Please welcome today’s guest writer, Katerina Parsons. “I graduated from Calvin College in May of 2015 with a double major in English Writing and International Development Studies. I am preparing to start a position in Tegucigalpa, Honduras as a Research and Communications Facilitator for the Association for a More Just Society, an organization that fights for peace, security, and anti-corruption in Honduras.”
“Tu bandera, tu bandera es un lampo de cielo.” – Himno Nacional de Honduras
“Your flag, your flag is a splendor of sky” – Honduran National Anthem
The busser at the restaurant where I work is from Honduras. When it’s slow, I go back to the dish room, and we wash sheet pans and chat in Spanish. I tell him about the places that I saw when I was in his country for a semester, and he tells me all the places I still need to see.
Today he asks if I know Honduran songs; “Just the national anthem,” I say. He doesn’t believe me, so I start to sing – tu bandera, tu bandera. He laughs and joins in – es un lampo de cielo. We sing together, our arms elbow deep in sanitizing solution, settling the greasy sheet pans in to soak.
To graduate sixth grade in Honduras, children must memorize, perform, and conduct all eight verses of the country’s national anthem, a marathon performance that can take twenty minutes.
Students learn how to trace their hand through the air in 4/4 time to conduct the piece, how to sing the solemn music, and how to explain with exhaustive accuracy the symbolism behind the anthem’s description of the Honduran flag and coat of arms. For every sixth grader in the nation, the national anthem is not just a song, it is a pocket manual to civic pride.
Before I went to Honduras, I knew that the murder rate in the country was the highest in the world. I knew that people there suffered from poverty, corrupt government, and drug trafficking violence. But when I was there, at an orchestra concert, and everyone rose around me to sing the words of the national anthem in hearty unison, I realized how much more about the country I did not know.
Learning the himno became my new obsession. Wherever I went, I would ask people: “I’m learning your national anthem. Will you help me with it?” My bus driver sang it with us when he took us to school, my Spanish teacher recited the lyrics because he didn’t like to sing, my host mother tapped out the rhythm on our kitchen table. They laughed at my earnestness, but helped me to sing their story with them.
“Like an Indian maiden you were sleeping… when… the bold navigator found you,” the first verse of the anthem starts, an acknowledgement of Spanish colonialism. “It was useless that your beloved Indian/ rushed into the fight with ire/ because, covered with his blood, Lempira/ in the deep night he sank…”
Lempira, ruler of the indigenous Lenca people, resisted the Spanish against great odds in the 1530s, eventually dying in combat. Even in Honduran districts named after Christopher Columbus and other explorers, the Honduran currency is called the lempira. He represents the resilience of the Honduran people. He represents their pride.
It is not so hard to learn the language of a people, the food, the customs. It is so much harder to understand a people’s spirit. I want to see poverty, corruption, and violence cast out of Honduras, but until Honduran pride is my pride as much as their sorrows are my own, the fight is not a battle as much as a project, easy to leave at a moment’s notice.
Back in the United States, my friend invited me to spend the day with a girl she was mentoring. Only thirteen, the girl had fled violence that killed her father and brothers, clinging to trains that crept up from Honduras through Mexico. Now, settled with a foster family, she was hungry for talk of the country she had left.
We talked about baleadas (delicious!) and ferías (fun!) and eventually we began to sing the national anthem. She had graduated primary school just the year before and the song was still seared in her mind. She raised her voice with us: Serán muchos, Honduras, tus muertos/ pero todos caerán con honor. “Many, Honduras, shall die for you/ but they all fall in honor.” Tears wet her eyes: a love I did not understand.
In primary schools and congress, before football games and orchestra concerts, Hondurans sing the same words together: Por guarder ese emblema divino/ marcharemos, o patria, a la muerte – “To guard this sacred emblem/ we shall march, oh fatherland, to our death.” These words compel ownership, not charity, and pride, not pity.
The words are not a window into the story being told about Honduras, but into the story Honduran people want to tell. In the end, I didn’t learn about the country from websites or guide books. I learned about it singing, at my dining room table, on the bus, in the streets, with my arms elbow deep in scalding water. Tu bandera, I sang, your flag is a splendor of sky. And I saw the flag that they saw, waving high and proud.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).