Friday, November 14, 2008

What Was Gained, What Was Lost

I was sitting in the living room of my Grandmother’s house, leaning back against the light brown cushions of the old sofa, with the front door open so that the breeze could cool my sweaty skin. Every so often, I could hear the sound of a car or a truck turning the curve outside the house, motors roaring intensely as they increased their energy to make it up the steep incline. Outside the window I could hear the distinctive sound of the Salvadorean birds, singing the same songs I remembered from decades ago: the loud long chirps of pleasure, the repeated bursts of low bubbly complaint, the melancholic three note melodies where you could barely make out the imagined words: "Dichoso Fui!" (Once I was Joyful!). Accompanied by the true silence that was the soft music of chaos, I was reading a book about American politics and mass hysteria, a different kind of chaos and a different kind of silence, but similar nonetheless. Ana walked up the steps from the dining room and said hello to me with a smile. This was unusual coming from her, so I set my book aside, I sat up straighter, and we started to talk.
Ana was big and round, with very dark skin, a round open face, thick legs and arms, which showed the little scars left by years of hard work, and multiple little wrinkles under her eyes. Her demeanor was usually serious and decisive, as if she always wanted to make it clear that she was here for strict business and nothing else. I had heard her raise her voice at my Grandmother a few times, impatient with her stubbornness and her lack of clear hearing. When I said thank you to her for having cooked a good meal, she gave me a quick and cutting "you welcome" ("de nada") which cut away all possibility of further conversation. When she picked up the phone, she would quickly ascertain who it was and whom the call was for, then she would move steadily through the house to hand off the phone with a dismissive flip of the wrist. When she ran to get the daily tortillas (made and delivered by hand every morning by a young girl that rang the bell once and screamed "tortillas!" so loud that we could hear it all the way from the living room) she ran up the stairs from the dining room and down the stone stairs to the front door and her sandals would sound like rubber clapping and the claps would echo all through the house, quick and sharp and precise. More than once, when I arrived at the house, I saw her leaning against the low white wall of the outer balcony, staring off toward the other walled houses that surrounded ours, or towards the volcano that loomed over the whole city in the distance, or maybe towards the three or four security guards that always sat in front of the largest house across the street. Sometimes another maid would walk by and they would exchange news of the world, and little dirty jokes, told so fast and in such a blur of whispers and shouts, that only other maids could understand their meaning, and then she would laugh in great gusts of joy, a joy that had a touch of anger and a touch of sadness and a touch of disdain, all mixed with a very earthy sense of sensual spice. But with me, she was serious and respectful and dismissive, as if our roles in the world were clear and we both needed to stay exactly where we had been placed.
Today she was somehow different. She smiled at me in a way that welcomed my presence. Maybe she was getting used to me, after a few days of being around me. Maybe something else had happened to her that day, something that I would never know, maybe one of the guards had told her that he liked her, maybe one of them had sneaked a forbidden kiss while she walked to the supermarket only a few blocks away, maybe she had simply heard a very good joke and it had sent her in a direction that was unusual to her but which she was thoroughly enjoying. I asked her about dealing with my Grandmother and her constant requests for quick service and about distinguishing between the two bells (the one from the front door and the one from inside) and about my aunt and the other maids and about her various responsibilities and somewhere in the middle of all that talking, we landed on the topic of the big house that my father rented, just a block away. She told me how much she liked that house, because it was so big and beautiful, because it felt so fresh and complete and because it was so unique. I told her that it was the big house that I was born into, that it was our first family house (back when my Dad and my Mom and me were still a family and we hadn’t yet been dispersed in different directions by the finality of anger and the dark movements that hid underneath). I didn’t tell her that the big house a block away was the structure that forever defined the meaning of "house" for my open vulnerable baby mind, that it changed forever my perception of space and structure and form, and that I only came to understand that many years later, when I finally began to understand what a house truly was. I could see it in my mind then, a single big open space only partially cut into different rooms and into three different levels that all shared a common uninterrupted emptiness. When the brown wooden garden doors were wide open, the space stretched all the way to the back of the large green garden, all the way to the red brick wall and the curved palm trees and the little idol of stone that had been sitting impassively in the lawn ever since I was born. The house was the creation of two different forces that could only work together for a very short time: my Mom and my Dad. What my Mom could imagine, no matter how extreme or difficult, my Dad had the ability to make real. Together, they had vision and skill, an open window to the land of dreams and a firm silver cord back to the land of stone and brick and dirt and concrete. It all came together in this place that I came to know as the world when I first opened my eyes.
Ana then told me the same thing that I had been thinking earlier: that my Dad should live there. With such a beautiful space available and ready, my Dad should be using it, my Dad should take its generous gifts and transform them into new work, new creative endeavors, new efforts bursting from the soil and the sand. I thought then of what my Dad would say: that he wouldn’t receive the rent he now gets, that it would be a waste when he is fine where he is now. But I believed that he would gain a lot more from living there than staying where he was. But the gains were too subtle for my Dad to see. How could I tell him about the subtle changes in perception that would build with the weeks and months and years? How could I explain about the possible things that can happen only when the chamber is available, a chamber in space and time, a special chamber that is open to being used for something other than breathing, eating and shitting? How could I tell him what I had seen many years ago, lying down on the floor by the dining room table, looking up at the slanted wooden ceiling and the curved wooden chairs? How could I tell him about the wind and the rain and how they molded around the walls and the windows and how different they would sound when work was open and lying before him on an oval wooden table or a small flat table made of glass? I knew that no such communication was possible. My Dad, through his choice, had lost something that he couldn’t even begin to understand. By renting out our old house and staying here with my Grandmother, he had lost more than he had gained. But that measurement was perhaps just a step beyond the sophisticated mathematics that he was so good at. Like Godel’s theorem, it was a statement that could be expressed as math but could never be proven by it.
Ana continued to talk and I continued to ask her questions. We talked about the "maras", the gangs of El Salvador. She told me that there had been a lot of massacres in her town, many random killings, rapes, assaults, and brutally violent beatings. She told me that she would see them on the bus sometimes, the gangbangers, the "mareros", with their rudimentary homemade tattoos, and their loose pants and their gold chains and their facial masks of terror and pain. She told me that at one time, back in her little town by the volcano of Izalco, she couldn’t sleep at night because she was so afraid that the gangs would invade the house in the darkness and her whole family would be killed. When she told me these things, her whole round face got squeezed down into a flat ball of horror, and I could feel the years of despair bubbling up to the surface of her voice. She told me that now, more recently, there wasn’t as much trouble with them, and she said that it was the work of God, that God had made them stop, that God had taken them away. I refrained from saying that it would have been God as well who had brought them, it had been God who took away their parents and their homes and their food and their schools and finally took away their hope. It was God as well who brought back the gang knowledge from the north, from the streets of East LA and Oakland and San Francisco, and it was God that gave them the structure and the weapons and the fearlessness that was borne of desperation and it was God who gave them the last thread of strength that allowed them to become one against the world. It was also God who then reacted in a maze of dark nighttime shadows and organized groups of ex-soldiers to capture them in the night, to pull them out of their little tin and cardboard homes while their mothers cried for mercy, and it was God who watched as they were tortured and mutilated and killed in dirty little basements without windows and it was God who smiled from the front cover of the daily paper and bragged about the new Strong Hand ("La Mano Dura") that would allow the police to finally deal with the gang problem. It was all God. And so we should say thank you for their disappearance as much as we should say thank you for their presence in the first place. For he had brought them in a muddy rain that tasted of human flesh and he would now take them away in an unrelenting storm of harsh brutality. But I didn’t say any of that. I simply let it pass through me like a gentle breeze through an open door.
Instead, I told her the story of Marx, Lavi’s brother, and how he had ended up assassinated after he was deported back to El Salvador from the United States, a few years before. Lavi had been my friend for many years and, through her, I had learned the history of her family and I had come to know most of them. As I thought of Marx, I remembered the little ten year old I had seen in Lavi’s dining room: a skinny brown skinned boy with bright red hair and big open eyes. His father named him after Karl Marx because he believed in communist revolution and had fought bravely for it. Lavi’s father believed that Karl Marx held the key to solving the world’s problems, of hunger, and violence, of injustice and unfairness, so he joined in the great world wide struggle to free the masses from economic and violent oppression. In this struggle, he had been captured and killed. He had left Lavi’s mother alone in the middle of an unforgiving war with six children to take care of, one barely a year old. So Lavi’s mother had somehow managed to travel up to the United States, without papers or protection or guidance, with all six kids in tow. Here she had somehow found a house in the streets of East Palo Alto and in those same streets all the kids began to explore and learn the ways of a new strange life. Here the boys learned the way to live in the midst of constant violence. Here they didn’t just survive, but like their father before them, they rose to be commanders in endless wars over race and neighborhood boundaries, secret wars fought by skinny tattooed kids in undershirts over a corner in which to sell drugs or over simple and elusive respect, bathed with blood and encrusted with bullets. In these streets, the only streets where Lavi’s mother could manage to find a home, Marx grew up to be a self made soldier.
Years later, I saw him in a drug dealer’s living room. I had come here looking for psychedelics. The dealer normally dealt in the more standard drugs of choice: pot, crack, crank and cocaine. But my friend had told me that there was a chance that we could find what we needed and so I came looking. I remember seeing Marx on the sofa, slim dark glasses around his eyes, his head completely shaved, his arms thick with wiry muscles and intricate tattoos. At first I didn’t recognize him and I don’t think he recognized me. But my friend reintroduced us and there was a glimmer of memory that passed between us and I could somehow see the red haired little skinny boy I had seen so many years ago in Lavi’s dining room, the one who still asked questions, the one who still wondered what to do, the one that still wondered at the world and where it might take him. I felt a slim shade of friendship make its way towards me from beneath the dark glasses and I was grateful for it and felt a certain sympathy for him as he leaned back into the sofa and regained his place among his friends.
A few years later, he was caught for one crime or another and he was deported. Back in El Salvador, much like other deported gangbangers, he was received as a hero in the streets and soon he had established his own little reign of prostitution somewhere in the back alleys of the capital. All this I heard about second hand, but I can see him clearly picking the girls he would have in his brothel, picking the men that would be his protectors, picking the place where they would conduct their business and feeling the same fearlessness that his father once had felt when he fought for justice and peace and change in the heart of a very different kind of war. Like his father before him, Marx miscalculated the extent of his invulnerability and he was brutally murdered one forgotten night in the dark purposeful silence of the hot Central American city. Maybe he didn’t realize that there were others as fearless as he was. Maybe he thought they wouldn’t dare hurt him. Maybe he really wanted to die.
I told Ana that the irony of the whole story was that he was taken to the US in order to save his life and it was over there that he learned the skills that ultimately lead to his death. The other brothers and sisters didn’t fare much better. The older brother was also deported. The younger spent many years in jail. The two young daughters ended up attached to similar men with similar destinies. Only Lavi, who was already almost a woman when she arrived, escaped from the black hole of East Palo Alto. Going to the United States, making the great midnight escape through the dirty roads of Mexico, the cold barriers of the Rio Grande border and the merciless streets of the American ghettos, Lavi’s mother had lost much more than she had gained. It would have been too much to ask of her to see that, back when they had first left El Salvador. Maybe if she had stayed, their lives would have been even shorter and maybe their deaths would have been worse. But what they lost with their journey, was something more subtle than biological life, something more precious than breath or food or safety.
Ana then went back to work and, as I saw her walk away, with her sandals clapping away at the stone steps that went up to the upper apartment, I thought of her life in the little town under the volcano of Izalco. I thought of her choice to come here and surrender years upon years of her life to living for the comfort of others, in a house that was not her own, away from her family and everything that she loved, living only for tiny moments of joy when she leaned over a white balcony and a passing maid told her a dirty joke or a security guard winked at her. I knew that she was very clear on what she had gained by coming here. That was clear and evident before her. I wondered if she would ever understand what she had lost.

Ana stares into my camera
with her steady gaze of calm resignation.

A bloody machete:
the traditional deadly weapon of
the Salvadorean peasants.

My mother's painting:
"What I Gained, What I Lost"

Salvadorean "Mareros"
giving and receiving the only
true love and respect
they have ever known.

A prostitute showing off the remains of her
battered body.
Two Salvadorean "Mareros" fighting for respect
on the warm sands of a gentle beach.

The imposing facade of my first house,
the one that I took to be the entire world.

Two "Mareros" fight while the other gang members
kick them without mercy,
all part of ritualistic initiation.

The world as I knew it,
with its surrounding chaos,
its unpredictable turns and
its underlying secret unity.
A corner in downtown San Salvador,
where every crack in the sidewalk tells a thousand stories
and, in the quick gap of silence
between loud growling buses
punctuated by large clouds of dark poisonous smoke,
you can hear the cries of the many Voyagers
that have somehow lost their way.

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