Lessons in Courage and Grace: Alma Guillermoprieto

You can tell Alma Guillermoprieto is the rare kind of person whose interests lie totally outside of herself. Meeting her Thursday night at the International Women’s Media Foundation’s (IWMF) Courage in Journalism Awards in Los Angeles, I was awed at her calmness and grace and noticed that she talked very little about herself or even about her stories, deflecting personal questions and focusing more on topics at hand.

After an unlikely start as a dancer, Guillermoprieto has reported for over 30 years on some of the most dangerous and militia-fueled wars in Latin America. She has covered Argentina’s “dirty-war”, post-Sandinista Nicaragua, the “Shining Path” rebels in Peru, the Colombian civil war and the Mexican drug wars.  She has also written several books about Latin America and won many awards.

It is hard to imagine that this beautiful, slight and poised woman was one of two journalists smuggled by rebels to El Mozote, El Salvador- the site of the massacre of nearly 1000 civilians – a site my husband, Phil Bronstein, would visit and report on 9 years later.

Her report in 1982
on these killings committed by the US-backed Salvadoran Government for the Washington Post, was condemned by the Reagan Administration, but that did not stop her. Guillermoprieto has been an enduring force in elegantly explaining some of the most horrific and complex situations in Latin America to US audiences.

In her review of Guillermoprieto’s book Looking for History, The New York Times‘ Sarah Kerr says:

Though capable of exquisite, self-conscious prose, she doesn’t treat her self-consciousness as a theme, and thus avoids sweeping into a country V. S. Naipaul-style, passing irritable judgment and dramatizing her despair at the mess she finds. Nor, though she possesses extraordinary empathy, does she wrap upchaotic Mexico City or troubled Bogotá in a bow and try to sell it to you as if it were Tuscany or Provence.

Guillermoprieto is still fearlessly covering issues such as the drug wars in Mexico, and mentioned it as a topic of interest to Californians as we head into the possibility of legalizing marijuana, “for which thousands of people have been killed” she said Thursday.  

My husband and I had the very heady and humbling honor of presenting Guillermoprieto with the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award that night. When one of my friends told her about my fear of public speaking she went out of her way to make me feel better, even giving me words of encouragement as I went up to the podium to honor her. All the more embarrassing considering she and the other 3 journalists being honored had risked their lives numerous times, some had been beaten, abducted and their families threatened.
Yet, they all continue on. Their shared drive for justice no matter the cost was palpable in the room that night.

Guillermoprieto’s acceptance speech was full of thanks and graciousness to her editors and to the IWMF. No mention of herself beyond her sense of gratitude for the award.

I would like to think that in reading her works and spending the evening with her some of her selflessness would rub off, but I find that is a very difficult mindset to master.

Nonetheless, a good lesson in the power of altruism.