Alma Guillermoprieto on Latin America, editors, and how dance makes you a great writer

Illustration: Darrel Frost

The Spanish word alma translates to “soul.” And that’s what Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican journalist, has shown over 40 years of reporting: the immaterial essence of Latin America—its spiritual principles, moral nature, and emotional fervor. Guillermoprieto, who turns 70 in May, has spent her life reporting on guerrilla fighters, drug cartels, and corrupt politicians, mainly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Born in Mexico City, she moved to New York in 1965 to join the Martha Graham school of modern dance. The unwavering dedication and high excellence required of a dancer would serve her well as a journalist. In her first days as a reporter, covering the Revolução Sandinista in Nicaragua for The Guardian, she met Susan Meiselas, a photographer who was on assignment for The New York Times Sunday magazine and took Guillermoprieto under her wing. “So I learned how to be a reporter as a photographer,” she said. “If you don’t get close, you don’t get the shot.”

In January 1982, Guillermoprieto uncovered—along with Raymond Bonner—the killings of hundreds of civilians during a massive operation by the Salvadoran Army, backed by the US, against leftist guerrillas in El Mozote, in El Salvador. It is the worst massacre in modern Latin American history. El Salvador was in the early stage of a 12-year-long civil war, and President Ronald Reagan had increased aid to the Salvadoran Army. The Reagan administration insisted it had “no evidence” of the massacre, and the reporting by Guillermoprieto and Bonner was dismissed by conservatives as leftist propaganda. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial that stated: “There is such a thing as being overly credulous.”

“They denounced Raymond and me,” Guillermoprieto said. “I had the full weight of the Reagan administration bearing down on me.”

After two years in DC with The Washington Post, Guillermoprieto returned home to Latin America as the bureau chief for Newsweek in Brazil, then left to write her first book, Samba (1990), and later became a writer for The New Yorker and later the NYRB. “What I find compelling is to write stories about people in Latin America who otherwise might be invisible,” she said.

I first met Guillermoprieto in early December at the New York Public Library, where she delivered the annual Robert B. Silvers lecture on her career reporting in Latin America. Of her time in Mangueira (the favela in Rio, most famous for its samba school), a place with “death everywhere,” she described how she “learned that it was possible to live a life of severe constriction and pain. And, yet, be endlessly generous and celebrate.”

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To reveal such complex realities with the lyric precision that marks her work, Guillermoprieto praised the “heroic efforts” of her editors. She described how she would call the New York Review of Books office at 1:30am “with severe doubts about the suitability of an adjective,” and find Editor Bob Silvers there, “answering the phone, reaching for the galley, eager as a puppy with a new chew toy, to find the word in question.” Guillermoprieto, a MacArthur Fellow, believes editors—namely Silvers; Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief of The New Yorker; John Bennet, her editor at that magazine; and Oliver Paine, of National Geographic—are “the single most important reason” why US journalism is “the most professional, the most interesting.”

We continued our conversation in two interviews, first at New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts, and then on Skype from her home in Bogotá, Colombia. (“Just don’t send me questions,” she said, laughing. “I hate typing.”) The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

THE CENTER FOR BALLET AND THE ARTS

[A student carrying a golden harp delivered me to a room Alma occupied, overlooking a glass-walled dance studio where half a dozen students practiced.]

 

You first came to the US to join the Martha Graham dance studio, in New York, in 1965. So, let’s start from there. Why leave a career as a dancer to become a reporter? Why journalism?

I didn’t really leave one for another, I did a number of other things that didn’t really matter much to me, because I was so depressed about not being a dancer anymore. Then, you know, I always say life is one long accident. And almost completely by accident I ended up in Nicaragua.

 

How did that happen?

I had a family friend, John Rettie [former editor of the Latin American Newsletters, published since 1967], who had always insisted that I should be a journalist. And I always said, what kind of crazy idea is that? And, suddenly, I saw on the news the insurrection in Nicaragua [in 1978, by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which overthrew President Anastasio Somoza the following year, ending almost half a century of dictatorship by the Somoza family]. I thought, I have to go there! So I went to Nicaragua to see this fantastic rebellion by pretending to be a journalist [laughs]. The day after I got there, The Guardian called: “Our friend John says that you are a fantastic reporter. Can you spare some time to do something for us?” And that’s how I started.

 

How was it to land in Nicaragua amid an armed conflict as a first-time reporter?

By the time I got there, which was a week into the insurrection, there was a lull, and I had a week to learn the ropes. There was a lot of press there, and they took me under their wing. They couldn’t believe that somebody so clueless [laughs] would suddenly show up. So I had a very quick training. A small war is always an excellent place to start becoming a journalist.

 

How is that so?

If you read Scoop [by Evelyn Waugh, in 1938], which is the best novel about journalism ever written, it is just. . .  it is an opportunity for young journalists. Newspapers and the media in general tend to need more reporters, because it is a crisis situation. So even if you are young and inexperienced you can move right in.

 

A small war is always an excellent place to start becoming a journalist.

 

Was there anyone in particular who influenced you in the early days as a journalist?

Oh, yes. Susan Meiselas, the great, great photographer. She had been in Managua for. . . What? Six months? She knew about 200 percent more than I did, and we had very similar sensibilities, and we started working together. I learned how to be a reporter as a photographer, and I think that has a deep influence in my work. If you don’t get close, you don’t get the shot. That’s how I learned.

 

Did your earlier experience as a dancer also inform your work as a journalist in any way?

I used to say not at all. But, yes, if you are a dancer you are an extraordinarily hard worker, and I have been an extremely hard worker for most of my life. John [Bennet] used to say I had no ego, because I never minded being corrected, and that’s dance training, too. You go into class every day to learn how many things you can do better, and how many things you didn’t do well.

 

After that first experience in Nicaragua, you moved to El Salvador where a civil war had broken.

Yes. I was based in Managua for some time, then moved to San Salvador, then couldn’t stay there, so I moved to San José de Costa Rica, then back to Managua. I stayed for four years in Central America. And then The Washington Post hired me, and I spent two years in Washington.

 

In El Salvador, you were the first, together with Raymond Bonner, of The New York Times, and Susan Meiselas, to report on the Salvadoran war from the guerrilla controlled-territory, and to break the news, at the Post, about the El Mozote massacre by the Salvadoran Army, which was backed by the US. How was the experience of covering US politics in DC, after all of this?

Oh, I hated it [laughs]. I hated it, I hated it! I thought it was stupid. I’ve never been much interested in politics. It’s never appealed to me. I also had the full weight of the Reagan Administration bearing down on me, and that was unpleasant. They denounced Raymond and me. They sent letters to The Washington Post, all of that. It was very active. I had no illusions that what I wrote would make any difference.

 

Do you still think that way?

Yeah. You know, I had this very particular audience during the time I became. . . a voice, if you will, which had the audience of The New Yorker, and then The New York Review of Books. But, what consequences my writing had? I’d say close to zero.

 

Does that bother you?

Hmm. . . No, you do what you have to do.

 

And what is it that journalists have to do?

Oh, I don’t know what journalists have to do. What I have to do, or what I find compelling to do, is to write stories about people in Latin America who otherwise might be invisible, but largely because of my own curiosity. I can’t write about things I’m not curious about. I bore very easily. And this has never bored me.

 

Of all the stories that you have written in 40 years, you chose for your lecture at the New York Public Library to talk about one that has never been published. Why did you make that choice? [The story was about a massacre which occurred in 1998, in the mining town of Segovia, Colombia, where Guillermoprieto felt the “claustrophobic atmosphere of terror.” It would have been her first story for The New Yorker, but she never “managed to write it properly” for it was not “about evil,” but about “how victims and murderers were locked into each other’s fate” like Chinese carved puzzle balls, “rolling about in an endless struggle with no escape and no winners.”]

That’s a good question. Why did I choose that one? [Long silence] Maybe because I never published it, you know? And it is a story that comes back to me. I worked so hard on it, and I did so much reporting on it, I really reported a lot. And this guy, what did I call him? I gave him a name. . .

 

Nestor. . .

Yes, Nestor. So, let’s call him Nestor. I really think he was in a heartbreaking situation, a lose-lose situation. And I am sorry I didn’t get to write about him.

 

Do you maintain contact with your sources after you finish a story?

No, no. It is a story. And I am very careful not to give anyone false expectations. So many of the people you meet feel that the fact that they are talking to you is reason to have a little hope. So I try to be scrupulous about the fact that that is not the case.

 

Do you feel conflicted in any way about this?

Of course, of course I do. But that is not the task at hand. I think that, when journalists start making friends with their subjects—there are, of course, many exceptions—it can confuse them a great deal, and it can confuse themselves about who they are. And the story also gets sloppy, careless.

 

How or at what point did your role as a reporter become clear?

I think I became a lot tougher as a reporter for The Washington Post. I learned one fundamental lesson from Ben Bradlee [a former executive editor of the Post], who didn’t particularly like me. . . He said, during the job interview, “Why do you think guerrillas were so friendly to you? Why do they talk to you all the time?” And the question was. . . Aha! [Alma brings both her hands to her heart] Ha! I had never thought about that! I was completely stumped! And, he said: “People always have a reason for talking to you, always. Don’t get used.” So I became tougher. But he was also wrong. I think a lot of times poor people in particular are just polite. They have exquisite manners, and very often they don’t want to be rude. I am very aware of that.

 

You’ve started your career reporting on breaking news for The Guardian, and then the Post, and then you transitioned to narrative nonfiction. How did that transition happen?

I didn’t know yet that I was really a writer. I’d write these incredible long pieces, and The Guardian would take a pair of scissors and cut off all that, you know, “As the clouds grew golden in the sky.” [laughs] They would just get rid of that, and the Post did the same. But, I didn’t know, because I never saw my clips. This was long before the internet. So I never saw what was published until months later, when I went back to Mexico and there was an envelope of clips waiting for me. I thought: this doesn’t sound like me [laughs]. But I wasn’t very frustrated because I had forgotten all the goopy stuff that I had written. And I liked the adrenaline, the adventure of doing a daily story, and the pressure. Yes, I liked that.

 

And how did the transition from daily news to narrative nonfiction happen?

It happened in Rio. I really hated Rio. I lived in Ipanema, and I hated it, I hated it. It was like living in a Club Méditerranée [laughs]. I was working for Newsweek, and that wasn’t a good match. I was the bureau chief for South America. I had a reporter who was much better than I was working for me, and that embarrassed me and made me feel ashamed. I thought that was just bad. And I hated being at an office every day. I didn’t know how to run an office. I had. . .  how do you call it? . . . a continuo [attendant], I had a secretary, and I just thought, This is all nonsense. So I was going to quit. And then I decided that I really couldn’t leave Brazil and leave a city like Rio and have nothing good to say about it.

So I decided to look for a subject that I really liked, and that would be Black Rio, and that would be dance, and that would be music, and that would be Carnaval. After reporting, I moved to Bogotá to write that story, and I realized that I was like a 100-meter runner, and I had to turn myself into a marathon runner. So I took drawing lessons to teach myself to be patient and slow.

 

I realized that I was like a 100-meter runner, and I had to turn myself into a marathon runner. So I took drawing lessons to teach myself to be patient and slow.

 

You’ve been reporting for 40 years, during a time when journalism has been transitioning, from print to TV to the internet, perhaps the biggest transformation in its history.

There was probably a golden era of journalism, which has to do with money. In the forties there was a World War and people needed to have information and you could see newspapers becoming extremely powerful. Then television came in and there was a reaccommodation, not necessarily for the best, I think. For one, the standard for truth has changed. Television cameras were supposed to be the most truthful. So writing had to present the same facts as a television camera would have to. But, of course, we know that television cameras are not at all truthful, necessarily. That was the beginning of the confusion.

Through the eighties, the kind of money being made by newspapers and magazines made longform narrative journalism possible, and made real news gathering possible, and made US journalism a paragon for the world. Then there came the internet, as we all know. . .

I think the greatest damage has been done by Twitter. Twitter freed perfectly nice people to be horrible. It is like a road rage. Twitter rage is like road rage where perfectly nice people suddenly find themselves free to say loads of things that they don’t even mean. If you confront them, they’d say ‘Oh, no, I don’t really think that,’ but nobody is confronting them. And that changed the political discourse, and we see the consequences of that.

 

ON SKYPE

In our first conversation, you said that you don’t see the impact of your work.

Yes, maybe I should clarify that a little bit further. You know, I remember that a few years ago, I gave a talk at Florida International University, in Miami, and the president of the university came to me. She was very sweet, and said, “You shouldn’t be so negative about the effect of the work you do, journalists change social policy all the time.” That’s true in the United States, but it’s not true in many parts of the world, particularly parts of the world where journalists are defenseless and killed and pursued. I would put El Mozote [the massacre in El Salvador] as a case in point. That was 40 years ago, and the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice [a trial against 18 military officers is only now underway]. So, I don’t think I’m being cynical or exaggerating. I think what I’m saying is just true.

 

Did your decision, as a Mexican journalist, to write for the US media have anything to do with that?

No. Not in the least. It just happened that way. You know, I was never actually asked to write for any Spanish-language medium. I’ve generally been willing to write for those who ask me. There are differences, of course. The difference in income is significant, but also the difference in readership, and the whole idea of an editorial process, the length of pieces, all these allow you to create a more writerly story—which, for me, is infinitely more satisfying.

 

How is your writing process?

Mostly despair, interrupted by a sentence or two [laughs].

 

Do you write an outline?

No. I look for a beginning, when I’m reporting, and I look for an end. And those may change afterward, in the editing process. But when I have a beginning and I have an end it’s a sign to me that I know what the story is about, and what direction it’s going in.

 

At your lecture at the New York Public Library, you spoke dearly of John Bennet, as well as Robert Gottlieb, and Bob Silvers. Can you tell us about the writer-editor relationship, and how these editors shaped your work?

Yes. I think Gottlieb, specifically, redirected my life and changed it by bringing me into The New Yorker. He was the editor in chief at the time, and that was the moment when it suddenly became possible for me to think of myself as a writer, which was something I hadn’t done before—or even as a reporter, really. He has, over his very illustrious career, really shaped writers and seen a writer as not just someone who will produce printable pages, but as somebody to be encouraged and fostered. And the same can be said of Bob Silvers at the New York Review. One difference between The New Yorker and the New York Review is that The New Yorker is interested in publishing whatever they think is the top of the moment, and Bob was interested in the writer, what a writer might be thinking, what a writer might be processing. Bob could even publish a bad story because he believed in you, and he thought it was important for you to have your voice.

Editors are the single most important reason that US journalism is, in my opinion, the most professional, the most interesting; they are those who actually hold your copy as if it were your heart in their hands, and do not damage it, and make it better. In this I would say that  John Bennet, at The New Yorker, and Oliver Paine, of National Geographic, are really extraordinary. In just. . .  in knowing how not to damage your heart as they are telling you what is so awfully wrong with your story [laughs]. And then recognizing what is good in it, and making it better or pointing the way for you to make it better.

So, after Gottlieb read the first story I submitted from Bogotá, which is the story that opens “The Heart That Bleeds” [published in 1995], he said, “I think we can publish it, yes, this will do. And I think that I will put you with. . .  um. . . John Bennet!”

 

When I have a beginning and I have an end it’s a sign to me that I know what the story is about, and what direction it’s going in.

 

Did Robert Gottlieb give you any particular reason why John Bennet?

I have no idea why, but he was right. Every single story that I worked on with John was instructive and delightful. I don’t think that I ever called him mid-story, or perhaps I did, to say, ‘This is what I’m working on, this is what I’m doing.’ I think I would go report, come home, write a story, and send it. Then we would work on it. And then, you know, he is some kind of Yoda. He’d just sit there spouting wisdom that makes you laugh.

One thing he always said was: “Consider me your most interested reader. That’s what an editor is. Nobody else is going to read your story with as much interest as me. And if I don’t understand it, chances are nobody else will.” He would pick out words where the story felt flat. Not paragraphs, not sentences, words, where the momentum of the story suddenly died because the word was not energetic enough. We used to spend a long time on the phone. Once I was in Lima [in Peru], during its economic disaster, and I had written a story about the high price of pasta. Did I say this to you the last time?

 

No, you didn’t.

So, yes, the high price of pasta, that would make people fall about laughing. But we both knew that pasta is not a funny word, so we tried macaroni, which is a funny word. But then there was ‘macaronic English,’ so we couldn’t do that. Then there was spaghetti, but not quite. Finally we hit noodles. Yes! Noodle is a funny word. And that took a long time on a long-distance call.

 

Building on what you just said, about the choice of words, I want to ask about your talent in writing literary narrative in Spanish, your native language, as well as in English.

Spanish is my native language. But my mother, who was from Guatemala, was bilingual, and she had a great love of reading. So we would go to the Benjamin Franklin library [inaugurated in 1942, in Mexico] and there were magical books for children in English, and at that time the books that there were in Spanish for children were quite dreary. You know, they were all about how to behave well. I loved the rebelliousness of Dr. Seuss.

 

You wrote Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, about your time teaching at Cuba’s National School of Dance in 1970, originally in Spanish, at the recommendation of your book editor.

I don’t think that I would ever write another book in Spanish. What I have learned over time, and other writers may not see this way, but. . .  by the time I wrote La Habana en un Espejo, I had been working on writing better in English every single day for 25 years. I had been perfecting that instrument for more than a quarter of a century, and writing in Spanish just really messed with my head. It was very, very hard to recover my ease in English after that.

 

Nicaragua, where you began your career as a reporter, spiraled into a crisis last year that left hundreds of protesters dead in clashes with President Daniel Ortega’s security forces. Did you imagine that happening forty years ago?

I’ve been so distressed by everything that’s been happening, and shocked really. Nicaragua, specifically, was the country I reported from with the weakest institutions.

When I started reporting from there, it was a primitive dictatorship under Anastasio Somoza. So when the Sandinistas triumphed [in 1979], their first task was to create institutions for the first time. And I think they approached this task very successfully in some areas. They created a neutral army, a highly respected police force; there was a foreign ministry for the first time, a Federal Reserve.

What is shocking to me is that under the presidency and vice presidency of Daniel [Ortega] and Rosario [Murillo, the vice president and first lady of Nicaragua], who are Sandinistas—Daniel fought in the Sandinista uprising against Somoza—they have essentially destroyed those same institutions that Sandinismo built, and are behaving increasingly like a primitive dictatorship. It’s both shocking and painful.

 

In your lecture at the New York Public Library, you said you “feel dizzy sometimes,” as if “about to fall down” with “such increase in the amount of hatred currently circulating the world,” which you attributed to President Donald Trump. And we’ve seen recently, with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil—

Oh, God. . . I think that the hate speech that the social networks made possible, the hate speech that social networks freed ordinarily kind and mild people to express—that road rage—became the language of politics, and specifically the language of Trump. And I think that Trump’s obsession is part of a worldwide phenomenon, but also has encouraged this phenomenon. And that Bolsonaro, in many ways, might have not existed without Trump. But he is certainly a reflection of that same universe of the discourse of hatred.

 

How should journalists deal with hate speech?

I don’t think we have very much influence. But what we can and should do is to leave a record of the moment.

 

How to you see the value of journalism in the post-truth era?

Unverifiable allegations occupy a great deal of screen time for most readers or for most people who sit at their computer bored at work or alone at night or whatever, and it’s very hard to tell what is accurate information and what isn’t. So that is the great challenge: to recover the value of accurate information, to make it a central value in what you read as news. That may be the greatest challenge of all.

 

Do you have an idea of how—?

An idea of how to deal with that challenge? [laughs] I have no idea of how to do that! No. You know, I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I’m almost 70 years old. I’m not the person who’s going to do the revolution.

 

Well, you are certainly one of the most acclaimed. . .

Yeah, that’s what happens when you get old, and have been doing the same thing stubbornly for all these years [laughs].

 

In Colombia, you’ve participated in the very beginning of Fundación Gabriel García Márquez para el Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano. Can you tell us about that experience and your relationship with Gabriel García Márquez?

He called me. He called me and he asked me to participate in this thing that hadn’t even been created yet, which was the Foundación. And I liked his ideas very much. You know, the idea that there would be no diplomas, no certificates; he even thought that could be no headquarters, but just a traveling workshop, and we would go wherever it was needed. The only purpose of the Foundación, the only purpose, would be to promote the art of crónica, or longform narrative journalism. I was very enthusiastic about this, I thought it was wonderful. I taught the first workshop, and I participated in the creation of the Foundación, together with Jaime Abello who is still director, and to a lesser degree with García Márquez—who came up with the big idea, but was completely uninterested in the day-to-day working of the place.

 

Was there a particular story that brought you to the attention of García Márquez?

You know, I don’t think that he had ever read anything that I’ve written [laughs]. I think that a wonderful man, Tomás Eloy Martínez, who was very good friends with García Márquez, had recommended me for reasons I have no possibility of figuring out, given that I had no background in teaching journalism whatsoever. But he had given García Márquez my name and it seemed like a good name for García Márquez, so he called me.

 

You seem to be positive about journalism, in spite of the challenges you mentioned.

I am, I am. I think journalism is always going to be necessary in the modern society, and under capitalism. So I don’t think it’ll die.

 

Can we expect a memoir of your career as a journalist?

You know, I think I learned something from García Márquez’s memoir. The first part is the most beautiful thing, one of the most beautiful things he’s ever written. And then it got to the inevitable stage of memoirs of people who become successful, which is: and then I met so and so, and then I received this honor, and then I traveled to X, and then I gave this speech. And there’s nothing more boring than that.

 

You once said that writing a memoir has to do with growing old, and it makes one reflect on what you made of your life. When you look back at your career in journalism, do you still ask that question?

Oh, absolutely. How did it happen? You know, I’m not kidding when I say I’ve just stuck around and done the same thing for 40 years. My, my big, big choice was to stay in Latin America.

 

And why did you make that choice?

Because it matters to me. It matters to me.

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Adriana Carranca is a Brazilian journalist and a reporting fellow with the Global Migration Project at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @AdrianaCarranca.