Sunday, March 04, 2001

South of the border

        Augusto is a smarter, more handsome, Venezuelan ringer for Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

        He has a hotrod 1980 Chevy, cleverly disguised in primer gray to discourage car thieves. He drives it through the night with gospel salsa blasting from the speakers, rocketing down narrow streets like a NASCAR driver chased by Dale Earnhardt's ghost.

        Cars lurch into intersections ahead of us, playing the national game of stoplight chicken — then they see Battleship Augusto bearing down at ramming speed and think better of it.

What a ride: Venezuela on Thursday and Friday, Honduras on Saturday and Sunday, if we lived to see it.

        The tour was organized by the Christian Businessmen's Committee (CBMC), which sponsors the annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast in Cincinnati. The purpose was about the same: outreach to business leaders. But in this case the reach was a bit longer — by thousands of miles, three time zones and several new dimensions of taste, sight and sound.

        Augusto, who shepherds a growing community of Christians in Valencia, broke the language barrier with a joke: “If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks only one language?” he asked.

        Give up? “Gringo.”

        It's true. Nearly everyone I met in both countries spoke better English than my fractured Taco Bell Spanish.

        I think I might have accidentally asked several people if they married their children. Another guy in our group looked for a restroom by asking, “Where is the cowboy?”

        Loco Americanos. But they loved us anyway. They even apologized to us for not speaking better English.

        “English is now the world language,” said Dr. Johnny Martinez, a Valencia dental surgeon who graduated from Tufts University. “It's in the movies, the computers, the music, business, everywhere.”

        And that's not all bueno, said Chuck Kennedy, a Californian expatriate in Honduras. “I hate to admit it, but the last few movies I have rented were embarrassing. And that rap music is vile.”

        It's a lopsided world trade. We import bananas and oil and shirts made by people who earn less than our babysitters. And in return, we send them South Park and Eminem.

        We also export a surplus of sanctimonious do-gooders who go to Third World countries determined to change everything overnight, then throw their hands up and run back to the States a year or two later.

        Some Americanos boycott products made by cheap foreign labor, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the alternative to working for low wages is not working at all.

        Some gringos scorn the political corruption that plagues such nations like bloodsucking mosquitos, while they look the other way as El Presidente Clinton and his wife, Evita, extort mordita to pardon criminals.

        I'm no longer so eager to judge people who opened their arms to American strangers. I only know they seem more open, more friendly, as if they live closer to truth in nations where intense beauty and heartbreaking poverty are as close as opposite sides of their colorful currency.

        As an ancient sun sank over a crowded plaza in downtown San Pedro Sula, a weeping woman sold wooden trinkets. She looked eight months pregnant, standing alone, with eyes that seemed to look far away, steadily streaming tears like a dripping faucet.

        She could be the face of Central America. Or maybe it was the 300-watt smile of Augusto.

        These are our neighbors. They love us and we pretend they don't exist. What a pity. They have a lot to teach us about faith and kindness.
        E-mail: Past columns at


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