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 V.15 No.51 | December 21 - 27, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

The Boy Who Saved Christmas

Austin Foster trumps war

It's easy to become cynical these days. No sooner had the voters spoken at the polls last month with force and clarity about Iraq than we witnessed the spectacle of our absurd president digging in his heels and refusing to even consider ending the occupation.

In fact, Dubya is now planning (if the Beltway cognoscenti are correct about his “strategerizing”) to send thousands of additional American troops to that bottomless pit of devastation.

My optimism isn’t enhanced by watching the new Democratic Congressional majority move off in 50 directions; on Iraq, certainly, but then on just about every other issue as well. Stumbling and bumping into the furniture erratically, the Democrats aren't inspiring much confidence in their likelihood for success.

Nor are the dozen or so potential 2008 candidates for president (of either party) exactly galvanizing us with their energy. It’s early, sure, and maybe it’s unrealistic to expect excitement this far out, but so far only Barack Obama among the aspirants seems capable of capturing lightning in a bottle. We know so little about him, though, that the groundswell building around him could flatten instantly from one misstep or one closeted skeleton that escapes into public.

Listen to me! It’s almost like I’m afraid to be too hopeful.

Even the novels I’ve read lately have compounded my sense of cynicism.

In Alan Furst’s wonderful World War II spy novel The Foreign Correspondent, I found many echoes of our current hopelessness. “Do you know the old Karl Kraus line?” a New York Times stringer asks the hero. “How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.”

And that was written long before the concept of “embedded journalists” was refined to its Iraq Occupation perfection.

It was even written before the days of the “Saigon Follies,” the daily press conferences in Vietnam at which assembled international reporters were fed extravagant exaggerations about our successes … right up to the moment the final helicopter carried the last of our troops to safety.

At which point we declared victory.

Now there’s an idea. We could just declare victory in Iraq now. Bring the troops home to ticker tape parades and big celebrations. Award medals and ribbons to the Pentagon geniuses who got us into the disaster in the first place. Marching bands, fervid oratory, a grateful nation rejoices. And just get the hell out.

The first principle ought to be to at least stop digging the hole deeper.

So, yes, I’ve felt just a tad cynical as of late.

Then I heard about a little boy in Durango, Colo., named Austin Foster.

And I heard about a Salvadoran village named (I’m not making this up) “El Chingo.” Forty or 50 families live in this swampy coastal community not more than a half hour’s drive from the big international airport that serves the capitol, San Salvador.

The families of El Chingo are all grindingly poor, unable to wrest much more than a bare subsistence from their tiny farm plots. Their soil is depleted and the low-lying location next to a coastal estuary means their homes are regularly flooded in rainy season, the inundations stealing nutrients and even the seeds and plantings themselves.

The community workers from a nonprofit, faith-based organization, APRODEHNI, which works in El Chingo and a dozen other equally impoverished settlements, put out a call for assistance.

In the last decade or so, APRODEHNI (an acronym for the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Children) has become a favorite charity of the Catholic student Parish at UNM, the Aquinas Newman Center. Delegations of UNM parishioners travel to El Salvador each year to help with projects, while other parishioners provide funds for scholarships to keep kids in APRODEHNI communities in school.

So when the request came for $5,250 for a project in El Chingo to equip and teach 30 families simple organic farming techniques that will make the played-out soil fertile again and enable them to feed their whole community, the students and other parishioners didn’t hesitate. They set to work to raise it; $175 for each family.

That’s not an easy task, ever. And for cynics it’d be an impossible task.

I doubted it could be done by Christmas, the target date. But the students didn’t doubt. They sold crafts. They waited on tables. They contracted to put out farolitos on Christmas Eve. They hit up friends and relatives, even UNM administrators and faculty. And the parish responded generously.

As I watched idealistic college students at UNM cheerfully raise the $5,250, I found myself growing less jaded. Then when I heard about Austin Foster the final remnants of my pessimism melted away.

This 7-year-old (a second grader!) became determined to help the El Chingo project. He’d heard about it from one of the UNM group’s relatives and the idea hooked him. His goal was to raise $175 for one family, but his efforts produced enough funds for two--families he's never met, families living thousands of miles away, in a different country. And he says he had a ball doing it.

For this year that’ll be my Christmas story. I like its moral: Hope trumps cynicism—even in this fourth year of perhaps the most cynical war we’ve ever started. The idealism of the young is inspiring. It is our only hope.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail


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