Why is a Salvadoran writing Haiku?

It is El Salvador the place where I learned my first and most enduring lessons, where life first met me and revealed shadows and mysteries, joys and miseries. It was in the jungle and the volcano, not in the snowy peak of gentle Japanese mountains, that nature surrounded me with the song of birds, the scorching heat of the sun, the clear dark of starry nights. It was here that the unknown rained from vast darkness unto the panic beauty of nights without electricity an the perennial presence of the Duende, the voyeuristic games of the Cipitio, and the dreadful curse of the Cihuanaba. In its cities I smelled blood, touched death, and tasted static mystery. It wasn’t the profound calm of zen but the torrid emotions of the human and tropical jungle that forged my joy for life, my avid desire for experience, and my sense of self.

More than anything, it is here in the war and the full beauty of that valley of hammocks that I came first to sense the seed of self that exists before I was born and that shall endure well after this body and that country are long dissolved and forgot. That place is then my origin and therefore my end (as an Aristotelean telos, not as a tomb). In stories as in mathematics, the end is contained in the beginning. The egg contains the potentiality of the being, and in the being is the solution to the puzzle of evolution.

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El Brujo

The magical traditions of the peoples of Latin America are deeply embedded in the natural worlds that surround them. Their inner power is the mastery of perception, and out of that mastery their magic flows as the jungle flows.

The Brujo’s sorcery burns like the tropical sun. It towers and shakes the earth in volcanic joys. It hums eternally with the song of big seas in small shells. It lives and sweats among the mass of peoples, living and dying in eternal struggles for freedom.

The Brujo’s Sorcery is the magical song of the ally. It hardens its intent in the intense heat of the dessert. It dances with the eternal thirst of millions of trees, gifting the world with life to breathe.

 

www.KoyotetheBlind.com

 

Gentle is the breath of death

The little twelve-year-old boy is kneeling, looking at his future: that calm, restful corpse who used to be his playmate. Who used to laugh like a train whistles. Who used to play pranks. Who used to sing and dance. Who used to like to climb trees and fall.

Now, he emits no heat, no laughter, no sound, no play.

Yet, he emits something: an extremely subtle, light, almost cold, touch. It’s almost like the spray of mist an orange emits when cut by the knife. It’s the sensation of that spray on the face, touching as a caress that almost did not happen. This breath, emanating from the body of the corpse is so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible to the senses.

Yet, perceived it is. With the impression of this emanation, the last breath of that corpse touching the heart of this little twelve year old boy about to be executed.

Tania Valentina Parada

 

There emerged out of the rain drains of Zacamil and San Antonio the muchachos, the guerrilla fighters fighting against a right wing military dictatorship, in a last thrust attempting to secure a victory for the people. Tania emerged with them, a communications radio on her back and a rifle in her arms.

Unlikely soldier, she lived with love and laughter in her heart, peaceful and gentle. Yet her gentle, loving soul was infused with an indomitable sense of justice, of heroic ferocity that compelled her to “do something” and to “be active” in the cause of historical change. She died shortly after like many other. A bullet in her head and one in her leg, along with scrapes and abrasions on her legs, suggested a capture, the dragging across the asphalt, and the execution on her knees. It is useless to wonder what her last thoughts were, how she died, and what she did in the last hours of her life; but everyone who knew her believes that she died as she lived, valiantly and heroically. The only thing

I know is what happened three months before she died, the last time I saw her.

It was the first time I could come back to El Salvador after my exile. For the first time since 1985 I was able to travel, no longer constrained by my asylum. A big empty gulf in my heart was being filled up with the green, the heat, the songs of birds, and the hugs of my loving friends and family. But when I went looking for Tania she wasn’t there. She was gone, underground. A university activist, her partner had been captured and disappeared. He didn’t show up to his rendezvous with Tania. She knew her days were counted, that she was now marked. One of those synchronicities that the hand of God writes when developing our destinies put Rodney, Tania’s brother and another of my close friends, back from Germany on his first visit back to El Salvador. He brought me to Tania, to the security house where she hid before going for training in the jungle. We talked a talk worth decades in three hours. We both seemed to know this was our last visit, that she would not survive. There was a moment, silent and pregnant with dreaded knowing, when we looked into the truth of that meeting. I proposed that we promised to meet again in a year, grasping for hope that a promise would turn the tide. This is when this picture was taken, just at that moment, and the Angel of Death to her left blessed her impending passage.

Three months later I got the news. Her memory flooded my waking moments. I remember the first time I saw her, we were both 13. We had both just arrived at Ciudad Satelite, a new urban development for middle class families. She was the eldest of her family, always guiding and defending those weaker than her. Competitive, she challenged me to a race and we arrived together. I ran as fast as I could, and so did she. We remained friends since then. We then sat down to talk about everything and nothing, and she told me then of a fantasy where she is in an accident, unable to move her legs, and with this challenge she would apply the force of her will power and attempt to walk; mind over matter, she felt the force of her Will and imagined a way to move, to go, to do against the heavy forces of dead matter. I couldn’t help to think of this daydream of hers, to conquer matter, to overcome the weight of nature, and to awaken her will. Now, she is dead, and one year later—nine months after she was killed—I saw her in my dream. We walked and we talked. She told me she was still trying to come through, to be, to do, to fulfill. I told her what had happened, and guided her into the clear light of the Sun Absolute, her true nature.

Since then, her name has inspired many. Aside from everyone she touched with her compassion, courage and truth, Tania’s life has inspired non-profit organisms, legislative and advocacy efforts for women, and even the minister of education of El Salvador declared her debt of gratitude to her.

Tania, I see your will and force, eternal friend, trying from the center of your will to move and do even through the minor inconvenience of death. I can say that you are lodged not only in my memory, but also in the very foundation of what I love and value, of that which is the essence of my actions. Your valor impregnated my blood as much as your laughter has marked all my joys.

Mr. Canales’ Secret to Karma Yoga

It was around this time of the year in 1977 when I was finishing the sixth grade with my teacher, Mr. Canales, a gentle and quiet man who supplemented his income by picking up a few students near his house, in the poor neighborhood of Zacamil. I was one of the students he picked up in the fourth grade. He picked me up on the curve, at the end of the passage that led to my small house. He drove four other students: his son, one year younger than me, among them.

I enjoyed talking to profesor Canales about the solar system, freedom, and the history of pre-conquest El Salvador. Now, as one of his sixth grade students, I was failing. My grades were poor. I didn’t do my work, and didn’t socialize with other kids. I was suffering from insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts and a few hallucinatory episodes. I had already been held back one grade in the fourth grade, and there was a concern that I wouldn’t make it this time either. I was sent to the school psychologist for therapy, and even had sessions with Superman (our nick name for the Jesuit who served as the school principal).

I thought, then, that the solution to my problems was to change schools. I didn’t want to be with privileged kids with their talk about shoe brands, cars, and penis jokes. I didn’t want to hear one more time how they wish socialists were dead, how stupid indians were, or why the poor deserved their fate. In retrospect, I see that this was not the prevalent talk of all the kids, but a vocal clique that acquired colossal proportions in my mind. I wanted to go away to what I thought would be a more simple and pleasant environment among my peers. I found myself slipping into the habit of talking to everyone about my angst, my situation, my unhappiness, my depression, and how I wanted to be somewhere else with someone else. Unconsciously, I found out that this strategy put grown ups in a state of disquiet silence. I learned to invoke my suffering to justify my performance.

It was around this time of the year, with only a little over a month left to the school year––which, in El Salvador, goes along with the calendar year. Canales was reviewing my grades with me. He looked at me in silence for a while. He looked at the papers in front of him. My mind was reeling in its usual mode of self pity and covered with the familiar veil of suffering. He looked back at me, and said: “You are about to fail this grade.” Then he fell silent again. He seemed to be looking inside himself. In that moment, he made a sweeping motion with his hands, and with that he swept away the expertise of the psychologists, and all the reasons, all the whys, and all objections. With the clarity of a simple mind he said then, “Stop all talk about not being understood. Leave aside all those thoughts and talks about how you feel and what you want. Stop all thoughts and work. You have no more time.”

With that, something in me broke through the cobwebs of the mind, recognizing a truth I could not yet voice. Without knowing why, my mind was silent, and I worked resolutely and purposefully. I passed the grade successfully and, for reasons that belong to another story, I stayed in that Jesuit school.

Canales was assassinated a few months into the next year by a Death Squad, the first of almost a dozen teachers that would fall throughout the duration of my school years. He died for his ideas and work toward social justice. He died, like many others, because they thought that teaching was a noble profession that went beyond putting hours in the class room. During his funeral, I told myself to remember the last words I remembered from him. They didn’t change me immediately––the tendency to indulge in my own suffering is too strong for my Cancerian mind––but his words gave me a moment in which the chaotic world of my mind and its objections would stop and I still now hear his words and see his arms dispelling cobwebs saying: “Stop all thoughts, and work. You have no more time.”

I Woke Up Lightning on the Other Side of the Mirror

I remember my mother walking all around the house, in a hurry. She was carrying a bundle of blankets and towels. Outside, the rain was hitting the rooftop and streets hard. The noise of the rain is harder in the tropics. The cloud forests of El Salvador makes condensation of water stronger, producing thicker drops and more abundant rain falls. Against the symphonic canon of tropical rain, the dissonant thunder would strike to the core, evoking a primal fear that left at its wake religious women crossing their chests and clutching rosary beads.

For some of us, the flash of lightning that traveled like rivers of light through the night sky did more than evoke fear. It announced the shattering sunder of the ordinary. This night, like so many tropical nights outpouring water, light and stentor, I sat in the living room watching my mother going to all the mirrors in the house, covering them with cloth, to keep us safe. She was convinced that mirrors had the power to attract lightning. It was a simple and obvious matter of sympathetic magic: the reflection of lightning has the same properties as the emanation from a lightning bolt, and so the destructive power of one could be felt in the mirror. Transitive properties clearly applied.

I just sat there and watched the family dance. My mother covering mirrors, and the rest either securing all windows, doors, and leaks against the invasion of water, or unplugging electrical cables to protect us against the invasion of electrical surges. And so, protected against water, light, and magic, the night went on. The supernatural fear and awe, however, seemed unaffected by any barrier. As used as we were to tropical storms, we had not yet become rational enough to disregard the raw power of the gods of nature. The power of light and thunder still managed to reach us, even through all the protective barriers of glass windows, towels and rosary beads. Each thunder still made our core tremble, and something that had listened to the storm since before civilization, and reason, seemed to awaken little by little with each tremor.

Each lightning and thunder, a soul-quake.

That night, I overheard my sister tell my brother that she had heard from mama Juana that if you look at yourself in a mirror for too long, you will go insane. Was this the maddening power my mom was keeping at bay? Would a primordial spirit from the abyss awaken if the lightning struck? Would it also awake after being watched for too long?

I must have already had been mad. Why else would I do what I did? With the heart girthed tight by a panic fear, like a serpent around its pray, I slipped unnoticed to a remote room, one of the ones my mother had already protected with towels in the mirror. I told myself, I really did, out loud, that this was crazy and to go back to the safety of the blankets and the stories of the family. But I didn’t.

I went into the room, and opened the veil between me and my image. Removing the white blanket covering it, I saw myself. I stared into my image. I stayed there beyond the fluttering of heart and the crawling of skin. I stayed there, watching attentively, after I recognized the one looking back. After I saw the changes of the face, the demons and angels peeking back at me, I stared longer. I even stayed there after I clearly felt that I was the one behind the mirror staring out into a world of light and thunder, tearing apart all forms and worlds.

I felt as if I had just woken up from a long, long dream in which I had been many, many beings: man, woman, criminal, judge; where I had been a saint and a sinner.
A fish.
I had seen myself as daughter and mother.
Lover.
I was the betraying one and the one who cried in desperation, betrayed.
I had had many dreams and I had seen myself lost in all those dreams.
I got lost in all those worlds. Using myself in the dream. Identifying with the drama.

I remember myself collecting pieces of me, calling them my companions. Members of a group that searched for an idea, an illusion called reality. Futile enterprise. For nothing in that dream could be called reality.

There is only this room.
Only this mirror.
Only me and no other.

I am where I have always been and there is nothing else.
I have always remained in the here and now, even throughout all those changes of form and vision. Immersing myself into the hellish vistas of pain and unending suffering with the hope of forgetting the real world. Searching for heavenly spheres of life and peace and happiness; eternal happiness. Only…

Only to briefly be able to forget the stark reality of the here and now.
That here I was again, all alone.
Nowhere to go in this room called Reality.

 

Acelhuate—Place of Nymphs and Shit

The waters of the Lempa river are born out of the Sierra Madre’s southern edge, from volcanic waters that begin to flow one mile above sea level in Guatemala. From this Mother mountain range comes the longest river in Central America, at whose shores we have lived for centuries.

Lempa means “by the riverside,” and it is by this river’s side that 75% percent of the city population of El Salvador lives. Its waters descend from its volcanic highs and run for 220 miles, nurturing the copious vegetation at its wake. It gives fish to the fishermen in the north. Its force becomes electricity and feeds the industrial machineries of civilization as well as the single lightbulbs of the small shanti houses in countless towns. It provides the main source of drinking water to the country’s capital, San Salvador. It then splits. It becomes majestic landscape and romantic countryside as it turns south towards its ultimate end––the Pacific Ocean. But before it turns, part of it becomes the river Acelhuate.

Acelhuate derives from axol–river flower, and huatl–place.

When placed together, the meaning of Acelhuate is usually translated as “place of river nymphs.” The magical implications of this name began to die off when the river became the main dumping vein for the growing industrial factories and the waste of a growing capital and its surrounding cities. Now, it is one of the most contaminated rivers in the country—even in a country where only 5% of its river waters are considered free from contamination.

I new this river as the river of black waters. When I learned the name of the river, I thought Acelhuate meant feces and urine. What had happened, then, to the nymphs and magic of pasts long gone?

Santa Elena was east of the Lempa, and to cross it we had to drive through the Golden Bridge, el puente de oro. The one that in the eighties would be blown by the dynamite power of the guerrillas, to make army tanks left swift. I stopped visiting my grandma’s house then. Not only because it was now impossible to go there by car, but also because the war had intensified in that region.

I couldn’t see the rains on the huge palm tree leaves anymore, and watch the rain water become tiny waterfalls, and then rivers to the eyes of a child. In Santa Elena, the water did not go into dark and cold copper pipes under miles of cement. The rain water joined with the soap and grime from the stone basins, and flowed down gentle slopes to the back of the property. I enjoyed following the path of this flow I called a river. I walked for a little over 200 meters watching the cement channel in front of the kitchen become a soil riverbed right when the stream turned to the right, and started its journey through the back yard. It turned, right there! I can see it again with my child’s eye, there, beyond the first outhouse––the one with the single stall over a septic tank where I used to sit and listen to songs and whispers of spirits outside, and where I often felt swirls of energy go up and down while I read the square newspaper cut-offs we used instead of toilet paper.

The river turned right, into a bed of stones. It continued among banana trees, bushes and flowers. The water kept flowing in small dances, over rocks and toads. I tried not to step on the toads because they could spit a white poison into my eyes that could make me blind. They were the same toads that our dog, pirata, liked to eat even though he got poisoned each time until the last toad he failed to survive. The river kept going to the spot where I liked to sit to pretend I was long lost in the jungle, away from all things and wars. Right there, my older cousin, taught me to build palm tree houses. He was the son of the priest in San Rafael whom I called tío Padre and had fathered three children that my grandmother took to raise away from the potential embarrassment of a priest who slept with nuns and hid hand-grenades under his bed. In this spot, I undertook many construction projects for me and my younger cousins: houses, casinos, barricades, river front properties.

The river continued beyond that, all the way beyond the zahuan, the wood and metal big gate that kept the house protected with a huge wooden beam. The river disappeared there, beyond the zahuan next to the last room of the big house. It was a mysterious small room. No one was allowed there and it was locked from the patio side. I found that through the metal keyhole I could see inside, but only when the door on the other side was opened and a little light entered the room. I had to time it right, to see through the keyhole at sunset. That was the time when the mysterious lonely teacher came to his room. He was renting it from my grandmother, and I never learned his name. I only saw him coming in, sad and silent each day, sit on his hard bed and stare at the floor until the darkness hid him again. Beyond his door and the zahuan, the river went to a jungle I couldn’t fathom, a jungle that in my mind was home to spirits and things both dangerous and fascinating. All the legends and tales, I imagined happening somewhere beyond that gate guarded by a silent, sad teacher.

But just before the ending of the river, and before the room that stored the statues of lions, saints, crosses, angels, and chariots for the church, there was a second outhouse with three stalls where the children used to poop, sometimes up to three children at a time. There, I invented a sacred show, where I invited my cousins and brothers. I would have each one put their faces close to the hole of the stall into the septic tank, looking into the darkness inside. Then, I would lit a piece of newspaper used for wiping, and throw it inside the tank. For a brief moment, we could see how the paper became a comet of fiery colors flying over a strange landscape: a world of valleys, lakes, rivers and volcanoes illuminated by strange lights and moving shadows. We saw this magnificent world made of piss and shit which the adults never wanted to see or hear about, but to us it was a magical moment when our secretions became a world of mystery and beauty and our children’s eyes became, for an instant, the eye of God surveying a world become alive and awesome. All the old people in the family remember this incident and laugh at how I tricked my smaller cousins into looking inside the toilets at shit and piss, but we who saw it know the truth: we witnessed beauty and mystery by tricking the boundaries of our senses into revealing the sacred in All, and the vast in the small.

Linda and Lupe

The old house where my grandmother and her godmother lived, in Santa Elena, had no waste plumbery. The children washed in front of the pila, a huge stoned carved to hold water and a basin for washing clothes and dishes. There, out in the open patio and in front of the pila they placed two aluminum containers and filled them with water. We would get in them naked, all together, and play in the water. Some adult would then hold the hose over us to get swine soap, a round ball of hand made soap, black, and smelling like Lupe’s long black hair. All the children bathed together. At some given age, following an unknown algorithm the adults would use to determine the exact moment this became necessary, the kids would have to start using underwear when bathing. When the gender difference became too obvious, and way before puberty hit, we graduated from the outside patio into the room right next to the pila. It was built with think wall, as the rest of the house, but these walls were made of stone, and not the mixture of adobe brick coated with lime.

This room had a stone bathtub where Papa Juan bathed even before his dementia kicked in, before he kept trying to lure the young servant girls into bathing with him. “Linda,” he told once the teenage girl serving in the house, “let’s go to the bathtub together.” Papa Juan was standing naked in front of the kitchen, where Linda was grinding the masa to make the tortillas for that day. She was rolling the hard round stone against the equally hard basin to make the masa even and thin, swaying her torso back and forth and making her hair dance, and the smoke from the brick oven would play along, circling her and retreating playfully when her hair sway close to the smoke. I was watching this dance of hair, smoke, sunlight through the roof tiles, and Linda at the center of it all, making masa that will turn into those delicious Salvadoran tortillas, thick and warm, the baseline of satisfaction and well-being in every meal. My fascination was interrupted when my cousin, Melva, cracked up in laughter while swaying on the hammock in the living room across the patio. She was laughing at Papa Juan’s nude backside. I looked at what she was pointing, “his crack is all out there,” she said.

Linda laughed too, but more in amusement than mockery. “What are we going to do there, don Juan?” she asked playfully, knowing he had been entering senility and dementia for a few months now. “We can talk,” he said in his serious tone. “Talk about what?” asked Linda after a beautiful short laugh made the thin smoke around her recoil in surprise. “Things of love,” said Papa Juan in all seriousness. “You go ahead,” said Linda. “Go bathe, and wait there, maybe someone will come to talk with you about things of love.” He left to take his bath alone, and to forget again in a few moments.

Lupe then came in, to help Linda in the kitchen. To say that both were my grandma’s maids would be a horrible loss of translation. To properly say what they were, we would have to have a term that illustrates how my abuelita Consuelo used to be a child of some privilege and status in Santa Elena. How my tia Tere, who was not really my aunt but my grandma’s godmother, had set up a store in her large house––a house we always thought of as my grandma’s house, but it was really her godmother’s house. How my tia Tere and papa Juan, who had the coolest jobs working for a railroad and every time he saw me when he was still working and not senile he would give a shinny quarter for my piggy bank, were both supporting my grandmother and raising her to be a member of society. They sent my grandma, when she was a pubescent child, to a boarding school, so she could have an education and get her ready for society. She came back after having finished her elementary education, all the way to the eighth grade. She had a proper academic and religious education, having been raised by the nuns and taught to be a proper lady. My grandmother quickly became the promise of the family. She was sure to marry high and well. People would come to pay their respect, to meet her, to get her to become their child’s godmother. One day, for sure, she would be someone important and of influence. To have someone like that as a godmother was a good way to invest in the future of your children. However, my dad seemed to have been growing in her belly prematurely, too soon. He swelled her belly out of sequence, before she was married off to a good candidate. Her prospects thus shot, she was now in charge of a big house, a large family, and two elderly benefactors. Families, however, kept coming to her to baptize their children, and some would bring their young daughters for my grandma to raise. It was an old Indian way to set up a child for apprenticeship: give her away to an elder to be taught. Linda and Lupe came that way, and they were being raised by my grandmother and taught all things about running a household: cooking, cleaning, tending the pig sty, raising the chickens, caring for the children and the elderly. To say they were maids is simply too whitewashed of a commercial transaction. To say they were adoptive children is simply too off the mark. They were in a special category that only makes sense when you mix a native population and insert generations of European catholicism and classism into their nonetheless undying millenary society.

Linda and Lupe came to the house when they were 13. Now, they are almost ready to go out into the world, having learned all about running a household, and also having gone to night school to learn to read and write––a true privilege for any servant to have. Unbeknownst to me, very soon they will not be there any more. Linda will not walk with me, hand in hand, to take me with her to her school where, at 15, she is learning the same things I am learning in my first grade. She will not sing alphabet letters and imitate with me the shapes of the letters. Lupe will not race with me to prove to me that girls are faster because they have to be. They will not be, for too much longer, building houses and jails with me out of cushions, rails, and cotton. Linda will not be directing a recreation of last night’s soap opera. She will not be the beautiful heroine, crying in jail because her father abandoned her there for having loved too much too soon. Lupe won’t be the evil seductress who would kiss me in the cheek to prove how dangerous she was. And I won’t be cast as the handsome hero, as I have been so far, every time. I won’t be rescuing Linda. I won’t be seeing her cry no more. They would both move on. I would get to see Lupe years later, when she came to San Salvador and worked there for my mom as a maid. I never saw Linda after she became a woman.

Papa Juan didn’t get a companion for his bath. His mind deteriorated more, to the amusement and hidden fear of the adults. He managed to keep enjoying his soccer games through the transistor radio, by having a note pad with him and writing a mark every time a team scored. He slept through the game, but every yell of GOOOOOLLLL woke him up to set another mark.

Life was about to change, and I didn’t know it. Things were coming to me in life. Things were brewing in the country, where beyond the thick adobe walls of this old house, the machinery of war and industry was being mobilized by forces unknown to me. In the kitchen, these young beauties were preparing the tortillas and chicken broth, the rice and vegetables. The holla de frijoles was over the brick oven, and the smoke and sunlight were now in wild rebellion around these young beauties who now moved frantically as they laughed heartily at the inventions of Papa Juan, as they shared with each other the joys of his insanities.

Under the rock, carved to hold the water, a hole had been made to let the water from the washing basin come out. The water there flows in a channel of cement, that goes to the bath house where it collects the water from the big pila where the children bathe, and then collects the water from the room I had just days ago been initiated into, to take showers from a hanging hose, all my myself, with lizards and spiders crawling on the stone, and me trying hard to believe I can be there with them without getting scared. The water trickles and flows all the way to the long back yard full of trees and rocks and secrets. It is taking away with it the grime and soap, the nubile laughter, the stories, and the dance of light and smoke.

 

 

Out of the gutter they returned.

I liked going to the patio of our house in Zacamil, in San Salvador. It was a small square open patio with a pile of water for washing clothes and dishes. In the center of the patio, there was a rain water drain. This was a time when puberty was announcing itself. I liked going back there to burn things. Fascinated by fire, I liked burning paper, wood, and plastic. I liked seeing the fire and how it changed everything into its essential components, ashes, smoke, heat, and colors. I burned things over the water drain, because it was safe there; but also because the burning material would drip into the gutter and make the hissing noise. One day, I got into burning plastic things, because the plastic would drip slowly, announcing it’s descent with a particular petroleum smell and fall as a fire bundle into the rain water of the gutter, and the colors it emited as it fell transformed itself into the most peculiar hissing sound. The plastic would then take unpredictable shapes with strange colors as it cooled down and became hard and ashy black.

One day, I was telling a friend about this, and wondered aloud where these remnants of my fire went. He told me he knew. Braulio told me that just a couple of kilometers from where we were, walking towards the right of the volcano’s skirt, the Boquerón, was a secret entrance to a tunnel. He claimed that this tunnel went on for a very long time, but eventually was united with other tunnels and all the water drains of the city eventually came to this underground labyrinth.

I asked him to take me there, and he did. Behind the rocks under a hill there was an unattended and unkept square stone, which easily removed revealed the rusty hand rails and the stairs leading down to a dark and damp tunnel. We descended, and walked for a little while, just enough for the light of day to still offer a little visibility. After the first turn, however, some shuffling of feet—rodent perhaps, startled us. It could have been the dripping of water, too. No matter. The fact is that in our minds the sound were the steps of boots. Before we could question whether the steps were vermin or human, natural or otherworldly, we were already running back up to the light of day, and ran more to the safety of asphalt and brick.

Thirteen years later, in 1989, shortly before the first light of the sun fell on the rooftops of the poor barrios of Zacamil and Mexicanos, the greatest number of guerrillas to ever invade the capital city of El Salvador were crawling out of the gutters in the patios of the houses of sympathizers and activists. All over the low income areas of the city of San Salvador, the muchachos, the term given to those fighting for the revolution, initiated the last attempt of an insurrection. The experts in Washington were convinced that the guerrilla was decimated, weak, and in its final throes after twelve years of pouring resources, training, and logistical support to the tune of one million dollars a day in military aid to the repressive and cruel government of El Salvador to suppress the revolution.

Some guerrilla units took position in various points of the lower class areas, while other units took over mansions, hotels, and buildings of the Escalon, the area where the rich live and work. Quite predictably, the guerrillas entrenched in the rich areas were able to hold their positions for days, since the army had to proceed with caution lest a stray bullet caused harm to someone with a well known last name or the property of a powerful family. The poor, however, saw tanks and military aircraft bombing the areas infested with guerrillas and poor people without rich names or influence. They dropped bombs in aleatory fashion all over them, destroying many houses. Most families hid under furniture and rubble, forts of mattresses, refrigerators and debris; waiting for the sound of bombs and bullets to end, for respite or death. I spoke to as many friends and family as I could, impotent and with no light sense of guilt I heard their accounts of terror under the bombing, the uncertainty, the resignation to prayer and the “let it be what God wills” of the gentle unarmed.

Others were ready to fight, and taking up arms joined the guerrillas in a last hope for change. Tania, my dear Tania, was among the units fighting. She had gone to the jungle, to join the revolutionary army just a few month before the insurrection. Maybe she was part of the small units that marched under the earth, through tunnels built over the years that led to the rain gutters all over the city; an underground interconnected series of tunnels that took the muchachos from the hill of Guazapa where the guerrillas had one of the strongest strongholds. They marched at night and emerged from everywhere, silent and hidden like the unexpected and recondite workers of change, like the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly whose ripples unite with other insignificant and hidden ripples to cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.

Out of the gutter came back the fire I had sent away 13 years before, bringing back the colors and smells, the heat and the fervor now grown from fleeting impressions into full dreams of a new and glorious new world.

 

 

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.