(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 ¿Is it worth studying Jonestown? (adapted from the Spanish version here. His complete collection of articles and translations of Jonestown documents into Spanish appears here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Libertad y Religión. Jonestown: Religión y Socialismo. José Torra Alfaro. Mexico City: Published by Fundación Friedrich Naumann para la Libertad, Proyecto México. 2013.
José Torra Alfaro, a scholar of Philosophy and Economy, gives us a work concerning the tragedy of Jonestown. For this purpose, recounts a journey from the origins of the leader, Jim Jones, to the establishment of the community called Jonestown, and its end in a mass suicide that took the lives of more than 900 people.
His critical support includes primary sources, which are a few tapes recorded by the Temple; in terms of secondary sources, we can mention a few articles from previous editions of The Jonestown Report, as well as a work written by the reporter—and survivor—Tim Reiterman about Jim Jones and his followers. Another secondary source worth mentioning is the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which was produced in 2006 and was directed by Stanley Nelson. It includes several important testimonies from survivors and ex-members. With these documents the author constructs an extensive panorama of the group.
The text is divided into five parts, beginning with an introduction, followed by a description of the life of Jim Jones; it then focuses on the development of the church, from its origins at Indianapolis until its move to California, where it describes us all the connections that Jones made that helped him reach a political position in San Francisco. At this point the author also discusses the journeys Jones made through different countries of Latin America, and why his project didn’t succeed in these places. The fourth part concentrates on the presence of the group in Guyana, in the community known as Jonestown. It recounts the events that led to the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan and the mass murders/suicides of the members of the community. The work ends with a conclusion, followed by a bibliography. Throughout this reading, we get to know very important details about the leader, Jim Jones, as well as about his church; but of equal importance, the general context of the country where this movement arose.
For José Torra Alfaro, the story of this movement — from its foundation as a church in Indianapolis until its development as a social community in Guyana under the name of Jonestown — can be used as model for any country where communism has been attempted. Eventually the voices of the members are silenced under the rule of a leader, or members with more authority; that will ultimately lead to a totalitarian state, as could have happened at Jonestown in its final days.
The style of writing is quite enjoyable and easy to read. These aspects made me think that the author aimed to spread this topic and the truth to anyone who has not heard about Jim Jones or the Jonestown tragedy. I recommend reading this book since it accomplishes this aim in a very clear way. Finally, and no less important, it is one of the few useful references about Jonestown in Spanish that really takes advantage of primary and secondary sources using a strict methodology.
Among the negative aspects of the book, I feel that more primary sources could have been used, such as letters from members and material from the incredible number of tapes recorded through the history of the church. Also, it would have been interesting to analyze the members who did not have an important position inside the group, and not just Jim Jones. It is not that the author never mentions them, but their appearance is only fleeting and ephemeral.
In general, therefore, this a good book that gets close to the subject in a critical way and with a new perspective that can scarcely be found in Spanish.