By Marjorie Miller
Before becoming a journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto studied dance with the great Merce Cunningham. In a post for The New Yorker in 2009, she recalled a birthday dinner he once threw for himself with pedestrian food served on paper plates in his shabby, rented loft. She saw those as signs, not of self-denial, but of a man “who woke up every morning, every day of his long, productive life, focused on nothing but making the best dance possible that day.” Guillermoprieto found his lack of interest in anything but work astonishing, yet that kind of intense focus also describes Guillermoprieto’s own decades-long career writing the illuminating newspaper and magazine articles and books on Latin America for which she has been honored with this year’s IWMF’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Guillermoprieto, 60, is hardly the ascetic her mentor seems to have been. Though she spends much of her time on the road, reporting throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, she also routinely returns to a Mexican village home of her own. She has a dramatic sense of style that makes its appearance in bob haircuts or a blood-red rebozo, worn to deliver a lecture on Mexico’s conflicted history and sense of identity. Above all, she has a beautiful writing style that exposes her intimate appreciation for the variegated pleasures and unbearable pain that makes up the texture of life.
Whether she is telling us about civil wars, drug wars, culture wars or just about the rich culture and politics of Latin America, Guillermoprieto writes with deep knowledge and exquisite detail. Take this description of Cuban President Fidel Castro, again for The New Yorker, as he handed power to his brother in 2008 after nearly a half century in office: “So he leaves the field: Fidel Castro Ruz, son of a wealthy Spanish plantation owner and a Cuban washerwoman; rowdy street fighter and student leader; unstoppably audacious politician; revolutionary icon of the lordly profile; self-invented tropical socialist; epic enemy of the United States.”
Or this description of graceless, sprawling Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where she wrote in 2003 about the unsolved murders of more than a hundred women (many more were killed subsequently) in a city of assembly plant workers who had arrived from other parts of Mexico: “The uprooted immigrants live in sullen shantytowns—where a high number of households are presided over by unmarried, divorced, or abandoned women—and seem to have lost the essential inner compass that points back home.”
The needle of Guillermoprieto’s compass, by contrast, always pointed back to Latin America. Born in Mexico and raised in New York during her teenage years, she is truly bilingual and bicultural. She studied modern dance with Cunningham and Martha Graham before turning to reporting in the 1970s, first for The Guardian of Britain, and then for The Washington Post. She began covering the civil wars of Central America in the 1980s and when many of her correspondent colleagues began hopping from continent to continent afterwards, she remained in her native land.
“I wanted to stay in Latin America to understand it and myself,” Guillermoprieto said. “I’ve been in the unusual position, and privileged among Latin American writers, in that I speak English well enough to address a foreign audience. I can explain Latin America from a Latin American point of view to a U.S. audience.” And she has.
Guillermoprieto first made her mark in journalism 1982 when she and New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner risked their lives to break the story of a massacre of 1,000 villagers at El Mozote, in El Salvador’s Morazan Province, by elite, U.S-trained army forces. The reports were denied and denounced by officials in the administration of then President Ronald Reagan, who also tried to discredit the reporters. But officials eventually were forced to acknowledge the slaughter, details of which were confirmed many years later when the mass graves were unearthed.
Guillermoprieto reports long and hard and when she sits down to write, that’s all she does. She has written about Argentina’s “dirty war,” the Shining Path rebels in Peru, the civil war and drug trafficking in Columbia, and more recently, the drug wars in Mexico. Almost always, she has focused not on policy, but on the foot soldiers, consumers and victims of these wars, which are themselves the results of someone’s policy.
“I’ve tried over and over to show how helpless people are who grow cocaine, for example, how few alternatives they have and how it is a failure of the war on change. I never go to the U.S. embassy or talk to DEA (the Drug Enforcement Administration) because I think it is a failed policy of trying to wage war. Instead, I try to write about the little, hired teen killers and their point of view. It has been my role to do this.”
She writes with equal comfort about macho politicians, the populist caudillo politics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, gay marriage, samba dancing, soap operas, the impoverished favelas of Brazil, Mexican film, religion and so many more threads of Latin American society that weave together so naturally in her hands.
“I am interested in how Latin American societies modernize and deal with modernization through consumerism, instead of having a stake in society. Another concern of mine is religion. I’m interested in what people believe in and what they look to for strength. The natural inclination in any society is to look at what they don’t understand about another society as bizarre and grotesque. For example, these new cults related to the drug war, Santa Muerte and Saint Judas seem so grotesque. But I am interested in how people are looking to faiths for sustenance, and how more traditional faiths have not been able to provide succor for them,” she said.
“I take things that seem exotic or folkloric, like mariachis, and look at how they are trying to find their place in a changing society, how they feel lost in the process of modernization,” she said.
Guillermoprieto has largely done this work on her own. She briefly served as the South America bureau chief for Newsweek, but found a news magazine too confining, so has worked as a freelancer since the 1990s. “I think I really needed to have the freedom to write the things that I think are most important and most of the time that isn’t news. I like to take my time and chew things over and look at what happens after the news. That was very hard to do as a staffer at a news magazine.”
In addition to writing for The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and several Spanish-language publications, she has written several books including The Heart That Bleeds: Latin American Now; Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America; Samba; and And Dancing with Cuba: A memoir of Revolution. She has received MacArthur and Neiman fellowships and a George Polk Award for a series of articles about Columbia. As one of the foremost experts on Latin American culture, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003.
“If you want to understand what’s happened in Latin America over the last 30 years, if you want to feel what it was like or see what it has to do with you, you simply have to read Alma Guillermoprieto,” said Philip Bennett, former Managing Editor of The Washington Post and a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University.
“Like Latin America, Alma’s work is hard to define. It describes horrifying violence, poverty and injustice; yet her stories are also funny, filled with the vitality of everyday life and, even at its darkest, with discreet rays of optimism. Her exploration of power and culture – their limits and possibilities – sees through stereotypes; in her world, miners, musicians, presidents and guerrillas shape history as real people do. She is an original voice whose place is secure in a tradition of journalism from Crane to Orwell to Agee and Halberstam.”
Alma Guilllermoprieto is the second IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award winner from Mexico, following Elena Poniatowska (2006).
- Lifetime Achievement Award Awardee, 2010