I find myself at the age of six, walking down a corridor in my grandmother’s house. I wake up before the sun rises and I stare at the ceiling. I watch the light of the morning dawn filter through the rooftop. I witness millions of tiny little worlds floating around, dancing with the sounds of birds and barking dogs, as crickets were just finishing their song and their life. I breathe in the air and though I do not see it, I know that these tiny little dots I see through the Sun beam rush to get into me, and I wonder how many worlds come into me and what happens to them. Do they die? Do they collide? Do they become? Do they not notice it? Do they become me? And if they become me, do they then wonder what happens to all of those little worlds floating around, riding the currents of the solar tides?
“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”
― Oscar A. Romero, martyred in San Salvador in 1980.
In those long silences of my exile, I learned nuances of silence: silences that were vast and deep like oceans, and stormy silences; silences that were short, like lightning; silences that were ominous; and silences that were threatening.
I learned nuances of silence that later I would learn to carry through speech. So that when I talk, I would pay little to no attention to the words I was saying, for I was not interested in communicating words. I was more interested in communicating spaces, pauses, silences—create perhaps rhythms and arrhythmias of stops and pauses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.