Faith, Hope, Compassion
Sandra Benítez owes her life to these images. A picture of a tiny boy with the face of a grown man, dwarfed beneath the weight of his oversize gown. A drawing of a young woman, hair streaming down her back, whose head is wreathed in blinding stars. A yellowing photograph of a priest who stares obliquely off into some unseen space beyond the camera lens.
Benítez is removing these pictures from her wallet as she sits in a café inside Stillwater's Valley Bookseller, where she is preparing to read from her novel The Weight of All Things (Hyperion). She sets them on the table in front of her, leafing through them with a personal pride that most people reserve for showing off family portraits. At nearly 60 years of age, dressed in a sharp black suit and spreading her arms out authoritatively as she leans back into her chair, Benítez does look the part of the grand matriarch to a dynastic family. But in spite of a veneer that commands respect, there is also something delicate, almost mystical, about her. Benítez stands hardly five feet tall, and the way that the light comes in through the windows and illuminates the gold bracelets clinking on her thin wrists makes her hands look frail and small as she sorts through her pictures. She is at once commanding and diminutive.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that these images she keeps in her wallet--of the Infant of Prague, the Holy Mother, and canonized monsignor Josemaria Escriva--are also of a mystical cast. They have become a kind of lifeblood connection for Benítez, something she needs in order to survive. In her mind the idea of salvation through old pictures has nothing to do with metaphor or hyperbole. Benítez believes that the image of Monsignor Escriva literally helped to save her sister's life.
"My sister [Anita] was caught in downtown El Salvador during the civil war in 1984," she explains, shaking her head vigorously to emphasize the gravity of her story. "There was a gun battle between the Salvadorian army and a band of guerrilleros that stopped her car. One of the guerrilleros was standing on the hood of her car, and she was literally caught in the crossfire. My sister made everyone in her back seat lie down on the floor of the car, and she took out a picture of Monsignor Escriva, who was being canonized, and she prayed to him.
"She said, 'Intercede for me.' The guerrillero was killed on the hood of the car, right in front of her. And later she saw that there were only small bullet holes in her car; nothing pierced through. And there had been a hand grenade that rolled under her car but never went off. My sister was the one who gave me this picture of Escriva, and I carry it around with me. She says, 'If you ever want to be saved, this will help.'"
In the flux of Benítez's unpredictable life she has been saved many times, and the mix between social upheaval and religious faith that her sister experienced has been the motivating force behind her final calling as a novelist. Many of the political themes that have graced the pages of Benítez's novels have come directly from her own experiences growing up amid various forms of social and spiritual conflict in Latin America.
As the daughter of a relatively wealthy Anglo-American diplomat father and a Puerto Rican mother, Benítez was aware of class conflict from a very early age. Growing up in Mexico and El Salvador, she was often asked by her family's servants to help them write letters home to their own families. What she found in the letters--spouses' desperate requests for simple necessities like shoes and food, children's lonely pleas to see their parents, and countless prayers to the Virgin Mary to reunite families--would later surface in a novel, the multigenerational epic Bitter Grounds.
When Benítez was 14 years old, she began writing letters of her own. In the interest of providing a better education and an "Americanizing" influence, Benítez was sent to live with her paternal grandparents on an impoverished dairy farm in Missouri. She communicated with her parents only through the mail until the summers, when she would return to El Salvador. Benítez recounts that she prayed a great deal during this time. Decades later, when she was 52, these prayers coalesced into a narrative of faith and determination that became a theme in her first book, A Place Where the Sea Remembers, a novel-in-stories about daily life in Mexico.
Benítez's latest book, The Weight of All Things, centers on the experiences of a more unrooted child, Nicolás, a nine-year-old boy who manages to survive the violent conflicts of war-torn El Salvador during the 1980s. Caught in a riot that erupts during the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Nicolás's mother dies in crossfire similar to that which Benítez's sister survived. He refuses to believe that she is dead and sets off on an epic journey to find her. Throughout the novel Nicolás tries to prevent armies on both sides from using him as an ideological tool and, as a result, often feels conflicted about not being able to adhere to either side's agenda.
"Am I an act of revolution, Tata? Are you?" young Nicolás asks his grandfather after hearing a guerrilla's rabble-rousing speech. The grandfather replies, "No, my son, you are not an act of revolution. We are not....We are caught in the middle. That's what we are."
Benítez herself shares the grandfather's sentiments. While she was living in the United States after the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which an entire town was destroyed by an elite battalion of the Salvadorian army, she could only listen to the stories of friends and family and try to imagine what their experiences would be like.
"[After El Mozote] things just seemed to get worse and worse," she says. "Guerrilleros weren't just kidnapping the rich anymore, they were kidnapping the middle and lower classes who couldn't afford ransom. Then in the Nineties there were the earthquakes and entire campos were lost.
"The economy is still suffering and there is still so much political instability, and it's hard to deal with hearing that from the people I am close to, who have been living over there while I was in the United States. From what I hear from them, I think for the first time Salvadorian people are losing hope about the country. I think the only thing that keeps them going now is faith in God."
Faith also helped Benítez deal with separation from her family, especially from her estranged mother who recently died. When she discusses her relationship with her mother, she speaks quickly and fumbles with her bracelets.
"I was a twin," Benítez says, "but my sister Susana died not too long after she was born, and it was very hard on the family. I grew up in the shadow of having caused my mother the grief of losing a child. I survived, but my mother never quite recovered from the loss of my sister. She told me one time that she was afraid of getting too close to me because she was afraid of losing me like she lost Susana. I think that, like Nicolás, a touch of the survivor built up in me because I was the one who survived."
While this may sound like an existential theme, Benítez is anything but depressing or defeatist in her philosophy or fiction. While she was growing up, she dealt with feelings of maternal loss through her relationship with a surrogate mother: the Virgin Mary. In The Weight of All Things, Nicolás does the same. Throughout the novel, the Blessed Virgin appears to Nicolás in a series of visions, advising him to be calm, to go forward unafraid, and, sometimes, to strike out in self-defense. In an age where literature is increasingly cynical, many readers may have trouble interpreting these earnest visions as anything but the delirious fantasies of a child's imagination. But Benítez is a believer, and she takes them as seriously in her work as she does in her life.
"I have had visions," she says cautiously. She pretends to stare out the window, but appears to be peeking back out of the corner of her eye to see if anyone in the café will believe her. "When I was sent to my grandparents' house in rural Missouri, it was a very poor place. There was no heat except for a potbellied stove in the bitter winter. I slept upstairs and I remember there was always frost on the inside of the window. Even inside, I could see my breath in my room. It was very, very cold." As Benítez speaks she seems to be leaning back into this lucid memory. Suddenly, it doesn't appear to matter who, if anyone, believes her.
"I guess for the years that I lived there, I was poor like Nicolás," she continues. "And I remember being up in that cold room one day and really being visited by a spirit. This was not a ghost; this was God. I don't even know how to explain it, but there was just something there. The lights were on, and it was daytime, but the room started filling up with more and more light, this hazy light, and it was powerful and I wasn't scared. It gave me hope."
One would need to have Benítez's unfaltering hope and optimism in order to believe in the power of literature as zealously as she does. In emotional lectures and readings across the country, she spends much of her time speaking about the ways that stories can heal.
"Telling a story empties us so that we can be filled up again," she maintains. "We're forever saying, 'Hey, listen to this!' or 'Guess what happened to me?' Sometimes I think about what I feel about the power of stories and I get this flash to a picture of Salvadorian people who have lost their children, and I can just see them saying, 'Tell me how stories can save me! I have lost my whole family. How can you say that?'
"I know that I am talking in an idealistic way, and I have to feel careful about that. But I think that even these families need stories to unburden themselves of their tragedies. That's what it means to grieve. I hope that's what I'm doing with my writing."
Could being a writer mean all of the things Benítez thinks it does: having visions, telling prophecies, healing those who grieve, and thus falling just short of sainthood? If it does, then God help her. But in this life, all she can do is take these things on faith.
And that is precisely what Benítez does, lifting her pictures of the Infant of Prague, the Virgin Mary, and Monsignor Escriva back up from the table one by one to prepare for her reading at the Valley Bookseller. She holds them in one hand, picks up The Weight of All Things with the other, and walks toward the podium.
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