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.