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 seventies 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?”
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.