Hope for Honduran Campesinos

Again, this was written for a class. We read the book “Don’t be Afraid Gringo” by Elvia Alvarado and were asked to determine whether Alvarado could make a difference in the lives of the campesinos.

In “Don’t be Afraid Gringo,” Elvia Alvarado describes her efforts to combat the unjust treatment of poor Hondurans through organization of her fellow campesinos. There are many factors opposing her success, ranging from a lack of education to the corruption of the Honduran government, but she also has many supporters who are more than willing help fight for her cause. While their opponents are many, Alvarado and her supporters are certainly capable of reducing the inequality in the lives of campesinos.

Perhaps the greatest opposition Alvarado faces is the corrupt Honduran government. The Agrarian Reform Law was passed in order to return unused land to the campesinos. However, according to Alvarado, “The National Agrarian Institute, INA, is supposed to uphold the law… But that’s not what actually happens. While the 1975 law is a good law on paper, it’s not being put into practice” (68). As a result, the campesinos must take the law into their own hands. Rather than the government identifying unused land and turning it over to the campesinos, the people must find unused land themselves and make an appeal, which involves going through a lengthy legal process that usually results in years of delayed paperwork. When this happens, campesinos resort to performing “land recoveries,” which are always met with brutality from the landowners, who have the advantage of having the military on their side and being able to afford expensive lawyers (82). However, campesinos have strength in numbers. Although they must face military guns with just their machetes, are frequently jailed, and occasionally lose a comrade in the struggle, almost nothing can deter them from the fight. By banding together and refusing to back down, they are frequently able to obtain the land despite the vast odds against them.

Another major factor hindering the success of the campesinos is their lack of education. Whether or not they attend school, they are kept ignorant about their rights. Alvarado laments that even after obtaining a university education, “I’ve had students come to my house to ask me what the Agrarian Reform Law is all about, because they didn’t learn about it in school” (61). Furthermore, the government refuses to provide the campesinos with the proper technical assistance promised by the Agrarian Reform Law so they can farm their own land (77). The major companies insist that campesinos are not intelligent enough to manage a major farming business, yet the only reason why the they cannot manage on their own is because the government impedes any attempt for them to do so. Even if they do finally win land, the campesinos are often unable to farm it because they do not have any information about the land they are farming or the crop they are supposed to be raising. As a result, the land becomes nearly useless, and the campesinos simply go into more debt.

Fortunately, the campesinos do have support from some groups. One supporter of the campesino unions is the Christian Democratic Party, which offers courses that educate the campesinos about how to organize and fight against inequality (61). Some international groups also support the campesino movement, typically by sending boxes of food or clothing. Although Alvarado is insistent that this type of aid will not solve the problem, it does provide temporary relief while the campesinos fight for a more permanent solution. There are also many professionals such as lawyers and doctors who are willing to stand up for the campesinos, to defend and protect them despite the inevitable persecution they will suffer as a result. When this support is coupled with the organization of the campesino unions (at least, the ones that have not been bought out by the government), the campesinos have a force that can truly make a change.

The church is another source of both suppression and support for the campesinos. They were the first ones to begin organizing women, and they provided relatively safe places to meet and organize. For Alvarado, church was where she was taught to stand up for her rights and do something about her problems, and it encouraged her to become a leader and organize other campesinos as well (13). However, the church eventually stopped supporting the groups. Now many of the priests in the Catholic church do not care about the poor and teach that they should simply accept their lot in life, and many Evangelicals preach that it is a sin for campesinos to organize and fight against their oppressors (32). Yet despite such prevalence of false teaching in the church, not all church leaders have been corrupted; some continue to offer their support despite harsh consequences from the government. Furthermore, Alvarado believes that “the story of Christ proves we can make change if we fight hard enough and if we never lose faith in what we’re fighting for” (30). Jesus provides an example to the campesinos of how to fight for the rights of the poor, so they have a constant reminder that no matter what happens to them, they are suffering for a righteous cause, just as Jesus did. This gives the campesinos – and especially Alvarado – an incomparable amount of endurance, which in turn significantly increases their chance of success.

A different aspect of inequality in Alvarado’s life is that of gender inequality. For the most part, women are expected to stay in the house all day grinding corn and caring for children. They are generally viewed as unintelligent and only good for having babies, and men have the right to do anything they want to them. Furthermore, because there are so few jobs, men cannot find work and resort to drinking instead. Any money they might manage to make is squandered with drinks, then they frequently beat their wives when they return home (52). Unfortunately, this is the socially accepted standard way of life, so these problems are typically ignored. One of the greatest challenges Alvarado has with the male union leaders is that “they often don’t want their own wives to participate. They talk a good line about ‘the role of women,’ but when it comes to their women – well, that’s a different story” (90). However, the fact that these same men have great respect for Alvarado and are willing to work with her demonstrates that the situation is gradually beginning to change. With more and more women like Alvarado rising into leadership positions in the campesino unions, men are beginning gain a respect for women. And as men begin to have more respect for women, they will begin to treat women with more respect as well.

On her own, there is almost nothing Alvarado can do to lessen the inequality in her life. There are simply too many forces against her – the government, the landowners, and even the fact that she is a woman. However, this does not mean that there cannot be change. Elvia Alvarado is not alone in her struggle. She is united with her fellow campesinos through the unions, and their strength in numbers is powerful. The campesinos are anxious for change, and they are willing to work together to make it happen. They have nothing to lose, so there is nothing stopping them from fighting for their rights until they have finally won.