In this biography of Juan Pablo Wainwright, Rina Villars, a scholar of the history of feminism and labor struggles in her native Honduras, traces the life of an activist committed [End Page 460] to Communist labor agitation and political organizing in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Her sympathetic portrait of a man selflessly dedicated to the idea of bringing happiness to the downtrodden draws on personal interviews, Wainwright family papers, newspapers, archives in the United States and Honduras, and Comintern files provided by the historian Erik Ching. Numerous photographs enhance the book.
Villars devotes a long early chapter to Manuel Cálix Herrera and the organization of Honduran communism in the late 1920s, disproving the established assumption that Herrera and Wainwright acted in tandem as a “mythical duo.” Thereafter, the book takes an unusual course in shifting to the second person, as if Villars’ biography were a personal letter to Wainwright. Wainwright’s early life was that of a wanderer and small-scale merchant. Son of an Englishman from Leeds and his Honduran wife, he spent much of his adolescence abroad, first with an uncle and aunt in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the death of his mother, and subsequently as an incansable trotamundos, taking odd jobs and working as a sailor in various locations. After a brief service in the British Service of Royal Engineers in late World War I, he returned to Central America where he taught classes in Honduras and ran his own firm in El Salvador selling fire extinguishers and Smith Corona typewriters. He traveled extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean in 1927. In Barbados, he fathered an illegitimate son, William, whom he recognized even though he never married the mother. In 1928, the Salvadoran government expelled him from the country for political reasons, after which he set up shop in San Pedro Sula selling tobaccos, sweets, and soft drinks, eventually marrying one of his Salvadoran employees.
In 1928, for reasons that are not clear, Wainwright moved away from involvement in the electoral disputes of the traditional Honduran Conservative and Liberal parties and into the activities of the incipient Honduran Communist movement in northern Honduras. Amid efforts to organize strikes among the labor force of the banana plantations and railroads, Wainwright fell victim to the cacería roja (witch hunt for communists) conducted by the Honduran government with the support of the United States. Twice arrested in 1930, Wainwright managed to escape from the Castillo de Omoa prison in July 1931, after which he fled to Guatemala, only to be detained again in December in a roundup of communists by the government of Jorge Ubico. Through careful examination of the various accounts of his death the following February, Villars makes the argument that Guatemalan officials killed Wainwright after both a failed suicide attempt and his provocative insult to Ubico, which may have involved spitting in the dictator’s face.
Villars has written a deeply personal work, the product of her friendship with Wainwright’s daughter Silvia (spelled both Silvia and Sylvia in the book) and the assassination in 2007 of her own brother, a victim of the “impunity of the Honduran judicial system.” Despite these close ties to her subject, Villars remains consistently careful with her use of evidence. However, the reader learns more about the devotion of Wainwright to his family and about the minutia of family events than about Wainwright’s [End Page 461] activities in radical politics or the nature of his Communist convictions. His interests and educational background led him to write many movement broadsides—one newspaper termed him well versed in teorías malsanas—but the sources available to Villars reveal little about his specific actions in labor organizing in Honduras and nothing about his reported work with Agustín Farabundo Martí in El Salvador in late 1931. It is clear that Wainwright remained uncompromisingly devoted to the radical politics of the final years of his life, but one cannot tell if he was an effective organizer or a captive...