Northwest at Raven
A Conversation with Abe Osheroff
Interview by Rita Fritz Amer
Part One of a Three-Part Series
Abe Osheroff resembles a cross between James Bond and John Brown. A radical humanist and working class intellectual, Abe was born October 24, 1915, in a Brooklyn Jewish ghetto. He went on to lead a life of adventure, social activism, and controversy. His rÈsumÈ has made him loved, hated and, most of all, respected in the world revolutionary movement. He joined the Young Communist League in his teens. Then he volunteered to fight Fascism with the International Brigades at age twenty. Returning to the United States, a wounded veteran at twenty-two, Abe worked with union organizers in Pennsylvania during the formative days of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) under John L. Lewis.
This would seem enough adventure for any one person, but still in his twenties, Abe volunteered with the United States Army to fight Fascism in Europe during World War II. After the war, he made his living as a carpenter, never ceasing to fight the power-hungry bullies of the world. In the '50s he left the Communist Party when faced with the truth about Stalin's horrendous crimes against humanity. In the late '50s, Abe took on land-devouring California developers in the Los Angeles beach community of Venice. In the '60s, he used his fame as a revolutionary activist to raise money to build a community center, as a gathering place for members of the Civil Rights Movement and poor black citizens, in Holmes County, Mississippi. Then he used his skills in construction and carpentry to build the center himself.
In the '70s, during his retirement from the construction trade, he made an award-winning documentary film, Dreams and Nightmares, part biography, part indictment of the U.S. role in sustaining the Franco regime. He and his tiny crew shot some of the footage in Spain right under the noses of the Fascists. The film won top prize at the 1974 documentary film festival in Leipzig, East Germany. In the '80s, Abe went to Nicaragua, again using his construction skills to build shelters for poor peasants.
Today, Abe continues to lecture, educate, and rabble-rouse all over the country. He has been a sought-after speaker at the most prestigious educational institutions in America. The chance to speak to the children of the wealthy and privileged is an opportunity that Abe relishes. In the last few years, failing health has slowed but not stopped this indefatigable idealist.
His gray hair and beard encircle his seamed face like an aged lion's mane, and his voice contains the quaverless growl of a man to be reckoned with. During our conversation, he was as lucid and forceful as someone half his age. I found him to be a captivating storyteller and a strongly-opinionated polemicist who loves to argue. At one point Abe said, There are times when I hear myself talk and I'm not sure that it happened that way, but it fits the flow. After so many years and so many tellings, memory has transmogrified into myth. This is how the mind works. On the other hand, Abe has seen, done, and known a great deal of the world in eighty-nine years. His memories are treasures, even if they've been burnished in the re-telling.
Part One of A Conversation with Abe Osheroff covers his involvement with the Young Communist League, union organizing, and his experiences in Nicaragua. Part Two, Raven, Vol. 11, No. 2, covers his work as a Civil Rights activist. Part Three, Raven, Vol. 11, No. 3, covers the time he spent in Spain as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, his service in the US Army during WWII. I met with Abe, in his modest but comfortable home in North Seattle, late in November, 2002.
Fritz Amer: You call yourself a radical humanist. What exactly is that?
Abe Osherofff: In a few words, the humanist aspect means that you are very concerned about what happens to people in the world in which you live, and you would like them to have a better life, yourself included.
The radical aspect of that phrase means that you do not believe that putting patches on a worn out tire will make it fit for travel. The difference between a radical and a liberal, for instance, is a profound one. When I'm called a liberal I reject that. To me a liberal is a would-be radical who goes through life wearing a psychological condom. In other words, to use a metaphor...
F.A.: (laughing) That was a pretty good metaphor.
A.O.: ...safe sex, safe politics. I'm a good guy BUT I have a job. I'm a good guy BUT I have to devote myself to my family. All these buts summed up are what turns a young radical into a liberal, almost without exception.
Young radicals turn into old liberals much to their detrimentnot just to their political work but to their personal detriment. It's like they are taking a shower while wearing a raincoat.
F.A.: They're staying on the fringes.
A.O.: It's drinking decaf coffee. It's artificial sweeteners in politics. I didn't know I was a radical humanist until I had been one for quite a while. I knew that in my neighborhood, when I saw people unemployed, when I saw people hungry, when I saw for the first time in my life a man picking food out of a garbage can, I was profoundly touched by it. I was saddened. And later I grew `pissed angry.' I couldn't understand any good reason for that being the case.
So I looked for answers. The more I looked, the more I came to realize that the problem I was dealing with was not just here and there. It was systemic; it was built into the society in which I was growing up. A society in which, above all, the driving force was: put as little as you can into it and take out as much as you can. That's the antithesis of humanism but that's what dominates our world today. That is the philosophy that runs our country.
I was born into a poor ghetto, in which English wasn't even the primary language. I was born in America, but I didn't speak English until I was about six.
F.A.: Was Yiddish your first language?
A.O.: Yiddish, and a good smattering of Russian. I never identified with the flag or the Pledge of Allegiance. That was another country.
I grew up with what I would call a shtetl mentality. A small Russian town mentalitythe flavors, the tastes, the sounds. These are what I grew up on.
When the great wave of Jewish immigration took place in the early twentieth century, there were two basic groups that came to America. One was a heavily religious group. The other was the secular Jews, who had this new religion called Socialism. I grew up in that context. I grew up hearing Socialist words, hearing discussions about trade unions and their role in working class life. I grew up in the neighborhood where people would point a finger [at someone] and say, He doesn't belong to the union. And they would stop talking to him. He became a leper, and I thought that was normal.
I grew up in a culture where people tried to take care of each other. Jewish immigrant life was characterized by having organizations that dealt with poverty, gave loans without interest to help small businesses, burial societies. There already was, long before the government stepped in, a network of social backup for people. I thought that that was the way it is. I later found out that is not the way it is everywhere.
I was used to the idea of people working together.
F.A.: When you saw the garbage can pickers, you saw a big gap in that perception.
A.O.: I think I was twelve or fourteen years old. I saw a man picking food out of a garbage can. The first reaction was yuck! then I said, why is he doing that? There's a grocery store that has food. There's a butcher shop that has food. I didn't know what to make of it. I went up to talk to my parents about it immediately.
My mother heard the story and she just disappeared into the kitchen and began filling a brown paper bag with food. My father's first response was, When you're a little older you'll understand.
I said, No, Papa. I want to know now. He couldn't give me a full-blown answer. He vaguely identified with Socialism, but how do you answer such a question? There is no human answer to that. There just isn't.
And because I was that kind [of a questioning] kid, I began to experience a lot of existential loneliness. I was in high school at the time. I felt isolated because the things I wanted to talk about nobody else gave a shit. My teachers freaked out when I opened my mouth....
I remember the first time I questioned the existence of a God. It was a big thing in the whole school.
I was hungry for answers. It so happened that at that point in the history of the United States, particularly in my community, there were groups of very vociferous young Communists, shooting their mouths off like crazy. And what they had to say made sense to me.
But the reason I hooked up with them was that I was lonely. Here I had found a group of young people telling me why that guy was eating out of a garbage can. And so I was drawn to it [the Communist Party] like filings to a magnet.
I can't talk about that without saying that the same thing that brought me into the Communist Party made it impossible for me to stay in it after twenty, twenty-five years of devoted service. [In the '50s] I realized that this movement to which I had dedicated my life was neither radical nor humanist. I learned about the gulags. There's nothing humanist about concentration camps.
I learned the painful lesson that revolutionaries are much better people before the revolution. Then they become very conservative. They want to hang on to what they have. I've seen that in the Russian revolution, in the Civil Rights movement, in Nicaragua. As soon as some success begins to come in, corruption comes along with it.
But I'm still a radical humanist. I'm concerned about the welfare of the people in the world I live in. And I believe that changes have to be fundamental. Charity won't do it. Bill Gates giving 2% of his wealth won't do it. I believe it requires a fundamental change that is not even on the agenda.
My first collision with society was when I was sixteen and I organized a club: The Brownsville Athletic and Cultural Club. All of us pumped iron. We were a strange collection of people. And we loved classical music.
We got some kind of a basement and fixed it up for a clubhouse. About this time, I saw furniture dumped on the sidewalk and a mama and her kids [evicted from their apartment] crying! It made me more than sadit made me pissed!! So when the Young Communists, who knew about me, came to me and said, You can do something very useful in this neighborhood, you and your guysbecome a furniture squad. Every time furniture shows up on the street, you and your guys are going to put it back in the apartment.
Ultimately, landlords would give up [this practice] because rent was $8-10 a month. To evict a family cost a landlord $7. So, after two evictions, he just gave up. After a while we had no more evictions.
It was a very big thing to me. First of all, you are fifteen-sixteen and you don't know it but you are a leader. It felt good to have people like you and respect you. It was also the first time I ever got busted. Not just busted, but beaten up badly, tortured by the police. Because we made the fatal error of beating up a cop, see?
F.A.: During a furniture raid?
A.O.: Yeah. Normally, the cops didn't bug us too much. They'd let us go by with the furniture. This one guy [cop], it turned out later, was a member of the Nazi Bund. He was a German sympathizer. He confronted us, blocked our way. I'll never forget what he said. He said, You god damn bunch of dirty, Communist, Jew bastards. It was all true except the bastards part. That pushed it over the line. We beat the shit out of him, took his gun away. There's a penalty that goes with that.
F.A.: As a young Communist leader what did you do?
A.O.: An example. When I became a leader of the Young Communist League, baseball was not an integrated sport. The first campaign to integrate baseball took place in Brooklyn, at Ebbets Field, and the guy was Jackie Robinson.
I had never been to a baseball game in my life, but I organized a campaign to get Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I didn't even like the fuckin' game!
Or I'd meet with young people who were working in factories to discuss how to get a union. I was way out of my depth because I was a kid [myself]. Even when I came back from Spain I was only a little over twenty-two years old, telling people how to organize unions. I didn't know that much. I was learning all the time.
In my neighborhood there was not a single hospitalover 200,000 people and not one hospital, not one high school. So these were issues to fight on. I'd meet with young people who were particularly involved in one of these things and help them find a way to fight effectively. And, in fact, we did. We achieved some victories. My neighborhood became internationally known as the first neighborhood in the world to have a library specifically designed for children, in Brownsville, in Brooklyn. I was involved in that [fight]. And we got the hospital. There were more groups involved other than the Young Communist League, but we were part of that whole struggle.
When social networks began to appear, they had no provisions for really young people. We formed the first organization, it took place in my community. It was called the Single Unemployed Protective LeagueSUPL. We fought tooth and nail, and we finally broke through and got a New York City administrative lawor something like that, I don't remember that detailwhich provided a small income for single unemployed people. I think it was something like $5 a week. You could eat and rent a small room on that kind of money then.
F.A.: You were part of the CIO's organizing efforts for coal miners in Pennsylvania. What did you do there?
A.O.: There were some very capable guys doing organizational work and they needed gofers. They needed people who would show up at a mine and hand out leaflets. You couldn't get many people to do that. You could get killed for doing that. They'd beat the shit outta ya! I remember being run out of town and being told in no uncertain terms, If we see you here again, it's going to be your ass, buddy.
There was a lot of violence, racism, what have you. The miners were on one side of the street, picketing, and the police were on the other side. All lined up. At this time there were few black miners, but there was a tall, strong, really big black man in the line, walking around. And there was this fuckin' redneck cop on the other side of the streeta little pipsqueak of a guy. He kept taunting the black guy with all kinds of racial slurs, really nasty.
He wanted to start something. He just kept it up, over and over. The black guy wouldn't look at him, just kept walking. But this guy wouldn't give up. Finally, a white guy, another redneck on our side, who was walking behind the black guy, said, Leave that goddam nigger alone!
That night at a Union meeting, a friend of mine, a New York Jew who wore glasses, said to the redneck, It was a good thing you did, standing up for your Union brother like that, but you also did a very bad thing.
The redneck said, What do you mean?
My friend said, You called your Union brother a nigger.
Well, he ain't a white man.
My friend started to say something, then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and the black guy was standing behind him. He said, Hey, don't worry about that. Them's the kindest words I ever heard.
F.A.: Now that you are no longer a Communist, what kind of social infrastructure do you think is necessary to implement the kind of changes we need?
A.O.: The answer is, not only don't I know, I don't even attempt to define it. I've come to a place in my life where to be goal-oriented is building in future defeat. I'm concerned with the road I'm on and the direction in which it goes. Whether it will achieve or not achieve what I would like to see happen is secondary to the fact that I live in a moral and ethical way. I don't need to be assured that someday we'll have a wonderful society. And frankly, I don't think it will happen. I think we can make things better. I think we can file down the teeth of the capitalist beast but I'm not sure that we can forever eliminate greed in human nature.
I have some greed in me. I have to fight with it all the time. I want the good stuff. And I could have it if I wanted it. I know damn well that with my energy and my organizational capacity I could have written my own ticket. Bill Gates ain't got nothing on me. But I don't want that shit. I really don't. What I have is too much for me. [Abe lives with his wife in a modest one-story house with a small yard.] A little space and a place to cook some food. I don't need anything more.
There was a Spanish philosopher poet, who died at the end of the Spanish Civil War, he said...Do you know any Spanish?
A.O.: I'll translate. Traveler, there is no road. You make that road by walking it. That is the only road. So that is why I don't get depressed about this Bush shit, this horror that is unfolding. It too shall pass. And we'll have another load of crap. I don't believe that human beings are essentially good or evil. Basically, there are makings of good and evil in every human being. That's what I would call an intelligent mess.
For myself, I am capable of sacrificing my life for things I believe in. I am also capable of killing you if you fuck around with things I consider essential. I had no problem killing Nazis. When I was engaged in combat and had to kill Italian infantrymen in the Spanish Civil War, I was reluctant to shoot those guys because most of them were poor slobs who didn't know what the hell Mussolini sent them there for.
But Nazis? It was fun. Now that sounds crazy, but it was fun to hunt down a bunch of bastards who can pick up a baby by his heels and smash his brains out against a wall. I looked for the opportunity. People say, you are so full of violence. I don't understand that because to me legitimate anger is one of the highest forms of love. If one does not have the capacity to be angry about what is going on in the world, don't talk to me about love.
F.A.: Going back to greed, you said that you fight your own greediness but that you don't really want very much. This seems like a contradiction.
A.O.: All we need is food, and to be reasonably dry and warm. We need the affection and concern of other human beings. All the rest is unnecessary.
F.A.: If we need so little, why do you think we have this insatiable desire for more?
A.O.: You get a bunch of little babies together and put some goodies in front of them. Some are more generous than others, but they all have to be taught that it's in their own self interest not to... (makes a grabbing gesture). That's a learned thing. It's not natural. Look what animals do. Animals will fight like crazy over food. The mother will fight like crazy to see that the cubs get fed. But the cubs will fight with each other.
And I think that is true of the human equation too. I mean, there are very few people who won't take extra measures, including self-deprivation, so the kids will have enough. But the same parent will fuck you over. The prime example was the Nazis. When they went into a town in Russia, they would exterminate the entire population and then they took little fur coats and hats and sent them home to their children. They did not love children. They loved THEIR children. The extension of their egos.
Listen, I know my greed. I know it damn well. I was offered large bribes to give up the leadership of some big struggles. I was leading a big struggle against a multi-million dollar project in Los Angeles, a development project. I had them on the ropes. And don't you know, they came and offered me a BIG package. They, being the city council, offered me real estate on part of the project, a marinaa dock and a boat. I had to fight all night with myself. It was like a dream. It was guaranteed.
The same thing happened when I was much younger and the Democratic Party in Brooklyn came to me and offered me a seat in Congress uncontested. There was no Republican contesting the seat. The only thing I had to do was publicly renounce my radical proclivities. That was the price. There have been moments, even now, that I say, Maybe I could have done more for the people [if I had taken that congressional seat]. No, the fact is that many young people get involved in politics who are pretty decent, but the process is erosive. Very few are able to withstand that. How many Wellstones are there? One in the fuckin' whole bunch. There are half-Wellstones, quarter-Wellstones. And even Wellstone wasn't pure. Wellstone made some deals that I didn't like very much. But I'm not going to judge him because I was not in his position.
What makes a difference, in the broadest sense of the term, is education. I mean learning about life. Being taught not that it is improper to do that, but that it is in your own interest not to do that. Because if you are going to knock that kid off your mama's titty, another kid is going to come along that's stronger than you and knock you off. The best thing is to get together and decide that everybody gets at least a good share.
The American public, in the main, are spoiled. Spoiled brats. Including American Leftists. They live pretty well. You know, I made a list of Leftists I know and what they do for a living. None of them bake bread, lay bricks, build houses. They all work for non-profits, government jobs, university jobs. Not allmost. They've got it pretty good under capitalism. And that's why they don't have staying power.
F.A.: Do you think the problem lies with capitalism? Is capitalism a system that in your mind is evil or do you think it works? You were a Communist. Do you think that system doesn't work or was it just the people who were running it? Clearly, Stalin was not a good person, any system he was running would have been a nightmare.
A.O.: The problem with Communism goes way beyond Stalin. Systems work or don't work depending on how well they tap into different aspects of human nature. Capitalism works very well for many things. As a matter of fact, we have yet to have a system which produces more and which distributes more. But capitalism, basically, limits its appeal to the worst side of human nature.
Human beings are everything. They are good; they are bad; they are giving; they are greedy. Capitalism appeals to greed. It appeals to me first. And that's why so many people have no problem with it.
Communism attempts to appeal to the other side of human nature: the giving, the collective, we love each other, and so forth. And I think it originates out of that. But also, in a way, it violates certain aspects of human nature. To be explicit, if I'm a member of a collective, we all get the same conditions; we all get the same pay. I'm a hard worker and you're a lazy son-of-a-bitch. There's a point at which I say to myself, What the fuck am I doing? Why am I busting my ass? This appeal to social conscience works for a while but after a while you can't escape that that bastard doesn't do shit! And gets the same living conditions I do. So the productivity falls to the lowest level.
I witnessed that personally in Nicaragua. I worked on and for a collective. First of all, most of the men did shit, period. The women did all the work. And that's a failure of the collective. All the men in the collective got the same wages, and so did the women. Women did not usually get paid for their work in Nicaragua. The first woman who got any wages was the woman we hired to cook for us. She was envied by every woman that knew about her because she was doing what she always did anyhow, except she was getting the same pay as the cowboys, who were smoking cigarettes and bullshitting.
I could see the deterioration of the collective because it does violate a certain aspect of the human conditionit is unfair. It isn't fair for you to get paid when you've been fucking around all day and I've been, in the name of the cause, busting my ass. And, eventually, I don't want to bust my ass, so it falls to the lowest common denominator where nobody wants to work too hard. I saw a lot of collectives surrender to this. I saw day-by-day how the guys worked less and less, except some of the guys who were willing to work, who did all kinds of things.
In July, 1979, in Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolt overthrew Anastasio Tacho Somoza's longtime dictatorship. Daniel Ortega became president on January 10, 1985. During this time, the Reagan Administration funded the Contras, a coalition of former Somozistas, disaffected Sandinistas and dissatisfied peasants, in an attempt to oust the Sandinista junta. As a result of a peace agreement, elections were held in 1990. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a right-centralist candidate, was elected president and took office in April, 1991.
F.A.: When were you in Nicaragua?
A.O.: In '85. The Sandinistas had been in full power for six years when I arrived. It didn't take me long to see that, at best, I would be a critical supporter of the regime, not an enthusiastic one. But, whatever their faults, they were at least doing some things to make life better for the people. At the same time, it was evident to me that corruption was creeping in.
F.A.: How long did you stay?
A.O.: Less than a year. I went down in the spring of '85 and traveled around, deciding where I would do a [construction] project, taking into account the Contra situation. I decided on a location because the government had promised the people there a housing project. After two years, nothing had happened because no one wanted to work there. It was a bad spot; it was physically almost unreachable; it was nearly on top of a mountain; there were no roads, just a path; we had to get material for thirty houses up there; we had to build three little bridges, and so forth. And it was totally surrounded by Contrasso it was perfect...for propaganda purposes.
I was in a very funny situation in Nicaragua because I don't think there were two or three hundred Nicaraguans who knew about the Spanish Civil War, let alone the International Brigades. The common people hadn't the slightest concept. You know what they called me? What my name was? Abraham Lincoln. Because on my truck was written, The Lincoln Brigade of Construction. People would write to me and say, Dear Abraham Lincoln, could you do this or that.
But the top dogs knew, of course they knew. They had a great deal of respect for the guys who fought in Spain so I got invited to their homes. I didn't go very often, and after a while I couldn't go [at all]. I would sit down with them, in an air conditioned house that they had taken over from the bourgeoisie, and eat imported stuff. I mean, top stuff, including imported wines, including high quality Cuban cigars. I saw their kids get on buses and go to special schools. They did their shopping in special dollar stores for the top dogs. I saw it happening.
F.A.: People were aware of what was going on? The corruption?
A.O.: The people at the very bottom were not [aware]. They were getting some medical attention, their kids were going to some primitive little schools. They never, ever, had that before. For them, life had opened up. And here [we were], a bunch of guys under government supervision who were building them new little houses, with running water. They thought they were in heaven. But in the intermediary strata, just below the top dogs, there were people who knew...and wanted some of it.
F.A.: Were they the people who caused Ortega to be ousted?
A.O.: No, no. The election was won by a total opposition, the people of the right-center. There was a big, important family, a matriarchy, who had people on both [political] sides. And she [Violeta Chamorro] won the election. She had two sons who were extreme Sandinistas, and she had two or three others, including a daughter, who were way over on the other side. Very complicated politics.
F.A.: What did you think of the Contras?
A.O.: As a movement, they were a very reactionary force. But that doesn't mean that all the individuals who fought with them were. Some of them were people who really believed that life would be better by ousting the Sandinistas.
The leadership was totally rotten to the core. They were in cahoots with Ronald Reagan. They were armed by the United States. Most of those guys went around murdering school teachers. I was there when it happened. They murdered health workers. They were murdering anyone who was doing something to show the peasants that there was something better in life possible.
We didn't suffer very much. They didn't mess around with foreigners.
F.A.: Why did you go down there?
A.O.: I figured the best way to make a noticeable protest against Reagan policies was to do it in manifest concrete terms. I undertook to build a [cooperative] village for thirty families, with a decent water supply. [The project] got a lot of attention. And I was able to use that as a forum to take a position on Reagan.
I had my two boys with me. My son Doug (points to Doug's picture) is a demolitions expert. He knows how to make little bombs... One day we were stuck for materials and the truck couldn't make it up the mountain. Doug went into town, and the next thing I know there's a tractorwhich could help pull the trucks up the mountaincoming up the road and Dougie was driving it. I said, Doug, where'd you get that?
He said, I went down to the fuckin' Ministry of Agriculture. Them fuckin' bureaucrats! There's three-four tractors been sittin' there for weeks. Nobody's doin' nothing. So I hot-wired one of them. For the rest of the job, we had a tractor.
My younger son thinks it was all a waste of effort because not long after we completed that project, it fell apart. Partly under pressure from the Contras, partly out of greed. One or two families got together and began to run the whole show. Finally, two families underhandedly sold the rights for logging to an American company, unbeknownst to the other members of the co-op. The first they knew about it was when equipment showed up and they started to put a road in. Big trucks were coming, and trees were falling. By then it was too late.
That was after the defeat of the Sandinistas in the election. I don't think the Sandinistas would have permitted that.
F.A.: Were the Sandinistas really Russian-run Communists, or were they aligned with Cuba and Russia because those were the only places they could find support?
A.O.: To me, the evidence would suggest that they were marginally influenced by Marxism, but much more by the fact that they were surrounded by Russian guns, Russian trucks.
In Cuba, that was even more the case. Cubans lived in a false world. For decades, the Soviet Union bought all their sugar at a high price and sold them all their equipment at a low price. Once that changed you had a disaster. The embargo isn't what's killing Cuba, because European countries don't have her under embargo. Cubans can get everything they can get from the United States, from Europe. They just don't have the fuckin' money. And they don't have the money, partly, because their economy was a false economy. A one crop economy. As long as they could get high prices, why raise anything but sugar?
When we were there [in Nicaragua], we lived with the peasants. We ate their shitty food. Beans and rice, rice and beans, rice without beans, beans without rice. I used to go shopping once in a while. Did I tell you about my cooking?
A.O.: I decided that I was going to do the cooking on weekends because of the woman they had assigned to do itwe called her Typhoid Mary `cause her idea of sanitation left a little bit to be desired. She had a one-year-old and she would wipe off the kid's ass with her wet palm and continue making the tortillas. She didn't have a faucet or soap or towels. If we were lucky, she'd rinse three or four times with water. So I undertook the cooking on weekends. I'd travel around the area, find odds and ends. I'd put some kind of a meal together. I remember once I found some spaghetti and tomatoes. That was luxury.
Well, the word started to get around: there's a guy who cooks. That was almost unknown in Latin America. After a few weekends, people were coming from as far as fifteentwenty miles on horseback to see this. The men would stand on one side and the women on the other, and I'd listen to the guys. One guy said to another, But he doesn't look like a fairy. Yeah, but he is a fairy. Men don't cook! No, no, he's a little strange but he's not a fairy.
Then I would take my spoon and I would walk over to the women and they would taste the food. They thought it was very good because it had salt and pepper in it, which they didn't have. And the women would say to me, Oh, how good. Do the men in your country do this kind of thing? More and more, I'd say.
Then I'd walk over and offer a taste to the men. I think to this day there must be legends about this man who looked like a man but who cooked like a woman.
Here's a picture of Typhoid Mary. This was taken after I had given her a mirror. Before that, she had never seen herself, really! In many parts of the world people don't know what they look like. Never seen themselves unless in the clear surface of water.
I went into town one day, to the hotel where the tourist liberals, as I called them, stayed. There was a rich woman in the lobby who told me she was leaving and [asked] if I would do her a favor. Would I take this bag of presents and get them to some of the people? Inside the bag were some useful things, a few tools, household items, things like that. And also a hand-held mirror, a comb, a brush, and a hair clip. When I got back to the project I handed Mary the mirror. She looked in it and said, It is my mother.
The next day she came in with her hair all combed and clipped back. She started noticing other people, men too. She was married, but she started noticing other people and was aware of how she looked.
F.A.: Is there anyone in history that you think maintained a principled life?
A.O.: Yeah, Tom Paine. One of the very few. And he paid very dearly for it. The guy died in poverty, being rejected totally. Some of the abolitionists. The groundbreakers, the first guys in any area that broke the crust. We know what happened to most of them, but what they did and what they said remains, to some degree. And, eventually, some of it became the texture of our lives.
Rita Fritz Amer, a writer who lives in Seattle, has a long standing passion for good causes. She has a M.A. in dance.