The Embers Whisper Oaths of Fiery Storms

Fifty years ago, a man leans over a small fire. Around him, the night hosts shadows and crickets, and the spirits of the old house are joined by the spirits of the volcanoes and the mange. More spirits arrive, of jungle, bays, and rivers––all to see the sorrow of a simple man burning a small book.

I arrive too, somehow I’m here amidst the spirits and things we don’t know anything about. I was born two years before. I see the burning of a diary. It would be some years after I’d learn about this moment; that this man was my father and that he was burning with this diary an icon for hope for a revolution that burned injustice and the raping of a continent, a revolution that obliterates all borders and artificial differences of race, gender, and creed. He was burning a small document, so that it would be consumed and owned by the fire, secretly and silently sentencing it to be reborn in volcanic fires, to spread fiery seeds into the hearts of the people.

When I was two my father burnt the diary of Ernesto Che Guevara. This day, fifty years ago, he was executed in Bolivia at the orders of a CIA operative. A picture was taken of his corpse, as peasants formed a line to pay their respect. The CIA would later consider this picture to be a big mistake, because the site became a shrine of a martyr in the hearts of the people, and the picture became the wind that blew on the embers of hearts long ago quelled with despair––embers that now whisper oaths of fiery storms.

 

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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.”

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.

 

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 “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.

 

 

Juancito

How I loved coming out of my house in Zacamil at the hour of dusk to the calm of the setting sun and the illuminated volcano towering over the rooftops of the rows of small houses of many colors competing with the colors of the sky—a competition destined to fade into the dark starry sky without a winner. How I loved sitting near the almond tree with its big green leaves that seemed to dole out their night dew slowly and steadily throughout the night, and talking to Juancito and the small cadre of friends who congregated to laugh and marvel as the stars blinked at us and shared the mantle of mystery that kept them cozy and distinct above.

There was Juancito, my older next door neighbor, with a name that fits his loving gentle light that poured though a face that seemed as smart as it was bright with idealistic youth, a round face with thin lips and wide almond eyes that smiled easily. He must have been 17 and I 10, and the others came and went through many evenings of what my older brother called bullshit conversations—useless and devoid of the adrenal flavor of fútbol

“Juancito” was previously published in this anthology.

and fights, of fashion and girls. Far removed from the expectations of our age and situation, we talked and marveled about the nature of the stars, the silent unknown around us, science, history, and the heart of humanity. We delved into topics that to this day grip my heart of hearts. Juancito shared with us his marvel for life, his hopes for a world free and true, his vision of a human race mature and just, and his enthusiasm for science and the future.

 

I was alone with him one night, leaning against my father’s car in the parking lot above the row of houses of our neighborhood, after the other friends congregated around “El Chele” Medrano, the feared dad of a pretty girl who had been my playmate since I was 3, to hear him speak of sex and whores and why Jesus really sweated blood with Mary Magdalene in the desert. Juancito and I stayed apart, pondering hard on the infinite nature of the universe and the relentless nature of its laws, and came to that point where the mind wakes up into a sense of timelessness and ceases to be his mind or my mind, and it becomes a book of ideas that said that, out of the infinite number of solar systems, there had to be others with life like ours, or even life unlike ours but conscious and alive. The mind speculated that any mind which wakes up to the realization of its universality would wonder, perhaps at that very moment, if there was perhaps another mind pondering the same question about the existence of other minds like this one that is thinking right now; and just like that, we looked up to the night sky and realized that, at this very fleetingly eternal moment, another child like Juancito and me was looking up towards the infinite space above him and wondered about us. The mind who wonders seemed to breach the dark gulf separating one from another, and there was just the wonderment of having, for a moment, touched another.

After this and other conversations of religion, politics, philosophy and things, life took over, and I lived the life for me, and he went on to his revolutionary calling. I overheard once that conversation when his aunt, the nurse, the one who took him in her home and once saved me from the toys I had shoved into my nose to see how far my hole went. It was that conversation where the mother figure tells him to be careful, that he is taking too many risks, that he could end up dead or tortured, that he should study and prepare himself for a good future and a good family, that he is smart and good and therefore must not throw everything away, that “be careful and think of us who love you and will miss you,” and that the revolution he is struggling for will never happen and is all a farce and everyone is for himself and more good can be done by staying in school and raising a family. Yes, I heard that conversation, and I heard his response, loving and kind as when he talked to me, and just as full of splendor were his words when he told his aunt that what we are doing, this our thing, is not for us, that we will never see the benefits of our work, that it was for the future of humanity and that others in distant times will live the life that is right and just and good. This is not for me, not for us. It is for the future of humanity.

That was the last I heard of him. Juancito became a “disappeared”—a victim of a repressive paramilitary government for whom Juancito was a terrorist, a public enemy, the disease of the world coming from outside to disrupt their world of possessions and private wealth and the rule of arms. Juancito disappeared and was never, ever found. His happy, tender voice full of hope and smiles was never heard again.

There is a silent void where you used to be. I called you “Juancito” when you were older than me, and I call you “Juancito” now that I am older and you are still a very young man. It hurts, Juancito, to know you gone, to intuit you tortured and killed. I have kept our talks in my most intimate abode, and once in a while I look across the gulf of time and space and I see your face looking up into my eyes with a wide-eyed child next to you, wondering if I see you and if I am also thinking about you and know that there is another out there in this limitless, free, and revolutionary vastness.

 

Click here to watch Koyote read “Juancito”