Raindrops on the Old Rooftop

I hear the empty spaces in between the words,
like empty spaces between cars of a moving train,
like the sound of rain that falls
on the rooftop of my grandmother’s house.
It falls.

I hear.
Drops of rain carry no meaning;
a drop no more important than any other drop.

I hear my thoughts.
They come and go.
River of movement, river of life.
I do not grab one to follow.
No importance to it all.

All concerns about this body,
of karmic debt, of life before,
are no more.

They grab nothing.
They move and carry nothing.
They appear and nothing contain.

I live, I go;
and when in between thoughts, I die.
And nothing stays.

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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.

 

 

The night was rich with secrets.

My dad gently shook my left shoulder, waking me up from a nice sleep. I was five years old. His face, close to mine.

“Do you want to help me?”

“Yes,” I instantly replied. What could be better? He was my hero. He was the strongest and wisest man in the whole world. When I was five, my father was not afraid of anyone. He could take anyone in a fight and drink with him later. He was always singing and smiling. Everyone I knew wanted to be around him, and everyone respected him. My father had seen the specter of the rivers, the Sihuanaba herself, and survived with his sanity. My father was strong and brave enough to fight a tiger and roll down a ravine in deathly embrace until the cold water of the river below separated them.  My father knew the secrets of the world and could speak with God, when I was five.

My father was fun, and I could be anyone with him. I could be Tarzan, Ultraman, and Batman when my father was home. When my dad was around, I was intelligent and fun. I was brave, because there was nothing to fear. The world was an open book to me, because he was the window to history, music, art, philosophy, poetry and religion. Nothing seemed impossible, and everything was good. When I was five, the world and I were good, noble, brave, and true–-like my father was.

To his question my response was unequivocal, a “yes” that emanates from the heart of everything I am. For the first time, my father was not there just to guide me and play with me. Now, I also felt part of his world. I left for a moment my own, and entered this new universe. In this new and bigger world, he was no longer supreme and invulnerable. In his world, he had to hide, stalk, and hold the secrets of the night to protect them from the ravaging forces of the human world outside.

It was 3:00 a.m., and we got up with a huge ream of papers. We got into the car and drove around Santa Elena with the lights off. He gave clear instructions before opening the passenger’s window to let the chill and the silences of the night in. “Count to ten slowly in your mind, and every time you come to ten, throw a small stack of papers outside the car.” There. That was my job. It was simple, and fun. But more than fun, it was serious. It was deadly. It was my first conspiracy. It was the threshold into a larger world of secrets and intrigue. A world that would have the mayor chase my father out of town with a gun; that would send their army to look for secret rooms in my grandma’s house; that would chase two Cubans jumping out of the window while riding a motorcycle, from a house my father was renting to them; that would bring many, many encounters with death for my entire family.

In this bigger world, my father was running for the office of governor for the progressive party, and while seeking that office was perfectly legal, it would get him killed by the ruling party––a party that never lost any elections because they would cut your fingers, rape your wife, or massacre your priest to stay in power. In this world, my father had to hide in order to do what was right. He was part of a vast conspiracy to subvert the power structures of the world. He was working with the guerrillas, the muchachos, to make a just and sane world.

Later, he would tell me about the struggle and the thirst for justice. He would tell me about the injustices of the holders of economic and political power, and the heroes that gave their lives fighting the good fight. Later, I would see him cry while burning the diary of Che Guevara, and I would listen to the secret history of the world. He, my hero, would tell me of his heroes: Camilo Torres, Fidel Castro, and Jesus of Nazareth. I remember worrying that these stories meant that I was supposed to one day also take arms and kill for this utopia. The fear of death and torture would come much later, many times over. But the fear of killing people became present there, and I knew I never wanted to kill, but I wanted to work for this world. This seed of desire became a life-long answer to his question: “do you want to help me?” Because now it is no longer about helpin him pass subversive propaganda, but help clarify his vision by discovering it within myself, and work in this vast conspiracy to make of this world the sacred kingdom we secretly know we can make.

The dark world outside the car brought in hints of future chills of death through the open window. It hid like an invisible wall the human world of conspiracies, power struggles, and crimes. But the shadows outside held much more than that. They held, in this larger world where my father was not God but just a man among many, the mysteries of realities beyond conventional reality. These shadows whispered to my unconscious that my father was vulnerable, and later I would come to understand that while he was a good boxer and outstanding arm wrestler, his real opponents were his thoughts; that the tiger he was fighting was his alcoholism and depression; that his heroic adventures were stories to entertain me, but hid in their shadows a soul struggling with insomnia and suicide, guilt and a clamor for freedom.

These struggles I would see him fight, and win as in his stories to his son. I saw him struggle with the demons of thought, jealousy, and belief. I saw him thoroughly defeat the tiger of despair and meaninglessness. In the end, it was the shadows and phantoms of his mind that proved the harder demons to cast out. True to his word, he proved every single story to be true, and every one of my thoughts about him as a five year old, have become justified now that I am a man in his fifties. The other ones, the ones I feared as a child, the brutal soldiers, I saw my father truly dispel them with one word. It was his own mind that brought the real enemy, and my father prevailed.

I was only five, and I had a full life ahead of me, there, in the darkness of a loud silence outside an open window. There, in the night, the shadows were pregnant with secrets. There would be a time for me to face the dark, a time for me to struggle and face. For now, at the age of five, at the threshold of time, all I have to do is breathe calmly, count to ten, and send printed papers out the window for the secret beings hiding in the shadows of the night.

 

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.