This Refugee’s Heart Forever Longs

I was a refugee once. I knew nothing of an “American dream,” nor did I seek economic prosperity or opportunities. Nothing about your dollar called me. I came here because the army in my country was getting paid one million dollars by your government to kill people like me.

There are so many of us who came here, not to find a better life, but simply to survive. A better life? For life, period.

The road is dangerous for most. We know it well. You risk aggressions, robbery, rape, and death. You give yourself to the fates, the blessing of the elements, and the hope for the kindness of the brotherhood of humans.

You are grateful when you arrive, but you know the ordeal has just begun.

I was lucky to have been able to prove I was persecuted back home, for being a student of Philosophy, for working for war refugees, for speaking up for justice and a better world. Those were my crimes. That made me dangerous. I considered myself fortunate. I arrived to the US unscathed, and I stayed without once being detained. I went to court, and I was able to prove my case. I was one of less than 2% of Salvadorans granted political asylum. The Reagan administration was adamant to not grant any more than that, lest the public knew what he was really doing to my people. I was lucky. There were so many more more deserving, more in need, and more invisible.

The love for your family forces you to suffer all indignities in a place where you don’t feel alive. Between a cold hell and the fear of death, you take one more step each day towards a future where perhaps your children will feel like they have a place to call home. 

For the love of them you leave the people you love and the land where your spirit thrives. For them you accept as normal a life of racism, police harassment, and the indignities of always being the lesser, the other, the silent forgotten. For the sake of your children you give up even the hope of truly belonging to the society you give your life and work to.

Your mind is forever now on the day to day issues of survival, raising children who forget your language and adopt the manners of the people who won’t ever see you as one of them. Your aspiration is to one day see your children happy. Your mind settles for the hope of one day being normal, but the heart forever longs for that place where you once felt a human being.

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The online boldness of a drowning man

Ever since that #shitholetrump was given the White House, some of his followers believe their fascist and racist ideals now have a hero. I’m not talking about all conservatives. True conservatives have valuable ideas and contributions to the ongoing dialogue of humanity, and its search for destiny. No. I’m talking about those true fascist that dream with their past glories of white supremacy, segregation, and slavery.

These people have been silent until now. They can feel their resurgence. They see every step toward xenophobia, suppression, oppression, and cruelty their leader takes as the pavement of a road to their paradise. Emboldened, they are more vocal on social media, in government, on television, and the pulpits.

Because of my opposition to their mouthpiece, and my immigrant status, I get attacked a lot online. So far, they have threatened me with violence and deportation; called me animal, criminal, liar, terrorist, and subhuman (for being Salvadorian); and on, and on. This happens almost on a daily basis now.

Not one of them have said anything in person, but always hiding behind their screen names. Fascist cowards. They are showing themselves, in their impotent pseudo-bravado. They are the last kick of a drowning man.

I crossed the border, because I am free.

Many people in this country tell me I do not belong here. I do.

They tell me to go back outside the imaginary border they set over my people, and they tell me that I should not come over here. They say they will build a wall, and that they will criminalize my existence if I live here as a free human.

I say they are wrong about this. They say that their fear of terrorism and crime justifies their wall, a wall that will keep me and other worthy humans out. I say their fear is not reason enough. Why? First, because their wall, as their border, is already a way to divide my people, to keep the poor poor, and to justify violence over the people. It has been the case ever since the conquerors divided the land by violence, rape, and enforced poverty. The borders currently existing did not evolve from the natural growth of communities. They were imposed through inhumane violence, and maintained by institutional violence.

The reason I had to come to the United States was directly because of the violence of the Reagan administration against me and my people. This is no political discourse, I demonstrated this in a US court, and it was determined that it would be a violation of human rights to expel me. I came here illegally, when all I wanted was to live in my land. But I had the right to live, so I came, I crossed the border illegally, because my right to exist and live free takes precedence over the right of the United States to draw a border.

Living here, does not make me a criminal, as many are wont to say. Living here without permission is only a misdemeanor, not even a crime according to the laws here. But the wall is designed to keep many worthy people out, like me and most people I know. It is designed, moreover, to cast a shadow over my people, to stigmatize me as illegal, as dangerous, as criminal.

Looking at today’s messages on Facebook, in just one day I have personally been called criminal, brown, ignorant, dangerous, illegal, and terrorist in the walls of at least 5 friends. All because these people commenting want to find a reason to build a wall. The wall won’t protect them against crime. Crime has always been part of the human condition. It won’t protect people from terror, for terror is executed first by those who build walls and define borders. It is meant to protect people’s prejudices and inhumane acts against the marginalized, the free, and the outsider.

I say, that all people are free to live on this earth, as it was for all our ancestors, as long as they do not thwart the rights of others.

I am a free born human being. My freedom and humanity takes precedence over any immigration law, any racist ideology, all artificial borders, and the economic interests of any nation, class, corporation, or crime syndicate.

I am a human being.

I am here.

Freedom is my home.

The city awakens

I talked to doves coming down to nest from the dormant volcano of my youth. Sometimes, I walked up the volcano and sit at the summit to watch the city before sunrise. Silence reigns at this time, yet the noises of the creatures of the jungle were there accentuating the silence: some crickets, a few barking dogs, and sometimes noises that I cannot describe. With the Sun came the calls of the proud roosters, the humming of the factories, and the cars going to work. Someone screams in the distance, and someone laughs farther away. A few isolated movements appeared. Then, the sounds began to copulate and mount one another. Suddenly, the cacophony of sound and movement begin to become two, three pitches, two sounds, until only one sound remained. The sound resultant was the humming of the beginning of creation, and with eyes closed then I became one with the humming of a city that was awakening.

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.

Of gases, fire balls, and heavenly hearts.

The night before, I had come back from the fair with a bright blue ballon. The helium inside, I was told, was lighter than air and that made the balloon always want to elevate itself. I wondered how far it would go, if I wasn’t holding it down. I was thinking of finding out the next day, to let it go to heaven and see if it would find a resting place, or if it would keep going forever until it reached the stars.

Early in the morning, the routine noises of the house started as planned. First, my aunt Juanita got up to prepare breakfast. I heard all the familiar noises that come from her room and the kitchen, as it happens every morning. Normally, I woke up first, but I’d stay in bed looking at the ceiling and the sun beams that made dust particles dance to the noises outside. Usually, when my aunt got up to prepare breakfast, my little brother, Carlitos, would wake up and follow her into the kitchen. She would sit him on the counter from where, groggily sucking his thumb and twirling his hair with his other hand, he would watch her prepare the food in our old gas oven. That day, however, he stayed in bed for some reason. Later, he would tell me that someone told him to stay in bed sleeping longer. He thought it had been me, or perhaps some woman; the identity of the voice wasn’t clear, but he followed the advice and stayed in bed with my other brothers, my mom, and me.

I was looking at my ballon, now a little deflated. It was no longer resting on the ceiling. It was hanging low, now. What had happened to the gas inside? Why didn’t it make the balloon go up to the sky anymore? What made it happy to just float in the middle of the room? No, it didn’t seem happy. It seemed to just had given up; a blue balloon unable to go up to meet the greater blue sphere of the sky. It was not happy, it was resigned. Maybe I should have done it yesterday, let it go when I got the idea. But I liked feeling the pull from it. It was the first helium balloon I had ever seen in person. Before this, I had only seen them in cartoons. Now, I had one in my hand, in real life. It was really blue and it really floated. I had now a piece of fantasy in my hands, a fantasy I had assumed was only possible in television. This small sphere of blue in my hands had a gentle and steady pull to the sky. It wanted to fly up, just like I wanted to glide up to the heart of the sky. To be precise, it was not the flying that my balloon and I wanted. It was the being home, where the heart of me and the heart of sky are one and the same. Secretly, I wanted to see this little piece of heaven make it there. But I also wanted to feel that magical, gentle pull on my hand a while longer. It made me feel like I was floating a little. Its aspiration met mine, and if a television fantasy was now in my hands, perhaps the secret fantasy of my heart could also become real with this ballon.

This morning, however, it was just a blue ballon floating midway between the floor and the ceiling, and my thoughts contemplating the nature of hellium and gases. My mom woke up, asking me if I smelled gas. I couldn’t smell it, but I told her that perhaps it was the gas that had escaped from the balloon. I was seeing in my mind’s eye the subtle currents of gas fostering through tiny, tiny pores in the ballon. If the gas was lighter than air, then it was perhaps thinner and could pass through microscopic holes the air could not fit through.

Before I could speak this thought to my mother, a loud explosion shook the brick walls of the house. My mother ran out, I followed her. I saw Carlitos sitting up as I ran past him after my mom. Outside the master bedroom, a living room and a family room ended in a door to the right. This door led to the kitchen, which was a small enclosed room to the left, the bathroom in front of the door, and the patio and servant’s room to the right. This door to the back of the house was open now. Pedrito, an older second cousin staying with us was coming out to investigate the explosion. My mother was running towards the back door, screaming “Juanita! Juanita!” And from the frame of the door that led to the back of the house where the kitchen was was emerging a huge ball of fire, with the figure of a woman inside, shrieking and holding her arms out in a torturous plead for help and the end of unimaginable suffering.

My mother was aiming to embrace her, to smother the fire with her own body. Pedrito was moving to intercept my mother, to keep her from getting enflamed too. In a frozen moment of time, all three were heading towards each other. My aunt tripped, saving the other two from her fate when the flames started to subside after she fell and rolled.

Someone had left the kitchen’s gas tank open, and the brick walls of the tiny kitchen room had been holding the gas inside, waiting for a match to strike. I didn’t know then that these were different gases, I only thought that the gas was taking my balloon to the sky and my aunt to a fiery death.

She didn’t die, however. My aunt was a single mom with two daughters. Ever since she was a little girl, her face had some kind of damage that made her mouth be on one side, and not centered like for most people. As a young woman, she saw in this a deformity that would forever impede her finding a partner. She told me once, long after this fire, that she went once to see a brujo, to ask for magic to release her of this deformity. Doctors couldn’t do anything at the time, and the brujo from Usulutan said he had the power to do that, but if he did, my aunt would never be happy. He said that it was better to stay with her face as it was. My aunt reluctantly agreed.

This day, however, and many more to follow were far from any happiness she hoped for her life. The recovery was more painful than anything I could imagine. She had burnt 85% of her skin. When I visited her, she would tell me of the treatment. They had to hang her body on straps, and several times a day a nurse would come in to scrub her body from the burnt and dead skin, until it was all raw flesh. Then, an antiseptic cream would be applied that brought the burning sensation all over, only slower and steadier this time. She would scream each time, of course, because there was nothing else she could do.

The images of that morning are unforgettable, of course. And the lessons of gasses that take blue spheres to heaven or small sparks to fiery explosions are still being assimilated. But the most decisive and everlasting impression was the whisper in my brother’s ear of an intelligence that guides our destiny, and the ferreous tenacity of spirit of my aunt, who showed the mettle of one who endures all and everything. To aspire to the heart of heaven is a good thing, but to make of that aspiration one that survives everything and continues to seek to the heights is indispensable. It is the proper act of a spirit that will never deflate to lie resigned in mediocrity, but will continue to seek––with arms extended through the fiery storm––the proper place of the soul in the silent center of the heart.

My tia Juanita endured. Survived everything. She is now in her 80’s, beautiful and alert, full of curiosity, laughter and kindness. Unknown to most people that know her, she is part of a group of healers in her church dedicated to this service, and her gift of healing is powerful, as is the light that radiates from her beautiful and happy face.

Rage, impotence, and despair.

She was youthful and strong, as her name implies. Her big smile and thick glasses seemed to radiate her mirth all over the lecture hall in our philosophy class. Bright and curious was her intellect, and from the first day of our college days we became part of a small but tight group of friends. Those were the times of fascination with Marx, Jung, Benedetti, and Ramakrishna; the times of walking about in sandals and native cotton shirts; the times of basketball hoops on Saturday morning; the times of beer and a slice of pizza; the times of listening to Silvio Rodriguez when listening to Silvio would get you killed. Those were the times of hope.

We had an intrinsic and thus unspoken trust in our integrity; and surrounded by war and torture, we acted as if we believed the times were changing. We saw the world and history as if we were sure any day now it was going to reflect what we felt in our bones ought to be.

Perhaps drunk with that idealism, she one day pulled Guillermo and me to the side. She did one thing you should never, ever do. She told us of her role in the rebellion. Yes, we were all on the same side, in mind and spirit. But to actually tell someone you were an active agent, that you were connected and knew people and took action, was a death wish. It was to rely too much on the loyalty of those who had not taken an oath. It was to rely on their presence of mind, their integrity, and their ability to keep silence. It was to risk your life to loose lips, fear, torture, and changes of heart.

“I’m putting my life in your hands by telling you this,” she told us. So I did the one thing you should never, ever do if it is not absolutely necessary. I told her what I could never tell anyone, not even friends, family, teachers, or lovers. I told her of my involvement, so that my life would also be in her hands.

It never crossed my mind that she would betray me, or I her. Neither ever thought Guillermo would ever do anything to put anyone else at risk either.

We never did. What I didn’t suspect was the depth of her nobility.

After, came the time of deep peril, and the years of exile. A gulf of time and experiences later, after not seeing any of them for years, I was sitting with Guillermo with pizza and beer between us. He told me then of the time, after I had seemed to dissolve into the obscure exile outside, when he was walking the streets of San Salvador with her and another poet of the old gang. I could only imagine the laughter, the heartfelt joviality in every intellectual reference, the reminiscence and satire about all things current. I imagined in his account more of what I had missed for so long, until the army barricade stopped all. Then came the usual yet dreadful “show me your papers” and “what are you doing here?” and “where do you live?” Maybe they expected to be let go with just remnants of the brutal chill in their hearts, or perhaps they expected to be allowed to leave without a watch or a wallet.

But this time the servants of the oppressors wanted more. My male friends were made to sit on the sidewalk, machine guns pointing at them by men with cold in their eyes. She was taken behind the bushes, and the soldiers took turns raping her. His face was full of tears as he recalled the moment, and his impotence was a cold blade still lodged in his heart. They were both sitting, unable to do anything but cry as they heard one hijueputa after another violate our gentle friend, who had lived so happily for the good of others.

When they were done, they decided not to kill her, or any of them. They left them there, on the sidewalk, with their laughter and curious intellect forgotten. She approached them from the back. She saw them in tears of frustration, rage, and impotence. She knelt beside them and held them both, next to her bosom, and consoled them.

“She consoled us!

And seeing that scene in my minds eye I became awestruck by the force of her, whose love and force are so whole and all pervading that even across time and space continues to heal this heart of mine of all the rage, impotence, and despair.

I still cry. I still rage. Over this and many other things, I cry and rage. But I no longer despair because I always now feel the eternal embrace of Her, who nameless and formless has all names and all forms, and who one day took the form of my brave friend, whose name I swore once not to reveal, to console the hearts of the impotent men who were forced to watch the horror of man over the beauty of the Beloved.

Why this blog?

I hail from a very small town in the smallest country of this American continent. My home town, Santa Elena, was named after a woman who married a Roman emperor and was promptly left aside for a second wife with much better political connections. Her son eventually ascended to the throne to become Constantine the Great, and brought his mother home to be honored. Santa Elena dedicated her life to healing the sick, and now with the power of the empire at her disposal formed a group to search for the True Cross where Jesus shed his blood. She unearthed three, according to legend, and brought them to a dying woman she had been helping. When the sick woman was touched by one of the crosses, she immediately recovered, and Santa Elena declared this to be the True Cross and founded a church on the spot.

This legendary woman is the patron saint of my birth place, and the birth place of as many as five generations of ancestors that I have been able to count. The name was given by invaders of a strange continent with a strange tongue. They also called us all “guanacos”, the same name given to the dromedary of the Andes who spits at anyone and takes any kind of burden on his back, and named the country as a whole after their savior himself: El Salvador.

I was born in a town named after the mother of the church that ruled Western civilization for almost two millennia, in a country named after the man-god who is arguably one of the most influential in human history, none other than the savior of the world according to his followers. This is the same town renowned for its violent people, even in a country infamous for being one of the most violent.

I was born in the smallest, most bloody country in this continent. El Salvador is known for having started a war over a soccer match. It is known for the worse performance in the the soccer World Cup, the only time it managed to qualify. It is known for a massacre of 30,000 indigenous people in 1932, and a death toll of close to 100,000 in a brutal civil war in the 80s. It is now famous for the deadliest gang, the Mara Salvatrucha.

Yet, it is the “thumbelina of America”; the most insignificant, irrelevant, forgotten, poor, and bleeding country that still exists in this magnificent continent so bathed by two oceans and soaked in the blood of its people.

I want to write this blog because the true story has not been written.

I wish to write the history of my ancestors. I wish to tell the stories my eyes have witnessed.

Ultimately, I will to write this blog because my blood, meant to be shed, now wants to unveil its true color. It wants to tell the wisdom of the jungles and the visions of volcanoes. It wants you, my people, to remember the lost stories never told.

I will write every day, with tears and laughter, with sorrow and joy. All so that the invisible may be known, and the silence of my people may penetrate the walls of this false world.