this american life and dos erres

The latest episode of This American Life features a full-episode-length story on the Dos Erres Massacre and its aftermath. The Massacre took place on December 6, 1982, when some 250 members of the village were murdered. Their bodies were left at the bottom of a well, and in a nearby forest. The village was wiped out, almost to the individual. It is a truly moving and horrendous story, and includes interviews with survivors, investigators, and perpetrators alike. Incredibly, two toddlers from Dos Erres were taken by members of Guatemala’s Kabiles, the notorious special operations unit that perpetrated the massacre. One of those kids, Oscar Alberto Rámirez Castañeda, was “adopted” as a three year old by the very lieutenant who led the action. His real father survived, as he was absent from the village that day. His 8 siblings and mother did not. News of this destroyed his father’s life, condemning him to depression and alcoholism. The arc of the This American Life episode follows the eventual reunion of Oscar with this biological father, decades after the Massacre.

The people at This American Life were endpoint collaborators with some amazing people, who worked on the story with dedicated prosecutors in Guatemala. ProPublica has their report on Dos Erres here. You can also read declassified US documents on the Massacre at the National Security Archive’s blog, Redacted.

I would very much encourage you to listen to the story. But, I have a word of caution, or rather frustration with This American Life being the venue for its telling. This story is very heavy, and the seriousness and somberness of its reality is hampered by Ira Glass’s tone of ironic detachment. While that may work well for the kind of frequently poignant and entertaining, if self-absorbed stories that generally pass for This Life fare, it is completely inappropriate to the gravity of this story. I was shocked and dismayed that Glass finished the piece with his formulaic joke at producer Torey Malatia’s expense using a quote from one of the Massacre’s participants (a cook who failed with the Kabiles because he couldn’t physically handle it) and relating it to NPR pledge drives. That kind of crassness is inexplicable in its inappropriateness, except maybe to say that the producers of This Life, and Glass himself just doesn’t get it.

I can remember a recent episode, the retraction of the Apple/Foxconn story, when Glass just didn’t feel like the formula joke was fitting and left off without it. That was a story of This Life’s failure. I guess if it’s not about them, then they don’t need to take context and appropriateness into consideration.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Latin American History, Latin American News
One comment on “this american life and dos erres
  1. […] ALSO parezco y digo: this american life and dos erres When You Put It That Way: Ira Glass’s Commencement Speech Dancing Perfectly Free: This American […]

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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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