Before heading over to interview this subject, I was thinking of a possible epigraph for the piece. One from a Chilean:
Discovery is not seeing what there is (that is impossible at any level), but rather allowing oneself to converge towards a continually freshly-created reality.
― Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef, From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics
Then I thought –Why not a female Chilean poet?
Speech is our second possession, after the soul-and perhaps we have no other possession in this world.
— Gabriela Mistral
I meet Maria Sause at her upstairs one-bedroom apartment along a gravel road east of Newport. She’s been renting it for four years from the couple who owns the property who also occupies the residence below her.
Sause tells me her education now at age 78 continues unabated and full-throttle without all the encumbrances tied to trying to raise a child (she has one son), working to survive, and returning to Chile to take care of a dying mother and ailing father, and living with a dynamic Chilean poet leftist in a rural area of that country. “I am belatedly educating myself.”
As we talk on a warm fall day, Maria explains her current interest is attempting to define “fascism.”
She’s reading Michael Parenti, and asks me, “Is he a reliable source?” I laugh, telling her I’ve been reading him since I was a young college student in Arizona, interviewed him once for one of my newspaper gigs 20 years ago.
The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many. The glittering mansion overlooks a vast sprawl of shanty towns, wherein a desperate, demoralized humanity is kept in line with drugs, television, and armed force. ― Michael Parenti, Against Empire
I’ve run into Maria several times over the past two years of my time in Lincoln County. She is a member of the group, Lincoln County Community Rights, which has lobbied for a ban on aerial spraying of clear-cuts (and any other land) with pesticides that are linked to ill effects on humans and animal life.
She believes in the right of a community to determine what practices are safe and which companies should be allowed to do business within the community. The basic gist of her belief system is that companies and governments must be held accountable to the people to ensure public health, safety and security are maintained.
This may sound like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro espoused, but in reality, many communities in the USA before the turn of the 19th Century had restrictions on which company could or could not be allowed in a town to do business.
Her own narrative and her zest for knowing the lay of the political landscape make her a real find on the Oregon Coast. She also is a painter.
Four Days after the Nazi Invasion
As fate would have it, her life and this interview might not have come to fruition. Maria’s father, Franta (Francisco), left Czechoslovakia a scant 96 hours after Nazi Germany took over her parents’ homeland (March 15, 1939).
The Czech family line, originally Kraus, goes way back: “I just got in touch with a second cousin three years ago who has completed the family tree. The Kraus family goes back to the late 1700s in Czechoslovakia.”
Maria is an avowed anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist. Her early days in Santiago, Chile, with her industrialist father (he was a licensed medical doctor from Czechoslovakia whose credentials were not recognized in Chile) was one of personal challenge since he was a highly intelligent but dictatorial man.
Given his tough demeanor, her father was prescient enough to have sent his wife, Lisbet Erica Hirsch (maiden name), to England in 1938 before things got ugly in Europe.
Maria and I talk about history, about the saga of her Jewish heritage and roots. Her Kraus family line was virtually extinguished — 54 members on her father’s side (and an unknown number on her mother’s side) were exterminated in places like Auschwitz. Nazis processed professional Jews through the town of Theresienstadt, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto established by the SS during World War II.
My father in his youth belonged to several left movements. Maybe it was the shock and trauma of losing parents and the entire family that turned him into a rightwing conservative.
Maria and her sister were sent to private schools outside of Santiago in the 1940s and 50s. Her parents split when she was one and a half years old and the legal battle for the children put them into a children’s home. After Maria turned six, her father took the girls to live with him, and eventually remarried when Maria was 12.
Her own diaspora as a secular, non-practicing Jew is what she herself initiated once she hit age 19 and her father approved of Maria leaving Chile to study at the San Francisco State College. She stayed with an aunt and uncle. That residence lasted six months before Maria was out on her own, working, going to school and eventually marrying.
Summer of Love
Maria talks about her vibrant circle of friends and compatriots now in Lincoln County. At 78, she has good friends and the Lincoln County Community Rights organization is a lifeforce. She has three grandchildren from a single offspring, Christopher (55), who is in Portland but has lived in Tempe, San Francisco and Chile.
As a writer, I measure lives through their formative years and their young adulthood as stepping stones into aging.
Maria’s sister died young, age 47, of ovarian cancer. Maria went to Israel to assist her sister through the dying process. She has two nephews in Israel, aged 56 and 54. They’ve kept in touch, she says, but going to Israel is out of the question for her: “I can’t stand what Israel does to the Palestinians.”
Maria has gone to school to learn English literature as an avocation to becoming a public-school teacher, which she tried her hand at as a single mother raising Christopher, who graduated from Newport High a long time ago.
That lesson, after having gained a master’s in education in a one-year intensive program at Portland’s Reed College, was tough: the challenges of behavioral issues with K12 students and the way things are run in public education were enough to turn her off substituting.
She says working as an English-Art-Journalism teacher at Siletz High School was a hard lesson. “The kids just ate me up, I wasn’t prepared for all the behavioral issues. I gave the principal my resignation after two years.”
We then turn the pages of her life back, to when she was growing up in Chile and her closest friend was an active member of the communist party – Ursula Sternsdorrf. All of Maria’s intellectual curiosity was kept from her conservative father, who was forced to leave the Nazi advance and the imminent death camps to became an industrialist in Chile.
We jump to her first emancipation – coming to California. Three weeks after arriving in San Francisco to go to school, “I met that anarchist poet, Edward Sause.”
When Maria returned to Chile to attend a wedding, her father was about to let her return, even going as far as contacting the American Consulate to put pressure the government to keep her in Chile.
The three groups of people who could not get a visa to leave Chile, she shares, were: adulterers; communists and mentally retarded people.
She was three months pregnant when she married Edward. “My husband was a wonderful person, that is, when he was sober.” Just a few years in, they ended up divorced, and Maria was raising a young boy while getting work in offices.
“I was incredibly influenced by my father. He had a strong personality. I wanted to be on good terms with him.” But the way she lived her life was contrary to her father’s belief system and worldview.
Her pathway to Newport is circuitous – meeting her San Francisco State College Shakespeare teacher who was fired for his support of the 1968 student strike. He was Edward van Aelstyn, who ended up in Northern California and lived in his family’s house which burned down. In 1977, he ended up in Newport with his family where he helped set up Red Octopus Theater and Teatro Mundo.
“You don’t push other people under in order to get yourself afloat.” – Maria’s credo
She ended up sharing a house, in 2007, with her former Shakespeare teacher, van Aelstyn.
But even that journey is both circuitous and interesting:
She was back in Chile taking care of her father (who died in 1997) when Maria fell in love with Cesar Retamal. He had lived in many places, including studying in East Germany as a machine builder. He had been imprisoned in Chile by the Pinochet junta. He was an activist, a communist and blacklisted in Chile. The country’s American-backed dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, plays a central role in Chile’s history.
Cesar, like thousands of students, professionals, and union activists, was “disappeared” and tortured in one of the hundreds of “torture houses” Pinochet’s secret police had set up throughout Chile.
Cesar escaped because he knew one of the guards, Maria recounts.
“This is a period of time when I had an enormous education,” she said.
After her father’s death (her mother had died years earlier), they ended up with inheritances (both Maria and Cesar got separate amounts). Shortly thereafter, they ended up looking for land in the South of Chile: near Temuco, about 675 kilometers from Santiago. The couple eventually built their dream home at the foot of the Andes.
“We built a house which I designed and made a scaled-down exact model of it.” Four months later, the cabin-like home was built by locals. Great gatherings of friends and acquaintances were common there. Politics were central to the parties.
Cesar ran a construction business, and she ended up doing translation work – technical, engineering reports, environmental impact reports, and process papers. These included multinational companies, such as Rio Tinto and Anglo American.
She says she learned a lot doing that type of work. She recalls working on a report enlisted by the Bolivian government focusing on privatization of water for the city of Cochabamba through a consortium to include the British private company, International Waters.
It was a dialogue between the British company and Bolivian government.
Interestingly, Cesar’s construction outfit was involved in building small plain homes that the Chilean government had guaranteed every citizen could have access to.
Cesar and Maria split amicably in 2006. The house and land they both still own, and Maria said she also has six apartments in Chile that are rentals which have not seen any income since the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Rolling Up Her Sleeves to Preserve Forests
“I have a love-hate relationship with Oregon,” she tells me. “It’s got a reputation for having an environmentally minded government. Yet it’s clear industry runs the state.”
She recalls John Kitzhaber, when he was governor, saying he couldn’t do anything about the clearcutting and aerial spraying in Oregon because “my arms are tied by the timber industry.”
“Pre-emption laws are made whenever government and industry see the people are rising up against their projects,” she said. “A government that protects industry at a higher level than it protects the safety of the people is unconstitutional.”
This concept of having a fundamental right enshrined by the Constitution that allows people to decide locally on issue of health, safety and the environment, is held dearly by Maria Sause.
She has witnessed the devastation caused by total forest removal in her own neck of the woods where she lives in small above-garage apartment on acreage along Fruitvale Road. The stumps are emblematic of her own fight and LCCR’s fight against clearcutting.
The Lincoln County aerial ban was reversed September 2019, which means timber companies began spraying glyphosate, Atrazine and 2,4-D (an ingredient in Agent Orange made infamous in Vietnam) near where she lives.
“Right where I live, they clear cut an enormous parcel of the forest.” Interestingly, her life-long avocation of painting reflects thick forest, open sky and clear-cut landscape.
Both Maria and I talk about our socialist leanings and beliefs.
Maria laughs when she tells me of the construction business she and Cesar embarked upon. “We made sure everyone got the same wages. Cesar and I were working without pay. We did not have any business background.”
The administrators/owners were leftists and the laborers rightwing. She laughs hard at that dichotomy.
She tells me that the fight for a community bill of rights, reversing these state pre-emption laws and having communities determine their health, safety and sustainability takes time.
Maria Sause is no fly on the wall, no Pollyanna, and certainly has certain gravitas in the community. She’s up on the issues why the Liquid Natural Gas proposed port in Coos Bay, Jordan Cove, is wrong for that community and the state.
She alludes to the youth around the world, and especially in Newport, protesting for climate action. She applauds them.
In the end, her goal with LCCR is “to provoke structural change in government. In that sense, education is key to “give people the opportunity to see government is not really there to protect their safety.”
This is why I am here in Newport. I have good friends. I can do my painting. Work on community rights. People have to rise up for their most fundamental rights.
I pose the question bout if she were to die and have a tombstone, what would be inscribed on it: — “We don’t know why we pass through. Let no step we take while here be wasted.”
The country is still collectively traumatized by the ugly years of Pinochet – 1973 to 1990.
Any reader should be able to piece together this grandmother’s “philosophy. Interestingly, she is clear that her concept of work involves having fun. “I can have as much fun working as doing something conventionally called entertainment. Work can be, and should be, entertaining and entertainment, for me, can be something that requires effort and is difficult to do.”
As an environmentalist, Maria has a clear and simple message about how we are more than just stewards of the planet, and more than just the managers of the earth’s beauty, which so many call man’s “resources.”
There are a lot of things we, as a species, shouldn’t do. We unfortunately learn about them as we witness ourselves doing them and causing harm to other species and our own. So, what I think we as a species have to do on Earth today is retrace our steps in many ways, and start living in a way that allows other species to live and flourish, even if that means relinquishing many comforts, we take for granted today.
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