Q&A With Deb Olin Unferth
How does an 18-year old college freshman even decide to join a revolution?
Love, of course! I fell for a philosophy major, a Christian, and I immediately converted. When he said we should drop out of school and go help foment the socialist revolution in Nicaragua, I said, Good idea.
How did your parents react?
At first I didn't tell them. I wrote them a letter from Mexico and said I'd quit school and had found God and was going to join the revolution. I don't which was worse for them—my running away to a war zone or my becoming a Christian, since we were Jewish.
What kind of jobs are there at the revolution?
Well, unfortunately we were fired from the "revolution jobs" we found (at an orphanage, at Bikes Not Bombs...) because we didn't know how to do anything. But we also conducted interviews. We went from country to country with a handheld cassette tape recorder, recording over our rock music tapes, one by one. We interviewed politicians, priests, artists—anyone we could talk into talking to us.
Were you ever scared?
Sure. It was 1987. Central America was a landscape of war zones. But it took me a while to figure out I should be afraid. For instance my boyfriend had told me that San Salvador was under martial law. I thought he was saying "Marshall Law," which I believed referred to a restructuring program that I messily confused in my mind with World War II and the Marshall Plan. It wasn't until we arrived that I understood my mistake.
What other kinds of people did you run into on the road? Other "revolutionaries"?
Thousands of foreign volunteers, called Internacionalistas, had converged on Nicaragua from all over the world—professors and journalists and scientists. Like us, they wanted to help. Like us, most of them weren't sure what to do. Joining up with them was like joining the Peace Corps with guns. We trooped around, we sang and protested and argued.
What was the point in your travels that you knew you were going home?
As the months wore on, we began to see that we were not a "help." We got sick, we ran out of money. We grew slowly disillusioned. The Cold War was on its last legs by that time, the Communist decay had set in, and we didn't know it, but we could sense the current of exhaustion running through these countries.
Have you been back to Central America since the 80s?
In 2000, I went back to Central America. What started out as a few-weeks' vacation turned into three years of my going back and forth, spending months at a time in Central America, trying to figure out what I was doing there and what I'd been there for in the first place.