Dan Berrigan's Latin American Exile
In the mid-1960s, in response to conservative Catholics’ intense criticism of Dan Berrigan’s outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, his superiors sent him to Latin America. Although his supporters saw it as an exile, his three months in several Latin American countries had its positive side too. It allowed him to observe at first hand the poverty of the people living in shacks on hillsides, the favellas. At the time of his exile, Dan was working for the periodical, Jesuit Missions. During his travels he was able to write reports which he transmitted back to the magazine’s office. What follow are some of the accounts of his experiences.
In an article called “The House of Cards”, he spoke of walking through Rio’s favellas: “The poor who cannot claim much of this world, cling to what they can, like the mountain vegetation itself, with all its force, with all its roots.” Dan was present when, on January 8, 1965, a fierce storm hit Rio at one a.m. “It struck the hillsides, where the favellas stood, a jungle of paper, tin and wood. The people were stricken in their beds in darkness without warning. The rickety houses shuddered and collapsed into a pitiful matchwood debris.” The rains continued for four days, and some 200 died. But Dan saw what lay behind the existence of these communities of the destitute. “In Latin America, as many as fifty percent of urban peoples live and die in favellas. A colonial economic structure, jealousy and nationalism, systems of exploitation and control, all operate so effectively in a political vacuum that social change can be indefinitely delayed.” The upper classes, he wrote, who have so much of this world’s resources, have as their “task in life...to amass more.” As a result, “the poor are not only left behind when the escalator moves upward, they are ground into its gears,” with “their sufferings a kind of lubricant, a necessary ingredient if the wheels are to turn at all.”
“As we stood in the ruined favella,” Dan said in reflecting about his Rio experience, “one man who lived and worked in the area said simply: ‘Nine billion dollars for the war in Viet Nam, and this for us.’” He goes on: “Why are the poor condemned to such an intolerable life? Why does their struggle so seldom invade the false paradise of the wealthy...Must such appalling contrasts of wealth and poverty exist?” After his return to New York, Dan wrote: “I came back from Latin America much more tentative about the possibility of forging the needed changes apart from violence. This was true in countries where all the forces of Church and society seemed to be united against change.”
In another article in the same small Jesuit periodical, “The Church at the Edge,” he comments on his time in Lima, Peru. “The garbage heaps of Lima were 15 years in the making and the desperate who live there are terribly visible.” He speaks of meeting in one of them, an “old woman who had lived on that ‘thing’ all those years. “These rims of suffering cling like great wounds to the hills of Rio, stretch endlessly around Lima or Recife, sit hopelessly on the streets of Quito.” Such problems, he concludes, “force a shaking of complacency, a re-examination of institutions that fail to reach, that do not stretch far enough” to all people. It is this article too that a photo appears of Dan interviewing Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, the great advocate for the poor people of Brazil.
Eventually, as Dan told me one recent evening in his community in lower Manhattan, his exile came to an end and his superiors recalled him. The recall was hastened by supporters who placed a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding his return. When he did come back to New York, Dan continued to protest vigorously against the war in Vietnam. He served two years in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, and then emerged to proceed with his anti-war activities and to write the poetry that remains fresh today. Both activities go on unabated.
George Anderson, S.J.