A harrowing memoir of life in the Central American killing fields. Born in Appalachia to a Salvadoran mother, novelist Villatoro grew up with stories of entire villages rounded up and slaughtered by government soldiers, and of brutal dictators who sent photographs of their victims as greeting cards with the caption Feliz Matanza—``happy massacre.'' Determined to see whether this world still existed and to explore his Latino heritage, Villatoro traveled to Guatemala as a member of the social-service organization Witness for Peace. He quickly set himself apart from those he calls ``missioners,'' settling into a tiny, isolated village and embracing the people's causes as his own, becoming increasingly critical of the right-wing government in faraway Guatemala City. Along the way he becomes something of an expert in bicycle repair (bicycles being the vehicle of choice in the mountainous countryside) and in coping with the endless grief that surrounds him: Children die of malnutrition, adults of government bullets, nuns are raped, precious crops seized by the government. The world of his mother's tales is still there, Villatoro writes, in all its murderous reality, and this book, recounting the period from 1989 to 1991—long after our government proclaimed that democracy had taken root in Guatemala—is a furious, stunning indictment not only of the brutality of a banana-republic dictatorship, but also of the unwitting complicity of those who are willing to look the other way when that brutality asserts itself. ``The Guatemalan army,'' he writes, ``is famous for not confronting the guerrillas,'' contenting itself with ``burning down whole villages and slaughtering groups of people at a time. Meanwhile, we complain about our refrigerator and how hard life is without electricity.'' Villatoro returned from Guatemala suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and writing this powerful book must have been therapeutic. Its readers, however, will rightly be horrified.
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