Journey to the Heart of the Condor: Love, Loss, and Survival in a South American Dictatorship is the story of author Emily Creigh’s Peace Corps service in Paraguay from 1975 to 1977, during the height of repression carried out by the U.S.-backed Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship in its push to rid the country of political “dissidents” (a term conveniently applied to anyone opposed to the dictator). Creigh’s touching and humorous story of personal transformation unfolds against the backdrop of the regime’s brutality as related by co-author Dr. Martín Almada, a Paraguayan attorney and educator. Dr. Almada became one of the first victims of Operation Condor — the covert international campaign of state terrorism — and spent nearly three years in prison after being falsely accused of being a communist sympathizer. The two narratives overlap in a heartrending yet inspirational story of patriotism, sacrifice, and redemption.
A recent college graduate struggling to figure out what to do with her life, Emily finally decides to serve her country and make a difference in the world: she joins the Peace Corps, a childhood dream, and embarks for South America. After arriving in Paraguay in January 1975 and training for three months, she moves to the interior and begins working as a home educator in agricultural extension, forming and advising young women’s clubs similar to 4-H clubs in the U.S. She must assimilate into another culture — soon realizing her life is changing more than her charges’ — as she simultaneously deals with the fallout from her father’s tragic death the year before. Despite a series of setbacks, Emily finds the resilience she needs to keep going as she lets go of grief and learns to love again. A tender but clear-eyed portrait of Peace Corps life — the Volunteers, the work, the lessons learned, the joy, the anguish — and of the Paraguayan people and their culture — the music, food and drink, the Guaraní language, the rampant machismo — Emily’s engaging story sheds light on some troubling truths, and challenges us to question our assumptions about things we’ve been taught and hold dear.
But paralleling Emily’s is another, more sinister story.
Six weeks before Emily arrives in Paraguay, military police raid the office of Dr. Martín Almada, thirty-seven, director of the Juan Bautista Alberdi Institute for fourteen years along with his wife, Celestina. The couple has long been on the dictator’s radar for criticizing the Paraguayan educational system, and for following the teachings of Brazilian liberation educator Paulo Freire. When the officers do not find the guns and communist materials they are looking for, they force Dr. Almada into a “little red riding hood” — a red Chevrolet van used to pick up so-called “subversives” — and drive him to the Department of Investigations in downtown Asunción. There he begins a nearly three-year residency in hell: the secret military prison system. He is tortured for a month and spends the rest of his incarceration in sub-human conditions. Sadly, during his time of confinement, Celestina dies and he is stripped of his livelihood.
Yet despite the crushing deprivation, Martín is able to write and publish Paraguay: The Forgotten Jail, the Country in Exile just six months after his release. This book is a spellbinding narrative that describes the despair of being unjustly imprisoned, his humble beginnings and path to awareness (along with that of his mother, whom he taught to overcome her fear of confronting people in power and as a result became his fiercest advocate), details about the dictatorship and how it operated, and conversations he had with fellow prisoners from across the political spectrum about Paraguay’s problems and how best to solve them. Dr. Almada’s story of courage and resilience is inspiring, especially as he continues to risk his life fighting for human rights at home and around the world.
When Emily began writing her memoir in 2011, she discovered Dr. Almada’s book on the Internet and realized she had to include his story with her own. She emailed him and received a response the very next day, thus initiating their unique friendship and collaboration in keeping the memory of those times alive.
Emily holds degrees in international studies and education. Since retiring as a Family Literacy educator in 2011, she founded Casa Satori (celebrating “health, harmony, and books”) and has returned to Paraguay three times, including as an election observer with School of Americas Watch in 2013. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she plays “bordergrass” music with her husband.
Right Livelihood (“Alternative Nobel”) Award-winner Dr. Almada holds degrees in law and education. In September 2015 he testified at the Trial on Crimes against Humanity in Rome and met privately with Pope Francis. Through the Celestina Pérez de Almada Foundation in Asunción, he and his second wife, María Stella de Cáceres, work to protect human rights and environmental sustainability.