The Pageant

“Spain cannot be blamed for the crassness of the discoverers.”

      —William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain



A man I love says, Why do you worry about where you come from? You’re here. Is that not enough?



Bananas ripen to a bloom like a black cloud.



Mestizo comes from the Latin mixticus. A mix a mix a mix. Say mixticus six times while looking in the mirror. If you have at least one foot in the Americas, you will conjure up un conquistador noble y su indio salvaje y inocente. White hand clasping brown hand.



The 16th century indigenous chieftain, Lempira, is today renowned for leading the (unsuccessful) rebellion against the conquistadors in Honduras.



In the language of the Lencas, Lempira means “Lord of the cows” or “Lord of the grass.”



In the 1980s, two Honduran lempiras were worth the equivalent of one US dollar; today the exchange rate is twenty-four HNL for one dollar.



Lempiras folded into tiny squares nestled in my tiny hand for a trip to the corner store. In the suburbs, the loamy smell creates a palimpsest.



Honduras is not a plantation. To be a plantation, one requires a crop, workers, and overseers. But if the workers were Black in a country that had no Blacks, if that thought rendered the worker invisible, well then, who were these people before our very eyes, ingloriously sweating their singing?



Alfonso Guillen Zelaya, my second cousin three times removed, is, according to Wikipedia, “the greatest Honduran poet and intellectual in history.” He was also a journalist, my family said, contra el imperialismo. I was told he was exiled to Mexico in 1933 by the tyrant Tiburcio Carias Andino. But the history books say Zelaya, with his American-born wife, left of his own accord.



Until 1931, the Honduran currency was the peso. At least twenty-two countries, past and present, have used the peso as currency. Peso, in Spanish, means “weight.”



During a several-months-long rebellion in 1537, in which Lempira led 30,000 men, he was lured out by the Spanish who were offering to negotiate a ceasefire. History says that Lempira was ambushed and shot by the Spanish, and it is this sequence—a request for peace, an ambush, and a murder—that the school children of Honduras act out year after year on July 20th, Lempira Day.



My dad—who reminded me of Harry Belafonte, of Sydney Poitier—fed his melancholic nostalgia during my childhood, wallpapering our atmosphere with Motown. He told me this after heart surgery. They picked me, he said laughing. One year, I was the Spaniard. The one who shot Lempira through the heart.



Memories stick like breadcrumbs in my throat.



Zelaya’s poetry in Spanish is melodic but also didactic and pastoral. Zelaya’s poetry idealizes nature as a way of simplifying and cleansing a land and its people of complexity.  The poems say, Honduras is not a plantation. The poems watch the land buckle under the weight of her masters.


In a poem translated by William Carlos Williams, the voice says:


Lord, I ask a garden in a quiet spot

Where there may be a brook with a good flow

A humble little house covered with bell-flowers

And a wife and a son who shall resemble Thee.


What does God look like?



My hair was straight once, inky blue-black strands, each a representation of logic and perfection. I looked more like Lempira then.



It is said that el indio Lempira died in an ambush. And it is this ambush and subsequent death that the children of Honduras have acted out every year in hundreds of schools across the country since the 1930s. One eyewitness account, written in 1558 by Rodrigo Ruiz, a Spanish national in service to the Crown, states that Lempira died in battle. This account was discovered in the 1980s, and yet the pageant continues. Lempira is tricked into this death. Lempira the guileless martyr, símbolo heroico de la patria.



You have a beautiful nose, my father would tell me, with thumb and index finger lightly rubbing then pinching his nostrils. It’s so narrow. I don’t understand what it is to love or not to love a nose.



In 1926, as the government debates naming the currency after Lempira, a leaflet is distributed among workers calling for the sons of the invincible Lempira to defend the “land of Columbus” against Yankees and Blacks.


The poet Zelaya and other Honduran intellectuals support the measure to raise Lempira’s symbolic profile. Prior to the mid-1920s, no image of Lempira existed.



The man hovers over the uncomprehending girl-child, lamenting his own features, like monstrous stamps—his nose, the unconscious touch of the lips to measure their fullness. “My woolly hair, my woolly hair.”



Someone said the word miscegenation today.



The last time I visited Lempira’s entry in Wikipedia, like an afterthought, in the description of circumstances behind his death, a line I’d never seen before: “The Spanish then ate his corpse in disrespect.” What a fitting symbol of el mestizaje in Honduras. Europe, like Saturn, devouring us like little children.



My baby doll diapered. Brown eyes that click shut when you lay her down. Hair so soft, so effortlessly curly. A dark cloud unseen in the sky.



No matter how many bananas were harvested, more were needed. Bunch after bunch into the cold bellies of ships ready to set sail for far-off places. The hunger was endless. The ships filled the small port of La Ceiba. The ships would leave, empty the port, only to be replaced by newer, larger, and emptier vessels. All this rotation, under the hum of workers, from sea to field, year after year.



Until one day, just like that, the replacement ships began to dwindle and then just stopped coming. The harvested bananas had nowhere to go. The field workers filled the wheelbarrows until there were no more barrows to fill. The fruit hung heavy, not just in the trees, but in the air.



There is such a thing as too much sweet.