We meet at Oceana Natural Foods Co-op. Maria Sause will turn 77 December 9. Her face reflects five or six iterations of her life’s journey.
Just four days 80 years ago could have changed this interview – she might not have been conceived and born. Maria’s father Franta (Francisco) left Czechoslovakia a scant 96 hours after Nazi Germany took over her parents’ homeland.
The Czech family line, originally Kraus, goes way back: “I just got in touch with a second cousin two years ago who has completed the family tree. The Kraus family goes back to the late 1700s in Czechoslovakia.”
I’m with Maria on a warm Sunday, ready to feature her life — amazing intellectual and creative journeys she’s taken having been born in Chile in 1942 and her own family’s powerful narrative of survival.
I am also scrambling to get some ink down concerning the Lincoln County Community Rights’ “loss” in state court after being successful with a countywide aerial herbicide ban on forestland, AKA, clear-cuts. The short-lived ban was the first in the country won by popular vote.
On September 23, Judge Sheryl Bachart issued her ruling that Measure 21-177 is invalid based on state law regulating pesticide use. That measure (for the ban) was voted on by citizens in 2017, okaying the prohibition of aerial spraying of all pesticides.
“The fight for our legal, constitutional and fundamental right of local self-government marches on,” said Rio Davidson, president of Lincoln County Community Rights, “and it is going to take the political will of the people to make it a reality if we ever want to stop living under the thumb of corporate government.”
LCCR is now in overdrive, setting up town hall meetings to strategize to fight the judge’s reversal. For people like Maria, this is a huge blow to her community and to her concept of democracy.
“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 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.
With the ban reversed, who knows when the timber company will begin 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 now reflects thick forest, sky and clear-cut landscape.
Holocaust, History, Chile
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 struggle since he was a highly intelligent but dictatorial man.
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.
Ironically, the New World formerly conquered by Spain – much of South America, including Chile — is where the Kraus Family ended up. During so-called Biblical times world Jewry’s most concentrated homeland was located in what is now Spain. Maria says her paternal grandmother comes from the Sephardic Jewish population, which according to history books had established themselves in Spain almost 1,700 years ago.
Her own diaspora as a secular, non-practicing Jew is what she herself precipitated once she hit age 19 and her father approved of Maria coming to the US to study at the San Francisco State College. She stayed with an aunt and uncle there. 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 76, she has good friends in Lincoln County, and the Lincoln County Community Rights organization is also a lifeforce for her. She has three grandchildren from a single offspring, Christopher, who has spent time in Portland, Tempe, San Francisco and Chile.
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 a tough.
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.”
A life of politics and peace: Part II
Maria is busily writing press releases for the Lincoln County Community Rights. Town hall meetings were being set as we spoke at Oceana. The framing to the talks is foundational:
Ask your questions.
Have your say!
Find out what’s next.
What can I do?
How can I donate?
Meetings in Newport (Oct. 15) and Yachats (Oct. 16) will have already occurred by the publication of the hard copy of Oregon Coast TODAY. Lincoln City, however, has one set from 2 to 4 pm on Sunday, Oct. 20 at the Lincoln City Cultural Center.
The odds against the 21-177 measure were huge more than two years ago – the opponents were funded by big industry groups, to the tune of $475,000; on the other hand, the LCCR citizens group who wrote the initiative received support of $21,600 in cash and in-kind contributions, most of them small gifts from individuals. That was a drop in the bucket for LCCR, according to Sause, to lobby against the national and multinational stakeholders who fought to continue chemical sprays.
She has faced bigger struggles, but the Community Rights movement is her cause celebre, now.
Love and Death in a time of Chile
She returned back to Chile (1990) to take care of a dying mother much after she had already taken care of her dying sister in Israel (1987 for five weeks). Both died of cancer. Maria’s is a crisscross journey from Chile to Portland to Newport to San Francisco.
This last time she returned to Chile in 1990 for the purpose of taking care of her mother other things changed her life: in Santiago, she met a man, fell in love and ended up staying for 18 years.
Cesar Retamal had lived in many places, including studying in East Germany as a machine builder. He had been imprisoned in Chile by the junta. He was an activist, a communist and blacklisted in Chile. He had been arrested by the goons deployed by the country’s American-backed dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.
Cesar, like thousands of students, professionals, 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.
“This is a period of time when I had an enormous education,” she said.
The couple was afforded their own home next to Maria’s father’s. He purchased it so Maria and Cesar could be close as they took care of him after the once robust man, who had been hiking in the Andes up to age 83, was paralyzed after cervical surgery.
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 building 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.
Socialist Owners and Conservative Workers
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.
The business went bust andthe creditors were on their backs; eventually, the relationship ended. After that, Maria and Cesar stayed there for two years, in the house they had built. She painted, gardened and worked as a translator, where she made a decent living conducting legal and technical cross translation (Spanish to English, English to Spanish).
Those years in Chile were vital to where Maria is now in Newport. She witnessed her father turn softer in his old age, becoming friends of Cesar, the avowed communist. The Pinochet regime murdered tens of thousands of innocent people of Chile. Her father was disgusted with that history of rightwing politics.
The country is still collectively traumatized by the ugly years of Pinochet – 1973 to 1990.
Pinochet was arrested in London on October 16, 1998. He was 82, recovering from back surgery. The charge was crimes against humanity on the basis of an international warrant issued by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón.
He not only was hit with allegations of human rights abuses committed against Spanish citizens in Chile during the military regime, but also the murder, torture, hostage-taking and genocide of Chileans and other nationals.
Pinochet died one year before Maria returned to Oregon to visit her son and grandchildren. That was 2007.
Setting Down Roots
“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.”
So, this final iteration of her vagabond life started in Oregon because she wanted to be close to her son and grandchildren who were living in Portland. Soon, she ended up sharing a house with her former San Francisco State College (now University) Shakespeare professor — Edward van Aelstyn.
That was 2007, and Maria lived with him on Nye Beach, from 2007 to 2016. He passed away on May 23, 2018 at age 82.
Interestingly, van Aelstyn became an associate professor of English at San Francisco State College in 1967 mostly teaching Shakespeare. His involvement with the cultural life of San Francisco, and his participation in a union-led faculty strike supporting students were part of the “Education of Ms. Sause.”
“I was very naïve about the United States, about the world and politics,” she said. “I was taking care of my son, going to school, working odd jobs — a lawyer’s office, for a record distributor and in offices.” She remembers striking faculty at SFSC in solidarity with students, and remembers how those striking faculty were fired.
That’s what began to stoke fire in her belly. van Aelstyn founded the Newport-based Teatro Mundo, which Sause thinks fondly of.
“I like what I am doing now – drawing and painting, sort of getting back into it. I am still finding my way,” she says while describing her life in a studio apartment above a garage as pretty ideal.
“I am almost 77 and I am very fortunate to spend my time here on the coast. I am not interested in being a tourist,” she laughs, saying that she couldn’t afford to be a globe trotter even if she wanted to.
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 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.”
In an Activist’s Own Words
Paul — In a few sentences, explain what your philosophy is in terms of your life and your idea of what we as a species have to do on Earth.
Maria — My “philosophy” in terms of my life, if I have one, has to do with learning how to love better and better throughout life, to always live in such a way that I am actively learning something, and with doing things that are meaningful. I don’t make a big distinction between work and entertainment. 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.
What we as a species have to do on Earth is a big question which I don’t know anyone knows how to answer. 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.
Paul — If you could do some things over in your life, what would they be, and why?
Maria — There are many things I would do differently and hopefully better. But that happens to all of us. We learn our lessons precisely because we cannot do those things again. Don’t we?
Paul — The value of art and the arts. Can you give us your take on that?
Maria — Art is a translation of experience into something we can feelingly see, hear, or touch. So, in a sense, it is experiencing life in another language or in a medium separate from ourselves. It gives us a deeper connection with life, allowing us to renew our focus on it. How it does that, is a mystery, and mystery is a gift all by itself.
Paul –If you could meet one person, alive or in history, who would that be, and what would you ask her or him?
Maria — Maybe it would be a person who lived in prehistoric times. I have always had a yearning to know what life was like then, and how people saw their lives, and what they thought about life.
Paul — Homo sapiens is, unfortunately, through the lens of capitalism, an invasive species, with the concept of might makes right, the victors write the history, and those with power and money have always ruled. How do you reframe this for some of the young people you and I now see on the street, valiantly striking for climate change mitigation or awareness or change?
Maria — I don’t have the answer to this question. The harm to our beautiful planet home is being done at an alarming rate, every day that passes. What we can and desperately need to do is change that lens – capitalism – through which we see the world and make our choices in life. We have to regroup, rethink ourselves as the caretakers of Mother Earth, who is growing old. We have received from her for millennia and now it is time to give back, to ask for forgiveness. Our social and government structures have to mirror that attitude. Only that can allow Mother Earth to heal. Only that way can we as a species have a future.
Paul — If you were to have a tombstone, what would that say once you pass on? Write it!
Maria — “We don’t know why we pass through. Let no step we take while here be wasted”
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America's Education System.”