Julia & Rodrigo
By Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)
I was thirteen in 1968, when Franco Zeffirelli’s lush version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet hit the big screen. It was also the year of the Tet offensive, the year Peter Arnett reported that a United States military officer had insisted, on the record, that his unit had had to destroy a village in order to save it. The banality of evil embraced by the U.S. government in drafting its young men and sending them to Vietnam resonated with that of the Montaques and Capulets in sacrificing their children to a murderous feud. As Romeo and Juliet, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey — who were not trained Shakespearean actors but teenagers themselves-proved the ultimate flower children, making love not war. To watch the film was not just to fall in love with love-thanks, in part, to a groundbreakingly titillating, but still G-rated, two-minute nude scene — but to vow, in the revolutionary argot of the day, not to trust anyone over thirty.
In his new novel Julia & Rodrigo, Mark Brazaitis achieves a similar synchronicity with history along a Romeo and Juliet theme. The setting is Guatemala, where, in 1954, in a covert operation, the CIA toppled democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, replacing him with a military dictator, in retaliation for land-reform schemes that threatened the holdings of the United Fruit Company, an American multinational corporation. This was the Cold War, and the United States was intent on extirpating communism from its back yard. Social and political upheaval under military rule resulted in the Guatemalan Civil War, an armed confrontation between the Guatemalan army, trained in counterinsurgency techniques by the United States, and leftist rebel groups. The war raged for 36 years, from 1960 to 1996, and led to the deaths and disappearances of over 200,000 people.
“Why do the blanquitas always win?” Rodrigo yells out in the novel’s first chapter when pale Ingrid Estrada wins the Flor de Mayo pageant. In the highlands of Santa Cruz, Verapaz, the Civil War, too, plays itself out along racial lines. To a significant degree, the plot of Julia & Rodrigo hinges on the difference between Julia’s being Ladina and Rodrigo’s being half-Mayan and therefore poorer and more vulnerable. It is worth noting that of the victims officially identified as part of the negotiations toward the Oslo Agreement that ended the Guatemalan Civil War, 83 percent were Mayan and 17 percent Ladino.
When, on his 18th birthday, Rodrigo receives a telegram from the Cobán Imperials inviting him to become a professional soccer player, he’s over the moon. With his future assured, he can seek permission to marry Julia. Fans of Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow will experience similar paroxysms of Latin American soccer joy in reading Julia & Rodrigo. Instead of teaching the torches to burn bright, Julia teaches the soccer ball to be kicked sublimely across the field and into the net. “Sometimes we need reminders of the divine, even if they come only on a soccer field,” Julia’s strict Evangelical engineer father concedes.
As does the Shakespearean original, Julia & Rodrigo vexes the question of genre. Does the novel meet the requirements for classical tragedy, or does it not? Is Rodrigo’s reversal of fortune caused by a tragic flaw (for example, his foolishness in seeking out drunken womanizer Pedro Mendez for advice on how to become a man), or does it simply arise from the happenstance of the Civil War? Is moral weakness at work or simply bad luck?
The tensions between Catholics and Evangelicals — over alcohol, the rights of the poor, the role of the army and the question of God’s role in the universe — also drive the novel, and it is a tribute to Brazaitis’ talents as a writer that he doesn’t oversimplify them. Julia’s father tells her, “God has given Rodrigo a different destiny than what he expected and hoped for, but this is right because it is what God decided.” Rodrigo’s mother tells her, “But in this war, I don’t see God.” Julia is an Evangelical “who misses being Catholic.” She dutifully listens as Hermano Hector booms out leading questions at the cultos in the Church of God, but she also retreats to the flowers and candle wax of the calvario unbeknownst to her parents.
Astute readers will also discover numerous creative connections with the original text of Romeo and Juliet. Rodrigo is transfixed by the question of “what’s in a name?” He writes Julia’s name in big letters in the jungle, “the way a monkey would howl it.” Julia defers to her father to solve her problems as Juliet defers to Friar Lawrence. Rodrigo is cruelly banished, although not for killing Tybalt. There is even a balcony scene, albeit one that occurs between star-crossed lovers in old age in a scary movie Julia sees with friends. For the record, too, the novel’s points of plot contrast with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are as compelling as its points of comparison.
In propping up military dictators, the United States certainly did its part in exacerbating the class differences that led to untold violence in Guatemala. I could be didactic here and remind readers that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing apace in the United States. There’s no time like the present to read Julia & Rodrigo — and so on. The novel, however, is not a polemic about Guatemala. It is a love story. Thus I think I would be much truer to Brazaitis’ purposes if I simply recommended Julia & Rodrigo to anyone who has ever fallen in love and to anyone who ever will. As Julia tries to plead with Rodrigo, “I’ll be the girl I was if you’ll be the boy.” But there is no going back. In love, as in politics, the future depends on our recognizing the scope of the loss.
Ann Neelon has a longstanding interest in Latin America. She has lived for a sabbatical year in Costa Rica; taught in Mexico with the Kentucky Institute for International Studies; traveled to Honduras and Nicaragua as a Witness for Peace Volunteer; won a grant to research Bartolomé de las Casas at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin; and compiled and edited a journal issue devoted to the theme of “Mexico in the Heartland.” She has also published translations of poems by Jorge Debravo, Oscar Acosta, and José Roberto Cea. She is Director of the Low-Residency M.F.A. Program at Murray State University and Editor of New Madrid.
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