(Luis Ángel González Rocha is a Bachelor’s degree student in History and a Professor of Classical Nahuatl at the Department of History at University of Guanajuato in Mexico. The original Spanish from which this article is adapted is here. His other article is A reflection about Ann Elizabeth Moore and Carolyn Moore Layton. His complete collection of articles and translations of Jonestown documents into Spanish appears here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The tragedy of Jonestown is a subject that is not well known to the general public – especially in Mexico, where I live – but any interest in it at all will lead to a number of resources, ranging from thoughtful and well-intentioned documentaries, to websites with questionable sources, and even to expressions like “drink the Kool-Aid.” I personally had never heard about Jonestown until the end of March 2015. My first exposure to this subject was through a YouTube video that affected me so much that I started a search throughout the web to gather more information.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that a high percentage of the websites were in English. The next thing I realized was that, with the exception of “Q042,” the so-called death tape, and a few other tapes, most websites never make reference to a trusted source, and in some cases, not a single source was cited. Others focus on conspiracy theories with even less evidence. On the other hand, the few websites that were written in my mother language – Spanish – were no different from these.
Then I found the Jonestown Institute website. From the first, I was impressed by the well-developed work on it, with the great list of documents available. “This is the web site that I need,” I immediately told myself.
As a student (and currently as a professor) in the bachelor´s degree program in History at the University of Guanajuato, I was curious what my classmates knew about Jonestown. Some of them had heard only of the suicides, others the phrase related to “Kool-Aid,” and some others related the word Jonestown with death and fanaticism, but most of them knew nothing about it. This gave me the intention to disseminate information about the topic, at least in my university. Little by little, the project has been progressing.
Ángeles Lugo, a professor in the Department of History, has a radio program, so I suggested to her the idea of dedicating a special program to the tragedy of Jonestown. Sadly, the program was never made for some major reasons. Nevertheless, among the sources that I already selected for that occasion, was the last letter of Ann Elizabeth Moore, which I had wanted to read on the air, and which I translated into Spanish. I sent a copy to Dr. Rebecca Moore, the co-manager of this website, asking for her permission to use it. To my surprise, she answered with a request of her own: to publish my translation on the site.
I have to admit that I was totally excited about the idea. To see my work published was an incentive to continue in this area of translation; the only problem was that, because of other work I needed to finish first, I could not work on this in the timeframe that I intended. So I thought of the possibility of inviting other students from my university to collaborate on this project. I was even able to get an auditorium at my university in order to present, not only the history of the church, but also the point of my project. From then until now, a few more students have shown interest in working with us.
After the presentation, some other students suggested that I include the translation work as a professional service, that it be a requirement in order to graduate. A professor of the Department of History, José Elías Guzmán López, agreed to be in charge of the project and to supervise the students taking the course as a professional service. If everything goes well, each student will translate between 10 and 15 documents. My current idea is to organize another presentation inviting the student community.
But what is the purpose in having a translation of the documents from English to Spanish? In the first place, not everybody understands English, so it would be very useful to have access to these valuable documents in Spanish, giving greater diffusion of the subject. Secondly, the greater accessibility for Spanish speakers will allow college students, professors, and researchers to originate a greater number of investigations of their own to pursue studies from different perspectives. We must remember, for example, that there are different tendencies in historiography, including from one country to another. In this case, a larger perspective could be offered by including works from Mexico or other countries using the Spanish language.
From a very personal point of view, the very name of the page – “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” – motivates me to keep working on more translations about this subject. This is because of the poor perspective that has been given to it on other websites or through the media. Sect, fanaticism, death, conspiracies, these are words most often associated on other sites dealing with this subject matter. True research is not so simple as to sit down and start to create conjectures or conspiracy theories. One needs a good analysis of the available sources to compare with each other and to discard hypotheses lacking evidence. It is easier to describe it than to do it, but the good news is that it is not impossible.
It is true that I do not support the notion that everything in history repeats itself, but it is difficult to deny that we are the result of past actions, both on an individual level to a mass scale (society, for example). If we are able to understand in a deeper way how the church began, how the ideologies were developed that were defended with so much perseverance, and what brought these persons to a tragic end, it could help us to make a connection between their context and ours. No one is isolated in this regard.
Finally, and personally, I hope that through this translation project I could be able to contribute to facilitating a larger view, new perspectives, and new research. In other words, I wish to contribute as a historian.