Twenty years ago, when I was a young reporter living in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, I noticed an old man, a notable figure, dressed entirely in black and an ancient suit with a matching black fedora, wandering the narrow streets of the city at the same time every day. He was always alone, and he looked immensely sad. I asked about the old man and was told that he was a famous local fixture, known as el Cuervo, the Crow: a former executioner of a particularly despicable dictator of the 1930s. Many years earlier, the Crow had come to repent of his bloody past and had donned the black of mourning and dedicated himself to a life of penitence. He had been wearing his shame in public for as long as anyone could remember.
Hearing this story, I thought to myself: This is straight out of Gabriel García Márquez. It was an epiphany for me. I suddenly saw García Márquez’s fiction on a new level. I saw that history was not a dead thing, that it was kept alive in people’s minds, and that it could continue to affect the world in mysterious but meaningful ways, long after the events. And I realized that the objective truth of the old man was perhaps not as important as local lore said it was. The old man embodied the country’s unreconciled feelings about its past. What inhabits people’s minds is usually more revealing than what one sees on the surface. I don’t think I would have come to this understanding if I hadn’t already read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Few authors of modern times have so informed our perception, so enhanced our ability to see the multiple realities of the world, as has Gabriel García Márquez.
I am a journalist now, and the fact that Gabo got his start writing as a journalist means a great deal to me. Journalism gave him a steady job while he worked on his fiction. Throughout most of the ’50s and ’60s, he supported his family through journalism, and he’s never abandoned it entirely, even though most of the world knows him as the creator of a literary realm that is based on the manipulation of the objective world. Gabo has said that for him journalism is the most beautiful profession in the world, and that his greatest nostalgia is for the days when he was a young reporter. I believe that this is not just sweet-sounding rhetoric. Gabo has given generous substance to his words by his involvement with the magazine Cambio in Bogotá and by creating the Foundation for New Journalism, based in Cartagena de Indias, the Caribbean city where he first worked as a reporter. He once described his vision for the Foundation to me in a tone of fatherly pride, but also with a complicit irreverence, as “the nucleus of the genial kind of mafia.” The Foundation encourages young Latin American journalists, young writers like he once was, by providing a permanent forum for them to learn new techniques, meet, exchange ideas, and form working friendships that he hopes will be deep and long lasting.
It has been a great honor over the past few years to be involved in the Foundation, teaching workshops to small groups of fellow reporters from all over the Americas. And based on these experiences, I’d say that Gabo’s hopes have been fulfilled. Those who come are brought there from every corner of Latin America and every social niche. They range from green cub reporters to seasoned veterans. There are those who are self-taught and poor from obscure provincial newspapers and others who are urban sophisticates with advantages of top-notch educations, world travel, and good incomes. Some are already media stars and household names in their own countries, but in Cartagena they are equals, and they sit shoulder to shoulder as students. What brings them is their desire to learn, improve their skills, and communicate their diverse reality, and no doubt the common hope that some of Gabo’s magic might rub off on them.
To my great delight, and I’m sure Gabo shares this pleasure, I’ve seen how many of these students stay in touch with one another after their Cartagena sojourns, and how in many different ways they begin to form precisely the kind of genial mafia Gabo had in mind: encouraging one another, trading ideas, accessing contacts, and even embarking on projects together. They are united by the reality of Gabo’s example, and by the lesson that you start thinking about things by looking closely at what is in front of you. That’s the way Gabo started, although he ended up interpreting historical reality through his own special genius. But he never lost his respect or his sense of camaraderie for those of us who toil solely on the literal level, and his inspiration and material support and moral example have been a priceless gift.