This isn’t my story to tell. As much as I love to say that my great uncle was at Che Guevara’s trial, my favorite niche fact that I tell all of my historically-inclined friends, this story is for someone else to disclose. Thomas Sawyer Hopkins, otherwise known as “Hop”, “Hoppy”, “Grandpoppy”, or just “Poppy”, deserves an audience ready to listen.
As I walked into Sisi (my grandma) and Poppy’s house on this chilly day, with the door propped open and properly face-masked up and distanced, Poppy was dressed in an elaborate Argentine leather vest. The beret that topped his head was another trait he stole from his late brother Alfred. Poppy’s face was more rosey than usual, I’d like to think from the joy of dressing like his relation. Throughout this interview Poppy oftentimes referenced these tangible representations of his brother, the outfit, a small framed picture of Alfred in his later years that Poppy references every night, and some stored letters that survived many voyages across the oceans.
Let me be clear, this isn’t a podcast. This is an auditory interview, a story that took place with my Grandpa. There isn’t necessarily a lesson to learn from this tale, a rising plot and metaphor. But I do think there’s value in the simple notion of asking about more. More of a person’s story, more of a person’s past. More about the sisters and brothers and loved ones we have. More in this case, about Alfred Hopkins who was a great journalist in this world. His story as you listen, is quite complex and beautiful.
Raised on a lemon, orange, and avocado farm, he felt slightly isolated from society. And in a polarizing time he put himself through a higher education: to write about people. He was a journalist in this country who eventually headed south. Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile were a few of these places. As Poppy says many times through this interview, Alfred often confronted the notions of Marxism, US foreign intervention, and the embarrassing oppressive acts done by this country. In Cuba he wrote about Fidel Castro, up close and personal. In Bolivia he wrote about the great revolutionary- Che Guevara who was murdered. In multiple countries, but perhaps most well known in Argentina, Alfred was snatched off the streets: arrested and tortured.
These stories are sort of like when your English teacher asks you to find the symbolism in the same object you’ve been spending a week on already. Eventually, it becomes pretty hard to understand all of the worldly meaning in something as vague as a red room. To be honest, beyond the family Alfred later created and artful words he sent his family back home, we don’t know much about the true torture and trama he endured. We know he was one of the men we learn about who the regime (supported by the United States) decided to just “disappear”. Poppy told me that he thought the trauma he went through was too much to talk about. I reflected on my own traumas, I think about the march I was at just months ago. I imagine as I am taking a picture, a man grabs me and I disappear from the world.
Alfred has always inspired me. Everyone loves that cool relative they have in their lives. I’ve always been interested in writing and the idea that I had a great uncle living in a foreign country making his living as a drama teacher was just fascinating. At the time, I didn’t know he was forced out of his initial profession of journalism by a government with dictators in place because of our government. He still managed to tell stories though, and he still managed to stay in a place full of good food and flair, beautiful tango, and ideally away from the grossness of America’s systems.
As I grew older I began to educate myself on the same historical figures that my uncle so closely wrote about. I began to educate myself in Marxism: much like Alfred’s time in college, I began to do more thinking on the quality of life for people. I wanted to learn more about Alfred and his journey, I wanted to be like him. I reached out to his fiancé and life-long partner, Louise. She pointed me to some of his work in the libraries of Berkley. Ironically my college-friend lives less than five miles away from the building that stores his work, but Covid has made visiting prohibited. Back to the drawing board I went.
I think many times we’re scared of having these conversations. We go through hoops and jumps, we track down pieces of paper in libraries thousands of miles away. In reality a lot of times our answer lives just down the street. So we made the two and a half minute drive on down, we took off our shoes and kept the sliding door open. I did the obvious thing, I did the harder thing. I asked Poppy to tell me about his late brother Alfred.
Talking to a relative who battles with not only hearing-loss from his time as a navy-seal, but with old age and memory-loss can be difficult I will admit. My family teased me saying he was going to go off topic the whole time. But around halfway through I realized that was kind of the point. You see this story isn’t meant for you, this story isn’t meant for me. I realized this story was meant for Poppy. I decided to not edit or take anything out. Moments where his voice goes quieter and I encourage him to speak up. Moments where he gets lost in memories of the time he spent loving his brother. These moments I realized are what make a good story matter.
I also got the opportunity to dive into some of Poppy and Alfred’s letters to each other. It’s a great mix between brotherly roasting, and some serious reflections on real life situations. Being able to read primary source documents about the observation of things I’ve studied and researched: the United Fruit Company, US Involvement and militarism in Cuba and Guatemala– to be able to read these things not only first hand but from my relative is extraordinary. I find myself wondering if our children will scroll through old imessages between my friends and I to learn more about the time of Corona. That great year of ‘20.
The one thing I will leave this story with before you listen to the recording is something Poppy said about his brother that pulled at my heart. When I was probing Poppy more to tell me about Alfred’s specific opinions on Fidel Castro, he quickly and decisively shut me down. With a look in his eyes Poppy took a deep breath and in the clearest and loudest voice he’s used in years he said just this about his brother.
“No, he was a journalist.”
Alfred spent his life telling these stories, and that is the desire I realized I share with him. That is my Great-Uncle Alfred’s legacy. But more important than recognizing my shared desire with Alfred I realized the power this story had for my Grandpa, and for my own relationship with my Grandpa. How beautiful it is to hear stories about a man who was a storyteller, through stories told by his brother who loved him beyond words.
First link above is interview.
Second segment is slideshow of Alfred, Tom, and documents written between the two.