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A Revolutionary Identity

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years (Boston: South End Press, 2005), 304 pages, paperback, $18.00.

Forrest Hylton is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006) and with Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He is a regular contributor to, NACLA Report on the Americas, and New Left Review.


Few U.S. revolutionaries of her generation have “lived to tell the tale” like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, to borrow the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s memoirs. Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years is the last volume of a trilogy including Red Dirt: Growing up Okie (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years (City Lights, 2001). Although influenced by oral traditions in his “native” Colombian Caribbean, García Márquez has little to say about his own political commitments, or Colombian politics more generally.1 In contrast, influenced by traditions of storytelling native to rural Oklahoma and Native American communities throughout the U.S. West, Dunbar-Ortiz’s latest memoir puts flesh on the bones of the slogan “the personal is political.” The phrase, she notes, was coined within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and carried into the women’s liberation and antiwar movements.

Unlike most historians, Dunbar-Ortiz has been a leading participant in the movements of her time, which makes memoir rather than professional historiography a logical choice of genre. Dunbar-Ortiz explains her preference:

I can no longer bear to write—or to read—texts in which the author is present only behind a maze of screens, pretending objectivity. History is never the “objective” account found in academic writing….I write this memoir recalling this form’s influence on me….I write that the younger generation may have access to an earlier generation’s political experience and theory. I write this book to give a human face to the consequences of the Contra war in the destruction of the Sandinista revolution, resulting in a setback for a better future for the indigenous peoples of the world, and for all peoples struggling for self-determination and a better life. (13)

Dunbar-Ortiz’s method of knowing the world, or more exactly, knowing liberation struggles around the world, is what Walter Rodney described as “grounding.”2 To “ground,” one goes where oppressed people are struggling to liberate themselves from imperialism, or meets with their representatives in metropolitan settings, and learns with them in an open-ended dialogue about what is to be done. Humility, along with a clear understanding of what scholar-activists can and cannot contribute to peoples’ struggles, is what makes this dialogue possible. Without it, intellectuals end up talking at people or among themselves.

Memoir and testimonio are closely associated with the development of feminist consciousness, subjectivity, and agency, especially in Latin America; they can be thought of as radical extensions of the idea of “groundings.”3 Like previous volumes in the trilogy, Blood on the Border highlights the enormous contribution feminism has made to radical theory and practice, especially through its emphasis on consciousness and subjectivity—on emotions as well as ideas and ideology; on domestic and sexual violence as well as the violence of imperialist wars and settler-colonial conquests. This helps Dunbar-Ortiz discuss painful personal issues that do not often find their way into the writings and conversations of U.S. radicals, in a way that is moving yet politically instructive.4 The links between feminist, African, and indigenous liberation are made concrete through Dunbar-Ortiz’s own story. Blood on the Border is not a work of theory or method, offering instead a radical, underground history of the “imperialism of our time.”5 Through memoir, Dunbar-Ortiz is able to avoid the discursive “violence of abstraction,” to use novelist Barry Unsworth’s phrase; the artificial distancing characteristic of most history and social-science writing.6

Provisional Endings

Blood on the Border picks up where Dunbar-Ortiz left us at the end of Outlaw Woman. Following her arrest, torture, and trial, Dunbar-Ortiz left the armed underground cell she founded in New Orleans, and re-located to Lake Tahoe with the help of an extraordinarily generous sister-in-law. “I was thirty-five in 1973,” Dunbar-Ortiz remembers, “and I was a wreck. I spent my nights working the graveyard shift in the casino, and my days drinking away a history of broken relationships and crushed dreams, personal and political” (17). At the time, Dunbar-Ortiz’s daughter, Michelle, born in 1962, lived in San Francisco with Dunbar-Ortiz’s first husband (who had won custody), a step-mother, and half-siblings. The pain of separation, more emotional than geographic, hardly registers. This emotional numbness and disconnection plagues Blood on the Border, as the reader wants to know more about the difficulties of being a long-distance mother, but the text offers a clue: “I was a functioning alcoholic working in a Nevada casino, burnt out, and isolated from the radical movement that had been my family for the previous decade” (15, italics added). It would seem that for Dunbar-Ortiz, as for many Marxists of an ascetic bent, being a professional revolutionary meant renouncing blood ties for political kinship: “None of the elements of my life had reality except the revolution. Every minute, whether I was eating or watching television, my mind was on revolution. It had been that way for fifteen years. Revolution had become my identity” (108). One wonders how her daughter made sense of this.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s personal-political response to the agonizing death of the New Left meant that in addition to alcoholism and domestic violence, both of which surfaced as problems in New Orleans, she confronted unexplored contradictions of the settler-colonial mentality with which she was raised. Her violent, alcoholic mother was said to have been part Cherokee and her maternal grandmother’s people had settled in Missouri after leaving Tennessee, but Dunbar-Ortiz’s Native American ancestry was a well-guarded family secret. Leaving home at fifteen, fleeing her mother’s drunken rampages, Dunbar-Ortiz would have had little occasion to reflect on family life in the tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s. However, as she organized with the American Indian Movement (AIM), she began to see her family history as “a contradiction or amalgamation of those two forces—settlers on Indian lands and resistance by the indigenous inhabitants” (20). This meant overcoming the shame of Indian ancestry that had been deeply instilled in childhood, in stark contrast to the quiet pride she felt with respect to her paternal grandfather’s radical activism in the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party.

The upsurge of mobilization in the mid-1970s is often overlooked, but in attempting to reconcile her warring souls, Dunbar-Ortiz refreshes our memory. In early 1975, for example, the Navajo Nation’s strike and drive to unionize the Fairchild electronics assembly plant in Shiprock, New Mexico led indigenous liberationists from AIM to link up with trade unionists in San Francisco, many of whom were Nicaraguans, some of them Sandinistas, to oppose Holiday Inn’s construction on sacred burial sites in San José. They succeeded. After AIM dissolved in an atmosphere of paranoia, and following the killings at Oglala, South Dakota, Dunbar-Ortiz and her third husband, a former alcoholic and Acoma Indian Pueblo poet, Simon Ortiz, found temporary refuge in a Bay Area study group linked to another like-minded group in Vancouver. All were dedicated to exploring the relationship between Marxist critiques of capitalism and indigenous liberation.

National liberation movements devoted time, energy, and creativity to international diplomacy, anchored in the UN General Assembly, and some extraordinary anti-imperialist gatherings resulted. In 1976, surrounded by FBI snipers on the banks of the Missouri River, in Sisseton Sioux country in southeastern South Dakota, Dunbar-Ortiz and Native American delegates met representatives from the Zimbabwean African National Union and independentistas from the Puerto Rican Socialist Party while attending the third International Indian Treaty Council (IITC). Later, in Geneva, Dunbar-Ortiz worked with the head of the IITC, Cherokee artist and writer Jimmie Durham, a friend of Amilcar Cabral who coordinated with Mapuche leaders exiled from Pinochet’s Chile to organize the Conference on Indians in the Americas in 1977.

When relations between Jimmie Durham, the IITC, and Dunbar-Ortiz soured in 1978, she became the UN representative of the African-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization (AAPSO), which had grown out of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. With AAPSO, and through her work at the UN, Dunbar-Ortiz came of age politically. Though most of AAPSO’s representatives were men, Dunbar-Ortiz met Sri Lankan and Palestinian women, as well as Ellie Mozora, a Cypriot architect with whom Dunbar-Ortiz worked on women’s issues in the years that followed.

Dunbar-Ortiz also worked with Rigoberta Menchu in New York and Geneva; from Rigoberta, she learned valuable lessons about “the importance of collectivity and community as opposed to individualism” (146). These connections—between African-American and indigenous liberation in the United States, national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and feminist emancipation worldwide—testify to the vitality of revolutionary internationalism in the twilight of the period that opened with the end of the Second World War. They remind us of the ground we have lost.

New Beginnings

The Sandinista revolution burst onto the world scene a year before Ronald Reagan was elected pledging to rid Nicaragua of its “godless, communistic” government, but President Carter laid the groundwork for what was to come (59, 62). Aged forty-two, Dunbar-Ortiz spent 1980 working at the UN in New York, before deciding that local organizing in New Mexico would have to give way to international work. Once there, she felt she could not sit back as Nicaragua burned in the flames of yet another Washington-led counter-insurgency war, so she resigned from the University of New Mexico, where she directed the Institute for Native American Development that she and activists from the Navajo Community College–Shiprock and others had founded in 1978.

Skeptical of reports on Sandinista “atrocities,” Dunbar-Ortiz went to see for herself what was happening on the Miskito or Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. In December 1981, as part of Operation Red Christmas, CIA operatives blew up a Nicaraguan plane in Mexico City that Dunbar-Ortiz, on her way to a UN Conference, was set to board (122-23). Long announced, the war to overthrow the Sandinistas had begun. Dunbar-Ortiz engaged with the indigenous (Miskitus, Sumus, and Ramas) and African-Nicaraguan (Creole) peoples of the Atlantic coast grouped into Misurasata. She offered constructive criticism of Sandinista policy in the region where Misurasata demanded autonomy and self-determination. Sandinista supporters in the United States did not wish to hear Dunbar-Ortiz’s message: “I found it difficult to talk about the revolution because the supporters were so wedded to their idea of Nicaragua as a kind of utopia and didn’t want to deal with the reality of the place” (109).

Native American activists in the United States, such as Hank Adams and Russell Means, who was a veteran AIM leader, stepped into the public spotlight, siding with Washington against the Sandinistas, ostensibly in support of indigenous rights for the Miskitu. The question of Miskitu refugees and indigenous rights, largely of the U.S. government’s own making, had come to divide opinion on the Sandinistas not only in the United States, but in Canada and Western Europe as well. Dunbar-Ortiz spent much of the 1970s working to build unity among, and diplomatic support for, national liberation movements worldwide. Now, in the 1980s, as she sought to cut through the dense fog of propaganda and disinformation orchestrated from Otto Reich’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, she was “both red-baited and denounced as a fraud for pretending to be Native American” (18). Dunbar-Ortiz was subject to rumor-mongering and character assassination.

In 1982, Dunbar-Ortiz began drinking again, and did not stop until well after the Contra War ended. She provides an insightful account of how this period related to the early 1970s, since a sharp sense of isolation and political defeat marked both moments:

Turning to drink in 1982 was a repeat of my first bout of alcoholism a decade earlier, when the powerful resistance of the 1960s began to implode. In the early 1970s, I had begun to feel increasingly isolated until I became involved with the American Indian Movement. Now again, in 1982, I felt that increasing sense of isolation: AIM was weakening and splitting, some leaders courting Hollywood, some even turning to cocaine….I don’t think I could have done what I did in the next five years had I not been fueled by alcohol to dull the fear and live with the exhaustion. Although the life-threatening risks I took and what I believe I accomplished added up to perhaps nothing in the end—the Sandinistas were defeated—I was a witness. (162)

The stories that dot the pages of Blood on the Border,about ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances, at a specific time in a particular place, make the history of the U.S. government-financed Contra War against the Nicaraguan people human. We register the toll this period took on Dunbar-Ortiz and many others who, as she notes, did not survive. Dunbar-Ortiz’s careful attention to her own pain is matched by a capacity for empathy with others, which allows her to convey imperial counterinsurgency in some of its most intimate, terrifying dimensions—rape, torture, even dismemberment. It makes for uncomfortable reading.

We know the bad guys won—Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Robert Kagan, John Negroponte, and John Poindexter. Along with Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, Blood on the Border demonstrates that the right-wing coalition that rose to power when George W. Bush was “elected” in 2000—neoconservative ideologues, cowboy capitalists, revanchist militarists, and evangelical Christians—came together for the first time in Central America, with the intent of effecting “regime change” in Nicaragua and preserving a brutal status quo in Guatemala and El Salvador. Central America served as a regional laboratory for imperial counterinsurgency wars aimed at overthrowing foreign governments in the name of “democracy,” “freedom,” and “human rights.” After NATO atrocities in the former Yugoslavia under Clinton, such wars were then launched on a global scale under President Bush in the wake of 9/11.


To close on a hopeful note with special resonance for those who have had the misfortune to come of age in the 1980s and 1990s: Dunbar-Ortiz’s life and work are testament to the tenacity and vitality of indigenous and national-popular movements in the Americas, and reinforce the centrality of feminism to those movements. Looking imperialism and counterinsurgency square in the face, indigenous and national-popular movements have advanced since the 1970s, however unevenly, with indigenous women playing increasingly important roles as heads of households, leaders, and spokespersons. The recent UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples codifies a series of basic demands, and reflects the effectiveness of the type of international lobbying and diplomacy efforts in which Dunbar-Ortiz has been engaged for more than thirty years.

For the most part, repression through political terror, prior to or concurrent with the imposition of neoliberal economic policies in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, did not succeed in disarticulating and dismantling indigenous and national-popular movements in Latin America altogether, not even in Central America or Colombia. Through Chávez’s foreign policy, Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolutionary process” poses an unprecedented diplomatic threat to Washington’s legitimacy in the eyes of several hundred million of the hemisphere’s working people, not to mention nationalists around the world. In Argentina and Brazil, Presidents Kirchner and Lula have taken important steps toward the construction of a regional market, and are no longer amenable to IMF recipes. In Ecuador and Bolivia, indigenous movements have been at the forefront of national-popular blocs demanding new forms of political representation at the national, regional, and local levels, along with the nationalization of natural resources. With few exceptions, corrupt neoliberal parties have lost the upper hand in formal politics. From Mexico to Argentina, indigenous and national-popular movements have posed the question of who will govern whom, how, and for how long.

Perhaps inspired by the latest cycle of popular rebellion and political rebirth throughout Latin America, Dunbar-Ortiz has returned to academic scholarship. We should not be surprised: “I think we are becoming increasingly aware that history itself is an issue, often the issue: Who owns the history of the United States? Do we accept the history of the Latino and Anglo conquerors or the indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere?” (12). Readers can look forward to Dunbar-Ortiz’s forthcoming volume on the history of the United States from an indigenous perspective, which will no doubt be informed by hard-won wisdom acquired on the Miskito Coast.

As readers, we are indebted to Dunbar-Ortiz for going to the Miskito Coast, for fighting to bring the story to light when it mattered, and for writing with generosity of spirit, honesty of emotion, and depth of insight, long after Central America faded from public consciousness in the United States. At its best, like blues, jazz, and country music from the southwest, Blood on the Border strikes notes that are haunting, plaintive, and tragic. It sings of love, loss, and loneliness, but also community, courage, and solidarity.


1.   Perry Anderson, “A Magical Realist and His Reality,” The Nation, January 26, 2004.
2.   Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers (Chicago: Frontline International Distributors, 1996 [1969]). Anchored in Quakerism, the Lynds have made their own path using a similar method. See Staughton Lynd, Living inside Our Hope: Confessions of a Steadfast Radical (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
3.   See “Interview with Linda Gordon,” in MAHRO, eds., Visions of History: Interviews (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 76–92; and Manning Marable, “Groundings with My Sisters,” in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 69–103.
4.   Bettina Aptheker’s memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2006), is remarkable in its courage as well as its conception.
5.   Aijaz Ahmad, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Imperialism of Our Time (Delhi: LeftWord, 2004), 231. Like Ahmad, I prefer the term over the “new imperialism,” which assumes what needs to be demonstrated.
6.    Unsworth is quoted in Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking, 2007), 12. See also, Derek Sayer, The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytical Foundations of Historical Materialism (London: Blackwell, 1990).

2008, Volume 60, Issue 01 (May)
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