¿Is it worth studying Jonestown?

by Luis Ángel González Rocha

(Luis Ángel González Rocha is a Bachelor’s degree student of History at the University of Guanajuato. This article is adapted from the original Spanish. His other article for this year’s editions of the jonestown report is Spanish Book Considers History of Jonestown (with the Spanish version here. His complete collection of articles and translations of Jonestown documents into Spanish appears here. He can be reached at axayacatl.ahuizotl@hotmail.com.)

Being so close to commemorating another anniversary of the Jonestown Tragedy gives us an opportunity to ask to ourselves what we really know about this topic. Having access today to an enormous collection of primary sources does not ensure that using them will give us the truth behind this tragedy. Moreover, the different causes that converged on 18 November 1978 can be interpreted from quite different perspectives. Some will consider only the religious aspects and call it a religious sect; for others, this group will be considered the communists of their time; and still others will consider both aspects in equal measure in order to have a clearer view of the event.

But having access to primary sources also gives us another advantage: diffusion of information. It would be very interesting to know how this tragedy is perceived outside the United States. A search through the internet might give us an idea about it, especially on the platform of YouTube; it was on this site that I first heard of Jonestown. There is a video made by the YouTuber Ángel David Revilla – better known as “Dross” – whose work focuses on entertainment in areas like the paranormal and bizarre phenomena found around the world. The subject of Jonestown was not excluded from this.

Beyond the images and sound effects, the information provided by Dross is very brief, lacks analysis, and emphasizes the horror of November 18, 1978, even reproducing a few moments taken from the so-called death tape, as well as using photographs taken on the site after the tragedy. Whoever depends solely upon this video to learn about Jonestown will get a rather blurred vision of the event, and the commentaries made by the web surfers are proof of this. Practically everybody focuses on the religious aspects; some even make comments than denigrate any manifestation of religion. Nobody has commented on the Marxist character that the group had, nor even wondered who was part of this group. The video merely says that the favorite followers were poor and without any culture.

This is not an attack on Dross, since he himself has said that his only purpose is to entertain and that 95 percent of the content of his channel is just that: entertainment. But considering that the video has more than two million views, it is undeniable that it carries considerable weight in disseminating information on the subject. Other videos on YouTube do not depart from this problem, and in the better instances, make mention only in a very brief way. Only through Google I was able to reach the Alternative Considerations website, and from that point, I have made an effort to publicize it among my colleagues.

In the course of studying History at the University of Guanajuato, I have had the opportunity of reading some good works written by my colleagues that approach several subjects from different – and original – points of view; they ended up enriching the theme. Why not do something similar about Jonestown? I have found that the Jonestown website has embraced this as well, and will continue to improve in the future. I believe that if you work from the perspectives of other countries, you will get very fruitful results.

One of the obstacles that we have to consider is that apparently Jonestown is a subject known primarily inside the United States. In addition, it seems that only adults are familiar with it, since younger American people with whom I have talked have, quite literally, ignored it. What we barely know in Mexico is that Peoples Temple was a cult created by a man who ordered a mass suicide, that it was nothing more than just another American sect. Even with many documents available, language represents another barrier to understanding. They are not insurmountable, but it nonetheless exists. I say this because I have met people who, after hearing about this topic, show a sincere interest in the subject, but do not have enough English language skills and are not able to conduct a deeper study.

For example, on 29 April 2017, a student friend of Philosophy, Esaú Ríos Díaz, and I gave a presentation to a group of young high school students for a course called “I Invite You to Think.” Several themes were presented throughout the course in order to invite the young students to think and apply the practice of philosophy. At every moment we worried about being most objective, in order that the students could offer their interpretations. At the end they were so enthralled that they asked me to give another presentation related to Jonestown, which we have scheduled for 18 November of this year. Sadly, most of the students who were there have not mastered English, so they are limited to articles of doubtful origin and entertaining videos that they might consider as serious documentaries.

I have translated some documents into Spanish, but it has not been made with the speed that I would like; furthermore, there are only few people who have been able to help on this. I am not intending to abandon this project, but it will be at a slower pace. My intention is that Spanish speakers, besides getting to know this subject, have access to the wealth of documents available, and are able to establish a link between this political religious movement and events that happened in Latin America. It is undeniable that Jim Jones was aware of what was happening in some countries of this region: his references to Chilean political and cultural figures such as Salvador Allende and Víctor Jara are proof of this.

Finally and no less important, getting us closer to this subject will allow us to humanize the victims of all this tragedy and might allow us to see the dangers of following a leader until the last consequences. Why did Jim Jones have followers? How did they conceive of themselves? I am not talking about the inner circle of Jones, but about those members who did not hold a high-ranking position in the movement. There are several books and articles about Jim Jones and the people close to him, but at least at this date, I have not seen an investigation that goes deeper into all his followers. The answer might be complex, but at least we will be able to remove the stigma that they were brainwashed or that the CIA planned it all.

This is a subject that must to be kept alive, and in order to do that, research must not stop. This will keep the historical memory since, and – as previously mentioned – the young American students who come to Mexico in an exchange program that I have talked to have never heard about Jonestown or its leader, not even about the most fundamental social movements of their own history. What can this affect? The United States had the first African American president and now they have elected one who is openly racist. This shows that most people have forgotten that social movements like Jonestown originated with the intention, among other causes, of counteracting the racial segregation that was quite notorious during the twentieth century and that seems to remain in force.

* * * * *

“To Whomever Finds This Note

“Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions.” [Richard Tropp’s Last Letter]

This was found on a note that was written on the last day of Jonestown. The documents have been collected but the real work has only begun.

Originally posted on October 30th, 2017.

Last modified on October 14th, 2018.
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