During the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, police arrested Jason T. Wilson for carrying what they described as a “full size” machete. According to a spokesperson, “When deputies caught up to Wilson, he advised he did not have to stop and that he was allowed to carry whatever he wanted.” That’s not entirely true: Florida state law requires that all carriers of concealed weapons, including knives, have a permit. But Wilson’s machete wasn’t concealed: it was tied to his thigh. Then again, he was in what police had designated an “event zone,” which is covered by a statute prohibiting all weapons.
Debates in the U.S. about the right to carry weapons focus almost exclusively on firearms. But the machete bears an unusual character. It’s possible to conceive of it as a weapon, yes, but it’s also very much a tool—not altogether different from, say, a shovel. It’s possible that Wilson is just a stunted adolescent who never grew out of buying switchblades and throwing stars when the carnival comes to town, but the ease with which “tool” becomes “weapon” in the eyes of the law is remarkable. Tools are fine things for workers, but politics dictates that violence be concentrated in the hands of the State, and dispensed by its agents. The slipperiness between innocuous utensil and deadly device represents the risk of insurrection.
When the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union members marched in the days of American union leader Harry Bridges, they often carried the tool that symbolized their trade: a hook. Although containerization caused it to fall into disuse, the longshoremen’s hook helped grapple crates and barrels in the holds of cargo ships; its potential for weaponization should be clear to anybody who saw the horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Like the longshoreman’s hook, the machete has a special place in the labor history of Florida, where for three and a half centuries slaves and wageworkers cut sugarcane in the fields by hand. Indeed, machetes are unique to the extent that they have always been used for both purposes—and not just as a plot device in horror flicks, either.
I’ve been around machetes all my life, though I didn’t always call them by that name. As a child in Illinois, I knew them as “corn knives,” flat-tipped variants from another era of farming. In the days before mechanical threshers, corn was stripped from the stalks and brought to a place where the husks were removed by “husking,” using a special tool called a “peg.” Afterwards, the corn was placed in a crib to dry before the ears were shelled, and corn knives were used to chop down the bare stalks, which in turn were either fed to livestock or plowed under to replenish the soil.
By the time I encountered corn knives in the 1980s, they were already relics. The one I found was rusty and its handle pins loose, with a blade that had been filed down from its original shape to a wavy point. In my child’s mind, however, this thing was nothing less than a real sword, even if they littered the barns where I grew up.
This fusion of tool and weapon cropped up again and again during my childhood. In the third grade, I encountered a word in a Hardy Boy’s book, Footprints Under the Window, which I’d never seen before: machete. I quickly realized from the descriptions that a machete was essentially the same thing as a “corn knife.” Much of the book’s action takes place on a fictional Spanish-speaking island called “Baredo.” Looking at the cover now, it’s hard not to notice that one of the villainous figures looks a lot like Fidel Castro, and one of his comrades wields a machete. It’s hard to say whether or not this moment of recognition is related, but in high school I fell hard for Che Guevara, whose Jon Lee Anderson-penned biography I read with great enthusiasm. In Anderson’s account, machetes are mostly weapons, but weapons clearly linked to the sugar plantations of Cuba; there’s even a picture of Guevara in his fatigues holding a machete in a cane field.
Later, on a whim, my friend and I pooled our resources and bought a cheap machete made by Coghlan, the kind that comes in the distinctive green packaging. We didn’t have any real use for it, but it was sure fun to slice through mailboxes from a car window on beer-drunk Friday nights along rural roads. Once, when we’d ventured into East St. Louis in search of marijuana, we were accosted by a man on the street. Without thinking, my friend reached behind the seat and brandished the blade. I’m certainly not proud of this moment, but it does illustrate the machete’s ability to change quickly from a boy’s plaything to an instrument of violence.
And then back again into a tool, and a cultural symbol. One of my areas of research is the calypso fad that briefly gripped the United States in the late ’50s. Its most famous example, Harry Belafonte’s smash 1956 single “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” is a song for and about the people who worked in the banana industry in Belafonte’s native Jamaica—where the machete was the primary tool for harvesting the fruit.
But perhaps more than anything else in recent memory, it was a 2008 trip to Costa Rica that contributed the final component to my understanding of the machete as both a tool and a weapon. Near the center of San Jose stands a statue depicting the notorious American filibuster, William Walker, who controlled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857. After a combined military force from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador defeated him, Walker was executed in Honduras in 1860. The memory of Walker in Central America is still strong enough to warrant this statue of him, being chased by four female figures representing the nations of the Allied Armies of Central America. One of the women wields a long knife as he cowers; it might be a sword, but it could be a machete. Not far away, I bought a souvenir blade emblazoned with the state seals of the five nations involved in Walker’s ouster. It was difficult to get past customs.