By Harold Emert
RIO DE JANEIRO – A native of Denver, Colorado, who studied literature at Columbia University in New York, Jon Freedman, 69, arrived in Brazil in 1974 and started work at the Associated Press in São Paulo before transferring to the Rio de Janeiro office.
He spent a total of three years there before leaving for the University of Iowa to study at their Writer’s Workshop.
He worked for the San Diego Tribune, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for editorial work on the plight of immigrants from Central America to the USA.
In this exclusive interview with The Rio Times, Jon talks about his new book “Solito, Solita – Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America.”
The Rio Times (TRT): You spent a short time of your life in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, arriving as a drifter then working as a wire service reporter for the Associated Press. How did your time in Brazil influence your life and current work?
Jon Feedman (JF): Arriving as a 24-year-old traveler in 1974, I fell in love with the magic and beauty of Brasil and the “coração do povo Brasileiro” (the heart of the Brazilian people).
I also witnessed the repression of the military regime and the poverty of the favelas. As a naïve reporter for AP in São Paulo, I encountered the government’s repression of news of the spreading meningitis epidemic.
O Estado de São Paulo’s accurate reports of deaths were literally cut out of the paper, which responded by printing poems by (the Portuguese poet) Camões in the empty spaces.
AP got the news out to the outside world and medical assistance came to end the epidemic.
This taught me a lesson, that government repression harms people and the press has a right and duty to get the facts out to the public.
This has carried on as a theme of my work – getting the story out to people who can help those who are suffering.
TRT: How does your current study apply to Brazil?
JF: Our book, “Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders With Youth Refugees from Central America” is about young people fleeing gangs, poverty, repression, sexual and physical abuse in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
In a sense, their perilous journeys across Mexico, facing bandits and gangs, in search of safety and jobs in America reflect the journeys of Brazilians fleeing from the poverty and hunger in the Nordeste and towns in the interior, who are seeking a better life in the cities of São Paulo, Rio and others.
There they are exploited and many live in “favelas” where they endure crime and gangs. Of course many migrants make it, against incredible odds, to have a better life.
But many fail and abandoned children suffer terribly and fall into criminal gangs themselves. The difference, of course, is that the migration from Central America to the US is international, while the migration from rural towns to coastal cities in Brazil is internal.
My goal is to listen to youth migrants telling their stories and to publish their first-person accounts so that they may be heard. I believe that compassion is a powerful force against hatred and prejudice. Stories can change attitudes, and attitudes can change laws.
TRT: Your refugee from El Salvador was fleeing what is commonly known in Brazil as the militia, which recently caused the deaths of people inhabiting illegal buildings. Any comments?
JF: The ruthless MS-13 and 18th Street maras (gangs) marauding, killing, raping and destroying businesses in Central America actually originated in Los Angeles, California.
Here’s the story: During the 1980s, the US intervened in civil wars and social conflicts in Central America.
In El Salvador, the US backed a right-wing regime that murdered US nuns, attacked villages and committed massacres. Half a million Salvadoran refugees came to the US.
Many young Salvadoran kids who’d experienced atrocities, killings and mayhem were relocated in the poorest barrios of LA, where they encountered existing Latino street gangs.
The Salvadoran maras fought against the local gangs and became the most ruthless killers in LA. In the 1990s, they were deported back to El Salvador, where they spread throughout Central America.
Many of the youth refugees from Central America describe the maras gunning down kids on the way to school, demanding protection money that destroys small businesses, kidnapping family members, and committing murders.
The Colombian drug cartels hired the maras to run drugs through Central America and Mexico to reach the US southern border. The gangs attack youth refugees en route through Mexico, robbing, raping, killing and exploiting them to carry drugs to the U.S.
So many people in America ask, reasonably: Why should we allow these youth refugees to seek asylum in the US?
The ethical obligation to help them, I believe, comes from the US having intervened brutally in Central America. What goes around comes around.
TRT: You haven’t been back to Brazil since you left. Or have you? Why?
JF: I feel “Saudades” do Brasil, that pain and longing in the heart for a place where I spent some of the happiest and most adventurous years of my youth.
I haven’t yet returned because life took me elsewhere, Washington DC, Spain, Portugal, San Diego, California, Switzerland and now the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California.
I say yet because I will return to Brazil, hopefully on a sentimental journey to meet friends land to explore possibilities for publishing The Last Brazil of Benjamin East, and a memoir, Hotel Jaguar.