The fool that kicks his hat away

How paradoxical the nature of the spiritual search!

That which we seek keeps being pushed away by the mind that places the attainment always outside, beyond, later.

The immense vistas of freedom come as the vast horizon, always as the horizon that unifies Heaven and Earth, but horizon always, no matter how much we walk.

Or is it like the clown, who kicks his hat away from him every time he bends over to pick it up?

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The prayer of an atheist

I must have been seven years old when I received from my beloved father the first memory of the idea of God. It was my first religious teaching. Who knows from what recess of the soul came out this disquieting hunger to know about God, to find out if he was real and if I could talk with him?

My father did not respond with conclusions or definitions. He had been a born again Christian before I was born, on his way to be a preacher. Something must have happened to him, because by the time I was born, he didn’t let me be baptized. He didn’t baptize me Catholic, as the rest of my family would have done by default, nor raised me evangelical as the chosen religion of his early adulthood would have dictated. He decided that it had to be up to me to decide, whether or not to be baptized, whether or not I followed any kind of religious or spiritual path. Giving the soul true freedom, he never influenced me at all regarding any path or religion. But at this point in my life, when I had heard of God somewhere lost in the shadows of memory, I came to him to ask him if he knew about God; if He was real; and if it was possible to see him and talk to him.

I don’t think I ever met my father the Christian. I met the agnostic. I met the seeker. I met the communist. I met the drunk. I met the sweet story teller. In his later years, I also met the atheist.

When I came to him with that question, however, he didn’t respond as any of those things. Instead of a definitive answer, he proposed to me to teach me to pray. He taught me the Our Father. He had me sit up in bed, after I brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas. He clasped his hands, and I imitated. I lowered my head with my eyes closed, listening to something silent inside.

Padre nuestro, que estás en los cielos–Our Father, who art in Heaven.” 

That was enough for the night. That was the first teaching, and then time to sleep. I asked for the rest, but he refused to give it to me. He smiled, and tucking me in, said, “Tomorrow, I will give you the second line.” I drifted to sleep with that sensation of having initiated a dialogue with God, and that he was in the heavens. The following night would bring the second phrase, and the declaration of my desire to sanctify His name. The third night, I asked for His kingdom to come to us, and the next night for his Will to be done here, where I prayed from, as it is already done in the higher planes.

Just like that, each night I went into the arms of Morpheus with a new verse on my lips, and with the gentle presence of my father. At the end of the prayer, after siglos y siglos and Amén, I asked him what this prayer was for, and what exactly happened when I declared it. With an amused smile, and before the obligatory wrestling match between Tarzan and Ultraman––or him and me if you were watching from the outside, he admonished me not to expect anything from this, neither to expect an answer or even to be heard.

“Let us just offer the prayer as a poem,” he said.

 

What the Hell am I doing here?

It is the end of 1992. I am sitting in a hallway in Santa Clara University, waiting for the door to the examination room to open. I have been sitting there since 7:00 a.m. It is now 8:25 and the test is due to begin in five minutes. My eyes are fighting hard to close, but I don’t let them. If I drift into sleep right now, I’ll be too groggy and unable to think during the test. I’m preparing myself for it. The results will determine whether or not I can be considered for the UCSD’s doctorate program in Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences. If they are too low, all my previous work will come to nothing.

It has been almost eight years since I left my country, where I was doing my first year of college and volunteering to help the children of the war refugees in San Jose de la Montaña learn to read and write. Eight years ago, I was saying goodbye to my friends, and the group I had formed to study Magick, mysticism, and spiritual discipline. I was saying goodbye to my sacred tools and my books, the ones buried under a palm tree in the house we lost––buried so they wouldn’t be found and burnt by the authorities. Goodbye to the UCA, the Jesuit university where I dreamt with graduating and maybe teaching in later years. Goodbye to the job as assistant journalist for ECCA, a periodical dealing with analysis of the social, economic, and political realities of Central America. There, I was in charge of reading the newspapers and radio transcripts of the five countries that form Central America for all items referring to the economy of the region, and then summarizing the most important points for our main editor. I had gotten this job even though I was just a first year student, by impressing Professor Beneke, my philosophy teacher, with the way in which I could synthesize and regurgitate the main points in her class. She set up an interview with the German editor in charge of the publication. He told me his command of German was not as good as his command of spanish, because German was the language his parents spoke when they didn’t want the children to understand. He pulled out a huge volume of a doctoral disseratation and gave me two hours to summarize. I couldn’t read it all in time, so I went through the main body and skimmed to the beginning and end of chapters, paying more attention to summaries and conclusions. He said it was good, that I had missed some key elements but that he could work with me and I’d only get better.

Eight years before, I said goodbye to the volcano and my grandmother, to my sister and the girl who took my thoughts in the day and returned them in sleepless nights. I said goodbye to all the people, but only said “hasta luego” to the revolution and the mystical path that had uplifted my spirit and focused my moral compass. After all, I did not want to leave for ever. “Six months in the United States, tops,” I told myself. Six months to get away from the imminent threat in my country. Six months to hide from the death squads. Six months, that was the deal I made with my older brother, Atilio, the one who had become an impressive warrior and guerrilla commander. But work, life, and necessity intervened, and the 6 months stretched to 8 years to accommodate a family, a daughter, a college career, a life.

Eight years before siting in this cold hallway, hungry and sleepy, watching the rich students in this excellent Jesuit university walking down the hallway with warm stomachs and full rest, complaining about all the things they have to do and how early their class is. I was their age eight years ago. It had taken me this long to finally graduate from college. Things didn’t go as planned. I didn’t graduate in four years, didn’t get a post-graduate scholarship to a socialist country, didn’t teach philosophy, and didn’t contribute further to the revolution. My esoteric group never heard from me again, and many other friends wondered if I had disappeared in the trunk of a Cherokee Suburban, if I lied anonymously in an unmarked grave, or if by any luck I had taken arms and went to war against the oppressor. I didn’t stay here for only six months.

Eight years ago I was getting the visa from the American Embassy, and booked my flight where I had my first screwdriver––my first 8 screwdrivers. Where I saw my mom and dad and little brothers again, after a couple of years in exile themselves. Where my mom got sad because, even though I dressed up in a suit to show respect for the airplane crew and the people of this country when I arrived, I looked emaciated to her, with my meager 120 lbs. inside a light blue suit. I arrived with a few clothes, one book of yoga Mario had given me, and a wooden box.

“Do you want to see my treasure?” I asked Carlitos, my little brother who followed me into the room where we would sleep now in my aunt’s house in Echo Park. He smiled widely, and his sweet honeyed eyes opened more when I pulled out the box. Of all the things I left behind, I chose this one to bring with me. It was the tarot deck my father had given me when I entered high school. “I will never learn this, but I think you will,” he told me. I was so happy to open this mystery, and to unveil it in my hands all night long, seeing the strangely familiar figures tell me tales of initiatic import, the story of my soul through this life.

I would get a job a week after that. All the things I had done meant noting now. No education, research, or ability other than the uttering or meaningless phrases in a difficult language. I learned to take care of the elderly, to wash them, feed them, change them, and help the nurses. I got two full time jobs doing this, and a part time for the weekends. I worked hard to learn the language, always dreaming with finishing my philosophy degree, but dreaming harder with going back to my country.

I moved up to Daly City with my friend Juan. There, I attempted to go to a community college to get back to my studies. I also kept working at a convalescent hospital. The battle with depression and alienation continued, and I dropped out, unable to keep up with work and study in a foreign land. I was hard on myself, I didn’t know about depression and PTSD, about the unfairness of demanding the same level of performance now that I was out of my element. I moved many times, got married, had a beautiful daughter, and worked hard to be able to work at a school as a teacher’s aide. I also attempted to get into college many times, and dropped out of community colleges each time, unable to understand why. All of this before my 22nd birthday. Finally, when I was 24, I heard that I could apply directly to Santa Clara University without having to finish a community college program. “But I couldn’t afford a private university,” I told the young recruiter that had come to Canada College. “There are many scholarships for the right student,” he said. Something turned on in me. I didn’t occur to me to ask what the right student was. I knew this was for me to do. Shortly after the decision was made, the army of El Salvador, under the cover of doing battle with an insurrection erupting in the capital city, where many good and dear friends died, had entered the UCA and assassinated its director, Ignacio Ellacuria, four other priests who taught there, their cook, and her 15 year old daughter. These had been my teachers, and I had long ago hoped they’d be, one day, my colleagues. On a whim, I borrowed a hand-held recorder and conducted an interview with the Salvadoran consul, and with the director of Santa Clara University, because the Jesuits had been his colleagues and friends. I published an article with these interviews in the local paper, and somehow this made me promise to myself that I would finish what I had started back in El Salvador.

I enrolled, then, in Santa Clara. It felt good to be back with Jesuits. I felt among friends again, even if I couldn’t make many friends among the student population. The distance was vast. They were busy fighting for the traditions of a “Greek life” and complaining about the service of their cafeteria, about the classes being too early and the curriculum too hard. I was loving the curriculum, and would have loved the cafeteria food if I could afford a meal plan. I begun to realize the reason I kept dropping out of community colleges was that it was too boring. I needed the intellectual challenge. They allowed me to enroll in seminar classes, usually reserved for juniors and seniors.  I was promptly invited to the honors program, and a few honors societies. Just the week before today, I had been accepted in the Phi Betta Kappa society, which they tell me is very prestigious, but I have no idea why, or what to do with that. Last month, I finished a paper on artificial intelligence for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for which they gave me a grant of $5000. I know exactly why that is important, and what to do with that money.

It hadn’t been easy, of course. This morning, I drove from work, slapping myself to stay awake and driving while hallucinating after an all-night shift. I haven’t been able to eat since noon yesterday, because I was too tired to get up 20 minutes earlier to eat before going to work. This was the routine almost every morning for the past three years. I managed to keep a job as a security guard; in the graveyard shift, so I could read my text-books and write my papers between perimeter rounds. I managed to support my wife and little Xochitl, my cacarica. I learned so much, and I discovered I had a writing voice. I managed to graduate with a straight A, 4.0 GPA, even if every single professor questioned whether I should be taking their class the first day of every higher level class, because, perhaps because my accent, I didn’t seem like the type of person that could manage to comprehend the material. “Maybe you should consider an introductory class first,” they would say. “You can take my seminar, but don’t expect to maintain your GPA,” they would warn in their most friendly and compassionate voice. That was okay. It gave me a chuckle, each time. And each time I reminded myself to sit in the front, to raise my hands, to challenge myself and the teacher, to write more, read more, think more… much more than was expected of me. This was my life, and I loved it.

I didn’t complain; not about hunger, not about difficulties, not about expectations. I was grateful to be here on this cold hard floor, with the echoes of young students walking to way too early classes. I was a little hungry, but not as much now that I just had a cup of coffee I could buy in the cafeteria, and I have just finished a delicious banana that Julia, the Guatemalan cafeteria worker had slipped into my bag without been seen. Julia often gave me a piece of fruit or a muffin whenever I came to the cafeteria, I think happy and proud to see a Central American brother there, one of her own, making it in the midst of privilege. We never talked about anything other than family and weather, but she knew, I know she knew, what it was like to be in this country just to survive. She was a silent angel who blessed me with potassium because there was nothing else she could give.

Because of Julia, my family, my past and the Jesuit order, I am here now, siting in this cold, hard, and lonely hallway. My stomach not so empty, and my heart full. I am awaiting the moment the doors will open and I will take the exam that will decide if I go to graduate school or not. Either way, I have already accomplished much. I take the last bite of Julia’s stolen banana and sip the last of my coffee. I fold the banana peel, knowing that, in five minutes, I’ll be able to demonstrate to people I don’t know that I have the mettle to make it in grad school. I begin to close the lid of the styrofoam cup with the banana peel inside, when a group of young people stand next to me, looking at the list on the wall. It is the list of the people scheduled to take the exam. There are empty lines under the list, for people who wish to take the test but didn’t apply in time. If someone didn’t make it, they would be called into the room. They write their name in, complaining that the sheet is full. There is three of them, two males and one female, all young, all white, all rich. They hope they can make it. They hope they didn’t walk all the way here from their dorms, this early, in vain. They are about to leave, and one of them takes a closer look at the sign-in sheet on the wall. They look at the name on the list, he reads it out loud: “Ricardo Flores…” They start to walk away, they don’t seem to see me, or do a good job of ignoring me. “What the hell is a Ricardo Flores doing in a place like this?”, he asks. The others nod, understanding.

What the Hell, indeed?

Throughout the test, I kept hearing those mocking words. I kept getting flashes of the last 8 years. I kept telling myself to let go of all that, to concentrate on the test. I was too exhausted to fully succeed. I still scored well enough to be invited to UCSD’s Ph.D. program. I scored better than 81% of all other graduate students taking the test that year. “Not enough for Berkeley, but maybe it’ll be good enough for UCSD,” said my thesis advisor. Obviously, all the hard work done before that test prevailed, and I made it through. And making it through is, like any marathon, a very good success indeed.

During the test, I couldn’t take that mocking question out of my mind. “What the Hell is a Ricardo Flores doing here?” It carried in essence what this new land demanded of me.

Twenty-five years later, the sting of that memory has faded away to the background, and what stand out are the eyes of Julia as she slides a stolen banana inside my bag.

How Rodney the Bard won the war.

The year was ending again. New Year’s eve! One of my favorite times of the year. It was always a bit windy and chilly, so I could wear my jacket out––well, chilly for Salvadoran standards. No curfew that year, no martial law. I could stay up all night, challenging my friends to see who could keep up and greet the sunrise before going to watch a movie. Most accepted the challenge. Few saw it through. Usually, we would start the evening by going from party to party. “Parachuting in,” we called it when we hadn’t been invited. Luis Presidente would drive us, he was the one who was allowed to drive his father’s car. Someone in the group always knew where the parties were. That was never me. I wasn’t attuned to that. Where the parties were would be left to Luis, his sister Claudia, or my cousin Lorena. They would know where to go and how to dress. Lorena would tell me what not to wear.

After the rounds of parties, Rodney and I would walk around the colonia, at times with two or three other friends, joining small groups hanging out here and there, usually outside someone’s house. There, we would joke, flirt, tease, or horse play. The groups would get smaller and smaller as the night deepened and Morpheus conquered.

Of course, this happened after midnight, when the blanket of smoke from fireworks covered the streets of San Salvador and everything was white smoke, gun powder smell, and the explosion of sounds. There could be no doubt about it, the new year always came with force, bold and loud. It came with promises of strong beginnings. It was followed by deep, strong hugs to all friends, all family, and neighbors. Each hug was an unspoken declaration of love and the desire for deep and everlasting happiness, and heart to heart pouring of well-wishing to each person between your arms.

It was my favorite holiday.

This time, it started just like all the others. Before the explosive coming of the year, there was the dancing and light drinking. There was the same cumbias played in every party, the one about how the singer won’t forget the old year, because it left him very good things. It left him a goat, a black donkey, a white mare, and a good mother in law. And this way, everyone dancing to the slow rhythmic beat––and me somehow always almost catching the beat––we said goodbye with love to the old year, no matter what had happened. And we waited for the new one, no matter how much it seemed like it would be the same as all the others before. It didn’t matter, because it came with great joy and loud brotherly hugs. For me and one or two other friends, it would come with an amazing sunrise and a hundred new stories.

It started like that, with the nostalgic beats and the youthful mirth. Something of the scripted sequence was thrown off this night of my telling, however. Some time before the blast of sound, gun powder, and hugs of midnight, as we were placidly walking to some other party after midnight, a very different, unscripted, explosion shook the neighborhood. The night became pitch dark. All the lights went off, and the world was again dark and cold, with the sound of the wind now loud against the silent stillness of our awareness, which rapidly tried to figure out that the muchachos must have blown a generator, and was now trying to listen for more shots, for military vehicles, for boots on the pavement.

We were well trained by years of war. We knew everything was over, and everyone ran to their homes. There were to be no drinks, dance, or sunset. This New Year was coming after a premature bang, one of war and not of joy.

I ran to my house with my cousin. All our friends had ran to theirs. We could almost feel them in the distance, listening like we were to the silence and the wind outside. Anticipating shots or bombs, but hoping for silence.

At this moment, when we had just accepted the new script, a faint cumbia could be heard up the Pasage Galaxia, getting louder and louder as Rodney appeared walking down the street from his house. He had ran to get his father’s short wave radio, one likely used to listen to otherwise blocked news from Cuba or Nicaragua. Rodney, the perennial bard, was now channeling joy and music from some neighboring country, and one by one all the friends of the neighbor came out to dance the night away, there in the dark streets. We walked in the dark howling wind attracted by this Hamelin character, Rodney, who had with three D batteries and a radio transistor just defeated the specter of war and the terror of men.

The age of butterflies

The morning started calm and tranquil. It was the age of the butterfly. They came with the light of dawn. They left in surprising breaths of wind and stars.

Behind are the night and the cold, dark and forgotten, like the chrysalis which being neither worm nor spirit is the nothing which hides the All.

And so, as the faded memories of a life that is no longer mine are left in the musty corners of my mind, the shadows and the starlight that saw the Sun-born vanish into the oblivion of forgetfulness, dissolved by the golden light of I-Who-Am-Here.

Electrocuted and immensely alive.

I was once electrocuted as a teenager.

It’s hard to tell what got me to that space. I was in the 8th grade, impatient to be of service to the revolution. If I only I were in another school, I could have joined one of the youth groups dedicated to organize teenagers to promote the cause, and to provide conscientization tools. If I had gone to a less privileged school, I could have been interacting more with the revolutionary youth. I could have been in rallies and meetings. I could have been on street demonstrations, and eventually help with the barricades, with the taking of radio stations, with the publishing of clandestine newspapers. I could have been helping the revolution, until it was time for me, too, to take up arms and help change the brutal regime of death and injustice.

But the Externado de San Jose had no such groups. What we had was an advanced academic program, mixed with the Jesuit mandate to create citizens with a social conscience and a spirit of service to others. We had the dedicated priests who tried hard to teach that Catholic theology was synonymous with social justice. We also had many teachers who were university students and, therefore, quite in touch with the times, with the revolutionary fervor and the need to produce a new human being who lived by rules different than the repressive and oppressive exploitation that history had given us. Of course, we also had very smart students, many of whom were from the richest families of El Salvador, families that were exactly what the repressive and oppressive exploitation salvadorean history had given us.

There were no youth groups in the Externado. No organized resistance. That was for the poor schools, the Instituto, the public schools, and the National University (the U, we called it). What I had in the Externado that connected me to the revolution were the books, the papers, and the discussions with other students and teachers. I had managed to write a play and organize a mural; it was a periodical with political cartoons, editorials, news, and social analysis that was not distributed, but rather pinned inside a glass frame on the wall of one of the hallways of our old building. Students and teachers could read it, stoping on their way to class or office hours. I got two friends to help, and collected articles and opinion pieces from other interested students. I wrote the editorial piece and drew the cartoon. We called it El Pulgarcito, after the story of a Thumbelina sized boy, the size of a thumb (pulgar). It was also the nickname of my country, the smallest of the continent, and one of the most insignificant in the world.

I was impatient for more, though. I wanted to participate and help in the larger process happening outside. There was a revolutionary movement touching every aspect of life: peasants, workers, students, teachers, priests, women, youth, farmers, and artists were all organizing. The movement was social, devotional, political, and armed as well. The people were insurrecting at all levels, and from all sectors there was a clamor for change and social justice. I wanted in. I wanted to serve. So, I talked to my father. He was connected and involved. I told him I had something to ask, that it was serious. We went to the back patio of the house, under the terrace. He sat with me and listened attentively, nodded pensively when I told him I wanted to join the movement. He asked me to wait a little, that he was going to connect me with the right people.

I was too impatient, though. Life was flowing strong and fast, and I didn’t want to stay in place while it all happened outside. I didn’t want to stay frozen in privilege while the land was being covered with revolutionary currents.

I went by myself to the National University. I’d heard that many revolutionary organizations met there in secret. I had explored the grounds before, at a time when the campus had been closed by the military, and the rooms and projects had been all abandoned to entropy and jungle. Now, it was teeming with activity. Men and women walking all over, with books and stethoscopes, beards and glasses. I walked guided by instinct. In that ocean of university students and professors, I saw my older brother walking towards me. We saw each other at the same time. Each surprised to see the other, because he didn’t go that university either. He was a senior in high school, but here he was with two friends I’ve never seen. We greeted each other, almost imperceptibly. “What are you doing here?”, he asked. “Just passing through, visiting friends,” I said. “What are you doing here?”, I asked. “Same,” he responded. “Just passing through.” Neither pushed the matter any further. We both knew. We silently agreed to pretend.

If found what I was looking for. It was a shack behind a mound of earth covered with overgrowth. There were four doors to the long shack, each one leading to a different student organization. They were not university groups. They were part of the high school and junior high student organizations. They met here, hidden from the authorities and spies in their own schools. This was a central hub where a youth organization could coordinate activities across many different schools. I didn’t hesitate, I knew where to go. It was not the largest and most popular MERS. I was instantly attracted to the student branch of the PRTC. There was no reason I could give for this. It was a knowing that came from having seen my life a few times in the past. I simply had seen myself walking through this door before. So, when the door was there in front of my, I walked in.

At the same time, in what seems like a different world, I was also following a mystical path. It was the 8th grade and my soul wanted a lot more than masses and confessions. I needed to experience in my own flesh that spirit and awakening others were content to read about. I wasn’t satisfied with the promise of heaven, nor was I scared of hell. Traditional religions no longer had an appeal to me, and the material world was not enough. I went on my own, to study and practice. In the 8th grade, I was studying western esotericism, hypnosis, parapsychology, and magick.

The spiritual fires were fanned within me. I couldn’t just remain placid and settled in the occurrences of life. I couldn’t follow the reasonable program: be a good student of a good school, choose a profession, get a family, make a living, follow a religion, and train good children to be good citizens.

I yearned for liberation, both in the historical world outside and in the innermost sanctum of the soul. The revolutionary fires were fanned outside and inside. Liberation and evolution were stirring the depths of my soul.

The many worlds I had to inhabit were for the most part kept from colliding, but one day they all seemed to lead to this specific moment, when the chamber where I was became solid, when I didn’t know how I had been caught in this current of time. I wasn’t sure what lead to this, but I was here now, being electrocuted. There was a minute instant, when the current begun to flow through me that I remembered having taking a misstep. I remembered this moment, right when the current is about to flow and trap me there, when I know I was free and flowing but now I am falling into an oh-so-solid reality of matter and life. I knew that this moment before the electro-magnetic current overflows my nervous system, was the exact same moment I experienced before I was born, before my essential self was fused with my human nervous system and life as an individual begun in this planet, in this particular historical moment in this particular country. I had been here before, and here I was again, and again. Sometimes I was experiencing this before reincarnating, sometimes with my hands extended as the Man in the Cross while high voltage is passed through by someone or something behind me I cannot see, attempting here to freeze hope, stop the flow of life, stunt liberty, and crush the seeds of love. But there was nothing I could do now to avoid being trapped in this current of bioelectricity, nothing to do to escape. The only option now was to ride out these currents of light and life.

When electricity begins to flow through the waters of my brain, everything else freezes. Every nerve in this body was created to conduct electricity, to conduct subtle currents of magnetic and psychic energy, to carry information from one part of the body to another.

This nervous system that was created with very subtle wires––with very small and delicate rivers of energy and light, was designed to carry through it the most beautiful impressions of light, depth, sound, touch; the loving caress of the Beloved; the brutal gentleness of the sunset; the wind coming down from the volcano; the smell of spring in a tropical land.

This nervous system, designed to carry beauty and pain is, in this moment of electrocution, only able to carry high voltage, freezing everything in place, not allowing a single thought to be transmitted to the body; not admitting even the movement of lips and tongue to ask for help. There is just the freezing energy, and the movement––the swaying back and forth of a body that is being cooked alive, immensely alive.

 

 

 

The “no” of my father

I remember a dark sunset in July of 1975, when we were returning to San Salvador with my dad. Just a few hours before, a massacre had taken place when the government of El Salvador opened fire against a non-violent student demonstration. More that 100 university students died that day. In the pickup truck were my father, a 17-years-old girl my father was driving to her family, and I, who was then a 10-years-old boy entering that age in which one learns how to be a man. Upon reaching the capital city, my father did not see the soldier gesturing for him to stop.

Fatal error! We didn’t see the soldier, due to the dusk or distraction–who knows? The fact is that we went beyond the point where we had to stop, and a group of soldiers formed a barrier to receive us, just like death itself when she tells us that from this point we won’t go forth.

My dad stopped the car. The soldier, who had been ignored, would now pour his thirst of self-importance and hunger for power on that driver who had ignored him. He yelled and berated my dad, saying he had broken the law and that for not obeying authority now he could die. My father, calmed and well mannered, apologized. He explained that he did not see him, that his intention had not been to offend. I remember the soldier with his yelling and the cruelty in his smile. Another soldier moved to my side of the pickup truck we rode on, with his shot gun aimed at my right temple. Other soldiers moved among the shadows, walking near and far. The girl next to me, cold and pallid, fearing rape and death.

That demon, dressed as a soldier, seizing his opportunity for profit and cruelty, told my father to walk towards that shadowy area behind us, beyond the bus stop.  I kept glancing back to the shadows behind the bus stop, ominous with an evil that laughed at hope. And back the attention would go to the nuzzle of the gun on my right. I saw a couple more soldiers walking, bored and uninterested. We all knew the script. It was impossible to live in El Salvador in the eighties without knowing what was to follow. My father would obey, the soldiers would take his shirt, his shoes, his dignity, and his life. The girl would pay with her innocence and perhaps her life. In my mind reigned confusion and fear, rage and the stink of death.

I’m not sure how it came to pass that such sequence of inevitable destiny was interrupted. Perhaps it was when I heard the voice of my father saying “no.” Or perhaps it was when I saw the soldier looking at him with incredulity, asking him what he had said, if he was crazy, if he wanted to die. The soldier told him he’d have one more chance to save himself, to move, to be reasonable, to obey. My dad said “no;” and disregarding the threats and blows he was taking on the stomach from the soldier, to make my dad reconsider, to make him be normal and act within reason, my father continued to say his firm and gentle “no.”

Movete, hijueputa!” Uttered with the same authority the authorities all over the world are taught to command. “No,” was all my father said, with the resolute gentleness of one who has decided that if all is to end today, it will end like this, without violence inside, without surrendering to fear, without loss of dignity or stature.  Over and over, this happened. Each time, the soldier got more aggressive, hitting my dad hard on the stomach, making him bend over to catch his air. “Now, are you going to obey?”

“No.”

Other soldiers approached to see that strange thing, that man who without weapons said “no” to authority, to abuse, to a destiny preordained by others. The terror evaporated from my mind when I saw this. Inconceivable. The simple word of my father baffled the authority, confounded death, and the soldier became pale. I saw in his eyes an old fear, a recognition, an unspoken understanding that told him that it was impossible to make a man of will fold over. He saw himself small and afraid. He told my dad to go on, not to do it again, that this was his lucky day. With this show of magnanimity, he saved face.

Impressed in me forever now were my father’s eyes, calm and firm, and that “no” that made the world stop. The “no” to fear, to authoritarianism, to dogma, and to the lie.

My father got in the truck and drove away, rubbing his bruised belly. The girl and me next to him, still in shock but breathing again the air of the hot tropical night. A light smile appeared on my father. “My grandma hits harder,” he said.

 

 

Kissed by Lightning

She was a bundle of energy with a happy pretty face. I always saw her running, laughing, talking fast, and looking at the world with dark bright eyes full of curiosity. She was twelve years old, like me, but her precocious nature carried experiences beyond our age; experiences of sensual games I had only barely begun to fathom from rumors and books.

Her name was Luz, and with her I shared my first kiss.

I didn’t know her well. I only saw her here and there, played the occasional game of hide and seek, racing, or tag. I also heard that she kissed boys already, and my mom told me that the nurse that helped her during her miscarriage—and tended to her after the subsequent necessary operation to save her life by making sure she didn’t get pregnant for the tenth time—lived in that building, the number 7. She also told me that the kind nurse, who we all thought was always too angry because she never smiled or said “hello,” had a pretty daughter she was trying to keep safe from all the boys that kept hovering near their apartment, some of them too old to be having any good intentions. It took me a minute to realize that the kind and gentle nurse, that had helped my mom, was the same surly woman dressed in white who would always balk at us if we were sitting on the stair-case leading up to the fourth floor; the top floor of the building where she lived with Luz and her younger brother, Rafael.

I understood, then, why she was always angry and frustrated. But I still didn’t understand why, the other day, when she had come home and found me and Rodolfo sitting on the stair-well right above the third floor, she had mumbled a “buenas” when I said “buenas tardes” to her, but started to insult Rodolfo. He said “Muy buenas tardes,” under his breath as she was walking past us. I didn’t understand why she turned around after having gone up a few more steps, and why she started insulting him and hitting him with a rolled up newspaper that was hiding a hammer inside. She called him a hijueputa and a maricón––some of the most common insults in San Salvador. I also didn’t understand why it was an insult to be the son of a prostitute, or to be homosexual. There were many things I didn’t understand yet, but I knew you were supposed to get angry if someone said that to you, and fight. Of course, Rodolfo didn’t fight. He was always nice, kind, and generous. I have always known him to be gentle, and never get into fights. He was 18 years old, and he was with me all the time. He always came to see me after school, and showed me his books of high school math, chemistry, and electronics. He taught me to use the sliding rule to make calculations, because calculators and computers had not been invented yet. I loved learning these things. I couldn’t wait to be in high school, where I could learn these advanced and exciting things, and not the boring things they insisted on teaching in the sixth grade.

I didn’t understand why she was angry at him. Why was she hitting him with a hammer inside a rolled up newspaper? Why was she calling him those names, and “dirty” as well? I thought later that perhaps she thought he had insulted her when she walked past her, or maybe she thought Rodolfo was one of the older boys circling her pretty daughter, Luz. He wasn’t. He didn’t seem interested in girls. Never had a girlfriend. He spent all his time with me. He picked me up at 5:30 a.m., because I liked attending the morning service at the christian church I had just joined when I went to see that strange group of religious people who had taken over an abandoned church in the Colonia Magisterial. It was a neighborhood designed only for teachers and their families, with apartments for sale that they could afford on their salaries. The church had been abandoned two years before, because the priest working with the teachers had been kidnapped by the Mano Blanca, one of the death squads committed to fighting terrorists and communists, and to kidnap and torture everyone who opposed the government or help the poor organize. The church building had been abandoned for a while now, and Rodolfo told me of this group of christians, “evangélicos they call themselves.” He told me they seemed different from Catholics. They really read the Bible, and they didn’t have priests, but called each other “brothers and sisters.” They seemed to have a good community that loved each other and Christ. They loved God so much that they came into the abandoned Catholic Church, after her priest had been kidnapped and his cadaver dumped in some hidden place, and proceeded to destroy all the statues of saints and virgins because they were not God. I wanted to go see this community that talked to God directly, without a priest or mass. So, he took me there. I was already fascinated with the Bible, which my father had taught me to read. They were discussing it and reading it together. They were all praying together, too, with fervor. When the moment came when the pastor asks if “anyone here present wants to take Jesus into his heart,” I raised my hand and everyone was happy for me and prayed for me with all their hands like antennae over me. Since that day, I started going to their service every morning at 5:30, which gave me enough time to get back home for a quick breakfast before going to school. Rodolfo would pick me up in the morning, take me to the service, and wait for me outside. He never went in. In the afternoon, he would come after school and we would spend the afternoon together.

She shouldn’t have hit Rodolfo like that. He hadn’t done anything wrong. Luz was too young for him, and he didn’t even seem interested in getting a girlfriend. He had never had one. He wasn’t one of the older boys circling that pretty girl with the curious eyes and the bundle of precocious energy. Of course, I was interested, but I didn’t think at the time that any girl would want to kiss me. I had seen my face in the mirror while making kissing faces. I looked too comical with my lips pursed, and if I opened my mouth like I saw a guy do in a movie once to kiss a girl by putting his mouth around her lips, I looked even worse. No, there was no way any girl would kiss me if I looked like this. Besides, I was too short. Everyone said that, and I talked too funny and made everyone laugh when I said my name or any other word with the letter “R”. How could I ever kiss a girl, when they are all too tall for me? Even if they didn’t mind how I talked, they would laugh and run away, for sure, if they saw the face I saw in the mirror when trying to see how I’d look if I went for a kiss.

It wasn’t that I had crush on Luz, you see. She was very pretty, however, and she liked to kiss boys. Every one said that. I didn’t feel the pangs in the heart and the void spot in the stomach like I felt with Alba, the girl from Colonia Magisterial I had a crush on last year. Still, Luz was very pretty and it was a lot of fun when I played with her and the other boys. I actually had never seen her kissing anyone, but everyone said she did. I had also never seen her brother, Rafael, kiss any boys, but everyone said that he liked boys too, and that he was gay and that was why he spoke like a girl too.

When I told Rodolfo that I was thinking of asking Luz to be my girlfriend, he laughed at me and said I didn’t have the courage. That angered me, and I said I would prove him wrong. Toñito was there, too. He was a quiet boy who often came to my side of the neighborhood with Rodolfo. He would hang out with us, but was mostly very quiet and shy. I told them both that this day I would ask Luz if she would be my girlfriend. Rodolfo said I would chicken out, like I had chickened out with Alba the year before. I promised to myself I would do it, “no matter if she laughs at me or makes a face of disgust.” I would ask her, and prove to myself that I could do it. So, I went up to the apartment buildings, around building 7 where she often hanged out with her brother and the other kids.

There she was, talking fast next to her bycicle, giving commands to other boys and looking around as she always was, like attempting to drink in all the colors and shapes around her. I walked fast, ahead of Rodolfo and Toñito, and called her to come to me. I had to be assertive, so that the doubt and fear couldn’t crawl in. So that the thought of my kissing face in the mirror wouldn’t come up to remind me of how I never said anything to Alba the year before. I came up to her, and when she heard me call her name, Luz stopped what she was saying and ran to meet me, her curious eyes opening wide and fixating on me for a moment, to see what I had to say with such urgency. I was in the middle of asking her the question, if she wanted to be my girlfriend, when Rodolfo interrupted from behind me, and in a louder voice said: “He wants to make out with you.” A hint of anger or contempt in his voice. I didn’t finish my question. She looked up at Rodolfo, her attention going to the sudden and louder voice. Her mind, quick as her eyes, understood what Rodolfo was saying before I could say what I wanted to say. She then looked back at me, and asked, “Really?” With my mind now confused and scrambled, but the impulse that brought me there still carrying me through, I simply heard myself say, “Yes, I do.” She smiled, and looked to the side. It was a sweet smile. She quickly said, “Okay, meet me at seven on the stair-well.”

At seven, I arrived, and she was there. Her short dark hair fell over and below her ears, emphasizing and framing the features of her face under the dim lights of the evening. Her denim shorts had been replaced with a soft skirt with flowery design. Her freckled face, smiling mischiviously and happy. “Okay, like this…” she said, moving to the landing of the stair, one step below me. She had already calculated the maneuver that puzzled me. This way, she didn’t have to lean over too much to be able to kiss me. We were almost the same height, if I was standing a step above her. She put her arms on my shoulders, and I held her waist. My mind went silent, no more worries. My left hand went behind her light green t-shirt. She pulled me closer, still smiling. I didn’t purse my lips, or opened my mouth wide. She took over, and I absorbed everything. Her small chest pressed agains mine; and this sensation of firm breasts on me, I had never considered. Incredible as that was, even that evaporated when her lips touched mine. She parted my lips with the tip of her tongue, and started playing with mine. My eyes closed, like hers, and my hands went to rest on her back. She held my neck and touched my hair, and breathed into me a life I didn’t know. I smelled fire in her skin, and tasted nature in that kiss: the wet grass after the first rains of May, mixed with the fragrance of the many orchids in the Salvadorean fields. I thought for a moment that I was flying over the green and flowery cloud forests of El Salvador, when the taste of honey combined in our tongues. Electrical fluids coated my senses, and the smell of lighting opened my forehead. The sweet multiplicity of nature expanded the sense of taste and smell for the duration of that kiss. That kiss was no longer lips and tongue, but an expansion of nature itself within my frontal cortex.

I didn’t expect this much from a kiss. After that, it didn’t matter anymore that I was too short or too shy. It didn’t matter that kids and grown ups made fun of my speech. It didn’t matter, at all, that Rafael came downstairs and laughed hard at me standing on a step to reach her lips, or that she turned away embarrassed and laughing too. It didn’t matter that she ran away. It didn’t matter that the next day I found out that Toñito had met with her an hour later to get his first kiss too, a meeting instigated by Rodolfo after I had proven I did have to courage to ask a girl for a kiss. It didn’t matter if I thought we were going to be something couple like, but we weren’t. Yes, it all hurt, but it really did not matter anymore, not really. Just like it didn’t matter that a week later Rodolfo would try to wash the confidence and courage from me, by holding me upside down by my ankles over the railing of the fourth floor of building 7, to make me look at the drop four stories below, to make gravity pull out of me the joy and courage, to hear from me a shriek of terror. None of that mattered in the end, and not because I didn’t scream, and not because I held my terror inside until he put me back on my feet, and not because I summoned the rage and terror of ages within me and punched him hard on his testicles and saw him bend over and lose his breath. No. It all didn’t matter because I had been kissed, not just by a girl named Luz, but by her namesake within the thunderstorm, and the fullness of nature had truly penetrated my mind without regards for how small, insignificant, and petty I and all my people can be. And because in the presence of such a gift from the Goddess, all kisses became, after that, the first kiss into the santo sanctorum of Life; and that undeniable fact melts and and dissolves all other experiences unto the endless fields of Her bosom, eternally impregnated by the Light of the first rains of May.

a brief on Life

It is perhaps an error to think you are outside, that you surround me and dress up with life; for you are also inside, and disrobe yourself of me.

It is from your extensive and profound silence that all those things palpable and witnessed emerge, and that is also how from your profound darkness within me that I come forth.

You, dressed with life; and I, dressed with being.

Yet, the pregnant void whence you and I came is as external as it is internal, as foreign as it is intimate, and as you as it is me.