BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Alma Guillermoprieto, what is "Looking for History" all about?
Ms. ALMA GUILLERMOPRIETO, AUTHOR, "LOOKING FOR HISTORY:" It's a book of essays that I've written over
the last six years about the countries that matter most to me, and
also the countries that the United States is deeply involved in, or
has been deeply involved with or is about to become deeply enmeshed
with. Essentially, that's what it is.
LAMB: What's the derivation or the origin of Guillermoprieto?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: My great-great-great--I may be missing a great
there--grandfather was called Guillermo Prieto, and he was a very
popular poet in his day, and a journalist and a member of President
Juarez's Cabinet. And he saved Juarez's life once, w--which is what
all the schoolchildren learn. He threw himself in front of the firing
squad and said (Spanish spoken), `Brave people don't assassinate.' And
so the soldiers, being romantics themselves, listened to this and
didn't assassinate Juarez.
LAMB: And--and when was this?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: This was in 1857. And ever since then, some of
the family has carried his first and last name as our last name. It's
cumbersome. It wasn't my idea, but...
LAMB: Where were you born?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I was born in Mexico City.
LAMB: And why is it you speak almost perfect English?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because when I was six years old, I was taken
to Los Angeles, and I spent the next five years living there as a
little girl. And then we returned, my mother and I, to Mexico, and I
lived there until I went to live in New York. So, you know, I always
say that I'm a Mexican, but if I had to be a citizen of anywhere else,
I'd be a citizen of Manhattan. I--I feel very much a New Yorker.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I went to school at a school that doesn't exist
anymore. It was called the Walden School, so you can guess a lot of
things from it by the name, right? We were allowed to smoke in the
classroom. We all wore blue jeans and sandals. We...
LAMB: Where was it?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: It was right off Central Park West, on the
Upper West Side. And it was, you know, the ultimate kind of model for
the progressive school. I was very happy there.
LAMB: And what--what--was that your college or your high school?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That was my high school. And then because
partly, I think, this was such a progressive place, you know, I didn't
go to college. I couldn't be bothered with that. So I didn't go to
LAMB: Why did you get into writing?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because--because I was lucky. Because I was
really lucky. A friend of my mother's--an old friend of my mother's
had a publication about Latin America in London. It was w--well-known
and well-regarded, the Latin American Newsletters. And when all hell
broke loose in Nicaragua, nobody knew where Nicaragua was, nobody knew
how to pronounce that, nobody knew how to spell that. And I happened
to speak English, and I happened to know John Retty, who was the
editor of Latin American Newsletters, and he said would I go. And I
said, `Of course.' And that's how it started. And the next day, I was
writing for The Guardian for the very same reason. Nobody in London
at The Guardian had any correspondent anywhere near Nicaragua. And
from there, it was The Washington Post. I spent four years in Central
America covering the various conflicts there.
LAMB: Are you an opinionist or are you a journalist?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I'm a writer. I'm a writer who does a lot of
reporting. I really learned the trade, first at The Guardian, but a
lot at The Washington Post. You know, I--I--I covered the Central
America beat for The Post as a stringer, and then I came up there, I
worked on the Metro desk. I--I learned the--the sort of tools of
reporting. I'm an efficient, good, professional reporter. But I also
write. And so what I try to do is write about places that I know that
I care about intensely and write about them in a way that conveys the
fact that I care. I--I don't pretend to write a report, you know,
I--I write an essay, I write something that--that has cost me some
emotion and that I hope will transmit some emotion. But I write it
with the facts.
LAMB: This book has a number of articles in from the past that you've
written. Where were they originally published?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: About half of them come out of The New Yorker,
which is the place that I have written most for over the last 10
years. And about half of them come from The New York Review of Books,
which is another publication that I feel very great admiration for. I
feel very lucky to write for both of them. And they are both
publications that will let a writer kind of run with a topic, and
that's a lot of fun. And I hope it's fun for the reader as well.
LAMB: I want to pull a name out of the middle of your book that I
wanted to ask you about, because it seemed to have a lot of personal
background. Is it Alaide (pronounced ah-laid) Foppa (pronounced
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Alaide (pronounced Ah-ly-ee-day) Foppa
(pronounced fah-pah). Alaide Foppa.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: It was--that was close, that was good, yes.
LAMB: What--who was she, or who is she?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, where to start. Alaide Foppa was one of
the founders of the feminist movement in Mexico. She was also a--a
very well-brought-up and genteel lady who was born in Argentina and
then, I think, arrived in Guatemala at a very early age and then had
to move to Mexico when there was a coup against the president of
Guatemala that was sponsored by the CIA back in 1954. You may
remember that. And she was also a very good friend of my mother's,
again. And she then became very influenced perhaps by her
revolutionary children, her--her two sons and her two daughters. And
when her sons were--one was kidnapped and the other was murdered in
Guatemala--they had joined the guerrilla movement in Guatemala--she
felt the need to go down as a courier apparently with some letters.
And she was also captured by the government, and she became one of
those people who were classified as disappeared. Do you know what
that means? That means when you're never heard from again. And so
she was never heard from again. She was in her 60s. And it was a
very strange and awful destiny for someone like that to meet. So,
yeah, I--I think about her from time to time.
LAMB: How much of that goes on in Latin America today?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think that one of the things that we can
really all feel very happy about is that the human rights situation in
Latin America has improved enormously over the last 10 years,
enormously, enormously. But the level or horror that some of us had
to cover as reporters working in Latin America was pretty hard to
describe at points. And it has changed. There is a difference,
largely thanks to human rights activists in this country and in Europe
who put pressure on governments and--and made them see that it was not
in their best interest to go around murdering people recklessly and
And, of course, the situation has improved fo--for us, for the
journalists as well. The c--Committee to Protect Journalists has been
very effective, also, in lobbying in that same way. You know,
journalists are not getting killed in quite the same way they were 10
years ago. That's way down. Colombia is one of the countries which
is still a problem for journalists.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite of all your essays?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: You--you know, I'm kind of fond of the story I
wrote about Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II when the pope goes to
visit Fidel in Havana. That happened, I guess, in January two years
ago, was it? It's hard--no, it must have been three years ago because
I'll tell you what happened in the course of that visit. It was
supposed to be a kind of triumphal moment for Fidel. He had
orchestrated very much to call the world's attention to Cuba, to its
plight and to the pope's declaration against the US economic embargo
of Cuba. And thousands of journalists went down to Cuba for that
meeting. And do you remember what happened?
LAMB: I do, very much, yeah.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Monica Lewinsky happened.
LAMB: Right in the middle.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And everybody left Cuba, and Fidel was left
alone with the co--the pope, which was good company, but I don't think
it was quite what he expected. Anyway, that story was written with
that visit as the central point, but it was also the occasion--the
opportunity for me to go back to a place that I knew relatively well
and hadn't been back to for many years. And--and so it is a little
bit of a walk down memory lane, the--the revolutionary Cuba I
remembered, the sad, dismal place I saw, the perplexity of Cubans
themselves about their own future, about what their leader was doing
with this man, this Catholic, when they had been brought up to believe
that all religion was a form of evil. It was an interesting moment.
It was very interesting for me. I had a good time there, despite
myself. And I enjoyed writing about it. So I--I'm fond of that
LAMB: What has been Fidel Castro's impact on the people of Cuba?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh. Well, whenever anybody is in power for 40
years, the impact i--is--is so--it--it takes place on so many levels.
You know, it's an impact on how you say good morning in school to the
teacher. It's an impact on how you stand in line for your rations for
40 years, week after week, to get the groceries that you will eat.
It's an impact on how you see your s--place in the world as well.
I--I think that for so many Cubans, Fidel was a source of--of pride in
being Cuban, certainly during the first 10 years of the revolution;
perhaps even during the first 20. You know, if you were a Cuba, you
were somebody. You weren't some Honduran lost in the middle of
history without a role to play. You might be in a very small island,
in a very small country, but you were a challenge to the greatest
power in the world. You could feel proud of that. I think that had
But then, you know, it's 20 years, and then it's 30, and then it's 40,
and my God, you're still standing in line for rations and you still
can't get enough soap or toilet paper, and your whole life has been
spent under the revolution. I think that the temptation to feel that
your entire life has been wasted must be very great for a lot of
LAMB: Why have--I don't know what modifier I want to use--but let's
say so many American journalists have gone down there over the years
and fallen in love with Fidel Castro?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because he is enormously charismatic. I mean,
we all know better than to fall in love, but we all fall in love. He
was a very beautiful man physically. He had enormous presence, he had
enormous command. He had these, you know, beautiful hands that he
gestured with. He had that funny, silvery, papery voice that didn't
seem threatening. And he was speaking for truth and justice. I mean,
you know, what could be wrong with that?
LAMB: Was he?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He certainly thought so.
LAMB: Do you think he was?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, I think he was speaking for truth and
justice. The only problem is, he didn't know how to bring it about.
And I think that he committed a mistake that is not his alone. I
think in Latin America over the centuries, we have had an enormous
fondness and weakness for heroes, the kind of hero who gets killed,
the kind of hero who is willing to give his life for a cause. And
that's the only kind of people we trust. And Fidel showed that he was
willing to give his life for a cause and that--to that degree, he--he
was absolute and he was absolutely sincere. And that's our--our
weakness. I--now, you know, as I get older, I tend to like the kind
of small hero much more. I keep saying th--the one who works out
sewage problems; the one who thinks about how to improve the fat
content in milk and get it distributed on time. But that's not very
LAMB: Let me ask you about some of the other people you write about.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, another charismatic leader.
LAMB: Where--where is he?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: S--see, we're very good at producing this kind
of person. He's back in Chiapas. I think he's probably back in
Chiapas trying to figure out his fate.
LAMB: Where is Chiapas?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Chiapas is in the southernmost part of Mexico.
And Mexico, as you travel down it from the US border, gets
progressively more beautiful and progressively poorer. And Chiapas is
about as beautiful and as poor as you can get. It has very high
hills, not quite mountains. It has great big rivers. It produces
some very significant portion of the national electricity in its dams.
And it has, I think, the largest population of indigenous people in
Mexico, the Maya Indians and--and their various language groups.
There's seven, eight, nine language--Maya language groups spoken in
And it was here that seven years ago, Subcomandante Marcos became
known because he led this great Indian rebellion that--it was the shot
that was not heard around the world, or the unshot that was heard
around the world, because there really wasn't much of a battle, even
though they called themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
They didn't have guns. They didn't know how to take on the army. And
so there was a cease-fire 12 days after that small battle began and
ended, and ever since then for the last six or seven years, I think
Subcomandante Marcos and his community of rebels have been trying to
figure out what comes next.
LAMB: Have you met him, by the way?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, yes, I talked to him at great length--at
great length one evening, at greater length than I might have liked,
because I was falling asleep by the end of it because...
LAMB: Wh--where did you do this?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: ...I don't have his capacity to stay awake all
night. This was in--about seven hours further south from San
Cristobal, which is a very beautiful town that is sort of the center
for these Maya communities. It was in a place--it wasn't La Ralidad,
which is where he tends to hang out lately. Where was it? It was
called Prado Paqial. It was just a very, very small village and it
had a school building. And what was really sad about that school
building is that it wasn't occupied by students because there were
never any teachers for these kids who--who lived in about as great a
misery as you can find in Latin America.
I remember very clearly--we spent two days there--I spent almost three
days there waiting for Subcomandante Marcos to show up, much the same
way one waits for Fidel to show up for the interview; it never
happens. But in his case, Marcos showed up. He showed up at 1:00 in
LAMB: How old is he?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He must be 42 now, so seven years ago, he was
in his mid-30s. Yeah, he was a youngish guy.
LAMB: What's he like?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He's--well, I can't tell you what he looks like
because, of course, he wears this ski mask over his head and his face
all the time. And so all you can see are his eyes, which happen to be
very beautiful. I--I'm sure he knows that and so, you
LAMB: Why does he wear the mask?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, if they weren't so beautiful, maybe he'd
wear the mask around his mouth, you know. But he wears it around the
eyes to set off these eyes, which are nice, and so that nobody would
recognize him and place him. Why didn't he want anybody to recognize
him or place him? It now occurs to me that probably because if he
were recognized and placed by the intelligence services, then he would
be placed in the middle of a very traditional orthodox guerrilla
movement that existed in Mexico from 19--from the mid-'70s on and
which the Zapatista National Liberation Army grew out of. And I think
probably Marcos realized that this would not generate more sympathy
for the Maya cause, but would rather make people a little distrustful
of him. So he covered up his identity with a mask. And, anyway, we
love masks, you know, because it's theatrical.
LAMB: So how important is he to Mexico?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think he was very important. I think that
when he first stepped out of--to the front of this movement and said
this is why we're fighting and this is who we are and you, the rest of
Mexicans, have been acting as if we were a rich and powerful country
and you've been going on a spending spree and you've been flirting
with the First World. But here we are, and we're dirt poor and this
is a dirt-poor country. And there is 10 million of us Indians and you
are not paying attention. I think that was terribly important for
Mexico to hear. I think he did something quite wonderful, in a way.
LAMB: What's he doing now?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He's trying to figure out how not to fade from
the limelight. You know, Mexicans felt very good about saying, yes,
we have an Indian population. Yes, we love you. Yes, we want to
support you. Yes, we will come out on the streets and march for you
and we don't want you killed. But, again, it's this problem of time.
And I think it's also a problem of our increasingly shorter attention
spans. You know, one, two, three, four, five years go by and then
Marcos gets a little boring. And, well, we've heard enough about the
Indians already; let's change the subject. And so now that he had his
very important visit to Mexico City after seven years of hiding in
this little village in--in the former Lacondon jungle and addressing
LAMB: Did he take his mask off?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: No. And--and he didn't address Congress. One
of the militant women from the Zapatistas addressed Congress. And it
was a very powerful and moving speech.
LAMB: When did he do this?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: This was two months--this was in February. It
was towards the end of February that they came to Mexico City. And
then two weeks later, I think, they were all exhausted by this monster
that ex--exhausts and devours us all, a city of 20 million people.
They were fading from the first page, from the front page of the
newspapers even then. And they decided to go back to Chiapas.
And--and that's where they are now. I think there will be peace
negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government, and I think
the outcome will be of some benefit to the Maya communities. It won't
solve all the problems. They're very difficult problems. And then
what happens to Marcos, I don't know. It's a good question. He
writes very well. Maybe he'll become a reporter.
LAMB: I--I want to ask you about a couple of statistics. I--I think
I read that you said there are about 95 million people in Mexico.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's right. Close to 100 million, according
to the latest census.
LAMB: And about 45 million of them are poverty-stricken, if that's
the word, but they're...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They fall below the official poverty level by
Mexican standards, which are not US standards. What does that mean,
you want to know?
LAMB: Well, the--one more statistic. I think I probably read this
wrong. That only 3 million people pay taxes?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Only--let's see, you do the math for me. If
only 10 percent after many years of trying to reform taxes--at this
stage, according to the latest report, which was put out by the
Mexican government early this year, 10 percent of the entire
population, their taxes cover the entire government
LAMB: So that's 10 million people.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's 10 million people. That sounds high to
LAMB: Yeah, because there is a statistic where you said they've gone
from 2 to 3 million people who paid all the taxes.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah, I remember that. And that was about
seven years ago, so it seems high to me that it would have gone up by
so much. It may be that the figure of 10 percent includes the
value-added tax. I think that's probably what accounts for that.
LAMB: And everybody pays that.
(Graphic on screen)
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Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And--and--well, everybody who can afford a
certain kind of manufacturing products pays that.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: So the s--the--no matter how you balance it
out, the figure is still very, very small. A very large country with
very poor people with a government on a very small budget.
LAMB: W--if--if you're meeting an American for the first time and you
sense early on that they know nothing about Mexico--and how often does
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, every time I come to this country, there's
one or two.
LAMB: But you--you sense that they want to know?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Mm-hmm. What do I...
LAMB: What do you tell them about Mexico that they should know? I
mean, right up front?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, well, I tell them that we don't have a
military regime, which a lot of people seem to think that we do. I
tell them that we just have had elections last year and that for the
first time in more than 70 years, there is a president who is not from
the official party. There is--the official party is now in
opposition. I tell them that we watch a lot of TV and a lot of US
programming, and that we're probably more familiar with the United
States than most people in the United States are with us. You know,
we wear Nikes and Gap and go to Hollywood movies and eat at McDonald's
and get our cars fixed at something--this is all after NAFTA--I always
LAMB: Midas muffler.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Midas muffler. That's where we go. So I think
we know a lot more about this culture. And, of course, millions of us
cross the border to work in US homes and gardens and factories and
carpentry shops and restaurants, and if you go to a restaurant pretty
much anywhere in the United States, the chances are that the dishes
will be washed by a Mexican. So...
LAMB: You--do--you write a lot about other places besides Mexico. We
can come back to Mexico, but you've got some--again, some personal
stories. You--you lead off the book with, I guess you would say, Eva
(pronounced Ava) Peron, Eva (pronounced Eva) Peron...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Evita.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes.
LAMB: Why do you lead your book off with Eva...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Actually, that was just chronology. Is it? Am
I--am I right?
LAMB: Little Eva?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. No, I--she was something, wasn't she?
LAMB: Who was she?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: She was something. She was a self-made woman.
And I think that a large part of her attraction is that she invented
herself. And we're always very admiring of and maybe even jealous of
women who invent themselves, who go from brunette to blonde, as she
did; who go from dirt poor back in the sticks, a country girl, to gold
lame, you know, on the arm of some tuxedoed person in France. She's
at a cocktail reception in France in that gold lame dress.
LAMB: That's not Juan Peron?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's not Juan Peron? No, it's not, no. It's
her escort for the evening i--in France somewhere. She--she was the
most influential woman in Latin America, probably, and she was the
wife of Juan Peron, who rose to power in Argentina in the '40s and
became the--the first of the great populists of Argentina.
LAMB: And you tell us that she died on July the 26th, 1952, and she
was 33 years old.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Mm-hmm. And like...
LAMB: And she was all that and only 33?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And only 33. And she didn't even start until
she was 19, which is when she first met Juan Peron. She was in a
hurry. I think that like so many of our heroes, she courted death.
Eventually she knew she was going to die when she found out that she
had cancer. She didn't want to have an operation because she said she
was too busy. And when she died, of course, she became a myth,
because if you're going to be a myth or want to be a myth, you'd
better die young. And she did. And she was beautiful. She was
young. She was powerful. And she had the kind of personality that
really projects itself into history. She took, you know,
lice-infested young street children back to the presidential palace
with her and bathed them herself. She would take off her diamonds and
give them to poor people. She would also, at a reception with very
wealthy people full of diamonds, would hint that she very much would
like the diamond necklace that one of the guests was wearing. So it
worked both ways.
But she was intense. She--she was fully alive. And so I think she
became one of the great myths--well, we know she became one of the
great myths. Madonna was besotted with her and fought hard to play
her in the movie. So I--I think one of the things that we do is
produce heroes, not only for our own consumption, but certainly for
world consumption. El Chez was a world figure, you know. El Chez is
still being worn on T-shirts around the world. And--and he's become a
sort of logo.
LAMB: But at the end of your piece on Eva Peron, y--you write about
Juan Peron's second wife. And, first of all, how long was he--how
long was he in power in Argentina?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, let's see. He's overthrown in '44, and
then he--God, I'm so bad on dates. You shouldn't ask me this, because
I always get the dates backwards.
LAMB: But it doesn't matter so much. He came back again, though.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, he came back again 20 years later. He
came back in 1973. I think he's deposed the last time in 1954, and he
comes back in 1973. So that's almost 20 years. And the--by then,
Eva, of course, is long gone--long dead. She died while he was still
in power, and he was overthrown shortly thereafter, partly because she
gave him the energy that he needed to--to stay in power and to fend
off the plots and counterplots. And when he came back, he was married
for a second time, yes, to Isabelita.
LAMB: But in that--midst of all that, what I want you to talk about
is what they did with the Peron--Eva Peron's body.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They preserved it. Juan Peron had a very
famous embalmer brought in from--from Spain. And the body apparently
was a masterpiece of embalming. The--the hair--well, what happened
immediately before Eva died, you have to remember, is that she decided
that red nails would not look good on a corpse, and so at the very
last minute, she asked to have her red manicure changed to a natural
manicure, which she felt would just be more tasteful. And she was
right, of course. And then she was embalmed. She was beautifully
combed. Her hair was bleached one last time and combed. And she was
preserved. And then the body--after Peron was overthrown, the body
got taken to Europe.
And the--the great authority on this is Tomas Eloy Martinez, the
novelist, who's written two novels. One was called "The Novel of
Peron," and the other one was called "Saint Evita." And in it, he
chronicles the embalmed body's wanderings from Italy to Spain to
Amsterdam and then back to Spain again when the Argentine military
decides it can no longer control Argentina. They want Peron to come
back. And as a peace offering, they say, here, have the body. And so
the corpse was returned in Madrid to Juan Peron.
The next chapter of this story I find almost impossible to believe; on
the other hand, I have no reason to distrust what my friend Tomas Eloy
Martinez has investigated. The next chapter is that Peron's second
wife, Maria Savil--M--Maria Estela Isabelita, as she was
known--Peron--who was a former cabaret dancer, and who didn't look
like a former cabaret dancer. She looked like a former school marm.
It was very strange. But she was a former cabaret dancer. And she
did have a kind of addiction to spiritual advisers and sorcerers. And
so when Peron married her, he also ended up marrying, in a way,
Isabelita's spiritual adviser who was a warlock called Jose Lopez
Rega. And Lopez Rega lived with them in Madrid. And he and Isabelita
decided that the thing to do was to have Isabelita, Peron's second
wife, lie on top of the coffin of Evita while Lopez Rega performed a
ritual that would transmute Evita's soul into Isabelita's body. I
don't think it worked because Isabelita never had a shred of Evita's
magnetism, charm, passion, commitment.
But when Peron and Isabelita returned to Buenos Aires, the end of the
story is Peron died shortly after he became president. Isabelita, who
had run for vice president on Peron's ticket, became the president of
Argentina and Lopez Rega, the warlock, became the real Rasputin. And
I--I use that comparison very advisedly because he ruled in a fiendish
manner. He set up the death squads, and Isabelita had Evita brought
back to Argentina where she was finally buried.
LAMB: But there's a little ca--caveat on that one. In 1987, you say
vandals broke open the tomb and ordered to saw off...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Peron's hands.
LAMB: ...his hands.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: His hands. They were not buried together.
Juan Peron, I think in the end, had become a little resentful of Eva.
She was so popular. She was so much more loved than he was. And he
never wanted to be buried in the same tomb with her. So she was
buried in her family crypt; he was buried in his own crypt. And one
of the great mysteries is why someone would--it--it was--you know,
it's not just any tomb, there were marble blocks. It's part of a
monument--and take out the body and saw off the dead man's hands and
then put the body back in. Why would somebody do that? It's been
speculated that because the fingerprints on the hands were the
identifying mechanisms, the--the password, as it were, for the secret
bank accounts that the Perons had in Switzerland. That's, you know,
LAMB: How much of your time do you spend in Mexico City?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I spend most of my time in Mexico City. I also
spend a lot of time outside of Mexico City in a very small town where
I--I really learn more about what's happening in--in the Mexico
profundo, let's say. One of the things that I find out is happening
is that everybody's leaving for the United States.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Any way they can get here.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Why? Because the most that somebody in Mexico
City will get paid for a job in construction is 100 pesos a day.
LAMB: Which transmits to?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: ...is--to $10--$9 and change a day. And you
come here and I don't even know what you get for washing dishes, but
it's not $9 a day. And so people will--you know, it works like a
chain. Somebody will come from Village X and then they'll send for
the brother and then they'll send for the sister and then they'll send
for the brother-in-law and then they'll send for the wife of the
brother-in-law. Everybody sharing a very small house or an apartment,
working in shifts and sending money back to the family.
LAMB: Is this good for the United States?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I--I don't feel qualified to answer that
question. What I wonder is what would happen in California, say, if
all the Mexicans left from one day to the next?
LAMB: Is it...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Who--who would do what Americans like to call
the dirty work? I don't think Mexicans see it as dirty work at all.
They see it as a good honest living. And they see it as doing work
that nobody else wants and they see it as keeping their families alive
and improving their future, the future of their children which they
see as a fundamental duty.
LAMB: Why do you--you said earlier that you didn't go to college.
D--by the way, do you think you missed anything?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. Sure. I missed four years of
having--well, I probably would have had to work while I went to
college, but still, it's four years, I think, of freedom. Four years
when you get to learn for the pure pleasure of it. Four years of--of
thinking about ideas, about what other people did, of admiring, you
know, the people who came before us and created the world we know. I
miss that very much. I think it would have--I think I made a silly
LAMB: But how did you get places like the New York Review of Books
and The New Yorker magazine and others to appreciate your writing? I
mean, where did you teach yourself how to write?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Hmm?
LAMB: You have any help along the way?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I read a lot. I read a lot. And both of my
parents, I think, would have wanted to be writers. It's funny how one
ends up doing the things that--that parents--perhaps, the--the dreams
that parents couldn't fulfill. I know that my mother would have been
beyond herself to have had a story published in--in The New Yorker.
LAMB: Are they gone, both of them?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: And what did they do for a living?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They--they worked in public relations
in--in--in Mexico, mostly here. My mother worked in the States
sometimes as a secretary and then, you know, she put herself through
college and worked in--in social programs around NYU mostly and then
moved back to Mexico where she worked a--administering a kind of arts
and culture program for the Social Security Institute. So she was a
big reader. She loved to read. I love to read. I--I grew up
LAMB: You read better in English or in Spanish?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think both. I really think that I'm a
LAMB: How about a thinker?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I don't know. I'm trying to find that out.
You know, I write a food column now in--in Spanish for a monthly
magazine in Mexico and I--I started doing that partly because I love
food and I love everything involved with food. I love the fun of it.
I love restaurants. I love cooking, although I don't cook very much.
I love kitchens. But also because I thought it would be a good way to
try to work on Spanish again and--and to pick up my language where I
left off and--and try to see if I had an instrument there. You know,
a language is an instrument. And so I've been working on that, kind
of polishing it and honing it and seeing what will happen to it. I
like it. It--it certainly comes from a different place. Talking in
one language and talking in another, I--I think inevitably, produce
two different personalities, as far as I've seen in other people. I
assume it does the same for me.
LAMB: Have you ever checked yourself to see what language you dream
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. And in fact, I dream in whatever
language I'm living in. So that, you know, after six months of being
in the States, I started dreaming in English again. And when I moved
back to Mexico, after a few months, I started dreaming in Spanish
LAMB: Now of all the pieces you read in front of an American
audience, which one's gotten the most reaction?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think i--it--in very different ways. I wrote
a series--well, I wrote a couple of stories for The New Yorker way
back when about the modernization of Mexico under NAFTA. And it was a
story ostensibly about mariachis and the death of mariachi music in
Mexico, and a lot of people responded to that because what do you know
about Mexico? You know that there are mariachis there, right? And
maybe you've even gone there as a tourist and you've been in Gadi
Baldi Plaza, and you've had a few tequilas and whooped it up and--and
listened to mariachi music. You never did that? It's fun. You
LAMB: I like mariachi music, but what happened to it? Is it gone?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, it's going. It's going because--first of
all, pop music from the States is taking over more and more and more.
I think the great Mexican cuisine is dying because there are fast
foods now competing, because there are supermarkets, and supermarkets
can't afford to keep in stock a lot of these very perishable products
that are used for fine Mexican cooking. Women are working and real
Mexican cooking requires enormous amounts of time. So the story was
about all those changes and what it meant to be Mexican and what it
meant to be modern and if you could feel Mexican and feel modern at
the same time, which I think is a debate that we have with ourselves
constantly and haven't solved by any means. So that was a story that
got a lot of response and that people tend to remember. And then last
year I did, for The New York Review of Books, a series of three
articles about Colombia. And...
LAMB: Some of that's in here?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They're all in there. Yeah.
LAMB: You know, that's actually what I wanted to ask you about next,
was the--the Colombia stories.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I see.
LAMB: And first of all, have you seen the recent figures on how much
foreign aid goes to Colombia?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. I think for fiscal year 2000, 2001, a
billion has already been allocated out of the $3 billion plus.
LAMB: So it puts it right up there near--right after Israel and Egypt
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's exactly where it puts it, yeah, in the
LAMB: ...Jordan. Yeah. In that...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. After...
LAMB: Why? Why do we give that much money to Colombia?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because when you don't know what to do about a
problem, you throw money at it, I think, is one of the good reasons.
Because the money was there. Because I think probably the Clinton
administration thought that it would look good and that nobody in
their right mind would say, `Well, don't give money to a drug war.
The drug war is a a big problem.' I think it's a disaster, but that's
LAMB: Who is Rosa?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Rosa was the name I gave a woman I met just
after she had been detained. I was lucky enough to find out that she
was being held, not in prison. She was being detained prior to her
trial. She was a woman, maybe a little younger than me, who started
out as a revolutionary and ended up as a right-wing paramilitary, and
who was happy to tell me how the paramilitaries butchered people in
order to keep the revolutionaries away. And to me, she was a way of
understanding the terrible mess that Colombia has become, the--the
enormous difficulty of trying to understand it, the enormous
difficulty of trying to live in the middle of this series of
intertwined conflicts that here in the United States is called a war,
as if there were only one war, and--and how to keep your balance and
place yourself and be a participant in that history.
This woman--you know, by rights, I should have been horrified by her
and I was. She--she always said that she didn't participate directly
in any of the political violence. She had never murdered anyone. But
I think a lot of her role was to--in her community work with the
villages and--and the campesinos, the peasants was to justify these
massacres and to say that this was the only way to fight for justice
in Colombia. I was horrified, but at the same time, I could
understand her perplexity at having been born the child of war, which
she was, and--and not finding any path for herself, any way to be in
the world that didn't involve violence.
LAMB: There--there is one scene that got my attention when you
ta--talked about her being tortured and somebody using pliers and
pulling off her teeth.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: A--actually, if--if you want to be specific
about it, what they did was they took the pliers and they broke off
her teeth so that they--they were all broken at the root. They
weren't pulled out, but broken. And that's why she could have caps
put on them. And that's why she showed me that all of her teeth had
LAMB: Why were they doing that?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And then they jumped on her stomach. And then
they made her stand all night while she was bleeding and then they let
her go. They would...
LAMB: Who was doing that to her?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, this is the interesting thing. She was
kidnapped at the time that she was still working with the left-wing
guerrillas. And apparently, they had invaded--the guerrillas and the
campesinos that the guerrillas were organizing had invaded a ranch
owned by somebody with close ties to the paramilitary. And this was a
bad mistake. In Colombia, you should always try to find out who
you're kidnapping and--or whose land you're invading, because if
you're kidnapping a drug trafficker or if you're invading a
paramilitary's land, then you're in for real trouble.
LAMB: Let me stop because I'm a little confused. What's a right-wing
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Right-wing guerrilla is a paramilitary.
LAMB: What's a paramilitary?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: A paramilitary is somebody who fights the
LAMB: What's a left-wing guerrilla?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: A left-wing guerrilla is somebody who belongs
to an organization that by now is 30 or 40 years old. There are
several guerrilla groups in Colombia, not just one. And they more or
less adhere to a Maoist or a traditional Cuban approach to revolution,
which is that you have a--a guerrilla group and then the whole country
spontaneously rises up and then you have socialists. The right-wing
paramilitaries also use weapons, also live in the mountains, but
they're trying to fight the left-wing guerrillas.
LAMB: Who are--who--who are they fighting for?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, they're fighting very often in alliance
with the government army or with sectors of the government army.
LAMB: Who are we funding?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: The United States is providing military
assistance to the government army and to the government police force,
which also is closely allied, in many cases, in many specific areas of
the country, with the right-wing paramilitary.
LAMB: Just for talking purposes, do the left wing and the right wing
mili--guerrillas all make the same amount of money, in the end?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Probably the right-wing paramilitaries have
better salaries at this stage because they're--the organization is
smaller. Where do they get the money for these salaries, you might
well ask? Well, the way that most of them get money is from taxes
that they levy on the drug traffickers who transport coca leaf through
the territories that they control.
LAMB: How do they levy those taxes?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Through agreements. They say, we will provide
protection for you to transport this truckload of coca leaf or this
speedboat load of coca paste and we will see to it that if the army
interferes with you, we interfere with the army or simply we will
provide security so that you travel through an army-free zone or a
government vigilance free zone.
LAMB: Are these...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And in exchange for this, you, the drug
traffickers, will pay us, the guerrillas, or us, the paramilitaries, I
believe it's 5 percent of the value of what you are transporting,
which that's a...
LAMB: And we are funding the military which also is helping to fund
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Which very often provides--according to Human
Rights Watch, according to various NGOs and according to general
knowledge, very often the military will provide, for example,
intelligence. `In this village, there are X, Y and Z families who
collaborate with the left-wing guerrillas. Why don't you go get
LAMB: Who's funding the left?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: The left is being funded primarily by the drug
traffickers who provide this tax money and that's why the guerrillas
in Colombia, unlike the guerrillas anywhere else in Latin America,
have been able to survive for 40 years because they have a hard solid
source of income.
LAMB: So why do you say we're doing the wrong thing?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, because it seems to me that you're a
little confused by this panorama that I've just tried to explain as
simply as possible, and you should be because it's a confusing
panorama, because there are no absolutes. There are no good and bad
sides. There's not even one war with two sides to it. There--and
it's not a civil war. It is a series of conflicts, festering
conflicts, 40-year-old conflicts that nobody understands, that nobody
can find the little thread that will untie it to and it seems to me
that throwing money at a conflict like this is probably useless and
very possibly dangerous.
LAMB: And how far into all this did you travel to and where did you
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I've known Colombia for a l--many years now. I
first went there in 1973. I went back there in 1986. I lived there
for four years from 1988 to 9--1988 to 1992, which was at the height
of the drug violence. And in '86, I actually took a very remarkable
and beautiful journey to the guerrilla's base camp, which, as it
turned out, after these five miserable strenuous, arduous days, partly
on foot and partly on horseback, it turns out we'd only traveled 80
miles from the capital, which gives you an idea of--of how difficult
it is. You know, you have a guerrilla group that won't advance on the
capital, but that had its permanent home base less than 100 miles
away. That's where we went to. It was in the foothills of the Amazon
LAMB: Why would they let you go there?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because at that time, they were interested in
getting some press attention and so three of us went. I actually was
a hanger-on. There were two Colombian journalists who had bargained
for this trip for a year and then I showed up and said, `Hi, I'm
Newsweek. I'm Newsweek.' I was working for Newsweek at the time.
`Can I tag along on this trip?' And the guerrillas said, `Yes. You
know, we could use some US attention as well.' And as it happened, the
story never ran because nobody thought Colombia was very interesting
for years. I don't think, you know, two years ago, it--anybody really
knew where Colombia was on the map. So that story never ran, even
though I was able to interview the man who even then was the world's
oldest living guerrilla and his sidekick for the--the co-founders of
the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces.
LAMB: What was his name?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: The founder and the kind of intellectual leader
was named Jacobo Arenas. He's since died. And the man who is still
the leader of the FARC, and who is still around today and who now
really is the world's oldest living guerrilla, because I think he's
70, is a man whose pseudonym is Manuel Marulanda Velez and whose
nickname that he's known by is Tirofijo, which means sure shot.
LAMB: Do the Colombians, by the way, use the drugs themselves down
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Increasingly, yes, because one of the things
that the drug trade has done--and this is a problem not only in
Colombia, but in Buenos Aires and in Rio and in Mexico--is to make
drugs available possibly even below cost outside of high schools and
outside of junior high schools, middle schools, and even in some
places, outside of grade schools to--to get themselves a local market.
So, yes, drugs are increasingly being used.
LAMB: How many American either troops or aides are all--are on the
scene down there in Colombia?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I--I couldn't tell you the latest figures.
There are no troops, according to the aid packages--it has been
formulated. The aid will go primarily in weapons and equipment for
the military and the police and some for the justice system, which is
desperate. The justice system really needs shoring up. Judges get
assassinated in Colombia routinely and they don't even have a
bulletproof vest. But most of the money is going for guns and radar
equipment, stuff like that. And there are contract employees of both
the State Department and the Pentagon who provide military advice,
supervision and I think the ceiling on that is 500, but I'm not sure.
That's a hard ceiling.
LAMB: Now we'd better close off on Rosa. We didn't finish the story
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: So where did--where did Rosa end up? All
right. So Rosa is working for the left-wing guerrillas and she and
her friends have invaded the ranch and the ranch belongs to a
paramilitary, that is a right-wing guerrilla, and this man is very
annoyed and to express his annoyance, he has Rosa kidnapped and
brought to him and tortured. And while he is there, he has somebody
called a gordo, the fat man, do all these atrocious things to her.
And perhaps, Rosa speculated with me, because she didn't talk and
didn't give any information about her comrades, in the end, these
right-wing paramilitaries admired her courage, which also happens
among all of these kind of gung ho, you know, people with guns. And
they let her go.
And one would have thought that her reaction would be to get out of
that life altogether, to listen to her parents, to move somewhere else
or maybe even to become more vehemently involved with her own
left-wing guerrilla cause, instead of which she crossed over to the
other side. She joined the right-wing guerrillas, which is how I met
her. She'd just been arrested as part of a sweep operation against
LAMB: You say there are 21 nations in Latin America.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, if I counted right. Don't ever quote me
on numbers. I have to do the count each time over again.
LAMB: Well, you didn't c--you didn't count places like Santo Domingo
and all that, I...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think I probably did. Yes.
LAMB: Did you? Well, there are more than 21 then.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Is--are there?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: It's terrible. I always get it wrong.
LAMB: And it depends on--you know, I mean, I--I just went through
all--there's probably 25 or so if you count Suriname...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Really? Well, we don't have time to do this
now, but I...
LAMB: ...and French Guinea and all...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: ...I--I'm very nervous. I'm going to spend the
rest of this program counting all the towns.
LAMB: But th--but that's not the point. The point is I wanted to ask
you about--of all the countries south of us...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah.
LAMB: ...south of the United States, which one do you think has the
most promise based on what you've seen in the last several years?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think they all do. I don't think there is a
basket case among them.
LAMB: Is there one that stars out of all that?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, no, I--I think Mexico, for obvious
reasons, should be and is tremendously important to the United States,
not important enough but--but it is, you know, the United
States'--What?--second largest trading partner?
LAMB: To Canada, yeah.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: After Canada. It--it shares an enormous
border. It has a significant percentage of its population working
here in this country, which is a--by the way, a way of providing
economic stability to Mexico, which is important to the United States.
There's that to be said for it, too. But you have countries like
Brazil, which sometimes doesn't like to consider itself as part of
Latin America, you know, saying (Spanish spoken). But they're not so
different. They're--they're a part of Latin America, which is a huge
country with enormous potential in terms of natural resources, human
resources, creativity, just the--the sheer amount of intelligence
of--of the inhabitants of a country that is so poor an--and so good at
Argentina, which is tremendously sophisticated and--and productive. I
don't see a--a basket case. You know, it's--it's a rich and powerful
region and it's full of unmet expectations, but also of hope.
LAMB: The most vigorous democracy of all of them?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think at this point, probably Mexico because
it's just trying to figure out how this thing is done and so it's
exciting right now.
LAMB: Eh, we only have a couple minutes left and I want to ask you
about Che, Che Guevara. Why did you write about him?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because he was so important to so many of us
and because he was the ultimate hero who only wants to die. And
because in--in my own process of thinking about Latin America, I
thought it's time to write about these people who only want to die so
that maybe we can exercise them and maybe we can start thinking about
the people who want to live.
LAMB: Where was he from?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He was from Argentina. He helped Fidel come to
power in Cuba. He was a tremendously skillful military fighter and
strategist. He died in Bolivia after a manhunt in which he and all
his followers nearly starved to death and were finally killed.
LAMB: And he died in 1967.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's right.
LAMB: So when did he have his most--when did he have his biggest
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think the moment he died. Because, again, by
dying, he became a hero. And he became somebody to emulate and so
many, so many, so many Latin Americans did, including my mother's
friend, Alaide Foppa, think that the only way to live a worthy life
was to offer their life instead of trying to live another day and do
things a little bit better.
LAMB: Couple of things you mentioned, the diaries came out in 1995.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: "The Motorcycle Diaries" came out in 1995.
LAMB: Yeah. What'd you learn from those?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, "The Motorcycle Diaries" he wrote when he
was a very young man taking his first trip from Buenos Aires, where he
lived, all the way up to Venezuela, with his friend on motorcycle. I
learned that this man who became so enamored with death was once a
lively, funny, jokey, intellectually curious young man who really
loved Latin America and who somehow at the end of that trip he became
convinced that jokes were not funny. You know, I have a video where
he's telling the factory workers who are laughing at something and he
says, `Why are you laughing? Why are you laughing? This is serious.'
S--I was intrigued by the process of losing the joyful part of himself
and becoming this termagant.
LAMB: You say h--you have a couple quirky things. He refused to
bathe and tie his shoelaces.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's right. And he was very proud of the
fact that when he was still a teen-ager, his schoolmates called him
(Spanish spoken), which means pig, and that's how he used to sign his
LAMB: Why is he a hero?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because he died to redeem us, you know.
LAMB: You think he did?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think that's what he was trying to do, yes.
I don't think he did, but that's what he was trying to do. He was
trying to be like Christ. He was trying to offer himself up a
sacrifice so that others could live a better life.
LAMB: Is he still revered today?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, by many. Absolutely. I don't think that
you will find that many young Latin Americans in universities who
don't think that he is someone to--to admire and perhaps follow.
LAMB: When you write, where do you do it?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I write it--well, that doesn't really matter.
Hotel rooms, for example, are--are good places for me to write because
they're so free of associations. I have to get myself into my sort of
tattyest sweat pants and--and T-shirt and I do it on a computer now,
amazingly enough. I never could use a typewriter because the noise
wrote me crazy--the noise drove me crazy, but I used to use a
notebook. Now I use a computer because it doesn't make that much
LAMB: Are you better on deadline or when you have a lot of time?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Who was it? It maybe was on your program,
somebody came out, I think from The Washington Post, who had this
wonderful quote: "A journalist is somebody who, when you give them
more time, writes worse." Was that said right here on...
LAMB: Well, that's often said, yeah.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, I--I still laugh at it because I thought,
`Well, there's a definition for me to pay attention to.'
LAMB: But are you better when you got--somebody says, `You got two
hours to get this in'?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I suspect we all are, yeah. But we all dream
of, you know, the great novel that we will write some day when we have
time. And it's probably not happening.
LAMB: What's next for you?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I have a horrible suspicion that Colombia is
going to be next for a long time because I think it's just a mess
we're involved in, all of it.
LAMB: Our guest has been Alma Guillermoprieto, and here's what her
book looks like, a series of articles written over the last several
years: "Looking for History." Thank you very much.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.