Opinion: An ode to enchanter journalist Alma Guillermoprieto

Illustrated by Noel Lee

Latin America is almost always subject to distortions. The often undefinable region that covers both Central and South America shares a common language (except for Brazil, Belize and Suriname), a history of Iberian Colonialism and rigid, often horrid, class hierarchies. Even these broad categories are incorrect in certain regions where Indigenous customs and languages remain. Phrases like “banana republics” and “tin-pot dictators” are still thrown around by U.S. politicians and media, omitting historical context that would provide a deeper understanding of Latin American life.

Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist, has spent her life depicting the often tragic complexity of modern-day Latin America. Her long-form journalism is a powerful rejection of common caricatures of its people, politics and culture in a region often under- and misrepresented.

Born in Mexico in 1949, Guillermoprieto initially had aspirations in dance instead of journalism. In 1969, she would relocate for a teaching position at the Cuban National Schools of the Arts in Havana, the subject of her 2004 memoir Dancing with Cuba.

Guillermoprieto started her work in journalism at The Guardian in 1978. Four years later, she, along with two other journalists, broke the story of the El Mozote Massacre. One of the many atrocities of the El Salvadoran civil war, the northeastern village of El Mozote was bombarded by the El Salvadoran army Dec. 10, 1981, claiming the lives of about 1,000 people. The incident, deemed propaganda by the Reagan administration, still defines the nation’s traumatic civil war between the Salvadoran state and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

Guillermoprieto’s career has been defined by her cosmopolitanism and a large body of work ranging from anthologies of long-form journalism, like “The Heart that Bleeds” and “Looking for History,” to autobiographical writings centered on culture (particularly dance) and profiles of preeminent Latin Americans.

Guillermoprieto profiles figures such as Eva Péron, the wife of Argentina political strongman Juan Perón; Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian Nobel-Prize winning novelist and one-time presidential candidate; and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine Marxist Revolutionary at the forefront of the Cuban Revolution — all of whom were and are influential, frequently misunderstood figures. Despite their conflicting politics and personalities, they worked to uplift their people and rise above a legacy of historical underdevelopment and oppression, often failing in an ultimate expression of their humanity.

In contrast to our current moment in journalism, Guillermoprieto’s craft avoids the shallowness of headline stories in favor of far more nuanced and long-form stories. These stories often survey decades of history and capture the climaxes of both the present and the past.

In the case of Che Guevara, Guillermoprieto transforms the saint of the Latin American left and the butcher of the Latin American right into a “harsh angel” whose commitment to revolution was defined by utopian hopes for Latin America and a masculinity complex. Guillermoprieto wrote of this complex that “happiness and the desire for it — ‘the need to live’ — were, in a revolutionary, symptoms of weakness.” Thus Guevara’s own continued guerilla activities in the Congo and Bolivia, even after the revolution in Cuba, were an extension of his impossible example that would inevitably lead to his death.

Despite a focus on historical figures, Guillermoprieto’s true protagonist remains the common people. Whether it’s centered on Cuban priests, Mexican garbage pickers or campesinos in Chipas, her remarkable attention to the vivid beauty that exists in all her subjects never fails. In “Our New War in Colombia,” Guillermoprieto writes of a woman by the name of Rosa while covering the Clinton administration’s escalation of the Colombian civil war.

Rosa, a former member of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerilla movement, describes the paradox of leftist aspirations and the brutality of war. The conflict in Colombia, despite a ceasefire in 2016, remains ongoing as Colombia remains plagued by poverty, rural underdevelopment and political instability.

Guillermoprieto’s most recent work has centered on the growing authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua. In 1979, Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), then a Marxist-Leninist movement, originally came to power through the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. During their time in power as the Junta of National Reconstruction, the Sandinista state battled against US-backed Contras (a coalition of right-wing paramilitaries) until 1989. In 1990, elections were held and the FSLN lost the presidency. In the 2006 elections, Ortega would come back to power on a far less revolutionary platform and has since held onto the presidency. Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo have presided over an ever-increasingly centralized and corrupt government.

In her pieces “Nicaragua’s Dreadful Duumrivate” in The New York Review of Books and “The Revolution Eats Itself in Nicaragua” in The New Yorker, Guillermoprieto not only lambasts Ortega’s government for jailing former revolutionaries and for Ortega’s family crimes, but also retells the history of the events leading up to the current moment. As Guillermoprieto writes, “much like Nicaragua’s history, which is to a striking degree the history of the same six or so last names, family traumas tend to run in loops.”

Underneath Guillermoprieto’s prose is a flame that still burns after four decades of selfless dedication. Her work, while often tragic, smolders with optimism against all the blows of conflict, degradation and everyday life that affect Latin Americans. The best journalism does not simply describe current events and their stakes to lay audiences — it reveals the contours of our souls.