with the mysterious, undocumented case of Tío Tejada.
Each day at Panhe, Tío wept like Jesús at the tomb of his comrade Lazarus. Tío didn’t need to know that the original Greek of the ancient story was far more robust than recent Spanish and English translations. Because Tío was well-acquainted with imperial pain and suffering, he knew full well that Jesús wasn’t just “weeping.” Jesús was snorting like an angry horse. Como un caballo enojado. Tio had something like burning fire shut up in his bones. He was weary from holding it in. Like Jesús, Tío was heartbroken and fucking enraged. Like Jesús, Tío offered prayers and supplications through loud cries and tears to the only Power who could save him from death. Like Jesús, Tío was heard because of his reverence.
Like Jesús, Tío knew that authentic hope—la esperanza—could only go through crucifixion and come out the other side. This is the way it’s always worked. Tío intimately trusted in a Power greater than disease and death. Saturated in steadfast love and solidarity, this Power refuses to be propped up by the counterfeit credentials of governments, celebrities, developers, banks or anything trending on Twitter. Like most Indigenous peoples, these fake fantasies have never an option for Tío. The very existence of principalities and institutions is only threatened by what is original and real. So then, for their own survival, principalities and institutions must crucify what is original and real. It’s so damn predictable.
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Now, four years later, Aden and Tío Tejada were more prepared than ever for the imperial pandemonium of a full-blown pandemic. Everything they’d witnessed and experienced that crucified year of 2016 clarified matters for them. And, yes, a month into this new dispensation in the Spring of 2020, Aden could still clearly see COVID-19. On counters. On clothing. In air droplets. Blowing with the Santa Ana winds through Palm and Eucalyptus trees. Glowing within human bodies.
This so-called superpower was nothing but a burden for Aden. Can you imagine the prospects of a dark-skinned undocumented immigrant diagnosing anyone in South Orange County with COVID-19? The outcomes were obvious: a side-eye, a slap in the face or a sudden death shit show. Aden had long accepted these possibilities in his commitment to prophetic truth-telling, but he had zero interest in trying to save white people who refused to admit they were sick. And Aden had plenty of experience on that front.
Besides, Aden was seeing circumstances far more dangerous than a virus. Like a President willfully negligent with a global pandemic. Denial is a dynamic device, especially when it dramatically ushers in a limited supply of tests, masks, ventilators—and no vaccine in the foreseeable future. Especially for the ultimate conductor of confusion and powerlessness at Presidential press briefings. Especially now that everyone was forced to socially distance and stay-at-home on their screens and play an even more passive role politically. Especially since everyone was in a frenzy to find new forms of entertainment. Aden clearly saw what was coming next.
Aden knew that the most fragile figure in the long-ass history of a country that invented fragility would be making authoritative, conclusive decisions without a whiff of accountability. For more than three years, his sophomoric tweeting, his staged impeachment trial and now his global pandemic would successfully distract the American populace from all his special-interest fuckery performed in clear daylight.
Now the white-collar criminal and crotch-grabbing rapist who is allergic to anything that smacks of empathy was a “war-time President.” Or at least he called himself one.
Now he had a slush fund of stimulus money to gift wrap government contracts for his corporate sponsors and to untie the ribbon regulating them.
Now he could craft an economy in his own image and control a middle-class population begging for a job, any job, just for their family to survive.
Now he could make it harder to vote and make it harder to understand what voters were even voting for.
Now he could conduct his own orchestra consisting of the military, the press, the marketplace, the religious institutions and, yes, democracy itself.
Now he knew he’d be guaranteed the White House for four more years. With so many insane advantages, he would most likely win. If he lost, he’d just lawyer up and refuse to leave.
Now he had his grip on four more years to leverage multi-trillion-dollar budget deficits. First, from the massive tax cuts to the wealthy which he claimed (falsely) would pay for themselves. Next, from the series of stimulus packages that he and Congress were rolling out. When pandemic season is finally over and the national budget blows up like a gigantic baby Donald Trump balloon, he will demand huge cuts to Medicare, Social Security and anything that supports poor and working people. And then he will super-corporatize everything from water to schools to prisons to postal service.
This is not a damn conspiracy.
This is disaster capitalism.
Aden clearly saw it coming.
And he was spreading the word.
Untraceable Super PAC money, red-state voter suppression tactics, racist redistricting and the mass media’s corporate agenda had severely infected democracy. Now it’s on a ventilator. However, Aden’s public service announcement was not a call for despair, cynicism or apathy. It was more like a lamentation from Jesús. The people of his generation could predict the weather by looking at the appearance of the sky, but struggled to interpret the signs of the times. Jesús warned that the only sign they’d be given was the sign of Jonah. Like them, Americans—starting with the most vulnerable—were about to get swallowed up.
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But here’s the thing that readers must know now as we are just starting this adventure. Aden and Tío have never relied on powerful leaders to actually lead them. Powerful leaders couldn’t even see them. And this has made all the difference. They’ve never had any space or time for despair, cynicism or apathy. The need for basic survival rendered these obsolete. However, it also meant that a frontal assault on unjust and oppressive institutions and principalities was simply out of the question. It would be more than just ineffective. It would be suicide.
Surviving a military coup in Honduras as Indigenous people and thriving in an empire as “illegal aliens” have trained Aden and Tío to rely on each other and a network of underground wizards, wonder-workers and total weirdos navigating inhumane conditions who trust in unseen spirits and powers to pull themselves through one more day. Just as Jesús promised his peasant people, Aden and Tío were sent out as sheep among wolves guided and protected by a greater Power. Before the imperial powerbrokers, they were hidden in plain sight. If they were acknowledged at all, they were convenient scapegoats whenever the shit hit the fan. On reservations. In ghettos and barrios. With strange accents, customs and orientations. For centuries on end.
For Aden and Tío, and the vast underground network they were connected to, life has always been a crisis. Donald Trump? A global pandemic? Nothing new. The only possible way to ever compost newness out of this heap of manure was going to be through a network like this organizing around a viral assault on the principalities and institutions.
Collective liberation could be achieved if the guards of the system—middle-class white folks—had a come-to-Jesús moment. A spiritual awakening that would make the miracle of San Pedro at Pentecost look like a living room Zoom church gathering. For the past decade, this is what Aden and Tío had been waiting and hoping and praying and fasting for. As more than 20 million American applied for unemployment, their network of belovedness now had the potential to grow exponentially. Because the guards of the systems were starting to share in the suffering.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and once-upon-a-time Evangelical pastor.
He and his wife, Lindsay, are blending a vocation of “soul accompaniment:” one part
pastoral-counseling, one part spiritual-directing, one part advocating-for-the-most-
marginalized. Tommy is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.Net, book review editor for Geez Magazine and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).