Before we moved into the Nicaraguan war zone, the group we were with, Witness for Peace, trained us for our jobs, which was, put simply, to get in the way of Reagan’s illegal Contra army. Wherever there were gringos, the Contra didn’t attack. That would make for bad press: If Ronald’s boys ended up killing a U.S. citizen, his campaign to overthrow Nicaragua’s government might end.
We were a mixed lot–mostly white people, with a few Latinos, all of us from the U.S. The trainers put us into a bus with Nicaraguans who worked for our group. They were taking us to a restaurant that served up the best tamales.
The driver took us out of the city. Fewer people walked by. Then, there was no one, just our bus on a lonely dirt road in the woods. We got quiet. The driver said we were close, and talked up the tamales.
Armed men came out of the woods. They wore kerchiefs over their faces, with only their eyes showing. They stopped the bus, surrounded it and aimed their rifles at us. They yelled and whipped their arms through the air to rustle us out, and made us put our hands on our heads.
One called out that there were gringos on board. The leader cursed and said to weed them out. Take the gringos to one area of the woods, the fucking Nicas to another.
They started weeding. They took Jim and Mary and Hank and Michelle and Bert and all the other white members. The soldiers spoke softly to them, and promised to take them to a safe place.
A soldier snatched my arm as though to break it off my shoulder. He shoved me along with the Nicaraguans. They took us to another place in the woods. I said I was a U.S. citizen. They ignored me. Michelle, in the distance, pleaded for them to let me go, that I was her husband. They ignored her.
They marched us into a dark corner of the woods. A soldier walked straight at me while pulling a pistol out of his belt. He raised it to my head, squeezed the trigger of the fake gun–click–and said, in English, “Bang. You’re dead.”
The actors took off their kerchiefs. This was a simulation, to prepare us for what to do if the Contra found us. We should have clung together, in a tight cluster, gringos and Nicas all knotted up. We should never let go.
Michelle didn’t hear it. She sat next to me, held my hand, shook. According to the actors, they had mistaken me for a middle class, light skinned, bourgeois Nicaraguan.
In the war zone, our trainers said it was possible they’d make the same mistake. “So, stay close to Michelle.”
I was scared, yes. But, something else was in me, something I’ve never written about. I haven’t even told my wife. I considered the notion–that I could die, for being Latino.
I was thrilled.
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