One thought came to my mind when turning the last page. Could this really be based on a true story? There was so much evil between the pages of this heartbreaking novel. It was like there was a disease that was caused by the poverty and deprivation of one class vying with another one that had material wealth and an ostentatious lifestyle. The symptoms were greed, envy, and the desire for power on equal scales, each of which were obvious catalysts inspiring both the guerrilla warfare of Pablo Escobar and his drug cartels and the government’s paramilitary forces that coexisted there, to cause the death and destruction, on a major scale, of innocent people and their property.
There were people who supported those in power and there were people who supported those who committed the acts of violence; they supported the kidnappings and torture and murder of those that disagreed with their beliefs and policies, and when death came to their neighbors, they turned their heads in disgust, depending on whose side they agreed with and whose they did not.
Was there ever a time that the madness could have been stopped? The rich did turn a blind eye to the plight of the very poor, offering them menial jobs, but no real road out of their circumstances. Yet, for evil to flourish, didn’t the people have to acquiesce to its power? Didn’t some of the guilt for their plight lie with the victims, as heinous an idea as that seems? Did they need stronger leaders?
Why did the mothers seem so demanding, even selfish, and always prone to anger and violent behavior toward their children? Why were the men either portrayed as victims who were meek, weak or thugs who took the easy way out or were divorced from the plight of those around them? These were the thoughts that came to me, and. I was sad, but also disappointed with the choices the people made. The educated and the uneducated, alike, made foolish decisions, selfish and heartless decisions. They were all influenced by superstition and the supernatural. The resentment of the poor against the rich misguided them and the blindness of the rich to the difficult lives of the poor demonized them further and was a catalyst to the atmosphere of terror. In this story, told in the voices of Chula Santiago and Petrona Sanchez, we learn about the horrors that the author faced in her own life, although the story, regarding these characters and their experiences is fiction.
The Santiagos, Alma and Antonio and their two children, Chula, 7, and Cassandra, 9, lived in a comfortable, gated community in a house with several bedrooms, bathrooms and many modern conveniences. Antonio Santiago worked for a Colombian oil company and then for an American oil company. He moved up in position and provided well for his family. Alma did not have to work and could employ household help. The Sanchez family lived in a tin hut with children sharing beds, not only bedrooms, and no one earned a decent living wage. There were many children. There were few job opportunities for them. Several of the children were attracted to drugs and guerrilla warfare. They were poor and poorly educated. The children who made it were able to move away, but they then turned their backs on their community and offered little assistance to their family. The girls took care of the chores, getting the water, laundering clothes, cooking and doing whatever cleaning could be done. It was the job of the eldest to protect and provide for those younger.
Petrona Sanchez, at age 13, was ordered by her mother to go out and work. She obtained a job as a maid for the Santiagos. She and the youngest child, seven year old Chula Santiago, developed a relationship. Chula believed it was her sole responsibility to protect Petrona from danger because no one else would. Therefore, when she learned of Petrona’s sometimes questionable behavior, she did not tell anyone and swore her allegiance and silence to her. Petrona secured Chula’s trust by making veiled threats against the family. She even implied that Alma’s life might be in danger if Chula exposed Petrona and her boyfriend’s actions. So Chula lied in order to keep Petrona’s underhanded behavior under wraps. Unfortunately, those lies became the catalysts that brought about very dangerous circumstances for all of the Santiagos. Chula was young and naïve, unable to fully understand that there might be unpleasant consequences as a result of her deceptions. The fighting and the terror all around her traumatized her and left their scars on her and everyone else involved.
Petrona’s boyfriend, Gorrion, convinced Petrona to allow him to kidnap the Santiago children for ransom. They were rich and could afford to pay it. What followed led to further brutality and fear for the family and Petrona. However, Alma and her girls, Chula and Cassandra, were able to obtain refugee status and were eventually granted asylum in America. Antonio had disappeared. They found out he had been kidnapped and his whereabouts were unknown. When Petrona changed her mind and intervened, aborting the attempt to kidnap Chula and Cassandra, she betrayed her boyfriend who captured her and had her drugged, beaten and raped, then left for dead. She had no one to help her, to grant her asylum, to find her a safe place to stay, but an old woman found her almost lifeless body and nursed her back to health. Still, her experiences had robbed her of her memory.
Gorrion found her and withheld his part in her injuries from her. He lied and told her they were married right before she disappeared. He told her that the child she carried was his. When her memory returned, she did not tell him that she knew the truth about what had happened to her. Many of the secrets kept created problems that might have been avoided, but instead, they exacerbated an already precarious situation. The scars of the revolutionary days of Pablo Escobar and the paramilitary were either visible or invisible on all involved, the rich and the poor. Still, I wondered, were they not all in some way complicit in the terror and the violence, the death and destruction, the hopelessness and despair, because of their own behavior, accepting the brutality so long as it wasn’t directed against them? However, reading this story will give the reader a clearer picture of the terror that the Columbians lived through and will help the reader understand the need that often arises for refugees to be granted asylum in America.
Was the reason for the planting of the poisonous Drunken Tree ultimately also the cause of many of the problems? Did it symbolize the class differences, the hate and the arrogance of a people, one pitted against the other, the haves and the have nots who were on trains that would never meet, the hopelessness that could never be lifted?
The atmosphere was also poisonous!