In 1984 I was a young, recently married father and a copyboy at the Los Angeles Daily News, back when the paper was on Sylvan Street in Van Nuys. I was also a journalism and political science student at Cal State Northridge at the time. I took very few journalism courses at CSUN, instead focusing on politics and working at my day job, which was at a real newspaper, one in which I already had a number of stories published.
I felt I had learned much of what I needed to know about newspapering there and at LA Valley College, where I served as an editor with the campus newspaper each of three semesters. Northridge would be where I would learn about politics, I thought, and it was, only not in a way that I could have imagined. Here I would learn all about not only political theories, but also the sometimes painful political realities of journalism itself.
My problems arose over something I had penned for a magazine writing course that I was taking that semester. The story focused on the plight of people from El Salvador, where at the time a bloody civil war raged between virtual peasants and heavily-armed right-wing thugs backed by the United States military, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their own country. Many of these refugees landed in Southern California, with Los Angeles’ Pico-Union District becoming a major enclave of Salvadorans seeking refuge from the ravages of civil war.
Here I met Marta Alicia Rivera, a teacher and union member in her own country who claimed she had been kidnapped twice by the military. Both times she was bound, blindfolded and tortured with razor blades and lit cigarettes. After the second session, she was released and told to leave and never return. Needless to say, she acquiesced. Marta Alicia did not speak English. I did not speak Spanish. My friend, Hector Gonzalez, at the time a Daily News reporter, interpreted for me in reporting the story. During our visit to her home, Hector and I saw her commemorative plaques, photos and other personal items indicating she had once been a teacher. She also showed me responses from her attempts at seeking asylum, all denied.
Many people in Marta Alicia’s circles told similar stories. After consulting human rights organizations, I found that this kind of treatment of detainees was quite common. In fact, Marta Alicia was extremely lucky to have escaped. Most people simply “disappeared” under similar circumstances
There was another way, a program called Extended Voluntary Departure, or EVD, but that was a temporary extended visa available only to people escaping communist countries, not those fleeing US military occupation. They were in a “Catch 22”: To qualify for asylum, they needed proof of their torture, not merely freshly shot photos of scars heaped upon scars that appeared on Marta Alicia’s back, neck and arms. Plus, how would it look to the rest of the world if we granted political asylum to citizens living under criminal regimes which we were essentially bankrolling?
I received a grade of A for my work. My teacher thought I should try to sell it. Then two friends, fellow copy kids from work at the paper who were editors of the campus magazine, read the piece and asked to run it in their next edition, and I agreed.
Soon, however, my normally friendly colleagues at work started avoiding me. I never suspected that it could have been related to the story, but it was. As it happened, the adviser to the magazine simply did not believe my main source. The adviser, who back then was probably a Republican, as many journalism professors and teachers were, and apparently a big fan of Ronald Reagan, said she believed that Rivera was lying, according to my friends. I still got my A and didn’t have to worry about a grade in the magazine class, but I had never been censored before. Nor had anyone ever said that a source in any story that I wrote was fabricating information.
This did not sit well with my friends in the journalism program, who demanded that the head of the department come to the magazine class and explain the situation. He came, but neither he nor the adviser would tell the packed classroom why they had killed the story. They simply said the story did not rise to the standards they believed the magazine should exemplify. Instead of my story, they ran a puffy piece about foreign students enrolled at CSUN.
Fast forward 30 years and we can see the fruits of journalistic hostility toward reporting on US political meddling in Central America, with children now fleeing our former proxies — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala — for safer environs in this country. And yet again we sit in judgment, saying they are either liars or unworthy of our compassion in their attempts to escape the drug kingpins and roving gangs created by the impoverished families irreparably fractured and social structures destroyed by our bloody occupation of their lands.
Some things may never change. One of them is the staff at CSUN, where that instructor still works. One has to wonder how many other stories have been killed by this person for political purposes. Another is how we regard our neighbors to the south, many of whom we would apparently sooner see dead than accept any responsibility for the miserable lives that we helped create for them.