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The antidote to 'sound and fury' in 2019

Listen to the gentler sounds of daily life as captured in the movie 'Roma' or the Spanish bakeries of Puerto Rico.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision consultant.

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Escena de Roma, la película dirigida por Alfonso Cuarón. Crédito: Netflix

“Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” - William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

For those who follow politics in the United States and Latin America, 2018 was indeed a year of Shakespearean sound and fury. What it all signifies remains to be seen. But we certainly heard it.

The incessant sound of President Trump’s antagonistic and untruthful Twitter account that demonized Central American and other migrants. The worrisome sound of Brazilian voters who elected an “iron fist,” law and order president who promises to violate human rights so he can make Brazil safer. And the confusing sound of a new populist Mexican leader, who encouragingly pledged to clean up the corruption of Mexico’s traditional politics. Disappointingly, he also spoke of a return to the nation’s traditional foreign policy of non-intervention, even in the face of the wanton destruction of Venezuela by a corrupt narco-dictatorship.

There was plenty of fury as well. The fury of the American electorate that shouted back to its boorish President that facts do matter, values are important, and voters exact a price when they feel defrauded. The region witnessed the righteous fury of Nicaraguans, under armed assault by a vile and power-crazed Ortega regime that tried to quash democratic dissent and the country’s free press. We also saw the fury of the United Nations and many regional governments and legislators at the Morales government’s brazen attacks on the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – the most successful investigative body in that country’s history designed to ensure that human rights abuses and corruption are confronted under the rule of law. Sadly, the United States remained mute.

In contrast to this metaphoric sound and fury, I recently had two experiences of whispered quotidian life that caused me to reflect upon the necessity of listening to the quieter side of our reality, often as an antidote to the sound and fury.

El silencio que truena (The silence that thunders)

The first of these hushed experiences was watching Alfonso Cuaron’s magnificent movie “Roma.” It is tale of fraught domesticity in 1970s Mexico City seen through the eyes and heard through the ears of a Mixteca Indian maid, Cleo, who works in an upper middle-class home. A gentle, chiaroscuro work bound together with lovingly shot black and white images, the film moves according to Cleo’s tempo, not ours. The simple plot reveals itself deliberately and often the most impactful moments are conveyed with silence instead of dialogue. Environmental sounds of birdsong or breeze, or swishing water swirling down a patio drain are the sound track to Cleo’s pain, delight, or patient resignation. Cleo contemplates airplanes flying to places she will never travel and watches a flawed but benevolent family fall apart yet survive, all to the soundtrack of barking dogs and dappled sunlight on the rooftop laundries, where she and the other “girls” go through their daily ritual of chores. A depressing, even oppressive existence according to my modern gringo standards, yet I know Mexico well enough that I felt the love between Cleo and her family. I heard her hope and her sadness, though they were not expressed with words. Cuaron’s film made me listen when no sound or fury was evident, when I had to strain to hear the heart murmur softness of Cleo’s lullaby. I felt a gentle nostalgia for a life I had never lived. It was full of tenderness, not sound or fury.

El Pan de Cada Dia (Our Daily Bread)

It was in 2017, not 2018, that the island of Puerto Rico experienced the cruel fury of Hurricane Maria, a devastating blow from which the territory is still recovering. I have been coming to the Island of Enchantment for over three decades and am blessed with a loving and boisterous family of in-laws. Like every American boy who marries a Latin girl, I long ago learned you don’t ever just marry the girl – you marry the family. And in my case, the family soundtrack to the Christmas season is “bulla” – happy party noise. Blaring salsa music competes with shouted multigenerational conversations. Percussive rhythms of plena, bomba and reggaeton inevitably lead to ubiquitous dancing. Seasonal food like pasteles, pernil, and coquito and chicharrones make table appearances to thunderous applauses and shrieks of glee. Puerto Rican holidays are a joyful – and loud - experience.

So it was surprising that I found a quiet peace in the muffled morning environment of the island’s Spanish bakeries. Third and fourth generation family-owned businesses that offer pastries, sweets, wines and Iberian cured hams, they are staffed by lightning fast local short order cooks who turn out amazing sandwiches and delicacies such as pastelillos, quesitos, croquetas and empanadas. Breakfasts here are an authentic fusion between American and Spanish morning fare. Listening to the low chatter of regular clients as they ordered dark café con leche, mallorcas – a light as air sweet bread, toasted & topped with powdered sugar, or a revoltillo (scrambled eggs) and fresh jugo de china (orange juice – why they called an orange a china is beyond me!), I became aware of the quiet resilience of the island.

Finances are bad, the economy sluggish, and much of the island’s landscape still looks like a dystopian tropical mess. But Puerto Rico’s bakeries carry on with the dogged persistence of Cleo in “Roma.” In that quiet, life-goes-on daily routine goodness and decency emerge, often in a strip mall, Spanish food emporium. When my friend and Nobel-nominated humanitarian, Chef Jose Andres, came to the island in the wake of the hurricane to begin feeding the victims, it was a third-generation Spanish food importer who opened his warehouses and said quietly, “Take what you need.”

Sound and fury most certainly await us in 2019. Democratic House Committee chairs will unleash investigative fury on the Trump Administration. Mexico City’s polemical airport project will or won’t get built. Regardless, the noise of the politics will be deafening. Dictators like Venezuela’s Maduro, Nicaragua’s Ortega and Cuba’s Communist Party will continue to purge critics and usurp their citizens’ democratic aspirations.

In this context, it will be important for all the people of the Americas to listen hard for the silences in which strength, resilience and generosity are to be found.