Madre de los Desaparecidos

Published 2007-02-05

Seen in a distant land: a middle-aged woman holding a signboard with photos of her (presumably) two adult children, a daughter and a son. Only God, and a few Party officials, know what they have done. Snooped where they shouldn’t have snooped, took a picture of something forbidden, asked that prisoners be fed or peasant laborers be paid. Or perhaps something less noble: purse-snatchings or muggings or running drugs out of a neighboring country. Or maybe they were starting a business but lacked the Party connections of their rivals. For an unpopular person, all such crimes might have the same punishment. Then: doors felled late at night, bags over heads, camps in provinces where foreigners are forbidden to tread. And Mom at the gate in front of the City Center with a signboard.

There are no judges or lawyers in that country. Bureaucracies have Party appointees. A person without favorable Party connections might find himself without a driver’s license, or a travel permit, or a permit to own a telephone. Death by a thousand paper cuts.

The foreigner in that country lives a daily ritual of oblivion. He eats the exciting food and learns the language and rides the rickety public transit and writes funny missives to friends Back Home. He makes sweeping generalizations about the people: they talk excitedly or are quick to smile or make fun of his use of the the language. He does not consider that these wonderful people live always under that shadow. Then, one day, when jogging past the City Center, he sees una madre de los desaparecidos, with her signboard and vacant eyes.

And he thinks: Thank God this isn’t happening Back Home.