Talking with . . .

Larry Lihosit
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962 – 64)

    LARRY LIHOSIT HAS LIVED in Madera, California (which is about 20 miles north of Fresno) since 1995. It is a small farming community and county seat with a population of under 50,000. Married to a woman he met while studying Spanish in Mexico City just before joining the Peace Corps (Honduras 1975–77), Larry and his wife have two sons. The oldest is beginning his second year in college, the second boy is a senior in high school. Larry’s wife is a teacher; Larry is an urban planner. But what Larry does mostly is think about and publish his writing. He had been a successful self-publisher for fifteen years and this summer spoke about self-publishing at the Fort Collins Peace Corps reunion. (We have an edited version of his talk in this issue of Peace Corps Writers. I urge anyone who is interested in writing and publishing to take a look at this useful essay.) We emailed Larry recently about his Peace Corps career, his published works, and his views on writers and writing.

    Larry, first of all, where are you from and where did you go to college?
    I was born in the southern suburbs of Chicago, known as the Southside. At the age of twelve, my family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona where I graduated from grade school, high school, and Arizona State University. Later, I completed master’s coursework in urban planning at La Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México (U.N.A.M.) in Mexico City, studied art and creative writing at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, and most recently earned teaching credentials at California State University Fresno.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps?
    My first travel book, South of the Frontera, describes the crazy travels that led me to the Peace Corps. It started with losing a job. When our boss opened the birdcage at our local city planning department, my buddies and I formed our own company. It didn’t pay that well nor did it take that much time, so we began to have adventures, most naturally. We went so far that the twang became a rolling rrrrrrr. Racing south, we rejoiced because we instinctively knew that premature middle age escaped us. Never having studied a foreign language, I was lost. My father had been a salesman and I had been taught to speak up, look ‘em in the eye, and shake their hands. Soon, I had a paperback Spanish/English dictionary, a used tape recorder, and some used tapes. Within weeks, I was travelin’ south of the frontera solo and learning Spanish. One of my buddies suggested the Peace Corps. I applied and within months, flew to Miami, Florida and on to Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1975. I already spoke about 100 words in Spanish when I arrived and could get around just fine.

    What did you do as a PCV?
    Luckily for me, I was an urban planner in the Community Development contingent, Honduras Group 35. Because there was no new job to learn, I was able to concentrate on language skills. The first year I was assigned to La Ceiba on the Atlantic coast. A national planning agency was responsible for preparing that city’s first general plan and I was assigned to the local city government as a liaison between the two. The best part of the Peace Corps is that you contribute as much as you want. This is also true in Bush Alaska. In places where technology is scarce and educated people rare, you become a resource. People actually care about your dreams and encourage you to follow them.
         In my case, I wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of a city; infrastructure. Within days of arrival in La Ceiba, I was mapping land use, water lines, sewer lines, and electric lines. I was interested in housing and was able to convince the mayor to lend me two city assessors for a day or two a week. I created a random sample of homes, and with the help of the assessors, we surveyed housing conditions. This became a report which I wrote in Spanish and we presented it, along with the general plan, to the city. Later, I made recommendations about changing the city’s method of garbage disposal from an open land dump to a cellular land fill as well as changing the location. After a major flood, I brought the national planning agency employees back for a tour and suggested an earthen dike reinforced with broken concrete and/or rocks near the city’s high school to avert future flooding problems. I understand that this was eventually built with an A.I.D. loan. What the hey.
         Once the plan was prepared and formally presented to the city at a meeting, I was reassigned to the Ministry of Government and Justice in the capital. This was the equivalent of our state department. They invited me to be a member of an elite Honduran team to begin a pilot program of plans for smaller communities. Our first project was Cedros, a mining town located about 25 or 30 miles from the capital city. My contribution was infrastructure analysis and economic recommendations. Unlike the bustling port of La Ceiba, the third most populated city in the country, Cedros was a tiny hamlet of less than 1,000 people. The government had only recently bulldozed a one-lane dirt road from the capital to Cedros and the town’s mayor had donated a diesel generator and a few miles of wire only months before, introducing electricity for the first time. All of the children in town had swollen stomachs and flaxen colored hair, signs of malnutrition. This was quite a challenge. Everyone on my team lost weight. I came back to the capital city so skinny after the first three-week tour that the Minister of Government and Justice actually stopped me in the hallway to ask if I had been sick. I explained that I had been in Cedros. He asked what he might do to help me. I told him I needed a drafting table. Within two days he not only supplied a drafting table, but a fully equipped professional draftsman and a fancy German machine to copy our maps. If only the Minister could have followed me for the rest of my life.

    Did you travel much as a Volunteer?
    I was a very fortunate Volunteer. La Ceiba’s mayor was an understanding man. When my Mexican girlfriend showed up with her mother in tow, for example, he thought it correct for me to accompany them around the nation. He promised that if the Peace Corps office should call, he would explain to them that I was incommunicado in the field, por supuesto.
    During their first visit, we traveled to the Bay Islands to snorkel, to Copan to explore Mayan ruins, and to San Pedro Sula to eat fancy. The second trip was trickier. I no longer worked in La Ceiba. My Mexican flame and her mother wanted to go to a beach in El Salvador and I couldn’t get a visa! So I stormed up to the Minister of Government and Justice’s office for the first time. He asked me to sit down and ordered in a silver tray with hot coffee and cookies before asking how he could help me. Once he heard that my sweetheart was a Mexicana, his face lit right up. He got on the black telephone and told the visa clerk to have my papers ready within the hour.
         I also made two trips overland from Honduras to Mexico City where Margarita lived. Each time I took a different route and was able to see parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, and southern Mexico.

    Okay, your two years are over and you’re headed home next, right?

    First of all, I left early after eighteen months in-country. Between the U.S. Army reserves and the Peace Corps, I served our country for six years but was not ready to go directly home. I flew to Mexico City, reunited with my Mexican cutie and enrolled in an urban planning graduate program at the national university. I worked as an English teacher and also as an urban planner for two engineering firms. At one firm that no longer exists, I had a short four-month contract to write a socio-economic impact statement for the expansion of the subway system. Later, I worked for a second firm (Urbamex) as a residential site planner. They flew me all over the place! This company still exists and has a web site which lists some of the projects I worked on; a new town called Tabasco 2000 outside of Villa Hermosa and a huge residential mountainside development on the outskirts of Guadalajara called Bugambilias. There were several smaller projects too.
         During my stay, I also volunteered to be a technical consultant for a citizen’s action group which protested the expansion of the subway and the related construction of new boulevards. City-wide the government had targeted poor neighborhoods for demolition and planned to bulldoze twenty thousand homes within eighteen months. That was home to 100,000 people. Many neighborhoods organized and protests began. Over the next two and one half years, I helped 27 people to create a group, elect officers, collect dues, increase membership five times over, and hire a Mexican lawyer and engineer with the money they had set aside. I also taught a cadre of members how to give public presentations, led neighborhood improvement projects, guided decision-making about protests, and with the president of the group, counseled members during very difficult times.
         Our lawyer actually succeeded in acquiring a cease and desist order before the government resorted to hardball; removing judges and replacing them with cronies who immediately reviewed past judicial decisions, water and electric cut-offs, phone taps, surveillance, and death threats. A mile away in another protesting neighborhood the president’s four-year-old daughter was kidnapped and only returned after the group disbanded and sold all of their homes to the government. Two miles north in yet another protesting neighborhood a government tractor leveled a home at two in the morning while its owners and their families slept inside. One of the children was maimed when her leg was horribly crushed. A government spokesman was quoted in the newspaper as commenting, “They will all come out, even if it’s feet first.” In Santa Anita where I helped, plainclothes police tried to kidnap one of our members. He was only saved by a network of children who had been trained to act as our security alarms. They immediately spread out and a mob formed. The police left empty handed. A woman in our group suffered a nervous breakdown after a government crane destroyed her bedroom wall as she lay in bed one morning. A man wearing a government construction hardhat attempted to set outside propane bottles afire one Saturday afternoon while one of my friends was inside with his wife and five children. Again, disaster was only averted by the watchful eyes of neighbors.
         I became known. After narrowly escaping two beatings, a senator began a dragnet for me. Within a twenty-four hour period, plainclothes agents with pistols descended upon every work place I had ever served. The owners were threatened with closure if they did not reveal my whereabouts. They visited and threatened my new Mexican wife at her dental office, my sister-in-laws at their offices, and even my mother-in-law at her home. I went underground for three weeks before escaping to the United States. My wife followed a few weeks later in November, 1980. Between the two of us we had three suitcases and very few dollars. I wrote two pieces about this experience. The first is a straightforward personal experience essay about Santa Anita (American Papers #4) and the second is a nuanced travel narrative about returning to Mexico City seven years later and reuniting with my good friends (Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City and Missed the Wedding). It was difficult for me to write these things down.

    Why did you start writing?
    When I came home, broke and defeated, I was burning to write a novel. Within nine months I typed 225 pages. It was so horrible that I enrolled in a creative writing course at a local junior college. I wrote and self-published a tome of short stories and a full length novel within 24 months. They rode smoother but still had the training wheels. I kept writing like a madman and audited a course at San Francisco State University. It finally clicked in 1992, a decade later. Since then, I have written and self-published a handful of artsy-fartsy chapbooks. 

    Do you see yourself as an urban planner or a writer?

    Both. Part of my job as an urban planner is to write extremely meticulous letters, memorandums, and reports. This is work for hire. At night, at home, I am liberated and can write whatever and however I please. So, I write literature for us folks, most naturally. According to my editors who are both professionals, I am a great writer. According to the Internal Revenue Service, I am a poor businessman.

    Why do you write? What do you try to do with your prose?

    I write to share. Each project has a different reason to be born. Like siblings, they each have different personalities. The travel books are universally humorous like a fast paced folk tune because my travels have been fortunate. I have never suffered a serious accident or illness. I was never beaten-up or robbed. The poetry is different with structured tones like chamber music. The personal experience essays are like pleasant American ballads while the short stories to be released next year are a bit tragic like Mexican corridos. Once in an art class, a white haired woman asked the instructor why her drawings all had a certain look, no matter what she did. Jim, the teacher, nodded and said, “You can experiment with paper, pencils, strokes, but your personality will always shine because we are all different.” My literary writing is like that.
         Many years ago my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Virginia Eades, noticed that we did not read or write as well as her generation. She blamed it on the television and all the time we wasted watching moving pictures instead of reading. Today reading and writing must compete with television, computers, Ipods, and cell phones. The idea of universal literacy is a cornerstone of our government and society yet we are sliding towards semi-literacy. This bothered me so much that I actually went back to school at night and earned grade school teaching credentials. For two and one half years, I taught, then set down my whistle and picked up my laser pointer, returning to urban planning. I have given this some thought and have become convinced that what we Joe and Joan Citizens can do is to set an example by writing. Write anything and publish it because that is what sustains us, curiosity. What the hey.

    Why haven’t you attempted to get published by a commercial publisher?
    I have. Commercial publishers are not interested in my eccentricities.

    What are you writing now?
    I try to have two projects going on simultaneously. Right now I am typing my collected personal correspondence for my sons. I am also working on an outline for a two- hundred-page technical book for urban planners. It will explain in simple English basic engineering concepts involved in the construction of infrastructure (sewer, water, storm drainage, roads, power grid). There is no such book on the market. If you wanted to understand this, you would be forced to wade through a stack of boring, jargon-filled engineering textbooks. I know. I have.

    Tell us a bit about each of your books.

    My travel writing includes:

    • South of the Frontera about travels in Mexico and Central America before and during my Peace Corps service.
    • Americruise recounts a bus trip across the United States and Canada in 1984.
    •  Jesus Was Arrested in Mexico City and Missed the Wedding is a narrative about a trip to Mexico City in 1987. 
    • Travels in South America tells of a journey around South America in 1988.

    My other works include:

    • Salt of the Earth which is an oral history of the Saint Vincent De Paul Society in San Mateo, California.
    • Travelin' Doodles contains black & white drawings from Mexico and South America
    • American Papers: Volumes 1–5 are personal experience essays about books, learning, and travel.
    • Attack of the Claw has poems about teaching.
    • And planned for publication in 2009, Whispering Campaign, a collection of short stories set in Mesoamerica circa 1980.

    What do you hope to leave behind with your writing?
    I leave the example itself — I wrote. William Burroughs once said that there are two kinds of writers; those who write and those who talk about writing. The writers, he said, are like bullfighters while the talkers are more bullshitters. Bullfighting is more my line.

    Larry, thanks for your time on all of this and for your books.