As Suzanne Llewellyn stood on the hill overlooking the río Gualcarque—the same sacred Lenca river that Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres risked her life to protect—she knew she had a story to tell.
But how to tell it?
Berta was assassinated in March 2016 when armed gunmen—operating on the orders of the dam project that threatened the Gualcarque—stormed her home. Six months after Berta’s killing, Llewellyn—who lives in Walnut Creek—was in Honduras as part of a human rights delegation, protesting the privatization of a highway and visiting the Lenca village Berta swore to protect.
“The very day I got back that night, I was laying in bed tossing and turning and wondering, what would be the best way for me to share this story,” said Llewellyn. “And what came to me was the desire to reach children, who have a very fundamental instinctual understanding of fairness.”
Llewellyn—who has a master’s degree in education and borrowing from her experience as an inner-city school teacher in Chicago—awoke the next morning and cranked out the first draft of what would become “Berta Saves the River/Berta Salva El Río,” a bilingual children’s book illustrated by Honduran artist and journalist Luis Chávez that tells Berta’s heroic story through the eyes a child, Ana.
The book captures a story all too familiar to the Americas. The colorful imagery and gentle illustrations tell the tale of capitalistic extraction in a way that is easy for children to understand. Through Ana, a young Lenca girl, the experience of indigenous communities and their constant fight against the theft of land and resources are centered and amplified.
“The Lenca believe spirits of young girls live in the river. Villagers go every day to play, bathe and talk to the spirits,” reads a passage in the book.
And once Ana’s community in Río Blanco learns that a dam project backed by a mighty company plans to steal her community’s water, they ask Berta for help. Berta lives in a town called La Esperanza (Spanish for hope). And hope is what Berta brings anywhere she goes.
The book, which marks Llewellyn’s writing debut, was published in June 2021. But the literary work, which took five and half years to publish, has its own harrowing journey.
And that journey started with a key critical question. Was the story of an indiegnous water protector appropriate for a white person to tell?
The literary world is littered with examples of white authors parachuting into unfamiliar cultures and communities and helping themselves to stories that aren’t theirs to tell.
“I understood the need for the Honduran people to take ownership of this book,” Llewellyn said. “I didn’t feel right as a white person, a foreigner, to come in and steal the story of their heroine.”
As so began the slow yet necessary process of getting proper permission from Berta’s mother and other Honduran activists to tell her story.
Llewellyn first contacted José Artiga, executive director of the Berkeley-based Share Foundation, which organized the delegation to Honduras that Llewellyn was part of. About a year later, Llewellyn was part of a team escorting Padre Ismael “Melo” Moreno—a known target of assasination for his work with Radio Progreso—from Washington DC to Honduras. It was at the airport when Llewellyn grabbed the translated copy of her book from her purse and handed it to Padre Melo. Two days later, Padre Melo, with Artiga at his side, approached Llewellyn.
“I was absolutely shocked that he said, ‘I loved it. And that I wish I had written it myself,’” remembered Llewellyn. But before going forward with publishing the story in book form, Llewellyn needed one last blessing, that of Berta’s mother. Roughly six months after handing her draft to Padre Melo, Llewellyn was on another delegation to Honduras. After altering their itinerary, Llewellyn met face to face with Berta’s mother, and got her blessing.
And so began the foray into the foreign world of publishing, one that would be complicated by a global pandemic and two devastating hurricanes. And despite their original printer in Honduras going out of business due to the pandemic, 2,000 copies of the book were printed and distributed to the Honduran people. And Padre Melo, according to Llewellyn, has hopes that the book makes it into the Honduras’ school curriculum.
The book is now widely available for readers in the U.S., and comes at a moment where it’s incredibly timely. Part of Llewellyn’s commitment to social justice in Honduras is advocating for legislation in Congress to limit the U.S. aid to Honduras that contributes to government corruption and oppression of its people.
“We’re not supposed to be sending security aide to a country that isn’t meeting human rights standards and isn’t following the rule of law,” Llewellyn said. And when Vice President Kamala Harris in July addressed the root causes of migration from Central America, Llewellyn points out that one critical component was conveniently left out.
“Unless we stop arming the corruption in Honduras, it’s futile and it’s misleading to say, ‘Oh, people are fleeing violence and poverty.’ But what is causing the violence and the poverty? It’s the ability of the government and the failure to hold anybody accountable for their crimes.”
In December 2019, seven men were found guilty and sentenced to prison for the murder of Berta. But this past July, a Honduran court also found Roberto David Castillo Mejía—a 2004 graduate of West Point and former director of Desa, the project constructing the dam—guilty of masterminding Berta’s assaination.
“It’s amazing to me the fortitude and the courage of the family to go after and not just stop with those first [arrested], but to go after the people who made the order,” Llewellyn said. “I think every step in that direction is a victory. I just applaud [the family] and am in awe of their ability to maneuver through this and not be assassinated themselves.”